Miss Parker was irritated, but what else is new?
“Why is it so damn hot,” she said, dabbing at an isolated bead of sweat at her hairline. “This is Canada, isn’t it supposed to be cold?”
Miss Parker and her favourite sweeper Sam had taken a jet northwest and across the border in pursuit of the latest lead on Jarod’s whereabouts. Broots was tied up at the Centre; as for Sydney, he was taking a sabbatical.
“They allow sabbaticals at the Centre?” she’d asked incredulously when he’d told her where he was going. “News to me.”
Unfortunately, Jarod wouldn’t exactly press pause and twiddle his thumbs while Sydney sunbathed in Cancun. Rumour had it the Centre’s favourite professional grifter had infiltrated a Canadian mining corporation. The tip couldn’t wait.
And yet here they were, waiting. Waiting, and simmering. It was, in fact, damn hot.
Canadian customs officials brushed past her on their way in and out of the jet’s passenger access door, ducking their heads as they passed to avoid her searing glare.
They had descended on the plane the moment it touched down on the tarmac.
“We’ve received an anonymous tip that this aircraft is transporting restricted and prohibited goods across the U.S.-Canada border,” they’d said. Miss Parker and Sam had been asked to wait (and simmer) under the beating sun, under strict guidance not to attempt to re-enter the aircraft, nor to leave the area.
Restricted and prohibited goods. And they’d found them, too, a smattering of the former and a half-dozen of the latter.
“When I find out who did this,” Miss Parker growled under her breath. The vial of smallpox and the assault rifles in the cargo hold led her to suspect Mr Lyle, but then again, the crate of Zebra mussels and the suitcase full of fireworks screamed Jarod. Mr. Raines was always in contention, of course. Why, Miss Parker wondered, did she have so many people in her life who would be willing — eager, even — to implicate her in a smuggling charge?
“Miss,” coughed a customs agent at her elbow. The agent, a petite woman with russet hair tied back in a ponytail, proffered Miss Parker’s cellphone and purse. Miss Parker snatched her personal effects back without a word and flicked the flip phone open with her thumbnail.
“I’d advise you to use that to call your lawyer,” Agent Ponytail said, nodding at the phone. “Also, to check your messages. It’s been ringing non-stop. Here are your passports and supporting travel documentation, please keep them handy.”
Miss Parker’s hands were full, so the agent pressed the IDs into Sam’s hands. The sweeper glanced at the passports, each opened to the first page of the booklet, and Miss Parker saw his eyes widen fractionally at the name written there.
“Give me those.” She yanked the papers from Sam’s loose grip and stuffed them into her purse, then returned to her phone. The caller had left a dozen messages, none of which she could be bothered to listen to, but she recognized the number: Broots. The Centre legal team could wait. This could be important.
“Miss Parker!” Broots always sounded a little breathless and awe-struck whenever he answered the phone. “Thank goodness I finally reached you. Or, uh. Well, you reached me. Did you make it to Iowa?”
“Iowa?” said Miss Parker. “You’ve been out in the sun too long, Broots. Jarod’s not in Iowa. I’m following a lead in British Columbia.”
There was a foreboding pause on the other end of the line.
“Oh no, oh no,” said Broots. Panic stained his voice, throwing it into higher-pitched registers. “Oh, no. Ah, I hate to contradict you, Miss Parker, but Jarod’s in Iowa. You didn’t get my messages? The email?”
“Broots, if I’d received an email directing me to Iowa I’d be in Iowa, instead of boiling in the Great White North,” said Miss Parker. She shrugged her shoulders out of her blazer. Too damn hot for layers. “Don’t soil your briefs. I’ll head south once customs finishes rifling through our cargo bay. When did this come in?”
“That’s the thing, Miss Parker. Hours ago. Mr Lyle’s well on his way there. I — I’ll be honest, I’m not sure you can make it.”
She froze with her arm halfway extricated from the sleeve of her jacket. Lyle?
“How did — Lyle?!” A passing customs agent did a double-take of alarm. Miss Parker lowered her voice. “How did he get this before I did?”
“If you remember, Miss Parker, I couldn’t get a hold of you. Where have you been? … And what’s that noise?”
Miss Parker became aware she was squeezing her phone, hard enough that the hard plastic screamed under the intense pressure. She relaxed her grip, and took a moment to breathe, ignoring the tinny refrains of “Miss Parker? Miss Parker?” from the other end of the line. On the one hand, Lyle was relatively inexperienced at pursuing Jarod. He’d only started tracking their escapee in earnest since the Isle of Carthis. This didn’t have to mean Miss Parker was in immediate danger of losing the race to re-capture. On the other hand, Lyle had a decent track record so far. Arguably, he would have bagged Jarod in Dry River, Arizona if little brother Kyle hadn’t stepped in.
Miss Parker returned the phone to her ear. “Give me the details,” she said, all business, interrupting the umpteenth repetition of “Hello?” from Broots. “What’s the Pretend this time around?”
He told her, and Miss Parker flapped her hand at Sam for a pen, a notepad and a sturdy shoulder to write against. She jotted down the key points. Sam stood stone-still, trying not to appear as though he were eavesdropping as Miss Parker used him as a standing desk.
“What are you going to do, Miss Parker?” asked Broots. “Mr Lyle has a massive head start, his team could already have boots on the ground by now.”
“You want to help, focus on slowing Lyle down,” Miss Parker snapped. She stared at the last line written on her notepad, the vague beginnings of an idea forming. It wasn’t a good one. Best case scenario, it would be downright humiliating. “Phone in a phony tip about contraband goods on Lyle’s helicopter. See how he likes it.”
With that, she hung up, and immediately returned to the keypad to make another call. Three long, tinny rings in Miss Parker’s ear, a soft click, and a familiar deep voice answered.
“Jarod Needleman, Stratum Property Management.”
Silence on the other end, a pause which yawned and gaped for long enough that Miss Parker wondered whether the call had dropped. Then, an aborted, rueful chuckle.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Miss Parker, how after so many years, we can still surprise each other?” The sound of shuffling paper, some frantic rummaging. “Are you outside? I have to hand it to you, you’re getting faster. I thought I had at least a couple more days. I don’t suppose it would help to mention that there is a family in need of help.” He gritted his teeth in frustration. “I need more time.”
Are you outside? So he must think this call was her taunting him, last-minute, as her team closed in. Mentally she exonerated him for the fireworks and seafood in the cargo hold. Must have been Lyle after all. Out of the corner of her eye, Miss Parker saw Sam staring at her, making no attempt to hide that he was trying to listen in.
“No, I —”
“No? How about a sick girl, a little girl, is that enough? A sick child, who needs justice.”
‘Justice’, Christ on a bike, Miss Parker thought. There was that self-righteous streak, never too far from the surface.
“Jarod! I’m not outside.”
The sounds of rummaging on the other end stopped. Close by, Sam shuffled his feet a few inches closer to earshot. Miss Parker covered the receiver with one hand and hissed at him to get an ETA from one of the agents. He slunk off, dragging his feet both literally and metaphorically. Miss Parker returned her attention to Jarod, who was busy theorizing.
“But you know where I am. You have to, or you wouldn’t have this number. I… don’t understand,” Jarod admitted. And indeed, he sounded baffled. “Are you sabotaging yourself? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the heads-up. Is this the new status quo? I run, you chase, you… deliberately trip over the finish line?”
“Don’t read too far into it, I’m as committed as ever. That’s not the issue.” She huffed a sigh. This would be the humiliating bit. “I’m nowhere near Iowa. Lyle, on the other hand, could be breaking down your door any second. He has a head start, don’t ask why, and I’m not letting you be — he can’t win. That’s all.”
“Lyle?” said Jarod, and there was the subtlest, most minuscule hiccup of fear in his voice, flooding Miss Parker with a straight shot of irrational resentment.
It wasn’t as if it was her goal to scare Jarod, that wasn’t the point. On a bad day, sure, she’d like to see that taunting smirk rudely wiped from his mouth for all the hoops he’s made her jump through over the years. But this was a job with one goal: re-capture. She didn’t need to make Jarod miserable in extracurricular ways, especially not after all the video records she’d watched of the lowest points of his formative years. At the same time, she resented her brother for inspiring that slight waver of fear when she, Miss Parker, had lost that effect years ago. What made Lyle so intimidating? Serial killing side hustles aside, he was only middle management, and a lousy shot besides.
“Yes, Lyle,” she said impatiently. “I have no idea how far away he is, but he left Blue Cove earlier this morning and it’s not a long flight. He could be minutes away. Seconds. You need to get out, now.”
Jarod muttered something under his breath that sounded an awful lot like “sibling rivalries”.
“Jarod!” she barked. “Did you hear me? Unless you’ve come down with acute homesickness, you need to drop your red notebook and catch the next ride out of town. Now.”
“You’re asking me to abandon this girl and her family,” replied Jarod. “I won’t do that. But I appreciate the warning, no matter what the motivation is behind it. Thank you. I can stay out of your brother’s way without skipping town.”
It wasn’t entirely out of the question. He’d done it before. Still, the thought of Lyle being so much closer to Jarod than she was, for any amount of time, made her want to fist-fight her way through every Canadian between her and the closest cockpit.
“No,” she bit out. “No. That doesn’t cut it. You need to make yourself scarce, properly. There’ll be another underdog employee or woe-begotten orphan in the next town. Leave.”
The rumble of a laugh through the ear piece. “You don’t have any leverage to tell me what I ‘need’ to do, Miss Parker. I’ve evaded you for this long, what makes you think Mr. Lyle is any different? Is he better than you?”
“He is not—!” Miss Parker grimaced. Just shy of forty years old and the man was still pulling her pigtails. “You’re baiting me. I’m not doing this right now, not now when I could lose the — listen, I’ll do it for you.” She said it almost before the thought even passed through her head, and before she had the chance to censor it.
For the third time in as many minutes, she seemed to have struck Jarod speechless. It was a deeply satisfying feeling, she had to admit, even if the catalyst was a truly idiotic idea. And it really, really was.
“Do it for me?” echoed Jarod. His voice had softened, lost all bravado and that pesky self-righteousness. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play dumb, Jarod. Your Pretend. You always have contingencies, I’ve been following your work for years. Just swap out a moving part, leading man for leading lady.”
“… You want to help?”
Miss Parker sighed. The painful earnestness in his voice, the Hope with a capital H. He was always so damned ready to see the best in people, sometimes it was hard not to try to prove him right.
“I want you to leave town,” she said, speaking with exaggerated slowness as if to a toddler or a particularly clever parrot. “The Pretend-of-the-week is tying you there, so I’m offering to take over, so you can leave early. Again, don’t read too far into it. Neither of us want Lyle to win, that’s all. Do we have a deal?”
He was definitely reading too far into it, she knew. He was reading all the background information, and becoming an expert in it, and embodying the very notion. It was all he knew how to do.
“Right,” said Jarod, and Miss Parker was vaguely disgusted to hear a broad grin in his voice. “I would love the idea, if I believed you’d follow through. You don’t exactly have any collateral to offer. What’s to stop you from dropping the Pretend the minute I’ve left?”
Damn, thought Miss Parker. He had a point. She blustered, trying to stall as she groped for some blackmail she could intentionally hand to the enemy. If Raines could see her now.
Jarod interrupted her thoughts. “Of course, if you don’t come through, I could always make your job harder.”
Miss Parker made a noise of disbelief through her nose.
“Is that possible?”
“Oh, that’s always possible,” said Jarod. In the background, Miss Parker thought she heard the squeal of tires. Lyle, or just traffic? “All those hints and clues I send your way, they could easily land on your brother’s desk instead.”
“Or you could always crank up the tormenting another notch.”
Jarod laughed. “Or that, sure.” He deliberated, or perhaps only deliberately kept Miss Parker waiting in suspense. Meanwhile, Sam lumbered back towards her across the tarmac. He mimed something to the effect that the Canadians had refused to give him an ETA. Miss Parker made a face of disgust in return.
After a solid minute of dead air, Miss Parker had had enough. “So what’s your answer?”
“I don’t think I can afford to pass up a deal like this. You’re a woman with interesting priorities, Miss Parker. One would think you’re not all that motivated in having me back at the Centre, after all.”
“I am thoroughly motivated, don’t you worry about that. I just want to be the one holding the trophy, because there aren’t any prizes for second place. The opposite, in fact. So you’ll leave?”
“What does second place —”
But Jarod didn’t finish his question. Instead, there was a muffled clamour and some urgent grumblings on the other end, and the line went dead.
“Jarod? Jarod?” Miss Parker called, earning her a questioning look from Sam.
From the moment Miss Parker’s sedan pulled into a parking space outside Jarod’s latest hideout, things felt off-kilter.
The hideout was in a bungalow a few blocks from Cedar Rapids’ city centre. The bungalow’s front lawn had been shredded ruthlessly by the tires of three black SUVs, now parked on the mulched grass like a conference of jumbo-sized dung beetles. A half-dozen men in suits and sycophantic haircuts were loitering around the front door. As Miss Parker climbed out of the front seat, an indistinct bellow drifted on the summer breeze from the direction of the front door. Miss Parker followed the voice, Broots following closely on her heels.
“Who — oh, Miss Parker.” Willie, Mr. Raines’s favourite sweeper, stood just inside the threshold. He didn’t bother to hide the disinterest in his tone, and his stare bordered on insolent.
“Where is he,” said Miss Parker. It was closer to a demand than a question. Willie opened his mouth to respond, but just then raised voices could be heard again, more distinct now that she was indoors, this time accompanied by the sound of something breaking into tiny pieces. It was coming from the basement. Miss Parker smirked. “Asked and answered.”
Downstairs, Miss Parker and Broots emerged into the den of a sparsely-furnished basement apartment. Lyle’s over-priced shoes were wearing a hole in the carpet as he paced up and down in front of a stocky woman with short, bristly hair and full set of tattoo sleeves. The woman was looking at her toes, her square jaw clenched in an expression of defiance. There was a shattered lava lamp on the floor, oozing wax over the rug and the nearest wall.
“You must have some idea where he would go,” Lyle was saying. Miss Parker and Broots hovered in silence, listening in. Internally, Miss Parker unclenched several muscle groups. Lyle hadn’t caught Jarod after all. Her warning had worked.
“Why would I?” said the woman. “He was only sleeping on a couch in my basement. I’m not his mom.”
“No, but you’re his landlady. You expect me to believe he didn’t give notice that he was moving out?”
The woman scowled. “I’m not anybody’s landlady,” she said. “Catch me being a parasite, no thank you. I was only letting him sleep on the couch. Never got his name on a lease or anything. It was just a favour for what seemed like a stand-up guy. Not so sure about that now, leaving me to field questions from you Men-in-Black-looking motherf—”
“No Jarod, after all that? What a shame,” Miss Parker interrupted, by way of announcing her presence. Lyle jerked in surprise and glanced wildly in her direction. She slipped between him and the subject of his interrogation, fixing him with a cold smile. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “I hope you remember, Lyle, what I said I’d do if you deliberately tried to throw me off the trail again. I plan on getting creative with those Zebra mussels.”
Lyle’s eyes widened and he took an involuntary step back.
“Miss Parker. Glad you could join us,” he said. Anyone who did not know him well might mistake his tone for courteous. “We can take up your concerns later, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, we will,” promised Miss Parker.
“As I was —”
“What’s with the lava lamp?” Miss Parker interrupted again. Lyle did not answer, but the woman being interrogated cast him a very eloquent look. The look precluded any explanation. “Ah. That temper of yours is going to get you into trouble one day. Maybe sooner than you think. Find anything, incidentally?”
Lyle heaved a long-suffering sigh and, with Miss Parker out of his way, began to pace again.
“No. He left some clothes in the dryer. Other than that, cleaned out. It’s much more spare than usual. If the landlady hadn’t identified Jarod from a picture, I would think we’d got the wrong place.”
“Not a landlady,” the woman insisted.
Broots frowned. “No red notebook?”
“No red notebook,” said Lyle.
“No red notebook,” the not-landlady parroted, unnecessarily.
“What about his workplace? Tell me you checked the workplace,” said Miss Parker. She drifted over to the kitchen and started opening drawers, palpating the empty corners of each for clues.
Lyle suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, with apparent difficulty. “Of course I checked the workplace. It’s tiny, barely room for a desk. No red notebook. None of the usual orgy of evidence of a hyper-fixated mind. No signs of a Pretend at all, actually. Just a cheap couch, a hotplate and a boring job.”
“Paid $500 for that couch. Call that a cheap couch, I don’t think so,” muttered the not-landlady. “What do you guys want to find this guy so bad for, anyway? Is he a prison escapee or something?”
“Of a kind,” said Miss Parker.
“Is it possible Jarod was taking time off?” Broots asked. He was still hovering by the stairs to the ground floor, trying and failing not to glance at the homeowner’s sporadically obscene tattoos every few seconds. “I suppose he doesn’t have to spend every hour of every day on a Pretend. Maybe he was just building some income?”
“He doesn’t need income, he can always steal from the Centre if he’s strapped for cash,” Miss Parker said. “Or — Lyle, was there any mention of a family? A sick kid?”
Lyle paused his pacing.
“Sick kid? No.” His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Miss Parker shrugged. “Seems like the sort of thing that would bring him here.”
“If you’re trying to cut me out of a lead, I swear —”
“You swear what,” said Miss Parker, bored by the threat. She bent to examine the broken lava lamp, dipped her finger in the purple ooze. She’d always wondered what lava lamp innards felt like, not that she’d ever admit it to a living soul. Presumably, the lava lamp was another stop on Jarod’s tour of missed childhood landmarks. “I just got here, Lyle. You’ve been on the scene. You tell me, is there a lead to be cut out of?” She wiped her finger on the back of the $500 couch. “Broots, grab the laundry. This is a waste of time.”
On the way back to the car, Miss Parker and Broots were confronted with a skinny, olive-skinned man, barely older than a teenager, standing on the sidewalk. He was kneading the inside of one elbow with the opposite thumb, as if trying to soothe himself.
“Ma’am?” he said. Miss Parker stopped short, but did not immediately reply. The full laundry hamper wobbled in Broots’s grip. “What’s going on in there? Is — is Jarod OK? He said he would…”
His voice trailed off in wobbly optimism.
“Moved out,” Miss Parker said.
“What? Moved out?”
The man’s narrow face crumpled in confusion and hurt.
“But I thought…”
Miss Parker hadn’t forgotten her deal with Jarod, far from it. It had been niggling at her from the back of her mind throughout the red-eye to Iowa. For a while, she’d teased with the hope that perhaps Jarod had been too rushed to leave behind any resources which would allow her to fulfill her end of the deal — if she didn’t know how the Pretend was going to go down, how could she be expected to stand in for Jarod? And as she had turned the idea over in her head, it seemed to her that, hey, she didn’t have to look too hard for those resources.
But then, there was that face.
She could never handle facing any disappointment from her father. She had always hated seeing disappointment in Sydney’s eyes when she’d followed Centre rules when he’d hinted she should flout them. More recently, she hadn’t hesitated to turn down Jarod’s offer of ally-ship — if that’s what it was — when they’d sat together post-Carthis, waiting for Jarod to be transported back to the Centre. But she also hadn't been able to look him in the eye afterwards, to see the disappointment advertised there.
And now, she’d been ambushed with this kid’s disappointment.
There was nothing for it. At the very least, she’d have to do her due diligence.
As it turned out, the red notebook was in a manila envelope taped to the underside of a drawer in Jarod’s cramped office.
Miss Parker slit the envelope open with a fingernail and slid the notebook onto her waiting palm. It felt lighter than usual, and warped by extensive use.
She tutted. “Lyle wouldn’t have made it two days as a sweeper.”
“What’s it say?” Broots asked.
Miss Parker flipped through it. Jarod’s blocky handwriting filled the pages. There was the usual newspaper clipping at the beginning, but the clipping usually found at the end — the one which typically wrapped up all the loose ends and condemned some terrible person to an ironic fate — was missing.
“It’s not finished,” she said. Her attention was divided between the notebook and Broots’s attempts to read over her shoulder. She snapped the book shut, making Broots jump. “He was interrupted in a later stage of the Pretend.”
“Could be. I don’t think so, though. He must have had more time, if he wrote all this.”
“More time?” Broots echoed, puzzled. “What do you mean? He could have written that any time.” Miss Parker didn’t answer. “What does it say, anyway? He doesn’t usually write much in the notebooks, just newspaper clippings mostly. Is it a message for us?”
“It’s for Syd,” said Miss Parker. “I’ll get it to him when he comes back from sabbatical.”
She wasn’t completely certain why she was lying to Broots. He’d never proven himself less than trustworthy, less than completely loyal. Maybe she knew that trying to explain to another person why she’d offered the deal in the first place would lay bare her priorities in immodest detail. And he’d probably be irritating about it.
A small smile eked out over Broots’s lips.
“It’s not like you to respect Jarod’s privacy,” he said.
“I’m not, he’s intruded enough on my privacy to have lost the privilege a dozen times over. This is Syd’s privacy,” Miss Parker said. “It’s different.”
“Not like you to respect Sydney’s privacy either.”
Damn it, he was being irritating anyway. He did, however, agree to retreat to the rental car while Miss Parker did one last sweep for clues.
Instead of doing one last sweep, Miss Parker read the notebook cover-to-cover. Certain sections she read several times over. When she was finished, she let out a long breath.
“Damn, Jarod,” she said, sotto voce. “That’s one way to do it.”
And the teensiest, weensiest corner of her brain had to admit it might be fun.
Miss Parker turned the engine off and squinted up at Marrow Apartments. It wasn’t exactly about to crumble to ruins, but it wasn’t in its heyday either. It was possible the building had never had a heyday at all. It was five floors tall and architecturally unambitious, the sort of place where the residents tended to put all their dollar-store decor out on the balcony, and to use flags and duct-taped throw blankets in place of curtains.
“I guess I just have one question,” said Broots from the passenger seat. He had Jarod’s laundry hamper on his lap, and he was sifting through it, delicately avoiding touching Jarod’s underthings as much as possible. “What do you think the property manager is going to be able to tell us? He’s the mark, right? Woulda thought he’d be the last person who’d get any inside info on Jarod.”
“He’s not the property manager, I — Jarod was.” She wasn’t used to keeping secrets from Broots; she’d become rusty at it. So far, he didn’t seem to have noticed. “The guy I’m meeting with owns the building. We’re here, might as well do our due diligence. Unless you want to be the one to tell Raines that we — what are you doing? Are you folding Jarod’s laundry for him?”
Broots froze, and a dress shirt several sizes too big for him dropped from his limp fingers. He scrambled to catch it again, and resumed folding.
“No,” he said. He dodged her gaze. “Well, yes. I’m going through the pockets, and to keep track of what I’ve checked, I’m folding as I go. Is — is that a problem?”
Instead of replying, Miss Parker made a noise of exasperation and let herself out of the driver’s seat door, then ducked her head back inside.
“I shouldn’t be more than twenty minutes. If I’m longer, or if he comes out without me, follow me in and start waving this around.” And she dropped her spare handgun on the dwindling pile of laundry, where it lay cradled by a pair of men’s boxers. Broots picked it up between his thumb and index finger.
“A gun?! What am I —”
“Figure it out!” was Miss Parker’s parting shot.
Outside the door to unit 525, Miss Parker met a ruddy-faced man sporting beige cargo shorts and aggressive sideburns. He gave her a quizzical glance as she approached; she ignored it and held out her hand for a handshake.
“Are you Mr Sýkora? Miss Parker.”
“That’s me," said Mr Sýkora. He had a slight Czech accent. After a moment’s hesitation, he enveloped her hand in his thick-fingered grip. “But, I was expecting Jarod Needleman? He said it was very important. Are you his secretary? I would’ve thought he’d consider this meeting worthy of his personal time.”
His disapproving tone rankled, but she tried for once to keep her rage from bubbling to the surface. In that moment, she felt herself slipping into a role she didn’t realize she had access to: maybe not a Pretender (since she knew second-hand all the small print that came with that title) but a small-P pretender.
“Not his secretary, no.” She gave him a stiff smile. Did she sound sweet and polite? Probably not, but at least she didn’t sound like she was going to unravel his intestines and use them as skipping rope. “I work alongside Mr Needleman, we’re colleagues. I’m currently managing units mostly on the west side of town, but Jarod had to leave town urgently last night, so I’m taking over. He can be unpredictable sometimes, not the most… reliable employee. Sometimes I have no idea where the man has gone.”
She said this last as if letting him into private confidence, and Sýkora quickly took the bait. Now they were at the water-cooler, and everyone loves to indulge in a bit of gossip when the mood strikes.
“I don’t like to talk about a man behind his back,” the landlord prefaced, and yes, that preface is always vital. It makes everything you say afterwards fair, appropriate and defensible. “But Mr Needleman did seem a little odd. He always had a lot of questions, about things that weren’t really his business. And the couple of times we’ve talked, sometimes I’d say something and he’d get this look, right, like he was sharing an inside joke with someone.” He frowned down at the comically large ring of keys he’d pulled from his jacket pocket. “I hate inside jokes.”
Miss Parker knew the look he meant, or at least, she knew the Miss-Parker branded version of it.
Sýkora let them into the apartment, and they stepped over the threshold into a dingy, cramped foyer. It was small and shabby enough that foyer seemed entirely too French of a word to apply to it.
“We’ll have to get a cleaning crew in here before we start putting out feelers for tenants,” she said as Sýkora took off his shoes. She kept hers on, eyeing the conspicuous layer of dust on every surface as she moved into the kitchen. She thought back to Jarod’s red notebook. She had no theatre experience and no head for memorizing lines, but she’d got the gist of things, and certain lines stuck in her head. “And someone to look at the balcony door. Jarod mentioned it’s sticking.”
“We can talk about renovations later. Anyway, you’d be surprised what a tenant is willing to do themselves when they have the chance to sign a lease on a family-sized unit in a tight housing market,” the landlord said, dismissive. Miss Parker looked around again with unconcealed skepticism. Family-sized? Maybe a family of raccoons. “You still haven’t said what we’re meeting about, Miss Parker. I have a packed schedule.”
“Understandable,” said Miss Parker, trying for unctuous. She turned back to the front door. Here was the first domino in the series. If it failed to fall, she wasn’t sure how the rest would go. “Stratum Property Management has some concerns about —” She turned the thumb-latch to engage the deadbolt, and just as Jarod had warned her, the latch snapped off in her fingers. “Oh!”
Mr Sýkora didn’t look over. “What?”
“The latch broke.”
That got his attention.
“What?” he said again.
“It broke. Don’t wet your — don’t worry. I’ll call the super, he’ll let us out.”
Sýkora pushed past her and pawed at the lock, trying to get adequate grip on the stub of the latch to disengage the deadbolt.
“Why did you even —” He grunted with effort. “— lock the door? This is all I need.”
“Force of habit,” said Miss Parker as she punched in the number to her office at the Centre.
“I can’t believe —”
Miss Parker held up a silencing finger. I’m on the phone, she mouthed.
“Hey Daniels, this is Parker calling. I’m at Marrow Apartments, unit 525, here with the building owner. There’s a problem with the lock, we’re completely locked in if you can believe it. If you could stop by and let us out, we’d be much obliged.”
Sýkora gaped at her. “Voicemail?”
“Afraid so,” said Miss Parker with a comical grimace. She snapped the phone shut. “We might be waiting a while. Mind if I smoke?” Without waiting for an answer, she produced a lighter and lit a cigarette.
“I do, actually. I have asthma,” said Sýkora. He trailed his fingers absentmindedly under the lip of the kitchen counter-top and they came away grimy. He sighed heavily and wiped his fingers on the counter. “This place is a sty, I could start wheezing from the dust alone. Anyway. You were saying something about Stratum’s concerns?”
When Miss Parker had read this part of Jarod's plan, she’d cursed that vindictive mind of his. She had to buy a pack of cigarettes (Broots had looked at her with such earnest concern when she’d done so), had to light one, had to pinch one between her fingers for the first time in her years of addiction recovery, and then…
“Serious concerns, Mr Sýkora,” she said, and flicked the lit cigarette into a strategically-placed wastepaper basket.
She’d been expecting the explosion, but even so, she just about jumped out of her pantsuit when it came. The room bulged with a single , all-encompassing noise, and a cloud of dust ballooned to fill the space. She yelped and teetered over on her heels, into a wall. Mr Sýkora had not been expecting the explosion, and he did not fare as well. He hollered in shock, stumbled away from the sound, cracked his head on the kitchen stove and slid down in a heap on the kitchen tiling.
“What was — agh!” he coughed, and beat his arms at the cloud of white powder and smoke settling over his body, as if he was beating away a cloud of bugs. “Dust! Gotta — no, gotta get out.”
He didn’t attempt to get back on his feet, and instead shuffled on hands-and-knees towards the outer wall of the unit. Miss Parker steadied herself, watching the mark with amusement. His frantic four-legged wiggle made him look like an excited Labrador. As she watched, she pulled two gas masks from a drawer and cinched one around her face. It was much too large by default, having been adjusted to Jarod’s facial dimensions.
Meanwhile, Sýkora had reached the door to the balcony and was pulling at the handle ineffectually. After several attempts, he sat back and gulped for air.
“I told you, Sýkora,” said Miss Parker, stalking towards him. The second gas mask swung from her hand. “The balcony door sticks.”
The landlord stared at her, eyes wide and wild.
“You — you did that on purpose! Why would you —”
Miss Parker shook her head and tutted. “On purpose? Noo. How could I? No, I just happened to have some gas masks on hand. I was a girl scout. Be prepared and all that.”
“You bitch, you don’t know what you’ve done! Give me that.” Sýkora grabbed the gas mask dangling from her grip and crammed it on his face. “You little idiot, you see all that white powder in the air? Do you know what that is?”
Miss Parker crouched next to him. “Pixie dust?”
Sýkora boggled at her. He coughed for a solid minute, then: “Drywall and lead paint dust.”
“Lead paint dust?” said Miss Parker, doing her best to project her voice for the surveillance equipment. “How do you know?”
Sýkora didn’t answer. He pulled himself to his feet and set about checking all the windows in the unit for a means of egress. They were all painted shut. Eventually, he collapsed on a kitchen stool and leaned his elbows on the laminate island. Miss Parker watched it all, impassive.
“You’ve poisoned us,” the landlord wheezed. “I don’t know what you want, but you picked a hell of a kamikaze ploy to get it.”
“You knew your building was poisoned,” said Miss Parker. She recalled the details of the case. It was one thing to read the concrete details in newsprint, another to read through Jarod’s passionate account of the grave impact on the man’s victims. “You knew all your buildings were poisoned. Do you remember the Grewal family, Sýkora? You remember their little girl?”
“Aw, hell.” Sýkora’s low laugh was humourless. “That’s what this is about? Look, lady, the paint was well-maintained. I can’t be held responsible if the kid was clawing at the walls, or playing soccer in the house and dislodging paint flakes, or whatever. No court in the country could convict me, least of all because no court in the country could prove I knew anything about it.”
Miss Parker didn’t know the first thing about lead paint laws, so she charged ahead as if he hadn’t spoken.
“Do you know what short-term overexposure to lead paint flakes and lead dust does to the human body? Stomach aches, fatigue, memory loss, ah…” She counted on her fingers. “… Loss of appetite, terrible headaches. That’s only the beginning. Kidney damage and, and brain damage! You damaged a little girl's brain!” She was losing the script but she couldn’t help it. She’d seen the pictures of Parvinder Grewal in the hospital. Jarod’s efforts at emotional manipulation were egregious but horribly effective. Little Parvinder had looked like a broken doll, drowning in tubes and wires. “Even if she survives, she’ll being dealing with intellectual disability for the rest of her life. You knowingly sent that family into an apartment wired to blow and you think you’re innocent because you didn’t personally light the fuse?”
Sýkora just looked at her. The exasperation in his expression made it very, very difficult not to knee him in the balls. He seemed to have recovered from the immediate panic of lead exposure now that a mask was between him and the clouds of dust still falling through the air.
“Look, what’s the plan here, Parker?” He got to his feet and slowly walked around the island towards her. “I can’t help that the Grewal kid is having a hard time. My sympathies to the family. If they’d wanted a unit with a recent paint job, maybe they should have sprung for something more upscale. Did you just want to corner me to yell at me a while, or what? Let it all out, sweetie. That’s all you’ll be able to get out of this.”
It wasn’t hard to see, in that moment, what could drive a person to hunt down creeps like this and make them pay for their disregard for fellow human life. Son of a bitch, that was the point, wasn’t it? Oh, Jarod would never let her live this down. Still, in the here and now, she’d been invited to ‘let it all out’. And so she did.
Miss Parker’s heeled foot came around in a low arc and stabbed at Sýkora’s calf muscle. He staggered sideways. Before he could regain his balance and before she could reconsider, Miss Parker seized the back of the man’s head and slammed him face-first into the counter-top. There was a brutal crunch and a shrill yell. Sýkora collapsed once more to the floor, his hands flying up to contain the breach in his mask, but it was much too late. The mask was useless, not so much leaking as gaping, throwing wide the door to let in all external contaminants. Involuntarily, Sýkora gulped for air. The inhale sucked down a generous sample of the airborne powder, which set him off hacking and coughing. His shoulders convulsed as his throat tried over and over to expel the white dust from his airway. The harder he coughed, the harder his body tried to breathe in clean air, sucking in contaminated lungfuls of air with a high-pitched wheeze.
Miss Parker leaned over his heaving form. Close to, nicks and several long cuts from the fragments of the broken mask plate were visible on his face.
“I’m just the substitute teacher today, Mr Sýkora,” she said. “I don’t have anything to gain one way or the other. But I heard what you did to that kid, I saw the pictures, and I’d love to see you choke for it. Jarod and I have a one-time deal, though, and he’s a soft bastard. He wants to give you a chance. He packed me an extra gas mask in case one got damaged —” She brandished the mask for him to see. Sýkora made a feeble grab for it, but Miss Parker twitched it away. “— And theoretically, I could give it to you.”
Sýkora nodded vigorously, still coughing. He grabbed for the mask again. Miss Parker wagged a finger.
“Not yet, Sýkora. First I have to hear it straight from you.”
“Hear what?” His voice was a weak croak.
“What you did, moron. It’s confession time. Think of me as a priest if the substitute teacher thing doesn’t work for you.”
Seconds dragged into minutes as the landlord lay on the floor, coughing and glaring. Finally he nodded, and spoke.
“I —” Cough. “I knew —” Cough. “— that the —” Cough, cough. “— the apart —” Cough, cough, cough. “ — apartment —” Cough.
“Oh, for the love of…”
Miss Parker yanked the shattered gas mask off the man’s face and replaced it with the spare. It took some adjusting, but eventually the mask was air-tight, and the man was breathing again. His lungs weren’t necessarily any clearer of inhaled dust, but Miss Parker didn’t feel the need to point that out. It appeared to be having a placebo effect.
“New deal,” she said when the coughing had petered off to an intermittent splutter. She took a gun from her concealed holster and pointed it at Sýkora. He flinched back. “You spill your guts or I…” She considered finishing ‘spill your guts’ but in her head it sounded tacky. “I aim for the bridge of your nose. Maybe the mask plate stops the bullet, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, the bullet will cause a leak, if you catch my meaning, and you’re not having a good time.”
“OK, OK, don’t shoot!” Sýkora stammered.
Miss Parker looked around, wondering where Jarod’s surveillance equipment was concealed. Presumably not too close to the explosion site. She raised her voice.
“If you’re watching this footage back, I know you’re very into dramatic irony or parallel fates or whatever but this will just have to do, OK?”
Sýkora frowned and looked around the room, likewise trying to spot their audience.
“Who are you —”
“Today, Mr Sýkora. What did you do?”
He glared at her with a petulant expression, like a remorseless child being asked to apologize for stealing a piece of candy. He cleared his throat.
“I knew the Grewals’ apartment was a lead dust risk. I was aware there was flaking lead paint, and lead dust on accessible surfaces. I did nothing about it. OK? Can you get the gun out of my face?”
Miss Parker shook her head and made a beckoning motion with the butt of the gun. “All of it, Sýkora. Tell me the whole story. How did you know it was there, why did you let them move in? Why didn’t you fix the problem?”
Sýkora rolled his eyes.
“It was obvious the unit was a lead dust hot spot. There hasn’t been a new paint job in that unit in decades. Well, apart from the living room, but a previous tenant broke their lease agreement and painted it lavender, I couldn’t rent it like that. So the living room got some renovation. I wasn’t hardly gonna flip the place entirely, though, just to get rid of all the lead paint. I’m not made of money.”
Miss Parker opened her mouth to reply but the landlord was on a roll.
“They’d call me up more than twice a month, to fix things and request more expensive fittings and things. Like I want to throw money at a place that will last five more years, tops! Like I’ve got the time to go over there every other week! What do these people think I’m for, huh? I heard the kid was getting sick, but the last thing I was going to do was a full renovation, that’s just throwing good money after bad.”
“… So when Parvinder was getting sick, you knew why it was happening? And you said nothing.” Sýkora must have caught the anger in her question, or maybe he’d spotted how her knuckles had tightened around the grip and trigger guard of the gun. Either way, his rant deflated.
“We-ell, I — well I don’t know if I — I had a theory, that’s all. I’m not a doctor. They figured it out, anyway.”
Miss Parker sat back on her haunches. She couldn’t honestly say she loved this part of the Pretend. He’d confessed, but it wouldn’t undo anything for that little girl. Was it just catharsis? Was that all this was, Jarod taking out his frustrations for a stolen life on acceptable targets?
But no… the Grewal’s apartment couldn’t be an isolated case. She’d said it herself, all Sýkora’s buildings were poisoned.
“Which of your other buildings have lead paint problems?”
He listed them off. Miss Parker repeated them to herself in her head until they were memorized. She was pretty confident Jarod’s bugs were picking everything up, but it couldn’t hurt to have redundancies.
She lowered her gun and stood. Sýkora looked up at her, a pathetic puddle on the shabby tiles.
“What happens now?” he said.
“Huh?” Miss Parker’s thoughts were occupied by the families in all the other lead-infested apartment complexes. How many kids living there? How many of them were sick in subtle ways already, and didn’t know why?
“Are you gonna call the police or —”
“Oh. Cops? Maybe, I have no idea. My part’s done,” said Miss Parker. She took a remote control, about the size and shape of a car door remote, from her pocket and depressed a button. The deadbolt to the apartment door disengaged with a soft whirring noise. She stepped towards the door, then spun back on her heel. “Oh, one more thing, I want to see your face for this part. Get over here, look at this.”
Sýkora was so rattled by all that had happened within the space of less than ten minutes that he rose to his feet and waddled over to the kitchen without question or protest. Miss Parker picked the small, MacGyver’d bomb out of the wastepaper basket and handed it to the landlord.
“This is what exploded,” she explained with the sort of grin that usually accompanies a triangular fin moving through shark-infested waters. “The wall’s intact, look. No peeling paint or anything, no thanks to you. You’re lead poisoning-free, not that you wouldn’t deserve it. Any guesses about the powder in the air?” She didn’t wait for him to guess. “It’s the sugar from pixie sticks. Classic Jarod choice. The man’s an eight-year-old in a thirty-something’s body.”
As Sýkora examined the remnants of the bomb, his face slowly devolved back into rage. He made a wild grab for Miss Parker, who stepped neatly out of his way and brought the gun barrel back up.
“I’m still armed, idiot.” She stepped backwards towards the front door, and opened it behind her without taking her eyes off the disheveled landlord. “You get cozy, I’m locking you back in. I’d recommend keeping the gas mask on while you wait.”
Back out in the car, Broots had finished going through the laundry.
“Welcome back,” he said when Miss Parker took her place at the wheel. “I thought you’d be longer. What’s that all over your clothes?”
Miss Parker brushed at the sleeves of her suit jacket, grumbling. She’d need a shower to get all the pixie dust out of her hair.
“Sugar,” she said. At Broots’s questioning look, she expanded. “I was at a child’s birthday party, the piñata exploded.”
Broots laughed. “All right, don’t tell me. I’ve got something to tell you, though. I found something.”
Miss Parker jerked her head up. “What kind of something? Jarod?”
“Yeah! Look at this,” said Broots, and showed her…
“A wad of tissue?”
“No! A wad of paper.”
Miss Parker’s expression could be described as ‘nonplussed’.
“I’ve got to say, Broots, we’ve definitely had better leads.”
“That’s the thing, Miss Parker, I’m not sure we ever have,” said Broots, and twisted around excitedly in his seat to face her. “See, this was in one of his pants pockets. It’s been through the washer and the dryer, so it’s pretty hard to read, but I’m almost positive he didn’t intend to leave it there. He couldn’t be sure the writing would survive a whole laundry cycle, not even he could plan for that.”
“Writing?” Miss Parker perked up, a foxhound with a new scent on the breeze. “What’s the writing, what’s it say?”
Broots unfolded the wad with deliberate care and showed her. As advertised, it was not exactly legible. She thought she could make out an M and an L for certain, but most letters were ambiguous.
“Can you enhance this?”
Broots’s brow crinkled. “I might be able to, ah, ‘enhance’ it. I’d like to get the Centre linguists on it too, though, to look at letter combination probabilities. I think it’s a name. Doesn’t match any of the key players here in Cedar Rapids, as far as I know.”
“Whatever’s necessary. Send them photos of the page and have them ready with first impressions when we touch down in Delaware. We need this kept under a lid, though. No blabbing to Lyle.”
Broots beamed. “You got it. I don’t want to jinx anything, Miss Parker, but this could be huge.”
“Don’t get too excited, Broots, you’ll end up pissing all over the upholstery. Jarod leaves plenty of clues behind, I don’t see why this would be any different,” said Miss Parker. She spotted a couple of young women conferring near the entrance. One pointed up in the direction of the fifth floor. Miss Parker started the car: time to make themselves scarce.
“No, but, no! Not like this!” said Broots. “He leaves clues behind, yes, but they’re always very intentional. Big blinking arrows with ‘look it’s a clue!’ on ‘em. This is different.”
As they pulled out of the visitors’ parking lot for Marrow Apartments, a pair of police cars passed them going the opposite direction. Broots craned his neck to look at them, and paused.
“Are those for us?”
“No, those are for the birthday boy.”
It was Miss Parker’s third plane trip in thirty-six hours, and they had just reached cruising altitude when the on-board phone rang.
“Hello Jarod,” she said. It was worth the off-chance that it would be someone else on the other end for the shot at putting her quarry off-balance.
“Hello, Miss Parker.” Annoyingly, Jarod did not sound off-balance. Worse, he sounded pleased.
“I’m not a doctor and never have been, but I’m positive that inhaling sugar is not good for your lungs,” Miss Parker said. “It’s not lead poisoning, but it’s not exactly a pacifist choice.”
Across from Miss Parker, Broots raised his eyebrows. ‘Inhaling sugar?’ he mouthed at her. Miss Parker waved a dismissive hand, and he reluctantly returned to his work.
“I don’t think I’ve ever claimed to be a pacifist,” said Jarod. He was doing an accent, the way he sometimes did when he was on a Pretend and there was a non-zero chance of someone overhearing him. There was a smarmy drawl to it, which didn’t narrow it down much. Sounded East coast, she thought. “You’re right, though. He could get pneumonia if it enters his lungs, could lead to an infection. Do you regret it?”
“Hell no,” Miss Parker snapped. “Sýkora’s a jackass. So are you, for asking me to set off that dustbin bomb. My ears are still ringing.”
“You were amazing.”
Jarod’s voice had lost its affected drawl, and dropped into a softer register. Miss Parker froze.
“How would you know?” Cops would have been disemboweling that unit for hours, he wouldn’t have had time to retrieve and watch the recordings unless he was already close by. “Son of a bitch, you didn’t leave town at all, did you? You hid out nearby and watched me act like a Pretender for your entertainment. Do you think it’s your job to jerk me around?”
“Of course I left town,” said Jarod. “We had a deal, I held up my end. I left Iowa and watched a live feed from a couple states over. And I have to say, I couldn’t have done it better myself. I wouldn’t have brought a gun, but that’s just differing styles. You missed your calling.”
Miss Parker grabbed a map of the United States from the stack of reading material between her and Broots. With a pen, she started shading out Iowa and its bordering states.
“Don’t start getting ideas, Jarod. This was one-time only. You can’t count on Lyle getting a head start on a regular basis.”
Miss Parker ignored Jarod’s low chuckle and, after a moment of consideration, circled the northeastern United States on the map.
“I’m not getting ideas,” Jarod said, while continuing to get ideas. “All I’m saying is, you did good work. I’m grateful, and the Grewals will be even more grateful when they use this information to sue Sýkora. They’ll be able to cover medical expenses, at the very least. Not only that, the residents of the other complexes Sýkora named will be made aware of the health risks of continuing to live there. I’ll see about enabling them to move, if they want to. You did a good thing today, Miss Parker. And you sounded like you had fun doing it.”
Miss Parker groaned inwardly. She knew, she just knew he would be insufferable about this. She got up and ducked into the airplane bathroom. She didn’t need Broots listening in for this.
“I had fun giving an asshole landlord an asthma attack, sure,” she said, no louder than a murmur. She wouldn’t be able to deny that much, not if he’d already seen the recording. She’d been basking in it. “I get it, this is your case for why you need to stay out of the Centre. It’s not working. You’re still wasting your time, helping random underdogs one-by-one. If you knew any better, you’d come back to the Centre and help on a larger scale, or you’d just disappear.”
Jarod snorted. “You really think I’d be helping on a larger scale at the Centre? Knowing what you know?”
She didn’t. She’d been parroting one of Sydney’s talking points. He didn’t need to know that, though.
Jarod took her hesitation for what it was: doubt. And he pounced.
“Sýkora isn’t an outlier, Miss Parker. He’s one among thousands, hundreds of thousands. I’m using my freedom to try and help good people being victimized by opportunists and greedy people in power, how can you rationalize trying to stop that?” His words picked up speed, every pent-up frustration unrolling out of him. “Even if you can rationalize ruining my life, what about Parvin—”
“Jarod!” Miss Parker only realized she’d shouted when Jarod broke off mid-sentence. “Stop. This isn’t working.”
She spoke carefully and deliberately: “There’s no argument you can use to convince me to stop. There’s no persuasion that’s going to get to me. You are wasting your breath.”
Jarod exhaled through his nose. For a moment he didn’t say anything. Miss Parker would wonder whether he’d hung up, but his breathing was audible.
“I don’t understand,” he admitted finally. He sounded tired. In all the time she’d known him, she didn’t think he’d ever sounded tired. Granted, he’d been running for over five years now. “I’ve known you for a long time. You’re a good person, I’ve seen it, I know it. I don’t understand why you won’t listen.”
“I won’t listen because I can’t.” It was an effort to keep her tone implacable. “My decision to get up every morning and do this job —”
“Kidnapping,” Jarod interjected.
“You’ve already been kidnapped, this is — I’m not doing this, I’m not arguing with you. My decision to keep working for the Centre is not a moral decision. It’s a survival decision. That is why your arguments do not work, and never will. I can’t afford to listen to whether I should do this, because I have to do this. Don’t pretend that you don’t understand that, Jarod. You had your choices taken away your entire childhood.”
“More than just my childhood, and yes. I do understand feeling like you don’t have a choice. But you do. You have a choice.”
“I don’t!” Shouting again, strangled this time.
“You do, you’ve just become convinced there are only two choices: the status quo or whatever uncertain threat the Centre wields against defectors. There are other choices.”
There was hammering at the bathroom door.
“Miss Parker, are you all right? I heard a shout,” said Broots through the door. Miss Parker ignored him.
“What choices, Jarod?” She, too, sounded tired. “To be on the run from the Centre, like you? I’ll get back to you about that tempting offer.”
“Miss Parker,” said Jarod. He was almost pleading. “Listen to me. Mar—”
“No!” There was that emotional manipulation again. Just because she’d been a dumb kid all those years ago and told him her first name, he thought he could weaponize it to guilt-trip her. “I told you, this is how it has to be. You run, I chase. And Jarod?”
After a beat, Jarod sighed heavily. “What is it, Miss Parker?”
She thought back to Broots’s latest lead.
“I’ll see you soon.”