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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.
It was a good day to stay the hell out of Miss Parker’s way, Broots knew it. Not that there was ever a good day to be in Miss Parker’s way, of course, but today looked especially dangerous – she had that look. He cleared his throat to warn Sydney, spun his chair back around to face his computer, and started typing in meaningless strings of numbers and letters. That was the great thing about having a technical job; most people had no idea what you were doing, anyway. It was always a good way to keep out of trouble when –
"Broots." Parker’s tone was cold enough to flash-freeze lava. "Quit screwing around and pay attention."
He spun the chair and folded his hands in his lap. Sydney, across the room, took his glasses off and looked mildly bothered at the interruption. Sydney, Broots thought, would look mildly bothered if Miss Parker took out her gun and blew his kneecap off to get his attention. It was just Sydney’s way.
"It’s been nine days and you’re telling me we’ve had no contact with Jarod? Nothing? No phone calls, no do-it-yourself clue packages, no personal appearances? Anywhere?" Parker paced the floor, the slit in her long skirt flashing Broots glimpses of her thigh. He wondered how far up the slit went; it disappeared under the flared coat somewhere just below –
She snapped her fingers under his nose. "Broots. Say something."
"Nice suit?" he murmured. She glared, a full-wattage glare that should have come with its own OSHA-approved protective gear. He was pretty sure it caused cancer. "I’ve got an advanced search algorithm sifting through every computer-tracked purchase and ATM withdrawal in the country; if he’s still out there, it’ll track him down. Eventually. Er – a couple more days, maybe."
She leaned forward, surrounding him in a sweet cloud of Opium and menace. Braced herself with her hands on the arms of his chair. From this angle, if he dared, he could look down her shirt.
He didn’t dare. He kept staring into her wide blue eyes. Parker’s eyes weren’t any of the friendly shades of blue – sky blue, powder blue, baby blue – they were more like the hot still center of a butane fire. Incandescent blue, the kind that would scorch the skin right off your bones.
"I … don’t … have … days," she said. "What about the postcard he sent? Anything on that?"
"It’s a standard Disney World postcard, they print millions of them every year at the Orlando theme park. There’s no way to really tell when it was bought, or even where. He could have picked it up at Magic Mountain or Cinderella’s castle, or even in a convenience store halfway across the state. There’s no postmark, since it was hand-delivered to the Centre." It was, for Broots, a really long speech. He caught his breath and saw the unforgiving gleam in her eyes. Lost the breath. "Maybe he was serious."
"That he was going on vacation? What does he think, this is his job, tormenting me? Making me look like a fool?" She picked up Jarod’s last postcard, which featured a particularly cute pose of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Broots had thought he’d save it for his daughter Debbie; she loved Fantasia. He thought for a second Miss Parker might rip the card to shreds, but she put it down with exaggerated care and crossed her arms.
"Nine days is not such a very long time, Miss Parker," Sydney offered soothingly. "Surely the Triumvirate can understand the need for patience."
"The only thing the Triumvirate understands is results," she snapped. "I’ve got Lyle breathing down my neck, you know; that bastard has more lives than a litter of cats. He’s spreading a whisper campaign against me, and I will not be defeated. Not by a slick little psycho like him. So … find Jarod. Now."
"It’s a program, Miss Parker, I can’t speed it – "
"Am I clear?" she repeated. The temperature in her eyes notched up.
He nodded. She gave him a smile, all teeth, no humor, and turned to Sydney.
"If you’re holding back on me, Syd, I swear to God – "
"Why would I do that? Don’t you think I want him back as badly as you do?" he interrupted with just a trace of acid. She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
"Why the hell do you do anything, Sydney? I’m not asking, I’m telling. I want news on Jarod by the end of the tomorrow. Not negotiable. Call in whatever favors you have to, go out and personally turn over rocks, do whatever you have to do, but bring me a smoking gun, or I promise, one will be pointing at your dead body."
She blasted out of the office, walking too fast for the skirt, which threatened to show even more than Broots had imagined possible. He watched until the swinging door cut off the fantasy, then looked over at Sydney. Sydney raised his eyebrows.
"Wow," Broots said. "Smoking gun."
"There are times when I find it difficult to resist Freudian analysis of Miss Parker," Sydney said. "Particularly when she wears that very interesting suit."
"Didn’t think you’d notice, Sydney."
Sydney’s eyebrows threatened to lift off his forehead. "I would have to be blind and dead, Mr. Broots. Though the interest, luckily, remains academic."
Broots choked down a laugh. "So, what do we do about Jarod?"
Sydney flipped a page in his calendar and made a note.
"I suppose," he said, "that we’d better find him. Perhaps today."
Vacation was a word Jarod had looked up in the dictionary and studied intensely in popular media; apparently, vacations consisted of going to some tropical location and consuming mass quantities of alcoholic beverages, or dressing in extremely skimpy bathing suits, or both. Vacation Beach Party, for instance, had taught him the importance of volleyball, although he wasn’t sure about the relative necessity of strip volleyball. He was hoping that wouldn’t be absolutely required.
It was basic aversion to the idea that had decided him on Disney World originally – hence, the postcard. He’d loved the theme parks, the rides, the happy children towing their parents along. It was a wonderful place. He’d toyed with the idea of staying – he could, he was sure, do any job from repairing the Animatronic robots to serving food at the Crystal Pavilion – but the sending of that postcard had destroyed the idea. He couldn’t stay. Miss Parker might take three or four days, but she was unlikely to miss such a broad hint. The first thing Broots would do would be to make a full sweep of Disney employees.
So he continued his vacation in San Francisco. A beautiful city, San Francisco; cool, misty mornings, warm afternoons, inviting nights. He’d even played volleyball twice on the beach.
Research showed that vacationing tourists wore baggy shorts, brightly colored shirts and always had a camera dangling from around their necks. He bought the camouflage, laid it out on the bed, and stared at it contemplatively. Outside the hotel windows, the sea whispered and rolled.
"Got to draw the line somewhere," he sighed, and bundled all the clothes back in a shopping bag. He’d stick to his clothes, even though they added an element of danger. I’m getting vain, he thought with a trace of amazement. When he’d been in the Centre Sydney had brought him clothes, of course, and they’d just been simple, serviceable coverings. He was finding out he could get attached to things.
And he was building an image of himself that didn’t include tourist disguises.
He dropped the clothes off to a homeless man huddling in a doorway down the street, put on his sunglasses, and took a deep breath of warm, sea-scented air. Vacations, he decided, were one of mankind’s better inventions.
He turned to go up the hill – a long hill, conveniently furnished with lots of benches for the faint-hearted – and found himself directly in the path of a downhill runner. She had just enough time to yell "Hey!" before momentum carried her right into him.
He dropped his left foot back to brace the impact and had a second to take her in – tall, slender, long legs showcased by running shorts, dark hair tied back in a simple ponytail – before she shoved back from him and gave him a look that was so much like Miss Parker’s he almost laughed.
"Something funny?" she snapped. She was breathing hard, sweat gliding down her neck and dampening the front of her t-shirt. Not Miss Parker’s blue eyes, this woman’s were brown and green, the color of leaves in a winter pond.
"Sorry, I didn’t see you," he said. "Are you all right?"
She blinked and seemed to see him for the first time. "Sure. Ah – you?"
"I’m fine," he said. He still had hold of her elbow, he realized, and let go. "Tough run."
"Just getting warmed up. For the finale, I go back uphill." She smiled, and he felt something hum deep inside. Miss Parker’s smile, too. Subtle differences in the face, but –
She held out her hand. "Alex," she said. "Alex Desmond. Investment banker, if you can believe that."
"Jarod," he said, and took the hand. She had a strong grip, and soft hands. "Tourist."
"What do you do when you’re not touring, Jarod?"
She was flirting with him. He hesitated for a few seconds, watching her face, and then said, "I’m a doctor." It was even, in a way, true.
Her eyebrows notched up. "How long are you going to be in town?"
"Three or four days, I think – "
"Do you run?"
"I can," he said. The conversation was turning too quickly for him to do anything but answer truthfully. Her eyes skimmed over him, bright with mischief.
"Can you. Well, I’ll be the judge of that. Tomorrow morning, top of the hill, seven a.m., Jarod. We’ll see if you’re up to my standards."
It was his turn to arch his eyebrows, but he held out his hand again. It wasn’t such a businesslike exchange this time, more a caress than a shake.
"I’ll look forward to it," he said. She waved and started jogging down the hill toward the beach. He watched her go, hands at his side, feeling like he’d been hit by a truck instead of a jogger.
"Alex," he said. He liked the sound of the name. "Miss Desmond."
He found that he was smiling, for no particular reason at all.
The one place Broots hated to bring Debbie was the Centre, but what choice did he have when Miss Parker got on a tear like this? He couldn’t leave Debbie alone, and her grandparents weren’t in town. There were only so many relatives he’d trust with his daughter, and none of them were available.
So it was the Centre. Debbie was safely tucked away in the corner behind his desk, crashed peacefully in her new Bug’s Life sleeping bag. His girl – a big girl, these days, and getting bigger by the day. Only a year or so between Bug’s Life and Marilyn Manson, he thought, and sighed. There were times when fatherhood scared him worse than anything he’d ever seen at the Centre.
He hadn’t heard the door open, but all of a sudden there was a hand on his shoulder. He yelped and ruined a line of code he was building with random keystrokes. The lights were mostly out in the room, to help Debbie sleep, but enough of it fell on his visitor’s face to drag a chill down Broots’ spine.
"Well, well, well," Mr. Lyle said. Late as it was – past midnight – Lyle was still as Brooks Brothers as ever, ready for his close-up. Broots had a frightening second of wanting to put a fist into the Colgate smile, which he fought down with a healthy dose of self-preservation. Even Miss Parker didn’t dare go against Lyle directly. He was the new fair-haired wonder boy of the Centre. "Still hard at it, Mr. Broots?"
"Uh, yes," Broots said. He wished he had the kind of iron control that seemed to run in the Parker genes. He wanted to be able to give some cool, off-the-cuff answer in just the right tone to shave steel. Instead, he was reduced to groping for words and wishing like hell he was someplace else. "The search program’s come up with a few possibilities. I was just about to call Miss Parker – "
"Oh, sure," Lyle nodded. "But my lovely sis is catching a up on some much-needed beauty sleep. You really don’t want to wake her up."
"But Miss Parker said – "
Lyle leaned closer. "Do I care?"
"N-no." Broots took in a deep, chilled breath, and with it got a lung full of Lyle’s expensive, too-heavily-applied aftershave. "But I do. She told me to wake her, so, if it’s okay with you, I’ll – "
He reached for the phone, still babbling. Lyle’s eyes went dark. Dark like midnight in the Centre, dark like a black hole hidden in space.
Broots froze. Sydney was gone, doing his own research; Miss Parker was asleep in her office; nobody was going to care much what happened to some eminently replaceable tech geek if Mr. Lyle was involved. The Centre had covered up his murders before. High spirits. Boys will be boys.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Debbie sat up, rubbing her eyes, and said, "Daddy?"
Oh, God. He froze, unable to look away from Lyle’s face, from that cold empty blackness in his eyes. No. Don’t you –
Mr. Lyle smiled and took two steps to Debbie’s side. He squatted down next to her, smoothed brown hair back from her face, and looked up at Broots. The smile got wider, and wider. Satanic. Crazy.
"Pretty girl," Lyle said.
"Get away," Broots whispered.
"Daddy?" Debbie said again, her voice shaking. Lyle’s hand touched her cheek, brushed all the way down her neck. Not the way an adult should touch a child. Ever.
"What do you want?" Broots was surprised at how steady his voice was, how reasonable, because he wanted to grab a pencil off his desk and bury it in Lyle’s eye.
"Just what you were going to give me anyway, about eight hours later than you were going to give it to my darling sister. I want the names, Broots. Get them."
Broots picked up the sheaf of paper from next to his keyboard and held it out. Lyle took it and looked down at Debbie again.
"Do you love your daddy?" he asked. Debbie’s chin, which had been trembling, firmed. She pulled her shoulders back, sat up straight, and looked him straight in the eyes.
"My dad is the best in the world," she said. "And he’s not afraid of you."
Oh yes he is, baby. Broots held his breath. Lyle’s hand was so close to Debbie’s fragile throat. Daddy is scared out of his mind.
Lyle laughed. He patted Debbie on the back and stood up, those eyes just mild and brown again, just another arrogant corporate jerk, they were a dime a dozen at the Centre.
"That’s good," he said. "The best dad in the world doesn’t have to be afraid of anybody, does he?"
Lyle put his hand on the doorknob and then, in classic Columbo fashion, turned back to say, "Oh, one more thing, Mr. Broots. Since you’re having so much fun at your slumber party here, you wouldn’t want to rush off and interrupt my sister’s beauty sleep. I’ve taken the liberty of cutting off her phones – don’t you hate to be jerked out of sleep like that? – so you’d have to go yourself to break the news. And that would leave your sweet little daughter all alone." He smiled that Satanic smile again. "The best dad in the world wouldn’t do that."
Broots slowly sat down in his chair, numbed. He watched Lyle leave without saying a word.
"Daddy?" Debbie asked.
"I don’t like him."
Broots hugged her close. "You’ve got good taste, honey."
He didn’t leave the room.
As it turned out, he had to wait almost three hours before Miss Parker burst through the doors of his office and snapped, "My phones are out. What kind of progress – "
"Keep your voice down," Broots whispered. He pointed toward Debbie, who’d finally dropped off into an uneasy sleep. "Lyle was here. He threatened Debbie if I didn’t give him what I had."
Parker’s incandescent blue eyes flared. "And what did you have?"
He handed her the names. Fifty-seven of them, stretching geographically from one coast to the other.
"Jesus," Parker said. "If Lyle gets him first – damn it, Broots, you should have come to get me."
"I couldn’t." He didn’t explain. He didn’t have to. Parker’s eyes slid away from his.
She turned away to pace the floor, all nerves and barb wire. "We’re playing catch-up. Start paring these names down. Now. I want something to go on within the next two hours, Broots. It may already be too late."
He nodded. Caught her arm when she turned away. "Miss Parker, I’m – I’m sorry. But the way he touched Debbie, the way he – "
"No," she said. For just an instant her hand covered his, warm and unexpectedly gentle. "There’s no telling what he’s capable of. You should have gotten word to me, but I can understand why you didn’t."
She pulled away.
"That doesn’t mean I forgive you," she said. He nodded. He hadn’t thought it did. "Two hours, Broots, or Lyle will be the least of your problems."
In two and a half hours, with Miss Parker looming over his shoulder like a hungry vulture, he had two names. Jarod Eisner in Chicago, and Jarod Fodor in San Francisco. It could have been either – Michael Eisner had been CEO of Disney, and Jarod would have found the name appropriate – and Fodor published travel guides.
Parker made her decision at 6:47 a.m.
They were going to San Francisco.
At seven a.m., Jarod was waiting at the top of the hill, stretching, watching his breath steam away in the cool morning air. Fog had rolled in; the entire city was shrouded in it. Not many people on the street, and those moved in soft-focus, quickly gone like ghosts. Fog muffled sounds, and he hummed a little to push the silence back. It was too much like being back in the Centre, quiet and insulated, waiting for –
Alex. She appeared out of the mist, wearing the same running outfit of the previous morning, long legs eating up pavement, arms swinging precisely in rhythm. She broke stride when she saw him and slowed to a walk, smiling.
"Well, well," she said, low in her throat. "Look what the doctor ordered. You up to it?"
"I’ll just have to try," he said. "Good morning, Alex."
"Good morning, Jarod. Watch your step, the fog’s thick. You’re not going to have much visibility." Her grin widened. "Might want to try to keep me in sight, if you can manage that."
She took off down the hill like a deer. He pulled in a deep breath and followed.
He pulled even with her twenty feet down the hill and settled into her rhythm, their feet falling together, an easy, comfortable pace. Because he knew she wanted him to, he pushed it faster. She matched him, her breath coming deep and fast, sweat beading on her skin like jewels. She pushed the pace again, faster. Faster when he matched that. Things swam out of the fog fast – benches to avoid, seams in the sidewalk, the misty gray lampposts. The houses lining the street with their bay windows and pastel colors were all hidden. Cars blared by, invisible until the last second.
"Do this a lot?" he asked after ten minutes of steady, relentless running.
"Every morning," she said. "And every evening. Sometimes for lunch, too. Girl’s gotta run off seven ice cream sundaes a day."
"My lucky number." Her smile flashed again. "What’s your room number?"
She ran faster.
"Alex!" he said. He had no idea where the bottom of the hill might be, how close the next intersection was. They were going too fast on this slope to come to a sudden stop.
She flashed him a wild grin. "Come on, doc! Run!"
He did, feeling wild exhilaration now, blood pounding as hard as his shoes on the pavement. Up ahead he heard the bleat of a car horn, smeared by fog. How close? How –
Alex turned and grabbed hold of him, dragged him to a stop, spun him around and around with her arms around his waist. There was a lamppost handy; he grabbed it and almost lost it again, the cold metal slick with dew.
But they’d stopped. Two feet from the curb, and a flow of traffic that wasn’t likely to stop for out-of-control joggers.
Alex started to laugh around her gasps for breath. She readjusted her hands to his shoulders and leaned closer. Touched her sweaty forehead to his.
"Damn," she said, and choked down giggles. "You gave me a run for the money, Jarod. Now. Now we get to go back up."
"Now?" he said. He was breathing hard, but he wasn’t tired. In fact, he’d never felt less tired in his life. What his body was doing – this wasn’t possible. He didn’t know this woman, had only barely met her –
"Well," she said, "maybe a few minutes."
And she kissed him. Warm, soft lips on his, her hands in his hair, her body pressed to his –
I shouldn’t be doing this.
But he was. And, from the responses his body was giving, he was glad, too. He let the kiss go on, tasted her just as deeply as she was tasting him. He was grateful for the support of the lamppost at his back because his legs felt like rubber bands, and not from the run.
Alex pulled away, brown eyes hot and heavy-lidded, and said, "First one to the top wins."
He grabbed her by the elbow. "Wins what?"
She smiled, kissed him hard and hot, her tongue like an electric shock down his spine. And started her run uphill.
He thought he could guess the answer. Well, he thought. I’m on vacation.
He went after her.
As difficult as the downhill course had been, the uphill was grueling. He felt the strain immediately in his calves, knees, thighs and back; the pace was much slower, and still brutal. Alex was just ahead, her ponytail bobbing like a flag; he put on more speed to catch her. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
He pulled even but had no breath to speak to her; she faced forward, her face alight with concentration, and pushed them faster. He kept pace – barely. His muscles screamed at the strain, and it continued, the angle increasing as the hill rose, the pace never slowing –
He blinked away sweat and saw that Alex had pulled a step ahead. Which wasn’t possible. He was a Pretender. He should be able to do this as well as anyone in the world, shouldn’t he? As well as Alex the investment banker, at least.
"Forgot to tell you," she panted – he was amazed she had the breath to do it – "I was Olympic alternate for the last games. Hope to make the distance running team next year."
He put all his concentration into following her. Not catching her, that was impossible. Just – keeping her in sight.
A man loomed out of the fog – a business suit, a newspaper in his hand. Alex changed course to go around him.
Something happened. Jarod, sweat blinding him, couldn’t see exactly what, just that Alex stumbled and broke stride just as the man passed her. Caught her shoe on an uneven piece of pavement, maybe. This was his chance to catch her.
But she wasn’t recovering. In two more steps she’d stopped completely, swaying, a hand pressed to her side. Jarod stopped next to her, gasping for breath.
Her lips were parted and trembling, breath rasping unevenly in and out. Her face had taken on an ominous oatmeal tinge.
She collapsed. He grabbed her, felt her still moving feebly, slowly, and dragged her over to a bench. Fainted? But it was worse than that, he could see it in her face, in her eyes. Terror. Sheer, helpless, voiceless terror.
When he took his hand from her side it was sticky with blood. He quickly laid her down, pulled up her t-shirt and found the stab wound. Punctured lung. She was breathing blood, so much blood --
He found a second wound, this one even deeper, closer to her heart. Oh God. Who –
"Hold on," he said to her, and put pressure on the wounds. "Alex?" Too little blood now. It was going in, not out, she was drowning in blood. "Alex, stay with me. You have to stay with me!"
"Jarod?" Blood flecked her lips. Her eyes were wide and very dark. "Wha – happened – "
"An accident. Hold on, Alex. Try not to talk." He had to call an ambulance, but he couldn’t take his hands away from her, couldn’t leave her alone. A phone, any phone, might as well have been a million miles away. No one on the street. No help. They were alone in the fog, all alone.
"Hurts," she whispered, like a small, wounded child, and tried to take in another breath. He heard bubbling in her lungs.
She coughed, and blood exploded from her mouth, over her face, everywhere. Warm spatters on his cheek. Oh, God, no.
"Alex?" She wasn’t breathing. He rolled her over, tried to clear her mouth but the blood kept coming, a steady trickle; he started chest compressions and breathed for her, tasting blood and the salt of his own tears.
"She’s gone," someone said quietly. He looked up, blinked to clear his eyes and saw a man in a long dark overcoat standing next to him. Middle-aged, fatherly-looking, with a lined face. Blue eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses. "Most unfortunate."
"What – " Jarod swallowed the question. There were more men on the street, some behind him, some closing in from the sides. A trap. Some kind of –
"Let’s not make this more difficult than it has to be," the man said, and reached for his arm.
Jarod stepped away. He felt a sharp stabbing pain in his back, thought for a second he’d been stabbed, that he’d die like Alex, but then his muscles began to loosen and he knew he’d been drugged.
He wanted to howl the question at them. These weren’t men from the Centre, Miss Parker would never allow – never condone --
His last sight, as they carried him into a waiting van, was of a vague little man bending over Alex’s body, staring into her eyes as if he wanted to memorize her face.
He was the one. He’d brushed by Alex right before –
"Jason," the fatherly man called from the van door. "You know what to do."
The vague little man nodded.
The door slammed on darkness.
San Francisco was fogged in. It did not contribute to Miss Parker’s good mood, any more than the news that Lyle had appropriated the Centre jet for his own personal Jarod hunt; they were both, she’d learned, heading for San Francisco. Lyle, by virtue of his two-hour head start, would be there first, if he made it before the airports shut down. Though – Broots checked the weather updates on the Internet – that wasn’t likely. Nobody had landed in San Francisco for six hours.
"He’ll find a way, even if he has to crash the plane," Miss Parker said. She had the window seat, and gazed out at the gray sky with what looked like calm. "Sydney, he hasn’t called you?"
"Jarod," she clarified, with a withering look. Sydney’s smile told them all he’d known what she was talking about.
"No," he said. "I expect he won’t call until his vacation is over. That would probably be another four days."
"I can’t believe this," Parker said. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "Stuck on a cattlecar with the Two Stooges and Shirley Temple. And my brother is going to bring Jarod home."
"Not likely," Broots said. "Your brother’s never gotten as close as you have. Even after stealing your leads. You’ll get him, Miss Parker. If anybody does."
"Broots, are you sucking up to me?"
The question caught him by surprise. He looked over to see Sydney, in the row ahead, apparently absorbed in his magazine. On his other side, in the aisle seat, Debbie was deeply concentrating on her computer game. He lowered his voice another notch. "No, Miss Parker, I really believe that. Jarod’s good – he’s amazing – but you’re the best at what you do. That’s why your father’s kept you on this. That’s why Lyle won’t get there first."
"Even with your help." Her eyes held absolutely no forgiveness. He swallowed hard.
She shrugged and looked out the window again. "Maybe Jarod will solve all of our problems and put a bullet in Lyle for me. Maybe the next time he calls I should ask him to do it. As a personal favor."
Broots inhaled Dr Pepper, coughed, honked his nose on a thin airplane napkin. "You – you wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t – would he?"
"Not unless he thought there was a very good reason." Her voice dropped, became soft and contemplative. "Children are his trigger point. Protecting them – avenging them. If he thought Lyle had threatened Debbie – "
"No," Broots whispered. "That’s just using Jarod to do your dirty work. If you want Lyle dead, you do it."
"I’ve tried. The slimy little bastard won’t stay dead. Jesus, I’ve seen his body twice and he keeps coming back like some Goddamn zombie." She shivered a little and took a drink of her gin and tonic. "He did threaten Debbie, didn’t he?"
"Miss Parker – " Broots pulled in a deep breath. "Yes. He did. But I don’t want Jarod to do anything. She’s my daughter. And if necessary, I’ll defend her from Lyle or anybody else who wants to hurt her."
He got a quick, unexpected look at the interior Miss Parker, the vulnerable one. She looked straight at him, and the blue of her eyes wasn’t scorching anymore, it was warm and twilight and beautiful.
"Yes," she said. "I know you would."
She turned away again, shutting him out. Broots sat back and put his head back against the seat, wishing he could get to know that Miss Parker, the one who wasn’t all steel and razor blades.
Get to know in the biblical sense, maybe? He shuddered at the thought, not entirely from fear. She was a black widow, and he probably wouldn’t survive the night, but –
But. There was always the but.
The overhead speakers switched on, and the captain informed them that the fog had lifted enough to clear them for a landing.
It was 8:10 in the morning, Pacific time.
And it was also too late.
Boardrooms, Mr. Prokofiev thought, were everywhere the same. The same dark, oppressive paneling, the same churchlike hush. Whether in Moscow or Venezuela, these were the room where lives where made and shattered, where the future was born.
Unlike most boardrooms, this one did not have any paintings on the walls, not even any portraits of dead, frowning founders. Except for the corporate logo in gold relief against the dark wood, there was no decoration at all. A long, sleek table commanded the center of the windowless room; on it glittered cold crystal water glasses, set for six. Around it huddled six straight black chairs, four of them occupied. He took the fifth open chair, farthest from the empty throne at the head of the table.
No one had poured water. He helped himself, splashing noise into crystal, sipping at the cold liquid. Bah. American water was completely sterile. No life to it. He set it aside, ignoring the gold-rimmed coaster so tactfully put out for his use.
No one said a word. The soundproofing of the room was so thorough, Prokofiev thought, that one couldn’t have heard a nuclear explosion beyond the doors, but it seemed an ocean of silence inside. Thick enough to drown in, sterile like the water.
The door opened with a muffled click. Not the main door that peasants such as himself used – a door cleverly inset in the seamless wall, a prince’s secret entrance. The man who walked through that door was the master of all he surveyed. Lord of the manor. Czar of all the Russias.
Prokofiev grunted a greeting and wished for ice in his drink.
The Chairman sat down in his accustomed throne and stared down the table at each of them in turn. Some avoided his eyes. Prokofiev smiled, nodded and changed his wish to a handful of peanuts, anything to add some flavor. Perhaps a breath mint.
"He’s ours," the Chairman said. It came as a surprise to no one in the room, but Prokofiev felt his back straighten, his shoulders stiffen nevertheless. So, he thought. Now it starts. Everything else has just been rehearsal. "Dr. Samuels. You had some thoughts on how best to proceed immediately."
Samuels, a willowy blonde woman with a jackal’s cold eyes, put on a pair of steel-framed reading glasses and opened her file for notes she clearly did not need.
"Yes, sir. Jarod is a unique individual – more so than the Centre ever fully grasped while he was in their hands. He is strong, self-reliant, and singularly resistant to the traditional methods of indoctrination the Centre attempted to use on him." Samuels took the glasses off – a useful prop, Prokofiev thought. Perhaps he should gain a pair himself, for moments when he wished to appear learned. "We should, I believe, use a combination of mental, physical and drug interventions. We must hit him hard, and fast, while he is still disoriented and uncertain of his situation. Jarod is a chameleon. He will adapt quickly and decisively. If we want to elicit the information you require, we’ll have to keep him absolutely in our power."
"Let us be clear, doctor," Prokofiev spoke up. No one except Samuels and the Chairman looked at him – the others, he thought, were afraid his rashness might be catching. "You intend to use mental and physical torture on this prisoner, as well as drugs, to force him to do what you want."
The Chairman looked as if he had bitten into a chocolate and discovered a turd. Samuels merely looked annoyed.
"Mr. Prokofiev, you have your methods, I have mine. I trust we don’t have to justify ourselves to each other at every meeting." Samuels swiveled back to the Chairman. "Leave him to me. My methods will work, they’ve been proven again and again. You can’t take risks with Jarod because some of us – " Her eyes cut toward Prokofiev like the edge of a sword. "Have unsuitable sentiments. He is priceless. You know it."
"Which is why I don’t see the value in destroying him."
The Chairman cleared his throat, putting a stop to the mild bickering; the sound echoed like a gunshot. His cold blue eyes turned to one of the others who hadn’t spoken yet – Williams. Williams rarely spoke unless spoken to, but Prokofiev was cautious around him. Dangerous men were often quiet, and Williams couldn’t be where he was without a streak of ruthlessness equal to his own.
"Mr. Williams," the Chairman said. "Your people have been surveilling the Centre. What news?"
"The best news, sir – we don’t believe they have a clue what’s happened. The San Francisco police will give them all the information we want them to have, which will send them in an entirely misguided direction. It’s doubtful the Centre will ever have any idea what’s happened to Jarod."
"Don’t underestimate them," Prokofiev said. "They’ll find out, sooner or later. We’d better be ready when they do."
Williams shrugged. "What can they possibly do about it? Go to war?"
Prokofiev rubbed the rim of his crystal glass with a damp forefinger and listened to the ghostly ringing for a second before he said, quietly, "I should imagine they’ll start with a simple reconnaissance. Not to worry, my friends. Internal security is my concern, and I take it very seriously indeed."
The Chairman gave him a long, very cold stare. "You’d better."
"I don’t like this," Broots said, to nobody in particular. Their car cruised slower in response to all the tail lights. On the opposite side of the street, police cars flashed their lights, and a section of yellow tape cordoned off the sidewalk.
"It may have nothing to do with Jarod," Sydney said, but even Broots could tell he didn’t believe it. Sydney looked withdrawn, his eyes wounded. "Surely not even Mr. Lyle would be so foolish as to kill him."
"He’s tried before," Miss Parker said. If anything, she seemed to be more alert, more edged, more focused. "Don’t underestimate Lyle’s insanity."
She tapped the cabbie sharply on the shoulder and told him to pull over. She left Broots to deal with paying him off – which reminded him, he needed to file an expense report. The cabbie grumbled about giving him a receipt, too. By the time he looked around, Miss Parker was at the edge of the crime scene, showing some kind of badge and talking to a cop. Sydney had Debbie by the hand and was showing her the harbor and the boats, which were barely visible in the clearing fog.
Broots wondered for a second why Sydney hadn’t followed Miss Parker, and then he looked past the tape and saw the chalk outline. The blood.
Oh, God, I’ve taken Debbie to a murder scene.
Miss Parker turned away, face closed and still, and walked over to them. She took a slow, deep breath and said, "It’s not Jarod."
Sydney’s eyes closed in relief.
"It’s a woman, a jogger. Witnesses – witnesses say that she was killed by another jogger who ran away on foot. He matches Jarod’s description, Sydney."
Sydney’s eyes came open again, wide with surprise. But Sydney never stayed that way for long. In another flash he was controlled again, his half-smile firmly in place.
"How – unusual," Sydney murmured. "And how very inconsistent. In the first place, I can’t imagine a scenario where Jarod would kill this woman. In the second place, having done it, I can’t imagine he’d run away. It simply isn’t in him, Miss Parker."
"You’re the one who preached at me about the pressure of the outside world on him. Maybe he had some kind of breakdown."
"And maybe the witnesses are mistaken. Or – coached." Sydney’s eyes darkened. Miss Parker tilted her head.
"Perhaps someone wanted Jarod and had to eliminate the woman to get him, or to hide the fact of his abduction. Would they not concoct this story to misdirect the police?"
"Lyle," she whispered. Sydney shook his head. "Oh, come on, you don’t think this is his style?"
"If there is blood, it’s most certainly Mr. Lyle’s style. No, it isn’t that." Sydney pointed across the street.
In a black sedan sat four men. Three sweepers, and Mr. Lyle.
"He looks pissed," Broots said.
"My point exactly. He wouldn’t be sitting here if he knew more than we did," Sydney said. "He was too late. Just as we’re too late."
Miss Parker stared at the car long enough that it should have blown up from the force of it. Lyle rolled down his window and gave her an ironic little maniac’s smile. He waved and turned it into a direction to the driver to pull out.
Parker watched the car glide away into the fog, turned to Broots, and said, "You had a hotel room for Jarod Fodor."
"Top of the hill," he said. "Room 736."
It was a long walk to the top, especially for Miss Parker; the heels and straight skirt weren’t designed for mountain climbing. Broots kept falling back, partly to conserve his strength, partly to admire the view. Sydney was keeping pace with him, and together they held Debbie’s hands. Without saying a word, Sydney conveyed he knew exactly what Broots was doing; one of their shared secrets Broots earnestly hoped Miss Parker would never figure out.
But damn she looked good in the skirt.
She looked over her shoulder at them, her face slightly flushed from the climb, and said, "Move your asses and stop watching mine."
Miss Parker’s attitude and credentials – whatever they were this time – got them a key to Jarod’s room.
"Broots," she said, as they waited for the elevator. "Stay here. Call me on the cell phone if you see anything suspicious."
"Like Jarod, or Lyle, or the Cookie Monster," she snarled. "Just do it, Broots."
He nodded and settled down in one of the fat green velvet chairs in the lobby, half-hidden by a big fern, and Debbie sat next to him.
"Daddy?" she asked. He kissed her gently on the top of the head. "Did Jarod kill that lady?"
"No, honey, I don’t think he did."
"Is Jarod in trouble?" She twisted to look at him with big, dark eyes.
"Yes. He probably is."
"Are you going to help him?"
Out of the mouths of babes. He sighed and sat back in the chair. "Play your video game, honey."
Because he honestly didn’t know what he was going to do. If anything.
Room 736. Miss Parker pulled her gun from the holster under her arm and took up a post on the hinge side of the door, nodded to Sydney to open it. He used the key and swung the door back, then cleared the way for her to swing around and cover the room. She did it quickly and efficiently, checking the closet, the bed, the open bathroom.
Miss Parker took in a deep breath, closed her eyes and let it slowly out. I can smell his aftershave. The sense of his presence tingled up and down her spine, as if he were in the next room, about to walk in and give her one of those famous blinding smiles.
She trailed fingers over Jarod’s clothes, still hung neatly in the closet. Sweaters, jackets, pants, shirts. She approved of the style. She lingered over a butter-soft black leather jacket, one she remembered him wearing.
"Miss Parker." Sydney held up a red notebook. She took it and flipped pages, found the article she knew would be pasted there.
It was blank except for another postcard. This one was of the Golden Gate bridge. She flipped it over to read the back.
Miss Parker: I highly recommend San Francisco for your next vacation. You need to find the heart you left behind.
He’d also left a 45 single of Tony Bennett singing – of course – I Left My Heart In San Francisco. In a package, ready to mail.
But he hadn’t mailed it.
And he’d left his clothes. He was an expert at running, he rarely left anything like this behind. This room felt – lived in. Complete.
"He didn’t leave voluntarily," Sydney said. He indicated the suitcase sitting in the corner. Jarod’s precious loot from the Centre, the DSAs and the player. "He wouldn’t leave that. He couldn’t. It’s his only connection to the past."
Parker turned a slow circle, her arms folded. Wherever he went, Jarod chose rooms that had a certain style to them, a certain personality. This one, though not expensive, was comfortable. It was a place he’d want to come back to.
If he could.
"Sydney, this woman – " Parker said. Sydney shook his head. "Sydney, you have to admit the possibility. If he did kill her, he might leave all this. He might become another person. Another kind of Jarod."
"I think that is extremely unlikely."
"But not impossible."
Sydney let out a breath in irritation. "Miss Parker, you know nothing is impossible. But as your resident expert on Jarod, I sincerely don’t think what you’re suggesting is at all likely."
"With Jarod, the unlikely is what I’ve learned to assume." Parker tossed the notebook back on the bed and looked at the two sweepers standing motionless near the door. "Clean it. Everything goes back to the Centre. And I mean everything. Move."
She left them to it and went out into the hall, wishing desperately for a cigarette. Jarod often had that effect on her. She settled for imagining she had one, smoke curling around her face, heat blooming in her lungs as she took a deep, satisfying drag.
Like sex, cigarettes were much better in reality than fantasy.
Where are you, damn you?
And then, because deep down she really did care, she thought, Don’t let them hurt you.
He was dying. Jarod had felt death before, he knew what it was like. He drifted, sick and helpless and hurting, right on the edge, looking out at the dark. Please don’t let me fall. Please.
Dr. Raines, please –
He gasped and opened his eyes. The room smeared into light and color, faces staring. He looked for Sydney but he didn’t know any of them, Sydney, please, don’t leave me, Sydney -- the old fears came back, childhood terrors screaming through his mind. When Sydney went away, the bad things happened.
Something cool touched his face. He jerked away, gasping, and realized it was a woman’s hand. Miss Parker? No, not – not – please don’t let her be here. Don’t let her be part of –
"Jarod." A woman’s voice he didn’t know. He focused on her with difficulty, saw a blonde woman with a thin, hard face and eyes like Dr. Raines’. She smiled without any warmth. "My name is Dr. Samuels. I’m sure we’re going to be good friends."
He tried to speak but his mouth wouldn’t move. Drugged, he thought, and his brain obligingly provided a list of all of the possible psychoactive agents she might have used. Metallic taste in his mouth, with a strange overtone of something bitter – probably Thiopental, it was commonly used to calm combative patients. His heart was laboring, too, thudding heavily in his chest, and it was an effort to breathe. Thiopental depressed respiratory and cardiac systems …
"Jarod." Cold hand on his face again to bring him back. He blinked slowly; she came back into focus. "I want you to understand that you’re here for your own protection and the protection of others. Do you understand?"
He fought to make sounds. "Wha – what – "
The cold hand was soothing, like an ice pack against his overheated skin. She smiled sadly and drew chill across his forehead. She smelled of flowers and vanilla, a homey smell, one he wanted to trust.
"You killed someone, Jarod. You killed a woman. Don’t you remember?"
Alex. Falling. Blood. Tried to save her –
"No," he murmured. Dr. Samuels’ eyes flashed to someone else, someone standing behind him; he felt a warm flush sweep over him. More drugs. No, Sydney, make them stop –
"You killed her, Jarod. Remember the blood?"
So much blood. She’d looked at him so strangely, like a lost little child --
"No," he whispered. He pulled weakly at the restraints, stared down at the IV line taped to his forearm. Spilling drugs into his system, drugs to – to confuse and –
Pain. Blinding, sudden pain, like a hot knife in his skull. Pain like dying, dying alone, Sydney, please don’t leave --
When he was finished, panting, hanging limply against the restraints, Dr. Samuels put that cool, cool hand against his forehead again and pushed his head back. Stared him in the eyes.
"Don’t disagree with me, Jarod," she said. "You only hurt yourself when you do. Besides, deep inside, you know I’m right."
"I didn’t kill Alex," he whispered.
His head exploded in pain close to death, pain that destroyed the mind, flayed the soul. When it stopped, after an eternity, he was sobbing.
Drugs flushed warm through his veins.
He could almost see Sydney’s fine, compassionate face, his deep warm eyes. They were so sad.
"Jarod!" Dr. Samuels had been calling his name for some time. He blinked and Sydney’s eyes faded away, replaced by colder, brighter ones. "Listen to me. We only want to help you, Jarod. Help you help yourself."
It was the first day of Hell.
The police station was everything Miss Parker expected. Gray stone, walls that hadn’t been painted since the Nixon administration, a stench of fear and urine. She hated cops. Hated public buildings. In fact, she hated California. Earthquakes and movie stars and tourists. What was there to like?
She sat, legs crossed, smoking an imaginary cigarette and fending off the interest of flashers, rapists and murderers as she waited. Next to her Sydney was his usual quiet self, watching the criminal floor show with great interest. She just found it annoying. The hooker in the stained satin dress, his falsies shifting side to side as he walked – and where in the hell did you get size 13 heels? – flashed her a snide smile. She returned it frozen to minus 30 and inspected her flawless nails. It was a pity Broots wasn’t here to provide his usual inane commentary; she needed a useful target. But she’d left Broots and his daughter at the hotel to watch for Jarod, after Broots had dug in his heels about dragging Debbie to a police station. As if, with her junkie mother, she’d never seen one before.
They’d been waiting for a half hour for this mythical Detective Falco. Parker checked her watch and gave him another two minutes before she pulled out a gun and shot somebody. Maybe the asshole with the jailyard tattoos who’d fluttered his tongue at her. Maybe she should just save time and bullets and shoot herself.
Sydney stood up. Parker rose too, on reflex, and saw the shortest policeman she’d ever seen coming toward them. He couldn’t have been more than 5’5" on a good day; she topped him by several inches. Well dressed, though, in a charcoal gray suit and a tie that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Wall Street. A cop’s hard, assessing eyes. A face that had forgotten how to smile.
"Falco," he said, and gave her an expressionless look before turning to Sydney. "You’re from the Centre?"
"You have the file ready on Jarod?"
"Yeah, got it in the back. Come on." He handed them clip-on badges that read VISITOR; Parker accepted hers like a dead rat and clipped it carefully to the collar of her tailored jacket. She hoped the damn thing had been given a Lysol bath before she’d touched it, there was no telling who’d worn it last.
Falco led the way through a narrow dark hallway and opened a door. Miss Parker took two steps in and stopped.
It was an interview room, complete with one-way glass. She turned and gave Falco a cold stare.
"You’ve got to be kidding," she said. He pointed her to a chair. "Am I under arrest?"
"Have I read you your rights? Look, just sit down, Miss Parker. Got a few questions I’d like you to help me with."
"Are you going to let us see the file or not?"
"Haven’t decided yet," he said. "Sit down. Convince me."
She slowly sat, crossed her arms, and cocked her head at him as he took the chair across from her. Sydney settled in a third chair a little down the table from her.
"Not going to interview us separately? Bad technique." She almost reached for a cigarette before she remembered. Tapped her fingernails on the table, a sound like teeth rattling in a jar. "What do you want to know?"
"I know why I want to find Jarod. He knifed a nice lady on my watch. Nice local lady. Only thing worse is knifing a tourist or spray painting the mayor’s car. So I know my agenda. What’s yours?
Miss Parker stared him down. "Jarod used to work for us. He was receiving treatment for psychotic episodes, but he started running; we’ve been trying to find him to help get him back into treatment."
"Wow," Falco said. "All we have is a suicide crisis hotline four days a week. So you, what, want to find him and give him a free ride back to whatever black hole you people came out of, stick him in some padded room somewhere? He’s got a warrant out on him. You get in my way, you’re in the cell next to him. If you’re here to look at the file and give me some pointers on where maybe to grab him up, fine. If you’re trying to beat my time, we’re going to have a problem. Miss Parker. And I don’t give a shit who your company has in its pocket."
Shorty, she decided, was going to be a pain in the ass.
"We’re not going to get in your way, Detective," Sydney said in that smooth, gray velvet voice of his. Sydney could persuade a tiger to become vegetarian, when he applied himself. "Our only concern is that Jarod is caught and given the proper care. We’d like to give you every cooperation."
Miss Parker tilted her head when Falco’s eyes came back to her.
"Absolutely," she said, and opened her eyes very wide. It was her best sincere look. From the expression on Falco’s face, it wasn’t very good.
"I’ve been instructed – " That left a bad taste in his mouth, it was obvious. " – to show you the file. But that’s as far as this little happy trip is going. You see the file, you get the hell out and I never see you again."
"That’s acceptable," Parker said.
Falco glared. "I wasn’t looking for approval. Here."
He slid a file folder across the table; she stopped it with one hand and opened it. The artist’s rendering of Jarod was amateurish but perfectly recognizable. There wasn’t much in the folder, really, some clumsily typed forms that reduced murder to boring detail, no autopsy report yet, one witness statement.
She felt Sydney’s warmth at her shoulder. They read it together.
Witness Jason Gardner, 38, 402 Evergreen Ln, stated that at approximately 7:30 p.m. he exited the Walgreen’s Drugstore (see diagram A) and proceeded west down Cordero Avenue. Approximately halfway down the street he saw unknown suspect struggling with victim. Victim fell to the ground. Suspect dragged victim to bus stop bench (diagram B) and fled on foot heading west. Witness proceeded to victim and attempted to administer CPR and first aid. He made a 911 emergency call using his cellular phone and was present at the scene when units arrived. Witness displayed full cooperation.
"You spoke to this man?" Sydney asked. He looked at Falco, who shrugged. "And he struck you as entirely truthful?"
"He was a little weird around the edges, but it was a believable story. Hey, the guy’s pretty much a hero for sticking around. Lot of people seeing something like this, they’d take off, leave the vic to bleed. At least he tried."
"You did check up on him," Parker said.
"Do I look that stupid? Sure I did. He’s an accountant, works downtown in one of the office towers. Got a home, a wife, and a kid. Two cars. Two credit cards maxed out. Sounds pretty normal to me. He’s got no criminal record."
"Meet Joe Normal," Parker muttered. "Sydney?"
Sydney pursed his lips, his focus completely on the photo of the witness taken at the scene. Memorizing the face.
As he turned the page, they got their first look at the victim, Alex Desmond. Parker’s breath caught in her chest. Froze solid. Even Sydney flinched.
"Yeah," Falco said. "I noticed the resemblance. But Desmond’s lived and worked here for fifteen years."
Except for the brown eyes and a few subtle differences in the shape of the chin and eyes, Miss Parker was looking at herself. Dead. She felt Sydney’s hand touch the small of her back gently, steadying her.
"There’s nothing more for us here, Miss Parker. Detective Falco, thank you for your courteous help." Sydney extended his hand; Falco took it, clearly wondering why the hell he was doing it. Parker didn’t push it. She followed Sydney out into the hall.
"Not a coincidence, was it," she said. Sydney kept walking, hands in his pockets, head bowed. "The resemblance."
"He didn’t kill her, Miss Parker." Sydney seemed utterly certain of it.
"Jesus, Syd, he hates me. He hates me for a hell of a lot of reasons, and most of them are even justified. What if – "
"No. There’s something very wrong here, Miss Parker. I think we need to speak to this witness. Urgently. I believe he may know who’s taken Jarod."
Jarod was a force of nature, he was Houdini and Kreskin rolled into one, and the idea there might be something outside the Centre dangerous to him was … unbelievable. And frightening. Almost as frightening as the idea he was dating copies of her.
"I think we must find him," Sydney continued softly. "Quickly."
Hell came to an end some time later – how long, Jarod didn’t know. He’d clung to his one truth, whispered it over and over again in the face of pain and drugs until he’d mistaken it for his name.
I didn’t kill Alex. He’d said that when he barely remembered who Alex was. For a blinding second he’d imagined she was Miss Parker, and then it was Miss Parker dead in his arms, coughing out blood, begging him to save her. And that had almost ended him.
But they hadn’t caught the slip, hadn’t exploited that tear in his self-control. Dr. Samuels had disappeared, after a while. Her assistants weren’t as efficient at pain and false reassurance.
He’d survived. It was something to be proud of, along with surviving Dr. Raines, surviving the Centre.
This isn’t the Centre. Jarod clung to that thought as the drugs gradually whispered out of his system, and his mind became his again. He was lying on a flat, hard cot in what looked like a medical facility, restrained as carefully as any violent mental patient. No one he could see in the room, though there were cameras in the corners.
Cameras. There were always cameras.
He closed his eyes and tried to think around the hazy remains of the Thiopental, but he couldn’t remember much of what had happened except in flashes. Alex – Alex had died. Blood on his hands. And …
And then nothing. Nothing but an overwhelming feeling of panic and guilt. That frightened him more than anything else. I didn’t kill her. But they’d so nearly made him believe that he had.
A door at the far end of the room opened and admitted the blonde-haired Dr. Samuels, and a man he didn’t think he’d seen before – muscular and as bald as Dr. Raines, with deep-set dark eyes in an impassive pale face. He looked past his visitors to the door swinging shut and timed its swing, listened to the click of the latch. A magnetic lock. There would be some sort of key mechanism on the other side, probably card-keyed. Both Samuels and the stranger had tags hanging from their shirts.
"Hello, Jarod," Dr. Samuels said. She reached over and took his pulse, timing with her wristwatch. "Feeling better?"
"Never better," he said. He was watching the other man, who was staring at him with appraising intensity. "Where are we?"
"Actually, we’re moving you to nicer quarters, Jarod," Dr. Samuels said, and reached down to unlock the wheels of the cot he was strapped to. She took a position at his head and started steering. The wheels made a hushed rubber whisper on tile as she guided it past curtained areas and toward a set of double doors that opened automatically at the other end of the room.
He concentrated on the hallway, making a map in his mind of the turns, the cameras, the doors and their markings. They went through three separate locked doors; either Samuels or the other man keyed them using the badges on their jackets, and five-digit numbers. The numbers were different for each of the doors.
Too much security. Too much. This place had been built to keep him in. Him and those like him.
Like the Centre.
He wouldn’t gain anything by talking, he decided. They knew him, knew his capabilities, or they’d have already given him the opportunity to escape. The restraints were heavy and would take time to remove, and there were too many obstacles.
"Here we are," Dr. Samuels said, and smiled. He watched the bald man, who was keying open the door. And hiding the code from view as he did it. The lock clicked open, and the door slid back with a pneumatic whisper.
On the other side was a home.
A long stretch of beige carpet, neutral walls hung with framed pictures. Couch, chair, bookcases, television set, stereo, doors leading to a kitchen and a bedroom. Jarod took it all in, and felt a deep bloom of fear.
This wasn’t a cell where they’d throw him while they worked to get some information from him. This was a residence. Permanent.
He was here for as long as he could stay alive, or until he could escape.
The bald man leaned over him and unfastened the restraints with quick, efficient jerks.
"My name is Prokofiev," he said – a cultured accent, barely a trace of Russian remaining. "Welcome home, Jarod. You’re now a valued employee of the Cooperative."
Dr. Samuels left the room to go into the kitchen. He heard water running.
"Might as well sit up," Prokofiev said. He sat down at ease on the couch and picked up a remote control. Lit up the television set and began to scan through the channels. "Digital satellite TV. Almost three hundred channels, including adult channels, of course. And pay per view. There is a computer but no outside access – no Internet or e-mail. There is an extensive library in the other room, but of course we will add to it as you request. The kitchen is fully stocked, as is the bathroom; there are even some changes of clothes, ordered based on what you were wearing when we – acquired you. We’ll provide you with catalogs to choose more. Is there anything else you think you’ll require?"
"A car?" Jarod said. He sat up and swung his legs off the gurney. Weak, but acceptable. He remembered running with Alex, just the two of them in the fog, wild and exciting –
Alex was dead. Killed by –
He couldn’t remember. Not by me. I won’t believe that.
"Alas, I can’t provide that to you, my friend. I urge you not to think too much about escape. You won’t escape. And you won’t succeed in creating allies. You will speak only to myself and Dr. Samuels. For myself, I am a friendly fellow, but I know where my duty lies. Dr. Samuels is not so – congenial. I would not antagonize her, if I were you. She would make your Miss Parker look like some Girl Scout, yes? There is no Dr. Sydney here to nurture you. No coddling." Prokofiev reached over and patted Jarod in a friendly way on the knee. "Welcome to your new home. Now we get to work."
"I’m not working for you," Jarod said. Dr. Samuels came out of the kitchen. She was carrying a tray with a teapot and three cups.
"My dear fellow, I understand your reluctance. I wish I could give you time to think about your decision." Prokofiev shook his head sadly. "I regret I cannot. Doctor?"
She put the tray down, reached in her pocket and took out a small device that looked like a cellular phone. She handed it to Prokofiev. He flipped it open and punched in two numbers – 7 and *, Jarod thought – and hit SEND.
And then agony flared through him, sent him falling to his knees, to the carpet, made him retch uncontrollably and gasp as his body spasmed. Coming from – from –
"It’s an implant," Prokofiev said in that same light, gentle voice. "Designed by the good doctor. A simple receiver that sends an electrical pulse through your nervous system in the same way that a high-level shock device would. It’s extremely painful, I am told. Although in laboratory experiments rats begin to seek the punishment after a fairly short period of time, and seek higher and higher levels of pain. But that’s a rat, eh? I wonder what it will do to you, on a regular basis? Do what we say, when we say, and you can avoid learning. You can live a happy, comfortable life here. Perhaps even a rewarding one, in the end."
The waves of agony were fading, leaving behind weakness so devastating Jarod wanted to weep. He couldn’t strike out at them, couldn’t do anything except wait. His muscles trembled with the effort of sitting up, his back against the brick fireplace. So it hadn’t been the drugs, or physical torture they’d used on him. It was something else.
First thing, he thought. Get the control device. He wasn’t going to be especially worried about how he went about it.
Dr. Samuels poured tea. She handed a cup to Prokofiev, who slid the control device into his coat pocket and took the tea with a smile.
"I won’t," Jarod whispered. "I won’t help you. I’m not for sale."
Prokofiev calmly stirred a lump of sugar into his tea.
"No," he agreed. "You’re bought and paid for, Jarod. Sold out by someone inside the Centre itself. I believe the name was Parker."
The idea was nauseating. He couldn’t believe it. Wouldn’t. Cold and focused as she was, Miss Parker would never betray the Centre. Never sell him into this hell.
"Tea?" Dr. Samuels asked.
He drew his knees up to his chest and sat, shivering, while they chatted and sipped.
There were a lot of reasons for staying at the hotel to wait for Jarod’s appearance. He would appear, Broots didn’t doubt that. If Miss Parker couldn’t hang on to him when she had him, nobody else could be that good. So all he had to was wait and be a hero – or not.
Jarod had done things for him. Jarod had saved his life, more than once. Maybe all he had to do was sit in full view, where Jarod would notice him and take the hint and go. After all, what had they lost? Another day or two?
"Daddy?" Debbie asked over the top of the lunch menu. They were sitting at the most conspicuous table, right at the front of the hotel restaurant, where anybody coming in the lobby door could see them. And be seen. "Why did you ask to sit here?"
"I’m supposed to be watching for Jarod, honey. Hey, how about chicken fingers? You like those, don’t you?"
She giggled. "Chicken don’t have fingers. It’s chicken strips. And I only like them with honey mustard sauce."
"Oh. I’ll bet they have that. And fries, right? You like fries."
"Dad-ee. I can read the menu."
"Sure, honey. I know." He was grinning like a fool. "Succotash?"
She made the most adorable face. She was going to be a heartbreaker, his Debbie. Like her –
He wished he hadn’t thought of that. He closed his eyes and pushed the memory back of the time he’d come home and found her passed out in the bedroom, overdosed and almost dead. Debbie had been just a baby then. He couldn’t help but think what could have happened if he hadn’t come home, if Debbie had lain there alone and crying as her mother died in the next room.
It wouldn’t have taken but a day or two for Debbie to die of thirst.
No. Debbie wasn’t going to be anything like her mother.
Debbie was happily reciting menu choices to him, now, reeling off things she knew he didn’t like – snails, they have snails, Daddy! – when he looked up and saw a familiar dark-haired man coming into the lobby.
Not Jarod. Mr. Lyle. Oh, Jesus. Lyle’s four sweepers swept in behind him, their cold eyes covering the corners and looking for threats. Lyle was smiling again.
And he was coming their way.
"Debbie," Broots whispered. She wasn’t paying attention. "Debbie! I want you to go to the bathroom. Now. When you come out, if I’m not here, you use this phone and call Miss Parker." He slid his cellular across to her. "Just hit redial, honey."
She nodded and put her menu down. Being the curious kid she was, she couldn’t run off without knowing what was going on. She turned around to see who was coming.
When she saw Lyle bearing down on their table, she went pale and slid off her chair immediately. Grabbed the phone and darted over to kiss Broots on the cheek.
"I love you, Daddy," she said. He hugged her.
"I love you, too. Scoot."
She did. He watched her head for the bathrooms, weaving around business-suited diners and uniformed waiters like a broken-field runner. Go, baby. Do what Daddy tells you.
Lyle stopped at the table as Broots picked up his menu again. "Fancy meeting you here, Broots. Where’s sis? Off getting herself waxed?"
He sat down in Debbie’s vacated chair.
"She’ll be here in a minute," Broots said. It didn’t sound as off-handed as he meant it to.
Lyle smiled. "Table for two, and you’re just going to ask my sister to pull up a chair? What about Sydney? Is he eating at the bar? No, I'll bet they’re not here at all. They left you to be on the lookout for Jarod with your pretty little junior spy, and they’re off chasing leads." He straightened his tie and picked up the menu. "What’s good?"
"The table’s not big enough for you and your sweepers, maybe you should – "
"Maybe you should shut up, Broots." Lyle dropped the menu, folded his hands on the tablecloth, and leaned forward. "You know, I’m really tired of this. I’m tired of chasing Jarod, I’m tired of fighting my sister and Sydney and you for every scrap of information. So it’s not going to happen anymore, is it? Because when I’m tired I can be very cranky. From now on you’re going to tell me everything before you pass it along to Miss Parker. Every phone call, every package, every clue your pet computer spits out. And you’re going to tell me where she is, and what she’s doing. You’re going to be a good little doggie, Broots. My doggie."
Oh, God, he was going to be sick. This was what Broots had been afraid of from the beginning. There was always somebody trying to get him to turn on Miss Parker, most of them malicious, but nobody had been really lethal. Not like Lyle. Nobody said no to Lyle, not even Miss Parker.
What did she expect him to do? He’d stood up to them before, stood up to Raines, even when they’d hurt him. But he’d known Raines wasn’t going to cut his head off and stick his body in a wood chipper just because it was a slow afternoon.
"Nothing to say?" Lyle asked. He glanced up at the waiter who’d approached. "What’s your most expensive champagne?"
The waiter looked stunned. Then pleased. "We have a very nice 1972 Dom – "
"Pour it. We’re celebrating." Lyle grinned like a skull. "Me and my doggie."
Broots stood up and walked away, heading for the bathroom. He really was going to be sick.
"I’ll put it on your bill," Lyle said.
Broots took Debbie and went out through the kitchen. In the narrow alley, surrounded by trash cans and the smell of rotting urine, he took Debbie’s hand in his left and with his right hit redial on the cell phone.
"Parker." The snap of her voice had never come as such a relief to him. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, then coughed when he realized it was a mistake. "Broots? Spit it out."
"Lyle’s at the hotel," he said. "What do you want me to do?"
There was a brief crackling pause. "Get Debbie away from him. Get to the airport, get home. You can’t do anything here. I’ll take care of Lyle."
She was really scared. That made it worse, somehow, because he’d been about to tell her what Lyle had said and now he couldn’t. If she’d laughed it off, told him to forget it, he might have been able to confess. Lyle wants me to spy on you. Now he couldn’t.
"Okay," he said weakly. "I’ll – I’ll see you in Blue Cove."
She snapped the connection, left him cold and alone. He walked faster with Debbie, heading for the false safety of the end of the alley, the hired comfort of a taxi.
Sweepers closed off the sunlight. A solid wall of muscle. He stopped, dragging Debbie to a stop with him. Heard Lyle clapping his hands behind him.
"Here, doggie," Lyle said softly. "You know, I hate it when they run away. Makes me want to chain them up and teach them a lesson. Jerry, why don’t you take the girl for some ice cream. Her dad and I need to have a little talk."
"No," Broots said. He picked Debbie up and held her close, felt the fine trembling in her muscles. "You’re not taking my daughter anywhere."
He backed up against the wall. Lyle walked around him, never taking his eyes off of Debbie. Don’t you look at her. Don’t you –
Suddenly, the pictures Jarod had sent of Lyle’s immigrant wife came back to him. She’d been very young, too. Debbie was just a kid, but in a couple of years – three or four –
Lyle’s wife had been beaten to death and dumped in the desert, and the Centre had covered it up. Boys will be boys. Oh, Jesus, don’t look at my daughter. Don’t you dare.
"Don’t make this ugly," Lyle said. "Give Jerry the girl, and we’ll take a little walk, Mr. Broots. I might break her arm pulling her away from you."
He couldn’t keep it in this time. It burst out of him in a raw snarl. "Don’t you even think of touching her."
Lyle’s eyebrows rose. He looked at Jerry, the giant wall of muscle standing behind him. "Doggie has teeth. Jerry. Break them."
Debbie pulled the cell phone out of Broots’ pocket and hit redial. For a second nobody moved, including Broots; he was too surprised. She put the phone to her ear. "Miss Parker! Miss Parker there’s a man here and he’s trying to take me away from my daddy and I don’t want to go! Miss Parker!"
Lyle reached out and took the phone. Hit END. Dropped it to the cobblestones. "You know, the two of you are getting on my nerves."
From behind them, from the doorway of the kitchen, Miss Parker said smoothly, "They get on my nerves too, but then they are my problem, not yours. Unless you want to make it your problem."
Sydney was with her, look grave and somehow larger than Broots remembered. And Sam was with them, too, as big as Jerry and twice as mean.
"Sis," Lyle said, and smiled. It didn’t look quite right. "I was just trying to buy little Debbie an ice cream."
"Were you." Miss Parker walked to him, cold as an ice sculpture, breathtakingly beautiful. She put an arm around his shoulders and half-turned him away from Broots and Debbie. "You know, I just got finished talking to a very nice police detective. I’m sure he’d be just fascinated that you wanted to take Debbie kicking and screaming. For ice cream."
Lyle didn’t say anything. In fact, nobody said anything. Miss Parker’s eyes were incandescent, shimmering with rage. In a voice almost too soft to hear, she said, "If I catch you near my people again, Lyle, I will kill you. No discussion. No mercy. I’ll put a bullet between your eyes and use your head for a punchbowl at the company Christmas party. If Daddy disowns me, so be it. At least I’ll have rid the world of you."
Lyle’s face closed up, but his eyes gave him away, too. No more pretty-boy shallow amusement. What was in those eyes wasn’t quite sane.
"You’re such a kidder," he said, and kissed her cheek before she could flinch away. And before she could strike out, he kept walking, drawing his goons with him like pilot fish after a shark. "Well, my work here is done. See you at home, sis."
They disappeared around the corner. Broots gulped foul air and held Debbie tight. Miss Parker slowly bent to pick up the cell phone from the pavement. She handed it back to Broots without looking at him.
"What the hell were you thinking, letting him get you alone like this?" she asked. "From now on, it’s war rules. Don’t be alone with him. Ever. Debbie, if you ever seen him or any of them near you, especially when you’re away from your dad, I want you to scream. Scream until somebody comes running."
"Y-yes ma’am," Debbie whispered. "Were they going to hurt us?"
Miss Parker seemed to see her for the first time. She blinked away whatever savage memory was in her eyes.
"No," she said. "I wouldn’t let them."
She caught Broots’ eyes for a second. He was more than a little shocked by what he saw there.
"Go home," she said.
Proceed to Chapter Two