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Friday, 17th May 2002
Trader Vic's Emporium and Campground
Rural Blue Cove

"Can we talk?"

Jarod recognized the troubled voice on his cell phone instantly. "What do you want, Yuri?"

"You know what I want, bro. You know what I'm feeling inside."

Jarod had been waiting for this. There had been no word of any additional killings, not since Kruger. Not since Emily ran away from him, after discovering who he was. "I can't help you. You asked for the dance. Now you have to pay the band."

For a moment, there was silence. "I'm ready to do that, Jarod. I was wrong. Maybe not about everything, but I made mistakes. I'll admit to that."

"You killed people, Yuri!"

"So have you."

That stung, and for a moment, Jarod was speechless. "I never committed cold-blooded murder."

"I don't want to argue semantics. I don't want to argue, period. Please, Jarod. Just tell me where she is. I need to see her." There was need in his voice, bordering on desperation.

"She's afraid of you."

"Emily's safe with me. I'd never hurt her," Yuri protested. He hesitated, his tone softening, pleading. "I'm in love with her, Jarod."

He felt his heart twist up inside of him, too aware of how both his sister and this man were hurting. He gripped the phone, searching for the right words to say.

"I know what you're planning, bro."

"I'm not your brother."

Yuri chuckled. "Sure you are. All the Centre's children are bonded by common suffering, blood relations or no." He sighed. "I want to be there when it goes down. Put me on point if you want. I just… I just want to see Emily one more time before I go."

"And if you make it out alive, then what?" Jarod knew Yuri would keep his word. He just wasn't sure he could trust which side Yuri would be on when it mattered.

"Then it'll be for you and yours to decide. I'll abide by whatever decision that court hands down, but no other. Only people who have been where we were can judge me." There was sincerity behind the words, spoken softly, with great feeling.

Jarod sighed. He considered, weighing all the different options. "Give me a little time to think about it."

"We don't have much left," Yuri reminded him.

"I know." Jarod's throat closed up. He didn't want to think about that, about how it might end. But that was exactly the sort of thing he did best. He had seen visions of his own body lying in a pool of blood inside the Centre, calculated the odds, and knew this might well be the last good thing he did. But there were far too many other things needing to be done before everything hit the fan.

And now, there was one more wrinkle to iron out, for his sister and Yuri.

A Pretender's work, it seemed, was never done. Maybe that would help to keep him alive.

The Centre
SIS

Morgan Parker read the email, her mouth dropping open in disbelief. She grabbed her cell phone out of her purse, rather than use the company telephone, and headed straight for the elevator. Once she was outside with the wind in her hair and no one nearby to overhear, she dialed the number.

"Peter, did you see?" she asked as soon as he answered.

"I can't believe it! The timing--"

"I know," she interrupted. "Looks like Yuri did some good after all. We don't have to worry about Boer City, now."

"Are you ready?" he asked her gently. "Everything's set?"

She sighed, her chest tightening. She started to pace along the green beside the driveway in front of the main entrance. "Yes. Soon. How about you?"

"Right on schedule." He cleared his throat. "Be careful, Morgan. My heart's in your pocket, you know."

"Yeah. It's squishy," she teased, and felt him smile through the phone. "I'll meet you in Paris in a week, Peter. You'd better be there."

"I wouldn't dream of standing you up," he promised.

"Smart man." She hesitated. "Till Paris."

"Till Paris."

She folded the phone up and trudged back to her office. During the few minutes her private phone call had taken, a paper appeared on her desk. She skimmed through the official wording, taking note instantly that it was a sanction, looking for the name.

Jock Voorhees.

Then she saw the signatures at the bottom. The Chairman's was second, not first. The only other signature was from Lucian Bruce.

Broots had told her about this mysterious man, and the tech's inability to dig up anything regarding his identity. She had him continue the search and discovered that the Centre was privately owned, every branch set up by the Bruce family generations earlier. While the Chairman and the Triumvirate were the governing body of the corporation, the ultimate power still lay with the last of the family line. No one knew who Lucian was, what he looked like or where he lived. He could be anyone…

But as she studied the signature, she was certain she recognized the handwriting.

Where had she seen it before?

Quickly, she dug through the papers on her desk, certain she had seen that distinctive "B" only moments earlier. A scrap of notepaper in one of the folders caught her eye, and she snatched it out, comparing the writing.

Broots,
Let me know when you have a moment to go over the security details on the Matrix Project. Mr. Lyle seems to want you to handle this personally. -- Valentine

The distinctive capitals were almost identical.

Valentine was Lucian Bruce!

She sat down hard in her chair, her eyes wide as she stared at the sanction.

Valentine was a low-level security goon. He was a tech of moderate capabilities. He was an unambitious underling, basking in the success of his boss, a known serial killer. How could he be the owner of The Centre? Why wouldn't he want the Chairmanship for himself?

As she thought about it, she knew. He wasn't interested in the power or the prestige. He wanted to hear all the secrets, to know where all the skeletons were in every closet. Executives were never privy to the juiciest gossip… but in the king's palace, the maids and kitchen servants knew everything that happened. It was a game to him.

That's all. Just a game.

And carrying all that power in his back pocket left him completely bulletproof. No one could touch him, and he knew it.

Her head swam. She put her elbow onto the desk and leaned her forehead into her hand, studying the sanction. Voorhees had abandoned his duties as senior officer at The Pretoriat and dispensed with Centre property in an unsatisfactory manner, which would result in the loss of billions of dollars in revenue. The Triumvirate wanted him dead, to set an example to others who might come after him, as they rebuilt the resources that had been lost in South Africa.

If she implemented the sanction, Voorhees would be dead before nightfall. But if she waited…

The damage had already been done. The horse was gone, and there was no need to close the barn door right then. She would let the sanction sit, buried in the pile of papers on her desk, until she was forced to act on it. And by the time anyone noticed that Voorhees was still alive, it would be too late.

She tucked the note to Broots back into the folder where she had found it and slipped the sanction into the stack, third item from the top, under more pressing items.

It would wait, she would argue. And Voorhees would live a little longer.


Saturday, 18th May 2002
Ammon House
Upstate New York

Dead things were everywhere, looking at him, and laughing. They had always been so quiet before, offering him a peace that the living could not. He had always loved dead things.

Hadn't he?

Cox sat in the corner of the upstairs bedroom, his eyes wide in disbelief and terror. He had tried to escape, but the house wouldn't let him out. Windows and doors resisted his attempts to open them, except for the ones that would allow him to change rooms in the interior of the house. It would let him go anywhere he wanted, as long as he didn't leave.

For three days now he hadn't slept. For three days they had haunted him, all the people he had watched expire with such pleasure. Some of them visited their hatred on him and left, but others chose to stay.

The worst was Sun-Chai. He remembered what he and Valentine had done with her. She had been very still when he used her, because that was the way he liked it. She had been unconscious, unaware what he did. But she knew, somewhere in her mind, what was happening. She knew, and she brought it all back to him in that terrible house.

He kept telling himself that it wasn't possible, that once life was gone, it was over. There was no coming back. But Ammon House showed him proof that his judgment was in error.

Sun-Chai had taken his clothes. She had tied him to the bed and done unspeakable things to him. And when he had wept like an infant and begged her for mercy, she had let him go. Now she paced solemnly back and forth beside the bloodied bed, in a room crowded with taxidermied animals that blinked and licked their chops as they watched him with their dead, glass eyes.

He waited, trembling in the corner, and tried to tell himself it wasn't real. None of it was real. It was just hallucinations.

The house laughed.

It had a feminine sound, light and happy with his pain.

Sun-Chai watched him as she paced, smiling with her dark eyes. "I could play with you like this for a long time," she assured him. "I like it. Don't you?"

"No," he begged breathlessly. "No more. Please. No more."

She stepped toward him, and the dead animals slid out of the way on their pedestals. "I know what you need," she teased, squatting down in front of him. "A new playmate. You'll like her, I promise. She's been waiting to see you for a long time."

Cox buried his face in his hands, too terrified to look.

"I'm waiting," said a softly feminine voice, tinged with that husky, laryngitis hoarseness that most men found so sexy. "C'mon, didn't you miss me? Haven't you thought about what you did the last time we were together? I know you have. I know you enjoyed it. You got to kill me with your own hands, after all."

He knew who she was without looking. He would see curly red hair and warm brown eyes if he looked up at her. He would see her smiling down at him, waiting for her turn to torture him.

Cox screamed. He flailed out with his arms and pushed himself to his feet, lunging for the first open space he could see, and ran out of the room. He couldn't give them the satisfaction of more, couldn't take the sight of Zoe's pretty face while she hurt him. Into the kitchen he ran, and jerked the power cord from the monitoring equipment Jarod had left behind from his previous visit. He yanked it free and dashed into the living room for another one, then into the great room, heading for the stairs.

The banister was old, but still sturdy. He tied one end of the cord securely around several of the railings and tossed the remaining length over the side. From the kitchen he brought a chair and stood on it while he tied a slipknot on the dangling end of the power cords, and adjusted the length.

"What are you doing, Doctor?" Zoe demanded from above him on the landing. She looked angry.

That wasn't good.

His palms were sweating. "Leave me alone!" he shouted up to her, just as Sun-Chai joined her friend upstairs.

"Hey, don't leave me out," Brigitte called and materialized beside them with a bright grin. "He may not have done me in personally, but he did have a hand in it. I want to play, too." She licked her lollipop, her eyes gleaming with anticipation. "And I really know how to make him scream."

Cox remembered the scene of Brigitte's death, Miss Parker bending over the woman's body, blood up to her elbows and liberally splashed all over her chic clothes as she delivered the designer baby that Cox had personally implanted.

He hurried now, testing the strength of the banisters with a few strong tugs. They were coming for him, the three women ambling slowly down the stairs, chatting amiably among themselves as if he wasn't there, discussing what they were going to do to him, and what he had done to them. Panic set in as he looped the cord around his neck, setting the knot at just the right place to snap his neck and make his death all but painless. With one foot against the back of the chair, he gave it a shove and toppled it out from under him.

The cord slipped on his sweaty skin and twisted around to the front of his neck, rather than the back. He clutched at it, trying to adjust his weight against it, but his body was heavy and he had no leverage and the cord was stretched tight. It would be slow and agonizing now, as he died. It would take hours, and the women gathered around his feet to watch, and to talk, and to glory in their triumph over him.

Sunday, 19th May 2002
Our Lady of Refuge Convent

Emily strolled through the grass, warmed by the sunshine on her bare shoulders. She was worried. Though her mother had been improving steadily, she still slept a great deal, and when she was awake, she asked for Jarod. Emily knew something was going on, and that it was important, but her brother had avoided sharing any information. He promised to come in the next few days, but something gnawed at her insides, warning her that it might not happen as she had been promised.

The sound of a car pulling into the main driveway at the convent caught her ear, and with a thump of excitement in her chest, she hurried toward it, hoping it would be her brother. The racy lines of the car didn't look like something Jarod would pick for routine transportation, and as soon as the driver got out, her hopes were dashed. She stood rooted to the lawn, unable to move, to hide, or to run.

It was Yuri. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, his short dark hair spiked on top as he always wore it. Her heart twisted, knowing what he was, but unable to avoid feeling the pull of attraction to him, the gentle warmth of how much she cared for him reminding her that there was good in him, too.

With tears in her eyes, she waited for him there. He jogged toward her, not smiling, his face grave. She wondered briefly who he had killed recently, and then chastised herself for even thinking such things. But it was true. She knew he had murdered people, and he had enjoyed it.

How could she love someone like that?

He stopped ten feet away, and nervously stuffed his fingers into his pants pockets. "I'm sorry, Em," he began. "I know what you must think of me, and you're right." He swallowed hard, and nodded, casting his guilty gaze to the ground. "I'm what the Centre made me. Life and death serve a purpose, and I'm not averse to doing what's necessary, what others can't bring themselves to do."

"There are always other ways," she heard herself mumble. "You don't have to kill people…"

"Maybe not," he agreed, meeting her eyes. "I may have made some mistakes along the way. I thought I was doing the right thing, and now I'm ready to pay for it. But I can't turn myself in just yet. Not without absolution."

Her eyes filled with tears and spilled over. She glanced toward the nearby church. "There's a priest in there," she informed him softly.

"I need it from you," he told her, his voice a mere whisper, filled with emotion. He told her how he got the scars on his back, and what Raines had done to him. He told her how they got rid of him, hoping the cold and the torture would kill him. And he explained how she had changed him with her love. "Forgive me, Emily. Please. I can't go on without… without knowing -- h-how you feel. About me. Now, that you know the truth. All of it, like I promised."

She shook her head, tears blinding her, the lump in her throat so large she could hardly breathe. Suddenly, his hands were on her, gently grasping her by the upper arms, his body so near she could feel the warmth, smell the wonderful scent that was uniquely his. She loved him. She had no choice in that. But he was still a murderer, a monster the Centre had created from unbearable pain.

"I can't," she sobbed. Jerking free, she turned on her heel and ran blindly toward the shelter of the white stone buildings, screaming back over her shoulder. "Just go away!"

By the time she reached the doorway, she knew he wasn't following her. Hiding in the shadows there, she turned and wiped her eyes enough to make out his shape as he walked, head down and shoulders hunched in defeat, back to his car. Moments later he was peeling out of the parking lot to the squeal of burning rubber in the quiet afternoon.

She would never see him again, she was sure of that. But the knowledge of what he was would eat at her for the rest of her life. He wasn't responsible for how he was programmed. She knew that after talking with Jarod about him earlier. The Centre was good at destroying lives, as they had done with her late brother, Kyle. Yuri was just another innocent casualty. But he still had a choice, and the ones he had made pushed her out of his arms forever.

It took her a while to calm down, and when she thought she could manage, she headed for her mother's room. A feeling of incredible dread took hold of her then, and she knew that he had left to do something drastic. She reached for her cell phone to try to call him, to talk him out of whatever he had planned, but all she got was his voice mail.

She'd had an opportunity to save lives, and missed it. The next blood he spilled would be on her hands as well, unless she found a way to stop him. Emily headed to her own room, pacing the floor while she put herself in his shoes, trying to figure out what he would do next.

She was good at that sort of thing. It ran in the family, after all.

Monday 20th May 2002
8:37 am EST
Tower Office of Chief Administrator, Mr. Lyle

"Bad news, boss," Valentine droned as he settled into the guest chair in the Tower office. "I sent a sweeper team to check in on Cox at that new place he inherited. Looks like you won't be getting any more brilliant work from him."

Lyle glanced up sharply. "Why, is he dead?"

Valentine pressed his lips together thoughtfully. "Apparently, he hanged himself, but we've got our forensics people checking it out. Seems Jarod was there at one time…" He grinned. "Maybe your errant Pretender's developed a taste for blood."

Lyle swallowed hard, remembering Jarod's late girlfriend. "Make sure you find out if Jarod had a hand in it. I want to know." He cleared his throat nervously. "He's been sending little annoyances to Cox ever since he killed Zoe. If he's turning his attention to me for my part in that, I want to know beforehand."

"Sure thing, boss," Valentine assured him calmly. "I thought I might drive out there and take a look myself, maybe later in the week. If that's okay with you."

"As long as I'm covered, that's fine." An idea popped into his head, and his consternation vanished. His eyes narrowed as he gazed at his sweeper. "You know, since Cox is gone now, that leaves all his projects up for grabs. Does anybody else know yet?"

Valentine shook his head. "Probably just you and the Chairman."

"Then I'd better get to Cox's office before the vultures swoop down. Come on." He led the way, eyeing people as he strode past, looking for signs of disquiet, but all seemed perfectly normal. He locked himself in, sending Valentine off on another mission, and rubbed his hands with glee. After perusing some of the files, he congratulated himself on his impending rise to the final seat of power. With all this under his control, Lyle knew that nothing was out of his reach. He could depose his father and clean house in short order, a few days at most.

It felt wonderful. He thought he would burst with the unbridled joy those discoveries brought him. His body trembled, excited now beyond his control. He wanted to celebrate, to do something so wild, so shocking that no one in that place would ever dare to challenge him, once he had taken control.

Gathering as many of the important files as he could carry, he phoned the Security Chief's office and ordered two sweepers posted outside the door to prevent entry by anyone but himself. Once they were at their stations, he carried the files to his office and locked them safely away. He could hardly control himself, couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

It was time to make his statement of absolute power. Now all he needed was the most important element of the ritual. He had seen a new face in the secretarial pool, and after he had the room set up below, he would hunt her down wherever she was in the building, pick her up in his arms and carry her there.

He wanted windows in the room. He wanted people to see his handiwork, when he was done. He wanted them to know what he was, so they would never disobey.

Fear was the key to absolute power. And he owned them both. They were gifts from his father, from Raines, and from the Centre. And soon, he would wield them like royal scepters over his community of abject slaves.

Monday 9:04 am EST
SIS
Miss Parker's office

She glanced up at the knock on her door, less than thrilled to see Valentine standing there.

"I guess you've heard about your esteemed colleague, Dr. Cox," he announced.

"What a shame," she deadpanned. "He'll be so missed around this place." She shuffled some papers across her blotter, saved and closed a couple of files on her laptop, and straightened as he came to stand on the far side of her desk.

"He was a smart man. Made progress in a lot of areas. His death will certainly hurt the company finances."

She glanced at him, and strolled slowly around the desk, leaning back against it and crossing her arms. "That would affect you more than anyone, wouldn't it, Lucian?" she asked quietly.

Shock registered on his face, and then melted into pleasure. He sauntered closer, hands in his trouser pockets, and offered her a boyishly charming smile. "Now, see, that's what I really like in a woman. Someone who can present me a proper challenge."

She glared at him down her elegant nose. "Oh, you have no idea what kind of a challenge I really am, Mr. Bruce. But I'll be happy to demonstrate."

He stepped toward her then, forcefully. He pushed himself between her knees and lifted her backward onto the desk, his hands cupping her buttocks and squeezing as he stared intently into her eyes.

For a moment she though he was going to try to rape her right there on the desk, but then he backed away slightly, pulled his hands out from beneath her, and smiled.

"You are exactly what I want, Miss Parker," he told her huskily. "The kind of woman who's always just out of reach. But no one else can know who I really am. That sort of makes you a liability, now, doesn't it?"

Her whole body was tingling with fear and surprise. She hadn't expected this from him, and her fingers moved slowly from behind her, where she had caught herself to keep her balance, toward the letter opener in the pencil holder near her right hip. She couldn't look at it, or the movement would give her intent away, so she felt for it as he stared her down, desperate for a weapon to use against him.

"Not necessarily," she said with an inviting half smile, playing him for time. "I could be quite an ally… Valentine."

He straightened, pressing himself against her firmly, his arms drawing her closer still. "You could," he agreed. He chuckled darkly. "Or you could be an asp in my figs. I'm not sure which you are yet." He smiled and leaned down for a kiss.

He was surprisingly good at it, but kept his eyes open, just as she did. Her fingers closed over the metal dagger and she readied it to strike, drawing her hand onto her thigh and pointing the blunt tip toward his pants. If he tried anything, she'd castrate him on the spot.

"I know what you have in your hand," he informed her as he pulled slightly away. His hands stroked up her back, across her shoulders, and cupped her face gently. "And if you think you should use that on me, you might want to reconsider. I want you willing, Morgan. I want you to come to me." He kissed her again, hungrily, his eyes closed this time, and pulled her away from his mouth with a handful of her hair. "And I always get what I want."

Like lightning, he struck out at her, sidestepping as she jabbed at him, controlling her with her hair. He grasped her wrist and twisted the letter opener out of her grasp, letting it fall to the carpeted floor. He pushed her sideways across the desk, holding her face down against the blotter while he reached up under her skirt and grabbed her panties. It took him a moment to get them off, but the material ripped with a satisfying sound and came away in his hand.

He backed away and held them up like a trophy.

She sat up, pulling her skirt down, and grabbed a pen from the writing set on her desk. She was mortified, terrified, and mad as hell that he had manhandled her so easily. She wanted to kill him.

He dangled her underwear in front of him for a moment, then tucked the bit of red satin into his jacket pocket with a knowing grin. "You'll come to me," he promised darkly. "I know all your secrets, Morgan. I know what makes you bleed, who you love… where they live…"

"In your dreams," she snarled back, gripping the pen like a dagger. There was no way he was going to get the better of her now that she was ready. He'd had the advantage of surprise earlier, and that had worked in his favor. But she wouldn't let him past her twice.

"I have big dreams, beautiful," he assured her. "You're already a part of that, whether you like it or not. So's your whole family, including your… little brother and his baby pals. They're the Master Race, you know. One day, they'll be gods." He took a step toward the door. "I will get them back, Morgan. My organization reaches much farther than you realize."

Fear stabbed at her heart again, and she wondered if Gabriel was in danger. Was he just playing mind games with her, or was he telling the truth? All she needed was a few more hours, and the tables would be turned forever.

"We'll see," she promised. "But don't count on getting what you want from me."

He retrieved her panties from his pocket and gave them a sensual sniff, his eyes half closing in pleasure. "I already have, Miss Parker," he announced surely. "You just don't know it yet."

He strolled casually out of her office, twirling his prize around one finger, making sure he ducked into Broots' office long enough to show them off.

Humiliated, she wondered if he had heard their exchange, and decided she didn't want to know for sure.

"Just a little while longer," she murmured aloud, trying to comfort herself with that promise. "Please, God, keep my baby safe."

But the memory of Valentine's face, of the bottomless blackness yawning behind his dark eyes, would not go away.

On to Act II

 
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