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Disclaimer: The characters Miss Parker, Sydney, Jarod, Broots etc. and the fictional Centre, are all property of MTM, TNT and NBC Productions and used without permission. I'm not making any money out of this and no infringement is intended.



Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hell

by Ruth Piwonka




The Centre, Blue Cove, Delaware, May 25, 2000
SL-5, The Centre Tech-Lab, 7:58 a.m.

Broots was a nervous wreck and anybody who worked with him on a rare basis could definitely tell it. He wore a cranberry colored suit and a white striped shirt underneath his sports coat. The pale complexion on his face became almost albino white as his fingers made several feeble attempts to put on a clip-on tie. He stood facing the elevator while making these last minute preparations on his appearance, ready to face his doom that was coming from Berlin, Germany.

The elevator’s lights lit up as it came down to his floor and Broots tried once more to put on his tie. As it dropped from his hands, he bent down to pick it up and a stiletto shoe stepped onto it. Broots touched it and looked upward to see the terror of his life; Miss Parker. The icy cold look on her face made him shiver and when he did, she removed her foot from his tie. “Need some help, Mr. Broots?” she asked almost flirtatiously.

“Um, Miss Parker, I...um...” His hands shook as he tried once more to put it on and she ripped the tie away from him.

“Before you completely embarrass yourself with that suit, at least let me put that tie on you.” He stood still and let her do just that.

“You...you-you scared me.”

“What’s there to be frightened of?” She was wearing a black business suit with an Indian red shirt underneath it; and nothing could stop Broots’ eyes from wandering up her long legs covered with skin colored pantyhose and of course, a short skirt. She sensed him doing this and gently pushed his chin up. “Didn’t we settle this a few months ago, Broots?”

“Um...yes. Sorry,” he began to scan the entire sub-level and look for anything out of place. All computer hackers were sitting at their stations and were doing their work efficiently, which made his day a little bit less stressful. “I’ve been here since 6:30 this morning cleaning things up and making sure everyone acts a certain way. Things have to be perfect or else I’m up a...a creek!” his voice cracked.

“Well, then, don’t let me stop you. But when they leave, I want you to go back to the scrambled DSAs,” she whispered the last sentence.

“Miss Parker, please! Please...don’t make my day anymore stressful than it already is. I beg of you...” Miss Parker came closer to him; unprofessionally close and lit a cigarette.

“Good luck,” she said and blew a cloud of smoke in his face and then walked out a sliding door. About a half a minute later, the elevator doors opened again and in walked Lyle with a stranger in a business suit. He was dressed very much like Lyle, but he looked younger and much more distinguished. Lyle was muttering to him in German and as they came closer to Broots who was still coughing from the cigarette smoke, Lyle cleared his throat.

Broots looked up at him and coughed one last time. Lyle and the stranger smiled dangerously. “Good morning, Mr. Broots. This is Herr Koschmeider of the Centre in Berlin, Germany. He is visiting us to check out our latest technology and to make sure that it is being used properly and efficiently.” Koschmeider nodded a greeting to Broots and Broots shook his hand weakly. Lyle made a brief rude comment in German and Koschmeider laughed.

“Do you...speak...English?” Broots asked slowly and loudly.

“I’m not deaf, you fool. Yes, of course I can!” Koschmeider snapped.

“Please do not take offense to this, Herr Koschmeider,” Lyle tried to pacify the impatient man. “Broots will show you around this sub-level.”

Broots smiled apprehensively and gestured Koschmeider to come with him.

Lyle walked out the sliding door and bumped right into Miss Parker, who was still smoking and had obviously been eavesdropping. “Oops. Sorry, Miss Parker. Did you get everything you wanted to hear? Or shall I let you listen to some more of their conversation?” he took an earplug out of his left ear that was attached to a cord and offered it to her.

“Thanks but no thanks. Look,” she sighed and exhaled again,” now that Jarod’s back, let me leave.”

“Why should I?”

“It’s the deal,” she hissed.

“At this particular juncture, Miss Parker...” he shook his head and began to walk away from her.

“I will make you sorry if you don’t.”

“Anything else? Any other witty comments or capricious threats this morning?” In defeat, Miss Parker shook her head no and put the cigarette back in her mouth. “Then in that case, have a nice morning. Herr Koschmeider will be checking up on your department this evening. Make sure everything is in order.”

“What the hell am I gonna give him? Jarod’s already here and god knows what experiments you’re gonna do on him?!”

“A report summarizing the last capture, then.” He made his way down the long hallway quickly to the elevator there. “Mr. Horner will be joining you in your office shortly.”

In disbelief, she shook her head and finished off the cigarette.

***

Miss Parker’s Office, 8:15 a.m.


Mr. Horner was sitting in her chair as she walked in with his back to her and he was on the phone. Her eyes narrowed and she pushed the talk button on the base in anger. Immediately, he spun around and slammed the phone down on the receiver. “What the hell was that for?

“First of all, parasite, get out of my chair. There’s only one ass that belongs in it and that’s mine. Second, don’t ever touch my phone unless I tell you to.”

“I was in the middle of a very important-”

“900 number? Getting lonely, Mr. Horner?”

“If you must know-”

“Oh, I must, I must,” she said in a schoolgirlish tone and it was quite obvious that she was mocking him. He was about to reply, but she waived a finger at him. “No explanation. Just don’t do it again. And get me some coffee. No cream or sugar.”

“Do I look like your Jeeves?”

“Not right now, but if you don’t do what I tell you to, they won’t be able to identify what your sorry ass looks like when I’m finished with you!!” He got out of the chair and stormed out of her office. She calmly retrieved her seat and took out a small minidisc, (a DSA) and placed it into her computer’s drive. It was dated: June 22, 1996; almost two months before Jarod’s escape.

6/22/96 FOR CENTRE USE ONLY:

Jarod sat in his cell alone and drew on the floor with his finger when he heard his door open. Parker entered and shut the door as quickly as she had come in. A perplexed look crossed his face. “I thought you were gone forever,” he said and began to get up.

She sat herself down on the bed and he sat down as well beside her. “What made you think that?” she returned quietly.

“Just the fact that I haven’t seen you for about twenty years. Maybe longer. I don’t know...I’ve lost track of time ever since I got here. What’re you doing here?”

“I had heard that you were still here and I wasn’t sure. I thought that perhaps you’d been relocated somewhere else or killed or...anyway, it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to satisfy my own whimsical curiosity.” She lit up a cigarette and he sighed.

“Now why’d you go and start that? You know what that does to your lungs?”

“Do I look that stupid, Jarod? Of course I know! Look...I’d better be going before I get caught. The rumor was wrong.” She got up but before she could leave, he stopped her and pinned her up against the wall. She quickly prepared herself for defense and he eyed her ring.

“That’s pretty. I would never hurt you, Miss Parker. You should know that.”

“Yeah, well, things have changed. It’s a cruel world and I’m not sure who to trust.”

“Some things never change at the Centre, do they?” he asked as she opened the door. She never looked back but he watched her as she left. As he sighed and went back to his imprisoned life, he smiled. “She’s just as beautiful as she was when I first saw her. I’m glad that hasn’t changed.”

Miss Parker stopped the DSA, since there was nothing of her interest on it anymore, and popped it out.

“What’re you smiling about?” Horner inquired and brought her back into the real world as he gave her a mug of hot black coffee.

“Nothing.” She took a sip of it and slipped the minidisc into the waistband of her skirt when he wasn’t looking. Suddenly, an alarm began to sound. It was the fire alarm and she knew it had to be Jarod trying to escape. This time, she would not let him do so. “Get me a gun. And when you come back, meet me in SL-14. That damn lab rat won’t cost me my freedom from the Centre.”

Sydney appeared in her doorway once Horner ran out and Parker swept gracefully past him. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Figure it out, Freud! Your freak is trying to get outta here like a bat outta hell! And I’m not about to let him leave!” she shouted as she ran down the hallway and onto an elevator. Just as the doors were closing, Horner threw himself into the elevator with a Glock .357 pistol in his hand.

SL-14, 8:19 a.m.

Willie and a team of sweepers were rushing down the hallway toward Jarod’s cell just as Miss Parker arrived there with Horner. “You got your motion detectors on?” she yelled to him.

“Well...”

“Aren’t you head of security, Willie?”

“Yeah, but...our system screwed up yesterday!” he shouted back as they broke into Jarod’s cell, which was empty. “Go through the vents!” he told two sweepers as Miss Parker and Horner rushed up to him.

“If he gets out again, there’s only gonna be one damn person taking the blame for it and it is not gonna be me! MOVE!!! Check the parking lots, check the goddamn sewer systems, and spread out like a plague. He’s right under my nose and I’m gonna...-” her cell phone rang.

“Hell, Miss Parker! Ready to play the game again? Catch me...if you dare,” the Pretender whispered and hung up.

“Where was that from? Tell me, you imbecile!” she smacked Willie, who was checking his Palmtop.

“Uh...SL-uh...I’m not-yeah...SL-1. He’s almost on ground level!” Parker pressed a button in her pocket that alerted the sweeper and cleaner teams on that level to look out for Jarod. She rushed toward the elevator but it was occupied; so she turned to the right sharply and began to run up the stairs. Willie was following her, but not as quickly; she was not pleased and seized him by the hand in order to make him go as fast as she was.

She took out her cell phone again and dialed a number. It was the standard sweeper’s notification that there was a breach of security; an order to shut every single door to prevent the escapee from fleeing.

SL-1...8:23 a.m.

Jarod shoved his way through an army of sweepers and cleaners toward the front of the Centre. Three cleaners took him down and he wrestled with every single one. A squad of sweepers surrounded each side of an exit and began to draw fire upon the four bodies, including Jarod’s.

He kicked, pushed, punched, and bulldozed his body into all of them. It took him thirty seconds to do so, and by the time he finished, a huge metal slab was beginning to fall down in front of the glass doors. He got up from the floor.

“JAROD, don’t move!!” he heard Miss Parker shout from behind. He could not tell where, but he did not care where she was. “I’m gonna kill you, you son of a bitch! JAROD!!” Parker was about ten feet away from where he had been momentarily standing. Jarod dodged the bullets miraculously in time enough to throw his body down to the ground and slam himself through the doors. Everyone was firing and missing him; the glass doors shattered, just as Jarod got the first half of himself outside them. His legs were stuck and the metal slab was quite near the floor. Parker quit firing and seized the next sweeper’s gun that was standing near her; which was Willie. She threw the other gun down onto the floor and by the time she had done that, Jarod’s left leg was already through.

“Shoot him, damnit! I don’t care if we have to bring his carcass back!” she yelled. More and more glass broke. Suddenly, Jarod pulled his other leg through but his ankle was caught. The teams administered bullets to the areas near it and around it, but kept on missing. Just as more glass broke around the door, the slab lowered itself all the way down and at the same moment, Parker got in a lucky shot. Jarod fell down onto the ground onto his knee. He released his foot all the way and slowly got up onto his unwounded foot. “Goddamnit! Open the doors! Open the doors!” Parker yelled.

“We can’t for another thirty seconds, Miss Parker,” Willie said, while he fumbled around with his Palmtop.

“Stop shooting, idiots! And get this door open!” She couldn’t wait; she had to catch him. Parker called the Centre garage A on her phone. “Yes?”

“This is Parker. Get a car ready for me in two minutes. And shut the damn gates so he can’t get out. If it’s not ready for me, you won’t know what hell on earth is,” she snapped and pressed the talk button. She raced down the stairs again and to the garage.

The Centre Parking Lot, 8:26 a.m.

Jarod limped across it and ran toward the exit. His knee hurt like hell since he had actually been shot this time, by Miss Parker, of all people. Suddenly, a car pulled up to him with smoked windows and the window rolled down a crack. “Get in,” a voice commanded him.

“What?”

“I said get in. Hurry.”

Parker was not far behind, driving a Centre company car and speeding right towards him. She could not see who was driving the car, nor did she care. She wanted Jarod caught; that was all that mattered right now.

Jarod hesitated momentarily. “Come on!” the voice screamed. He opened the back door and threw himself in. As soon as he shut it, the gates were beginning to close. Parker gunned her engine and cut off the other person driving Jarod to his escape. The mysterious car braked wildly and turned in the opposite direction. She followed just as quickly, in a reflex, and began to tailgate. The other car sped up but then she did the same.

“Pull over! You have no clearance for this!” she yelled out the window. The car braked suddenly and swerved to the right to take a sharp corner. She once again made the turn perfectly. The car led her on a wild-goose chase around the parking lot, but she kept up with them perfectly. But then, the driver decided to stop completely, go into reverse, and flash around the corner while going backwards. She switched gears as quickly as possible and made a three point turn faster than she meant to. But as soon as she rounded the corner waiting for the other car, she found that the car had totally gone all the way back straight.

The Centre’s exit was just behind Parker; a straight run, but she was blocking it. There was only one thing to do. The mysterious driver revved the engine and floored the car straight at her. This surprised her-she was determined to get him and was utterly certain that this driver would not have enough stamina to play chicken with her. She never gave up on a game when she was in college, why should she stop now?

She did the same in a millisecond and both drivers were fated for a head on crash at forty-five miles per hour. But he was not making any attempt to swerve left or right. Neither was she. Instantaneously, the other car veered to the right and went up on the curb. The car further accelerated and soared past her. She stopped and watched it drive off about two seconds later and smash the gate at sixty miles per hour. It was gone even before she tried to switch gears and prevent the escape. He was gone again.


Just outside of Dover, Delaware, 9:45 a.m.

“I’m afraid this is where your road trip is gonna end,” the driver said to Jarod. The car stopped alongside the emergency lane.

“What?”

“You heard me. I have places to be. I can’t just drive you down to Georgia and be safe.”

“We’re almost in the middle of nowhere!”

“Almost is the key word, Mr. Jarod. There’s a hospital about two miles north of here. Get out.”

“But...my knee-”

“Do you want me to shoot your other one? Get outta here.” Jarod reluctantly opened the door and got out. Just before he could try to look into the smoked black windows, the driver pulled off of the emergency lane and back onto the freeway. Jarod had nothing but the clothes on his back from the night before. His wallet, cell phone, laptop, and other valuable belongings were all still at Miss Parker’s house. Little by little, the Pretender hobbled down the exit two long miles away.

The Centre, Blue Cove, Delaware, Mr. Lyle’s
Office, 10:15 a.m.

“Well, well, well. Look whose big plans failed again,” Miss Parker taunted Lyle as she walked into his office. His expression turned to one of bitter anger.

“What are you blathering about?”

“Jarod escaped. Again. Your strategies suck grapes.”

“Shutup.”

“I want out now.”

“No.”

“I want out now!!”

“No one ever leaves the Centre, sis!! Especially you.”

“Why?” her voice darkened.

“I don’t want Herr Koschmeider finding out about the shenanigan that just happened this morning.”

“And how is keeping me here going to keep him from learning about that, hmm?” she scoffed.

“Because you’re part of the problem here and not the solution like you should be,” he replied angrily. His phone rang and he angrily picked it up. “What?!” he practically spat on the receiver. “Oh...I beg your pardon, sir. Yes...pleasant fellow isn’t ’t he? Ah...are you ready to tour the next department? Yes, those would be the accounting offices. I’ll have my intern take you there immediately. Yah.” Lyle began to mumble in German for the next two sentences; probably babbling on about how wonderful this hellhole is, she thought.

Lyle hung up after that and dialed Horner’s cell phone number. “Meet Herr Koschmeider in the accounting offices. When he’s done, take him somewhere nice for lunch. What? You can’t be serious. You told me that you were quitting.”

“God, I need a cigarette,” she muttered under her breath. Suddenly, as she took in a large inhale of oxygen, she immediately crumpled herself up in pain. Lyle merely glanced at her while he was conversing with Horner and then looked at a Manet painting on a side wall.

“All right. Yeah, you can go back. If they really need you as badly as they do. No...I’ll find someone else to guide Herr Koschmeider around.” Lyle wished him a goodbye and a safe trip back to Philadelphia (but he never said the words ‘back to Philadelphia’) because of Miss Parker’s presence.

“Well, since Horner is leaving us temporarily, I need someone to guide Herr Koschmeider around the Centre. No one knows it better than you, Miss Parker.”

“Hell, no. I’m not wasting my time. My job is to hunt and track down Jarod. And that’s what I’m gonna do until he’s here for good.”

“I didn’t ask you to do this, Parker. Don’t make me threaten you. Remember what happened the last time you didn’t follow my instructions?”

“Go have your head security drone do it; since his mainframe system appears to be temporarily on the fritz. I’m busy.” She walked out of the office as quickly as she had come.

Samalga Island, Alaska, 7:02 a.m.

“I would say welcome to Hellweek, but that would make me Satan,” Sgt. Ryan Burns told the company of Navy SEALs that was standing at attention in front of him. “This is your sixth week out of Phase One training. There will be more phases; two more, as you all know, but out of the sixty-two of you...only about a quarter of you will make it to the second phase.” He noticed a couple of men begin to shiver. These men were only dressed in their regular uniforms; not for the cold weather of Alaska.

“Get down and gimme fifty! Both of you! You do not move when you are at attention; didn’t you learn that at the beginning of your training, boys?!” he screamed. The two terrified men immediately threw themselves onto the cement ground and did the pushups.

Jarod had never been this cold in his entire life; even the simulations that he had done in the Centre were nothing compared to this constant, bitter cold. It was like he was being stabbed with bits of broken glass all over his body. But he did not dare even to breathe in from his mouth. And the cold was making his knee hurt all the worse.

“Hmm...you boys look cold already. You need to warm up, don’t you?” Sgt. Burns turned around and got out a whistle. “Line up five to a row. We’re gonna make a Hiss block. That means you breathe together, and you run together wherever the hell I tell you to go.” He noticed the two cadets that were still doing the pushups. “Hurry it up! You’re not here just to do pushups!”

The sixty-two men lined up just as told, but with some difficulty. Some other senior officers shoved them around and insulted them with lines like, “Don’t you idiots know how to count?” and “First graders can follow lines better than you fine intelligent asses!” Jarod knew from his experience in the army that the insults were not supposed to be taken personally, but he felt them hitting him worse than the cold at the moment.

“Just so you dimwits get the idea, start breathing in and out for four counts. Or do I need to clap for you shitheads?!” Burns yelled. “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR! My faith is momentarily restored to your thick empty skulls. Move out onto the beach!” The huge block began to walk and breathe. “BY RUNNING!” he thundered.

The company slowly began to breathe in and out and run at the same time; but it wasn’t all together. A couple of instructors noticed this as they ran alongside them and motioned Burns by spinning their left finger in the air. “EVERYBODY...DOWN!!” All stopped and fell to the ground (except the superior officers). “Gimme a hundred for your foolishness! And learn how to count together...this is what we’ll do for every egghead that screws up! Faster! We got places to be!”

They all finished in about a minute and a half, but as soon as they got up, Burns screamed at them to get moving once more. They jogged outside of the training camp in the hiss block and onto the beach. It seemed like forever in the hard sand. Jarod felt that his legs were growing numb, but at least the blood that was pumping through his heart faster made him feel warm. He watched his breath go out of his mouth and was shouted at for doing so and was told to keep his eyes front.

“Keep moving, ladies! Christ, my mother runs faster than all of you creeps!” Burns yelled. “Weak bunches of shit!” He looked farther ahead to see the boats and paddles that were placed just about five hundred yards away. “STOP!” The front line did, but the others did not and the domino effect went into play. All of the trainees toppled onto one another except the back line, which Jarod was in. “Get up and sprint to those boats as fast as you can go. You can fit eight men per boat and you are to paddle as far as that little island away and come back. Remember, you are being timed for this.”

The trainees were stopping to catch their breaths, listening to what they could, and shivering in the harsh cold that caught up with them. “GO!” he barked. As fast as they could go, most of them sprinted off to the boats. Sgt. Burns watched them and glanced back at his fellow officers, who were timing them with stopwatches. “Think there will be any quitters yet?” Corporal Stevens asked, holding a clipboard in his hand, quickly staring over the roster of names.

“If not now, there are sure hell will be after they finish this exercise,” Burns replied. “They don’t call this the ‘toughest school on earth’ for nothing. I intend to make them the best damn SEALs this country has ever seen.”

“We sure are proud, aren’t we?” Stevens smiled and stopped at Jarod’s name; Jarod Houghton. “Hmm.”

“What?”

“This cadet; what is he doing here? Former Captain of Marine Corps? Made top five out of his class at West Point. Why the hell would that guy wanna be a SEAL?”

“It’s a dream, Stevens. It’s every soldier’s dream to be a SEAL. But it’s not every single soldier’s calling.”

“I agree, sir. Well, it’s not like I have time to ask him anyway...”

“Oop. One boat’s already halfway done. Good.”

“What next, boat lifts?”

“No. Timed swimming.”

“But, sir, they’re just coming back from the-”

“Are you questioning my decision?” he asked quietly, but it was very clear that he was angered by the question.

“Not at all, sir. Just as you say.”

“Good. When those clowns come back, get ‘em started.”

“Okay. How many lengths?”

“Same as the boat races. But give them less time.”

“Where’re you headed?”

“I need to report to HQ. I’m trusting you, Stevens, to give ‘em hell,” he grinned and turned to leave.

“You can count on me, sir.” They saluted one another and as a boat neared the shore near Stevens, he let hem get out and catch a breath or two. “All right, jerks, back in. Without the boat; you’re swimming. You got twenty minutes to do the exact same thing. You come back early, you get to rest. You come back late, you’ll be calling for your momma after you finish doing all the pushups that I’m gonna have you do. Move out!” Jarod exhaled a breath of exhaustion and murmured some word of encouragement to himself.

Twenty-one minutes later...

“Late boys. You took too long. You get to do pushups until the other fifty four get back,” Stevens commanded.

Jarod threw himself onto the shore face down into the sand. He was utterly exhausted and could not move. He could taste the sand on the tip of his tongue.

“Are you okay, man?” A man asked as he began to do his pushups. Jarod grimaced and attempted to move his head to look at him. But it was futile. “My name’s Jeff King. Look, man, you better get up before you get thrown outta here.”

“I can’t,” Jarod finally spoke. “My body’s suffering from the shock and closing down its emergency systems.” He closed his eyes and King looked around for any wandering superior eyes. No one was glancing in his direction and so he flipped Jarod over. Jarod wasn’t breathing. “Oh, god,” he muttered.

King started to give Jarod CPR; but at first that wasn’t working. After a couple of seconds, Jarod breathed a breath of life and they went back to doing pushups. “T...thank you,” he replied after a while.

“Sure. What’s your name?”

“Jarod.”

“Hey! No talking! Do you want me to give you more hell?!” Stevens heard them and shouted over to them. King and Jarod shook their heads and continued to fulfill their punishment.

The Centre, Blue Cove, Delaware, SL-5, 12:11 p.m.

“So how was it?” Miss Parker asked Broots from behind his desk as she was walking up. She put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. Broots did not move from his seat. He sat there with his head in his hands and groaned. Parker cleared her throat and exhaled a cloud of smoke around his head. As soon as he waived the smoke away from his face, he opened his laptop computer reluctantly and silently. “ANSWER the damn question, Broots!” she got impatient.

“I’d rather not,” he replied calmly and quietly. His cranberry suit coat was draped over the back of his chair and the tie hung carelessly from his shirt. “I don’t think some of these simulations are for the general public’s eyes. Some of them are very graphic and grotesque.” He popped in a minidisc into his computer and pressed play. “I just want to let you know that before you watch it because I can’t stop you. And you don’t respect my opinions anyway, so why do I bother?” he mumbled.

“Stop blathering and play the damn thing.”

3/10/83 FOR CENTRE USE ONLY

“Bobby, I want you to take this simulation and fabricate an exact opposite for our research,” a familiar creepy voice said. Mr. Raines’ voice could be heard, but all the DSA shows is a young man; Lyle.

“Where did it come from?”

“That is not your concern, Bobby. You are to-” Lyle got up and attacked him. There was a scuffle that ensued; with Raines’ grunting and groaning, and two sweepers pulled the strolled Lyle away from Raines.

“Stop calling me that! That’s not my name! That’s not who I am!” he screamed.

“You are who I say you are. Control yourself and do what I ask of you.”

“Only if you call me Lyle.” There were a few moments of silence and then the sound of the exhaling from a cigarette began to be heard.

“A simple request; granted. Now, Lyle, manufacture the opposite of this.”

“Why plan? Why not just do it? Saves time.”

“We must. Spontaneity is not in the Centre’s best interest.”

“I need something tangible to feel while I’m doing this, then. I’m more kinesthetic than visual or verbal.”

“Things are not that easy, Lyle. For now, just picture the scenes and tell me what to do.” Lyle began to scowl and his face looked quite ominous.

“Will this be produced in real life?”

“That is not a legitimate question for you to ask.”

“That is not a legitimate question for you to ask,” Lyle mocked and started to smile cockily. He inched over to Raines and Raines blocked his path with a thick manila file by handing it to him. Lyle grabbed it and sat back down at the table in the light.

“Who did this?”

“Another pretender in the Centre.”

“You’re not gonna name him?” Lyle got no response to that question. He stared into the shadows at Raines threateningly, but then went back to the file and began to speed read. “The person who made this up has the potential for good. That’s not right.”

“And why is that, Lyle?”

“All people have bad in them; it’s only natural that that nature is brought out.”

“What about the laws we have in our society? You’ve read the Constitution, haven’t you?”

“Pathetic fools who tried to be unnatural made those up. Hmm...let’s see...so this Pretender made a vaccine for those who are suffering from halivitiminosis, correct? The ones in Columbia with the disease related to picking coffee beans?” He looked to the shadows for his approval and got his (but it is unseen). “The workers in those coffee plants are starting to feel its effects, too. But, the curious thing is, everyone that works in those plants, is addicted to coffee. I can make a cheaper way for the work to actually get done and the halivitiminosis to be eliminated.”

“Yes?” Raines spoke once more.

“Spread a toxin all throughout the plants and farms that coffee is processed through to kill all the workers. That way, new ones can be hired for much less expensive work and more work will be accomplished; also, the problem is removed.”

“How should it be done?”

“A plane at night. I’m assuming it should carry the toxins in its dust compartment and drop it over the factory. The village where all the workers live is over here, correct?” Lyle pointed. “Yes, and so, when you do that, you won’t have to worry about getting the factories and farms all fumed up and dangerous. The problem is solved. Vaccines are a temporary solution; the epidemic of halivitiminosis can come back very quickly and can be even worse than before. Or, besides the plane, put the poison in their coffee. I mentioned before that they’re all hopelessly addicted to caffeine, did I not?”

“Yes.”

“You decide how it is to be done. The most subtle way would be the genuine approach of solving the problem, me, I would just kill them all with a knife.”

“A knife? Why a knife?”

“You can see blood. I like to watch it flow. Don’t you, Doctor?”

“As a doctor, I see it daily.”

“I often wonder what it tastes like.”

“Don’t get any ideas. If you become violent, I’ll put you back in the room with no light.”

“Oh...well, excuse me for being myself.”

“No, I won’t.” The door opened and Raines began to leave with his sweepers, but Lyle jumped out of his seat and assaulted one. He reached inside of the man’s shirt and found a switchblade knife. Lyle held it to the sweeper’s throat. “Lyle, put the knife down and let him go.”

“You create a monster, you gotta feed it.” Lyle dragged the sweeper out of the light and slammed him against the wall while holding him still. Raines shrugged his shoulders and walked out with the other sweeper. Loud screams of pain filled the room and about five seconds later, Lyle went back into the center of the room, laid the knife down, and looked directly into the camera’s eye. He knew he was being watched and was proud of it. There was blood all over his mouth and face. And no more cries for help from the now dead sweeper.

**

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Triumvirate, this is our new Centre chairman,” Parker said after switching the DSA off herself with a disgusted expression. “How many of these do you have now?”

“Well...you saw the last one. There are a couple more that I’ve decoded. They’re all one on one disk so far.”

“Make copies of it.”

“What? What for?”

“Just do it,” she snapped and turned on her heel towards the elevator, still smoking.

“Where are you off to?”

“Have them ready in about twenty minutes and bring them up to my office yourself. I don’t want anyone else to see them or be caught up in this.”

“Caught up in what? Caught up in what?” he asked as the elevator doors shut.


Samalga Island, Alaska, 10:00 a.m.

“All right, I wanna see some major lifting action here, ladies. Or you’ll all be sorry,” Corporal Stevens shouted to the SEAL trainees. The boats that they earlier used to paddle to a tiny patch of land were now instruments of punishment.

Jarod gritted his teeth and raised his legs as his team leader shouted out orders of when to lift and when to bring the boat down. His African-American friend, Jeff King was lying right near him and doing just as much work. This work had been going on non-stop; very much different from any other bootcamp that he had been in. Hellweek was hellweek; no rest. No time to stop or catch more than two breaths.

“When you’ve completed five hundred, you can stop and get up into a hiss block again. We’re gonna run to breakfast.” He crossed his arms and stared at Jarod’s team. They were struggling just as much as anyone else, but Jarod got the feeling that Stevens was looking at him in particular.

But he tried not to think and the more he tried, more thoughts provoked his mind. He thought back to a time back in the Centre when he had just turned eighteen.

“Why does the Centre keep making me do all these simulations, Sydney?” Jarod asked his mentor one day. Sydney forced him to sit down on his bed in his cell. “What good do they do?”

“They help us help others who might be in trouble.”

“I don’t understand. Why use me to indirectly help others?”

“It makes the Centre the good place who they say they are. We help people.”

“Then why don’t they let me live with my parents and keep doing it?”

“I’m not sure, Jarod. It’s just the way that they do things and I don’t question it. Neither should you.”

“You’re not being held here against your will. Especially on your birthday.”

“I know it’s your birthday, Jarod. That’s why I brought you back to your cell. There’s someone here that you may want to see,” the doctor smiled and left. On his way out, a young and beautiful Miss Parker strolled inside of Jarod’s cell. Jarod’s mouth dropped open all the way and she put her finger to her lips as she closed the door behind her.

“I haven’t seen you since the day you first...”

“Shh, Jarod. My father doesn’t know I’m here. Keep your voice down.” She walked over to the surveillance video stations around the room and disconnected the wires. “And I intend to keep it that way.”

“Why?”

“The reason why you haven’t seen me since my early teenage years is because he thought that I would lose my virginity with you.”

“Virginity?”

“Celibacy. Am I ringing a bell? Come on, genius. Guess what I’m talking about.”

“Oh. Did he think that Sydney was going to make a simulation of reproduction between me and you?”

“I don’t know that, Jarod. All I know is that he wanted to send me somewhere else where I wouldn’t think of you, and he’s sending me off to Japan this summer for that very specific reason.”

“Did he tell you these things?”

“Just that I’m going to Japan, but I figured everything else out for myself.”

“Why are you here? I’m happy to see you, but, did Sydney ask you to come here?”

“I wanted to come because I can’t stop thinking about you. Everytime I shared an intimate moment with another guy I felt strange.”

“Strange?”

“I can’t explain it; except to say that it didn’t feel right. And I’m here because I think we need to sort our feelings out.”

“Oh. I’ve been thinking about you as well. But that’s because I have a lot of time.”

“No other reason?”

“I...I...don’t know.” She inched closer to him and sat down on the bed.

“Do I make you feel uncomfortable?”

“No, Miss Parker.” Slowly and carefully, her cold hand found his and squeezed it. She felt him tense up and his pulse began to quicken.

“Jarod, I think you need to perform a simulation with me.”

“A simulation.”

“Yes. Would you be willing to?”

“I’ve never been asked to do one, I’ve just always been told. And up to a couple of minutes ago, I had no idea why I do them. Will I be helping someone if I do this?”

“Oh, I think so,” she smiled affectionately. “And for the first time, you’ll get something out of this simulation as well for yourself.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Now close your eyes,” she whispered. Jarod nodded and did so as she came closer to his lips and began to kiss him. She let go of his hands and his lips for a few seconds. “Did you like that, Jarod?”

“It felt soothing. Was that the simulation?”

“Part of it. Did I make you feel uneasy?”

“I liked it. Can you do it again?”

“Yes, but this time, you can be involved in it too. Let me guide you.” As she leaned over toward him again...

The boat nearly fell on his face. “Houghton! What in the hell were you doing? You coulda killed us!” his team leader screamed.

“Sorry.”

“All right, you lousy sons of a bitches, line up and get ready to go to the mess hall,” Corporal Stevens yelled. The class of sixty-two men already shrank as about three or four men could not get up from the beach. “Let’s GO, men!” he shouted right in their faces up close.

One got up slowly and got in line. The other three shook their heads painfully and muttered a ‘no’. “Pick ‘em up!” he ordered. The other men rushed to aide the three that were down. “Carry them on your shoulders as you run to breakfast. We’ll have our ceremony there.”

“Ceremony? What ceremony?” Jarod quietly asked Jeff as they lifted a man above their heads and began to run.

“You suddenly fall on the face of the earth or something? Where’ve you been all during phase one? The quitters get up in front of their classmates and ring a bell to show that they’re too tired to go on.”

“I wouldn’t call them quitters.”

“Just the same, they’re weak and aren’t meant to be SEALs. That’s the way you need to think, Jarod. But don’t forget to take care of those around you even if they are more feeble.”

“Right.” About five minutes into their late morning breakfast, after they had all been seated and began to eat their long awaited meal, Sgt. Burns cleared his throat.

“I hope you gentlemen enjoy the meal that you are partaking thereof, because in about an hour or so you’ll have lost all of it. Eat as much as you can now,” he chuckled.

“How is that funny?” Jarod whispered to Jeff and his friend just rolled his eyes.

“Anyway, it has been brought to my attention that three of you already need to make an important decision. Here you are, gentlemen. Would Cadets T. Jakes, Will Farnsworth, and B. Nelson come forward, please?” He uncovered a large bell that was sitting in the corner. It was a polished brass bell and the cord that one pulled to make it ring was blue. “NOW!” he raised his voice.

Immediately, the three adults, each barely twenty got up and dragged themselves to the bell. “You were commanded to get up and none of you could about twenty minutes ago, correct?” There was silence. “Nod your heads yes, morons!” They obeyed him and shamefully looked over to their peers and half of them were laughing scornfully at them.

“All three of you are finished here. You can call your mommies and daddies to tell them that you need a ride home,” he snickered and grabbed one by the shoulder. “Ring it,” he whispered harshly in the cadet’s ear. The first one moved toward the cord and put his hand on it. “RING IT!!” he screamed violently. All three obeyed him and trudged out of the mess hall.

“So they just let all of them into the Alaskan tundra wasteland?” Jarod questioned Jeff.

“No. Burns probably called the helicopter in already and it’s there to pick them up. But the pad is about a mile away from here on the beach. They gotta walk all the way there with all their shit.”

“Someone should help them.” Jarod got up and began to walk away from his seat when Burns called him.

“YOU! Sit down!!”

“But, sir, the pad is about a mile away from here...-”

“Good. They’ll have one last hardship to cherish of their three hour membership of the Navy SEALs on the way back home. Sit down...or is this your turn for resignation, too, Cadet?!”

“No, sir,” Jarod murmured as he obeyed and sat. This is not right. I’ve read all about the training that goes on during Hellweek with the SEALs. It’s supposed to be incredibly hard, yes, but not discouraging, he thought.

***

The Centre, Blue Cove, Delaware, Mr. Lyle’s
Office, 3:45 p.m.

Miss Parker reluctantly opened the double doors to her little brother’s office and trudged inside. Lyle did not look up from his paperwork at her when she cleared her throat the first time. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!” she thundered and it startled him.

Lyle took a double take at her and smiled evilly. “There’s been a slight change in plans again, sis. Mr. Horner left us to go back where he thought he had been formerly employed-”

“Just tell me the whole damn truth. And don’t leave anything out. Every single piece of the puzzle that I find missing from your story...will be a bodypart for my own harvested collection.” Lyle frowned at her sardonic remark and put a pen cap back on the paper that he had just signed.

“I wasn’t exactly all the way truthful with you or anyone here when I hired Mr. Horner...or rather, Lieutenant James Hofner of the Philly PD. I hired him to track down Jarod’s little sister originally and then I had him come here to-”

“Watch me like a hawk. How cute. What do you want from me?”

“Now I want you to watch him. Only you; no Broots or Sydney. Or any sweepers. He got called back and I gave him permission to be gone from the Centre for 72 hours. He’s been gone ever since lunch began.”

“And why do you want me to watch him?”

“I have my reasons. I want him back on time for one. I can’t tell you the others. I’m not doing this on my own whim, Miss Parker. I’m following orders from Herr Koschmeider.”

“The Centre in Berlin has a greater authority?”

“Of course. The Triumvirate adheres them to a higher standard and that’s why he’s currently evaluating us.”

“When’s he finish?”

“Probably by late this evening.”

“Did he request me to leave in particular?”

“No. I did. 72 hours, Parker. Monitor him and bring him back.”

“How in the hell am I gonna do that?”

“That’s not my problem. That will be all, Parker. See you in a few days. The jet will be ready to leave in an hour for you. The doors are just behind you, Parker.” Lyle went back to his work and as soon as she walked out, he picked up the phone on his desk. “You have reached extension 548. Please leave a message at the tone.”

“Is this really necessary? You know who it is.”

“I screen the calls just to make sure it’s someone that I want to talk to or not. So is she going?”

“Yeah. I just gave her the orders.”

“By the way, Lyle, your security mainframe system needs a little work on it. Everytime I tried to view a surveillance camera it froze up on me.”

“Yeah. Unfortunately, we..uh...Jarod...”

“We know what he’s capable of. But the question is, how did he get ahold of a computer in order to do that?”

“I’m not sure, sir.”

“He’s my last stop on this evaluation. He’d better be ready for me.”

“Ah, of course. Where are you headed off to now?”

“Psychology department. Warn Dr. Green that I’m about to show up in his office in about five minutes. I’m expecting to see some reports about Jarod; recent ones.”

“Well, Jarod just was captured last night and Dr. Green has not had time to-”

“He has had all day to question the Pretender. I expect results and not excuses. That’s why we’re superior to your location, Lyle. The Centre in Berlin gives the Triumvirate the results they want.”

“I haven’t had time to notify the Triumvirate yet of our latest capture-”

“As soon as I see Jarod I will do so myself and compliment you for a job well done. You led the expedition, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“I will take a dinner break at six after I finish assessing Dr. Green and I will return at seven thirty.”

“I’ll have a car waiting for you at ground level by the main entrance.”

“I hope I will not be disappointed.”

“I assure you that you will not be.”

***

Samalga Islands, Alaska, 12:00 p.m.

“All right, ladies, get your asses out here. This is a real test of endurance. And you might have to face this during a war or a conflict. So that is why we are simulating this upon you lucky gentlemen,” Sgt. Burns led the fifty-nine men out behind the mess hall to what looked like a public town square. It was just as empty. “Corporal Stevens is going to pick one of you to be the unfortunate victim; the others will be inflicting the opposition.”

Stevens’ eyes sped down upon his list and he randomly selected ten men. “Zuckermann, Yakiv, Williams, Vox, Ulmers, Thompson, Saunders, Redmond, Quail, and Peters. You will be the offenders.”

“And the defense?” Burns pried.

“What are they doing here?” Jarod asked Jeff.

“Not sure. I’ve never heard of whatever the hell they’re doing. Damn, it’s cold,” he shivered. As soon as he moved and shook himself to rid his body of the frigid temperature, Stevens happened to look up off of his list and he pointed to Jeff. “Stevens?”

“The defensive victim, Sgt. Burns.”

“Come out from among the ranks, son.” Burns had a small smirk on his face; he knew what was coming. King obeyed and stood next to Burns. “Many of you may be wondering just what the hell I’m gonna do to this man. Well, like I explained before Corporal Stevens chose his men, this is a test of endurance. Well, many times during a conflict or a war, a soldier gets ambushed. And always, always, always...expect the ambush to be more than one person. It could be three people...it could be ten people...it could be fifty that decide to spring on you. The point is, since Hellweek is training, you are to get used to the tactic called ambush. Now, those ten men left with Corporal Stevens to get their orders of what they must specifically do when the ambush happens. They will return unexpectedly and inflict Cadet King with pain.”

Jarod was puzzled. He had never seen this tactic of training being used anywhere; it was foreign to him.

“We will not arm him because, generally, when an ambush happens, you’re not prepared with arms. Unless you sleep with your gun, you have nothing. Not a knife, not a grenade, nada. It’s basically like getting caught with your pants down. Cadet King, good luck.” Jeff looked hopelessly at the crowd of trainees, particularly Jarod.

“Wait a minute. I almost forgot something,” Burns said into his radio. He went up to Jeff and blindfolded him. “It adds a little drama to everything,” he whispered in Jeff’s ear. As soon as he stepped out of the square, the ten man came charging with a loud battle cry. Jeff perked his head up and tried to prepare himself against the invisible enemy but failed. They kicked, punched, and battered the poor man until he fell down.

The other SEALs stood terrified and watched helplessly as their fellow classmate was being brutally assaulted. Jarod bit his lip and looked at his superiors, who were obviously enjoying this bit of ‘sport’. Yet he could say nothing for fear of losing his position. Here was he safe from the Centre; they never would find him. But is it worth being safe when another is not? he pondered.

After Jeff fell down, two of them held him steady while others further caused him bodily damage. His weak and abused body began to sag, and they literally had to hold him up in order to him to receive more of the beatings. “Stop. That’s enough. We don’t want him unconscious,” Sgt. Burns shouted and the men drew away from Jeff. A couple of men began to rush toward King, but Burns screamed at them to stay put. “Out in the open, you don’t get your own personal physician. When nobody else is around, you have to survive on your own and that’s what the object of this lesson was all about.”

Burns sent Stevens to check on King to make sure that he was okay and Stevens took his pulse. “It’s normal. His vital signs are okay.”

“Do you think he’ll be able to carry on?”

“Yes. If he is able to get some more sleep.”

“There’s no time for sleep, Corporal,” Sgt. Burns snapped. “He’ll have to go. We can’t afford to have weaklings with us.”

“Sir, he just got-”

“Are you questioning my judgment? Perhaps you’d like to be the head sergeant instead,” he said tersely.

I damn well question your judgment, Sergeant, Jarod thought. This is not part of a SEAL’s training; that I am certain of.


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 6:45 p.m.

“How much?” Hofner asked a black man that was wearing sunglasses and a black haired bandanna. He opened a black suitcase filled with several pounds of cocaine for Hofner to see. “Good. How much for the load?”

“I don’t know you very well. I don’t feel that I can trust you. How do I know that you won’t be selling this dirt cheap to white trash in trailer parks?”

“Huh,” Hofner smirked,” they’ll be giving me their food stamp cards for one milligram of this shit. Come on, tell me...I’ll tell you when to stop.”

“Half a hundred k.”

“Fifty grand?”

“I gotta make a profit somehow, boy. Do you think I sell door to door Watch Tower magazines?”

“No. I’ll pay it.”

“Do you want installment plans or am I gonna get the whole lump of cash now?” James Hofner put his Oakley sunglasses back on his face to shield the sun from his eyes and stuck his hand into his leather trenchcoat pocket. “You dressed like you could own the Chrysler building. What’s it gonna be?”

“Installments.”

“Hah. Don’t you drive a Benz or something? That looks like an Armani suit.”

“It could be a look alike.”

“Not in this business. All right. Installments as you wish. But your goods are gonna come in installments as well.”

“What? That wasn’t part of the deal.” The black man was about to reply but he saw Miss Parker getting out of her Lincoln Town Car. He squeezed the briefcase tight and frowned at Hofner.

“What the hell is this, man? You tryin’ to double cross me?” he pointed to her. Hofner turned and by the time he turned back, the man was running away.

“Shit. All units, the dealer’s moving south from me. Locksley, he’s coming straight at you at twelve o’ clock.”

“Roger that. Damnit, he’s seen us!”

“Lt. Hofner, this is Captain Queens. Report.”

“Getaway, sir.”

“What are you talking about? This was supposed to be a done deal! You screwed it up!”

“Negative, sir.” As soon as Miss Parker was heading toward Hofner, two SWAT team members in full uniform grabbed her and slammed her against a brick wall. One of them cuffed her hands behind her back while the other began to frisk her.

“Watch it,” she hissed when he took the gun off of her hip. He continued his search and she bucked against him, stunning the man holding her hands down. “What the hell-”

“You...have the right to remain silent,” Lt. Hofner ordered her. “Don’t say a word. Davis, Hawkins, put her in my squad car. Locksley, you still there?”

“Roger that. What the hell happened?”

“Tell you when we get back to the station. I gotta book somebody that interfered. Take the Benz back to Rent-An-Import, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Excuse me, Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir.” As soon as he finished his conference, he got into his car and ordered the other men to go back to the station as well. Hofner turned the radio off in his car before he started the engine. “What the hell were you doing?”

“I have been ordered here by Lyle to watch you here.”

“What the hell for?”

“Beats me. He gave some bullshit about wanting you back on time, but I have a feeling that he had some other purpose in mind when he gave me the directive. What the hell were you doing?”

“Damnit, I...I...just wait until I get you back at the station where I want you.”

When they arrived, he shoved her inside of the huge police building and pushed her into an interrogation room. “Shutup and don’t say a word until I begin to ask you questions. I’m gonna get your sorry ass out of this if I can without any legal crap.” He took off his leather trenchcoat and threw it on his desk.

“Lieutenant,” Captain Queens called to the undercover cop from his office. “Come in here and shut the door.” Hofner did as he asked and just before he did, one of the SWAT team members handed him Miss Parker’s gun. Hofner put the safety on and began to toy around with the gun in his hands. “What in the hell went wrong with today’s operation? We had the contact from the inside, set up the meeting, and you screw it up! I had you brought in specially from your other damn special assignment so you could take the credit for it...and you let me down!?”

“The woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Maybe. Maybe she wasn’t. I want answers from her, and don’t you disappoint me on your interrogation skills. Grill her.”

“I’ll do just that, sir. Believe me, this disappoints me a helluva lot more than you, sir.”

“I want enough information from her so you can write her biography when you’re finished. And you know what to do when she doesn’t comply. Your best skill is interrogation, Hofner. Don’t fail me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And leave that here,” he pointed to the gun. “She won’t need it soon anyway. I’m gonna check out the licensing number.”

“What if it’s not in the state?” Queens held out his hand for the gun and made eye contact with his employee.

“How would you know?”

“I said ‘what if’, sir.”

“Let me worry about it. Close the door on your way out, Hofner.” Hofner made a quick stop by the coffee machine, filled up a mug, and opened the door to the interrogation room. Miss Parker was sitting with her long legs stretching on the table and her skirt was inched up her thigh intolerably well. She was wearing a jade green silk shirt and the skirt was jet back. His insides cringed when he took a better and close up look of her.

“Coffee?” he offered and she shook her head. Hofner reached into his gun holster and pulled out a pack of his cigarettes. Without even asking, she got up and snatched one away, then sat back down. It did not surprise him at all, but she was stunned when he bent down and lit hers. She did not let him know this outwardly, though.

“So, you interrupted the biggest drug bust of my career just for the hell of it? And you don’t think that I’m just a little bit...teensy weensie pissed off?”

“Does it look like I care?”

“What am I supposed to think, when I see an armed person rushing towards me while I’m finishing a secret drug deal? Did it run through your mind to not get out of the car and ruin it for me? Or do you have some sort of personal vendetta against me?”

“Not that I can think of, yet.”

“Well, thank you. Thank you for ruining my career, my chance of being promoted, my raise, and my reputation all at the same time. Why don’t you just kick me in the balls and finish it now?”

“Because I have my good shoes on. I’d call it a waste of time and effort. So’s your whining; I’m not falling for your pity party, and I’m not apologizing.”

“I was going to try and clear you of charges, but, you leave me no choice.”

“Blah, blah, blah.” Hofner grabbed the cigarette out of her mouth, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it. “You’re gonna make a fine doormat when I’m finished with you,” she whispered, out of earshot.

“It was for effect. Now shutup and let me finish,” he whispered back. She shrugged her shoulders and leaned further back in her chair. He paused to take a drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke in the opposite direction. “Did you purposefully interfere with my sting?”

“No. It was not intentional.” He stubbed his cigarette, offered her another, and left his lighter in the room for her. She sat there in the same position just as he had found her.

“What do you say, Captain?” he asked his superior. The scrubby red-haired man scratched his beard and lit a cigar.

“Don’t trust her. She’s too pretty of a woman not to be lying.”

“You want me to put her through a lie detector test?”

“Book her.”

“What?”

“Why are you objecting, Lieutenant? Is there something else that she told you that you’re withholding?” Queens’ eyebrows raised in surprise.

“I...uh...I’ll start filling out the paperwork.”

“Good kid. Is Locksley back yet from his joyride?”

“He just returned, sir.”

“When he gets up here, have him escort her to her room for the evening. And I want her guarded specially, away from the others.”

“Any reason, sir?”

“None for you to hear.” Queens grinned and patted Hofner on the shoulder as he walked back into his office. Sgt. Locksley nearly passed him but Hofner stopped him and gave him his orders. “Who’s gonna guard her specially?” he asked.

“You, for starters. After I finish this mess of paperwork, I’ll get down there myself and watch her for the rest of the night.”

“Hey, now that I got a closer look...it’s a good thing that you’re pressing charges on her after all.”

“I wouldn’t get any ideas, Sergeant. She’s not the type to be fooled around with.”

***

The Centre, Blue Cove, Delaware, Mr. Lyle’s Office, 8:05 p.m.

“Did Sydney enlighten you as to how we’re progressing with our pretenders, Herr Koschmeider?” Lyle asked the man as he was taking a break with a glass of bourbon.

“He was very reluctant to cooperate. I don’t understand why, either. Except for my previous visit, he was always very cooperative, congenial, and cheerful with his evaluators.”

“Yes, well, Sydney’s presence on the team that pursues...excuse me, pursued Jarod, is a hindrance. One that I plan to remove myself, personally. But there are others that must be dealt with before I rearrange the team.”

“But wait, why is there a need to evict the members of the present team? Jarod has been brought in, has he not?”

“Yes. But four years is way too long for any subject to be out in the open. They must be dealt with quickly and quietly in the same sense.”

“And I assume you have Triumvirate approval for your actions, do you not? Since they were the ones that originally put those three together.”

“Of course. But the others-”

“What others? On the pursuit of Jarod team?”

“No. There is one that you know about; Major Charles. We had him reinstated in the Renewal wing. Right now, he’s unconscious, but at any given time, I can wake him. I intend to replace Sydney with him. And the other, named Zoe, is Jarod’s girlfriend. She’ll replace Miss Parker. And the last, but certainly not least, will be Hofner.”

“I still do not understand why it is so necessary for you to have a team on the pursuit of Jarod anymore, especially since he has been caught for the last time. You are withholding information from me, aren’t you?”

“No. No. Not at all, Herr Koschmeider. I’m just taking extra special precautions; just in case, he might escape. You can never underestimate the power of this pretender. And that’s why he’s worth so much to us, right?”

“So you think. There is another reason why we have wanted him back so much, but that is high and classified information. You are to know, that Jarod is the most powerful pretender that the Centre has ever created. But we do not simply want him back physically. Anyway, it is time to visit our project.”

“Perhaps you’d like to see Dr. Cox’s improvements. He had been run over about a week and a half ago by a car and he’s walking just like us. He has discovered some medical miracles that can help the paralyzed.”

“The sooner I see him the sooner I leave. I have my orders, and I will carry them out to the fullest. Take me to Jarod. Now.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” a familiar British accent came from behind Koschmeider and Mr. Cox stepped out of the shadows in Lyle’s office. He held a Glock 10 mm in his hand and it was pointed directly at the man from Berlin.

“Why?” Cox never answered; he just pulled the trigger and shot Koschmeider in the chest twice.

“What the Triumvirate doesn’t know can’t hurt them,” Lyle smiled and approved of Cox’s actions. “But unfortunately, I’ll never know why Jarod was wanted back so much. Or rather, he can never tell me now.” He pushed a button on his intercom to call an extension. A familiar sweeper’s voice answered hello. “Send down two men with a gurney outside. There’s been a terrible accident.”

Cox took his cue, put on his black gloves, and opened the window. Both he and Lyle picked Koschmeider’s dead body up and threw it down to the ground. “Can you remove the bullets during your autopsy?”

“Of course. I am a doctor, Lyle.”

“Do it by tonight and when you’re finished, incinerate him. Don’t want any evidence, do we?”

“Major Charles is recovering from his re-education very quickly, Mr. Lyle.”

“Removal and cover-up is more important at this time to be dealt with. We move slow at first, like a tropical storm building itself into a furious hurricane. Then we’ll strike and hit them with so much force that they won’t know what hit them. Have you created a new identity for Major Charles?”

“Not yet. We’re waiting for him to-”

“Don’t wait. You finish with Herr Koschmeider and start on him right away. I’m going to make a visit to a certain Pretender’s girlfriend and further persuade her to join us. That way, when she hunts down her former boyfriend and kills him, he’ll know that she had a choice in the matter.”

“My, my, you are evil, aren’t you?”

“Yes. And damn proud of it, too.”

***

Samalga Islands, Alaska, 4:45 p.m.

“This is the ultimate test of survival for a SEAL in the water. The weights that are being tied around your feet weigh about fifty pounds, which is equivalent to all scuba gear and what you’ll be carrying while you are on a destroyer like this one,” Sergeant Burns instructed the cadets. All fifty-seven of them were standing on the platform of the U.S. Hamilton with their hands and feet bound to the chains that were holding the weights. “So what better way is there for me to train you? I am preparing you for the inevitable, since that is what war is all about. And we are the proud SEALs, the bravest of them all. Unfortunately, there are some of you who will not survive this test. My orders to the gentlemen that unchain themselves first and remove their weights are to help others. But, here’s the catch. When you surface, you cannot go back and help.”

“This is wrong,” Jarod muttered to Jeff, who was of course, standing right near him. “I’ve never heard of this kind of training before. It’s too risky; people could lose their lives.”

“That’s what happens during war, Jarod.”

“How can you vouch for his doings? Especially after what he had done to you?”

“I was only out for an hour. And I enjoyed that rest, let me tell you. I consider myself lucky to have received it.”

“This is not army training. I’ve done hours of research, I’ve been in the Marines and Navy. None of their training is this brutal.”

“Then it wouldn’t be called Hellweek, Cadet Houghton,” Corporal Stevens stepped up to him and spun Jarod around so he faced the open ocean. “If you really wanna be a SEAL, you gotta meet Sgt. Burns’ standards. He passes or fails you; he’s the ultimate judge.”

“Of when my life ends? This is completely unauthorized activity by the official code and I’ve read it.”

“Well, I’m proving your research wrong.” Before anyone could do anything to stop him, Stevens shoved Jarod into the freezing cold ocean. Sgt. Burns’ eyes narrowed, but then he and the other superiors began to push the others off into the ocean with Jarod.

After his plunge into the ocean, Jarod struggled hard with the weights that was pulling him down faster than he could control. He saw his fellow cadets join him momentarily. Without thinking even twice, Jarod let himself fall into the depths of the ocean. Thankfully, it was not as deep as he had thought as he had been pushed off and he reached it within five seconds.

His hands were the first things to move; he needed all the oxygen to be in his brain so he could think and if he moved more, he would use up more precious air. They began to wiggle and he twisted his hands to reach down to the lock that was by his ankles. Jarod bent his head down to his chained hands and released a paper clip into them. Not much air...he thought. Emergency systems are beginning to kick in; gotta move more quickly.

It took his hands three tries to pick the lock and when he did, he threw the weights off of his feet, swam up to the surface, and threw his mouth up first to get a breath of air. No one noticed Jarod’s mouth come up because he kept his head down in the water.

Keeping the clip in his teeth, Jarod swam over to Jeff, who had given up. He’s not breathing! He’s not...damnit, they’re going to pay! He unlocked Jeff, swam up again with Jeff in his arms, and let him float on his back. Again, no one noticed Jarod’s rescue or mouth coming up for a breath. Jarod got to about five more when Corporal Stevens began to see the floating bodies and he notified Sgt. Burns of it. “Smart son of a bitch,” he murmured. “All right, Stevens, when you notice that mouth come up...and I want your eyes peeled on that ocean, scream your head off and order him to come up to the surface. If he doesn’t, we have ways of persuading him otherwise.”

“Sir?”

“DO as I say!! Perhaps you would like to take command of this operation, Corporal?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well, then. Notify me immediately on radio. I’ll be in the captain’s quarters if I am needed.” About thirty seconds later, Jarod’s mouth came up to the surface and Stevens saw it. “Houghton, come to the surface!” he yelled. Jarod pretended that he did not hear his superior and continued to dive deep into the ocean to help his fellow cadets.

“We will fire at the water if you do not,” he continued to threaten Jarod, who at this point, could not actually hear him. “Lower the net!” he commanded some sailors and they did. The net caught the floating bodies and Jarod at the same time. He fought his way out of it as much as he could, but the rope was too thick.

“Have you gotten all of the cadets yet?” Burns asked from the walkie talkie. Stevens picked the radio up off of his belt and gave an affirmative reply. “Send the trouble-maker to me in the captain’s quarters immediately. Let the others rest.”

“What about those that are not in the net?”

“Take account of the ones that are present. Leave the others where they are; they’re probably dead anyway.”

“Yes, sir. Houghton’s on his way to you.” Jarod sprawled on his knees before Stevens coughing. “Get up and go to the captain’s quarters. Sgt. Burns wants to speak to you alone.”

***

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9:15 p.m.

“Let me show you to your suite for the evening, mademoiselle,” Sgt. Locksley said sarcastically as he opened a door to an empty cell room.

“So where are all the criminals? On the streets?” she retaliated.

“I’ll let you know when I think you’re funny. Get in and shutup.” He unlocked a jail door and slammed it shut behind her. Locksley studied the room for a minute and smiled evilly. The expression on his face began to lighten up and he sat down in a cushioned chair just next to her outside of the cell. “You know, the bail that you’re gonna be paying...is probably two times’ worth that Lincoln Town car that you were driving.”

Miss Parker, for once in her lifetime, did not come back with a witty remark. She took the cigarette that Hofner had left for her out of her breast pocket and lit it with his lighter. I suppose this might be the only way that I can watch him, she thought to herself and stared at the wall that was opposite her cell.

“And you look like you could give a man one helluva of a ride.” When she did not respond to his comment, he got up out of his chair, unlocked the jail door, and got in the cell with her. “You interested in a trip?”

Miss Parker’s patience was beginning to drive her to anger, but the only thing she did was take another drag of her cigarette and tap the ashes onto his shoe.

“I’m talking free bail here. Not everything’s been processed yet.”

“You speaking to me with your brain, or your testosterone, Sergeant? I can’t tell the difference,” she finally quipped.

“It sounds like the blend of both,” Hofner’s voice called from the door to the cell room. “You’re that desperate and lonely, Locksley? You’re reduced to begging from my suspects? Tsk, tsk, tsk. If I ever catch you harassing women in my cells ever again, I’ll give you an unlicensed vasectomy. And I won’t use any painkillers.” Locksley’s face was drained of blood and he looked quite pale as he slowly left Miss Parker alone. He shoved the keys into his superior’s hand and trudged out the door.

“Does that happen quite often here?”

“I don’t usually go down to the cells; I usually just fill out the paperwork. But since my superior’s anger hasn’t been fully extinguished yet, he decided to make me do both. Sick bastard,” he muttered the last sentence.

“You’re the one who helped Jarod escape this morning, didn’t you?”

“What made you ask that question?”

“I’ve been trying to decide whether you just simply hate me and want to get revenge on me, or if you are just a spawn of Satan himself.”

“If I were a spawn of Satan, wouldn’t you think that that would include my hating you?”

“Spawns of Satan carry out more than one mission in life, don’t they?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m afraid we’ll never know who helped Jarod this morning. I never had any access to company cars because I didn’t have the authorization from the Centre.” She blew out one last cloud of smoke and extinguished her cigarette on the floor.

“So, how long am I gonna be here?”

“At least another twenty-four hours. I have to try and convince my boss that you weren’t a conspirator with the drug dealer.”

“Can’t take ‘no’ for an answer, can he?”

“I’m afraid he’ll need more than that from you, Miss Parker.”

“I can’t tell him anything about myself.”

“He...looked up the number on your gun.”

“Humph, it’s registered under the Centre. But he won’t find out anything else about the company.” Parker thought for a moment and as he turned his back to begin pacing back and forth, she undid the top button on her shirt. “How long are you being employed with the Centre?”

“I started as a temp. Mr. Lyle says that when I get back, I’ll be permanent.”

“Take my advice and don’t go back.”

“What?”

“I said...take my advice and don’t go back. No matter what kind of offer they give you,” she whispered. “Once you’re there, you’re there for life.”

“I don’t quite-”

“Just trust me on this. After these 72 hours are over, are you finished with the Philly PD?”

“I was planning to turn in my resignation slip when you fell asleep.”

“Don’t resign and go to the Centre. I need your help.”

“What for?”

“I heard you have some FBI contacts here.”

“I might. What’s in it for me?”

“Justice.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Parker. I want some greenback in exchange for my services.”

“I can’t guarantee it. On second thought, maybe I can. How much would you require?”

“Half a million dollars, since I don’t know what’s involved and since I don’t know how much time I’ll be putting into the effort.”

“I’m not going to promise hard, cold cash. But, the money can be given to you electronically in a bank account.”

“Banks sort of notice large amounts of money like that going into accounts electronically. Not a smart idea.”

“If we do it little by little, they won’t give a shit. Now are you in?”

“Yeah. I’ve got two FBI contacts here. What are you looking to do?”

“Exploit and destroy the Centre.”

“Why?”

“They don’t follow the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. In the Centre, you have no rights to life or liberty, and instead of happiness, the pursuit of hell.”

“And what do you yourself want in return for it?”

“My life.”


To be continued...











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