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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.
Broots had reached the age where he didn't make friends easily. Okay, to be honest, he never had made friends easily – too shy, too easily wounded, too much of a freak during school and a geek afterward. But he'd had a few good friends, once upon a time. Only problem was, one by one they'd slipped away, off into the gray fog of their own lives.
Normal people made new friends, found them where they worked, if nothing else.
Broots worked at the Centre.
He supposed his daughter Debbie was closest to him – he sure enjoyed her company, and she seemed to enjoy his, but he had a spooky suspicion that wouldn't last past her thirteenth birthday, if that long. After that, it would be "Daaaaaaad!" and rolling eyes, black eye shadow and lipstick. And boys. Broots was consumed with this image for the space of fifteen horror-stricken seconds before he sighed and sucked down another mouthful of Centre coffee – say what you would about the godless corporate monster, they had good hazelnut, made fresh every two hours – and watched numbers scroll on his console. He was waiting for the routine search engines to finish and display their results, not that there had ever been any results to speak of. His stubbornness in running the programs was simply due to the fact that he'd written the algorithms, and he refused to believe Jarod could be that smart, day in, day out. He was human, he got tired, he got hungry, he cared about other people.
Which made Broots think again about friends. Miss Parker? He supposed, in a really twisted sense, he could regard her as a friend. A friend with a big gun and an uncertain temper. Sydney – who ever really knew about Sydney? A genuinely sweet old guy who'd tormented Jarod halfway to hell. Sydney's conscience was as placid as glass most of the time, which didn't say much for his mental health, in Broots' opinion. He had trouble sleeping nights, and he'd never attached electrodes to small children.
But, anyway, wasn't trust the real test of friendship? Did he trust Sydney, or Miss Parker? When push came to shove, could he trust them to stick with him even when everybody else turned against him?
A voice deep down inside, a cold, merciless little voice that thankfully didn't speak up very often, said, Jesus, Broots, you're a middle-aged geek with no friends in a job that's going to get you killed. Live with it.
That left him short of breath, as if he'd taken a step in the dark and discovered there was no floor in front of him. Just a long, long fall into nothing.
On the screen, the numbers scroll clunked to a stop.
2,317 possible matches, all of which he'd have to check out personally. None of which were going to lead him one step closer to Jarod.
God, he needed a life. Badly. At least the comforting work of analyzing records would keep him from thinking too hard about his own personal black epiphany. Broots sipped some coffee and broke off two sticks of a Kit Kat bar. Nothing like chocolately goodness to put things in perspective.
He called up the first record and started reading. Well, this one was good for the entertainment value – Jarod Parker (ha!) from Marion, Indiana, had just purchased a fully loaded steel-silver Caddy with pearl overcoat, gold accents, and the full leather interior package. More for nosy curiosity than any real suspicion, Broots called up credit card accounts and analyzed the activity. Clothes – shoes – more clothes – gas – big meals at expensive restaurants. Jarod Parker had a pager and a cell phone, neither one in his own name but traceable back to him.
Pimp, Broots decided. Or drug dealer. Only criminals could afford to rack up those kinds of credit card charges and pay off the card every month … and pay just under 10,000 cash for the Caddy, with the rest of it financed through a woman's name. Or Jarod Pretending to be a pimp or a drug dealer. Now that …
He heard the door open behind him, and the back of his neck went as cold as liquid nitrogen. He was alone just now – Sydney was off for the day, with some vague excuse of a dentist's appointment, and Miss Parker had gone to torture someone else for a while. Broots had just conceived the soul-chilling thought of Lyle sneaking up behind him with a knife when a voice from the doorway whispered, "Hello?"
He swiveled his chair. Of all of the people he'd expected to see there, half-crouched so as not to be glimpsed through the translucent office door, he'd never expected Angelo. He's out of his cage again, Broots thought, with a mixture of pity and exasperation. Angelo was a strongly built man, but his body language didn't threaten; he was always hunched in on himself, waiting for the next blow. The Centre's whipped dog. Miss Parker had always had a soft spot for him – treated him as gently as she treated anyone in the Centre, anyway – and Broots had come to like the weird lumbering creature himself. At a distance.
Angelo rarely came out in the public areas of the Centre, certainly not into the offices without being summoned. He looked as jumpy as a mouse in a cat house, and he clung to the shadows where normally Sydney would have been sitting. Only, of course, no Sydney today. And no Miss Parker, not for the last three hours. Broots hadn't even really noticed how quiet it was.
Broots deliberately pitched his voice low, trying to keep it unthreatening. "Angelo? What's wrong?"
Angelo had been staring at the floor between them – he didn't like to meet people's eyes – but now he glanced up. Broots was startled, always, by the eerie similarity of Angelo's blue eyes to Miss Parker's, and the force of will behind them. His mouth opened, but no words came. Angelo was brilliant, but his language abilities had been nearly burnt out of him by Dr. Raines, years ago; Raines' intent had been to take a gifted child and create a Pretender by means of aversion therapy. Or torture, depending on which dictionary you used. He'd created something, all right, but something even stranger and more unpredictable than Jarod. Angelo felt things. Whatever circuits Raines had fried in the boy's head had created a man who was not exactly a psychic, not exactly a sideshow freak, not exactly a Pretender. And something of all of them.
It wasn't hard for Broots to say, very gently, "Are you all right?"
Angelo looked frustrated, and shook his head.
"Okay, we're not talking about you. Uh, Miss Parker?" Angelo had always had some half-uneasy fascination with her, but not today; he shook his head impatiently again. "Jarod?"
Jarod had been Angelo's only real friend at the Centre. As far as Broots knew, he was still his friend, because even though Angelo's methods were incredibly reliable they malfunctioned when it came to locating Jarod. Broots had noticed, but he doubted anybody else had; they only saw the lumpy face, the vacant expression, and decided Angelo was too stupid to be effective.
Angelo's blue eyes lit up at the sound of Jarod's name. He nodded jerkily and searched for words.
"Hurts," he finally said. It was obviously the wrong word, and he shook his head in frustration. "Jarod sick. Can't go."
"Go?" Broots leaned forward in his chair. Angelo took a sudden step back. "Hey, it's okay, don't worry. Go where?"
Angelo's lips worked. He was more inarticulate than usual, as if something really bad had happened. Maybe Dr. Raines had happened – that disaster came on a regular basis for Angelo. The word search went on. He finally looked relieved and said, very quickly, "Oleander Spa, Augusta, Georgia."
"Why would Jarod go to a spa?" Broots asked blankly. Angelo made an inarticulate noise of frustration. "Wait, you're telling me Jarod can't go to this spa?"
"Sick," Angelo nodded.
"But you're not telling me where he is."
Angelo shook his head and looked away.
"Do you know where he is?"
Angelo stared in blank fascination at an unmoving stack of folders. When he wanted to, he could look as simple-minded as his weight in concrete.
Time for an alternate plan. "You said he was sick. Sick how?"
Angelo slowly brought up his right hand and touched it to his heart. After a hesitation, he moved it to rest on his forehead.
Head and heart. Broots remembered how Jarod had looked on the drive out of the Cooperative's compound where he'd been held prisoner, remembered how Jarod had looked even days later. Apart from the obvious physical trauma – he'd lost at least twenty pounds, maybe more, and he had cuts and bruises that overlapped each other like a relief map of agony – it had been the look in his eyes that had disturbed Broots the most. Jarod had always, even inside the Centre, seemed as strong and unpredictable and unstoppable as a tiger, but those dark eyes had been empty of anything but appalling pain.
Head and heart. Even months later, it was fully believable that Jarod's head and heart were sick with memories.
"Jarod can't go," Angelo said, a matter-of-fact pronouncement. As if that settled things, he reached for the door.
"Wait! Angelo, why – oh, hell, this makes no sense. So he can't go to Augusta, but you won't tell me where he is. Fine. Why tell me?"
Angelo's blues eyes widened, as if he couldn't believe Broots hadn't understood.
"You have to go," he said simply, and opened the door to leave.
Broots' jaw dropped. Angelo gave him one last glance, and Broots could have sworn there was a glint of satisfied humor in it. Angelo also said, as if he'd forgotten all about it, "E-mail."
The door swung shut.
"O …. kay," Broots said softly. "That was … "
Like Angelo, he couldn't locate the word. He turned back around to the keyboard. Lots and lots of records left to go through, but Angelo's labored words kept coming back to him. Jarod sick. Head and heart. What the hell business did they have chasing after him right now, anyway? Everybody expected Jarod to bounce back like a rubber ball, even from what was done to him in that outpost of hell run by the Cooperative. What Broots had been through there barely qualified as a love tap in comparison, but it still kept him up nights and left him tightly strung.
He was going to need to consult Sydney about this. Definitely.
E-mail. The way Angelo had dropped that last nugget was classic Jarod, leaving the punchline until last. Broots minimized his search program and called up e-mail.
The usual crap – announcements of new security initiatives – exhortations about saving money and cost-cutting, we all need to do our part – hmmm, the annual corporate holiday party looked interesting this year. Casino Night. He could hardly wait to see what kind of form-fitting dress Miss Parker came up with.
There was a message from Nobody. Broots had an intimate knowledge of the computer system and security protocols, and he knew very well that not only should it have been impossible to manipulate the internal e-mail system to send a message from Nobody, the security routers should have destroyed it on arrival. But there it was, sitting in his in-box, blinking.
He opened it. At this point, it didn't really matter if he read it or not – the electronic footprints, assuming there were any, were all over the carpet. Just by getting it he was tried and convicted.
It was a forward of a message from Dr. Raines to somebody Broots had never heard of, identified only as E.H.P.
As Broots read it, he went absolutely cold.
Jarod sick, Angelo had said. Jarod couldn't go to Augusta, Georgia.
Without Jarod's intervention, Sydney was going to die.
It wasn't normal. Parker kept repeating that to herself, though she knew it was useless – there was no normal in the Centre – and tried not to think too far ahead of what was happening right at the moment. She'd been on her way to her father's office to deliver her report to his temporary replacement Lyle when she'd been intercepted by three sweepers and escorted, politely but firmly, down a long corridor toward Executive Row. These were boardrooms, mostly. Visiting dignitary offices. Lots of steel and dark wood, delicate attractive secretaries who kept their letter openers sharp enough to shave with. She'd been here three times, and the memories weren't pleasant.
"Where's Lyle?" she asked. Sam, who she thought of as her own personal Doberman most of the time, was noncommittal. He avoided her eyes, too, and kept his hands close at his sides. Close to weapons. Nobody wanted to let her in on the joke. "Oh, come on, Sam, it's me!"
They came to an abrupt halt next to the Black Room – it was called something else on the nameplate, the Logan Room maybe, but the furniture was glossy black, the walls covered in thick black fabric, the carpet a mottled gray. Even the coasters on the black table were black, with an icy silver rim to set them off. All in all, a disturbing and oddly soulless piece of corporate decorating.
Lyle sat at the table, his head bowed. As always, he looked perfectly manicured, hair freshly trimmed, clothes crisp. Not an outward clue he was a complete psycho, her darling brother. DNA will tell. Her three sweepers fanned out around the room, and one of them closed the door behind them with a pneumatic hiss.
Next to Lyle was a very old man, far older than her father; he was dressed in a nubby gray sweater with black flecks, as if he'd picked it to complement the room. His hair was silver-white, still thick and full, cut into a military burr. Frost on the roof, she thought, but couldn't tell if there was any fire in him to counter that. His eyes were brown faded to an unnerving light amber, and there was a tremor in his age-creased hands, which rested on top of a large string-wrapped brown folder.
"Sit," he said. His voice sounded reedy and tired. Parker frowned, trying to place him; she knew most of the players in the Centre, but he was something new. She didn't like new things. She had enough of that with Jarod.
His eyes fixed on her, blazed with intensity that transcended the years between them. "I said sit, woman. Now!"
She wheeled back a cool leather chair and sat down in it. The leather sighed a protest and adjusted to her weight.
"You don't know me," the old man continued, "so I'll make this short and sweet. I've already talked to Mr. Lyle here, and he's got his marching orders. Shut up and take yours."
She opened her mouth, ready to fire back a fusillade of her own, but Lyle looked up and the look on his face stopped her. What the hell did Lyle fear?
"I have a special assignment for you," the old man continued. He gestured at one of the sweepers with a shaking finger, and the man practically vaulted forward to deliver an envelope to the table in front of Parker. "Follow these instructions precisely, Miss Parker. It will take a day of your time, after which you can go back to chasing your tail again without any interference by me."
She sat, frozen, unable to find a handhold on the sheer face of the problem. What the hell was going on? Why did Lyle look so – stepped on? He had a sheet of paper in front of him, too, and from the look on his face it instructed him to eat ground glass with an acid chaser. She reached for the paper inside and unfolded it, found a blue-jacketed plane ticket wrapped inside. Under it, a typed half-sheet of instructions.
She read it, looked up, first at Lyle, then at the old man, and said, "You're kidding."
Lyle looked stunned. The old man just looked mean.
"Missy, I've never kidded in my life," he snapped. She believed it. He was the kind of man who'd have blown up frogs with firecrackers and taken up a career in teaching solely to be able to smack kids with a hickory paddle. "You've got your instructions. I expect you to follow them."
"This is ridiculous! You want me to fly to Augusta, Georgia and check myself into a spa for a day? And do what?"
"Get a facial. Get a massage. Boff the towel boy, Miss Parker, I really couldn't care less, so long as you stay there and follow your brother's instructions to the letter."
"I'm in the middle of hunting Jarod," she snapped. "And believe me, I don't need a vacation, especially not with Lyle."
The old man's lips parted in what had the appearance of a smile, revealing unnaturally square teeth stained a uniform sickly brown. It wasn't a smile. If she'd been closer, she might have been bitten.
"You're doing what I tell you to do. Jarod will come to us," the old man said. "He'll come. He'll have no choice in the matter. And I'm giving you one last chance to prove you're not a total waste of salary and skin. Now get out. I'm tired."
He said it like a sick child, whining. She exchanged a look with Lyle, who had gotten to his feet as if the chair had an eject button.
"Well?" the old man snapped. "Are you deaf as well as incompetent? Out! Out out out!"
She stood up, taking her time about it, gathered up her paper and her plane ticket. She folded them up and laid them on the glossy black table, then put her hands palm down on the wood and leaned forward, far into his space. His eyes were eerie. Brilliant, crazy, nothing much human in them at all.
"Two things," she said. "First, don't ever order me around again, you evil old bastard."
He didn't blink. Behind her, the sweepers didn't move, though she could feel them tensing up. All it would take would be a flick of that trembling finger.
"Second," she continued, "Polident. A little mouthwash wouldn't hurt, either."
She took her hands off the table, picked up the paper, and saw that she'd left damp handprints on the wood. They misted away in seconds, but they been proof of her nerves, and he'd seen it.
The old man smiled at her, all brown teeth and glaring eyes.
"Bye bye, toots," he said.
The sweepers closed around her like a phalanx and marched her out.
"Creepy," she said conversationally to Sam, who gave her a mute look of please don't get me involved. Lyle, who apparently didn't rate his own phalanx, walked ahead of them. "Lyle! Who the hell is that senile old – "
He spun around, shoved Sam out of the way, and grabbed her by the throat. Squeezed very hard, hard enough she squeaked in surprise and felt fragile bone bend. Pain and shock robbed her of the instinct to fight back. Sam looked tormented. One Parker killing another, definitely not covered by his instructions.
"He's. Our. Grandfather," Lyle hissed.
The old man had Lyle's eyes, Parker realized. Lighter, bleached by age, but the same eyes, the same feral lack of humanity. The same instinct for blood.
Lyle abruptly let go. She sucked in air, coughed, massaged her throat, and watched him stalk away down the hallway. Sam and the other sweepers looked flustered and out of their element. Sam finally murmured, helpfully, "Ah, are you – "
"Fabulous." She shrugged off a guiding hand. Her voice sounded rough, but that might have been fury as much as physical damage. "Great. Peachy. Just get me back to my office, Sam."
"Ah – " It was impossible for him to look more uncomfortable; his Mafioso dark hair and eyes and stone face weren't made for it, but she got the point. "Well, we're not going back there."
They started hustling her again, turning the wrong way at the corridor.
"We're supposed to put you on the plane," Sam said.
"Without luggage?" she snapped. "Without a purse? Sam, I don't travel without makeup."
She needed have worried about it. It was, after all, the Centre, and they planned the overthrow of governments and the systematic poisoning of young minds. They could handle a crisis of packing.
A uniformed valet waited in the lobby with two matching Louis Vuitton suitcases. Her purse rested tamely at his feet, but there was no cell phone in it, just her wallet, makeup and backup clips for her gun.
Her grandfather. On her father's side, of course.
He'd suddenly taken charge of capturing Jarod, and she couldn't help the sick feeling that gave her.
Blood. The taste of blood in his mouth … hot copper on his tongue … blood all over him. There was a woman in his arms, dark hair, wide hazel eyes that searched his face desperately. She couldn't breathe. Blood pumped from her side, from her back, from her mouth when she opened it to scream.
Blood he couldn't stop.
Jarod jerked himself awake, one convulsive shudder, and opened his eyes on darkness. Silence. A black room, disorientation, disconnection, dead, she's dead and I – did I kill her? Oh God –
He reached out, half afraid there wouldn't be a light there, half afraid he'd find his hands tied down and feel the hot flush of chemicals dumping into his veins again. Or the blue-white agony of an electric shock at the back of his head, triggering a convulsion.
He still tasted blood. His own. He'd bit his lip.
His fingertips touched cool metal, found a switch and pressed it. Immediate, blazing light, a golden blanket of peace that wiped away the darkness and made the howling animal that lived inside of him fall silent for just a moment.
He sat up, feeling the sheets drag at his damp skin. He'd sweated heavily, thrashed the covers into a sodden mess. The cool night air whispered over him, made him shiver again from the chill. He stared blankly at the plain white wall opposite the bed, then moved his gaze to the door of the room. A framed white plaque hung there to tell him the room rates. A hotel. He was in a hotel, anonymous and safe, one of a hundred other faceless strangers buying beds in this long corridor.
The nausea came on him without much warning; he made it to the bathroom in time, then washed his face two or three times in stinging cold water when it was over. He smelled like a wild animal, rank with fear. No way of knowing what time it was; the heavy curtains kept out daylight and moonlight with equal ease. His life had ceased to have any relation to those things, anyway.
It was always dark inside him. Always. He turned out the lights again to match it.
A long, hot shower took care of the sweat, but he couldn't lay down again on the fear-soaked sheets. He dragged the neutral, bland bedspread off to the carpet, arranged a pillow, and as he had for so many nights now, made himself a nest in the corner.
I can't live like this. The thought came to him while he stared at the ceiling, listening to the sound of vibrations through the walls. People were stirring around him, it must be nearly dawn. I have to face this. I have to win.
But he had no idea how to do begin the fight.
Sydney. No, he couldn't. Sydney had been compromised enough, and there was nothing Sydney could do for him over the phone that he couldn't do himself. But he longed to hear Sydney's voice, hear the concern and gentle understanding in his voice, That voice was the only paternal one he could remember, Sydney's face the one that still came to him when he thought the word father. Sydney had been his mentor for too long to lose that place now, even in the face of what he knew to be true.
But Sydney couldn't help him. He had to help himself. Even Sydney himself had said so, on a cool night in Texas a blur of months past. I will do whatever I can, Jarod, but healing has to come from within.
He was shivering again. He pulled the blankets tighter, braced his shoulders against the corner, and tried to regulate his breathing. Slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He'd studied post-traumatic stress, read everything he could find on the subject from tabloid speculation to scholarly journals. None of it made any difference when he was trapped inside with the screaming monster, terrified of darkness and people and his own dreams.
When he closed his eyes he had a flash of memory, of warm honey-colored light, of a wooden cabin surrounded by trees high in the mountains, of the heat of a woman's skin against his in the night, her body curled against his. A smell in her hair like warm oranges, something he'd treasured with every slow breath.
Scars on her skin, the marks of knives and beatings and hideous abuse. She'd told him, after. Told him about abduction, rape, torture that had gone on for months.
About coming through the horror and learning to live.
Nia. But he'd forfeited the right to ask any comfort of her when he'd held her in his arms and told her he had to leave her. It had been the only safe thing to do, the only way to protect her, but he'd abandoned her.
He'd abandoned his own unborn son.
It was the thought he'd been so carefully avoiding, and now it hit home with a vengeance. I abandoned my son. I've never even held him in my arms.
I don't know his name.
He had reasons, but the reasons didn't matter. The reasons never mattered to a child.
Jarod had thought that there were no darker shades of despair, but here it was, draped on him like smothering black velvet. The one thing that had been so very precious to him – family – had been offered to him, and he'd turned his back on it. To – what? Play his arrogant games with the Centre? His psychosexual charades with Miss Parker?
I try to help people, some part of him whispered. If I'd stayed we would have been caught. My son would have been put in the Centre. What if Lyle had gotten his hands on Nia, on the baby?
If was too fragile a handhold to save him from falling.
He hardly heard the click of the hotel door lock engaging, but with the cold breath of disturbed air on his skin he remembered – relived – the terror of knowing someone was coming for him, with drugs and knives and hideous plans. He reacted violently, throwing himself back into the corner, his dark-adapted eyes focusing on the woman who stood in the warm honey-gold light coming from the hallway. She had shoulder-length dark hair, and she carried a sleek metal suitcase.
For a wild, ungovernable second he thought, Miss Parker?, and then she reached out and turned on the light switch beside the door.
Dark sleek hair, smooth as warm satin. Golden-brown skin, dark eyes that held peace and pain together.
His heart lurched at the sight of her.
"Jarod," Nia Pedron whispered, and closed the door. She put the suitcase down and walked to him, unafraid even though he couldn't have promised how he would react to human touch.
When her arms folded around him, embracing him into warmth, he moaned and almost collapsed against her. She smelled so – so real, warm oranges and hints of cinnamon and soap, a feminine smell that had no artificiality to it. It was part of her, the way her smile was part of her. She held him tight, stronger than he remembered, and eased him down to his knees in the nest of pillows and bedspread.
"Nia," he finally whispered in return, his head on her shoulder, his face veiled in the warm silk of her hair. "It's not safe – "
"No," she interrupted. "Don't. This is my decision, my risk, not yours. Don't try to protect me, you can't even protect yourself."
The painful joy of seeing her had thrown him off balance, and it wasn't for several more skin-warm moments that he remembered he'd only thought of calling her, had never actually done so. He pulled away, put his hands on the warm curve of her shoulders, and said, "Nia, how did you know where to find me?"
"Your friend called me," she said. "He told me where you were."
"Friend?" Jarod could hardly force the word out through the sudden pressure of fear. He had no friends. None who could have done this.
"He said his name was Timmy," she said. Her voice was trembling, and so were her hands as they touched his face, traced the too-prominent bones. "He said you'd know."
Timmy was the name of a boy who'd been destroyed by the Centre, stripped of personality and individuality, and remade into something they thought they could control. The Centre had renamed him Angelo.
Jarod let out a held breath and felt the tension leak away. No use in wondering how Angelo had known where to find her, or what else he knew. Angelo would tell what he judged right, to whom he judged worthy. And even Jarod couldn't always predict him.
"Someone hurt you," Nia said. Her eyes were pools of mirrored pain. "Hurt you in a way you've never been hurt before. That's what he said."
"I can't – I can't talk about this. Not now."
"Not ever, if you continue as you have. How long has it been that you slept in peace? Months? Some things don't go away, Jarod, they invade us like disease and poison us from within. You can only drain the poison by letting it out."
She knew – absolutely knew – what she was talking about. He remembered her lying in the dark with him, their bodies still sealed together, telling him the terrible pain of being a child in the hands of monsters, of never knowing from one day to the next whether she would live or die, of giving her body and soul to them to survive another day. She knew.
Angelo had sent her. What an unexpected, painful, beautiful thing to do.
His voice felt rough in his throat as he said, "I couldn't stop them. I couldn't stop them from doing anything they wanted. I told them what they wanted to know so that the pain would stop. Nia, I couldn't stop them. My whole life I've been in control, and now – "
Her hand touched his bare back, traced soothing lines down the trembling muscles. He craved her touch, and dreaded what his body might remember of touches that weren't so gentle. After a moment, she pulled away from him, to a safe and lonely distance, and said, "Did you think you were such a god that nothing could ever touch you? You've seen the terrible things people can do, and you never believed they could be done to you. But they can, Jarod. That only makes you human. Maybe this is God's way of reminding you that you're just a man."
"He could have dropped me a note," Jarod said, and managed a crooked smile. He was rewarded with one of hers, a rare glimpse of humor and joy in a face that had known too little of either. The smile grew, ignited into a full grin.
"The baby's so like you," she said. Jarod felt a surge of hot electricity run down his spine. "Curious, innocent, so very gentle. His name is Luís, you know."
"My – " His voice failed. He couldn't even say the word. Nia nodded.
"Son," she finished for him. "Your son, Jarod." She watched his face carefully, a hint of anxiety in the calm pool of her eyes. Was it possible that she thought he didn't want a son? That he had walked away out of choice?
His heart broke at the thought. He reached out to her, put his hand on her cheek, and tried to pour his answer through that fragile bridge of flesh.
"Thank you," he whispered. Tears stung his eyes. She smiled and touched his face in turn.
"No," she said, "thank you. He's the heart of my life, Jarod. And I hope someday he can also be yours."
They stared into each others' eyes for a moment in silence, and Jarod finally felt a smile drift slowly up from some lost place in his soul and, for the first time in months, touch his lips.
"I hope you brought pictures," he said. She reached for her bag.
"I hope you have several days. I brought everything."
Jarod continued to smile, cherishing the warm glow that had ignited somewhere in the black cinder of his heart. "I've got nothing else on my schedule."
It was not the first time the Centre had gone out of its mind but it was, Sydney thought, the most spectacular example. And when the world went mad, all its poor residents could do was try to make accommodations for themselves, and go a little mad too. He'd lived through the War, seen and survived horrors that made anything the Centre had done forgivable excess. He'd allowed it to become his shelter and his home.
But now it had turned on him, like a rabid dog, with no reason at all.
I'll survive this, he thought. I've survived far worse. Yes, but he'd been young then, in his strength, with a vast stretch of life to want to save. Was it worth so much pain, the short journey left to him? When did you become a coward, Sydney?
He'd always been something of a coward, physically. He'd protected himself not with his fists but with his mind, talking himself out of danger whenever possible. Knowing this, of course, the first thing Sam had done in taking him prisoner at his home was to gag him. In time, Sydney could have played on Sam's uneasiness at the job he was doing, and might have won concessions or even freedom. Without words, he was completely helpless.
Plastic handcuffs circled his wrists. Sam had given him one kindness, securing his hands in front of him rather than behind, probably knowing how intensely uncomfortable it was to sit for long in that position. His ankles were also shackled. Someone had been afraid that he'd learned lockpicking from Jarod, so his restraints were all non-mechanical. If he'd been Houdini, he might have broken out of them with a carefully hidden razor blade, but he was not Houdini, and Sydney was not in the habit of carrying razor blades in his coat pockets. At least Sam allowed me to dress, he thought. And in the same heartbeat he remembered the Jews packing their suitcases for the trains that would take them to their final solution. The memory left him chilled and weak.
They'd put him not in a boxcar, but on a Centre jet. No one had spoken, and of course he couldn't ask; the view he'd had when they'd led him out of the plane and down to a waiting car had shown him a landscape that could have been anywhere. Warm, humid, but otherwise not remarkable. The limousine had blacked-out windows, adding to his disorientation. After a twenty-minute drive, during which no one spoke and a radio played softly in the background, they'd arrived.
It was a large establishment – a hotel of some kind, he thought – and they'd hustled him through a back entrance, down a long featureless corridor, to the room where he now sat. A very quiet room, soundproofed, he thought, with peach-colored walls and gray carpet. It had a bed, a bureau, a dark television set, all the amenities of a hotel room but none of the cheap dime-store charm. Everything was expensively unique. The last thing the sweeper team had done, after checking the room carefully, was to cut the bindings on his wrists and ankles, and take off his gag.
Then they'd left him quite completely alone.
Insanity, Sydney marveled. How does one go about treating corporate insanity? Difficult to institutionalize. Even more difficult to medicate. They'd kidnapped him and flown him two hours on a corporate jet to book him into a luxury hotel room without windows.
After the first three hours of silence, boredom set in. There were no books, no magazines, and the television did not work when he experimentally tried it. After writing a few pages of notes longhand on a sheet of cream-colored paper with an unmonogrammed pen, he at last took off his shoes and lay down on the bed to sleep, if sleep would come.
Much to his surprise, it did. He was awakened some unknown time later by a storm of noise that at first his panicked mind interpreted as a crowd shouting for his blood, and then as electronic distortion.
He sat up on the bed as the television switched through a blur of channels. Cartoons danced. Cars wrecked. Sirens wailed. Bullets flew.
The picture suddenly stopped on a close-up of a face he knew. Sydney felt himself go weak and ridiculously unprepared. Caught asleep and unshaved by fate.
Elahu Howard Parker stared out of the television screen at him, very old, skin as fragile and pale as crepe paper, but with ancient menace in his faded eyes. An evil old bastard, Sydney remembered someone saying many years ago. Ah, yes, that had been the younger Mr. Parker – Miss Parker's father.
"Sydney," the ancient face said. My God, how old was he? Over ninety, certainly. "Dear old Sydney. Brings back all kinds of memories seeing you, Doctor Fraud. Miss me?"
He waited for an answer. Sydney realized that there was a camera built into the television casing, a blank glass eye just above the screen.
"Well, speak up while you've still got a tongue," Parker snapped impatiently.
"An unexpected pleasure, Dr. Parker," Sydney said. "I don't believe we've talked since the death of your daughter-in-law Catherine."
"Disloyal bitch," the old man muttered. "You would have to bring her up. Well, I didn't have any reason to talk to you until now. You were doing a fair job with Jarod, until you let him get away – but you've done a piss-poor job of getting him back. Why is that, Sydney? All the years I've known you, I never knew you to be incompetent."
It was a long speech for him; at the end, Dr. Parker paused and sucked down deep, trembling breaths. Emphysema, Sydney thought. Or just old age, perhaps.
"Unfortunately, we did our job with Jarod too well," Sydney replied. "We taught him to adapt to any situation, and he's done exactly that. He's impossible to predict, and extremely difficult to track. I think that, under the circumstances, we've done the best anyone could do."
"You and my granddaughter," Dr. Parker said, with a sneer of distaste. "Quite a tasty little bit of vinegar. Tell me, you think Jarod's still fixed on her?"
"I don't know," Sydney said honestly. "At one time I thought – I thought he might love her. He's had too much experience of the outside world now – "
"You mean outside women. The boy's too charming for his own good."
" – to still be completely fixed on Miss Parker. Though I suspect she still means quite a lot to him."
"Really?" Sydney stayed silent. He'd read the sudden gleam in Dr. Parker's eyes, the eager shift of posture. "Hypothetically speaking, if time was running out, and the two of you were going to be killed, which of you would Jarod save first? You, or my granddaughter? Come, now, give me your professional opinion. Clock's ticking."
Ah. Sydney had been wondering when this rather simple-minded, straightforwardly brutal solution might occur to the leadership of the Centre. A solution worthy of the Nazis at their finest. He could, even now, choose the way of the coward and suggest that Jarod held Miss Parker in far higher esteem, that he'd do anything to stop her pain and save her life. And that might well be true. It would put him on the other side of the equation, the side that made the decisions and carried out the actions, rather than the side that was acted upon. The side of the collaborator, a voice whispered, not quite his own. Have you been among them so long you've forgotten?
His hesitation was a matter of seconds, not the minutes it felt. He took a deep breath and said, "Whatever feelings he has for Miss Parker, I have always been his father figure. Miss Parker would be far less effective as bait."
"Dangle her naked in the water, you'd get a bite or two, I reckon," her grandfather said, "but family is family. Well, you made your bed, Sydney. If Jarod shows up within twenty-four hours, and if we're able to capture him, you live. If not – "
"You'll kill me," Sydney said. "I suppose in a particularly brutal manner."
"Nothing so vulgar. A bullet in the head will do fine." Dr. Parker's glassy eyes stared at him, vague and sickeningly intent. "Jarod needs to know that we're committed to stay the course. If he lets you die, the clock starts running on the girl. Eventually, he'll give in. He'll have to. You made him that way."
"Yes," Sydney said. "I did. Will you really put a bullet in your own granddaughter's head, Dr. Parker? Just to salve your own vanity?"
The television abruptly switched off, leaving a fading electronic hum and the acid aftertaste of evil. Dr. Parker, Sydney thought, and pushed back a stream of horrible memories, things he'd done that he desperately regretted. At the time, fresh from the horrors of war and with his brother to think of, he'd agreed to anything. Everything. And Dr. Parker had asked so much. You've been gone so long. Why come back now, you evil old man?
It seemed he was going to have to rely on Jarod to save his life. He was, he reflected, hardly the first to do so.
He had no way of knowing that Jarod couldn't.
It was Broots' turn to venture into strange territory, to sublevels where he had no business going. Especially alone. He tried to look purposeful and bored, and that seemed to work for the guards, who weren't exactly fascinated themselves. He had to mention Miss Parker's name a couple of times, but no one tried to double-check.
And, just like that, he was in Weirdo Territory.
Angelo was alone, for a change – no Dr. Raines wheezing in the background. He was watching television, or what passed for it in the Centre – a carefully chosen program of black and white reruns. I Love Lucy was a perennial favorite. Angelo sat on a lumpy-looking green sofa, his knees drawn up to his chest, and stared at the screen with an expression so blank Broots wondered if his mind had finally gone on permanent vertical hold.
"Angelo?" Broots asked. Slowly, life came back into the blank, doughy face, and his head turned. Blank, fiercely intense blue eyes. Definitely a presence there, though it didn't really seem human sometimes.
"Hello," Angelo said. He said it automatically, the way they'd taught him, without any feeling or welcome. His head turned back to the screen. "Lucy Ricardo."
"Yeah, Lucy's great," Broots agreed. He cast nervous glances into the cavernous gray spaces – nobody around. Cameras gleamed coolly in the corners. He sat down on the couch beside Angelo and watched Lucy try to keep up with the candy conveyor belt for a few seconds. Her comic desperation didn't trigger anything in Angelo at all. "So. How are you doing?"
Angelo's eyebrows rose, but he didn't say anything. Broots leaned in closer.
"I'm worried about Sydney," Broots whispered. "Can you – "
Angelo's hand suddenly closed over his, crushingly strong, and Broots winced to a stop. Angelo's face never changed, his blue empty eyes never blinked. He continued to watch Lucy stuff chocolates in her mouth without even a flicker of emotion.
"Watch," Angelo murmured. "Funny."
He let go. Broots pulled his hand back out of grabbing range and sank back to the lumpy cushions. Seconds were ticking away for Sydney, but here he was, stuck on a couch with Angelo watching I Love Lucy. There was something about that that made an odd kind of sense to him, at least in terms of the Centre.
The TV flickered and cut out. All of a sudden, so did the lights. The room was black, midnight black, so dark Broots was afraid to breathe it in, and out of the blackness Angelo's hand seized his arm and dragged him off the couch, into formless blind nothingness. Broots stopped himself from yelping with difficulty, tried putting out his hands to feel his way but Angelo just tugged harder. Fine. Let Kreskin navigate.
A scrape of metal, fast uneven breathing. Angelo pushed him forward, and Broots almost fell as his knees caught the edge of cool metal.
A duct. Angelo was pushing him into a duct. He climbed.
Angelo scraped metal again, grunted in satisfaction, and shoved past Broots in the dark. He smelled freshly showered, with an odor of mint. Somebody – Sydney? – had once said that Angelo showered constantly, as if he was trying to scrub something out of his soul. Maybe the hands of Dr. Raines, that had ripped away the little boy Timmy and fumbled around inside to reshape what was left.
"Follow," Angelo whispered. His voice was eerily distorted in the dark. Broots found himself gasping for breath, no sense of up or down or sideways, just the cool pressure of metal at his hands and knees giving him any frame of reference at all.
Behind him, lights clicked on. Ventilation suddenly breathed through the ducts, as if the Centre had taken a gulp of fresh air. The light spilled through slitted grillwork behind Broots and showed him Angelo's rapidly disappearing figure.
Which turned and gestured urgently at him. "Follow!"
He had no choice.
After a cramped eternity of crawling, they came out into a big round room, some kind of central airflow. It stretched up into the dark for dozens of stories, gray fading to black fading to nothing. Broots slid out of the duct and stood for a few seconds, staring up, his sweat cooling in the constant breathing of the Centre. Like being inside the beast, he thought, and said out loud, "Wow."
It echoed, swirled up in a batflight of echoes. Angelo made a frantic flapping gesture, his eyes wide. Broots caught the clue. Quiet. He nodded and put a finger over his lips. Angelo tugged him onward, into another duct the moaned and popped under his weight. A shorter trip this time, ending in a dimly lit square room.
Angelo's home away from home. It was furnished with scavenged pieces of furniture, most of it broken and discarded. The floor was a maze of stolen blankets, rugs, towels, sheets, clothes, gym bags, personal items lifted from every corner of the Centre.
And a computer. Angelo slid into the ancient secretary's chair and reached down to flick switches. The monitor – a green phosphor model twenty years out of date – slowly warmed up and showed them a DOS startup. The box itself, Broots noted, was brand new, lifted straight from inventory, with stickers touting the wonders of Pentium III still intact.
Working so quickly Broots had trouble following the keystrokes, Angelo hacked into the Centre mainframe. He had most of it set up already, Broots realized, in executable programs. He was in, invisibly, undetectably, with an ease that made Broots dizzy.
When he wasn't required to talk, Angelo was every bit as brilliant as Jarod.
"I need to find Jarod," Broots said. Angelo's fingers continued to move, commands flying by too fast to read. "Angelo – they're setting him up. If he doesn't show, Sydney's going to die. Don't you know that?"
Angelo's fingers paused for a second, then resumed.
"Jarod would want to help. Are you saying he's not going to know about this?"
"Jarod feels sick," Angelo said. "Can't help Sydney."
"Didn't tell Jarod," Angelo said.
"Of course they did, they sent out messages through every channel using standard Centre codes they know Jarod already broke – " Broots stopped. Angelo was making sure Jarod was out of it. How much control did Freak Boy have over events in the Centre, anyway? Broots remembered all those false leads, near-misses with Jarod. How many were Jarod's doing, how many Angelo's? No wonder Sydney and Miss Parker had been misled. Two minds at work, not one. All the messages the Centre was planning to send to Jarod were going to be rerouted, thanks to Angelo's intervention, right back here.
A countdown to Sydney's death Jarod would never know about.
"Don't you think he'd want to know?" Broots asked, trying to sound reasonable instead of panicked. "He and Sydney – they're pretty close. He'd want the chance to save him."
Angelo sighed and sat back, cracking his knuckles. Turned the ancient typing chair with a squeak of old wheels to look at Broots.
"No," he said, very distinctly. "Jarod can't. Too sick. Too hurt. If he tries, Sydney dies, Jarod dies too. Everybody dies."
"Miss Parker – "
Angelo flinched. Looked briefly very sad.
"Daughter can't help," he said. "Daughter with bad men. Only us."
"Us ain't much, Angelo."
Blue eyes cut briefly up to meet his, amused.
"All there is," he said, and turned back to the keyboard.
Boring flight, followed by the kind of sweaty heat that Miss Parker liked only in saunas. Augusta, Georgia. Dear God. Who had she been in a previous life to deserve this, Genghis Khan? Mengele? Liberace?
The single consolation she could derive was that Lyle looked positively constipated. The sweeper team with them – the sweeper platoon – didn't seem any happier. They were all carrying suitcases she suspected held fewer pairs of underwear than automatic weapons. It took three stretch limos to accommodate the crowd.
On the road, mercifully frozen numb by the air conditioning, Parker stared out the window at the undulating green countryside. A spa. She had nothing against spas, not at all, but the Centre didn't exactly sponsor employee retreats. And meeting her grandfather had left her feeling filthy and manipulated. Maybe a spell in a hot tub was a good idea.
"What's all of this about?" she asked Lyle at last. They shared the limo with only two others, Sam and some dead-eyed attack dog Lyle had enlisted to his side. More sweepers were crowded into the driver's area, but the glass was up and she could pretend it was private.
"Birdcage," Lyle said. He took a gun out of his coat and checked the clip. He noticed her stare and said, "Don't worry. Safety's on."
She didn't like the look in his eyes. Fear and something else, ugly anticipation. When he got his hands on Jarod, it wasn't going to be pretty. None of my business. But it was, of course. Family business.
"You're behind this," she said. Lyle shrugged. "What the hell is Birdcage?"
It was exactly the tone she hated most out of him, smug and leering. She would have given anything – anything – for the DNA results to have shown Lyle wasn't kith and kin to her. Better that mongoloid Angelo than this. Better Jarod, for all the complications that would bring up. Anyone except this leering GQ psycho. God, Mom, I'm glad you never lived to know.
"No harm in telling you, I suppose," Lyle continued, since he'd made his point. "We did a little basic psychological analysis about what could possibly induce Jarod to give himself up."
"Easy," she purred cruelly. "Give him the chance to shoot you. Of course, he'd have to take a number, there'd be quite a line."
"Starting with you, sister dear. Jarod's a bleeding heart. He cares about everything and everybody. Threaten the innocent, he's there. Defraud the helpless, he rushes to the rescue. But what really drives him, sis? I think you know."
"Family." He said it with salacious relish. "Unlike most of us, who wish we'd never met our kinfolks – can I hear an amen, sister? – Jarod just can't seem to reconcile himself to the fact that families are dysfunctional. He loves his father, his mother, his sister, his brother – oh, wait, scratch the brother. Too bad."
"Bastard," Parker snapped. She'd had no love for Jarod's brother Kyle, but she'd never have gunned him down in cold blood. Watching it happen – watching Lyle do it and seeing the terrible anguish it caused Jarod – had been one of the most chilling, painful moments of her life.
"Careful, sis, your sympathies are showing. Speaking of that … Jarod was around the Centre a long time. You grew up together. Little girl alone, little boy trapped … Jarod was around until he was an adult. So, come clean. You and Jarod, right? A little hot teenage groping in a broom closet, a quickie in a corner – so, how was he? I'm guessing he was a little quick on the trigger. Inexperience, you know."
She forced herself not to play the game, turned her head and stared blindly out at the passing green blur. Silence stretched. Lyle, deprived of a target, finally got back to his main subject.
"Jarod has such a strong sense of family, we decided to use that."
It startled her enough to make her look at him again. "You have – someone from Jarod's family?"
"Next best thing," Lyle said. He showed her perfect teeth in a perfect smile. "We have his surrogate father."
She hadn't seen it coming. Not for a second. She should have known that when the Centre got desperate, it would begin to eat its own.
"You've always had Sydney," she managed to say coolly. "Do you really expect me to believe you're going to just kill him?"
He flashed her a quick version of the leering smile. "No. You're going to kill him for me."
Jarod was dreaming of blood and the hot white pain of electroshock when he woke, a snap like the world cracking in half, his heart racing in terror and rage. He struck out in the dark, would have hurt, would have killed if he could have touched skin and bone. Anything to make it stop hurting, make them leave him alone.
A light flicked on halfway across the room, and he blinked to focus. He tried to say her name and couldn't, couldn't force it past the sudden concrete-thick blockage in his throat. Nia came to him and folded him in her arms. He couldn't think, couldn't think of anything except the warmth of her body, the gentleness of her touch.
The screaming in his head died away.
"I would have hurt you," he said hoarsely.
"I know about the night terrors," she said. "I know you, too. This fear is not you."
You don't know me, he thought, but that was a lie. She knew. She had always known, from the first moment she'd ever seen him. She'd given him a look that had made him feel naked and, oddly, more alive than he'd ever been. You have an old soul, she had said to him once in the night, her voice thick with tears. Old with pain, but bright with courage.
Except he'd lost the courage. He didn't know how to begin to find it again.
Nia's skin warmed the chill out of him, left him bonelessly relaxed. He lay in a half-dreaming state, lulled by the gentle, persistent touch of her hands.
And then, suddenly, he was not relaxed at all. The suddenness of his body's response to her left him short of breath and deeply embarrassed. She hadn't shown any sexual interest in him at all, only kindness, and he didn't want to insult her. Or – the thought turned him cold – drive her away.
She noticed, of course. It would have been impossible for her not to, with just a sheet between them. She said nothing, but her cheeks blushed golden-bronze, and the motion of her hands slowed and became something else, something sensual and deliberate.
"Nia – " he whispered. She leaned forward and kissed him, her lips rich and full as cherries. The solid heat in him forged itself into glowing iron. When she pulled away he reached for her, tracing the soft skin of her face, her neck, all the skin he could reach. He was wild with needing her.
She was wearing a thin cotton t-shirt. He pulled her down again, on top of him this time, put his mouth to the place where the hard points of her nipples jutted. He sucked through the fabric, tasting her, agonizing with the need to drink her in, and heard the soft flutter of a moan. Her hands stroked his hair, held him at her breast until she finally reached down and pulled up the hem of the t-shirt.
Golden skin, still marked faintly with scars. He traced the map of pain up her sides, to the ripe full heaviness of her breasts. Her nipples were larger than he remembered, more sharply pointed to his touch. Oh, God, she was beautiful, she was every dream of beauty.
Am I doing this with her, or to her? He didn't want to use her, no matter how desperate he was. He met her dark eyes and formed the question, but before he managed to say it, she put her hand over his lips and whispered, "Something we both need, cara mia. Don't be ashamed to need it. Sometimes it's the best way to heal our souls."
She moved the sheet from between them, and their bodies flowed together like spilled wine, warm and golden and agonizingly good.
The mother of my child, his mind whispered, amazed. That beautiful, smiling boy whose picture still lay on the nightstand.
He cried out into her mouth as her heat came down around him, and for the first time since he'd woken in the hands of the Cooperative, his soul let go of the memory of pain.
He slept as the clock ticked away on Sydney's life.
"Look, we can't do this," Broots protested. "I'm just a guy who's good with computers, and you're – you're – "
"Angelo," Angelo said helpfully. His voice came back distorted and ghostly.
"Right," Broots sighed. "Thanks for the reminder."
They were traveling through a part of the Centre Broots had never seen before, some sort of storage complex abandoned for so long that the security cameras had been removed. Just empty, dust-filled brackets to show where they'd once been. The floor was criss-crossed with footprints, all of them matching Angelo's sneakers. Great. Now I'm leaving identifiable footprints. Next week on "America's Most Wanted …"
"Angelo, you and me, we're – what? – pinch-hitting for Jarod to save Sydney? Does this sound remotely possible to you?" Broots knew that if he concentrated hard enough he'd think of some perfectly reasonable reasons why Sydney didn't need saving. Why it really wasn't any of his business. "Hey, Angelo! Wait!"
He'd kept his voice soft, but the urgency in it halted Angelo in his tracks. Broots fought back a sneeze and focused his flashlight on something lying in the shadows, a bundle of rags. Dust flew up in a golden cloud as he stepped toward it.
"No," Angelo said. "She's sleeping."
But he looked anyway. Dust motes flew up golden, and behind that veil he saw bones, shadowed eye sockets, hands –
"Jesus," he whispered. And then made more sense of what he was seeing. "Oh God."
It was the skeleton of a woman, huddled in the corner with her back pressed to the wall. And in her arms – still cradled in her arms, a blanket-wrapped skeleton of a baby.
"Come," Angelo whispered. "Lady very sad. She got lost on the way out."
"We should – we should do something. Bury her or something."
Angelo came back to tug on his arm. "It's okay," he said. "Lady isn't angry at us."
"How did she – "
"No talking," Angelo whispered. He switched off his flashlight and reached over to press the switch on Broots' when Broots didn't exactly jump to follow. "Follow."
It was a long, weird, torturous walk in the dark with only Angelo's hand tugging his sleeve to guide him. Broots wanted to talk – the pressure of words boiled up in his throat like bile – but if Angelo was being so stealthy, there must be a reason. The smell of dust faded, replaced by more of a metallic smell. Fresh oil. Wherever they were, the rooms were no longer abandoned.
At long last, Broots saw a soft fuzz of light in the distance. If he's run me around in a giant circle, I'm done with this stupid quest …
Angelo let go of his sleeve.
At the end of the hallway was a perfect circle of blue sky and feathery green trees.
They were out of the Centre.
Angelo didn't even pause. He walked right out into the sunlight and kept walking. Broots paused in the shadows, absolutely sure that if he took a single step out into that world that a sweeper armed with an Uzi would chop him off at the knees.
Angelo turned and waved at him. He was fifty feet down a small dirt footpath. Broots took a deep breath, took another one, and sprinted to catch up.
His heart was thumping hard enough to bruise his chest, and he snapped his head from one direction to another, sure the flutter of a leaf was a Centre sniper, a bird call was a siren. "Oh man," Broots gasped. "I'm really not made for this kind of thing. Look, are we going to hitchhike all the way to Georgia?"
"No," Angelo said. He reached in his pocket and took out a ring of keys. Pressed a button.
Broots almost dived for the ditch as something in the trees gave a soft electronic bloop bloop.
"Lincoln Town Car," Angelo said solemnly. "Leather seats. Six cupholders."
Miss Parker was fighting back tears. They burned hot in her eyes but she refused to let them fall to advertise her weakness. I am my father's daughter. I'm a Parker, dammit.
Except that today that didn't hold the magic for her it once had.
"This is insane," she said. Her voice sounded iron-hard and utterly steady. "We're talking about Sydney. Not even you could be low enough to sanction this."
"Low, high, doesn't matter," Lyle said. "It's done."
Sentiment wasn't going to save the day, not here, not now. She groped for logic. "Jarod isn't going to run his head into a noose like this, not even for Sydney. No chance."
"Of course he will," Lyle said. He was sitting in a beautiful green velvet chair, his legs casually crossed, sipping coffee from a china cup so delicate a look could crack it. The room was elegant, airy, with muted green carpet and rich cherrywood accents. Sunlight spilled honey-gold through floor-to-ceiling windows and struck a mellow gleam from the polished brass coffee table.
On the coffee table sat a three television monitors showing three separate views of Sydney in captivity. And on the table in front of the monitors lay a .25 caliber pistol, an inoffensive looking hunk of metal and wood with polished walnut grips.
She knew enough about executions to know that small caliber guns were preferred. After punching through the skull, the bullet didn't have enough force to blast a matching exit wound; it would bounce around inside, ripping huge bloody swaths through Sydney's brain, pureeing it like a blender.
And it would leave a neat corpse with hardly a mark on it. Easy cleanup.
She didn't know what sickened her more, the thought that she might have to do that to Sydney, or that she knew how to do it.
Lyle was still talking.
" – arrogance," he was saying. "He'd never miss the chance to put one over on the Centre. We could be holding some brain-dead homeless bum and it wouldn't matter; he'd still show up for the game. Say whatever you want about Jarod, he definitely loves to play."
"The Cooperative wasn't playing," she said. God, the memory of how he'd looked after that still haunted her. "They were taking him apart, inch by bloody inch. After that, I doubt he's going to want to play Russian Roulette with you and a fully loaded pistol."
"He's not playing with me," Lyle shrugged. "He's playing with you. And we both know that's irresistible for him."
"Shut up," she said wearily, and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Tears ached somewhere just behind the bone. "Just do me a favor and shut the hell up."
"Maybe you ought to go do some target shooting, sis. Get rid of some of that unhealthy stress. I could have one of the staff set up some targets for you – watermelons, maybe some wig stands …"
She widened her eyes. "Gee, maybe we could play a good game of William Tell! I'll get a blindfold, you put an apple on your head …"
"Add a good pair of three-point restraints and a leather teddy and you might just have yourself an idea."
His grin sickened her. So did the idea behind it. She gave him a look of contempt like an icicle stab to the heart, stalked to the French doors and flung them open. Georgia afternoon heat rolled in like invisible fog, magnolia-scented and cloying. It could have reeked of open sewers and it would have been better than breathing the stench of Lyle another minute. She was gagging on him.
"Don't be long," Lyle called after her. "We'll miss you. Oh, by the way, no good trying to get a message out, we've closed down all the lines except the ones we're using. And the guests are all gone."
She slammed the door hard enough to crack a pane of glass. The sound echoed like a gunshot in the quiet afternoon. Parker took in a deep honeysuckle-sweet breath and stepped out into the sunshine, spotless white gravel crunching under her Gucci pumps, and tried desperately to think of something, anything to do. As a plan to trap Jarod, it was damn good; he certainly wouldn't throw Sydney to the wolves, especially if Lyle was involved. Jarod probably knew more about her brother's sick predilections than anyone else. He'd take the threat very seriously, and probably not very calmly.
She'd seen Jarod get angry. She'd rather put herself in the path of a charging tiger than get in his way if he really thought Sydney was in danger.
She had to stop it. Somehow. Maybe a message to the Triumvirate – no, this must have issued from on high. Her father was nowhere to be found, and without him she had nothing but the bullets in her gun and the fear she'd managed to instill in the Centre staff.
None of which would stop Lyle for long.
I can refuse. Just – refuse to be a party to it. Sure. Stand on the sidelines and watch Lyle hold that .25 to the back of Sydney's elegant silver head. Watch the life go out of Sydney's eyes, Sydney who'd survived so much, come so far. No. She knew she couldn't do that. Couldn't just walk away, like a coward. She could never face Jarod again. Hell, she couldn't even face Broots.
So what could she do? Lock herself in the room with Sydney? Custer's last stand? Save the last two bullets for themselves? She wasn't the suicidal type.
Get him out yourself. Don't wait for Jarod. You've been tracking him long enough to learn his methods. Apply them. Strangely enough, it was Sydney's dry, gentle voice she heard in her head, as clearly as if he'd stood at her shoulder. All right, then. How would Jarod start?
You learn about the situation. The surroundings. The opportunities.
She looked around at the sunny, gorgeously landscaped garden, the graceful lines of the Southern-style mansion. The Centre owned the place, she already knew that. It was one of many legitimate enterprises run as a cover for some not-so-savory activities. The guests had been emptied out, of course; everybody remaining was on the Centre's personal payroll. If I were Jarod, that's how I'd get in. That's how I'd set up my escape route. Use the employees.
She continued her walk down the white gravel path until she came to a solitary man kneeling in the rich black soil, his hands molding the earth around a rose bush as if he'd sculpted it out of nothing but sun and desire. For one disorienting second, she thought she recognized the strong muscular curve of his back, the dark hair under the white cap.
But it wasn't Jarod. He sat back on his heels as she approached, glancing up at her with wide brown eyes, young and handsome enough to make Antonio Banderas swoon with jealousy. He took a second look at her legs, then tried to pretend he hadn't.
Not all Centre employees were above making a quick buck. And if he was – there were other incentives.
"Nice day," she said. She balanced effortlessly on the high heels and crouched down next to him. "Work here long?"
"No hablo Inglés," he said politely.
"Está bien, habla español," she said. "And I'll bet you speak American dollars, don't you, Pablo?"
He grinned. Definitely a prettier version of Antonio Banderas.
"Me llamo es Salvador," he said. My name is Salvador … salvation.
"Salvador," she said in her best honey-velvet voice, "I think we're about to have a really beautiful friendship."
For a half-insane prisoner of a ruthless shadowy organization, Angelo had quite a credit limit. On the way to Georgia they stopped at four different electronics discount stores; for Broots, it was almost as fun as going on a shopping trip with Miss Parker in an expansive mood. Granted, Angelo wasn't as cute, and didn't smell as good, but he knew his way around a circuit board. The platinum card Angelo liked to flash had, Broots noticed, the name of someone named Herman Unger, probably somebody long-vanished into the bowels of the Centre. Or maybe that was another one of Jarod's aliases.
By the time they hit the border of Georgia, the Town Car was a mobile arsenal of information. Four top-quality laptops with wireless modems. Encrypted cell phones. High-tech toys of every description.
But the real surprise was the last stop, when Angelo tapped Broots on the shoulder and motioned for him to pull off into yet another outlet center parking lot. Nothing high-tech Broots could spot. He turned to Angelo with a question on his face, and Angelo pointed at a storefront across from the car.
CAL & DEE'S LEATHER.
"I don't want to sound stupid, but – huh?"
"Jarod," Angelo said. "Leather coat. We need one."
Jarod liked leather coats. Sure. Jarod also had the body of Adonis, which Broots figured neither he nor Angelo was in any danger of duplicating. Oh, and not to forget a full head of dark hair. Broots sighed and rubbed his balding scalp.
"I can't pass for Jarod."
"Easy to do," Angelo said. "Leather coat, dark hair, sunglasses. Black shirt, black pants. Jarod."
"This is never going to work."
Angelo smiled luminously. "It will."
Cal and Dee were both at work, manning the counter in a shop that smelled pleasantly of leather and incense. Cal was a big man, linebacker-big, with two gold front teeth and an affinity for earrings; Dee was a pocket princess, barely up to Broots' chin, impeccably dressed in a leather skirt and vest. She had calves that gave Miss Parker's a run for their money, especially in four-inch spike-heeled pumps.
"Coat," Angelo prodded him. Broots cleared his throat, nodded, and gave Dee an uncertain smile. She smiled back with enough warmth to light a bonfire in the middle of an ocean.
"Uh – coats?" Broots asked. "Black?"
"Right this way," she said. A honey-sweet Southern voice, eyes like liquid night. "Y'all come from up north?"
"Delaware," Broots said, and then remembered he probably shouldn't have. "Uh … around there."
"Well, Delaware, you look like about a 38 long to me, that about right?" She led the way through racks of smooth gleaming coats, skirts, vests, even some leather underwear that froze Broots in place until Angelo pushed him onward. She stopped at a long rack. "Long or short?"
"Uh – like a suit coat. That length." That was about the best he could describe Jarod's favorite style. She put a finger to her lips, then reached into the rack and pulled out –
-- Jarod's coat. Or its twin brother. Broots reached out and took the hangar, touched the butter-soft texture of the leather, and glanced at Angelo for confirmation. Angelo nodded soberly.
"Try it on," Dee urged. She held it for him. Broots shrugged it on, feeling the weight settle on him like a knight's armor. Don Quixote, he thought, only my Sancho Panza is even more insane than I am. The leather smelled rich and warm, soft to the touch like living skin. "Oh, baby, that's you. Definitely you."
"Yeah?" Broots flexed his arms. It felt as if it had been tailored for him. "How much?"
"Six hundred," she cooed. Broots blinked. "It's not some Mexico knock-off, honey, that's genuine hand-tailoring. Me and Cal do it all."
"It's great," Broots said honestly. "But – "
"Buy," Angelo said. He passed over the platinum card.
"I guess we'll take it," Broots finished.
After collecting her pound of platinum, Dee steered them to a nearby men's shop for the black shirt and pants. Sunglasses came easy. The wig came from a toupee shop just fifteen miles from their destination.
By the time he was wearing all of it, Broots felt like an utter fool.
"This isn't going to work," he insisted, and adjusted the wig for the hundredth time. It itched, it felt wrong, and he looked stupid. Nobody looked less like Jarod, not even Raines dragging an oxygen tank.
"Shhh," Angelo said. They were pulled off on a side road, and Angelo was playing the keys of a laptop like a concert piano. He was using global positioning maps to show their current location, the location of the spa – less than five miles away – and, on a second monitor, the spa itself. "Here."
He touched the second monitor and turned it so Broots could read it. He pulled off the sunglasses and squinted past screen glare to see what looked like a complete blueprint. Heavily guarded entrance gates – that was to be expected – an employee entrance at the back. A big elaborate garden embraced by a sweeping E-shaped building. Pools. Hot tubs. Tennis courts. Gyms. Saunas.
And, in the center of the E, a single notation that read PRIVATE QUARTERS.
"There," Angelo said, and touched the spot. "Sydney."
"What time have we got?"
Angelo had a watch he'd carefully calibrated to the atomic clock. He consulted it, then held it out to Broots. The day was long gone, and the night outside was rich with humidity and the smell of damp wood. The glowing Indiglo dial was set with a running countdown.
One hours and eighteen minutes, assuming Lyle waited for the limit. There wasn't much of a guarantee of that, except that Miss Parker would definitely be playing Scheherazade for every second. Broots knew that about her, the way he knew Sydney would be sitting very calmly waiting, without any expectations at all of what would happen. In some ways, he thought, this would be hardest on Miss Parker. She didn't even know Jarod wasn't coming, or that Broots and Angelo were.
Maybe he looked enough like Jarod in the dark. Just barely. There was no longer any point in worrying about it.
"So what's the plan?" he asked. Angelo touched a button, and flashing red lights showed on the laptop's screen.
"Thirty-three minutes," he said. Broots studied the screen and made a guess.
"You're disrupting the systems in thirty-three minutes?"
Angelo nodded. "Programmed now. Can't stop."
"Maybe they can't stop it, but can they find it?"
Angelo looked briefly hurt by the implication.
"So I'm safe? They won't know I'm coming?"
Angelo's blue eyes looked wide and sad. "They know," he said.
Which meant he was walking into a trap, a trap good enough to take Jarod alive, much less Broots. He was trusting Angelo, whom everyone in the Centre thought was a half-witted moron, with his life.
But on the other hand, Sydney was sitting in some faceless room, watching the remaining minutes of his own life tick away. You wanted real friends, Broots, a voice whispered in the back of his mind. This is what happens when you get your wish.
Broots took in a deep breath and felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck under the synthetic blanket of dark hair.
"Tell me what to do," he said.
It isn't the answer to everything, Jarod thought, but it'll certainly do for now. That was his first thought on waking again in darkness, with the smell of Nia's skin perfuming the sheets around him and the pillow beside his head. On his skin, too. He smiled slowly and reached out in the dark to touch her.
She was gone.
Panic struck as if it had just been waiting for the chance. The sheets felt warm, but she was gone. He took a deep breath, regulating the fear, controlling it. Nia was here. She hadn't left him. No one was waiting in the shadows to scoop him up and take him back to pain.
She hadn't betrayed him.
The light was on in the bathroom. He relaxed slowly, feeling the ball of ice in his stomach begin to melt into relief. Nothing to fear. Nothing at all.
He didn't hear the sound of running water, or any sound he might have expected.
After listening for a moment, he heard the soft, blurred, unmistakable clicking of keys.
Trust her, some part of him begged. Go back to sleep. Just trust her.
But he couldn't afford to do that, not entirely. He couldn't afford to let down his guard for anyone, ever, while the Cooperative was still doing business, while the Centre was still searching. He slid soundlessly out of bed and padded across the carpet. It felt cool and soft under his feet. The bar of light under the bathroom door glowed like liquid honey. The sound of clicking keys was louder now, and there was nothing else it could possibly be but fingers on a keyboard.
He opened the door.
She looked up, startled. She was sitting awkwardly on the closed lid of the toilet, wrapped in one of his black shirts. On her lap rested a small portable computer.
"Compulsive web surfing?" he asked mildly. He'd already seen the flash of terror and guilt in her eyes, and something inside him, something as fragile as flash paper, burned to gritty ash. She started to shut the machine down, and he hardened his voice just a little. "Don't. Don't lie to me, Nia. Please."
She took in a deep, unsteady breath. She didn't try to move as he reached out and took the laptop, rested it on the counter, and read what was on the screen.
She was replying to a message from Angelo that read KEEP HIM BUSY, DON'T LET HIM KNOW. Her reply began, How are we going to explain about
Without looking at her, he said, "He sent you to keep me occupied. Keep me away from what was happening."
"No!" When she was distressed, as she was now, her Spanish accent thickened, made the words clumsy and strangely lyrical. "No, Jarod, you don't understand – "
"What's happening? Why would Angelo want me kept out of it?" He turned his head and looked at her, and she flinched from what she saw in him. "What's happening at the Centre?"
She was a strong woman. That was something he loved about her, admired about her, regretted now with all his heart. She met his eyes squarely and said, without a tremor, "I will not tell you. It's for your own sake."
He looked at her for a long moment, then took the laptop and went back into the other room. He turned on the lights, opened drawers and found underwear, socks, a shirt, pants. He dressed in silence and set the computer down on the small round table in the corner, pulled up a battered club chair and began to look for the answer.
It wasn't hard to find. They hadn't intended for it to be, and even Angelo couldn't intercept every trace of the Centre's ultimatum to him.
Sydney. He sat silent, numbed, listening for the sound of Nia's approach. Even so, he didn't hear her. Her hands touched his shoulders, warm and gentle and trembling, and he flinched at the contact.
"Please," she whispered, and put her lips against his hair. "Please, I beg you, don't go. Let our son someday have a father. Don't take that away from him."
"How can I ever look at my son if I let my own father die?"
"He is not your father!" she cried. Her hair brushed his shoulders as she bent forward, wrapping her arms around his chest. "He enslaved you. He used you. My God, Jarod, he doesn't deserve your feelings for him!"
He put his hand over hers, tracing the delicate bones of her fingers. Once, that might have been true. Many, many years ago. But she hadn't seen Sydney, hadn't known the gentle, ironic, quietly loyal man who had saved his sanity every day in the insane world of the Centre. Without Sydney's kindness, he'd be like Angelo, or worse.
Very likely, he never would have lived to adulthood.
"I have to do something," he said.
"It's too late! There's not enough time for you to go there – and Angelo said you wouldn't have survived. He knew, Jarod. He was crying when he talked to me."
Jarod felt a cold breath on the back of his neck. Angelo was right, of course. He wasn't ready, hadn't prepared, was too divided emotionally and even physically to make the right choices to save both Sydney's life and his own. Angelo knew because he'd empathed it, and when he empathed pain on the order of what Jarod had felt, was feeling, there were no defenses against that at all. It was like consciously choosing to lie down in a raging fire. Empathy on the scale Angelo practiced it made Pretending look easy.
If Angelo said he would die, then Angelo was right. And in any case, he was too far away to even try to do any physical intervention.
"Jarod?" Nia asked. He brought himself back to her, to the small darkened room where he'd hidden from himself for so many days. There was a phrase he'd learned – not from Sydney, it was far too informal to have come from Sydney – fake it 'til you make it. He still felt the betrayal, the anger, the shock, the helpless rage, and none of it did any good at all. It had been the actions of friends who loved him, not enemies trying to destroy him.
They had probably saved his life, whether he liked it or not.
But now he had to find a way to help.
"Hand me the bag in the corner," he said. "I need the encryption gear."
She gave him a long, doubtful look. He supposed he deserved it.
"Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I'm calling in the cavalry," he said, and flashed her part of a smile. "It's the enemy's cavalry, but the principle is the same."
"A last meal," Sydney said. "I hope you didn't go to any trouble."
He looked as Sydney-esque as ever, faintly amused and unsurprised, even at the sight of Miss Parker playing waitress. She set the tray down on the cherrywood coffee table in front of him and turned her head slightly to address Sam and the other two sweepers who crowded the doorway, handguns ready.
"Out," she said. There was absolutely no doubt she meant it. Sam hesitated, looking at her with hangdog eyes, then shrugged and jerked his head at the other two men. They left. The door shut behind them with barely a sound.
Alone with Sydney, she found she had nothing to say. She simply stared at him, all the clever words gone. They were being watched, of course. She could feel Lyle's eyes all over her body, searching for any hint of weakness.
Sydney reached over and pulled the cover off of a nicely browned breast of chicken with a vividly green arc of peas next to it. No rice. She'd remembered he didn't like it. He glanced up at her, his eyebrows high, and indicated the chair next to him.
She sat. Sydney covered the food again and turned to face her.
"I'm – " Her voice, she found, wasn't as steady as she meant it to be. She cleared her throat. "I'm the one they picked, Syd."
He nodded slowly, as unsurprised by that as anything else. Then, incredibly, he smiled. "How do you feel?"
"Feel?" Her laugh sounded forced. She strangled it into silence. "Great, Sydney. How am I supposed to feel?"
He must be afraid, she thought. I'm scared to death. But he didn't show it, not by a look, a gesture. His hands, when he reached for hers, were rock steady, but they felt cold to the touch. That's an omen. She shoved the thought back in disgust.
He leaned closer, just close enough to establish that gentle, rare intimacy that sometimes existed between them, and said, "Don't risk yourself for me."
He said it so softly she wasn't sure she'd heard him correctly. Certainly the audio pickups, no matter how sensitive, couldn't have gotten it. Sydney had a lifetime's experience of speaking under the Centre's radar.
"They think Jarod's going to come riding in on a white horse to save you," she whispered back, her head bowed. "I just have the feeling – I have the feeling it's not going to happen. I'm afraid it won't."
"I hope he doesn't. I wouldn't like to think – " For the first time, Sydney seemed at a loss for words. "I won't blame you."
"You should," she whispered. In spite of her resolve, tears blurred her eyes, caught at her throat. She forced them back. I cry too damn easily. Maybe that was a flaw. Maybe that was a saving grace, in the Centre, where there were never enough tears to go around. "They want me to kill you, Sydney. I don't think I can."
"Of course you can," he said. He reached up and touched her cheek, very gently, the kind of touch she'd always wanted from her father and never, ever had. "Even Jarod could if he had to. And surely you're stronger than he is."
"Playing to my vanity?" she asked, and swiped at her eyes. "I couldn't even kill Lyle when I had the chance."
"But you'll do this. You must. You must buy yourself the time to get away from these people, away forever. If Jarod doesn't come I am dead in any case. Better my life buys yours." Suddenly, his eyes turned ice cold. "Promise me." She did, silently, because she couldn't speak the words. He squeezed her hands lightly and let go. "Excellent. Now, to the important matters at hand. Would you like some chicken?"
She shook her head. He uncovered the meal and began eating, delicate and elegant, as if he had all the time in the world.
She couldn't take her eyes off the clock.
Oh God, she thought. Less than an hour. If he was coming, he would have been here by now, he knows how impatient Lyle is. He wouldn't take the chance.
Unless he was already here.
Unless God descended from on high and granted them a miracle.
Unless her plan, thin and fragile as it was, came through without revisions.
Sydney finished the chicken and drank from the glass of dry white wine, looking entirely content. His eyes met hers, very briefly, and something in them – not the expression, nothing so concrete as that – told her that he was frayed raw inside from the waiting.
She leaned over, put her lips very close to his ear, and said, "Hold on, Syd. Just hold on."
She touched her cheek to his, then pulled away and got to her feet to pace the small, windowless hell of a room. The gun in her pocket dragged at her with a force like a boat anchor. When she blinked, she could see it happening, the puff of smoke from the barrel, the muzzle flash giving the room a cheap white glory, and then the blood.
Not so much blood, if she did it right.
I'm sorry, she thought. It had the chilled, acrid flavor of despair.
The clock kept ticking.
Broots stared up at the ten-foot-high brick wall, dread congealing in his heart, and realized that it was all over. He couldn't climb the damn wall. He wasn't Jarod – hell, Jarod could probably just vault over the wall, he'd probably studied circus tricks in Russia. Broots' idea of being athletic was jumping to conclusions.
It was simply too high.
"Go!" Angelo's voice hissed from the shadows. Broots shook his head. "Now!"
"I can't!" The note of panic in his voice was thoroughly justified. You simply didn't ask thirty-something computer geeks to climb ten foot walls. Not if you were sane – no, wait, this was Angelo …
Something grabbed him around the knees in a grip like pliers and lifted. Straight up. Broots gasped and fell forward, scraped his hands against a rapidly moving brick wall. He went up as if shot out of a cannon, and just above his head was the gray cement cap that topped the wall.
He looked down. Angelo was holding him in some kind of tumbler's hold. Maybe it hadn't been Jarod who'd run away to the circus, after all. Broots swallowed – it looked a long way down from up here – and scrabbled for a hold on top of the wall. He writhed up, panting, and looked down to see Angelo vanishing again into the shadows like some misshapen gnome.
Leaving him stranded on top of a ten-foot drop.
It took some doing, but he managed to hang by his fingertips and fall the remaining few feet, taking the impact on his knees with a wince. It always looked so much easier in the movies. And heroes never ended up with cement burns on their hands and knees, either, or strained ligaments. He had a sudden karmic relationship with the hackneyed sentiment I'm too old for this shit.
A flashlight cut through midnight-green foliage. Broots ducked behind an overgrown pyracanthus and tried to pretend he was a shadow, just a strangely dressed black leather shadow, as a pair of what were unmistakably Centre sweepers patrolled past, their flashlights probing the area around the wall. This is insane. I am not a spy. He had half a mind to chuck the whole thing and run for it, except he was now on the wrong side of the ten-foot wall, and the sweepers were probably going to shoot him, at best.
He held his breath until they were gone around a bend in the path, then stood there shaking and panting for another thirty seconds to make sure his heart hadn't exploded. Angelo had given him specific instructions, insofar as Angelo was capable of that kind of communication. Go straight to white path. Follow yellow flowers to right. Hide under tree. Instructions even a computer jockey could follow – or so Broots had thought until adrenaline started making a chaotic mess of everything. Had Angelo told him to follow the white path? Or stay off the white path? Off, he decided, looking at the pristine moonlit gravel. He'd be as obvious as a hooker at a church social if he took a stroll on that.
He followed the curving path, staying off of the gravel, until he spotted yellow flowers. A whole golden explosion of them. They formed a yellow brick road to a graceful willow tree that held its shadows close. Beyond that, the curtained windows of what Angelo's map labeled the Private Quarters glowed brightly. Nobody was asleep.
Broots checked his watch. The countdown timer kept racing forward, and with a cold shock he realized that he had exactly seventeen seconds left before Angelo's surprise – whatever it was – made itself felt.
He made it to the shadows of the willow tree with five seconds to spare.
"Oh man," Broots breathed. "This cannot be good." And then he heard the sound of the sweeper team returning down the gravel path.
It took too much time and considerable patience, but Jarod at last finished the work. Six bounce-off points, literally hundreds of reflections and false trails. They'd capture it and unravel it, of course, but by the time they did he'd be long gone.
It seemed odd that the end result of all that work was nothing more than a ringing telephone in a vast dark palace in Kenya. He closed his eyes and remembered the huge house; he'd let himself in one evening about a year ago, which had been risky even by his standards. It proved useful now, though, because he had the private phone number, the one kept only on a paper list somewhere between three Triumvirate members, and he could picture the big man moving through the darkness toward the phone.
"Speak," said a deep, velvet-soft voice still blurred with sleep. In the silence afterward Jarod heard the clicks and whispers of tracing equipment automatically engaging. He clicked the stopwatch next to his computer and watched the hand begin to sweep seconds away.
"There's an orphanage in Rwanda," Jarod said, just as softly. "That's where you hide your son. You have to keep him hidden because you know your partners would use him against you, hurt him, maybe kill him to get you to do what they want. Like they used his mother."
The response was an immediate, violence roar of rage. "Who are – " It cut off as cleanly as if a guillotine had come down on the anger. "Ah. Yes. Jarod. Hear me now: this is a foolish thing for you to do. Play your games with Miss Parker, not with me. Never with me. I am where I am because I have never let an enemy behind my back."
"I don't think that's true." Time was running out. Seconds ticking away. Jarod kept his voice under control with an effort. "You left Elahu Howard Parker at your back." A wordless rumble, not quite a question. Got him. Jarod smiled. "You and your partners thought you'd taken care of him, didn't you? Put him someplace out of the way, the retirement home for evil masterminds – "
"Elahu Parker is no concern of yours. He's simply an old man enjoying his retirement."
"He's been inside the Centre. He's commandeered Centre operatives and
Centre facilities for his own purposes. He's also ordered Dr. Sydney Greene killed in – " Jarod checked the time. " – twenty-four minutes. I think you'll agree, Sydney's one of your most valuable resources. It would be stupid to waste him like this."
A long, long pause. Seconds swept past, each tick pulling the Centre closer to his position. Jarod fought back an overwhelming sense of black panic, this isn't going to work, this time I'm going to fail and the cost will be Sydney's life …
"Why should I believe you?"
"I'm not the one who lies," Jarod said. He paused and deliberately let some of the rage out, let his voice turn dark and rough. "I promise you, if Sydney dies tonight, or at any time by Centre hands, I will devote myself completely to the destruction of the Centre and everyone in it. You know I'm capable of carrying that out."
Silence again. And then, very softly, the voice whispered, "I don't like threats."
"I don't like making them. I'm also not afraid to fulfill them."
A chuckle worked its way, ghostly-soft, from the darkness between them, and the voice said, "Yes, we taught you very well, Jarod. Very well indeed. As to Dr. Greene, I do what I please, when I please. And no one, especially not some escaped lab monkey, will dictate to me. Do I make myself clear?"
"As long as that includes Elahu Parker."
The big man chuckled. "Tell me, Jarod, how is the weather in Louisiana?"
"Good night, Matumbo."
And Big Matumbo, perhaps the most feared man in the Centre, leader of the Triumvirate, said, "Good night, Jarod. Pleasant dreams."
He hung up the phone with the feeling of having only just cheated death. His, or Sydney’s, he was no longer sure. It’s all I can do, he thought with a kind of calm despair.
"Jarod?" Nia put her arm around him. He looked up at her, at the warmth and concern shining in her eyes, and forced a smile.
"Pack your bags," he said. "Let's go see our son."
In five more seconds, Broots estimated, he was going to be dead. Shot full of holes. Bleeding in the chrysanthemums. The sweepers were mere steps away, their flashlights swinging like scythes to cut the darkness. They couldn't not see him. In spite of Angelo's promises – strange, he'd actually come to believe them – he was going to be killed right here, right now.
A halo of light splashed on yellow flowers and cast a glow right to the tips of Broots' black boots. He closed his eyes and tried to look like a branch.
"Hey!" one of the sweepers yelled. "Hold it!"
A shock of electricity went through him, sharp as if he'd been stabbed, and he flinched and braced himself against the smooth trunk of the willow tree. He held his hands up.
"Stop!" Another sweeper. The sound of running feet.
Not running toward him. Away from him. Broots cracked one eyelid and saw his two personal executioners chasing a figure that blurred into the dark, somebody in black leather.Jarod?
Oh, God, that was close. He needed to sit down. On a toilet.
"Go." Angelo's voice in his ear, carried by a nifty little device from the spy shop. "Steel door behind tree. Open."
An alarm started sounding. Broots thought seriously about staying where he was. Angelo must have sensed it, because he said, very reasonably, "Safer inside."
"Yeah," Broots muttered. He darted out of the tree's cover to the side of the brick building. The door was hard to see, probably some kind of emergency exit. No knob on the outside, but it was just about a half an inch short of being shut. He got his fingers into the gap and pulled.
Inside, a cool paneled hallway with seafoam green carpet. The sound of alarms was piercing. Angelo said something, but Broots couldn't hear him over the shriek. He got inside and shut the door behind him, covered his ear and whispered, "What?"
"End of hall, find private door," Angelo said.
"What's the alarm for?"
"The building's on fire?" Broots barely remembered to whisper. He wanted to yell.
Broots made it inside and shut the door. No lock. Some privacy. It was a storeroom stocked with linens, cleaning supplies, pails and mops.
It also didn't have an exit.
"Uh, Angelo …"
"Duct," Angelo said. "Back wall."
Broots moved giant stacks of toilet paper and found it. His blood – already cold – turned to ice.
"It's too small," he said. Angelo didn't answer. "Angelo! It's too small!"
He couldn't have forced his head through the opening, much less his shoulders. No way.
"Angelo?" he asked again. His voice crawled up an octave.
"Other wall," Angelo clarified. Broots shifted linens.
Ah. It wasn't spacious, but it was crawlable. Broots took his Swiss army knife out and unscrewed the fastenings, took out a penlight flash, and embarked on duct diving.
It was a surprisingly short distance when he saw a glow of light at the far end, and heard Miss Parker's voice over the drone of the alarm.
"Dammit, Sam, just go find out!" she was saying in that whip-sharp, velvet-smooth voice. Sam's reply was a vague apologetic rumble. Broots cautiously eased himself the last five feet to the tiger-striped glow of the screen. Metal popped under his weight, but it was lost in the continuing wail of the alarm.
Miss Parker was standing next to a wooden coffee table in what looked like a really nice hotel room, wearing the same clothes Broots remembered from the previous morning at the Centre. She looked tired, her hair just a little messy, her makeup faded.
Sitting on the couch, Sydney. Fresh as a daisy, relaxed and interested. He looked as if he'd caught the sleep Miss Parker had missed, and he was wearing an impeccable gray suit. He didn't look like he was in fear of his life. In fact, he looked as in control as Broots had ever seen him.
Glad one of us is comfortable. Broots felt a sudden stabbing pain in his elbows – elbows were not designed to be load-bearing – and cautiously eased himself down on his stomach. Metal popped again. Nobody seemed to notice. He could, from his vantage point, just see the back of Sam's head, and the shadows of a couple of other men who were probably sweepers. They hugged the far wall, out of sight. Miss Parker began pacing again, arms folded, head down. Her whole body was a bundle of tension. Broots ardently knew how she felt.
Miss Parker whirled suddenly just a second before Broots saw the edge of a door swinging open. He flattened himself against the far wall of the duct to try to get a look at who was joining the party, and then wished he hadn't.
Mr. Lyle, looking less than completely satisfied.
"Jarod's here," he said, shouting over the alarms. "He's set off the alarms."
"How did he get inside?" Miss Parker shouted back.
"Doesn't matter. We'll bag him in a matter of minutes, and this will all be over. Until then – " Lyle crossed to the couch, sat down next to Sydney, and folded his hands in his lap. "I guess we wait."
"Can't you shut off the damn alarms?" she shouted. Lyle shrugged and spread his hands. "Dammit! Let me out of here. If Jarod's here, I can find him!"
"You couldn't find him if he was painted neon yellow and standing in the middle of a snowfield," Lyle shot back. "You don't want to find him. We wait right here, and Jarod will come to us. He'll have to if he wants to save Sydney."
She shot him a filthy glare and turned to pace again, faster this time. She knew as well as Broots that time was running out – seventeen minutes left, according to his watch. Which wasn't much time to accomplish a miracle.
Was it just his imagination, or was it getting hotter? The metal definitely felt warm. He had an appalling hallucination of being baked like a ham in aluminum foil, of someone pulling his blackened carcass out of the rubble and wondering what in the hell he'd been doing to get himself killed that way.
"Angelo?" he whispered, and wiped at his forehead. His hand came away wet. "Angelo, it's getting hot in here."
No answer. He kept repeating Angelo's name, feeling panic crank up to a level just below utter hysteria.
No answer at all.
Employees, Miss Parker thought despairingly. Either they never had enough initiative, or they picked the wrong times to display it. Salvador, her co-opted groundskeeper, had been eager enough to take a quick five thousand to create a good diversion, but he hadn't said anything about torching the building. Still, the good news was that if he'd been mistaken for Jarod, or if Jarod was actually skulking around the grounds, the countdown was off.
Sydney was safe.
On the sofa, Lyle stretched, yawned, and checked his watch. He walked over to stand next to Parker – too close for her comfort – and said, just loud enough to be heard over the alarms, "What do you say we get this over with and get home?"
"Fine," she said, and turned her head toward Sydney. "Get your Rorshacks packed, Syd, we're leaving."
Lyle's hand closed around her wrist and yanked hard enough to leave a mark. He didn't say anything, but when her head snapped back toward him she saw the look in his eyes.
"Don't be more of an ass than you have to be," she said. "This is a farce. Maybe you'll get Jarod, maybe you won't, but killing Sydney buys us nothing."
"I'm not going back to Blue Cove to tell our grandfather that I let your sentimentality ruin his plans," Lyle said. "Shoot the old bastard and let's go. Do it."
Lyle had his own reasons for wanting Sydney dead, she realized. Syd knew too much. And Lyle wanted to hurt Jarod. That was what this was all about, Lyle's lust for pain.
She pulled free of him, stepped back, and said, flatly, "No."
He might have argued with her. He might have even pulled his gun and shot her, she wasn't sure what the flash in his eyes meant, except that it wasn't good. But at that moment, two things happened simultaneously that made Lyle's possible actions irrelevant.
One, the door to the hallway opened, letting in a thick choking blanket of gray smoke, and two, the same smoke began to billow out of the air conditioning vent high up on the wall. Parker sucked in a startled breath, caught a whiff of acrid burning chemicals, and doubled over coughing.
In seconds, so quickly it changed her confusion to terror, the room was a cloud of thick, rancid smoke, stinging at her eyes, hiding everyone and everything in its gray embrace. She lunged blindly forward, touched the soft cushions of the sofa, found a man's suit sleeve.
"Miss Parker?" he asked, and coughed. Sydney. She grabbed hold and towed him by force toward a dim memory of a door. Shadows loomed in the fog, some moving. She thought she heard Lyle shout her name. Stay here and fry, you bastard, she thought, and ran painfully into the edge of the coffee table. Sydney's hand steadied her. The weight of his arm went around her shoulders when she coughed again, hacking this time against the hideous clinging taste of the smoke.
It seemed to take forever to cross the room. A sweeper blundered across their path, his arms swinging wildly as he searched for reference points. She pulled up short to let him pass, then lunged quickly to where she thought the wall should be.
Her gasping hand clutched smoke. Just smoke. Damn it, the room's not that big! She felt lightheaded now, both from the filthy air and from the almost irresistible urge to hold her breath against it. Door, door, damn it give me a door! –
Her hand brushed the wall. She flattened her palm on the blood-warm surface and moved it along, sliding right, until she felt the raised bar of the door frame.
The cool metal of the doorknob.
A man's hand closed over hers. She blinked tears from stinging eyes and saw a looming figure standing beside her, his face already carnival-masked in soot.
It was Sam.
Somewhere in that endless gray distance that was the room, she heard Lyle yelling for her. All Sam had to do was to stand there; she'd never be able to shift him out of the way. His eyes were red-rimmed and oddly blank. He swallowed, coughed chokingly, and took his hand away from the doorknob to cover his mouth.
Lyle howled, "Don't let them get away!" Sam glanced that direction, then shrugged and stepped away from the door.
"Get the hell out of here," he said. Parker shot him a savage grin and yanked the door open. More smoke billowed in, driven by a wave of heat. Oh God. The glow at the end of the hallway looked unpleasantly like open flame, the sound of flames a crackling whisper audible over the alarms.
She tripped on something in the hall, something round and gray with military stenciling on it.Smoke bombs.
There was no fire. The crackling was recorded, the fire just flickering lights. Jarod, you clever, clever bastard. I owe you for that one.
And the heat? It was definitely hotter.He'd turned the heater on.
Sydney took her gently by the elbow and towed her down the hall away from Jarod's special-effects fire, toward a red-lighted EXIT sign that pointed an arrow down a side corridor. Not so much smoke here, though it was definitely hazy. She doubled over again, hacking painfully, and looked up just as an unmarked door opened and a man in black leather came out, veiled in smoke.
Jarod. She fumbled for her gun as he began to jog away down the hall, already half a ghost. "Stop!" she screamed, and brought the gun up to firing stance. "I'll do it, Jarod!"
Sam wasn't going to be any help, he was bent over coughing. So was Sydney. She took three steps down the hall as Jarod's indistinct shadow stumbled to a halt.
"Hands up!" she called. He put his hands up, shoulders slumping in defeat. She didn't believe it. Jarod didn't give up so easily. "On your knees!"
She could have sworn she saw his knee bend just an instant before the building shuddered in an explosion big enough to announce the Apocalypse. She felt the wall next to her sway and shoved Sydney back into the relative safety of the hallway.
Then she lunged forward at a run down the hallway, chasing an elusive ghost in black leather.
OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod! Broots was not a runner, but he was definitely flying now, driven by an absolute conviction that Miss Parker was going to shoot him in the back at any second. Or worse. He raced down the long hallway, into another thick curtain of smoke, and saw flickering lights ahead. Except that this time, thanks to Angelo's better-late-than-never communication, he knew it wasn't actually a fire.
Special effects. Smoke and mirrors – heavy on the smoke. But the explosion had felt pretty real.
Miss Parker was still behind him when he threw a panicked look over his leather-clad shoulder. She ran like a relay racer, with a gun in her hand instead of a baton. He knew better than anybody, except maybe Jarod, that she wasn't going to give up easily. The smoke thickened, clung to the back of his threat in a yellow film, filled up his sinuses. He coughed, spat, and kept running.
Once you got close enough you could see that the "fire" was a set of truly impressive smoke canisters, some spinning, flickering orange lights, and a large fan to direct the smoke down the hallway. Only close enough, in all the murk, was more like "right on top of it," and Broots couldn't adjust course fast enough to avoid it. He crashed into the fan, lost his balance, hit carpet and rolled. Breath wheezed in his smoke-soaked lungs, and he had taken a hard enough hit that just for a second he was tempted to lay there on the soft carpet and rest until his world stopped spinning.
But he remembered Miss Parker, and he lurched back to his feet. The red EXIT sign at the end of the hall blinked Morse code for ESCAPE.
He hit the door at a flat run.
She was ten steps behind him.
"Help!" He said it as loudly as he dared into the microphone, hoping Angelo hadn't lost interest and gone off to play Nintendo. His shoes crunched gravel, and he hit cool night air like a diving into a pool. There were still sweepers out here, looking for Jarod. If he could get Parker off his back he could ditch the coat, wig and glasses and become plain old Broots again, showing up innocently to help. It wasn't a great idea, it was just the best one he could come up with at the moment.
The good news was that Miss Parker's high heels weren't made for footraces on either gravel or soft ground. She'd stopped to kick them off, and his lead widened.
"What?" Angelo's voice asked in his ear. "Sydney okay?"
"How the hell should I know? I'm screwed! Miss Parker's right behind me, get me the hell out of here!"
The silence gave him time to wonder if Angelo had enough of a temper to walk away and leave him dangling.
Evidently not. "Left," Angelo said. "White tree."
What the hell – actually, it was an overgrown magnolia bush heavy with blooms. Broots darted around it and kept running. When he glanced over his shoulder he saw Miss Parker gaining again, giving it everything she had. He had no more to give. In fact, it was all he could do to keep his legs moving, since his muscles had turned to rubber. His lungs burned and cramped, and his heart pounded in one long, continuous, dangerous fibrillation of effort.
"Fence," Angelo said softly. "Careful."
The fence was black wrought iron, no lights, no warning. Broots had just enough time to skid in the soft damp grass and put out his hands, or he would have slammed into it full tilt like Wile E. Coyote.
He searched the cool iron frantically for some kind of latch. There. It had probably been locked earlier, but Angelo must have taken care of that because it swung open just wide enough for him to squeeze through. He was sweating so hard he was melting, but even so it was a tough fit. Metal scraped red gouges across his chest where the coat couldn't protect him.
He was pulling himself free as Miss Parker's hand grabbed hold of his wrist, and she put the gun to his head. He was turned away from her, and he didn't move, though he'd never wanted to punk out so badly in his life.
She was breathing hard, and her fingers trembled where they held him. He could have broken free pretty easily, except for the gun.
"I'm sorry," she said in that smoked velvet voice, the one that always made Broots weak at the knees. Except she wasn't talking to him, of course – she was talking to Jarod. "Believe me, I don't want to take you back. Not to – what Lyle has in store. But I don't have a choice. But I promise you this, I'll never let them threaten Sydney. Never again."
Something in her voice made Broots go very still inside, rapt with wonder. He knew something about her, in that moment, that he'd never suspected.
It gave him the courage – foolhardy, probably – to pull his hand free, turn his head toward her in the concealing shadows, and touch the smoke-smudged curve of her cheek. One lingering touch.
Then he turned and walked away, calmly, with a tight hot place between his shoulderblades where he figured the bullet would hit him.
She didn't fire. In three steps he was lost in the dark, and when he looked back, he could barely see the ghostly smudge of her face.
She loved him. Well, she loved Jarod, anyway. That was both precious and painful at the same time. Broots wondered if Jarod had any clue, and hoped he hadn't; it would make things that much harder on both of them.
He was just imagining what it would be like to kiss her, as Jarod, when the Lincoln Town Car pulled up idling next to him, and Angelo waved from the driver's seat. Broots sighed the last of the smoke out of his lungs, stripped off the sweaty wig, sunglasses and coat, and tossed them in the back.
His days as Jarod were over.
"Oh no you don't," he said. "I'm driving."
She watched him walk away with curiously little regret. She could have shot him, of course – maybe just winged him a little – but after having spent the day contemplating a future as an executioner, she didn't have much of an urge. The way he'd touched her face – gentle, understanding, oddly vulnerable – that kept her from squeezing the trigger.
Be safe, she thought. She was worried about him. He looked thin, strangely wasted. His road to recovery had been harder than she'd thought. Don't do anything stupid. If I let you go and you get caught anyway, I really will shoot you.
She holstered her gun and took in a deep breath of the cool night air. A beautiful Georgia evening, with stars twinkling overhead, a breeze winding its way through the nodding shadowed trees.
She had the momentary and very powerful illusion that she could do exactly what Jarod had done, slide between bars and brick into the night, into a future that left the Centre and all its sad little politics behind. But if she did that, she left Sydney behind.
She'd promised Jarod.
She turned and walked back across the glistening soft grass toward the disaster of the Oleander Spa, where sweepers and Centre rats of all descriptions were pouring out of the building, retching and coughing. Everybody wore a fright mask of soot and sweat, and she knew she looked no better. Worse, maybe – barefoot in her shredded hose like some Appalachian runaway.
Sydney was sitting on the grass like a little boy, a faint smile on his smudged face. He surveyed the confusion with something that looked very close to delight. Parker sank down next to him, stretched out her legs and wriggled her toes. Grass stains, she thought. As if the smoke would ever come out of the suit anyway. Jarod must surely owe her a million by now in clothing replacement.
"Thank you," Sydney said quietly. He didn't look at her. "I assume he got away?"
"He always gets away," she said. "You know that."
He raised an eyebrow and said nothing. After a moment, his smile faded, and he jerked his chin at a knot of suits clustered next to the gravel.
One of them was Lyle. Not smothered by the smoke. Damn.
He broke free of the clot of double-breasted wool and stalked toward them. The real Lyle – red-eyed, snarling, vicious – had come out to play. She felt a stab of fear and deliberately relaxed. Showing fear to Lyle was like dabbing on a little blood cologne and swimming with a shark.
He hardly even glanced at her. He kicked Sydney's foot and snarled, "Get up!"
Sydney didn't move. Lyle's face, already black with smoky residue, turned into a savage kabuki mask as it reddened.
"Fine. Die sitting down," he said, and pulled his gun.
Parker pulled hers and aimed at his head. "Don't."
Lyle glanced at her, the beast that had eaten so many lives shining in his eyes, and said, "Think you can stop me before I fire? Better do it now, because you're next."
She stayed steady and perfectly silent. If he so much as twitched she was going to put his brains on the sweeper behind him. And she wouldn't be sorry.
A phone burbled for attention. Nobody moved, but everybody's eyes unfocused just a little. Finally, on the fourth ring, Sam stepped forward and said, "Ah, it's you, Mr. Lyle."
"Shit!" Lyle kept his gun painted on Sydney, but he fumbled in his coat with his left hand and flipped the phone open. "What the hell do you – "
He went absolutely silent. Absolutely still. The red flush left his face so suddenly it was as if he'd been turned black and white.
"But – " he said. And listened. And listened. After a long time, he said, "Yes. Yes sir."
He slowly folded the phone closed and pocketed it, then slid the safety back on his gun and lowered it to point at the ground. It wasn't that so much as the stunned blank look in his eyes and made Parker follow suit.
"That was Big Matumbo," Lyle said. "Our grandfather's dead. Heart attack.."
"I'll work through my grief," Parker said. "What else did he say?"
Lyle's eyes flashed for just a brief second with red madness, but it might have been a trick of the light. "He said that if Sydney suffers any unfortunate accidents, he's going to have every member of senior management flown to Kenya and buried in mass graves on his farm. Where he can see them in the morning when he drinks his coffee."
It was, Parker was sure, a word for word delivery. She suppressed a shiver.
"Get him the hell out of my sight," Lyle said. "And keep him there."
Sydney helped her to her feet, glanced down at her bare toes, and said, "I'd suggest shoes before we board the plane."
She let go of him and strolled off toward the place she dropped them in the dark. Four hundred dollar Gucci pumps, and they're probably in a pile of fertilizer. Not quite, but they had a light coating of clinging black mud. She wiped them on the grass and slid them on. She almost lost her balance as her heel slid on wet ground, and reached out wildly for support.
A man in a black leather coat grabbed her arm and steadied her. He was almost invisible in the shadows, but his teeth showed ghost-white when he smiled.
Salvador had cleaned up well. Outside of the baggy jumpsuit he had narrow hips and wide shoulders, and he filled out leather very well. Almost as well as the Jarod he was pretending to be.
"You like?" he asked. She raised her eyebrows and looked him over again.
"Not bad," she purred. She had the feeling he blushed.
"No, no – explosión!" He made an expansive gesture. "Very loud!"
"You set off the explosion?" she asked. He beamed. "Great, Salvador. Well, it made a hell of a diversion."
"Fertilizer," he said, nodding.
"You're a hell of a gardener. I'll have the cash sent to you tomorrow."
"Federal Express?" he asked hopefully. He had an infectious smile, and she let herself be susceptible.
"Overnight, guaranteed. Oh, and Salvador?" She reached out to touch the butter-soft leather of the coat, then slid her hands down his chest. Her voice dropped an octave or so. "You may want to lose the coat before you try to leave the grounds. Hang on to it, though. Next time I'm in town, maybe you can wear it for me."
Sydney's phone rang during the ride back to the airport, and for a few seconds he and Miss Parker looked at each other with wry speculation in their eyes. He reached in his pocket and retrieved it. "Hello, Jarod. I was wondering if you might call. … No, I seem to be intact. I understand Old Mr. Parker had a fatal heart attack, however."
Sydney smiled as he listened, then said, simply, "Thank you." He held the phone out to her. She took it, turned her head to look out the window – the illusion of privacy, if not the reality – and said, "Big Matumbo. Well, you really do have some tricks up your sleeve, Jarod, I'm impressed."
He wasn't interested in being baited, not this time. "Are you all right?"
"Apart from needing about three showers and a permanent vacation from Lyle, I'm fine. And how are you?" She put just enough sarcasm in it to show she didn't care. Though, of course, she did.
"Faking it," he said, "until I make it. But I guess that's the story of my life, isn't it, Miss Parker?"
"That's the story of everybody's life. Big Matumbo threatened to use the entire senior staff as fertilizer. Next time you want to save Sydney's life, try not to toss mine into the wood chipper."
"There won't be a next time," he said. "Not for Sydney. Not for you, if you're smart. I've given you a gift, Miss Parker. Don't waste it. Lyle won't."
And click, he was gone. End of game. She handed the phone back to Sydney, let out a breath that still tasted faintly of smoke, and put her feet up on the opposite seat of the limo.
"One good thing about this fiasco," she muttered, and closed her eyes for a nap. "One whole day without Broots' bumbling."
She couldn't understand why Sydney laughed.