That’s where Sydney found him twenty minutes later. He was surprised and pleased to see Jarod sitting up at the table. Assuming that meant he was feeling better, Sydney approached with an optimistic bounce to his step and a cheerful greeting forming on his lips.
Which died when he saw the cuffs. Jarod’s hands were clasped in front of him, resting on the table, but Sydney hadn’t noticed the handcuffs until he got closer. “Jarod, what happened?” he asked, his eyes darting to the door to the bathroom, expecting a Sweeper to burst out of hiding. Had he just foolishly walked into a trap? Had the Centre finally succeeded in ensnaring not only their wayward Pretender but also his chief ally?
Jarod had been staring down at his manacled hands and took a few seconds to look up and respond to Sydney’s urgent question. “Miss Parker,” he said, almost absent-mindedly.
Damn. He knew he’d been taking a big risk in revealing Jarod’s plight to his main pursuer, but he’d thought – he’d hoped – that she’d be compassionate when confronted with her injured prey.
“She had a change of heart,” Jarod continued, “and then another change of… heart.” The last word was said in a sort of wondering tone.
Sydney was a trained observer, but he couldn’t decipher the look on Jarod’s face. If Miss Parker had shown up earlier and managed to slap handcuffs on him, he should be agitated, at the very least. The fact that she seemed to have inexplicably failed to take him back to the Centre should have Jarod feeling a huge sense of relief. Yet here he sat, appearing to be in somewhat of a daze. Was he in shock? Had his fever returned? Sydney had to fight a surprisingly parental urge to feel Jarod’s forehead.
First things first. Assess current risk level. “Did Miss Parker bring a team of sweepers?”
“No,” Jarod said.
“She came alone?” Sydney asked sharply.
Strange, but she must have figured Jarod was in no shape physically to put up much of a fight. She must have surprised him if she’d managed to get those cuffs on him. Next item of business -get those damn cuffs off him. Sydney started searching his pockets. “I don’t have a key for those handcuffs,” he said apologetically, “but maybe a pen…”
“Oh!” Jarod seemed to notice the restraints for the first time. “Never mind, I’ve got it.” His fingers moved in a complicated pattern, and then he was free, the handcuffs clattering to the table. As Sydney stared, Jarod added, “I was a magician once.”
And an escape artist every day. Well, at least he was starting to communicate in more than one word responses or cryptic comments. Sydney tried to decide on a course of action. When Jarod the child would ask too many questions about his past or would withdraw inward in a genius version of a “pout,” Sydney would insist he work the sim and stay focused on the task at hand. Here and now, maybe he could get him to relive the morning’s events and slowly lead him out of his fog.
He took a seat across from Jarod. “How did Miss Parker manage to get those cuffs on you in the first place?”
“I was sleeping.” Jarod drew in a breath, let it out in a long sigh. “Normally I would have awakened as soon as someone entered the room, but this injury has really taken its toll on me, I guess.”
“How is your wound?”
“Better. It was bleeding earlier, but…Miss Parker put a fresh bandage on it.”
Sydney’s one eyebrow lifted in surprise.
Jarod grunted. “She said she didn’t want me bleeding all over her car.”
Sydney nodded; that sounded more like their Miss Parker. Yet he suspected her caustic comment had been her way of hiding her true concern for Jarod’s welfare. “What happened next?”
“Well, she wanted to drag me out of here right away, but I kept her talking for a little while. I was hoping to stall her until you arrived.”
Sydney was flattered that Jarod had pinned such high hopes on him. “I appreciate your faith in me, Jarod, but I fear that I would not have been much help in getting Miss Parker to change her mind.”
“Actually, I counted on your entrance to act as more of a distraction than anything else,” Jarod admitted, a bit sheepishly. “I thought I might be able to get the gun away from her and make a fast exit.” He paused, then added, “I’m glad it didn’t come to that. I’m not quite up hasty retreats.”
“So she just left? Why would she do that? What made her have the ‘change of heart’?”
Again, that indecipherable look passed across Jarod’s face. “I don’t know,” he said slowly.
Sydney knew Jarod wasn’t telling him everything, but he’d learned long ago not to push for answers. Any good psychiatrist knew that the patient had to be willing to open up.
Jarod seemed to give himself a mental shake. “Probably she figured she did need back-up, after all, which means I should get moving before she returns with a few Sweepers in tow.” He stood up.
Sydney stood also. “Jarod, you’re in no condition to be on the run.”
“Don’t have much choice, do I?” His tone was casual, but Sydney could see the bitterness lurking in the depths of his brown eyes. Then he turned away and went to retrieve his meager belongings from behind the sofa.
“Let me drive you somewhere,” Sydney insisted. “There’s a cold front moving in, and it was starting to rain when I arrived. You shouldn’t be out in weather like that with an infection. Let me help you find another place where you can stay for a while, heal from your injury.”
Jarod came back to the table with his brown leather satchel and silver briefcase. He moved easily enough, but Sydney observed a slight hitch to his gait as he favored his left side. He deposited the items on a chair and picked up a bottle of water and a few bandages, which he tucked into his bag.
“No, it’s too dangerous,” he said in response to Sydney’s offer. “You’ve done more than enough; I won’t have you taking any more risks.”
“I’m willing to take that chance-”
“I know.” Jarod placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “And I’m grateful. But I don’t want anything to happen to you because of me. Too many innocent lives have already been lost because of me.”
“None of those were your fault, Jarod, and I’m far from innocent,” Sydney said softly.
His former protégé stared at him for a long moment. How many times had the boy Jarod looked at him with those big brown eyes sparkling with intellect as he confidently worked through a simulation? And how many times had his gaze pleaded for answers that Sydney couldn’t – or wouldn’t – give?
Now Sydney was the one who needed something that Jarod was not ready to bestow. Forgiveness. Maybe someday, but for now Sydney was content that this extraordinary man he’d helped to raise could look upon him without contempt. He’d always been grateful that he’d never been greeted by the Pretender “mask” when he and Jarod came face to face; the level of trust between them was enough for that small pretense to be stripped away.
It was enough for Sydney to know that Jarod was currently experiencing some sort of emotional turmoil, something he felt he couldn’t share, not even with his mentor whom he’d risked contacting so many times for advice. His brown eyes beheld Sydney with their usual inexplicable mix of wariness and trust, but some new emotion was also there, flickering just beneath the surface.
“What’s wrong, Jarod?” Sydney gently prodded.
The spell was broken. Jarod shook his head. “I wish I knew,” he said, and those were the last words Sydney heard before he felt sudden pressure on his neck and everything went black.
Miss Parker kicked in the door, reveling in the feel of power and control it gave her, and rushed into the apartment. She swept her gun from left to right but saw no one. Realizing they were too late, she still jerked her head towards the bathroom door for Sam the Sweeper to check it out. When he called out the all-clear a few seconds later, she already knew that Jarod was long gone.
Then she heard a low moan from across the dimly-lit room and her heart skipped a beat. Maybe he wasn’t gone. . .
She made a cautious approach, gun held steady, balanced on the balls of her feet for some quick action if needed. When she was close enough to see who it was, she relaxed and lowered her gun. “Sydney!” she exclaimed, then added for Sam’s benefit, “I told you to meet us here, not come in without back-up!”
Sydney pushed himself into a seated position, rubbing the back of his head and looking disoriented. Come on, Syd, she thought, pull it together. Don’t blow it now.
“Miss Parker?” he murmured groggily, looking around. “Jarod must have –”
“Knocked you out and made his escape,” she finished for her colleague. That much was obvious and true. “I knew this lead would pan out. I just wish you’d waited until Sam and I got here. What made you think you could capture Jarod on your own?” The exasperation in her voice was also not faked.
Sydney was slowly catching on to the fact that they were not alone in the room. “Sorry,” he muttered, as he shakily rose to his feet. “I thought I could convince him to come back to the Centre with me.”
Miss Parker tucked the gun into her waistband under her coat and helped him into a chair. She saw the discarded handcuffs on the scarred wood surface and quickly swept them into her coat pocket. A second later the incriminating prescription bottle bearing her name joined the cuffs in hiding.
By this time Sam had wandered over their way. Miss Parker surveyed the remaining items on the table as if seeing them for the first time and pronounced: “Looks like Lyle did manage to shoot Jarod.”
“These bandages would support that conclusion,” Sydney supplied helpfully.
“Guess Jarod slipped into doctor mode and treated himself, huh?” Sam grunted.
She had to speak to Sydney alone now. “Check the back alley,” she ordered her henchman. “Maybe we’ll be lucky and Jarod’s blood loss made him keel over before he got very far.”
Sam nodded and left. Miss Parker instantly planted her palms on the table and leaned across it, thrusting her face close to Sydney’s. “Okay, Syd, just what the hell happened here?”
Sydney didn’t take offense at the invasion of his personal space. “It was as you said, Miss Parker, Jarod must have knocked me out.” He seemed distracted, gingerly massaging the side of his neck. Then his face cleared. “Ah, he must have applied careful but sustained pressure to my carotid arteries, which caused me to lose consciousness.”
Miss Parker blinked and straightened up. “That bit of medical lingo clear the remaining cobwebs? Nice to know Jarod can do the Vulcan neck pinch, but what I want to know is why he felt he needed to knock you out. No offense, Syd, but you’re not much of a physical threat.”
“I’m not any kind of threat to Jarod,” Sydney was quick to point out.
“Watch who you say that to or you could end up locked in a Centre cell so fast your head really will spin,” Miss Parker warned.
Again, he seemed to be thinking of something else. “Jarod and I were standing here by the table, and he was getting ready to leave, putting a few items in his bag…”
“And you were doing everything you could to talk him out of going while surreptitiously pocket dialing me on your cell to call for back-up,” Miss Parker interjected sarcastically.
Sydney ignored her. “I was offering to drive him somewhere since he’s still in no condition to be running from Centre operatives.”
She groaned inwardly; a T-board was definitely in Sydney’s very near future if he kept talking about how he helped Jarod. She had to bring him back to reality. “You mean like you and me? Remember, it’s our job to bring Jarod back to the Centre.”
That got his attention. “I haven’t forgotten,” he said evenly. “You and I just go about accomplishing our objective in different ways.”
“Damn right! You coddle him while I bust my butt trying to capture him!” She stalked over to the window and peered through a slit in the blinds. She saw Sam in the alley, looking miserable in the rain. As she watched, he carefully lifted the lid of the dumpster and cast a cautious glance inside, his gun drawn. Then he jumped back, and Miss Parker snapped to attention, but it was just a rat he’d disturbed, now scurrying through puddles down the alley. She stifled a sigh.
“I didn’t notice you dragging him back to the Centre yesterday when he was lying here helpless,” Sydney said.
“I told you, I didn’t want Lyle to get any credit for catching him.” And by the way, Syd, your poor injured boy was really lying awake and listening to our conversation the whole time.
“But today you… had a change of heart?”
Miss Parker looked at him suspiciously. There was something strange in his tone just then. “I decided Jarod had recovered enough to come home and face the music.”
“Then why didn’t you take him back to the Centre once you had the cuffs on him?”
He was gazing at her in that pleasant, non-threatening manner of most psychiatrists. But what he wanted was for her to spill our all her dark, deep emotions so he could shred them one by one. God, she hated shrinks!
“What are you talking about?” She looked at her watch and started to pace, as if concerned about Sam’s delay in returning, when she was really trying to figure a way to avoid Sydney’s probing questions.
“Jarod told me you paid him a visit earlier this morning.” Again, he stopped.
Damn, just how much had Jarod told him? No way was she going to offer any extra details about their early morning encounter. “Well, he was his usual uncooperative self, so I decided I needed to go get Sam. I was hoping Jarod was still too weak to make a run for it, especially in handcuffs.”
“Mm.” Sydney nodded thoughtfully, one finger pressed to his lips. “You could have called for back-up. Then you wouldn’t have had to leave Jarod alone, thereby giving him a perfect window of opportunity to escape.”
She stopped pacing and glared at him. “If you are seriously suggesting I let Jarod get away, you’re the one who needs a reality check.”
“Certainly not on a conscious level, but perhaps your subconscious took over and allowed your compassion for Jarod to dictate your actions.”
She thought she detected a hint of smugness in his tone. “Forget it, Sigmund,” she said. “I haven’t plugged into my sweeter side; I don’t have one! Just because I helped you play nurse yesterday doesn’t mean I’ve gone soft. My number one priority for years has been to return Jarod to the Centre, and that hasn’t changed!”
“If you say so, Miss Parker,” Sydney said mildly.
The more upset she became, the calmer he appeared. “Stop trying to analyze me,” she snapped. “If you need to dissect someone’s screwy psyche, talk to Broots about those dreams he keeps having about me.”
Sydney quirked an eyebrow but said nothing.
The door to the apartment opened and Sam came in, looking dejected as he wiped rainwater from his forehead. “Sorry, Miss Parker. There’s no sign of him.”
That didn’t surprise her. What was a surprise was the relief she felt.
Itwas almost an hour later before Miss Parker reached the sanctuary of her office. She leaned against the black frosted surface of her double doors for a moment and shut her eyes. After threatening Sam into keeping quiet about her latest failure to capture Jarod and forcing Sydney to go home and rest (so he wouldn’t cross paths with Lyle or Brigitte until he had time to gather himself sufficiently to keep lying effectively), she was exhausted. Her day had started too early with her pre-dawn visit to Jarod’s hideout and had been going steadily downhill from there. She’d botched her best chance to bring the genius back, Sydney had his shrink radar firmly centered on her, and she’d ruined her new designer shoes in the rain.
She needed a drink.
Miss Parker quickly crossed to the liquor cabinet discreetly tucked into a lower shelf of the credenza in the corner of her office and poured herself a Scotch. She downed half of it in one gulp, then took the glass and bottle over to her desk. She collapsed in her chair and wondered how much she would have to drink before she could forget about this heinous day. She didn’t like to get drunk, mainly because she always wanted – needed - to be in control, but sometimes there was no other way to deal with the crap life kept throwing her way. And today she’d been totally unprepared for what had happened.
And something big had happened. Now that she was alone she could finally admit that to herself.
Correction: two kisses.
The first one could be easily explained: Jarod, knowing he was in no shape to take her on in hand-to-hand combat, chose another method to distract her so he could go for her gun. It was her own fault that he’d been able to get that close to her; she’d let him push her buttons with talk of her mother. That was the one subject he knew would make her let down her defenses. But she knew that was her main weakness, and she shouldn’t have been so easy to manipulate.
His method of attack - the kiss - well, that was a surprise. Like the boy Jarod, it had been sweet and shy. And more trouble than she needed.
So why the hell had she made matters worse by kissing him back?
Miss Parker finished her drink with another huge swig and immediately poured herself another.
There’s been nothing shy about the kiss she’d planted on Jarod. She didn’t know why she’d had the impulse, let alone acted on it, but it had been the most wildly exhilarating moment of her life. What did that say about her, that a simple kiss could mean so much?
She’d been the one to pull away – both times – and after the second kiss, she’d rushed out of the apartment and headed straight to the Centre, not remembering anything about the drive. She’d gone to the Security Section, collected Sam, and quickly returned to Jarod’s safe house, determined to bring him back with her this time. She’d told herself that she needed the Sweeper for extra muscle, but now she wondered if she’d needed him more as a guard against another unexpected emotional response.
She’d left so quickly after the kiss she had no idea what Jarod’s reaction had been to her… bizarre behavior. He certainly hadn’t resisted and he hadn’t taken advantage of the situation to try to wrestle her gun away from her. Miss Parker’s lips curved into a satisfied smile. Maybe she’d been the one to provide the more effective distraction.
Could that have been the subconscious motivation for her desire to kiss him? Or was it just plain desire? As a boy, Jarod had been intriguing, and as a man, well…
Miss Parker took a slow swallow of her Scotch and leaned back in her swivel chair. She wasn’t afraid to admit that she found him attractive – she wasn’t blind, after all – but it was more than his physical attributes that made him fascinating. His genius, cleverness, bravery, touch of vulnerability, and just a hint of recklessness would make him irresistible to any woman on the planet. To her, those traits made Jarod the perfect adversary – the prey that she was destined to capture. She often grumbled about her assignment of catching Jarod, but secretly she was flattered by the Centre’s– and her father’s – faith in her abilities. To catch a genius who could become anyone he wanted to be… well, that was a worthy task.
And one she intended to accomplish. This latest episode was just an anomaly. It was pure physical attraction and maybe a little healthy curiosity that had made her kiss Jarod. And maybe a little of her rebellious nature taking over. Why had she sought Jarod out when they were children together at the Centre? Because a friendship with him was forbidden, and therefore, exciting. Any kind of relationship with the man now was doubly forbidden, and she was too smart to go down that disastrous path. But what harm could one kiss do?
She could imagine what Sydney would say: What were you feeling when you kissed Jarod?
Feeling? Hell, feelings had nothing to do with it. She had acted on impulse – a strictly physical impulse.
She lazily traced the rim of her glass with one perfectly-manicured finger. Jarod had definitely responded to her kiss. She closed her eyes remembered the feel of his lips, the warmth of his breath on her cheek, the sound of his heart beating in a feverish rhythm in time with her own…
Hm. She wondered again what Jarod had felt when she grabbed him and kissed him. Probably shocked the hell out of him. By now she was sure he’d calmed down and was getting ready to call her like he always did after they crossed paths. Usually his calls annoyed her; no matter what he said, she always felt like he was gloating, smugly reminding her that she’d failed to catch him yet again. But today she felt a sense of anticipation, almost eagerness, as she stared at the phone on her desk.
Then she shook her head, disgusted with herself. What was she, some teenage girl waiting for a boy to call her?
Miss Parker drank some more Scotch – only a sip this time. The alcohol was starting to relax her, a soothing warmth moving through her body. She realized she was still wearing her leather trench coat. She stood up and moved to the gray sofa against the wall, setting her drink down on one of the glass oval end tables as she did so. Then she slipped out of her coat and tossed it on the couch.
The pair of handcuffs fell out of the pocket. Miss Parker sank down onto the sofa and picked them up, wondering idly how Jarod had freed himself. Probably some damn trick he’d learned while pretending to be some kind of Houdini. She’d have to add that tidbit to his file so future Sweeper teams knew a simple pair of cuffs could not reliably restrain him. She leaned back with a sigh.
And nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a thud directly above her head. She leaped to her feet, her hand going to her gun, before she realized the sound had come from the air duct. “Damn it, Angelo!” she snapped. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Miss Parker angry,” came the mild reproof from the depths of the duct.
She bit back a sarcastic reply. Ever since she had briefly wondered if Angelo was her brother, she’d tried to be kinder to him. It wasn’t his fault Raines had turned him into a freak. And part of her wished he had been her brother; anyone was better than that psychotic Lyle. “Miss Parker tired,” she replied wearily. “Go back to your space, Angelo.”
She heard some scuffling as he obediently started to retreat. “Wait!” she said, as the beginning of an idea occurred to her. “Get down here! I need your help.” She climbed onto the sofa, ignoring the fact that her heels were leaving divots in the expensive leather upholstery. She studied the ventilation grate, contemplating the need for a screwdriver, when suddenly it cracked open an inch. She frowned, wondering how many times Angelo used this particular portal to enter her office when she wasn’t here, but then she lifted the hatch open the rest of the way and helped the strange little man climb down out of his tunnel.
Angelo squatted on the couch and looked around with that creepy half-grin on his face. Miss Parker sat down beside him and thrust the handcuffs at him. “Here. What do you feel?”
Angelo took the cuffs and snapped them onto his wrists before she could stop him. “No! Damn it, Angelo!” She didn’t have the keys; she purposely didn’t take any with her when she’d left early this morning to apprehend Jarod.
His smile had vanished. His eyes slightly crossed, he hugged his manacled wrists to his chest. “Jarod hurt,” he said in a mournful sing-song.
Yes! She knew this would work! With Angelo’s empathic abilities, he’d be able to tell her what Jarod had been feeling while he was in the cuffs. She told herself she only wanted to know this so she get a clue as to where he was headed next. “I know, he was shot,” she said dismissively. “What else?”
Angelo’s forehead creased as he concentrated. “Confused,” he said finally. “Sad.” His pale blue eyes focused on her. “Miss Parker hurt, sad.”
She stifled a sigh. “No, Angelo, what was Jarod feeling?”
His expression grew gentle as he leaned towards her. For a second, she thought he was going to whisper some great revelation, but then she saw his lips pursing and his eyes going shut. He was going to kiss her! Repulsed, she jumped up, and Angelo fell flat on his face on the sofa.
“What a waste of time,” Miss Parker muttered. She hauled the savant upright by the back of his collar and propelled him towards her office door. “We’re going to the security office to get you out of those cuffs. Don’t say anything!” she warned him. “If you’re a good monkey boy and stay quiet, I’ll give you some Crackerjacks when we get you back to your room. Understand?”
Angelo was nodding happily as Miss Parker pushed him into the hall and followed him out, her office door locking with a decisive click.
Inside her coat pocket, her cell phone began to ring.