Christmas Present


home / season six / episode nine / act I

Miss Parker didn’t understand why she needed to drive to Vermont to catch a plane. She could just as easily have done that from Dover, but Jarod had specified that she needed to take off from Montpelier. The ticket was for Anchorage, with stops in Chicago and Seattle, and from Anchorage a small plane waited to fly her north to Barrow, on the northernmost tip of Alaska.

In the dead of winter, she began to feel that she had made a colossal error in taking Jarod’s direction on this little trip. The flight in that tiny plane under such frigid conditions made her doubt both her sanity and his, but eventually the ski plane set down on a field of pristine white snow, none the worse for the flight. The pilot was gracious enough to unload her bags into the waiting dogsled, and with a groan, she settled herself beneath the blankets, tightened her parka around her face, adjusted her sunglasses, and waited to see where she was going.

It took them half a day to reach the weather station out in the wilderness. The Inuit guide told her as they approached that the bunker had been deserted for at least a decade, until Jarod had appeared to spruce it up. Like so many others who had met the Pretender, the guide seemed to like him a great deal, and Parker wondered what good deed he might have performed for the people of Barrow - or this man in particular - that engendered such warm feelings.

By the time she pried herself off the sled, she was too cold to care. The Inuit carried her bags into the bunker after he opened the door for her, and then set off with his team again for town, racing home in the darkness. Parker dusted the snow off herself and glanced around the entry area for signs of life, or breadcrumbs that would tell her where to go next.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…”

The song came over the speakers mounted near the interior door, Bing Crosby crooning out the mellow tune from what sounded like a worn-out vinyl record. She frowned at the speakers, shooting them a frosty glare. “Stuff it, Bing,” she snarled, her lips all but frozen solid.

But then another deep male voice chimed in, a familiar one that couldn’t carry a tune in a Halliburton.

At last, she had discovered something Jarod couldn’t do.

She grinned as he appeared in the doorway, dressed neatly in black jeans and a thermal Henley shirt. “Tone deaf, are you, Jarod?” she teased, and blew warm air into her hands to heat both fingers and lips.

“Miss Parker, be kind,” he teased back, a grin quirking at the corners of his mouth, barely suppressed. “It’s almost Christmas. This close to the North Pole, Santa Claus will hear you.”

Rubbing her hands against the puffy sleeves of the snow-dusted parka she wore, she shook her head, her smile fading gently away. “So what’s this all about? Why’d you send me the ticket? Why all the connections, instead of a straight shot here? And what is this place, Superman, your Fortress of Solitude?”

He smiled fully at her, his dark eyes twinkling with secrets. “We need to talk, and I wanted to make sure we aren’t disturbed. I had you go on a roundabout course to throw off anyone they might have tailing you, and even arranged for lookalikes to lead them on false trails along the way. I also had your luggage checked in Chicago, in case any of it was tagged with beacons. As for this place, there are perimeter sensors and radar coverage that will let me know if anyone approaches, well in advance. Then I can either leave, or go underground to my secret hideaway and wait it out. It’s not the first time I’ve done that. It’s fun watching you look through the things I leave behind.”

She breathed a whispered laugh. “I’ll watch out for that in the future. So what do we need to talk about? Have you got a strategy worked up to implement my mother’s plan yet?”

“Some of it. Other parts I’m still working on.” He reached to help her out of her coat and hung it on a rack near the door. Then he took her suitcases and led her into the building proper.

The weather station looked to have been made of cindercrete blocks, mostly left in their raw state or painted a light blue. Jarod had personalized it, with airbrushed clouds on the walls that gave the impression of a sunny sky. The concrete floors were just rough enough to provide traction for snow-encrusted boots, and Parker stamped her feet to rid them of excess ice she had gathered on her way from the sled to the door.

He gave her a brief tour of the place, indicating with a nod of his head to the left or right which door opened into what sort of room. There was a great deal of storage where he had packed in foods and sundries, medical supplies -- he had set up a complete infirmary, though she hoped one wouldn't be necessary -- surveillance equipment, a kitchen, and quarters for a small army. He put her things into one of them, and she was bowled over by the sight of the interior. The cindercrete walls had been covered over with split logs that gave the impression of a wilderness cabin. Thick carpet padded and warmed the floor, and the furnishings looked amazingly like those in her own bedroom. There was even a cluster of photos of herself, her mother, Ethan, Faith and Gabriel on her bureau.

“You must’ve spent a lot of time putting all this together,” she told him in awe. “Not to mention the trouble of bringing it all here. This is positively cozy.”

“What's a simulation without props?" he asked with a mischievous grin. "Your bathroom’s through that door.” He pointed to the far wall after setting her suitcases on the bed. “I’ll leave you some time to unpack and settle in. Meanwhile, I’ll be in the gym.”

“The gym? You’ve got a gym here, too?”

He pointed to a laminated card hanging on the back of the door. “Here’s a floor plan, in case you get lost or need to know where something is.” Jarod headed for the door.

“Wait! Why did you do all this? We could talk on the phone, and not run the risk of anybody knowing what’s up. I had to do a lot of fancy footwork just to get the time off.”

He eyed her solemnly for a moment. “Like I said, we need to talk.” He smiled, and his eyes revealed the pain he was keeping buried inside. “About our son.”

Her breath caught. She understood, perhaps not exactly where he wanted to go with that conversation, but she knew it was going to be deep stuff. There were a whole host of issues that subject needed to cover, and it could certainly take a while. “How long were you planning to keep me, Jarod?”

He had already gone out the door when she asked, but he stopped and peered at her around the door playfully, his eyes twinkling again. “As long as it takes.”

“That,” she reminded him, “could be a very long time. I have a job to get back to, and I was hoping to be with Gabriel for Christmas.”

“Christmas is in the heart,” he said sagely. “It’ll wait till you get back to him.”

She watched him disappear, and thought about what he had said while she unloaded her suitcase and hung her clothes in the closet.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Room X

Valentine placed his palm on the door scanner, and the lock disengaged. He strolled in and secured it behind himself after flipping on the lights. Glancing around the room, he could see that it was exactly as he had left it the last time he was there.

He nodded his head in approval, and took a seat on the cloth-covered chair. Carefully he lifted the dust cover off the computer terminal and set it aside on the floor. He booted it up, keyed in his password, and tapped into the security network with expert precision.

From the dim recesses of his computer’s memory, he located the Gateway program. From there, he had access to every security camera in the complex, including the ones that did not register on the SIS network. He activated the one he wanted with an alphanumeric code, and sat back as the video feed began to stream into his monitor screen.

Mr. Parker sat at his desk, working on papers. He was alone in the office, but he kept glancing toward the door, as if he expected someone to enter at any moment. He was sweating, beads of perspiration visible on his forehead. His left hand trembled as he clutched a yellow folder, and abruptly he dropped both folder and pen.

“Leave me alone!” he growled to the empty room. “I know what you are, Catherine. You’re not real. Go away!”

He shoved at the papers, pushing them violently away. They swept pictures, a penholder and a carved wooden rabbit off with them, landing on the floor on the far side of the desk. He stood, snarled with frustration, and began to pace and wring his hands.

“She’s not there. You’re just imagining it,” he told himself. “Can’t let anybody see me like this.” He smoothed his dome with both hands, struggling to get a grip on himself. After a few moments, he sighed with relief, and set about cleaning up his mess.

Valentine smiled as he watched the man crumbling. He saved the video to the proper file format, connected his computer to a nearby DSA writer, and committed it to disk for use later. It would come in very handy, indeed. The only question was, who would benefit from it the most, and what could he get in exchange for it?

He tapped into a few other secured feeds, and packaged up his secrets like gifts under a tree.
This was his favorite part of the job, he told himself. Then he laughed, and shook his head. No, not quite. He liked working with people best, especially women. Blackmail and merchandising were just fringe benefits.

Before he left, he replaced the dust cover, made sure everything was properly shut off, and locked up behind himself. The smell of the stale room reminded him how much he was going to enjoy getting out in the world again. He had a sighting on Faith, and the next thing on his “To Do” list was tracking her.

The Chairman had given him the job, ostensibly through Lyle, but Valentine promised he wouldn’t be away long. Hunting was something he did well, and sooner or later he’d catch up to the enigmatic Looking Glass. For the moment, all was quiet at the Centre, and he looked forward to the trip out west. If he had to spend his holiday traveling, he’d make sure he gave himself his favorite gift, wrapped up in red.

He stepped into the elevator with a smile, and pushed the button for the ground floor, whistling a happy tune.

* * * * * * * * *

Minneapolis-St. Paul
Twin Cities Hotel

Sydney glanced at the photograph in his hand and frowned. Jarod had sent it to him in a Christmas card, along with the location of this hotel where the Pretender had taken the liberty of making a reservation in his mentor’s name. The woman in the picture was pretty and young, with sandy hair and brown eyes, but Sydney didn’t recognize her.

He stood at the registration desk, suitcase in hand, waiting for the clerk to bring him the key to his room. Still engrossed in the photograph, he barely took notice of the other guest approaching the desk to pick up a room key, until after he had thanked the clerk and taken possession of his own key. Out of habit, Sydney glanced at the woman’s face and froze.

Her hair was red now, but the facial features were the same. He closed the card to hide the photograph and asked, “Excuse me, miss, but do I know you? I have the feeling that we may have met somewhere. And this is not a pickup line.”

She whirled around and looked up at him, obviously surprised. “I know that voice.” She stared hard at him. “Is your name Sydney?”

Startled, he smiled. “Yes, it is. May I ask yours?”

A dark cloud passed over her face. A muscle twitched in her jaw. She lashed out with her right hand and slapped him hard across the cheek.

“You bastard!” she ground out between clenched teeth. “How could you hurt Jarod like that? My God, he was just a child.”

Sydney’s eyes slid to the clerk, shifted quickly to take in the faces of others in the lobby startled by the woman’s outburst of temper. “Please,” he growled softly. “Let’s take this somewhere more private. Jarod sent me here to find you.” He showed her the photograph inside the card, adorned with a brief message and Jarod’s bold signature.

Still angry, the woman glanced away. “I can’t believe he’d do this to me.” Then she sighed, put her hands on her hips and said softly, “Okay, let’s get it over with. He sent me here, too. I guess it’s time to stop putting it off.”

Nodding toward the hotel bar, she took her key from the desk clerk and led the way inside. Heading for the most remote booth in the back corner, she plopped down on the red leather upholstered seat and scooted back to allow him to sit with her. When he was settled, a waitress came by to take their drink orders.

“I don’t know you, do I?” Sydney asked when they were alone again.

She shook her head. “No, but I know you. And before I go any further with this conversation, I want to know why you tortured Jarod as a child. I saw what you did to him. The little CDs in that case. It was inhuman.”

Sydney nodded. Jarod must have had his reasons for sharing information with this woman, whoever she was. And if his protégé had put them together, it was bound to be a good one. Add to that the fact that he had seen fit to share with her something as personal as the DSAs, and she was very important indeed.

“What do you know about the Centre?” he asked tentatively.

The woman shrugged. “It’s a nightmare factory,” she shot back. “I still don’t know where it is, but I know it’s where he grew up. I know it’s where you tortured him, treated him like a machine.” Her eyes narrowed, hot with anger. “How could you do that to an innocent child? I want to know what kind of monster you are.”

“What, specifically, are you talking about?” She obviously didn’t know enough for him to tell her anything without putting her in danger. “What disk did you see?”

“I saw several of them, courtesy of Yuri Rostov.”

Sydney sat back, stunned by the mention of that name. “Where did he get Jarod’s DSAs?”

“What’s a DSA?”

“The little CDs.”

“Oh. Yuri borrowed them to show… me. Jarod’s still got them.” She hushed up when the waitress brought their drinks and waited for her to leave before speaking again. “I still can’t believe what I saw. A child being made to walk in the shoes of a serial killer. Enclosed in a bubble without food or water, subjected to extremes of heat and cold. Pretending to murder a president… How horrifying. How sick.” She shivered with revulsion.

Sydney felt his internal architecture sag with the weight of his own guilt. “How, indeed,” he sighed heavily. “Because I had to. I was under orders. And if I hadn’t, Jarod would have been given to someone else to train, someone… far less interested in his soul than I.”

“Oh, right. You protected him. That’s what he said, too.” The sarcasm in her tone was thick. “I hope to God nobody ever protects me like that.”

“As much as I could, yes. I have always regretted that I couldn’t do more. Yuri is the result of another trainer, whose methods were far less gentle than mine. Perhaps that will help you understand the contrast a little better.” Sydney met her eyes unashamedly. “Now will you tell me who you are? That is what Jarod sent us here for, isn’t it?”

She toyed with her drink, contemplating. Then she shook her head. “I told him I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to get to know you. He didn’t listen.” She downed her whisky and set the glass on the table upside down before meeting his eyes, studying his face. “My name is Kim. I’m your niece. Jacob’s daughter. I heard he was your twin, so I guess he’d look just like you now, if he was still alive.”

For a moment, Sydney couldn’t breathe. Tears filled his eyes, and his insides melted. What a gift Jarod had given him!

It took several moments for Sydney to swallow the lump in his throat, to form words that he could push out. “Would you like… to know about your father, what sort of man he was?”

She shrugged, pretending disinterested nonchalance. But he could see the gleam of excitement in her eyes. Jacob’s eyes.

Sydney began, telling her about the Ritter family, where they had come from, and remembering his brother fondly. He did not tell her about the darkness that overshadowed both their lives, but about the good man Jacob had been. As he talked, he saw her defenses fall away, her revulsion become a shadow of what it had been, though it did not vanish completely. He saw her smile and nod her head as she saw similarities between her father’s nature and her own, and understanding between them blossomed.

They talked until hunger got the best of them, and retreated to their rooms for a break, agreeing to meet for dinner later, and continue the discussion their mutual friend had forced upon them.

Sydney shook his head, smiling to himself as he rode the elevator up to his floor. Once again, Jarod had done the impossible. And as always, the deed was as selfless as the man. Pride warmed his heart and brought tears to his eyes.

Jarod would never know how much this meant to Sydney. The psychiatrist glanced downward at his hand, clutched around the card and photograph he now held close to his breast. It was an old man’s hand, and time was running out. The demons Sydney had wrestled with during his career at the Centre were finally losing their grip on him, and that was a good thing. Age brought with it a carelessness that relieved a great many of his burdens.

But it wasn’t time to let them all fall away just yet.

Soon, he would be ready to let everything go.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
Chairman's Office

“You have news on Looking Glass?” the old man asked gruffly. He eyed the younger man across the desk from him coolly. “Lyle says you made progress.”

Valentine nodded and slid down in the chair into a more relaxed pose. “Yep. I know the area where she’s living, and have placed sweepers there to watch for her. As soon as there’s a sighting, I’ll be on my way out there.”

Parker nodded. “Good. That’s good.” He looked over the copy of the police report on his blotter. “Just be careful. She did kill Mr. White, you know. There’s no telling what she’ll do if you close in on her.”

With a dark chuckle, Valentine replied, “She won’t even know what hit her, sir. Next thing she knows, she’ll be back on SL-12. And Lyle was very appreciative of his new secretary, by the way.”

The Chairman ignored that addendum, concentrating on the more important item at hand. “Excellent. There’s another job I’d like you to handle in the meantime-“


Parker’s gaze shot to his visitor’s face. No one ever refused an assignment that flatly, and got away with it. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the sweeper’s casual posture, the confidence in his face. “What do you mean, no? You don’t even know what the assignment is yet.”

Valentine shrugged. “I don’t have to know what it is. My plate’s already full, what with holding Lyle’s hand, tracking down Faith and all the other dirty work nobody around here wants to touch. Whatever it is, you can either hand it off to someone else or it can wait. I’m not taking on any more at the moment.”

He eased slowly to his feet, his gaze penetrating.

The chairman glowered. “Do you forget who you’re talking to, Valentine? I can send you on an up-close inspection of the Titanic if I want.”

For a moment, Valentine didn’t move. Then he stepped closer to the desk, leaned over it and stared the old man hard in the face. “You give the orders, that’s true. But if you want to touch me, you’ve got to get a signed sanction first… and you won’t. I can guarantee that.”

He stood up, straightened his suit and tie, and left the office without another word.

Parker sat back in his chair, angry and fuming over his lack of control. Valentine was just a sweeper, a nobody. He was the Chairman, the most powerful position in the international organization that was the Centre. Temper boiling, he typed up a sanction, printed it out and signed it, then sent it to his secretary for transport to the other two ranking officers whose signatures were required to put it into effect.

Two hours later, the paper came back to him with a big, bold REJECTED stamp in the middle of it, and a signature that surprised him and made him a little ill.

Somebody up there liked Valentine. He had powerful protection, and the Chairman would need far more reasons to have the sweeper taken out than a mere rejection of an assignment. Parker filed the sanction order in his personal safe, and sat down at this desk to think about the problem. He sent for Valentine’s personnel file - the complete version - and decided to have a good read before he went further with getting the man removed.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

Jarod was blazing away on a treadmill at a speed worthy of an Olympic class sprinter when she found him. The gray tank shirt he wore was drenched with sweat, and there was a sheen of perspiration on his face, arms and legs beneath his gray athletic shorts. Parker took a moment to admire his body, thinking to herself that too few people kept themselves in decent shape. Jarod, however, was almost religious about his workouts.

“Now what?” she asked, strolling up beside the treadmill.

He was panting hard, but hit the button to slow the speed on the belt, eventually bringing him to a stop. He grabbed a towel off the side rail and wiped his face with it, draping it around his neck as he stepped off the machine. With a gesture of his hand, he directed her to follow him out the door and down the hall to the room next door.

There was a number on it - 1963. Parker took note that the gym’s door also had a sign on it, but most of the other doors in the corridor were closed and blank. She shrugged it off, intending to ask about it later.

The room was dark, except for two things: a small overhead light that shone a beam of brightness down on a statue of the Empire State Building, made entirely of Legos; and a lamp next to a comfortable, overstuffed chair, placed just in front of a small table. On it, Jarod’s Halliburton stood open, DSAs placed neatly in the interior rack. He gestured her into the chair.

“What’s this for?” she asked, taking her seat as directed.

“It occurred to me that there’s a lot you don’t know about what I did for the Centre,” he puffed, recovering his breath. “I thought that maybe you should see some of these, so you’ll know what’s in store for Gabriel.”

He pulled one disk out of the rack, inserted it into the reader, and rolled the trackball to the beginning. She laid her hand across his. “Look, I don’t see what this has to do with anything. We’re getting him out, remember?”

“Just watch. Stay for a while. Learn. You need to see this.” He started the machine, diverting her attention to the screen.

She did not see or hear him leave, but some portion of her awareness knew that he was gone. She could not take her eyes off the boy on the screen, all of three or four years old - not that much older than Gabriel. The oldest of the Seraphim was nearly that age, and they would be starting training appropriate for their gifts very soon, if it wasn’t underway already. She pictured Angelique being driven to perform against her will, fighting her own fear and need for comfort in order to please the adults who took care of her. It was instinctive in a child to please the parent-figure, in exchange for love and support. But this child, this innocent-faced boy on the screen, got none of that. When the terror of the simulations was past, he was put into a dismal prison cell to wait alone and afraid for another opportunity to perform.

She saw Gabriel’s face, his features reflected in that young boy, and it broke her heart.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, playing disk after disk, educating herself in Jarod’s life history. There were incidents that made her gasp with unpleasant surprise, some that made her cry out with grief and revulsion, and others that made her weep. The scope of his genius was incredible; the extent to which he would drive himself for the merest scrap of approval was a tragedy. He had gotten so little through the years. She felt rich beyond compare, even growing up in the emotional wasteland that had been hers after her mother had died.

All she knew of Jarod’s work was contained in the sanitized reports of his progress that she had reviewed extensively when she first took over his pursuit. She had seen little of his work with her own eyes, and almost never witnessed the treatment that brought about what the Centre wanted from him. He was right; she had needed to see these disks. It opened her eyes to a great many things, and knowing Sydney as she did, she knew that he, too, must have suffered right along with his young charge, all the while keeping his own emotions hidden beneath a distant professional facade.

Finally, she closed her eyes and just listened. She was exhausted, emotionally wrung out. It was all she could do to shut the machine off and drag herself to her room to sleep.

When she woke, he was lying beside her on top of the covers, watching, a secretive smile playing about his lips.

“I’m sorry, Jarod,” she whispered. “I wish you could have had a normal life.”

“It would never have been normal,” he returned casually. “I wasn’t made to be normal.”

“True.” She threw off the covers and padded to the bathroom.

“So we need to decide what the future holds for our son,” he called after her, rolling onto his back and clasping his hands beneath his head on the pillow. “We need to determine how much of his gifts we shape, and how much we let him be a little boy. It’s tricky, achieving that balance.”

“You could teach him better than anyone else,” she told him when she emerged a few minutes later. Rubbing her arms against the chill in the room, she dived under the covers again, snuggling back into the warm spot she had left moments earlier.

“That’s what the Chairman thought, too,” he reminded her. “But we also have to take into consideration the rest of the children. Wherever one goes, they all need to go. We can’t just rescue Gabriel by himself - the others would be lost without him. The bond they share is too deep. They need each other to survive.”

She frowned. “That’s impossible. We might be able to smuggle them out one at a time somehow, but all of them at once? Be reasonable, Jarod. It can’t be done. We’d be caught before we got off the Nursery floor.”

“There’s a way,” he promised. “We just have to find it. We need to know - really know - the people working with them, who we can trust among them. After that… I’ll figure out something.”

“I’ll get you copies of their personnel files when I get back.” She sighed and turned to look at his profile on the pillow next to hers. “How can you have so much happiness and caring in you after what was done to you as a boy? How did you hang onto that innocence, Jarod?”

His eyes closed. “It’s in my nature,” he murmured. “And it was in Sydney’s training. Didn’t you see it? He drove me because he had to, but he encouraged me with positive praise, with hope. There was always an undercurrent between us of mutual respect, of caring. I always hoped it was love, but I was never sure.”

She smiled softly. “Maybe we can find out soon.”

“One day, maybe.” He turned to face her, and reached out to stroke a lock of her hair away from her cheek. “Did you ever see a movie called It’s a Wonderful Life?

Parker groaned. “Every Christmas for my whole life. I can quote dialogue from it. Why? Did you just see it for the first time?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, and it got me thinking.” He lay on his back, hands clasped beneath his head, and gazed at the ceiling. “I wondered what life might have been like if things had been different. If the Centre hadn’t held me prisoner. And I want to explore some possibilities with you, if you’re willing.”

“Such as?”

He grinned, a gleam of mischief in his eyes. “For that, you’ll have to play along.”

She sighed. “Do I have a choice? I’m a captive audience here.”

He rolled off the bed and to his feet with a single smooth motion. “Hungry?”

“Mmmm, I could eat.”

“Great! I’ve got breakfast ready. Meet me in the mess hall when you’re dressed.”

“What are we having?”

“Everything!” He left with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face.

She shook her head, smiling at his apparent happiness, and wondered privately how he had survived his childhood with that kind of joy intact.

* * * * * * * * *

Small town, Pacific Northwest

“Yeah, I seen her,” said the bookstore clerk as she handed back the photograph of a blonde woman. “She came in here a couple of times, but that was over a month ago. I remember, ‘cause she made such a fuss over the survival books, always wanting to know if there was anything else available.” She shrugged, her smile inviting. “Kind of an odd duck, you know? Why would somebody that pretty wanna get lost in the woods at this time of year?”

Valentine smiled back, considering the entertainment potential of this particular woman, and deciding she was worth the trouble. She’d be willing enough. They always were. But he was on a mission, and work always came first.

“Oh!” A light bulb glowed dimly over the clerk’s head. “Maybe she’s hiding. You a cop?”

“Yeah,” the sweeper agreed, just to end the conversation. “Thanks for the information.” He stepped into the section of the bookstore that had been Faith’s last stop, and perused the titles to see what she had been hunting for, and when he had a clearer picture of what she had found, he left the store with a smile and a nod to the clerk, who struck a provocative pose and waved at him, inviting him back with her eyes.

He’d return, all right, just before closing time, to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

He left the mall and went out to his car, turned it on and let the heater warm the interior while he searched the map. There were bound to be country cabins aplenty in the area that Faith might have rented, but she’d have to come back to town eventually. He had tracked her across the country, and she had taken odd jobs here and there, but never for long at a time. She was saving her money, every penny she could lay hands on, and once she got to this wilderness she had revealed her true purpose. She was getting away from people. She no longer trusted herself.

The survival books would only help out so much, though. They would help her extend her time away from civilization, but eventually she would run out of the most basic supplies, and be forced to return, get a job long enough to save more money, and then head out into the wild again. She would eventually become self-sufficient, making the lags between jobs longer and longer, until she was able to survive completely on her own. She was smart, and she could learn to take care of herself under even the most primitive conditions. But she couldn’t stay under forever. Not yet.

He called in to report to Lyle, and ordered a small team of sweepers to keep watch on the town, waiting for her return, so he could go back to the Centre and wait. In time, she would show herself, and when she did, he would have her. And then, he would know everything about her.

He would have a very good time with her, before she died. But for the moment, he needed to find a secluded place where sound wouldn’t travel to listening ears. He wanted privacy and a nice view, where he could enjoy himself with the bookstore clerk and take his time with her. It was always so much nicer when he didn’t have to hurry.

On to Act II

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