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Sleight of Hand
Prologue



Blue Cove, Delaware
She pulled out of the curbside park and was then forced to stop at a traffic light a short way down the road. The day being fine, she had the roof of the convertible open and the radio on. Her short-cropped red hair was just visible under the black hat that was pulled down over it but, as the light changed to green, she removed the dark headgear and tossed it into the back seat, allowing her hair to glow in the bright sunshine. The car began to pick up speed, but fortunately was still only traveling comparatively slowly when a figure, coming out a nearby alley, and with his head turned to look back over his shoulder, ran directly into its path.

The woman immediately slammed on the brakes, unable to do anything else as the man's body was struck by the front corner of the vehicle and rolled over the bonnet, hitting the ground on the other side. Before she could gasp, he had thrown his bags into the back of her car and vaulted in to the passenger seat.

"What the...?"

"Drive. Please."

She lifted her foot off the brake and put it on the accelerator, pressing down hard as she glanced back in time to see a group of people appear from the alley. Turning back to the road ahead, she watched out of the corner of her eye as the man in the passenger seat fought to catch his breath. His left hand clutched his other wrist, his eyes were closed and he leaned against the headrest. A few beads of sweat glistened on his forehead and began trickling down his face. For several long minutes there was silence before he opened his eyes and looked at her.

"Thank you."

"Seems a strange thing to say considering I just ran you over,” the woman commented.

He grinned faintly. "One good turn..."

She glanced at him. "Do you do that often?"

"Do what?"

"Just jump into the car of the person who hit you?"

"No. I usually open the door first."

"Can I take you anywhere?" She paused. "Like hospital?"

"It's fine." The man looked down at the wrist that was beginning to swell. "Simple fracture."

She nodded. "So can I take you anywhere else then, like home?"

"Where are you going?"

"Home myself."

"Mind if I tag along?"

The car was stopped at a light and she turned to stare at him. "You get hit by me, jump into my car and tell me to drive, don't want me to take you to a hospital and now want to come back to my house? You haven't even told me your name."

"Jarod." He held out his uninjured left hand and grinned.

She shook it gingerly. "I'm Helen." As the light changed to green, she focused on the road ahead, continuing to watch him out of the corner of her eye.

"So what do you do?" he queried after a moment of silence

"Law."

"You're a lawyer?"

"No." Helen smiled. "But if you're planning to sue me for hitting you, I might have to find one."

"I wasn't." Jarod looked at the long scratches on the dark green bonnet that his case had caused. "Were you planning anything as a result of my damage?"

"A little sandpaper and spray paint. It'll be as good as new."

He raised an eyebrow. "A legal mechanic?"

She laughed. "I like cars and I know how to take care of them. Actually it's not even my car l. I'm only in Delaware for today. I'll drive home tonight, fix it up and get it back to the rental company early tomorrow morning."

"So where do you live?"

"New Jersey. Just over the border."

"I know where it is."

"No, I mean my house is just over the border. About an hour away."

He nodded slowly. "Do you have a sofa that I could crash on for tonight? I'll leave tomorrow, but I don’t know if I can..."

"I’d imagine that, after being hit by my car, you probably don't feel like doing anything much." Helen smiled. "It's fine. You're welcome to come."

# # #


The Centre
Blue Cove, Delaware

"So who was she?"

Broots glanced up. "We don't know, Miss Parker. The car's a rental but the name and address that the woman gave don't check out."

"What do you think, Syd?" She leaned against the desk. "Prearranged?"

"Considering that she actually hit him, I wouldn't say so, would you?"

"So why was Boy Wonder in Blue Cove?"

As Sydney was considering a response, the door of the Tech Room opened and the other Parker twin walked through. "Presumably he was the person who broke into Dad's office."

"What?" Miss Parker stared at him. "Lyle, what are you talking about?"

"Dad got back from the meeting with the Triumvirate and found his top filing cabinet drawer open, although he was sure he'd locked it. There's quite a lot of information that's gone; classified files that aren't to be found anywhere else in the Centre, all of which pertained, I'm positive you won't be surprised to learn, to Jarod and his family."

Miss Parker turned around, but Broots had already started the program giving him access to the security system and within minutes had the relevant footage on the screen.

"That's not Jarod," the psychiatrist stated after watching the film for a moment.

Lyle looked over at Sydney sharply. "Sure?"

"Positive, Lyle. Look at the figure. Jarod isn't that thin." Sydney eyed the footage closely. "That's a woman."

"A woman who knows what she's doing."

Miss Parker watched the slim figure move into camera shot, ensuring that her face wasn't visible under her black hat, and went over to the filing cabinet. She inserted a thin device into the lock and turned it before sliding open one of the drawers and extracting a bundle of files.

"How did she get in?"

"I… I don't know, Mr. Lyle. Your father wouldn't permit either a second or unfixed camera into the room, so we can't get a look at that side of it."

The four people watched silently as the woman walked over to a place just visible on the edge of the picture and smoothly shifted aside a large bookcase, revealing a space behind. In the space was a large bundle of papers and with an obviously practiced movement she swapped them for a pile out of a bag she carried before putting those she had stolen in their place.

"What the devil...?"

Miss Parker rounded on her brother. "Didn't you know that was there?"

Lyle pursed his lips and spoke carelessly. "Seems you're not the only person Dad's been keeping secrets from." He leaned forward. "Broots, forward the footage and let's find out if Dad knows that stuff's missing."

The group watched as the woman smoothly replaced the shelf and then went out of camera shot. Pausing the tape briefly, Broots bought up the time schedule and then continued. The four people could see that it was almost twenty minutes later when Mr. Parker came in. It was another twenty minutes before he opened the drawer. Even in rapid motion his anger was clear. Glancing around the room, he went over and, as the woman had, opened the previously hidden place. Taking the files over to his desk, he flipped through them, nodded, and returned them to the hole, concealing them again.

"So he didn't notice they were different..."

Sydney looked thoughtfully at the screen. "I know this sounds rather extreme, but could that have been an exchange of files intended to look like theft? There's no other sign that the woman was here apart from the fact that we're looking at her and usually we're able to tell if even Jarod was in the building. Admittedly it isn't until a few hours afterwards..."

"That's a little far fetched, Sydney." Miss Parker looked scornful and then glanced up at Lyle. "Are you going to mention to Daddy that we know about it?"

"Considering the mood he's in right now, I think that would be asking for trouble."

# # #


Falk, New Jersey
"You sure you're okay, Jarod?"

"I will be."

"So you survive getting run over with only simple fracture of the wrist? That's very impressive."

"Maybe a cracked rib or two as well." He shrugged. "It's only bone."

Helen rolled her eyes and laughed. "Glad you're so easy about it." She turned the car into a side street and then down a tree-lined avenue before pulling up into the driveway of a small bungalow. "Can you manage?"

"I'll be fine." Reaching over with his left hand, he opened the door of the car and, keeping his right arm pressed to his side, grabbed his bags out of the back seat.

"Got everything?"

He nodded and, picking up her own things, she went up the path and unlocked the door, holding it open so that he could enter first.

"Drop your things in the living room and grab a seat." Helen went into another room and he could hear her opening and closing a cupboard before she walked in to the room where he was sitting. "I'll grab a couple of drinks and then help you with it. You won't be able to tape ribs and bandage a wrist on your own, particularly not if you're right-handed."

He nodded. "Thanks."

She carried the two full glasses into the living room and handed one to him, sitting down opposite. "So are you really in want of help or is this just a novel way to get in to a woman's home?"

Jarod laughed, despite the pain it caused. "Well, I think that if it came down to a fight, then you'd probably win."

"That's very comforting, thanks." She grinned, watching him swallow half the glass's contents in a few large gulps. "Slow down. There's more where that came from."

"I'm thirsty. Maybe it's the shock."

"We were driving for an hour. How long does it take you to get over shock?"

He grinned, but the smile faded as Jarod felt himself becoming slightly light-headed. He blinked a few times, watching as the world slid in and out of focus in front of his eyes, and frowned.

"Jarod?" Helen stood up. "Is something wrong?"

"I think I wasn't k-kidding w-when I t-talked a-bout sh-shock." He leaned back and closed his eyes briefly. The feeling of light-headedness was growing and he also felt strangely dizzy. As the glass was gently removed from his hand, Jarod lifted his head, forcing his suddenly-heavy eyelids up to hers, struggling to focus as she stood beside him, her arms folded, watching and waiting, just out of reach.

"W... what...?" His speech, slurred through lips that were becoming numb, came slowly. "What... did you... give me?"

"Don't bother fighting, Jarod. It's too strong. You can't do anything."

He leaned forward in the seat, feeling himself sway. "W...Why...?"

"Just relax. It's too late. You can't change this now."

"P...please...H...Helen..."

Making a supreme effort, Jarod raised the uninjured hand, holding it up in a plea for assistance of some sort but she remained unmoving, silent, watching. Slowly the potent chemicals took control, his arm became too heavy and he let it to drop back down into his lap. Numbly, he felt her place a hand on his shoulder and push him back against the sofa. For several long seconds, he withstood it, but the continued pressure was too great to be overcome by his diminished strength and finally he yielded, slumping back against the cushion. He fought to think of some way out of the situation, but his drugged mind could provide him with no viable answers as he vainly struggled against the powerful sedative, not wanting to give in.

Every limb began to feel as if it was made of lead as his vision blurred again, and it gradually became impossible for Jarod to keep his head upright. He let it sink against the back of the sofa, holding his breath in an attempt to keep his vision focused on her, but ultimately he could fight no longer. His eyelids slowly slid down, fluttering as he struggled one final time, then lay still. His unhurt hand, having been clenched in a tight fist, relaxed and slid down from his knee, dropping beside his leg on the cushion. After a long moment of silence his head rolled to one side, his lips parted and his chest fell as his body exhaled the breath he’d been holding in. She leaned over, putting her mouth close to his ear.

"Sweet dreams, Pretender."











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