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Disclaimer: I have absolutely no right to use these characters, just an abiding admiration for the creative work of the cast and crew of The Pretender. All rights to all characters within this story are owned by NBC and the fine folks who created and slaved over this sorely-missed gem of a series. Although the story is original, it is a "derivative work" and I claim no copyright. No profits are made in any way in the writing or distribution of the work. It is written solely for creative enjoyment.
In the soft, faintly indigo darkness of Miss Parker's bedroom, the phone rang. She opened her eyes, stared at the leafy sway of shadows on the ceiling, and debated whether or not to pick it up. Point one: it might be Sydney or Broots, calling with information about Jarod -- not likely, and any information they had would be about as useful as a turbocharger on a Yugo. Point two: it might be some pervert calling to breathe heavily in her ear. Tempting. God, she was getting lonely. Point three ...... it might be her father. Or news about him.
She picked up the phone, swept hair back from her face, and said, "Someone had better be on life support, or you will be."
"Good morning," Jarod said. Damn it, she'd known she shouldn't have answered.
"Make it fast, Jarod, because it's not morning here and I'm not in any mood for your little -- "
"Take a drive," he said.
"Fuck off," she snapped.
"Do it." He hung up. She took the phone away from her ear and stared at it for a few seconds, frowning. Jarod was a lot of things -- infuriating and arrogant, to name two -- but he was not rude. She was rude. She didn't like the role reversal, didn't like it at all.
She settled back on her pillows, staring at the wind-whipped shadows, and decided she was damn sure not going to tear off on Jarod's latest wild goose chase at three o'clock in the goddamn morning.
"Shit," she sighed, and threw back the covers.
Even for Jarod, she was not willing to drive around in a nightgown and slippers; she took half an hour, and by the time she started her car she looked every inch a Parker -- sharply perfect. Although if she kept on without sleep -- and this was her second night in a row -- she'd be eligible for the truckload discount on undereye concealer and Visine.
She'd checked the back seat and the trunk. She was tired, not stupid.
As she turned on to the only real main drag in Blue Cove, her car phone rang. She snapped it open and kept her eyes on the street as she said, "Better be good."
"They're monitoring your calls at home," Jarod said. "What I had to say couldn't be on any tape."
"What makes you think they're not tapping this line?"
"It's not your phone," he said. She took a look, raised her eyebrows, and put the phone back to her ear. "Keep this one somewhere safe. From now on, it may be your new best friend."
"What the hell are you -- "
"Listen." That edge to his voice again, harsher this time. She braked for a stoplight and watched a police car cruise the opposite direction. "I have information that somebody's authorized your termination."
"What?" She laughed. "Right. Thanks for the tip, Jarod, but I'm not buying any -- "
"Don't go to the Tower."
"I've never been in the Tower."
"Don't start. Just -- be careful. And don't call your father."
"You're being awfully helpful. What's wrong, am I getting too close? You want to throw me off by making me lose my edge?"
Jarod was silent for long enough for the light to change. She shifted into first, cruised another half a block before he said, "That's the problem, Miss Parker. You're not getting close enough. If you don't start making more of an effort I'll be breaking in a new tracker soon. And -- I don't want that."
She felt a chill in her stomach, in spite of what she knew to be true. Daddy would never let her be replaced, and he certainly wouldn't let her be terminated. She'd been missing Jarod by miles these last few weeks, but that would change -- she'd beaten the concept into Broots and Sydney often enough. Sooner or later, Jarod would miss something, and she'd be there to scoop him up. That was the way it worked.
The way it was supposed to work. "So what am I, the devil you know?"
"Something like that." Jarod still sounded odd to her, too serious, too concerned. "Take another look at what I left in Sacramento."
"Giving me hints?" she snapped. "I don't need your help."
"I hope you don't," he said. "Because I'm not sure I can help you. Good luck."
He hung up. She tossed the phone into the passenger seat, shifted gears and took the next corner fast enough to squeal her tires.
Bastard. She was not going to let him get to her. She was Miss Parker, and there was no way things were out of her control. She was having a bad month, so what?
It was three forty-five. She blew past a police car and watched the lights pop on, heard the siren wail. Smiled tightly.
She shifted again, pressed the gas, and sped toward the gates of the Centre. They activated at the touch of the control on her dash, rolling ponderously open. She felt the urge to slow down, shoved it aside, looked behind her to see if the cops were still with her.
"Come get me," she said, and blew through the gates with an inch of clearance on either side. The gates reversed track and began to close; the police car fishtailed to a stop, lights still flashing. Parker braked and idled, watching them in the rear view mirror.
"Sorry, boys," she said as she tapped a cigarette out of her case and lit up. "I win."
The lights died. The police car backed away and cruised off in silence.
"I always win," she whispered, and breathed a dragon-cloud of smoke out the open window.
Broots arrived two hours late and looking like an unmade bed. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "I had to get Debbie ready, and it's not easy to find a babysitter at five in the -- "
"Personal problems," Parker said, "are personal."
"Well, I couldn't leave her -- "
"Tell me you didn't bring her here." She didn't like the idea of Debbie trapped in the Centre, even for a few hours; the Centre consumed childhoods like bonbons -- hers, Jarod's, Angelo's, a hundred more just like them.
"Just for a -- she's in your office lying down, but my sister's coming to -- "
"Fine. Whatever. Where the hell is Sydney?"
"Late, I guess," Broots shrugged; she gave him a look that should have frozen him to death and watched him pale. "He -- uh, had a date last night. Maybe it was kind of a late evening."
"A date. Perfect. I'm in hell. Sydney's getting laid, even Jarod's got a sex life, and I've got you, thank God not literally. Where is the stuff from Sacramento?"
"Um -- right there." Broots pointed to the work table, and stayed well out of her way as she crossed to it and began sifting through junk. "Right -- right -- yeah, right there. That one."
She pulled an envelope from the general mess and read the sweeper summary on the front. From it, she took a red notebook, with its usual clippings, and a lollipop.
It was a big one, white with multicolored swirls, a visual joke on a stick. Miss Parker held it up by two taloned fingers for Broots' appraisal.
"It's -- big," he offered.
"Master of the obvious. The analysis claims it's just what it looks like."
"A sucker," Broots said helpfully. Parker's eyes widened.
"A -- sucker -- " He seemed to catch on that it wasn't such a good idea to repeat, sat down in front of the computer and began industriously typing. "Well, it is."
"He's calling me a sucker?"
Broots continued to type, head down. He was saved by the opening of the office door, and the arrival of Sydney, who looked freshly showered, shaved and suspiciously content.
"Miss Parker," he said cheerfully. "Good morning. Starting early?"
"Um, she's asking about -- about the -- " Broots evidently opted for the safest course, no noun at all. Sydney raised his eyebrows at the sight of the candy still held, like a dead rat, between Parker's thumb and forefinger.
"Ah," he said. "The lollipop."
Parker felt the thought worth repeating. "Is he calling me a sucker?"
"Jarod? Oh, I shouldn't think so." Sydney smiled. He crossed his arms in what Parker thought of as his standard shrink-pose, but even that didn't dim the gleam in his eyes. "Even given that he probably knows the colloquial term by now, I don't think you should read so much into it. Jarod's rarely so metaphorical."
"Sorry to interrupt your social life, but I'd really like to find a clue to Jarod's new location, and I'd really like to find one now. If you're going to stand there looking so pleased, you might as well try guessing what the hell this means." She shoved the lollipop into his hands.
"Miss Parker -- "
The phone buzzed for attention. She grabbed it up, took a deep breath, and said, "Parker."
"Your presence is required in the Tower."
That was all. A male voice, no one she recognized; a dull click and dial tone following. She slowly lowered the handset back to the cradle.
No. She took a deep breath, then another, to steady herself, then slowly, carefully, dialed her father's number. She listened to a hollow, endless series of rings before she received the empty comfort of voicemail.
"Daddy, they called me to the Tower. I'm going now. I just - I just wanted you to know." Jarod said not to go. But she didn't have an option. Nobody said no.
Her father would have said something coldly comforting. Nothing to worry about. Just a formality. But Daddy lied, oh God, Daddy lied.
"Bye," she said, and wished she hadn't. She always ended in a position of weakness with her father, even when he wasn't there.
"The Tower?" Broots sounded aghast. She looked at him, at Sydney, and decided the best course of action would be to say nothing at all.
The only person who'd been and returned from the Tower, so far as she knew, was her father.
Even before dawn, the Centre wasn't empty - there were people in the corridors, lab-coated technicians, smooth tailored professionals two steps up the food chain. It was unsettling to realize how few of these she recognized - changes in the Centre, and she'd been too wrapped up in Jarod to notice. A mistake. In the Centre, not noticing changes got you voided.
She passed a door and heard, despite excellent soundproofing, someone screaming, a noise as small as a chirping cricket. She walked a little faster, the tap of her high heels the only sound in this part of the hall.
Well, she thought as she turned the corner toward the Tower, at least I'm dressed for the occasion. She'd taken great care this morning to put on a flawless Donna Karan suit, the lines sharp as paper cuts. She was going to need that advantage, and every other damn one she could think of. Jarod said not to go.
At the end of hall, the featureless shining elevator doors gleamed. No markings. No call buttons. The Tower was by invitation only.
She continued to walk, heels tapping, no break in her stride, not slowing until she was within two steps of colliding with the doors.
They hissed open.
Inside stood a man dressed in tailored slacks, a comfortably nubby sweater, a casual shirt. His loafers cost more than her entire paycheck. He gave her a bright, empty smile and said, "Step inside, Miss Parker. You are seven minutes late."
Taking a page from her father, she stepped in, folded her arms, and turned her back to him. Not a word, she told herself. Don't give them anything to use.
The doors whisked closed. In the confined space, she smelled a custom-blended cologne, something with too much musk and sandalwood. She breathed as shallowly as she could and stared at the shiny, chill, featureless elevator wall. I feel like a TV dinner.
It did not make her feel better that there were no controls of any kind inside.
"You're not asking questions," he said. "Unusual. They almost always ask questions."
She fixed her eyes on a smudge of fingerprint, kept her back straight, her mouth shut.
"My name is Mister Allen," he said. "Are you sure there's nothing you want to ask me?"
She turned her head to look at him. "Mind if I smoke?"
He smiled a false apology. "Alas, yes. The Tower is a non-smoking area. For safety reasons."
She wondered if he was planning to confiscate her lighter, and what damage he really thought she could do with it. The elevator hissed to a pneumatic halt.
The doors stayed closed. Parker waited until the silence seemed menacing, the air close and humid. Hermetically sealed, she thought. Like a bug in a mayonnaise jar. Not a particularly comforting image.
He held out his hand. "I'm sorry, it's policy."
"Of, for the love of - " She rolled her eyes and dug out her cigarettes and lighter. Mr. Allen looked down at them with bemusement, raised his eyebrows.
"Your weapon, Miss Parker. Please."
She handed it over in glacial silence, hoping she didn't look like too much of a fool. Mr. Allen smiled when the weight of her gun dropped into his hand, and she didn't like the look of that at all.
No signal from him, but the door whisked open behind her. She turned and took her first step into the Tower.
A white room, blank as a snowfield. The air felt cold and sterile, over-conditioned, she thought irresistibly of a morgue, cold shining steel, the gurgle of water in autopsy trays. Her second thought was that she was as obvious in this room as a cockroach on a wedding cake, and she had just given up her gun.
The elevator doors hissed shut behind her. She refused to look. Instead, with great deliberation, she opened her cigarette case, tapped one out, and lit up. Took a deep, satisfactory drag, the hot gritty taste erasing the remembered tang of formaldehyde and decaying flesh.
An alarm sounded, shockingly loud in the stillness. Parker took another long hit off her cigarette and waited.
A section of white wall slid open to her left, and Mr. Allen said reprovingly, "Miss Parker."
She dropped the butt to the floor and put the sharp toe of her black pump on it. Slowly ground it into a dirty smear. She breathed out a gray cloud, cocked her head, and waited.
The alarm shrilled to a halt. Mr. Allen shook his head, a Father-Knows-Best gesture, and stood there looking at her.
"Sorry," she said without any particular sincerity. "You called me. Mind telling me why?"
"Not at all," Mr. Allen said, and before she could move, before she could breathe, he had taken two very fast steps and put the barrel of her own gun to her forehead.
She flinched, felt her stomach lurch uncontrollably because she saw a lazy killing pleasure in Mr. Allen's brown eyes, and knew what it was he did for the Centre, what happened in this cheerless white room. She'd been right. It was a roach motel.
Jarod said not to come. She wondered if he'd be sorry she was dead.
"Nice weapon," Allen said. "Good action, kept clean -- I approve. Nice to find a woman who pays attention to the important things in life, I always say. And I must say, Miss Parker, you definitely do. Coiffed, pressed, lacquered -- you're all armor, aren't you? But not bulletproof, I'm afraid."
"What do you want?" She said it quietly, in as low a tone as she could manage. No sudden surprises, no, please God. She felt a hot prickle of sweat on her back.
"It isn't what I want, Miss Parker, I am merely the messenger. You know how they always say, don't kill the messenger? It's rather the opposite in this case."
She swallowed hard and forced her eyes to keep meeting his. She played her one and only trump card. "I do hope you've consulted my father about this."
"Don't worry," he said. "Your father is fully informed. He agrees with the need for -- extreme measures."
He was so certain about it that she felt her knees go weak. Daddy? He couldn't, he wouldn't, she'd done everything for him --
"If you're going to do it, do it. You're boring me." Her last gamble. Her hands were fisted at her sides to conceal trembling, her heart fluttering in her chest. /They're just trying to scare you he's trying to scare you don't look away don't show fear he won't pull the --/
He snicked the safety off. She swallowed bile and found that she had the courage, after all, to stare into his eyes as he pulled the trigger.
No bullet. She gasped, unable to help it, caught herself with iron will and forced herself to stand still as Allen lowered the gun.
"I trust I now have your attention, Miss Parker. Management is not happy with the way you have lately handled the search for Jarod. They would like to urge you very strongly to bring Jarod back where he belongs. Not next year, not next month. Immediately."
Now that the fear has been shocked into silence, she begins to feel an upswell of rage, true cleansing rage, and she's glad Mr. Allen has hold of the gun because if it was in her hand she would have put more holes in him than three rounds of miniature golf.
"Get my point?" he asked, and smiled.
"We're crystal." She hissed the answer, shaking now from a desire to rip her nails down his face, use her spike heels on his crotch, fix him so he would never again make her feel this weak.
He reached over and slipped a small white card into her pocket, patted it possessively. I'll kill you, she thought. It was the only thing she could think.
"Leadership is motivation," he said. The elevator doors behind her hissed open. "Go thou and do likewise. You have exactly forty hours to bring me Jarod -- my number's on the card, call me when you have him. Call no one else, not your father, not your friends, not the spirit of dear departed Mummy. If you do that, sweetheart, I might just let you live."
Broots was not in her office when she made it back down, which was a major blessing. Sydney came immediately to his feet at the sight of her. There were moments when she felt something so strong for Sydney that it was a kind of love -- a trust that verged on pain. She didn't have to pretend with him.
Sydney opened his arms to her and she leaned against him, let herself be weak for a period of two or three heartbeats, until Sydney asked, "What did they do to you?"
That was all the self-indulgence Parker would allow. She stepped away, blinked her eyes clear, and shrugged. "Made a point."
"They want Jarod more than they want me. And my father -- " Her voice broke. She caught her breath and turned away from him, fought it down. "My father is going along with it."
Sydney's hand fell warm on her shoulder. "Did they threaten you?"
Her smile was manic and not entirely steady. "Oh, yes. Absolutely."
He squeezed her shoulder hard. The warmth of him at her back was comforting and dangerous, because she couldn't afford the luxury of chit chat now, there were things to do, thing she had to do.
"We have forty hours," she said, and turned toward him. Sydney's face was drawn and worried.
"And then they'll send someone to clean out my desk, and you'll be collecting donations for my funeral wreath. But that isn't going to happen, Sydney." Parker walked over to the work table, with its mounds of maps and notebooks and reports. "Because I'm going to find Jarod."
"Parker -- "
"No!" She rounded on him. "No. No more discussion. I need your best effort, Sydney, and I know damn well you haven't told us everything you know. Look, there have been times when I've -- but no more. It's my life, Sydney."
"And his," Sydney said soberly. "Do remember that, too."
She acquired a new target as Broots opened the door, looking dazed. "Miss Parker -- "
"Get in here," she snapped. "No more PTA trips, no more outings to the zoo, you are here to stay, so get used to it. If you can't find a sitter, I'll send Debbie to a goddamn boarding school, but I'm going to have you focused, do you understand me?"
He backed up, a plastic sack in one hand swaying wildly. "Uh -- yeah. My sister just picked her up and she's going to keep her - somebody asked me to give you -- "
"Whatever." Parker turned back to the work table, picked up the lollipop. "What the hell does this mean? Sydney? If he's not saying I'm a sucker, what is he saying, he thinks I'm sweet and wants to lick me?"
"Uh, Miss Parker -- "
He handed her the plastic sack, as careful as if he were feeding a grizzly. She reached into it and retrieved her gun -- the clip restored, a round chambered. An unmistakable reminder. She safetied the gun, pocketed the extra bullet, and looked up at the two of them.
"I have less than forty hours," she said. "I need your help. Both of you. Please."
Broots slowly sank into a chair, his face pale. "The gun - that was a message, wasn't it?"
"No. That was the punch line of a joke. Help me find Jarod - if not for me, then for yourselves, because nobody else will put up with your incompetent asses for more than ten minutes without me."
Broots said, "Are you okay?"
It touched her, in an unexpectedly tender place. She didn't trust herself to speak, nodded and folded her arms and walked over to the table loaded with useless clues that led nowhere.
Forty hours. Thirty-nine and counting.
Sydney said, "Then I suppose we'd better get to work."
"What do you mean you haven't got anything?" Parker's voice, slightly hoarse from an increasing intake of cigarettes, coffee and Vivarin, was dangerously soft. She hovered close over Broots' shoulder, intimate distance, a not-so-subtle message that he had no personal space she could not invade. When she drew back, it was not from any consideration, it was because the smell of Broots' flop sweat was too much even for her.
"Parker," Sydney said wearily, from where he sat at the work table, head down, in contemplation of Jarod's notebooks or maybe just grabbing a quick nap. "He's doing his best."
"Not. Good. Enough." She bit off each word individually. "Broots, Jesus, do a search on the first name Jarod, for heaven's sake. You have an age range. Sooner or later you'll get a hit."
Broots shoved his chair back, turned to face her. His eyes were bloodshot, his hands trembling, and he looked angry enough to tear the table in half - or her.
"I've eliminated over one million possibles so far, and I only have another half a million to go."
"Useless," she hissed. Not so much at him but at what he represented, the specter of failure, the shadow of a gun. "Six monkeys would do a better job."
"Maybe you better get yourself some chimps," Broots shot back.
Sydney eased between them, hands upraised, and she and Broots both took a much-needed step back.
"Broots, why don't you lie down for a while, rest --"
"We don't have time to sleep," Parker interrupted. "Twenty-eight hours, Sydney. Clock's ticking."
Broots abruptly sat, as if his legs had given out. Parker turned too quickly, swayed, and felt Sydney's hand under her arm, supporting as her muscles fought the drag of gravity. He put his lips close to her ear and said, "You aren't helping him or yourself. Please. Let him work."
It isn't his head on the chopping block, she started to fire back, then reconsidered. Broots had risked his career and possibly his life for her on more than one occasion, just as Sydney had, and in any political coup, it wasn't just the general who got shot.
She went to the couch, sat down, closed her eyes. Her spine seemed to melt, coaxing her lower and lower into the cushions, and she was floating out of her body when she heard herself say, "I'm sorry, Broots."
"Half a million to go," he replied. "Better get the chimps lined up, I need a coffee break."
"Sydney, get me the zoo," she murmured. He smiled gently, tapped his lip with a forefinger, and went back to his work.
She dreamed of her mother dead in the elevator, a mist of blood and brain on the wall behind her, woke shaking and even more exhausted than before. Broots, seeing her move, shook his head. No progress. Parker stood up, fiddled with the items Jarod had left behind: a Spiderman action figure, a plastic container of Slime, a Pez dispenser -
"Have you eaten anything?" Sydney asked her gently. "I could get you something."
"Must have been a very good date, Sydney," she said. Her voice felt like sandpaper in her throat. He smiled.
"I'm glad somebody's having a good day." Parker picked up the Pez dispenser, put it down, examined the lollipop.
She was so tired, so hungry, so blackly depressed, that she thought, what the hell, if I can't find him, why leave it for the replacements?
And put the lollipop in her mouth.
And spit it out in complete shock She turned to Sydney and Broots, wide-eyed, and held out the lollipop. "Sydney, it talks."
Sydney gave her a clinical look and said, carefully. "Miss Parker, perhaps a short rest - "
"Don't Sigmund me, I'm not imagining things. This damn thing talks."
Sydney and Broots came to look, eyeing it as if it might suddenly start spouting lyric poetry.
"It isn't saying anything now," Broots said.
"Yes, genius, but it did. It said - " She knew how it would sound, but she had no real choice. "It said 'bite me.'"
Broots choked, coughed, turned pale from her look. "I'll -- get some water." He escaped into the hall.
Sydney didn't bother to suppress a smile.
"I doubt he meant what you think. Jarod counts on misinterpretation."
"Quit grinning," she said He compromised by covering the smile with a crooked finger. "Are you telling me to bite it?"
"That is what it said to do."
She put the lollipop in her mouth and bit, wishing she could bite something more productive, like Allen's neck. Sugar splintered, and she carefully spit the fragments into Sydney's proffered handkerchief. Jarod, if you've coated this thing with laxative --
Exposed to the air, the wooden stick really did talk. "Bite me. Bite me. Bite me."
Parker turned the stick over and over in her fingers, examining the tiny microchip built into its side.
On the other side, she found minute lettering.
"Syd," she said, and held out the stick. He squinted appraisingly at the name.
"That's what it says. Probably the lollipop equivalent of Inspector Number 12."
"Jarod's messages are never random," Sydney said, as if she didn't already know it. "Perhaps we should see what's keeping Broots."
Parker gave him a killer's smile. "Oh. Let me."
Jarod wondered, from time to time, if he what he was doing was not just right, but healthy -- he was getting an awful lot of satisfaction from it. There was a certain sadistic quality to it that Sydney would probably find very informative.
But when he saw men like Ken Havens, men who were able to put on grief like a raincoat, sob their way out of jail -- men who were capable of locking a woman and child in a carbon-monoxide filled garage for the sake of insurance money and a greedy mistress -- sadism was, he felt, a pretty reasonable response.
He was eight years old. Jarod took out his notebook, unable to see it in the darkness but knowing the contents by heart, the heartbreaking photo of Haven's son Brian. Eight years old and getting chemotherapy for leukemia, but he would have lived, he would have lived and you just couldn't let that happen, Ken. Brian and his mother had life insurance policies, with accidental death payoffs. And it had been so very accidental.
Jarod counted his breaths, waited for the rat to come nibble the cheese. He thought about what it was like to suffocate in the dark. He'd simulated it several times for Sydney, and later for Raines. Not pleasant, but then he'd been able to pull out of it, wipe the tears and sweat from his face, take deep, cleansing breaths of pure air. Carbon monoxide was suffocation, and not quick and painless. There was nothing painless about murder.
So you should have a little taste of hell, Ken. You absolutely should.
He froze as he heard the scrape of shoes on cement outside. The door opened and let in a watery flood of afternoon sun. He heard the light switch click, on and off, on and off, as Ken eventually realized the bulb wasn't working.
Of course it wasn't. Jarod had carefully replaced it with a burned-out bulb, one with a natural failure of service. No prints. There hadn't been anything to indicate murder in Brian and Theresa's deaths, either -- but Ken was a mechanical engineer, and he'd know how to make it all work. A windowless garage, a burnt-out door motor, the wrong set of car keys. Ken had started the car to warm it up for them.
There were times when Jarod doubted what he was doing, but this wasn't one of them. He couldn't prove the case legally, not enough physical evidence, but he could inflict his own kind of justice.
Go ahead, Jarod thought. He closed his eyes and heard Ken mutter in frustration, heard the other man wedge the outer door open, and open the walk-in freezer, almost exactly the size of a coffin, to get the money that he'd stored within.
The door slammed shut. Ken's scream sounded tinny and faint, barely annoying. Jarod flicked on his flashlight, walked around to the front of the freezer, and shone his light into the small thick-glassed window. Waved to Ken's distorted face.
"Don't worry," he said. "You've got enough air in there for at least ten or twenty minutes, if you stop screaming."
He turned the light off, closed the door, and went around the corner to the pay phone.
"Hello, police?" He leaned against the scratched Plexiglas booth and unwrapped a lollipop -- sour apple. "I think someone may have had an accident. Could you send someone right away to this location? I think somebody's stuck in a freezer."
The dispatcher promised she would. Jarod sat down on a stoop to enjoy the delicious taste of victory, the cool twilight breeze, and a sunset to die for.
As usual, he'd arranged the thing with two failsafes; the police had a response time of less than five minutes, but in case they didn't make it, he'd filed down the locking pin in the latch. One really good shove would push it open -- and Ken was strong enough.
He finished his sucker as the orange slid off the horizon, as stars began to shine. The first little prickle of unease hit him. They should have been here by now. Or Ken should have come out.
He walked back into the warehouse. Too dark to see in the refrigerator now, but the door was still closed. Jarod took his flashlight from his pocket and flicked it on.
Dead eyes stared back, the face distorted, the mouth gaping.
No, Jarod thought, and just for an instant thought it was some game, some joke, hahaha very funny, and then the horror hit home. "No!"
He grabbed the refrigerator handle, yanked hard. Harder. "No!"
It was stuck. He dropped the flashlight, used both hands on the latch, pulled with all his strength, pulled until spots crowded his vision, and finally, with a thin metallic snap, the latch gave and the refrigerator opened and a dead man fell out into his arms.
Dead. The word had a sense of unreality to it. He hadn't planned for this, this couldn't happen. Jarod rolled the body on its back, checked for a pulse on the cooling neck, fought off a bitter dizzying horror and started chest compressions, one two three four five breathe. The man's lips were slack and cold. Jarod did another set of compressions, another breath, and another, and another.
"They're coming," he panted, and paused just long enough to feel for a pulse. Nothing. "Hang on, Ken, the police are coming, hang on, please, don't do this, please - "
He continued, in lonely panic, for nearly an hour before he collapsed, gasping, exhausted, terrified, lonely.
"Sydney," he whispered. Tears blinded him. "Oh, God, Sydney, help me. I want to stop now. Please."
But it wasn't a simulation. It was reality. Reality didn't stop, not even for Pretenders.
He wrapped his arms around himself and cried.
The police never came.
"Got him." Broots said. He leaned back from the keyboard, allowing Parker and Sydney to angle in for a look. "Jarod Keene. Born April 5, 1960, Seminole, Kansas - "
"We need a picture."
"On the way, the lines are slow. Wait." Broots massaged his temples. "Man, he's good. Thank God you found that name, because I never would have found him with the key search. He put a space in front of the record. I could have searched for years and come up with nothing."
Keene could be anything -- a dead end, another chase-your-tail trick, only this time the dead end was upstairs in that cold white room, and it was Parker's. Please, she thought. Jarod, please, give me one.
On the screen, gray lines marched slowly down, etching light and dark, shadows and highlights.
There was a second of startled silence before Broots said the obvious. "Oh my God, it's him."
Sydney sank into a chair, his head bowed. She wondered if his body language read relief or grief.
Parker said. "Broots, tell me Houdini has an address on that driver's license."
"13725 Willow Park, William's Point, Virginia. It looks like some kind of industrial area - I'm grabbing the GPS view now."
Broots played his keyboard like a classical pianist, a sure and delicate touch. Parker watched the satellite view draw closer - three more jerks of focus, and they were looking at an old warehouse, most of the windows broken out.
"I see he's come up in the world," Parker said. "Does this thing come with infrared?"
Broots switched to a black and white view, eerie and alien. From one window, a dim glow. Another on the hood of a parked car.
"Somebody in that room." Broots pointed. "And that car hasn't been there long."
Parker flipped open her cellular phone and hits a speed-dial number. The instant the connection clicked, before any chit-chat, she said, "Chopper on the roof in ten minutes."
The voice on the other line attempted to argue. Not wise.
"Yes, I know what time it is," Parker said in her deadliest honeyed voice. "Thirty seconds after your termination. Get the chopper up there, or I'll personally terminate you."
She snapped the phone closed, glanced around the office, and said, "Saddle up, boys, we're on the move."
The only car available at the William's Point rental counter was an economy, not the style to which Parker had become accustomed. She drove, heavy on the gas, glancing at her watch now and then as if it would help slow down time.
Sydney was looking at his watch, too, and that made it official. Not good.
"Right up here," Broots said, his eyes on his laptop screen. "After that, look for a street to your left - Bruton Street. Left there, then right, and we're good."
Parker slowed when she turned on Willow Park. She killed the lights and coasted up the street. No lights in the windows. She parked, reached in her bag and pulled out gun, handed it to Sydney.
"Uh, can I have one?" Broots asked.
"No," Parker said, then reconsidered. She passed an identical gun to him. "Safety's off. Shoot me and I'll kill you."
She pulled her own gun, checked the clip, and nodded to Sydney. He grabbed her elbow as she started to get out of the car.
"Miss Parker." She jerked free, but granted him an audience. "Please. I know how important this is, but -- for me -- try to take him alive."
"Oh, I don't plan to kill him," she said. "Believe me, I need him more than you do."
She worked the slide and chambered a round, then stepped out into the thick, humid, magnolia-scented darkness.
Parker glided into the room like a panther, melting into the shadows. There were no lights, but the dim glow of streetlight through a window empty of glass showed her the gleaming metal bulk of a row of industrial refrigerators.
She paused and flicked on her penlight, checking the ground to make sure she wasn't about to run into any debris, and shone it --
right into the glassy eyes of a corpse. She made a wordless sound of shock and stepped back, two giant steps, her gun coming up and whipping from one corner to the next. Jarod? Oh, God, no. Not now. Don't let him be dead.
No sound except her own fast breathing. She didn't want to, but she bent down to check the pulse, but he was long gone, cold and rubbery. The smell of voided bowels was thick enough to taste. Parker coughed and put a hand over her mouth to swallow her disgust, and forced herself to study the face.
Not Jarod. This man was forty, going to fat, blond, balding. His mouth gaped like an open door.
"I killed him." Jarod's voice, close behind. Parker spun, still crouching, focusing light and gun together. In the corner, beside a tumble of decaying boxes, a shadow lifted its head. He looked bad -- haunted, wounded. She'd never seen him like this, and it lifted hackles on the back of her neck.
"Don't move," she said. "I don't want to shoot you."
He made a sound that should have been a laugh but died malformed. "I wish you would."
"Parker?" Sydney's voice, from the doorway.
"Stay back!" she called, and slowly rose to her feet. "He's over here."
She took a step toward him. Two. Three. He'll do it now. He'll break for it.
She walked right up to him, and he lowered his head to rest on his knees. It was the posture of a wounded child.
"Jarod," she said, in her gentlest voice, the one she remembered her mother using. "It's all right now. I'm going to take you home."
"I killed him," he said. When he looked up at her, his face glittered with tears, and his eyes were blinded. "I know what he felt -- he died in there in the dark, couldn't breathe, I did that to him -- "
"Shhh," she whispered. "We'll talk about it later. Everything's all right now."
She took his hand. His felt cold and slack, unnervingly like the corpse's. Shock, she thought. Got to get him warmed up. First things first, get him out of here, get him to the car, call Allen --
"Miss Parker!" Sydney's voice, a note of alarm in it. "Is Jarod all right?"
"Yes! Give me a minute!" Sharper than she meant to be. "Jarod, you need to stand up now. Come on."
He followed her tug without question. Not the Jarod she knew, the brilliant, arrogant, manipulative child. This child was autistic.
Sydney hadn't obeyed her, but she hadn't really expected him to. He arrived breathlessly, reached for Jarod and paused when the Pretender flinched away. She wished she hadn't seen their faces in that moment. Not the reunion Sydney had hoped for.
She knew all about disappointments between parents and children. She looked away to give them what privacy she could, and said, "Let's go, Sydney, you can talk to him in the car."
She felt exposed all the way out of the building, all the way across the deserted empty lot, the street. Broots had stayed with the car, thank God, and he'd kept it running. She handed Jarod over to Sydney, opened the driver's side door, and said, "Move." Broots scrambled.
"Oh my God, you got him."
"Yippee," she said. She glanced at Jarod in the rear view mirror. His eyes were closed, his face pale and drawn.
"Want me to call the Centre?" Broots offered.
She slapped the phone out of his hand, her exhausted bad temper getting the better of her, and said, "No! Nobody does anything until I say so, you got that, Broots? No phone calls, no linkups, nothing. I have to think."
From the back seat, Sydney said, "Miss Parker, I don't want to alarm you, but if you were given forty hours, we only have eight left. Perhaps we should at least go in the direction of the Centre."
Yes. That was the best idea she could come up with, drive, keep driving until her tired and trembling brain figured out what she was going to do.
Call Allen. Turn him in. You've got to do it.
She glanced at Jarod again in the rear view mirror, and just for a second she remembered his voice on the phone saying don't go to the Tower. She owed him for that. For other things, too. If she gave him to Allen, what would they do with him?
She needed more information.
"It's only a two hour drive," she said. "And I think we all need a rest."
Sydney frowned at her. "Are you sure it's wise?"
"No," she said, and put the car in gear. "Now shut up and let me think."
"Um - left. No - no, it's right. Right at the intersection up here - "
"Uh, yeah - No! Wait, that's not the right - "
Parker slammed on the brakes, sending Broots hurtling toward the dashboard, his face only saved by the jerk of a shoulder restraint. She braked so hard she wondered about airbags, and damn, it felt good to do something forceful for a change.
The dark economy sedan fishtailed to a smoking stop, the only car in an ocean of darkness, its lights dimly picking out road signs in the distance, most of them shotgunned to illegibility.
"Broots," she said, dangerously softly, "don't make me kill you."
He handed over the map. She studied the folds, too tired to focus.
"Screw it," she muttered, and took a right turn. Tossed the map to Sydney in the back seat.
"We're lost," Broots said, not helpfully. She didn't bother denying it. After two or three minutes of uncomfortable silence, she sighted a red glow on the horizon. It resolved into a flickering neon sign that read TRUCKERS WELCOME. Below that, in small letters, it proclaimed itself PICKET FENCE MOTOR LODGE.
"Are we stopping?" Sydney asked.
"You've got a better idea?" For the last fifteen miles she'd been driving in a daze, barely able to stay awake. The pleasure of inflicting terror on Broots had given her a breathing spell, but it wouldn't last. "If you do, speak up."
"You have several hours until your -- deadline," Sydney said. "A little sleep might not go amiss for any of us."
"I'm not letting him out of my sight." She jerked her head toward Jarod. "You and Wrong-Way get one room, Laughing Boy and I get another. And Broots, for God's sake, don't use the credit cards."
Broots hesitated. She knew what he was about to ask, sighed, dug in her purse for cash.
At least, she thought that as what he was going to ask. Instead, he said, "I don't feel right about this."
"What?" Her fraying temper snapped like a cracked whip. He doesn't, for once, flinch.
"He's -- he needs help. Look at him. That isn't Jarod, that's -- " Broots leaned closer. "Did he really kill somebody?"
"Broots, just go rent the rooms, because if I have to drive another hour in this car, I will shoot you."
He bailed after one final, doubting look, cash in hand, and disappeared into the motel's office. Parker rested her head wearily against the upholstery, gagging on the taste of old cigarettes and coffee.
"They'll tear him apart," Sydney said. "You know that. They'll never return him to the Pretender program now, he's come too far, learned too much. If we take him back to the Centre, what they'll do to him will be on our conscience."
"I don't have a conscience," she whispered. She was so tired tears burned in her eyes, and all she wanted, all she wanted, was to fall down on a bed and rest. The hell with Mr. Allen, the hell with the gun at her head, she would die if she didn't sleep. "Neither do you, Sydney. It's a little late to grow one now."
"You should take me back." Jarod. It was the first thing he'd said in an hour. She winched open her eyes to find him staring blankly out the car window, his forehead resting on the glass. "I shouldn't be out here. Take me back to the Centre, I don't belong out here."
"Jarod," Sydney said gently, "think what will happen to you."
"I don't care."
"Know what? Neither do I," Parker said. "So you'll do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you. Have you got that?"
Jarod closed his eyes. "Yes."
It was not an especially satisfying victory.
The room at the motel was beneath contempt, but Parker wasn't in a complaining mood, and she doubted Jarod had an opinion one way or the other. She thought longingly of a shower, but even given Jarod's apparent passivity, she couldn't trust him that far -- and she couldn't trust Broots and Sydney to babysit him, either. Neither of them were committed.
Jarod stood where she'd left him, in the middle of the room. She turned from her inspection of the bathroom, frowned, and said, "Take whichever bed you want, I'm not that picky."
He sat down on the edge of the one nearest the bathroom, his hands clasped together in front of him. She remembered that she hadn't had time to search him, and the thought of concealed weapons made her queasy.
"Go take a shower," she said. He didn't look up. "Jarod. Now."
He stood with all the enthusiasm of a convict taking the long walk, took off his black leather jacket and folded it neatly on the bed. Under it he had a black t-shirt. She waited for him to remember she was there, but he kept going, taking no more notice of her than he would a sexless Centre camera. He unzipped his jeans and stepped out of them, reached for the waistband of his underwear.
She turned and walked to the window, lighting a fresh cigarette and wondering how badly he must be hurt to ignore her like this.
She waited until she heard water running in the bathroom before she turned back, stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray, and reached for the phone.
Sydney still sounded wide awake, though she could hear a buzzsaw that was Broots in the background.
"Do you think he did it?" she asked bluntly. "Stood there and watched that man choke to death?"
A long, too-long hesitation. "I don't know. Jarod has always had such a sense of moral right and wrong -- "
"That's one of those slippery slopes. Who decides, Syd? Who decides what's right?" She lit another cigarette, contemplated the smoke. There was something so calming about the feel of the paper, the taste of the tobacco. I must be really gone. These aren't even my brand. "When does it stop being Pretend and starts being real? How can he tell the difference?"
"Miss Parker -- " Sydney sighed, his frustration evident. "I don't know what to tell you. He hasn't spoken to me -- in fact, when he did speak, he was talking to you. You have a far better chance than I do at finding out what happened. But I urge you -- don't forget who you're dealing with."
"I never do," she said, and sucked smoke. The tickle in her throat built to an ache. "Get some rest."
"Much as I am reluctant to return Jarod to the Centre in this state - you should look after yourself, Miss Parker. Make the call."
She hung up, laid back on the bed. God, she was tired, so tired she ached in every muscle.
I don't want to let that bastard Allen win. But what are my choices? Death wasn't one, that was off the table. Surrender Jarod, or -- what?
She'd liked to believe she could insulate herself from people, stop them from hurting her as badly as the loss of her mother still hurt. But, lying there, contemplating Jarod and Broots and Sydney, her father and the Centre, she knew it wasn't true.
She could never keep things out. She was like her mother.
It frightened her.
She slowly slid the cool weight of her cellular phone out of her pocket, together with the card Allen had given her. She studied the number, flicked the corner of the card with a red fingernail, closed her eyes and thought about her mother.
She put the phone back in her pocket. The hell with it. I'm bringing Jarod in. Nobody else is going to take the credit.
She felt the tension inside her let go like a wire snapping. She had either just regained control or lost it.
But at least she could deal with the results.
Without meaning to, she slept, an uneasy catnap that ended when the water trickled to a stop in the bathroom. She opened her eyes and waited for Jarod to come out ... and waited ... and waited.
Finally, over the screaming protests of her muscles, she drew her gun and went to the bathroom to look.
"Jarod?" She eased the door open with the gun barrel, watching for shadows in her peripheral vision. The bathroom was an eye-piercing blare of white tile and steam, towels still hung on the rack. She took a step inside, careful of footing on the steamy floor, and saw Jarod still in the bathtub, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was shivering convulsively, even though the room was suffocatingly hot. She thought longingly of Sydney but couldn't bring herself to wake him.
"Jarod," she said. No reaction. "Come on. Out."
He rested his forehead on his bent knees. Beads of water trickled from his hair down the back of his neck, the curve of his shoulder, the clean perfect line of his back.
Parker sat down on the lid of the toilet, put the gun aside, and pulled a towel from the rack. He didn't move when she draped it over his shoulders. Not even sure why she was doing it, she rubbed the towel gently over goosebumped skin, damp hair.
When he finally lifted his head, she lost her nerve and retreated. He fumbled the towel, painfully clumsy, and looked up at her.
Blushing? Was he, or was it just a trick of her aching eyes?
"I'll get your clothes," she said, retrieved her gun and turned to go.
"Miss Parker." Jarod's voice was hoarse, not entirely steady. She looked back at him. "Thank you."
She searched his clothing thoroughly before she delivered them. When he came out of the bathroom he was fully dressed, shirt clinging to damp skin. He laid down on the bed, folded his hands on his chest, and stared at the water-stained ceiling. Parker fought off her own weariness one more time to dig a pair of handcuffs from her bag. She reached over and fastened one around Jarod's wrist.
His eyes focused on her face, so close, too close. "I won't run," he said. She believed him. His muscle were slack, his eyes void of either humor or deception. Still not the Jarod she knew and feared.
Parker clicked the other cuff shut around her wrist. "Now we're both sure," she said. "Move over."
She laid next to him, staring at the same ceiling, idly contemplating Rorschach blots of rust. She was, she concluded, too tired to sleep. She concentrated on deep breathing, on silence, and was unable to shut out the warmth of his body next to her.
"Have you ever killed anyone?" Jarod asked. The question was so sudden she felt a kick-start stab of alarm. She turned her head to look at him, but he was still staring at the ceiling.
"End of conversation," she said.
"Did you feel guilty?" he asked.
"Jarod - "
"I felt panicked at first, but that wasn't really for him, that was for me. Maybe that was shock. Now I feel -- like I've cut myself open inside. Something's gone. I used to know how everything was, and now I don't. Now I don't know anything."
She didn't answer. The bedsprings creaked as he rolled over on his elbow to look down at her, his eyes so dark they seemed endless.
"I killed somebody," he said. "Doesn't that mean anything to you at all?"
She heard her heart pounding, wondered if he heard it too. There was an edge to Jarod she'd never seen before - a startling vulnerability, and a streak of darkness. An odd and interesting combination.
"You didn't kill him," she said -- a truth she wasn't even aware of until she spoke it, benefit of giddy exhaustion. "You played a mind game with him, and either he didn't follow the script or you didn't think of everything. You wanted to scare him, but you never intended to kill him. I know you better than that, Jarod."
He stared at her for a few seconds, then rolled over on his back. Their fingers were close together, and Parker closed her eyes and was gripped helplessly by a vision of what it would be like with Jarod, the one man she'd ever met who was a complete match for her. She'd always wondered what it would be like with a Pretender, with someone who could know her, become her.
He'd know what I want, she thought, and shut the speculation down with the force of desperation.
"Doesn't really matter, does it?" he said. She was sliding away now, too tired to stay awake even though she knew she must not sleep around him, not from any sense of danger but from the strange feeling that she didn't want to leave him. "I thought I had it all planned. That's what I do. That's who I am. I was outside watching the sunset, and he was dying in there. He died because I was playing God."
Go to sleep, she tried to say, but then she fell into darkness, and left him behind.
"Parker." Jarod's whisper, his breath warm on her neck. She floats reluctantly toward the surface of waking, every nerve in her body tingling, and the touch of his fingers has the force of orgasm.
Wake up, she thinks.
She can't. This far, no farther, she floats in twilight, knowing nothing but the elegant torture of his hand easing the hair back from her face, trailing like kisses on her neck. She drifts toward him, helpless to stop, and his fingers trace the parted curve of her lips, silk on silk. She hears her breath catch unevenly, hears her dream-self moan.
She doesn't want to, she wants to drift in this exquisite halflight, wants to surrender, give up inhibition. For once in her life, let all the barriers go.
Jarod's breath is unsteady against her ear. His body is so hot, fever-hot, burning through their clothes. His lips touch her neck, wake spirals of fire and explosions. She moans, crucified between desire and dream. No one has ever touched her like this, never in her life. She has never been able to let go with the others, always on her guard, always winning.
His hand leaves her neck, glides slowly up her thigh, a beautiful torment. With her free hand, the one not weighted with handcuffs, she reaches up, slow as a dreaming swimmer, and touches his face. She traces the line of his lips with her fingers, whispers his name.
His lips are full and soft and damp with tears, and it seems to her that she has always longed for this particular taste. A long, slow, dreamlike kiss.
She knows it is going to happen before it does, heat shimmering over her skin, a Technicolor burst in her spine, a convulsion that goes into her soul. All the sweaty, athletic encounters of the waking world mean nothing beside this, this heat like the heart of a star, contained in hands that touch her so gently they might be illusion.
From a great distance, she hears Jarod whisper, "It's only a dream, Parker. You can let yourself dream."
She surrenders, swept on a current of ecstasy, and her cry is trapped between his lips, her heart between his hands.
The descent takes her back down to a quiet warm darkness, the ember glow of safety. She sleeps well, sated and warm, with no fear and no ghosts.
For a time.
She woke suddenly, her heart pounding, it had been a dream, please God let it have been the wet dream of a lonely woman ...
She slid a hand down over her blouse, skirt, all still buttoned and zipped. Had she taken her pantyhose off? She couldn't remember.
Jarod was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed. The handcuffs, which she hadn't felt him remove, were lying discarded on the bed between them. She swiped hair back from her face and eased up to a sitting position, wary of him, warier of herself.
"What time is it?" she muttered. She checked her watch. "Late. Time to go."
Jarod did a magic trick with his fingers, produced a white card. Allen's card. She paused in the act of sliding off the bed, glanced at the nighttable where she'd left her phone, the card, the gun.
"Who is he?"
Normally she would have retorted, jealous?, but given her dream, that didn't seem wise. She chose to say nothing.
"You went to the Tower. I warned you -- did they threaten you?"
"Nobody has to threaten me to do my job." He waited. "Mr. Allen from the Tower gave me new directions." At gunpoint. But she couldn't tell him that, it exposed too much weakness.
"Parker," he said slowly, "there is no Mr. Allen in the Tower."
Her gun was in his hand, half-hidden by a fold of bedspread. She froze when she saw it, felt a sick sinking anger. No. Not now.
"Listen to me," he said. "There is no Mr. Allen."
"I went to the Tower. I talked to him. Damn it, give me the gun, don't make this personal."
"You're missing the point. There is no Mr. Allen, but there is an Allen. A Pretender named Allen."
That struck her breathless. Speechless.
"He's the Tower's killer."
"They want to kill you."
"No," Jarod said gently. "That's what I was trying to tell you. There are people within the Centre who want me for their own purposes, and you're in the way of that. Your lack of progress put you at risk and gave them the opportunity to arrange all this. They wanted us together, all of us. Clean sweep. I disappear, and you three die."
"No. Not possible. My father -- "
"Your father can't protect you." Jarod moved his hand, put the gun on his leg and considered it. "Allen's thorough. Did you use the number? Call him?"
"No." She knew what that meant, knew what it confessed to him. He looked up at her and met her eyes for a moment. She felt warmth flash through her, flashbacks of a dream, and she was the one who looked away.
He examined the gun more closely, looking at the finish, the plastic grips. Finally, he pried off one of the rubber stoppers hiding fitting screws.
"He wouldn't have put a bug in anything you might leave. You'd leave the car, bags, your clothes - but you'd never give up your gun." He showed Parker the tiny microchip embedded in the metal. "He knows where you are."
Oh, God. She hoped the surge of fear didn't show in her face, but she didn't have time to worry. She slid off the bed, straightened her skirt, spotted her pantyhose discarded on the floor and decided to leave them.
She reached for the phone to warn Sydney and Broots. "I'll tell them to leave everything, laptops, bags, everything. We've got to get moving -- "
She turned at the sound of the bathroom door closing. Jarod was gone. She froze for a second, heart pounding, then dropped the handset and ran to the door, kicked it in just in time to see him disappear from the narrow bathroom window.
"No!" she screamed, raw fury pulsing through her, how could he do this to her, now -
She spun back, heading for the motel room door.
It opened before she was halfway there.
Mr. Allen stepped inside, neat, preppy Mr. Allen with his killer's smile and banker's clothes. He wasn't in any hurry at all, still screwing a silencer onto the barrel of his automatic. Parker took her only chance and dived at him, missed, felt a white-hot explosion at the base of her neck as Mr. Allen brought the gun down, hard. She fell, rolled on her side and tried to shake it off, but there was no time, no time, he stood over her and leveled the gun and -
Jarod said, from the doorway, "I wouldn't." He put her gun to Allen's head. "Let her go."
"Ah, there you are. You know, I let you have your little evening together. A gift, from one Pretender to another."
Jarod flicked the safety off with an audible click. "Thanks. Let her go."
"She looks a lot like her mother, doesn't she? She'll resemble Mummy even more with a hole in her head."
"Bastard," Parker whispered, and blinked back tears. Jarod's arm trembled.
"Better shoot me," Allen said. "I might not be able to get the shot off, if you place the bullet right. But then you can't, can you? That's not who you are, Jarod. That's not who they made you to be."
"You don't know what I am."
"I know exactly what you are. Don Quixote, tilting at windmills -- but she's no Esmeralda. Miss Parker is just another corporate bitch, the Centre mints them by the dozen. She'd kill you if she had to."
"She could have killed me a dozen times already."
"Ah, true love. What're you going to do, Jarod, shoot me in the back? I don't think so. You've already killed one man, and such a cruel death. He must have suffered terribly. How did it feel to play God? Did it feel good?" Allen smiled. "But you didn't have the courage of your convictions. You fixed the latch so it would break open when he pushed."
Allen held up a small metal pin, filed thin on one end. Jarod's face went white.
"Let's see, you fixed the latch at just after three p.m., went across the street to buy yourself a lollipop. It didn't take long to change it back. Thirty, forty seconds. You should have seen your face when you came back and found him. Very entertaining."
"You were there," Jarod whispered. "You watched."
"A man's got to have a little fun in life. And speaking of that -- "
Parker saw the flicker in Allen's eyes, and knew it was coming. She struck out, deflecting the gun but not enough, not nearly enough, she remembered her mother in the elevator, blood running down the steel walls -
The shot was as loud as the sky cracking. Parker flinched, carried through the motion and knocked Allen's gun out of line just as his finger completed its journey and a bullet whispered by her ear to bury itself in the floor.
Allen collapsed slowly, knees first, face second. She shoved him away, tried to get up, found blood on her hands, in her hair, and realized that the top of Allen's forehead was gone.
Jarod pulled her up, braced her when she swayed. His hands were trembling, his eyes tormented.
"I didn't think you could," she managed to say. He tried to smile.
"I couldn't," he said. "But I Pretended to be him."
Two hours later, the blood washed away, the polish reapplied, she watched Daddy's helicopter touch down in the field just beyond the motel. A cleaning team in dark suits hurried in with a black plastic body bag.
"Princess," Daddy said, and folded her in his arms. "What the hell is going on?"
"Long story," she said. "I need you to see if you know him."
He followed her into the motel room, where the cleaners were bundling Allen's remains into the bag. He leaned over, grimaced, and said, "Never seen him before."
He was lying. She knew it, and it hurt so much she had to turn away to watch as the cleaners swiped fingerprints from the telephone, bagged the motel room sheets and her discarded, damning pantyhose.
Daddy put his hand on her shoulder. "Sweetheart, I'll get to the bottom of this, you have my word."
"Pity about Jarod," he said. "Of course, I understand you couldn't very well hang on to him in the middle of a gun battle. A great opportunity, though. Too bad."
"Daddy, does somebody in the Tower want me dead?" she asked. He hustled her outside, away from the cleaners, away from where Broots and Sydney waited by the chopper, into the isolation of the open parking lot.
"I don't want you getting involved in Tower affairs," he said. "Those things don't concern you, and the more questions you ask, the more dangerous things become. Do your job, princess, find Jarod and get him back to the Centre. Leave the Tower to me."
"You didn't answer the question. Does somebody in the Tower want me dead?" He stared at her for a few seconds, eyes narrowed, face closed. Turned and walked toward the helicopter. She hurried to catch up. "Daddy, I need to know. Are there factions that don't want Jarod found?"
"You don't need to worry about that."
"Daddy - "
He reached out and grabbed her arm, squeezed so tight it hurt. She remembered the expression, remembered seeing him like this with her mother.
She kept her face still, her eyes cool. "Going to hit me for my own good, Daddy?"
He shoved her away and continued toward the helicopter, head down, shoulders squared. A massive man, still powerful in spite of his white hair. An old, cunning lion.
She felt so cold. So alone. She saw Sydney watching her, and turned her back to blink away tears.
Jarod had been right, again.
There were never any answers from her father.
She waited until the cleaning team were out of the room before boarding the helicopter and shutting the door. Sydney and Broots, strapped in ahead of her, looked curious, but the presence of her brooding father kept them both quiet. She rested her chin on one hand and stared out the window as the rotors whined faster.
Her father's phone buzzed. He pulled it out, plugged his left ear and listened. Smiled.
"Excellent! That is good news," he said, and snapped the phone shut. "Well, Princess, you're off the hook."
"What?" She looked at him; he pointed past her out the window toward the treeline.
"Jarod," he said. "They've got him."
She felt it like a punch in the stomach, and as the helicopter lifted off she saw them coming out of the trees, a sweeper team of three, and in the middle, handcuffed, Jarod.
She leaned her forehead against the glass, closed her eyes, and thought, it's over.
Then why did she feel so bad?
They'd put Jarod in a sterile waiting area, mortuary white, the only furniture a cot. He didn't get up when she entered, but he looked at the cameras, marking them for her. She began a slow walk of the room.
"You look better," He said. He watched her watching him, both of them studied by the cameras. "Coming to gloat?"
"Yes," she said.
"Does it feel good?"
"Terrific." Raines. Raines will get him now. She felt sick at the thought. She'd watched some of the surveillance of Raines' experiments with other Pretenders, and children who'd failed the Pretender tests. She didn't want to think about Jarod's future in this building.
"Remember what I told you last night?" he asked. She felt a lightning bolt of heat run up her spine, felt her fingertips burn from a flashback of pleasure. What had he said? He'd whispered her name, over and over, not so much a sound as a vibration along her skin - no. That was a dream.
She adjusted her tone to the level of a Frigidaire. "You don't say much I find worthwhile."
He crooked his finger, inviting her closer. That smile, that devastating, innocent smile. There was still something dark and edgy in his eyes, maybe despair, maybe guilt. She walked over to him, staring down. By no coincidence, she was blocking one of the two cameras, and the other one was studying the back of Jarod's head.
"What?" she snapped. He crooked his finger again. She made a disgusted sound and crouched next to him, effortlessly balanced on her high heels, knees together. She watched his eyes follow the curve of her leg, up the line of her thigh.
Focus, she told herself. This was the most dangerous game she had ever played in the Centre.
"I said I'd come back to the Centre, remember? I need to talk to Sydney. Work some things out." His voice was low, silky, intimate. She wondered if the mikes could pick it up. He leaned closer, close enough that only the air between them could have heard the words. "I didn't say I'd stay."
She leaned back, holding his stare, and as she did, his fingers brushed hers, an accidental touch that meant nothing and everything.
"Tell me," she said in a normal tone of voice. "When you left the lollipop for me, were you trying to call me a sucker?"
Jarod's smile lit up the room. "Miss Parker, that would be rude."
She stood, smoothed her skirt, walked to the door. As she was waiting for it to open, he said, "Besides, I like a good lollipop."
"Bite me," she said, and slammed the door.
She had been deeply, dreamlessly asleep for hours when the phone rang; she fumbled for the handset, curled up against it, and mumbled something appropriate.
"Miss Parker," Sydney said. He sounded wide awake. "I'm afraid Jarod's gone from the Centre." He did not sound overly distressed.
"Really?" She smiled in the darkness. "How disappointing for Security."
"It would be, if any of them were still here. Your father was very harsh in his punishments."
"Really." Her smile grew hard-edged. "Did you and Jarod have a chance to chat?"
"Yes, as it happens, we had a very productive few hours. Very interesting."
"That's good. Well, nothing we can do tonight. Good night, Sydney."
"Good night, Miss Parker."
She flicked on the light to hang up the phone, froze when she saw the gold-wrapped package lying on the pillow next to her. She glanced at the alarm system - still armed - and got up to do a full perimeter examination. Nothing. She picked up the box and carried it to the kitchen, put on a kettle for hot tea. She fiddled with the wrapping until she had enough nerve to rip it open.
Inside the box, a lollipop, this one dark as the heart of a ruby. Parker examined it for a moment, then popped it in her mouth.
The tiny sound chip in the stick activated. Inside her head, conducted by skin and bone, she heard Jarod say, Pleasant dreams, Miss Parker.
She licked the candy slowly, meditatively, and thought about dreams.