"Where are you taking me?" the young man slurred. He pitched
sideways in the seat as the car turned a sharp corner. Narrow plastic
restraints cut into his wrists and ankles, and as he struggled to work
one hand free, he could feel the sticky dampness of his blood trickling
onto his palms.
He didn't like feeling so helpless, and the hood over his head intensified
that, pushing him deeper into fear.
"Just a little farther, Yuri," Willie announced from somewhere
Yuri jerked impatiently against the cuffs, seething with pain, edging
nearer to panic. "Where are you taking me?" he demanded again.
He leaned forward in his seat and started to work his hands underneath
him, hoping if he was quick enough, he could get them out from behind
"Not so fast!" Willie snapped, and planted his foot in the
middle of Yuri's chest, shoving him hard against the seat.
Yuri yelped with pain, drawing his hands behind his back once more. "You
broke my wrist!" he cried, gasping with agony now, seeking some position
that would offer a little relief from the white-hot lightning shooting
up to his shoulder and down his fingers.
"You should know better than to try to make a move on me, Yuri,"
Willie reminded him evenly. "I'm not as stupid as you think I am."
Yuri sat still, paralyzed with pain, panting against the seat. "I
never said you were stupid, Willie," he ground out between clenched
"Never in so many words," Willie agreed. "That's not your
style." He chuckled softly. "Would you like a little something
for the pain, Genius Boy?"
"Am I not doped up enough for you?" Yuri closed his eyes. He
couldn't see anything with that hood over his head anyway.
"Now, you know I'd prefer to load you up with some happy drugs,
but I'm under orders. Just enough to get the job done, they said."
A sharp prick in his thigh made Yuri jump, but he didn't fight it. They
weren't going to kill him outright, which was a surprise in itself. But
he didn't know for sure what they were planning, either, and that was
The drugs worked quickly. His wrist still hurt, but he didn't care much
anymore. All he wanted right then was to sleep. His head nodded forward
and he let consciousness slip away.
Some time later, Yuri wasn't sure how long, he heard Willie call out
to the driver, "This is far enough." The limousine slowed but
did not stop.
Yuri heard the door to his right open, and struggled to force himself
completely awake. Then Willie grabbed hold of Yuri's clothes and flung
him out of the car. He landed on something cold and wet, soft enough to
cushion his fall as he rolled. The momentum sent him far from the road,
bashing his body at last into a tree.
Thrown away like so much garbage, Yuri fought to maintain consciousness.
He refused to feel sorry for himself. He refused to be beaten, especially
It took him ten long, painful minutes to work his hands out from behind
his back. As soon as he could manage, he pulled the hood off and checked
his surroundings. As he suspected, he was out in the middle of nowhere.
He would have to free himself from his bonds and find shelter, food and
supplies to treat his injuries. He would need time to heal, time to discover
all the things the Centre had kept from him.
But unless he found help soon, he knew that his injuries and the drugs
they had given him would render him unconscious, and exposure to the elements
would kill him off in a matter of hours. Perhaps that was what they intended,
to let him die alone in the world he had demanded to see. What a waste
that would be. What a tragedy.
Yuri laughed softly into the cold air. That was exactly Centre protocol.
A sound made him look up. Down the road a car was approaching. It offered
him a chance, and he took it. Struggling to his feet, he stumbled toward
the road. The headlights caught him full in the face, and he shouted for
help. The motorist slowed, then stopped. Yuri lurched forward, landing
on the pavement on his knees, right in front of the oncoming car.
"Thank God!" he wailed. "I'm saved!"
A lone man got out and stood inside the shelter of the open door, hesitant
to come near.
"Are you all right?" the fellow asked, clutching his coat around
him tighter against the cold.
"Help me!" Yuri cried pitifully. "Some men
robbed me, drugged me
" He made a feeble effort to get to his
feet again, lifting his bound hands into the bright beams of the headlights.
"They tied me up
left me out here to die."
The man swore softly and took a step out onto the road. He was coming
closer, coming to help.
"Ribs broken," Yuri panted. "And my right wrist. Please,
help me. Don't let me die."
"I'll get you to a hospital, quick as I can," the man assured
him. He came to Yuri's side and drew a small folding knife from his pocket.
With a quick swipe, he sliced through the bonds and gingerly helped Yuri
to his feet. "I'm Al. Al Jergens. Don't worry. I'll help you, pal.
What's your name?"
"Yuri. I can't thank you enough."
"No thanks necessary, Yuri. The world's a dangerous place. I'm just
glad I found you before you froze to death."
"Yeah. Me, too." Yuri fell heavily onto the car seat and slumped
against the door after his rescuer shut it. The car was warm, and soft
music was playing, the sound of a harp interspersed with rolling thunder.
Presently a womans voice began a wordless tune that helped him to
relax a little. She sounded like an angel.
Whos singing? he whispered, not wanting to break the
spell the music was creating for him, the illusion of safety and peace.
Loreena McKennitt, Al replied. The poems by William
Yuri listened. Presently a dignified mans voice began to recite
a poem that was a terrifying narrative of some great apocalypse. He smiled
as he listened.
O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue
To drown the throat of war! - When the senses
Are shaken, and the soul is driven to madness,
Who can stand? When the souls of the oppressed
Fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the
Throne of God, when the frowns of his countenance
Drive the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle,
And sails rejoicing in the flood of Death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire,
And fiends of Hell rejoice upon the slain,
O who can stand? O who hath caused this?
O who can answer at the throne of God?
The Kings and Nobles of the Land have done it!
Hear it not, Heaven, thy Ministers have done it!
Yes, he thought to himself, struggling to keep himself composed against
the pain. Those in charge were responsible for a great deal of destruction,
and now it was time for them to reap the bounty of their sins.
The whirlwind of fury that comes from the Throne of God
Raines had told him once that Yuri meant flame of Jehovah.
It was supposed to prompt him to further destruction, and for a time it
had. But now, listening to that poem, it began to have a different meaning,
one that called him to a mission of epic proportions.
Just before he slipped into unconsciousness, he realized he still held
the hood that had covered his head. He decided to keep that little bit
of fabric. It just might come in handy later on.
* * * * * * * * *
New York City
He walked into the Wall Street high-rise, smiling as he gazed at the
elegant appointments. Marble accented with gleaming brass and polished
steel were everywhere. The people who passed by him were all dressed in
designer clothes, wafting fragrances as individual as their faces. He
inhaled, chuckling softly to himself.
The scent of power was strong in that place.
It was exactly where he belonged, and it had taken a great deal of time
and patience to get there. He rubbed his palms together in anticipation.
"Time to go to work," he said aloud, to no one at all.
A pretty woman caught his eye, and he winked at her, flashing a blinding
smile. She was dressed to kill all the way down to her red FM pumps, and
he knew opportunity when he saw it. He followed her into the elevator,
taking note of small details that would tell him things about her. She
would think that he knew her from somewhere, and that would help him get
the information she -- or someone like her -- could give him.
Yuri was on his way.
It felt good to finally be free. He had spent his recuperation time well,
learning about all that he had been denied in his life. The year after
that had been spent putting the pieces into place, setting events in motion,
building up to this. But there was still a great deal of lost time to
make up for -- 25 years' worth of retribution added up after a while.
Yuri was, above all things, a patient man, and he was good with people.
With a face like his and a little charm, he could get them to do anything
he wanted. And when congenial persuasion didn't work, he knew other ways
to get the job done. He was always very creative with that.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod stared at the computer screen, frowning. His chin rested on his
left fist, stacked on his right, propped on the table. He contemplated
the message, wondering about its significance. He had intercepted it in
a routine search for information in Centre files, though this wasn't in
the sector he had been investigating. It had popped up in answer to an
encrypted search he had instigated, which meant that someone had programmed
it to respond to this type of inquiries from outside sources -- namely,
Someone in the Centre wanted him to act on the message. But who? And
His eyes roamed over the text, and its simple directive.
Someone inside the Centre wanted him to locate Yuri. But who was he?
Had he escaped from the Centre as well? Who wanted him found, and why?
Jarod straightened and reached for the track ball on his laptop.
He scrolled the mouse further and clicked on a URL to a news website.
That story had been about a Fortune 500 CEO who had died in a car crash
as an apparent suicide, leaving his company in chaos. Stocks were plummeting
and all of Wall Street was shaken. Something about the story tugged at
Jarods consciousness. But if he swallowed the bait and it was the
set-up it seemed, he would be walking straight into a trap. After all,
MacCaffrey Enterprises included a drug research organization, technology
development and bioscience engineering. Just the sort of businesses that
might have profited from Centre research - from Jarods own research,
when he had been the Centres obedient slave.
But without knowing who had sent the information, all of it was highly
suspect and he decided not to make any hasty assumptions.
He busied himself with working on his stock portfolio to structure the
proper fortune. He knew enough about finance to fit in anywhere on the
Street. What he needed now was a reputation, and that would take a little
time to build.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker's Office, SIS
Miss Parker opened her eyes to a startlingly close view of Broots
nostrils directly above her. Jarring as that vision was, it helped her
grasp that she was lying on the floor in his arms. He was babbling her
name and patting her face with sweaty palms.
With a groan, she pushed away from him, forcing herself into an upright
position. Her head was still spinning, but at least she wasnt looking
up anyones nose. She was, however, incredibly nauseous and thought
she might need to get to her bathroom posthaste.
Help me up, Broots, and mute the volume, she snarled.
Miss Parker, thats the second time youve fainted this
week, he observed breathlessly. Maybe you should see a doctor.
I dont need a doctor. I need a vacation.
Im calling Sydney. Broots helped her toward the bathroom
attached to her office, and then went to her desk phone.
By the time she emerged, shaking and pale, the Belgian was there, bearing
a tea tray complete with a small amount of fruit and cheese in addition
to the biscuits and fragrant brew of Darjeeling, made just the way she
She sat wearily in her chair and picked up the cup with trembling hands.
Thanks, she murmured softly, and took a sip.
You should take better care of yourself, Sydney admonished.
No ones seen you in the cafeteria and I know you dont
bring your lunch. Youre also not a breakfast person, so Ive
been wondering since your last fainting spell whether or not youre
She took a bite of shortbread cookie and chewed slowly. Thats
my problem, not yours, she grumbled.
You have ulcers, he reminded her. You need to eat regular
Even her glare didnt have the usual fire in it, just a weary warning.
I can take care of myself, Syd.
You dont seem to be doing a very good job of it, if you ask
me, Broots chimed in.
No one asked you, she snapped. Unless she changed the subject,
they were not going to leave her alone. But the food did taste good, and
they were right. She did need to start looking after herself better. That
which does not kill us, makes us stronger, she reminded herself. Finishing
the cookie, she picked up a grape and threw it at Broots, who had wandered
away and was examining some papers she had left out on her coffee table.
Broots! she called, once she had his attention. What
have you been able to dig up on those files?
Which files, Miss Parker?
Of course, her mouth was full. Sometimes she wondered if he had donated
his brain to science before he was finished using it. Swallowing prematurely,
she sputtered and gulped a mouthful of hot tea to wash down the cheese
sticking in her throat, and burned her tongue.
Blue and Yellow, she reminded him. We know the completed
list of the Red and Yellow Files, but-
I do, she clarified. And aside from Ethan, Kyle, Faith
and a few others, we have very little on the Blue Files, and Ive
been wondering lately if there may be additional candidates that were
moved into other programs. Have you been able to find anything else?
He hurried to her desk and leaned over it, whispering conspiratorially,
I have a complete list of project names for the Blue Files, but
Still, its progress, Sydney assured them. Now
that we have the project names, we can begin looking for references to
Get me the list, Parker ordered. Now would be
Broots pulled a piece of paper out of his trouser pocket. It was folded,
crumpled and stained, and there were notes scrawled on the top layer.
He handed it to her, trying to unfold it, but she snatched it out of his
hand before he could finish.
Looking Glass. That was Faith.
Mirage was Ethan.
Zeus, Thor, Vulcan, Shiva and Chimera were next, followed by Gemini, Jarods
Five of the Blue Files left to identify. One of them she was sure would
probably be Kyle, another was undoubtedly Sun-Chai, but the rest could
be any of the Centres creations.
She sighed. "Broots, you're the best technogeek we have. I want
you to set up a secured database in the system that nobody but you can
get to. Understand? And don't use Debbie as your password again, okay,
"Sure, Miss Parker, but--"
"Put everything into it that we discover. I want comprehensive data
for all the investigations we've made so far into Centre business, including
the Red, Blue and Yellow files. I'll fill in the blanks for you once you
have it set up. Everything else, you plug in as we come across the information."
"Are you sure you want to do that, Miss Parker?" Sydney asked
hesitantly. "Putting all that data into a single repository could
be exceedingly dangerous."
Parker fixed him with a glare. "If anybody in this company can break
down Broots' best firewall, then we deserve to get caught," she snapped.
Broots straightened, and smiled proudly. "Gee, thanks, Miss Parker."
Her eyes narrowed dangerously at him. "Don't misplace my faith in
you," she growled.
He paled. "Uh, no. I would never do that."
Lips pressed tightly together, she turned away.
"Um, Miss Parker?"
Broots flinched at the ice in her tone. She was upset about something;
that was obvious. But he dared not ask her to explain. She wasn't the
type to cry on his shoulder, or anyone else's. But she did need to know.
"Uh, I found an encrypted message stored in the mainframe security
program. It popped up after an unauthorized search earlier today."
She rounded on him, eyes alert, demanding.
"It said, 'Find Yuri.' Do you know who Yuri is?"
"No, but you already did a search, and you're going to tell me,
aren't you, Broots?"
He wilted slightly, hoping to break the news that he already had the
answers when she asked him to look into it. "Yuri was one of the
last entries into the Pretender project, under Mr. Raines. His records
weren't destroyed in the fire, because they were moved to Archives over
a year and a half ago. He was released from the Centre as being unproductive
after a series of failed simulations."
Broots shook his head. "They couldn't control him. He didn't care
about anything or anyone, so there wasn't any emotional leverage they
could use to get him to cooperate if he didn't want to."
"And, of course, Aurora wasn't finished yet. They weren't even up
to trials at that point."
"But if they dismissed him, why would someone here want him found
now?" asked Sydney.
The tech glanced at Sydney. There was a signed sanction in his
file. I suppose they thought they killed him, and just found out they
Miss Parker pondered. Head down, she slowly paced her office. "Broots,
see if you can figure out who encoded that message, or at least, where
it came from within the Centre. Backtrack it as far as you can. And get
me a copy of that sanction. I want to know who did what, and how they
"I'm already on it." He turned toward her door.
"Broots." She met his gaze steadily. "Who do you think
this message was intended for?"
Broots met Sydneys knowing gaze. All three of them already knew
the answer to that. "Jarod. If he tried to get into Centre records
through any kind of electronic search, the message would activate on his
"So someone wants Jarod to find Yuri. Why?"
The tech went to her desk, minimized the files she had been working on
before their meeting started, and plugged in the information to bring
up the message. Then he scrolled down to the URL for the news page, and
brought it up on the screen as she looked over his shoulder.
"MacCaffrey Enterprises," she mused aloud. "One of our
best clients. I worked with Angus on several occasions when I was still
in Corporate." Her gaze traveled over the news report. "More
than the usual number of casualties on their board, Broots. If Yuri's
"Would the Centre send an assassin to kill off its best client?"
Sydney asked. "It makes more sense to protect them, rather than destroy
Parker glanced up at him. "That's why somebody wants Jarod to go
after Yuri. This smacks of a personal agenda, Sydney. I don't think these
deaths are a result of Centre orders."
"So if Jarod is, indeed, working to solve this mystery and find
Yuri before he can tumble MacCaffrey Enterprises, would your father want
Jarod caught before he finishes this particular job?"
She straightened slowly. It rankled to have that man referred to as her
father, when she knew at last that he wasn't. But that information wasn't
for sharing with even her closest associates in that place. "Maybe
I should go and ask him about that."
"Still want me to find the source of the message, Miss Parker?"
"Leave that to me. I have another bone to pick with him first, and
an errand to run, but after that, I'll get your answer," she shot
back, and strode briskly out of her office.
* * * * * * * * *
New York City
Elan was the newest hotel in Manhattan. It was built on the spot where
a former city landmark had stood, and graced the skyline with sleek modern
lines, all golden glass and brass. Though it had stood in place less than
a year, it had already garnered a worldwide reputation for class and impeccable
service. The concierge at Elan, it was said, could get the residents anything
they wanted. Anything.
The reservation list was booked years in advance, and the suites were
touted as the most expensive in the world.
Jarod hated paying so much for his lodgings when he could use his money
to help others. But this particular Pretend required such high-profile
digs. And with the amount of security in that place, he knew Miss Parker
would not be sniffing on his trail until he was ready for her to appear.
This was, after all, one of the last places in the world that the Centre
would expect him to live.
He nodded his approval as the bell captain finished his tour of the rooms.
"This will do," he assured the man, and slipped a fifty into
the man's gloved hand as he left. The concierge stood near the door, his
hands clasped behind his back, waiting for additional instructions.
Jarod faced him. "My assistant will be arriving in the morning.
Please have additional quarters ready for her when she arrives. Her name
is Jean Destry.
"I'll have everything ready," Martin assured him. "Will
you require a car? Personal protection? A bank liaison?"
"I prefer to drive, Martin. Make the car black, not red. I don't
want to attract attention. And the rest I manage myself."
"Bentley. I prefer to deal with as few people as possible on my
"Of course, sir." Martin bowed slightly. "Will there be
anything else, Mr. Pendleton?"
"Not at the moment. See you in the morning."
He watched the man leave and sighed when the door closed behind him.
Jarod knew all too well how he would be expected to behave, if his portrayal
of a man born to wealth and power were to be believed. It would be tiring,
but he had lived under the yoke of the powerful all his life. It would
be interesting to stand on the other side of the equation for a while.
Jarod sat down at the computer terminal and punched up the hotel's room
service menu. There were selections from their own kitchens as well as
choices from some of the city's premier restaurants. He chose an appropriate
meal that he didn't intend to eat, including an expensive wine, and waited
for his luggage to arrive.
The bell captain escorted Housekeeping up with his bags, and the bevy
of women unpacked his handmade suits, unaware that he had made them himself,
including the painstakingly hand copied labels of an internationally known
Chinese tailor. All his gear except for the Halliburton in which he carried
his DSAs were purchased new, just to make the proper impression on the
denizens of Manhattan. They were sure to notice anything that wasn't genuine,
and only the best would do.
He made a few telephone calls, setting things in motion for the next few
days, and waited for the maids to leave. On their heels came the dinner
staff, presenting his meal with aplomb, set out on the dining table in
front of the massive floor-to-ceiling windows that gave him an eagle's
eye view of the city, and the gaping wound where the twin towers had once
stood. He remembered how the news affected him once he had heard about
the disaster, after his most recent departure from the Centre. He was
still astounded by the depths of hatred that could lead to such horrors,
but he understood. That was one of the great tragedies of his upbringing,
that he could clearly understand the thinking on both sides of the equation,
anticipate and plan countermoves. Had his captors been interested in helping
his country, he might have been able to provide solutions. He might have
been able to avert the disaster completely.
But that was not the sort of people who were in power at The Centre.
They had their own agenda, and it did not include helping anyone other
He stared at the hole in the horizon, pushed away the memories to a place
where he could keep his grief at bay, and turned his attention to the
project at hand.
Hunger gnawed at his belly, making him realize that it had been some
time since he had eaten. The food smelled good, and without thinking he
sat down at the table. In short order his plate was empty, and he poured
a glass of the wine, giving it a sniff. One sip was enough to tell him
that he didn't like wine, and he took the bottle and glass into the bathroom.
Pouring out just enough to make it appear as if he had imbibed, he returned
the items to the tray. The servants were just outside his door, waiting
to take it all back to the kitchens, and when they were gone, he locked
the door and headed for the bathroom for a hot soak, hoping it would help
He just couldn't get comfortable in that place. Shadows of Aurora plagued
him constantly, reminding him of the peace and pleasure he was missing,
of what he could have if he just went back to Delaware. Every moment of
happiness, however brief -- the taste of good food, the feel of warm water
against his skin, the sight of a parent interacting lovingly with their
child -- anything that gave him pleasure was a reminder of what he could
never allow himself to have again.
Hours later, he lay stretched out on scented sheets, his eyelids drooping
heavily as he slid swiftly into dreams of needles and bliss. Aurora still
had a hold on him in those unguarded moments. He wondered as he dreamed
if it always would.
* * * * * * * * *
The doors swept open and the director of SIS strode purposefully into
the room. She glared at the underlings clustered around the desk as they
listened to orders from the top dog himself. With a nod of her head, they
went scurrying for the door with tails between their legs. She leaned
over the desk, lightly balanced on her fingertips, and gazed at Parker
down her elegant nose.
"I read through the records on the Seraphim," she announced.
"They're the children on the nursery floor, aren't they? The ones
my brother plays with."
Parker frowned. "Yes, they are," he growled back. She had seen
Gabriel with the others weeks earlier, but asked no questions about them
then. "They're the only kids in this place that Gabriel can relate
to, so I don't want to hear any whining about him having playmates. He
needs to learn to interact with others, and these kids are the best and
brightest the Centre has to offer. I should think you'd be glad he's not
She leaned down closer to him. "I'm just looking out for his interests,
Daddy," she returned coolly. "I don't want him to become another
Centre project. And as director of SIS, I should know everything important
happening in this place, including projects that my brother could be involved
in, however marginally. If I don't know what's going on, I can't look
out for our best interests. Or his."
He barked a sharply derisive laugh. "Don't you worry about that,
angel," he assured her. "No one will forget that Gabriel belongs
to me. And I've made sure the Seraphim children are exceedingly well protected.
They're special, just like Gabriel is, and I want them to be safe and
well cared for. That's why I've gone to such great lengths to protect
She stood up, a look of satisfaction on her face, and crossed her arms
over her chest. " Where did they come from? I need to know something
about them, so I'll be able to talk with Gabriel about them."
He pursed his lips, already a step ahead of her, but wanting her to think
he was considering what he should say. Injecting a tone of false compassion
into his voice, he told her, "Theyre all orphans, angel. Weve
gathered them from agencies all over the world as the best and brightest,
for a special early education program. Gabriels a part of that,
since hes so bright, but I assure you, its just what he needs
to develop that sharp little mind of his. You can interview their caregivers,
if you like. But don't plan on spending much time with them. You've got
far too much to do to be playing room mother to your brother's pre-kindergarten
class." The Seraphim files she read had been specially prepared for
just this occasion, and the nursing staff had also been forewarned on
what they could and could not say to his daughter.
Parker knew the project couldn't be kept from her forever. She was digging
into everything -- it was part of her job -- and as far as he could see,
she was doing wonders, fulfilling his every expectation. Even Jarod's
escape had been someone else's fault. She had asked for measures to prevent
such things, and his own refusal to spend the money to implement her suggestions
had contributed to the loss. His arrogant dependence on Aurora was responsible,
thanks to Eve and her assurances of the drugs power.
But there were things that his daughter would never know the truth about,
not even with the power of her new title behind her. He had already seen
to that. Pertinent records had been moved to secure places where only
he could get at them.
Soon enough, she would be placated by what she discovered about this
group of toddlers. All she would see was how well they interacted together,
and how Gabriel cared for them. Then, he knew, his worries would be over.
She would turn a blind eye to the Seraphim project, and things would continue
according to plan.
He knew exactly how she thought, and how to make best use of those tendencies.
After all, he had been programming her since childhood. She discovered
after the escape that Jarod had been their intended trainer, but her fears
along those lines had been quelled abruptly. And when she brought their
Pretender back again, she would never see Gabriel working with him. Having
the two of them in such close proximity made his true heritage so obvious
it screamed. And if she ever did discover that Jarod was the boy's true
father, she might also question the other half of his heritage.
Parker couldn't allow that. As long as she was in the dark, she was safe.
As long as she accepted what he told her and never looked beyond that,
she would live.
He watched her smile.
"I know, Daddy," she purred. "I'm really not trying to
make trouble for you. And I know I'm not Gabriel's mother. It's just that,
since he doesn't have a mommy
" Her smile was sad, and she shrugged.
Tears drowned her eyes and disappeared with a blink. "I went to the
Infirmary recently. Did they tell you?"
He pretended to be shocked. "Are you all right, angel? Working too
She turned half away from him, presenting her profile. "Vitamin
deficiency, stress, all the usual." She sighed, and bowed her head.
"But they also found something else. The exam was pretty thorough."
Pasting on a look of concern, he leaned forward. "What is it? You
can tell me. I'm your father."
She heaved a quivering sigh. "I just found out I can't have children,
Daddy. I really hadn't planned on having a family of my own, not after
Tommy." She put her back to him and stepped away, strolling aimlessly
around the room. "But now that I know that's not an option, it's
kind of hard. I guess Gabriel's the closest thing I'll ever have to a
child of my own, so you can understand why I'm a little wound up over
"Yes, angel," he assured her, with as much warmth as he could
force into his tone of voice. He rose, stepped around the desk and held
out his arms to her. She came into them slowly, stiffly, and rested her
cheek on his shoulder. "I know how hard that kind of news must be."
He patted her back, stroked her hair, going through all the fatherly motions
with her. "And it's okay if you want to fill that role with my boy,
within limits. He'll need a mother figure in his life, and you can do
that for him. But you must always remember who you really are to him.
She pulled away from him then, her eyes filled with such sadness and
longing. She nodded. "All right, Daddy. I promise."
He dropped his arms and stepped quickly back behind his desk. "And
don't compromise your time. You've got a big job with this organization,
and that has to come first."
"Family comes first," she said softly. Then she smiled. "And
this is the family business. Don't worry about my priorities, Daddy. I'm
a Parker, remember?"
She turned away and left quietly, but as he returned to his seat she
was standing in front of the desk again.
"Something else on your mind, angel?" he queried. Glancing
up, he saw that the woman standing before him had longer hair, dated clothing
and heavier makeup. He frowned, staring at her. "You're not real,"
he snapped, and bent his head over his papers. "Go away and leave
The ring of her laughter forced him to make eye contact again. She was
pointing at him, lost in apparent merriment.
He glanced around the room, aware that he was sweating. There was no
one else there, and he was certain he was alone. The apparition was nothing
more than a figment of his imagination. It didn't exist.
But he could not make it go away, and the laughter ate at him until he
buried his head on his desk and covered his ears with his hands.
"Go away," he chanted softly. "Go away, Catherine
Leave me in peace