The woman in the black leather trench coat and matching high-heeled boots looked out of place entering the dingy vestibule of the brick low-rise building, but her stride never faltered as she climbed the grimy staircase to the second floor. She stopped at the far end of the dimly lit hall and knocked twice on the door, paused, and knocked once more.
The door was opened almost immediately by a distinguished-looking older gentleman. “Quick, Miss Parker,” he hissed, “inside!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the apartment.
She shook off his hand and, while he closed and locked the door behind her, surveyed her surroundings. The apartment, if you could call it that, was basically one room with not enough furniture to hide the threadbare, stained carpet. A sagging couch with dreadful flowered upholstery was the focal piece of the room, but Miss Parker didn’t let her gaze linger on the man lying still – too still - and silent on the overstuffed cushions. Instead she crossed the room in three quick steps and deposited the shopping bag she carried on a table by the one small window in the place. With one long painted nail she spread the crooked slats of the venetian blinds apart and glanced outside. A view of a narrow alley complete with overflowing dumpster and scrawny cat stalking shadows met her eyes.
“Nice place you’ve got here, Syd,” she commented, rubbing the dust off her finger.
“You’re certain you weren’t followed?” Sydney asked, crossing to the table.
The withering glance she sent his way was her only response.
Sydney didn’t seem to notice, as he was busily unpacking the supplies she’d brought – bandages, gauze tape, scissors, alcohol swabs, bottled water. “Did you get the antibiotics?” he asked, the strain in his voice evident.
“Don’t get your stockings in a twist, Nurse Nightingale, they’re right here,” She fished the bottle out of her coat pocket and tossed it to him, noting with grudging admiration his one-handed catch. “So, what’s wrong with me, Doc?”
“Oh, just an infection of the feminine variety,” he said absent-mindedly, checking the label on the bottle.
“Gee, thanks,” she said. As Sydney continued to sort through the medical supplies, she studied him more carefully. He didn’t look good. His gray hair was normally brushed carefully back from his face, but right now a few wisps fell haphazardly over his forehead. His customary coat and tie were gone, his collar open and his sleeves rolled up. A thin film of sweat shone through the stubble above his upper lip. “When was the last time you slept, Sydney?” she asked.
He looked vaguely at his watch then shook his head. “That’s not important right now,” he said tersely. “I need to stabilize him.”
“How is the patient?” Not sure why it was so difficult to do so, Miss Parker slowly turned towards the sofa and finally took a good long look at the man lying there.
Jarod. Jarod lying there, pale and motionless. She’d seen him in distress before – during countless simulations on the DSAs or when he was escaping from the Centre’s latest snare. She’d even seen him in the throes of despair when he was kneeling over the body of his brother. But her usual view of him was his back as he made yet another impossible escape from the Sweepers’ clutches.
So to see him here, lying helpless on a ratty couch in a crummy one-room apartment, was strange enough to make her feel slightly dizzy, like the world had just shifted on its axis. She wondered if it was all an illusion, wondered if maybe the boy genius had learned how to create hallucinations – a handy talent to throw his pursuers off his track. He’d probably been a magician in one of his “pretends” over the past few years, so anything was possible.
Sydney’s voice brought Miss Parker back to reality. “His fever’s down, but he’s lost a lot of blood. Still, the bullet went clean through his side, so we caught a lucky break there.”
“Well, Jarod’s been a surgeon. Couldn’t he have removed the bullet himself?” Miss Parker felt a need to make the situation seem less dire.
“Not in the condition he was in when I found him.”
“And exactly how did that happen again?” Sydney’s call to her this morning had been heavy on drama but light on details. Now, Miss Parker turned the full force of her interrogation gaze on her colleague, daring him to evade her questions.
Sydney sighed and lowered himself into one of the rickety folding chairs at the table. Miss Parker remained standing, as much as to maintain the power position as to avoid contact with whatever the shiny stain was on the seat of the chair nearest her.
“I told you, Jarod called me and asked to meet,” Sydney began.
“And I assume my line was busy and voice mail was malfunctioning, or you certainly would have immediately informed me that our target had made contact,” Miss Parker interrupted coldly.
“He asked for refuge,” Sydney replied quietly but with an undertone that warned her not to object.
Oh, yes, their damn code word that meant Sydney would grant Jarod a safe place to meet so the two men could reminisce about the good old days at the Centre or discuss ways for Jarod to pick up women or chortle over the many uses for fake dog poop. Miss Parker knew the connection between Sydney and Jarod was to the Centre’s advantage, but sometimes she just wanted to slice clean through that umbilical.
“I could tell something was wrong from his tone, but I had no idea. I met him in the back alley of some bar in town and was stunned when I saw he was bleeding.” Syndey inhaled sharply as if reliving the shock of that moment. “I got him in my car and brought him here.”
Miss Parker refrained from asking why Sydney had such a place at his disposal.
“On the way he told me that he’d been ambushed by Lyle and a couple of Sweepers. He’d been shot and barely managed to escape.”
“How the hell did Lyle find him? And why didn’t we know about it? And how did Jarod let himself get shot?” Miss Parker fired out the questions that had plagued her since Sydney called her this morning with his request for supplies. He’d kept the conversation short in case of Centre monitoring.
“I don’t know, Miss Parker. Broots has been keeping track of Lyle’s activities as best he can -”
“Broots! How do we know what he does on his computer all day? He’s probably several levels deep in some online role-playing fantasy or lurking in some singles chat room.”
Sydney removed his glasses and shut his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“You didn’t sleep at all last night, did you?” Miss Parker’s tone was accusatory, but that was to cover the twinge of concern she felt for the older man.
“I had to tend to Jarod’s wound. I tell you, he was in bad shape!” Sydney rasped. “That’s why I had to ask you to bring the supplies. I couldn’t leave him alone.”
Miss Parker glanced over at Jarod, wondering again if he was really unconscious. They were speaking in low tones, but if he was faking –
“That’s the only reason you told me at all, isn’t it?” she said bitterly. “Part of you must have wondered if I’d show up here with Willy and Sam to drag Jarod back to the Centre.”
Sydney put his glasses back on, straightened in his chair, and steadied his gaze on her. “Of course, I did,” he said simply. “It was a risk I had to take.” He paused, then added, “So why didn’t you?”
So it was her turn to be interrogated. But she’d grown up at the Centre, and evasiveness was like second nature to her. “Maybe I didn’t want to get you into trouble.” She paused, then added, “Or maybe I didn’t want to see Lyle get the credit for catching Jarod.”
Sydney maintained eye contact a few more seconds, as if waiting for a third explanation, then shrugged and returned his attention to the supplies on the table.
Miss Parker wondered why she felt such a sense of relief that he was letting the matter drop.
“I need to change the dressing on Jarod’s wound,” Sydney said, gathering up packages of bandages and alcohol swabs. “I could use a hand.”
She was about to give some snarky reply about leaving her nurse’s uniform in her closet at home when her cell phone rang. She answered immediately in her customary way. “What?”
“Miss Parker, where are you? All hell is breaking loose here at the Centre! Lyle’s saying he almost caught Jarod last night, your father’s demanding explanations, I can’t find Sydney, there are rumors that the triumvirate might get personally involved, and I just heard a thump from the air ducts which makes me think Angelo’s crawling around in there!”
Broots’ anxiety reached through the phone line and jangled her own nerves.
“Broots, breathe into a bag before you pass out. I’ll be right there.” She snapped her phone shut.
“Trouble?” Sydney asked.
Miss Parker was already headed for the door. “Jarod’s latest great escape has the Centre in an uproar and they want all hands on deck. So slap a new band-aid on boy wonder, tuck him in for the duration, and get your butt back to the Centre pronto.” She didn’t wait for a reply, trusting that Sydney knew when it was high time to save his own skin; he hadn’t lasted all these years at the Centre without well-tuned survival instincts.
The same instincts she had, which was why she didn’t allow herself to spare even one more glance at the man on the sofa as she slammed out of the hole-in-the wall hideout.
Broots was fidgeting in the hallway outside her office when she got to the Centre. Miss Parker hurriedly unlocked her door and shoved him inside. “How many times have I told you not to lurk outside my door looking guilty?” she snapped.
“I- I’m not guilty,” he stammered, nervously fiddling with the bottom button of his ill-fitting cardigan.
“Broots, we work at the Centre. We’re all guilty of something.” Miss Parker cast a glance around the room and noted with satisfaction that nothing seemed out of place. She’d learned long ago to sweep her office every day for listening devices, but that didn’t mean other, more unpleasant surprises couldn’t be left by one of her many enemies – there were plenty of those within these very walls.
“Miss Parker, have you seen Sydney?”
She moved behind her desk and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass top; she kept her expression and tone carefully neutral as she replied, “He’s probably down in one of the sim labs trying to determine how many twins it takes to screw in a lightbulb.”
“No, I looked there, but -”
“Calm down, Broots, and tell me what Lyle is saying about Jarod.”
Broots took a deep breath but looked anything but calm as he said, “Lyle claims he almost captured Jarod last night.”
“Which just proves that my brother is stupid as well as psychotic. Why let it be known that you had Jarod in your grasp, only to lose him yet again?”
“Well, he’s also saying Jarod was here, right here in Blue Cove.”
“And, and, and L-lyle said he shot at Jarod and is pretty sure he hit him.”
“Pretty sure? Pretty sure?” Miss Parker came around to the front of her desk and planted herself directly in front of Broots. He recoiled a step from her gathering fury. “Who told you this?”
Miss Parker felt a headache begin to throb behind her eyes. The dynamic between Broots and Brigitte irked her. The blonde bitch slithered up to him and whispered in his ear every chance she got, and Broots always bought whatever load of garbage she fed him. “And did Brigitte give Mr. Broots a lick of her lollipop, too?” Miss Parker asked in a sarcastic sing-song.
Miss Parker switched back to her no-nonsense tone. “I assume you’ve hacked into the records of all the local hospitals and sweepers have been dispatched to check them in person to determine if an injured Jarod is indeed lying in an emergency room cubicle somewhere nearby?”
“So far, we haven’t found anyone matching Jarod’s description.”
“So Syd and I have been called in to help with the search.”
“Well, yes, and -” Broots swallowed hard.
“And what? What else did that bleached blonde tell you?”
Broots wouldn’t meet her eyes. “The triumvirate wonders if you and Sydney might have helped Jarod escape.”
“Do they?” Miss Parker’s voice was barely louder than a whisper, but it was razor-sharp. Even though a cold knot was forming in the pit of her stomach, she made sure none of her fear showed in her demeanor.
“I told Brigitte that you’d never help Jarod! You’ve been hunting him for years.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t help Jarod evade capture,” Miss Parker snapped. “But you and I both know what a soft spot Sydney has for his prodigy.”
Broots took a cautious step towards her and spoke quietly, “That’s why I’m so worried that I can’t find Sydney.”
“What I want to know, Broots, is how Lyle even found Jarod,” she said, hoping her abrupt change of topic wouldn’t register with the terrified computer geek. “Especially without us knowing about it. We haven’t had a solid lead on Jarod in months, so how did Lyle manage to ambush him? And why didn’t you know what he was up to? Aren’t you monitoring my brother’s movements as I instructed?”
“I was! I mean, I am! He was supposed to be in New York City all day yesterday.”
“Yet he claims to have spotted Jarod here in Blue Cove.” She got right in his face, close enough to see the beads of sweat break out on his ever-expanding forehead. “How do you explain that, Broots?”
“I don’t know. According to Brigitte, he had an appointment in New York, and-”
“According to Brigitte?” Miss Parker had to resist a very strong urge to shake him. “Here I am thinking you’re using your computer savvy to monitor Lyle’s movements, but instead you’re relying on water cooler gossip! What is wrong with you?”
Broots backed away again. “She-she’s the closest person to Lyle, the b-best person to know what he’s doing.”
“Yes, she’s the closest person to Lyle, which means she’s loyal to Lyle, which means she would have no problem feeding you false information, genius!” When Broots made no response, Miss Parker let out an exasperated sigh and stalked over to her office doors. She flung them open, turned back to Broots, and demanded, “Get back down to your hole, get on the computer, and get me some accurate information!”
“Yes, Miss Parker,” Broots ducked his head and started to scurry out of the room, but he paused in the doorway to look back, the action appearing to take every ounce of courage he could muster. “What about Sydney?”
“What about me?” A calm voice with a slight accent inquired from the hallway.
Broots looked like he might faint from relief. “Sydney!”
As their colleague entered her office, Miss Parker couldn’t help but be impressed by Sydney’s quick transformation; he was in his customary suit and tie, clean-shaven, gray hair immaculately brushed. Only the circles under his eyes betrayed his exhaustion, but even on a regular work day at the Centre, such marks of fatigue were common and wouldn’t cause suspicion.
“Okay, Broots, Sydney and I are both here now. You get on the computer and double check the records of the local hospitals and free clinics – don’t leave out ones in bad neighborhoods; in fact, look real hard at those. If Jarod’s at a medical facility within 50 miles of the Centre, I want to know about it.”
Broots nodded and hurried away.
“Jarod’s been injured?” Sydney asked sharply.
Miss Parker admired his ability to keep up the charade among walls that had eyes and ears. “Lyle claims to have shot him during an attempted capture,” she said. “No confirmation yet.”
“Lyle got to Jarod? How could this happen?”
“The details are still vague, and Broots is no help. He’s getting his intel from Brigitte these days.” Miss Parker shook her head in frustration. “Broots is half-terrified of the woman, but he still laps up everything she feeds him like some lovesick puppy.”
Sydney raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t need to say it, Sigmund, I know that Broots has a similar relationship with me. Which is how I like it. He may be a nerd, but he’s my nerd, and Brigitte should keep her claws off him.”
“You catch more flies with honey, Miss Parker.”
“Oh, brilliant, Syd. Did they teach you that pearl of wisdom in shrink school? I’m telling you, we have a real problem if Lyle can give false information to Broots through Brigitte.”
Sydney looked thoughtful. “Perhaps we can find a way to use Broots’ relationship with Brigitte to our advantage.”
“What are you babbling about? Never mind; I don’t have time to waste one more second on Broots’ fantasy love life.” She pushed Sydney into the hall, following him and locking her office behind her. “I’m going to speak to my father and get the truth about what happened.”
“I’ll help Broots look for any sign of Jarod.”
As she watched Sydney walk away down the corridor, Miss Parker reflected that he really was a superb actor. Then she wondered uncomfortably how many times he’d used her acting skills on her.
While most Centre employees dreaded a summons to the Tower, Miss Parker enjoyed visiting the top level of the fortress, because her father’s office was located in a prime spot, signifying the power he – and she by extension – held within the organization. As was her custom, she swept past the stammering secretary who tried to impede her progress and flung open the double doors of her father’s opulent office.
“Nice entrance, sis, but you’re a bit late to the party.”
All of her attention had been on the white-haired gentleman seated at the desk, so the dry comment from the far right of the room caused her a slight jolt. But she recovered quickly. “Not much of a party, brother, if the guest of honor can’t be persuaded to make an appearance,” she countered smoothly.
Lyle looked as cool and collected in his corporate suit as he always did within the confines of the Centre, but Miss Parker had seen his true nature enough times outside these walls to know what kind of monster lurked beneath the businessman façade. “At least I found Jarod,” he retorted.
“And let him escape again,” Miss Parker pointed out.
A muscle twitched along his jawline. “I got a shot off and hit him. His blood was found at the scene.”
“Why the hell are you firing at Jarod without a clear shot? The Centre wants him alive.”
“Preferably,” Lyle added.
Hearing the same words she’d once thrown blithely at Sydney, Miss Parker was surprised to note the hollow feeling they gave her this time.
“A wounded Jarod should be easier to catch,” Lyle went on.
“Idiot! Don’t you know that wounded animals are the most dangerous?”
Lyle’s eyes flashed blue fire and Miss Parker was uncomfortably reminded of just how wildly dangerous he had been when wounded.
“Enough!” The gruff command drew the attention of the siblings. Mr. Parker had risen behind his desk and was glaring at the two of them. “If you children have finished exchanging barbs, perhaps we could return to the matter at hand – namely, finding and bringing Jarod back to the Centre once and for all!”
Lyle’s demeanor changed in an instant, as he replied smoothly, “Which is what I was doing yesterday when I laid a trap for our wayward Pretender. And I still say the fact that I injured him makes him vulnerable.”
Mr. Parker shook his head. “No, your sister’s right, Lyle. You can’t assume a wounded Jarod will be easier to catch. He may be a white knight on some misguided crusade to save the weak and abused, but he’s also capable of being ruthless and unpredictable. Remember, he kidnapped me to exchange for Major Charles. An unexpected and brilliant move.”
Miss Parker remembered all too well the day Jarod waltzed into the Centre lobby and announced he’d taken her father prisoner and would only return him – alive – if the Centre released his father. She had been shocked by the threat but believed he’d carry through on it; Jarod had been raised by the Centre, after all, and thus was capable of anything.
“A brilliant move that resulted in his father eventually escaping with the Gemini clone, yes,” Lyle allowed, “but Jarod himself was successfully captured and brought back to the Centre.”
“Briefly,” Miss Parker was quick to point out. “After I was shot saving our father from Raines’ attempt on his life and left to rot in some second-rate hospital, you wasted Jarod’s time here by torturing him for kicks.”
“He had to be taught a lesson,” Lyle snapped. “It was high time he learned who had the power here.”
“You wasted your short time in power!” Mr. Parker glared at his son. “Your sister’s right again, Lyle. You completely failed to use Jarod’s genius for any lucrative sims while he was back here. And he escaped – again – before his abilities could be utilized to the Centre’s benefit.”
Lyle looked like he was starting to sweat through his designer suit, Miss Parker noted with satisfaction. For the first time since she’d entered the room, he didn’t have a ready comeback.
“But your failure to capture Jarod has not gone unnoticed, either,” Mr. Parker said, frowning at his daughter. “You’re one of the Centre’s best operatives, yet you’ve consistently let Jarod slip through your fingers.”
It was Miss Parker’s turn to feel flustered, while out of the corner of her eye she could see Lyle smirking. “I knew nothing about this supposed “trap” Lyle laid for Jarod!” she protested. “We’re supposed to work together to bring Jarod in, yet Lyle didn’t even bother to inform me that he’d gotten a lead on him!”
“I left you a message; it’s not my fault if you didn’t get it,” Lyle said dismissively.
“Really? That’s your excuse? You’re actually going to blame your decision to go after Jarod alone on some mysterious breakdown in voice mail?”
“You two have to learn to work together!” Mr. Parker’s pronouncement carried all the weight of a judge delivering a sentence; to Miss Parker, his words certainly felt like that. She knew if her father had a gavel, he’s be banging it right now – probably on their heads. “That is the only way we are ever going to get Jarod back.”
Miss Parker had to bite back her reply, because her father went on, “If Jarod is injured, we might have a small window of opportunity to intercept him before he disappears again.”
“I already have Broots checking hospital and clinic records for gunshot victims matching Jarod’s description,” Miss Parker said.
“That’s a waste of time. There’s no way he’d let himself be put into a computer,” Lyle argued. “He’ll just steal the supplies he needs and treat himself.”
“Well, if you’re such a crack shot, maybe he’s too wounded to do that,” Miss Parker countered.
“I don’t care if he’s performing surgery on himself while walking a tightrope or bleeding in a ditch somewhere, I want Jarod found now!” Mr. Parker thundered.
Miss Parker knew when it was time to make a speedy retreat. The urge to boast that she could deliver Jarod right now had become unbearable. She nodded at her father and left his office.
Lyle was right on her heels. Before he could slink away, Miss Parker planted herself in his path. “What kind of game are you playing this time, Lyle? Why didn’t you tell me when you got a lead on Jarod? You know you would have had a much better chance of bringing him in if you’d included me in the plan.”
“Would I?” Lyle arched an eyebrow at her. “I suspect you would have been more of a hindrance than help.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Miss Parker hissed.
“Our father’s right. You have a long string of attempted apprehensions of Jarod – all of them ending in failure. At least I wasn’t afraid to draw my weapon.”
Miss Parker automatically reached to the small of her back where she kept her gun tucked in her waistband. “Do you want to see me draw my weapon?” she asked in a low, lethal tone.
Lyle was unfazed. “Been there, done that, sis. Lucky for me you’re such a bad shot.” He took a deliberate step around her and walked away down the corridor.
Miss Parker watched him go, but what she saw was a pier at night, the arc of a glowing cigarette, and what she heard was the sound of her gun going off and the splash as Lyle’s body tumbled into the water. She blinked and was brought back to the present where – unfortunately- her psychotic brother was still breathing and walking around taking pot shots at Jarod.
Lucky for Jarod, you’re also a bad shot, brother, she thought.
She was just about to head down to the lower level to check in with Broots and Sydney when she heard a crash followed by a curse from inside her father’s office. She rushed in again without knocking but didn’t care this time about the effect of her entrance.
Her father was on his hands and knees next to his desk. “Daddy, are you okay?” Miss Parker hurried over to him.
“Put the damn glass down and missed the corner of the desk.” He sounded disgusted with himself but was probably a little embarrassed as well.
“Let me help you.” Miss Parker knelt beside him on the deep mahogany carpet and started to help him gather up shards of glass. She wondered exactly what had caused the crash she heard - the glass would not have made such a noise tumbling onto the thick rug – but she didn’t contradict her father’s explanation.
“Thank you, Angel.” He reached out and gently brushed a strand of her glossy dark hair away from her cheek. “So much like your mother,” he murmured.
It always made her feel good to be told how much she looked like her mother; she remembered the serene beauty of the woman who’d lovingly brushed her hair and made all the bad things of the world seem far away. Miss Parker’s lips curved into a rare, sweet smile.
But her father’s next words made that smile vanish in a flash. “So naïve, too trusting for your own good.”
What was he talking about? Naïve? Trusting? Was he seeing her or her mother? Miss Parker noticed that the hand touching her hair was shaking slightly; she reached out and captured both her hands in hers, giving a reassuring squeeze. “Daddy, are you okay?” she asked softly.
“You need to worry about yourself,” he said hoarsely, pulling free of her grip. “I meant what I said earlier. Your failure to capture Jarod has been noticed by those in power.”
“But Lyle -”
“No! No more excuses, no more playing the blame game.” He laid his hands on her shoulders and fixed her with a grave look. “The Parker name does not carry the weight it once did.”
His hands were gripping her tightly; she wanted to squirm away from his hold but the intensity of his gaze held her prisoner. “Daddy, what are you trying to say?”
“Jarod is the Centre’s greatest asset. Whoever brings him back will hold all the power.”
For a second she thought he had guessed her secret, and then she wondered why she didn’t just tell him the truth. She opened her mouth and –
The intercom on his desk buzzed. “Mr. Parker, line one is for you.”
“Not now, Margaret,” he barked.
“But sir, it’s long distance. . . from Africa.”
The Triumverate. Miss Parker saw the flicker of fear in her father’s eyes before his expression went neutral. “Fine, I’ll take it,” he said. He got stiffly to his feet, leaning heavily on his desk for support.
Miss Parker scooped up the rest of the glass fragments and tossed them in his silver waste can before heading for the door. She turned back to – what? Offer reassurance that she would be the one who brought Jarod in? How could she be such a hypocrite?
Her father settled himself heavily in his desk chair and reached for the phone.
Miss Parker closed the doors quietly behind her and headed down the corridor towards the elevator. She felt off balance, as if the world had suddenly tilted beneath her feet. In a way it had. Her world, the one where her father was comfortably in charge at the Centre, where he had the power, had abruptly changed.
Jarod is the Centre’s greatest asset. Whoever brings him back will hold all the power.
If Lyle somehow managed to capture Jarod, did that mean he would be the new Chairman? She shuddered at the thought. The brief time before when he’d held the reins at the Centre, he’d spent all his time torturing Jarod, with her locked away in some hospital, helpless to intervene. She couldn’t – wouldn’t – let that happen again.
Miss Parker knew what she had to do.