Miss Parker slapped the photo on the deli counter, wrong side up. The man behind the counter gave her a stony glare. He picked up the photo, wiped the counter beneath with a well-loved dishrag, and dropped the photo back on the counter. Wrong side up.
“Lady, I’m working. Order or leave.”
Miss Parker gnawed on her lips to keep the impatience from spilling out of her.
“You haven’t even looked at the photo,” she pointed out, keeping her voice as even as she could muster.
The man had thick, dark eyebrows and thick arms hairy enough to make Miss Parker wonder how many stray arm hairs typically sneaked their way into the average hoagie. As Miss Parker looked on, he tipped a cutting board lined with sliced meat into a shallow tub behind the counter. He took exaggerated care, seeming to revel in every second he kept her waiting. Finally, he turned back to the counter.
“I don’t need to look at it,” said the man. He pointedly did not look at the photo, a year-old employee ID photo of Jarod from when he’d been working out of a college. Instead, he pushed the photo back to her with the tips of his callused fingers. “You’ve never worked retail before, have you? Or any kind of job involving customers? I see so many faces every day, if I tried to memorize them all I’d have no room left in my head for my own ma’s face.”
Miss Parker turned the photo around right-side-up and tapped Jarod’s face. “I never said he was a customer. He’s probably an employee, maybe someone who’s shown up in your life recently. Goes by Jarod, last name varies. That ring a bell, Marco?”
She’d found the man’s name on a piece of paper in a pants pocket previously belonging to Jarod. The pants had been through the laundry, and the paper along with it. The name had been almost completely illegible, but she and Broots had set the Centre linguistics team on the task and came up with four statistical possibilities for first names and three possibilities for surnames, given parameters of… letter shapes, word lengths, a bunch of nonsense Miss Parker was content to leave behind the scenes. Of the twelve possible combinations of first name and surname, only one identified someone currently living in the northeastern United States, according to the latest census: a Mr. Marco Lorefice, proprietor of a sandwich shop in Philadelphia.
Marco frowned at the invocation of Jarod’s name, and in that moment Miss Parker knew she had him. He took the photo to look at it properly. Miss Parker watched his eyes; she saw the moment he recognized the face, first vaguely then with growing certainty. The clinching moment happened when Marco used the tip of his thumb to cover up the bottom of Jarod’s face. His eyes widened, just barely. Finally, he spoke.
“Who is this guy, anyway?” He wasn’t the world’s most gifted actor. He had one glaring tell, which was to speak slightly louder than usual. “He your husband? He run out on you, or what? Looks the type.”
“You know him?” asked Miss Parker, as if she didn’t know.
A beat, as Marco continued to stare at the photo. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“Nah,” said the man, making a special effort to look her straight in the eye. “I thought for a sec, but nah, sorry. Like I said, I see a lot of faces. Who is he?”
She could call him out, of course. He was clearly lying. But would it help? Probably not. Easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar, she was sure she’d heard that somewhere before.
“I’m a reporter,” she said. One good lie deserves another. Besides, she’d had occasion to practice her small-p pretender skills lately. “He’s a person of interest on a case I’m covering, and I’m up a creek if I don’t get an insider quote for the weekend edition. My boss grants me an informant fund, if you point me in the right direction I could send some your way. What do you say?”
Marco’s hands gripped the edge of the counter like an acrophobe hanging onto his roller coaster seat for dear life. He slowly unclenched and turned back to his work.
“Tempting,” said Marco. “But as I don’t know the guy, I can’t give you anything worth any money. Except maybe one of Philly’s best sandwiches. You going to order, or what?”
She ordered. A shrimp po boy was ready in five minutes, and eaten in another ten as Miss Parker loitered in her rental car outside the restaurant. Lorefice knew where to find Jarod, it was only a matter of waiting for him to lead her back to wherever Jarod was hiding, and then…
Well, and then she’d catch Jarod.
And then she’d bring him back to the Centre.
And then Raines would let her move on.
Marco Lorefice might have been a terrible liar, but he wasn’t too shabby at shaking a tail. As far as she was aware, she hadn’t given him significant reason to suspect he was being tailed, but maybe shaking a hypothetical tail was simply de rigueur for the sort of guy Jarod would target. He ran several stale yellow lights, abruptly pulled over twice, switched lanes at every given opportunity, and worst of all, his blinker signaling appeared to have little to no relationship with the direction he actually planned to turn. Of course, it was always possible that on top of being a terrible liar, he was also a terrible driver. Regardless, Miss Parker had been tailing a genius for over five years (never mind unsuccessfully) and would not be deterred.
Finally, Lorefice’s car turned without signaling into a parking garage at the base of an imposing office building, a dozen-odd floors of aggressively boring architecture which put Miss Parker in mind of a prison. She looped around the block and pulled into the same garage. An elevator from the parking garage took her to the ground floor, and Miss Parker emerged into a deserted lobby.
Whomever had furnished the place had spared every expense, only allowing the bare minimum of comfort: three cramped chairs with upholstery stinking of cigarette smoke, all barely within shouting distance of a vacated front desk. It took a moment for Miss Parker to recall, oh that’s right, it was past clock-out time on a Friday. All the nine-to-fivers were home with their two-point-five kids.
But then why had she been able to access the building through the parking garage? Why weren’t the entrances locked?
Miss Parker slid behind the front desk and pawed around, hoping for more information about where she might catch up with Lorefice. Something that read ‘Floor 9: Department of Corruption and Orphan Abuse’ would be perfect, that would be right up Jarod’s alley. She wished she’d brought some backup, even Syd would have helped her be in more than one place at once. The one time she’d thought to cover the exits, and there was nobody there to cover them for her.
She found a building directory mounted to the wall near the front desk, and she was skimming the contents when something dark moved in her peripheral vision, followed by a muffled, hollow thump. When she turned to look, at first she could see nothing awry. She was still alone in the lobby, so whatever had moved, it couldn’t have been inside the building. Then she saw it: an artichoke green filing cabinet lay on its side on the strip of lawn that ran along the side of the building. It was badly dented and vomiting neon file folders onto the grass.
Just like the parking garage entrance, the front doors were conspicuously unlocked. Miss Parker pushed through them and rushed over to the fallen cabinet. A crunch underfoot alerted Miss Parker to a minefield of broken glass around the cabinet. She looked up. Sure enough, a window many floors up had a cavernous hole through which the cabinet had presumably fallen. If Miss Parker strained her hearing, she thought she could hear distant shouts, floating down to her from high above.
She stepped back several paces and counted the floors, from the broken window down to the ground floor. Seven floors.
Miss Parker had the safety on her gun switched off when the elevator doors opened on the seventh floor, revealing another sterile lobby. The back wall was made of glass, with an ornate pattern of frosted glazing and transparent glass allowing unpredictable glimpses of the hallway beyond. At first, it seemed just as deserted as the ground floor. She paused on the threshold to the elevator, listening hard.
The first sign of life was the sound of footsteps — an irregular gait: step, drag, step, drag — and laboured breathing. A figure soon came into view through the warped glass looking out onto the hallway. It was a tall man with broad shoulders, curled in on himself as he stumbled down the hall, putting as much weight as he could on his right leg. As Miss Parker watched, he stopped and put out a hand to the glass wall to brace his wavering balance, smearing red on the glass as he did so. His profile passed by a transparent section of glass, and Miss Parker’s breath caught.
It was Jarod.
His hair was shorter than when she’d last seen him, and he’d grown out a short beard, but it was unmistakably him. She’d last seen him in person over a year previous. As far as she had discerned, his rate of Pretends had slowed over the last couple of months, and the opportunities to run into him were abruptly thin on the ground. In a backwards kind of way, she’d missed him.
Jarod, cornered. For once, she was covering the exits, and he was clearly in no shape to run. He wasn’t in any shape to do much of anything, in fact — trying for dispassionate, she noted the strain in his expression, the tension in his mouth and jaw, the sheen of sweat at his temples. Her study of Jarod’s face was interrupted by the sound of more footsteps, running this time, and an angry shout.
“Jarod, you narc bastard, get back here,” called a scathing voice. Miss Parker recognized the voice from the deli: it was Lorefice. The shout spurred Jarod to action, setting him off at a slightly faster hobble. He reached the door separating the hall from the lobby and flung it wide. On automatic, Miss Parker brought up the barrel of her gun to point in his direction. Jarod’s eye caught the movement and looked straight at her. His glazed eyes took a lethargic moment to register recognition, then:
“What — uh!” Two loud barks of a pistol, and the sound of shattering glass.
“… Jarod?” she whispered.
Jarod staggered sideways into the shattered door. His feet wobbled beneath him and one hand shot out to grab something to stop his fall. It closed on empty air, his feet gave out, and he crashed to the floor.
Despite the evidence playing out in front of her eyes, it took a moment for Miss Parker to realize what had happened, as if her brain was trying to overwrite the incoming information rather than process it.
Jarod had been shot. At least twice, if the limp was anything to go by. He was still alive and sitting upright, one shoulder braced against the remains of the door to the lobby. But his attacker wasn’t finished.
Lorefice came into view at the far end of the hallway. He no longer bothered to run. He took no notice of Miss Parker, standing still as a piece at a wax museum with her gun pointed uselessly at the floor. He ambled up to Jarod, close enough that Jarod had to tilt his chin up to meet his eyes. Lorefice was the type to get expressive with the barrel of a gun, and he brandished the thing theatrically at Jarod’s slumped figure.
“Gotcha,” said Lorefice.
Jarod swallowed, his throat working in stuttering, groping jerks.
“I’m not — I’m not who you think I… what do you…”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it. You’re loyalty itself! You’d knee yourself in the balls before you’d turn against us! Uh-huh, right. Bye, Jarod.”
He raised his gun and pointed it squarely at Jarod’s forehead.
Miss Parker didn’t think. It was pure instinct.
The next moment, there was a hole in Marco Lorefice’s temple and a new, gory mural in reds and greys on the opposite wall. Miss Parker’s index finger trembled on the trigger. One suspended moment of silence passed, and Lorefice’s body toppled.
… It toppled onto Jarod.
The only reaction Jarod had to having a two hundred-and-change pound man dropped on him was a soft, pained grunt. After that, not a twitch.
You killed him, said something inside Miss Parker. The thought spiraled.
You killed him. You killed Jarod. You killed him you killed him what if he’s dead? You killed him. What if he’s dead? What if he’s gone? You killed Jarod! You killed him. What if he’s dead what if he’s dead what if he’s gone and dead. You killed him you killed him you killed him you killed him you killed him.
And so on.
The next moment, it was like someone had pressed play on Miss Parker. She rushed forward, skidded to her knees, grabbed two great handfuls of Lorefice’s dead flesh and shoved. Throwing her weight bodily into the man’s torso, she managed to push Lorefice’s corpse off of Jarod, onto the carpet. One of the dead man’s eyes was half-open. It met her gaze with one dilated pupil — not shocked or accusatory, just a dead eye. She growled in disgust and turned her face and her attention back to Jarod.
Miss Parker would never admit, even in the privacy of her own mind, to the stab of overjoyed relief which lanced through her chest when Jarod stirred to life. He gasped, grimaced and grabbed at his leg. He was alive. She hadn’t killed him; just the opposite, she’d saved his life. At least, for the moment.
Jarod’s left leg captured all his attention. His leg wound bubbled up a slow, regular geyser of blood, creating a dark, growing stain on the thigh of his pants. He clamped one hand over the wound, and with his free hand, he felt up under his shirt for the second wound. Once he found it, he slapped his palm down firmly, with enough force to make Miss Parker wince with visceral sympathy.
Only when he’d accomplished this sequence of tasks did he focus his gaze on Miss Parker.
Miss Parker was used to Jarod’s typical reaction to spotting her, usually across a crowded room at the end of that week’s flavour of three-dimensional Where’s Waldo?. It wasn’t unusual to see wariness, even some alarm. It had been a while, however, since she’d seen real fear. She saw it now.
The fear blew Jarod’s unfocused eyes wide and he jerked back. Before Miss Parker could say anything, he scrambled back on his hands and elbows, dragging himself away from her, wounds forgotten. He soon collided with the closest wall and — and this was where Miss Parker’s sense of the real and the surreal skewed crazily back-to-front — let out a panicked whimper. The sound tugged at her heart.
“Jarod! Calm down, stop moving,” she hissed. As far as she was aware, there was no reason to whisper; if Lorefice had pals, they weren’t exactly queuing to back him up. She didn’t feel that loud noises would help Jarod’s clear distress, however, so she kept her voice low. “I’m not going to — well. I’m not going to kill you. Calm down, lie still.”
With that, she wrapped her own palm around the thigh wound, and tried her best to ignore the full-body wince which resulted. She’d been about to say ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ a statement which would have had a shaky relationship with the truth, at best. She wasn’t here to kick him in the ribs, sure, but she also wasn’t here to bake him a birthday cake. Hence, she supposed, his fear.
Jarod stared at her a moment. He said nothing. He seemed to have come back to himself, if barely. His breathing sounded odd, sounded muted. The panic had dissipated as suddenly as it had appeared. Jarod pushed his hand up under his shirt again and held it to his chest.
“Where did —” She cleared her throat and nodded to Jarod’s torso. “Where did he get you?”
“Lung,” Jarod grunted.
“Oh. Oh. That’s, uh. That’s not good,” she said, and even through the distraction of the moment it sounded stupid to her ears. Jarod noticed, too. He gave her a deeply patronizing glare.
“No, it’s not.”
Miss Parker waited a moment for him to expand, but he didn’t. His lips were pressed together, hard.
“Well, you’re the sometimes-doctor,” she pointed out. “Are — are you going to be all right? Can you make it to —”
“To where?” Jarod snapped. “To a helicopter? To Delaware? No. I can’t.” Miss Parker opened her mouth to correct him, to tell him she’d been about to say ‘to a hospital’, but he continued. “Your hand. Need it.”
His next response was slow in coming, like he needed a run-up at it.
“On the chest wound, so. Doesn’t coll-apse. More.” His words came out in fits and starts. Miss Parker hesitated, thinking how to approach the manoeuvre. Jarod spotted the hesitation, and promptly misinterpreted it.
“Centre doesn’t want —” He inhaled a thin, drawn-out breath. “— me dead. Help. Please.”
“Neither do I, Jarod. Christ, you think that little of —” She stamped down her defensiveness. “Agh, shit. Brace yourself.”
She bent close, taking care not let go of Jarod’s thigh. Her free hand she slipped under Jarod’s reddening shirt, travelling up until it met his slippery fingers clamped over the sucking wound. His fingers shifted, and hers quickly replaced them. Like the idol swap in Indiana Jones, a tiny hysterical corner of her mind pointed out. Jarod hissed from the pain, then both of his hands disappeared under his shirt. Miss Parker couldn’t see what he was doing, but she felt a successive rapping, on one side of his chest, then the other.
He stared straight at her (through her?) the whole time, and Miss Parker stared straight back. Staring into Jarod’s eyes, with her hand on his chest — it’s not exactly how you pictured this happening, is it? The hysterical corner of her mind was back, and growing bolder by the second. But no. No, it wasn’t how she’d imagined it.
The rapping stopped, and Jarod took over again on wound-plugging duty. Miss Parker sat back, relieved for an excuse to break eye contact.
“Hemothorax,” Jarod muttered. In response to Miss Parker’s raised eyebrow, he expanded: “Blood in… chest cavity.” Miss Parker didn’t know what to do with that. It didn’t sound great. Mutely, Jarod jerked his head in her direction.
“Hm?” she said.
“Ambulance,” he gasped.
“I can’t call an ambulance.” She wasn’t sure when she’d made that decision, but it was made. Jarod’s jaw slackened and a look of hurt and confusion unfolded on his face.
There was that disappointment again. The worst part was — or was it the saving grace? — he wouldn’t look so disappointed if he hadn’t thought better of her in the first place. But she was thinking of both of them, she wanted to argue. She wasn’t sure how true that was. Possibly very. Possibly not at all.
“Jarod, have you forgotten the dead body next to you? We’d be arrested.”
Jarod gave her a mute look which pointed out, very eloquently, that only she would be spending any time behind bars for their flat-lined friend. Miss Parker ignored him and got to her feet. Jarod squirmed and grabbed for his leg.
“We’re not staying here, though. We gotta move,” Miss Parker said, half to herself.
“Stop talking with that sucking chest wound, you sound like Raines, for God’s sake.” She tried for her usual bravado, but couldn’t keep a waver out of her voice. Jarod snapped his mouth shut.
Miss Parker stepped over Lorefice’s body and set off down the hall at a half-run. She tried not to envision what could happen if she were too slow, if she returned to find two cooling bodies on the linoleum rather than one. In the third room she checked, she found a box of page protectors; in the fourth, a roll of medical tape in a first-aid kit. She returned to Jarod and brandished both tools. Jarod gave her a wobbly, half-dubious smile.
Five minutes later, a square cut from page-protector plastic was taped inelegantly over the hole in Jarod’s chest. She craned her head back to admire her handiwork. It was a messy job — Florence Nightingale she was not — but it seemed stable and (most importantly) air-tight. Jarod nodded jerkily and gave her a mute thumbs-up.
She didn’t consult Jarod on the next step in the plan. She couldn’t bet on him agreeing, especially since he’d wanted an ambulance. So, without a word of explanation, she:
1. Helped Jarod to a sitting position,
2. Got behind him,
3. Hooked both her arms under both of his, and
Jarod gasped and clawed at the floor for purchase.
“Like tearing off a band-aid,” muttered Miss Parker. She began tugging Jarod along the lobby floor towards the elevator. She pointedly did not look at the lengthening smear of blood they were leaving behind. “Except longer and more annoying. So not really much like a band-aid at all.”
“Shh.” She couldn’t bear to hear the pain in his voice. She’d never been able to deal well with feeling sympathy for Jarod. It only ever made her job harder.
At the last hump of the journey, one of Jarod’s feet got caught on the doorway to the elevator. Miss Parker didn’t notice, and heaved again from her under-arm grip. Jarod’s yell of pain should have echoed through the building; instead it was barely louder than a murmur, like a broken Speak n’ Spell. Miss Parker winced.
“Sorry,” she said softly. She didn’t check to see if he’d heard; she just leaned over, cleared his foot from the obstruction, and pulled him the rest of the way into the elevator.
Miss Parker kept her eyes on the floor number display on the elevator trip down. She could feel his stare, from floor seven all the way to the parking garage. Still her eyes stayed glued to the shifting numbers.
“I’m not going to drag you across the parking lot,” she announced to the elevator at large, still avoiding Jarod’s eyes. This was the approach to take. All business. No muss, no fuss. Just the facts, ma’am. “I’m going to get the car. You keep your hand on the leg wound.”
The parking lot was still empty, save for Marco Lorefice’s Pontiac, parked two rows over from her own parking spot. She wondered fleetingly how long it would take the cops to find it once Lorefice’s disappearance was noted. Or maybe it wouldn’t even take as long as that; after all, the body had fallen on Jarod, there was little chance there wasn’t some of the sandwich artist’s DNA material somewhere on Jarod’s person. If he had a record — and from all his posturing and gun-waving, it seemed like there was a good chance he would — they wouldn’t have to find the body to know to look for Lorefice. Jarod’s blood was all over that the hallway.
Turning the contingencies over in her mind, Miss Parker pulled her rental car up to the elevator.
Jarod was gone.
For a moment, she wanted to yell in frustration. Then, she applied the bare minimum of logic. He had gun shot wounds, one in his lung and one in his thigh, with only some tape and page protector plastic plugging the former and his own hand putting pressure on the latter. He could not have gone far.
He hadn’t. Miss Parker found Jarod using a railing as a crutch, speed-limping towards the darkened toll booth at the garage exit. He had a cellphone in one hand, and as she watched, he mashed one of the buttons on the keypad. It was Miss Parker’s cellphone. He could have grabbed it at any point — while she was lending her hands for help with his chest wound, while she was avoiding his eye in the elevator, when she’d dislodged his foot from the doorway. It didn’t matter.
Miss Parker didn’t raise her gun, didn’t raise her voice.
“Jarod, stop. Drop the phone.” He froze. His shoulders sagged. He didn’t turn around, nor did he relinquish the phone. Miss Parker sighed. “Don’t make me shoot my own phone.”
The phone dropped. Jarod turned around, swaying on the spot. He looked as though will alone kept him on his feet.
“Centre?” he wheezed.
Miss Parker hesitated.