Bittersweet Rivals

by: Highlander II and Stephanie

Category: Angst, Drama, Virtual Series
Archive: Clan MacSlow; The Pretender VS; all others: not w/o permission of the authors.
Spoilers: The Pretender - all episodes.
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Jarod is introduced to a new pretender and must clean up the mess.
Disclaimer: Jarod, Miss Parker, Sydney, Broots, Mr. Lyle, and Mr. Parker all belong to Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickel, et al. Gabriel is essentially a Mitchell/Van Sickel creation, but the name was given the character by the executive producers of the Virtual Series. All other characters are mine.
Feedback: Highlander II & Stephanie

Act I

The Centre
Mr. Parker's Office
Saturday: Evening

Heavy clouds rolled past the office window, an ominous gloom settling over the sky. The slender, dark-haired woman turned away from the window, arms crossed comfortably over her chest. She waited for the gray-haired man to speak; she was the invited guest, called here for a specific purpose.

"We need you to tie up some loose ends."

"I see. And do these *loose ends* have names?"

Impressed with her clarity of thought, Mr. Parker allowed a smile to creep onto his face. "Your primary assignment is to keep close watch of Mr. Lyle."

"He's your son, correct?" The elegant woman gracefully rounded the desk and took a seat.

"Yes. But he's slipping. He isn't as," Mr. Parker paused, searching for the correct word, "effective, as he should be."

"The Jarod search?"

Mr. Parker nodded once.

"And you want us," she indicated the ominous man hidden by the shadows, "to find him?"

"As a secondary objective."

"Of course, Mr. Parker."

The heavy office doors parted and a tall, confident man entered and approached the desk. "You wanted to see me?" his rich voice asked.

Mr. Parker rose from his chair. "Lyle, I'd like you to meet, Sun-Chai. She and her partner Mason are here to *audit* several of our operatives."

"Am I included on that list?" Lyle took offense at the implication.

"Yes. You. Your sister, Mr. Broots, Sydney, Raines..."


"Yes. Mr. Raines. No one is immune, Lyle. This is for the benefit of The Centre." Conversation finished, Mr. Parker returned to his chair and the unfinished paperwork on his desk.

Sun-Chai rose from the chair, the silk of her dress falling smoothly to her ankles. She could see that Mr. Lyle was impressed with her style of dress, but a little intimidated by how tall she seemed, though she was only 5'1".

Mr. Lyle crossed the room and opened the door, stepping back to allow the beautiful woman to exit first. He took note of her soft scent as she passed. *Some audit this is going to be. I've met scarier people in the mailroom.*

Sun-Chai waited patiently as he spoke, though the feeling of his four-fingered hand kneading her shoulder was repulsive. He commented that he and she were on the same level and should cooperate. Sycophants, she despised them, especially when all they were truly interested in was sex. Sighing inwardly, she grabbed his thumbless hand and twisted. His arm bent at an awkward angle, she forced him to his knees, admiring the grimace she brought to his face. "Let me assure you, *Mr.* Lyle, we are, in no way, equal." Sun-Chai took one step away, relinquishing her hold on his hand, and turned to leave.

Mr. Lyle opened his eyes and took several labored gasps before realizing he was on his back, on the floor, his neck dangerously close to the business end of a beautifully crafted samurai sword. This can't be good for me, he thought, wanting to stand, but noticing an increased pressure against his jugular when he raised his head.

"You do not listen well. The next time you draw a gun on me..." she glanced down the hall, barely able to discern the outline of the .9mm that had flown from Mr. Lyle's hand, "... you had better pull the trigger, because you will not get another opportunity." Sun-Chai tucked her blade against the back of her arm, stepped over the prone Mr. Lyle, and proceeded down the corridor.

"Love your style," a darkly dressed man whistled, stepping in time with Sun-Chai. She smiled and glanced over her shoulder, glimpsing Mr. Lyle's return to the erect world and his verification that his head was still attached.


Philadelphia, PA
Sunday: Morning

Emily closed the e-mail message from her brother and turned off the computer. Now was as good a time as any; her little brother, Jordan, had been asking to visit big brother, Jarod, and she had been putting it off, but no longer. She collected some clothing and other items and packed them in a bag, then made a quick phone call to let Jordan know she was on her way.

The convent was pleasant from the street side of the long drive. Her father had made arrangements for Jordan to stay there, near Philadelphia. Emily did not have enough room in her small apartment for Jordan to stay with her and she would not have felt comfortable leaving him there alone while she was at work. The sisters were always willing to house relatives of Major Charles and Margaret. They appreciated Jarod's kindness to them and were happy to help him any way they could

"Hi, Emily!" the boy beamed when she entered the room. Sister Mary Kyle busied herself with tidying the nearby table.

"Ready to go?" she asked, a warm smile on her face.

Jordan nodded eagerly, and collected his bag. He said goodbye to Sister Mary Kyle and bounded out the door. He loved these visits from Emily. She had not been able to visit as often as she wanted, but during the last month, while Jordan had been at the convent, she had tried to visit each weekend and call once a week. Like Jarod, Emily understood the meaning of family.

He climbed into the car, waiting for her. Emily finished her chat with Sister Mary Kyle, and slid into the driver's seat. "All set?"

"Yes." Jordan fastened his seatbelt.

Emily keyed the ignition and turned the car into the street, beginning their journey to visit Jarod.


The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Sunday: Morning

The door opened and two figures emerged. She did not recognize either of them. Who were they and why were they in Lyle's office? Not even considering passing up the chance to haggle dear brother, she approached as he exited the office behind the newcomers. "So, who are the new folks? Bonnie and Clyde?" Miss Parker asked over her brother's shoulder.

Mr. Lyle took a deep breath. "Just corporate auditors, Sis. A different form of shark from the usual." He glanced at her over his shoulder and re-entered his office, pushing the door closed behind him.

Miss Parker was not sure she believed him, but would let it slide, for now. However, anyone who could rattle little brother, even if it was only a small shake, might be an acquaintance worth pursuing.

Panting and shuffling brought her from her musings. She rolled her eyes and turned to face the scrambling tech. "What, Broots?"

"Uh.. Miss Parker. I ... uh... think you're gonna want to see this," the balding man huffed, trying to catch his breath.

"What?" Irritation laced her words.

"It's from Jarod."

"Of course it is." She was waiting, impatiently, for him to reveal whatever it was he wanted her to see.

"Miss Parker, it's outside." Broots blinked hard, as though he could not see how she did not understand.

Sighing heavily, tired of playing all these Jarod-games, she followed the shuffling tech down the hall to the elevator.

Stepping off the elevator ahead of the bumbling Broots, Miss Parker strode to the heavy exterior doors and waited for them to be opened. Outside was a very large, gray object.

"What is an elephant doing here?" she snapped, examining the Asiatic Elephant before her.

"I told you. Jarod sent it to you," Broots answered. "This guy came with it."

The small, cigar smoking man, could only be described as ugly. His soft patting, pleasing to the elephant, was enough to enrage Miss Parker.

"Look, lady, I just want to know where to put the elephant. Peanuts Parker is a special little lady and it's my job to see that she gets taken care of right."

"What did you say the elephant's name was?" Miss Parker asked, getting a little too close to the cigar and blinking against the smoke in her face.

Broots was very careful not to laugh in the background, and having difficulty breathing as a result.

"Peanuts Parker. She's a very rare elephant and Doc Jarod suggested that she could try getting pregnant here. Then the zoo would get her back, and you guys could keep the baby. On account of you're always doing new stuff with breeding."

"Jarod said that?" Parker hissed.

"Yeah. He said you was all involved in all sorts of experimental things and it got Dr. Kirschner interested like. So he said OK, as long as the person in charge would sign bond, he'd let Peanuts come here. And it's got your signature on the form, only you gotta sign it now we're here or else you're out the dough." The little man tipped some ash off his cigar.

"Let me see that." Parker snatched the papers, which did have her signature nicely forged on them. Unfortunately, not only was the other signatory the head of the San Diego Zoo, he was actually a corporate sponsor of some of the Centre's profitable and public investments. That meant she could not just pass this off as one of Jarod's little jokes and send the elephant to the nearest circus.

"OK. I didn't order the elephant, but we'll keep to the contract. Broots, call Luther and have him arrange for," she paused, "Peanuts to join the other elephants in the usual manner."

"Thanks, lady. You Parkers are real sweethearts." The little man gave her a look that was meant to be suave, but came across rude. "So where do I get to bunk?"

"Excuse me? I doubt that's my problem," Parker answered.

"Sure it is. Says so on line 17." The little man patted the elephant again, and she swung her trunk a little closer to Miss Parker than was comfortable.

However, she did not let herself be distracted and returned her gaze to the contract. Sure enough, the elephant caretaker was included in the bargain. Miss Parker sighed inwardly. Of course Jarod would know that she did not dare eliminate a witness under these circumstances.

"Very well. Broots, why don't you see about getting this man and his extremely large lady friend settled in?" she said, turning on her heel. "I'm going home to try and get some rest."

"Boy," said the little man, "she sure can cause as much commotion as Peanuts here, even if she hasn't her sweet personality."

Broots nodded in agreement. "Come on. We'll get you all settled in." He did not want to think about what point Jarod had in sending Miss Parker an elephant. He just knew that as usual he would be the one cleaning up the mess.


The Centre
Mason's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

Mason moved with practice through the Centre records. He was fascinated by the details of how Jarod managed to escape capture each time. It was not that Miss Parker was weak and Mr. Lyle ineffectual, although certainly these aspects of their personalities had been made to work in Jarod's favor; details, it seemed, were everything. Jarod would notice if there was the tiniest flaw in a plan, and use the smallest opportunity to escape. It was clear from Jarod's expressions that the Pretender had not been happy with his sheltered life in the Centre even before his escape. Jarod's loyalty had not been bought, or coerced. That was a mistake he and Sun-Chai would not make. When Jarod was returned to the Centre, he would be happy to come.

He looked at the e-mail from Mr. Parker. It outlined the many reasons why the Centre needed this particular Pretender returned. They were good, lucid reasons. The Centre had originally hoped that with no other example, Jarod would not want to leave the Centre. But in order to be of any use at all, Jarod needed to know how others lived once he reached adulthood; and, armed with that knowledge, he could not stay within the Centre.

Mason wondered if the Centre had not made a mistake in releasing the Major in exchange for the Pretender. Jarod needed something to tie him to the Centre, and Sydney was not enough of a lure, definitely not the right bait.

Mason left the office, a long trench coat covering his *working clothes*. He met Sun-Chai in a cab to the rear of the main Centre complex.

"Ready?" she asked.

"As always, you are prompt." Mason smiled as he slid into the back seat. Later, they would change into *burglar black*. If the plan was to work, they needed to be sure they could see anything Jarod did inside Initiative Enterprises. Mason had seen, as he sifted through the files, many people duped because they lacked the information they needed. Jarod was very good at making victims out of those who opposed him. The only way to stay a step ahead of him was to actually set the stage and hope Jarod would want to play.

Sun-Chai looked at Mason in the rearview mirror. "I'll keep watch. You go in through the entryway and let me in."

"Too tired for athletics?"

"There's no need to practice just because the opportunity presents itself," Sun-Chai answered.

"True. The computers will take some time, however." He saw her frown. "Yes, I did set things up last week. But this is the final stage, and it requires delicacy. "

Sun-Chai nodded. "Very well. I'll go in and activate the scans. Duncan will be in place tomorrow and can intercept the tapes so we can review them. Once Jarod enters IE he will be thoroughly watched."

"I wish we didn't have to use Duncan. The boy is so simple he almost reeks with it. He will give the plan away."

"It was a necessary concession. Mr. Lyle insisted someone established in the American side of the Centre take an active role. In any event, it will give Jarod something to work with." She paused a moment. "And speaking of the plan, what name are you planning to use for this little excursion?"

"I thought Jarod would be nice." A wry smile crossed his lips.

Sun-Chai returned the smile. "Excellent. One more tweak to give us an advantage." She was well versed in the manner in which Jarod performed his "pretends". He would walk in and make himself comfortable by giving his name and credentials. This time, he might have to do some quick thinking, or backpedalling to establish his position.

Mason nodded in agreement. They left the cab and proceeded to Initiative Enterprises, where they set up a series of surveillance devices. Mason also activated several programs inside the central computer system. While that could have been done from a distance, he preferred to work onsite if possible. It increased the danger, and thus his enjoyment.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

An elephant. He had sent her an elephant. What was going on in his head? She did not know, did not want to know. That was why she was sending a sweeper team to San Diego. She leaned her head against the back of the chair, closing her eyes, waiting for Sam. She began to regret her decision to forego the trip home for a nap.

A tap on the door interrupted her quiet moment. "What?"

The door opened and Sam stepped into the office. "You wanted to see me, Miss Parker?"

"Yeah. Get a team together and head out to the San Diego Zoo. Find out what Jarod was doing out there," she responded without opening her eyes.

"Yes, Miss Parker." Sam obediently left the office to collect a team and leave for San Diego.


Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
Sunday: Afternoon

Jarod sat in the Marriott hotel room eating ice cream. He really liked the concept of suites. The room had a small kitchen, so he could do his own cooking, but gave him the impermanence his traveling life required. *Caramel Fudge Decadence*, the newest flavor Jarod had added to his ice cream repertoire, was excellent. The sweet, gooey caramel played on his tongue, sweet as a lullaby; the heavenly chocolate melted in his mouth, and he was completely oblivious to the DSA running on the machine. The images did not matter, nothing mattered; nothing but the ice cream.

A crisp rap on the door shook him from his reverie. The cone, ice cream side down, was on the floor, a melting, gooey mess, and the chair overturned behind him. He bypassed raising the chair, cleaned up the ice cream, and walked to the door. Peering through the spy-hole in the door, he recognized the figure on the other side. The chain slid free and the deadbolt snapped open.

"Em?" His voice caught as he opened the door.

"Hi, Jarod. I've brought someone who really wanted to see you." The woman smiled, placing an arm around the shoulders of the young man beside her.

Jarod stepped to one side and motioned the two inside. "Emily, what are you doing here?"

She understood his concern. "I'm on assignment for the paper. Jordan wanted to see you, so I brought him along. We're fine."

"You're right." He hugged both of them. "So, how was your trip?"

"Uneventful, thankfully," Emily responded.

"We rode on a train." Jordan's voice rose in pitch with his emotion. "We could see everything. Grazing cows and long rows of crops. It's just like it is in books."

"I'll bet you had a great time." Jarod smiled at the younger version of himself.


"Would you like some ice cream?" Jarod asked, walking to the refrigerator.

Jordan glanced up at Emily as though asking for permission. When she smiled at him, he nodded eagerly.

"All right, then." Jarod's eyes lit up like candles and he prepared a cone of *Caramel Fudge Decadence* for Jordan. "Here you go. You can watch TV if you'd like."

"Thanks, Jarod." The boy licked the ice cream that slid down the cone as he crossed the room to the couch. "You've got good taste," he grinned.

"Emily," Jarod placed a hand on her shoulder as he spoke, "Why are you really here? Is something wrong?"

"I told you, I'm on an assignment. What I didn't tell you is it involves the Centre."

"You shouldn't be digging around in there. It's dangerous."

"I'm no more breakable than you are. And I'm careful."

Jarod sighed and plunked down in the wing-backed chair. Emily sat in another chair, and removed some papers from a folder she had been carrying. "Here. Take a look at this."

Jarod flipped through the papers. His eyebrows rose in surprise. "Someone is embezzling from a Centre affiliate?"

"So it would appear. It's a small affiliate, and there don't seem to be any sweeper teams around. It might be worth checking out."

"Okay. But I don't really want you guys around when I'm going after the Centre. It's too dangerous," Jarod said. He tried to pin her eyes with his, to make her understand the danger was too great.

Emily shook her head. "You can have a bit of your way this time, Jarod. Jordan wants to spend some time with you, and if we get that, we'll go quietly." She paused. "This time."

"Emily..." Jarod did not get a chance to begin. Jordan had finished his ice cream and wanted his share of Jarod's attention. He kept a running conversation about museums, and how he wanted to show Jarod stuff he had found on the internet. Jarod allowed the diversion; it seemed that the relationship between Jordan and Major Charles had improved. The boy was happier and more outgoing. But he could not stop worrying. And his sister had something planned. He knew it.

Act II

The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

"What?" she asked upon hearing the rapping at her door. A slice of light broke in and grew as the door was pushed open.

"Miss Parker?" Broots poked his nose into the office.

"Yes, Broots?" she responded without looking up from her computer.

"I found something you may want to see." He stepped carefully into the office, glancing over his shoulder as the door hissed closed.

She waited for him to approach the desk and stand patiently by her side. Turning her chair to face him, she asked, "So, what have you found for me?" She flashed her classic, white smile at him.

"I found this DSA." He held up the tiny, silver disc. "You're not going to--"

Miss Parker plucked the disc from his hand and inserted it into the player. An image appeared on the screen, of her Miss Parker carrying baby Gabriel from the nursery. "Where did you find this?" she hissed through clenched teeth, angry that someone had been watching her so closely.

"Well, I found the DSA in your father's office. I was in there to retrieve some reports he had asked me to go over," Broots began, feeling the need to explain why he would be in Mr. Parker's office, "and I saw the DSA underneath this." Broots slid a confidential memo across the desk. "The memo's anonymous, but I traced it back to a computer in the Tech Room."

Miss Parker scanned the memo and snapped her head toward him. "Who wrote this?"

"Well, I traced the login and password and came up with the name of an operative who died three years ago. And there aren't that many people who have the clearance to locate those files..."

"Out with it, Broots." Her patience was beginning to wear thin.

Broots took a deep breath. He hated breaking bad news to people. "Well, I've checked all the people with clearance and the only person who's accessed any of those files is..." he lowered his voice to a husky whisper, "Mr. Lyle."

"Lyle?" Miss Parker repeated. Lyle had seen her with Gabriel, had he been jealous that she was permitted to see the baby, but he was not? "He's going to wish he was never born," she snarled.


American History Museum
Washington, DC
Sunday: Afternoon

Jordan had waited until Emily slipped into the ladies room at the American History Museum. Studying the length of the line, he figured he had enough time.

"Jarod, do you ever wonder why we're here?" the boy asked. "I mean, I guess I still want there to be some meaning to all this. Some reason to be alive."

Jarod was dumbstruck. This was not the question he had been expecting. Yet it was a question he had asked himself at that age. For the first time it occurred to him that maybe there was a reason Sydney had kept him at a distance as a child. Jarod had not quite realized how complex the questions coming from a young man could be, until he was on the receiving end of those questions.

"I don't know that there has to be a reason. Sometimes things do happen that seem to make sense. Like our brother Kyle, shot at exactly the time he could donate his heart to someone who needed a transplant. Like us meeting when you were old enough to understand. Those are acts of order. But then the fact that we were kidnapped, Kyle, myself, and others, there is no sense in that. So it is hard to know if everything is part of a plan or just random. I don't have an answer to that one."

"Could you help me look for one? I tried to ask the nuns, but I got a lot of comments about having faith. And I don't know if I do have faith." Jordan shook his head sadly.

"You have to believe in something, even if it is just yourself and the fact that your family loves you. You have to carry that in your heart and move on from there."

"Yes. But I miss you. I miss Emily when she isn't there. I know it's odd. I never had it before. I still miss it." Jordan looked at the ground.

Jarod put an arm around his brother's shoulder. "I know. I miss you all as well. But you have to stay safe."

"Why should I be safe when you're not?" Jordan asked.

Jarod sighed. Another hard question. "Because you can be. I can't. I'm their primary target. They won't give up on me. If they don't find you right away, they may just let you go."

Jordan looked at his brother with the brown eyes that suddenly knew more than a boy his age should. "Jarod, why can't we fight back?"

"Because I truly believe we don't have enough evidence. We have no real identities. Nobody would believe us. I'm afraid the same thing might happen to us that happened to Kyle in prison. They'd write us off as crazy and wouldn't want to help. It's a risk I can't justify," Jarod answered solemnly.

"We couldn't just blow the place up?" Jordan suggested.

Jarod hoped his brother was not serious. Three bomb building brothers was a bit much for anyone. "Not hardly. Too many innocent people get hurt in the crossfire."

Jordan frowned in return. "But I want to do something. So does Emily. It isn't fair that you have to be the only one in danger."

Jarod smiled and put an arm around him. "As long as I know you're safe, it doesn't matter. Just grow up to be happy. That is what's important."

Emily emerged from the ladies room, and gestured to them. "How about my two favorite men taking me out to dinner, hmm?"

"Why don't we go back to the hotel and have our meal there?" Jarod suggested.

"Lead on, big brother, " she said.

They moved through the museum together and hit the metro. Jordan was fascinated by this mode of transportation. He felt at home there. It was dark and kind of gloomy. He looked at Jarod, who was relaxed as usual.

"How come nothing ever bothers you? I mean, you like crowds. You like open spaces. Do you really like everything?" Jordan asked when they returned to the hotel room. The three of them had tackled the room service menu and had an order sent to the room. Jordan was secretly glad. He liked being with his family, but the crowds got to him after awhile.

"I like to try new things. I get bored easily. Do you find that happens to you? You know a lot, and when you learn all you can about one subject you want to move on to another?" Jarod asked.

Emily answered before Jordan. "Yes, actually. It's what I like about reporting. I investigate something new each week."

Jordan looked puzzled momentarily. Then he realized. It was boredom he felt sometimes. "Oh. I guess I hadn't thought about it like that." Maybe it was boredom that made him feel purposeless. So if he learned new things, he would have a purpose. This could be neat.

Emily smiled. "We'll keep you busy. One way or another."

They began to play cards. Jarod had learned to play poker on one of his Pretends. Emily described learning how to play in the newsroom while waiting for stories to break. Jordan was the only one who had been taught by their father. In spite of this, the three were evenly matched, and by eleven o'clock, the piles of coffee beans they were using to keep score were almost even. Jordan did not want to admit he was tired, but he could not help yawning.

"I'll just turn the news on while you get ready for bed. I'll sleep out here. You can take the bedroom," Jarod said, turning on the TV.

Emily nodded. "It's been..." She stopped. The newscaster was talking about a scandal with Initiative Enterprises. Speaking for the company was a fair-haired young man, with an almost baby-face. The woman's picture shown on the screen, Sun-Chai, was Asian, slender, and very beautiful.

"I guess the story has broken," she said.

"Shh." Jarod continued to listen. The more he listened to the spokesperson, the more concerned he looked.

When the story ended, Emily asked, "What is it?"

"Duncan is with the Centre. He used to be a sweeper. People don't change that fast." Jarod answered.

"Do you think he's setting up the woman?" Jordan asked. "Are you going to fix things?"

"I'm going to look into it. And you two are getting out of here." Jarod tried to look firm.

Emily shook her head. "One man, probably an ex-sweeper, isn't a reason to cut things short."

Jarod looked ready to explode.

Jordan sighed. "We might as well go. We're not wanted."

"I didn't say that. I just don't want you two in danger," Jarod explained.

"At the first hint of danger, we'll go, " Emily promised.

"This looks like a hint to me," Jarod answered. But he knew he would not get any further. "OK. I'll tell you what. You two explore Washington tomorrow. I'll get my foot in the door. If it is nothing, we'll spend more time together. If it is the Centre, promise you'll leave."

Emily nodded. "OK. You have a deal." She put an arm around Jordan. "I think we can all be grown up enough to deal with that."

When put like that, Jordan did not have an answer. He wanted to measure up to his older siblings. "Sure, Jarod. You have a deal," Jordan repeated.

"Thanks." Jarod hugged them both.


The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Monday: Morning

Now was the perfect time. The *auditors* had just left The Centre and dear brother was alone in his office. She walked the corridor silently. He had kept too many secrets from her; she was not about to let him keep this one. It was near the same time of day it had been the last time she had caught him, perhaps she could do it again. Miss Parker pushed open the door a crack and peered through the space she had created. That sly smile passed over her face. Perfect.

She stepped back from the door, collected her thoughts, then yanked both doors open and strode into the office. "Lyle, I have..." She stopped just in front of his desk.

"What the hell are you doing in here?!" Mr. Lyle shrugged his shirt back onto his shoulder, snarling at his intrusive twin.

Miss Parker crossed her arms over her chest. "That can wait. What exactly is it *you* are doing?"

He closed his eyes, sighed. He started to tell her it was none of her business, but she was painfully persistent when she wanted to be, and he opted to tell her now. "If you must know, I have a vitamin deficiency. I have to inject a specific quantity of vitamin supplements every day." He peeled his sleeve away again, revealing his left shoulder and the Andromeda constellation tattoo Jarod had given him.

"Is this a life-threatening condition?" Miss Parker asked with mild concern showing in her face.

"So they tell me," Mr. Lyle replied unemotionally, resetting his hypodermic. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all." She shook her head as she spoke.

Mr. Lyle furrowed his brow and proceeded with his injection. He tossed the empty hypodermic onto his desk; he would dispose of it properly once Sister was gone. "Now, I assume you had a good reason for invading my office?"

"Let's go." She nodded to the door.

"Go where?"

"Lunch. You coming?"

"You're serious?"

"Yes. Let's go."

"Who's putting you up to this?"

"No one. Are you coming or not?" No. No one had put her up to this, but things were getting interesting. Mr. Lyle thought he had a vitamin deficiency; she knew differently, and The Centre had Mr. Lyle under its thumb. Lunch was a nicety, to avoid suspicion of her true intentions. She was not going to give up a juicy piece of information, especially after learning that Mr. Lyle was responsible for pushing their father's decision forbidding her from seeing Gabriel.


Initiative Enterprises
Monday: Morning

Jarod entered and stopped by the receptionist's desk.

"Hi. I'm here from the IRS. I was told there were some discrepancies," Jarod said.

"That's odd. We have someone here right now who is with the IRS," the pretty woman behind the receptionist's desk stated.


"Jarod Carver."

The Pretender paused. "I see. We've worked on similar projects before. I'm Jordan Carter. And I'm with International Retrieval Specialists. We have the same initials as the Internal Revenue Service. Sometimes we can use that to our advantage. I guess today isn't one of those days." Jarod smiled. "I'm a programmer and it may just be a bug in the system causing all the problems." Luckily, Jarod always had several forms of ID on him. He presented one to the receptionist.

The pretty blonde studied the identification and, satisfied that it was legitimate, handed it back to the man across the desk.

"May I speak with the head of accounting? Perhaps we can set something up which will correct the problem," Jarod said, giving her the full benefit of his charm.

"Sure." The receptionist was a slim blonde who was more interested in how Jarod looked than what he was doing there, anyway. She led him down the corridor to Sun-Chai's office.

"This guy says he's here to look at the computers," the receptionist said, holding the door open only long enough for Jarod to enter, then shutting it with finality.

The woman who sat in the office was quite different from the Sun-Chai who had met with Mr. Lyle. She was dressed in a dark blue business suit and maintained a very formal appearance.

"I'd like to do a little more than just look at them, " Jarod said, making eye contact.

"What do you expect to accomplish by looking at the computers, and exactly who are you?" Sun-Chai challenged.

"I'm Jordan Carter. I've been sent by corporate headquarters to look into some of the accounting discrepancies," he replied.

She caught the slight pause in his voice as he spoke his name. Jordan Carter. Interesting choice.

"I don't think I need another white, American male telling me I've messed up," she snarled.

"That's not my job." Jarod put on his most innocent expression. "My job is to find the truth. If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about."

Jarod handed her his credentials. She examined them carefully. "I see. I suppose I should be flattered, really. After all, if I were a common criminal, anyone could figure it out."

"Right now, there isn't enough evidence to show where the missing money is. It could have been diverted anywhere."

"And it is your job to discover where?" Sun-Chai kept her voice deliberately non-committal.


"Very well. Where do you want to begin?" she asked.

"With a grand tour, if you don't mind."

Sun-Chai nodded. "This way." She led him through the building, describing the individuals who worked there and what they did. She seemed to know the entire staff, asking personal questions along the way of certain staff members. It was entirely too practiced, in fact.

"I take it you've done this recently?" Jarod asked.

"Mr. Carver also wanted to get the lay of the land." Sun-Chai was very careful to put just the right amount of hesitation in her voice.

"I'm sorry that you have two of us making nuisances of ourselves. But you can see why Corporate feels it has to be done." Jarod walked next to her, noting that she did not wear business shoes. The traditional Chinese shoes were an important clue to her identity. That, of course, did not mean she really was not a thief.

"Yes. I just want it over with, Mr. Carter." Sun-Chai gave away very little.

She showed Jarod to his new office and saw to it that he had all the basics he would need to do his work.


Two hours later

Jarod appeared inside the door of Sun-Chai's office confidently. He had often found that a positive approach let him gain entry where others might have been stopped.

"What do you want now, Mr. Carter?" she asked.

"Coffee. You forgot to show me where you get it."

"I most certainly did show you, " she protested, getting up from her chair and walking toward him. "It's right..."

Jarod interrupted her and took her arm, propelling her toward the building exit. "I just think we'll talk a lot more freely over coffee, outside the building."

Sun-Chai executed a dance-like move that disentangled her from Jarod. "If you insist. But kidnap victims don't have to buy their own coffee."

"No, they don't." Jarod did not tell her that in his experience, kidnap victims did not get to drink coffee. "I'm happy to buy. I just want to pick your brains in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Sun-Chai walked beside him, easily keeping the brisk pace Jarod set. They stopped at a little coffee shop a few blocks from Initiative Enterprises. Jarod and she talked for awhile and she convinced him she cared about the welfare of her employees. She might be a new transfer, but she knew who was having a baby and when it was due, who had boyfriend problems, and who had just returned from Paris. Sun-Chai knew how important it was that Jarod believe the basic premise that she was a good person and she did her best to be convincing.

Jarod had wanted to be sure they were not in the building; he was sure Duncan would have the office under surveillance. He had a gut feeling the Centre was behind this, and that, somehow, Duncan was a key figure. Duncan had turned up in the records as having received several payments, traceable to Centre accounts. Jarod knew confronting Duncan would bring the Centre a little too close to home.

"Have you known Mr. Duncan long?" he asked.

"No. He just arrived this month. Why?"

"Looking at new employees is the best way to find out what problems are being caused in a business."

"Anyone would think you didn't like young, blond, American males," Sun-Chai responded.

Jarod could not explain the Centre connection to a stranger. "I guess I was wondering what his connection to the current problems might be. He seemed to be pretty outspoken on the news."

Sun-Chai let a worried frown appear on her face. "I know. It concerns me. I don't feel I have the power to change things. And they certainly appear to be going downhill fast."

"Yes. And the timing is very bad. If the market continues this way, there may have to be layoffs," Jarod answered.

"I know. I don't like that thought at all." Sun-Chai lifted her coffee cup and regarded Jarod over the rim. "Are you willing to help fix things, then? Have you a suggestion?"

Momentarily, Jarod's first suggestion was that she leave and let him take over, but he could not say that to someone who needed to work for a living. And all his preliminary investigations seemed to show that Sun-Chai both needed and wanted her job.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Monday: Afternoon

She watched the sweeper cross the room deliberately and lay a folder on her desk. Her eyes raised as he began to speak.

"We didn't find anything. Except that." He indicated the folder.

"Thank you." She sighed and flipped open the folder. "Dear God." Her head fell to her desk, landing in the center of the folder.

"What's wrong with her?" Broots, who had recently entered the room, whispered to Sam.

Sam tugged the sheet from beneath Miss Parker's forehead and held it up for Broots.

His eyebrows rose as he spoke: "Wow, how did they get Miss Parker on that elephant?"

Sam could only shake his head.

"They didn't. Jarod put that together," Miss Parker responded, her head still planted on her desk.

"Nice outfit," Broots whispered to Sam.

Miss Parker sighed again. "Will you two just leave?"

Sam placed the photograph back on Miss Parker's desk, then pushed Broots through the office door ahead of himself.


The Mall
Washington, DC
Monday: Afternoon

"Wow! This place is so big." Jordan turned around in the open grass of the mall. He could not help contrasting it to the walls he had grown up behind, dark, claustrophobic; this space was so open and free and bright. He wanted to stay here forever.

"Yes, Jordan. It's very big." Emily smiled at her happy brother.

He stopped turning and faced his sister. "Emily, why can't we go with Jarod?"

She smiled again, touched his shoulder. "Jarod is very busy trying to make sure that we're safe. He's been searching for his family for a long time; he doesn't want to risk losing what he's found." Was she really making this argument? She had argued to Jarod that she would be all right without his protection. Maybe it was the *big sister* in her.

Jordan nodded. "I understand." He tilted his head to the side. "Can we go to the Reflecting Pool?"

"Sure." Emily took Jordan's hand and they walked across the grassy mall, past the tall, monolithic Washington Monument. Emily watched Jordan wonder at the monument and the trees and grass and the large varieties of people they passed. He was amazed by everything; he certainly shared his big brother's curiosity in the world. The long, shallow pool reflected the obelisk behind and the edifice housing the grand, seated Lincoln before them.

"It's beautiful."

"Yes, it is," Emily agreed, shielding her eyes against he afternoon sun as she studied the marble Lincoln from across the Reflecting Pool. She wondered if Jarod ever took the time to stop and enjoy the sites of the places he visited. Did he wonder at the statues and buildings, and admire their beauty? The thought that he rarely had the time saddened her.


The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Tuesday: Morning

Mr. Lyle rose from his desk and glanced out the window to the water below before speaking. "Well, I can see that you are no more successful here than the rest of us." She had been in contact with Jarod for several days and was no nearer to bringing him back to The Centre than Miss Parker. As he began to turn, he heard a noise growing louder and louder in his ear. The sound crept closer until it exploded beside his head. It happened in a matter of seconds, but it seemed to take several minutes. Something was not right; he looked to his left and noticed the object protruding from the wall, his wall. A knife with an eight-inch blade and a six-inch handle was firmly lodged through his jacket and into the wall. It was so close, he could almost read the serial number on the blade. His eyes rose to meet those of the woman across the office from him; cold, dark, angry.

A sly smile crept over her visage as she crossed the room to retrieve her prized blade. "Feel lucky, Mr. Lyle. I could have pinned your other thumb." Sun-Chai dislodged the handmade blade from the wall and pressed the razor-sharp edge against Mr. Lyle's cheek, sliding it slowly down to his chin. "Don't let down your guard, Mr. Lyle. It could prove detrimental to your health."

He held his breath as she left the office, sheathing the dangerous Ka-Bar. Once the door was closed he exhaled heavily and looped his finger through the clean-cut hole in the shoulder of his $500.00 jacket. Exhaling sharply, he returned to the files on his desk. "Can I help you with something?" Mr. Lyle snapped at the next office intruder.

Sneering, Miss Parker crossed the floor, but stopped when she saw the deep indentation in the office wall. Her eyebrows rose in wonder. *What is baby brother into now?* "New assistant?"

"What?" He looked up from his desk, brows knitted fiercely.

"The lovely woman who was just leaving your office."

"She's the auditor, Sis," he replied annoyed

"Find something she didn't like?" She knew who the woman was; she just wanted to irritate dear brother. He deserved a little irritation. Miss Parker pressed her palms into the solid desk, leaning forward.

"If you don't mind, I'm busy."

"What was she doing here?" She was sure to avoid an inadvertent glance to the nick in the wall, but noticed a clean cut in Mr. Lyle's suit jacket.

Miss Parker jerked backward at his sudden rise from the chair. He leaned across the desk, face very close to hers. "None of your business," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Now - Get - Out - Of - My- Office!"

Defiantly, she raised her head and stood. She gave him a sharp look before turning on her heel and obeying his order. Mr. Lyle could not see, but she allowed a small smile to light her face. *It seems baby brother has a new love interest, who isn't so interested in him.*


Miss Parker strolled the hall to her office, several ideas rolling around in her head. She found Broots standing before her desk, twisting a pencil in his hand. "Can I help you with something?" she asked, crossing the room.

"Um, well, I saw that woman leave Lyle's office, just before you walked in, and thought you might want me to find some information on her, or something." His voice was remarkably strong.

"Initiative. I like it. Dig up whatever you can." Content, Miss Parker sat behind her desk and watched the computer tech exit her office.

She thought over her recent conversations with Mr. Lyle. She knew he had talked their father into taking that final step -- the decision to cease her visits with Gabriel -- from the memo Broots had found, using that DSA of her toting Gabriel outside as his "evidence" of her defiance. That one small maneuver made Mr. Lyle responsible for her separation from her baby brother -- indirectly responsible, but responsible nonetheless.

He was under the impression he needed injections to maintain a proper level of vitamins and he seemed to have an interest in this new *auditor*, whoever she was. While they were having lunch she had asked him more about his injections. He tried to skirt around her questions, she would have to teach him a little something about herself, but she pushed hard enough to get what she wanted. She had learned that Mr. Lyle had been taking the injections for as long as he could remember, even during his stint as "Bobby Bowman." What she did not understand was how the Centre convinced him to believe that something like this vitamin deficiency he was told he had, could be so life threatening he needed several injections per day. She did understand, however, that if he ever discovered the Centre had lied to him and was responsible for giving him Kronos I, which she was sure he knew nothing about, he would not hesitate to use his own subtle form of justice.


Initiative Enterprises
Tuesday: Late Afternoon

Jarod had developed many programs that let him see how things progressed in other computers. There was definite evidence of tampering at this facility. He was not happy about that, since the IP number of the PC from which the message originated was in the office Mason now occupied. He would have to go there, and risk being seen, in order to get to the original file.

Jarod meandered down the hall, trying to look as though, perhaps, he needed the men's room. He knocked on the door, and was rewarded with the words: "Come in."

He entered, and sprawled in the narrow office chair, making himself completely at home.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" Mason said, casually looking up from the document he was perusing. He had been expecting this, but he still found it amusing. Someone who was trying to take over his space would always be a source of amusement.

"I need to speak to you about some of these figures. They just don't add up."

"It isn't my job to explain them. It is Sun-Chai's. I thought she would have told you that. For all her other defects," Mason paused, leaving just the right amount of time for Jarod to assume he was counting real flaws, "she has a certain honesty which I am hesitant to challenge."

"Oh." Jarod did not want to challenge the other man; he just wanted him to go away. "Could you possibly call her in here? I don't really want to go behind your back, Mr. Carver."

"Oh, please, call me Jarod." Mason stood, watching the other Pretender's face for any sign of surprise. "Very well. I'll see if she's still around." He left, as he had planned, knowing Jarod was expecting exactly that; knowing Jarod would find more breadcrumbs on his computer to lead him still further into the murkiness of the muddled accounts.

Jarod slid into Mason's seat, and checked the files. One file, password protected, had been placed there to particularly gain Jarod's interest. It was labeled Centrefile70 and Jarod copied it onto a disk. He also loaded several Excel accounting files, which would help him learn more about the accounts.

He then slipped back into the chair he had vacated, resuming his sprawled position. He, after all, was being paid by the corporation to investigate them.

Sun-Chai entered behind Mason. She, Jarod, and Mason bent over the figures Jarod had brought with him. Sun-Chai's fingers moved across the top of the computer screen, highlighting the numbers she needed Jarod to see.

Mason stood a few steps behind them, letting Sun-Chai take the lead. He liked this, watching his partner work. Under other circumstances, he would have taken a stronger position, but right now, Jarod had been primed. He had all the data Mason and Sun-Chai had so carefully chosen. All that data led right back to the Centre. After a few more minutes, Mason called a halt.

"Enough for tonight, I think." Mason reached over and saved the file. He knew that, without being rude, there was not much Jarod could do. Mason's research had alerted him that rude was not Jarod's style. "I'm certainly in need of a break. We can start again in the morning."

"Yeah." Jarod stretched, mildly cramped. Taking a break would give him a chance to move on to other things.

Sun-Chai exited ahead of Jarod. He took two large steps and caught up to her.

"Hi. I was wondering if you'd mind going over some more of this during dinner? I just don't feel we've gotten as far as we need to, if we're to find out where the money is going before we get called to court." Jarod kept pace, following her down the corridor to her office.

Sun-Chai hesitated, then said, "All right. What did you have in mind?"

"Chinese, perhaps?" Jarod asked. "There is a wonderful restaurant that just opened."


"I'll pick you up in front of this building. Around seven, if that's OK?"

"Seven will be fine." Sun-Chai crinkled her eyes in pure pleasure. This would be fun. She liked a game of cat and mouse.


Initiative Enterprises
Tuesday: Evening, 19:02

Jarod pulled up in a cab, exited and held the door for Sun-Chai.

"I see you've learned the first survival trait in a large city. Avoid bringing your own automobile," she said.

"In a city like this, it doesn't pay."

"And you always think of the bottom line, Mr. Carter?"

"I try. And please, call me J... Jordan." Jarod felt annoyed that he was not able to use his own name. Not that there was anything wrong with the name Jordan; he just had reservations about being on a date with a beautiful woman and not being able to tell her his own name.

"All right. Jordan. Is it a family name?" Sun-Chai asked as she exited the cab in front of the restaurant.

"You could say that," Jarod answered. "Is yours?"

Sun-Chai nodded. "My family was well known on Mainland China. But then came the split with Taiwan, and political troubles that served to split my family apart."

"That sounds rough." Jarod turned to the waiter and gave his order in fluent Mandarin. Sun-Chai ordered in the same language. Both locked eyes.

"It seems we speak the same language," she said.

"Yes." Jarod poured tea. "Do you like the corporate world?"

"Sometimes. It is very challenging. And I need the money." She put a hand up in embarrassment, then lowered it in a graceful gesture. "But however much I might want money, I would not steal it. I am not a thief."

"Hey, I didn't say you were," Jarod defended.

"Sorry." She looked down, then at Jarod. "I don't mean to be defensive. But it is hard to be under suspicion when I know I didn't do anything."

"It's just that some of the problems seemed to take place exactly at the time you transferred here." Jarod drank more tea. "I'm not pointing a finger at you. I'm just looking at the facts."

The food arrived, ceasing that line of conversation. Sun-Chai ate slowly, delicately. Jarod watched her eat while he expertly manipulated his own chopsticks. Conversation turned to innocuous topics, like the weather and American politics.

"Can I ask if you are an American citizen?" Jarod had not meant to open up a land mine with this question, but Sun-Chai froze.

"Why do you ask?"

"I don't know. You just remind me of someone who hasn't been in this country very long," Jarod answered. "And you aren't answering like someone born in the Bronx."

"No? I was born in San Francisco, but shortly after I was born, my family returned to China. My younger sister was born there, and we have lived there all our lives. That, Jordan, is home to me. And, yes, I miss it. But I cannot return."


"There is nothing worse than a home one loves and cannot return to, this is true. But the politics, the oppression, they had become too much to bear. There was pressure put on my father, which eventually resulted in his death. I had to leave the country, and fortunately the circumstances of my birth allowed me to enter this country freely. My mother and sister escaped with me. But my younger sister isn't well, and the treatments she needs exist only in the West. I could not return without her, nor could I risk her health."

"Yes, family is important." Jarod looked into his teacup, as though trying to read the future there. "A while back, I was separated from my family. I miss them every minute I'm not with them."

"But you will see them again?" Sun-Chai asked, putting concern into her voice.

"I hope so." The one thing Jarod always had trouble lying about was his family, perhaps because he did not know the truth about them.

Sun-Chai nodded in agreement. "Yes. But it is more important to protect one's family than to be with them, sometimes. As long as I can help them, it is worthwhile."

Jarod nodded. Being with his family had reminded him, again, how very much he wanted to protect his family. He did not blame his father and mother for not protecting him as a boy. It was not the kind of thing people, normal people as his parents had been, expected. And speaking of protecting people, he began to change the subject back to his originally planned subject. "How long have you been at IE?"

"A few months. I was transferred from Baltimore. It was supposed to be a promotion," Sun-Chai answered.

"Some promotion," Jarod commented.

"Yes. Life certainly has had its surprises lately," Sun-Chai said, ruefully.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Tuesday: Late Evening

"Miss Parker?" Broots asked as he knocked and pushed open the door. "I have the information you wanted on that woman."

She waved him over. "What do you have?"

"Can I use your computer?" he asked, running a hand over his hair. She rose from her chair; he watched her move with a dancer's grace. He slid into her chair and keyed up several files. "Here." He pointed to the screen.

Miss Parker leaned over the desk, her eyes widening at the revelation on the monitor. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes. I've plugged in every cross-reference. This is what I got." He looked over his shoulder at her.

She rubbed her temples. "All right. Mason, he's Sun-Chai's partner?" She waited for Broots' affirmative nod. "It says he's a Red File. I didn't recognize the man I saw the other day."

"Maybe he's disguised his appearance so you wouldn't."

"Right. He would do that, the bastard."

"You knew him?" Broots asked, interested but confused.

"No. He's a bastard for making my job hell."

Broots shook his head. "The other file, Sun-Chai, she's a Blue File."

"Great. Just what we need, more files to chase around."


Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
Tuesday: Later that Same Evening

The conversation with Sun-Chai rolled over and over in his head during his return to the hotel. He needed to get his family to safety. He would try sending them away again.

Jordan was awake. Jarod should not have been surprised, but he was. The younger version of himself had apparently inherited insomnia, either from their father or his days in the Centre's care.

The boy looked up from his book. "I'm glad you're back, and safe."

Jarod walked over and gave him a hug. "Of course I am. Dinner is not usually a dangerous meal."

"But you are worried, aren't you?"

"About you two. I really think you need to go somewhere safe, just in case."

"Yeah. Emily thinks so, too. That's partly why I'm up. I wanted to talk to you before we leave in the morning."

"Okay." Jarod sat down cross-legged on the floor. Jordan looked at him from the chair, then slid himself to the floor. "Jarod, could you try harder to keep in touch? I mean, I know you try, I really do. But it seems to take a long time and I miss you."

The implied criticism would have hurt had it been said in anything other than a very sad, little boy voice. Jarod remembered that feeling all too well. Jordan was too old to cry, and too young not to want to.

"I promise. You know I would never deliberately do anything to hurt you or Emily, don't you?" Jarod said quietly.

"I guess I just miss you more than Emily because you are the first person who ever considered my feelings. Emily helps me have feelings. She's neat. But you're just kinda special." Jordan climbed back into his bed.

"So are you." Jarod tucked the boy into bed.

In the morning, they left, the slim boy who was growing up too quickly, and the brunette who shared her brother's sadness. Emily had every intention of coming back to track Jarod. But the information Jarod showed her at breakfast was convincing enough for her to be willing to get Jordan out of the way.

Act IV

The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Wednesday: Evening

"This was to be a joint operation, Sun-Chai!" Mr. Lyle tossed the file in his hand to the desk; it landed with a firm thud.

"I do *NOT* answer to you, Mr. Lyle." She watched Mr. Lyle's eyes widen as she uncrossed and re-crossed her legs with elegance and grace. She was sure her pause made him nervous. "You are mistaken. This was not a *joint operation*. I was under no obligation to inform you of anything. And, as you can see," she indicated the video playing on the screen nestled at the corner of Mr. Lyle's desk, "we're doing much better than you ever did."

Mr. Lyle slowly, dramatically, turned his head to look over his shoulder at the woman seated on the couch against the wall. "I see. Apparently you are not aware of how things work at The Centre. Everything involving the pursuit of Jarod must cross my desk. You see the dilemma."

Her eyes narrowed and she responded to his statement, "Mr. Lyle, my assignment came from Mr. Parker, so I do not have to follow your rules. I report only to him. You may have your sister under your thumb," she paused, focusing on his black-gloved, four-fingered hand, "but the same is not true for me." She rose from the couch, strode past Mr. Lyle, and walked toward the door.

"Sun-Chai, wait," Mr. Lyle called, taking several steps in her direction.

Sun-Chai turned back to him, smoothing her knee-length, Chinese silk dress. "Yes?" Her voice was soft and delicate.

"I'm sending a sweeper team with you. Duncan's team." He rubbed his hands together.

"We work alone, Mason and I. We don't need any outside aid."

"That is not for you to decide in this case. The directive was handed down from Mr. Parker this afternoon." Mr. Lyle straightened to his full height, squaring his shoulders, filling his chest.

Pompous ass. "You do understand I will verify this directive with your father."

"Be my guest." Mr. Lyle extended his hand toward the door, inviting her to follow through on her threat.


Initiative Enterprises

Jarod smiled at the young receptionist. He really needed to get more information, and a simple receptionist might be the best bet. He certainly was not going to get very far with Mason. Mason had wiped his computer clean, and their pas de deux earlier today would have been funny had it not been so annoying. Jarod had not met anyone like Mason in a long time -- a non-passive participant. Now he was trying something different.

"Would you happen to have the schedule for the form 278b?" Jarod asked. When she pulled out one set of files, Jarod quickly went into double-talk mode. "Oh, did I say 278b? I meant the 997 form, which deals with the accrual rates. There is supposed to be one for each set of K-9 forms and we seem to be a few short. If Mr. Carver finds out, that could be very serious."

The more form numbers Jarod mentioned, the more flustered the woman became, and the better opportunity Jarod had to obtain what he really needed: the master schedule. It was there he found the key piece of information. It was a combination to the master vault. Each employee was allowed to store things there, and they were guaranteed complete anonymity. This way, some of the same confidential financial information IE provided its clients could benefit its employees. Jarod had discovered that the only place Mason could have placed incriminating evidence was in this vault.

The blonde receptionist stared at Jarod as he left her with his most charming smile. He's a strange man, she thought, but very good looking.


Initiative Enterprises

Mason entered the vault seconds ahead of Jarod. The timing had to be exact. He got his package, and met Sun-Chai in the entryway. They were below ground, but a series of tunnels had been constructed beneath the building for maintenance purposes. Mason was aware Jarod would have been studying those tunnels, as he had been.

"Mr. Carver, you wanted something?" she asked, poised and calm.

"To hold this," he said, handing her the package as Jarod entered.

Jarod approached them. "Well, well, what do we have here?" Jarod inquired.

Sun-Chai stood back, almost dropping the package. "I don't know. What do you want?"

"The truth," answered Jarod. "Who has been robbing the employees of IE, and why?"

"For profit, of course," replied Mason. "Why else would anyone do such a thing?" While he spoke, Mason and Jarod were following each other, trying to keep the other from the staircase or elevator. Jarod, as usual, wanted a spoken confession he could give to the police. Mason finally had what he wanted: Sun-Chai physically between Jarod and himself. Mason had placed her in such a position that it seemed she accidentally hit the elevator button when she was pressed against the wall.

Richie Duncan ran into the vault, out of breath, and blurted: "Mason! Jarod's..." he stopped mid-sentence, realizing Jarod was already present.

Sun-Chai snarled at the blundering sweeper while Jarod's attention was elsewhere and returned to her previous state when it returned.

Mason pulled a gun, and held it to Sun-Chai's head. He pulled her into the elevator. "Up, up and away," he smiled as the elevator took them out of the basement.

Jarod grabbed the stairs. He exited in time to see both of them leave the building, Sun-Chai held at gunpoint. Prepared as always, Jarod was able to follow.


Duncan stared with his mouth agape as Mason and Sun-Chai disappeared into the elevator. He bolted away from Jarod's snarl and could only hear that the man had taken the stairs instead of following him. Duncan knew he was in trouble now, not only with Mr. Lyle for blundering the set-up on Jarod, but also with Sun-Chai and Mason for blowing their cover. He needed to find a place to hide, and fast.

He exited the building through a rear door. A deliberate cough caught his attention and he turned around, slowly.

Arms crossed firmly over his chest, Mr. Lyle released a deep breath and shook his head. "Unsatisfactory, Duncan. This will not improve your future with the Centre."

"Mr. Lyle, I... Um..."

Mr. Lyle put a hand in the air. "Stop. I do not want to hear any of your pitiful excuses. Just stand over there by the car."


1 block from Dupont Circle
Washington, DC
Thursday: Early Evening

She ran across Massachusetts Avenue and down the block. The streetlights were beginning to flicker to life. He was chasing her; Jarod was chasing him. Crossing Dupont Circle, pushing past several small groups milling about the grassy center, avoiding the early evening traffic, Sun-Chai took one glance over her shoulder, gauging the distance between herself and her pursuer. She kept running; the Dupont Circle Metro station was just ahead, only she would have to run around the large, concrete wall to get to the escalator.

Her feet were sore, her lungs burning from the long run through the city. She shortened and slowed her stride, allowing Mason, the man chasing her, to gain several strides, as she hit the escalator and descended. Mason was close, and gaining, and Jarod was closing in on Mason. She saw Jarod stop, disbelief in his face.

'How?' Jarod asked himself, seeing Mason's firm grip on Sun-Chai's arm.

"It's over, Jarod! I'm taking her with me!" Mason called from several yards down the platform.

"Let her go, Mason! She's done nothing to you!" Jarod returned.

"Well, you see, Jarod, that's not really the point. I don't care about her. But you do. That's why this was so easy! I knew if I grabbed her, you'd come after me. And so you have. Now I hold all the cards."

Jarod was silent a moment. "Let her go and face me on your own."

"No. I don't think so. See, it doesn't work that way. You don't get to make any of the rules."

A sharp crack sounded somewhere down the tunnel and Mason and Jarod looked in the direction of the sound; a Metro train was approaching. Sun-Chai thrust an elbow into Mason's ribcage and pushed him hard. He fell onto the tracks opposite the newly arrived train, screaming. Sun-Chai darted across the platform and leaped into a car just as the doors slid closed and the train began to pull away. Jarod turned around and saw Sun-Chai safe inside the Metro. He approached the edge of the platform where Mason had been pushed over, and looked to the tracks below: nothing. Mason's body was nowhere to be found. Jarod knew it was not possible for anyone to survive a fall onto active Metro tracks, but had no explanation for where Mason's body might have gone.


She smiled, watching Jarod as the train pulled away from the station. He believed she was safe, believed he was safe. Everything had gone well, with one major exception: Richie Duncan. She would teach him what happened to those who disjointed her plans.

The train pulled into the station near Initiative Enterprises and she stepped off, walking toward the nearest exit. She took the escalator stairs two at a time and saw Mr. Lyle waiting with his car. A sneer was her greeting and she looked around the area.

"What are you doing?" Mr. Lyle asked, irritated.

"Shut up!" Sun-Chai found her target, grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him into an alley, ignoring Mr. Lyle's protests. The sweeper pulled and tugged against her grip. She wrenched his arm and threw him to the ground.

"Wait! Please! What did I do?" Richie Duncan whined from the pavement. He received a rough kick to the groin and an elbow between his shoulder blades as a response. He fell to the ground, his face scratching against the broken blacktop.

"There are severe penalties for failure to follow instructions." Sun-Chai raised his chin using the point of her custom tailored, Ka-Bar blade, the same blade Mr. Lyle had met earlier. Its razor-sharp edge glinted in the sliver of light that made its way into the alley. "You see, I despise failures..."

"I'm sorry. I won't do it again. Whatever it is I did."

Smiling, her eyes sparkling with the knowledge of what was to come, Sun-Chai responded, "You're right. You won't do it again." The sharp blade eased into the soft flesh of the sweeper's neck under the expert stroke of Sun-Chai's hand. Duncan gave one final breath as his face fell back to the pavement, bruising with the impact. Satisfied with her work, Sun-Chai left the alley to return to the Centre.


Mr. Lyle slid back into the shadows, catching his racing heart. The image before him seemed like a slow-motion nightmare. A petite, Asian woman just sliced the throat of his sweeper for uttering a wrong name. Granted, that utterance resulted in the loss of Jarod, but did it warrant death? He did not think so. Transfer to the Alaskan annex, maybe, but death was a bit extreme.

He studied his left hand, the one with only four fingers, and actually admitted to himself something he had not been able to face for years: he had a great aversion to sharp objects, especially when they were wielded by someone who had the knowledge of how to use them. Even that moment when he was preparing to remove Jarod's thumb did not sit well in his stomach.

"Note to self: do NOT piss off the woman with the knives." Mr. Lyle returned to his car and instructed the driver to take him to the airport.


Washington, DC
Bus Station
Friday: Early Morning

Jarod had put his belongings in a backpack and decided to head out of town. He would go into the country and purchase a car. Northeast, he thought. Then maybe southwest.

Jarod dialed the phone, and a familiar voice answered. "What?"

"Parker," Jarod said, "someday you're going to surprise us all and learn how to answer a telephone."

"There is nothing wrong with.." Parker stopped in mid-protest. She was receiving a fax, another photograph of her sitting on the elephant. "Are you responsible for this, monkey boy?"

"People who develop a sense of humor do not usually suffer from ulcers. You might want to consider that, Miss Parker," Jarod said, hanging up the phone and boarding the bus.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Friday: Early Morning

"Jarod, don't you dare...." Parker did not exactly growl it, she just thought it. Then she looked more closely at the picture, and summoned a smile. The most dangerous thing about Jarod, in the end, was not that he was a genius or that he knew Centre secrets. The most dangerous thing was that he knew her too well. He knew exactly how much she had been fascinated by the elephants at the circus, how much she had loved reading the Tarzan books. She had never told Daddy that, because he would not have approved of the distraction. Jarod, like an elephant, never forgot. She had to remember that he also would never pass up an opportunity to remind her of the things she had lost.