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Author's Chapter Notes:

A huge SORRY to everyone who's been following this story.  There's no excuse for letting it go this long without an update.  Thanks to everyone who's left reviews, emailed me, and generally pestered.  Credit, as always, goes to my lovely betas Manoline, who saved me from more "ups"'s than I can count and Topanga who got my lazy butt back in motion.  And since you've all probably forgotten the first 6 chapters, picture Syd's voice . . .


In the wake of the events of IotH, Jarod was captured and brought back to the Centre, where Raines has developed an insidious plan to control him.  Enlisting the help of the creepy Dr. Anders, Raines plans to wipe Jarod's recent memory using an experimental new drug treatment--the Animus Therapy.  To buy more time, Sydney convinces Raines to run one more beta test on the drug.

In the interim, Raines enlists Miss Parker to handle Jarod's security.  Lyle, however, is shut out of the project, much to his dismay.  Sydney goes to Broots, who is enjoying a normal job again, and convinces him to help find a way of saving Jarod.  Broots fails to uncover a flaw in the security, but stumbles across a rumor: apparently one of the designers of Animus is on the run from the Centre.  This mystery scientist may hold the secret to reversing the drug.

Meanwhile, deep in the sublevels under heavy guard, Jarod is going mad with anxiety.  At Raines' orders, Sydney talks to Jarod about the procedure, which will take place in less than a week.  Miss Parker holds her breath, waiting for the explosion that must follow . . .

Parker scanned the last invoice with tired eyes.  She was barely resisting the urge to drop her head and rub her aching temples.  Even at nine o’clock at night, the dim security room still held a few techs, a handful of sweepers; underlings.  Parker gave a rueful smile as she remembered the first time she’d heard the word.  The day of her mother’s funeral she’d been waiting for her father in his office.  He finally arrived, already red in the face from yelling at the CEO of some partner corporation or other, and proceeded to berate the receptionist to within an inch of her life.  After he’d calmed down and spotted his daughter’s wide eyes, Mr. Parker had squatted beside her, stuck a finger in her face, and told her, “Angel, there’s only one rule for dealing with underlings:  You never let them see you bleed.”  Parker sighed and picked her head up. 

The techs assigned to this project were pretty good, but she had yet to find one she was willing to trust professionally as she had Broots, and somehow she doubted she would.  The sweepers, like most in their profession, were chronically low on brain power but made up for it by being wonderfully compliant.  She was very happy that she’d put Sam in charge of the sweepers, so that she could deal with them as little as possible.   

It had been a very long day.  All eyes had been on Sydney that morning as he broke the news to Jarod.  Parker had watched the live footage intently, searching for any sign that might indicate Genius Boy was getting ready to do something stupid.  His reaction was no worse than she’d expected, though, and the event had gone off without a hitch.  She had spent the rest of the morning grilling Sydney on ways of keeping Jarod’s brilliant mind occupied with subjects that didn’t involve mapping air vents and disabling security systems. 

Always, though, she kept one eye on the screen showing Jarod’s room.  For the first hour or so, the pretender had seemed nearly catatonic.  He’d collapsed on his bed and stared at the ceiling without moving until Parker became seriously concerned.  She’d wanted to intervene, but Sydney had advised against it.  Parker had argued, but Sydney insisted that the behavior was not so uncharacteristic as to indicate a nervous collapse.  Jarod just had some strong emotions to work out, Syd had argued, and he could best accomplish that if left in peace.  He was the shrink, so Parker had assented. 

Finally, something had broken the spell.  Jarod stood and began to pace.  That didn’t last long, though; he soon disappeared into the corner under the camera; the one spot where he knew the electronic eye couldn’t follow him.  Having him out of her sight made Parker even more nervous, but again Sydney advised against interference.  This time, Parker didn’t contest the point; she remembered this sort of behavior from childhood.  When Jarod was especially bothered by something, he would curl up in a blind spot under the cameras.  It usually meant that he was feeling overwhelmed—not devious.  Jarod was much more creative when he felt like being devious. 

This didn’t last long, either, however, and before long, Jarod reappeared and curled up on the cot again.  He went through cycles; he would lie prostrate on the bed, spring up suddenly to pace the room nervously, and then hide under the camera for a while before returning to the bed.  Sydney explained the behavior away.  The repetition, he claimed, allowed Jarod to create an illusion of stability in his surroundings as he struggled to bring that same stability to his emotional state.   Parker privately thought that whoever Syd had gotten his psychological theories from was probably a few cards short of a full deck, but she accepted his assessment for lack of a second opinion.  

She noticed that as Jarod’s pacing became more vigorous, the lines in Sydney’s forehead deepened, and his gaze flicked to the monitor more and more often.  Finally, Parker had gotten tired of watching their synchronized fidgeting and sent Sydney off to SL-10—ostensibly to catch up on some paperwork, though Parker doubted he’d get much done. 

With him gone, Parker had returned to stalking the security room, terrorizing the techs.  It was critical that they get the new security measures up and running quickly, before Jarod snapped out of his stupor and started his inevitable crusade for escape. 

So, she stayed in the dim room, barking out orders and hounding the technicians until late in the evening.  Finally, she gave the inventory one last glance and leaned back in her chair, rubbing the grit from her eyes and longing for another cup of coffee.  Out of habit she glanced again at the monitor that had occupied so much of her attention today.  They’d shut the lights out in Jarod’s room five minutes earlier, but the cell was still faintly illuminated by the bright rays of the hallway lights, shining through the narrow window.  The fluorescents cut a harsh white path across the bare cell and splashed across Jarod’s face.  The man sat on his cot, knees drawn up to his chest, expression suggesting he was dead to the world. 

Parker looked away with a sigh of self-disgust for the gnawing feeling the sight created in her.  He doesn’t need a mommy, she reminded herself firmly, That’s what we pay Syd for.   

Sam’s low voice cut short her self-deprecation, “Miss Parker, we have three individuals entering the sublevel from the primary elevator.  They’ve shown the proper authorization, but I didn’t clear anyone to be down here at this hour.” 

Parker swallowed a groan. “Neither did I.”  She reached out to grab her trusty Smith and Wesson from the tabletop.  “Hey, Chuckles,” a slightly overweight tech in a purple checkered shirt looked up guiltily from his doughnut, “Pull up the surveillance footage from Corridor B.  Display it on the main monitor.”  The man scrambled to obey her commands.  Jarod’s shadowy face vanished from the largest monitor to be replaced by a darkened corridor, empty save for the backs of three men receding out of the shot.   

“Change the angle,” Parker told the tech absently, “I want to see their faces.”  The man hesitated, clearly less than comfortable with the technology.  Parker gave him a sharp slap on the back of the head.  “Now, Curly!”  The man stifled a grunt and pecked rapidly at the keyboard for a few seconds.  A moment later the screen resolved into a new image; this one from thirty feet further down the corridor.  The tech looked up at her as if he expected a gold star.  Parker gave him her widest smile. “Thank you.  And Chuckles?”  She widened the smile even more. “When you get home, burn that shirt.” 

Parker let out only a small snicker as the tech’s face fell.  Terrorizing these geeks was like shooting fish in a barrel.  God, she missed Broots. 

She redirected her attention to the monitor.  The intruders were still too far away to distinguish their faces, but the hulking figures on either side were obviously sweepers.  The man between them was the one to worry about . . . As the man came closer Parker let her head fall back and let out a groan of frustration as she recognized his face.  He would pick tonight.  It had been only a matter of time. 

Parker glanced around the room.  She still had Sam and two of his best sweepers; she outnumbered them.  Years of experience, however, had taught her that show of force was not the most effective solution.  She did not need this tonight.  Letting out a feral growl, she hooked her nine millimeter into its shoulder harness.  “Stay here,” she told Sam, “Signal me if any more of them show up.” 

The grizzled sweeper frowned.  “Are you sure you don’t want me to—“ 

“Sam,” Parker cut him off.  She made her voice singsong, as if repeating a simple lesson to a recalcitrant child, “Stay here and signal me if more of them show up.” 

Sam gave her a classic look of respectful disapproval, but had the sense to intone, “Yes, Miss Parker,” and leave it at that. 

Subconsciously drawing her gun to load a clip, Parker envisioned the layout of her domain.  Coming from the primary elevator, the intruders could make their way to Jarod’s cell in a matter of minutes.  Well, Parker thought as she holstered her gun, she had a surprise for them.  She positioned herself in front of the door opposite Jarod’s room and watched the security footage out of the corner of her eye—waiting. 

Three silhouettes appeared on the monitor.  Still, Parker waited.  In the Centre, everything was about appearances.  The mere appearance of strength—of power—could be just as effective as the real thing.  It could be a deadly game, but Parker had been playing it from birth; she knew how to win. 

Finally, the security footage indicated that the trio was barely eight feet from their goal.  Fastening a predatory smile on her face, Parker flung the door open and strode casually into the hallway to plant herself in front of the cell door.  

The newcomers stopped short to avoid colliding with her, and Parker turned as if she had just noticed their presence. Ignoring the hired muscle on either side, the woman focused on the man between them, flashing him her toothiest grin.  “Well, what do we have here?”  She looked him up and down. “What’s the matter?  Not happy to see your big sis?” 

Lyle barely concealed a grimace.  He’d clearly expected Parker to be gone by this hour. He schooled his features into an expression that was only slightly reminiscent of a guilty toddler caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  “A pleasure.  As always, Parker.  Unfortunately, it’s business that brings me here.  I’m here to relieve you of babysitting duty for a while” 

Parker arched an eyebrow.  Transfers had been known to happen without warning, but this flew in the face of what Raines had told her only yesterday.  He’d made it clear that Jarod was Parker’s to control for the week leading up to Animus. She languidly flipped back her knee-length trench coat to rest her hands on her hips, exposing several more square feet of skin in the process.  Parker was well aware of the effect her mode of dress had on even the most well-intentioned men, and Lyle was far from well-intentioned.  She needed every distraction she could get, and Lyle’s perverted brain was a weapon she’d gladly use against him.  “How very generous of you.  Authorization papers.  Now.”  She snapped her fingers impatiently. 

Lyle gave the grunt on his left a short nod, and the man dug through a briefcase to produce a thin manila folder.  As Parker opened the folder and leafed through the papers, Lyle had no trouble filling the silence with his usual cheery bluster.  He didn’t seem to realize that Parker had stopped buying his “nice guy” act over four years ago.  “Funny thing.  Raines asked me, just out of the blue, to take over for the week. Maybe he’s finally decided to give the job to someone qualified . . .  Parker tuned out Lyle’s babbling and focused on the papers in front of her.  They seemed fairly straight forward—just basic release papers authorizing Jarod’s transfer from SL-25 to an “unspecified location” under the authority of a new project coordinator.  The last page said it all; it was a brief memo explicitly ordering Parker to hand Jarod over to Lyle, and it was signed by Raines himself.  Damn. 

“ . . . but, really, I can’t tell you how great it feels for him to finally admit that the whole unpleasant business with Silence wasn’t my fault . . .”  Parker continued to tune her brother out—not that he was pausing for replies anyway—and instead used the time to kick her brain into overdrive.  There was no way she was letting Lyle take Jarod—not if she could avoid it.  Parker knew Sydney would chew her out if anyone harmed a single hair on Jarod’s head, and she was well aware of the kind of “babysitting” Lyle had in store.   From a more pragmatic standpoint, she needed Jarod to ensure her own survival.  With “Daddy’s” departure, she had lost much of the prestige and clout she had once taken for granted.  Her status as Jarod’s project coordinator was her one remaining source of political capital within the Centre.  If she lost control over him, Raines would have no incentive to keep her around.  

She examined the signature more carefully.  It could be a forgery—she couldn’t tell for sure—but why would Lyle risk his neck over this?  Surely he wouldn’t face Raines’s wrath for no other reason than to reintroduce Jarod to his trusty car battery? 

A quick glance at the sociopath’s smirking face gave Parker her answer.  Lyle had always been reckless in the pursuit of power, and in the Centre Jarod was the key to that power.  All he would have to do would be to drag Jarod down to some secret hidey-hole of his and pay someone to keep an eye on him.  With Jarod as his hostage, Raines would be helpless to deny him anything he asked, especially since no one doubted that Lyle was crazy enough to actually kill Jarod.  It would be the Dry River scam all over again. 

But, of course, this was all speculation, which left Parker at an impasse.  As always, she knew only quick, decisive action would do.  When Lyle finally ran out of steam, Parker looked up as if she’d just remembered he was there.  “I’m sorry.  I need a minute to look these over.  And I need a smoke.  Do you mind?”  She directed her last words at the sweeper on Lyle’s left, who she remembered from frequent smoke breaks years before.  The man fumbled in his jacket pocket for a moment before producing a pack of Camels and a cheap butane lighter. 

Parker took a cigarette and the lighter.  Sticking the cigarette in her mouth, she lifted the folder with one hand and lit the lighter with the other.  But, instead of lighting the cigarette, she touched the flame to the bottom corner of the folder.  Flames quickly ran up the dry paper.  Parker fanned the air with the folder for a moment—just to complete the effect—then let it fall to the ground.  In one smooth movement, she pocketed the lighter, plucked the unlit cigarette from her mouth, and poked Lyle in the chest with it, right in the middle of his silk Armani tie. 

“Nice try,” she growled, leaning in to invade his personal space, “but, aren’t you a little old to be forging daddy’s signature on permission slips?”   

Lyle’s eyes flashed dangerously, but Parker could tell from the sudden discomfort in his body language that she’d guessed correctly.  “Careful, Sis.  You’re not in a position where you can afford to make mistakes.  And that was a big one.” 

Parker gave a brittle laugh at that.  “Centre reality check, Lyle:  Wheezy picked me for this job. Take my advice and get out because with this stunt you elevated yourself to security threat numero uno.  The next time you try to hijack my project you’d better have Uncle Fester himself in tow.  Otherwise, the sweepers will use your ass for target practice.” 

She had him, and he knew it.  With an expression suggesting that he had just bitten into a lemon, Lyle signaled his thugs to retreat.  As he turned, the man made one final attempt to instill fear.  “You’ll regret this.” 

The threat was empty and weak, even by Lyle’s standards.  He was clearly off his game while Parker was at the top of hers.  She planted her fists on her hips and gave him a smile modeled off the expression of an alligator Jarod had once named after her.  “I’m just shaking in my stilettos.” 

Only when Lyle was halfway down the hallway did Parker drop the predatory grin and watch his retreating back with thoughtful eyes.  The little spawn certainly had a talent for making her life difficult.  Now she would have to delay going home for yet another hour while she drafted a report on this stunt and framed instructions for the sweepers in case he tried to pull it again.  The bastard.  While she hoped that this scam might induce Raines to give Lyle an early retirement—Centre style—she knew it wasn’t likely.  Her deranged brother was far too willing to do other people’s dirty work for Doctor Evil to dispose of him.  At least Parker could rest assured that her ass was covered; in the unlikely case that the papers now smoldering at her feet were legit, she could claim that she was just doing her job by protecting the Centre’s investment until she had confirmation of the Chairman’s orders. 

For one despairing moment, Parker wondered just when she’d learned to speak the language of power-addicts and sociopaths so well.  Then she shrugged the thought away, tossed the unlit cigarette to burn among the papers, and stalked off to find someone to clean up the mess.  She never looked behind her.  If she had, she might have had to meet the pair of brown eyes just on the other side of the glass, watching everything.    


Jarod forced himself to down the last few drops of tomato juice and set the remains of his “breakfast” aside.  As usual, he hadn’t been able to do more than pick at the green slop that constituted every meal he was served.  For Jarod, every bite was a reminder of how these people saw him—as less than human.  The reminder was almost as bitter as the wheatgrass’ aftertaste. 

Jarod stood, stretched a little, and paced the length of the cell a few times, trying to expend some of his nervous energy.  He was always jittery these days, no matter how little he ate or slept. After years on the run, he just couldn’t adapt to being trapped in an eight by ten cell where the passage of time was marked only by the daily trip to the shower blocks and the nightly shutdown of the lights.  It had been two days since Sydney had come to reveal Raines’ demented plan, and Jarod was no closer to escape than he had been when he’d first been dumped in this hellhole.  He felt he was more than justified in being a little antsy. 

With a sigh, he gave up on calming himself through exercise and returned to his cot.  There at the foot of the bed were two bright, thin books—their cheerful covers incongruous with the cell’s bleak décor—gifts from Sydney.  Jarod had given the old man a hard time when he’d brought them the day before—they were obviously meant as a distraction, and Sydney was usually above such overt forms of manipulation.  Secretly, though, he was relieved.  It was good to finally have something to occupy his time.  Besides which, one of the books was proving quite useful. 

As Jarod picked up the first book and a mechanical pencil, a small smile tugged at his lips.  He read the title:  SUDOKU, VOLUME XII: DIFFICULT TO VERY DIFFICULT.  He plopped down on the bed and opened to a blank puzzle, all the while thinking that it was a pity he hadn’t discovered Sudoku in the outside world where he could have actually enjoyed it.  He examined the puzzle and penciled in the first number.  Numbers up, down, around, challenging his logical skills.  Everything fit; there was no problem he couldn’t think his way out of.  The process was almost hypnotic and as the puzzle came together, he felt his mind simultaneously relaxing and focusing.  Twenty minutes later he scribbled the last number, having completed a puzzle that would take most people hours.  As he closed the book, he found himself wishing that life could be as simple as a Sudoku puzzle. 

His mind focused for the first time that morning, Jarod picked up the second book.  It was a sketchpad, identical to the dozens he’d used as a boy.  Growing up, sketchbooks had been his one avenue of release—of escape.  This one served the same purpose.  But, it had more practical applications as well. 

Flipping to a blank sheet, Jarod began scribbling in shorthand.  This wasn’t a red notebook, but it worked just as well for organizing his thoughts.  He quickly jotted down everything he’d deduced about his surroundings—from the location of the elevators and shower blocks with respect to his cell to the positions of every air vent and camera he’d been able to locate to the names of the sweepers who guarded his door.  Once the meager accumulation of knowledge was laid out before him, Jarod treated the problem like a Sudoku puzzle; he considered various options trying to find the perfect placement of an escape route.  Frustration built quickly.  This was ground he’d covered many times before.  Locked in this cell, he didn’t have the whole picture, and he simply couldn’t solve the puzzle using only a fraction of the board. 

He was just about to take a break and try some real sketching for a while when the distinctive clank of the door opening pulled him from his reverie.  Dex and Marcus glowered at him from the doorway.  “Get up, Labrat,” the latter barked, “Shower time.”  Jarod reflected that he hardly needed to tell him; daily trips to the shower blocks had been the only break in the monotony for almost three weeks now.  He gave the little man his most insolent look and yawned widely.  This was part of the routine—his daily chance to remind them that they hadn’t broken him yet.  

Dex gave an exasperated sigh.  “Jarod.”  His voice held a warning.  With a sigh of his own, the pretender put aside his sketchbook and strode leisurely towards the door.  He was about to pass between the two goons when a heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him.  “Nice try,” Dex said.  This was the part of the routine that Jarod hated the most.  He stood still and only flinched slightly when the cold steel closed around his wrists, restraining his arms behind his back.  Once the handcuffs were secure, Marcus propelled Jarod out the door with an almost vicious shove.  Jarod recovered his balance and started down the hallway with as much dignity as he could muster under the circumstances.  This, too, was part of the routine. 

Little did the sweepers know, this was the day Jarod intended to change that routine.    


Jarod had almost adjusted to the cold water and was rinsing the last of the shampoo from his hair when the shower shut off automatically.  Shivering slightly, he accepted a towel from Dex, dried himself off quickly, and pulled his Centre uniform back.  The shower blocks, like everything else in the Centre, were cold and institutional.  There were no partitions—nothing to offer even the slightest privacy.  To make matters worse, cameras glared down from all four corners of the room.  Jarod knew what he had planned wouldn’t be easy.  He just prayed that the sweepers were really as predictable as he believed them to be. 

At the far end of the room, Marcus wetted a straight razor in the bathroom’s lone sink.  Before his escape, Jarod had been allowed to shave himself—had even had his own electric razor in his cell—but, needless to say, the Centre no longer trusted him with blades.  For the second time that day, Jarod stood still while Dex manacled his hands.  Their paranoia ran so deep that they did not even let Jarod within arm’s reach of a razor unless he was restrained.  Of course, he was about to prove their fears justified. 

He just needed a distraction . . . “So, Dex,” he began in a conversational tone, “Don’t you get tired of this song and dance?”  The sweeper gave him a bored look.  As discretely as he could, Jarod pulled his prize—a small safety pin—from where he’d concealed it in the underside of his sleeve. 

“Four more days, Jarod.  Then it’s a whole new ‘song and dance.’”   

Jarod clenched his teeth as he began the slow, painful process of picking the lock without making a sound.  “Bet you can’t wait.”  The sweeper didn’t respond, so Jarod decided to press the issue.  “I’m curious, though:  just what is it about this place that makes you people trade in your consciences for a 9 mm and sixteen fifty an hour?  The benefits package?  Or do you just get a high off of abduct—“   

Dex silenced Jarod with a slap that seemed almost casual, but nonetheless threw the pretender off balance, causing him to stagger a half step to the side.  The outburst couldn’t have been more perfectly timed; as the blow landed, Jarod let out a grunt that effectively masked the faint click of the cuffs opening.  The sweeper glared at his charge, “Don’t blather about things you don’t understand.”  Jarod held his whole body very still, especially his arms, lest the loosened cuffs slip and give him away.  Dex sighed and called out, “Marcus?  Hurry up with that razor.” 

The smaller sweeper sauntered over and handed Dex the razor.  The burly man put one hand under Jarod’s chin, tilted his head up . . . Jarod jerked back.  Snapping his hands free from the cuffs, he brought his left up in an uppercut that connected with Dex’s hand and sent the shaving instrument flying.  Before the other could respond, he followed the move with a punch to the middle of the sweeper’s broad chest.  Dex staggered back, his lungs seizing up.  Jarod bounded after him, grabbed his arm while he was still off balance, and cuffed him to a conveniently positioned pipe.  Before the sweeper could even catch his breath, Jarod relieved him of his gun and the keys to the handcuffs. 

Marcus had turned, trusting his partner to control the bound pretender. When he heard Dex grunt, he turned and swore eloquently.  Jarod eyed the smaller man and took two careful steps to his right.  Marcus leaped towards him—and went down hard as his foot encountered the large, slippery puddle of shampoo Jarod had been careful to spill.  The ploy worked better than Jarod could have dreamed; Marcus’s feet flew out from under him, and as he fell his head connected with the shower, producing a metallic clank.  The man sank to the ground and did not stir. 

His heart hammering, Jarod dropped to one knee beside the fallen sweeper and felt in his neck for a pulse.  A moment later, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.  The man’s pulse was strong and steady—though from the looks of things he wouldn’t be waking up any time soon.  Jarod grabbed the man’s gun as well as the Swiss Army knife he carried.  He didn’t bother restraining the unconscious sweeper; even if the man came to, one more pursuer wouldn’t change much in the grand scheme of things. 

Behind him, Dex was finally regaining his breath.  “Jarod!”  The sweeper employed his most menacing tone of voice.  “You’re making a big mistake.  Jarod!”  The pretender didn’t have time to bandy words with the goon.  He dashed out the door without so much as a parting quip. 

Speed was everything.  Jarod raced down the hallway and ducked into an office.  Luck was with him for the moment:  the tiny room was unoccupied.  Jarod slammed the door shut and barricaded it with a file cabinet.  The barrier wouldn’t slow his pursuers down for long, but it would buy him precious seconds.  Flipping the blade out, Jarod used the knife to unscrew the air vent from the wall and clambered inside, listening intently for sounds of pursuit.  Surely they’d be on him any second now . . . but his luck apparently held, and the corridors were silent.  If he remembered the Centre blueprints correctly, this vent should be connected to the central ventilation system he knew so well rather than the blocked off vents that serviced his cell.  Jarod took off running in a half-crouch.   

He moved quickly, considering the cramped environment, and navigated the first several turns and junctions with ease.  As he moved, he reviewed the escape plan in his head, making sure he remembered all the alternate routes out and was prepared for all contingencies.  Jarod was so wrapped up in his planning, that he nearly forgot his surroundings.  His first hint that something had gone wrong came when his head smacked into something solid. 

Jarod reeled back, rubbing his forehead and glaring at this new obstacle in confused dismay.  The dim reflected light revealed a steel grate barring his way.  Forcing down his growing panic, Jarod inspected the grate more closely.  It had been welded in place fairly recently, he judged.  Its openings were large enough to allow passage of air and insects, but certainly not escaping pretenders.  On to Plan B, then.  Jarod turned and retraced his steps to the nearest junction.  From there, he took a left and began tracing out a new route.  He’d barely gone fifty feet, however, before he ran into an identical grate blocking passage.  Jarod swore eloquently.  Someone had spent a lot of time and effort closing these vents off.  Fighting off the desperation that emerged when he thought of what that might mean, he retraced his steps, made another left, and started down another vent.  This wasn’t his ideal route, but with luck he could follow this vent down a level, come out in SL-26, and from there make it to SL-27 and his private bolt-hole.   

For the moment, it seemed luck was with him; he encountered no more barriers in this direction.  There were still no sounds of pursuit.  It was too easy; they should be on him by now . . . The vent began to slope downwards and narrowed until Jarod had to crawl.  There was very little light, and Jarod berated himself for not thinking to take one of the sweepers’ flashlights.  A very faint glow appeared ahead of him.  After what felt like an eternity, the vent dead ended at a darkened room.  Jarod peered through the grate anxiously.  The room beyond was shadowy, but seemed to be empty.   

Twisting his body, Jarod kicked the vent cover out and froze when it fell to the floor with a clank.  The sound reverberated through the room until Jarod was sure they could hear it on SL-5.  He held his breath for a moment, but there was no other sound save his own racing heart.  Exhaling slowly, he got a firm grip on the edge of the vent, hoisted himself out, and dropped.  And dropped.  He hit the floor almost twelve feet below and had to stifle a grunt of pain as his ankle turned beneath him. 

Jarod slowly climbed to his feet, rubbing his stinging ankle.  The room seemed to be another abandoned office.  It was completely bare and the only light shone from the tiny cracks around the door.  He advanced to within arms reach of the door and flattened himself against the wall.  Now all he had to do was ease the door open, check that the hallway was empty, and make his way down one level . . . He reached for the knob to nudge the door open. 

It didn’t budge.  He pushed harder.  The door gave not one inch.  

Jarod twisted the knob and threw his whole weight against the door, but it made no difference.  He was locked in.  Fingers trembling, he examined the door as best he could given the limited light.  There was no sign of a keyhole, a deadbolt, or an electronic locking mechanism—no way to open the door from the inside.  The door was solid steel except for a small square window that seemed to be reinforced glass.  Beyond the glass was only blackness.  Desperate now, he turned and surveyed the room.  There was no other exit, and the air vent he’d entered through was now out of reach.  From the far corners, two cameras bathed the room in a faint, bloody glow. 

Seized with sudden fury, Jarod drew one of the handguns from the waistband of his pants, leveled it at the nearest camera, and fired with deadly accuracy.  The firearm went off with a bang, but when the smoke cleared the camera was undamaged and there was no sign of a bullet hole in the wall.  For a moment, Jarod was too shocked to react.  The camera was barely five feet away—he couldn’t have missed.  Mechanically, he removed the clip from the handgun and examined the ammo.  Blanks.  He checked the other gun.  It, too, contained only harmless blanks.  Not good.  No sweeper he’d ever known carried blanks.  A terrible sense of déjà vu crept over him.  He scanned the room again.  The locked door, the multiple cameras, the bare cinderblock walls—the evidence pointed to one inescapable conclusion.  He wasn’t in an office.  He was in a cell. 

As if on cue, the darkened window suddenly blazed with light.  Jarod raised one hand to shield his eyes.  As they adjusted to the glare, the image slowly swam into focus.  The little window was apparently equipped with a hinged metal cover.  The people in the hallway beyond had flung the little door open and now studied their prey as if he was the newest specimen in a zoo. 

His eyes adjusting further by the second, Jarod soon recognized a very familiar pair of ice-blue eyes on the other side of the glass.  The pretender glared daggers at his captor.  Parker returned his gaze with a look that was patently unimpressed.  Behind her, Sam’s broad face appeared.  The sweeper was panting, as if he’d just been running.  His lips were moving, but Jarod couldn’t make out a word—the door was apparently soundproof.  The pretender was suddenly glad for the lip reading lessons he’d once invested in.  He forced all his pain and fury into a tiny ball to be dealt with at a more convenient time.  His mind temporarily clear, Jarod picked up on Sam’s last few words: 

. . . take him back to his space? 

Parker’s gaze never left Jarod’s face.  A sardonic smile spread across her face as she said: 

No.  Houdini here seems to want new accommodations.  The least we can do is let him stay the night. 

Without further ado, the door slammed shut, leaving Jarod to stand in darkness and wonder how he could have been so completely duped.  Torrents of despair—now all too familiar—came crashing down on him.  His hands trembling, Jarod slowly drew Marcus’ pocket knife from where he’d stowed it in his shoe.  He flicked the blade out and watched in morbid fascination as it gleamed red in the faint light.  The two inch blade was the only aspect of his disastrous escape attempt that was real; it was the one variable Parker hadn’t accounted for. 

The steel glimmered slightly, and Jarod thought idly that the blade offered one more way out.  One that didn’t require bypassing locked doors and armed men and loaded guns.  No, he could just take his leave of this place right here, right now . . . 

Before the thought was complete, Jarod discarded it.  What he was considering wasn’t an option for him and never would be.  Not so long as there was any hope left . . . 

Jarod’s fingers slowly loosened until the knife slipped from his grasp.  As it fell, a heavy weight settled in Jarod’s chest.  This travesty of an escape attempt had been his best chance—his only chance.  Jarod felt like the last ten minutes had aged him several decades.  Wearily, he sank down against a nearby wall, drew his knees up to his chest, and settled in to wait out the night. 

Chapter End Notes:
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