Give And Take by Jaxie
Summary: Jarod and Samantha end up at Harvard University to stop a campus rapist during the Christmas holiday. Fourth story in the Samantha Series
Categories: During The Series Characters: Jarod
Genres: Action/Adventure
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 1 Completed: Yes Word count: 39062 Read: 1303 Published: 23/08/05 Updated: 23/08/05
Chapter 1 by Jaxie
It was a cold crisp night as Samantha walked down a path of Harvard Yard on Harvard University. She pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders as she walked, the sound of her footsteps being cushioned by the recently fallen snow. She felt uneasy being alone as she glanced around her. She could see nothing but trees and darkness, and that worried her more than anything, causing her to quicken her pace.

She didn’t see the man quietly step out from behind a tree as she passed it. Before she could react, he grabbed her, pinning her arms to her side and covering her mouth with a gloved hand. Samantha struggled and fought, but she was no match for the man as he dragged her back behind the tree. He threw her down on the snow and quickly pinned her there.

Samantha struggled and fought with her assailant - who was covered from head to toe in black, including a mask - as he held her down and covered her mouth, but he was too strong and caught her off guard. She tried to kick him or hit him or do something, but he had her pinned down tightly.

Suddenly, he glanced at Samantha’s face, seeing the terror in her eyes, and stopped. He let her go and stood up. He stared down at Samantha for a few moments, breathing heavily, before removing his mask.

“You all right, Sam?” Jarod asked worriedly as he looked down at the young woman. She was breathing heavily, her hair was messed up, and she looked absolutely terrified. When she didn’t respond, he knelt beside her and took her in his arms, holding her close. “I’m sorry. I pushed too hard.”

“Perhaps,” Samantha whispered softly as she regained her senses. “I just . . . never felt fear like that before in my life. It was awful.”

“Maybe we should call it a night,” Jarod said. Samantha nodded. Jarod slowly helped her to her feet, and the two Pretenders walked out of the park together.

- - - -

The next morning Jarod was at the stove, preparing scrambled eggs when Samantha came walking into the kitchen, yawning. She was still in her nightclothes, black pajama pants and a black tank top, and her hair was a little messed up from sleeping.

Jarod, on the other hand, was dressed in a pair of tan pants that were too short for him, puce argyle socks, thick black glasses with tape wrapped around the bridge, a checkered dress shirt, with a polka dot tie. He glanced at the young Pretender as she made her way over to the pot of coffee nearby - not noticing his appearance - and poured herself a cup, preparing it in her usual fashion: sugar and cream. She sat at the table and carefully sipped the hot liquid.

“Sleep well?” Jarod asked.

“Pretty well,” Samantha replied.

“Sam, about what happened last night, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Jarod, it’s fine, okay? Really. You needed to get into the head of the guy we’re going after, and I don’t think anyone else would have helped you, considering.” She glanced up at Jarod and finally noticed his attire for the day, and she just suddenly started howling with laughter. She knew what Jarod was planning on wearing for the day, so it wasn’t a surprise or anything, but just seeing him like that amused her.

Jarod rolled his eyes as he served the eggs onto two plates and brought the plates over to the table. Before she could even huff at him, he slipped a half-empty bottle of ketchup into her right hand. Satisfied that she could now enjoy her meal, Samantha finally calmed down and opened up Jarod’s notebook nearby. As the two started eating, the young woman looked at the three different newspaper clippings:

COLLEGE COED ATTACKED BY UNKNOWN ASSAILANT

CAMPUS RAPIST CLAIMS SECOND VICTIM

RAPIST ATTACKS THIRD STUDENT, POLICE HAVE NO LEADS

In each article, showed a picture of the young woman who had been attacked, and a little about what happened to each victim as she was attacked. In all three instances - all occurring since the fall semester started - the attack happened in the same area of the park that Samantha and Jarod were in last night, in similar circumstances: the woman was walking alone, and the rapist had been wearing all black, including a mask, and he used the intravenous sedative, Droperidol, to prevent the victims from struggling.

“You sure you don’t want to accompany me?” Jarod asked. “You can be my assistant. I don’t mind.”

“It’s quite okay,” Samantha smiled as she looked up from the notebook. “I have other things I’d like to take care of.”

Jarod was more amused than suspicious. “Such as?”

“Stuff.”

Jarod glanced up from his plate, smiling. “Sam, ever since we left Chicago, you’ve been acting really suspicious. What are you up to?”

“What makes you think I’m up to anything?”

“Because you are,” Jarod replied wryly.

Samantha grinned. “Well, if you must know, Christmas is right around the corner. Secrets abound.” She glanced at the wall clock. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

Jarod glanced at the clock and winced. He quickly got up and took his plate to the sink. He grabbed his briefcase off the counter nearby and hurried toward the front door. He stopped and hurried back into the kitchen.

“What?” Samantha asked. Jarod went over to the counter and grabbed the brown lunch sack that was near the sink. “Ah, your lunch.”

“Thanks again for helping me make it last night,” Jarod replied.

Samantha smiled. “My pleasure.” She handed Jarod his red notebook. “Now get going, or you’re going to be late.”

Jarod smiled. “I’ll see you later, Sam. You know where to reach me if you need anything.” Samantha smiled as the front door closed then shook her head as she started cleaning up the kitchen.

- - - -

Miss Parker walked into Sydney’s office, just as he hung up the phone. Parker noticed he looked sullen, which was odd for him unless something was really bothering him.

“Something on your mind, Syd?” she asked.

“That was Michelle,” Sydney replied. “She and Nicolas are going to be going out of town for the holidays.”

“I’m sorry,” Parker replied sincerely. She knew that Sydney looked forward to the holiday season because it gave him the opportunity to spend time with Michelle and their son, the opportunity to spend Christmas with the people he cared about.

“Thank you,” Sydney said. “Is there anything I can help you out with?”

“Raines is barking orders about our tracking reports,” Parker replied. “He wants them on his desk, pronto.” Sydney handed Parker some papers, and the woman started to leave just as Broots came walking in. He looked out of breath. “What’s with you?”

“Guess who I just saw in the lobby?” Broots asked.

“Who?” Sydney asked.

“Lyle and Cox.”

“They’re back already?” Parker asked. It had only been a few weeks ago since Lyle and Cox had been summoned to Africa after the Triumvirate heard about what was very quickly becoming known as the ‘Chicago Turkey Incident.’

“Well, they didn’t look too happy,” Broots answered.

“Well, at least some good came out of it,” Parker replied as she left the office.

“Some good definitely came out of it.” Parker stopped and looked up. Lyle and Cox were standing on the platform above the Sim Lab. Broots and Sydney came out behind Parker. “You look surprised to see us,” Lyle said.

“Well, considering the Triumvirate was very insistent on seeing you both after we got back from Chicago, yes,” Parker replied. “Alive, anyway.”

“You underestimate us,” Cox said. “The Triumvirate was quite understanding about what happened, especially after we presented our side of the argument.”

“What side was that?” Parker asked. “You two had Jarod, and you underestimated Samantha, which allowed her to get Jarod and make you two look like complete idiots.”

“Which is why the Triumvirate, and the Centre, have agreed that Samantha must be dealt with,” Lyle replied.

“Dealt with?” Sydney asked. “How so?”

“That’s not important,” Cox replied. “We have work to do, Pretenders to catch. Any leads?”

“None,” Parker answered. “But that shouldn’t last too long.”

“Let’s hope not,” Lyle said. He gave Parker an odd look before he and Cox left.

“Why do I have a feeling that Samantha isn’t going to be the only one who gets dealt with?” Parker asked.

“Because I believe you’re right,” Sydney replied. “Keep your eyes and ears peeled, both of you.”

“Do my best, Syd,” Parker said. She started to leave.

“Parker,” Sydney said suddenly. Parker turned around. “If you’re not busy, would you like to have Christmas dinner at my place?”

Parker didn’t bother hiding her surprised expression. Sydney didn’t invite anyone over to his house, ever, nor did she ever invited him to her place. It wasn’t something they did. “Not at the moment.” She smiled slightly. “I would be honored.”

Sydney smiled. “How about you, Broots? You and Debbie have plans?”

“What about Michelle and Nicolas?”

“They’re not going to be in town,” Sydney replied.

“Sorry to hear that.” Broots sighed. “Well, uh . . . . yeah, we’d love to come. Thanks.” Sydney smiled and went back into his office as the two left the Sim Lab.

- - - -

Jarod cleared his throat as he looked at his class. There were about twenty or so students sitting at the tables in front of him, all talking and laughing. Even Harvard had its share of rowdy students, but this class - Defense and Prosecution of the Mentally Ill, with Special Emphasis On Schizophrenics, Multiple Personalities, and Spotting Fake Disorders - seemed to be more than rowdy. Jarod had been observing them for five minutes, and he concluded that the entire class, with the exception of a few, were spoiled brats, and he knew what to expect out of them. Still, he was here for a purpose. He cleared his throat a little louder, but only a couple of the students in the front paid attention. He sighed, wanting to raise his voice and get the others’ attentions, but it wasn’t part of his Pretend. He went into his briefcase and began pulling out papers.

“Now, class,” he said in a quiet voice as he pulled the papers out. “I would like to start out by introducing myself. My name is Jarod Sybil, and I -” He stopped in mid-sentence as he dropped the papers. They scattered on the floor, and all but two students roared in laughter. Jarod sighed as he bent down to start picking them up as the students continued to laugh at him.

Suddenly, a loud, ear-piercing whistle filled the room, effectively silencing the noisy students. Everything became quiet as Jarod, startled, shot up, smacking his head on the underside of the desk. He winced as he rubbed the spot, hoping he wouldn’t have a bump later on, then peeked out from under to see the source of the whistle. Standing in the back of the room was a pair of slender legs in black fishnet stockings and black-leather boots that stopped halfway up her calves. Jarod slowly raised his head above the desk, and his jaw nearly dropped.

Samantha was standing in the back of the room, hands on her hips. Besides the boots and the fishnet stockings, she was dressed in a black leather skirt that barely covered what needed to be covered, a black leather fitted tank top with her midriff revealed, and a black studded belt looped over the skirt. Even from a distance he could see the tattoos on her arms and around her bellybutton, and he could even make them out: Chinese symbols down her left arm, a black widow and scorpion on her right arm, and a thorny rose and the word ‘Sexy’ around her bellybutton. Her makeup wasn’t too dark or heavy, but it was a bit more drastic than what Jarod was used to seeing on her. Her hair was pulled back, with strands framing her face. She was chewing a wad of gum - a large wad - loudly, smacking it, and carrying a small, black leather backpack on her shoulder.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said loudly as she slowly walked up to the front of the room, all eyes fixed on her. She bent down beside Jarod and helped him gather up his papers. “Finding a parking space on campus is a nightmare.” She stood up with Jarod, handed him his papers, then took her seat in the back of the classroom, right among a group of male students who were all but starting to drool at the sight of her.

“And you are . . .?” Jarod asked slowly, not sure what to make of his new ‘student.’

Samantha laughed. “Come on, Jarod. Just because you happen to be my professor this semester, it doesn’t mean we have to keep up the formalities. I’m your sister, for crying out loud, and I don’t expect to be called Miss or anything like that, okay? And if you have a problem with it, brother, then you can just shove it where the sun don’t shine.” She could tell by Jarod’s expression that he wanted to say or do something, but he couldn’t react in a way she knew he wanted to without ruining his Pretend.

Jarod just glanced at, then went back to his briefcase and put the papers away. He cleared his throat again. “Now, Samantha, you know very well that that's anatomically impossible and a highly inappropriate suggestion. Now may I return to my lesson?"

Samantha cracked her gum loudly as she rested her chin on one hand and grinned. "Knock yourself out, bubba."

Jarod sighed and turned to face the blackboard. “I think we found our first case study,” he muttered just loud enough for the students in the front row to hear him as he wrote with the chalk. He began the lesson with taking the class roll, then he started with an introduction about the class. Most of the students weren’t paying attention anyway, talking amongst themselves, but the few in the front paid attention. Even Samantha was talking among her little group of preps. Still, Jarod continued with his lecture.

Finally, the class ended, and the students were packing up to leave. While gathering up his stuff, Jarod glanced at Samantha as she stood up. “Samantha, may I please have a word with you in my office?” he asked just loud enough to be heard over the din.

“Sorry, Jarod, I have places to go, people to do,” Samantha smiled and winked at the group of preps as she sauntered out of the room, her hips swinging. Jarod grabbed his things and hurried to catch up with her, but the students were leaving, and he wasn’t able to push pass them. When he finally got outside, he looked up and down the corridor, but she had vanished. Sighing, he made his way down to his office.

- - - -

Jarod opened the door and made his way into his office. Papers were scattered on the bookshelves and his desk, books stacked up in various spots, pictures of various scholars hanging crookedly on the walls. A roll of duct tape was on top of one of the stacks of books, and some Pokemon video tapes were stacked on one of the chairs. An accordion was on the floor next to the window. In short, it was a pig-sty, just exactly how he wanted it to be.

He went over to his desk and sat down, putting his briefcase on the floor next to him. He quickly accessed the university’s database and searched for the records of Samantha Sybil, but the records were denied. Jarod frowned as he started typing in a bypass code, but a window popped up with a message being slowly typed into it:

Sorry, Jarod, but I need you to stay out of this for awhile, please. This is something that I need to take care of by myself, okay?

- Sam

Jarod sighed frustrated as he banged his hand on the keyboard. What in the world could she be up to, especially since he knew she was hiding something, and why would she go to great lengths to keep him away from it? There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” he said as he shut down the program. The door opened, and one of the students from his class, Cassandra Watts, poked her head in. She was about Sam’s height, with blond hair and green eyes framed by a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, and she was dressed in a pair of jeans, a hunter green wool sweater, and a pair of tennis shoes.

“Professor Sybil?” she said quietly.

“Come in, Cassandra,” Jarod replied in his quiet voice. “And please, call me Jarod.” Cassandra smiled slightly as she came in and closed the door. She stopped short when she saw the mess, but she sat in the chair that didn’t have anything in. She looked slightly nervous, but she sat tall. “What’s on your mind, Cassandra?”

“Well, um, I wanted to talk to you about what happened in class today,” Cassandra replied. “First of all, I’ve known most of the students in there since I started my graduate work, and they’re always like that.”

“Disrespecting their professors?” Jarod asked.

Cassandra nodded. “And the professors really don’t do much about it. I mean, their families put a lot of money into the school, so you can guess who has the power in this place.” Jarod nodded. “Also, is that girl, Samantha, really your sister?”

Jarod smiled wryly. “Yes, she is.”

“Well, I don’t think this is my place to say anything, but you might want to keep your eye on her, especially if she’s hanging around with Brad and his friends.”

“Who?”

“The guys she was with in the back of the classroom. They’re football players: Brad Fischer, Ted Green, Louis Packard, and Steven Axel. They’re all bad news, but Brad and Louis are the worst.”

“How so?” Jarod asked.

“Well, they think they’re God’s gift to women, and they make no point to hide it, either. They’re rude, obnoxious, egotistical, pig-headed, and they have horrible tempers if they don’t get what they want.” Cassandra stood up. “I just thought, considering the way your sister was dressed, you might want to warn her to be careful around those guys. Well, I better get to class.” She walked to the door.

“Thank you, Cassandra,” Jarod replied. Cassandra left the office, shutting the door behind her. Jarod sighed for a moment before reaching into his briefcase and pulling out his red notebook. He opened it and reread the newspaper articles. “I wonder . . .”

- - - -

Jarod was walking down the semi-crowded hall, holding his briefcase, holding some papers, when he heard a commotion. He turned his head and saw some male students push a janitor to the floor, knocking a mop and bucket out of his hands. The students walked away laughing as Jarod came over to help.

“Thanks,” the janitor replied softly as Jarod helped him to his feet. He was short, slightly less than average height for a man, and appeared to be in his late-thirties, with brown hair and brown eyes that shifted around constantly. He was dressed in a brown work suit. He picked up his mop and bucket.

“My name is Jarod,” Jarod said as he held out his hand.

“Dennis Mulligan,” the janitor replied as he shook the hand.

“Mulligan?” Jarod asked. “That’s an odd name.”

“Yeah, well, it describes me to a T,” Mulligan replied. “Like Mulligan Stew, I’m many things all rolled into one package. Know what I mean, Jarod?”

Jarod knew exactly what he was talking about. “Why did those boys attack you?” he asked.

“Because I’m a janitor,” Mulligan replied. “Nothing more invisible than a man with a mop and a bucket. Or a more easy target.” He grinned as Jarod’s stomach growled loudly. “You hiding an animal in your suit, Jarod?”

Jarod smiled. “I was on my way to lunch. Would you care to join me?”

“That’s quite all right,” Mulligan waved his hand. “Besides, wouldn’t you look bad if you were sitting with a janitor in the faculty lounge?”

“Not really,” Jarod replied.

“Ah, well, I have a lot of work to do, anyway.”

Jarod opened up his lunch sack and pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He handed it to Mulligan. “Here, take this,” he said.

Mulligan shook his head and smiled. “I can’t accept that.”

“Please, I insist.”

“Seriously, I can’t have peanut butter. I’m allergic to peanut oil.”

“Oh, sorry,” Jarod smiled apologetically. He rummaged around in his sack. “Well, can I interest you in some brownies or apples? Or maybe some macaroni and cheese with jalapenos?” He saw Mulligan wrinkle his face. “You don’t like macaroni and cheese?”

“I love mac and cheese,” Mulligan replied. “I just don’t like jalapenos. Nearly choked on one when I was six. Haven’t eaten one since.” He shrugged. “Thanks for the offer, anyway, Jarod. I’ll see you later.” Mulligan limped away. Jarod watched him then continued down the hall toward the faculty lounge.

- - - -

Samantha sat quietly at her desk on in the back, concentrating more on what she was scribbling in her purple notebook than on the professor’s lecture. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, she would have laughed out loud. Professor Carter Nitzmorr - or Ditzmorr, as she called him - was droning on and on about the different tax laws of the Massachusetts. Samantha was only semi regretting doing this, as she didn’t care too much for tax law. But she had set her mind to do it, and she was never one to back down from anything.

“Miss Sybil,” Nitzmorr spoke up loudly, causing the Pretender to look up. Everyone was staring at her.

Samantha closed her notebook and looked up at the professor. “Yes, sir?”

“We’re waiting.”

“Waiting?” Samantha asked in a bewildered tone, even though she knew what exactly he was waiting for.

“For an answer to the question I asked you.”

Samantha smiled and stood up. “In tax crime cases,” she said in a firm voice, “the cases are investigated by the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division, otherwise known as the CID.” Smiling smugly, she sat down in her chair again.

“Uh . . . thank you, Miss Sybil,” Nitzmorr replied slowly. He stared at her for a few more moments before turning his attention back to his lecture. Samantha went back to her scribbling, but she glanced at the corner of her eye at Nitzmorr and narrowed her eyes slightly. After lecture was over, Samantha was in the process of leaving when Nitzmorr came up to her.

“Miss Sybil, may I have a word with you?” he asked. “In my office.”

“Sorry, sir,” Samantha replied, “but I have other plans that I can’t get out of. Later.” She waved sweetly as she grabbed her notebook and started to saunter away, but Nitzmorr grabbed her wrist gently.

“Miss Sybil, please,” Nitzmorr said. “I must speak with you in my office. You’ve started late, and there’s some stuff that you’re going to need to catch up on.”

“Such as?”

“Your past assignments, my dear.”

“Well, if I wasn’t in a hurry with other engagements, then I would join you, Professor.”

Nitzmorr smiled as he stood closer to Samantha, clearly invading her personal space, putting a hand on her arm. “Perhaps I can drop by your apartment later on tonight then?” Nitzmorr asked. “Say, around eight? You don’t have any plans then, do you?”

Samantha smiled sweetly. How could anyone find this guy attractive was beyond her. He was just shy of six feet in height, with dark hair, piercing dark eyes, and what could be considered a suave smile, but Samantha was less than twitterpated by him. “How about we talk tomorrow around . . . ten? I can stop by your office then. Will you be busy?” It might have sounded like an innocent suggestion, but Samantha had added in a suggestive tone. She got the reaction she was looking for when he swallowed at the thought of her offer.

“No,” he replied. He squeezed her arm gently. “I look forward to seeing you.” Samantha smiled and walked out of the room, hips swaying. Once outside, she was immediately accosted by a group of girls who had been in the room.

“What?” she asked.

“So, how did you manage to get away with wearing that?” one of the girls, a brunette in jeans and a t-shirt, asked snootily. She and the rest of the group had been in the class.

“When you’ve got an excellent academic history,” Samantha replied in a cool tone, “these professors don’t care what you wear.”

“Aside from your brother?”

Samantha and the other girls turned around and saw Brad Fischer, the prep who had been not only in Jarod’s class with Samantha, but also in Nitzmorr’s class as well. He came up, his hands in his leather jacket, smiling at Samantha. Behind him were the rest of his little gang: Ted Green, Louis Packard, and Steven Axel. She smiled sweetly at Brad.

“My brother is second scrub,” Samantha replied. “A complete wimp.”

“Hey, you busy tonight?” Brad asked.

“Sorry,” Samantha answered. “I have other plans.”

“Such as?” Brad asked.

“Such as other plans,” Samantha replied. She smiled. “However, if you want to walk me to my next class . . .”

“Where?” Brad asked, returning the smile.

“Chemistry building.”

Brad turned to his friends. “I’ll catch you later, guys.”

Samantha smiled at the group of girls. “Ladies,” she replied as she and Brad walked off.

“Slut,” the brunette muttered under her breath.

“Hey, you wanna go to a movie tonight?” Louis asked the brunette.

“Get bent,” the brunette replied before walking away. Her friends followed right behind her.

- - - -

Jarod walked up the flights of stairs to Apartment 3G, and lightly knocked on the door. It was later in the day, after all his classes, and he had changed out of his ‘attire’ into a soft silvery gray shirt, blue jeans, running shoes, and a windbreaker.

“Yes?” a soft voice answered after a few moments.

“Miss Myers,“ Jarod said in a calm voice. “My name is Jarod Sirenus. May I talk with you?”

“Look, if you’re selling anything, I’m not interested,” the young woman replied.

“I’m here from the counseling center,” Jarod said. “I’m a doctor. We were looking at your records, and they’ve shown you missed your last three appointments.”

There was a pause. “Look, I’m going to be okay, really. I don’t have to come into those meetings to get better.”

“Talking about what happened is the only way you’re going to get better. The more you keep things bottled up inside, and the longer it’s going to take.”

There was silence. Then, Jarod heard the sound of locks clicking. The door was opened, and the third rape victim, Sherilyn Myers, looked at Jarod. She was different in the newspaper clipping that Jarod had cut out earlier. Her short, red hair was dull, and her skin was pale. Her eyes were sunken in, and she looked like she hadn’t slept in days, although her clothes - a pair of gray sweatpants and an old Harvard t-shirt - were rumpled. She was also holding a small bottle of pepper spray.

“Come in,” she said quietly. She let Jarod into the apartment, and closed the door behind him, locking it quickly. Jarod took a quick look around the apartment as Sherilyn led her over to the couch. The living room was small, with not much furniture in it. There was only a couch, a television set, a loveseat, a coffee table, and a desk. A few plants were intermingled around the room, and the shades were drawn, making the entire place very dim. Sherilyn sat on one end of the couch and curled up into herself, but she still held onto the pepper spray bottle. Jarod sat on the other end.

“You know,” Jarod said gently, “since I’m not too familiar with the details of your case, would you like to fill me in?”

Sherilyn looked a little hesitant, but she slowly nodded. The young woman took a deep breath, and sighed. “Well, um,” she said softly, “three weeks ago, I was finishing up some extra credit work in the library with some friends of mine. It was . . . after midnight when we finally finished.” She stopped to take a breath. “We went our separate ways, and I decided to go through the park to get home quickly. I . . . I . . . I remember going into the park . . .” Tears welled up in her eyes. “But I don’t remember what happened. I can’t remember what he did to me.” She started crying softly.

Jarod wanted to hold her and calm her down, but he knew that it would probably not be in her best interest at the moment. “We can stop, if you want to,” he said gently.

Sherilyn nodded and sniffled. “I would appreciate that.”

“Would you like me to leave?”

Sherilyn shook her head. “No, that’s . . . that’s okay.” She took a deep breath and brushed a strand of loose hair out of her eyes. “Can we just talk about something else for a while?”

“Sure,” Jarod replied. “What would you like to talk about?”

“Well, if it’s okay with you,” Sherilyn said. “Could you tell me about your family? My last doctor liked to talk about his family. I think he was trying to make me feel at ease. And I guess . . . it worked.” She gave a small smile to Jarod.

Jarod smiled. “Of course.”

- - - -

Samantha couldn’t believe that this was happening to her as she removed her safety goggles and bolted for the fire extinguisher near the chemistry lab door. How in the world could a simple little experiment turn into flames spreading across the lab table? She quickly used the extinguisher to put the flames out. When she was sure the last spark was diminished, she breathed a sigh of relief and put the extinguisher down.

She yelped suddenly as she felt some hard slaps against her back. She glared as she turned around, expecting to find Jarod standing behind her. She was a bit startled to find Dennis Mulligan standing next to her, holding a towel. However, she only recognized him as a janitor she had seen in the halls.

“What are you doing?” she asked in an accusatory tone.

“Your back was on fire,” Mulligan replied calmly. “I was trying to put it out.”

“What do you mean my back was on fire?”

Mulligan pointed to a mirror at the front of the room. Samantha glanced over her shoulder and looked at her reflection. Sure enough, the back of her lab coat was singed and smoking slightly. She groaned and turned slightly red as she buried her face in her hand.

“Some genius I am,” she muttered. She sighed as she stood up and surveyed the charred table. “Um, I can explain about the mess.”

“No need,” Mulligan replied. “I’ve seen many students working here very late.” He glanced wryly at the singed table. “Although you’re the first to nearly burn down the lab.” Samantha blushed a deeper red as she slowly removed the lab coat then glanced up at Mulligan. He was giving her an odd look.

“What?” she asked defensively.

“A bit underdressed, aren’t we?” he asked in a paternal voice.

Samantha smiled forcefully as she walked to the supplies closet and began pulling out cleaning materials. “Yeah, well,” she said wearily as she came back, “I appreciate your concern, but it’s a little late for someone to tell me that I need to watch my back.” To take any sting out of her words, she smiled tightly at the kindly custodian.

Before she could take two full steps back toward the crisped lab table, Mulligan met her and very smoothly took the supplies from her hands. “I can take care of it; I was taught by my parents that when I make a mess, I need to be the one to take responsibility for cleaning it up.”

Mulligan smiled at her. “Well, I appreciate your attitude about it--most people your age don’t know how to spell responsibility, nor do they care to learn.”

Samantha rolled her eyes. “Oh, they’ll learn--trust me, they’ll learn.” She slipped quietly over to the other end of the table and started sweeping charred bits of note paper into her hand.

Mulligan chuckled. “Yes, they will. Well, this is my job, but since I admire your tenacity, you could help just by continuing to clear the surface; charred paper is annoying, but charred paper soaked with Windex is just….”

Samantha nodded. “Disgusting, yeah.” The two went to their duties amiably. After a few moments, Mulligan spoke up.

“You mentioned your parents; so tell me about them. Where do they live?” He chuckled. “And do they perchance know that you’re out this late, dressed like that?”

Samantha blinked as something brushed across her memory; she didn’t know what it was, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know--whatever it was, it was unsettling. Her life was unsettled enough as it was--she would not stand for more trouble from her own mind. She did know that she really didn’t want to discuss her family and situation with Mulligan, sweet as he seemed. “Oh, you know,” she shrugged evasively, “they were nice, loving, old--parents.”

He looked up sharply. “Were?”

Samantha winced as she leaned down to pick up some bits of paper from the tile. “Yeah. Look, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but I really don’t like to talk about these things, so let’s just say that I loved them, they’re dead, and I’m a big girl, and leave it at that, okay?”

“all right. I’m sorry I upset you.” Mulligan looked uncomfortable. “I really didn’t mean to rub an old wound. I know how that feels.” He looked around, nodded, and said, “Well, except for a few minor details which I can handle in the morning, it looks like we’re done here. You go on home now, and get warm. Thanks for your help.”

Samantha nodded and picked up her backpack. “Thanks for the help. It’s the least I could do, you know, considering.”

As she reached the doorway, Mulligan spoke from a couple of feet behind her. “Listen, miss, I really am sorry about upsetting you; please believe that I didn’t mean to dredge up painful memories. Oh, and don’t worry--if anyone ever does figure out that something happened in here tonight, it won’t be by my words. I know how these things can happen--I know how, despite the best of intentions, things can sometimes, well, blow up in your face. I wouldn’t want anyone to know about some of the messes I’ve created, so I’ll respect that for you.”

Samantha gave him a tired but genuine smile. “Yeah, I know about that; I know about that real well, actually. Hey, thanks for that. Thanks for all of it. You know, I’ve met a lot of different kinds of people in the last few months, and most of them wouldn’t do what you did for me tonight. Whoever’s waiting for you at home must be pretty special to have found you.”

Mulligan gave her an odd little smile and looked away almost sadly. “Hmph. Well, people are rarely really the kind you think they are on sight. And, well, you know, it’s really all about give and take--you give what you’ve got, but you also take what you can, because you never know when someone’s going to try to take what you’re not willing to sacrifice.”

Samantha nodded slightly in acknowledgement, but furrowed her brow. She didn’t really have the energy to try to puzzle out what he’d said, but she thought it sounded like something she might want to remember, so she filed it away as another person waxing philosophical during the holidays. As she walked out into the night air and headed for their apartment building, it occurred to her that someday someone should put together a book of insights and observations about life from the point of view of the Pretenders. She just didn’t have the energy to contemplate actually doing it - especially right now.

- - - -

Full dark had fallen on the park as Jarod picked his way carefully through the shadows. His attention was divided between trying to maintain his professorial image--slumped, clumsy, timid--while taking in every detail of the ground and the low shrubbery.

After leaving Sherilyn’s apartment, he had found a gas station with external restrooms and had slipped in to change back into his nerd outfit. He felt ironically like Spiderman morphing back into Peter Parker as he checked his hair one last time and then stepped out into the night with his bag over his shoulder. He knew he had to maintain his image for the benefit of anyone who might see him around campus during his Pretend, but he couldn’t help feeling like a caged wolf - between his renewed fury with the rapist after his talk with Sherilyn, and his determination to have it out with Samantha about her behavior and her attire. The night might have been frigid, but Jarod had energy to burn.

He’d chosen to take this route through the park back to the apartment because, though he knew that the Cambridge police were capable, he couldn’t help the feeling that he wanted to go over the area of the last rape himself. He knew that chances were slim that he’d find anything the police had missed, but he had to look for something, for any little item or clue that might help him solve the case and catch the creep who was terrorizing young women.

He was getting nowhere in the search when he heard from a distance the sounds of a scuffle. He moved to investigate, automatically dropping to a prowling crouch and riding the shadows. It took him about four minutes to find the nexus of the disturbance; he scanned the situation, then slunk around to the opposite side of the tiny sculptured clearing, where the play of light and shadow would serve as more of an advantage to him.

“Look, old man, we don’t want ya’s. But our boss, well, he’s a different story - you know, he’s a nice guy and all, but a bad dude to mess with. He gets what he wants. And what he wants is you. Now, if we don’t bring you in, like he done told us, we’s gonna be in a world of trouble, and now, you wouldn’t want to get us in trouble, now would ya? So I tells ya what - you’s gonna just come with us and all, like a nice guy, and we’s gonna deliver ya, and then guess what? Everybody’s happy!”

“’Cept the old guy.”

Peering from his new vantage point between two close-set hedges, Jarod counted four men in the clearing - three wearing black clothing and knit caps, and one in a grungy plaid brown and cream button-down shirt over a dirty army green t-shirt and equally grungy jeans that brushed the laces of ragged running shoes. The one dressed like a designer bum looked tired and scared; the thugs in black just looked rather . . . stupid. They were clearly intent on accosting the bum, advancing on him in animal crouches, growling and sneering. Jarod couldn’t make out what they were saying, but when one of them pulled a switchblade, Jarod quickly decided that what they were saying didn’t much matter.

Just as the tallest of the thugs was coming within arm’s reach of the bum, Jarod crept up behind him. As the perpetrator was raising the knife, Jarod would have loved to have seen the expression on his face when the inertia of his knife hand quite suddenly met an outside force - a force greater than his momentum or his determination. The guy started to turn on his own torque, but didn’t complete the half-circle before Jarod’s hand met his nose. The perp dropped with a groan, leaving Jarod to deal with his two companions. Normally Jarod would have tried to find out what the situation was about before terrorizing his opponents, but it was late, the air was cold, and frankly he was feeling plucky - he fought fair, but he didn’t bother to question the circumstances.

Once he was sure that all three thugs were effectively out of commission for the moment, Jarod had to take a moment to visibly unwind. He shook out his hands to restore normal circulation and work out the cramps, then went to work on the back and shoulder muscles seizing from such an unexpected workout.

"Well, that was nothing if not unique." The voice was soft, weary, a storybook voice with the flavor of soft English leather. Jarod's head snapped up, only to find his gaze met by that of the designer bum he'd just rescued. The man cautiously inched out of the deepest of the shadows, but didn't venture into full light yet.

"Hello. Are you all right, sir?" Jarod was still breathing hard, but his voice was steady and concerned, purposefully unthreatening.

"I suppose you'll be wanting the same thing they were."

Jarod blinked. "Pardon me? Wanting . . . why would I be wanting anything? I simply asked if you were all right. What is it that you think I want?"

"Well, me, of course."

"Excuse me?" Jarod was already in an edgy mood, and confusion wasn't helping to improve it.

"Well, that's what they wanted. Me. They were trying to kidnap me." The man blinked rapidly a few times, then sighed and stepped into the light. "Aaaaaand you really didn't come here to put in a bid for my capture, did you?"

Jarod slowly shook his head, wondering for a moment if he'd slipped on some grease at the gas station and was really having a concussion dream. "Nooo, sir. I don't want you; in fact, at the moment, I don't want anything beyond a hot shower and a nice, peaceful evening doing nothing. I don't mean to be rude, but if you're sure you're all right, I'll say goodnight and find my way home."

The man, obviously middle-aged, shook his head and limped over to a bench. When he spoke, Jarod heard defeat in the soft accented tones. "Handle?"

Jarod quirked an eyebrow. "Um - I'm sorry; I don't understand what you're asking."

The older man chuckled to himself. "Your handle - your name, son. I suppose in order to thank you properly for saving me, I shall have to know whom I'm thanking, now shan't I? So? What shall I call you, oh venerable knight in -” He paused, looking at Jarod and breaking into good-natured snickers, " - really horrid polyester?"

Jarod blinked, riding the edge of being offended, then glanced down at himself. As he began to see the situation, and himself, through the stranger's eyes, he couldn't help but join him in his laughter. “My name is Jarod,” he said through his laughter. The designer bum, who identified himself simply as Mac, smiled like a man who has seen too much of life to not laugh at common absurdity, and waved Jarod over, patting the bench beside him. Jarod, still chuckling, nodded acceptance, walked over, and with one comically natural motion, pivoted and dropped into the seat, deflated.

“So.”

“So.” The older man grinned wearily. Neither man knew quite what to say, so they sat in companionable silence for a few moments, trying to catch their respective breaths in the bitterly cold night air.

Finally Jarod took a deep breath. “So, do you have any idea why those thugs wanted you? Or who their boss might be?”

Mac gave a sigh that ended in a humorless chuckle. “No, I don’t have a clue who their boss is. Could be any one of hundreds of men - police, reporters, priests, relatives, or anyone looking to turn a quick profit. As for why, well, is that really any mystery? I mean, not to sound full of myself or anything, but sometimes having everyone in the world want you gets really old. Seems like they’re always coming after me, trying to shoot me left and right. Kinda makes you want to disappear. Which is what I’ve done - taken off for a vacation, all by myself, with no plans or obligations, for the first time in years. It seems like I’ve been locked in a prison for decades, and let me tell you, being out and in control feels good. I can do whatever, wherever, and whenever I want, and no one is here to stop me. Now, if I can just keep from getting nabbed by anyone, it’ll be perfect.”

Jarod cocked his head at his companion. His words were harsh, but his tone was quiet and bewildered. “You’re really here alone? I mean, pardon my asking, but you’re not exactly from around here, are you? Why would you *want* to be far away from your family and friends, especially now? There are people who search all their lives for family, for someone to love them and want them; how can those who have such an incredible thing want to get away from it?”

The Englishman sat up a little straighter, unconsciously tilted his head a bit, and assessed the younger man with new eyes. “You’re right, of course; family is an incredible blessing, whether it’s the family God gave you or one you create for yourself. Everyone should have family to go home to. But for those of us who do, sometimes you just - you just get tired. There’s only so much you can take before you have to get away, and when you’ve lived a life like I have for so many years, sometimes a world away just doesn’t seem far enough. It doesn’t change the fact that you love them and they love you, but there are times when you’ve got to get out and not be around them constantly.

“You have to take a break from each other, from everyone and everything that has defined you all your life, even if it’s just for a few days. You have to get to a point where there are no distractions, where you can stop and think and take stock - where you can be free to define yourself.” He narrowed his eyes at Jarod. “Don’t tell me you’ve never felt like you just have to get away, to figure out who you are without others trying to own you?”

Jarod blinked, trying to process this reversal of roles. It was an issue he dealt with all his life, but generally from the opposite angle - he needed to find out who he was without the Centre’s stamp of ownership, but he spent his life striving to find and be close to his family, not to get away from them. He’d never really thought that much about the other end of the spectrum. “Yes, I suppose you could say I have - in fact, that pretty much *is* my life, trying to find out who I am. But I would give just about anything to have a family like you seem to, to have people who want me for who I am and for what I can do, not just for what I’ve got inside my head.” He took a deep breath that came out as a sigh. “So where are you staying? And are you sure you don’t want a doctor, or at least an escort back to your place?”

Mac chuckled shortly and unfolded himself from the bench, standing with the heaviness that comes from the ebb of adrenaline. “Ah, thank you, but no thank you. I’m fine, I’m sure. I’m bumming it in a friend’s apartment nearby while he’s overseas on business. I’m pretty sure I can find my way back on my own. All I really need are a hot shower and a soft bed; after I’ve slept in some in the morning, I have some work to do. Some work *I* choose.” He reached down and offered Jarod a hand up that turned into a handshake once both men were standing.

Jarod gave Mac a firm grip, then leaned down to retrieve his bag. “What kind of work do you do?”

Mac turned to him and uttered a short laugh. “Are you serious? Have you really never heard of me? I’m infamous; I’m surprised I haven’t been caught and plastered all over the newspapers here yet.” Jarod shook his head, and Mac did the same. “Let’s just say - let’s just say that my day job has to do with changing perspectives, but what I do at night has to do with changing lives.”

Jarod’s brow furrowed as he watched Mac trudge away. “Mr. Mac,” he called, watching the man stop and half-turn in question. “It might be better if you stayed inside, at least at night; this place obviously isn’t the safest, for you or anyone else.”

Mac shook his head and gave a dismissive wave. “Thanks,” he called back, “but I’ll be fine. You took care of the problem quite nicely. And besides, I like the park at night - so many places to disappear into the shadows.” With that he turned and walked on alone, leaving Jarod to watch him go.

Shaking his head, Jarod turned toward the direction of his building, then suddenly remembered that he’d intended to start looking for something for Samantha for Christmas. He knew she wasn’t expecting anything from him, which made him just that much more determined to find something for her, something perfect, something unforgettable. He just had no clue what that could be; whatever he gave her had to be something she could have on the run, and somehow he didn’t think stock in the Heinz company seemed very Christmas-like. Shivering now, he shrugged his bag into to his shoulder and headed off toward the nearest twenty-four-hour store to look for ideas.

- - - -

Samantha was exhausted as she climbed up the stairs and walked down the corridor to the apartment. After that fiasco in the chemistry lab she felt grungy. She pulled her key out of her backpack and put it into the keyhole. She unlocked the door and went in, making sure to lock it behind her. Samantha flipped on the lights as she made her way to her bedroom, where she turned on her laptop as she started getting undressed. She slipped into her nightclothes from earlier that morning and pulled her hair back. She was about ready to head into the bathroom to wash her face when her laptop pinged. Samantha went over and opened the program, seeing she had one new message. She opened it and read it:

Sister in dark. Sister alone. Sister not be alone; call for help. Then sister safe.

Samantha frowned slightly as she stared at it. She knew it was from Angelo, but she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “What are you telling me, bro?” she asked softly. She stared at the message for several moments before there was a knock on the door. Samantha quickly closed the email, and hurried to the front door. She looked through the peephole and smiled slightly. Standing on the other side, dressed in black slacks, a black banded collar shirt, forest green silk sport coat, and black loafers, no socks, was Professor Nitzmorr. He was also holding a champagne bottle.

“He can’t even wait twenty-four hours,” she replied smugly in a low voice. “Man, I am good.” She unlocked the door and put on her best surprised expression as she opened the door. “Professor Nitzmorr, what are you doing here?”

“This might sound clichéd,” Nitzmorr replied, “but I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d just drop in and see how things are going for you.”

Liar, Samantha thought, but she smiled sweetly. “Well, that was very considerate of you. Would you like to come in?” She let Nitzmorr into the apartment and closed the door.

“Can I offer you something to drink?” Nitzmorr asked, holding up the bottle.

“Sure. Make yourself comfortable.” Samantha took the bottle and went to the kitchen, where she retrieved two champagne flutes. She poured the champagne and then made her way back into the living room, smiling to herself as she sat down, handing one of the flutes to Nitzmorr. This was going to be a lot easier than she thought.

“So, how did you know where I lived?” she asked as she sipped the champagne. Not being one for alcohol, she instantly wanted to vomit at the taste, but she managed to choke it down, though her eyes started watering.

“You okay?” Nitzmorr asked.

“Yeah,” Samantha replied. “Champagne always makes my eyes water.”

“Ah.”

“So, you gonna answer my question?”

“Your school records,” Nitzmorr replied.

“What were you doing going through my records?” Samantha asked, knowing he was lying. Not even Jarod was able to get into her records. He must have followed me or something, she thought.

“I like to know more about my students who have potential,” Nitzmorr replied as he edged closer to her. “I think you have potential, Miss Sybil. Lots of potential.”

“Such as?” Samantha asked, leaning slightly forward.

“Well,” Nitzmorr answered, his voice softening. “I think -”

The front door opened suddenly and Jarod stepped into the room, carrying his briefcase. “Samantha?” he asked as he shut the door. He spotted Samantha and Nitzmorr on the sofa, with the champagne flutes, and stopped short. Samantha looked up at him, and her jaw almost dropped. He was dressed in red and dark green plaid trousers with a brown turtleneck, the same socks she saw him wearing from that morning, saddle shoes, and the glasses. He had tinsel in his hair, and dark red lipstick on his cheek. The two Pretenders just stared at each other, neither one sure of what to make of the situation. She cleared her throat as Nitzmorr edged away from her slowly.

“Hi, bro,” Samantha said after a few moments. She looked at him knowingly, asking him with her eyes to just play along.

“Bro?” Nitzmorr asked, frowning.

“Yeah, this is my brother, Jarod,” Samantha replied. “Jarod, this is my professor, Carter Nitzmorr.” Jarod gave Samantha a look, and Samantha crossed her arms. “You have a problem with that?”

Jarod opened his mouth to say something about what was going on, but stopped himself just in time. “Uh . . . no,” he replied softly, holding out his hand. Nitzmorr stood up, towering slightly over Jarod only because the Pretender stooped a little, and shook it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here,” Nitzmorr said.

“Okay, Jarod, run along, now,” Samantha said. “We’re talking.”

“What did you have for dinner?” Jarod asked, pretending to look uncomfortable with the situation. “I’m starving.”

“Haven’t eaten yet,” Samantha replied.

“You know, if you’re going to be consuming alcoholic beverages, you should eat something beforehand,” Jarod said.

“Jarod, go,” Samantha said in a more forceful voice as she glared at him. Jarod meekly nodded as he walked down the hallway to his room. When she heard the door shut, Samantha smiled and turned back to Nitzmorr. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know he would be coming back so soon.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Nitzmorr said.

“I really don’t consider him to be my brother,” Samantha replied. “We’re complete opposites. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Nitzmorr answered as he sat back down, putting his arm around Samantha’s shoulder. “Now, where were we?”

Samantha smiled. “You know, since my brother’s home, perhaps we could continue this tomorrow in your office?”

Nitzmorr smiled. “Why not? Ten, right?” Samantha smiled and led him to the front door, and Nitzmorr left the apartment. After closing and locking the door, Samantha breathed a sigh of relief as she turned around. Jarod was standing there, having changed out of his clothes into black pants and a white tank top. He had removed the glasses, taken the tinsel out of his hair, and cleaned his face. He was also frowning at Samantha with his arms crossed.

Samantha grabbed the champagne flutes and walked to the kitchen, avoiding Jarod’s eyes. Jarod turned and watched her as she started cleaning up. “Samantha, what was that?” he asked.

Samantha sighed, rolled her eyes, and turned around. “What, Jarod?” she asked.

“Who was that?” Jarod asked.

“Like I said before, that was one of my professors,” Samantha replied as she walked past him and went to her room. Jarod was about to follow her when the telephone rang. Sighing, he answered it.

“Hello?” he asked in a somewhat annoyed manner.

“May I speak to the lady of the house?” a pleasant sounding woman asked.

“Sorry, there is no lady of the house living here,” Jarod replied before hanging up. He walked back to Samantha’s room, but her door was closed. He knocked. “Sam, can we talk?”

“Sorry, Jarod, I’ve got work to do,” Samantha said from the other side. “We’ll talk later.” There was the sound of a radio being turned on, and ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles filled the room.

Up until a few weeks ago, he had known practically nothing about the Beatles. Samantha, being a huge fan, had spent days and days rattling of facts, humming tunes, and even managed to burn a CD with her favorite songs to carry with her, which didn’t bother Jarod one bit. However, at this point in time, that was the last thing he wanted to hear, but he knew talking to her now was going to be almost impossible. Jarod sighed and rolled his eyes as he rubbed his head. Where did he go wrong in being able to talk to her? Shaking his head, he walked back to the kitchen.

- - - -

Back at the Centre, Parker came into Broots’ area to see if he had any news on Jarod and Samantha’s whereabouts. Instead of being on his computer, Broots was watching a small television set and eating Chinese delivery.

“What are you doing?” Parker asked.

“Watching Philly,” Broots replied. “It’s a great legal show that takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”

Parker sat on the edge of Broots’ desk and watched the show for a couple of moments. She snorted. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of them but the judge is kind of hot.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Broots said. “I was too busy paying attention to less important details, like the storyline.”

Parker didn’t say anything as pushed herself off the desk, grabbed a napkin and polished Broots’ head. “I’m going to find Syd. We haven’t so much as found a breadcrumb from Jarod and Samantha’s last lair, and it’s starting to annoy me. Plus, I have to listen to Lyle, and you know how much I just love that.”

“Well, you know, with Christmas coming up, maybe Jarod and Samantha just want to have a normal holiday,” Broots suggested.

“With those two, any holiday is going to be far from normal.” Parker walked away, leaving Broots to his show and food.

- - - -

“Thanks,” Samantha replied as Nitzmorr’s secretary left her in the professor’s office the next morning. She had skipped Jarod’s class that morning to make sure she was prepared for what she was planning to do. Maintaining her appearance from yesterday, she was wearing a bright red and very tight lycra/rayon blend dress, with no sleeves and a purposefully ripped hem that fell right above her knees. There were diamond-shaped holes were cut into the dress and strategically placed: one over her sternum, one over the navel, one each on the sides, and one big one down her back. All of them stopped short of revealing anything, but they didn’t leave much to the imagination. She was also sporting the same leather boots from yesterday, as well as a long, black leather jacket.

Inside the office, Samantha wasted no time as she pulled a small device out of her backpack. It was something she had designed herself: a small telephone tapping device that was no bigger than the head of a pencil eraser. On it was a transmitter that would - went activated - send a transmission of any incoming calls to a voice recorder on her laptop, recording all the conversations from that phone, whether incoming or outgoing.

Acting quickly, Samantha took the receiver and unscrewed the earpiece, placing the device into it. She quickly screwed the earpiece back on, then sat down in one of the chairs, just as the door opened and Nitzmorr walked in.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Nitzmorr smiled as he shut the door. He walked over to his desk and sat down.

“That’s fine,” Samantha replied. “I wasn’t waiting that long.” She cleared her throat. “Um, about my brother, I do apologize for him showing up like that. He’s never been one for having good timing, if you know what I mean.”

“I can imagine,” Nitzmorr replied. He reached into his briefcase, pulled out a small stack of papers, and handed them to Samantha. She put them away, and he then rested his chin on his arms as he leaned forward. “Do you mind if I call you Samantha?”

“Only if you don’t mind me calling you Carter,” Samantha replied, smiling.

Nitzmorr smiled. “Samantha, let’s be honest with each other. We’re both adults, right?”

“Right,” Samantha replied.

“And I think last night was a clear indication of how interested we both are in pursuing a relationship that’s more . . . in depth, let’s say, than the student/teacher relationship.”

Samantha smiled as she seductively crossed her legs. “Go on,” she said.

“Remember when I told you last night that you had a lot of potential?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m proposing to you an offer. Since you started so late, you’ve missed a major assignment in the class. However, I’m offering you a choice. I’ll let you do an . . . extra credit project in order to make up the missed assignment. It’s going to require a lot of hours outside the classroom, but I have a feeling that with my constant supervision, you’ll do quite well.”

“And if I don’t have time for this ‘project?’” Samantha asked.

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about time restraints,” Nitzmorr answered. “But I must warn you that if you refuse it, you won’t be able to pass my class.”

Samantha had to force a realistic smile, even though she wanted to rip the guy’s tongue out. “Well, you’ll give me time to think about it, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Nitzmorr replied. “Just don’t take too long.”

“I won’t,” Samantha replied. She stood up, and Nitzmorr’s gaze briefly turned downward. “I’ll see you in class.” She sauntered out of the office, leaving a very satisfied looking Nitzmorr sitting at his desk.

“Hook, line, and sinker,” he said smugly to himself.

- - - -

Jarod stepped out of his office and walked down the hall at a quick pace. He turned a corner and bumped into a couple of people. His briefcase went flying, and some of his papers scattered to the floor. He bent down to pick them up.

“Excuse me,” he said in a soft voice.

“You should be.”

Jarod glanced up and saw the two people he had bumped into were Sam and Brad. His jaw dropped when he saw what Samantha was wearing. He could see Brad also had his arm wrapped around her waist.

“You know, if it’s not one thing with you, it’s another,” Samantha said in a harsh tone. She smiled sweetly at Brad. “Come on, Brad, my class starts in a few.” The two walked off, leaving Jarod to pick up his papers alone.

“Need some help?” a familiar voice said. Jarod looked up to see Mulligan kneeling next to him and helping him pick up his papers. Like the day before, he was dressed in his work suit.

“Thanks,” Jarod replied as the two stood up.

“No problem,” Mulligan replied. He nodded off in the direction Samantha and Brad walked off in. “Student of yours?”

“Which one?”

“The girl.”

“Yeah,” Jarod explained in an almost embarrassed tone. “She’s a handful. Of course, Brad isn’t that much fun either.”

Mulligan snorted. “Well, Jarod, I’ll see you around. Take care.” He limped off.

“Hey, Dennis,” Jarod called out. Mulligan turned around. “I looked up what exactly a Mulligan Stew was when I was on a break. Very interesting: you can put practically anything in it you want.”

“Yeah,” Mulligan replied slowly. “Well, look, I need to get going.” He limped past Jarod. Jarod gave him a slightly odd glance but continued on his way.

- - - -

“And the Criminal Investigation's top priority is the investigation of violations of the tax law which falls under Title 25 of the U.S. Code,” Nitzmorr continued his lecture.

Samantha raised her hand and stood up. “Sir, I have to interject.”

“What?” Nitzmorr asked in a tone that anyone could tell dripped with annoyance. Then again, Samantha had corrected him during his lecture twice already, something no one had ever done before.

“You’re wrong again,” Samantha said bluntly. “It’s not Title 25 of the U.S. Code, it’s Title 26. Title 25 contains all the laws that pertain to Indians.” She calmly sat down in her chair as Nitzmorr - and the class - continued to stare at her. She knew she was really making the professor steamed, but it was all part of her plan.

“Class,” Nitzmorr said, still looking right at Samantha. “I think that’s it for the day. Remember to read your chapters, and be prepared for a quiz tomorrow.” The class groaned as they gathered up their books and left.

Nitzmorr kept an eye on Samantha as he gathered up his things. She was leaving when he was finished, and he hurried to catch up to her. However, by the time he got out of the classroom, she had already disappeared into the crowd - hard as it was with what she was wearing. He walked up and down the hallways, looking in classrooms, trying to find her, but he couldn’t.

He was heading back down to his office in the now deserted hallway. As he rounded a corner, he bumped right into Jarod. Jarod’s papers scattered on the floor, and the Pretender knelt down to get them. Nitzmorr didn’t bother helping.

“Well, Sybil, I would say something witty, like ‘fancy meeting you here,’ but I think we both know we're past that.”

“We, uh, we do? Uh, professor D - er, Nitzmorr, sir?”

“Oh, come on; enough with the games already.”

“Gay - uh, games, sir? I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't quite, uh, that is, uh, catch your, uh, meaning, sir.”

“Geeze, Sybil, I knew you were dumb, but I didn't know you were really this dense

“I, uh, I'm sorry, uh, sir; it's just the way I've, uh, always been, sir. Dull, uh, boring. That's, uh, definitely me, sire. Sir.”

Nitzmorr shook his head, as if trying to clear it. “Yeah, whatever. Well, listen. Man to man. Think you can handle that?”

“U, uh, sure, sir. I can be a man.”

“Listen, uh, Professor, uh, Jarod - you just tell your baby sister that I said it's in her best interests - academically, of course - to, well, to accept my offer. You don't worry about it, you just give her the message. She'll know what she's supposed to do. Now, Jarod, you don't want to mess this up, so listen carefully, and make sure you've got it.”

“Oh, I've got it.” He tapped his head. “Pretty good memory. Comes from eating lots of turnips, you know.”

“I'm sure it does.” I think you are a turnip, Nitzmorr thought. “Do we have an understanding?”

“Y-y-yes, yes of course, sir, I will deliver the message.” Nitzmorr walked away. “And you have a good day . . .” For a moment, Jarod stood at his normal height, glaring at Nitzmorr. “. . . sir,” he snarled softly.

- - - -

Nitzmorr walked into his office and saw Samantha standing next to his window. For a moment, he was taken aback by her being in his office. Then the shock wore off, and he closed the door behind him. He marched over to her and grabbed her by her shoulders.

“I thought we had an understanding,” he almost growled.

“Yes, we do,” Samantha replied calmly.

“Your brother talked to you then?”

“I haven’t seen him all day.”

“Then why are you here?”

“To explain something. I’m sure you’re wondering why I behaved the way I did in class.”

“Yes, explain.”

Samantha gently jerked free of his grip. “Well, we can’t have anyone getting suspicious of us, right? And what better way than for the student to get the professor steamed at her?”

A smile was playing on Nitzmorr’s face. “You are clever.”

Samantha smiled. “I know. Sorry I couldn’t tell you.”

Nitzmorr wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer. “I have thirty minutes. You want to start on your project now?”

“I would, but I have other obligations I need to take care of. However, if you want to stop by my place at around seven, we can definitely work on it then.” She wriggled free of his grasp and grabbed her backpack from his chair. “See you later, Carter.” She sauntered out of the office.

- - - -

“Mind if I join you, Sir Jarod?”

Jarod glanced up to find himself looking into the green - artificially green - gaze of the man he’d rescued the night before. Jarod had been so deep in thought that the man’s arrival had caught him off-guard, and all he could offer at first was a slightly befuddled look. After a moment the man smiled slightly.

“I’m sorry if I startled you; does your universe have room only for you, or do you mind if I share it with you?”

Jarod blinked, then started to stand. The older man, seeing the gesture of respect, waved the younger man back down to his seat. “I’m sorry, sir - uh, Mr. Mac. I was just lost in thought. Of course you’re welcome to join me.” Pulling himself together, Jarod held out a container. “How are you doing? Are you sure you’re all right? Would you like some lunch?”

The older man looked down into the container of cheesy macaroni, salmon, and ketchup, and laughed. “No, no thank you. Like I told you last night, I’m perfectly fine, thanks to you. Actually, I can’t stay long; I have a quiche in the oven. And it’s just Mac.”

Jarod cocked his head. “I’m sorry; a . . . quiche?”

Mac gave Jarod an odd look, then shook his head. “Listen, I just wanted to thank you again for saving my hide, good Sir Jarod. Let me tell you, not many people would have done what you did-risking their own lives to save a stranger. And I really am a total stranger to you, aren’t I, Sir Jarod?”

Jarod smiled modestly, then looked confused. “I’m sorry; should I know you? I don’t seem to remember meeting you, but then, after five years of constantly moving around, I suppose the faces and places should start to blend together.”

“And yet somehow, for you, at least, they don’t.” It was a statement, not a question; Jarod snapped his head up to meet the other man’s gaze, and there he found yearning, a kind of awe. “Oh, don’t look at me like that; I may be a doddering old fool, but you’ll be kind enough not to remind me.” The Brit’s tone softened. “I’ve been a lot of places, too, so I kind of know how you feel. I’ve spent years in the air and on the road, doing this show or that interview. For most of us who live like that, the faces and places do blend together - or sometimes they just run together, like so many splashes of colored paint bleeding in the heat. You and I, we’ve never met; your face isn’t in the paint. But wherever each of us goes from here, a piece of you will always be with me. I’ve had so many partners and associates and people who like to say they’re my friends, but precious few of my ‘friends’ would do what you did for me last night, and most of those have been lost to time and sickness, and even murder. I’ve lived long enough to learn to treasure that kind of friend, even if he’s a stranger.

“Look, I don’t know your story, and frankly, it’s kind of amazing that you don’t know mine, but even so, I think I’ll be remembering you for a long time to come - we don’t forget our heroes. I came here to take a break, to get away from all those people who always want something from me, and here I find someone who gives of himself because he chooses to do so and asks nothing in return, someone who doesn’t recognize me for once. I actually don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t recall the last time I had to deal with anonymity. It’s kind of unsettling. You’ve really never heard of quiche?”

Jarod blinked, then chuckled at the sudden change of subject. “No, sir, I haven’t ever heard of quiche. But you want to be alone, so I won’t ask you to explain it. I thank you for your compliments, though I’m not sure quite how to respond to them; I did what seemed right at the time, but I don’t think that makes me a hero. Unlike the people who raised me, I don’t see why everything I do has to have a payoff somewhere. I do have one friend like what you described - she’s braved some really fierce storms in the past few months, but somewhere she still finds the will to help others; I’m just afraid that her will and determination are going to get her into trouble one of these days.

“She’s been running with me for just a few months, and I feel like she’s part of that family you were talking about me creating for myself. If anyone needs a break, it’s her, but it seems that every time we try to just kick back, danger runs headlong into us. And yes, anonymity can be very unsettling; be glad that at least you know who you are, even if no one else does.”

Mac took this in, not sure what to make of it but knowing that he would be thinking about it long after this unique young man had left his life. Finally, he took a deep breath and slapped his thighs. “Well, it’s been interesting talking with you, but I have lunch waiting for me, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way. Hope to meet again soon, Jarod. Have a wonderfully smooth day, eh?” He stood and started for his apartment building.

“Actually, sir, I do have one question.” Mac froze at Jarod’s statement; he’d felt the younger man’s eyes on him for several minutes, and all he could think was that this was it, that he’d been found out. Sighing, he half turned, not looking at Jarod.

“Yes?”

“Why do you call me Sir Jarod? I’m not even English - well, at least as far as I know, anyway.”

At that, Mac threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, Sir Jarod, you do amuse me,” he said, smiling with private relief. “It’s a term of respect; you may not bear a sword or shield, but by virtue of your saving my British hide last night, well, that would make you my knight in shining armor, now wouldn’t it?”

Jarod’s eyes widened in the universally accepted gesture of ‘I’ll take your word for it.’ He smiled and waved as Mac turned and resumed his trek across the park. Then, glancing at his watch, he gasped and stumbled to his feet; he was ten minutes late to his own class, and he’d have to think of a suitably nerdy excuse on the way back to campus.

- - - -

As Mac climbed the stairs and then let himself into his borrowed apartment, he turned his conversation with Jarod over in his mind, trying to put a finger on the source of the younger man’s vulnerability; it was a talent he’d acquired from long years of dealing with people, a talent that had helped him take and keep control of his relations with others. He’d used that talent to hide, to protect himself from being trapped and to make sure that his needs were met. Now he pulled it out again, slipped it on like a familiar gauntlet, and prepared to grasp his newest case.

Mac crossed the small living area and pulled back the curtain over the window, looking down into the sun-drenched park he so loved, especially after dark. As he stood there mulling over his connection to Jarod, he found his thoughts drifting to the side, wondering about this friend Jarod said he had with him. Who was she, what was she like, and what was her real relationship to Jarod?

- - - -

“There’s got to be something we’re missing,” Lyle said impatiently. He, along with Cox, Sydney, Broots, and Parker were in the Sim Lab. “Are you sure you’ve been through everything?”

“Every clue, every scrap that was in their last lair,” Parker replied testily. “Right down to the lint on the floor. There is *nothing* there.”

“Why would they leave all this stuff, but give no clues to where they’re heading?” Cox asked.

“Because it’s Samantha and Jarod’s first Christmas together,” Sydney replied calmly. “I’m sure Jarod wants Samantha to enjoy some peace and quiet after everything’s she been through in the past three months.”

“Yeah, well, look harder,” Lyle said. “Samantha and Jarod are out there, and we’re going to find them. Christmas or no Christmas.” He and Cox left the Sim Lab.

- - - -

It was a few moments to seven and Samantha had just lit the last candle and set it on the coffee table. Now, the entire room was filled with the glow of twenty candles. The young woman had changed into a silky gold chemise and burgundy cotton pants, but she wasn’t wearing any shoes. She had just put on some soft music when there was a knock on the door. She answered it and saw Nitzmorr standing on the other side. He was dressed in khakis with fake rolled cuffs, brown loafers sans sox, blood red polo, and a navy sport coat. He was holding another bottle of champagne.

“Nice,” he said as he came in and saw the candles. She closed the door and let him lead her over to the couch. They both sat down, and he pulled her closer after putting the champagne bottle on the coffee table.

Just then, the door opened, and Jarod walked in, carrying groceries in his arms. “Hi,” he smiled brightly at the pair as he walked by. Suddenly, a carton of yogurt fell out of one of the sacks and spilled all over the floor. Jarod grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.” He went to the kitchen and came back a few moments later with some paper towels. He started cleaning up the mess on the carpet, much to Samantha’s dismay.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Well, we needed groceries,” Jarod replied. Samantha shot Nitzmorr an apologetic look as Jarod took the trash and towels into the kitchen. “Besides, I have an apology to make.”

“What?” Samantha asked curtly.

“Well . . . I’m sorry, *sissy,* but I looked and I looked, and I must have asked three different stock boys for help. They are so rude down there, not a bit helpful. I even asked the custodian. You know, that nice old man who lives down the hall, but I just could not find your brand. So, I got all of these.” Jarod came back with six different boxes of tampons. “I know you told me your size, but I couldn't remember.” He walked back into the kitchen. “You’re, like, a junior, right?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Um . . . I think I really should be going,” Nitzmorr said as he got to his feet.

“Wait,” Samantha said as he followed him to the front door. Nitzmorr quickly left the apartment, shutting the door behind him. Samantha turned and glared at Jarod as he came out of the kitchen. He had removed his glasses and was looking quite pleased with himself, even though he was frowning at her.

“You have some explaining to do, Samantha,” he said in a low voice. Samantha stared at him as she took a defiant stance, her arms crossed. She knew that Jarod would never ever intentionally hurt her, but the look he had in his eyes and the tone he was using with her made her shiver slightly, causing the room to feel very hot, and the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. His mouth was closed, but his jaw was working. Despite that, however, she flipped her hair like it was nothing.

“I'm disappointed in you,” Jarod continued.

“Sounds like a personal problem to me.”

“This is not funny. Do you have any idea how much danger you could be putting yourself in? You know better than to open the door for anyone but me. He could have been anyone. And besides, that guy is a skunk.”

“Duh. Kinda knew that already.”

“Do you have any concept of what goes through the mind of that kind of guy?”

“Chill, Jarod; I'm a big girl - I can handle myself.”

“I'm not so sure about that; for a big girl, you're acting childish.”

Samantha frowned at that. “How?” She shook her head. “Never mind. You know what? I don't want to hear it.”

“You did something you knew I wouldn't approve of, and now you're trying to blow me off because *you don't want to hear it?*” Jarod’s voice was rising considerably, and he was becoming more and more agitated. Samantha was digging in her heels when she turned and walked to her bedroom. Jarod followed. “Well, you're gonna hear it!”

“You can try,” Sam said as she walked into her bedroom. Jarod stopped at her doorway.

“Are you trying to get yourself in trouble?”

Samantha came back to the doorway and gave him a sweet look about as real as aspartame. “Why, whatever do you mean? Me, in trouble?”

“Samantha, do *not* push me!”

“Me? You're the one working your way to a stroke, Jarod. I don't know what you're trying to accomplish, but I'm trying to trap a -” She stopped, suddenly realizing that the hole she's been digging just caved in - all the way to China. She puts her hand on her forehead. She looked up, hoping that Jarod wouldn’t have caught her slipup, but he did.

“Trying to trap a what?” Samantha didn’t answer him. “Trying to trap a WHAT, Samantha?!” She tried to push past him, but he caught her arm just above the elbow and turned her to face him. “Samantha?!” She just glanced at him, then turned away, trying to break free of his grip, but she knew she couldn’t.

Jarod gave her a little jerk to pull her back to face him again. He was so angry, incredulous, and worried about her as he tried searching her eyes. “You're going after the rapist, aren't you? You're trying to trap him yourself - and you're using yourself as bait!” His voice was low and quiet, but the last four words were much louder.

Samantha turned her face away, but Jarod saw it in her eyes, how she hid them from him, how her cheeks turned red. She glanced at him in one brief instance, and it was no longer his face she was seeing.

- - - -

Samantha was seventeen again, staring up at her adoptive parents. She could see their faces clearly, how relieved they were that she was okay. Still, she could feel the anger in them, how disappointed they were with her. She knew they had ever reason to be after what happened. After all, what had happened was partly her fault. If she had only listened to them, then none of this would have happened.

Suddenly, she was in her room, tucked into bed but not asleep. Her room was dark and quiet, and it felt safe there. Still, she was uneasy. She wished her parents would have yelled, screamed, thrown a fit . . . just have done something. But they wouldn’t, and they never did.

- - - -

“Samantha, answer me!” Jarod’s voice brought her back to the present. Samantha looked at him, then sighed and looked at the floor.

“Yes,” she mumbled.

“What?” Jarod asked.

She looked back up to him. “Yes, all right! Once again, you're right! You're always right! You know, once, just once, I'd like to be able to do something on my own! To earn some respect and finally be treated like the adult that I am!” She saw Jarod’s surprised expression briefly, then her parents’ faces again. “You know what I want? I wanna be . . . I wanna be free! I'm independent! I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself! Face it - I'm all grown up now! I don't need a babysitter! You got that? You got it? I'm not your little girl anymore!”

Jarod just stared at her silently, surprised at her outburst, not knowing what to say. He had caught 'your little girl,' but he didn't know what it meant. He let go of her arm slightly and just stared at her.

Samantha stared right back at him, pleading inside for Jarod to say something, anything, so she wouldn’t have to hear that silence again. She didn’t want to hear her own words bouncing back at her. The look on Jarod’s face was a lot like Ben's had been from that night in high school, but there was more to Jarod’s countenance: the anger, the hurt, the surprise, the worry . . . but no relief. No words, either. Just silence.

- - - -

Samantha could see flashes of her past before her eyes again. This time, however, she was standing in her driveway, waving to her adoptive parents as they drove off to go eat dinner. She smiled as Ben honked the horn and flashed the lights once. As the car slowly drove off, Marie rolled down her window.

“We’ll be back around ten-thirty or so!” she called out.

“Okay,” Samantha shouted back. “I’ll be here.” She waved as the car drove off, then made her way back to the house.

- - - -

The young Pretender shook those images from her mind, but she couldn’t stop seeing them over and over again. She closed her eyes, trying to will those images away. “Go away!” she shouted, but she could hear the words she had said, and she could see everything clearly.

Jarod still had a loose grip on her, but now all traces of anger had washed away. He looked at her worriedly. “Sam, what is?” he asked. “Talk to me.”

The grip she felt from Jarod holding her was so much like the deputy who held her arm that night years ago. “I wasn’t there!” she shouted. “I wasn’t there!” She bolted past Jarod and ran out the front door.

“Sam!” Jarod shouted as he started after her. He was to the front door when his cell phone rang. He stopped for a second, then hurried back to where he left it in the kitchen, and answered it. “Hello?”

“Jarod, is everything okay?” Sydney asked.

“At the moment,” Jarod replied, “not quite. Why?”

“It’s Angelo,” Sydney explained. “Sweepers went by his space a few moments ago, and they saw him behaving oddly. I’m with him now, and his behavior is very erratic.”

“Like how?” Jarod asked.

“He’s on the floor, and he appears to be struggling with someone, but there is no one there,” Sydney answered. “Like he’s fighting with some invisible demons.”

“Funny you should mention demons,” Jarod replied. “Samantha seems to be struggling with some herself.”

“That could be what Angelo’s feeling, then” Sydney said. “After all, we do know that he seems to share an emotional connection with her.”

Jarod nodded slightly in agreement. He knew from past experiences, that Angelo was able to feel the emotions of certain people, like Jarod and, now, Samantha. Recently, he also knew that Samantha was able to feel Angelo in return, something he still wasn’t sure what to make of.

“You know what’s really odd, though?” Sydney added.

“What?”

“Angelo seems to want to scream or shout or something,” Sydney replied. “But something’s preventing him.”

“Samantha in dark!” Jarod heard Angelo suddenly shout. “Alone! Not be alone; call for help! Then Samantha safe!” Jarod furrowed his eyebrows, then it clicked.

“Oh, my God,” he whispered, a horrified look crossing his face.

“Jarod?” Sydney asked. Jarod didn’t answer as he hung up and hurried out of the apartment.

- - - -

Samantha’s feet were freezing as she walked in the park near the campus. Her entire body was freezing, but she didn’t really care as tears fell from her face. What was happening to her? Of all her memories, why was she remembering those? Why couldn’t they just stay in the past where they belonged?

Suddenly, she was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. Before she could scream, a gloved hand was placed over her mouth. Samantha glanced up and saw a masked figure in black staring down at her, and she started struggling. The man sat on her legs, preventing her from kicking him as he pinned her arms to the ground by her wrists.

“Stop moving,” he growled as she tried to struggle. “It’s only gonna hurt more if you fight it.” Samantha could see him pull out a syringe and needle. “Now, be a good girl, and take your medicine.” He stuck the needle into her arm and began injecting her.

Samantha blinked back her tears as she saw his neck was the only exposed area. She managed to get one of her arms free and raked her fingernails across his neck. The man shouted in pain as he fell back. Samantha quickly removed the needle and tossed it aside, just as the man came after her again.

“B****,” he said as he grabbed her around the throat and began squeezing. The combination of the drug taking effect and lack of oxygen was starting to make Samantha’s mind fuzzy as she slowly began losing consciousness. Suddenly, she remembered the message that Angelo had sent her. Call for help. Then sister safe.

Samantha couldn’t scream as she started blacking out, but she willed herself and focused her thoughts on the only person who could help her now. Jarod, please, she thought. Help me.

- - - -

Jarod ran out of the apartment complex and quickly looked around. Suddenly, he felt Samantha’s presence in his head, and he glanced toward the park. Too worried to wonder what was going on, he dashed off into the park. I’m coming, Sam. He ran through the snow, down the path. As he rounded a bend, he saw a man kneeling over Samantha, choking her. Samantha was trying to struggle, but she was quickly losing.

“Hey!” Jarod shouted as he hurried over.

The man looked up and saw a dark figure running toward him. He quickly let go of Samantha, got to his feet, and ran away. Jarod hurried over to Samantha’s side and knelt beside her. He watched the attacker flee, hoping to see something that could identify him later on, but it was too dark. He glanced down at Samantha, and his mouth went dry.

Samantha was sobbing - that wracking, painful sobbing that came from a person who had just experienced extreme duress - as she tried to curl up on her side. He saw blood on her arm and hands, but he couldn’t see where it had come from. Jarod reached out to help her sit up, but as soon as he touched her arm, she flinched and jerked away from him. Jarod understood why, but he could feel his level of panic rising. Somehow, he forced himself to remain calm, for her sake.

“Sam, it’s okay,” he said in a soft, gentle tone. “I’m here, and I’m not going to let anyone hurt you anymore. We need to get you to the hospital, okay?”

At the mention of that word, Samantha opened her eyes and saw flashing red lights and officers in her house from many years ago. She shook her head. “No,” she replied softly through her sobs. “No hospital, please.”

Jarod started to argue, but he didn’t even open his mouth. He could tell she was shivering, and she needed to get out of the cold. “Okay,” he replied. He removed his suit jacket. “I’m going to put my jacket over you.” He gently lay his jacket over her, and she let him. “You need to straighten a little.” She followed his suggestions, even though it took her a little effort. “Can you stand?”

“I . . . I think so,” she answered softly. Jarod helped her to her feet, letting her lean on him for support. They started heading back to the apartment, but Samantha didn’t even make it a full step before her knees gave out. Without thinking, Jarod slipped an arm under her knees and scooped her up, letting her rest her head against his chest. He carried her back to the apartment, feeling her shivers and hearing her sobs. Once inside, closing the door with his foot, he carefully set her down on the couch. Immediately, Samantha curled into a ball as Jarod reached for the phone. The young woman stopped him.

“Please, Jarod,” she said. “Don’t.”

Jarod saw how small and vulnerable she looked, and he moved his hand away from the phone. “It’s not your fault, Sam.”

“Oh, please, Jarod, you know as well as I do that it is my fault. If I'd been watching . . .”

“If you'd been watching, he would have still been there!” Samantha recoiled as his near yell. “I - I'm sorry, Sam; I shouldn't have yelled.”

Samantha put her head down and started to weeping. The tears wouldn’t stop as she hung her head and cried. Jarod got on his knees in front of her, dipped his head slightly, using a finger to raise her chin, and he looked into her eyes.

“Samantha, I'm not upset with you, all right? Do you understand? I'm not mad at you. No one gets to be mad at you. This is not your fault.”

“But Jarod, I -”

“Shh, honey, shh. That doesn't matter right now. We can talk about all that later. Now it's all about you.” He gently cradled her face in his hands. “Sam, do you trust me?” Samantha couldn’t answer. “Samantha, do you know that I love you? That I would never let anything hurt you if I could help it?” Samantha nodded slowly, moved by what he just told her. He had never said anything like that to her before. Not once in the three months they had been on the run together, did he ever once said he loved her, even though they already knew they cared about each other.

“Sam,” he continued, “I know this is hard, and I know it hurts, but I need to know.” His tone is still soft, and Samantha realized that she was no longer scared of him; she couldn’t be. “Do you trust me?” Samantha slowly nodded, and Jarod gave her a tender little smile as he kissed her forehead. “Now, I need you to think - think hard - and tell me something.”

“No.”

“No? Sam, you said you trust me . . .”

“No, Jarod. That's not what I mean. I mean, no, he didn't - he didn't -”

“Are you sure?” Samantha just nodded and stared downward. Jarod sighed with relief. “Oh, thank God!” He kissed her forehead again. “What about the blood?”

Samantha sighed. “Well, from what I remember, I clawed at his neck.” She glanced down at her hand and saw blood on her right fingernails. “I guess I got him.”

Jarod, even though he was angry by what had happened, smiled slightly. “Yes, you did. Yes, you did.” He cleared his throat. “Sam, if you’re not going to go to the hospital, then I need to make sure you’re okay.”

“Can I change first?” Samantha asked. Jarod nodded, and the young woman slowly got to her feet. She walked slowly to her bedroom and came back a few moments later, dressed in a thin tank top shirt and some short sweat shorts.

Jarod tended to her wounds, took a few samples from under her fingernails for evidence, and then found the needle mark and salved it. Knowing from the past police reports what the other victims had been injected with, he knew she had most likely been injected with the same thing, and that it wouldn’t have any damaging effects to her - aside from her feeling slightly woozy for a while. When he was done, he went to her room, where he bagged her clothes and retrieved her terry bathrobe and helped her put it on. He led her over to the couch, then he started some water on the kitchen stove and made her some hot cocoa. He put in a sedative before bringing her a mug.

“I put something in there to help you relax,” he said as he handed her the mug. He blew out half the candles before joining her back on the sofa. Sitting side by side on the couch, Samantha leaned against him, curled in his arms, feeling safe as she drank the cocoa. There were many things going through both of their heads at that moment, things that needed to be said, but just not at that point in time. There would be time to talk later.

“It’s going to be okay,” Jarod said softly as he gently held her. As she started falling asleep, Samantha still was uncomfortable with the silence; she couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew it was different this time than it had been in the past. A few moments later, she was completely asleep. Jarod gently took the empty mug from her hands and set it on the coffee table before picking her up and carrying her to her bedroom.

After tucking her in, he went back to the living room, dumped the champagne - bottle and all - in the trash, grabbed himself a soda, and set down at the table to work on his laptop. As hard as he tried to concentrate, however, it was useless after what just happened. He automatically reached for his cell phone and dialed Sydney’s number. Sydney picked it up on the third ring.

“Jarod? Is that you? Are you all right?”

Jarod sighed. “I’m fine, Sydney, considering.”

“Thank God. What happened?”

“Sam was attacked. She was nearly . . . he almost . . .”

From the tone of voice Jarod was using, Sydney immediately knew what happened and closed his eyes. “How far did her attacker get?” he asked.

“Just a few bumps and bruises, thank goodness. She’s shaken up, naturally.”

“Would you like me to talk with her?”

“She’s asleep right now.” Jarod took a ragged breath. “It’s all my fault, Sydney. I should have been there for her.”

“Jarod, I know that - given what happened - it’s natural to want to blame yourself, but you can’t do that. You need to be strong for her.”

“But you were right. It’s my fault she was here in the first place. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t have been here, and she wouldn’t have gotten attacked. You said so yourself.”

“Jarod, listen to me,” Sydney said in his paternal voice. “What I said a month ago to you was said out of frustration. I didn’t mean any of it. You are the least likely person I know who would ever put Samantha in harm’s way. You’ve shown many times in the past three months how much you care about her, and that you would do everything in your power to keep her safe. If it weren't for you, she'd be *here,* being put through God only knows what every day!”

Jarod sighed again, taking in what Sydney had told him. He was right, Jarod knew that, and it put the Pretender at ease. “Thanks, Syd.”

“My pleasure. You know that if you or Samantha ever need to talk, you know where you can reach me.” Jarod smiled slightly as he hung up the phone. He stared at the computer screen and his calmness gave way to determination to finding out who the rapist was. Getting his second wind, he began doing some research, concentrating on the three people he most considered suspects: Brad Fischer, Louis Packard, and a certain Tax Law Professor . . .

- - - -

Sydney hung up his phone and looked pensive as he leaned against his desk. He didn’t hear Parker or Broots come into his office as he walked over to his chair and sat down, staring at nothing.

“Sydney, you all right?” Parker asked, noticing the older gentleman’s countenance.

“I just got off the phone with Jarod,” Sydney replied. “Samantha was attacked. He wouldn’t tell me all the details, but it appears that Samantha was nearly raped.” He glanced up and saw that both Parker and Broots were completely shocked by what he just told them.

“Is she okay?” Parker asked.

“She’s fine, thank goodness. Jarod said she was just a little shaken up.”

“Who did it?” Broots asked.

“Jarod wouldn’t say. To be quite honest, I don’t think he even knew.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this: whoever it is, I bet you anything he’s going to wish he hadn’t laid his eyes - much less his hands - on Samantha when Jarod gets done with him.”

“I hope he kills him,” Broots muttered angrily. Sydney and Parker turned to Broots.

“What did you say?” Parker asked.

“I said I hope he kills him,” Broots repeated louder. He sighed angrily as he walked over to the filing cabinets. He didn’t say or do anything, then he suddenly balled up his fist and hit the side of the cabinet with all his might, causing a big dent. He rubbed his knuckles, but his face remained set as he abruptly walked out of the office. Parker and Sydney just stared at Broots as he left, surprised by his outburst, but neither of them tried to stop him.

“I wonder just how deep those waters run,” Parker said.

“Probably as deeps as yours do,” Sydney replied.

Parker turned to face Sydney. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked defensively.

“You seemed concerned for her too, Parker, much as you try to deny it.”

“No one deserves to go through that, Sydney. No one.” She turned and walked out of the office.

- - - -

Samantha yawned as she slowly walked into the kitchen, still stiff from what happened last night. She had her bathrobe tied, and she looked well rested, no doubt thanks to the sedative that Jarod put in her cocoa. She stopped short when she saw Jarod at the table, sleeping amongst his laptop and papers. She smiled at the sight of him, scruffy and looking completely worn out, but it also gave her a strange déjà vu feeling . . . like she had been in this position before, although it wasn’t him she was staring at. She couldn’t see who it was, and she quickly shook that feeling from her head.

Samantha carefully padded her way over to the coffeemaker, which had been set to go off, and poured herself a cup. She didn’t bother with sugar or cream this morning as she stared at Jarod, watching him sleep soundly. She turned around and looked out the kitchen window, just thinking about things someone her age should be thinking about: family and love, among other things . . .

“Hey, you,” a soft voice tickled her ear.

Samantha straightened up and turned around. Jarod was staring at her, his chin on his folded arms. She thought to herself that she should have remembered that Jarod *never* slept soundly. “Hey, yourself,” she replied, half smiling. “Did you sit in that chair all night?”

“No; I was on the couch until about three. How are you feeling?”

Samantha walked over, set down her mug, and eased into a chair, wincing slightly. “Fine,” she replied.

Jarod gave her a look. “Sam.”

“I'm a little sore here and there.”

Jarod raised his brows, suddenly alert. “Here and there?”

“Yes, here and there. Like here on my neck where he choked me, and there on my knee where I rolled onto a rock. And there on my toe . . .”

“Your toe?”

Samantha smiled. “My toe, which I stubbed two days ago trying to get into those infernal boots!” Jarod chuckled, then he sat up . . . or tried to. There were pops and creaks where there shouldn’t have been any. “Was that you or the chair?”

“I don't know,” Jarod replied wryly. “Maybe we should take the chair to the doctor. Get some good ol' Ben Gay for it.”

“Maybe so - but I'm applying it. After all the agony you put me through last night with the first aid stuff, I'm sure you could make a hardened criminal cry!” Suddenly the mood changed as she made the connection between her words and the events of last night. She looked into her mug in the awkward silence.

Jarod reached over and took her hand. “Hey.” Samantha did nothing. “Samantha. Samantha, please look at me.” She did so hesitantly. Jarod looked into her eyes and brushed a curl of hair off her forehead. “You know I love you, don't you?” Samantha nodded, misting again. “Hey, hey, it's okay; it's all right now. I'm here, and believe me, I'm not going anywhere without you. I promise. Cross my heart and . . . whatever's supposed to come after that.” Samantha smiled slightly at that. Jarod shrugged and returned the smile. “There's my sunshine.” Out on the street they heard a car honk, which broke the spell. Both Pretenders sat up, Jarod more gingerly. Samantha looked at the clock and rose to get dressed.

“You know you don't have to go today,” Jarod continued. “You can stay here. It's really okay.” He grinned gently. “I'll even write you a note excusing you from . . . whatever it is kids get excused from in school.” Samantha smiled again, just a little, but enough. She looked back toward her room, thinking of the lurid outfit she would have to wear today to maintain her image. “You really don't have to, you know.” Samantha turned back slowly, hands in her robe pockets, chewing her lip. She nodded slowly. “You can just relax here.”

She nodded again. Yeah, I - I think I'd like that . . . but Jarod, how are we gonna explain my not being there? People are expecting me.”

“Yeah, I know *people* are expecting you,” Jarod growled.

Samantha closed her eyes to ask the next question. “Jarod, h - what are you going to do today about . . . about . . .”

Jarod stood and faced her, his hands resting lightly on her upper arms. “You don't worry about that. I've got that all taken care of.” He looked at the wall clock. “And if I don’t hurry and get ready for the day, then it won’t work.” He left the kitchen and went back to his bedroom.

Samantha grabbed her mug, walked slowly to the sink, finished what was left of her coffee, and then automatically fell into the routine of doing dishes. She chuckled as she realized how natural the simple chore was, and how she appreciated routine now more than she ever had before. She recalled that, when she was younger, washing dishes was one of her most hated chores, and it always fell to her. As she dried the few dishes there were - her mug and a plate Jarod had used the night before - and put them away, she thought more about what was natural.

The young woman thought it interesting that she found her relationship with Jarod - a man who had been a total stranger until three months ago - to be second nature, effectively an extension of her own identity. As independent as she was, for some reason, that revelation didn't frighten her; in a way, it was very similar to the way that her relationship with her parents - she stopped and reminded herself with a twinge that they were her adoptive parents - was so easy and safe.

Samantha allowed herself just a moment to take out her grief and just feel it; then, for another moment, she let herself wonder about her biological parents: what kind of strength must it have taken, what kind of love for two people who'd already lost one child to give up their second - her - for the sake of her safety?

Then Samantha sighed, retreating to the safer realm of Jarod. As she thought of him, she smiled. He had been so supportive to someone he'd only known for three months. She wondered if she would have risked her life and freedom for someone she'd never met; as she thought of it, she realized that she would - and she had, numerous times since meeting him - because that's how she'd been raised; that's what someone had done for her, because that was right. The thought made her smile wider, and it helped to restore some of the dignity and self-confidence that the attack had taken from her.

As she wandered around the house, taking care of little chores, she considered how she felt about Jarod. He was sweet, caring, funny, supportive - everything family should be. And then it hit her - that was exactly what he was to her.

Family. The first family she'd really had since she was eighteen. And she wouldn't have it any other way. Samantha only hoped that her relationship with her biological brother would grow to be as rich as her relationship with this stranger who had wasted no time in treating her as a treasured sister.

- - - -

“Class, I have some news that some of you might find upsetting,” Jarod said as he stared at his classroom later that morning. For the first time since he started working there, they actually settled down and paid attention to him. He glanced briefly at Brad and Louis, remembering what Cassandra Watts had told him a couple of days ago, which in turn had caused them to be two of the three people he suspected of being the campus rapist. Using that, Jarod had found some information about them last night that made him suspect them more.

Brad had been accused of sexually harassing a female student two years ago, but the charges had been dropped. Louis was expelled from a prep school last year after a undisclosed incident with a female student at a sister school. The only reason that Louis had been admitted to Harvard was the fact that he was a whiz in C++ and VB. Now, both students were sitting in his classroom that day, dressed in jeans and high collard sweaters. Wonder what they’re hiding, Jarod thought. He cleared his throat as he focused his attention back on the entire class.

“Last night,” Jarod continued, “a female student was attacked in the park near my apartment. It appears that it was the campus rapist’s handiwork.” The class immediately started buzzing and whispering with each other, and Jarod could see that even Brad and Louis appeared shocked, but everyone paid attention to Jarod. “Unfortunately, the victim was killed due to an allergic reaction from the drug the rapist injected her with.”

“Who was the girl?” Cassandra asked from her place in the front.

“Was it your sister?” Brad asked. “She’s not here.”

“No, my sister left last night,” Jarod replied. “She called me this morning from D.C., saying she wanted to take in the sights. No, the victim’s name has not been released until her family can make the arrangements. Now, in light of what’s happened, I’m going to cancel class for the day. However, if any of you feel that you need to talk with someone about this, please don’t hesitate to go to the counseling offices.” The students started packing up and leaving.

Jarod left after the last student walked out and followed Brad and Louis from a distance as they walked down the hall. He watched them go into the men’s locker and quickly followed behind them. He looked up and down the rows of lockers until he spotted them, talking as they started undressing.

“Uh, Brad, Louis,” he said quietly as he walked up to them.

“What?” Brad asked defensively.

“I wanted to talk about your grades.”

“Look, here, *Professor* Sybil,” Brad said as he took off his shirt and tossed it into an open locker. He poked a finger in Jarod’s chest, looking menacing. “If I were you, I would just mind your own business. My grades are my business, and my business alone.”

“Yeah,” Louis added as he took off his shirt and put it on the bench nearby. He reached into his locker and pulled out a white tank top, slipping it on. Jarod glanced quickly at Louis’ neck and saw a tiny, circular Band-aid on the right side of his neck.

“What happened to your neck?” Jarod asked.

“Got a mole removed,” Louis replied snidely. “You got a problem with that?”

“N-no,” Jarod replied. “I was j-just . . . just concerned.”

“Well, I don’t need your concern,” Louis said.

“Look, Jarod, why don’t you just scram, okay?” Brad said. Jarod glanced down at his neck and saw a hickey on the left side. He looked back up at Brad and Louis and nodded, slowly slinking out of the locker room. When he was outside, he took a deep breath. While those two were definitely scum, neither of them was the campus rapist. Which means that it could only be -

“There you are,” Nitzmorr said as he came walking up to Jarod from the doors leading to the indoor swimming pool. He was dressed in a black Speedo, drying his hair. He also looked positively upset.

“C-can I help you?” Jarod asked.

“Where is your sister?” Nitzmorr asked. “She wasn’t in class this morning.”

“N-n-no, sir,” Jarod replied quietly. “She’s in D.C. She called me this morning, saying she was going to check it out . . . or something like that.”

“Did you give her my message?”

“Yes, sire - sir - I did. She wanted me to tell you to that she does accept your offer.”

Nitzmorr looked pleased with himself. “And you have no objections?”

“To what?”

“Oh, come on, Sybil. To my offer. She is your sister, after all. I thought that you would have at least been a little upset.”

You have no idea, Jarod thought to himself. “You never told me your offer, D - sir, so I don’t know if I should be upset. Should I?”

Nitzmorr rolled his eyes. “Look, I heard that another student was attacked by the rapist. Is that true that she died because she was allergic to that drug he used on the other victims?”

“Yes, unfortunately. Her family’s on their way.”

“Shame,” Nitzmorr replied in a tone that showed little remorse as he walked away. Jarod watched him disappear into the men’s locker room. As soon as he was gone, Jarod sighed. There had been no signs of any scratches on Nitzmorr’s neck, which meant he wasn’t the person who attacked Samantha last night. Suddenly Jarod felt like he very much needed to get some air and clear his head - before he lost it.

- - - -

Jarod was so engrossed in his own frustration that he didn’t realize where he was going until he looked up to find himself at the edge of the park. He looked around a bit and was going to wander back to the school when he spotted something that, in that moment, made his breath catch and his blood run cold.

There, about seventy-five feet away, leaning against a tree near where the first victim was attacked, playing a harmonica that glinted the way only platinum can, was Mac. He seemed unaware of the world around him, lost in the music, but Jarod had the distinct feeling that the older man was actually taking in everything - and everyone - near him from nearly closed eyes. That, coupled with the man’s attire, made Jarod clench his jaw.

Mac was dressed completely in black - black running shoes, black jeans, a black baseball cap with the Union Jack embroidered on the front, and a black leather jacket open to reveal something that made Jarod swallow hard - a black turtleneck shirt. The neck of the shirt was mostly unfolded so that most of Mac’s neck was covered.

Jarod steeled himself to watch for a few moments; suddenly his head was filled with thoughts of deception and retribution, while a small part of his heart railed at the betrayal of the whole situation. His pulse skipped when Mac pushed himself off from the tree and approached Jarod, smiling. Jarod sucked in a breath and tried to act friendly, but he couldn’t get the warning out of his body language or expression, and frankly he wasn’t spending much energy trying to look harmless. He placed his hands on his hips and paced in a tight radius as he waited for the older man to reach him.

Mac’s smile morphed from simply glad to see his friend to somewhat concerned. As he reached speaking distance, he said, “Well, hello, Sir Jarod. You seem troubled; is everything all right? Anything I can do?”

Jarod stopped pacing and faced Mac. “No, I don’t think there’s much of anything you can do for me, unless you can tell me why my friend was attacked last night.”

Mac’s eyes widened and his face paled; he drew a sharp breath. “Holy - is she all right? Was it the rapist I’ve been reading about in the papers? Is there anything I can do to help? Is there someone I can call to counsel her or get her medical treatment? Money’s not an issue - I can make sure she gets the best care.”

Jarod didn’t voice his first thought, but in his head he muttered, “Yeah, I just bet you would.” He drew a breath and tried to calm himself; once he felt more composed and in control of his reactions, he started to notice details. For one thing, Mac’s eyes, though startled, didn’t reveal a hint of fear or satisfaction, only genuine concern. The weathered face was still a bit pale despite the bite of redness on his nose and cheeks from the chill in the air; looking farther down, he also noticed that the fabric of the turtleneck seemed to lay snug against the man’s neck. Jarod found himself measuring Mac’s form with his eyes, trying to run a mental check to see if Mac’s build and height matched those of the man he’d barely seen the night before.

He pulled his gaze back up to Mac’s face, where he met the green gaze, concern now tempered with caution as the older man picked up on Jarod’s angry demeanor. “Jarod?” Mac took a small step back but didn’t run. There was still nothing threatening in the older man’s posture, and the fear tinting his gaze seemed to come more from not being able to divine the focus of Jarod’s rage than from being that focus. This put Jarod back on uneven footing - he was really starting to wonder if his assumption about Mac had been out of line. But the turtleneck on a day with no wind - he couldn’t dismiss that, and part of the reason it bothered him so much was that he suddenly seemed to be seeing covered necks everywhere, though he knew most people weren’t that bundled against the windless chill.

As much as he’d seen and been through in his life, he was not a cynical person and he didn’t ever want to reach the point where he saw everyone as a suspect in something rather than as a person capable of honesty. Where Samantha was involved, he was finding that his emotions and protectiveness were starting to color his thoughts about everything. She was worth anything he could give her, but he hadn’t been prepared for how much she had come to matter to him, as a partner, friend - and a sister. That put Jarod off-balance, and he didn’t like being off-balance - in his life, that could get both of them killed.

“Jarod, are you all right?” Mac’s slow question brought Jarod back to the reality of the moment. Jarod gave his head a sharp shake to clear his thoughts, then focused again on Mac.

“I’m well enough. I’m curious - there’s no wind today; why the turtleneck?”

Mac glanced down at his shirt and then back up at Jarod, chuckling softly. “Oh, this? I know it’s not that cold by Massachusetts standards, but I’m not accustomed to the type of cold, and I have to protect my throat from infection - without my voice, I can’t accomplish what my career demands.”

Jarod seemed to take this in, nodding to himself. Then he stopped and chuckled slightly. He reached over Mac’s left shoulder; Mac stood still, another point to his credit, as Jarod’s fingers brushed the back of the turtleneck. He pulled back his hand, a brown leaf gently held between his index and middle finger. “Here you go. I, uh, I think you might have been standing under that tree too long; you’ve got leaves in your hair and on your collar.

Mac laughed softly. “Do I?” He reached up and started fingering his collar and brushing down his hair. It looked like he’d gotten all of the foliage, but he seemed unsure. “Now that I’ve moved, I feel like I’ve got something stuck in there…” With a look of pained frustration, he used both hands to tug down the left side of his turtleneck, searching for more leaves and in the process revealing the side of his neck to Jarod - an unblemished, leafless patch of skin.

Jarod’s sigh of relief was audible, and he smiled and relaxed visibly. Mac stopped and peered at him. “What? Do I really look that ridiculous?”

Jarod laughed. “No, you’re perfectly fine. And don’t worry, you got all the leaves. I’m just - just happy to see a friend right now. I could sure use one.”

Mac turned to walk beside him around the edge of the park. “What can I do for you?”

Jarod drew in a deep breath. “Not much. Listen, um, I don’t really have much in the way of a father; I mean, I just recently found my father, and he’s incredible, but I don’t get to see him much. I haven’t been able to piece my family together yet. I’m not used to needing someone to give me advice or anything, but I have no clue how to handle this situation or even my own feelings about it, and I could really just use a good ear and some input. So do you think it would be all right if, just for a little while, I talked to you like I would talk to my dad?” Jarod looked nervously at everything but Mac’s eyes. He knew it was a strange request, and he didn’t want to make Mac uncomfortable; it had just kind of spilled out.

Mac could tell that Jarod’s request had welled up from some deep place inside the younger man, and that Jarod was just as surprised to hear it as Mac was. He stopped walking, turned to Jarod, and raised his eyebrows. Jarod was dodging his gaze and wouldn’t turn when Mac said his name, so the older man reached out and caught Jarod’s chin in his hand, gently turning the taller man’s head so that their eyes met. “Oh, Jarod,” he intoned softly, “I’d be honored. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it would be the first time this week, and I’m starting to miss having my kids around.”

Jarod blinked in surprise. “You have children?”

Mac nodded. “Four, all grown and out on their own, but they still come back looking for Dad. I thought I was really tired of it, tired of always having to be the one with all the answers, but I guess I didn’t mind it as much as I thought I did - it’d be really nice to be that for you right now. I know this is a really tough time, being the holiday and all, and you not being able to be with your family. And then, with your friend getting hurt, you must have so many things going on inside you. Listen, you start wherever you want to, and I’ll just try to follow along as best I can. But first, tell me if your friend is okay - it must be doubly hard for her right now, not having family to be with.”

The two men started walking again, Jarod with his hands in the pockets of his tan nerd suit. “You really don’t mind? I mean, I know this is kind of odd, and what I have to say might sound nuts . . .”

Mac snorted quietly. “Oh, relax, Jarod. Believe me, I’ve heard a lot in my lifetime; whatever is going on in your mind, I can take it. You need to talk to somebody, and if it can’t be your father, might as well be *a* father, eh? Besides, now I have a purpose again; this is what makes my life’s work with it.”

Jarod slipped a sideways glance at Mac. He was still feeling a little timid, but knowing that he could talk to someone and that that someone had now given him a bit of a mystery to solve, it seemed his day was looking up. He was still intent on finding the rapist and wouldn’t rest until he did, but something told him that having Mac help him clear his head and give him some fresh ideas might just be the key to handling the situation. “Really?”

Mac nodded. “Really. This is the color of life. This is the stuff songs are made of, kid.”

Jarod winced. “Speaking of songs, I have to tell you that I really have to get Sam - that’s my friend - some new music for Christmas. I just don’t know what to get her, exactly. All I know is that she needs a new CD; she only has one with her, and I don’t have anything against the music - it’s actually kind of catchy - but you can only hear the same thing so many times before it drives you nuts. And I’ve been hearing it almost constantly lately.”

“Oh?”

Jarod ran a hand down the back of his hair without realizing that he was perpetuating a nervous habit. “Yeah. It’s her favorite group; she listens to it when she’s happy, sad, angry, or trying to avoid my questions. I know she needs something like that, that I need something like that but I haven’t found it yet, and I’m glad that she’s got something that gives her comfort, but I’m really starting to resent it; it’s becoming a symbol of her shutting me out. It’s my job to teach her and protect her, and to be her friend, and that’s hard when I can’t get her to talk to me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like the songs, but if I have to hear ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Here Comes the Sun’ from behind a closed door one more time, I swear I’ll go crazy.”

Mac chuckled. “I take it this is a Beatles album?”

Jarod stopped walking and shot him a surprised look. “Yeah - how’d you know?”

Mac laughed outright as he stopped and turned to face Jarod. “I’ve heard of them. Actually, most of the world has heard of them; they used to be a fairly popular band. Do you know which album she has?”

Jarod’s eyes widened. “You mean there’s more than one?”

Grinning, Mac nodded. “Oh, I assure you, there were quite a few.” He snickered at Jarod’s look of near-shock. “I used to have them all,” he said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “They were very big in England when I was young. My friends and I used to play their music all the time. I can’t believe you don’t - oh, wait, this is you I’m talking to; never mind, then.”

Jarod gave him an ‘Oh, thanks so very much’ look. The two men starting walking again, and as they fell into step, Jarod fell into his story.

Without divulging a lot of information he told Mac the basics of his and Samantha’s lives - how he was taken from his family and eventually escaped from the Centre, how he’d found parts of his family but couldn’t get everyone together, how Samantha was kidnapped from college and Jarod rescued her, and how they’d ended up in Cambridge, looking to stop a rapist. He told Mac that the attacker hadn’t managed to rape Samantha or even to undress her; Mac could hear the rage in Jarod’s voice, and beneath it, the pride in his friend for being of such strong character. Then he went into some careful explanation of the case and the facts as he saw them, and talking about it was like laying all the pieces of evidence on a table and examining them together.

All in all, they strolled and talked for about fifteen minutes, but in those few minutes Mac gained some insight into his new friend and the art of self-discovery, while Jarod got a fresh perspective on the situation (and a self-image pep talk from his self-labeled Rent-a-Dad.) As they went their separate ways, Jarod found himself with a fresh sense of energy and confidence. He’d decided he would have to reexamine his suspects; he was still seething below the surface, but he felt like he could channel the momentum of his fury into a tool rather than an uncontrolled explosion. Self-control had its advantages; Jarod smiled mirthlessly to himself as he recalled that one of those advantages would be the look of terror in the rapist’s eyes as he realized his reckoning had come.

Now all Jarod had to do was to go back over the evidence, to determine what he’d missed and which of the suspects - Nitzmorr, Brad, or Louis - was about to have a life-altering encounter.

- - - -

Jarod walked back into the school, on his way to his office and the notes he’d gathered on the case, and stopped when he saw Mulligan sweeping the deserted hall. Smiling, Jarod walked up to him, until he saw Mulligan was sweating heavily, even though the hall was quite cold.

“You okay?” Jarod asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mulligan replied. “Just a bit hot, you know.”

Jarod noticed he was wearing a heavy coat with a high collar. “Well, with that coat you’re wearing, no wonder you’re burning up. Why don’t you take it off?”

“That’s quite okay, Jarod,” Mulligan replied quickly. He started sweeping again. “I heard about that girl who was attacked last night.”

“Yes, it is unfortunate.”

Mulligan glanced up and down the hall, then looked at Jarod. “Hey, can you keep a secret?”

“Usually,” Jarod replied.

“Well, the real reason I’m wearing this coat is because of my girlfriend.”

“Your girlfriend?”

Mulligan grinned, nodding. “Well, last night, we were . . . having some fun, if you will, and she got a little carried away.” He pulled down his collar, and Jarod could see five scratch marks on the left side of his neck. “I just didn’t want anyone to see and start asking questions.” Mulligan put his collar back up and glanced at Jarod, whose smile had faded. “What?”

“Uh . . . they look painful,” Jarod said.

Mulligan shrugged. “Not that bad. Just sting a little now and then. Well, I better get back to work. Catch you later, Jarod.”

“Yes,” Jarod replied as he walked away. He lowered his voice into a soft growl. “You can count on that.”

- - - -

Samantha was sitting on her bed, having showered and changed into a pair of gray sweat pants and a white tank top. She had just finished going through the recordings that had been transmitted to her computer from Nitzmorr’s office, something she had talked to Jarod about that morning. Now, she was doing some further research into her discoveries just as her phone rang.

“Jarod?” she answered.

“I think I know who it is,” Jarod said.

“Who?”

“The janitor, Dennis Mulligan.”

Samantha furrowed her eyebrows. She couldn’t remember Jarod mentioning a janitor when they talked this morning, and the only janitor she remembered was the one who helped her clean up that chemistry laboratory the previous night, and she knew he hadn’t ever mentioned his name. “Who?”

“I’ll explain everything when I get back,” Jarod said. “What did you find out from the recordings?”

“Plenty,” Samantha replied. “I’m doing some digging into, but I think I better show it to you when you get back.”

“Okay. How are you feeling?”

“Better.”

“I’m going to go see Sherilyn again,” Jarod replied. “I should be home in a couple of hours.”

“Alright. I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Sam.” Samantha hung up and went back to her work.

- - - -

Inside his office Jarod put his phone away as he walked over to his desk and began typing on his laptop. He was planning on going to Sherilyn’s place to talk with her, but he had one place he wanted to check out first. It didn’t take him long to find the address he was looking for, and soon he was on his way.

He arrived at Mulligan’s apartment complex in only a few minutes, thankful it was within walking distance of campus. After finding the right apartment number Jarod wasted no time in picking the lock and stepping inside.

Since he wasn’t sure what time Mulligan usually arrived home from work, Jarod knew that he didn’t have much time. He surveyed the apartment, knowing that if there was any incriminating evidence against the janitor it would be in his apartment. He took a deep breath and collected his thoughts, trying to remember what he needed to look for. He closed his eyes, trying to simulate what Mulligan might have done after attacking Samantha . . .

- - - -

He was running, breathing hard, holding his left hand on his neck, as he ran back to his apartment. He knew his face hadn’t been seen, but the girl had managed to do something the other victims hadn’t: she had fought back, leaving him with something that could be easily recognized if she ever saw him again.

He made it to his place and quickly let himself in before anyone spotted him. By this time the scratches were bleeding, and he was starting to get blood on his collar, so he did what anyone would do in that situation: he went to clean them up.

Not wanting to have to answer questions that he knew his girlfriend would have, he shut himself in the bathroom and went about cleaning the scratches, thinking about what he was going to do and say. Then it dawned on him to use a coat to cover his neck; that way no one would notice the scratches, even the girl; that way he could get to her again and make her pay for hurting him. Oh, yes, she was going to pay dearly.

- - - -

Jarod opened his eyes, sickened by what he had felt and thought, even though he knew they were Mulligan’s thoughts and feelings, not his own. He had to lean against a wall to collect himself before making his way down the hall to the bathroom. Inside, he searched the trashcan, praying and hoping that there was something there. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his prize nestled among the trash: a bunch of bloodied cotton balls.

Using paper towels and a sandwich baggie from the kitchen, Jarod collected the cotton balls and sealed the baggie, tucking it into his jacket pocket. Before he had a chance to move again, he spotted something stuffed behind the commode; he pulled it out and held it up: Mulligan's work shirt. The custodian hadn't bothered to wash the blood from the collar, counting on the shirt not being found. Jarod smiled coldly to himself and stuffed the shirt into a larger bag. As he stood up to leave, he stopped short when he saw the sink. He quickly scanned the rest of the bathroom, then the entire apartment, finding out something that he had an inkling was another lie that Mulligan told him: he *didn’t* have a girlfriend.

Regardless of whether the girlfriend lived with Mulligan or not, there would have been some indication of a woman’s presence in the apartment: a toothbrush, an article of clothing, or something. Mulligan’s apartment indicated that there was never anyone else in that apartment except a janitor who kept to himself, who preyed on innocent young women, including his Samantha.

“And he’s going to wish he had never been born,” Jarod growled as he left the apartment. He glanced at his watch. He was supposed to be over at Sherilyn’s in thirty minutes, but he knew that getting this sample tested with the samples he had taken from Samantha - all of which he had kept with him just in case - was more important at the moment, seeing how it would stop Mulligan once and for all. He left the complex and made it to where he’d parked his car on campus and hurried to the on campus police department, already coming up with a Pretend that would allow him to get that evidence into forensics for immediate testing.

- - - -

A few hours later Jarod knocked on the apartment door and waited patiently. A few moments later, Samantha opened the door. She was dressed in sweatpants and a tank top, and she was smiling.

“Sorry I’m late, Sam, but I was taking care of something in town.” Jarod didn’t want to tell her about what he had done until he had gotten back the results from the testing, something that wouldn’t be until the next day, according to the technician he had been working with during his quick Pretend. He walked into the apartment and was instantly met with the smell of a wonderful aroma. “What’s that smell?” he asked as he put his briefcase on the couch and took off his glasses.

“Chicken garlic pasta,” Samantha replied as the two went into the kitchen. Jarod saw the table was set with two of everything: two knives, two forks, two glasses with soda. “Now, sit down. Dinner’s ready.” While Jarod sat, Samantha served two plates with chicken pasta garlic. She set the plates down, took her seat across the table, and the two began eating.

“Sam, this is delicious,” Jarod said around a mouthful.

“Thanks. So, how’s Sherilyn doing?”

“Better,” Jarod replied, honestly, remembering the discussion he had had with the young woman after leaving the police department. “She’s still scared about going out, but she seems to trust me. And she’s starting to remember more details about what happened to her. Unfortunately, she can’t remember any details about her attacker.”

“Yeah, well, I hate to be the bearer of more bad news,” Samantha replied. “but I did some looking into your other suspect, Dennis Mulligan.”

“And?”

“Nothing. He’s not in the system, Jarod. Dennis Mulligan doesn’t exist.”

Jarod furrowed his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“I’m way sure,” Samantha replied. “However, I was thinking that maybe this guy went under a different name. So, I did a little digging and managed to get into the personnel records of every single janitor on campus. I have photos, backgrounds, everything on every single one of them.” She sipped her drink. “But I think I already know who he is.” She left the kitchen and returned a few moments later with a photograph. She handed it to Jarod. It was a picture of Dennis Mulligan.

“That’s him,” Jarod put down his fork.

“I know,” Samantha replied quietly as she glared down at the photo. “His real name is Harvey Gries. Interestingly enough, he was a student at Harvard some time ago, but he was kicked out during his junior year.”

“What did he do?”

“He ransacked a frat house after being rejected. From what I read in a report from a psychologist who talked with him shortly after he was kicked out, I got the impression he wasn’t very well liked as a student: always being rejected and humiliated by the other students, never had a girlfriend, that sort of thing. After he was kicked out, he got himself a criminal record when he was living in other states, including a few sexual harassments.”

“Which I’m sure he failed to mention when he came back to Harvard,” Jarod added. He glaring at the photo.

“He started here in the fall semester,” Samantha continued. “Also, I found out he works at a nearby hospital. Which means he would have access to the kind of sedative that was used to drug me and the other girls.”

Jarod nodded. “There’s nothing more invisible than a man with a mop and bucket,” he said, remembering Mulligan’s words. He looked up at Samantha. She was staring coldly at the photo, tears in her eyes. Jarod got to his feet and wrapped his arms around Samantha. “It’s okay, Sam. It’s okay.”

“We talked two nights ago,” Samantha said suddenly.

Jarod pulled away and looked down at her. “What do you mean?”

“I was on campus . . . in one of the chemistry labs, working on . . . well, it doesn’t matter, all things considered. But I ran into a little accident . . .”

“What happened?”

Samantha looked almost embarrassed. “I nearly set the lab and myself on fire.” She chuckled humorously. “He helped me put out the fire . . . and we talked; he was so nice, so concerned - or so I thought - for my safety. I just . . . I can’t believe he could be the same monster who attacked me and those other girls.” She blinked back tears as she looked up at Jarod. “Why did he pick me, Jarod?”

“I don’t know,” Jarod replied softly. He cradled her face in his hands as he looked down at her. “I’m going to get him, Sam. I’m going to make sure he pays for what he did to you and the others.”

“I want to help,” Samantha replied.

“You don’t have to.”

“I know, but I want to. Please?”

Jarod nodded and just held her close. “Okay.”

Samantha suddenly pulled away, but it wasn’t out of fear or anything. In fact, she was smiling slightly. “Oh, before I forget, there’s something I wanted to show you.” She walked to her bedroom and returned a few moments later with a stack of papers. “Remember when I told you I found some stuff out about Nitzmorr?” She handed the stack of papers to him. “Well, take a look at this stuff.”

Jarod skimmed the papers, then looked at Samantha, smiling slightly. “Seriously?”

“Very,” Samantha replied. “Look, Jarod, I know he’s not the rapist, but do you think we can teach him a lesson just the same? Especially after what I put myself through around him?”

Jarod smirked as he looked right at her. “I was just thinking the same thing, Sam. And I’m pretty sure how we can do it.”

- - - -

Mulligan was whistling as he swept the deserted floor later that same evening. Jarod came walking up to him, completely in his nerd clothes, smiling. He wasn’t going to wait for any forensic evidence to put his plan into action. The campus rapist had struck too close to Jarod for the Pretender to wait until all the evidence had come back before making his move. If Mulligan was truly innocent, then Jarod would make sure nothing happened to him. However, if he wasn’t - and Jarod was pretty sure Mulligan was guilty - then Jarod was going to make him pay. “There you are,” he said pleasantly.

“What?” Mulligan asked.

“I wanted to invite you over to my place for dinner tomorrow night,” Jarod said cheerfully.

“Why?” Mulligan looked suspicious.

“Because that’s just how I am, and I doubt that anyone else around here has made that kind of offer.”

Mulligan looked genuinely surprised, but smiled. “Uh, thanks. What time?”

“Eight,” Jarod replied. He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Do you think you and your girlfriend will be able to make it?”

“Actually, my girlfriend’s left to spend Christmas with her family,” Mulligan replied quickly, looking down at his broom. “She left this morning. But you can count me in, Jarod. Thanks.” He glanced up at Jarod and offered a small smile.

“No problem,” Jarod returned the smile. He turned and left, smirking as he walked away.

- - - -

The next morning, Parker walked into Broots’ space and saw him sitting at his desk. He was typing with his good hand, while his injured hand was in his lap. Broots had taken the previous day off, and Parker wanted to go check on him, knowing there was a reason for his outburst after learning about Samantha, but Sydney had persuaded her not to. Parker walked up to him calmly and held out the ice pack she was carrying.

“It should help the swelling,” she said.

Broots looked up, noticed her and the ice pack, and took it. “Thanks,” he said as he put it on his hand.

“Feeling better?”

Broots shrugged. “Look, uh, I’m sorry about what happened the other night.”

“You were upset, Broots,” Parker replied. “It’s understandable.”

“It’s not just that,” Broots said. He sighed. “When Sydney told us about what nearly happened to Samantha . . . I couldn’t help but imagine that it was Debbie that had been attacked. I mean, she’s only, what, ten years younger than Samantha . . . I just don’t know what I’d do if that ever happened to her.”

Parker put a hand on his shoulder. “You would do exactly what Jarod is probably doing. Trying to find out who did it and make them pay.”

“You think so?” Broots asked.

“You’re Debbie’s father. I know how much you care for her, and I know what you would do if anything happened to her. Just like I know what Jarod would do if anything happened to Samantha.” She patted his shoulder before leaving the area.

- - - -

Samantha was laying on her stomach on her bed, dressed in jeans and a navy blue sweater. She was typing on her laptop in her email program:

Professor Nitzmorr,

Need to talk. Urgent. Meet me at your office tomorrow night at 9:30.

Brad Fischer

When she was finished, she sent the message, Samantha turned off her computer, smirking.

- - - -

Jarod was walking down the aisle of a grocery store, pulling various items off the shelves and putting them into his hand basket. At the Christmas aisle, he walked slowly down the halls until he came to some fruitcake. He put three into his basket and walked on.

- - - -

Samantha and Jarod were at the stove in their kitchen, cooking. While Jarod threw various things into a pot of boiling water, such as jalapenos, habaneras, and green chilies. Samantha added Purina and Alpo, while Jarod added some spinach, beets, and prunes. Samantha left the kitchen briefly to find some Mentholatum to put under her nose to mask the smell. While she was gone, Jarod glanced over in satisfaction at the box he’d set on the table.

It was addressed to Sherilyn, and it contained all the evidence that implicated Mulligan in all of the campus attacks: the extensive paperwork on Mulligan's past, and the evidence Jarod had retrieved from forensics earlier that day - the janitor's DNA markers, two small samples of what turned out to be his skin cells from Samantha's fingernails, and the cotton balls and shirt Jarod had taken from his bathroom. There was also a note from Jarod, assuring her that this ordeal was coming to an end and that Harvard had set aside a scholarship for her for whenever she felt ready to return to classes - though he left out the part where he had persuaded the university to do that for her.

Samantha reentered the kitchen to find Jarod tossing some dandelions into the stew; she looked somewhat bewildered, but she shrugged it off as she grabbed a vile of clear liquid, something Jarod had been able to get for her from the hospital. Using a needle and syringe, she put some of the liquid into the pot, and Jarod stirred it all together.

- - - -

It was straight up eight o’clock when Mulligan knocked on the door. He had changed out of his work outfit into a casual light brown suit. It was opened a few moments later by Jarod, who was dressed in his usual attire, complete with the glasses and Ecru shoes. He smiled cheerfully as he let Mulligan inside.

“Right on time,” Jarod said. “Dinner’s ready. In honor of you, I made my own version of Mulligan Stew.” He walked to the stove with Mulligan behind him. “Go on, sit.” Mulligan sat down at the table while Jarod served two bowls of stew, setting one in front of Mulligan along with a spoon. Mulligan began eating as Jarod sat across the table.

“This is good,” Mulligan replied.

Jarod stirred his stew but made no attempt to eat it. “How did you end up working at Harvard?” he asked suddenly.

“Had some rough times,” Mulligan replied. “Never seemed to get back on my feet the way I wanted to. Who would have figured that I’d actually like cleaning? I used to be a slob when I was a kid.” Jarod smiled but didn’t say anything. “Hey, this is really good stew. What’s in it?”

“Um . . . jalapenos, habaneras, and green chilies. There was some Purina and Alpo added, along with some spinach, beets, prunes, and dandelions.” Suddenly, Mulligan dropped his spoon as he started swaying. He fell off his chair and landed on the floor, writhing.

“Are you okay, Dennis?” Jarod asked, concerned.

“What’s happening to me?” Mulligan groaned.

“Looks like you’re having an allergic reaction to something you ate,” Jarod replied calmly. He looked down at Mulligan. “You know, I think I know what it is.”

“What?”

“I forgot that I added some peanut oil to the stew.”

“What?” Mulligan flashed his eyes at Jarod. “You put *that* in the stew?”

Jarod shrugged. “Actually, no. You see, I knew you were allergic to it. So, it’s definitely not peanut oil.”

“Then what the hell is the matter with me?” Mulligan groaned.

“Well, you could be having an adverse reaction to the Droperidol.”

“You put Droperidol in the stew?” Mulligan looked incredulous.

“No, I did.” Mulligan looked over and saw Samantha standing at the kitchen entrance. She was dressed in one of her skimpy outfits. Mulligan’s eyes widened.

“H-hey, you - you're d-d-dead!” he said.

Jarod looked shocked. “Really? She is? Wow, and she made such a good breakfast for me this morning, too. I mean, it was a microwaved breakfast, but it was still pretty good. Hmm. What a shame. Did you hear that, Sam? You're dead. Guess we'll have to cancel your credit card.” The nerd facade faded away as Jarod removed his glasses and got to his feet. He leaned over Mulligan, glaring at him with all the fury of a brother, friend, and defender.

“It's funny you should mention her demise,” he growled, “because I distinctly remember that no one released her name. *No one.* So, I guess that can only mean one thing, can't it?”

“I have no idea what you’re saying,” Mulligan moaned.

Jarod pulled him to his feet and slammed him against a nearby wall. “The only way you could have possibly known that Sam should have been dead is if you were the one who attacked her last night, Mulligan. Or should I say Harvey Gries. That is your real name, isn’t it? Or have you gotten so good at being invisible that you don't even remember who you once were?” Gries moaned as he struggled to stay on his feet.

“So, what was it, huh?” Samantha asked, glaring at her attacker. “Finally get sick of being alone every Saturday night? Of being rejected by every girl you ever talked to? Did you think that being accepted into a fraternity would change that, and when they rejected you, that was the final straw?” Gries mumbled something.

“What did you say?” Jarod growled.

“They deserved it!” Gries shouted. “All of them. They blew me off, just because I didn’t measure up to their standards. I had to teach them a lesson!”

“But you knew you wouldn’t be able to get your so-called revenge without a little assistance,” Jarod said. “So you pilfered the Droperidol from the hospital you worked at, knowing that it was a strong sedative, which would allow you to subdue your victims.” He glared at Gries. “How did you choose them? What was it about them that made you choose them to be your victims?”

Gries struggled, but Jarod held him tightly, not allowing the janitor to move more than a few centimeters. “Because all three of them were asking for it: they were practically encouraging it by how they dressed, how they walked, always being alone and vulnerable.”

“And what about me?” Samantha asked.

Gries glanced over at her. “You were asking for it just like they did, the way you dressed.” Despite being drugged, he smirked at the young woman. “It’s too bad I didn’t get a chance to finish what I started; I had something special planned for you.”

Samantha backed away, her mouth slightly open when she heard what Gries said. Jarod stared at him for a few moments, disgusted, before he slammed his fist into Gries’ face. The janitor crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Jarod looked at Samantha and put an arm around her shoulders. She didn’t flinch under his touch as she leaned her head against his side.

- - - -

The next morning, Jarod woke up earlier than usual and quietly padded out of his bedroom and down the hall to Samantha’s bedroom. Her door was opened slightly, so he poked his head in and saw her curled up in her bed, fast asleep. Her blanket was bunched up at her feet, so Jarod carefully covered her with it, then went into the kitchen to start making breakfast.

Jarod smiled proudly to himself as he thought about Samantha. She had been through so much in such a short period of time and had come out of it better than even he thought possible. In only three months, he had learned more about her than he ever thought he could know about anyone. While knowing that she could take care of herself if she needed to - something she proved in Chicago - Jarod knew that there was still a part of her that yearned for the same thing he had all his life: family.

Jarod had always regarded that one thing as most important in his life, especially since he escaped from the Centre, and Samantha was no exception. She wasn’t blood related, but to Jarod that didn’t matter - she was still part of his family. She was just as important to him as if she were his real sister, and that was something that was never going to change.

“So, what’s for breakfast this morning?”

Jarod turned around and saw Samantha padding into the kitchen, yawning. “You’re up early.”

“And you make a lot of noise,” Samantha replied, smiling, as she walked over to the table.

Jarod chuckled as he took some eggs out of the fridge and a frying pan out of the sink. “Scrambled eggs again?”

“Sure, why not?” Samantha yawned again; before she took her seat at the table, she stopped at the refrigerator and grabbed her bottle of ketchup. “You know, you have a few things to explain, Jarod.”

“Such as?”

“Well, first of all, two nights ago: you came home with tinsel in your hair and lipstick on your face. What was that about?”

Jarod sighed, looking slightly embarrassed. “Well, that was when I was looking for your Christmas present, actually, and I got attacked by a woman. Thankfully, I saw her coming, so I managed to turn my head. Still don’t know why she wanted to kiss me, but she just glanced above my head and smirked as she walked away.” Samantha was trying not to laugh. “What?”

“You must have been standing under mistletoe,” Samantha smirked.

“Mistletoe?” Jarod asked.

“Yeah, it’s a type of Christmas decoration,” Samantha explained. “It’s a plant, and there’s a big historical background behind it, but basically, when a person stands under it, it’s customary for that person to be kissed by someone else.”

“Oh,” Jarod nodded as he understood it. He grinned mischievously at her. “You’ve ever been kissed under this mistletoe?” Samantha smiled, calmly stood up, walked over to the sink, grabbed the dishtowel, and whipped it at him, smacking him on the arm. “Ow! Hey! What was that for?”

“There’s your answer,” Samantha replied with a smile as she put the dishtowel back and sat down again at the table. Jarod just smiled and shook his head. “Okay, you explained the lipstick, now what about the tinsel?”

“I, uh, tripped on a wire and fell into a Christmas tree,” Jarod replied sheepishly. Samantha chuckled. “Anything else?”

“How did you know that I invited Ditzmorr over to the apartment again?”

“I bugged his office earlier that morning. I wanted to know exactly what it was you were up to with him. And I’m glad I did.” He didn’t say that last part with any hint at being condescending toward Samantha, and he could tell she didn’t take it that way. “So, right after he showed up, I was able to make my entrance.” He smirked right back at her. “And I thought I did it rather well.” Samantha rolled her eyes as he went back to scrambling the eggs.

“And what about my Christmas present?” Samantha asked teasingly as she propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” Jarod replied in a mysterious voice.

“Ooh,” Samantha mocked amazement. Suddenly, she started giggling.

Jarod looked warily at her. “Now what’s on your mind?”

“Well, I’m thinking about what we’re going to do to Ditzmorr and Brad,” she said. Her eyes twinkled with mischief. Jarod chuckled as he stirred the eggs.

- - - -

Jarod opened the door to his classroom and walked in. This time, he was dressed in black everything - pants, shoes, shirt, and leather jacket. As he walked down to the front of the classroom the students - who had been boisterous and loud, as usual - got quiet. They watched him go to the front of the room, turn around, and face them. Jarod wished he had a camera to capture their shocked expressions when they recognized him.

“Good morning, class,” he said in his normal, strong voice as he stood tall. His voice was laced with irritation and satisfaction as he watched his students. “Aside from the two students in this class who treated me with respect - you know who you are - I want all of you to pay attention to what I’m about to say.

“For the past few days - actually, for the past week - I’ve conducted my own research into all of you. Where you live, how you act, what you’re majoring in. Based on that research, and what I’ve observed in the past three days, I’ve come to the following conclusions about you: you’re all a bunch of rich, spoiled brats who know nothing about the world. You know nothing about true evil or true good. You can quote literal law in your sleep, that much I’m aware of, but you know nothing about the laws of human nature, nothing about the criminal mind - beyond your own petty crimes, that is. You know even less than nothing about the mentally enigmatic mind and even less than that about your own minds and all you could be capable of if you'd get your heads out of the harbor bars and decide to live in and shape the real world.”

Brad stood up, frowning. “Who the hell are you to be telling us that load of crap?” he asked.

“Someone who’s a lot smarter than you.” Everyone turned and saw Samantha standing at the classroom door. She was dressed in a coral sweater and blue jeans, nice running shoes, and wearing her long, black leather overcoat. She walked down to Jarod and stood beside him, surveying the class that was giving her the shocked looks this time.

"Sorry for the lack of warning, guys,” she said. “Sometimes he does this; when he's had it with people's crummy attitudes and he just can't take it anymore, he goes off like this. He just pulls out the reality check and chunks it at you. Can't say I blame him; after what he's seen and been through in this world, he has every right. Truth is, I agree with him. I'd like to say it's been fun, but I really can't stand most of you. There are a couple of you who have proven yourselves to be decent, thinking human beings - you know who you people are - but the rest of you . . .” She looked at Jarod.

“You’ve flunked my class,” he said simply. “Miserably.”

“Better study harder next time, guys,” Samantha added. “The world only gives so many retakes. I know I could have warned you, but then again, life never warns you, does it?" She turned to Jarod, who was watching her with admiration and respect, and held out her hand. “You ready, Jarod? We have a date - I'm taking you to dinner tonight. You want to be well-rested, don't you?" Jarod smiled, nodded, took her hand, and the two walked out of the classroom, leaving all the students stunned and silent.

- - - -

Nitzmorr glanced at his watch as he hurried to his office. He opened the door and stopped short when he saw Samantha standing near his desk. She was still dressed in her coral sweater, jeans, and leather jacket. She smiled at Nitzmorr as he came in.

“You’re back,” he said as he shut the door.

“Yeah, DC was boring,” Samantha replied. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m supposed to meet a student of mine,” Nitzmorr said. It suddenly clicked. “You sent the email.”

“Wow, you are smart,” Samantha replied, feigning a shocked look. She walked over to his desk and picked up a small recorder that was on a stack of papers. She held it up. “By the way, your little gig is up.”

“What are you talking about?” Samantha pressed the play button. Nitzmorr heard his voice being played as he was talking to Brad over the phone.

“Look, we had an agreement,” Brad said. “You do as I say, and the IRS won’t be getting a call from me about your little situation.”

“What more do you want from me?” Nitzmorr replied. “I’m doing everything I can to get your professors to change their minds. It’s not easy.”

“Oh, come on, a man with your talents should be able to persuade anyone,” Brad replied. “I mean, after all, you seem to have that effect on your female students, especially that new one, Sybil.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Nitzmorr replied.

“Don’t play dumb with me. I don’t care that you’re screwing your female students. In fact, use it to your advantage. You know who her brother is, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, soften her up a bit so she can persuade her brother to pass me.”

Nitzmorr sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. I’m supposed to meet her tonight. I’ll talk with her then.”

“You better, if you don’t want the IRS breathing down your neck.”

Samantha stopped the tape. “Very nicely done, Professor,” she said.

“How in the hell did you get a copy of that?” Nitzmorr asked.

“The same way I was able to find out you were going to be over at our apartment two nights ago.” Nitzmorr looked over toward his desk as the chair swiveled around and he saw Jarod sitting there. He was dressed in his black attire, but he still spoke softly.

Nitzmorr was surprised, but he feigned apprehension. “You changed your wardrobe, Sybil. Not bad, but in my opinion, I liked your other clothes better. Matched your personality - dull. Now, I’m only going to ask you this once: what the hell are you doing here?”

“Actually, it was Sam’s idea,” Jarod replied. He nodded at Samantha. “Go ahead, sissy.”

“Well, it took me a while,” Samantha said, “but I was able to find out exactly what it was Brad was holding over your head, Professor.” She picked up the stack of papers. “You haven’t been paying your taxes for the past five years like you should.” She put the papers down, taking a ragged breath. “You know, when I first started this, I thought you *were* the campus rapist. And, as much as I didn’t like it, I forced myself to dress up in those . . . clothes, just to get the chance to get you off the streets. But after finding out you weren’t, I discovered that you were something just as bad.”

“And what would that be?” Nitzmorr sneered.

“You used your position in the wrong way,” Samantha replied. “You forced your female students to . . . to degrade themselves just to make you look better. Both you and Brad.”

Jarod noticed that Samantha was getting more and more upset as she talked face to face with Nitzmorr, so he got up and - still in character - walked over to Samantha. He leaned over. “Why don’t you go outside and wait for me,” he whispered softly into her ear. “I’ll take care of this. I want to talk with him - man to man.” She just glanced at him, thanking him with her eyes. She walked out of the room, Nitzmorr turning to watch her.

“Okay, Sybil,” Nitzmorr said after Samantha closed the door. He turned to face Jarod, and his eyes widened in fear. No longer was Jarod a few inches shorter than him. He was now standing tall, towering over him. The simple, intimidated demeanor was completely gone, replaced with an intimidating, cold glare. “What the -”

Jarod grabbed Nitzmorr by the lapels on his jacket and slammed him into a nearby wall. Nitzmorr struggled, but Jarod was much stronger than him. “How does it feel, huh?” he asked. “To be powerless, not knowing what’s going to happen to you? Just like all those girls must have felt when you and Brad used them.”

“I didn’t want the IRS to find out,” Nitzmorr wheezed. “Brad is the one who started it all.”

“Oh, don’t worry about Brad,” Jarod replied. “We’ll deal with him later.”

“How did she find out in the first place?”

“Well, Sam’s a curious person by nature, and she stumbled onto some of the security cameras that saw you talking with one of your female students. She could tell it wasn’t a normal, student-teacher conversation, and she knew about the rapist at the time, so she put what she thought was two and two together. Why do you think she dressed up in those outfits? You didn’t think it was for her health, did you?

“Also, I bugged your office as well, but it was only because of what you were doing with her. You see, I can usually tell if someone’s untrustworthy, and seeing you with one of your students - my sister - well, it doesn’t take a Harvard graduate to figure that one out.”

“And what are you going to do about me?”

Jarod smiled. “Two things. First of all, I put in a call to the IRS. They should be over here any minute now. Secondly, because of what you were planning on doing with Samantha, you have to deal with me. Granted, I’m not really her brother, but you see, that doesn’t matter to me - she’s like a sister to me, anyway. And by that, it’s in the unwritten family code book that I get to now expose all your internal organs to sunlight.”

“You don’t have the guts,” Nitzmorr said.

Jarod leaned in really close to Nitzmorr. “Don’t bet on it. You know what they say professor - the only sure things are death and taxes. Aren't you lucky? You're having a very sure day; you get to face both at the same time!”

- - - -

A few moments later, Jarod came out of the office and shut the door behind him. As he walked down the hall, two men in suits came walking up to him. “Excuse me,“ one said. “IRS. Where can we find Carter Ditzmorr?”

“He’s in his office,” Jarod replied. He pointed in the direction, and the two IRS Agents walked away. Jarod smirked as he walked out of the school. He only wished he could stick around to see the looks on the Agents’ faces when they went in Nitzmorr’s office and found their prey tied to the desk, stripped to his shorts, one fragrant puce argyle sock serving as a gag, with "death and taxes" scrawled all over his face, chest, arms, and abs in bright red grading marker and a digital camera connected to the internet and pointing directly at him. Would have been funny to see, but Samantha was outside waiting for him by their car. “Ready?”

“Ready to rock,” Samantha replied, smiling. The two Pretenders got in the car - Jarod at the wheel - and drove away.

- - - -

Parker, Sydney, and Broots were in Sydney’s office when Lyle came walking in. “Don’t you ever knock?” Parker sneered.

“Just as often as you do,” Lyle replied curtly.

“What do you want?” Parker asked.

“I want to know why you three have been unable to find anything that could lead us to Jarod and Samantha,” Lyle replied.

“Don’t you ever stop singing the same song?” Parker asked. “I told you before, and now I’m going to spell it out for you, even though you should know by now how the game works: Jarod and Samantha leave us clues to find them. There haven’t been any clues, which means we have no way of finding out where the hell they are. Get that through your thick skull, Lyle.”

Lyle shrugged. “Okay,” he said. He turned to leave. “By the way, the next time Jarod does call, Sydney, tell him to give my regards to Samantha.” He smiled inwardly as he saw the reactions of the trio, even though he knew that they knew how he had found out: phone tap.

“Oh, I’m sure you’re really concerned about her safety and well-being,” Parker replied.

“Of course I am,” Lyle replied. “You think I want her banged up and bruised when she’s back at the Centre? Makes it a bit harder for her to be effective in what I have planned for her.”

“And what would that be?” Sydney asked, frowning slightly.

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know,” Lyle said. He turned and left the office. Parker growled softly in frustration.

“You have a video phone call,” Sydney’s computer pinged.

Sydney went over to his desk and opened up the program. Jarod was on the screen, sitting at a table. “Jarod,” the psychiatrist smiled.

“Hello, Sydney,” Jarod replied as Broots and Parker gathered behind Sydney. “Miss Parker, Broots. How goes the hunt?”

“Could ask you the same question,” Parker replied. “Sydney told us what happened to Samantha. How is she?”

“She’s holding up better than what’s expected of her,” Jarod answered honestly. “But that’s no surprise; she has a strong spirit.”

“Did you find the person who attacked her?” Parker asked.

“Yes, and he’s rotting in jail now,” Jarod replied. “As he should be.”

“What are you going to do now?” Sydney replied.

“It’s almost Christmas,” Jarod answered. “We’re going to try to enjoy it.” Jarod disconnected and the screen went black.

“So, now what?” Broots asked.

“What do you mean?” Parker asked.

“Do you want me to go see if I can find out where they are?” Broots asked. “I mean, how many rapists do you think have been caught within the past twenty-four hours? We could probably pinpoint their location.”

“No,” Parker replied. She looked at Sydney, who was a little shocked by her response. “What, Syd?”

“You’re not going to track them down?” he asked.

“Consider it my Christmas gift to them,” Parker coldly replied before she left the office.

- - - -

Brad was dressed in only a white tank top and a pair of Incredible Hulk boxers, sitting in the single black, leather chair in his living room, indiscriminately flipping through the one-hundred plus channels the apartment complex’s cable service provided him and the other tenants. He glumly sighed as he switched off the television, disgusted in how there was never anything good on, and just sat in the dark silence. He grabbed the beer bottle from the end table next to the chair and was taking a sip when there was a knock on his door. He sighed as he put the bottle back on the table and got to his feet.

“Coming,” he mumbled as he walked to the front door. He tried looking through the peephole, but he was starting to get a headache, so he just unlatched the chain and opened it. “Yeah?” His eyes suddenly widened when he saw Jarod and Samantha standing on the other side. They were both glaring at him.

“Hello, Brad,” Samantha said. “Sorry to be visiting so late, but we just *have* to talk with you.” She glanced down at the boxers he was wearing. “Cute boxers.”

“Go away,” Brad said as he shut the door.

“Oh, we can’t do that, now,” Jarod said as he planted his foot firmly in the doorway, blocking the door from closing. Brad wasn’t expecting that, and he stumbled a little when the door suddenly stopped moving.

Brad sneered, “Haven’t you two done enough damage for one day? Wasn’t flunking me enough?”

“Oh, the day isn’t over yet,” Jarod replied. He pushed Brad back into the apartment and walked in himself. Samantha followed him, closing the door behind him. “And neither are we.”

“Look, if you don’t get out of here, I’m going to call the police,” Brad frowned.

“Sure, that’s fine by us,” Samantha replied. “We’d *love* for them to join this little soirée.”

“What do you want from me?” Brad asked.

Jarod answered, “The truth. Why were you blackmailing Professor Ditz - Professor Nitzmorr?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Samantha held up the tape recorder and played the entire conversation between Brad and Nitzmorr, the same one she had played to Nitzmorr in his office earlier that evening. She and Jarod watched as Brad’s countenance fell while the conversation was being played. “Care to revise your response?” she asked when it was over.

Brad glanced at Samantha then Jarod, then he walked over to his leather chair and sat down. He put his head in his hands and sighed wearily. To Jarod and Samantha’s surprise, he started crying softly. “Why are you doing this to me?” he asked.

“Because you helped him take advantage of innocent young women,” Samantha answered. “We know it has something to do getting your grades changed. Question we want to know is why.”

Brad looked up at her. “You want to know why? I’ll tell you.” He sniffed and took in a deep breath. “It’s because of *her.*”

“Her?” Jarod asked.

“My mother,” Brad replied. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have done it.” Samantha and Jarod looked at each other, confused. Brad saw and snorted. “You don’t know what it’s like having her for a mother.”

“I’m going to take a wild stab and say you don’t have a good relationship with her, do you?” Samantha asked.

“Only when I don’t do well,” Brad mumbled. He sighed and got to his feet. “Which seems to be happening more and more lately.”

Jarod's brow furrowed. "I don't understand. How can your not doing well mess up your relationship with your mother? She's your mother, Brad; she will love you no matter what. Nothing you can do can change the way your mother loves you." Brad rolled his eyes. Samantha sighed.

“What reality is he living in?” Brad asked the young woman. Jarod looked profoundly confused and more than a little wary.

Samantha turned to him. "Jarod, there are some . . . things you need to know about some relationships. Sometimes things aren't as . . . as simple as they should be. We'll talk about it later; let's just say, dealing with parents can be . . . complicated." She turned to Brad. “So, your mother hates you when you, what, screw up? Is that what you’re saying?”

Brad nodded. “And it’s about *every little thing,* too.” He sighed. “I could handle it, at first. But when college came around she . . . she gave me an ultimatum: do well, and she’ll pay for everything. Screw up, and she’ll never speak to me again; I’ll no longer be her son. Her words.” He rubbed his head. “I was doing well, too, you know. But I got off to a bad start this past semester, and I started panicking.”

“So, you went to Ditzmorr?” Jarod asked.

“Not at first. I, uh . . . hacked into the database, you know, to see if I could change my grades myself. That’s when I stumbled upon Nitzmorr’s tax records . . . I already knew he was sleeping with some of his female students - almost all the students did, actually, but no one said anything about it. They looked away, ‘cause Nitzmorr was a *very* persuasive person; not just with his students, but with the other professors as well. Rumor has it he had a student of his flunked in another professor’s class because the student ticked him off in his own class. No one dared to cross his path.”

Well, almost no one, Samantha thought. In fact, there had been three someones who had crossed his path, each in a different way and all of them in that very same room. “But you did,” she replied aloud, not bothering to go into the explanation about what she and Jarod did at that moment.

“I had ammunition,” Brad said, shrugging his shoulders. “He started blowing me off, but when he realized I wasn’t joking, he started freaking out a little; wasn’t hard to convince him to talk to the other professors, but he kept putting it off.”

“And meanwhile, you knew what he was doing with his female students, and you said nothing,” Jarod replied.

“Like *you* didn’t know what *she* -” Brad pointed at Samantha “- was doing with him.”

“The only thing I was guilty of is trying to catch the rapist,” Samantha retorted. “I thought he was it. And for the record, *nothing* happened.”

“But he wasn’t the rapist,” Brad replied. “Which means he’s gonna get away with it.”

Jarod said, “That I doubt. He’s going to be spending quite a bit of time at Club Fed.”

Brad looked up worriedly. “And me?”

Samantha and Jarod glanced at the front door just as someone knocked on it. Samantha went to answer it, and there were two uniformed officers standing on the other side. “We’re looking for a Brad Fischer,” one of them said.

“He’s right there, Officer,” Samantha nodded in Brad’s direction. She moved to one side and let the officers in. They walked over to Brad, and one of them read the young man his rights as the other one cuffed him. They started leading him out, but Brad stopped in front of Samantha.

“We called them right before we came here,” Samantha explained. “What you did was wrong, Brad, regardless of who it was you were blackmailing. You knew innocent people were being hurt, and you did nothing to stop it. You have to be held responsible for that.” Brad snorted. “And maybe you’ll learn something from it, too.”

“Like what?” Brad asked.

“Well, are you going to just sit in jail, mope, and feel sorry for yourself?”

“You've got a better idea?

“Oh yeah. You can change.”

“You know, it's easy for you to say that; you don't know how hard it is to change. I bet you had good life, I bet you had it easy.”

“I did,” Samantha replied. “Sometimes I didn't see that, but I did. I had everything until my parents died, and then I *had* to grow up - alone. And every single day, I was reminded about how stupid I was because I didn't appreciate what I had when I had it. But I didn't just sit around and mope, feeling sorry for myself.” Not totally, anyway. “I went to college and busted my butt off, working three jobs at one time just so I could make ends meet, but I never complained, because that was life.”

“Yeah, but that's different.”

“How?”

“You had it easy; you're smart.”

“And so are you. I've seen your grades, and I've also seen what you can do with a keyboard. For crying out loud, we wouldn't be having this conversation if you hadn't been good with a keyboard. But have you ever thought about doing something productive - and legal - with your talents?”

“Like what?” Brad asked.

“Oh, I don't know,” Jarod replied, “. . . the NSA ring a bell for ya? They could use someone with your talents there, believe me.”

Brad asked, “So, do you like work for them or something?” Samantha and Jarod looked at him, half concerned, half surprised.

“What's that supposed to mean?” Samantha asked.

“Come on, I know he isn't really a professor, and I don't think you're really his sister. *I* would never allow my sister out of the house dressed the way you had been.” Samantha blushed furiously as the officers led Brad out of the apartment. The two Pretenders followed the officers at a distance and watched Brad get loaded into the back of a police car.

“He had a point, you know,” Jarod said as the car drove off. “About your clothes.”

“I know, I know. So, what's going to happen to him now?”

“He's going to pay his debt to society, as he should.” He shrugged. “After that, that's up to him.” The two walked to their car in the parking lot.

“Let’s just hope he decides to do something better with his life.” They stopped at the car.

“Amen to that . . . Sam, what did you mean earlier about parents being complicated?” He opened the passenger door for her.

Samantha bit her lip as she got inside. “Like I know,” she muttered under her breath, thankful that Jarod didn’t hear her. She took her time formulating her response, and they were a good two miles from Brad's complex before she spoke. She sighed as she leaned back in her seat and stared out the window

“That's not an easy question to answer, Jarod, but there are times when a parent wants one thing for their child, and the child wants the complete opposite. Every family goes through it, in some way or fashion; I went through it with mine . . .”

“Doesn't sound like it was very pleasant.”

Samantha snorted. “That's what I thought too when I was younger. But . . . after they were gone . . . I realized that they were right; that everything they did for me that I hated them for, they did because they didn't want to see me get hurt.”

“Is that how it is with Brad's mother?”

Samantha took a deep breath. “No . . . totally different. Some parents . . . for the life of me I still don't understand why, care more about themselves than they do about their children . . . I'll spare you the whole psychobabble, but they lack the love it takes to be a good parent, and the child doesn't always know that they're supposed to be loved, because they were raised in an environment that didn't have love.”

“Don't I know that story.”

“But your parents still love you Jarod; you told me about them, remember? How you met your father . . .” Jarod smiled sadly as Samantha took in a deep breath. “Hearing about it makes me wish my papa was still alive. I miss him . . . you know, even if I were ever to find out where my real parents are buried, Ben and Marie will still be my papa and mama.”

“You don't think they're still alive? Your birth parents, I mean?”

“No. No, they were being chased by the Centre. There's nothing to indicate that they were Pretenders or that they would have had a clue how to defend themselves. I honestly think they must have lost their battle years ago. I . . . I kinda feel sorry for them . . . I mean . . . I mean, they didn't give me up because they were junkies or crooks or anything; they gave me up so that I could have a real life.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “It's amazing, you know. I've never met them; I never even knew until just weeks ago that I even was adopted. At first, I guess I was kinda angry: I spent my whole life believing that the Wilsons were my parents, that I was someone I'm really not. But then I realized . . .”

Jarod softly said, “Go on . . .”

“Then I realized that the Wilsons *were* my parents, in every way that really counts. And I also realized that, as adopted kids go, I was pretty lucky. I mean, think about it - how many kids grow up in a great home in a safe town, live all their lives in one place with parents who love them and accept them, and all because their birth parents wanted them to have that and couldn't give it to them? So they gave them up for that? How many kids get that?”

“Not enough.”

“Well, I did. They decided to give me up, and I got that. I was born into danger and darkness, and they gave me a chance at safety and light and . . . and at being normal, and now I know that that had to be one of the hardest things they ever did. They'd lost one child and had to sacrifice the only other one they could have.” Samantha looked down. “And . . . and then, when I really got that, I couldn't be angry anymore.”

“So what do you feel now?” Jarod asked softly.

“Actually, I'm not sure what I feel. Kinda sorry for them - for my birth parents, I mean. Kinda numb, like I'm still in shock.”

“You probably are.”

“And . . . and I guess I feel . . . I don't know . . . I guess I feel . . . kinda . . .”

What? Sam, you can tell me. Whatever it is, you're allowed to feel it and to express it. You can trust me.”

Samantha smiled. “I know.”

“So what is it?”

Samantha was quiet as she played with words, turning them over in her mind, trying them out to see if they fit, if they tasted right. Finally she settled on one, and she took a silent deep breath, once again pierced the silence. “Grateful.”

- - - -

The Next Day (Christmas Eve) . . .

“No, I will not!”

“Sam, it’s really good.”

“No, Jarod. You may like that stuff, but I don’t.”

Jarod sighed and put down the fruitcake he was holding as Samantha went back cleaning the kitchen. He sat down at the table and stared at the cake on the table. “You’re sure you don’t want to try any?” he asked.

“No, thanks,” Samantha replied. “My last encounter with fruitcake was not pleasant.”

“Really?” Jarod asked. “Someone put puffer fish in it?” Samantha shot him a confused look, which caused him to start chuckling. “Never mind.”

“Ookay,” Samantha said slowly as she finished drying the last dish then put the towel down on the counter.

Jarod glanced at his watch. “Well, I better get going,” he said as he stood up.

“Where to?” Samantha asked.

“You’ll see,” Jarod smiled. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and put it on. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” He kissed Samantha’s forehead. “Bye.”

“Later,” Samantha called after him. After she heard the front door close she grinned, walked over to the phone, and dialed a number.

- - - -

Two hours later, Jarod knocked on the apartment door. “Sam, it’s me,” he said. He waited a few moments and the door was opened by Sam. Jarod was a little surprised to see she had changed into red, velvet dress with spaghetti straps and matching heels. Her hair was pulled back with a clip.

“Hi,” she said, smiling.

“Wow,” Jarod replied, smiling back. “You look beautiful.”

“Thanks,” Samantha replied. She stepped aside and let Jarod in, closing the door behind him. Jarod stopped short when he saw the apartment. The living room had been decorated in red and green. In one corner was a tall Christmas tree, decorated in all kinds of decorations, lights, and popcorn strings. A silver star was shining on top. At the moment a saxophone instrumental version of ‘Let It Snow’ was playing softly on the stereo.

“Sam, what is this?” Jarod asked in awe.

“It’s your Christmas present,” Samantha answered. She walked over and straightened an ornament on the tree. “I figured that you never had the chance to have a real Christmas, even after you escaped from the Centre, and I know I haven’t really celebrated it myself since my adoptive parents were killed. Also, since this is our first Christmas together, I wanted it to be special.” She reached behind the tree and pulled out a red stocking with Jarod’s name on it. She handed it to Jarod. “Merry Christmas, Jarod.”

Jarod fingered the stocking as he blinked back the tears welling up in his eyes. He knew it what it was, and it moved him that Samantha had gone through all this effort. He rummaged inside the stocking and started chuckling. Inside were various Pez dispensers and two-packs of Twinkies. “Thank you,” he said softly. Suddenly, he could smell something wonderful in the air. “What’s that smell?”

“Well, Christmas wouldn’t be complete without the traditional Christmas dinner,” Samantha replied. “I have a turkey cooking in the oven, plus there’s green beans with almonds, mashed potatoes, cream corn, bread rolls, and cranberry sauce. Some people have sweet potatoes, but I never really liked them.” She could see that Jarod was on the verge of crying, even though he was smiling. “What?”

“No one’s ever done anything like this for me,” he replied. He hugged her. “Thank you.”

“It’s the least I could do after everything you’ve done for me.” She grabbed her coat off the coat rack, along with her scarf and gloves, and put them on. “And since there’s another hour left before the turkey’s going to be ready, there’s something I want us to do until then.”

“What?” Jarod asked, smiling. Samantha only smiled as she left the apartment. Jarod was right behind her.

- - - -

The snow was falling heavily as Jarod and Samantha ran through the park near their apartment, throwing snowballs at each other. Samantha shrieked as Jarod managed to stuff a snowball down the back of her coat, but she got him back by tackling him, making him fall face down into the snow. Soon, they were working on making a snowman, occasionally tossing snow at each other, but having a good time nonetheless.

After they were finished, Samantha just flopped on her back and closed her eyes as she felt the snowflakes fall on her face. “This is how it should be,” she said.

“What?” Jarod asked as he sat beside her.

“Life,” Samantha replied. “No running, no hiding . . . just enjoying life the way it was meant to be: with people you care about. No one should ever be alone, especially at this time.”

“Then why did you spend it alone in the past?” Jarod asked gently. Samantha opened her eyes and sat up.

“How did you know I spent my Christmases alone?”

“You told me,” Jarod replied. “Ever since your adoptive parents died.”

Samantha sighed. “It’s hard making friends when one is grieving, Jarod. Also, not really fitting in was another factor. I don’t know about you, but I could never really relate to many people.”

“Why not?”

“Because I get bored so easily. I would always try new things, and I’d learn how to accomplish them in no time at all; it wasn’t something that I was consciously doing, but I was good at everything - even when I tried not to be. I also liked to read. Only a couple of people could tolerate being around me because of that. Unfortunately, one is dead, and I have no idea what happened to the other one.” She looked at her watch and stood up. “Come on, the turkey’s going to be ready soon.” She walked off back to the apartment. Jarod watched her for a few moments before getting up and hurrying after her.

- - - -

“This looks delicious,” Jarod said as Samantha set a plate filled with food in front of him.

“Hope it tastes as good as it looks,” Samantha replied as she grabbed her plate and sat down across from Jarod.

“I’m sure it does,” Jarod smiled. The two started eating. Jarod’s eyes widened as he tried all the foods, each one tasting better than the last; however, his face contorted slightly as he tried the cranberry sauce. “Whoa,” he said as he swallowed it.

“What?” Samantha asked.

“It’s a little . . . tart,” Jarod replied.

“That’s how I like it,” Samantha smiled, then took a big mouthful of the cranberry sauce. She didn’t wince or contort in the least as she swallowed it.

Jarod just chuckled then went back to eating. He glanced up at Sam and saw her expression had become more sullen. “Sam, you okay?”

“I just wish my brother could be here,” Samantha replied.

“I know,” Jarod said. “Me too.”

“Jarod, do you think we’ll ever spend a Christmas where our families are with us?”

Jarod took her free hand and squeezed it. “I hope so.” Samantha gave him a grateful
smile. “In the meantime, you think you can make do with just me?”

“I think so,” Samantha replied, grinning. Jarod smiled. “So, when do I get it?”

“Get what?” Jarod asked.

“My Christmas present,” Samantha answered.

Jarod just smiled. “Just be patient, Sam.” He went back to eating. Samantha, still smiling, rolled her eyes before returning to her meal.

- - - -

“A toast,” Sydney said quietly in his living room as he raised his glass of sparkling apple cider. Parker and Broots raised theirs as well. Debbie was sound asleep on the couch, a comforter covering her. “To friends: the only things in life that truly matter.” The three friends clinked glasses and sipped their drinks. Sydney glanced at his watch. It was after midnight.

“He’s going to call,” Parker said.

“I’m not so sure,” Sydney replied. “After everything that’s happened, he might have other, more important, things on his mind.” His cell phone, which was on the kitchen table, rang suddenly. Everyone glanced into the kitchen. Parker smiled slightly as Sydney went to answer it.

“How did you know that?” Broots whispered. “Your inner sense?”

“No, Broots. I know Jarod; in the five years he’s been out, he hasn’t missed one call to Sydney during this time, and this Christmas is going to be no exception, even with everything that has happened.”

Broots glanced over at Debbie, who was stirring. He looked back at Parker, motioning and mouthing that he was going to take the girl upstairs to one of the guest rooms and put her to bed there, where she’d be more comfortable moving around. Parker nodded and gave him a little half-smile, her way of saying she approved of his fathering.

As soon as Broots had gathered up his little girl and slipped out of the room, Parker smiled to herself, reached into her shoulder bag, and withdrew a small black gift box, about the size of a large pack of diskettes, tied with an ice-blue silk mesh ribbon. She’d found it on her desk earlier that day, just the box with no note; she could have suspected that it was from Jarod, but anonymous gifts were not his style. She’d seen Broots slipping out of her office earlier that day after dropping off some files from Sydney, and she was fairly sure this gift, whatever it was, was from him. She had to admit to herself that she felt a little thrill of anticipation; mysterious gifts from friends were rare in her life - in fact, friends were rare in her life. Rather than ruin the moment by stopping to dwell on that point, she leaned forward and very carefully started to edge the ribbon off of two sides of the box.

Once she’d freed the lid, she very carefully lifted it off, then lowered the box and brought it close to her chest so that she could peer inside. As she took in the contents of the gift, something broke through inside her, and a slow smile spread across her face. Hearing Broots’ footsteps coming back down the stairs, she quickly fit the lid back on the box and tucked the gift back into her bag. She sat back in her seat and composed herself, not quite knowing how to respond to Broots’ gift, but she couldn’t keep a trace of the smile from her face.

- - - -

Sydney walked into the kitchen and picked up his cell phone. “This is Sydney,” he answered.

“Merry Christmas,” Jarod said.

Sydney smiled. “You too, Jarod. How are you enjoying the holiday?”

“It’s a lot less lonelier than my past Christmases have been,” Jarod replied.

“Having the people we care about with us always makes a holiday more special,” Sydney said.

“They do,” Jarod replied.

“By the way, how is Samantha?”

“Why don’t you ask her?” There was a few moments of silence.

“Hi, Sydney,” Samantha said.

“Hello, Samantha. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, thanks. Jarod’s . . . he’s been a great friend.” There was a pause. “Sydney, can I be honest with you?”

“Of course.”

“Jarod’s actually been more than just a friend to me; it’s like he’s accepted me as a part of his family.”

Sydney smiled. “That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering what you two have been through.”

“What do you mean?”

“For the past five years Jarod has been trying to become a part of the outside world, trying to find a place where he can belong. Unfortunately, being on the run doesn’t really provide the opportunity to allow oneself to accomplish that. However, now that Jarod has found someone like himself to connect with, despite being on the run, he’ll do everything he can to make sure that connection is never severed. That’s why he’s accepted you as his family, Samantha. You are like him, and, to him, that’s all that matters.”

Sydney couldn’t see it, but on the other end, Samantha was smiling. “Thanks, Sydney.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Can I ask you something else?”

“Certainly.”

- - - -

Samantha hesitated on the phone. She really wanted to talk to Sydney, but she wanted to do it alone. She looked at Jarod, who was sitting across the table and put her hand over the phone. “Jarod, can I talk to Sydney alone?” she asked. “Please?”

Jarod wasn’t completely hurt by Samantha’s request, but he did feel a little upset that
Samantha didn’t want to talk to him. However, he figured that Samantha was probably still feeling a little scarred by what had happened to her, so he smiled and nodded as he got to his feet, kissed her forehead, and left the kitchen. Samantha smiled as she put her ear to the phone.

“Okay,” she said.

“Everything all right?” Sydney asked.

“Yeah, I just didn’t want to upset Jarod with what I’m going to tell you. He already worries about me enough as it is.” She took a deep breath. “I had some . . . I don’t know what to call them, really, but they were like flashbacks . . . that I haven’t experienced in a long time, and it scared me.”

“Memories from your past?”

“Yeah. Why would I be having them?”

“Sometimes, an event can trigger a past memory, especially if it’s been repressed.”

“What if I want them to stop?”

Sydney sighed. “You can’t stop them, Samantha. Your past is a part of you, and if you don’t accept it, it can have devastating consequences.”

“You don’t understand, Sydney.” She hung up the phone and blinked back the tears as she buried her face in her hands and started crying softly.

Jarod walked into the kitchen and saw Samantha crying. He hurried over and knelt beside her. He didn’t say a word as he wrapped his arms around and let her cry on his shoulder, but she didn’t want any part of it. She got to her feet and hurried from the kitchen. A few moments later Jarod heard her bedroom door shut.

Jarod sighed and slowly got to his feet. He glanced suddenly at the cell phone on the table and grabbed it, dialing Sydney’s number again.

“Samantha?” Sydney’s voice answered after the first ring.

“Not quite,” Jarod replied. “What did you talk about with her?”

“Jarod, you know very well that if she didn’t want to tell you, there’s no way that I can; she came to me in confidence.”

“And she ran away from me in tears, Sydney.”

Sydney sighed. “It seems that you were right about Samantha wrestling with some inner demons. From what I can tell you, they seem to have something to do with her past, and I’m guessing it - whatever it was - was very traumatic to her.”

“Well, she did lose her parents when she was seventeen,” Jarod replied.

“I don’t think that’s it, Jarod. I think whatever happened to her in the past is somehow connected with what happened to her a few days ago.”

Jarod’s breath caught in his throat. “You don’t think . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to even finish the sentence, even though the thought was clear in his mind.

“It’s very possible,” Sydney replied solemnly. “But I don’t think now is the time to talk to her about it.”

“No,” Jarod said. “It’s not.” He hung up the phone then rubbed his face. Ever since he had been on the run with Samantha he had wanted to get to know her and what her life had been like. However, this latest revelation into her past was revealing something about her life that he wasn’t sure he wanted to know about.

Jarod sighed as he slowly got to his feet and walked back to Samantha’s bedroom. There were no sounds coming from her room. He knocked softly a couple of times. “Sam?” he asked. Nothing. “Sam?” He slowly opened the door and carefully peeked inside.

Samantha was laying on her bed, curled up in a small ball, sound asleep. Her face was streaked with drying tears, and she was hugging her pillow close to her chest. Jarod just watched her for a minute, wondering why someone so young should be so tormented. He carefully shucked his shoes and crawled onto the other side of the bed. Laying on his side, he slipped his arms around her, holding her tightly. Samantha didn’t flinch under his touch as Jarod curled her into his chest, as a parent would a child.

Before he lay his head down, he glanced over at her nightstand. A smile slowly spread across his face as he lay his head down, and slowly dozed off.

- - - -

Samantha opened her eyes and felt two strong arms wrapped around her. She titled her head and saw Jarod beside her. He was sleeping with his arms around her, almost like he was trying to protect her. Samantha blinked several times as tears fell down her face, completely moved by Jarod’s gesture.

Sydney was right: she and Jarod had so much in common, and he had accepted her as a part of his family; she knew Jarod was going to do everything in his power to make sure that he didn’t lose her, even if he didn’t know what he was fighting. She wrapped a free hand around one of his and just held it tightly. She glanced at the digital clock on her night stand. It was a little after two in the morning.

“Merry Christmas, Jarod,” she whispered as she closed her eyes.

- - - -

Sydney walked into his office the next morning and hung his coat on the coat rack. No one in the Centre knew he wasn’t coming in to catch up on some paperwork, save for Parker and Broots. He was, in fact, really coming to be with Angelo, something he had felt compelled to do for years now, but only now had the courage to actually do.

He walked over to his desk and stopped short when he saw a small package wrapped in green paper with red ribbon. A small card was tucked under the ribbon. Sydney pulled it out and saw his name scrawled on it. He opened the package carefully and saw a familiar red notebook. He flipped it open to the first page, and he read it silently:

Sydney,

I believe I have found something that might help restore Angelo’s mind. Everything you need is outlined here. If you must share this, please share this only with Miss Parker and Broots. I have calculated how long this treatment should take, which I have outlined in this notebook. I know this is asking a lot, but I would like you to do this for me. It’s very important that this be attempted; we all know how important Angelo is. I also ask that, during the treatment, you do not make any attempt to contact me. Either the treatment will work or it won’t. There is no need to risk exposing this.

There was no signature, but Sydney could tell it was written in Jarod’s handwriting. He flipped through the notebook and saw different chemical formulas and procedures, also in Jarod’s handwriting. He sighed as he closed the notebook.

“Why, Jarod?” he whispered. It had been years since both he and Jarod had concluded that, because Angelo hadn’t finished his treatment, his condition was irreversible. And even though Sydney had seen marked improvements in Angelo’s ability to communicate with others, he never gave much hope for Angelo to actually revert back to his previous personality ever again.

Still, Sydney learned that with Jarod, anything was possible. Maybe he had found some new treatment. He wasn’t sure what to think of it, but he knew that he could always trust Jarod’s judgment. He tucked the notebook into his suit jacket and left his office.

- - - -

Angelo was sitting in a corner of his space when Sydney opened the door and came in. The Empath was a little confused and startled by the psychiatrist’s appearance, but Sydney’s smile put him at ease. Sydney walked over to Angelo’s bed and sat down. Angelo got to his feet, walked over, and saw beside Sydney. Sydney pulled out a snow globe with the Empire State building, the same one he had given Jarod when he was a child, and the same one that Jarod, in turn, had given his comatose brother, Jacob, five years ago. Sydney handed the snow globe to Angelo.

“Merry Christmas, Angelo,” he said.

Angelo seemed perplexed by the object and what Sydney had told him. He had no clue as to what it meant, but he took it. He instantly felt the emotions of the object, Sydney’s emotions. They were a mixture of happy and sad emotions, but he could also feel a lot of worry from the object.

“Sydney . . . worried,” Angelo said. He looked at Sydney, knowing exactly what he was worried about. He had been feeling the same emotions, long before Sydney gave him the object. “Worried . . . worried for Samantha.”

“Yes, Angelo. I’m very worried about Samantha.”

“Angelo worried too. Jarod help her?”

Sydney gave a small smile. “Yes, Angelo. Jarod is going to do everything in his power to help her.” He patted Angelo’s shoulder as he stood up. The red notebook fell out of his jacket to the floor. Sydney reached down to pick it up, but Angelo managed to get it first. He opened it up and flipped through the pages, absorbing the emotions from it.

“Wants to know . . .,” Angelo said. “Wants to help Timmy.”

“That’s right,” Sydney replied. “Jarod wants to help Timmy.” Angelo handed the notebook back to Sydney, who put it back in his jacket. “We’ll get started on this later.” He patted Angelo’s shoulder before leaving the room.

Angelo stared at the snow globe and shook it, watching the fake snow inside swirl around. “Wants to help Timmy,” he said softly. “Wants to help Timmy.” He giggled as he shook the snow globe again.

- - - -

Jarod opened his eyes and could see sunlight filtering in through the bedroom window. He glanced down at Samantha and saw she was sound asleep. She had relaxed considerably since last night, even though she was still curled up beside him. Looking down at her, he suddenly had a vision of Emily in that position - peaceful, porcelain-faced, trusting totally in her big brother's protection and care. He played with the image for a few moments, then shook himself gently back to reality: it was Christmas morning, and he had a lot to do.

He got up from the bed, careful not to disturb the young woman and then covered her with a blanket that was bunched up on a nearby chair. He got his shoes and quietly walked out of the room, spending the next thirty minutes taking a shower and changing into some clean clothes. When he was finished he walked into the kitchen and checked the refrigerator. There was no breakfast food in the house, only leftovers from the dinner last night.

Jarod shook his head; not what he had in mind for a breakfast, not after what Samantha had done for him last night. He checked his wallet, saw he had more than enough cash for an adequate meal. He grabbed his jacket from the coat rack near the door and shrugged into his as he quietly left the apartment. He got about five steps down the hall before wheeling back into the apartment and jotting a quick note for Samantha to let her know where he was going and how long he thought he would be. He finally managed to get out of the building, taking a shortcut to a nearby store through the park across the street from the apartment complex.

Jarod was quick to notice that there was almost no one in the park as he walked down one of the paths. The only people beside himself were a woman feeding some birds and a haggard man in grungy, old clothes sleeping on a bench. The Pretender took in the sight with a sad smile as he continued his walk through the park to the store.

Jarod was the only patron there when he walked in. He grabbed a shopping basket and walked down one of the aisles as he glanced around for different foods to buy. He had in mind what he was going to fix, and he started to reach for one of the foods he planned on having when he suddenly stopped. He couldn’t get the images of those two people in the park out of his mind, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn't do something to make their Christmases a little brighter.

He put in only half of what he had originally intended to get in the first place, but what he put in he knew that Samantha would appreciate every bit of it. He picked up a canvas tote that looked sturdy enough to handle his load. He also threw in a large warm blanket he had seen on one of the aisles, three bags of birdseed, and two loaves of bread. At the checkout stand, on a whim, he picked up a delicate silver filigree dove pin and a large pair of ladies’ leather driving gloves. When he was finished, he hurried to the went to the front when he was finished. The cashier rang up the groceries, and Jarod paid for them.

After leaving the store, grocery sack in hand, and walked to a diner that was next to the store and bought a large sandwich, the largest coffee available, and a gift certificate good for twenty one meals at the diner - an entire week’s worth. Jarod cheerfully left the diner and headed back into the park. He took the blanket from the sack and covered the man that was still sleeping on the bench. Then he took the coffee, sandwich, and gift certificate and placed them in a safe spot near the bench where the man was sure to see them when he woke up.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispered as he got to his feet, grabbed his sack, and walked away. He stopped behind the woman who was feeding the pigeons. He stopped and just listened to her as she hummed a haunting but unfamiliar tune; he would ask Samantha about it later. He grabbed the pin, the gloves, the birdseed bags, and the bread from the sack and walked up behind the woman. “Merry Christmas.”

The woman turned around, startled by Jarod’s voice, but all she saw was a man in dark clothes walking away from her with a canvas sack in his arms. She stared at him until he disappeared around a bend, then glanced down. She saw the bags of birdseed and loaves of bread and smiled as she went over to pick them up. Then she stopped short as she found, lying next to the bread, a pair of good sturdy gloves held together with a dove pin; it might have been costume jewelry, but it was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given her, and the most delicate item she’d ever owned. “Merry Christmas, sir,” she whispered tearfully.

Jarod smiled to himself as he turned toward home and Samantha; he didn’t hear her expression of thanks, but a few moments later, he caught on the breeze the strains of her song again, this time with a new note of contentment.

- - - -

In the silence of the morning a pair of dark brown eyes followed the man in black on his trek through the park. When Jarod stopped to examine a fountain with fiber optic “water,” the watcher chuckled to himself in satisfaction; he knew that if he waited long enough, his prey would come to him, and so he had. The king’s knight was settled in a space, and it was time for the other player to make his move.

- - - -

“Happy Christmas, Sir Jarod.”

Jarod tore his gaze away from the unusual fountain and turned, smiling, to face his friend. “Merry Christmas . . . *Mac.*” He peered a little closer at the older man. “You took out your contacts,” he said, as his gaze was met with dark brown eyes that nearly matched his own.

The Englishman smiled ruefully. “I see you found me out. I suppose this is checkmate, then? Well, what’s the prize to be? Name it. You’ve certainly earned it.”

Jarod looked confused. “I’m sorry - a - a prize? I don’t follow . . .”

Mac laughed. “You know, anyone else and I would be looking for the angle, but you I believe. Still, the offer’s open - I always pay my debts.”

Jarod smiled at him but shook his head. “No, thanks. About the only thing I need help with right now is finding a gift for Samantha - I’ve gotten to know her pretty well over the past few months, but when it comes to gifts, I’m clueless.”

Mac smiled indulgently. “Well, then, let’s see; did she give you anything?”

Jarod grinned. “Yeah. My first real Christmas dinner, complete with tree.”

“Well, that sounds like a pretty good guess for a first Christmas gift to you. Did you have any ideas about what to do for her?”

“Yeah,” said Jarod, “but I wouldn’t know how to go about it, how to get it right. See, I thought I should probably try to get her another Beatles CD, but I don’t know which one she has so that I don’t get her that one, and I don’t know what else she likes from the Beatles, and frankly it’s been kind of hard to find music stores open when I haven’t been in class or getting someone thrown in jail lately. See my problem?”

The older man snickered. “Actually, yes, and actually, I have some experience with this kind of thing. Let me mull a moment and I’ll see if I can come up with any suggestions of where to go to get her something. So what are you doing out here on Christmas morning, and what are you two planning for the rest of your day?”

Jarod blinked at the rush of questions. “Okay. I’ll play. I’ve discovered that you were right - sometimes people just have to get away from each other, even just for a few hours. Yesterday was kind of bittersweet for us, just because of all of the stuff that’s happened to us. We ended the day on a very close note, but I have to admit that I used getting stuff to make her breakfast as an excuse to get out of the apartment for a little while, to take in some fresh air. As for the rest of the day, well, I don’t know. We’ll probably be moving on tomorrow, so I thought we’d probably take this day to just rest and enjoy the music and the holiday. I would invite you over for lunch, actually, but I know you came here to enjoy the solitude and to not have to be concerned with anyone but yourself.”

Mac looked off into the distance, his eyes just a tad wistful. “Actually, I’m finding that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be - the solitude, I mean. I think I picked a terrible time to do this; I kind of miss all the chaos of Christmas with my family. You left her there alone without telling her you were leaving?”

Jarod took the change of subject in stride and laughed at Mac’s incredulous tone. “No, in point of fact, I left her a note telling her where I was going and when I thought I’d be back. Which was, oh,” he glanced at his watch, “about twenty minutes ago. I really should be getting back, but I just can’t go back to the apartment with nothing to give her. It’s kind of a point of honor. I guess in that case I’d better see if I make up a coupon or get her a gift certificate to a music store. You have a good holiday and be safe.”

Mac grinned at him. “You have no clue what you’re doing, do you?” Jarod shook his head ruefully. Mac rolled his eyes and shook his head, but he couldn’t get the grin off of his face. He thought a moment, then slowly lit up. “Jarod, my friend, I think I may have just solved your problem and mine. I can tell you now that you’re not likely to find a place open now where you can get anything for her, but I may have an alternative.”

Jarod narrowed his eyes warily. “What are you thinking?’

Mac leaned forward and grasped Jarod’s arm gently. “Look, you don’t have to agree to this. I’m not trying to be rude or pushy. Buuuuuut . . . listen, I’d like you to consider changing your mind about not inviting me over for lunch.”

“O . . . k . . . I’d have to warn you, since we had our big dinner last night and we’re pretty much slacking today, that lunch is probably going to be leftovers, and the apartment may be kind of messy with us trying to get everything packed to move on.”

Mac shrugged. “Look, Jarod, I’ve been eating rich food for most of my life. I came out here for a change, and you and Samantha would be the first real company I’ve had in a week; having leftovers and sitting on an old couch is not gonna kill me. You don’t have to agree; I was just asking.”

“No, really, we’d love to have you, but let me ask you - why do you suddenly want to come over? What does that have to do with solving our problems?”

Mac gave Jarod a half-smile. “Because, my friend, if you invite me over for the afternoon, I think I can guarantee that you’ll be able to give your friend a gift she will never forget.”

Jarod stood dumbfounded for a moment, watching Mac’s eyes glittering in the thin morning light. It took several seconds for it to dawn on him, what the man was suggesting.

“Oh. Oh - OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!!” Mac laughed as Jarod grinned in sudden comprehension. Oh, if only he’d had a camera; a picture of Jarod’s expression would have been worth at least two verses. Jarod nodded vigorously. “In that case, Sir Mac, you are most welcome to be *my* knight in shining armor! Of course you’re welcome to come for the afternoon. I know I should probably call Sam and let her know we’re having company, but somehow I don’t think she’ll hold this one against me.”

Mac laughed good and hard. “Look, you go do what you need to do, I’ll go get some things, and we’ll meet back here in, say, twenty minutes?”

“Is that going to be enough time for you to get to your place and back here?”

“Oh, yeah. My friend’s apartment is right over there; it has a great view of the park. I have to confess, that’s why I came down this morning - I saw you down here and wanted to get a chance to thank you again for helping me the other night. I’m still amazed that someone with so much reason to be cynical would choose to risk himself for a stranger and then not ask anything in return. You may think you’re invisible sometimes, but there’s always someone watching out for the invisible ones - you taught me that, Sir Jarod.”

Jarod quirked an eyebrow. “I did? I seem to have missed that particular class, but okay. So, back here in twenty minutes or so?”

Mac nodded sharply. “The game is on.”

- - - -

Twenty minutes later, Jarod and Mac met at the fiber optic fountain as agreed. Jarod was still carrying his tote, along with a disposable camera and a few packages of red and green Twinkies he had bought while Mac went back to his friend’s apartment. Mac was carrying a covered casserole dish and a black leather backpack; he had a guitar case strapped across his back.

Jarod led the way back to his apartment. He had Mac wait a few paces down the hallway; Mac would present himself at his discretion, but Jarod knew that first he was going to have to deal with the consequences of having been MIA for nearly an hour. He took a deep breath and knocked on the apartment door.

A few seconds later the door opened to reveal a very bedraggled young woman, dressed now in her sweatpants and tank top. “Jarod!” She shouted and threw her arms around his neck, glad to see him, but then she lowered herself into an angry stance and glowered up at him. “You - you louse! How could you do this to me? I’ve been waiting here for you for nearly an hour! I worried myself sick thinking something had happened to you, that you were hurt or sick, or worse, that they had found you! What was I supposed to think, huh?”

Jarod looked pained. “I’m really sorry, Sam, really. I was on my way back from running my errands, and, well, I kinda got, you know, sidetracked.”

“With WHAT? What could possibly have occupied you for that long, Jarod?”

“Um . . . your Christmas present?”

Samantha paused for just a moment, then, “Jarod . . . ” She was speaking through her teeth. “I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if you brought me . . .” she had to think a moment, to fish out the most absurdly unlikely item she could bring to mind, “Paul McCartney’s guitar! It doesn’t excuse you from what you did, and it won’t save you, ‘cause I tell you right now, I am gonna KILL you! I’m gonna make you so miserable, and I won’t let up until I hear you say -”

“Happy Christmas, Samantha.”

A tall, older gentleman with wavy brown hair and dark chocolate eyes stepped in front of her, his thumb under his guitar strap. “I can’t let you keep it, I’m afraid, but I’ll let you have some fun with it later on, if you’ll remember that it’s a good sight older than you are.”

Samantha had her hackles and her finger up, ready to lambast this stranger, but she stopped short, her mouth working but no sound spilling forth; it was as though someone had come along and taken her ability to form coherent speech.

When she finally pulled herself together, it was only to squeak out, “Excuse me for just one moment.” She shut the apartment door, and about two seconds later, both men heard her squealing and chanting, “I can’t believe this, this isn’t happening, I can’t believe this, this is *not* happening . . .” Finally, after pinching herself and crying out in pain, she fell silent. A few moments later she slowly opened the door again, looking sheepish but somewhat more composed. She focused on the stranger, who was waiting with amused patience for her to get a grip.

“You . . . you . . . you’re . . . you . . . do you know who you are?”

He nodded slowly. “I am getting old, so I might have lost track somewhere back there, but I’m fairly certain I am who I am; things change as you age, but not *that* much.”

Sam was still breathless but slowly coming to life. “You . . . you’re . . . oh, help, you’re Paul McCartney!!”

The stranger looked like he was checking something on himself, like an invisible ID tag. “Um . . . yeah, I think that’s pretty much it, yeah.”

She finally came to her senses enough to look around and realize she was being rude. “Oh, oh my, well come in, please.” She reached out and took a fold of Paul’s sleeve and gently pulled him inside.

Jarod smiled and edged his way through the closing door. He put a hand on Samantha’s shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Samantha.”

To be continued . . .
This story archived at http://www.pretendercentre.com/missingpieces/viewstory.php?sid=3875