Forces by Jaxie
Summary: Jarod and Samantha work together to uncover the truth behind an agent's disappearance - and there is another, more deadly hunter on the trail, determined to apprehend Jarod and Samantha at any cost. Sixth story in the 'Samantha Series.' (IP)
Categories: During The Series Characters: Jarod
Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama
Warnings: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 10 Completed: No Word count: 25888 Read: 11349 Published: 23/08/05 Updated: 23/08/05

1. Prologue by Jaxie

2. Chapter 1 by Jaxie

3. Chapter 2 by Jaxie

4. Chapter 3 by Jaxie

5. Chapter 4 by Jaxie

6. Chapter 5 by Jaxie

7. Chapter 6 by Jaxie

8. Chapter 7 by Jaxie

9. Chapter 8 by Jaxie

10. Chapter 9 by Jaxie

Prologue by Jaxie
*****

Well, after much work and effort (mainly by Cas), we have the lastest chapter in the Jarod and Samantha saga. Enjoy! Oh, and Pretender and its characters belong to Steve and Craig. Any original characters (Samantha, etc.) belong to Cas and myself. Please don't use them anywhere without our permission, and don't try to sue us; we're broke! Enjoy!

*****

The moon had vanished.

The day, much like the 56 before it, had been crisp, dry, painfully bright, and remarkably warm for even a Southern winter; the temperature had hovered just above 50 degrees. The entire region was trapped under a broad high-pressure dome, turning the sprawling cities into a sort of chilled urban desert; the people who had hoped for a mild winter were now praying for a few clouds, a shower or two, or even a light snow to relieve the drought and the tension in the atmosphere. It was as if some dragon held the world within its grasp, and as long as it slumbered and didn't touch the world with its breath, all would remain ordered and in control.

But tonight, after a dusk that brought a glowing full moon, an antiseptically clear sky, and a breeze to brush through the cold air, the high-pressure dome shattered like an egg. The sleeping dragon awoke, not with a roar but with ominous silence. The breeze died, and with it, most of the electrical current that supplied this part of the Metroplex. The temperature plummeted twelve degrees in as many minutes. The air simply ceased to move as if it had never stirred. The dying light from the street lamps only briefly painted reddish-brown on the bases of oily black clouds that suddenly smothered the sky. The cold, the darkness, and the silence pressed in on the city like giant claws, and the moon had vanished as if swallowed.

The woman and two men standing on the ridge above the city watched all this happen, their unease palpable. The woman, leaning against the black sedan and wishing she hadn't quit smoking, hissed and shivered slightly, trying to hide her reaction to the bite of cold and tension; the younger man draped a coat over her shoulders and was rewarded with an epithet. Accustomed to her venom, he simply shrugged and returned to his chosen spot, about ten feet away and clear of the trees. He resumed his search for a clear frequency between his tiny computer and mobile phone, but the cell grid for the area was temporarily out of service, and as he kept trying to bypass the dead frequencies, the darkness hid the trembling of his hands.

The older man simply rolled his eyes and leaned against a tree, tugging his hat down to shield his eyes so that he appeared to be dozing. The woman had switched on the car's low beams to light the clearing on the ridge, but the beams only penetrated a few yards into the night; the darkness was like heavy velvet, absorbing light and giving back nothing but friction.

It was no use. Of course he wasn't coming. The whole rendezvous was a farce, a setup to get her and her team out of the way while her self-appointed supervisor tried to make himself look good in front of their bosses. Every time someone mentioned this man, this hunter, even her supervisor shuddered-for decades, stories about the hunter were used to scare younger associates into obeying orders. In truth, she'd grown up assuming that the stories were exaggerated, and by the time she had served her first year, she had her own theory about the hunter - he was about as real as the gypsy dragon in her mother's favorite Russian legend. The only reason she'd even bothered to show up tonight was because she couldn't afford the risk of disobeying orders. She'd put in her hour, so now she could report what she already knew and be done with it.

The woman turned to order her companions back into the car, having just made a unilateral decision to haul hard to a hotel in the nearest town with power. She was cold, tired, and bored, and sure that her time was being wasted, time she could be spending on other pursuits. She drew a breath, the cold in the air knifing into her smoke-damaged lungs; she had to clamp down to keep from coughing, and while she sputtered she waved to the two men, willing them to respond to a gesture she herself could barely see.

"Are we ready to take care of business?"

Startled, the woman released a cough accompanied by a curse. She whirled on her heel as her two companions closed ranks toward her, all three of them scanning the area around them. The voice, like distant thunder, had come from a spot just to the left of the limit of the headlights-the shadows there were like bleeding black, so deep that the younger man felt as though he could drown trying to see anything in them.

"We've been ready for an hour; where have you been?" The woman spoke through clenched teeth, but the remark came out as more of a mutter. The older man touched her shoulder briefly from behind, his way of nudging her into more prudent silence. He drew himself up to his full height and waited with calm expectation.

The three team members peered into the darkness to the left of the beams' reach; they were caught off-guard and the woman nearly drew and fired as a figure emerged from the shadows about twenty feet farther to the right.

He walked out of the darkness like a ghost. His features were nearly indiscernible, but he appeared to be just shy of six feet tall, with obsidian hair, pale skin, and a compact build. He was wearing a black suit with a black shirt and tie and a full-length coat that matched the night. His shoes made no sound on the parched ground littered with dead twigs; he seemed to stride just above the surface. His eyes glowed from within, an indiscernible color; as he neared the trio, he deftly covered his eyes with opaque black shades, though whether to hide his eyes from scrutiny or to shield them from the proximity of the headlights, only he knew. His hands were sheathed in matte black leather gloves. He reminded the woman of a panther - or something darker, something that existed only in myth.

The dragon had emerged.

He glided over to the woman, stopping just a foot and a half from her. How he could see anything in the dark through the shades, she couldn't fathom. She got the distinct feeling, deep in her spine, that he could see through them and that he was seeing straight into the core of her; the thought sent a chill down her spine, colder than the air around her, and she shivered sickeningly in the pit of her stomach.

"Do you have a hearing problem?"

She jumped slightly when he spoke - his voice sounded even more like distant thunder or like one heavy stone grinding against another. He had a thick accent, and it annoyed her that she could not place it. "Pardon me?" She tried to sound dangerous but didn't quite manage her normal edge. There was just something about him. She was standing face to face with this man, this hunter, with whom she'd be working to accomplish her mission. He was the best, the fastest, the most efficient man-hunter that considerable money could discreetly buy, he was here to help her achieve her goals and hence her freedom, and even better, he terrified her supervisor. There was only one problem with this situation.

The man standing before her

didn't

exist.

Ghost or not, he was real enough for her to see the thin steam of his breath as he impatiently spoke again.

"Did you or did you not hear me? I asked you a question: are you ready to do your job? Or do you not know what your job is?"

The woman drew herself up, willing steel into her spine and a measure of control into her voice - showing this man blatant disrespect would be nearly as dangerous as showing weakness or fear. Gritting her teeth, she said as respectfully as she could manage, "We are ready, and have been for some time. All the elements are in place. The weather, which our industrious superiors have yet to learn to control, is making it difficult to proceed with the next phase of the plan. However," she said, gesturing toward her two colleagues, "we're well on our way to finding a way around the problem. I think you'll find that we know our jobs very well. After all, there's a reason we've been permanently assigned to this project - our superiors know we're the best; we know everything there is to know about this case."

The hunter chuckled in a slightly amused, lethal sort of way. "You don't know me." The woman seethed with the knowledge that he was right - she didn't know him, but in the next moment he stunned her with his casual contempt for her and her skill and reputation. Silently, fluidly, he turned his back on her, making her itch to pull her gun and see if the mythical dragon could outfly a bullet. Her hard-won self-discipline and determination to remain living were the only forces that kept her still. As a drum roll of thunder and lightning licked the sky, the man gazed down over the darkened city, walking a few feet toward the shadows with predatory grace. His next words were low and seemed to ride on a current of thunder, making her wonder if she really heard them.

"You will report to the main nerve centre as soon as the power is restored, and you will await my instructions there. I suggest you use the time to compile thorough reports for me, and to contemplate why you have thus far failed to produce results. Insolence alone cannot explain so many mistakes."

Just as the woman's mind was processing his words and forming a biting response, white fire arced between the sky and the ground nearby, pulverizing a tree about fifteen feet from the car. The woman ducked and crouched, covering her eyes against the flash, then rose to her feet again as soon as she realized she was safe. The entire incident had taken perhaps eleven seconds, but as she glanced up she saw that the hunter was gone. He'd flown into the night as if he'd never been there, and only her memories and her burning anger convinced her that she had not imagined him.

The dragon was gone, and the world had just become a much darker and more dangerous place.

(End of Prologue)
Chapter 1 by Jaxie
- - - -

Fort Worth, Texas

“Sam, breakfast is ready!” Jarod shouted as he finished setting two plates with hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes at the kitchen table of their apartment. He was all ready for the day and the Pretend that he and Samantha were about to go into at the local FBI field office. As usual, Jarod had all the bases covered. He was dressed in a white dress shirt, black suit, tie, and shoes. Underneath his jacket was his gun, securely in his shoulder holster. His badge and ID were in his pocket within easy reach. When Samantha didn’t answer, he left the kitchen and walked down the hall to her bedroom. He looked in and noticed that she was still in bed, curled up, in her night clothes.

“Sam?” he asked.

“Go away,” she replied curtly.

“Sam, your breakfast is getting cold,” Jarod said. “And you should be dressed by now.”

“I’m not eating,” she replied.

“Well, aren’t you going to at least get dressed?”

“When I feel like it.”

Jarod sighed. “Look, Sam, I understand you’re in a lot of pain, but -”

Samantha was out of bed and in his face in an instant. “Jarod, you may be a Pretender, but there is no way on God’s green earth that you could possibly understand what I’m going through, unless you were a woman. You can’t understand what it’s like to have your uterus feel like it’s twisting into a pretzel once a month, to have your shoes not fit because you’re ankles have blown up like two balloons, and to have your head feel like it’s in a vice and looking at lights makes you want to throw up, all because your friend forgot to get your Mydol like he said he would, okay?”

“Sam, it was an honest mistake. I really didn’t mean -”

Samantha stopped him by holding her hand up. “If you value your life, Jarod, do not say another word.” Jarod kept his mouth shut as Samantha grabbed her clothes, brushed by Jarod, and marched to her bathroom. Jarod was on her heels, but before he could say anything else, she walked into the bathroom and slammed the door shut in his face.
Jarod sighed as he heard the water going. He was really having second thoughts about Samantha joining him on their latest Pretend, but he knew if he told her to stay put, he’d have to deal with her wrath, and that was not something he would want to look forward to. He thought of a way he could help improve her mood, and it clicked. He smiled as he headed for the front door.

“Sam, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said over his shoulder as he opened the door.

The door opened and Samantha came out. She hadn’t even started undressing yet. “Where are you going?” she demanded.

“You’ll see,” Jarod replied.

“Jarod, I swear, if you’re up to something, I will personally take my gun and shoot you!” Jarod didn’t respond as he closed the door behind him. Samantha grumbled as she went back into the bathroom.

The Pretender returned minutes later with a small shopping bag behind his back. Samantha was standing in the living room waiting for him, having showered and was now dressed in a women’s black pantsuit with a white blouse and black shoes. She had her arms folded, and she was glaring at Jarod.

“Hi,” Jarod replied, smiling. “I have a surprise for you. Close your eyes.” Samantha still glared. “It’s not a bad surprise. I promise.”

“Yeah, why don’t I believe you?” Samantha replied.

“Sam,” Jarod said gently. “Please.” The young woman sighed, but she closed her eyes. She could hear Jarod rustling around in the bag, then silence. She felt him put something on her face. “Okay, open your eyes.”

Samantha opened her eyes and saw that the world had changed. Everything was grayer and slightly darker than before. She knew she was wearing a pair of sunglasses, and she must have looked a bit shocked, because Jarod just smiled more.

“They’re sunglasses,” Jarod replied. “For your headache. Predator Ray Bans, oval wrap, black matte; plastic, gray, reflective lens; smudge, scratch and impact resistant, and a full warranty with UV protection.”

Samantha just stared at him, not sure what to do. She had been all set to let loose into him with a sharp remark, but his peace offering had put a damper in her bite. However, even though she knew he could tell he had calmed her somewhat, she wasn’t going to act like he did. She pushed the bridge of the Ray Bans further up her nose, checked her shoulder holster under her jacket one last time to make sure her gun was secured, checked her pockets for her ID and badge. Everything was ready.

“Let’s go,” she said curtly, pushing past Jarod and opening the door. She stopped short when she saw him head into the kitchen. She heard some noises, then he returned a few minutes later. “What were you doing?”

“Throwing away our breakfast,” Jarod replied. “I’ll get us something to eat on the way to work.” Samantha just grunted as she left, not bothering to glance behind her to make sure he was following her. Therefore, she missed the huge grin that Jarod had on his face, knowing the gift he had gotten her helped calm her down, even if she didn’t want to admit it.

- - - -

Samantha and Jarod walked into the briefing room of the Fort Worth FBI field office. Samantha was still wearing her sunglasses, and both she and Jarod were sipping cups of coffee and carrying some papers and pens. They took a couple of empty seats on the right side of the room, away from the other agents as they conversed among themselves. The Pretenders were silently going through their papers when someone approached them. They glanced up and saw a young man in his late twenties, with brown-red hair and green eyes, wearing a suit. He was also grinning at the Pretenders - more precisely, Samantha.

“You must be the new agents we’ve heard about,” he said.

“Certainly not the tooth faeries,” Samantha muttered, going back to her papers.

“I’m Agent J. B. Clyde,” Jarod replied. “And this is S.J. Parker, my partner.”

“Nice to meet you,” the young man nodded. “I’m Agent Vince Curtis.” He looked at Samantha. “Look, uh, I know we just met, but do you want to have lunch with me?”

“Rather not,” Samantha said curtly without looking up. “I have plans.”

“What kind of plans?”

“Plans that don’t involve you,” Samantha answered. She looked up. “Unless your idea of a good time is having your head separated from your shoulders, because you persisted in annoying me. If that’s the case, I’m free at twelve.”

“On second thought, I just remembered I have something do to today,” Curtis replied, backing up slowly. “Perhaps another time.” He left.

“Jerk,” Samantha muttered.

“You’re starting to sound like another Parker I know,” Jarod replied wryly.

"Don't even start with me, Jarod," Samantha said. "And don't compare me to that huntress chasing us, because I am this close-" she held her index finger and thumb millimeters apart "- to pulling out my gun and shooting you as it is."

Jarod put up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Hey, hey, easy there. Okay, I'll shut up now.” He watched for Samantha's curt nod.

Oh, yeah, he thought. Definitely like Parker. Jarod went back to his papers. He glanced up as the room got eerily quiet, noticing that all the agents were seated and watching a lone figure walk into the room. He looked at Samantha and saw she was also watching the man walk to the podium in the front and face the small room.

“First of all,” he said in a voice that commanded immediate attention, “I can see that our two new agents seemed to have found their way here without any problems.” He looked directly at both Pretenders. “Welcome to the Fort Worth FBI. I’m Assistant SAC Steele. I’ve seen both of your records, so we can dispense with any formalities. Now, Agent Parker, if you’ll remove your shades, we can begin.”

“I’d rather keep them on, sir,” Samantha replied.

“That wasn’t a request, Parker. Remove your sunglasses. *Now.*”

“No,” Samantha said curtly. “I’m keeping them on. *Sir.*”

Steele just narrowed his eyes at the young woman as the room became silent. Jarod looked over at Samantha, but she looked just as determined as Steel did; she was holding her ground. Steele just shuffled his papers then went into his briefing for the day.

“That is all,” he said after he was finished. He grabbed his papers, and everyone watched him leave the podium and walk over to Jarod and Samantha. He looked down at the young woman. “My office, Agent Parker. Immediately.” Without waiting for an affirmative, he left. As the agents gathered their things, a few came over to the two, including Curtis.

“You must be either really stupid or really brave,” he said.

“And why is that?” Samantha asked, gathering her things.

“That’s Agent Steele,” another agent, another agent who'd identified himself as Jason Tucker, answered. “*The* Agent Steele. Surely you’ve heard of him.”

“Actually, we’ve both been really busy,” Jarod replied.

“Yeah, solving cases, like we’ve been trained to do,” Samantha added snidely.

“Who’s Agent Steele?” Jarod asked, ignoring Samantha’s remark.

“No one really knows,” Curtis said. “He’s like the Bogeyman of the FBI.”

“Rumor has it that he is a person you don’t want to cross,” Tucker added.

Samantha stood up, looking right at the other agents. “Well, I can assure you that Agent Steele is nothing compared to me.” She left with Jarod right behind her.

“Sam, I really think it would be best if you -”

“If I what?” Samantha asked curtly, glaring at Jarod from underneath her sunglasses as they walked to their desks in another part of the building. They were pushed up together on one side of a large room, facing each other. Jarod sat as his while Samantha put her stuff down on hers. “Look, Jarod, don’t worry about me, okay? I think I can handle one Federal Agent on my own.” She left Jarod and walked over to Steele’s door, knocking on it confidently.

“Enter,” Steele’s voice replied. Samantha took a deep breath and opened the door. She stepped inside the office and was immediately hit by an invisible force; she felt it wash over her, and she shuddered involuntarily as her neck tingled. She glanced at Steele. He was sitting calmly at his desk, reading a file.

“Have a seat, Agent Parker,” he replied, not looking up. “And shut the door.” Samantha shut the door and walked over to the single seat in front of Steele’s desk. She gingerly sat down, eyeing the dark man with wariness as her confidence diminished slightly. “I see you have yet to remove your sunglasses.” He went back to reading the file silently then closed it and put it on his desk. He leaned forward.

“Agent Parker,” he said in a low voice, his expression hard, “what gives you the right to come into my department and disregard my orders?”

Samantha sat tall. Despite her uneasy feelings about this man and trying to concentrate on keeping her wits about her, she was wondering why she was being bombarded by all those unusual emotions, but she quickly chalked it up to psychological suggestion from the agents’ warnings about Steele to her earlier. And she still wasn’t feeling well, and no one, not even this Agent Steele, was going to try to intimidate her.

“Well, it’s quite simple, actually,” she replied. “I just don’t feel like following orders today. Sir.”

Steele just stared at her for a few moments before getting up and walking around. He stood behind her, but Samantha didn’t bother turning to look at him - partially because something about him made her teeth itch and her nerves burn; she wasn't entirely sure she could move her spine with him standing so close. “I’ve read your file, Parker. Count your blessing you have such a good record, because there are a couple of things about you that would have had you thrown out of here, otherwise.”

“Such as?” Samantha asked curtly.

“Your psychological evaluation, for one thing,” Steele replied. “You haven’t been working for the FBI for long, but you already have a history of insubordination: you don’t follow rules, you don’t listen, you constantly defy orders.” He leaned over until he was two inches from her ear. “But I’m sure that I can remedy that *very* quickly.” Samantha glanced back at his without moving her head as he stood straighter. “Second,” he continued, “your file is incomplete.”

“What do you mean incomplete?” Samantha asked.

“Your firearms qualification is missing,” Steele replied as he walked over and sat down at his desk. Samantha furrowed her eyebrows. She had watched Jarod when he put together their files for the Pretend, so she knew her file was complete when he sent it off. “Now, procedure dictates you are not to do any field work until your qualification is in. So, you have two options: first, you can spend all your time behind a desk until the next round of qualification comes up - in two weeks.”

“Or?” Samantha asked. There was no way she was going to spend her entire Pretend behind a desk.

“Or you can take your qualification right now,” Steele answered. He looked directly at her. “With me as your supervisor.”

Samantha looked back at him through her shades. He didn’t have to know her that well to know he was putting her in a Catch 22 situation, and he knew she knew that. However, Samantha was not easily daunted. She nodded curtly. “I’ll take the qualification now,” she replied, mustering all her strength to will herself not to cower under that stealthy gaze.
“Good. I’ll see you in a few moments. Dismissed.” Samantha stood up and left the office, closing the door behind her. She had to lean slightly against the door frame and catch her breath as her heart pounded in her chest, trying to comprehend these sensations. She glanced around and saw a few agents giving her odd looks, so she recomposed herself, took a deep breath, and walked over to Jarod.

“Thanks a lot,” she hissed as she walked past him and sat at her desk.

“What?” he asked, looking up.

“My firearms qualification is missing,” she replied in a low voice, leaning forward.

“What do you mean missing?” Jarod asked in a low voice.

“Missing, like *gone*,” Samantha answered.

“Sam, I can assure you that the record was complete when I sent it off.”

“Well, it isn’t now and, because of that, I get to spend my morning with the Dark Lord of the Sith at the firing range. Not exactly how I want to be spending my morning.”

“I can assure you, it’s not the number one priority on my list of things to do today, either,” Steele replied as he walked up, startling both Pretenders. They glanced at each other, not sure how much of their conversation Steele had heard. “Agent Parker, if you’re ready.”

“Sir, would it be possible for me to accompany Agent Parker?” Jarod asked. Despite Samantha’s attitude regarding Steele, he had seen the young woman flinch and become uneasy around him, and Jarod wasn’t going to let her face him alone if he could help it.

“No, that would not be possible, Agent Clyde,” Steele answered. “You have work to do, and I suggest you get started on it.” He glanced at Samantha as she got to her feet. “I’ll be back shortly, and so will Agent Parker if she behaves herself.” Samantha and Jarod shared one last glance before the young woman left with Steele. Jarod watched them leave as he leaned back in his chair, wondering if what the other agents said about Steele had some validity to it.

Jarod couldn't help feeling that Steele reminded him vaguely of a dangerous animal; there was something almost feline about his movements, his piercing gazes. Jarod decided, in light of Samantha's obvious agitation and his own growing feelings of unease, that Agent Steele was now something of a - a special case. He was a variable, a wild card, and the Pretender had learned that he couldn't afford to lose track of anything he couldn't predict or control.

Just as Jarod leaned forward, still watching the receding backs of the protégé and the panther, Tucker walked by on his way to the copy room. “Ah, Agent Tucker, sorry to bother you, but can I ask you an odd question?”

Tucker stopped and half-smiled. “Sure - whatcha wanna know? How to rush a fax report or how to get onto Instant Messenger without Old Steelespleen knowing?”

Jarod just gave Tucker an odd look as he replied, “No. Ah, actually, I was, uh, hoping you could, uh, explain something for me real quick.”

Tucker cocked his head. “Such as?”

Jarod cocked an eyebrow. “What, exactly, is a dark lord of the Sith?”

Tucker stared at Jarod for a moment, then shook his head, chuckling. "Clyde, my man, if you have to ask me that, then you are in the *wroooong* galaxy." He was still laughing as he sauntered away.

- - - -

The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

“Yes, I understand,” Lyle said as he sat at his desk. The phone was cradled between his shoulder and his head as he tried finding some papers. “Yes, I know they were supposed to return this morning, but there was a delay with their flight . . . I know -” He was cutoff by the person on the phone, but he knew better than to talk back to any Tower personnel, so he just hardened his _expression and seethed quietly.

“Yes, sir,” he said after a few moments. “I understand . . . yes, sir.” He hung up the phone and sighed, frustrated. He muttered as he started looking through the papers on his desk.

“Having fun?”

Lyle didn’t even have to look up to see who it was; he recognized the voice. “Don’t you ever knock?”

“Yes,” Cox replied as he came in, letting the door shut behind him. “But I much prefer coming in unannounced. Makes it easier to see you unbalanced.” He came over and sat down in a chair in front of Lyle’s desk.

“I am *not* unbalanced,” Lyle replied as he looked up. “The Tower was expecting a status report this morning. But guess what? My sister and her stooges haven’t arrived from their meeting on schedule. No arrival means no status report, and no status report means that the Tower is breathing down *my* neck. Rest assured Miss Parker and the others will be hearing about this when they *do* return.”

“You’re just upset you weren’t allowed to go,” Cox replied snootily as he removed a pair of black, leather gloves. “Though, to be honest, I can see why you *weren’t* allowed to tag along. That operative would have eaten you alive.”

Lyle got to his feet, leaning over his desk, his hands resting on the edge, his _expression hard. In reality, he *was* glad that he hadn’t been told to go with Miss Parker and her chase team. Reputation at the Centre was a good indication of a person’s abilities, and from what he had heard about this mysterious Tower operative, he had every reason to be scared, but there was no need to show that weakness to Cox. “I beg to differ, Mr. Cox. That hot shot Tower operative may have everyone at the Centre scared of him, but I’m less than convinced of his abilities. I can guarantee you that if I had gone instead of those three, and he tried anything, I would have taken him apart piece by piece.”

“Neither of you has the brass to disassemble a hamburger, let alone a man who is superior to you in every way.” Both Cox and Lyle looked to the source of the unmistakable wheezing voice and saw Raines standing at the entrance to Lyle’s office, holding one of the doors open with one hand, his other hand clutching the oxygen tank. Both men were clearly startled by the sudden presence of the other man, so wrapped up in their argument that they didn’t hear the usual squeaking of the tank’s wheels. Raines came in, the door shutting behind him as the wheels squeaked.

Cox stood, decidedly insecure with being physically subset in the presence of Raines. “You’re feeling well, I take it,” he said, trying to sound faintly patronizing.

“A lot better than you two will be if you don't get your act together,” Raines wheezed, glaring slightly. “The Tower is not happy with the apparent lack of progress involving one of their operatives.”

“If those - people - in the Tower want to get onto anyone’s case about the lack of progress,” Lyle replied, “they should be getting onto Miss Parker’s. She has yet to arrive from her meeting with *their* operative. If you want my opinion -”

“I do not,” Raines interrupted. “I want results. What’s the status on Jarod and Samantha?”

“Same as usual,” another voice said. The three men looked up and saw Parker standing in the door way. She smirked at Lyle’s surprised expression. “Hello, little brother.”

“It’s about time you returned,” Lyle replied as his expression hardened.

“You’re late,” Raines added.

“Couldn’t be helped,” Parker replied as she came in. “Problems at the airport.”

“The Tower wants your status report,” Lyle said. “They want to know everything that happened at your meeting.”

“The meeting was a waste of time,” Parker replied. “Their so-called operative is certifiably psychotic. We don’t need any more people running around the country after Jarod and Samantha. I say we cut him from the picture and he goes back under whatever rock he slithered out from.”

“You’re in no position to be saying anything,” Raines wheezed. “You are to do as you’re told.”

“And what makes you think *you’re* in any position to tell me what to do?” Parker challenged, folding her arms across her chest.

“Well, would you prefer that I be your supervisor?” The all turned at the sound of the deep voice, but Raines was the only one not surprised by the newcomer’s appearance. He smiled warmly at the brunette. “Just like old times.”

“Daddy?” Parker whispered.

(End of Part 1)
Chapter 2 by Jaxie
- - - -

Samantha took careful aim from behind her sunglasses and the safety glasses she was required to wear on the range, and fired her weapon repeatedly. The room echoed with each gunshot, and the young woman was glad she had her ears covered since her headache was still present - though not as intense anymore. When she was finished, she removed her ear and eye protection - but left her sunglasses on - as Steele brought her target in. She had hit her marker every time, and the young woman couldn’t help but give a small, satisfied smile, but when she glanced over at the older agent, her smile vanished; Steele looked unimpressed as he kept his eye and ear protection on.

Wordlessly, he took her target off and put on a new one. He reeled it out to the farthest distance on the firing range, farther than Samantha’s target had been. Samantha backed away and her heart quickened when Steele took his gun out of his holster. He took careful aim at the target then glanced at her. Samantha shook herself from her stupor and quickly put her ear and eye protection on.

Steele glanced back at his target, took aim, and fired multiple times. He removed his gear and put it down as he reeled in his target. Just like Samantha, he had hit his mark every time. He didn’t say a word as he removed the target, wadded it up, and threw it in a nearby garbage can.

“So, do I pass?” Samantha asked, slightly annoyed by the blatant and arrogant display of testosterone Steele had given. She had managed to not focus all her attention on it, but her neck was still tingling, and she was still feeling very uneasy about this man, especially since Jarod wasn’t there and they were alone.

“You passed,” Steele replied. He picked up his gun and removed a new clip from his pocket. “But don’t be thinking you’re out of the woods yet, Parker. I’ll still be keeping my eye on you.”

“Really?” Samantha asked, folding her arms.

“Really,” Steele answered. He loaded the clip into his gun and readied it. The noise echoed like thunder, startling the young woman. Steele leaned over, trying to pierce through the young woman’s eye protection and glasses, but he couldn’t. “Make no mistake about that.” He stood tall, put his gun back in his holster, and walked away, leaving Samantha by herself.

The young woman removed her ear and eye protection, but she left her sunglasses on as she let her breath out slowly. She was starting to regret being so insubordinate to Steele earlier, knowing it was because of that she was being treated the way she was. Still, she made a mental note to talk to Jarod about what the agent had said to her when she returned. She quickly put a new clip in her gun and put the gun back in her holster before hurrying to catch up with her only ride back to the field office.

- - - -

Broots was going up the stairs of the Sim Lab, reading some papers Sydney had given him, when Parker came walking up the stairs. He barely had time to look up and register her sudden appearance before she grabbed his arm tightly, and pulled him down the stairs with her. The two made their way over to Sydney’s office, where she pushed open the door without knocking. Sydney looked up from his work as Parker shoved Broots in and closed the door behind her

“Hey, hey, what’s the big deal?” Broots said, nearly stumbling over his own feet. “I was on my way to call up the neighbors and see how Debbie was doing.”

“Something’s come up,” Parker replied. “Debbie can wait. Believe me.”

“Miss Parker, is everything okay?” Sydney asked.

“Well, that all depends, Syd; if your definition of ‘okay’ is descending from a cat with who knows how many lives left to spend, coming in to work to have to answer to a rat, a weasel, a snake, and a ghost, then yeah, everything’s just hunky dory!” She patted her suit pockets fruitlessly as she paced. “Only *I* would have my cigarettes confiscated by airport security.”

Sydney’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline. "I thought you had gotten rid of all of your cigarettes, since you were *ahem* so determined to quit."

Parker gave him a wounded, defensive look. "Well, now, apparently I have. Can we get on with the issue at hand?"

Sydney rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Now what's this about cats and rodents and ghosts?"

Parker stalked back and forth across the confined space, eerily like the cat she’d mentioned, caged inside her own concerns and prowling for a weakness in the structure. Sydney sat back in his chair, Broots standing uncomfortably behind him, as she detailed - loudly and colorfully - how her world had just been overturned once again. He couldn’t say he was all that surprised, but this did put something of a new spin on how they would conduct business now - possibly including how they would deal with the man he’d privately labeled the Hunter.

Outside in the hall, Mr. Parker listened, smiling to himself, secretly pleased that he still possessed the ability to keep the young woman off-balance; having her around was a calculated risk, but he felt much more comfortable keeping her close, where he could keep his eye on her and, if necessary, control her.

He mentally sighed as he caught the faint sound of squeaking wheels approaching him. He turned before Raines could speak, and was again pleased to see that the smaller man was slightly discomfited at having failed to surprise his colleague. Raines recovered quickly, though, subtly reaching for the upper hand in this situation.

“Ranting again?” He leaned over slightly, cocking one ear toward the doors, then pulled back and stood straight. “Well, no matter; if she wishes to survive in this environment, she will have to learn to accept that she will never have any control over anything, even her own life. I think I have been most generous thus far in overlooking her history of insubordination and allowing her to continue to serve the Centre; from now on, if she values her life here, she will have to learn to show some gratitude and respect for those who are better than her.” He had to stop to wheeze for a moment before continuing. "In any case, Miss Parker is for the moment obsolete - the operative from the Tower is top gun; the organization has never found a better man. It’s refreshing to finally work with a true equal.”

Mr. Parker winced slightly at the mention of the Tower man - he refused to fall into the trap of trying to prove that he was a match for some foreign upstart, but he knew first-hand that the man was more lethal than his physical stature made him seem. Mr. Parker was nothing if not shrewd, and he fully intended to keep a sharp watch on this new player and to stay as far out of the hunter’s path as Mr. Parker’s own agenda would allow - nothing could be permitted to interfere with his plans.

- - - -

Jarod was sitting at his desk, going through the case he and Samantha were supposed to be working on when he felt a small tingle on the back of his neck. He reached up to rub it away, but it wouldn’t go away. He looked up as Steele walked by his desk. He glanced momentarily at Jarod before walking to his office. Jarod felt a shiver on his spine as he watched the agent disappear into his office, but it passed quickly. He glanced back as Samantha came walking to her desk and all but fell into her chair. She looked very upset.

“So, how did it go?” Jarod asked.

“I don’t like that man,” Samantha replied in a hushed voice.

“You did pass, didn’t you?”

“Of course I passed. I got a perfect score.”

“So, what happened?”

Samantha sighed and leaned forward. “Jarod, I think he was threatening me,” she said in a hushed voice.

Jarod suddenly sat up straighter and leaned forward, looking concerned. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Samantha looked around, making sure no one was in hearing distance. She glanced briefly at Steele’s closed door then took a deep breath as she looked back at Jarod. “After I finished my shooting, he took out his gun and fired fifteen rounds into a new target. Then he turned to me and said that he was still going to keep his eye on me - as he loaded a fresh clip into his gun and walked away.”

“Sam, maybe you -” He stopped when he saw the young woman’s fearful expression. He sighed as he reached over and took her hand. “Look, if it makes you feel any better, just stay close to me, okay?” He gave her his boyish grin, which made her smile. “Feel better?”

“Yeah,” Samantha replied. “Thanks.”

Jarod said up straighter. “We better get to work. Last thing we need is a reason for the Sith Lord to come out and yell at us.”

Samantha smiled. “You know what I was referring to?”

“Actually, not really,” Jarod replied. “I tried asking one of the agents, but he just laughed at me.” Samantha gave a small smirk, causing Jarod to raise an eyebrow. “What?”

“Nothing,” Samantha said, still smiling. She paused. “Can we run by Wal-Mart after work?”

“Uh . . . I guess . . .” Jarod said slowly. “Why?”

“It’s a surprise,” Samantha grinned. “Now, what’s on today’s agenda? I mean, I know what’s on our agenda, but where do we start?”

Jarod couldn’t help but smile at her eagerness to begin their work, but he knew it was a far from light-hearted case that they were working on: an agent from that field office, Jim Trask, had been missing for a week. Normally, Jarod would have not bothered looking for a missing agent, knowing there were missing children - vulnerable children - who could have used both his and Samantha’s help, but there was just something that jumped out at Jarod when he had read the newspaper article. He still couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly, but Samantha was accepting of their new mission just the same.

A little too quick, though, Jarod thought. He wasn’t sure if it was the fact that being a Federal Agent was dangerous, or if he was still concerned for Samantha’s safety after her attack in Boston the previous Christmas . . . or both. Jarod sighed as he rubbed his head.

“Hey, Jarod,” Samantha’s voice snapped him out of his little world. He looked over at her concerned face. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry. Now, here’s what we’ve got so far; I figure if we approach this like a brain teaser, we can see the holes in our research and then plug in some variables and see where it takes us.” As he starting hashing out the details, he avoided the doubtful look Samantha was giving him, concentrating instead on the case at hand. Glancing up and deciding he needed to distract her if only to save himself, he passed the file over the desk to her. “Now, tell me what we’ve got so far.”

Samantha bit her tongue as she took the file and opened it, knowing better than to say anything to him at that moment. “Well,” she said, reading, “according to the file, Trask left on Friday like he always did; he visited his nephew in Tulia every weekend; he would fly out to Lubbock then rent a car and drive the rest of the way, and it appears that he never missed a weekend. Ever.” She smiled wistfully. “Lucky nephew. Anyway, Monday came along, and by lunchtime Trask still hadn’t shown up, so a couple agents went over to find his place ransacked.

“There was no forced entry, his car was still in its usual spot in the parking lot, and the only fingerprints they found in the place belonged to Trask. The neighbors don’t recall hearing anything out of the ordinary at anytime during the weekend. When the agents called Trask’s sister and brother-in-law they learned that Trask never made it to Tulia, and when they viewed the surveillance tapes at the airport they didn’t see any sign of him, so they’re assuming he never made it to the airport for his flight. Oh, and Trask is widowed, no children, not seeing anyone, and doesn’t seem to have any enemies.” She looked up. “And that appears to be it.” She closed the file. “That being said, what’s our next move?”

Jarod leaned back in his chair, folding his hands and thinking. “I think we should go to Trask’s apartment,” he said after a few moments. “The FBI may not have found anything, but that doesn’t mean they knew what they were looking for.”

“That’s assuming there’s anything to find at his place,” Samantha added. “I’m not doubting you, but there’s a big variable in this equation, and the answer we’re looking for rides on how Trask disappeared.”

“I know,” Jarod replied. “That’s why we’re going to start over on this investigation. Remember what we are, Sam. We have the ability to look beyond what the other agents might have missed and that could end up giving us the answers we need to find out what really happened to Trask.”

“Ah, the joy of being the few, the talented, the pretenders,” Samantha smiled wryly, mocking the Marines slogan as she and Jarod got to their feet.

“Excuse me,” Steele said as he walked up to the pair. They stopped in their tracks. “Where do you two think you’re going?”

“Out,” Samantha mumbled under her breath.

Jarod shot her a quick glare before straightening up and looking nonchalant. “We’re going to get the paperwork regarding that money laundering case the Texas Rangers are assisting us on.” The pretender was glad he had read some of the open cases the FBI was working on while Samantha and Steele were at the firing range.

Steele stared at them, his _expression cold and hard. Samantha felt her spine tingle and her teeth itch as he looked right at her, almost like he was trying to burn holes into her sunglasses just by staring at her. Jarod also felt uneasy about Steele and how he was staring at his young friend, but he didn’t say anything as he set his jaw and stood tall.

“Very well,” Steele replied after a few moments of silence. “But I expect you both to return promptly. You have work to do, and I will not tolerate anyone who doesn’t pull their weight around here.” He turned on his heels and walked back to his office.

The pretenders glanced at each other then turned and walked out the double doors. They made their way to the parking garage to where their car was parked. They were silent as they got in and Jarod drove off.

“Don’t worry, daddy,” Samantha said sarcastically as they pulled out of the garage. “We’ll be back before dawn - oh, and after the movie we might get married or just get a room somewhere, but I promise to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home; you want us to get you some doughnuts? It’s right next door to the tattoo parlor we like . . .”

Jarod raised an eyebrow and glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes as he drove through the city. “Is this how PMS affects you?” he asked jokingly.

Samantha glared over at him. “Jarod, if I was in a better mood and you weren’t driving, I’d slug you for that remark. And no, this is how Special Agent Steele affects me *on* PMS, if you must know. And don’t be saying it’s all in my head, because *you* saw what he was like.”
“Yeah, I did,” Jarod nodded once.

“And?”

“And what?”

“Admit I was right.”

“I’m not going to admit you were right.”

“But I *was* right.”

Jarod sighed, knowing how she could get when she was in a foul mood. And as much as he sympathized with her being in pain, he was not in the mood to deal with it right now. “Look, why don’t we just concentrate on our case, okay?” He nodded toward the back seat. “Is the camcorder battery charged?”

“It should be.”

“Will you check please? We don’t need it dying on us while we’re filming.”

“Fine,” Samantha replied as she reached around and grabbed the camcorder nestled behind her seat. She started fiddling with it while Jarod hid a smile as they drove on in silence.

(End of Chapter 2)
Chapter 3 by Jaxie
- - - -

Weatherly Apartments
Arlington, Texas

“So, are there any new leads with Mr. Trask?” the landlady asked as she unlocked the door to Trask’s apartment. She was a short, plump, middle-aged woman dressed in a dusty rose blouse that gathered at her waist, an unbuttoned white sweater over that, cream pants, and hot pink heels. She had short, mostly white hair (with strawberry-blonde highlights) that was tightly permed; the pretenders noticed she would pat it occasionally. Her hazel eyes were covered by thick black glasses attached to a gold chain around her neck, and she would glance once in awhile at Jarod and Samantha as they stood off to the side.

“Nothing new yet,” Jarod replied, “but we haven’t given up.”

As Jarod talked, Samantha took in her surroundings with a detective’s eye as she removed her sunglasses and put them in her jacket pocket. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary - a cement walkway led from the curb up two small steps, past a straight stairway, and back to a small brown turf mat that lay before a steel door painted a deep red to match all the other apartment doors on the ground level (the doors upstairs were green). Samantha slid slightly to one side so that the landlady could unlock the door. The young woman subconsciously drew in a breath as she switched on the camcorder and prepared to step into another reality.

“Anything else I can do for you?” the landlady asked.

“No, thank you,” Jarod replied politely.

“Well, just return the key when you get done,” she said, handing Jarod the apartment key. “And don’t forget to lock up.” The pretenders watched her walk across the lot to another building.

“We ready?” Samantha asked a few moments later. She started to brush past Jarod, but he stopped her. “What?”

“Normally, I would invoke the rules of chivalry,” Jarod replied, “but not at a crime scene. I’m more experienced, so I go in first. Besides, you’re forgetting two things.”

“What?”

Jarod pulled out two pairs of latex gloves, handing one pair to Samantha. “First of all, gloves.” Samantha put on her pair while Jarod slipped his on. “Secondly, you’re the camera girl, so you go in behind me.”

“Camera woman,” she replied as she narrowed her eyes at him, something he didn’t see as he walked past her. However, he could feel them as he pulled his gun and readied it before walking into the apartment. Samantha steadied the camera in one hand, pressing the record button, and got her gun out, following suit as she entered behind him.

Jarod heard her suck in her breath loudly and reflexively turned. “You okay?” he asked. He stopped short when he saw her standing in the doorway. She was pale, and her eyes were wide and appeared distant, like she was staring at something on a different plane. He caught the camera as it slipped out of her fingers, then he looked at her, concerned. “Sam?”

She blinked and shook her head slightly. “I’m . . . fine,” she replied slowly.

Jarod looked less than convinced. “Do you want to leave?”

“No,” Samantha replied. She looked into the apartment. “I want to stay.” She saw Jarod’s expression. “I’m fine; it was just an initial reaction. This place does have an atmosphere.” She overlooked his stern look as she glanced into the apartment and nodded. “Let’s go.”

Jarod was reluctant, but he finally turned and scanned the apartment, taking in and cataloging every detail with his eyes as well as the camcorder. His eyes fell first on the kitchen ahead of him, but he noticed he was standing on something and looked down. It was a small doormat, tan, against the beige marble tile floor. A pair of men’s boots were against the wall behind the door.

By sight Jarod knew they were not galoshes but generic buff-vinyl men’s boots made for all-purpose weather. Above the boots was a rack of plastic hooks nailed to the wall - three in all. Two held an umbrella and a rain slicker, respectively, but the third one was empty. Jarod tried to think of what might have been held there: an overcoat, jacket or something similar.

He moved to the kitchen, looking right first. The refrigerator was pushed against the wall to his immediate right and was ecru in color; there were also a couple of small pictures on it. Beyond that was a counter section, made of butcher block. A clean toaster occupied that space. Next to the toaster was a narrow plastic Sterilite drawer, neatly closed with a translucent face panel, which held a short loaf of wheat bread and a roll of bagels, neatly stored in their own bags. On the other side of that counter section was a stove. The only thing Jarod found odd was the mini grill on the stovetop.

He turned to his left and saw a long section of butcher block counter the entire length of the kitchen. A short partition of no more than a couple of inches ran the entire length, separating the counter from the kitchen bar. The counter to his immediate left was neat and nearly-empty, aside from the small, unwrapped sampler box of tea bags pushed against the back. A stainless steel sink was situated in the middle of the long section, and it was clean, save for a few stains embedded in it. The section of counter farthest from Jarod had a couple of clean plates on a small dish rack with a towel under it. A row of brown cabinets was above it, and hanging from the bottom was a microwave. Below, built into the counter, was a dishwasher; Jarod opened the door, saw it was empty, and closed it back up.

He left the kitchen and walked into the small space on the other side. There was a pantry to his left and an opened door leading to a dark room. Jarod carefully made his way over, standing beside the door and reaching a hand in. He fumbled for the switch, turned on the lights, and slowly looked in.

“It’s the bathroom,” Samantha said. Jarod jumped a little; she was following closer behind him than he thought. The young woman smiled a little at catching him off guard. “Why don’t you stay here, and I’ll go in? I think I can handle a small bathroom.” She put her gun away as she brushed past Jarod and walked in, leaving the older man standing in the doorway.

The bathroom was indeed small, with a toilet near the door, a small sink beyond it with a mirror/medicine cabinet above it, a combination bathtub and shower on the right, and a small litter box with a towel underneath it between the shower and sink. There were matching navy blue rugs in front of the toilet and shower, but a red shag rug in front of the sink. Samantha pushed back the shower curtain - simple gray vinyl - and looked inside.

“Suave,” she said.

“What?” Jarod asked. He had remained in the doorway while Samantha explored, keeping the camera trained on her, but he’d been watching the bedroom door out of the corner of his eyes. It was open, but he couldn’t see into the room, because of the lack of windows, so he put his gun away and pulled out his flashlight. He turned it on, swinging it from side to side, looking for any signs of movement, but he turned back when she spoke.

“He uses Suave,” Samantha replied, holding up a bottle of raspberry-scented Suave Daily Use Shampoo in one hand, showing it to him before putting it back. “And . . . he uses VO5 Chamomile Conditioner - and there’s a bottle of Tile-Ex in here too.” She pulled the curtain back to how she found it, then walked over to the sink.

“Anything?” he asked as she looked at the sink.

“Toothbrush, toothpaste, cup . . .” She opened the medicine cabinet. “Comb, hairspray, floss . . . Valium?” She pulled out a small prescription bottle.

Jarod looked at her oddly. “Valium?”

“Unless I’m reading it wrong,” Samantha replied. She read the typed label. “Prescription for Valium from a Dr. Samuel Kincade, DMV. Prescribed for Athena about . . . a month ago.” She shrugged and nodded at the litter box. “Athena must be the cat. Probably hiding somewhere around here, though I haven’t seen a food or water bowl yet. Maybe we can check on that later.” She replaced the bottle and rummaged around some more. “Tylenol, Nyquil . . . nothing else.” She closed the door then looked at Jarod. “Nothing out of the ordinary around here.”

“Why don’t we check the bedroom?” Jarod suggested. He and Samantha left the bathroom and made their way into the bedroom. Jarod put the flashlight away and flipped the switch on the side of the wall, and the room lit up.

A queen-sized bed with navy sheets, comforter, and matching pillows was pushed against the far left wall. A nightstand was on the right of the bed, with a small lamp, a windup alarm clock, and a worn, paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief on it. A nine-drawer dresser was pushed against the far wall. There was a small, white, handmade ceramic dish that held some cuff links and tie tacks on top of the dresser, along with a photo of Trask, another man, a woman, and a small boy, as well as a signed baseball.

“Must be his family,” Samantha said as she picked up the frame and studied the photo. She glanced at the baseball’s signature. “Nolan Ryan?”

“Who’s that?” Jarod asked as he took his gun out once again, walking over to the closet.

“A very famous baseball player,” Samantha replied. “Well, former baseball player. He’s retired now.”

“Oh.” Jarod walked into the closet and flipped on the light switch. There were racks of clothes hanging on either side, with a variety of jackets, pants, and shirts. A variety of shoes, casual and dress, were underneath the clothes on the floor. "Well, nothing out of the ordinary here." He came back out and saw Samantha opening the drawers and rummaging through the clothes. “And how would you feel if someone rummaged through your drawers, touching your clothes?”

“Well, normally, since we ditch everything for the suits to go through anyway, it really doesn’t bother me.”

Jarod fixed her with a look. “You know what I mean.”

“Fine.” Samantha closed the drawers. “There’s nothing here.”

“Well, there’s still the living room.” He walked out with Samantha behind him, and into the living room. They stopped short when they saw the living room’s condition.

“Whoa,” Samantha said. “You weren’t joking, were you?”

The carpet was a common mix of beige and brown, like a few of their apartments in the past had. The furniture consisted of a loveseat, with its pillows out of place; a small end table next to it; an easy chair beside the end table; and a coffee table in front of the loveseat. The loveseat and easy chair were mismatched, with a cream-based southwestern pattern. A lamp had been knocked off the end table and lay broken on the floor. The coffee table was oval glass, and there were some non-classified papers with an upset mug of tea spilled on them. There was a lint roller - both pretenders assuming it to be for the cat - laying next to the puddle of tea. A cable wire leading from the wall was resting on the floor next to the coffee table. Broken glass from the patio door was scattered on the floor, and there were muddied footprints on the glass, some of which was disturbed, indicating something - or possibly someone - had been dragged through it.

A three-shelved microwave cart was pushed against the same wall as the front door, with a TV on the top shelf, a VCR where the silverware drawer would have been, and a few movies and CDs on the bottom. Pushed against the living room wall, under the kitchen’s bar, was a twenty-nine-gallon fish tank on a table. Jarod furrowed his eyebrows as he saw the rocks and plants, the water, the lamps and filter bubbles, the food and . . . nothing else.

“Nothing,” Jarod said.

“What?” Samantha asked.

“That tank,” Jarod nodded. “What does it look like it?”

“A terrarium of some sort?”

“Exactly,” Jarod replied. “So, if it’s a terrarium, where’s the animal?” He motioned for Samantha to stay before handing the camcorder back to her and slowly walking over to examined the tank at a closer range. Moving carefully, he put his gun away and pulled a tiny digital camera out of his coat pocket, documenting on both the video tape and the camera memory that he was not flagrantly tampering with evidence. Jarod clicked off several pictures of the current state of the terrarium and verbally described it for the camcorder Samantha held before reaching into the tank.

There were tiny air bubbles coming up from the side of the middle rock, so he pulled it out and looked down into the tank to see if he could find the source of the bubbles in the somewhat murky water. He felt something tickle his right hand, and he nearly jumped, letting out a yelp. He glanced at his hand and saw a head and legs sticking out of it the rock! It wasn’t a rock; it was a turtle!

“Um, there’s the animal,” Samantha giggled as she saw Jarod’s shocked expression, glad she had the camcorder pointed at him and it was recording.

“Thanks for the tip,“ Jarod replied wryly. He examined the turtle, who had stretched its neck completely out and was looking at him with what Jarod would consider a bored expression. “Well, he looks to be in good health.” He glanced up and saw Samantha on the verge of cracking up. “What?”

The young woman couldn’t contain herself any longer, and she doubled over laughing. “Man, you should have seen your face! You were so freaked! And I got it on tape for posterity!” She held up the camcorder.

“If you don’t watch it,” Jarod replied sweetly, “I’ll do something to *your* posterity, young lady.”

Samantha smiled back. “Are you man enough to back that up, Agent Clyde?”

“Watch it, Agent Parker,” Jarod smiled. “I know where you’re ticklish.”

“So do I,” Samantha retorted, still smiling. She nodded at the turtle. “Kind of a cute little fella. Reminds me of when I was younger.”

“You had a turtle?” Jarod asked, intrigued.

“I grew up on a farm, remember? I got my hands on anything that crawled, swam, slithered, flew, crept . . . none of which I was ever allowed to keep in the house, but -”

“But I bet that didn’t stop you,” Jarod smiled.

Samantha chuckled. “No. I can’t count how many times my parents would find a turtle or a spider . . . or even a snake loose in the house.” She stopped, her expression turning sad for a moment. She shook her head, then took a deep breath, her expression becoming professional once again. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand.”

Jarod met her eyes. He wanted to talk with her, comfort her, do something besides just standing there with the turtle in his hands, but he knew they had a job to do, and he respected her for getting them back on track - even if he was worried about her. He made a mental note to talk with her later, see if she wanted to talk or something.

Samantha was grateful that Jarod wasn’t going to push her into talking about her family. She was overemotional, and she knew it, but she still had his approval. Part of it came from having an understanding of being with someone for so long, but another part of it was . . . odd. Just like earlier when she walked into the apartment.

Jarod carefully put the turtle back in its spot in the tank and then did a quick, but thorough, scan of the room. He was looking for anything out of the ordinary, but he didn’t see a thing out of place, aside from the obvious signs of a struggle. “I think we’re finished here,” he said.

“You sure?” Samantha asked.

“Yes,” Jarod answered.

Samantha gave him a look for a brief moment, knowing part of the reason they were leaving was because of her; she kicked herself mentally, hating the fact that she was once again being a hindrance to Jarod, but she didn’t say anything as she turned off the camcorder and followed him out of the apartment. They stopped short when they saw the landlady waiting for them outside, startled by her appearance but quickly covering it by smiling.

“Thank you so much for your help,” Jarod replied as he handed the key back to her. “If we need anything further, we’ll be sure to call you.” He didn’t like how nosy the landlady seemed to be, but he couldn’t show his true emotions. He put a hand on Samantha’s back, giving her a nonverbal signal to both leave, while letting the young woman know he wasn’t tolerating the landlady’s behavior.

The landlady noticed what Jarod was doing; she knew she wasn’t going to get any information from him or his partner, and she was a little put off by it but not much. She graciously took the key with a nod. She stayed and watched the two pretenders leave, frustrated that she couldn’t enter the apartment, sizing them up, hoping that one of them forgot something and would suddenly turn around and remember it. But they just kept on walking to their car.

“That was interesting,” Samantha said as they peeled their gloves off. She took her shades from her pocket and slipped them back on. “Now what?”

Jarod noticed her tone was a bit harsh. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Samantha shrugged. “Please don’t be evasive with me.”

Samantha sighed. “Okay.” She paused. “I’m sorry for back there.”

“Back there?” Jarod asked.

“Yeah, me freaking out and all in the apartment. That’s why you wanted to leave early, right?”

Jarod turned at her question and stopped her. He gently removed her shades and looked her in the eyes. “Sam, you in no way disappointed me back there,” he said gently. “You conducted yourself with grace.” He gently put the shades back over her eyes, pulled her into a gentle hug and kissed her forehead. With one arm still around her mid-section, they walked together to their car. She wasn’t totally assured by Jarod’s words, but she was quieted by them. Then she felt it.

It felt like spiders crawling up the back of her neck. It was like someone was behind her, trying to get inside her head. She stopped and turned her head, looking where she felt the feeling coming from, trying to locate the source with her eyes, but Jarod had felt it too, and he kept pushing her gently to the car.

“Ignore it,” Jarod whispered as he tried to act nonchalant. His guard already up, he protectively kept his hand on the young woman’s back as he led her over to the passenger’s side and opened her door. After tossing their gloves in the back seat, and after she was seated, Jarod got down on one knee and, smiling reassuringly at the young woman, took one of her hands and kissed it gently. Then he got up, closed her door, and walked around to the driver’s side, his eyes looking around. He quickly got in the car, started the engine, and he drove the car out of the parking lot. Neither Jarod nor Samantha took much note of the silver compact sedan with moderately tinted windows that they passed on their way out to the street.

The driver watched the midnight blue Lexus disappear around the corner and out of the complex before getting out of his car and walking over to the landlady, who was making her way back to the main office. “Excuse me,” he said.

The sudden presence of the newcomer, added to the perfectly timed rumble of thunder, sent a shiver down the landlady’s back. She tried not to look flustered or startled by his appearance, but his quick eye had caught her startled expression, and he was going to use it to his advantage.

Agent Steele approached the woman with measured strides, slipping into an ingratiating, if slightly tight, smile. Behind his shades he calculated how long it would take him to get what he wanted from her and catch up with his prey. “Good morning, Ms. Devereaux; how are you today? I’m sorry to disturb you on such a stormy morning, but I have a few questions, and I suspect that you are the only person who can help me.”

Ms. Devereaux was surprised and flattered that he remembered her name. The last time she had seen him was when the other agents had come to Trask’s apartment after he had disappeared. She had never spoken to him during that time, or even learned his name, but she had seen his face at a distance; there had been a presence about him, she remembered, a presence that was clearly heightened by his close proximity at that moment.

“Well, good morning to you, Agent -” Nonplussed but trying to seem unflappable, Ms. Devereaux raised one penciled brow behind her plastic frames. She was determined to maintain control of anything that happened on her property, and it seemed that this gentleman understood that - a fact which made her feel inclined to be cooperative. Of course, that feeling was somewhat reinforced in her subconscious by the man’s dark good looks, his presence, his words that left her feeling elevated, and his voice - distant thunder, stone on stone, a curious mix of warm familiar Southern drawl and cool scholarly English.

He continued to smile warmly, letting her feel that she was in control, knowing he had her exactly where he needed her. He tipped his head politely. “Steele. Special Agent Steele, ma’am. Might I ask you just a few questions? I won’t take up much of your valuable time. It concerns our investigation and the security of everyone here.”

“Oh, my.” Ms. Devereaux gathered the sides of her sweater at her throat and ran her eyes over his compact form, biting down the urge to say, “Yes, I bet you are special.” She tried to construct a picture of him in her mind; she would never know the kind of power he carried underneath his black coat and designer shades. She patted her hair to make sure her curls were holding, then drew herself up visibly. “What can I help you with, Special Agent Steele?”

“Actually, I wanted to ask you about those two agents who just left. They entered Agent Trask’s apartment, correct?” He saw the woman nod, and he repressed a sigh; he wanted to hurry this up, but he knew from long experience that in a hunt, any connection to any potential witness could prove critical to the outcome, and he had not become the best by destroying crucial relationships - at least, not until he was through with them.

“Special Agent Clyde and Special Agent Parker?” Ms. Devereaux asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Steele replied. “Both of them are new to the division and are under review. I’m following up on their work here to make sure they conducted themselves appropriately and followed proper procedures. I presume you observed their actions; could you help me out with what you saw?”

“Sure,” Ms. Devereaux replied. “They both came into my office as I was finishing up some eviction notices. They identified themselves as Agents and said they wanted to look at Mr. - uh - Agent Trask’s apartment. I told them that Agents had already looked at the apartment, but then Agent Parker - the girl - started getting curt with me, but Agent Clyde stopped her and explained the situation.”

“What precisely did he say?” Steele asked.

“He said that their supervisors wanted them to conduct and document a follow-up investigation, to make sure nothing was missed from the first time.”

“Document?” Steele asked. He’d stiffened and tilted his head, and she had the distinct impression he was preparing for some sort of attack - not on her, but on something that had displeased him.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, her voice dripping with helpfulness. “Agent Parker was holding one of those new types of cameras.”

Just then Ms. Devereaux felt as much as heard a rumble, she and wasn’t certain whether it came from the western sky or the man next to her. She couldn’t be sure without seeing beyond the shades, but she had the feeling she’d just given him information that changed whatever plan he’d had. Savoring the feeling of power, she raised her eyebrows and said with exaggerated innocence, “Why, yes, they took a camera into the apartment with them. I believe they recorded every minute of their visit. Does that answer your question?”

Steele fairly snarled to himself as he realized that the camera she’d mentioned must have been a camcorder. “They have a tape.” He was already in motion, barely remembering to nod her way in thanks. He was so angry that he reached his car at a near run, tripping the lock with his electronic key as he plotted in his mind. He wasn’t sure where his prey had gone, but he was determined to stop them. They’d just made their situation that much worse; by secretly taping part of his investigation, they undermined his authority, and no one did that and escaped unscathed. They might think they were out of his reach, but they would learn that they were wrong, and they would pay.

(End of Chapter 3)
Chapter 4 by Jaxie
- - - -

Lyle was whistling to himself as he walked down the corridors to the Sim Lab. His previous sour mood had improved since calling the Centre operative, whom he had nicknamed the mercenary. As much as he hated the idea of having another operative working on something he was capable of handling on his own, Lyle knew that he had to make it seem like he welcomed the addition of a newcomer, so he had left him a message offering his services, his insight, and what he deemed was his valuable - and unique - information to helping in the hunt for Jarod and Samantha. Lyle hated having to smooth talk to get his way; it was degrading to his image, but he also knew that in order to survive, one would have to - on occasion - get under something in order to push through it.

A soft beeping jarred him from his thoughts. He stopped and reached into his suit jacket, pulling out his cellphone. He looked at his display and smirked when he saw he had a voice message waiting for him, with a number indicating who called - a number he clearly recognized. He dialed his voice mailbox, punched in his password, and listened as the message played, the smirk slowly fading from his face.

“Well, Mr. Lyle, I wondered how long it would take you to start in on your wheedling. Unfortunately, I’m an adult with a busy life, so let me save both of us some time and trouble - I’m going to say this in very short sentences so that you can understand: the answer is no. I do not need you. I am not impressed by your offer. I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with your puerile insecurity. I came here to do a job - your job, to be specific, as you’ve proven to be inept. Since you have been given a multitude of chances to complete one task and you have constantly failed, your safest option is to stay well out of my way. Mark my words, Mr. Lyle: you do not want to lay one hand on me or set one foot in my path, because I can guarantee you that my suit cost more than you make in a year, and if you get in my way, you will lose much more than just another appendage.”

Lyle’s features hardened as he listened to that voice - a hard-bitten British accent with just a touch of something he couldn’t quite identify, something slow and dripping, an element that could charm a sweet old lady and in the next minute make a murderer’s blood run cold. Lyle turned off his phone and stuffed it back into jacket, marching angrily through the corridors; any employee who encountered him kept a safe distance away. He pushed through the door to the Sim Lab, not caring that the slam echoed loudly, only a small part of him enjoying startling his sister and the other two, who had been were in the middle of the Sim Lab talking until he unexpectedly showed up.

“I want a full background check,” he demanded. “Anything and everything you can find, I want it, and I want it now.”

“If you’re talking about the Tower’s one man search-and-destroy,” Parker said, her eyes narrowing, her voice hard and cold, “then you’re too late.” Her nerves were already frayed by the hunter, but Lyle barging in and making demands was really starting to tick her off.

“And?” Lyle asked as he came over to them.

“And the only thing we were able to find on him was a memo,” Parker replied curtly. “It seems that Raines is responsible for having your new best friend brought here; he wasn’t cheap either.”

“How much?” Lyle asked.

“More than all our salaries combined,” Sydney answered calmly. “It seems Raines was pretty desperate to get this hunter after Jarod and Samantha as quickly as possible.”

“Isn’t there anything *useful* you have on him?” Lyle glared at Broots, smiling inwardly as Broots shrank away from him slightly.

“Is there any reason you have a sudden interest in the Tower’s operative?” Parker retorted.

“It doesn’t matter,” Lyle replied. “I graciously offered my services, but that sniveling little foreigner had the nerve to call me back and insult me. And on top of that the jerk apparently can't form coherent words because he called me . . . something I’ve never heard of, and I have a pretty extensive vocabulary.” He loved to brag whenever possible, especially to those he considered below him.

“What did he call you?” Sydney asked while Parker rolled her eyes.

“Doesn’t really matter,” Lyle answered cooly.

“Oh, come on, baby brother,” Parker smirked. “Afraid we’ll know what it means and you won’t?”

Lyle narrowed his eyes. “If you must know, it was ‘puerile.’ Sounds like some prison colony somewhere, if you ask me.” He noticed them looking at him oddly. “What?”

“Um, actually, I know where it comes from,” Broots spoke up in a soft, but confident, voice. “It’s a real word; it’s derived from the Latin word ‘puer.’”

Lyle was annoyed by the sniveling tech. “Which means....??” he asked.

Broots looked him up and down once and said in the same tone as before, “Little boy.”

Parker snuck a look at him; she wasn’t surprised so much by his knowledge of Latin as she was by his lack of usual timidity towards Lyle. Ever since he dented Sydney’s file cabinet last year she knew Broots was developing more and more of a backbone, losing some of that timidity; she had to admit she was proud of him for that. A glance towards Sydney showed the elder gentleman was looking as proud of Broots as she felt. She glanced back at Lyle and saw his indignation; she couldn’t help but smile. “Wow, I’m surprised; for someone he’s never met, he sure has you down pat.”

“Watch it, Parker,” Lyle threatened.

“No, *you* better watch it,” Parker retorted. “You may have had fun and games when it was just us to push around, but I can guarantee you that that ‘sniveling little foreigner’ is an opponent you do *not* want to mess with. If I were you, I’d leave him alone.”

“I just want that mercenary to understand that he had better not harm my property,” Lyle replied.

“If, by your property, you mean Jarod and Samantha,” Parker replied, “then I don’t think you have to worry about them coming home with nothing more than a few bumps and bruises; anything more than that, and that foreign troll will have to answer to the Tower, regardless of his so-called credentials.”

“I couldn’t care less about Jarod being roughed up,” Lyle said. “In fact, I would enjoy having him laid up in the Infirmary for a few weeks nursing bullet wounds in his knees.” He smirked, noticing Sydney frowning at the thought of his science project being damaged. “I would, however, be extremely upset if Samantha was returned blemished.”

“Ooh, talk about an interesting change of emotions,” Parker replied. “She slashes your car, almost removes your other thumb, and makes you look like an idiot in Chicago, and yet you still manage to have feelings for her.” She smirked. “The Tower’s going to *love* hearing that one.”

“Actually, I still want her dead, Parker,” Lyle replied with a forced smile on his face. “It’s the safe retrieval of her progeny that concerns me.”

A pin could have been dropped at the top of the stairs, and they would have heard it. There was dead silence from all three members of the chase team. They stared at Lyle, too stunned and shocked to say anything.

Lyle grinned to himself. He had the upper hand again, and he knew it and loved it. His only regret was that he didn’t have a camera to get their expressions.

“Would you care to repeat that?” Parker not so much asked as she demanded.

“What?” Lyle asked, feigning innocence, “I didn’t tell you?”

“Tell us what?” Sydney asked suspiciously.

Lyle smiled. “I have it on good authority that Samantha is pregnant with Jarod’s child.”

(End of Chapter 4)
Chapter 5 by Jaxie
- - - -

Sonic

Near Highway 360, Arlington

“So, let me get this straight,” Jarod said. The two pretenders sat in their car at one of the stations at the drive-in restaurant, and Jarod was sitting with his window rolled down, staring at the menu. “They’re called car hops, but they don’t actually hop from car to car?”

“Well, they used to skate around on skates,” Samantha replied from the passenger’s side, “but that was a long time ago.” She grinned at Jarod. “Even before you were born, mister, which was around the time the wheel was invented, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Oh, ha, ha, ha,” Jarod replied, smiling. “So, what do you want to eat?”

Samantha smiled and craned her neck to see the menu. “I would like a Number One burger, no onions, no lettuce; medium fries; and a medium Dr. Pepper,” she replied. “And lots of ketchup.”

“Wow, you like ketchup?” Jarod feigned astonishment. “I would have never guessed.”

Samantha stuck her tongue out at her friend. “And what are you going to get?” Jarod just smiled and pressed the call button on the menu board.

A static, female voice blared out with, “Welcome to Sonic, may I take your order?”

“Yes, my friend would like a Number One burger, no onions, no lettuce; medium fries; and a medium Dr. Pepper. I would like a chili cheese Coney, large cheese fries, and a large Dr. Pepper.” The woman gave the total before hanging up. Jarod glanced over at Samantha and saw her expression. “What?”

“And I thought I was hungry,” Samantha smirked.

“I’m a growing boy,” Jarod replied.

“And if you don’t watch it, you’re going to be growing out instead of up.” Samantha playfully poked his abdomen for good measure. Jarod just stuck his tongue out. Samantha turned on the radio, and all was silent between the two pretenders as they listened to the music playing. Pretty soon a car hop arrived with their food. Jarod exchanged the food - and lots of ketchup, on Samantha’s insistence - for the money, plus a small tip.

The two didn’t talk as they ate, hungry from not eating earlier that morning. After they polished off their meal, they ordered large chocolate shakes for dessert. The car hop returned with their shakes after a few moments, and pretty soon the pretenders were enjoying their chocolate treats.

Jarod glanced over at his young friend, just watching her as she stared out the window, sipping her drink. “Sam?” Samantha jumped a little, startled, nearly spilling her shake. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Samantha replied. She put her shake in the cup holder and looked up at Jarod, trying to smile.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” The young woman noticed his ‘I don’t believe it’ _expression. She sighed. “Okay, okay. I’m still kicking myself from what happened at the apartment. And then that feeling outside . . . .” She shuddered a little bit. “I’m still a little freaked out, but I’m fine.” She turned back and faced her window.

Jarod noticed her last comment was sarcastic, and he put a hand on her shoulder. “Sam . . . .”

“I’m scared, Jarod,” she said softly.

“About what?”

“Me,” she replied. She turned to him with a look of fear in her eyes. “Jarod, what’s happening to me?”

Jarod took a deep breath. “Well, I know you don’t like talking much about it, but can you remember any times when you were younger that you had any episodes like when you first walked into Trask’s apartment, or even outside the apartment?” Samantha looked troubled and hesitant.

“Sam,” Jarod replied gently, “it’s really important that I know if it’s happened before.” He brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “Just trust me, honey.”

Samantha looked unsure, but she did trust him - more than she remembered ever trusting

anyone. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She sighed as she opened her eyes. “Well, I was about thirteen,” she said slowly. “My friend was really upset with his younger brother and sister, and he came to me. He just wanted to talk, and I let him. He was just tired of having siblings, how they would always bother him and get in his way and stuff, something I knew nothing about, but I found myself getting frustrated at them . . . not just because he was my friend and he was mad; it was like I was personally mad at his brother and sister.”

She chuckled mirthlessly before she continued. “I remember that more for the fact that he kept telling me he wished he was an only child like me; that was really the only time that I remember him ever telling me that. I always thought he was lucky to have siblings. Of course, that was almost ten years before I realized I had a brother myself, but back then I thought it would have been cool to have just one brother or a sister to grow up with.” She looked at Jarod. “That’s the only time I remember back then, but there was another time when I think it might have happened.”

“When?” Jarod asked.

“When we were in New York.” Samantha glanced at her window. “I remember being bombarded by all those feelings of fear, terror, despair, hope, and sadness. Half the time I remember that I was crying for no obvious reason.” She shrugged. “Course, I could have just been in shock.”

“I don’t think so,” Jarod replied. “It might even explain what happened in Cambridge.”

Samantha said. “Jarod, I don’t know why you think anything special happened there. I did something stupid, and I nearly got . . . .”

Jarod put a hand on her shoulder. “Sam, honey, we’ve been over that before: when Gries attacked you, that was not your fault. You did nothing to deserve that; nothing.” He sighed. “And something special did happen. Sam, look at me.” The young woman looked at Jarod. “I had no idea where you had wandered off to that night, and I was so worried about you . . . and then it was as if you were inside my head, guiding me. If that hadn’t happened . . . I don’t think I would have found you.”

“So, what are you saying?” Samantha asked wryly. “I’m telepathic or something?”

Jarod gently rolled his eyes, agreeing with her sarcasm. “Sam, to be honest, I don’t know what to call what it is you have, or even if there is a name for it, but you have something. Something special.” Samantha could see he was humbling himself, saying he didn’t know something. He took a deep breath. “The closest description for now might be a kind of empathy, and that the way you’re expressing it is a possible version of the inner sense.”

Samantha looked confused. “But I don’t hear voices, Jarod.”

Jarod smiled sadly, a bit touched that she remembered his brother. “I know you don’t, Sam, but you have this ability to ‘hear’ on a plane that no one else can, even me. That’s what’s so interesting and amazing about being a pretender: we may be able to be anyone that we want to, but we are still vastly different from each other. Ethan hears voices from a world that is as real as you or me, and your brother passes through the doorways between identities as smoothly as we pass from sleep to waking. I can do simulations as easily as taking a breath of air, and apparently you have this ability to . . .”

“To . . .?” Samantha asked.

“To draw part of someone else into yourself, even if just for a moment, as though you yourself are a doorway from one part of reality to another.”

“Where did I get it? I didn’t have the neuroshock treatments like my brother.”

“I don’t know, Sam. Your brother’s ability developed afterwards when he had to rely on another part of his brain to communicate with the world, but I have no idea about where your ability came from.” He noticed her apprehensive expression. “What is it?”

“I’m a freak,” she replied quietly.

“No, you’re not,” Jarod said firmly. He took a finger and turned her chin toward him. “Sam, I’ve been doing research on empathy, and it seems that all of it suggests that it’s physical - you are not a freak; it’s just possible that you are somehow using a part of your brain that most people can’t access. You are not a freak. You are special; we all are.”

“You think you can avoid coming across as sounding like something from an after school special?” Samantha asked, smiling.

“After school special?” Jarod asked.

Samantha shook her head. “Nevermind,” she replied as she reached for her shake. “So, where to now?”

“I want to get a look at that video,” Jarod answered.

“So, off to our place?”

Jarod shrugged and said, “Why not?”

“Okay,” Samantha replied. “To the bat cave!” She winced and touched her abdomen. “After we get some Midol.”

“You know, I don’t think Robin ever said that,” Jarod smiled.

“Just drive to the nearest Walgreens, Batman,” Samantha replied wryly. Jarod started the engine and pulled out of their spot, then drove to the street. As they waited for traffic to clear, Samantha’s eyes suddenly got wide. “Oh, no.”

“What?” Jarod asked. “What’s wrong?”

“We have to go back to the office,” Samantha answered.

“Sam, we can’t -”

“I left my notebook there,” Samantha interrupted. “If anyone saw all those clippings, especially Steele . . . .”

Jarod nodded, understanding. He turned onto the street and drove the car back toward the office. The car ride was silent until Samantha looked up, almost guilty.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

Jarod glanced over, surprised. “For what?”

“For not paying attention. For not focusing on the job.”

“Sam, it’s okay,” Jarod replied gently.

“No, it’s not. You’ve told me time and time again to never leave anything behind that we don’t leave intentionally. I wasn’t thinking, I was -”

“You were focused on Steele,” Jarod interrupted knowingly.

Samantha shuddered involuntarily. “That man . . .” She rubbed her arms, almost as if she was cold. The silence was broken by Jarod’s cellphone ringing, and Samantha jumped, hitting her head on the ceiling.

“You okay?” Jarod asked as he got out his phone.

“Yeah, I’m peachy,” Samantha mumbled as she rubbed her head.

Jarod glanced at the display before answering the phone. “Hello, Sydney,” he said, trying not to smile at his young friend’s misfortune. He did smile when he saw Samantha perk up at mentioning Sydney’s name.

Sydney chuckled. “Hello, Jarod,” he replied, trying hard not to laugh. “How are you and Samantha doing?”

“We’re fine,” Jarod answered slowly. It wasn’t like Sydney to just call for no real reason, but his mentor’s tone was strangely different. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing,” Sydney replied as innocently as he could. He suddenly dissolved into a fit of laughter.

Jarod couldn’t help but smiling, but he was very confused by Sydney’s behavior. “Sydney, what is going on? Why are you laughing?”

Samantha glanced over as Jarod, curious as to what he and Sydney were talking about. Suddenly, Jarod’s eyes went wide, and Samantha was glad she was buckled in as he suddenly swerved the car into the nearest parking lot and slammed on his brakes, putting the car into park. She looked over as Jarod switched ears with his phone.

“Wait a minute,” he said, his expression incredulous. “He thinks WHAT?!?”

“Who thinks what?” Samantha asked. “What’s going on?”

Jarod waved to for Samantha to be quiet. “You have *got* to be kidding me,” he said. “Where in the world did he get an insane idea like that?!” He listened. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Know what?” Samantha asked, louder, her patience growing thin again. “What is going on?”

“Sam, just hold a minute,” Jarod answered. “I have to sort this out before I tell you.” He turned his head to listen to Sydney.

Samantha narrowed her eyes, hating that she was being left out of the loop. She reached over and snatched the phone from Jarod, putting it to her ear. “What is going on, Sydney?” She switched to her right ear as Jarod tried to grab the phone.

“Samantha,” the older gentleman replied. “How are you?”

“I would be a lot less frustrated if someone would tell me what was going on,” she replied through clenched teeth.

“Samantha, give me the phone,” Jarod said. Samantha quickly undid her seatbelt and got out of the car before Jarod could grab her. Jarod got out as she leaned against the car, covering her other ear so she could hear Sydney.

“Well,” Sydney replied, taking a breath, “it concerns you, actually.”

“How so?” Samantha asked.

“In short, Lyle thinks your pregnant,” Sydney replied bluntly. “With Jarod’s child.”

“Well, he’s wrong,” Samantha replied.

“Of course he’s wrong,” Sydney replied. “It’s ridiculous, really.”

“Exactly,” Samantha added. “It’s not Jarod’s child.”

Samantha heard nothing but silence on the other end, something she expected to hear, and glanced up at Jarod. His eyes were as wide as dinner plates, and his face had paled, but it was slowly turning red as his lips set in a straight line. “Uh, Syd, you there?” she asked.

“I’m . . . here,” Sydney replied in a shaky voice.

“How did Lyle find out?” Samantha asked as Jarod started edging around the car towards her. She moved away from him, going in the opposite direction around the car.

“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell any of us.”

Samantha thought about it as she and Jarod continued to circle the car slowly, and then it clicked. “Angelo,” she replied.

“You think so?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Samantha replied. “And I gotta go. I’m not feeling well all of a sudden. Bye.” She hung up the phone. She glanced at Jarod as he picked up speed, and she picked up hers as well. “Jarod, before you get mad -”

“Too late,” Jarod replied. “Who is the father?”

“What?” Samantha asked.

“Who is the father?” Jarod repeated.

“Oh, that!” Samantha shrugged. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth.”

Jarod stopped in his tracks, just staring at her. His voice was low, but Samantha heard every word. “Get. In. The. Car.” Samantha didn’t argue as she got into the passenger’s side. Jarod got in on his side, put the car into gear, and quickly drove out of the parking lot.

The two pretenders talked on their way back to the offices, and by the time they were parked in the garage, Jarod wasn’t ready to throttle her, but he said they were going to have a talk later on. Jarod took the tape from the camcorder and put it in his pocket - there was no way he was going to leave it unguarded - before they hurried into the building and rode the elevator to their floor.

“Do you remember where you put it?” Jarod asked as they walked down the corridor to their desks.

“I think at my desk,” Samantha replied, pushing the bridge of her shades back up on her nose.

“You think?”

“I’ve had other things on my mind recently.”

Jarod sighed as they hurried over to their desks. While Samantha searched her drawers, Jarod kept a lookout; they hadn’t run into anyone on their way there, and there weren’t many people around, but Jarod was still ready for anything.

“It’s not here,” Samantha said.

Jarod looked down. “What do you mean?”

“I remember now,” Samantha replied, sound frantic and looking scared. “I slipped it in here before talking to Steele before we left for the firing range this morning. It’s not here.”

“Are you sure you put it in there?” Jarod asked.

“I’m pretty sure,” Samantha replied, trying not to look panicky. “I . . . I don’t know for sure.”

Jarod put a hand on her shoulder, causing her to look up. “It’s okay, Sam.” He helped her to her feet. “Come on.”

“But what about -”

“We’ll look for it later,” he replied gently. She smiled, and the two left the offices, heading back towards the elevators. Halfway there, Jarod glanced over and saw Samantha tense as she reached up to touch her neck, just as he felt a tingle on the back of his own neck. He stiffened as well then gently grabbed her arm, guiding her around the corner.

“Going somewhere?”

The two stopped short at the familiar voice and glanced at each other before slowly turning around. Standing there, not ten feet from them, his hands behind his back, wearing his shades and his coat, was Steele. Even though his face was expressionless, they could feel his eyes burning holes into them, measuring them.

Samantha backed up half a step reflexively; behind her, Jarod drew himself to his full height, which was several inches taller than Agent Steele. Samantha’s back stiffened, and both pretenders subtly reached for their weapons, but both knew somewhere in their bones that they would not escape this hallway unscathed. Steele had anticipated and isolated them effectively for his purpose; there was no way out.



They were trapped.

(End of Chapter 5)
Chapter 6 by Jaxie
- - -

Without looking at it, Sydney distractedly took his lunch - beef and broccoli (no rice), two egg rolls, and a fortune cookie, his standard order - out of the plain paper bag, laid it out on his desk, and began eating, his interest and attention far from his meal. His thoughts were still focused on Samantha’s revelation. He furrowed his eyebrows as he turned around in his chair, facing the wall as he nibbled one egg roll, not sure if he could believe what the young pretender had told him. Part of him knew that she - like her older counterpart - could think on her feet if she had to; Jarod had taught her well in the past four months. But Sydney didn’t know if she could think on her feet *that* quickly as he turned his chair back around. Samantha hadn’t known anything about Lyle’s theory about her current condition - the only appropriate thought that came to mind - until the psychiatrist had told her, and Samantha hadn’t hesitated in her response, so -

Sydney thoughts were interrupted as he noticed his fortune cookie was missing from its cubbyhole inside the styrofoam container. The psychiatrist looked around his desk, looking underneath papers and behind objects, even underneath his desk, but it was no where to be found. He leaned back in his chair, puzzled, wondering if he really even had a fortune cookie or if his mind was so focused on Samantha’s disclosure that he was starting to hallucinate; it was entirely possible that since he'd only asked for his usual combo meal number, the server hadn't included the cookie and Sydney had just imagined seeing it. He shook his head and sighed, finally deciding that the latter was a better possibility, as he finished his egg roll and started eating his beef and broccoli (after making sure *it* wasn’t a hallucination).

"I thought I smelled Chinese."

Sydney looked up as Lyle walked in, smiling, but the older gentleman’s attention was so focused on Samantha’s revelation that he didn’t offer his usual annoyed expression at seeing the younger man. "Mmmm," he replied.

Lyle smiled and straightened his tie, making sure he looked as approachable as possible to the older gentleman. Personally, he couldn’t have cared less about Sydney’s opinions, but his science project was responsible for impregnating Lyle’s livestock. There would be plenty of time after Jarod and Samantha’s offspring was produced to take control of it, but Lyle wanted to have Sydney on his side before he went to the Tower with the news that Samantha was pregnant - with Jarod’s child, nonetheless - if he was to have any chance of controlling it when they were returned to the Centre.

"You know," Lyle continued, smiling, sounding as sincere as he could, sitting in the chair on the other side of Sydney’s desk, making sure he maintained a taller height than the older man. "I think it’s time we really discuss the role that both of us will play in the upbringing of Jarod and Samantha’s child before and after it’s born."

Lyle reached over and plucked the other egg roll off Sydney’s desk, munching on it. "There are two ways," he mumbled around a mouthful, "this little . . . incident can be looked at, Sydney. As a scientist, you must be able to see the unique opportunity and potential that an offspring of two natural pretenders can have. This is a chance to see if pretenders can successfully breed to produce further natural pretenders.

"And we have to think about their child’s well-being," Lyle continued. He finished the egg roll and lightly brushed his hands. "Being on the run is not an environment that is emotionally or psychologically beneficial, as I’m sure you’re aware of. The isolation, the constant stresses of moving from place to place . . . it can get quite overwhelming, not to mention the inherent dangers from all the uncertainties. Under my - our - care, the child can develop in an environment that can better handle and expand its unique abilities - whatever they end up being, should the breeding be successful."

Sydney turned his gaze up and to the side, warily measuring Lyle with his eyes. "‘Should the breeding be successful.’ Interesting choice of words, Mr. Lyle. So tell me - what happens if the mare drops a foal that is nothing like what you wanted?"

"What do you mean?"

Sydney turned easily in his chair, leaning back and folding his hands over his abs. "Well, you seem to be banking on predictable outcomes here. What happens if the offspring is not a suitable representation of the parents’ traits? Do you have a backup plan? Are you prepared to explain any anomalies? What will you do if you can’t produce satisfactory results as promised?"

Lyle’s eyes narrowed and he had to work to keep the ingratiating air about himself. "Sydney, are you implying something? You do know that dissent is unacceptable around here. Besides, I came to you as a fellow businessman; don't tell me you can’t deal on that level."

Sydney tilted his head slightly. "No, not at all, Mr. Lyle. I appreciate your consideration in this matter. I’m simply . . . hedging my bets, as they say. I enjoy a good business deal as much as anyone else, but I like to be as informed and prepared as possible for all eventualities. I don’t like surprises, especially on a project. Call it . . . insurance."

Lyle held Sydney's gaze for a moment, then took in a breath and let his jaw relax. He did refuse to let down his guard - Lyle wasn't stupid enough to trust the old doctor. In fact, he was flirting with the notion of being insulted. After all, he was a powerful and dangerous man, capable of terminating anything - or anyone - on a whim, and he'd come to one of his underlings with a most gracious proposal, and yet the old moron could only talk about something going wrong - mistakes which, of course, Lyle was too intelligent to allow.

It seemed, though, that this time Sydney was actually thinking this through as a proper business proposition. The older man had held the young entrepreneur's eye contact throughout the exchange, the weathered face thoughtful and guileless. Obviously Sydney was still the same bumbling but reliable scientist - the psychiatrist was completely absorbed in contemplating the project.

Lyle let only a faint impression of his inward smile show on his face; it pleased him greatly to know that he still had the verbal prowess to draw others into the reality he crafted for his own benefit. He slid into a gracious smile as he rose and nodded to Sydney, signifying the end of the meeting. He turned and walked out, mentally patting himself on the back. He liked to remind himself that, despite what anyone might say or what anyone else might order, he knew (and anyone who wanted to live very long knew) that Mr. Lyle was really in control around here, with the power over the life and death of every person the Centre chose to claim. In the end, it was all a matter of control, of making sure that the servants knew their place and the possessions remained in possession.

Back inside the office, Sydney polished off his entrée without tasting it, still lost in thought - about Samantha, Jarod, Lyle, and the newest unwilling player in this twisted game of . . . He wasn't sure what to compare it to; it had been a long time since he'd played any recreational games. If he knew the real objective. . .

That was it. That was what was bothering him - there was more to this situation with the hunter than simply two stray cats on a safari. After all, the hunter couldn't know about Samantha's pregnancy, and yet his actions suggested urgency that a simple bounty didn't explain. There had to be something else. Parker didn't see it because she was too wrapped up in trying to hide her fear under genuine fury; Broots simply didn't have access to enough information. Sydney knew more about the hunter than he was willing to let on to either of his younger colleagues, partially because revealing the information would only cause Parker to take more risks and partially because the only way he could be sure to help Jarod was to trust no one whom the Centre paid.

Sydney knew the workings of the Centre, and he knew that no one there had the power to bring in an outside source, especially one with the hunter's record; he knew the hunter's record personally because of some dealings in the past; he knew the hunter had dropped off the radar long ago with sufficient compensation from the Tower to buy a small country; he knew the man carried power but did not covet it, used money but did not need more of it, and was perfectly capable of keeping himself alive; he knew that Lyle had not revealed his baby gambit to those in power, so none of the authorities knew about Samantha's child; he knew that the Tower would not have changed its procedures concerning the Pretenders without some compelling reason, and that nothing (besides the untold news of the pregnancy) had changed; he knew that the hunter was not the type to take on any job unless something about it intrigued him.

So why was the hunter so determined to find the Centre's two lost lambs?

Before the psychologist could chew any more on that particular dish of thought, his cell phone rang. Thinking that he really needed to change the ring tone, he glanced at the display and raised one eyebrow in surprise. As he raised the small device to his ear and pushed the send button, he swiveled in his chair, facing the blank part of his back wall so that he could visualize what he heard without distractions.

"This isn't part of the deal. You're calling me off-schedule; this had better be worth my time." Sydney's voice had a hard edge he seldom used. After working here for so long, he did not appreciate anything that changed the trajectory of his plan. He couldn't afford surprises.

Fortunately, the caller was a source of his, someone with whom he'd contracted several times over the years for. . . creative research. The fact that the source was making an unscheduled call put Sydney on edge, and even as he heard the message he kept his jaw set and his eyes narrowed, but his face was open and his mind was racing, recalculating and recalibrating his plans. He kept to himself his satisfaction at the unexpected boon his source was feeding him. He thought in the back of his mind that, in a way, he'd learned how to be a bit of a pretender himself over the years, able to reveal to others only what he wanted them to perceive. Sydney had recognized this long ago, and it was brought back to him time and time again as he played the game and dodged death. He'd sat in the dark too long; he might not recognize the game itself, but he was determined to rewrite the rules and take back the control that could have protected so many people.

When his source had disconnected, the middle-aged psychologist sighed with weary satisfaction, gazing past the wall as he watched a few more pieces of the puzzle fall into place in his mind. He relaxed physically and let his thoughts follow the trail. Before he knew it, ten minutes had passed in contemplation. He pulled in a breath and slowly turned his chair back to the desk, where all of his attention went immediately to the green file in the center of his workspace. He opened the file and flipped to the section he wanted, his right hand absently gravitating to the place where he'd left his voice recorder. His fingers automatically formed themselves to the cool contours of the smooth plastic, his wrist accustomed to the weight of the -

His brow furrowed and his head came up and then slowly to the side. Cautiously he lifted his hand to reveal his voice recorder just where he'd left it--but resting on top of it was a small golden brown object that should not have been there.

Sydney picked up the fortune cookie, turned it over and over in his hands as if expecting to find a miniature bomb timer or perhaps a sticker saying "Made in China." He couldn't figure out what was going on; he didn't remember taking it out of the carton and placing it there, or seeing it there after Lyle left the office. After a minute he shook his head sharply to clear it, thinking that the cookie could have gotten up and walked for all he'd noticed, and that if he'd missed *that* he must really be insane.

Elbows on the desk and mouth twitching in anticipation, Sydney carefully broke the cookie at the bend, using his fingernails to remove the delicate slip of paper inside. He set down the pieces of the cookie and concentrated on the paper in his grasp, his eyes rolling over the up side. He raised one eyebrow at the statement - more an axiom than a fortune:

"He who delights in deceiving others is himself easily deceived."

Sydney mulled on that for a moment, nodding to himself; he'd experienced enough at the Centre to know that such a simple statement was stunningly true. He was about to lay it to rest and get on with his work when he decided, on a whim, to flip the paper over and check the lucky numbers. He was too jaded to believe in luck, but he found these concepts to be faintly amusing from a professional standpoint. He turned the paper over in his fingers, and his breath caught in his throat.

Against the ivory of the paper - the richest he'd ever seen for a fortune cookie tag - lay simple black type in a sans serif font. There were no numbers, days, colors, or animals printed there; he found only a single sentence that made his eyes go wide.

It took a moment for the words to fully sink in, and they created an interesting mixture of feelings. With saucer eyes Sydney slowly released his grasp, letting the creamy slip of amazement flutter down to the desktop. He shifted unconsciously so that his left hand was resting on his right forearm and his right hand was covering his mouth. He struggled to wrap his mind around his new conclusions and the implications from them. If he was right, then Samantha was soon going to be in much more danger than she was at the moment, but he had to believe that she knew that and had accepted the risk. He hoped Jarod had the opportunity to make the same connections and to be prepared. Sydney was growing more protective of the two of them all the time, which didn't make much sense, but he would analyze that later. Right now, with his tension mounting and the dangers for everyone growing exponentially, Sydney discovered an unexpected effect overtaking him.

As the minutes ticked by, he slowly let his hand fall away from his face. He found himself feeling oddly satisfied, justified, amused, and vaguely proud of both of his "children." All through the afternoon and night, the faint smile never left his face.

(End of Chapter 6)
Chapter 7 by Jaxie
- - - -

Trapped.

Like an animal in a cage.

Jarod felt exactly like that as he stood in the hallway. One hand was on the gun at his side, ready to draw it if he had to. He didn’t have to look over at Samantha to know she was tense like he was, but he knew she was also scared; he could feel her fear. Jarod was scared too, but he knew that it wasn’t the time to focus on the fear; his first priority was getting Samantha and himself away from Steele.

“Now what do we do?” Samantha whispered.

“I’ll tell you exactly what you’re going to do,” Steele said, his voice low and steady. “You two are going to accompany me back to my office, and we are going to have a nice, long chat.”

Samantha glanced over at her partner, waiting for him to make a decision; she trusted him with her life and knew to be prepared for anything he might have up his sleeve. Jarod stared at Steele for a few moments, then he nodded.

“Fine,“ Jarod replied. He glanced over at the young woman and saw the concerned expression; he gave her a reassuring look. He didn't have to see her eyes to pick up on her hesitation, but he recognized her acceptance of his decision even before she nodded slightly.

“But first, I want the tape.”

Jarod looked back at Steele; he was surprised and wondered how Steele could have known about the tape . . . unless he had followed them . . . . It suddenly made sense to the elder pretender: they had felt their necks tingle twice in one day, and the second time had been right before Steele showed up. Jarod made a living of statistics and odds, and he was willing to bet that Steele was responsible for the tingle that Jarod and Samantha felt outside Trask’s apartment earlier that day.

Suddenly, a pinging sounded behind the pretenders. They didn’t have to turn and look to know that it was the elevator. They kept their eyes on Steele, and Steele kept his eyes on the pretenders as they heard the sound of doors opening and a cacophony of voices. A crowd of agents exited the elevator and walked past the trio on their way to their desks, totally oblivious of the silent showdown taking place.

Steele stared at Jarod; Jarod got the hint and looked at Samantha. Samantha nodded and headed down the corridor; Jarod followed close behind her, and then Steele behind both of them. Jarod made sure to keep himself between Samantha and Steele; if he felt anything remotely dangerous, he wanted Samantha to have a chance to escape first. No one spoke as they walked to the office. Steele walked past them and stood beside his door as the pretenders entered, then he closed the door behind them. He walked over to his desk, but he didn’t sit; he rested his knuckles on the desk and leaned forward, narrowing his eyes at the two people standing in front of him.

“Sit,” he said. The two obeyed. “Now, give me the tape.” Samantha and Jarod glanced at each other, then Jarod sighed softly and reached into his pocket; he pulled out the tape and handed it across the desk. Steele swiftly took it from him. He studied the tape for a few moments, almost as if he could know what secrets it held just by holding it; he glanced briefly at the pretenders before walking over to the television on the stand in the corner. He put the tape in the slot and turned the television on; he pressed the rewind button and grabbed the remote from the stand before walking in front of his desk and leaning against it, looking down at Jarod and Samantha.

Steele watched the two while the tape rewound. “Anything I should know about what’s on this before we get started?” he asked, his voice low. The two kept quiet; if it had been anyone else under his watch, Steele would have chalked it up to fear, but while there was fear in their eyes, along with caution and protectiveness, he knew their silence was a result of defiance; this did not please him.

The click-whirr-click of the tape stopping and then cuing the leader echoed through the tense silence, sounding like nothing so much as a bullet being rotated into a firing chamber. The two pretenders tried to cover any signs of being startled by the sound; they harbored no illusions here - if anything on that tape could be used as amunition against them in any way, this man could and would find it and use it.

Jarod knew when he was being regarded out of curiosity and he knew when he was being studied and measured; he knew that he should, in the interests of self-preservation, do his best to deflect any undue attention, especially from the likes of this man, but this was one of the rare occasions where Jarod didn't heed his own best judgment. Acting more on instinct and an almost petulant defensiveness, he caught Steele's calculating observation of him and turned it back on the man.

Steele knew what Jarod was doing to him, and he was not the least bit amused; he made a mental note to discuss the agent’s behavior with him at a later time, but for now there were other matters to attend to.

The agent glanced over at Samantha, and he saw her rubbing the left side of her neck, right under her jaw, almost like she was cradling it. He saw her eyes widen, and she slowly moved her fingers down to the pressure point on her neck. He watched as she started hunching over in her chair as she reached for her partner’s hand.

Jarod turned as he felt a hand clamp over his; he saw Samantha hunched over in her chair, her hands over her heart, and he could hear her breath coming out in short gasps.
Samantha looked at Jarod with an expression in her eyes that could only be described as fear. "Can’t . . . breath," she wheezed. "Chest . . . hurts." Everything in that office faded into the backdrop, including Steele, as Jarod’s attention focused solely on his young friend. "Nitro . . . tablets . . . in . . . the car."

Jarod briefly wondered for a moment if she was pulling a fast one to get them away from Steele, but the look of terror in her eyes let him know that she wasn’t kidding. Part of him started feeling parental and angry that she had kept yet another secret from him concerning her physical well-being; if the situation hadn’t been so serious, he would have started lecturing her on the value of honesty and trust right then and there, but he knew he had other things to tend to first. Once she was out of danger, he would have a long talk with her.

Jarod carefully helped Samantha to her feet, then he turned to Steele. “I’m taking her to the car to get her tablets,” he said.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” Steele replied, reaching for the phone on his desk.

“No,” Jarod said. “She’ll be fine once she gets her tablets.”

“I don’t care,” Steele replied. “If she has a medical condition, she’s going to the hospital.”

“Fine,” Jarod said without skipping a beat. He knew there was no way to get out of it without arousing suspicion. “But there’s no need to wait around for an ambulance; I’ll take her myself.”

Steele eyed him, then he nodded once. He dialed on his phone as Jarod helped Samantha out of the office, supporting her with one arm around her waist.

“You’re going to be fine,” he said softly as they walked slowly down the hall to the elevators. Jarod pressed the down button, and the doors to one of the elevators immediately opened; the two stepped in, and Jarod pressed the button for their level. The doors closed, and the elevator headed down.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jarod asked. He kept his voice low, but it was laced with anger and hurt and worry. He looked over at the young woman, and she put her head down. Her shoulders started shaking and she made quiet gasping noises. Jarod thought she was crying, and he leaned down toward her, softening instantly. “Sam, I -” Samantha lifted her head and tilted it back as if to feel a breeze on her face; she slid her gaze to the side to regard Jarod, her eyes shimmering with tears and something else.

She was laughing.

Jarod’s mouth formed a small ‘o’ as his eyebrows furrowed in disbelief. “Sam, what -”

“Oh, give me the Oscar right now!” the young girl grinned as she turned to face her partner.

“You mean, it was an act?” Jarod asked.

“I’d like to thank all the little people.” Samantha pretended to hold the small award as she talking to an imaginary audience. Her grin slowly faded as Jarod’s expression harden, his cheeks turning red, his lips setting in a straight line. “And, um, the tall people too . . . .”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Jarod asked in a voice that the young woman knew was reserved only for times when he was extremely angry. She cowered slightly.

“I was just trying to help,” she said quietly.

“By letting people believe you have a medical condition?” Jarod asked.

“Well, technically, I already do,” Samantha replied wryly.

“Samantha, you know what I mean,” Jarod said, frowning.

“So, you’re not at all happy I got us away from Steele?” the young woman asked slightly annoyed. She knew Jarod was mad at her; he only called her by her full first name when he was mad or concerned or upset. She folded her arms and sighed. “Look, if you don’t like it that much, we can go back up.”

“No,” Jarod said, his anger softening slightly. He was proud of her for thinking on her feet, but her ‘condition’ was going to lead to some things they’d have to eventually take care of. Later, he thought. Right now, they had the opportunity to make good use of their free time.

“Look,” he said; he made sure his tone told Samantha that they were going to be having a long talk about a few of her latest actions. “I’m not happy with the stunt you pulled, but we can use the free time to investigate Trask’s disappearance.”

“How so?” Samantha asked, sound a bit defeated.

“Why don’t you just trust me?” Jarod asked.

Samantha saw the gleam in his eye, and she groaned. “You know I hate it when you do that.”

“I know,” Jarod replied, grinning. “That’s why I do it.” The elevator stopped at their floor, and Jarod became serious. “Okay, just follow my lead.” The doors opened, and both pretenders exited, slipping back into their roles in case anyone was watching. They headed for their car, got in, and Jarod started the engine. The car pulled out of the parking space, and they drove away.

As they headed for the nearest hospital Jarod instructed his young friend on what they were going to do. By the time they reached Harris Methodist Southwest they had a plan. Samantha wasn’t too thrilled about it, but she knew she really didn’t have a choice in the matter; Jarod made that quite clear as they pulled into the drive leading to the emergency room. Jarod stopped the car, killed the engine, and hurried over to the passenger side, picking up Samantha as she started wheezing and gasping for air. He carried the young woman through the emergency room sliding doors.

“I need a doctor!” he shouted. A male and female attendant hurried over to the two, the male pushing a gurney.

“What happened?” the male asked as Jarod lay Samantha on the gurney. He rushed off to one of the cubicles.

“She’s been having chest pains,” Jarod explained.

“Can’t . . . breath,” Samantha wheezed.

“Please help her,” Jarod pleaded.

“We’ll do everything we can,” the female attendant replied as she started unbuttoning Samantha’s shirt. She removed a stethoscope and started listening to Samantha’s heart. “What’s your name, honey?” Samantha tried to talk, but she couldn’t. The female attendant looked up at Jarod as the male attendant came back with a small breathing bag and mask. He slipped the mask over Samantha’s mouth.

“Samantha,” Jarod replied. He caught Samantha’s eyes and gave her a silent ‘remember what we talked about and good luck’ look. She blinked once, silently saying ‘yes’ before the female attendant pushed the gurney down a corridor as the male attendant squeezed the bag, assisting the young woman with her breathing.

Jarod watched for a few moments, then he walked over to the desk. “Excuse me,” he said to the woman behind the desk. The woman looked up. “The young girl I just brought in is going to need a complete examination.”

“But she was just having trouble breathing and chest pains,” the woman replied.

“I know,” Jarod said, “but the FBI ordered a full examination.” He pulled out his badge to show proof. “J.D. Clyde. I’m her superior.”

“Who’s paying for this?” the woman asked.

“The FBI office said they’d pick up half the tab,” Jarod replied. He grabbed a pen and piece of paper, and scribbled an address on it. He handed it to the woman. “This company has graciously offered to pay the other half of the bill.” He gave his best smile to the woman, and she nodded. “And I’ll call the FBI and have them send over a sample of her blood; my colleague gets stressed out around needles, and I don’t think any of us want that right now.”

The woman nodded. “I’ll be sure to tell her doctor.”

“Thank you,” Jarod replied. “Oh, could you point me to the restrooms, please?”

“Down the hall, sir,” the woman replied, pointing.

“Thank you,” Jarod said. He headed down the hall and reached the restroom door. He glanced back and saw the woman with her back to him, doing some filing. Jarod’s continued down the hall, his expression changing to a smirk. Time to put his plan into action.

- - - -

Almost two hours passed before Jarod came to Samantha’s cubicle. He had changed from his FBI clothes into an bark blue EMS uniform, complete with matching cap and forged ID, tossing his other clothes into an ice box marked ‘Organ Transplant.’ He carefully pulled back the curtain shielding the cubicle and saw Samantha in a hospital bed. She wore a flimsy hospital gown, and a breathing tube was in her nose, reminding him of Raines. The young girl’s arms were crossed, and she looked positively ticked off. She glared up at him.

“I hate you,” she said bluntly.

“What’s the matter?” Jarod asked, pretending to look concerned.

“Oh, bite me,” Samantha growled. “You know, I wouldn’t have minded a couple of x-rays and a CAT scan or something, but they did a full examination on me - and I mean a full examination.” She narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?”

“Maybe now you’ll start being honest with me,” Jarod replied. “Especially about your health.” Samantha snorted. “You ready?”

“You mind telling me what the heck you were doing while I was being prodded like a guinea pig?” Samantha asked.

Jarod simply smiled as he opened the icebox and pulled out another EMS uniform and matching cap. “I will after you get dressed,” he replied. “We’ve got work to do.”

(End of Chapter 7)
Chapter 8 by Jaxie
-
Samantha sighed as she reached for the uniform, but Jarod snatched it away from her. “Jarod, what are you doing?”

“On second thought,” he said, “you won’t be needing that.”

Samantha narrowed her eyes. “Why not?”

Jarod grinned. “Because you’re already dressed for your role in this little play.”

“Okay, Jarod, what are you smoking?” Samantha asked as she tried climbing out of bed, ready to throttle her friend.

“Samantha, get back into bed,” Jarod said, frowning a bit, stuffing the spare EMS uniform back into the icebox.

“Why?” Samantha asked, crossing your arm.

“Because you’re supposed to be acting like you’re sedated,” Jarod replied. “I arranged to have Careflite take you to Ft. Worth Baylor. From there, we’ll be going to Lubbock.”

“Why?” Samantha asked again.

“Because you have a rare condition that your personal physician is familiar with,” Jarod replied. “And he’s prepping for your surgery, which is going to be in Lubbock. Now back into bed.”

“No,” Samantha said bluntly. She didn’t even wonder about how he was going to pull off all that. All she heard was that she was the guinea pig - again.

“Excuse me?” Jarod asked.

“You heard me, mister,” Samantha answered. “You want to do this so badly, you be sedated.”

“Not happening,” Jarod said.

“I have already been poked, prodded, and tested,” Samantha replied. “If you think I’m going to be going through that again, you’re crazy.” Jarod held up a small syringe. “And what is that, pray tell?”

“Demerol,” Jarod said. “Now, you can show me those wonderful pretender skills of yours, or we can do this the hard way.”

Samantha narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Jarod raised an eyebrow as he walked over. He leaned over, getting in her face. “Don’t be so sure,” he said, his voice low with edge.

Samantha wasn’t deterred by the danger in his eyes. She was pd, and she wasn’t backing down. “You can wave that thing around all you want - you won't do it.”

Jarod held her gaze - then he deftly reached out, grabbed Samantha’s left arm, and stuck the needle in it. She yelped only briefly as he injected her with the Demerol. He quickly removed the needle and watched as Samantha opened her mouth to lambast him - and her eyes rolled up and she went limp, her legs giving out from under her.

Jarod quickly caught her under her arms before she hit the floor and picked her up, carrying her back to her bed. He gently lay her down and covered her with the sheets, just as a nurse came in. She was looking at a clipboard, then she looked up.

“Oh, I see you’re already here,” the nurse said.

Jarod nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m ready to transport the patient now, if everything’s in order.”

The nurse glanced at the sedated young woman. “And she’s been sedated already, I see.” She checked Linda’s vitals and nodded when they registered normally. “Well, vitals are normal.” She looked at Jarod. “Do you have the forms for her release?”

Jarod held up a small file folder and opened it, pulling out the sheets he had duplicated and forged earlier. He handed them to the nurse. “Here they are,” he said.

The nurse read the papers and nodded, handing them back. “Everything seems in order. Do you need any assistance transporting the patient to the roof?”

“No, thank you,” Jarod replied. He nodded politely and went to Samantha’s bed; the nurse attached the breathing apparatus to the young girl’s bed and released the brakes on the bed. Jarod pushed the bed from the room and down the corridor to the elevators. He didn’t say anything until they were alone on the elevator and heading up to the roof.

“Sam, you okay?” Jarod asked, his voice soft.

“Little Bunny Foo Foo,” Samantha sang softly in a drugged voice, “hoppin’ through the forest, scoopin’ up the field mice, and boppin' 'em on the head.”

“Really?” Jarod asked, raising an eyebrow, partially curious and partially amused. He wished he had his camcorder with him, but he knew he wouldn’t be forgetting what Samantha was doing any time soon – and he’d do everything in his power to make sure she never lived it down. He smirked as they got to the top of the building and the doors opened onto the roof.

The whirring of the helicopter’s sound was deafening as Jarod pushed the gurney and its precious cargo along the path to the waiting chopper. A male RN was waiting near the open side door of the chopper. He watched as Jarod pushed the gurney over to the helicopter and carefully helped load the gurney. When Samantha and the gurney were secure the RN and Jarod got in, taking their places and closing the side door, locking it. The pilot, already at the controls, lifted the helicopter into the air, heading off towards Ft. Worth Baylor.

Jarod sat near Samantha’s gurney, watching the young girl intently. He knew she was fine, but he still couldn’t help worry about her, especially when she was completely defenseless. He felt a little bad about drugging her, and he would apologize to her for that later, but she had played him – and he didn’t like being played, especially by his partner and friend. He stared at his semi-conscious friend as the chopper flew through the sky.

-

Angelo swayed softly as he sat on the floor in his room. He tried to stay awake, but he was so sleepy; he couldn’t even move his limbs. He knew he hadn’t been drugged; he was angry and scared. “It’s . . . okay . . . Sam,” he said softly, his head rolling from side to side. “Little . . . Bunny . . . Foo . . . Foo . . . .”

-

Samantha slowly became aware of her surroundings, and she found herself looking into Jarod’s face as he stared down at her. He smiled when he saw her coming to.

“Rise and shine,” Jaord said.

“Where am I?” Samantha asked.

“University Medical Center, Lubbock,” Jarod replied. “Private room.” He held up Samantha’s clothes. “I don’t normally do this, but you need to get dressed - now. We need to get out of here before a doctor shows up.”

Samantha slowly sat up. “Okay, fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Actually, I’ll stay in here,” Jarod replied, turning his back to his young friend. He waited, rocking on his feet, as he heard Samantha shuffle around.

“Okay,” Samantha said after a few minutes. “I’m dressed.”

Jarod smiled and turned around – and was instantly met with a fist to the face. He stumbled back and fell to the floor, clutching his jaw. He looked over and saw Samantha glaring at him. “What did you do that for?” he asked, frowning.

“Gee, I don’t know,” Sam replied sarcastically. “Maybe because you drugged me!”

Jarod rubbed his jaw as he slowly got up. “You were being difficult.”

“Jarod, do you remember the last time I was drugged?” Samantha asked, her voice rising with every word. “I was nearly raped! And the time before that – Lyle kidnapped me! Remember! Did those two times slip your mind, or are you really that insensitive, you son of a bh!”

“Sam, I’m sorry,” Jarod replied. “I honestly didn’t mean -”

“Don’t ‘Sam’ me!” Samantha shouted. She grabbed the nearest thing off the bedside table, a cup, and hurtled it at him. Jarod ducked, barely missed getting hit in the head, holding his hands up as he shielded his face and head. He slowly walked toward Samantha. Samantha grabbed the remote control off the table and threw it at Jarod; Jarod winced as the remote hit his wrists. “You don’t get to ‘Sam’ me anymore!” She picked up the phone, but Jarod managed to grab her wrists, holding tight. She struggled. “Let me go, Jarod.” She kicked his shin, and Jarod shouted in pain, then he threw Samantha onto her back on the bed, pinning her.

“Knock it off,” Jarod growled. Samantha tried to knee him in the groin, but he pinned her legs with his. “I understand you’re upset, Samantha, but don’t push me.”

“How could you do that to me?” Samantha snapped as she squirmed. “I thought I could trust you.”

“It was an honest mistake,” Jarod replied, holding tight as his young friend struggled. “You can trust me.”

“Yeah right,” Samantha said; the anger in her voice was gone, replaced by extreme hurt and betrayal; tears filled her eyes. She suddenly stopped struggling. “Jarod, do you know how scared I was? I didn’t know what was going on, and I kept hearing some guy saying he was taking me to the ‘Centre’ . . . I thought that was it.” She tried not to cry, but she couldn’t help it.

Jarod felt horrible as he let go of Samantha’s wrists and got off her. He carefully pulled Samantha to him, hugging her; the young girl slowly wrapped her arms around him, hugging him tightly. “I’m not going to let them get you, Sam,” he whispered. “I would rather die first.”

Samantha clung tightly to Jarod, her eyes closed. She knew Jarod meant what he said, and that he was truly sorry for what he did to her. She couldn’t be upset with him anymore . . . but it didn’t mean she wouldn’t make him suffer a little bit. She sniffled and hiccupped a little for added measure. “Now what?” she asked softly.

“Well, you feel up for a little road trip?” Jarod asked softly. “We still need to go to Tulia.” Samantha smiled a little, nodding. Jarod smiled and tucked her protectively under his arm. “Come on, sweetie.” He grabbed their things, and the two headed out of the room. Jarod made a mental note to stop off at the gift shop before they left; he wanted to get a peace offering for Samantha.

(End of Chapter 8)
Chapter 9 by Jaxie
Warning: contains incident of (non-sexual) corporal punishment


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“So, how you feeling?” Jarod asked as he drove the car down the highway just outside of Tulia. Samantha sat beside him, a pastel bunny with long floppy ears in her hands. She stared straight ahead, eyes narrowed, lips set in a straight line. “Sam?” No response. “Look, I said I was sorry - repeatedly. What more do you want from me, sweetie?”

Suddenly, Sam turned and started hitting Jarod over the head with the bunny. “How could you do that to me!” she shouted, tears spilling down her cheeks.

Jarod was caught unaware, and he swerved into the oncoming lane as he kept one hand up defensively. A horn honked loudly, and Jarod saw an eighteen wheel truck heading right for them. He swerved hard to the right, barely missing the truck, and he quickly pulled over to the shoulder. The pretender sat for a moment, gripping the steering wheel, trying to get his breathing under control. Then he turned to Samantha; she had stopped hitting him, but he was surprised to see she was still glaring at him. His lips set straight, he took a deep breath, turned off the engine, got out of the car, marched over to the passenger door, and yanked it open.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Jarod wordlessly undid Samantha’s seatbelt, pulled her out by her wrists and got in her face as cars whizzed by. “Are you trying to get us both killed?” he shouted, his eyes daggers.

“You drugged me!” Samantha shouted back.

“And I apologized,” Jarod said. “I’m sorry, Sam, I really am; I wasn’t thinking, yes, and I know what I did to you reminded you of something very terrifying, but you can’t hit me while I’m driving!”

“Do you think you can just apologize and everything will be okay!” Samantha shouted. “You’re supposed to be my friend!”

“I am your friend!” Jarod shouted.

“Some friend!” Samantha yelled. She turned and stalked away.

“Hey, where are you going?” Jarod said, grabbing her arm.

“I’m out of here!” Samantha answered. “I’m through – with this case, and with you! Now, let me go!”

“Look, you can hate me all you want,” Jarod said, not letting go of his friend’s arm, “but you are not running away.”

“You can’t tell me what to do, Jarod,” Samantha said. “You’re not my father!”

“No, I’m not,” Jarod said, “but I am responsible for you, and you will listen to me!”

“And what if I don’t?” Samantha asked, trying to jerk free from Jarod’s grip.

Jarod pulled Samantha closer. “Then I'll remind you - painfully - how bad of an idea that can be.”

Samantha paused for a moment, a brief flash of her adopted father’s face in her mind. She was startled for a moment, then she pushed the image away as she scowled. “Like you would really follow through with that, Jarod.”

Jarod stared right at Samantha for a few seconds, then he picked her up in a fireman’s hold. He walked back over to the car, sat on the hood, and wordlessly put her over his knees. “Do you really want to call my bluff twice in once day, Samantha?” he asked.

Samantha struggled. “You can’t do this to me!” she shouted. “I’m twenty two years old!”

“Then start acting like it!” Jarod retorted. “Do I make myself clear?” Samantha muttered under her breath, and Jarod raised a hand and brought it down over her bottom – hard.

Samantha howled in pain. “Jarod!”

“Is that clear?” Jarod repeated.

“Yes!” Samantha answered.

“Good.” Jarod brought his hand down again on her bottom.

“Hey, I agreed not to do that again!” Samantha shouted.

“Yes, and I’m not spanking you for walking away,” he said, “but you nearly got us into a very serious accident. I can’t overlook that.” He brought his hand down on her bottom again.

Samantha howled again, begging him to stop, but he wouldn’t respond as he smacked her sharply seven more times. When he was finished his hand stung, so he knew Samantha was also in pain. She lay face down over his knees, quiet, save for the small sobs she tried to suppress. Jarod knew she was embarrassed and still angry at him, but the fuel for her anger had subsided; he was glad, but he also felt horrible for having to do that. He took a deep breath and gently lifted her to her feet, turning her to him.

“Sam?” he asked softly.

Samantha looked up at him – then she swiftly slapped him across the face. The force stung more than it hurt, but Jarod still touched his cheek as he looked up at her. Her expression was a mixture of betrayal and anger, but she didn’t lash out. She simply walked to the passenger side and got in, shutting the door behind her.

Jarod stayed where he was, rubbing his cheek. He felt horrible, both for what he did to Samantha and for what she did to him. He knew he would need to deal with Samantha and her little attitude, but doing so at that moment – with her in her current state - would only serve to push her farther from him. He simply took a deep breath, composed himself, and walked to the driver’s side. He got in and shut the door, then he turned to Samantha. She had fastened her seatbelt and was sitting, arms folded, face forward, with tear streaks on her cheeks.

Jarod sighed. “Sam, I -”

“Save it,” Samantha interrupted. She took the rabbit and half-heartedly tossed it at him. “And you can have this back as well.”

Jarod opened his mouth, but he decided against saying anything – at that moment, anyway. Hurt, he simply put the stuffed bunny on the backseat, started the engine, and pulled back onto the highway, heading for Tulia.


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Miss Parker watched as Angelo slowly paced the length of his room, shouting. Sydney had been out when the guards had come in, announcing that the empath had gone from being quiet to suddenly exploding into a rage of fury, shouting. Parker was a bit shocked at first, but she knew she needed to find out what was bothering Angelo.

“Angleo, what’s wrong?” Parker asked as she walked over.

“Hurt!” Angelo shouted. “Anger! Betrayal!”

“Who’s hurt?” Parker asked.

“Samantha . . . Jarod . . . betrayed Samantha!” Angelo shouted.

Parker stopped short, eyebrows furrowed. “What?” That couldn’t be right; Jarod wouldn’t betray Samantha. “Angelo, did Jarod betray Samantha?”

“Of course he did,” a cool voice said from behind her. She whirled around and saw Lyle standing behind her.

“What are you talking about?” Parker asked.

“Hello,” Lyle replied, “he took advantage of her and got her pregnant.” He smirked at the empath. “Is that what has Cousin It’s shorts in a bind? He got a thing for her too and pd someone else beat him to the punch?”

“Get out,” Parker said, her voice low and with edge.

Lyle simply smirked. “You know, Parker, all things considered . . . Samantha is rather attractive. I can see why Jarod took her out for a ride.” He glanced at Angelo. “Don’t get your hopes up, freak; she’s out of your league.” He turned on his heels and walked out of the room.

Parker sighed, disgusted at what her brother had just insinuated, even though he didn’t know about Samantha and Angelo’s real connection. She turned back to Angelo, and the empath had gone to his bed, sitting down, curling his knees under him, staring at the far wall through narrowed eyes.

“What is going on here?”

Parker turned and saw Sydney walking in, looking agitated. “Syd, where have you been?” she asked.

“Around,” Sydney replied. He glanced at Angelo. “What happened with Angelo?”

“He went ballistic for a few minutes,” Parker explained. “He said that Jarod betrayed Samantha. Lyle came in and said Jarod did betray her by getting her pregnant, then he made some rather . . . disgusting insinuations about Samantha and Angelo.”

Sydney looked troubled, then he turned to Parker. “Thank you for staying with Angelo in my absence,” he said. He walked over and sat beside Angelo. “You can go now, Parker.”

“Excuse me?” Parker asked. “You’re throwing me out?”

“No, I’m asking you to leave,” Sydney replied calmly. He glanced up at her with a fire in his eyes as his expression remained calmed. “Do you want me to throw you out?” Parker knew he was up to something, but she kept her mouth shut as she turned around and left the room, closing the door behind her. Sydney smiled and turned back to Angelo.

“Angelo . . . mad,” Angelo said.

“I know,” Sydney replied. “But Lyle can make anyone mad at him.” He put an arm around Angelo’s shoulders. “Are you okay?”

“Call sister,” Angelo said. “Help sister . . . help Jarod.”

“I’ll call them soon,” Sydney replied. “After -”

“No!” Angelo interrupted. “Call now!”

Sydney flinched a little, but he remained calm and nodded. “Okay,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his phone. He dialed Samantha’s number, then Angelo grabbed the phone and held it to his ear as it rang.

(End of Chapter 9)
This story archived at http://www.pretendercentre.com/missingpieces/viewstory.php?sid=3885