Chameleon

by Victoria Rivers

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots

Guest Stars
David Boreanaz as Yuri
Susan Gibney as Kim
Sean Connery as Angus MacCaffrey
Ann-Margaret as Jean Destry
Paul Newman as Michael Steinberg
Brian Dennehy as Al Jergens
John Hillerman as Martin the concierge
Willie Gault as Willie the Sweeper


Act I

January, 2000
Rural Delaware

"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 nearby.

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 his back.

"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 teeth.

"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 unsettling.

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 by them.

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… they 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 woman’s voice began a wordless tune that helped him to relax a little. She sounded like an angel.

“Who’s 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 poem’s by William Blake.”

Yuri listened. Presently a dignified man’s 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.

* * * * * * * * *

February 2001
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.

* * * * * * * * *

Present Day

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, him.

Someone in the Centre wanted him to act on the message. But who? And why?

His eyes roamed over the text, and its simple directive.

Find Yuri.

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 Jarod’s 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 Jarod’s own research, when he had been the Centre’s 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 wasn’t looking up anyone’s 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, that’s the second time you’ve fainted this week,” he observed breathlessly. “Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“I don’t need a doctor. I need a vacation.”

“I’m 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 liked it.

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 one’s seen you in the cafeteria and I know you don’t bring your lunch. You’re also not a breakfast person, so I’ve been wondering since your last fainting spell whether or not you’re eating.”

She took a bite of shortbread cookie and chewed slowly. “That’s my problem, not yours,” she grumbled.

“You have ulcers,” he reminded her. “You need to eat regular meals.”

Even her glare didn’t have the usual fire in it, just a weary warning. “I can take care of myself, Syd.”

“You don’t 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-“

“We do?”

“I do,” she clarified. “And aside from Ethan, Kyle, Faith and a few others, we have very little on the Blue Files, and I’ve 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 that’s it.”

“Still, it’s progress,” Sydney assured them. “Now that we have the project names, we can begin looking for references to them.”

“Get me the list,” Parker ordered. “Now would be good.”

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, Jarod’s clone.

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 Centre’s 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, genius?"

"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?"

"What?"

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."

"Incompetence?"

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 were wrong.”

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 failed."

"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 Sydney’s 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 computer."

"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 behind this…"

"Would the Centre send an assassin to kill off its best client?" Sydney asked. "It makes more sense to protect them, rather than destroy them."

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?" Broots asked.

"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."

"Rolls?"

"Bentley. I prefer to deal with as few people as possible on my personal staff."

"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 than themselves.

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 him relax.

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.

* * * * * * * * *

Chairman's Office
The Centre

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 alone."

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 them."

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, "They’re all orphans, angel. We’ve gathered them from agencies all over the world as the best and brightest, for a special early education program. Gabriel’s a part of that, since he’s so bright, but I assure you, it’s 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 drug’s 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 hard?"

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 this."

"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. All right?"

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 me alone."

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…"


Act II

Elan Hotel
New York City

"Pleasant night, sir?" Martin asked as he stepped into the suite the next morning.

"Excellent," Jarod assured him, though that was far from the truth. The demons were back to torment him nightly, stronger now than they had ever been. "Ready to start a busy day."

"Your assistant arrived only moments ago. We’re settling her in her quarters and will show her up shortly.”

"Excellent." Jarod was curious about this particular woman. She came highly recommended by an old friend, one who assured him that she would be discreet about Jarod’s assumed identity.

Martin gave him a smart bow and stepped out of the room. "Ms. Destry," he announced, stepped aside to allow her in, and retreated quickly, pulling the door closed behind him.

Jarod smiled with approval and offered his hand. “Dr. Fowkes said you knew Wall Street better than anyone.” He appraised the woman’s appearance -- sixtyish and graying but well preserved, dressed in a conservative power suit and sensible shoes, this woman moved with a sense of assurance and straight-forwardness that Jarod liked immediately.

Jean Destry shook his hand and studied him over the tops of her Ben Franklin glasses. “Daniel said I was to treat you like an heir to the throne,” she returned. “That I was to do whatever you wanted, no questions asked. That’s not usually how I operate, but I trust him. He said you helped him with a dire situation, and that whatever you were up to here, it was to help someone who needed it. Is that right?”

“I’m not sure. Just checking into things at the moment, but it could certainly develop into that.”

She nodded. “I’ve been checking over your portfolio. Very impressive... Very new.”

He chuckled, and rubbed his chin. “I seem to have a talent for making money whenever I want it.”

“But you don’t spend much of it, that I can tell. No real estate holdings, no corporate interests. No personal history…” She left that hanging, as if hoping he would fill her in on his own.

Instead, he gazed at her from beneath his dark brows and offered a secretive smile. “Having a past erased so well is a very expensive thing.” That would confuse her, threaten her a little, and make her less interested in digging. Hopefully, she would leave the subject alone and simply go on Dr. Daniel Fowkes’ recommendation that he was to be trusted implicitly. But if she did start snooping, he had answers for that, too. “Let’s get down to business, shall we, Ms. Destry? I want an appointment with Angus MacCaffrey. His company needs a transfusion, and I may just be inclined to give him one.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll get right on it.”

* * * * * * * * *

Chairman's Office

They were everywhere, spying on him.

Mr. Parker stood by the window, looking out at the green lawn, the cliffs and the ocean. People walked from the building to the parking lot and from their cars to the building, few of them glancing up at the tower where his office presided over the landscape, but he knew they were watching anyway.

Nervously, he glanced around the room, wishing he could see the surveillance devices he was certain had been planted sometime recently. They were watching him, waiting for him to slip up, waiting for the backlash of Fountain. He could feel it.

He turned back to the window for a moment, then stepped back toward the desk to return to work.

"Guilty conscience?"

He glanced up at the familiar voice, touched with an otherworldly echo. Catherine was standing there yet again, bruised and battered as she had been that awful Thanksgiving four months before he'd had her implanted with Major Charles's seed. She had defied him, endangered the Centre, but she was too valuable to destroy. Had she not faked her death, she would have been imprisoned soon enough.

But Catherine was dead now. Raines had shown him the footage of her murder and the body, before having her cremated. So, she couldn't possibly be standing there.

"Leave me alone!" he barked at the ghost, and struggled to keep his attention on the papers before him.

"Would you rather I made an appointment?"

He glanced up again, and this time the image was dressed in modern clothes, with shorter hair and stiletto heels.

"Angel?"

"Yes, Daddy?"

He sighed, wilting with relief. "Of course you don't have to make an appointment. I'm just busy, is all."

"Then I'll be quick. Why did you send Jarod a message to find Yuri?"

That took him completely off guard. Not only was she good, she was fast. Just as he had raised her. "Because Yuri is a loose cannon. He has a destructive personal agenda, and no one but Jarod can catch him. As long as he's out there, we might as well get what use we can out of him. This kind of do-gooder work is right up his alley." He frowned. "If Jarod was still here, we'd have had him do simulations to help us catch Yuri, but since he's not…"

She raised one elegantly sweeping eyebrow. "You don't think I could catch this guy?"

He chuckled. "You knew Jarod, angel, which worked in our favor when we put you on his trail. But you don't know Yuri. By the time you got up to speed, he'd be gone. We're not sure exactly where he is, but we know he's hurting us. He's subtle, careful. And he must be stopped. MacCaffrey isn't the only contractor he's hit, and we don't know where to start looking. We sent Jarod that information as a starting point. He'll figure it out from there."

"So do you want me to back off Jarod till he gets the job done?"

He pursed his lips, thinking. "For the moment, yes. As soon as we get word that he's captured Yuri, disabled or even located him, I'll let you know."

"I'll let you know," she corrected, and turned to leave.

Parker chuckled. "That's my girl," he crowed.

For a moment she froze in mid-stride. Without looking back, she resumed her exit and let the doors ease closed automatically in her wake. He had done a damn fine job raising that girl. She was a force of nature, indomitable, and she owed all of that to him.

Even if she wasn't his own flesh and blood, he was still her father. She was his, and would always be. But if she ever found out the truth, he knew he would never be able to trust her again. He would make it quick and clean because he owed her that, for all the years of loyalty and love she had lavished on him, without getting more than a few crumbs here and there in return.

Sometimes it pleased him to look at her, and gloat in his triumph over his traitorous wife. But other times, like just now, it was like looking at a ghost that would haunt him forever. When those feelings came, he could hardly bear the sight of her.

Parker shook himself to try to rid his mind of the thought, and get on with business. There was so much to be done in getting ready for an apocalypse. The world needed him… it just didn't know that fact yet.

* * * * * * * * *

MacCaffrey Enterprises
Conference room, 27th floor

Angus MacCaffrey was president emeritus of MacCaffrey Enterprises. He had stepped in to take the reins after his successor’s untimely demise, and was all too willing to meet with the enigmatic Mr. Jarod Pendleton. Ms. Destry accompanied the Pretender to the 27th floor conference room, and Jarod sat at one end of the convex shaped table, with Angus himself at the other, and flanked by two of his assistants.

Jarod recognized one of them instantly, though he couldn’t quite place her in his past. She was an attractive blonde, her hair upswept into a fashionable do. Dressed in a black business suit accented with a red silk blouse, she had given him a knowing half-smile that bespoke the same recognition, and sat down after shaking his hand, right after the introductions. Jarod turned his attention to the other man, MacCaffrey’s head of security.

He was an attractive young man, tall and powerful looking, with a gleam of keen intelligence in his chocolate brown eyes. Jarod saw him measuring their guest, and told himself to watch out for that one. He could cause problems, or possibly end up as a great source of aid.

“Ms. Argent, Mr. Rostov, Mr. MacCaffrey,” Jarod began. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I know some good things about your various enterprises, and would hate to see any of them go under. I have a proposal here…” He reached for a slim leather binder that Ms. Destry handed him. “…that outlines the amounts and incremental stages of investment I wish to extend to you. This plan should help MacCaffrey Enterprises shore up its flagging stocks and continue with the research that has been an industry hallmark in each of the various fields.”

“What do you want, Mr. Pendleton?” MacCaffrey demanded, his Scottish accent lightly flavoring his deep, elegant voice. “People don’t offer something for nothing. And especially not in this city.”

“Call me Jarod, please. And I know I’ll get my money’s worth in return. The inhalant system for delivery of diabetes medication has proven successful; and the expansion of testing for other drugs viable for alveolar or patch delivery will be a boon. Nobody likes needles. And the cybernetic limb replacements are far ahead of what anybody else is working on at the moment. Not to mention the experimentation for genetically based cures for disease. Who wouldn't want to be on board for all that, when it's ready to hit the market?"

One of MacCaffrey’s thick black brows arched upward on his forehead, contrasting severely with the snow-white of his hair and beard. “May I ask how you knew about those developments, Mr. Pendleton? None of those projects have been released for public commentary yet.”

Jarod smiled. “Let’s just say I have an inside source.” He waited while the three looked over the proposal, knowing it was too good to resist.

MacCaffrey frowned up at him. “You can’t blame me for being suspicious. With dollar amounts this size, there’s always a drawback. I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Jarod instinctively glanced under the table to make sure both of his were still on. After a beat, he got the inference and shrugged. “There’s no catch, I assure you. I want to invest because I believe in what you’re doing, in the benefits people will reap when these projects are realized. As for the money…” He leaned back in his chair. “I have more than I’ll ever need of that. I’m not a greedy man, Mr. MacCaffrey. Money’s easy to make, if you know how. I’d rather do something worthwhile with the cash than let it sit in banks accruing interest.”

MacCaffrey sat back and regarded his visitor with astonishment and a grain of disbelief. “A truly philanthropic soul? You’ll pardon me if I have a little trouble believing that, Mr. Pendleton. Especially from a man with a fortune this size. I know the rich.”

“I’d prefer it if you’d call me Jarod.”

“Of course, of course. And you must call me Angus.” MacCaffrey stood. “Ms. Argent tells me from your initial contact with us that you’re staying at Elan. I’d be pleased if you’d accept quarters upstairs, in our guest suites, instead.” He flashed a white, toothy smile. “My Scottish sensibilities find spending such exorbitant sums on a bed and bath distasteful. With us, you can stay for free, and receive all the same courtesies.”

“While you check out my financial stability and the terms of my offer,” Jarod added with a chuckle. “I’d be happy to accept, Angus, on one condition.” His eyes strayed to the security chief, who stared back impassively. “No surveillance in the suite. I have a thing about being watched.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” the elder man agreed. He patted Rostov on the shoulder. “My young associate here has been a godsend, discovering leaks we didn’t know we had. Pity we had to lose a good man like Al Jergens in order to get him. But as long as you check in and out with our guest relations coordinator, I’m sure we can forego keeping an eye on you when you’re in the house.”

“And your guest relations coordinator would be…?”

The young woman sitting beside MacCaffrey stood. “That falls under my list of duties, Mr. Pendleton,” she assured him.

Jarod was certain he knew her from somewhere, but the elegant clothes didn’t fit. Somehow, he pictured her in jeans instead, her hair drawn back into a haphazard ponytail. Then he recognized her. Only her hair was brown and her name hadn’t been Argent. It was Kim Peace.

“Would you come with me, please?” she asked him. “I’ll show you to your quarters.”

Jarod turned to Ms. Destry. “Would you see to having our things moved, Ms. Destry?” He handed her a platinum credit card. “This will pay for our rooms.”

“Of course, sir.” Destry gathered up her things and headed for the elevators, punching the Down button.

Ms. Argent pressed the Up button and waited for a car to arrive. When they were safely ensconced in the privacy of the lift, she turned to face him, a broad smile revealing small dimples in her cheeks. "Well, Delaware, I never expected to meet you here. Out of your element, aren't you?"

"I thought your name was Kim Peace."

"And yours was Green, wasn't it, Mr. Pendleton?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "So what are you planning here? Are you a con man, or what?"

Jarod was starting out in trouble. He would either have to keep her close and hope he could convince her to keep her mouth shut, or get rid of her fast and hope she'd be discreet and not tell everyone that he was a fake. If she told anyone what she knew about him, his mission would be over before it began.

"I could ask the same of you, since you were a bounty hunter the last time I saw you. I hear that makes pretty good money, if you can handle the risk."

"Money wasn’t the object of the exercise,” she assured him. “Mike Bodie's bounty would have paid for a lot of what I needed. Too bad you solved all his legal problems."

"What was it that you needed that $20,000 would buy?"

She sighed. "I was hunting for information. Still am.”

“Information on what?”

Her smile faded. “That’s personal.”

The door slid open, and she stepped out, leading the way to a security desk in a small lobby that looked much like that of an elegant hotel. Jarod and Kim walked through a metal detector to enter the area, and she registered him with the guard on duty. They gave him a guest pass which acted as a card key, and Kim escorted him into a large, well appointed suite at the end of the corridor. The living area boasted a glass wall looking out on the bay, with a splendid view of Ellis Island and the great statue standing watch upon it.

“Make yourself at home,” she told him. “You won’t have to worry about unwanted visitors here, and everything’s free, including your meals. Order through the computer here…” She indicated the unit set up on a large desk facing the window. “…and you also have Internet access if you want it. There’s a separate line next to it - here - for you to plug in your laptop, if you prefer. The lines are secure and untapped, if you worry about that sort of thing.”

Jarod wandered around the room, looking for the hidden cameras and microphones he knew were already installed. One by one, he located them, blocking the lenses with some nearby object or turning the camera toward a wall where possible. When he finished his sweep of the room, he heard applause and turned to see Rostov standing in the doorway.

“Looks like you got them all,” he cheered. “I’m impressed. Next thing you know, you’ll be doing my job. Unless, of course, working for a living is beneath you.”

“There’s still the camera in the building across the street, focused on the suite windows,” Jarod returned, clasping his hands behind him. “But you’ll have that one shut down, won’t you, Mr. Rostov?”

The younger man chuckled, his hooded, dark eyes gleaming with appreciation. “Very good, very good, Jarod. I’ll have to watch out for you.” He winked and left the suite, closing the door behind himself.

Jarod strolled to the windows and closed the drapes. “So how long have you worked for Angus?”

“Six months. Not that it’s any of your business.” She booted up the computer.

“I’ll bet being in one job that long is beginning to chafe. Isn’t it?” Jarod was fishing, but something about her told him his instincts were right. A killer resume would have been necessary to get that job, one almost too good to be true. But her previous position as bounty hunter would not have appeared on it anywhere. Instead, there would be entries illustrating a first-class education, degrees in business and public relations, possibly experience in the media. Who she really was would be hidden under impenetrable layers of camouflage, just like his own history. Only he was also fairly certain that she had never been at the Centre.

So what was she still hunting - or rather, who?

She sighed wearily. “Here’s the menu that automatically comes up when you boot up the system. It’s pretty self explanatory, so I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with it.” She raised her eyes to meet his at last, flinging a silent challenge at him. “Look, I’ll keep your secrets if you keep mine. Do we have a deal?”

“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”

Kim crossed her arms again. “Oh, I’ll find that out, Delaware. Trust me. And if your intentions with Angus are anything other than honorable…”

“You can trust me, Kim,” he assured her.

She lifted her chin in defiance. “I don’t trust anybody,” she shot back. “If you need anything, you can call me. My extension's 1741.” Eyeing him warily for another moment, she turned and left him quickly behind.

* * * * * * * * *

An hour later, Kim took a call from the desk manager on the guest floor.

“I think you should come down here and okay this personally,” he told her.

“What is it?”

“Mr. Pendleton’s things have arrived, and there’s this briefcase with some sort of device inside. I’ve called Mr. Rostov, and he’s on his way, but I thought you should see it, too.”

“I’ll be right up.”

Five minutes later, Kim stepped off the elevator just ahead of Rostov coming out of another car. They met at the security desk, where Ms. Destry stood with a cartload of luggage, including the silver Halliburton. The guard took his hand off the case to allow them to examine it, and Ms. Destry hurried down the hall toward the guest suite.

“We X-rayed all the luggage like we’re supposed to,” the guard told her. “But this one had shielding, so we had Ms. Destry open it. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Kim took note of the view screen and the neat rows of small optical discs. “Looks like some form of old technology DVD player,” she guessed, and reached for one of the discs. “Let me see if I can get it to work.”

“If you do, you could be arrested for industrial espionage,” Jarod called, coming quickly up the hallway in response to Ms. Destry’s hasty summons. “It is a playback device, as you guessed, and those are storage discs. The information stored on them is confidential, so unless you want me to take my offer and leave, you’ll let me have that case and its contents.”

Rostov straightened. “I’ll make you a deal. You keep the discs and I’ll take the case for a more thorough examination. I want to make sure it’s not concealing any kind of weaponry. Can you handle that?”


Jarod saw the determination in the security chief’s eyes and knew there would be no denying him. He nodded. “Fair enough. But it had better be in working order when I get it back.”

Rostov nodded to the guard, who began to put the discs into a small box he took from underneath the desk. “Not to worry. I’m good with my hands.”

The guard handed the box toward Jarod, tripped and spilled the discs all over the carpeted floor. Apologizing profusely, he helped Jarod and Ms. Destry gather them up again. Rostov closed the case and sneered at the uniformed man, glancing at his nametag. “Let me give you a tip, there, Bramson. When your IQ rises to 50, sell.” He turned on his heel and strode smoothly toward the elevators.

Kim watched the doors close, her eyes narrowed, and then bent to pick up one of the discs that had rolled behind her shoes. She slipped it into the pocket of her suit jacket and reached to pick up the next nearest one, dropping that one in Jarod’s box. She didn’t think he had seen her palm the first disc, and after she’d had a good look at it, she would find a way to put it back with the others when he wasn’t looking. Anything that would give her more information on this mysterious man would be useful in keeping ahead of him, and she needed every advantage she could get.

* * * * * * * * *

Broots' Office

Under the heading of Red Files, Broots and Miss Parker had entered:
Rebecca, Deceased
Jarod, Project Proteus
Angelo, Project Argus
Morgan Parker, Project Artemis
Damon, Deceased
Dara, Deceased
Mason, Project Achilles
Lyle, Project Arkham

Under Blue Files:
Kyle, Deceased
Faith, Project Looking Glass
Ethan, Project Mirage
Gemini, Project Gemini
Sun-Chai, Project Chimera
Yuri, Project Shiva.
Pele and Thor remained a mystery.

The Yellow Files were all grouped under the project name Seraphim:
Raphael
Dominique
Angelique
Gideon
Tempest
Uriel
Michaela
Gabriel

But there was also the enigmatic sub-folder, Apocalypse. That was going to take some serious talent to uncover, and with all the other items on his list, he wasn’t sure it would wait until later. He instituted an automated search to see what turned up there, and continued with his other research in the meantime.

Broots had nearly all of the Blue Files pegged. He had set up the electronic database as Miss Parker had ordered, buried deep in the mainframe and firewalled against any intruders. It was the best piece of programming he'd ever done, and he was quite proud of it. All he needed was a little more time to search through the archives for more on Projects Pele and Thor, but for the moment he was concentrating on Project Artemis.

Apparently, Mr. Parker had started the project when Catherine died, and all of the training was kept in sealed files located only through numbered archive disks. He retrieved them personally, and put them in a locked box that had not left his person since he returned to his office. At the moment, it was sitting on his lap, waiting for a call from Miss Parker to let him know when she had returned to her office.

Someone knocked on his door, and pushed in before he could answer.

"Valentine! What the heck are you doing here?"

Lyle's assistant grinned and seated himself in the guest chair wedged against the wall in Broots' tiny office. "Just paying a friendly visit to a fellow tech."

Broots felt himself draw up inside. This guy was all smoothness and charm outside, but he could feel the threat, hidden away as it was beneath all the suaveness and good looks. He started to sweat, instinctively clutching the archive box closer to his body with his left hand. If he was going to not look suspicious and guilty, he was going to have to play along.

"Sure thing. What can I do for you?"

Valentine chuckled. "Well, you know how my boss is about computers, I suppose."

Broots remembered, and laughed. "Yeah. He thinks they're, like, evil or something."

The other man smiled and nodded.

Broots felt himself relaxing, buying into the guy's act. He wanted to make that work for him, but he would have to be on guard. He knew Valentine was good. That was why Lyle had brought him on board. "He just doesn't understand how valuable a tool they can be."

"You can find almost anything on a computer, if it's there to find," Valentine mused. "If you just know how and where to look."

Broots nodded. "Yeah, if you've got the skills."

"Maybe you could show me a few things, sometime," the other man suggested congenially. "I've been looking for some of Lyle's old records, and can't locate more than a few bits and pieces of things. But I'll bet you could come up with everything, couldn't you, Mr. Broots?"

"Sure. What do you need?" Broots put both hands on his keyboard, getting ready, anticipating another morsel of information dropping into his lap.

Valentine grinned. "Project Shiva."

"That's not--" Broots caught himself. He knew it wasn't one of Lyle's projects. That had belonged to Mr. Raines. "--anything I've ever heard of. Where should I start the search?"

The other man shrugged. "Archives, maybe? The project was canceled in January of last year." He rose and started to move around the desk, to look over Broots' shoulder.

The tech hurriedly closed all the windows he had open of a sensitive nature before Valentine moved into position. Broots proceeded to show the other man how to query the Centre mainframe, which would help him dig up most of the routinely available files on that subject… except, of course, those Broots had already retrieved and moved to Miss Parker's secret database.

"Yeah, I found those already," Valentine told him. "I’m looking for others that won't pop up off the regular search engines."

"There's the archives," Broots suggested. "Though not all of those files are available electronically. Sometimes you have to locate the numbered reference and actually go down there to match it up to a disk or a paper file."

"And how would I do that?" Valentine leaned closer, hovering right over Broots.

"Plug in the word 'archive' in the search parameters," Broots answered, sliding further down in his chair, to try to hide the box of discs in his lap from any casual glances. "After that, you'd have to do some programming to do a more extensive search, but I'm not authorized to show you that."

Valentine nodded, apparently satisfied. "Thanks, Broots. I think I'll be busy in Archives for a while." He smiled and offered a casual salute, then sauntered out of the office.

Broots melted into his chair for a moment. That had been close, and scary. He phoned Miss Parker's office and as soon as she answered, he asked her to come straight to his office, rather than risk someone like Valentine seeing him with the disks and taking them away before he could get them to his boss. Working for Miss Parker carried a lot more weight these days, but Lyle's henchman frightened him. He had read the man's file, and knew what Valentine was capable of doing.

And Broots didn't want to be there if things got personal.

* * * * * * * * *

Guest Suite
MacCaffrey Enterprises

Jarod sat down at the desk. He explored what was available through the company mainframe, and then did a little programming to search through personnel files. First, he looked up Kim Argent, and found pretty much what he expected. Next, he checked on Rostov with similar results. Perfect resumes, without a hint of anything out of place, but with Kim, he knew her credits were as fictitious as his own.

Almost as an afterthought, he checked on the name Al Jergens. The late security chief had a typical career, and was at the top of his game when he passed away suddenly six months earlier. Jergens had driven his car full speed into a tree on a lonely stretch of road in rural Delaware, not too far from a town called Blue Cove.

That was a little too much of a coincidence for Jarod. He decided to look into that incident, adding it to the list of other recent deaths of MacCaffrey employees taking place in the last year or so. The company's financial troubles stemmed directly from the radical changes in leadership following a string of deaths, not the least of which was Henry Calfax, whose apparent suicide had resulted in Angus stepping back into the role of active president after a two-year retirement.

Discreetly covering up his intrusion into the company mainframe, Jarod plugged in his laptop and instituted an Internet search for the name Rostov.

Among the many entries was one that sent a chill up his spine. Rostov was a Russian city made famous for being the center of the hunting grounds for one Andrei Chikatilo, the former Soviet Union's most prolific, most horrifyingly efficient serial killer, dubbed Citizen X during the long hunt for his identity.

The Soviets had kept the murders to themselves, rather than asking other nations to avail their resources to help them catch the killer. Jarod was glad that he had not been put on that job, since he was still a child when the first murders were discovered in the 70's. Chikatilo murdered women and children for 12 years before the Russians finally identified him.

Jarod finished his search, and turned instead to constructing a history of Ms. Argent. He knew what she did during a certain period in her life, and that was as good a place to start as any. Bounty hunters had to register at the reservation when Mike Bodie had been a wanted man, and Kim was one of them. He would take whatever fiction she had used then, and extrapolate from there. She was still hunting, and he wanted to know what it was that lay at the end of her search.


Act III

Metis House
New York City

Kim nodded to the doorman and headed straight for the management office of the old brownstone. After presenting her identification to the manager, she confirmed her appointment with Mr. Michael Steinberg. Shortly afterward, the silver-haired gentleman met her in the lobby and escorted her into a small salon where they could speak privately.

"What can I do for you, Ms. Argent?" he asked congenially. “You said Angus wanted me to look over some business papers.”

"Yes, here they are.” She handed over the investment proposition Jarod Pendleton had presented the previous day. Hesitantly, she added, “My name isn't really Argent. It's Leone. Kim Leone. You arranged my adoption to Terry and Sarah Leone when I was a baby. Do you remember?"

The man's smile vanished. He glanced up from the portfolio, frowning. "I arranged a lot of adoptions, when I was a young man," he admitted, his tone clipped and business-like. "I'd be hard pressed to remember one out of all those."

"I think you'd remember this one," she prompted. "My parents flew in from Africa when they heard there was a baby waiting for them. On your advice, they flew right back out again the day after they took me in. That's not standard procedure on any regular adoption. In fact, you told them that the fact that they traveled so much was the main reason why you selected them. That was what had kept them from getting a child through regular adoption agencies. No secure residence pretty much threw them out of that game."

Steinberg's eyes narrowed as he studied her. He glanced nervously at the door to make sure they were alone. "All right, I know I can't beg off. But I can't help you with much. I wasn't privy to many of the details. The woman who brought you to me was --"

"Catherine Parker," Kim filled in. "That much I know. Was she my mother?"

Steinberg shook his head. "No. She brought me several children, and I saw her often enough to know they couldn't have been her own. She told me they were rescued from… unhealthy circumstances, and I knew her character well enough to trust her. So I didn't ask too many questions, and she never provided any answers. That's all I know, Ms. Leone. I'm sorry it couldn't be more."

Kim sighed, feeling her sense of hope flagging. "Thanks anyway, Mr. Steinberg. I appreciate your time. Please call me when you’re done looking over the offer, and I’ll take your comments back to Angus." She shook his hand and headed out the door and down the steps, preparing to walk back to the bus stop where she could catch a ride back to Manhattan.

But as she descended the steps, she saw a gleaming Bentley parked at the curb. Leaning against it was a man dressed from head to toe in black, a pair of Gargoyle sunglasses covering his eyes. She recognized him instantly.

"How the hell did you find me, Delaware? I only made this appointment yesterday."

Jarod slid his shades down on his nose and peered over the lenses at her. "Find out anything more from Mr. Steinberg?"

Her mouth fell open. She knew he was good. That had been apparent on the reservation, after she checked the details of what he had done there. But he seemed to have gotten farther in 24 hours than she had in five years of searching into her past.

"Nothing I didn't already know," she snapped when she could pull her wits together to form a coherent response. "Were you following me?"

He shrugged. "I wasn't sure you'd be here. I came to talk to him for the same reason you did. To see if I could help you find out who you are."

Kim felt her belly clench. "Why would you do that for me? You hardly know me. And the first time we met, well… that was no picnic. I certainly couldn't have won the Miss Congeniality award then. Didn't I threaten to shoot you if you got in my way?"

Jarod opened the passenger door of his car and gestured her inside. "I'm doing it because I know how you feel. I'm searching for my family, too."

That shook her, and she began to wonder if he might share her same connection with the lawyer. She came up beside him and met his steady gaze with one of her own. "Were you one of the babies Steinberg adopted out?"

With a look of profound sadness, Jarod pushed his sunglasses back into place. He shut the door after Kim had seated herself, skirted around the Bentley's front bumper and climbed behind the wheel. He started the car and pulled out into traffic without answering.

"Well, were you?" she demanded.

Eyes straight ahead, voice thick with emotion, Jarod replied, "No. I wasn't one of the lucky ones. Catherine Parker was killed before she could get me out."

Something cold uncurled in the pit of Kim's stomach and snaked its frigid way up her spine. She shivered, and rubbed her arms. "Out of where?"

"Someplace you never want to be," he answered enigmatically, and turned his attention to the drive back to Manhattan.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker's Office

Morgan spent the entire day and into the night examining the files on the disks Broots had dug up for her. When she was finished, all the pieces had fallen into place. She knew exactly what had been done to her, and why. The Chairman had been both brilliant and far-sighted, expecting to use her latent talents to retrieve errant Centre property at some point in her career. He had planned for the day when she would take over SIS, and she had followed that plan unconsciously to the letter. But things were not always as they seemed, and the position of power that she now occupied would both provide her with information she needed to accomplish her mother's plan, and put her in the same danger that Catherine had been in before she died.

But Morgan wouldn't make the same mistakes Catherine had. She knew who she could trust, and what should be kept from those confidants to keep both them and herself safe. Her inner sense was fallible, and she had to be aware of that pitfall, too. That was what had led Catherine to trust Raines with her life, and the life of her unborn child. That false belief in him was exactly what got her killed.

She could see, in her mind's eye, behind the door that terrible Thanksgiving, when Raines had skulked away from the house. For so long she believed it was him who had beaten her mother so cruelly, but now, listening to that subtle whisper in her subconscious, she knew the truth. Raines had come over to mediate between Catherine and her husband, and when things turned violent, the other man had left. Raines had been on his way downstairs when Parker had landed the first blow. There was no way he could have gotten down the stairs, out the door and halfway across the lawn that fast after the last blow fell.

Parker had done the damage himself, and all this time she had blamed Raines for it.

No wonder Catherine trusted him. He had meant to save her once already, or so she thought. She would have resisted the impulse to run away from him, after he had pretended to help her that awful Thanksgiving night.

But her daughter would not be so easy to fool. Broots had a child who could be held hostage, forcing him to betray her if someone found it necessary. Sydney had too many secrets already, and though she believed she could trust him, she also knew that he had been the one to do all those terrible things to Jarod as a child in the name of science, with the excuse that he was protecting the boy from worse. She cared for Sydney, but he was an enigma, and unless he dropped the barriers between them, there was no way she could trust him with everything.

Artemis was the Greco-Roman goddess of the hunt, a strong feminine persona who never let a man have the upper hand with her. She was always in control, ruthless, and indomitable. Those were hallmarks of Morgan's own personality, drilled into her by the lessons Parker had taught her. Looking over the material in her files, she could admire the genius of the man, but she hated him for everything he had done to her. He was the embodiment of evil, capable of the heartless torture of children to achieve his goals.

And she was first among them. He knew she wasn't his, and her training had been his vengeance against his wife for being unfaithful to him, and for trying to stop him from the cruelties he was inflicting on so many innocents. Catherine had paid, too -- with his physical abuse, with a forced pregnancy, and with her life.

The Chairman was going to pay for his sins. The empire he had so carefully built was going to come crashing down around him, and the instruments of that downfall were the women and children he had sought to destroy. And when it was over, she would be the one standing over him, gloating over her victory. She wanted to see him suffer, like she had suffered her whole life under his thumb. She wanted to see him in jail, treated like a common criminal, stripped of his fortune and his army of sweepers.

With that vision in mind, she packed up the disks and called Broots to return them to the archives. She didn't care if Parker knew she had been snooping into her own records. She might even thank him for the training with a gleam in her eye. And once he was on his knees, she'd be happy to point out that he had shot himself in the foot by making a slave out of the child he was supposed to have loved.

* * * * * * * * *

Morgan dialed Jarod’s private cell phone number from memory. She stood now on the porch of her house, watching twilight settle into full dark. Jarod picked up on the first ring.

"Have you found Yuri yet?" she asked him.

"That message didn't look like your style," he returned. "I was thinking Mr. Parker had sent it."

"He did. I'm just checking your progress, to see when I need to appear on the scene, just a moment too late, as usual." She smiled. "You haven't been sending me any clues on this one. That's out of character for you."

"I don't tell you everything, Morgan," he challenged. "You should know that by now."

"Just keep me posted," she warned him.

A moment of silence stretched between them, and she could feel his next question coming.

"How are the children?"

"They're all right, for the moment. We have time on our side, but it's running out fast."

"Have you found out when they plan to start the Aurora protocols?"

She sighed. "We got lucky with that. They just found a contractor to continue the delivery method research you started, so it’ll be a while yet."

"And I'll just bet I know who the contractor is."

"How is Angus?"

Jarod's chuckle filled her ear. "Not happy to be out of retirement, but worried about his people. And with good reason. Shall I send him your regards?"

"No use tipping our hand just yet. He'll remember me when he sees me again. What he does after that, you'll have to be the judge."

"I'm on the fence about it at the moment. But I'll let you know. When it's time."

"Keep me posted." She disconnected after a beat, knowing he had shared all he wanted to give her. Broots was still looking for photos of Yuri, but none had been found so far. She hoped Jarod was safe, that he was being careful, but she knew that wasn't his style. If the situation required putting himself in harm's way, he would do it. That's just the way he was.

She took a deep breath of the autumn-fresh air, closed her eyes to imagine Jarod smiling at her, and went into her house to get ready for bed.

* * * * * * * * *

Kim's Apartment

Kim unlocked the door to her respectable apartment after checking the hidden seal she had left behind. So far, her luck was holding, and no one had been there yet to look into her life. She secured the door from inside, swept through the empty living room and into the bedroom that held the sum total of her possessions.

Dropping her keys on the floor beside the bedroll, she traded her chic business suit for sweat pants and a tank top, scrubbed her face clean of makeup and pulled her hair into a ponytail. After a vigorous workout, she used her cell phone to call in an order for Chinese delivery and sat down with her laptop on a small table beside her bed.

The first file she opened was an old one, a curiosity that had piqued her interest years earlier. She had kept the Jarod file open, in case he proved to be wanted for a crime somewhere. Occasionally she would stumble across sightings and would add that information to what she had already collected. But now she had a reason to do a thorough search into this enigmatic man’s identity, to find out who he really was, and what he wanted with Angus MacCaffrey.

Nothing she had dug up on him indicated a criminal past - in fact, he seemed to be some sort of quiet hero, saving a life here or catching a criminal there and disappearing without claiming the publicity that often went with such heroism. He had an agenda; that much was certain. What he didn’t seem to have was a past.

His financial resources were genuine enough. That only served to sharpen her interest in him to a razor edge, since all of the accounts were less than five years old, shiny and new, and incredibly large. He was privately one of the wealthiest men she had ever encountered, his assets liquid rather than tied up in businesses and real estate, enabling him to draw on vast sums, should he require them. Yet his expenses, what she could track of them, seemed random and incredibly frugal.

If he was on another of his rescue missions, then the world of the wealthy and powerful would be strange to him. He would need her help to avoid giving himself away. That is, if his motives were altruistic, as fit his previous pattern. He certainly wasn’t driven by greed. But who was he, really, and why was there no trace of a birthplace, a school he had attended, or any other link to his past?

She stared at a scan of an old newspaper article she had found shortly after crossing paths with him on the reservation. Wearing a fireman’s gear, his face dappled with soot, he held a child in his arms whom he had just saved from a burning building. He had saved Mike Bodie's life from the assassin out to kill him, and through some amazing legal wrangling, had the charges against Bodie dropped. Then he had just disappeared. That wasn’t the sort of man who went looking for power. He didn’t need money. So why was he there?

The last thing she had done at work was sneak into Rostov's office for a look at that machine in the silver briefcase. Kim had played the disk she had purloined, but it told her nothing. She had seen Jarod strapped into an electric chair, apparently about to be executed and protesting his innocence of whatever crime he had supposedly committed. While horrifying in itself, it told her nothing about him. Someone had obviously kidnapped him and performed those terrifying experiments on him against his will.

That sort of thing might certainly enhance his desire to know more about justice, but what exactly was he looking for?

The delivery man buzzed her from downstairs, and she let him in. Fetching the proper amount of bills along with a generous tip, she opened the door to his knock.

Jarod stared at her from over the top of his sunglasses, brown paper restaurant bag in hand. “One kung pao chicken, and one shrimp fried rice,” he announced. “Plenty for two. And I brought my own chopsticks. May I come in?”

“What do you want, Delaware?” she demanded, snatching the bag out of his hand. “And how the hell did you get my address?” She did not open the door any wider.

All trace of levity left his face. He took off his sunglasses and tucked them into his jacket pocket. “I want to know if you’re planning on telling Angus what you know about me.” He crossed his arms. “See, I thought about our deal this morning. Checking up on me is part of your job, and you’d be curious about my background. Maybe curious enough to say something to Angus. Maybe not tell him outright, but cast a little suspicion. Make him take a look himself, or have Rostov dig into my past.”

“What makes you think I know - or want to know - anything about you?” she challenged, stepping aside to let the door swing slowly open. He followed her toward the kitchen after locking up behind himself.

“We’re both naturally curious people, Kim,” he pointed out. “You’ve been investigating me on Angus’ behalf, and I’ve been looking into your past as well. I like to know the people I’m dealing with. So do you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to have your people do that?” she snapped. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t have ‘people.’ You’re a hands-on kind of guy, one who likes to do his own dirty work.”

He leaned on the kitchen door frame, his eyes taking in the meager furnishings, the lack of personal touches. “It keeps me busy.”

“And you are a man who likes to keep busy.” She took down her only bowl from the cupboard, filled it half full of fried rice and topped it with the spicy chicken and vegetable mixture, then handed the cartons to him.

“You shouldn’t eat standing up. It’s bad for digestion.”

Kim shoved her fork into her bowl and hopped onto the counter, letting her feet dangle, then attacked the food.

“So are you going to tell him?”

“Tell him what? That you’re a man with less than a handful of years' worth of history? That you’re apparently a financial genius with a ridiculous amount of money that you hardly ever touch? That you’re a one-man crusader for justice, always trying to help the downtrodden?” She popped a small bite into her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. “If I don’t tell him, someone else will. Rostov’s probably checking on you, too.”

“In a week or two, someone might say something,” he agreed. “But not Rostov. And by then, I’ll be gone.”

She cocked her head. “Are you after Angus, or someone else?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Then neither am I.” She watched him studying her, and wondered if he really had been investigating her, as he had said.

“You like him, don’t you?” It was more of a statement than a question, and Jarod picked up the carton of chicken and vegetables.

“In a grandfatherly sort of way, yeah.”

“Is that how he sees you?”

“Not at all. He sees me as a smart, capable employee whom he trusts. Which is why I should tell him everything I know about you.”

“Are you thinking of staying on with him, even after you’ve finished using him to get what you want?”

Kim almost dropped her bowl, but recovered as quickly as she could. “What makes you think I’m using Angus for anything?”

The knowing look on Jarod’s face changed into bittersweet sympathy. “Because I know why you went to work for him.”

She bristled at his assumption. “How could you possibly - You don’t even know my real name.”

“Not yet. But in time, I will.” He smiled, but his eyes were still sad. “You’re a lot like me. I haven’t met many people who are.”

Kim couldn’t swallow, couldn’t speak. His pain was so evident, so raw, and it resonated in her. Instinct told her that he was kind, that he meant no harm. But there was something else about him that intimidated her. Something primal.

She eyed the pepper he held so deftly in his chopsticks, then shifted her gaze back to his eyes. Big, dark, soulful eyes full of tenderness and longing, hope and hesitant trust. She held her tongue as he put the pepper into his mouth and bit down on it. She couldn’t help smiling, and waited for it to have its searing effect.

His eyes watered. His face flushed, but he didn’t stop chewing. He set down the carton of food, angled toward the sink, turned on the faucet and positioned his head to let the water flow directly into his mouth.

“Water makes it hotter,” she offered mercilessly. “Eat some of the fried rice to cool down.”

Jarod jerked away from the faucet, turned off the water and lunged for the fried rice carton. After he swallowed the first bite, he sighed with relief and wiped his face with his palms. “I see you like it hot,” he mouthed, his voice a hoarse whisper.

She chuckled and swallowed the mouthful she had been enjoying while he struggled with the pepper. “Makes life interesting,” she agreed. “So what are you here for, Delaware?”

He picked up the carton of kung pao chicken again and scooped up a healthy bite of chicken and vegetables, with a broken piece of pepper adding a little color and flavor. “I’m here to try and save a life,” he answered honestly. “Will you help me?”

The heat of the pepper mixed beautifully with the tender chicken, the sweet, crunchy vegetables and savory sauce in the dish. Kim saw the pleasure in his expression as he began to enjoy the new food. It was obvious he’d never eaten anything like it. He closed his eyes and moaned softly. “This is good.”

“I have terms,” she stated. “You’ve told Angus you don’t want surveillance in your suite. That raises questions for me that I know you won’t answer truthfully.”

“Try me.”

She shook her head. “How would I know if you were lying?” Fishing for a piece of plump shrimp, she went on. “I propose an alternative. Angus noticed that look between us yesterday. He’s a sharp guy. So I told him we were old friends.”

“I see.”

She shot him a warning glare. “Don’t be getting any ideas, there, Delaware. This is strictly a business proposition. I don’t want Angus hurt, so the deal is, you get a watchdog while you’re his guest. That way I can be sure you don’t plot anything that I don’t know about.”

“As long as it’s you, I’m okay with that.”

“We can pretend we had a thing for each other, that the flames are rising again.” Something about this idea alarmed her. It felt dangerous. It felt exciting. Her pulse quickened.

Jarod frowned. “You want him to think we were pyromaniacs?”

Caught off-guard, Kim laughed. This guy really needed some work. “Lovers, Delaware. Only behind closed doors, it’s hands off. Just keep it discreet and tasteful in front of Angus, and he’ll believe it. Okay?”

“I can do that.” He set the carton down and met her eyes. “But now I have to kiss you. If we’re going to make it a convincing pretend, we can’t be touching each other for the first time in front of him. The uncertainty will show.”

She hesitated for a moment, but realized he was right. Setting her bowl aside, she slipped off the counter and closed the distance between them. Tiptoeing up to reach him, she gave him a light, impersonal peck on the lips and resumed her seat on the counter. Surely that would be enough.

Gooseflesh rose on her arms. It had been a long time since she had kissed anyone. That casual connection with him left her tingly and slightly disoriented. And before she could gather her wits and her food, he was standing in front of her, his large hands smoothing over her cheeks, holding her face still while he moved in for the real thing.

She saw a glimpse of steel in his coffee-brown eyes before they closed, preparing himself for the business of the coming kiss. His hands were so warm, so gentle. His lips, when they touched hers, were so careful, so hesitant, so uncertain, that she felt an awkward pleasure rise up inside her. It was nice, to be kissed that way. She slid her hands up over his shoulders and around his back, leaning closer for more. His mouth was hot and spicy from the peppers, and as the kiss deepened she felt her head swimming. He was intoxicating. She was losing control. And she liked it.

The kiss seemed endless. Her hands roved over him hungrily, exploring his face, his shoulders, arms and back. With every touch she wanted more, unable to recall anything but the moment, the need she felt, and the pleasure of his responses.

His palm struck the cabinet door behind her head as if to catch his balance. He wrenched himself away from her. Part of her cried out with disappointment, heart pounding from the unexpected noise, but reason flooded in quickly and she realized how she was sitting. Her knees were parted and he stood between them, holding her close with one arm wrapped around her waist. His forehead rested against her neck, and she had pushed his coat completely off his shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. Both of them were trembling, panting as if they had just run a marathon.

“Kim…” he whispered hoarsely. “I can’t… I can’t let anyone close to me. Can’t afford the risk.”

“Not to worry, Delaware,” she breathed. “I don’t plan on sticking around for long either. No strings, okay?”

She could see when he raised his head to regard her that he wasn’t clear on that expression. Such simple clichés, so far beyond him. She wanted to know why he was like that. But he had to understand the limits, and not try to push past them.

“Just remember, this isn’t real,” she warned him. “It’s just for show.”

“Yeah,” he agreed softly, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “That’s the story of my life.” He stroked his fingers across her cheek and swayed drunkenly into an upright position. Pain, longing and loneliness gleamed in his eyes as he stepped back from her.

“Just business,” she reiterated. But the attraction she had felt during that incredible kiss did not go away. He was even more dangerous than she had first thought, and she would have to be wary of him to prevent their conspiracy from becoming all too real. “Besides, you’re not my type.”

“What is your type?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I never found anyone who could keep up with me.”

He nodded. “Just business,” he agreed, and stooped to pick up his jacket. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Intellect kicked into gear. If she left him alone for even a few hours, he could set any number of plans into motion that could have disastrous effects on Angus. She shook her head.

“I’ll pack a bag. I’m moving in with you tonight.”

“Okay,” he murmured. “I’ll drive you.”

She slipped off the counter, aware of how close to the fire she stood. “Don’t get any ideas, Delaware,” she warned him. “I’ll be bunking on the floor next to your bed.”

“You know they’re going to be watching us anyway,” he observed. “But I’ll be a gentleman. Nothing will happen between us. We’ll just make them think it has.”

She looked into his eyes and wanted to believe him, but she knew the fire had already been lit. Things had been set into motion that could not be stopped. She left her food on the counter, no longer hungry, and went into her bedroom to pack. Minutes later, she had shut her laptop down and stowed it into her briefcase, hooked an airline bag over her shoulder and draped a garment bag with several days’ clothing over her left arm. She led the way out the door, locking up behind herself. The next time she returned to that place, she would be a different person, filled with the knowledge of a mystery she had avoided all her life. Part of her was excited, ready for the coming adventure, but more than anything, she was afraid. Things were about to get very complicated between her and the handsome stranger.

“Let’s get it over with,” she ordered, and led the way into the night and back to his suite in MacCaffrey Towers.

* * * * * * * * *

MacCaffrey Building
Security Offices, Surveillance Control

Yuri sat alone in the control room, his fingers gliding across the controls for the video panel, watching the pair move through the building. The tension between them was even more palpable now than it had been the previous morning in the conference room. Something had happened to up the stakes, and he was certain it could only be one of two things: a conspiracy had been enjoined, or things had gotten personal. Either way, he could use their changed relationship to his advantage in controlling old Angus. It would be fun to watch the old man squirm.

Enjoying a cup of café latte while he relaxed, Yuri nudged the volume controls up a notch and listened as the couple entered the guest quarters, temporarily ignoring the computer beside him as his searches through the Internet for any scraps of information on this enigmatic man ran on their own. Rostov might be head of security there, but Yuri followed no one’s orders except on the surface. He had business there, and if this Pendleton fellow met his criteria, he’d be next on the list.

Yuri had gotten a charge out of looking into that Halliburton the guy carried. He had not been able to make time yet to steal into the guest quarters and fetch one of the disks to test it out, but the machine told him a great deal. This guy was connected with the Centre - Yuri recognized the technology - and he was going to find out everything there was to know about Pendleton. It was time he left MacCaffrey anyway, as soon as he was finished with Angus.

* * * * * * * * *

MacCaffrey Building
Guest Suite

Recalling the rehearsed dialogue they had discussed in the car, Jarod began as soon as the door had closed. “You’re sure Angus won’t have a problem with this? It’s not a conflict of interest?”

Kim set her bags on the floor and pressed herself against him. “Angus needs money. You want to give him some. I don’t see a problem there.” She kissed him briefly, sensuously, and slid out of his embrace to retrieve her things and carry them into the bedroom. “Getting to spend time together is a fringe benefit for both of us.”

He followed her, his hands sliding into his trouser pockets while he watched her hang her clothes into the closet beside his. He strolled purposefully about the room, re-checking for surveillance devices that might have been planted or moved during his absence. “I forgot exactly why we broke up.”

“I think it was more our schedules than anything. Long distance relationships never work, so we just sort of let go when the time came to part ways. At least, that’s how I remember it.”

He nodded, continuing his sweep of the room. “I’m glad we got a second chance, Kim. I missed you.”

Glancing at him over her shoulder, she agreed. “You’ve been on my mind a lot, too.” She carried a gold satin slip she had taken from her overnight bag into the bathroom. Moments later, she emerged wearing the flimsy garment, her blonde hair down around her shoulders. Suddenly, she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.

Jarod couldn’t help but be affected by the sight of her.

“I’d almost forgotten how beautiful you are,” he whispered, then shook his head. “No. I could never forget that, Kim.”

She smiled, her cheeks pinking slightly. “One of the things I most enjoyed about you was the time you took with foreplay. Hours and hours of it.” She took him by the hand and led him to the sofa in the next room. “How about some music?”

“Does the suite come with anything I like?” He sat down and waited for her, enjoying watching her move about the room in that barely-there lingerie.

“Let me see,” she mused, running her fingers over the spines of the CD jewel cases. She selected a half dozen discs from the same section of the shelf and put them into the stereo. “McKennitt, Brightman and MacLaughlin,” she announced. “Three of your favorites.” And as the soft, sensual music began to fill the room, she settled herself in Jarod’s arms, ready to play her part in the drama they had crafted together.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre parking lot

“Where are you going?”

Miss Parker turned at the sound of Lyle’s voice, taking note of his position in the parking lot. He must have just arrived from somewhere, since he and his henchman were just getting out of Lyle’s car.

“Since when do I report to you?” she snapped, turning back toward her car, purse and briefcase in hand, trying not to hurry away from them.

Lyle jogged to catch up with her, while Valentine followed at a more relaxed pace. “Got news on Jarod?” Lyle demanded. He was smiling as if he knew something.

She froze him with a glance, and hit the auto-unlock on her electronic key fob. “You’ll know when I bring him back.” She got into the car and hit the electronic lock, but a fraction of a second after Lyle opened the passenger door.

He got in, unlocked the car to allow Valentine into the back seat, and buckled himself into place. “Where are we going?”

“Get out!” she snarled. She wanted no tail on this mission. No one needed to know where she was going. She hadn’t even told Broots.

“If you’re out to catch Jarod, you might need some muscle.” He nodded toward the back seat. “And personally, I’m curious how you located Jarod that last time. Out of all the places he could have been in the world, how did you pick that sleazy hotel? Sorry, but I’ve just got to know."

"If you knew how Jarod's mind works, like I do," she spat, "you'd get it. But since you don't, get the hell out of my car so I can do my job!"

Lyle smiled smugly at her. “Nope. Not this time. Where are we going?”

“New York. Got enough meds to keep you stable for that long a drive, there and back?”

Valentine reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a small medical case. He flipped it open to show her the vial and sheathed syringes that would give Lyle several days’ worth of his necessary medication.

She could see that she wasn’t going to get them out of the car. But she could certainly lose them once she got to the city, just long enough to do her business and look like she was doing her job. That would have to be good enough.

She started the car and drove away.

* * * * * * * * *

New York City

It was nightfall when she arrived. She took the time to check into her favorite hotel, letting the two men deal with the desk clerk on their own. She went to her room long enough to drop off her bag, then headed for the restaurant with the men shadowing her. She would not allow them to sit at the table with her, and took her time looking over the menu. When they had placed their order, she headed for the ladies’ room, went out through the bathroom window, and continued on her mission.

Her notes had given her most of the information she needed, and the rest of it she got from Broots. She knew the lawyer’s address, and drove directly to Metis House. From the outside she could see that the lights were on, and she hoped that Michael Steinberg was home.

Schmoozing her way past the doorman, she walked confidently up to his apartment and knocked.

The man who opened it was silver haired but still attractive, and obviously shocked to lay eyes on her.

“Catherine!” he whispered in awe.

“No,” Parker answered. “I’m her daughter. May I come in, Mr. Steinberg?”

His grip on the door handle tightened, and a look of alarm flared in his eyes. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

“I know how you helped my mother,” she began softly. “I know how dangerous it was for you, and I’m grateful. But now I need your help, too, and no one else can answer my questions.” She glanced away, making sure they were alone. “Please. I promise it won’t take long. I don’t want anyone to know I was here.”

He nodded, stepped aside and let her in.


Act IV

MacCaffrey Building

“That was quite a performance last night,” she commented over her coffee. The morning was breezy and cool, and she couldn’t get over her embarrassment of the previous night. “If you missed any of the surveillance devices, I’m sure they got quite a show.”

He nodded. “That was the idea.” Pushing his plate away, no longer interested in the jelly doughnut, he met her eyes. “You sound disappointed. You didn’t think I’d actually --“

“No, of course not,” she cut in. Her face was heating up again. That was exactly what she had thought, that he would take advantage of the situation and find some way to make the intimacy a reality. Instead, he had merely acted the part, convincing her so often that she was completely lost in the fantasy at times.

Jarod smiled. “Good. I did give you my word, you know.” He glanced up at the clear blue sky, took a deep breath of air and fished out his wallet to pay the bill. A waiter appeared instantly to clear away the plates and offer to bring change, which he declined. “Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” She just couldn’t figure him out. But the more she knew about him, the more she wanted to know.

“To finish what I started. I said I was here to save a life, and as long as you’re willing to keep my secrets, you get to watch.”

“Okay. I’m game. What are we doing?”

“Laying down the parameters of the simulation,” he told her, pushing back his chair. “First, we gather information.”

“Like what?” She drained her cup and stood to follow him out of the café where they had shared breakfast.

“I already have a complete employee list of MacCaffrey Enterprises. I’ve examined the rash of recent deaths of executives, department heads and scientists employed by the company, as well as all the recent hires of new employees, including you. This is only one of the major corporations affected, but it’s the one I chose to investigate.”

“And?”

“Now we take a look into the deaths of those employees working only for the New York based companies. You know a little something about law enforcement…” He grinned broadly and opened the car door for her. “So I’ll expect you to keep up with me.”

An hour later, he was dressed in a cop’s uniform and she wore a flashy, tightly fitting ensemble accented with a pair of gleaming chrome handcuffs pinning her hands behind her. Towing her into a police substation as if she was under arrest, he hauled her past the front desk, into a busy room filled with desks and a hive of uniformed officers hustling suspects to and fro. She whined and cajoled him as he had instructed her, and he harshly reminded her that he was a servant of the law, and not subject to persuasion by her charms.

Sitting her down on a bench with a couple of other handcuffed criminals, he headed for the files and helped himself to a couple of folders. Then he pulled her to her feet again. “Let’s go, sister,” he told her firmly. “Time to get your picture made again.”

Turning down several corridors, he unfastened the cuffs and led her out a rear exit and back to his car.

“Wasn’t that fun?” he beamed, and handed the folders to her.

“Next time, I get to be the cop,” she pouted.

“Well, then, what do you know about forensic medicine?” He started up the car, ignoring her suspicious stare.

“Why?” She opened the first folder and started looking through it. “You are going to give these back, aren’t you?”

“I always do,” he promised. With a chuckle, he added, “Do you want to be the coroner or the corpse?”

After another costume change, he walked her into the County Coroner’s office. Thirty minutes later, they left with the information they had come to liberate, got into his car and headed for Central Park. Jarod stopped off at a hot dog vendor’s cart long enough to buy lunch, and then took Kim to a secluded area where he spread out his purloined files and began to study them.

He wolfed down his hot dog in a few eager bites, and started a monologue as he discovered clues hidden away in the files.

“Some of the deaths I have pegged as natural causes,” he began, and pulled a sheet of paper from his jacket pocket. “Some are probably the honest accidents they appear, but I want to make sure.” He flipped open the police reports, and skimmed quickly through them, pointing out suspicious details. “Let’s check the coroner’s reports now.”

Flipping through photographs, he showed her inconsistencies with what the police reports indicated, and inside an hour, he had determined that three of the four cases were more likely murders than accidents… or the suicide the police had declared, the story that had drawn him there in the first place.

“Not bad,” Kim told him after watching him work. “So you think whoever killed these guys may strike again, is that it?”

“I do. And Angus is the most likely target.”

She was on her feet in a heartbeat, gathering up the folders and stacking them neatly into a pile. “Then let’s go.”

Jarod stayed where he was. “That’s not how this guy works, Kim. We have time yet.”

“You’ve got him figured out,” she reminded her companion. “What else do you need?”

“I’m not sure who he is, just yet. I have to wait for him to make his move before I can catch him.” That wasn’t completely true. He had checked into Al Jergens’ accident and figured out that the man must have picked up Yuri shortly after his ‘release,’ then somehow ended up trying to track down information on him just over a year later. Jergens must have tipped off the former Centre denizen, and Yuri had followed him out there and killed him on the very stretch of road where he’d been saved. Jarod knew Yuri was still sniffing around MacCaffrey Enterprises, and he had suspects in mind, but nothing concrete on any of them yet. He needed a little more information, and then he would be ready to make his move.

Jarod didn’t want Kim to go off half-cocked and get herself in the path of trouble. She was an impulsive woman. That would be in-character for her, and he intended to keep her safe. “Besides, he’s got a plan. He doesn’t just move in for the kill. He’s very careful about how he sets things up. There’s a pattern to who he chooses and why.”

“So why Angus? Why any of these guys?”

His expression darkened. “It has to do with power,” he explained soberly. “The killer chooses those who wield it without mercy, without conscience… or so he perceives them. And even though Angus is a kind man, honest and just, because he holds the reins of the company, he’s the biggest prize of all. The killer will want to take his time with Angus. He’ll want to enjoy making the old man helpless first, before he kills. He'll want him to suffer.”

Kim studied him, her eyes narrowed. “So what do you have in mind? What’s your battle plan?”

Jarod reclined against the grass, closed his eyes and began to reel off one possible plan of action.

When he glanced at Kim to see if she bought the fiction, she was nowhere to be seen. And she had taken the files and his car with her.

* * * * * * * * *

New York City
Elan Hotel

Parker strode purposefully across the huge lobby, coming to a stop in front of the desk. She flashed a photo of Jarod at the clerk, and asked if she had seen the man.

“One moment, please,” the woman smiled, and left to fetch the manager.

Lyle leaned against the counter. “Valentine, how about a newspaper?” he suggested, and his sidekick dutifully left to fetch one from the concierge desk not far away. Turning to his companion, the thumbless man smiled and adjusted his glove. “You certainly were gone a long time last night, sis. Not feeling well?”

She cast him a glare filled with disgust. “Yes. You make me sick, Lyle.”

He chuckled. Valentine returned and offered only one section of the Times, which he proceeded to look through until he found what he wanted. He folded the paper open to that page, then laid it on the counter in plain sight. “Well, I’ve heard that’s a common attribute of siblings,” he mused. “But just so you know, your promotion to SIS has been beneficial to the whole family. You’d be surprised how much weight dropping your name has these days.”

Her gaze fell on the page he so obviously wanted her to see, and she saw the photograph of Michael Steinberg right away. The headline described that the lawyer’s body had been found in his apartment, apparently slain in his own bed. Lyle knew why she had gone there, and either he or Valentine had seen to it that any more information Michael Steinberg had buried would soon be buried with him.

Her belly clenched. Sometimes she forgot how dangerous this man was, until he reminded her. But she would not forget again.

The manager came up to the desk, and Miss Parker tore her eyes away from the newspaper to return to business. She would satisfy those in power that she was still doing her job, but every advance she made toward implementing her mother’s plan took her closer to her own death. And she had a sneaking suspicion that it was standing right beside her.

* * * * * * * * *

MacCaffrey Building

Jarod stepped out of Ms. Destry's car to the sound of rolling thunder signaling an approaching storm. He hoped he wasn’t too late. He thanked her for her generous support, released her from further service and jogged into the building. Trying not to attract attention, he headed straight for the elevator, sweat beading on his upper lip as he watched the floors fly by.

He stepped out into the command center, hurrying toward Angus’s newly resumed corner office. It was empty. The secretary directed him to the guest suites, where he was supposed to be meeting MacCaffrey.

Jarod rushed in, certain now that he had miscalculated the killer’s timetable, aware that he was now a pawn in the game rather than a player.

Angus sat on the sofa beside Kim, his arm around her shoulders protectively. On the coffee table before them, Jarod’s Halliburton sat open, the screen animated with one of his more gruesome simulations. He had been in his early teens at the time, and the psychological damage that pretend left him with made him unable to sleep properly for weeks afterward. Man and woman were riveted by the scene, and did not look up to take notice of his entry into the room.

“Turn it off,” he demanded.

“Let them watch,” said a familiar voice from deeper inside the room. "They've never seen anything like this before. But I have."

Jarod came all the way into the room, glancing to the left to see Rostov perched on the back of an overstuffed chair, the soles of his shoes on the seat cushions. He was just out of sight of the door but close enough to keep his audience where he wanted them, with the aid of a broomhandled Mauser. The pistol never wavered from its target as Jarod moved slowly into the room.

Rostov smiled at him. “You do good work,” he praised. “I was never quite that efficient. I could have been, but I really didn’t want to put myself out. You know?”

“Did you escape, or did they get rid of you, Yuri?” Jarod asked.

Surprise flashed over Rostov’s face. “Oh, my. You are good. I can see why they want you back so badly.” He rose and stepped off the chair, ignoring the screams of the boy in the video. “But you know just how far to go to stay out of their reach, don’t you, Jarod? You let them have a taste now and then to keep them interested in the chase, but you know they’ll never catch you. You’re too smart for that.”

Jarod’s gaze slid to Kim, who was now looking right at him. A small trickle of blood at her hairline oozed down her forehead, and beneath it a dark bruise was starting to color. Her eyes were haunted, but she was not afraid.

“Turn it off,” he ordered her quietly. “You’ve seen enough.”

“I thought they were quite captivated,” Yuri confessed. “Thanks for being away for so long. But then, you had a lot of information to dig up, didn’t you? I expected you to be gone longer, I’ll admit. And I wasn’t expecting Ms. Argent here to be point man. Good thing I’m adaptable.” He grinned, moving toward the window to put Angus between him and Jarod.

“Let them go,” the Pretender ordered softly. “I’ll be much more entertaining than they are.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, my brilliant friend. However, it does surprise me that you want to save garbage like him. Her, I can understand. She’s quite a babe, and obviously a demon in the sack. Or was that all just for show?”

“Every life is worth saving,” Jarod told him, angling toward the sofa. If he stepped directly toward Yuri, he knew that would set the other man off, so he closed the gap by moving diagonally, nearer the hostages. “I should think your time at the Centre would have shown you that. You know what it’s like to feel powerless. Why not help those like you?”

Yuri nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.” He pointed at Angus. “Do you know what his company does? It chews up brilliant people and spits them out when they're all used up. I’m changing things. I’m creating openings where others who aren’t so power-mad can grow into them. I’m righting wrongs, just like you do. We want the same things, Jarod. Only I use a slightly different method than yours. I take the tyrants out of the picture. I keep them from doing more harm. The difference between us is, you make it possible for them to get back into the game.”

“I make it possible for the law to deal with them, as it should,” Jarod corrected. “You can’t exact vengeance yourself. That’s not the way things work.”

“Yeah. Right,” Yuri sneered. “That’s why you gad about terrorizing the bad guys into confessions that won’t hold up in court. Evidence obtained under duress can’t be admitted. Or weren’t you aware of that self-defeating part of the legal system?”

Jarod said nothing for a moment. He always made sure there was enough evidence to convict without those confessions. His track record, as Yuri called it, was clean. Every arrest he had engineered resulted in prison time… but not a one of the admissions of guilt ever made it before a jury. Those were for his satisfaction alone.

“You like putting the screws to the bad guys,” Yuri added. “It’s fun. It’s part of your heritage of pain. Go on, admit it.”

Easing slowly closer, Jarod skimmed his fingers over Kim’s shoulder. She was looking at the screen on the DSA player. Clutched in her hand was one of the little holographic discs. He felt her tense. She was going to move while Yuri’s attention was fixed on Jarod.

He pressed down on her shoulder, hoping she would understand that he wanted her to wait.

“I doubt either one of you truly realizes what you’re doing,” Angus mused softly, his gaze still riveted to the screen. “The people who did this to you made sure that you dissociated yourself from your own emotions as well as from the world around you. And I’m guessing that both of you came from the same place.”

“It’s called The Centre,” Yuri admitted. “Place up in Delaware in a town nobody ever heard of.”

Angus sighed wearily. “We buy research from the Centre. We’ve contracted with them for years.” He turned to face Jarod, alarmed. “Do you mean to tell me that my empire has been built on the torment of children?” His dark eyes flashed with outrage. “How can this be? How could they have gotten away with this for so long?”

Yuri snarled, “Because people like you don’t care where the information comes from, or at what price. You don’t bother to look beneath the surface. You don’t check things out for yourself. You just shop around for resources and take whatever you want.” He inched the pistol’s muzzle just a fraction upward and smiled. “And now the flame of Jehovah has come to cleanse you of your sins.”

Thunder rolled again, closer now, bringing the storm closer. Lightning flashed, and everything seemed to happen at once.

Angus stood up. Kim leaned left, dodging him, and hurled the disc hard at Yuri’s hand. Jarod lunged toward Yuri just as he squeezed the trigger. His hand flinched as the disk struck home, skewing his aim. The bullet sliced through the air where Jarod had been standing a fraction of a second earlier, completely missing its intended target.

Yuri recovered his aim just as Jarod reached for him. He fired off another round, but Kim had shifted direction and come up under Angus, slamming him backward over the sofa. They toppled head first onto the carpet just as Jarod’s fist connected with Yuri’s jaw.

But Yuri was already on the move, dodging behind the coffee table. He sprinted for the door with Jarod hot on his heels, dashing out into the corridor with orders to the guards now pouring into the room.

“Take him down, boys!” Yuri cried. “He’s got a gun!”

The men stormed into the suite with guns drawn. The point man tackled Jarod around the waist, forcing him back into the room, dropping him hard against the floor. Jarod shouted for them to stop Rostov, but training superseded blind faith, and the men carried out their orders on cue. By the time Angus informed them of their error, Yuri had vanished.

* * * * * * * * *

MacCaffrey Enterprises
Lobby

Parker drummed her fingers on the receptionist’s desk, frowning at the man in uniform standing impassively behind the young woman, frantically calling to try to locate the company’s elite guest.

“I know he’s here,” the blonde assured her. “I saw him come in about three hours ago. He went straight to the elevators.”

“What floor?” Lyle demanded impatiently.

“I don’t know. He could be anywhere.”

“Well, then find someone who does know, and take us to him.” Miss Parker’s tone was icy. She was tense, hoping Jarod had been tipped off and was already on his way out the building. There had been no time to call him and warn him off with her escorts hot on her tail every moment.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she paced a small section of the floor in front of the spacious marble booth, head down, thinking.

She dared not tell Lyle what she had learned from Michael Steinberg. The man had been open to her need for information. Though he had not been able to answer any questions directly, he had given her a key and a location where many of his files were stored. From there, she would be able to trace some of the missing children that her mother had rescued from the Centre. She knew chances were slim that she would find many of them still alive, and of those there might not be even one who believed her, or would volunteer to help her when the time came. Jarod was free again and ready to help, but there were only a handful of people she knew she could trust, including the Pretender. It would take far more than that to make significant changes in how things were done in the Centre.

It would take an army of true believers, and she was fresh out of that at the moment.

Things were looking grim, and try as she might, she just didn’t see things improving down the line. Evil had too firm a foothold on the powerful there. Failure, however, was not an option. There was an answer somewhere… all she had to do was find it, before the watchdogs tore her to pieces.

* * * * * * * * *

Guest Suite
MacCaffrey Building

Kim had rolled to her side of the bed, facing away from him as if to put what they had done behind her. But Jarod couldn't shut her out. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling for a while, watching the flickering images of the city in the rain dance across the hand-carved plaster swirls.

"Penny for your thoughts," she said without turning over.

"I don't want to walk away, now that this is all over, Kim. That's what I always do, you know."

"I pegged you for that kind of guy," she admitted. Slowly she rolled onto her back, not daring to meet his eyes, choosing the safety of the impartial ceiling as a target instead. "But that's my act, too. It's safer that way."

"Safer for whom?"

"You know the answer to that, Delaware." She sat up, swinging her legs off the side of the bed and reaching for the slip she had lost earlier. She snatched her blouse from the foot of the bed and shrugged into it. They had come back to the suite to gather his luggage and to say good-bye, and things had gotten out of hand. Both of them had let it.

"Yes. I know. And maybe it's time for us to stop running away from who we are, what we are. Maybe it's time we learned to trust somebody else with our secrets, share the things that hurt us, and risk finding that kindred spirit we never thought existed."

He heard her sniff, but her voice was steady and clear, tinged with bitterness. "Pretty speech. But you know neither one of us can afford to go there."

Jarod reached across the bed, snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her down to the mattress, rising up on his elbows above her. "Only because we choose not to, Kim. That's a choice we don't have to make. We don't have to be alone forever."

There were tears in her eyes. One trickled across her temple, and she scrubbed it angrily away. "I don't do white picket fences and cozy cottages in the suburbs," she snapped. "And I can't see you doing that scene either, Jarod."

He almost smiled, pleased that she had finally called him by his name. But the moment of good humor evaporated with the sight of the pain in her eyes. "Trust me, Kim," he pleaded softly. "Let me help you.”

"The people who adopted me were Sarah and Terry Leone," she told him. “Michael Steinberg arranged it. My folks didn’t qualify for a regular adoption since they moved around so much. But Steinberg knew they were just what he was looking for. A lady named Catherine Parker brought me to him and told him that I would need to be kept safe. She said I would be talented and bright, and need lots of stimulation and challenges. I would be a chameleon.”

“And that’s what your parents named you. Kimmie Leone.”

“Kimberly E., for Esperanza. And yeah. Mom used to remind me of that all the time. She was a linguist and translator. My dad was a freelance photographer, so I grew up everywhere. After they died, I found some papers and a photograph that my mom had left for me. She wanted me to know who I was, to find my birth parents and learn where I came from. I’ve been looking for five years, and Catherine Parker is as far as I’ve gotten.”

He sat up slowly, never breaking eye contact. His throat closed up, preventing his response for a moment.

“I know where you came from,” he whispered at last. His eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away.

Kim stared. She shook her head, denying his verdict. “No. Not from there.” Her eyes gleamed with anger and refusal to believe. She pushed out from beneath him and rose, pacing at the side of the bed, emotions boiling over.

He nodded, understanding her reluctance to accept his pronouncement. She had seen what had happened to him as a child. She knew what kind of place it was, that the people who held the power there were capable of anything. But he needed to know how she felt about him, if her perception of him had changed because of what she had seen.

"Am I a monster, Kim?"

She frowned at him and swung to a stop. "What? What did you say?"

"You saw how I grew up. You know what I am now. Does it… does it make me a monster?"

Kim was panting now, filled with helpless rage, but his calm, hesitant question hit her like a bucket of cold water. "Does it… Hell, no, Jarod! They're the monsters, the people who treated you like that. I can't imagine--"

He sat up on the side of the mattress, his shoulders hunched, head bowed. "I often thought that, if people saw those DSAs, saw what I did, what I could do, that they would see me as… unnatural. Alien. Less than human. Sometimes, I caught people watching them. Knowing what I am changed them, how they acted toward me."

She stood still, frowning with concentration, trying to grasp this dynamic shift in her thoughts. "Were they… were they afraid of you? Cause I can't imagine somebody seeing that and feeling anything but outrage at how you were treated." She smoothed her hair back from her face distractedly. "My God, the abuse…" She swallowed hard, and raised tear-filled eyes to meet his. "How they hurt you, Jarod. There really is a Hell for children. And you grew up in it."

"The Centre was my whole world, Kim. I didn't know there was anything but that for a very long time." He stood up and slid his arms slowly, lightly around her waist. "That's also why Catherine Parker got you out. That’s what she was saving you from. Just like she tried to save me… but they killed her before she could get me out."

Kim nodded and scrubbed away an errant tear. "I'm grateful to her for rescuing me. But I still want to know who my real parents were. Now, more than ever."

"If you let me, maybe I can help."

She gazed up at him for a long time. Her hands came up to touch his face, stroke across the stiff five-o'clock shadow delineating his cheeks, and then she nodded. She eased out of his embrace and strode into the living room, retrieving her purse. Returning to the bed, she sat in the halo of light from the lamp, opened her handbag and pulled out a slim wallet. From it, she pulled a small, old black and white photograph of a smiling blonde woman. “This was my mother.”

Jarod recognized her face instantly and sat down beside her.

"Her name was Alexis Moore," he told her. "She died when you were born." He sat down on the bed beside her.

"You knew her?" Hope and incredulity beamed from Kim's face. "Do you know anything about my father?"

The Pretender took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "His name was Jacob. Do you remember the man conducting the experiments with me?"

Her throat worked to swallow, and it was a moment before she could push the question out. "His name was Sydney, wasn’t it?"

He handed the photo back. "Yes. Sydney and Jacob were twins. Sydney is your uncle." Jarod smiled warmly at her and stroked a lock of hair back from her forehead. “You have your father’s eyes.”

She sighed. "And since you’re speaking in the past tense about Jacob, that means my father’s dead, too, right?"

"Yes. He died two years ago. Sydney was devastated."

"Oh."

He knew what would come next.

"You could meet Sydney, if you wanted. I could arrange it… He’s been looking for you, Kim."

“I’ll have to think about that. I’m not sure if I want to meet the man who tortured you as a child.”

“I can understand that. Sometimes it's hard to know exactly how I feel about Sydney, but there were circumstances those recordings didn't show. He… he protected me, too. Gave me refuge when I needed it most,” Jarod assured her. “He was the closest thing to a father I had.”

She shrugged, leaning away from him as he tried to put his arm around her. “I’m okay, Jarod,” she assured him with a sniff. “I’m not happy about it, but it won’t kill me. I’ll get over it.” Shakily, she wiped her face and buttoned up her blouse. “I guess that’s it, then. No more hunting for loose ends.”

“What will you do now?”

Kim got up and headed for the living room, where she had left her skirt. “Travel. Try something new. I’ve been here way too long already.”

He followed her into the next room, dressing in her wake. “Come with me. Maybe you can help me find my family.”

She shook her head and smiled up at him. “Yuri said those people want you back,” she reminded him. “How far do you think we’d get together? No, you’ll be faster on your own.”

“They won’t catch me if I don’t want them to,” he insisted.

Slipping into her skirt and zipping it up the back, she glanced around for her jacket. “And if they had me to use as a bargaining tool against you, do you think you’d be so quick to leave me behind? Get real, Delaware. They’ll never leave you alone, and anyone you take with you will be a target, too.”

Jarod said nothing, knowing she was right. But it hurt to see her so casual about parting with him. He thought -- he had hoped -- that he meant something to her. That she cared.

“If you could stay with me,” he asked softly, “would you want to?”

Her head came up. Her expression was unreadable. “Don’t go there,” she told him. “Neither of us can afford to indulge in that fantasy.”

“I just…” He shrugged, uncertain what he wanted to say.

She stepped into her shoes without breaking eye contact. Looking away long enough to grab her jacket off the back of the sofa, she advanced on him. “Here’s my answer, Jarod.” Her arms came up around his neck in a fierce embrace. She kissed him hungrily, deeply.

He could feel her trembling, feel how her lips quivered as they slid away from his. And then she was headed for the door without looking back. By the time she crossed the threshold she was running, a softly suppressed sob echoing in his ears.

Jarod finished dressing, packed up the Halliburton, the DSAs and all the clothes he intended to take with him. He was used to traveling light, and one small valise held everything he chose to keep. There were a few loose ends that needed tying up, and by the time he finished the rain had stopped. The departing storm growled at him in its wake.

Just as he was getting ready to walk out the door, the suite telephone rang.

“Yes?”

It was Angus, and his voice sounded grave. “The front desk just rang me, but I thought I should be the one to tell you. Visitors have arrived that you won’t want to see. I’ve got my people stalling them until I get there. Meanwhile, we’re preparing a helicopter for you on the roof. It will take you anywhere you want to go, my young friend.”

“Thanks, Angus.”

For a moment, MacCaffrey said nothing. “You can be certain I’ll be cutting all ties with the Centre,” he promised. “And I’ll thoroughly investigate any other firms with whom I do business in the future. This will never happen again, Jarod. Not with MacCaffrey Enterprises, anyway. Now, hurry upstairs. You’ll miss your flight.”

Jarod understood. “I’ll be making a large deposit into the company accounts soon, as promised in our agreement. I think the research you’re doing will help a lot of people, save a lot of lives.”

“Take care of yourself, Jarod. Godspeed.”

Jarod hung up the phone and headed for the elevators. Moments later, he watched Miss Parker, Mr. Lyle and a sweeper he didn’t recognize rush out onto the roof just as the helicopter turned in the air to make its way out into the city and elsewhere. He waved, but this time, he didn’t smile.

Kim Leone came out from behind one of the massive air conditioning units on the far side of the helipad, and watched him leave. After a moment, she waved back. And then she released a small piece of paper that flew out of her hand in the rotor wash still buffeting the building.

He knew what it was. The photograph of Alexis sailed away, off the roof and down into the canyon between buildings to the street below. She didn’t need it anymore. She had found what she had been looking for, and let it go when the quest was over. If she wanted to make connections with her last remaining family member, she knew who to ask.

Jarod watched the people disappear in the distance, looking until he couldn’t even see the building anymore.

It was enough.

She cared.

End of Episode
Chameleon