Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Louise Fletcher as Ms. Penfield
Colin Firth as Delius
Robert Duncan MacNeill as Peter Winston
Paul Mercurio as Joseph
Hugh Jackman as Sebastian MacKenzie
Denzel Washington as Trevor
Rebecca de Mornay as Sumi MacKenzie
Ryan Merriman as Jordan
Kelsey Mulrooney as Debbie Broots
Ashley Peldon as Merritt
Jonathan Osser as Jacob
David Boreanaz as Yuri / Paul Jennings
Marisa Parker as Emily
Ving Rhames as Daniel Pyne
Jamie Denton as Lyle
Lenny von Dohlen as Cox
Sam Elliott as Trader Vic
Scott Bakula as Rick
Richard Schiff as Stefan Broots
Elizabeth Rohm as Pamela
Parker stared at the report in disbelief. His face colored, then mottled with rage.
"How dare Delius keep something like this from me!" he snarled aloud to the empty room. He read the file over again, taking note of the boy's lineage and the technical evidence of his talent. Then he typed out a memo, sent it to his secretary, and as soon as the document was ready, he signed it off with his best black pen and handed it to her for delivery.
"I want this transfer handled immediately," he snapped at the woman. "Project number 865 will be delivered to us on the next plane from Berlin. Capiche?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Parker," she droned, and left the room.
The Chairman looked out the window of his tower office, at the restless, surging sea. "A healer!" he breathed with a smile. "I'll be well again, and nothing will stop me then "
He chuckled to himself. Delius had tried so hard to keep the truth from him, but Parker's spies were working hard to get him the information he needed. And this prize would be the best of all. Little Peter's talents might not be strong or easily controlled just yet, but anything would help.
Anything, to save himself from the ravages of Fountain.
He stared out the window, and waited for his wish to come true.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney leaned his head in his hands, his eyes fixed on the image that lay on his desk. He had asked Broots to print the photo for him, wanting to see the fraud who had managed to raise his hopes to such an extent. He had never really believed that Catherine had still been alive, but he had wanted to. All his past dreams had been fanned by the events that had culminated in one crashing disappointment, and it would take him time to recover from it, if he ever did.
His eyes burned from lack of sleep and his throat ached from the effort of constantly swallowing a lump that threatened to leak out in a steady stream of tears. A DSA player sat on the desk beside him, and he rolled the trackball to the start, letting the vision play. He could hear the cry of the first baby as it was born, keeping his eyes fixed on the baby girl as it was carried out of sight, and then listened to Raines' declaration that there was something wrong with the other one. Something seemed to tighten around his chest and he bent his head, automatically stopping the DSA and replacing it with another.
Closing his eyes, he rested his head back against the chair, listening to the sounds of the recording, hearing the first tentative cry of the newborn baby, quieting almost immediately, followed by the soft murmur of Catherine's tear-filled voice. Then the nurse took the baby away. Raines' voice broke the silence, and the psychiatrist readied himself for the crack of the gunshot.
It never came.
His eyes opened, focusing his gaze on the woman who stood next to him, her hand still resting on the DSA player. Her blue eyes glowed with sympathy as she lowered herself to the floor, kneeling beside him, out of sight of anyone coming into the office. He exhaled shakily, raising a hand to smooth the hair that was slightly ruffled, trying not to think of the similarities that existed between this woman and her mother. But the look in Morgan's eyes suggested that she knew and understood.
"Are you okay?" she asked softly.
"Are you?" he returned at once, his own feelings smothered in the anxiety he felt for his daughter, noting the dark patches under her eyes and the lines of tension around her mouth.
She took his hand and kissed the back of it, laying her cheek against it and looking up at him, her eyes pleading. "Sydney," she began awkwardly, as if the name was difficult for her to say. "The other day, I I called you something "
He nodded, instantly understanding, his lips curling into a small smile, using his other hand to gently stroke her cheek. "That was," he told her sincerely, "despite everything else that was going on, one of the best things I've ever heard anyone say to me in my life."
Her eyes were skeptical for a moment, but belief blazed in them and she rested her head on his knee, letting a few tears slip down onto the gray material of his pants. Suddenly she looked up again, curious this time.
"One of the best?" the woman demanded. "What was the other?"
Sydney gave her another, somewhat watery smile, feeling a tear well up in his eye and begin to trickle down his face. "When " he trailed off, swallowing hard, gently pulling her closer to him. "When your mother told me she loved me."
She rose to her feet, smiling faintly, brushing away the tear from his cheek and leaning over to kiss him. Then, for the first time, she noticed that he already wore his coat. "Were you going somewhere?"
He nodded at a chair in the corner, and she saw a delicately arranged wreath of flowers. "For finality," he told her, his lips trembling slightly.
"Let me come with you," she pleaded softly. "Otherwise people might wonder, and I don't want that to happen."
He clung to her hand for a moment before nodding and slowly getting to his feet, reaching for his cane.
* * * * * * * * *
When the Director arrived in his office, the order already lay on his desk. Recognizing the layout and the signature, he unfolded the page with an impatient flick of the wrist, quickly scanning the request before slowly sinking into his chair, his eyes wide.
It was impossible that anyone from the American branch could have known about the healer. He had taken every pain to hide any trace of his existence, particularly since word had begun to leak out about the new drug that had been trialed eighteen months earlier. Delius had kept a keen eye on the results and knew, through information provided by his spies, what would happen. Knowing the value of a skilled healer like Joseph, he had had all those who might have known about him permanently removed, or at least he thought he had.
Delius' fists clenched as he thought of one loose canon that might have leaked out the news, but even as he did so, the screen of his computer beeped, announcing an incoming call. The number of the caller was instantly identified and his blue eyes darkened until they were almost black.
"What do you think you're doing, Sam?" he snarled.
"It wasn't me, I swear," the American responded quickly. "I don't know how Mr. Parker found out about Peter, but I never breathed a word about him. Please, sir, believe me. There's no reason for me to do it. What good would it do me?"
The German Director considered this for a moment before slowly nodding. "So do you know who it was?"
"Not yet, but I'm working on it. I have been since I first saw the order, about half an hour ago. I've got a couple of possibilities, but at this stage it looks most like Jarod found out about it somehow."
"That damned Pretender," Delius growled. "We would have been better off if he'd been taken care of a long time ago, instead of being left to gradually take the place apart."
"Like I said, sir, that's just my preliminary suggestion. I'm looking more closely inside the Centre as well." Sam arched an eyebrow. "How soon will you send him over here?"
"What do they want with him?" he spat. "He's useless."
"Mr. Parker may not know that, sir," Sam responded. "He must have his reasons."
The German didn't bother responding, cutting the call and then contacting his head of security to arrange for transport to have the boy flown to America. The man agreed, but then requested that his boss come down to the infirmary.
* * * * * * * * *
Sumi MacKenzie watched her husband pacing the bedroom, head down in thought. She was worried about him and all the stress with the way their lives had changed in the last few weeks with all the new additions they had taken into their protection. Having Gideon there was wonderful, even with the daunting challenge of managing the boy's emotions on a daily basis. She loved the child as if he was her own, knowing that he was Sebastian's, and that they would likely have no other children because of the risk of passing on his dangerous gift. But now, as she watched him pacing, she knew something else was on his mind.
She moved her gaze to the patch in its sealed package, lying on the mattress where he had left it. Her heart twisted up inside her as she looked at it, wondering and hoping just as he was. "Is Jarod sure this will work?" she asked him at last.
"All he said was that it might help," Sebastian murmured. He ran a hand nervously through his hair and strode over to the bed. He stared down at the patch in all its promise. "He also said it might make me dog-sick for a few days, while my body adjusts to it. And he's not sure about all the potential side effects."
"It's experimental," Sumi mused, looking up at his worried face. "I guess it would have to be, with your unique physiology. It's not like he can test it on a control group of pyrokinetic mice or something." She saw hope warring with fear in his eyes, not daring to hope herself until he made his decision whether or not to try it. She stood up beside him and took him in her arms. "You've been doing much better since Elizabeth got here. Maybe what she brings will be enough."
Sebastian shook his head. "It's not enough," he assured her. He stared down at her, his eyes glassy with fear. "Sumi, you don't know how it scares me to touch you, to make love to you. I'm always afraid I have to be constantly in control. You don't know how I long to be able to just to let go " His voice broke, and tears filled his eyes. He looked up at the ceiling then, taking several slow, deep breaths to maintain his calm.
Then he stepped away from her, reached for the package and tore it open. Unbuttoning his shirt, he searched for an area of skin on his side with little body hair to get in the way, and applied the flesh-colored patch. For a moment, he just stared at it. Then he looked at his wife.
"It's done. Now we'll see if our resident genius was right, or needs to make some adjustments to his formula." He started to shrug back into the shirt, but Sumi stopped him, stroking her hands across the dark hair liberally covering his broad chest.
"Before it takes effect, baby " she suggested, cozying up to him in invitation.
He grasped her arms and held her away from him, a look of sadness and warning in his hazel eyes. "Not yet," he promised her. "The next time I hold you, Sumi, I don't want to be thinking about anything but you. All right?"
She nodded, her heart aching for him. He had suffered so much already, his body liberally covered with burn scars where he had hurt himself in the few moments his control or attention had lapsed. The promise of this new drug was powerful, but uncertain. Now all they could do was wait.
"I'll tell Jarod you've started the treatment," she whispered, and reached up to kiss him at the corner of his mouth.
"I love you, Sumi," he answered firmly. "Thank you for standing beside me, knowing what I am."
Her heart went out to him, both in sympathy and in genuine, hopeless affection. "I didn't have a choice, as I recall," she returned with a smile. "You owned my heart from the moment I laid eyes you. There really is such a thing as love at first sight."
"And I thank God for that every day," he assured her, planting a quick kiss on her forehead. "Now, go. I'll have a try at some sleep, if Elizabeth's ready to watch over me, and wait to see if I wake up in bed or embracing the porcelain god of hangovers."
She laughed at his joke in the face of impending illness, gave him another quick kiss on the lips, and went to find Jarod and tell him the news.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Pity," remarked Delius casually. "Joseph was a great asset to us." He sighed and gazed down at the body on the autopsy table. "Still, we have his son and his DNA for additional prospects." He raised his eyes to the chief of security. "See that the body is cremated once the autopsy is finished, and find a suitable incubator for a clone. Young Peter is not sufficiently skilled or trained, but he will do for now. He may not have the talent as a healer, but he has the genes."
The Director narrowed his eyes at the other man. "And I'll expect a full report on the accident that took him from us. Understood?"
Peter Winston nodded. "Understood. You'll have my report as soon as possible."
Delius started to walk away.
"But remember, sir " Peter added, catching him as he rounded the end of the cold metal table.
Delius paused and glanced back at him. "Yes?"
"I'm escorting that shipment of research materials to our satellite facility in Dresden. It may be tomorrow before I'm finished typing it up."
"That will do," Delius assured him with a negligent shrug.
"And sir "
Delius sighed impatiently.
"I got a memo from Chairman Parker, demanding that we turn little Peter over to the Blue Cove facility immediately. I wasn't sure if you'd seen it yet."
Delius' face darkened. "Of course I have," he snapped, his eyes blazing. "And if I ever find out who gave Parker that information " He took a step back toward his chief of security. " I'll take care of them personally." He snorted angrily, and left the facility morgue.
Peter sighed and gazed down at the body. The death of this unfortunate young man, sad as it was, had been a windfall of a sort. Even he couldn't tell the difference between the latex face and the real one it had been painstakingly blended onto, just for this event. This corpse looked every bit like the real thing, though Peter knew the healer had been packed up in the box that now sat in the truck at the shipping dock, and his son was being escorted to the airport along with his nanny.
Dresden was far enough away to allow for a stopover for a meal, and that was when Peter would open the box. The driver would know nothing, and the box in the back of the truck would be switched out for the real shipment by a couple of his security men. Then, Joseph would be on his way after that, forged passport in hand, along with necessary cash and an airplane ticket that would get him safely to America.
After that, he'd be on his own. But Peter had already supplied him with a list of contacts, and all the information he'd need to get started in his quest. The information Sam had sent had been valuable indeed, providing the last pieces of the puzzle he'd been researching. He had the final blanks filled in, and Joseph needed to be with both of his sons.
He'd been reluctant to go, of course, knowing that he'd be leaving Julia behind, but Winston had convinced him to take the opportunity when it arose, and let him protect her until the plan was under way. Having a body in the morgue would prevent any recriminations against the woman from Delius, and the loss of the other subject could be explained away with a simple sanction and a follow-up viewing of the corpse, without the makeup. The plan was perfect, and Joseph unhappily agreed.
By the time night fell on Germany, the plane carrying Joseph Otto was winging its way across the ocean while Peter Winston enjoyed a meal with an anonymous driver at a small country inn on the road to Dresden. The corporate jet that carried little Peter would never show up at the New York City airport, because its passengers had been benevolently hijacked. The American man was relaxed and jovial, and when he could get a minute, he stepped out into the night air and pulled out his phone.
Joseph would need an introduction when he arrived, and Sam would need to know where and when to meet him with his son.
* * * * * * * * *
Julia held the small boy in her arms, feeling as the sedative he had been given on the Director's orders gradually took hold and Peter's head slowly drooped against her shoulder.
"My baby," she murmured, stroking his hair as tears began to course down her face. "That's right, honey. Off to sleep."
The woman didn't know if he knew what was planned or not, but she hadn't been about to upset him by asking. His arms were loosely curled around her neck and his body was a warm, heavy weight in her lap. Turning her head, she lovingly kissed his hair, seeing his cheeks glowing with the warmth of the rug in which he was wrapped. His small lips were parted and his breathing was audible, a soft noise in her ear. Slowly, as his muscles lost their strength, his arms slid down until he was lying flat against her. Julia gave a soft moan, tightening her hold around his body.
Of course, she knew this was necessary. Her knowledge of Aurora was extensive, and it terrified her to think that Herr Delius was tempted to addict her son to it. This was the only way of keeping him safe from such a destructive thing, but it meant being parted from the thing she loved most, and her heart seemed to be being squeezed by a clamp in her chest. Picking up the quilt she had made, she wrapped that around him also, determined that he wouldn't take cold on the journey to the airport. Her son had never been outside Die Fakultät and, as well as worrying about how the fresh air might affect him, she could hope that such a new environment, as well as being with his father, would make up for the fact of her absence when he woke up from this enforced sleep.
Her silent tears turned into soft sobs and she pressed her face into the sedated boy's neck, trying to muffle the sound so as not to alert the guard who waited outside the room for the child. When the door opened, only a moment later, she rose automatically to her feet, touching her son's hair one last time with her lips before the guard took Peter out of her arms. She was left reaching out for him, unable to hold back her tears as the man walked out with her son and shut the door with a backward kick.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker rose from her seat and surveyed the assembled group of all the managers and department heads, including her own. At the head of the conference table, she glanced at the man they all assumed was her father, and smiled at him. Then the smile vanished as she turned back to the assembly.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you all here," she began. "A few months ago, we lost an important project to theft, a robbery carried out by our own employees." She knew they would have no trouble understanding exactly which project, even though she hadn't mentioned its name, or her personal connection to it. "Those responsible were under the influence of a drug called Aurora, developed right here by our own R&D teams." She let that sink in as well before she moved on. "That we could lose such an important project to one of our own discoveries prompted me to wonder if there are other projects in similar danger, and to that end, I've had R&D working on a testing protocol that will show definitively whether or not any given individual is using Aurora."
A murmur of approval went up around the table, and she noted in her peripheral vision that the Chairman was smiling in accord.
"I'm glad you all agree," she shot back coolly. "Because everyone is going to be tested. No exceptions, all the way up to the Chairman himself."
Mouths fell open and the discussion began, some hotly refusing to be tested, others debating why it would be necessary to test every Centre employee, but when the dust had settled, she took control and reiterated her statement, reminding them all of her position as head of SIS.
"Everyone gives a sample, numbered blind to help ensure honest reporting," she told them. "I'll take the samples to an impartial laboratory and stand guard over them while the testing is done. And I'll hand deliver the results directly to the Chairman, who will be the only one with the numeric code key to identify the samples. He'll decide how to deal with the users once we know who they are. Blood draws will begin in one hour at the Infirmary, under my direct supervision. It's going to take us a few days to get through the process with as many people as we have, but deal with the delays. This is more important than anything else you're doing at the moment. Have your departments ready. Dismissed."
For a moment, no one moved.
"What will happen to those who refuse to be tested?" someone asked from down the table.
She reached into her jacket and pulled out her pistol. Laying it gently on the table beside the pile of papers she was gathering after releasing the safety, she glared back in the general direction where the question had emanated. "No one is exempt," she stressed between clenched teeth. "And I mean no one. If you work here, you get tested."
One woman in a lab coat rose from her chair, took her own stack of papers and filed out of the conference room in front of the others.
"Well done, angel," the Chairman cooed. "Now they know you really are a Parker."
She said nothing, but reholstered her pistol and continued gathering up her things. When she was ready, she headed for the door, then turned around halfway down the table and glanced at him. "Are you coming, Daddy? You're second in line for the blood draw, right after me."
He looked surprised. "What? I don't need to be tested. I'm the Chairman."
"And if someone's pulling your strings, I'd need to know about it. Come on, Daddy. Nobody gets off this time. Not even me."
With a frown and a heavy sigh, he hoisted himself wearily out of his chair and followed her doggedly out of the room toward the Infirmary.
* * * * * * * * *
He stood in front of the bathroom sink, scrubbing his teeth white, mind busy with plans for his next target. Emily had been a distraction, but a pleasant one that he had deliberately chosen to give greater importance than his work for the moment. But he was still unable to offer her the intimacy she so obviously wanted.
It was easy with other women, when there was no emotional involvement. He didn't care if they saw him naked and asked about the scars. All he had to do was lie. But with Emily, he couldn't look her in the eye and tell her something that wasn't true.
That frightened him a little. She was different from other women, and when he held her in his arms, when they were kissing, there was a peace that he had never found anywhere else. He didn't want to lose that, no matter what the cost. Which meant he would have to be careful.
He closed his eyes as he brushed, leaning over the sink, and remembered.
The sting of the lash was sharp at first, and offered plenty of incentive for him to do the work Raines wanted. For years, all it took was the threat of a whipping to motivate him to comply. But as he grew older and more resentful, that stopped working. He began to fight the muscle men who subdued him as a youth, bound his wrists and hauled them above his head so he couldn't get away. And then Raines would enter the room with the lash, beating him until he cried out for mercy. In time, even the whippings didn't work, since his back became so scarred that the nerve endings had been all but killed. He couldn't feel anything touching his back anymore. Not even his clothes.
He never took his shirt off in public, because of the looks people gave him when they saw. He opened his eyes and spat out the foamy toothpaste, then glanced at the less noticeable scars on his wrists, where he had struggled against the manacles when they beat him. The look in Raines' eyes was impossible to forget, since it was plain that the old man enjoyed prodding Yuri to work.
He could still smell the blood -- his own blood -- in the air in that room. Closing his eyes again, he tried to remember what it was like to feel sensation on his back, even the agony of torture, but even the memory of it was gone. They had mutilated him until the pain no longer worked, and then they had thrown him away, like the garbage they believed he was.
Yuri opened his eyes, intending to look at himself in the mirror, but motion behind him caught his eye and he spun around, holding out his toothbrush like the weapon it could easily become in his skilled hand.
It was Emily, breaking her previous respect of his private space in the bathroom. He had left her in his living room, looking over her notes for an article she was writing. He had expected to find her there when he returned, after freshening up and changing clothes. But now he knew, from the horrified look in her eyes, that she had seen his mutilation.
She swallowed audibly. "Is that why you haven't slept with me yet?" she asked quietly, meeting his eyes.
His mind shot off in several different directions, figuring how he could handle this turning point in their relationship. "Yes," he responded, lowering his weapon. He turned his back to her again and began to rinse his mouth and the brush at the sink, ignoring her now until he laid the brush aside in the rack. "Ugly, isn't it?"
"Yes," she agreed calmly. "And I can see from the pattern of scarring that it's not the result of an accident. When were you planning on telling me about it?"
He turned to face her, chin still dripping with water. His chest hurt, deep inside. It was obvious that she was upset over the discovery, as well she should be. "I'm not ready yet," he assured her gently. "I can't I can't go there yet, Emily. Give me more time, and I promise, one day I'll tell you what happened to me."
She nodded. "All right." She lifted her chin, looking him straight in the eye, steeling herself for more. "Is there anything else you want to show me?"
There were other scars, other torments Raines had put upon him, but most of those scars were obscured by body hair now. Some had left scars inside, invisible ones that only he could locate. She didn't need to know about those. Nobody needed to know about those.
He felt a lump rising in his throat as he remembered, and shook his head. "No."
She stepped closer, her eyes moving down the front of his body, appraising the bulging muscles beneath his fair skin. Her hands slid around his waist and she pulled him close, fingers moving to his back. He knew from the motion of her arms against his sides that she was rubbing the slick, white tissue that covered his back, but he couldn't feel her touch.
Hatred blossomed in his heart, threatening to consume him in its heat. He needed to go, to hunt, to kill something, but Emily wouldn't understand. He wanted back what The Centre had stolen from him, but his life and his innocence could never be returned. He would never be whole again.
"Don't," he ordered harshly, grasping her by the shoulders with his wet hands, trying to push her away.
She blocked his path, forcing him to look into her eyes again. "I know you're remembering, Paul," she told him gently. "I can see it in your eyes. Somebody hurt you badly. But it's over now. You're here, with me. Let me take away the pain, baby. Let me love you."
Yuri tried to hold onto his rage, but it slipped through his grasp like water, in the face of her selfless offer. She did love him, though she had never said the words until now. And in that instant, with those words so filled with promise, nothing else mattered but her.
"Emily," he whispered, his voice thick with passion and pain. "I should have told you. But I couldn't. I didn't think you could understand "
"I can understand anything," she returned with a slow, sexy smile. "Especially when it comes to you. I want to know everything about you, Paul. But I won't push. You can tell me your secrets whenever you're ready. But right now, we have other things to discover about each other. If you're ready to take the next step in our relationship."
His hands slid around her shoulders and he pulled her close, just holding her for a moment. Only Emily would have given him that space. Any other woman would have prodded, demanded to know his secrets. But because she understood pain so well, she could let him wait till he was ready to share his with her. And in the meantime, she was ready to surrender her heart to a man she didn't really know as well as she thought she did.
He'd have to find a way to fix that, to reveal to her slowly who he was. He might even give up his mission, just for her. But his hands were already bloody, and there were still those who needed to pay. He'd have to consider that, but for now, he didn't want to think about anything but her.
Yuri bent down and offered her his lips and his heart, and chose not to think
about the future. All that mattered was the moment, and Emily, and her feelings
for him. Love could fix anything. He was certain of that. Everybody said so.
Joseph hesitantly walked through the doors, his bag clutched in his hand, which was perspiring so much that the material slid around in his grasp. His eyes swept over the small crowd that was waiting, trying to recognize any familiar faces. Then there was a soft whoop in his ears and a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind, a familiar face grinning delightedly out of the corner of his peripheral vision, and Joseph's hands tightened around the arms encircling his chest.
"Alastair!" he breathed in relief. "Thank Gott."
<"Did you think I wouldn't know you were coming?"> his friend demanded in German, laughing. <"It's been so long,"> he enthused. <"It's so good to see you again.">
"Give him a chance to breathe, little brother," a familiar voice scolded, and Joseph's head snapped around in astonishment.
"Sam!" he gasped in disbelief. "But you you are ?"
"Dead?" The sweeper laughed. "Delius tried that old line again, huh? Nope, still alive."
He looked over his shoulder to see a group of men approaching, all dressed in black outfits, flame logos visible on their chests. One carried a small, limp body in his arms and Sam took it as soon as the man was within reach, offering it to the healer with a smile.
"I think you'll want this."
Joseph's arms curled around the boy's body, watching as the dark eyelashes fluttered and then lifted. For several seconds, his son drowsily stared at him, before snuggling against his neck and closing his eyes again.
"Daddy," he mumbled, relaxing in the man's arms.
Alastair glanced over his shoulder at the Sanctuary staff, seeing one nod to tell him their plane was ready, before looking at his brother.
"We should get going," he suggested regretfully. "Just in case someone sounds the alarm."
"I guess so," Sam agreed. "Even though not all of us have to be up at 6am."
"Aw!" Alastair gave him a grin. "You poor baby!"
Sam caught him in a headlock and scrubbed his hair. "I always was stronger than you, Shorty, so I suggest you keep your smart remarks to yourself."
"Bully," his brother retorted, running a hand over the maltreated locks. "Why not pick on someone your own size? Your boss's second-in-command, for instance."
Sam chuckled. "Broots? He's getting better, but, unless he was armed, he wouldn't be much of a challenge." The sweeper glanced at his watch. "Still, I think you're right. If I'm much longer, Carly might worry."
"Give my niece a kiss and hug for me," Alastair told him, embracing his brother. "And take care of yourself, pal."
"You too." Sam returned the hug before giving Joseph a friendly clap on the shoulder, nodding at the group and speaking in German. <"They'll take you to your real destination, my friend. Take care of that boy, for his mother's sake.">
The healer's eyes became sad as he nodded, letting himself be guided towards the doors by the hand Alastair placed on his shoulder. Before going through them, he turned back, but the spot where Sam had been standing was already empty.
* * * * * * * * *
Willie carried his gear across the polished wooden floor, pleased at the prospect of a good workout. The patch between his shoulders itched a little, and it was harder to get off there, but at least it was out of sight when he had his sweats on. His mind was already on what lay ahead, and he didn't notice the sound of heels clicking behind him until someone grabbed his suit jacket and spun him around, slamming him against the wall.
"Miss Parker! What was that for?" he demanded. He had never liked the woman, but couldn't seem to remember why.
"Who ordered you to hire that actress in Frankfort?" she snarled between clenched teeth.
"What the hell are you talking about? When was I supposed to be in Frankfort?"
"Last week, you bonehead. You hired an actress to impersonate my mother and send me on a wild goose chase." She stepped closer and grasped the lapels of his suit jacket in both fists. "I want to know who put you up to it, because I know you're not smart enough to have figured out how to do all that by yourself."
Willie's brow furrowed. "Have you lost your mind, Miss Parker? I've been here in Blue Cove all week. Check the records, if you like. But whatever happened to you, this is the first I've heard about it."
She stared at him, hatred smoldering in her eyes. Then she eased back and crossed her arms defiantly across her chest. "You can bet I will be checking up on you, Willie. And in case you haven't heard yet, we're sending everybody through the Infirmary for a blood draw. Your division's up next."
"Yeah, I heard about that. What's it for?"
"Looking for security risks. Specifically, Aurora addicts. I'll see you there shortly. Right?"
That caused a slight flicker of alarm, but it vanished quickly enough. "Of course. Shall I go before or after my workout?"
"After is fine. And I'll be waiting." She pivoted on her high heel and left the gym at a brisk walk.
Willie watched her leave, and then headed for the men's locker room. He pulled out a hanger and began to disrobe, taking note of the other men changing clothes, and kept his back to the wall as he changed shirts, so no one would see the patch. He couldn't afford to be spotted with one, but he also knew that he would need help from his supplier to know what to do.
Valentine came in a moment later, sweaty and panting from his own workout.
Willie caught his eye and nodded him into an out of the way corner of the locker room where they could talk without being overheard.
"You've heard about the drug testing they're doing?" he whispered. When the other man nodded, he added, "What do you want me to do?"
"They're also doing body checks, looking for patches," Valentine informed him. "But I've got a solution for that, too. There's a syringe in my gym bag with your name on it. Take off the patch, scrub off the adhesive in the shower, and no one will be the wiser."
"But won't the test come back positive? Then what do I do?"
Valentine smiled, secrets twinkling in his dark eyes. "You do nothing. The test will come back negative."
"But if this is Aurora " Willie began uncertainly. "That's the drug everybody's been talking about for months now."
"You assumed," Valentine corrected. "But it's not Aurora. It's new, and they don't have a testing protocol for it yet. Supernova won't show up on a screen for Aurora. They're not that alike." He chuckled, and clapped the other man on the shoulder. "Like I said, don't worry. Be happy. I'll take care of you, Willie."
The sweeper smiled, reassurance flowing through him like comforting warmth. "Whatever you say, sir. Just keep it coming."
"You have my word on that." Valentine started to walk away, raising his voice and bringing up the subject of a recent sports match on television, giving the other men in the locker room the impression that they were just talking about personal things.
Willie finished changing, and headed out into the gym for a rousing workout, secure in the knowledge that his most important needs would be met, and that he had no reason to worry about Miss Parker.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod worked diligently on his latest idea for a new treatment for Jacob. The boy's health was declining rapidly, and hope was fading that they'd be able to stave off the inevitable for much longer. He glanced over at his research partner, and noted the dark circles under Jordan's eyes.
"Did you sleep last night, son?" he asked quietly.
Jordan didn't look up from the notes he was scribbling. "A little. Elizabeth came by to see me. She helped me get some rest."
The elder Pretender nodded, grateful once more that the Australian woman had come into their unique organization.
The PA speaker in the lab switched on abruptly . "Jarod, Faith and Sebastian, please come to the conference room."
Jarod glanced at Jordan, promised to be back as soon as he could, and headed for the elevator. He found Ramona waiting in the conference room, sitting quietly near a young man with a thick shock of straight brown hair and blue eyes. Beside him was a small boy, about four years old, who looked very much like him and was obviously scared, pressing close to the man and staring around with wide eyes. There was something familiar about the man's face, but Jarod couldn't place it. He stood when Jarod came in, rose again when Faith stepped in a moment later, and again when Sebastian entered the room.
"Faith, gentlemen, this is Joseph Otto and his son, Peter," Ramona began. "Their English isn't very good, so I was hoping Jarod might be able to translate for us. Do you speak German, Jarod?"
The names were a shock, and Jarod met the man's eyes instantly. "Joseph? How did you get out of Berlin? Alastair said you were still a prisoner there." He repeated himself in German when his comment brought a look of confusion from their visitor.
"Jarod?" Joseph grinned. "Is that you?" He rose, came around the table and hugged his old friend, clapping him firmly on the back . "They told us you were dead! I am glad they vere lying."
Jarod took a moment to explain to the others about the meningitis experiment, leaving out enough detail to avoid being questioned, and moved on to the reason why Joseph had come.
<"What brings you to us?"> he asked in fluent German. <"Miss Parker said it was something to do with the children, but she didn't tell me much.">
"I come for my other son," Joseph replied in halting English, turning his eyes to the others one at a time. "I vish to be viss him. Now I am dead in Berlin, so I can stay here." He explained to Jarod, who translated for the others. Then, he reached into a pocket of the jacket he wore and pulled out a small silver disc, handing it to Jarod and closing his fingers around it. <"This will tell you everything,"> he assured his friend. <"It has all the parentage records of the Seraphim. All but one.">
"Gabriel," Jarod assumed. But he already knew that information. "So we can use this to locate all the parents who are still living, and reunite the families."
Joseph nodded. <"My son's name is Raphael. May I see him?">
Sebastian glanced at Faith. He leaned close and whispered in her ear. "He's telling the truth," she affirmed softly. "And he loves his son. But he's sad about something, too."
Jarod asked him about that. With a note of surprise, Joseph explained about having to leave Julia, Peter's mother, behind in Berlin, speaking in halting English so that the woman's son wouldn't understand. The Pretender listened, twirling the disc between his fingers thoughtfully.
"Who is Raphael's mother?" he asked when the other man was finished.
<"I never met her,"> Joseph assured him. <"Her name is Catherine Parker. Do you know her?">
For a moment, the disc did not move. Jarod's fingers closed over it, gripping it until his knuckles turned white. <"Yes. I knew her. She's dead."> He didn't need to see his friend's face to know that brought a little sadness with it.
But then he remembered something Miss Parker had told him in a recent phone conversation. Now he had another dilemma, one he wasn't qualified to decide. He'd need to talk to her about it, to ask her opinion before he proceeded. Merritt was Catherine's clone. And now, it seemed, she had a son, and his name was Raphael.
Jarod laid the disc on the table and slid it along the polished surface toward Sebastian, who took it and handed it to Ramona with instructions to compile all the information stored on it in a report for him to view later. Then the Pretender stood, taking Joseph by the elbow, and led father and son toward the elevators and the nursery, so the family could be united at last.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker signed the receipt and watched as the cart full of blood samples was opened, and testing began. She took a seat on one of the laboratory stools in the corner, pulled out her cellular phone and dialed the number she had memorized. The call was picked up, the code delivered, and moments after she hung up, her phone rang.
"Hi," she said softly into the mouthpiece. "How's my baby?"
"Gabriel's fine," Jarod assured her with a smile in his voice. "What's up?"
"Just wondering how things are going down there. I know you've got a lot on your plate right now, but " She leaned her head back and closed her eyes wearily for a moment. "I'm starting to get a little nervous. I'm not making any apparent progress in the hunt for the Seraphim. If something doesn't happen soon, I'm afraid my position at the Centre may become pretty tenuous."
"I've been thinking about that," he confessed brightly. "And you could use a feather in your cap. I have a solution, but it's going to require some acting on your part. Think you can handle it?"
"I'll give it a shot. What do you want me to do?"
He enumerated the plan, and she started to smile. By the time he finished, she was laughing. "Jarod, you really are a genius. I'll see you soon. Give Gabriel my love."
"There's more," he said quickly, and explained about Raphael's parentage. "Do you want me to tell Merritt, or just wait, so you can handle it?"
Morgan sighed sadly at the fact that she had still another brother, this one her own son's age. "She trusts you, Jarod. You'll find the right words. But she does need to know."
She hung up the phone and slipped it back into her jacket pocket. Tragedy seemed to flow from the Centre like a river, affecting all those it touched even in the most fragile ways. Merritt would decide for herself what she wanted Raphael to be to her. And she promised herself to call the teenager the next day, after she had heard the news, just to talk. That would be a comfort to both of them, and something Morgan would enjoy doing.
Then she remembered Jarod's plan, and let the scenario tumble over in her mind, watching it like a movie, like it had already happened. Suddenly she didn't mind having to oversee all the boring labwork stretching out in front of her for the next several days. She was going to Texas, and the Chairman was going to be very pleased with her, indeed.
* * * * * * * * *
The telephone rang, and he answered it impatiently. There was too much to do still, and the boy's arrival was long overdue. He didn't have time to talk just then, and snarled into the mouthpiece. "Yes, this is Mr. Parker. Who the hell were you expecting when you dialed my extension?"
He listened for a minute, and then stood up. He started to swear into the telephone, his face heating up until it felt as if it might explode. He shouted into the phone until his secretary came into the room to see what the problem was. He ripped the handset off the device and flung it across the room, shattering one glass panel on the office door.
"Sir! What's the matter?" the woman inquired, her eyes wide with fear.
"They've lost him!" Parker shouted at her. "They've lost another healer, and their last one is dead. How incompetent are those damn Germans, anyway? Delius says it's Kruger's doing. Kruger says he never heard of the boy " He held his head in both hands, striding across the office floor, willing himself to calm down. "I'm sorry, Pamela. I'm not angry at you. I just--"
Rage flared up again and he grabbed the remaining base of the telephone and threw it savagely against the wall with a roar of frustration. It made a dent in the sheetrock, and the machine bounced off and hit the marble floor with a crash. The impact broke the hard casing, and parts flew everywhere.
"Get out! Just get out!" he demanded. "And get my damn door fixed!"
The woman retreated as ordered, and Parker collapsed onto his sofa, put his head down and wept.
All that power, and he still couldn't get what he needed most in the world. One little boy. One young man. Gone, out of reach forever.
And there was nothing he could do about it.
* * * * * * * * *
Merritt sat on the sun lounger on the observation deck, letting the wind blow through her hair. It was too much, more than she was prepared to handle, but she had known something was coming. She just didn't expect it to be in the form of a child with her genes.
She had met and played with Raphael before, when she and Jordan had taken Jacob to the nursery to enjoy some time with the other children. Raffi seemed to have a special affinity for her, drawn to her above everyone else who had come into the children's lives. She had felt a connection with him as well, something about him making him just a little more special than the others.
But she hadn't been ready for this.
How could she be a mother? She was still a virgin, for goodness' sake. And she didn't even know the guy Jarod had told her was Raffi's father. Joseph seemed nice enough, but he was nearly twice her age and she couldn't even carry on a conversation with him, since his English was so poor.
"I can't do this," she sniffed, trying to avoid crying yet again. "I just can't."
She decided to call Aunt Harriet and see if she could go back to the farm for a while, till she had adjusted to the news and had figured out what to do.
She heard the door open and started to get up, until she saw who it was that had come to join her.
Jordan's face was weary, dark circles under his eyes from worry and sleeplessness, but he flashed her a tired smile and took a seat on the lounger beside hers. "Hi," he said quietly. "Thought I might find you up here. Seems to be everyone's favorite place for solitude these days."
He stretched out on the chair, leaned his head back and closed his dark eyes. "I just needed a little break. You know?" He sighed, his voice tight. "This is hard."
"I know." She didn't want to go into his ordeal with Jacob just then. She had seen how it hurt him, how he covered up his own pain with smiles and laughter, for the little boy's sake. She had seen the genuine joy in Jordan's face at times as well, and felt him maturing at light speed. When it came to her, he gave her space without asking, and didn't push when they were close. He was doing everything exactly right, and she was grateful for that.
She had wanted to help relieve his burden, and helped him with Jacob as often as she could, but the majority of the boy's care was still in Jordan's hands, by his choice. He amazed her, and she fell more in love with him by the day, but the looming specter of adulthood frightened her, made her want to run away from it, put it off a little longer.
Only now, she didn't have that choice. The grownups said she did. They told her she could stand back and let Joseph do all the parenting. They said they didn't have to tell Raphael that she was the closest thing he had to a mother. It wasn't really her responsibility, they assured her. She could be like a sister to him.
But she knew better. She had been made from the genes of a woman who died before she was even born. That made her the only Catherine Parker there was, and connected her directly to Raphael. It made her his mother, whether she wanted to be or not.
"How do I do it, Jordan?" She heard the tears in her voice, but didn't bother trying to hide them from him. "How do I be a mom? I don't even know how to be a woman yet."
He grasped her hand and tugged on it gently. Without further prompting, she got up from her chair and climbed onto the one that he sat on, curling up partly beside and partly on top of him, resting her head on his shoulder. "You just follow your heart, baby," he assured her quietly, folding his arms around her. "I'll help you as much as I can, but my time's going to be taken up for a little while, anyway."
Neither of them said Jacob's name, but they both knew what he meant.
"I'm only 17," she whined softly. "This wasn't supposed to happen. Not yet. Not till we were ready for it."
He kissed her hair. "I know, Merritt. But we didn't get to choose." He let his left hand slide off her shoulder and down her arm, squeezing gently. He chuckled softly. "Remember that talk my dad had with us in Barrow? Maybe we should have gone ahead and done it. We got the responsibility part of the consequences anyway."
Merritt couldn't believe what he'd just said, and raised her head, looking down at his laughing eyes. "Oh, you think so, do you? Frankly, I'm in no hurry to get pregnant, thanks."
His expression grew serious. "You're right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"
She snuggled down against him. "I know what you meant, Jordan. It's okay." She sighed. "I wondered, too. But I need to wait a little longer. I don't want to make a mistake I can't take back."
"And we only get one first time," he added, embracing her again. "I want it to be special for us, too. There hasn't been anyone else for me, you know."
She smiled against his chest. "I was hoping, but didn't want to ask."
"Yeah. I'm a virgin, too. But I've read up on it, so I know what to do."
Merritt thought about asking for his research materials, but decided she didn't want to know any more than she already did, just yet. There was plenty of time for that.
"So where are the manuals for parenthood?" she asked resignedly. "The really good ones, I mean."
He squeezed her closer. "For that, we've got a whole staff of people to show us what to do. They've got classes and everything." He nudged her, making her look up at him. Gently, he laid his palm over her heart, careful to make sure she knew where he meant to touch her, so she wouldn't pull away. "This is where we get the best advice, Merritt. Always trust your heart."
He was far too wise for someone barely 18 years old, and she told him so.
Jordan's smile was filled with wistfulness and pain. "It's just something I learned from my dad." He traced his fingertips over her cheek as she looked at him. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
Merritt sat up and straddled his legs, taking care to sit on his thighs rather than his lap. "You didn't exactly get a choice either, as I recall. What else can I do?"
He shrugged. "Be an older sister. Let Joseph raise him."
She shook her head. "Raffi knows, Jordan," she assured him. "He knew before I did, before any of us. They all do, all those kids."
Jordan caught her hands and laced her fingers with his own. "But the responsibility doesn't have to all fall on you. You can be in Raffi's life without being his mother."
"Not if I'm here," she assured him, certain of that in her heart. "As long as I'm handy, he'll see me as 'mom' whether he ever calls me that or not. He knows who I am to him."
The youth remained silent, just looking into her eyes.
"I'm not as strong as you are--"
"I'm not strong," Jordan shot back before she finished. "I can't do this 'fatherhood' thing either. I look down the road and see what's coming, and I--" His voice broke. He looked away abruptly to get his emotions under control. When he looked back at her, his voice was soft, filled with warmth and compassion. "I know I won't be able to handle what's coming. But I just concentrate on the moment, just look in Jacob's eyes and do what I can to make sure he's happy right now and that I can do. I guess that's the secret to all this; not looking too far ahead."
She felt a lump forming in her throat. How did she ever get lucky enough to have him in her life? she wondered. Then she remembered. It wasn't luck. It was Jarod.
"I guess that's it, then," she murmured.
He swallowed hard. "Want me to help you pack? I've got a little while before Jacob wakes up from his nap."
She carefully climbed off his lap and stretched out beside him. "I'm not going anywhere," she promised, and touched his cheek with her fingers, bringing him closer to her lips, so she could reach him for a kiss.
* * * * * * * * *
The Chairman strode in without knocking. "I've got the decoding done on the Aurora positives, angel," he announced, his face grim. "The numbers aren't huge, but they're all in crucial spots."
Miss Parker eyed him, a bright smile on her face, chin high with pride.
"I know where they are," she announced, just hanging up her phone. "I'm having the jet prepped and a car's waiting downstairs to take us to the airport. Shall we go, Daddy?"
"The children? You've found the Seraphim?" The Chairman's momentary astonishment faded into greedy delight. He rushed toward her desk, pulled her eagerly out of her chair and said, "Great work, angel. Let's go get those kids!"
Broots skidded to a stop in the doorway before they had crossed the room. "It's Reception," he panted. "Ms. Penfield's requesting to see the Chairman!"
Miss Parker raised an eyebrow at the announcement, and nodded. "We'll be right there, Broots. But we already know where the children are, if that's what she's come to report. We were on our way there just as you came in." Moments later, she was standing in the front lobby, staring at the woman who had been her son's keeper and caregiver for the first two and a half years of his life. "Well, Ms. Penwheel," she mused blandly, arching an eyebrow. "Look what the cat dragged in. Didn't you forget a little something on your way back here?"
Penfield sagged at the sight of her familiar face. She looked older, more haggard, and thinner. "Thank God, Miss Parker!" she cried. "I'm so glad to be back. Those people, they made me--"
"Where's the baby, dammit?" Morgan snapped. "Surely you didn't leave him in Dallas?"
The older woman recoiled slightly at the shouted snarl. "Gabriel's fine," she said quietly. "All the children are being well treated -- spoiled, actually. And since you seem to know where they are, I guess you don't need me to help you locate them."
Morgan smiled triumphantly and nodded. "Exactly. We don't need you for anything. Do we, Daddy?"
Penfield's face registered her fear, her confusion. "But when you bring him home, you'll need someone familiar to look after him," she whimpered. "You are going to bring him home, aren't you? You wouldn't leave him with those people, surely."
"What people?" Mr. Parker demanded, catching up to them. "Isn't he with Jarod?"
"Jarod's been there off and on since the Seraphim were kidnapped, but they've hired new nannies for Gabriel and some of the others. Then they said they didn't need me anymore and asked me where I wanted to go." Reaching into her jacket pocket, she withdrew a bottle of pills and held them out for her companions to see. "I said I wanted to come back here, when they told me where Aurora came from. These help, but not enough. I think about it constantly. I dream about it. It's all I want. Please, Mr. Parker. I need Aurora. I'll do anything--"
"Let's go," the Chairman ordered, sweeping past her. "Penfield, you come with us, and I want as many sweepers as we can carry on the plane. We're going to Dallas, and Penfield's getting us in the door." He started toward the front doors, then turned to face his companions. "Where's Cox? We'll need him there, too."
The elevator doors opened, and Lyle hurried out toward them, his henchman bringing up the rear. "I just heard the Seraphim had been located," he announced with a broad smile. "I'm ready--"
"You're not going," Mr. Parker snapped, shooting a cool glare at him. "Don't you have enough to keep you busy here, without tagging along?"
Lyle stiffened, his gaze shifting to Miss Parker, as if hoping she would rise to his defense.
She crossed her arms and offered a smug smile instead, with one elegant eyebrow raised in question.
Mr. Parker relayed the order for the sweeper team via the security people in Reception, and waited for Cox to join them. The group then headed outside to the waiting limousine. The Chairman was beaming, gloating that he'd soon have the Seraphim back in the Centre. The woman he called his daughter had brought him this prize, and he was showering her with praise for her loyalty and dedication to her job.
The Chairman glared at Penfield in the back seat of the long black car. "Aurora," he mused with a low growl. "You can be back on it, just as soon as we've gotten back to the Centre with the Seraphim." He shot a meaningful look at Cox, who responded with a nod of agreement, promising without a word to take care of the woman himself.
Penfield sighed with obvious relief, oblivious to the unspoken conversation. "That would be wonderful. I'm ready to do anything you want to help you get them back." She described the place, mentioned her work for the past six weeks, and offered up every scrap of information she knew about the Prometheus Building.
Mr. Parker turned to his chief of SIS. "You'll put together a plan for getting the children out of there. I recall you visited the building after exploring one of Jarod's lairs nearby some months ago. Amazing how close you came, and didn't know it." His eyes narrowed at her suspiciously.
She raised an eyebrow as she regarded him. "The children were still in the Centre when I found that lair," she reminded him coolly. "And if I had known Jarod was there, I'd certainly have taken him with me. I'd guess he was investigating the place to make sure it would be a safe haven for them. Apparently, he thought it was."
He studied her for a moment, and nodded. "Yes, of course." He sighed. "But we'll have Gabriel home soon. And all the other children as well."
"Funny thing," Penfield piped up. "Jarod seems to think Gabriel is his son. I don't know where he could've gotten that idea, but he's got the boy calling him 'daddy' now." She shook her head. "I guess he really wanted to hurt you, Mr. Parker, and he felt that, by taking your son away, that would be a good place to start."
The Chairman glowered at her, and said nothing.
Miss Parker remained silent as well, and relaxed against the seat with a satisfied
sigh. This would make her look very good indeed to the Triumvirate. But the
Chairman had more unpleasant surprises in store once the reached their destination.
He was about to have the rug pulled out from under him, and she would have the
pleasure of watching. She could hardly wait to see the look on his face once
he saw who was waiting for him in Dallas.
Broots sat at his desk, staring at the photograph. For weeks he had thought about the problem, and the best way to handle it. Striking directly at Lyle or Valentine wasn't wise, and he didn't have the power for that anyway. But he had been watching the sweeper, even going so far as to supervise the techs who sat at the monitors all day, keeping secure areas under constant surveillance, peering into the screens to follow Valentine throughout the building on his daily errands. The only surprise in Valentine's day was a trip to SL-26, which held only maintenance equipment, boilers, air conditioning units and other such uninteresting items.
But Broots knew that SL-26 also contained the hatch to a secret room. The maintenance people had been traditionally told that it was the hatch into a sewage tank, so no one would bother opening it. He knew the truth, though. He knew that it led to SL-27, a burned out, bombed out shell of a floor where nightmares were born.
Nobody went there anymore, not after the bomb Sydney had put down there. But there was something that interested Valentine on that floor, and Broots was determined to find out. He had installed a handful of small cameras attached to motion sensors at strategic spots on S-L26, and by the weekend he'd be checking the recordings to see who went down to that lowest level, and what they did down there. If Valentine was among them, Broots would know what he was doing as well.
The tech still had no luck on the phantom security taps that he'd been tracking, but he was getting closer. He had written a program to help him find out where it was, and the next time the connection was used, he'd have it. There were mysteries afoot, but the one that made him the most nervous was why Valentine had photographed his daughter, asleep in her bed.
He understood the warning. But what was Valentine warning him away from? Broots didn't get that. But he knew his home was no longer the safe place he'd once thought it was.
Something had to be done, and as much as he hated doing it, he knew in his heart what the answer was.
Debbie needed to be moved out of harm's way. She needed to be someplace safe, and he could only think of one place that met that description. Stefan might be a hardcase, but he'd take care of Debbie. She was family, after all.
He sent Miss Parker an email to inform her that he'd be away for a few days, and then he went home, packed his daughter's things and waited for her to come home from school.
* * * * * * * * *
"No. I don't want to." Yuri hated the old man, hated him so much he sometimes got physically ill at the sight of him. The lash made him bleed now but it no longer stung, and Raines was getting frustrated at not having any more buttons to push. Yuri was stubborn, and even though the simulation sounded interesting, he didn't want to please the old man.
"All right, then. We'll try something else. Something new."
They wheeled in a gurney, complete with chains to bind him to it. He fought them, but the army of sweepers was never ending. Whenever he knocked two down, four more came at him. They took him, and bound him to the table. They cut off his clothing, and then they brought in the machine. Parts of it they attached to him. Parts of it they forced into his mouth and other body cavities.
And then Raines turned it on.
He couldn't speak for three days afterward. He couldn't move under his own power. And he couldn't work.
They let him recover, and then Raines asked again. He refused, and they brought the machine again. This time he was quiet as they strapped him down, and wept when they turned it off. For nearly two months he spent more time in the infirmary than in his room. But he would not let Raines break him. All he needed was to see the old man's face, and the walls he built around his heart came up again, stronger than before.
The last time, Raines looked into his eyes and saw the fire burning there. He knew he would never be able to conquer this pretender, to make him participate on command, no matter what they did to him. Pain was temporary, and could be survived.
The last time, Raines called for the machine without asking Yuri to work. He hooked the pretender up to it, turned it on and walked away.
The last time, the pain didn't stop. It went on and on and on
Yuri sat up screaming, clawing at the air, flinging the bedclothes violently off him. Consciousness registered, and he cut off the scream, holding his head and trying desperately to force the memory away. He could hardly catch his breath, and his heart felt as if it might explode, it was beating so fast.
"Paul! Paul, what is it?" Emily asked, sitting up next to him in bed.
"Dreaming," he panted. "Bad dream. Bad. Just a dream. Not real " His grip on sanity was slipping. He needed an anchor, something to bring him back, to hold him there.
"I'm here, baby," she whispered, slipping her arms around his naked torso. "It's okay. It was just a dream. Just a dream. It's gone now."
He could see her face barely illuminated by the moonlight streaming in the window. He inhaled the scent of her perfume, the faint odor of coitus that clung to them, and his own perspiration. The sheets felt crisp against his skin, and Emily was warm beside him, her body pressed close to him, her embrace firm and solid and real.
His breathing slowed, and he relaxed slowly back against the pillows, taking her down with him. He couldn't close his eyes without seeing the machine, so he kept them open. He didn't want to see that thing, ever again.
But it was always there in his dreams.
"Do you want to talk about it, baby?"
"I can't, Em." He swallowed hard. "I can't. Not yet."
"Okay." She cuddled him closer, and laid her head against his chest, listening to his thrumming heart as it wound down to a normal rhythm. She raised up on one elbow to look down at him in the semidarkness. "How come you left so suddenly from Dallas? And why would you leave a note for Jarod, but not for me? I didn't understand that."
Yuri put one hand over his face and rubbed it wearily.
"I was upset," he confessed honestly. "That little boy--"
"Yeah, him. I don't understand how anybody can abuse a child like that. They're defenseless. They need to be protected."
"Well, he's got somebody to protect him now," she assured him. Her expression grew serious. "Is that what happened to you? Something like that?"
He couldn't see much of her face in the moonlight, just enough to tell him that her heart was breaking.
He remembered the lash and the machine.
"Yeah. Something like that. But it was a long time ago."
"I'm sorry, Paul," she murmured. "I'm sorry you had to endure that pain. It must have been awful."
He said nothing, but his eyes began to fill. He looked away from her then, upward at the dark ceiling, and felt a tear slip out the corner of his eye, trekking slowly across his temple and into his dark hair. Another followed it, and then another, and he couldn't stop them.
The pain was too great for him to bear, and he curled up on himself, trying to turn away from her, to hide himself from her view.
But her hands were strong in their gentleness, and she pulled him against her, and held him tightly as he wept.
* * * * * * * * *
There was only one way inside that Miss Parker could see, and reported that as the caravan of rented cars drove into the parking lot. "Unless they let our sweeper team inside, I don't think we can storm this castle and take the Seraphim by force," she told the Chairman. "This is too public a place in a major metropolitan area. Strong-arm tactics won't work here. This will have to be done diplomatically, and that's not my strong suit." She smiled at him. "You were always better at that, Daddy."
Parker puffed up his chest. "Leave that to me. I've got birth certificates for every one of 'em," he told her. "I've got DSA footage of when they were born, and every moment since then. They have no choice but to give them up to me."
Morgan shot him a glance, remembering when he had told her the children were orphans that the Centre had taken in. He wasn't thinking clearly, or he wouldn't have made that statement. He was treading dangerously close to giving himself away, tripping himself up with his own lies. She'd have to see just how far she could push that.
"Come along, Penfield," he ordered the nurse. "You'll be our guide." He held his arm out to the woman, and led her into the foyer. "Cox, you'll check out the kids and make sure they're all right."
Penfield showed her security badge, and the four went into the elevator, but the sweepers were stopped at the door by a sizeable security force. The nurse pushed the button for the proper floor, but the elevator hesitated. After a moment, the doors closed and the car started climbing. It stopped on the third floor, and the doors slid open. "This isn't right," she protested, glancing out at the floor where the corporate offices lay. "We were supposed to go up to twelve."
"Please exit the car," said a man in a black suit with a red Prometheus logo emblazoned on the breast pocket. He gestured toward the conference room further down. "You're expected."
"By whom?" the Chairman demanded. "Ms. Penfield works here."
"Not anymore," the man assured them. "Please, this way." Several burly men in uniform eased away from the walls around the elevator and made their presence known.
"Security," Miss Parker observed. "Someone wants to see us, Daddy." She stepped purposefully off the elevator and headed for the meeting room in the wake of one of the security men. Her companions followed her, casting unhappy glances around them.
Sebastian McKenzie sat at the head of the conference table, surrounded by a small army of men and women in suits, these looking more like intellectual types rather than meat on the hoof. He smiled as he saw Miss Parker, and gave her a nod. "It's been a long time, Miss Parker, Mr. Parker," he said politely. "Can't say that I miss the Centre, though."
The Chairman stared at him for a moment. His complexion paled. Without being told, he took an empty chair and sat down stiffly into it. Penfield did the same, as did Cox.
Miss Parker remained standing, arms crossed, behind her companions. "What's this about?" she demanded. She had a hard time not gloating, keeping her expression impassive.
He smiled at her warmly. "I was just about to ask you the same thing," he returned. "I haven't had the need of your services for some time." His gaze fell on the nurse. "And we've done nothing but help Ms. Penfield. Got you off that terrible addiction, gave you gainful employment--"
"Your people put me on Aurora," she reminded him, "so we'd help you steal those children."
"What children?" he asked innocently. "You mean my son and his friends?"
The shock on Mr. Parker's face was instantaneous. His mouth fell open. His color deepened, and he glanced at Cox. The doctor's face remained impassive, but his eyes were filled with cold rage.
"How could I know?" Sebastian replied to the look. "We use the same research teams, Parker."
"No one had access to my research," Cox argued.
The Australian shot him a glare. "You didn't make these children by yourself, now, did you, doc? I know who you are. Introductions are unnecessary." He calmed somewhat, took a deep breath and a drink of water, and continued. "I have other resources, too. But that's not why you're here. You want to take the children back." He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "I don't have a problem with that."
"Wait a minute," Miss Parker said. "Where's Jarod? He was behind all this, and I heard he was here, too."
Sebastian checked in whispered conversation with the dark haired woman standing just behind him. "Ramona tells me he left two days ago for someplace in California. LA, we think. But Gabriel's still here, along with all the other children, under the care of a new nanny, since Ms. Penfield chose not to stay with him."
The Chairman wilted visibly with relief. He patted Penfield's hand and smiled at her, nodding at the doctor as well. "Go get them," he murmured.
Penfield and Cox stood.
"Not so fast," Sebastian said, holding up his hands. He gestured to his left and one of the suits pushed a folder filled with papers toward the Chairman. "There are steps to be taken first. I have legally authenticated birth certificates that I'm sure will be every bit as good as the ones you've probably got in your briefcase, except that mine are registered with the authorities, and I'll bet yours aren't. I've also got certified adoption papers on every child -- except for my son, who belongs to me by biological right. If you want them back, you'll have to ask their natural parents first."
Parker's expression darkened. His eyes narrowed. "Their parents are dead, all but you and me. I want my son back, and you're going to give him to me. You don't want to cross the Centre, MacKenzie."
"I'm part of the Centre, Parker. Or didn't you know? I've spent my whole life tracking down the companies and agencies that support you, and invested in them until I could afford to buy most of them outright. I own a significant portion of the assets. I'm your partner, your left hand man, always there when you need me, but never making my presence known until now." He grinned.
"What do you want?" Parker growled.
Morgan stepped back and listened. He was good, better than she had hoped for, and she was starting to enjoy it. But she had to make sure she didn't smile and give the game away.
"Oh, I don't want anything," Sebastian assured him. "You came to me, remember, not the other way around. I have an established, legally authenticated claim on every child, as I said. You bring me the biological parents, and I'll release the children to them. But only to them. Only then can you ever hope to get them back in your clutches, and then you still won't have the whole set. Gideon's mine. You can't change that."
"I'm claiming my son, then," the Chairman snapped. He stood up, pushing his chair back from the table angrily. "Bring me Gabriel, and I'll take him home with me."
Sebastian nodded. "Sure thing, mate. Just open wide."
For a moment, all eyes were turned on the old man. "What?" he breathed. "What do you mean?"
"It's not that hard," Sebastian told him casually. He slid a long plastic tube with a cotton swab mounted inside it toward Mr. Parker. "Open your mouth, and we take a cheek swab for DNA testing. You cool your heels in a local hotel till the results come back in a couple of days from a neutral lab we both agree on, and then when the DNA match is confirmed, you take your baby home. Simple, really. And quite painless. I always hated giving blood. Damn needles "
A muscle twitched in Parker's jaw. "Gabriel's mine, dammit! You give me my son!" His fist thundered down on the table in protest.
Sebastian smiled confidently up at him. "As soon as you prove he's yours, you can have him, old mate. And as for the other parents, they'll be awarded custody through the courts, in full view of the public, just as soon as the DNA confirmations are in. No worries." He gestured around the table. "My legal staff has instructions to assist the parents of these children as soon as they come forward. Until then, I'm providing the very best care and lots of love to these kids. They're doing quite well here. They're happy. Even Angelique."
Something dark and dangerous twinkled in Sebastian's hazel eyes. It looked like revenge.
Morgan decided she liked him. She didn't have to worry about Gabriel going back to the Centre ever again. But he had also opened the door to something else, something she'd wanted since she found out the truth herself. She would have to tread carefully and not push too hard. If the whole truth came out, it could do her in.
"Not a problem," she told him. Then she reached for the swab unit and handed it to the Chairman. "Let's get it done, Daddy. I want to take my brother home."
The old man's face turned beet red. He grabbed the swab package and flung it down onto the table. "I won't submit to such blackmail, MacKenzie," he snarled. "He belongs to me and you know it. They all do." He turned and stormed out of the conference room, heading back toward the elevator with a startled, confused Penfield and silently fuming Cox in tow.
Morgan smiled and winked at Sebastian, gave him a thumbs-up for his performance, and then followed her companions out the door, composing her face into an angry scowl for her other audience.
"What's wrong with you, Daddy?" she demanded hotly. "We could have at least gotten Gabriel back! If you didn't want to do the test, I could have. Even though he's got a different mother, they could have found enough markers to determine I'm a blood relative, and--"
"We'll find another way, angel," he hissed. "MacKenzie thinks he's got me over a barrel with this, but he doesn't. It's just going to take a little time, but we'll be patient. We know where the Seraphim are now, and that's a plus. We'll get them back." He sighed. "Don't you worry. We'll get them all back."
He turned such a hateful glare on her that it cut her off. "That's enough! I told you, we're going home now. We'll come at this from a different angle. There's no way I'm taking just one of them back. I won't leave without all of them. The Triumvirate would be satisfied with nothing less."
She lifted her chin slightly in defiance. "I want to see Gabriel. I want to see my brother before we go."
The Chairman clutched at her arm and squeezed it hard, pulling her right into his florid face. "You will not! You'll only upset him, and he's got enough problems, being in this unfamiliar place with strangers. You'll come back to the Centre with me, and then we'll see about getting him and the other children back where they belong. Are we clear?"
Morgan stared at him, making her voice and expression soft and filled with hurt. Slowly, she disengaged herself from his grasp and pulled away a little. "You'd leave your own son with these people?"
His gaze slid away, landing on the floor of the elevator car. Guilt was written all over him, in the defeated droop of his head, his hunched shoulders, and the way he avoided her eyes. He kept silent, and she wisely let the matter drop.
There would be other opportunities when she could bring the subject up again, with an even better audience. And she knew just how to press the buttons that would push him over the top and bring out the confession she most wanted to hear. He was going to admit to her that Gabriel was her son, not his. And when he did, she would finally have all the control she needed for her child, and for her life. But not yet.
The only other thing remaining to be handled was making Gabriel safe from experimentation, but there was progress along those lines already. All she needed was patience, and time for the pieces to fall into place. She had waited her whole life for this. A little longer would be no trouble at all. In fact, looking at what lay ahead, she was beginning to enjoy the ride.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod watched via closed circuit camera as the Centre people left, and felt a wave of relief that they didn't know he was still there. While Gabriel had his nap in the nursery, Jarod spent his time working on treatments for Jacob, counseling other Aurora addicts and thinking about all the projects he had lined up in his mind, waiting for their turn to be solved. He had taken a moment when he heard that the Parkers had arrived to visit the security station where Sebastian had given him clearance to watch, and now that the building had been cleared of Centre people, he was on the way back to his rooms.
Sebastian was waiting for him there, grinning from ear to ear.
"How'd you like that circus, J?"
The Pretender stopped in his tracks, stunned by the visual that simple comment had brought up. Big tops. Lions and tigers and clowns. Oh, my
"Circus," Jarod repeated breathlessly.
Suddenly, an idea leaped to mind, and he raced to the desk in his private quarters, booted up his computer and opened up the CAD program where he had stored his three-dimensional floor plan of the Centre.
Ignoring his host, who had come in after him, he stared at it, running through the simulation yet again in his head. It would take a lot of people to accomplish. It would be dangerous, but it could be done. The only problem he could see was gaining the advantage of surprise. That had been a stumbling block, something he hadn't been able to conquer.
But he thought he had the answer now, thanks to Sebastian, and all that remained was running enough simulations to make sure it would have the highest statistical possibility of success. He'd have to find out what could go wrong, too, and make sure they planned for every contingency. The operation would take a great deal of time, maybe two or three weeks to prepare and get everything and everyone in place. He punched up the roster of Sanctuary residents and contacts, and calculated the possibility of how many might participate.
Sebastian shrugged and wandered off. Jarod promised himself to talk to his host about it later, and apologize for his rudeness. Sometimes there were more important things than manners, and Sebastian had fitted the key into the lock for him. Jarod wasted no time getting in the door.
The numbers worked. The initial simulations worked. Now, it was time to get started in earnest.
It was time for the Centre to be brought to its knees, and it was going to be exactly like Catherine Parker had envisioned it
with a twist.
* * * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker watched as Daniel Pyne closed the door and came to sit down across from the table. She was certain he had heard that the test results were back in, but looked surprised at being called in for a private meeting. She was doing this with everyone but Broots, since she was already sure where his loyalty lay. Of the rest, she wasn't as certain.
And she needed to be.
"Thank you for coming, Daniel," she said casually. "I wanted to let you know, as one of my managers, that you're in the clear for Aurora."
He flexed a polite smile. "I already knew that. But I'm glad you know, now, too. What kind of problem does our department have with the drug?"
She shook her head. "It's not good. Ours is the hardest hit. We're going to need to bring in a lot of new people."
"Understood. I'll put the word out today. Discreetly."
She made eye contact and nodded. "I have other concerns, though. And I'm not quite sure how to handle this one. I'll need someone who's loyal to me, over and above the Centre itself, to carry it out."
He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes at her. "You want to tell me about it?"
"I suspect that whomever's addicting these people to Aurora has a plan in mind. Somebody wants control of the Centre, and I aim to keep it from them. Which means I'll need someone I can trust, who will answer only to me, to carry out my orders. Can I count on you?"
He sighed. He clasped his hands in his lap and studied her through narrowed eyes. "I've watched you grow up in this company, Miss Parker, and if you'll allow me to speak freely "
She nodded. "Go ahead."
"I always thought you were kind of a hard-ass. But I also knew you'd do anything you could for your daddy, for this place. You'd give your life for it." He smiled. "That's kind of how I feel, too. I know there are some things that aren't right here. Some of them wrong in really big ways. But I trust you to know what's right and what's not. If you want me, Miss Parker, I'm your man."
"I hope you're right, Daniel," she agreed. "Because if you're not, we'll both be dead in pretty short order."
"Tell me what you want. I'll get it done."
"You remember Willie? Mr. Raines' right-hand man?"
"His test results showed up negative, but I know there's something going on with him. I need to find out what it is, who he's taking orders from, and whether or not he was in Frankfort, Kentucky, last week."
"Consider it done."
"Thank you, Daniel. I'm counting on you."
He rose, and she shook his hand. "It's been a pleasure working for you, ma'am. I look forward to great things from you."
She smiled. "Thanks. Same here." As he moved toward the door, she sent for the next junior manager, working her way down the list of those who had showed clear, knowing that those who tested positive were already being removed from their posts and taken to the holding cells down below. She didn't know what the Chairman had in store for them. And she was certain she didn't want to know. Whatever it was, it would be horribly final.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jarod strolled about the grounds, his mind whirling with possibilities. People were everywhere, some in street clothes towing small children, as he was himself, and others dressed in bizarre costumes that left little clue to what the person underneath looked like. He found himself smiling, studying the big tents and 18-wheelers and animal trailers that were scattered all over the grounds.
This would be perfect. It was the final element that he had needed to complete the plan. And he knew it was going to work brilliantly. All that remained would be time to pull everything together and get the troops trained.
He had placed the orders already for the equipment he would need, but now as he looked about them, he began making a mental list of all the other items that would be needed for a proper cover.
"Daddy, look!" Gabriel chortled. "Horsies!"
The child tugged on his hand, making him bend over slightly as they ran up to the corral set up in one of the parking lots. The pavement had been covered with a cushioning layer of straw, and the matched team of dapple gray horses browsed in a trough of hay. Jarod lifted his son into his arms and moved around the fence, closer to the trough so they could reach the horses to pet them. Faith wandered up behind him with Angelique in her arms, waving at Sebastian, Sumi and his suddenly large family, all surrounded by men and women in Prometheus security attire.
Jarod told the toddlers about the animals' habits, describing the positioning of the creature's eyes indicating that it was a prey animal, and showed Gabriel and Angelique the lions not far away, noting the forward-pointing eyes of the hunter. He liked giving the kids little lessons on biology, botany or mathematics when it could be related to something in the real world, knowing that they would remember it without it having to be part of the work they'd had to do at the Centre. These lessons were just for fun.
"Hey, Dad, can I have some cash?" Jordan asked as he came hurrying up. "We want to get our tickets."
Jarod glanced at them, momentarily distracted by a trio of clowns in full garb walking past. He smiled, taking note that the teenagers were holding hands as they came to a stop. Merritt had Raphael in tow, and Jacob sat in a stroller, shaded from the spring sun, his eyes round as saucers as he took in the wonders of the circus atmosphere. Jarod fished in his pocket for a wad of bills and handed over about half of them.
"Stay close to your bodyguards," he advised, making eye contact with the three men in jeans behind them, their black Polo shirts embroidered with the Prometheus flame logo. They gave him nods and smiles of assurance that they were, indeed, on the job and not distracted by their surroundings.
The tallest one winked and grinned at him, assuring him silently that the little family would be well protected.
"Sure, Dad. We'll be careful."
Jarod watched Merritt squat down beside the stroller to point out something in the distance, and smiled. "Have fun, kids," he told them warmly. Merritt seemed very fond of little Jacob, which gave great comfort to Jordan, and consequently to Jarod. But he knew she wasn't ready to be a mother to the boy. She had enough on her hands now dealing with Raphael. Jarod could see Jordan slowly meandering toward fatherhood, focusing his attention on the little one's needs first, before he saw to his own. It was a heavy burden for one so young to bear, but the possessiveness the teen felt toward Jacob had made it clear that they belonged to each other.
In a way, that made him a grandfather. He smiled at that thought, and then turned back to the lions that were huffing hoarse roars to each other, a noise that carried quite a distance. Jarod eyed the beasts, and cocked his head as he studied them. And then he began to look around for their trainers, and watched them as they interacted with the kings and queens of the veldt.
This was important stuff, and he was enjoying learning the lessons, and passing them on to Gabriel. With his son riding on his shoulders and Angelique on her mother's, Jarod caught Faith's hand and led her in the direction of the Ferris wheel. This would be a day to remember for all of the Seraphim, and for their parents as well.
It was a day made just for fun.
* * * * * * * * * *
Broots stepped out of the car, inhaling the wonderful scent of rain-freshened sea air. Debbie was still pouting, but she would get over it, he knew. She loved her cousins, and hadn't seen them in ages. Ten minutes after he was gone, she'd have forgotten she was mad at him, and he'd be comforted with the knowledge that his daughter was safe.
He popped open the trunk of the rental car, retrieved her luggage and walked her up the sidewalk, avoiding the puddles from the recent rain. He knocked on the door, and after a moment, his brother answered it.
"Hello, Stefan," he said hesitantly. That look of disapproval was still there in his brother's hazel eyes, but the other man swung the door open wide and welcomed them inside. Broots took Debbie's bags up to the room she'd be sharing with her cousin Sherry, and settled her in before retreating downstairs to the den for a chat with his brother.
Stefan was sitting on the sofa, bare feet propped on the coffee table, a beer in his hand, eyes on the television. He clicked the TV off as soon as Laszlo came into view, and watched as he sat down on the easy chair across from him. "You want to tell me what's up?" he demanded, his voice quiet but still authoritarian.
"I just thought Debbie needed to see her family for a little while," Broots offered with a half smile. "It's been a while since she's seen her cousins--"
"Don't gimme that crap, Bubba," Stefan shot back with steel in his eyes. "I know that place you work for is bad news. Did they threaten her?"
Shamed, Broots nodded. "It was indirect, but that's how they work. She'll be safe here. They don't have a clue where you are."
"Hell, you didn't even know where I was, Bubba." Stefan swigged his beer. "The military taught me how to be covert, and after seeing who you were involved with, I thought you'd have disappeared off their radar by now yourself. But it's your life." He shrugged and stared at his brother meaningfully. "And Debbie's. At least you're doing the right thing by her."
Broots got up, rubbing at the back of his neck. "The Centre isn't exactly the kind of place you quit, Stefan. You know that." He wandered around the den, aimlessly looking at books and framed photographs to keep from making eye contact with his older brother.
"But you knew what it was before you signed on," Stefan argued. "I told you. But you had to show everybody how smart you are. You had to be in on the latest technology, before it hits the marketplace." He harrumphed. "Sold your damn soul to the devil, if you ask me." He drained the beer and rose to get another one from the kitchen. "Want a beer, bro?"
"Nah, thanks. I'm driving back to the airport in a minute." Broots strolled over to a bookcase by the patio doors, and did a double-take when he saw one of the photographs. He picked it up, staring hard at the faces in the picture, smiling back at him. The two men had their arms around each other's shoulders, faces grimed with soot from the forest fire they had been fighting. One was Stefan. The other was Jarod.
"So that's how he got my GI Joe!" he mused softly to himself. "Stefan must have kept it, all these years, and let Jarod have it to give to me."
He wondered if Stefan knew who Jarod really was, and decided not to mention it. At least, not yet.
Stefan returned momentarily with a beer in one hand and a soft drink in the other, which he tossed to Laszlo.
"Thanks, Stefan," he said, his smile warmed with affection. "Look, I know you don't approve of what I do. You think it's stupid, pushing buttons all day--"
"No, I don't," Stefan snapped brusquely. "I have a lotta respect for what you do. Just not who you do it for."
That was a surprise. Broots had always believed that his brother thought he was a spineless nerd because he hadn't chosen a more manly profession, like his. Stefan had been a Navy SEAL and now worked as a firefighter, specializing in forest blazes and wildfires. They didn't come more macho than Stefan Broots.
"That's nice to hear," Broots told him. The clock on the mantel chimed softly, and got the tech's attention. "Gotta go, bro. Take care of my baby for me. And thanks."
"She'll be safe here," Stefan assured him.
Broots crossed the room and pulled his brother into a firm hug. "I know. Thanks, man."
Stefan caught his face in his hands just as he started to pull away, and Broots could see the worry in his eyes. "Be careful, Bubba. Come back alive."
A lump formed quickly in Laszlo's throat and was swallowed away. "Do my best, Stef. See you soon, I hope." He kissed his brother on the cheek and darted out the door before the tears began to gather in his eyes. He'd already said his goodbye to Debbie, and sped away in the rented car, headed for the airport, before he could change his mind and stay with them.
Miss Parker and Sydney needed him. She was counting on him to watch her back, and he wouldn't let her down. And then there was also Kim, whose interest in him offered the promise of something deep and sure, something that would include his daughter as well, and he wasn't going to let Kim slip away. Women like her didn't happen to men like him.
He had too much to lose if he walked away from his job right now. And as long as Debbie was safe, he could put all of his attention to doing what needed to be done, without the distraction of worrying about her. He was ready now, for anything. And he knew without being told that something important was coming down the road.
He just hoped that the light at the end of the tunnel was sunshine, and not a freight train coming to run him down.
* * * * * * * * *
Elizabeth opened the door without knocking, her bare feet soundless on the Aubusson rug as she strode across the floor. He was upset about something. She didn't need for him to be sleeping to feel that, and Trevor's disquiet pulled her out of bed and into his rooms without an invitation.
His head came up as she entered the room. Dressed in his pajamas and claret velvet smoking jacket, dapper as ever, he had been pacing the floor when she first saw him. Now he stopped and stared at her, his dark eyes filled with worry and grief.
"What is it?" she asked gently. "What did you see?"
He shook his head and turned away, pacing again. "I can't talk about it, little owl. And I don't want to dream about it, either. But if I do, you just leave my nightmares to me. Don't touch these. I don't want you to see what's going to happen."
"Maybe it won't," she offered hopefully. "Haven't you ever foreseen something that didn't come about? Everybody's fallible."
He sighed, and strolled over to take a weary seat on the bed. He rubbed at his eyes. "Sure. Things happen that change the flow. But this one God, Elizabeth. It's an ocean, not just the little trickle I'm used to. It's not coming from just one source, but hundreds. I've never felt anything like this."
She came closer and put her hands on his shoulders, stroking away his tension. "Do you know what set it off?"
He reached for her waist and pulled her close, pressing his face against her belly as he embraced her briefly. He nodded. "Jarod. I know what the key is now, and he's found it. Everything's in motion. It can't be stopped."
Elizabeth felt the warmth of his touch lingering, but the anguish in his soul drew her closer. She stepped between his knees and clasped his face in her hands, lifting to make him look at her. "What did you see in Jarod's future, Trevor?"
He grimaced, sighed deeply and squeezed his eyes shut to try to block the vision her words had called back. She could see him struggling with it. A tear rolled slowly down his cheek. "Don't ask me that, baby. I don't want to look at it again."
Her heart leaped up into her throat, more for Trevor's pain than anything else. "Get some rest, sweetheart," she breathed, already starting the process that would send him toward sleep. "Let me make you feel better."
She wanted to help him. He had won her heart over the last few months she had lived in Sanctuary, touched her as no other man had. He was handsome, yes, and he had a definite style about him, but there was so much more to Trevor than just his elegant exterior. His fierce protectiveness of her was exciting, and the uncertainty with which he treated her showed her that his interest went far more than skin deep. He didn't relate to any other woman the way he did her. She was enchanted by him, and lately she had begun to be fairly certain that it went much deeper than that.
Elizabeth was in love, for the first time in her life. She had been waiting for this man to find her, and now that he had, she was powerless to ease his pain. "All right," she promised. "I won't touch your dreams 'till you ask me to, my love."
Something in his eyes changed with her use of that particular term of endearment. Everything else had been forgotten for the moment. He almost smiled, his brows twitching in confusion. "You just said "
"My love," she repeated with a grin, her own anguish lightening instantly as his faded. "And I meant it, Trevor. I already know how you feel about me. Naughty boy. Maybe we should discuss those dreams you've been having about me "
* * * * * * * * * *
Sebastian started to knock on the door, but found it open and pushed it wide. For a moment, he stared in startled wonder at the circus posters that covered the walls, the books and toys and memorabilia that covered nearly every surface in the room. And presiding over the jumble was one of the newcomers among the residents of Sanctuary, dressed in gaudy colors and a curly rainbow wig, complete with round red clown's nose covering his sleek natural one.
"Jarod?" the Australian ventured quietly.
The Pretender spun around in his much too large shoes, and squirted a stream of water from the artificial daisy on his lapel. "What do you think? Am I clown material?"
Sebastian managed to duck out of the way of the water, and backed out into the hallway uncertainly. "Have you gone 'round the twist, there, mate?" he asked cautiously.
Jarod's hands dropped to his sides, and he bowed his head in defeat. "I'm too tall for the trapeze," he stated distractedly, starting to pace across the room now, "and not funny enough to be a clown. I sympathize with the animals too much, so I couldn't put them through their paces. What does that leave?"
"Are you going to run away and join the circus, you great nong?" asked Sebastian, cautiously venturing closer, but ready for anything. He wasn't too sure about this fellow's sanity anymore, considering what he'd done to his room. "I think the Shrine folks left town last week."
Jarod halted, his clothes swirling around him for a moment before coming to a belated, droopy stop. "Maybe I could do motorcycle tricks, like riding inside that giant gyroscope or on a high wire. Or I could do all kinds of tightrope tricks. Yeah, that's it!" With a gleam of concentration in his eyes, he leaped up onto his bed, flung off his oversized shoes and carefully climbed barefoot onto the footboard, balancing with ease as he walked from end to end, back and forth. "Yeah. Yeah! This is what I'll do." He leaped to the floor and made intense, excited eye contact with Sebastian, and grinned. "What do you want to do?"
Not at all sure where this particular conversation was going, Sebastian held up both hands. "Hold on there, mate. I just came to tell you I'm feeling better, almost normal now. And look at this." He fished a business card out of his breast pocket, crumpled it up and held it in his palm. He stared at it.
It didn't even smoke.
He grinned unabashedly. "Isn't that great? You did it, my friend! You and Elizabeth and all the others who've been watching my back, so to speak. I'm an ordinary bloke now, more or less."
"Fire-eater!" Jarod suggested enthusiastically, jabbing one finger into the air. Then he got a horrified look on his face and waved both hands at his host. "No, scratch that. Never mind. Sorry. Just thinking out loud."
Sebastian could not understand what the purpose of this madness was, and told him so.
"This is the answer," Jarod told him with an impassioned grin. "This is what will get us where we need to be."
"For what?" the Aussie asked uncertainly.
"To make all our dreams come true," the Pretender answered warmly. "Namir and I have been in the planning stages now for a couple of weeks. It's time for everyone to get in gear."
Sebastian sensed that the incongruous picture before him of the genius in a clown suit was significant. This madman didn't indulge in whimsy for the sake of entertainment. He had a purpose, and if Namir was in on it, it was something serious, red nose or no.
"I'm still not sure I get where you're going, J."
"To Blue Cove," Jarod answered solemnly. "We're all going. All except the children, and those who need to stay behind to take care of them." He hesitated. "That is, if your offer still stands."
"What offer is that?"
"Sanctuary. You once told me that you had limitless resources to put at my command, if I wanted them. I'm calling in that promise, but I only want volunteers."
Intuition kicked in, and Sebastian got it.
Blue Cove. Namir. The people of Sanctuary.
"All right," Sebastian said softly, nodding his head and swallowing a lump trying to form in his throat. "I'm in. But I still don't get the circus part."
Jarod smiled, secrets twinkling in his chocolate brown eyes. "Have a seat, mate," he said with his best Aussie accent, "and I'll explain. After all, it was your idea."
Jordan stepped out of the shower, dried off and finger combed his short, dark hair into place. He stepped into a pair of pajama pants, pulled on a T-shirt, and brushed his teeth. Taking a soft baby washcloth from the towel pantry, he dampened it in warm water, wrung it out and went into the bedroom. He sat down gingerly on the specially ordered air bed where Jacob lay, and coaxed the child to open his mouth. With great care, he cleaned the boy's teeth with the cloth, knowing that a toothbrush would cause too much pain and damage to the little one's gums. They had given up brushing his teeth a week ago, and Jordan had come up with this cleansing method instead.
"There. Does that feel better?" he asked softly.
Jacob smiled. "Yes. But I miss the minty toothpaste taste afterward."
"Got an idea for that. Be right back."
A moment later, Jordan returned from the bathroom with a tiny bead of toothpaste on the cloth, and gently rubbed it onto Jacob's tongue. "How's that?"
"Yeah. Now I feel clean."
"Cool. Time for bed, then." He ruffled Jacob's hair, and took the washcloth back to the bathroom before climbing into his own bed. With a weary sigh, he picked up a book and glanced at Jacob. The boy's book lay against the covers, his hand too weak to lift it. "Want me to read to you for a while?"
"Oh, yeah! That would be great." He wiggled to one side of the bed, making room for his much larger progenitor.
"I'm not sure I should " Jordan stopped himself. Jacob loved him, loved being with him more than anyone else. Jordan had hardly touched the child, afraid to hurt him, yet here he was silently asking for contact, to be cuddled. Jacob needed that, regardless of what pain might come of it.
The teenager eased carefully onto the bed, letting Jacob snuggle close against him. He felt the warmth from that tiny body, felt the peace in Jacob's soul so plainly. He was happy. He radiated with it, and that touched Jordan deeply. As much as he tried to distance himself from the thought of being a father, it kept stealing into his consciousness and making itself at home.
He began to read, until he felt Jacob's head lean over onto his chest. For a moment, he just lay there quietly, enjoying the feel of the child beside him. He closed the book and let his arm drape around Jacob's frail shoulders.
"Some of the other kids " Jacob began, his voice soft and high-pitched, filled with uncertainty. "They call Sebastian daddy. Gabriel has a daddy. Raffi and Uriel have new daddies. I think daddies are good to have."
The unspoken plea sliced right through Jordan's heart. He knew what Jacob wanted, and only he could give it. He had been resisting this commitment for weeks now, ever since the biological progression had been firmly established. Jordan knew how the boy felt. He had felt the same way toward Jarod, longing to make peace with the man he had been copied from, and understood how necessary roots were. This child was made from him, not from Jarod. Jacob was his son, not his father's.
"I love you, Jordan," the boy breathed, and turned his pale, beaming face up to look into his progenitor's eyes.
That was it. Even if he couldn't give him what he wanted, Jacob was still willing to give his whole heart, and Jordan could no longer deny it. "I love you, too, squirt," he teased, and bent down to kiss Jacob's dark hair. Something in his heart gave way, and he felt an incredible lightness in its wake. It was if a burden had been lifted, and he smiled back. "But you know what? I'd really like it if you called me 'daddy' from now on. It's kind of what I am to you, after all. Would you like that, Jacob?"
"You bet!" the boy cried, and flipped over, throwing his arms around Jordan's neck. He hugged as hard as he dared, and then lay gently back against the inflated bed, a cushion of air constantly pumping through the dense weave of the mattress. It took him a moment to catch his breath. "I have a daddy! You're the best ever, Daddy. I love you so much!"
"Love you, too, son. Now, get some sleep. You've got to tell your news to all your playmates tomorrow." He kissed Jacob's hair and carefully removed himself from the bed. Helping to settle Jacob in place, he felt an odd sense of peace fill him, and knew he had made the right decision.
Fatherhood wasn't something he wanted, not as young as he was. What the Centre had done to him, to Jacob and to Jarod was tragic. But this child was also a gift, and he would no longer waste a moment wishing he hadn't been born. Time to enjoy Jacob was too short, but he wouldn't waste any of it. School could wait. So would Merritt.
Jacob was all that mattered now, and he would do everything in his power to make sure the rest of the boy's life was packed with joy.
That was what fathers did, after all.
* * * * * * * * * *
A battered, aged pickup truck pulled up to the trading post that served as offices and general store for the campground. Only a handful of mobile homes and three RVs were set up on the concrete pads, leaving lots of open space available for newcomers. Two men piled out of the truck and stretched after their long drive, then lumbered up the steps into the building.
The proprietor, a retired merchant seaman, eyed the men with dollar signs in mind, wondering if they were just passing through, or on their way to the place up the road. They didn't look like the brainy type, and were too rough-cut to be the sleek muscle they used at the Centre. He leaned over the counter, chewing the stub of his cigar, and watched them case his store.
"Can I help you gents?" he asked at last.
The tallest one sidled up to the counter. "Looks like you've got a right nice place here, mate," he said with a friendly grin in a distinctly Australian accent. "How many spaces you got out there? How big's the property, all told?"
Vic arched a gray eyebrow and considered what the Australian might be after. "Why you askin', son?"
The African-American man beside him, stylishly dressed in neatly pressed designer blue jeans and a crisp new white T-shirt, placed his arms akimbo and smiled politely. "Because we're bringing in a whole boatload of business to you, sir. The circus is coming to town, and we're the advance crew, here to locate the right place to set up. It's a small private circus, just starting the northern leg of our tour. We need a little practice time before we start out on the summer circuit."
Vic's mouth sagged slowly open. His cigar fell onto the counter. His steely blue eyes got round. Then his brain clicked into gear, and he smiled. "I've got 35 spaces on the lot, an' 20 acres o' land on top o' that. How many people comin'?"
The two strangers argued casually about the number, but when they finally agreed, Vic backed up and sat his tall, lanky frame down on the stool he kept behind the counter for his rest breaks. They hadn't asked about rates. He knew that operations of that size were likely to pay bottom dollar, but considering that his grounds had never been full, he stood to make more money off these people than he'd ever dreamed.
"How long're you stayin'?" he asked breathlessly.
"Depends on how long it takes us to get our act together," said the Aussie. "Maybe a couple of weeks. Maybe a month. Maybe two. We've just put this crew together and have a few bugs to work out before we hit the road." He pulled a wad of cash out of his jeans pocket and handed it over. "We're going to need plenty of supplies available, mate. You might want to hire some runners to keep the place stocked with tucker."
"That's food to us Americans," the black man translated with a wink. "Now, let's talk business "
* * * * * * * * * *
"I want to go with you," Jordan growled unhappily, arms crossed over his chest.
Jarod sighed and hung his head. "I know you do, son. But you're needed here far more. Jacob needs you with him." He looked up at the teenager, his heart aching for what was to come in the boy's life. The irrevocable breakdown of Jacob's systems was already starting. The child was beginning to bruise far too easily, sometimes even without any kind of a bump or accident to cause the damage. Jarod saw instantly the hurt in Jordan's dark eyes, so like his own. He had even started to grow the little mole beside his right eye, making him look even more like his adult counterpart.
"All right," Jordan agreed with a nod. "When will you be leaving?"
"Soon. But I'll be back and forth for a while. Gabriel needs to see me as often as we can, before "
"Yeah. Meanwhile, I'll be working on those supplements for Jacob. Can you keep in touch via email? We can share research. If you have time for it, that is."
Jarod heard the pain, the resignation in Jordan's voice. "I'm always thinking about it," he assured the youth. "Learning my part in the circus won't take that much of my attention. Namir's in charge of training everyone else, so I'll have time to help you. Make sure you keep your notes current on the website, and I'll match them with mine from my laptop. We'll beat this, Jordan. If it's possible, we'll help him. We have to."
He saw the tears in his son's eyes, knowing the teenager was aware how slender that thread of hope really was. They didn't have time to research the necessary medications and dietary adjustments that Jacob needed to survive. Unless they just got lucky and stumbled on the answer, it was unlikely they'd beat the finish line stretching out before them. And even with regular sessions with Namir and Joseph, Jacob didn't have a lot of time left. The men had kept death at bay for weeks now, but they couldn't do it forever.
Jordan needed his father to get through this difficult period, and Jarod was painfully aware that he couldn't be there for him. He had missed every important event in this boy's life, had spent so much time on the run that he hadn't been there much at all. That would change soon, but not until the circus was over.
And by then, it would be too late. They both knew it. Both of them accepted it, but that only made the pain that much greater.
"I'm sorry, son," Jarod whispered. The corners of his mouth quirked up into a bitter grin. "I guess it doesn't really help to be able to be in two places at once, does it?"
Sad humor softened Jordan's expression, but he didn't smile. "No, it doesn't." He swallowed hard, tears brimming. "I love you, Daddy."
Jarod rose and crossed the distance between them in a heartbeat, pulling the boy into a fierce embrace. He cradled the young man's head in his hand, the other smoothing over his muscular back. "My son," he sniffed. "You're not me. You're my son, Jordan, and I love you. God, I'm so proud of you! Do you know that?" He kissed the boy's hair, fighting back the tears.
The teenager's reserve broke and he began to sob, weighed down with all the dark possibilities looming in his future.
"Don't leave me, Daddy," he wailed softly, his voice breaking, fingers clawing at the older man's back.
"I'll stay," he promised. "Just a little longer. Just for you. But I still have to go."
Jordan clung to him tightly. "I know. I know. I'm sorry I'm such a baby."
"You're not," Jarod assured him. "You're a man, Jordan. You're the man I always wanted to be. You're my hero."
He held his young clone, whispering to him gently, assuring him of all the things he already knew, arming him with the weapons Jordan would need to face his future alone, in case he needed them. That was what fathers did, and Jarod didn't need anyone to teach him that. It was already in his heart.
* * * * * * * * *
"I thought you were training for the high wire act," said Rick. "I've spotted you at the animal training center, the offices, clown school, everywhere but there. When did you plan to get started?"
Jarod smiled. "I've been working on it. I catch glimpses here and there, and I'm going to have a whole circus to run, so I needed to know what a real one looks like. And I did watch the Panzinis for a good half hour yesterday."
Rick laughed and shook his head. "Come on, pal. You've got years ahead of you before you're ready to perform. Let's see what skills you do have, and we'll go on from there."
The Pretender shrugged. "I don't have years. But I am a quick study."
The two men strolled over to the high wire training area, permanently set up with long cables only ten feet off the ground, with a net underneath to catch any performers who fell. Jarod climbed up the ladder attached to the tall pole with lithe grace, tested the cable with his right foot, and then casually strolled across it without using a balance pole.
"Okay, that's a good start," called Rick from the ground below. "Now try it backwards."
A specially made bicycle with no tires was parked on the platform on the far side, and Jarod unhooked it, set it on the cable and prepared to mount it.
"No!" Rick shouted from below, running toward the ladder. "Don't try that! Jarod, dammit, get down from there!"
But the Pretender wasn't listening. His face grim with concentration, he mounted the bicycle, bobbled a little, and headed across the cable slowly. On the second pass he pedaled backward, stopped in the center of the line, and held his arms out with a big grin.
"How's this for a beginner?" he called to his teacher.
Rick had climbed up and now stood on the platform, his face revealing his astonishment. "How long did you say you've been doing this?"
"Less than a week," Jarod answered brightly. "It's basically body mechanics, which I know well. I've got good balance, so it wasn't really that hard. Want me to try a dismount? I've been studying the trapeze artists, too."
Rick's stomach flipped at the thought. "No, that's fine. We can start you working with a partner, namely me, but don't get your hopes up. I still think it'll be a while before you're ready to perform."
"Okay. I've got about a week. Will that be long enough?"
"If you don't break your neck or kill yourself before then, sure. Why the hell not?"
Jarod dismounted carefully onto the cable, lifted the bicycle slowly onto his head and balanced it for a moment by the handlebars with one hand. After three steps it fell off, landing in the net below, but the Pretender kept his perch on the wire.
"Oops. Looks like I need a little work on that." He trotted the rest of the way to the platform, grinning at his trainer. "That was fun! Let's do some more."
Rick shook his head in wonder. "Either you're the most natural talent I've ever seen, or that was just beginner's luck, buddy. But you can be damn sure I'm not letting you on the wire with anyone but me till I'm sure you're not a show-off. I won't endanger my people with some cowboy who thinks he can do anything."
Jarod nodded. "I'm always careful with other people," he assured the man. "I only take risks with myself these days."
"We'll see," Rick assured him. "We'll see."
* * * * * * * * * *
Mr. Parker looked through the window into the specially prepared holding room. The head count revealed 47 people in various positions on the staff had been working under the influence of Aurora. Each one had willingly pointed at the person who had addicted them, in exchange for additional doses of the drug. And each of them had pointed to someone else in the room, which led the investigation into a closed circle. The odd man out, the one who had started the chain reaction, had turned up dead the previous day, apparently by his own hand.
But now the Chairman was forced to decide how to deal with these people. They couldn't continue working for the Centre under the influence, even if ownership of their Aurora doses shifted to the Centre itself. They could no longer be trusted in any capacity, and setting them free would be an instant death sentence. That left few options.
He could have them all executed and buried in the Blue Cove cemetery. He could have them all cremated, their ashes scattered over the biotracts as fertilizer. Or they might be used as guinea pigs for some of the other drug testing that needed to be done.
Parker frowned. There was a lot of talent in that room. Some of their own scientists had fallen into the group, though most of the users were relegated to Security. His secretary was also among them, which saddened him greatly. The woman certainly knew everything that passed through his hands, which presented an enormous problem in itself, but he had genuinely liked her.
Pamela looked back at him through the glass complacently, just waiting. She didn't care what became of her, as long as she had Aurora. And he had never noticed the artificially calm expression on her face until now.
He turned to the security chief standing nearby, awaiting orders. "See if the labs can use any of them," he ordered. "The rest can help the plants grow in the biotracts. I'll have the orders written up and sent down by my new secretary in a few minutes."
Daniel Pyne nodded, his dark eyes saddened. "What a waste," he said slowly. "What a damn shame."
"Just find out how all this got started," Parker growled. "I don't want it to ever happen again."
He stomped off toward the elevator, disgruntled at this latest fly in his ointment.
Lately, it seemed, there were more bugs than cream.
* * * * * * * * * *
"I saw the trucks coming into town myself," Broots told his boss excitedly. "The caravan went on for miles. I don't know how many people there are, but I know it's huge."
"Who are they?" Morgan asked distractedly, reading an email on her computer as he talked.
"The signs on the trucks said Angeles Family Circus. I checked them out when I got here, and they're a new outfit, privately owned. But that's all I know. Do you want me to investigate further?"
She pulled her eyes away from the screen and studied him for a moment. "I'll do it, Broots. When's the first show supposed to be?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't seen any flyers or announcements. I was gonna check that out when I went over."
She sighed. "I'll go shake 'em down, and if they check out, you can take Kim over later to watch a show or something. But don't move on them till I okay it."
Broots nodded. "Are you all right, Miss Parker? You look kinda tired."
Offering a weak smile, she leaned lazily back against her chair. "Yeah, I am. And I miss Gabriel. But I'm working on getting him back."
He looked a little uncomfortable, and sad. "I'm sorry. I know you were really fond of the little guy--"
"He's not dead, Broots," she snapped. "He's just visiting someone else." She sighed, wondering if she should tell the tech the baby's true heritage, and decided against it. Things would go better for him if he didn't really know what was going on behind the scenes. If she failed, she didn't want to take everyone else down with her. The less he knew, the better for him.
He bumbled through an apology and she shooed him grumpily out of her office. Shortly afterward, she was driving off Centre grounds, down the narrow, winding road that led into Blue Cove, and then past the sleepy little village to the campground. Taking up her digital camera, she photographed the scene as she found it, checking before she snapped a single shot to see if she recognized any of the faces.
Some of the people were in costume. Others were dressed in street clothes, but she could honestly say she didn't recognize anyone. She looked specifically at the taller men wandering about, those with the right build, and none of them looked familiar. Smiling to herself, she continued to take pictures, and then got out of her car and wandered up to the nearest tent.
It didn't look like a circus tent; more like someone's personal habitation. "Hello," she called to a passer-by. "Where's your office?"
The bearded blond man pointed her toward a small trailer set up on the campground, emblazoned with the Angeles Family Circus logo, and she headed for it. Knocking on the door, she was greeted by a blonde woman in an exotic looking outfit, her face heavily made up. "Hi. I'd like a word with your manager, please."
"Right this way," she said congenially.
Miss Parker stepped into the dimly lit interior, and the door closed behind her.
"I see you came alone," said Sumi, gesturing her into the back of the trailer. "Sebastian's waiting for you."
"Thanks, Mrs. MacKenzie."
"Please, call me Sumi." She smiled. "After all, we're in this together. I guess that makes us family, in a way."
Morgan chose not to respond, and went into the back, where the bedroom area had been turned into a sort of office with a bed in one corner. "How are things shaping up?" she asked him.
He glanced up and flashed her a smile. "No worries, Parker. We're all here, and no one suspects a thing. There are enough real circus folk to make us look like we know what we're doing, and the rest of us are hidden in plain sight. I think we'll be okay, even if we're watched round the clock by your security people."
"Good, because you will be," she promised. "How long, do you think, before we're ready?"
He glanced at his laptop. "Soon. Maybe a couple of weeks. Will you be ready then?"
She almost laughed. "Hell, I'm ready right now." Then she shook her head. "I will be. Just let me know when you have a firm date."
"Count on it. And watch for the flyers. The date of the evening performance will reflect a morning showtime, if you get my drift."
She nodded. "I'll have everyone in place and accounted for. But you be careful. No slip-ups, or I won't be able to cover them. Understood?"
"Plain as day," he answered gravely. "You be careful, too, lady. Your son needs you."
She swallowed hard, tears springing into her eyes and hastily blinked away. "Yeah. Where's Jarod? I'd like a word with him before I go."
"He's become a bearded blond, for the moment," Sebastian told her with a rakish grin. "I don't think you'd recognize him, the makeup job's so good. He's a wonder with that sort of thing."
"He's a wonder with everything he touches," she returned flatly, and turned to leave, wondering if he had been the man who gave her directions. She doubted that, certain she'd have recognized his voice if it had been Jarod.
"Oh, and Parker "
She glanced over her shoulder at the Australian and paused in the doorway.
"I'm glad to know I was wrong about you."
She didn't have to ask what he meant. She had pretended for so long to be cold and unfeeling that she often wondered if she had truly become that way. Then Gabriel had come into her life, and soon enough she found that she had a soft spot left after all. And as much as she longed to lay down her burdens and just be herself for a while, she knew it would be a little longer before that came to pass.
Morgan wandered about the grounds, taking pictures here and there, looking for the tall blond man she had seen earlier, or any other potential Jarod-in-disguise. Her attention was caught by a group practicing their routine on a cable stretched a mere ten feet or so off the ground. Beneath them was an inflated bag in case anyone fell, but the group seemed to be in competent control of their balance.
At the back was a man in a spandex jumpsuit that showed off his physique nicely. His eyes were trained on a pair of women in matching spandex, who were perched at the top of a twelve foot pole, balanced on the forehead of the man below them, seated on a bicycle moving slowly across the cable. The man on the bike carried another long pole across the small of his back to help him balance, but all eyes were on the women.
As they reached the far end of the cable, one of them began the precarious climb down to the support man's shoulders, onto the bicycle and then onto the cable behind the bicycle. The other woman reached for a hanging rope from a taller pole and easily slid down to the platform while the man on the bicycle removed the pole with panache and handed it to the woman. A scattering of applause went up around them, and she saw the support man smile beneath his neat blondish-red beard. He caught her eye and offered a gallant salute.
She just smiled and shook her head, then gestured for him to come down.
He dismounted the easy way after handing off the bicycle to one of his teammates. He spread his arms and fell in a graceful arc, flat of his back onto the inflated pillow below him. Rolling off it, he trotted over to her, grinning from ear to ear. His dark eyes were covered with light gray contacts, and she was astounded at the difference in his appearance.
"I hardly recognized you, and I was looking," she assured him. "Looks like you've spent some time at the Big Top, or did I miss my guess? Sebastian directed us to LA, but we didn't find much there. I'm guessing you stayed just long enough to leave an impression, and then headed straight for the Circus Center in San Fran."
"You've learned to anticipate me," Jarod mused thoughtfully. "I'll have to watch that in the future."
She shook her head. "No need. I won't be chasing you for much longer. Will I?"
He sobered. "No. Soon, now, everything will change."
She swallowed hard, and nodded. "I'm ready for it. How's Gabriel?"
A tiny smile smoothed across his lips beneath the strawberry blond mustache. "He's wonderful. He misses you."
She flashed a tight smile up at him. "Same here. Anything else I need to photograph to make this look like a real investigation? Anything of interest to the suspicious?"
He shook his head. "It's all above-board. The illusion is quite real."
"Not just pretending this time, eh, Jarod?"
"Well, yes and no." He guided her around the camp, pointing out things he wanted her to photograph, including circus people with recognizable faces that would show up in the research that would ultimately follow. "I hired in enough genuine talent so we'd look right and pass any cursory tests. I guarantee this will fly."
"Even you can't guarantee that," she shot back quietly. "Genius or no, there are bound to be holes. It'll be up to me to cover them for you. And I can't do that for long."
"We can't be here for long, either. The show, as they say, must go on."
She nodded. He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Gotta go," she told him hurriedly, turning away. The trek back to her car seemed somehow longer than it had going into the campground, but she knew that was just imagination, just the emotional turmoil seeing him again brought up. She put him out of her mind and thought about the circus ruse instead, about how she would report it to the Chairman. When she arrived back at the Centre, she gave the camera to Broots and had him do ID searches on some of the stars, then sent Sam out to do guard duty from the perimeter, watching the circus people ostensibly for any activity reportable to the Triumvirate.
* * * * * * * * *
Three days later, the preliminary report was handed in to the American Triad, assuring them that the circus had, indeed, come to town. There was evidence aplenty to support that claim, and interest in that subject quickly waned. The Centre had more important things to do than stand guard over a bunch of clowns, she told them, and it would be best if they got on with their lives and left the newcomers to their own devices. The officers bought her line completely, and all attention was turned away from the nearby swell in Blue Cove's population when she promised to keep sweepers on duty around the clock on the campground's perimeter.
Miss Parker went home triumphant that night, aching to hear Gabriel's voice on the phone, but she dared not call him. If things went well, she'd be seeing him soon enough. And if they didn't, she didn't want to upset him with false promises.
She made herself a cup of chamomile tea sweetened with just a touch of honey, and carried it to the sofa in the living room. Setting the saucer onto a nearby table, she bent down to take off her boots and heard a noise behind her. Getting to her feet as she turned, she found a tall brunette man coming out of her bedroom, and heaved a great sigh of relief.
"Jarod, if I asked you not to do that, would you?"
"What? Sneak up on you?" he grinned. "I didn't exactly want to make my presence known. And I had to make sure you were alone before I presented myself to you."
"Why do I even ask?" she grumbled softly, and returned to her seat on the couch to remove her shoes. "To what do I owe this late night visit?"
"To details," he answered briskly. "I needed to tell you the whole plan, and discuss your part in it. Are you ready, or would you like something to eat first? I took the liberty of making you dinner. It's in the refrigerator, but I can heat it up in the microwave. I'm glad I thought of that little invention."
She shot him a glare, irritated with his glibness. "This is hardly the time for levity," she snapped.
He shrugged off her grouchiness and smiled warmly. "I wasn't joking. Didn't you know I invented the microwave?" He shook his head. "One of these days, we'll have to talk about the things I came up with that I'm proud of. But not now. Hot dogs with my special homemade chili await." He gave a dramatic gesture toward the kitchen with both hands.
She groaned with pleasure as she wiggled her toes, sans boots, and let her feet relax. "I'll find something on my own, thanks." She got up and headed into the kitchen.
He fought her playfully at the refrigerator door, trying to keep her from getting out the salad she wanted, insisting she at least try what he had cooked for her. In the end, he won and she was laughing, and they teased each other while he regaled her with tales of the circus, his new friends and the child they shared. She asked questions, and before long she found herself indulging in the most delicious meal she'd ever eaten, spiced just right. And then, as she ate her second helping of chili, he began to talk about Catherine's plan in earnest, and it was a long time before she spoke again.
Jarod had put a lot of thought into it, she knew. It had every chance of success, but she didn't know yet how far her own power reached, and that was a major question that would need to be answered. There were things she couldn't ask of all her people, but those she trusted had to know what to expect. Without those answers, things could go very badly for them, and they both knew it.
It was late when they finished talking, and she walked him to her back door, just off the kitchen. He had his arm around her shoulders, and hers was around his waist. It had been a good night, a good visit. She had enjoyed herself, with the walls she kept so strong every moment of her waking life now bending like fading flower petals. It felt good to be with him, to enjoy this unhurried space, and she looked forward to a time when they would be able to spend time together with Gabriel. For a moment, she could dream of a future with him close, a constant part of her life.
But they weren't there yet. She couldn't afford to be too comfortable with him, and as she stood on the doorstep, he bent down to kiss her goodbye. She gave him her cheek, instead of her lips.
And then he encircled her with his arms and just held her close.
The next thing she knew, he had disappeared out the door into darkness, vanished from sight, as if he had never been there at all.
She loved him, and he loved her. She wanted that promise of a future with him. But as she let herself dream, walking toward her bedroom, she felt that nagging little intuition inside that told her it couldn't be. She remembered Faith's eyes, standing in her own living room when Sydney had been ill, and knew what she had to do.
Jarod had given her Tommy as an act of selfless love. Now it was her turn to set aside what she wanted for someone else. Faith had no one aside from herself, Jarod and Angelo. This was the right thing to do, this offer of happiness to someone who had none.
It was then that she finally understood what her inner sense had been trying to tell her. This gift wasn't for Jarod at all.
It was for her sister.