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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.
Miss Parker swam slowly up from a black, dreamless sleep, drawn like a hooked fish by the ringing telephone."Noooooo," she moaned, rolled over and buried her head under the pillow. Through the layer of eiderdown she heard the ringing continue, a finger prodding her back. She fumbled the receiver off the nightstand, held it to her ear, and rasped, "Parker. Go."
"I'm sorry - " Broots. She wondered if maiming was still against the Centre's corporate management policies. Maybe I'll just break something small. "I know you're on vacation, but I really think you should see this."
"See what?" Two words at a time were almost more than she could manage. She squinted at the clock and read an unbelievably early pre-dawn hour.
"I - I'd rather not say. You know, over the - " She could almost see his nervous gestures. Not exactly a debonair conspirator, Broots. "Anyway, I just think you should see."
"You do." She rolled over on her back. Outside her bedroom window, night went on, stars glittering like chips of ice, the moon silvering trees. The electric hum of her alarm clock seemed loud in the stillness. "You'd better be right."
She hung up before he could weasel out. Sitting up confirmed her worst fears. She really did feel like hell.
All the more reason to look razor-sharp. She turned on the bathroom light and examined the damage, winced, and turned on the shower.
It was going, she sensed, to be a very long day.
She stalked into the Centre lobby exactly one hour later; her reflection in polished glass confirmed that not only would they never know Miss Parker had been dragged out of bed, they'd never believe she slept.
The barrel-chested security man behind the desk was reading a magazine - Sports Illustrated - and she stared until he noticed her presence and frantically tried to hide the book.
"Busy?" she asked.
"Uh, no, ma'am," he said. "Good morning, Miss Parker."
"Peachy." She handed him her badge to scan, clipped it to the pocket of her raw silk suit. "Broots. Where is he?"
The guard leaned back to check a continuously-scrolling screen. "SL 5, in the master computer room. Miss Parker, I have you logged out on vacation."
"Do I look like I'm on vacation?" she snapped. The guard - his tag said his name was Walters, but she couldn't distinguish him from all his fellow barrel-chested low IQ clones - opened his mouth and realized he had nothing non-career-limiting to say. "That's what I thought. Open up, Einstein."
He pressed the button. The silvery wall behind her slid away, revealing a coldly corporate lobby of granite and steel; the couches seemed to huddle together for comfort, intimidated by the room. No one in the lobby at this hour, but there were cameras, always cameras. She strode off in the direction of the elevators, and heard the guard mutter, "Good morning to you too."
Ah, there was nothing like a little friction to warm you up. Walters wouldn't underestimate her, and he'd never, ever take her for granted. In the Centre, a timid enemy was a beaten one.
And everybody was the enemy.
It wasn't until the elevator doors closed and she felt it, like static electricity crawling over her skin, that she realized she had taken the South Elevator. She turned slowly, feeling her stomach tighten from more than the rushing drop toward Sublevel 5, and let her eyes focus on the ragged hole in the top right corner of the elevator car.
She drew in a deep breath because she knew it was coming, it came every time, without fail. A white flash. The elevator doors sliding open. Blood and brains and a hole in the wall, her mother crumpled at her feet, dying, dead. It passed like a chill, leaving an ache in her muscles. She pressed her back to the steel paneling so ghosts couldn't crowd behind her, closed her eyes, and wished that the Centre would fix the damn hole, as if that bullet scar were the only thing holding her to the past.
She'd asked her father once. He'd looked at her with those fierce, bright eyes and he'd said, "Princess, if they'd wanted to remove it, it would have been gone before the funeral. It's a reminder, and it's directed at us."
She was reminded, all right. The ache in her stomach was replaced by a sudden heaviness in her knees as the elevator braked; she glanced reflexively at the panel and saw she'd arrived at SL5.
Broots was pacing the hall, his flannel shirt untucked, the sleeves rolled up to expose strong but pale forearms. If he tanned at all, it was microwave radiation from his computer screen.
"I'm glad you're here," he said in a low, quick, nervous voice. "Follow me."
"This had better be good," she said. Like him, she kept her voice down. It was reflex as much as caution; there were microphones everywhere, cameras looking out of every pinhole. Having any kind of secret in the Centre was a strictly time-limited thing.
Broots used his key card to enter what she thought of as Temple of the Nerds; it was a vast computer room, dominated by sleek-looking black mini-mainframe Crays, flanked on all sides by desks and terminals.
Broots sat down at the nearest desk, the one with the nameplate that read GENERIC and had a Dilbert squeeze doll propped against the monitor. Parker came to stand behind him as he clicked keys.
"Surveillance files," he said. "I was doing a routine sweep, you know, looking for anything the satellite teams might have missed - Jarod can be very clever when he wants to be. But that wasn't what I noticed."
He split-screened four separate surveillance photos, all in color, of a Hispanic woman. In the first, she was coming out of the door of a mountain cabin, a green backpack over her shoulder - blue jeans, hiking boots, a flannel shirt nearly the twin to the one Broots was wearing. In the second, she was unloading groceries from an ancient Jeep Wagoneer -more jeans and hiking boots, the ubiquitous flannel shirt topped by a thick ski parka. The third shot showed her sweeping pine needles from the steps - more blue jeans, more flannel. Parker began to sense a trend. The fourth caught the woman in mid-stride hiking off down a trail.
"So?" Parker's question dripped venom. Broots looked at her, eyebrows raised.
"You don't see it?"
"Apart from the fact she's a fashion victim?"
For answer, he flashed dates at the bottom of each picture. April. May. June. July.
"Weather's wrong?" she guessed. He shook his head.
"I checked the weather reports. The weather is consistent. Somebody put a lot of thought into this - but not quite enough."
"I give." She was, despite the hour, intrigued. "Show me."
He pointed wordlessly to the woman's hair. Parker looked carefully, one picture to the next. Forced herself to do it again, and then again. It hit her like a splash of cold water.
"Her hair didn't grow," she said. Broots nodded vigorously.
"It's too consistent. You take a picture of a woman four months in a row, and even if she keeps the same hair style, it gets longer, it's not fixed exactly the same every day - these pictures were altered. Deliberately. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make us think she was still being recorded. I think these were continuous shots, probably taken over a couple of days at most."
"Who is she?" Parker asked. She leaned against the desk and crossed her arms, annoyance driven out by the scent of conspiracy. "Connected to Jarod, obviously."
Broots consulted a notepad. "Uh - Nia Pedron. Howard Falls, Oregon. She's the one who - the one Jarod - "
He didn't seem able to finish the sentence. The import of it slammed in on Parker, a sudden leap in her heart rate, a reaction she worked hard to keep from her face.
"The one Jarod screwed?" she asked, sweet as acid-filled chocolates. "His Latin lover?"
"I wasn't going to say - um, we really don't know what - " Broots went back to key-clicking, a very wise decision on his part. She knew. She'd known the moment she'd heard Jarod's phone call to Sydney asking for advice about women. She'd known absolutely when she met the woman face to face and looked into her eyes.
Focus, she told herself. "Could Jarod be behind this? We know he's infiltrated the Centre before. Maybe he has help from inside." Maybe you, Broots. It was an ungenerous thought, and not very practical; Broots was too intimidated to be helping Jarod. His loyalty was strictly limited by his tolerance for pain.
He was shaking his head. "Not possible. These pictures were altered at the source, Miss Parker. Right at Satellite Six. If it's Jarod, he's got somebody in his pocket there, and he has for more than four months."
Satellite Six was located in some anonymous town in Nevada, not far from another installation of plausible deniability commonly known as Area 51. Daddy was directly responsible for all of the Satellite offices. A sharp stab of cold in her heart -- if she found a traitor, what would that mean? What would that cost him?
Jarod. Focus on Jarod. This was the most important break they'd gotten in six months, and she wasn't going to waste it.
"Pull the personnel files on everybody at Satellite Six -- everybody, agents, office drones, the guys who scrub the toilets. If Jarod's got a hand in there I want to cut it off at the wrist." Parker straightened, still looking at the photographs of Nia Pedron. That woman bothered her, haunted her in ways she didn't exactly want to acknowledge. Their eyes had met that day in the forest, and Pedron had smiled, a woman's smile of triumph. I've got him. You don't.
I don't want him, Parker had thought, but that had been a lie, of course. She wanted Jarod any way she could get him, preferably ending with handcuffs and dragging him by the hair back through the Centre lobby.
"Nia Pedron," she said. Broots was staring at her. "I knew she was trouble. Get me everything you have on her, too. I'll take it all with me."
"You're going?" Broots asked. "Should I call Satellite Six and -- "
She reached over and put one sharp-nailed finger on his lips, felt his shiver through her skin. She could, she knew, have Broots any time she wanted him, in the same way a snake could have a cornered rabbit. It was a consolation.
"Get me the files," she said softly and precisely. "Erase your tracks. Get your ass back to the office and say nothing to anyone. So far as you know, I'm still on vacation. If you breathe a word of this to Sydney or anyone else, I swear to God I'll stuff your hand in the shredder."
If Broots had been a braver man, he might have told her to fuck off, he'd found the information, he'd been the hero of the hour. But he wasn't, and he didn't. She took her finger away from his mouth, bent over and put her lips very close to his. Close enough she felt him pulled toward her, a bug to a zapper.
She walked away, out to the empty echoing hallway, and looked back through the door to see him staring after her, something very un-Broots-like in his eyes. She wasn't sure if he wanted to kiss her or stab her with a pencil.
More than likely, he wasn't sure either.
Good, she thought, smiled, and went to pour her morning poison.
She read files on the flight to Eugene, Oregon. Deadly slow reading, most of it. The Satellite employees were complete bores -- the most exciting tidbit she pulled was that the head of Data Services, equivalent to Broots' own job, was in a gay relationship with a stock broker. The permutations of that kept her amused for half an hour as she made notes -- blackmail was always useful down the line. The others were mundane -- half the married staff had illicit affairs, past or present, a few had discreet substance abuses. There were no criminal records, and the psychological profiles didn't make any of them candidates to carry the ball for Jarod. But ... psychological studies had been wrong before. She wished she'd brought Sydney, but that would have attracted more attention than she wanted. She needed to move fast, and alone.
The last file wasn't of a Centre employee. She flipped the cover and began to devour the past of Nia Pedron.
Within two pages she understood perfectly why Jarod had been drawn to the woman. Orphaned, victimized by faceless authorities in Argentina, Nia Pedron was a perfect female mirror of Jarod's shattered childhood. Only Nia's experience had been considerably worse, at least physically. Parker read the medical reports from 1972, documenting a malnourished child striped with the scars of beatings and rapes, a child barely able to speak her name. A child so terrified of disappearing that she refused to sleep.
She wondered what Sydney would say about Pedron's choice of lifestyle -- isolated on a mountain, dealing only with a few select people, depending on her own strength and skill to survive. Jarod had gotten into that fortress. He'd seen the scars, and, being Jarod, he'd reached out to heal.
Parker knew what would work with Nia Pedron. Take a sweeper team to the woman's door, overpower her, put a black bag on her head, take her to a concrete-walled cell and let the fear work on her. It wouldn't even be necessary to hurt her.
God, I hate that I know these things.
Parker rested her hand on her forehead and rubbed at a building headache.
It was raining by the time she arrived in Howard Falls, and it was dark; she drove the rented Jeep with savage skill, skidding close to trees and ledges but never quite enough to put an end to the trip. She missed the turnoff to Pedron's cabin and had to backtrack, but she finally found the narrow trail and wedged the Jeep between dense, brooding pines that blocked out clouds and moon.
She didn't see the cabin until it loomed suddenly in the halogens. She parked and switched off the engine, listened to the drum of rain on the hood and roof. It was eerily quiet. Rain smoked in the headlights before she turned them off. She dialed her cell phone one-handed, watching the cabin's black, huddling shape for any lights or movement.
"Miss Parker?" Broots said breathlessly. "God, where have you been? I tried to call -- "
"Lucky me. Signals are iffy around here."
"I just got word that a guy named Larry Grainger was found dead in his car in Nevada -- he's one of Satellite Six's operatives, and he was running surveillance on Nia Pedron. That doesn't sound like Jarod, does it? He doesn't kill Centre people." Broots sounded pathetically eager to believe it. "Maybe it's something else. Maybe we were wrong."
"Maybe," Parker said. She wasn't convinced. The channel crackled and hissed. "Damn. We're breaking up. I'll call when I have something."
She flipped the phone shut and stepped out in the rain. She sank immediately to her ankles in thick black mud, cursed for the state of her Ferragamo pumps, and waded clumsily to the wooden stairs, the covered porch.
That's when she noticed the door was ever so slightly open, disturbed by a puff of wind. She straightened, willing her eyes to adjust to the damn blackness, and kicked the door open as she dived to one side and crouched against the wooden wall.
The door rattled back, bounced off a wall and creaked to a stop. No sound except her own heartbeat. Parker counted to ten, then stood up and held the flashlight far from her body as she switched it on and aimed it inside.
"Jesus," she whispered.
The house was a wreck, papers scattered, tables overturned, lamps shattered. A broken telephone lay on its side, ripped from the wall. Parker took some cautious steps in, checked the kitchen, the small guest room, the bathroom. In the hallway she found a long splash of blood dried black on the wood.
You didn't go easily, she thought. But then you wouldn't. You'd fight until you were dead, or unconscious.
There was no sign of disturbance in the upstairs bedroom. Pedron's makeup lay untouched on the bathroom counter, her clothes neatly hung in the closet. Suitcases seemed intact. Parker looked at the neat stack of correspondence on the dressing table, flipping through for dates. The most recent was dated March 1997. A layer of dust coated everything, and the house had the smell of neglect.
She flipped the letters again, opening them one by one, reading cheerful notes from friends, dispassionate appeals for money from charities, the usual spate of junk mail that plagued everyone from Pedrons to Parkers. They shared the same credit card company.
There was a card at the bottom of the stack, no return address, and when Parker looked at the writing she knew it was Jarod. She lifted the flap and pulled out the card, thinking about Pedron sitting in this chair, reading this.
Jarod had written the poem in Spanish, but Parker was fluent enough to understand the words. There was a careful, gentle passion in it, the kind of words a man would write to a woman who'd touched his heart. Parker traced the writing with her fingertips, feeling an ache in her chest like something had been cut away, and started to slide the card back into the envelope.
The bar code on the back. She stared at it for a few seconds, then reached for a piece of paper and copied the numbers down.
She drew in the parentheses, the dashes, and said, softly, "You're so sly, but so am I." Words from a children's book her mother had read her, long ago, words she'd repeated to Jarod as a child to make him smile. They'd been competing for so long, in so many ways. She wondered if she would feel any triumph at all when she finally - as was inevitable -- won.
Stuffed in among the letters and bills was a single statement from a doctor's office dated March 20, 1997. Parker started to shuffle it aside, then read it carefully.
"Oh, God," she whispered, and felt the world lurch around her, exactly as it must have lurched around Nia Pedron four months before when she'd read the words.
Confirmation of pregnancy test results: positive.
She dialed Broots at the Centre, got noise and static. She took the card and the medical report and went out into the rain, drove as fast as gravity and luck would allow down the mountain.
Somebody in the Centre was behind this. Somebody with the power to take what they wanted, do what they wanted, kill who they pleased. Daddy? God, she didn't want to admit it, but it was possible. Raines? More than possible. Likely. Raines had been trying to adapt failed Pretender candidates to his own medical experiments for years -- he'd even grabbed Jarod for a series of cruel games when Sydney was away. For Raines, Jarod's unborn child could be exactly what he needed to build his own power structure and complete whatever black-hearted goal he'd been pushing toward for twenty years.
That meant that Nia Pedron was somewhere alive, somewhere in the Centre.
As of right now, Parker was her only hope of survival.
At 11:30 the next day, she met Sydney and Broots for lunch in the executive dining room on SL3, using her red card to get the other two in the door. Broots gaped at the marble, the Aubusson carpets, the private, dimly lit tables. She shot him a look to keep him quiet until they were seated, as she'd asked, in one of the most dimly lit corners of the large room.
"I've never been here before," Broots said, and fiddled with his napkin. "I didn't even know the Centre had an executive dining room."
"If I have to eat another plate of pureed mystery meat, I'll vomit," Miss Parker said, and lit up a cigarette. "This is the safest place to talk. Nobody bugs this room. This is where all the bodies get buried."
Broots hunched his shoulders and earnestly inspected the menu. Next to him, Sydney sipped coffee. Now this, Parker thought, was living -- clean white tablecloths, Sevrés china, silver instead of institutional aluminum sporks. She nodded to the waiter to pour wine and sipped, then waved to dismiss him. On second thought -- she watched him walk away, memory stirred by something. Did she know him? Oh, yes, his name was William something. A mediocre lover, but what else did you expect from a man who made his living popping corks.
Broots leaned forward, panic in his eyes. "Raines! Raines is in the corner!"
Parker turned to look and spotted Tank Boy a football-field-length away. He was slurping soup. A shadow stood guard, protecting Raines from fork-wielding mobs and bad wine.
"Of course he is," Sydney told Broots gently. "Dr. Raines has executive privileges. He eats here every day."
"Up the dosage, Broots," Parker said. "Neutral territory. Nobody's been knifed here in years. Besides, if Circus Freak is here, we don't have to worry about what he's doing to someone else."
"What if he tries to have us poisoned?" Broots whispered.
"Nobody's been poisoned since last August."
William the waiter returned and looked attentively at Miss Parker. She gave him a chilly look to remind him that nothing had ever happened between them and said, "Caesar salad, lightly chilled, Chicken Versailles with steamed vegetables."
"Very good," William said, and turned to Sydney. "Sir?"
"I'll have the bouillabaisse and a garden salad."
William fixed his gaze on Broots, who frantically scanned the menu. "Uh, Diet Coke and -- a hamburger."
Parker rolled her eyes. William's eyebrows threatened to craw over the top of his head. "Yes sir. Medium well? And may I suggest the side of fresh slaw?"
"Sure. Uh -- could you bring the Coke in a can? I like to pour it myself."
Sydney caught Parker's eyes. She sucked in a lungful of smoke, blew it out in Broots' general direction, and said, "Shoot me if I ever do you another favor."
"You started it," Sydney smiled.
"Nobody poisons Diet Coke, Broots, it would be superfluous." She stabbed out her butt and sipped more wine. The coast was clear, nobody in earshot. "Here."
She passed over the medical report. Broots read it first, did a comical double-take, and then passed it to Sydney. It was Sydney's reaction she'd wanted, but all that showed was a tightening around his eyes, a sudden tension in his shoulders. He let out a long sigh.
"I never anticipated this," he said, and she thought there was more than a bit of blame in the tone.
"The father's always the last to know," she said, recaptured the paper and put it in the interior pocket of her jacket, next to her holster. "Well? Tell me what it means."
Sydney opened his eyes and stared past her into some unfocused middle distance, then said, "Nia Pedron was almost certainly kidnapped by a faction within the Centre, the fact that the Satellite office retouched the surveillance files tells us that. The question now is why."
"Somebody wants to grow their own Pretender," Broots muttered. "It's not bad enough they steal them when they're kids, now they're taking them right out of the womb - "
"Focus, Broots. Who would gain? Not any of us, and not anybody currently associated with the Pretender program. This is somebody who wants to start his own." Parker listened to what she'd just said. "Raines."
Agreement in Sydney's eyes, fear in Broots'.
"I imagine you are correct," Sydney said. "The question is, where is he keeping her? Here?"
"Broots, tell me about the sublevels."
"Uh, okay. Down through 10, they're pretty much standard stuff, nothing special. 11 to 17 are housing for various projects, but they're all pretty much on the books, not a good place to hide somebody. 18 to 20 - "
"Belong to the Pretender project," Sydney said.
"Yeah. SL22 and 23 are being used as a training center for some kind of secret project, run by somebody I've never seen before, an older guy, smokes a lot -- "
"Forget him, he's somebody else's problem." She made a hurry-up motion with her hand.
"I don't know anything on SL24, it's so black it's deep space. If she's in there, I don't know how we go about getting her out. But that leaves SL21. It was originally part of the Pretender project, but the labs there were moved up to where they are now, it was deserted and then given to Raines for genetic coding experiments. Officially, he's closed it off and dumped the project."
Parker breathed out smoke, felt her pupils get larger. "Genetic coding?"
"Blood testing on the Pretenders, mostly, but on the kids that were culled from the program, too. Like Timmy."
"And other tests?" They all knew other tests had happened, some of them behavioral, some medical. Broots folded his napkin in obsessive little squares.
"If there were DSAs on them, they're gone, and there's no record of anything. SL21's supposedly been closed down for six months now."
Broots broke off as William came back, bearing bouillabaisse for Sydney, a Diet Coke still in its red-and-white can for Broots, Parker's salad. The waiter gave Broots a rather chilling look, and said, "Your hamburger will be coming shortly, sir. It was a special request."
"Oh," Broots said in a small voice. He watched the waiter go. "Great. Now I'm on a whole new set of shit lists."
"Go on," Parker snapped. "Supposedly."
"Well, there's no surveillance active on that level, and officially it's closed, but the security files show access codes being entered at some of the doors inside. So somebody's getting in. Something's going on. I - uh - was talking to Vanessa Cartessi about it from Data Access."
"Whose access codes?" Sydney asked.
"That's the problem. Nobody's, officially - I mean, the codes are active, but all the IDs are coded black."
"How is that possible?" Parker speared a piece of chicken like an enemy. "Either they're Centre employees or they're not."
"Then they're not. But they're inside the Centre, and they have their own little territory on SL21. I can't get any more information about them at all."
Parker chewed and swallowed, caught Sydney's eye as he ate more soup. "Well?"
"I've reviewed Raines' staff," he said. William showed up with Broots' hamburger -- which, Parker had to admit, looked far tastier than her salad -- and conversation stopped until he bustled off to wait on Dr. Raines. Sydney kept watching him as he said, "Most of them are unshakably loyal. He's very good at watching his back. There are two possibilities, however: a woman on his sweeper team, Cruz, and one of his medical assistants, Eckard. Cruz has a bit more of a conscience than might be convenient for Dr. Raines; she once failed to deliver a boy to Dr. Raines' experiment room, and turned him over instead to your father, Miss Parker. In the inquiry, she said that she made a mistake in interpreting her orders, but I believe it was quite a deliberate action. So must Raines, too, because he has never kept her near children again. She functions most of the time as his bodyguard outside the Centre."
"Doing an unfortunately good job," Parker said. "The other one?"
"Dr. Eckard has two young children of his own. A boy and a girl. The girl has Down's Syndrome. He is their primary caregiver."
Parker stopped eating and took another contemplative drink. She couldn't take the chance of being wrong, and Sydney knew it. She had to pick her target and move hard, move ruthlessly, because if she hesitated or picked the wrong link the whole chain would wrap itself around her throat.
"I'll need Eckard's file," she said to Broots. "Personal life, everything. Everything about the children."
Broots went pale. His hamburger, which he'd shown every sign of enjoying, sudden went back to the plate as Broots gulped Diet Coke.
"You're not going to -- to threaten -- " She tapped ash from her cigarette. Said nothing. Broots closed his eyes, shook his head and said, "I can't do that. I won't."
"You will," she said, pitching her voice to a husky venomous whisper. "Because Eckard is helping Raines do this. Listen to me, Broots. If Raines is able to keep that baby, raise it in his own image, steal more, create a breeding program or even a cloning program -- how many children are we talking about? How many destroyed? We have to. We don't have any choice."
Sydney reached out and covered her hand with his. "She's right. We must. We can't let Raines begin experiments on babies. He's no better than a Nazi. Believe me, I know."
Broots bit his lip, looked at them with betrayal in his eyes. But he nodded. "We should at least get word to Jarod. He has the right to know about this."
"No." Sydney's voice was low and final. "You have no idea what you are dealing with. Jarod's personality is founded on certain basic touchstones, and one of them is his passion for family. Reveal the presence of this child to him, and his reaction will be immediate and dangerous. He will be capable of anything in order to save it. Tell him nothing."
"Eat," she said to Broots. It was the kindest thing she could think of. "We're going to need our strength."
Broots pushed away from the table, looked down at her from whatever higher moral platform he thought he was inhabiting, and said, "I lost my appetite."
He bulled his way out of the room, a scarecrow in flannel, so out of place in this whispering haven of power and sleek elegance.
She loved him for it, hated herself for belonging here. Sydney was still holding her hand. She kept smoking, refused to look at him.
"It is the right thing," he said. She stubbed out her cigarette.
"Somebody always says that. Probably not the one that does it."
Ten hours later, she entered Eckard's house through the back, disabling the alarm as she went. No lights on. Dr. Eckard was a virtuous man who fed his children a balanced dinner, played with them, sent them to bed. Family man. No strippers, no hookers, no phone sex, no gambling, no drugs. Easy to forget he was a monster.
Parker followed her mental floor plan through the kitchen, up the stairs, silently past Eckard's room, past the son's. She opened the daughter's door and went in.
Moonlight spilled silver through the window, fell on the face of a sleeping child, and in spite of everything she knew, everything she'd been trained to do, Parker felt herself go weak. I can't. Her mother would despise her for it. Jarod would kill her if he ever found out.
The girl was wearing footed pajamas, her dark hair spilled out over a Barney pillow. She was holding a battered doll. Parker reached over and smoothed hair back from the face - puffy, indistinct, distorted by Down's Syndrome. God, she won't even understand why I'm doing this. All she'll understand is the terror.
"I'm sorry," Parker whispered, barely stirring the air, and then she put her hand over the girl's mouth and pulled her out of bed. The girl squealed, a sound of anguish and terror that stabbed Parker to the heart, but Parker held on, her eyes closed, pinning the girl's flailing arms and legs. The doll went flying to land with a soft thump against the wall. Parker kicked stuffed animals from a white chair and sat down, held the girl tight, and waited.
Fifteen seconds later, Eckard slammed the door open and came to a sudden halt at the sight of his daughter, Parker, and the gun in Parker's hand. He went so pale she thought he'd drop, but he caught the door frame and held on, his eyes burning in that pale, skull-like face.
"Don't," he whispered. "Oh, God, don't do this. Don't hurt her."
"Not my choice," Parker said in a low, even voice. "Don't make me, Eckard."
"Do you know who I work for?"
"Dr. Raines can't help you." She let the gun drift closer to the girl's temple. It was hard to keep the child still, to ignore the panicked screams. Parker was screaming on the inside, too. "No one can help you but me, Eckard, so listen carefully. I don't want any mistakes."
The boy, twelve or thirteen, appeared in the doorway behind Eckard, and Parker knew with a vivid flash that he'd remember this moment for the rest of his life -- his sister, the gun, the fear. She looked at Eckard and said, "Get him out of here."
Eckard turned, startled, shoved the boy away from the door and told him to go to his room and lock the door. Parker used the moment to whisper to the girl and tell her everything was all right, but there was no change in the screaming, no halt in the flailing.
"What do you want?" Eckard asked. There were tears in his eyes.
"I want you to help me get Nia Pedron out of SL21."
Until that point, it had been a shot in the dark, but she knew when she saw the dark terror in his eyes that they'd been right. It was all true, the woman, the baby, Raines' plans.
Parker flicked the safety off the gun; he reacted violently, lunging forward, stopped when she said, "If you love her, stop."
"You wouldn't shoot - "
"Wouldn't I?" she snapped. "You have no idea what I'm capable of, Dr. Eckard. I need your word. Keep it, and your family is safe. Break it, and you'll be burying children by the end of the week."
Eckard was breathing hard, hyperventilating; he wanted her blood so badly it showed in his eyes. She kept the stare, dared him to doubt her, and it was Eckard who looked away and said, faintly, "Please don't. I haven't done anything except follow orders."
Just like a good little stormtrooper. "Then you've already got the routine down. Do what I want, I'll leave you alone. Get me into SL21."
"Raines will kill you."
"That's my problem," she said. She let go of the girl, watched her stagger across the floor to him and climb into his arms, hide her face against his shirt. Such a little girl, so helpless. Parker took a step toward the two of them, backed Eckard into a corner decorated with Pooh and Tigger, and said, "I'm yours, Eckard. What's the best time to go?"
"Early. Early's best." Eckard sheltered his daughter, turned her away from the gun Parker no longer pointed. "I'll meet you in the South Elevator at seven a.m."
"Don't even think about changing your mind," she said, and flicked the safety back on her gun.
The boy watched her go through a crack in his door. She ran down the steps, out of the house, back to her car and bent over the wheel and sobbed until her heart was empty.
She needed somebody she could trust. Not Broots - best intentions aside, he was a piece of quivering Jell-o when it came to confrontations. She was running through the list in her mind, listening to the ticking of her bedroom clock, when she felt the room change. Not a sound, a feeling, something so elemental it was like magic. She knew.
The light flicked on just as she went for her gun, a useless trip because it wasn't where she'd left it. There was only one gun in the room.
It was in Jarod's hands.
He'd changed since she saw him last - put on muscle, taken some sun. His hair had grown out. But what had changed most was the look in his eyes, the dead, black, violent look.
She froze where she was, glanced at the gun with what she hoped was contempt, and said, "I didn't think you needed that, Jarod."
"It's the only thing you understand. I brought a universal nine-millimeter translator." His voice was low, vicious, grating. She didn't like the sound at all. He aimed, and she felt a tension in her chest right where she knew the bullet would go. "Howard Falls, Oregon."
"Jarod - "
"Shut up!" He pushed away from the wall, came so close she could see the glitter in his eyes, ferocity barely checked. "Don't try to lie to me. Why did you do this?"
"I don't know what you're - "
He made a sound unlike anything she'd ever heard from him before. It shocked her into silence, made her pull back against her pillows, made her intimately aware of her own mortality.
"Jarod, I just went there yesterday," she said, as quietly as she could. "Nia's been missing since March."
"Tell me why they took her." Sydney had been right, she'd underestimated Jarod's capacity for rage. She'd turned hers into attitude; he'd sublimated his into the need to heal. But it was there, all the same, ready to explode like a nail bomb.
"I can't be sure. Jarod, we're trying to get her out, Sydney and Broots and I - we're going to take care of it. Don't do this."
"You think I trust you?" He was crying now, teams steamed out of him by the pressure of his rage. "No. Tell me why."
"Put the gun down. You don't want to kill me." On reflection, that might not be true. "If you do, you'll never get her back."
Jarod swallowed hard, his eyes wide now, rims of white around them. "Nia was disapparacido. She can't be in prison. If they keep her in the Centre, they'll kill her."
"So what do you think you can do? A hostage exchange? Jarod, Raines has her. Why would he give her up to save my life?"
"Your father would."
"My father doesn't know Nia Pedron exists. No one does except Raines' people, you, me, Sydney, and Broots. This isn't the way." She held his eyes. "Please."
He was trembling all over. She knew that shaking, had felt it herself two hours before. She moved up to a sitting position in bed and watched him as he sank down on the bed, his head bowed.
"Do you want me to call Sydney?" she offered. He shook his head.
"Is she - " Oh God, don't ask me. "Is she still alive?"
"I don't honestly know. I think so. Jarod, I'm going in at seven this morning to bring her out. If I don't - if I don't come back, talk to Sydney. He'll find a way."
"Why?" The word was a hoarse croak, forced out between tears. He was rocking now, rocking like a hurt child. She pulled tissues from a box and handed them to him, reached out and put her hand on his shoulder to still him. He turned his head to meet her eyes and asked it again. "Why would they do this to her?"
She wanted to tell him, wanted so badly, but she remembered Sydney's words and said, "Because you love her."
"Do I?" He pulled in an unsteady breath. "I don't feel about her like - "
"Like what?" But she already knew, and it was Jarod's turn to look away now.
"I want to protect her. I don't want anything to happen to her."
"I know." She also knew what it was he wanted to say, and couldn't, and shouldn't. She touched his hair and found it damp with sweat, the flesh beneath it cold. Shock. She wrapped a blanket around him, her mother's blanket, pale yellow.
As she adjusted it over him, he looked right at her and said, "If you're responsible for any of this, tell me now. Don't lie to me. Please."
She sat down beside him, looked at her mother's picture facing them, and said, "For once, I'm not lying. You and I want the same things - we want Nia Pedron freed. And I'll make it happen. But you have to stay here. I can't save her and you, too."
"So we have a truce?"
"Truce," she said softly. "For now."
She left him lying down, the yellow blanket wrapped around him, and wondered if she should call Sydney and have him babysit, or if she could trust Jarod to do what she'd asked.
She needed Sydney at the Centre, in case things went wrong.
Dawn wasn't even a wish on the horizon as she drove through the Centre gates; she scanned cars and spotted Broots' Toyota, Sydney's sleek black Volvo. The gang was here. She took deep breaths, listening to the steady beat of her heart, and stepped out of the car into the pre-dawn chill, and her own mounting fear.
I do this wrong, and Raines wins. Daddy will go down. Jarod will throw himself into this like a grenade. We'll all be dead.
She kept her head high, her stride loose as she mounted the steps and entered the lobby.
"Morning," Walters said. He had, she noticed, dropped the good. "Nice to see you again, Miss Parker."
Her heart wasn't really in shredding him. "Glad I could make your day. Where's Broots?"
"SL5, ma'am. Oh, and your father was looking for you."
"My father?" she repeated, and forced a smile. "Thank you. I'll go up."
She hoped Walters wouldn't notice, or remember, that she went down to where Broots and Sydney huddled beside a glowing terminal in the vast empty computer room. Broots smelled of sweat and old clothes, Sydney of fresh cologne, but they all reeked of fear. She knew she wore it like a perfume.
"Jarod showed up," she said softly. "Sydney, he's at my house. I got him to wait."
Sydney came out of his chair, alarmed. "He didn't - "
"Medicate, Sydney, he didn't hurt me. But he knows she's missing, and he knows somebody at the Centre has her. He's willing to give us a break, but only one. After that - "
"He doesn't know about - " Broots raised his eyebrows. "Oh. No. I guess he doesn't."
"If he knew, we'd be in the middle of a firefight right now. It's five-thirty. I'm meeting Eckard at seven. I need any schematics you can pull on SL21, maintenance ducts, everything, and Sydney - " She turned to him, drew in a deep breath, and said, "I need you to get me Angelo. If anybody knows the best way out of SL21, it's him. I need for him to be there, waiting."
"Angelo has moods. He might not - "
"He will. Tell him it's for Jarod." She hesitated. "Tell him it's for me."
Sydney nodded and left. She turned to Broots.
"I won't let you down," he said. She gave him a faint smile, nothing predatory about it.
"I'm meeting Eckard in the South Elevator. Follow us on the cameras for as long as you can. Three minutes after we're off the elevator, I want you to raise holy hell on SL21. Fire alarms, security alarms, whatever you can set off. Jam the elevators. Can you do that?"
Broots nodded and wiped sweat from his forehead. She leaned closer.
"Can you?" she repeated.
"It'll leave tracks," he said. "No way around it."
"You're acting under my orders. Everybody knows I don't let you tell me no."
Broots caught her eyes and said, "You're scared, aren't you?"
"Do I look scared?"
He tilted his head slightly. "No. But you're scared. Personally, I'm terrified."
She reached out and put a hand on his cheek, a gesture she hadn't planned but didn't draw away from. Neither of them said anything.
She stood up, straightened her leather skirt, and walked quickly and confidently out of the room, for what she knew was probably the last time in her life.
She'd lied to him. The Centre would come after him if she fell, chew him until he was a rag. Broots would be lucky to be allowed to eat a bullet.
She entered the South Elevator at 6:55 a.m. Empty, except for the bullet hole and her ghosts. She rode down to SL6, watched technicians crowd on and get off at SL8, shared a ride with an older man with a face creased by age, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. They shared a companionable silent ride down to SL24, where he got off, and the elevator rose again to SL9.
Eckard got on. Pale, sweating, terrified, he was worse than Broots. She stubbed out her cigarette and said, "Good choice. Press the button."
The elevator controls were fingerprint-coded in addition to key-coded; Eckard put his thumb over SL21 and punched in a nine-number code. The car dropped.
Mother, Parker thought, and reached for that ghost, embraced it. I'm trying. Please help me.
She opened her eyes as the descent slowed. Eckard, breathing noisily through his nose, looked ready to bolt; she drew her gun and held it at her side, black matte metal blending with black leather.
The doors slid open on an empty, featureless hallway. Eckard made a thin whining sound of terror.
"Out," she whispered. When he hesitated, she aimed. He scurried past her and she caught his arm, pulled him to a stumbling walk. The elevator doors behind them closed. "Two minutes to get me to her room. Go."
It was like walking through a dream. Lights buzzed, air conditioners sighed, but the place seemed lifeless. No doors anywhere in the walls. Eckard walked her to the end of the hall, to a blank-faced wall, and said, "Here."
"Where?" She put the gun against his side. He reached out and put his hand flat on one section of the wall.
It slid aside. Beyond the glass -
"Oh, Jesus," Parker whispered. Her finger tightened on the trigger and for a blinding instant she wanted to kill Eckard, never mind his children, never mind the consequences. How many more rooms like this in this hallway? "Get me in."
"Do it!" The clock in her head was ticking. Broots, don't jump the gun. "Do it or I swear to God I will kill you."
Eckard, trembling, touched another featureless part of the wall. Fingertip points lit up. He positioned his hand over the points and the glass wall slid aside. Parker ducked in, dragging him with her, shoved him in the corner out of the way and approached the hospital bed.
Restraints on Nia's arms, but no scars. No bruises. She hadn't fought in a long time.
"You." She spat it at Eckard. "Did you do this?"
Pale, thin body. Muscle tone gone.
"Raines." His voice trembled. "I swear. Look, she wouldn't - she wouldn't cooperate, she wouldn't eat, she fought us all the time. We were losing her and the baby. We - didn't have any options. I swear."
Eyes taped shut. Chest rising and falling. The drip of IVs.
"You'd better tell me you didn't lobotomize her."
"No! No, I swear, she's sedated, just sedated - "
Eckard hugged wall as if were a bulletproof vest. Parker tore her gaze away from Nia Pedron's empty face and focused on the fetal heart monitor that was positioned nearby.
"Pick her up," Parker said. "Now."
"Then bring the bags!"
It took too long, too long, the clock in her head ticked madly, they had no time left -
"Miss Parker." That wheezy voice, from right behind her. The hiss of oxygen.
She whirled just as the glass slid shut. She brought her gun up in one liquid motion and fired point-blank at Raines' face, an ear-shattering roar.
The glass starred, but didn't break. Parker felt the contact burn as the ejected cartridge, still red-hot, skittered off her hand but didn't let that break her concentration. She kept her gun aimed at Raines' bald, shining, smiling head.
Raines pressed a button on a portable radio in his hand; sound echoed from loudspeakers above her, magnifying his wheeze and the hiss of his oxygen tank to Darth Vader proportions.
"Glad you could join us," he grated. "Sorry, Eckard. But I can't let either of you take that woman out of here."
"I'll kill you," Parker whispered. She was a child again, staring at her mother's corpse; she was Nia Pedron, abducted and violated. This is how Jarod feels. This was what it meant to be a Pretender, unable to separate self from other. "I swear I'll put a bullet in your head."
Hiss of gas from overhead. Of course, he'd have rigged some knockout gas in this room to keep Nia from hurting herself, when she was still able. Parker coughed and crouched nearer the floor, took aim at the starfish in the glass and fired, again and again and again.
Alarms went off, different kinds, fire alarm, security alarm whooping in syncopation. White fire suppressant sprayed from nozzles in the ceiling, creating an instant cloud on the other side of the glass; it billowed into the room as the door slid open.
Safety protocols. All doors unlock in a fire. Parker blinked away double-images, grabbed Nia's bed and shoved it through the doors, knocking Raines out of the way, shooting at him in the dim confusion. Somebody pulled at her arm; she tried to shove him away and found her muscles were weakened, her head spinning.
Angelo. He tugged again at her, urgently. She shook her head to clear it and heard him distantly saying "Daughter hurry! Hurry!"
He always called her that, daughter. For him, her mother would always be Miss Parker. She tried to push the hospital bed, but Angelo darted around her and scooped Nia up, held her limply in his arms. "Daughter! Hurry!"
Raines loomed behind him. Parker cried a warning and Angelo ducked, scurried, was lost in the mist. She went after him, staggering now, barely able to keep her feet.
More rooms, the glass doors open - room after room after room of silent, unmoving women, their bellies swollen.
Oh God, no.
Hands on her shoulders, steadying her, propelling her forward. Sydney's voice saying, "I've got you. In here."
Here was the dark mouth of an access vent. She fought him, tried to slide away, but someone on the other side grabbed her hand and pulled her in, and she collapsed against Broots' chest and felt herself carried, or dragged, into the darkness.
"Let go," she said faintly, and shook free of him. Her head was clearing. Angelo was a distant shape ahead, threading through tunnels like a rat through a familiar maze; he'd left them a trail of Cracker Jacks to follow. Broots backed off, steadied her when she lurched to one side. "I'm fine! Leave me alone."
Broots said, "Is she okay? Nia?"
She couldn't explain now, too tired, too sick. "I need a phone."
Sydney passed her one. She dialed her father's office, got him, and said, "SL21. Raines has been inseminating women and holding them by force, probably with sperm and ova collected from the Pretender project. I don't know how many there are. Get there fast before it's too late."
She hung up and handed the phone back to Sydney. He gazed at her with eyes that held a great deal of pain, a great deal of history. "It wasn't just Nia, then."
Sydney's eyes widened, and she remembered he'd tried to kill Raines before, wondered how long it would be before he tried again. Not long, now. Sydney had personal memories of what it felt like in those quiet rooms, with dispassionate doctors.
She stopped him from going back by taking his hand. "Let the Centre take care of him now."
Ahead of her, Angelo opened a grate into a flare of bright lights. His hunched, gnome-like body jumped down, still burdened with Nia's body. Parker reached the end and stepped down into one of the storage areas, this one filled with obsolesced computers, huge flat decks of dead machines. Behind her, Broots said, "Wow." Toy heaven, for Broots.
Angelo gently laid Nia out on an empty table, arranged the sheet more carefully around her. Parker moved him gently aside and checked the woman's pulse.
"Baby," Angelo said suddenly. "Baby scared."
She heard a scrape behind them and turned, gun rising; Angelo relieved her of it, neat and quick as a striking snake.
Jarod came out of the shadows. He looked dangerously calm in his black leather coat, and she felt a chill as his eyes passed over her, through her ...
The breath went out of him, and he wavered.
Her eyes fluttered. Jarod stripped the tape away, brushed hair from her face, leaned over her and kissed her. Nia's eyes opened, still dazed, and her hand slowly moved.
Jarod, reaching for it, saw the swell of her belly.
Sydney said, quietly, "Parker, Broots, go. Leave us alone."
Parker sat at ease in her father's office, smoking, inspecting her nails. She still needed new polish.
"Are we boring you?" That from a man who never came out of the shadows. He was smoking, too, a dot of red bobbing in mid-air.
"Get to the point," she said. "I have a date with my manicurist."
"Princess," her father reproved. She stopped him with a look.
"I have no questions to answer. None. My team discovered Raines' little chamber of horrors down there, which you people either couldn't or wouldn't find. I've done nothing to be called here."
Seated across from her, Dr. Raines' bald head turned stiffly. He stared at her with huge, cold, hating eyes. "My project on SL21 closed down over a year ago. You can check the records. I had nothing to do with it."
"Talk to Eckard," she told her father.
"Eckard's dead," Raines said, and sucked oxygen. "Poor man. He was shot in the confusion, which you created, Miss Parker."
She turned to look at him, wishing she could shoot him now, knowing she'd have to kill him later.
"Twelve women," she said softly. "Twelve women in those rooms growing your little Pretenders. How'd you collect the semen? Experiments on Jarod while he was still here? Don't you dare question me."
"My experiments in Pretender fertility were completely sanctioned, and they had nothing whatever to do with this."
"Bullshit," she spat.
Her father cleared his throat, thunderously loud in the silence. "Dr. Raines, perhaps you could tell us what you were doing on SL21 when you found my daughter?"
"I was responding to a security emergency," Raines said. "My people will verify. We had tracker nets set up on that level that were still function - I had every right, and every duty, to investigate an intrusion."
Parker sucked fire, breathed smoke in his direction. He glared.
"Are you an idiot?" he snapped. "This is oxygen. Unless you'd like to go up in flames, too."
"As long as you don't skin-graft yourself back to life."
The man in the shadows, the smoking man, rasped, "What kind of accounting do we have on these women?"
"No names on any of them," her father said. "It appears there might be one missing, or recently deceased."
"Nia Pedron," Parker said. "He killed her. He knew we were getting close."
"Do I have to listen to this?" Raines grated. Parker tapped ash into a tray.
The smoking man said, to Parker, "Your spent cartridges were found inside the supposedly dead woman's room."
"There was a lot of confusion."
"Miss Parker!" The man in the shadows thundered it, and it brought her father out of his chair, around the desk, to put a hand on her shoulder. "Some people may forgive you your attitude, but I don't."
"That's enough," Daddy growled. He squeezed her in warning. "You go on home, Princess. I'll talk to you later."
Raines said, "You have no right to hold me. I've done nothing - "
"You'll go when I say you can go!" Daddy snapped it out, still the alpha in the room, and the shadowed man fell silent. "Princess."
She stood up, stubbing out her coffin nail. She was almost out the door when the shadowed man asked, "When was the last time you saw Jarod?"
As a shock tactic, it was strictly amateur hour. She smiled and said, "Look it up. It's in my reports."
Sydney was waiting for her in the hall, fell into step with her, hands in his pockets.
"Well?" she asked. He shook his head.
"I don't know. He wasn't prepared for this." He sighed. "There is no happy ending here, Miss Parker. This child will change Jarod in ways I cannot foresee. He understands how dangerous it will be for him to be with Nia now, but that will not hold him forever - and once someone at the Centre discovers the baby - "
"No one at the Centre will," she said. "Officially, she's dead, another nameless corpse. Jarod can make her disappear. This is as happy as it gets, Syd."
He stopped walking and faced her. "And you?"
She tapped out another cigarette, thought about Jarod and chances lost. The ache in her heart drilled deeper. "This is as happy as it gets."