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Chapter or Story Chapter or Story
Although the individual story ideas are mine, the characters are not and nor is the central concept of The Pretender. They belong to TNT, MTM and NBC productions, as well as the fertile imaginations of Craig Mitchell and Steven Van Sickle.
Original characters are mine and I would beg you not to use them without my permission.
She had just locked the car when she heard the footstep on the freshly fallen snow, turning to see a man step out of the dark shadows cast by the waning slit of silver moon.
“Who’s asking?” she demanded, turning to face him, breath puffing out of her mouth in a cloud. It was then, and even as she was reaching for her gun, that she noticed the weapon in his hand, aimed directly at her waist.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he warned her quietly. “Give me your car keys.”
She moved her hand towards her holster and the unknown man turned his hand slightly to the left and pulled the trigger. The bullet whistled out of the silenced chamber and buried itself in her car tire, which immediately went flat with a soft hiss.
“I did warn you,” he told her in a calm voice. “Next time, it will be your hand. Now, give me your keys.”
She handed them over, allowing him to lean forward and pull the gun from her holster, deciding it would be better to do what he wanted than risk bleeding to death.
“What do you want?” she prompted, once he had pocketed her gun. “I don’t carry cash on me…”
“I don’t want your money,” he told her quietly. “You are to come with me.”
Considering making a bolt into the house, she heard footsteps and glanced over her shoulder to find two men blocking her path to the front door.
“I’m afraid no one will hear you if you scream,” he said in a quiet but firm voice. “Your neighbors are out for the evening, and besides, their house has very thick walls.”
“What do you want with me?” she hissed, drawing herself up to her full height.
“I have my instructions,” he replied calmly. Stepping closer, he placed a hand on her upper arm, his fingers tightening around her bicep. Being so close, she could make out his blue eyes under the rim of the cap he wore. “I was told you would be unlikely to accept any invitation we might offer, so it was decided that this was necessary. If you don’t do anything stupid, we won’t have to do anything extreme.” His head tilted slightly to one side. “After all, it would be nothing new for a Centre employee to be found dead with no explanation, would it?”
She knew he was right and allowed herself to be guided over to a car parked near her front gate. The door was held for her and she found herself sitting next to a tall figure with a silver pistol lying on his lap. Another man took his place beside her and the others got into the front seat, the man who had thus far done all the talking sitting in the passenger seat.
“Who sent you?” she demanded when the car was moving.
“You will learn that at our destination,” she was assured.
“And where’s that?”
The man chuckled softly. “He did say you were demanding,” he admitted. “He can answer all your questions when we get there.”
Miss Parker guessed that this would be the standard response to anything she might ask, so she fell silent, instead looking through the darkly tinted windows, memorizing the way so that she could find her way to their mysterious destination again if it was necessary. It had occurred to her that the person waiting for her could possibly be Jarod, although why he had taken such extreme precautions was something she couldn’t understand.
They drove for several hours, using the main highways to travel some distance from Blue Cove. After the first period of silence, the men had occasionally exchanged comments. She gathered that one was a doctor, but beyond that they said nothing personal or that gave her any clue about her destination.
Eventually the car pulled into the carpark of what Miss Parker was horrified to see was a hospital. Although she would never have breathed it aloud, for fear of the wrong person hearing it, she had occasionally, and particularly in the last year or two, been almost as anxious about Jarod's well-being as Sydney openly was.
“Miss Parker?” The man broke into her thoughts and she focused on him. “You would never find your quarry in this massive building, so allow me to show you where to go, instead of forcing me to escort you there at gunpoint.”
She nodded silently and immediately one of the men opened the car door and got out, offering her a hand, which she accepted without comment. The only man who had spoken directly to her led her to the automatic doors, which slid open almost silently, a smell of antiseptic and flowers immediately surrounding them as they entered.
“This way, Miss Parker.”
He lightly touched her arm and guided her to the elevators. When the doors opened, four floors higher, he led her through a mass of confusing hallways, finally stopping outside a closed door, at which point he turned to her.
“Just a moment while I check whether he’s well enough to see you. And don’t wander off, Miss Parker. I’d hate you to get lost.”
Nodding acquiescence, she watched him enter the room, unable to see inside as he immediately pushed it almost closed. She couldn’t make out what was said, but felt her pulse quicken as she recognized Jarod's voice, although it was hoarse and raspy. Glancing around the hallway, she found herself almost alone, apart from a nurse who sat beside a desk writing notes in a thin booklet.
She saw movement at the end of the hallway and thought she recognized the dark-haired woman who had hovered briefly in a doorway before going back into the room. The sound of the door closing was just audible to Miss Parker as she placed the woman as being in the car with Jarod's mother five years earlier when they had all been in Boston. It only reaffirmed to Miss Parker that Jarod had been the person who summoned her, and icy fear clutched at her heart as she wondered what was wrong with him.
A continual hissing was audible from somewhere nearby, but she was unable to pinpoint the exact source of it, and even as she tried, the door in front of her opened again and her abductor returned.
“You can go in, Miss Parker,” he directed quietly. “But try to stay calm.”
He held open the door and she hesitantly crossed the threshold, stopping short when she saw the figure half-reclining in the bed, a pile of pillows behind his head and back.
It was Jarod, but not as she had last seen him on the island, strong and robust. He was agonizingly thin, with black patches under his eyes and an oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose. The bones in his face and hands protruded so much that the skin stretched over his knuckles was white. His lips were cracked and red under the clear plastic of the mask, standing out grotesquely against the lack of color on the rest of his face, although a faint pink flushed his cheeks.
The gasp she was unable to hold back produced a reaction as Jarod's eyes slowly opened and rolled in her direction. With an effort, he managed a weak smile.
“Miss Parker,” he breathed, his voice a soft rasp. “I’m sorry about the way you were brought here.”
For a moment she was speechless, before managing to take a step towards the bed. “Jarod, wh… what is it?”
“I’m dying,” he said simply.
He was about to speak again when he choked slightly, and the woman was horrified to see flecks of blood appear on the inside of the mask as he fought to clear his throat.
“I’m sorry you had to see me like this,” he went on, the effort it took to talk visible, “but I wanted to see you before I died.”
“But… o-on Carthis…” she stammered, “you weren’t sick there.”
“I was,” he gasped, panting slightly for breath. “But I didn’t know it then. I got pneumonia after the storm, when we got wet…”
He trailed off, struggling to breathe, and a wheeze and faint crackle were audible from his chest. Miss Parker moved to the bedside and sat in the chair that stood there without realizing what she was doing. Jarod lifted his head briefly off the pillow to look at her but was unable to hold it up and let it sink back against the crisp linen.
“I’ve always been sick,” he told her breathlessly, “ever since I escaped. It’s a virus – like a time bomb. It was designed to go off at a certain point.” He shrugged. “It has.”
“Raines,” she growled, and he nodded slightly.
“I was working with Marcus – the one who brought you here,” he began slowly, enunciating each word distinctly and inhaling after every phrase. “He brought me here after I collapsed. That’s when they diagnosed the pneumonia and found out about the virus.”
“But you – can’t you do anything?”
“It’s too late.” He panted slightly before managing to continue, and she saw that, under the mask, his lips were now white. “Beyond a certain time, it’s irreversible. That time’s passed.”
She stared at him in uncomprehending horror. That he could lie there and accept his own death was unfathomable. Had she been in that situation, she would have fought it to the end.
He smiled faintly, as if understanding her feelings. “This is the right way for it to happen,” he told her softly. “I always knew the Centre would stop me somehow, and I’d rather die here than spend the rest of my life killing other people, like they’d make me do if I was taken back there.” He sighed, and there was a note of satisfaction in that sound, as well as exhaustion. “I’m free here, Miss Parker, and soon I’ll be completely free.” His eyes met hers. “I don’t think you can understand what a relief that will be.”
He was right; she couldn’t understand. She looked down at his thin hand, lying limply on the blankets, and suddenly wrapped both her hands around it, his skin cold against hers. If it had ever occurred to her to doubt that this was real, Jarod's condition would have driven away any skepticism. He would never play with his health for something that frivolous. He was dying, and although the thought was devastating to her, there was nothing she could do about it. And that was the worst part.
The sound of the door opening behind her made her start, and she looked up to find her abductor standing at the end of the bed.
“Enough, Jarod?” Marcus asked gently, and Miss Parker turned back to the man lying in the bed to see that his eyes were closed and even the little color that had been in his face when she had entered the room was gone. For a moment he remained motionless, before nodding slightly. His eyes opened to focus on her face and he gently squeezed the fingers entangled with his.
The sense of finality in his tones made her want to shudder, but the peace on his face somehow prevented it. For an instant, she understood his feelings, before her own reasserted themselves and, with a final squeeze of his hand, she let go, placing it gently on the bed before stepping away.
In the doorway she stopped, turning back to the bed and, with a remembrance of one of Jarod's first pretends outside the Centre, saluted. It was a gesture of respect for an adversary who had fought a good fight, and who had won. She could see that now. It was not a defeat for her, but a victory for him, and that made his relief at his current state more understandable. Parker felt Marcus’s arm on hers, guiding her down the hallway, and she needed that assistance, blinded as she was by tears.
Jarod smiled in response to the salute and then closed his eyes in exhaustion as the door shut. A moment later he heard the door open once more, and footsteps approach the bed. A gentle hand smoothed his hair, and he opened his eyes to see his mother leaning over him. She picked up a damp cloth from the bedside table and lightly dabbed at the beads of sweat he could feel on his face, her voice murmuring softly and lovingly in his ear as his eyes closed again.
Margaret had appeared the morning after his admission to hospital, and the other members of his family had arrived within 24 hours. Marcus had repaid the favour Jarod had done for him by doing what Jarod himself had been unable to achieve in six years, and the dying man felt that nothing he had done could make up for this invaluable gift his friend had given him.
Pain stabbed at him again as he inhaled. This was the worst pain he could remember. Not even the worst of the Centre’s sims had been like this. Sometimes, like now, it was bearable. At other times, he could barely move, and even breathing was agony. If he hadn’t known that it would eventually end, he would have considered drastic measures to free himself of it. As it was, he could only wait until his body gave up.
Another pair of feet crossed the linoleum and then Jarod felt a hand on his wrist, gently timing his pulse. Sydney had refused to leave when Marcus brought him to the hospital, and his presence was unspeakably comforting to the dying man. The psychiatrist gently removed the oxygen mask and Jarod heard the chink of ice in a glass, several pieces of which were spooned between the lips he opened to receive them. They were wonderfully cool in his mouth and, as the first began to melt, he could feel the cool liquid trickling down the throat that the conversation with his childhood friend had made sore.
“Anything else, Jarod?” Sydney's voice asked softly.
He was so tired now that it was difficult to speak, but he managed, at the same time forcing his heavy eyelids up to focus on the man standing beside the bed. “No. Thanks.”
The older man smiled and replaced the glass on the bedside table before softly and unobtrusively leaving the room. When he was gone, Margaret pulled up a chair beside the bed and took Jarod's hand, gently stroking the back of it, avoiding the IV that was plugged into his wrist to deliver fluids and painkillers.
“Mom,” he murmured, and she moved closer.
“Can you… open the curtains?”
She immediately reached across and pulled the cord, before extinguishing the light that shone onto the bed. On this side of the building, away from the emergency entrance and the car park, with homes on the other side of the perimeter fence, as Jarod had seen before he became too ill to get out of bed, the stars shone brilliantly in the wintry night sky and the moon hung like a massive illuminated orb.
“It’s… pretty,” he whispered.
“Yes,” she agreed softly, taking his hand again, her voice revealing her inner pain. “The world is beautiful. It’s the people within it that ruin it.”
“Mom,” he reprimanded gently in a hoarse rasp, “we’ve talked… about this.”
She brought his hand up so that the back of it rested against her cheek, and he could see tears glistening in her brown eyes as she kissed the taut skin.
“You have… Emily…” he reminded her, panting for breath. “And you’ll still… have me… sort of… And there’s Ethan… too…”
A warm, salty droplet slid out of the woman’s eye and onto his hand, but Margaret brushed away its mate and managed a watery smile.
“You’re always thinking of other people, baby.”
“Not… always…” he retorted thickly, and she picked up the glass again, spooning more ice into his mouth before replacing the oxygen mask.
Jarod thought of the pain in Miss Parker's eyes when she had seen him and wondered if his desire to have one last view of her had been his ultimate act of selfishness. It seemed to him that most of his actions concerning his erstwhile pursuer had been for his own benefit, although he had tried to convince himself that they would be helpful to her also. Emotion rose in his throat and caused him to choke, having to cough with as much strength as he was capable, to clear his throat. His mother’s arm slid around his shoulders in support as she almost lifted him into a sitting position to allow him to breathe more easily. When he finally regained his breath, she lowered him to the pile of pillows and again mopped the perspiration from his face before replacing the mask.
“No more talking now, Jarod,” she scolded, resettling the blankets around him and smoothing his hair. “Try to sleep a little, baby.”
He nodded slightly, turning his head towards the window so that he could see the silvery face of the moon, gazing at it for a moment before his eyes closed.
He would die tonight, or perhaps early the following morning.
He hoped to see one last sunrise. His anticipation about Miss Parker’s visit meant he had missed the sunset that night, but he knew he had no more strength to survive another 24 hours for the next one. Those reserves of energy he had once had had been used in waiting for his family, Sydney and Miss Parker to arrive. He found it consistently harder to breathe and knew it was one of the final stages of the virus. His investigation had revealed the way it worked to slowly destroy his body and what would happen to him. That knowledge was something he appreciated, allowing him to plan for the future of those most dear to him.
Now that it was so near, death didn’t scare him, and he wondered that he had been so afraid of it when it had been successfully used as a threat during his many years at the Centre. He hoped that those left behind wouldn’t suffer because of his death, but that was something he was unable to do anything about, much as he would have liked to.
He thought about Broots and Debbie, leaving the country with the new identities he had helped to make up for them, and mentally wished them luck. He didn’t believe it was likely the Centre would ever find them and hoped that they would be happy.
New identities were already arranged for his parents, Emily, Ethan and the boy they had cloned from him, as well as Sydney and Miss Parker. He had decided that his body should be returned to the Centre. When they had him, perhaps they would stop searching for those people who meant most to him.
Best of all to Jarod, they would never be able to use his body for future cloning. His own research into the fatal virus showed that the cells would destroy themselves before they reached the stage of implantation, but he predicted it would take many attempts before this would be realized by the Centre, and by that time they would hopefully have lost the trail of all those they might still have been hunting.
If there was another world beyond this, as his parents and Sydney believed, Jarod wondered if Kyle would be there, waiting for him. He tried to imagine his brother healed of the wounds, both mental and physical, that Raines had inflicted on him, and wondered if similar problems would be erased from his being.
The image was a pleasant one, and Jarod dwelt on it as his thoughts began to grow hazy and he fell asleep.