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Disclaimer: I have absolutely no right to use these characters, just an abiding admiration for the creative work of the cast and crew of The Pretender.  All rights to all characters within this story are owned by NBC and the fine folks who created and slaved over this sorely-missed gem of a series.  Although the story is original, it is a "derivative work" and I claim no copyright.  No profits are made in any way in the writing or distribution of the work.  It is written solely for creative enjoyment.

 

People were always interrupting. It was so annoying, to be disrupted during the most important part of the task. Excellence didn’t happen on its own, after all; it required skill, patience and great care.

And now he was being interrupted, just at the moment of truth. There were running footsteps coming, and no time to finish.

Carl adjusted the blue-white arm of the corpse, making sure it was at the perfect angle, and then crowded into the shadows behind a reeking, rusted Dumpster as the running footsteps rounded the blind corner of the alley. They slowed, then stopped, and Carl heard the sound of someone breathing harshly, then moaning.

Carl smiled in appreciation. Yes, that was fitting. His visitor should moan, on seeing the perfection, the greatness of the genius that had created the scene.

"Oh God," the man whispered. Carl risked moving just a little, so that he could see the corpse’s pallid arm, and the man kneeling next to her. It was hard to tell how tall the man was, but he was good-looking in a movie-idol sort of way, and he was dressed in black that blended with the shadows. Streetlights glimmered on a leather jacket so soft it looked wet.

The man started to touch the corpse, then pulled back. Well, it was impossible to believe she was still alive, after all. Carl took it as his due homage to the perfection of the moment he’d created. Not allowed to touch, no. No one was allowed to touch it but him.

More running footsteps coming from around the alley’s corner now, and that was bad. If the man was a criminal, being chased – Carl sensed immediate danger, and looked for a way to slip into the shadows and be gone. There wasn’t one. He was trapped where he was. Trapped, trapped, trapped ... he had to stay. He had to finish.

The man heard the footsteps, too; his head came up, and streetlights glinted on what might have been tears in his eyes. He made a raw sound of frustration and ran on, avoiding the body and the blood that glittered black cherry in the streetlights.

Carl held his breath as the man’s pursuers rounded the corner. Not police. Please, not police.

And they weren’t. Two heavy, muscular men wearing suits and carrying guns, but without the donut-shop demeanor of the fuzz. They stared at Carl’s tableau for a few seconds in silence, perplexed, before a third set of footsteps came around the corner and slowed.

A woman’s voice said, "What the hell is the matter with you idiots – " and then fell silent for several long, sweet heartbeats. When she resumed, her voice was lower, much rougher. "Oh God."

"We just found her," one of the men said. "What should we do, Miss Parker?"

She moved forward into the glow of the streetlight, and into Carl’s direct view. He let out his breath in an inaudible moan, because she was perfect. Tall, dark-haired, with the chilly remote beauty of a living doll.

No, not a doll. She carried a gun, just like her two human guard dogs.

Nothing showed on her face as she stared down at Carl’s perfectly arranged scene. No fear, no disgust, no admiration. She was as remote and unreachable as the stars.

"Go after Jarod," she said without looking up. The men hesitated, and she snapped her head up and gave them a look so piercing it made Carl’s pulse jump and thunder. "Go!"

They went, feet pounding heavily on pavement, and the beautiful Miss Parker lowered herself to a graceful crouch at the side of the body. Unlike the man she chased, she did not hesitate to touch the pale gray-white skin on the wrist, feeling for a pulse that would never race again. Oh, she was beautiful. Beautiful and strong. Perfect. She could touch. Yes, she could touch anything.

Carl’s satisfaction with his tableau had disappeared, in the face of this new wonder. That thing on the ground was dead and gone, his fantasy snuffed out with her. This one was alive and amazingly real to him, the way so few things were. If I touched her, would I really feel it? Because he never had, really, it was all just sensation without meaning. But she could be different. Yes. She would be different.

He started to take a step forward, but her head came up as if she’d sensed the sharp-bladed knife in his hand. The gun rose in a casual, elegant movement, tracking an unseen threat.

Can she get me before I reach her? Such a piercing, fascinating thought, but then he realized she wasn’t reacting to him at all. There were footsteps in the distance, coming closer. At the scrape of shoes on pavement behind her, Miss Parker spun, still in a crouch, and aimed at the approaching stranger. She sighed and stood up with a grace that made Carl tingle.

"Sydney," she said. An older man joined her and looked down at the body. He had an intelligent face, but one that conveyed little; only in the tension around his eyes could Carl tell his tableau had made its impact. This Sydney had – what was the word? – aplomb.

Miss Parker said, "Tell me this doesn’t have anything to do with Jarod. Please."

"I don’t believe it does," the man named Sydney said, and walked slowly around the tableau, out of Carl’s sight. He had a strong, slow voice, and it reminded Carl of someone he had once hated. Dead now, of course. If he had ever hated them, they were dead. "Though if he saw it, he’d make it his business, of course."

"Well, we can’t make it our business," Miss Parker said. She didn’t sound convinced. "Can we?"

Sydney sighed. "No. We should go, before we contaminate the crime scene any further."

"Call the police, Syd." For the first time Carl heard a tremor of emotion in her voice, and was gratified. Not only beautiful, but sensitive, too. "She’s somebody’s daughter. Somebody loves her. We can't just walk away and leave her."

Sydney pulled a mobile phone from his pocket and dialed. As he spoke to the police, Miss Parker crouched down again, staring at the corpse. Seeing flaws? Don’t worry, Carl thought to her. I can do it better. Next time, I’ll do it better.

He had a cold, exhilarating moment of fear when her eyes roamed his direction, but she couldn’t see him in the deep shadows. I can see you, my dear. Yes. I can see yoooooou ...

Miss Parker stood as Sydney finished the call. She holstered her gun. Without a word, the two of them walked away, around the body, in the direction her guards and the first fleeing man had gone.

 

Miss Parker, he thought, totally enchanted. He counted to sixty, then came out from the shadows and began walking in the direction they’d gone.

She was going to be the best yet.

###

Dirty, filthy, vile, murdering bastard.

Miss Parker let her revulsion flow out through her body, exploding into punches and kicks that were wild with suppressed energy. Her trainer stepped back, exasperated, and she whipped through a roundhouse kick and slammed the side of her foot into a padded target. The muffled boom echoed through the small, airless room.

"Enough," Kenneth Fu said. She shook her head and sucked down deep breaths of sweat-damp air. She moved to another target and began punching, hard and fast, feeling sweat bead up and roll down her back and her arms and between her breasts under the confining sports bra. Damn him. Damn him to hell!

She wasn’t sure who she was damning – the killer, or Jarod. Jarod for luring her down that alley, into that awful place that reeked of death and evil. The killer, for being who – no, what he was.

"Enough!" Kenneth ordered again. She shook sweat-damp hair out of her eyes and punched harder, making the bag flinch and jump.

He stopped her by the simple, violent expedient of knocking her on her ass on the padded floor. She rolled, came up ready to fight, and caught her breath for a second. Kenneth wasn’t in fighting stance. He just looked annoyed.

"You pay me to put you in shape, not let you take yourself apart," he said. "Enough."

He wasn’t a large man, but he was solid as the wall of China. She’d learned not to underestimate him, not just his strength – which was at least four or five times her own – but his agility and willpower, too. When Kenneth used that tone, he meant it.

She stopped. She bent over, rested her hands on her bent knees, and watched sweat drip from her hair to the floor as she breathed. She ached in every loosened muscle, and in some of them felt the telltale acid burn of overuse. After a minute or so she started the stretches that would save her mobility later. Kenneth handed her a towel and, frowning, silently critiqued her form.

"Want to tell me?" he finally asked.

"You don’t want to know." She’d burst in as soon as the plane landed from Seattle, taken a flaming hot shower, thrown on her sports bra and black Spandex pants, and come in to abuse her body. He’d tried to referee it, at first, then given up when he saw the depth of her frustration. "Dead body."

"And you want vengeance for it," he said. "What do you want from me, some ancient Chinese aphorism? Wax on, wax off?"

"Bite me, sensei."

He laughed. She toweled sweat from her face and neck and shivered as her body cooled. No trace of Jarod in Seattle, of course. Wherever he’d gone to ground, he’d pulled in the hole behind him.

She couldn’t put it out of her mind. Coming around the corner – feeling a flash of irritation at her men just standing there gawking–

And then the dead girl, lying naked on a white sheet, her blood spattering it like an abstract canvas. Her shaved head looking so vulnerable, her long dark hair dumped around her like exotic feathers. Black, glistening stab wounds –

Shit, she needed to hit something again. She closed her eyes and concentrated on stretching her tendons.

"You see a lot of bad things," Kenneth said, no longer laughing. "You can’t keep bringing them in here. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for your focus. You understand?"

"Yes," she said. "I’m sorry, sensei."

"Don’t be sorry. Do better."

She nodded to him, a formal nod of student to master. He walked away and left her there, contemplating her toes and remembering how cold that girl’s skin had felt, how unreal it had felt when it was happening. She’d seen death before. She was, by most people’s standards, a hardshell bitch.

And yet ...

Jarod had seen it, too. He’d felt anguish go through him like a heated spike. Something else they had in common, when others, her Sweepers included, had shrugged it off as bizarre and distasteful. She wondered sometimes why she felt things so deeply. Did she really have some Pretender potential, or was she just – as her father had once said – acting like a little girl? That accusation had been the end of the sweet, docile Miss Parker, she remembered. At the age of twelve, on the verge of puberty, she’d donned armor, gone to war, and never looked back.

Acting like a little girl. I WAS a little girl, daddy.

She breathed deeply, felt the warm stretch go all the way to her toes, and finally climbed back to her feet to give Kenneth the formal bow to end the session. He returned it, smiled, and said, "Hit the bricks."

She went back to the showers, scrubbing away sweat and anger, and by the time she came outside it was getting late, the sunset a layered confection of orange, purple and red on the horizon. Clouds clung low to the horizon. The gym bag in her hand was light enough, but what she was wearing weighed her down: a tailored pantsuit, a flame-red silk shirt, Italian leather ankle boots, a custom shoulder holster, a nine millimeter handgun.

Her Centre uniform.

Her cell phone rang as she was stowing the gym bag in the back seat. She flipped it open one-handed and leaned against the sun-warm gray metal of the Mercedes.

"Parker," she said. No answer. "Hello?"

Still no answer, though she heard the delicate hiss of an open connection. She frowned in irritation and said, "Jarod? The silent treatment isn’t working, so you’ll excuse me if I – "

"Sweetheart," her father said. He sounded old and tired. "Sorry about that, I was finishing another call. How are you?"

"Fine, daddy." He never called just to ask how she was. "What’s up?"

"Oh, nothing. You almost got him, I heard. Well, next time, princess. Next time. Listen, I wonder if I could ask you to do me a little favor."

"Of course."

"I need you to take out Dr. Raines," her father said. She opened her mouth, stared hard at the sunset, and blinked. No, she hadn’t heard that. Bad connection.

"I hope you mean dinner and a movie," she said. A hot afternoon breeze fluttered her hair, tugged at her lapels, and rustled the tall pine trees near the shore. The Centre was just five minutes away, down the winding coastal road. She heard the boom of waves crushing sand, and silence from her father.

Silence.

"Daddy – " I’m not your goddamn hired killer! "Daddy, don’t ask me to do that. Please."

"Sweetheart, that wheezing bastard’s been at my back too long. Too long! He thinks he can manipulate me, well, he’s gone a step too far this time. Just take care of it, I don’t care how you do it, and I don’t need to know the details." His voice had taken on a hard steel edge. It wasn’t a favor, it was an order. "See you for dinner tomorrow?"

"No," she said. "No, I won’t be able to make it."

She heard him hang up and for the second time that day felt a sense of unreality take over. The waves crashed in the distance, the pine trees rustled, the breeze moved warm over her face like a lover’s hand.

Take out Dr. Raines. She’d become just another playing piece on the chessboard, to be moved or sacrificed as situations demanded. Besides, Daddy had a son now. Daughters were not only secondary, they were superfluous.

If he was really her father. Jarod had even made her doubt that, damn him. Well, what’s worse, him not being your father, or having a father who assumes you’ll kill at his order?

"God," she whispered, and wanted to scrub her face with her hands, but the makeup was too fresh and she was too well disciplined to indulge herself. Her father had just given her a direct order that she knew deep down she couldn’t carry out. She could assign a Sweeper to it, she supposed. He didn’t want to know the details. But would her hands – her soul – really be any cleaner for not pulling the trigger?

She needed a miracle. But she knew from long experience that miracles were thin on the ground at the Centre, at least since they’d lost Jarod.

She paused in the act of slipping the phone back in her pocket.

Lost Jarod.

She’d had a thought, something that had flicked by so quickly she’d only seen a corner of it. Something about Jarod. Something about ... about ...

About the dead girl, lying like a posed sculpture in the filthy alley. What had her father said? You almost got him. Yes, they had. They’d come so close she’d smelled his aftershave, found his bed still warm.

The girl. In the alley. Sydney, tell me this has nothing to do with Jarod.

It hadn't but it did now. Jarod had seen it. He’d felt that same burning spike of emotion. She knew him, she knew he was emotionally incapable of walking away from it. She'd felt the same temptation, to avenge the girl's stupid, useless death.

She stared off into the sunset, and for the first time in a long time, her lips curled into a full, heartfelt smile. She knew where Jarod was. Or at least where he would be.

And if that wasn’t a miracle, she didn’t know what was.

###

She didn’t tell the Centre where she was going. There were two reasons for that: one, she thought – no, she knew – that Jarod knew exactly what was going on inside the Centre, and if she used the regular channels she might screw up her one chance.

The second was purely personal. She slept, dreaming of Jarod’s skin and hands and the taste of his mouth, until the plane touched down at Sea-Tac. It bothered her to travel unarmed, but that was a hazard of foregoing the company jet; she’d packed her gun, carefully unloaded, in her suitcase alone with her makeup. The landing was uneventful, and so was the shuffle out of the plane and down the sloping jetway to the terminal.

In the terminal, things got interesting very quickly.

###

"What do you mean my bag was sent to Tucson?" she demanded, leaning so far across the counter it looked like she was about to vault it. The customer service agent for American Airlines – young, male and rattled – stepped back, got hold of himself, and tried to smile. "Don’t you dare smile at me, Wonder Boy, explain to me why my suitcase is in Tucson, for God’s sake!"

"I’m very sorry, ma’am," he said. And she could tell that he was, very sorry indeed that Miss Parker was erupting like Vesuvius in front of his workstation. "We’ve rerouted it, it should be here by no later than 6 p.m. tomorrow – "

That did it. She reached over and grabbed his lapels and hauled him halfway to meet her. He started to try to break her grip, then froze at the look in her eyes.

"Listen," she said, very softly, low in her throat, like velvet pulled over rough steel. "I’m a federal agent. My weapon is in that bag, and you will get it to me. Immediately. Because heads are going to roll if you don’t, and yours will be first in the guillotine, are we clear?"

He nodded his head while his Adam’s apple jerked convulsively up and down. His cinnamon freckles stood out on cream-pale skin. A redhead. She liked redheads. She liked redheads who did what they were told even better.

"I’ll be at the Bellevue Club Hotel," she said. "I don’t care if you have to kick a kidney off of CareFlight, you get it to me by morning. Understand?"

"Y-yes ma’am."

"Good answer," she said, and let him go. She turned away without waiting to see if he collapsed, and walked quickly through the crowded plaza out into cool mountain air, and a waiting stream of taxicabs eager to take her anywhere she wanted to go. She chose the first one that looked clean, got in, and said, "Bellevue Club Hotel."

"No bags?" he asked her. A grubby little man in the kind of golf cap nobody really wore anymore, except cab drivers. She speared him with a look and was irritated when he chuckled. "Boy oh boy. Welcome to Seattle, honey."

She let the ‘honey’ pass, only because she needed to save her strength. She wanted her gun, she wanted her makeup, and most of all, she wanted Jarod.

In so many ways.

Staring out the window quickly lost its appeal, because there was nothing to see but lights and a milk-washed sky of clouds overhead, underlit by the city’s neon. She checked her watch. She’d gained time coming here, lots of it, and the world that would have been sinking fast toward midnight on the east coast was just striking 8 p.m. Seattle time. Six hours in the air and she was still in time for dinner.

Where was Jarod? What would he be eating?

She leaned forward suddenly, tapped on the glass that separated her from the driver, and said, "I changed my mind. Take me to this address."

She read it off from a sheet of paper in her pocket. She hadn’t planned on going there until the morning, but the night was young, and the trail was only going to get colder.

"Bad part of town," the driver cautioned. "Pretty lady like you – "

"Just drive."

He got the hint. No more conversation as they maneuvered lanes and turns and narrow streets, wove in and out of unexpected fog banks, and finally pulled up in front of a store with burglar bar front windows and a CLOSED sign hanging at an angle on the door.

"Wait," she said.

"Lady, I got other fares!"

She showed him a hundred dollar bill, locked eyes with him, and said, "Wait."

He waited. She listened to the motor’s idling as she walked up the dirty sidewalk to the door. It looked deserted. She pounded on the glass with her fist, waited, then pounded again. Finally, a light came on in the back.

"Yeah?" said a voice from beside her. She jumped, looked down, and saw an intercom half-concealed by the rough brick.

"Adrian?"

"Don’t know him."

"Funny," she said. "I got your name from the Centre."

A long buzz at the door as the lock released.

As she stepped inside and heard the lock click in behind her, she hoped Broots had gotten it right, for once, because she’d only just remembered that she was a woman alone in a bad neighborhood, without the friendly companionship of a warm nine millimeter under her coat.

But she wasn’t really worried. For all his flaws, Broots hardly ever got anything wrong.

Adrian stepped out of the back room. He was a burly poster child for the Aryan Brotherhood, shaved bald, covered with blue ink tattoos that reminded her of thorns and spikes.

He didn’t say anything to her at all.

"I need some ID," she said. "And don’t ask any questions."

He had a surprisingly sweet smile. "Sweetheart," he said, "the only question I ask is cash or credit."

###

It took about an hour – a surprisingly short amount of time, she thought, for such a professional job. Even looking at the credentials under merciless light, she couldn’t tell them from the real thing. Even her picture looked authentically unattractive. She nodded, slipped the leather case in her pocket, and peeled bills off of her money roll.

"You got transportation?" Adrian asked as he stuffed the money in the breast pocket of his sleeveless jean jacket. The tattoo on the right side of his neck, Miss Parker saw, was a death’s head. "Cause I could drive you if you want."

"I have a cab," she said. "Thanks."

"You need anything – "

"I’ll call," she lied. Adrian was too big, too muscular, and way too tattooed for her taste. She’d feel like a toy in his hands.

"Cause there’s some psycho in town," he continued. "Going after women."

"Psychos are known to." Also bald-headed tattooed bikers.

"Well, I just think you’d be better off with a bodyguard." He flexed an arm suggestively. The results were either impressive or frightening, but she wasn’t prepared to identify which.

"Thanks again," she said with an edge of steel in her voice. "Got to go."

He nodded and watched her as she walked through the cluttered, dusty junk shop to the door.

It didn’t open. She looked back, afraid she was going to see him catfooting up on her, a psycho gleam in his eyes, but he was still sitting where he’d been at the battered wooden desk.

"Sorry!" he called, and pressed the buzzer.

She escaped out into the humid darkness.

###

American Airlines delivered her suitcase at 6:30 in the morning. She answered the door dressed in the plush hotel-provided bathrobe, blinking at the glare of the hallway, and snapped, "About time!" as she grabbed it and slammed the door in the employee's face.

Everything was intact, thank God. She loaded the nine millimeter and put it on the bed next to her. It was early, but the early bird, her father had often told her, eats everybody else's worms. She flicked on the television set, muted it, and dialed room service for coffee and a toasted bagel with light cream cheese. The sight and smell of her own clothes – wrinkled though they were – made her feel comfortable and confident again. She sat back against the fluffy down pillows, stretched her legs out on the wide bed, and watched the morning news.

There really was a serial killer in town. The media didn't have any sensational pictures, but Miss Parker recognized the alley and that barely visible lump under a draped police cover. I was just there. She closed her eyes and remembered the cool white skin of that girl's arm, and the pale, cloudy eyes staring up at nothing ...

She jumped at the authoritative knock on the door, then remembered the room service.

As she munched her bagel and drank the excellent coffee, she surveyed the clothing situation. Thank God, she reflected, for polyester and spandex and wrinkle-free fabrics. She could pull this off, after all.

A shower, makeup and one hour later, she was on her way to the Seattle City Center, and the offices of the FBI.

###

The FBI offices, like most FBI offices, were unmarked. If you didn't know where you were going, according to federal thinking, you had no reason to be there. It was a school of thought Miss Parker was thoroughly familiar with. She used the magnetic access card she'd bought from Adrian and entered the cool, strategically stark outer offices. A male agent seated behind a reception desk – no sexism here – looked her over with professional detachment as she presented her faked credentials.

"Agent Gardner?" he asked. She nodded. He turned aside and tapped computer keys. She waited while he verified her identity. Jarod was able to insert himself into any database he wanted, but he'd learned that ability from the Centre. She had absolute faith in Adrian. You didn't get to be a primary contractor for the Centre without having skills.

Sure enough, the Feeb handed back her credentials with a welcome-to-the-club nod. "You'll need to meet with SAC Morales," he said. Through the door on the left, down the hall, situation room B."

He handed her a new set of ID, keyed to the office. She hung the badge on her jacket and took the door he'd indicated. Not a lot of people in the offices, but enough to give it a serious, focused, professional air. Women dressed for sobriety, not too much leg, next to no cleavage. Boring. She skated the edge of that, but she'd brought her longest skirt – almost to the knee – and a blouse that could pass for businesslike.

She tugged the jacket closer and opened the door of Situation Room B. It was empty, but there were signs of recent occupation – bagels laid out on a plastic tray at the back, juice and coffee cups scattered on the table, and pictures.

Lots of pictures.

Parker took a few steps toward them, then stopped. She recognized the set of photographs at the end. She'd been there, she'd seen that pitiful violated body. She'd touched that cold pale skin.

What stole her breath away were the others. So many others. She turned a slow circle and counted the dead, dear God, so many. So many women, some of them hardly more than girls. She'd seen a lot of death. She'd never seen this.

Seventeen women. He'd killed seventeen.

A part of her mind whispered, so far.

The door rattled behind her, and she turned to see another woman coming in. Her face had angular strength, though, and the dark obsidian eyes that reminded Parker of Mayan statues. Not pretty, but striking.

She didn't warm to the sight of a stranger in her situation room.

"Special Agent Morales?" Parker asked. She held out her hand. Morales stepped up and took it. They shook like men. "Special Agent Jennifer Gardner."

Morales' cold black eyes crinkled a little at the corners. "You don't look like a Jennifer."

"What does a Jennifer look like?"

"Like someone who was able to make real brownies in an EZ-Bake Oven." Morales let her go and nodded toward the pictures. "Scary bastard, eh?"

"Seventeen dead."

"That we know of." Morales handed her a thick expandable folder. "I didn't ask for you, but I'm glad to have the help. Read up, and do it on an empty stomach. When you're done with that, I need you out on the street. I'll team you up with Special Agent Kendrick as soon as he comes back in."

Parker took the folder and tucked it under her arm. She had no intention of opening the damn thing – the photographs alone were giving her fodder for nightmares for the next ten years.

"Special Agent Kendrick?" Parker repeated. Morales gave her a slight smile.

"Know him?"

"Maybe."

"Trust me," she said. "You'll like him." Morales' dark eyes flickered with what might have been mischief, and she looked over Parker's shoulder. "And here he is."

Miss Parker turned, and faced Special Agent Kendrick. She smiled.

"Jarod," she said. She held out her hand. "Nice to see you again."

He looked perfect. The perfectly pressed FBI agent, dark and handsome, and if she'd surprised him it only showed in his eyes for a flash of a second. And then he held out his hand and took hers. A solid, warm pressure of flesh on flesh. He glanced down at her newly minted office credentials, and his eyebrows twitched.

"Agent Gardner," he said, and demonstrated that devastating smile. "Jennifer."

"You two know each other?" Morales' sharp dark eyes were assessing their every move.

"We're old friends," Jarod said.

"I'm not running a reunion, Agents. Kendrick, what do you have for me?"

Jarod's eyes were boring into Parker's, trying to decide whether there were Sweepers waiting around the corner, whether he could play the game one more round or it was time to make a break for freedom while he still could.

Parker said, very quietly, "We'll talk later."

He nodded slightly and turned his attention to Morales. "Carlson and Roskowicz are still canvassing, but we have something from the coffee shop two blocks away. They open early, bake their own bagels. The baker was arriving at 4 a.m. and saw a dark van pulling out of the alley where the body was found."

"Nothing else?"

Jarod smiled. "Male white Caucasian, approaching middle age, parked it on the street. He got out and fed the parking meter. The witness says he then went back to the alley."

Morales' eyes widened. "Did you seize the coins from the parking meter?"

"They're in the lab now. We were lucky, we got to them just before the collection service came around."

Morales stared at him for a few seconds, and the hope that had sparked in her eyes died. She shook her head. "He's too smart. There won't be any prints."

"Nobody can think of everything," Miss Parker said. She was watching Jarod, and felt a little shock of triumph as their eyes met.

"No," he agreed. "Sometimes you just get lucky."

###

When Morales sent them on their way, they continued the polite fiction of colleagues all the way through the offices, to the lobby, to the elevators.

As soon as the elevator doors shut, Miss Parker pulled her gun and put it under his chin. Jarod didn't make a move to stop her, but his eyes flicked to the upper right-hand corner of the room. She didn't look away from him, but she recognized the signal. Camera. Stupid of her. Of course, there would be cameras in elevators that served the FBI offices. She had seconds before someone noticed her violation of elevator etiquette.

"Bad day?" Jarod asked mildly. She nodded and quickly holstered her gun, but her eyes promised that it wasn't over. And he, damn him, smiled. Smiled.

The ground floor indicator chimed. Parker stepped back and fell in beside him as they walked through the nondescript ground floor lobby, through doors reinforced with bulletproof glass and past concrete assault barriers disguised as street art. Seattle was having a beautiful, sunny morning. The sky was a perfect deep turquoise. Cotton-white clouds skimmed the peaks of the looming mountains. With each breath, Parker felt the tingle of cool pine-scented air.

Jarod stopped walking. She stopped too. They stared at each other as pedestrians pushed by, cars blurred past on the street, and it seemed to her that the two of them existed in some different reality.

The real world.

She reached inside her jacket, touched the talisman of her gun. Jarod instantly took a step closer that brought him right up against her, body-heat close, and she was completely unprepared as he bent down toward her. A long, slow, sweet kiss that could have melted steel. Her hand was touching the warm grip of her gun, but she couldn't draw it. He'd pinned it between them, and to get it she'd have to push him away.

Which ... she didn't want to do ... yet.

And when he pulled back, somehow, he had the gun. She wasn't quite sure how that happened, she only felt the brush of his fingers along her breast, and then the lightening of a weight ... and her gun was disappearing into the pocket of his jacket, and Jarod was stepping away. His eyes were very bright, but he wasn't smiling.

"It's not my only gun," she lied. He turned and started to walk south. She hurried to catch up. "You can't just walk away from me!"

"Call the Sweepers and stop me." And he already knew she couldn't, damn him.

"I knew if I made it a full tactical intervention you'd be gone before I could find you. It's just you and me, Jarod."

"The way it should be," he said. "Game's over, Miss Parker. You lose. Go home."

Her turn to smile, as wide and sarcastic a smile as she could manage. He sighed and shook his head.

"This isn't about you. It's not about the Centre, either. This man – this monster – has killed seventeen women, Parker, I think even you might care about that."

"I do care," she said. "The FBI seems capable of catching him without you."

"They've been on this case from the third killing. Morales is the third Special Agent in Charge. They've turned over the entire investigative team twice, and there's no result. They can't catch him." Jarod stared at her steadily. "I can."

"If I let you."

"Yes."

"And after that, you disappear off into the darkness and leave me looking like an asshole. For about, what, the sixtieth time? Did it ever occur to you that you might be responsible for my death? The Centre doesn't exactly reward failure."

"Your father would never let that happen."

She pulled him to a stop. "My father has a son now."

Such a Pretender. He comprehended that instantly. "I see. To a man like him, a daughter becomes expendable."

"An embarrassing daughter," she said. "Stupid. Ineffective. Defective."

Jarod said nothing, but she saw that trademark compassion warm in his eyes. Maybe that made her say, compulsively, "He asked me to kill someone for him."

Jarod's eyes darkened. "Did you?"

"Not yet."

He studied her intensely, the way he would a sim paper, and she felt a deep-down tingling of response. He cared. After all this time, all this history, Jarod still cared.

And so – incredibly – did she.

"You have to get away, Parker," he said. "They'll destroy you if they can, just like your mother. Change your life. Walk away."

"Escape?" She smiled bitterly. "I tried, remember? Escape just means your cage moves with you."

"It's not just ambition that keeps you at the Centre. It's not even fear, Miss Parker."

He was right, it wasn't. Even thinking the truth was dangerous, but she knew it and so did he. If I walk away, I never see you again. Never. That's worse than anything they can do to me at the Centre.

Their eyes caught and held, and what she saw in him surprised her. Not just compassion, oh no, there was complete understanding, and something else, something barely held in check. He wanted –

She knew what he wanted. She felt it in the solid heat gathering in the core of her body, the tingling in her skin. What he wanted was exactly what she wanted.

Out in the street, a horn blared and metal crashed. It surprised her enough for her to take her eyes off of him, just for a second, and when she looked back from the fender-bender between two cabs, the two screaming cab drivers, she was standing alone on the street.

Jarod was gone.

###

Carl stood in Miss Parker's (what a lovely, perfect name for a lovely, perfect thing) room, and surveyed the tasteful, expensive furnishings. She liked the best, his girl. The Bellevue Club was the finest in town.

She'd left a thick terrycloth robe lying on the bed, and the maid had not yet been in to straighten up. He took the robe and pressed his nose into it, breathing in the smell of Miss Parker's skin and her hair. Yes. Yes, she was there.

He climbed in the hollow of the bed where she'd lain. The pillow held her smell, too. A dark hair was caught in the fine-woven cotton, and he carefully collected it and put it in a plastic bag.

His first piece of her.

Her clothes were beautiful, still slightly rumpled from the suitcase. All freshly cleaned, so there was no smell on them. The shoes, however, were wonderful. And the clothes she'd worn the night before, packed neatly in a laundry bag, were even better. He took out the underwear and added it to another plastic collection bag. He would analyze it later. Get her secrets. She had so many secrets, this Miss Parker.

He found her perfume and took a sample of it. He'd buy more later, just the kind she liked. He'd spray it on her at the end, to complete the scent portrait. Yes. Yes, this would all be just perfect.

The thought came to him that she could return any time now, walk into this room and find him collecting his pieces of her, and he could picture those lovely eyes widening, her finely painted lips parting in shock. Would she scream? She didn't look like a screamer. No indeed, she looked like a fighter.

He closed his eyes and savored that image, lost in the smell of blood and perfume, and so he missed the quick knock on the door. By the time he realized, it was too late. The lock disengaged with a dry click, and the door swung open.

It was not Miss Parker who came into the room, after all, it was a uniformed maid, trim and impeccably clean, who smiled at him.

"Sorry," she said, and started to turn to go out again.

"Not yet," he said gently, and reached past her to click the deadbolt. "But you will be."

He muffled her screams with a pristine white down pillow that still smelled of Miss Parker's hair.

###

Jarod watched Miss Parker search for him. He sipped coffee and sat at a small table near the window of one of a thousand Starbucks scattered around the neighborhood, and thought about the past, and flaws. He had a lot of flaws, as he was sure Sydney would agree; he was arrogant, he was selfish, he was sometimes careless with people's lives (but only the people he felt deserved it – arrogance, again).

Most of all, though, he was selfish.

It had been his own loneliness that had driven him to keep his past alive; without his phone calls, his periodic reminders to Miss Parker and Sydney that he was still alive, still free, he might have actually left the Centre behind him.

He'd kept that past alive, out of selfishness, and it had cost Miss Parker her freedom, her lover, almost her life. He had settled into a pattern that felt comfortable and comforting for him, regardless of what the consequences were for anyone around him. Miss Parker coming here alone – that unsettled him. It was bold, and unexpected, but it was also an act of desperation.

It was time for him to stop being selfish. For her sake.

He sipped coffee and watched the sunlight gleam on Miss Parker's silky dark hair. He mourned the cold fact that he'd never watch her again like this, never see her smile or the deep beautiful color of her eyes.

Her eyes swept the street for him, but didn't see him. He put his fingers to his lips and touched them gently to the glass.

By the time she'd narrowed her search to the side of the street he was on, he'd finished his coffee.

He tossed the cup in the trash as he left.

###

Dammit.

Miss Parker shifted her weight from one foot to another, trying to distribute the ache. The shoes she'd chosen were not meant for long foot pursuits. She wanted nothing more than to get to her room, kick off the shoes of death, and stare mindlessly at some talk show on television for about an hour. Maybe she could forget about Jarod in the lurid mess of someone else's problems. She'd had him. She'd had him, and she'd lost him, and she had the unsettling feeling that she might never find him again. He hadn't even taken the time to taunt her, and that was so unlike him – the him she was used to pursuing.

A businessman in the corner of the elevator smiled at her, the professional smile of a man who knew he was successful and expected to succeed with her, too. She didn't so much as validate his existence. The elegant, walnut-paneled elevator eased to a halt at a floor she didn't want, and the businessman got out, trailing his wheeled suitcase like a pet.

She stared blankly at the spot where he'd been as the doors shut and the elevator glided on. It announced her floor with a discreet chime, and she blinked and stepped forward as the door opened.

She almost ran into a colorless little man, who backed up quickly, eyes widening. A fat woman with two fat whining children crowded up behind him, the perfect vacationing family. He glanced aside at the elevator indicators, mumbled an apology, and stepped aside. She paid no attention, already digging in her purse for the dollar necessary to ransom a cold soft drink. When she glanced back – old habit, to check behind – she saw that the four of them were in the elevator. The man was still staring at her as the doors shut.

She forgot about them and bought a Coca-Cola.

###

The shock of coming face to face with her lingered. Carl rubbed his hands together convulsively, noticed his fingers were shaking, and stuffed them in the pockets of his coat. He liked to control situations. He wanted to see fear in her eyes, but instead she hadn't seen him at all.

The woman and two children who'd gotten in the elevator with him – lucky, that they'd been leaving at the same time he did – were paying him no attention whatsoever. The mother was dressing the boy down about something he'd done in the hotel room. Carl suppressed a giggle. He doubted the boy had been so very bad as he had been.

The women and children got out at the second floor level, where the restaurants were located. He was blessedly alone with his memories of Miss Parker and her blank-eyed contempt. Didn't she know? Didn't she feel the magnificence of what he was?

"She will," he whispered. The silent elevator magnified it back to him in a softer whisper, agreeing. She will. She will.

He arrived at the ground floor and immediately, sharply turned left out the elevators to avoid the cameras placed in the lobby.

###

Miss Parker card-keyed her hotel room door, turned on the lights, and immediately bent to pull off her shoes.

She paused in mid-bend, staring blankly at what was on the white sheet in the middle of her room, bathed in warm golden light from the open window.

She straightened slowly, never taking her eyes off of it, and backed up until she felt her back press hard against the door. Her right hand went for the comfort of her gun, but she remembered it disappearing into Jarod's pocket. Her pulse spiked hard, hard enough to hurt, and she tried not to make a sound as she edged forward. The bathroom was blood-spattered and empty. There was a blind corner two feet ahead, where someone could hide, and she felt a deep trembling set into her muscles. Turn around. Go out. Scream your head off and call the cops.

It was sensible, but she kept moving forward, one slow increment at a time, until she could see the entire room and see that there wasn't anyone hidden in the corners. Or under the beds.

It was just her and what he'd left for her on that pristine white sheet in the middle of the floor.

Miss Parker felt a sudden hot spasm of nausea and dizziness and braced herself against the wall. The room smelled of copper and an unpleasant undertone like a backed-up sewer. There was very little blood on the body, probably very little left in it. He'd washed it in her bathtub.

Oh my God.

It hit her, finally, that he'd left this for her to find. A taunt. A promise.

Her future.

She started to pick up the hotel phone, remembered forensics, and fumbled her cell phone out of her purse to call the FBI.

###

Special Agent Morales had a bright shine to her black eyes, like oil on water, as she listened to Parker's story. Parker recognized that glitter. She'd felt the joy of the hunt herself.

"Amazing," Morales said when she was finished. Her voice was soft and satisfied. "We've always suspected he had special knowledge of the agents on his case, but he's never reached out and made contact so directly before. He likes you, Agent Gardner."

Parker had never wanted less to be "Agent Gardner."

"Where's –" Parker had to struggle to remember his alias. "Agent Kendrick?"

"I was hoping you could tell me. I've been paging him, but I haven't heard back." Morales dismissed the problem to focus back on her main objective. "Did you see anyone on the floor when you arrived? Maintenance? Housekeeping?"

"Just a family who got on the elevator."

"Family?"

"Man, woman, two kids," Parker said. Her memory brought back the colorless man, but he was difficult to describe. Average, average, average. The woman and children were easier. Parker gave them everything she remembered about them, down to the clothes.

"I doubt that's our guy," Morales said. "Our profilers have been pretty specific on the fact that he's not married, not in a relationship. His frequency of kills and the amount of time involved tells us he's not in a hurry to be somewhere else. To do the kind of damage he did on this poor woman, he had to be here for at least an hour, uninterrupted."

An hour she'd wasted searching for Vanishing Jarod. Parker swallowed a sour bubble of nausea.

"If I'd been here ..."

"You might have been on a sheet," Morales interrupted briskly. "Look, I'm not blind to the risks, here, but him leaving a body for you, that's a message. And it's personal. We have to seize the opportunity here."

"What opportunity?"

"This is a very expensive hotel." Morales' eyes rested on her for a second, and Parker saw speculation pass through them. It was for damn sure that the Bureau's budget did not include the Bellevue Club Hotel. Where was Morales staying? Holiday Inn? "Expensive means security. John!"

One of the other agents – there were five or six standing around with them in the hall, listening, while the forensics team worked the room itself – snapped to attention. All of them had the same haircuts, the same dark suits – it was like trying to identify individual Sweepers. John had reddish hair, Parker noticed. It highlighted his sea-green eyes.

"Video," Morales said. "Go."

John nodded and disappeared down the hall toward the elevators at a trot. Morales evaluated the rest of her pack.

"I want every single guest interviewed," she said. "Every employee. Every bum who crashes in doorways on the block. Every parking attendant. Move. Memories aren't getting any fresher."

They scattered. Morales turned her attention back to Parker.

"You okay?" she asked, but not in a way that meant she cared about the answer. Parker nodded. "Let's got take a look at the body."

###

Agent Kendrick was dead and gone.

Jarod finished destroying the identity of Kendrick – too bad, really, because Kendrick had been useful – and performed his usual orderly cleaning of what had been his temporary home. Nothing there for the Centre to work with. Nothing but what he'd left them, of course.

Unfettered by the rules and mindset of an FBI agent, he went hunting. Not for Miss Parker – his game with her was over, for both their sakes – but for a killer.

He had to finish this. Quickly. And the best way to do that was the thing he'd tried to avoid all along.

Pretending.

It was always better to sink into the identity of someone like Agent Kendrick. A white hat. The changes didn't go so deep, then, and the scars healed faster. But being Agent Kendrick hadn't helped him very much, because Agent Kendrick, like the rest of the FBI, didn't know very much about the man they called, officially, Unsub 314. Unsub 314 was something few FBI agents had run across before, and only a very few had been successful at fighting. He wished that either of the two Profilers he'd known had taken the case, but Sam was busy in New Jersey with a kidnapping, last he'd heard, and Rachel Burke was in Louisiana hunting a serial bomber. They might have been of help.

No use in wishing. Jarod stood on the corner, watching traffic go by, in a spot where he knew Unsub 314 had stood on a misty cold predawn morning two days before, and let himself become the thing he feared.

He feared it because he did it so frighteningly well.

Standing on the corner, looking both directions. No one watching. Feeling of cold triumph, of elation. Smells of bleach and blood still on his clothes. Across the street, an early rising bagel baker catches sight of him as he puts coins in the parking meter – no prints, of course, he would have been careful even of that. Gloves on his hands wrapped him away from the world. Before he approached the tableau he would put on his clean suit; he knew all about the FBI's obsession with fibers and hairs. He gave them nothing. Nothing but the vision.

Jarod turned and walked slowly down the street, back toward the alley. He felt the difference in the way he walked, the way he glided, like a night-hunting predator. There was a deep, dark, red joy in this that sickened the part of him he kept locked safely away, the part that would pull him back up out of this terrible place.

Alley. It's cold and dark. Have to make everything perfect. Arrange her just so.

Tableau. The word felt right. Jarod had a flash of something unreal, model-like, removed from life. A created, carefully arranged scene.

Coins in the parking meter. Why?

Because I'm careful. Because I know the police will check any citations for cars issued in a ten-block radius. I know the FBI will, if the police won't. I remember Berkowitz.

No. It was more than that.

Because I need to wait.

Wait for what?

Jarod blinked and realized that he was crouched down in the alley, near a Dumpster, looking at a blank stretch of damp pavement. Nothing here now, but two mornings ago ...

I didn't leave. I can't leave until someone makes it real. Only by observing it is a thing made real.

Art requires audience.

Jarod stayed absolutely still, listening to the fast thud of his heartbeat. He had been the first to find the body, and he knew now, without a doubt, that Unsub 314 had been watching him.

Watching the shock spread over Jarod's face, followed by pain and anger. Watching Jarod continue to run, because stopping meant the Centre, and the Centre meant death.

Jarod let out his breath slowly and stood up. He scanned the alley, searching for angles. I would want to see the tableau. And the face of the one who admires it. So ... I would have to be ...

Jarod walked over to the Dumpster. It leaned drunkenly to one side, victim of too many careless trucks, and as Jarod burrowed farther back he found the shadows. Yes. Safe in the shadows. Safe to watch.

Jarod put his back to the wall and closed his eyes. I see the man. I see his face, I see him run. I ...

The killer can't run, because now the Sweepers are coming in pursuit. A hot burst of panic ... is it police? Do they know? ... and then relief. The sweepers move along, unimpressed by another horrible murder; they work for the Centre, after all.

And then ...

Miss Parker.

"No," Jarod whispered. "Please."

Because in that moment – that hot, red, burst of feeling – he knew exactly what the killer felt when Miss Parker – tall, elegant, beautiful Miss Parker – had walked into his predator's blood-red vision.

He had felt ... completion.

Jarod closed his eyes and fought his way back out of the clinging black depths of the Sim, back up that fragile lifeline to what he thought was his true self. And yet, didn't he feel a sense of completion when he watched Miss Parker? Were his thoughts about her absolutely free of the darker emotions?

He kept his eyes closed as he reached for his cell phone and used the preprogrammed function to dial her phone. Two rings ... three ...

"Yes," she answered. Something in her voice, a sharp tension, rang an alert deep inside him.

"Parker, I need you to listen to me," he said. "Get in a cab. Go to the airport. Stay in crowds. Take the first flight available back to the Centre and don't come out until this is over."

She let a few seconds of silence reel out before she answered, quietly, "He killed a girl in my room. She's lying on a sheet on the floor."

The eerie calm of shock, a thin layer of ice over a molten core of rage. Jarod felt a hard jolt of adrenaline run through his body, as if he'd been slammed in the back of the head.

It's only the short subject, my dear. But you're going to be the main feature. I'm going to take my time with you, make you a thing of awesome beauty to behold. My cold dead queen ...

He came back to himself gasping and sick, trembling and gripping the phone too hard. Miss Parker was saying his name in sharp tones.

End the sim. End it!

He wasn't sure he could. He'd climbed out of the darkness, but now the darkness was following him. Invading. Eating.

End the sim!

"Get out of here, Parker. Please," he said hoarsely, and hung up on her protests.

###

Miss Parker folded up her cell phone slowly, thinking about that strange tone in Jarod's voice. She'd heard him cocky, worried, weakened, even delirious – but she'd never heard him truly afraid before. And if it made Jarod afraid –

No. She was a Parker, for God's sake. And she didn't run. Ever.

Agent Morales watched her with a frown that only deepened when Parker said, tersely, "Agent Kendrick."

"Where is he?" Boss to employee, not woman to woman. Parker felt a hot flash of irritation and would have loved to snap out one of her trademark shut-downs, but she needed Morales right now.

"He didn't say." It was the literal truth, and anyway, Parker didn't feel overly cooperative at the moment. "Following a lead, it sounded like."

"Following it to the unemployment line, if he doesn't keep me in the loop," Morales said. She shot Parker a cold, dark look. "Look, whatever past baggage you two have doesn't give him permission to do an end-run around the SAC. You tell him that when he calls back."

"Are we done?" Parker asked. She felt grimy and exhausted, emotionally numb. Jarod wanted her out of town, and she wasn't so sure he was wrong. Maybe it was time to climb back into the warm, bloody, grasping arms of the Centre. A few Sweepers watching her back wouldn't go amiss.

"For the moment," Morales said. "The hotel's given you another room. No charge, apparently. Lucky you."

"Lucky me," Parker echoed.

Her new room wasn't just down the hall, it was on the other side of the hotel, at the penthouse level, a vast Presidential suite with a bath big enough to float Daddy's yacht. She locked herself into the new arid splendor, kicked off the shoes of death and walked on the soft tan carpet to the window. The city spread out, draped in low clouds, cradled by mountains, trimmed in forest.

Somewhere out there, a predator was stalking her. She focused on her reflection in the glass, a hollow-eyed, haunted ghost.

"Well," she said to her ghost, "at least you don't have anything to unpack." No bags, because her room was sealed for evidence. No gun, because it was in Jarod's pocket, damn him. Nothing but a suit that smelled of blood and death, and shoes she never wanted to wear again.

Parker stripped it all off and walked naked to the bathroom, where she filled the pool-sized tub with water hot enough to disinfect.

She didn't cry until she was huddled in its comfort, still cold inside. She was drying her eyes with an unused washcloth when she heard the small, indefinable click of the door's lock disengaging.

The breath left her body. She felt a cold white bolt of panic, stood up as quietly as she could and grabbed a huge white towel. As she stepped out of the tub, she grabbed the handle of the closed bathroom door.

It turned in her hand. She stepped back, but not in time; the door slammed open hard, she skidded on wet tile and went down. Her head hit the rim of the bathtub, a sharp hot impact that made the world gray and misty.

It took her a few seconds to realize that there was someone bending over her. Someone in the maroon uniform of the hotel staff. He was holding something in his hand. A radio?

"We've got her," he said. "I need a retrieval team, and be careful, the Feebs are swarming all over this place."

She blinked hard as he probed the back of her head for a skull fracture. Focused on his face.

"Tony?" she asked. She didn't know his last name; Sweepers didn't have them, and hell, didn't deserve them either. Tony-who-works-for-Lyle. That Tony.

"Don't worry, Miss Parker. We're going to get you out of here. Think you can stand up?"

"How – "

Tony reached down with a big hard hand and dragged her up to a standing position. She fumbled the towel back securely in place. God, a Sweeper. Lyle's Sweeper. She for damn sure was not going to let him see her naked.

"We got a tip," he said. "Your father's real worried, Miss Parker. He wants you home. Right now."

When Tony opened the door, another Sweeper was standing outside holding her clothes. It was Sam, big, quiet, reliable Sam, who could be either killer pit bull or friendly golden retriever on command. Well, if anyone had to handle her underwear, she supposed Sam was the best of a bad set of choices.

She snatched everything out of his hand, turned on Tony and said, "Out. Now."

"Ma'am," Tony said, and backed away. He hesitated before closing the door. "Sorry about your head, ma'am."

"Sorry about yours," she said in return, and gave him a smile only a little tarnished by the day's shocks. "Considering it's going to roll when we get home."

She kicked the door shut, dropped the towel and dressed.

The retrieval team – two more Sweepers in a late-model rental car and sunglasses – met them at one of the service entrances. Tony stripped off his hotel staff disguise and master key in one of the laundry bins, revealing a shoulder holster. Parker didn't get a close look at it before he put on his sport coat, but it looked like a gun she might like. A lot.

"I need a gun," she said flatly, and held out her hand. Sam and Tony exchanged a look. Sam, being more directly under her command, shrugged and handed her a nice Ruger with a little more heft than her own weapon. She nodded and tried it in her empty holster. Not a great fit, but good enough.

And just like that ... she felt better. Much better.

Tony opened the car door for her, just a step ahead of Sam. Sucking up to save his job? Fat chance. She settled back in the rear seat nodded to Sam; he appropriated the door from Tony and gave her an expressionless salute as he closed it.

The car accelerated smoothly away. She turned back to see Tony and Sam walking to another waiting car. Safe back in the toxic womb of the Centre.

She wondered why it didn't feel better.

"Miss Parker?" the driver asked. She looked at him in the mirror, but his eyes were hidden by sunglasses. "The jet's waiting for you. We're to drive you directly there."

"Is my father waiting?" she asked. The two Sweepers looked at each other. One turned his attention back out the window, the equivalent of an it's-not-my-job shrug.

"No ma'am," the driver – the loser – said. "He said he'll see you once you're home."

She turned away to stare at the passing cloudy landscape. She knew why her father, when faced with his little girl alone and stalked by a serial killer, hadn't come running to her rescue. She'd known it all along, but she'd never allowed herself to really believe it.

Expendable. Jarod's word. And, as always, he was right.

She blinked back a burning sensation that wasn't quite tears and looked back at the front window just in time to see an old woman come reeling off the curb just a few feet in front of the car, a blur of pallid skin and wrinkled flannel.

The driver stood on the brakes, and Miss Parker braced herself against the seats as the sedan shrieked and slid, but she couldn't take her eyes off of the old woman. The woman looked poor, probably homeless, a vague expression sharpened into terror as she turned toward the sound of brakes.

Miss Parker closed her eyes just before she heard the dull thump of impact, then the echoing bump of tires crushing an obstacle.

The car slid to a halt. For a few seconds there was no sound at all, and then the driver pulled in a shaky breath and popped open his door and said, "Stay here, Miss Parker."

She caught sight of the man standing on the curb, waiting, as the Sweeper stepped out. For a heartbeat she didn't know him – just an average man, average height, average weight – and then, as if he had snapped into focus, she saw him staring at her from within the closing doors of an elevator.

It was him.

"Stop!" she screamed at the Sweepers, but it was too late, they were already out of the car and focused on the woman the car had hit. The Sweeper on the driver's side staggered and caught himself against the roof of the car. He blocked her view as he sagged against the window, but she knew, even before she saw the blood, that he was dead.

She turned to the man on the other side of the car, but he was looking down near the rear tires of the car, his face pale and set. Miss Parker grabbed the door handle, but it jiggled uselessly in her hand. Of course. They wouldn't have taken any risk she might have gotten away from them.

She hammered on the window as he bent down, and he looked up at her blankly, impatiently, just as her Medium Man stepped up behind him, jerked his chin up, and pulled a hunting knife across it in a single, practiced motion.

Miss Parker flinched back from the ruby spray that spattered her window and reached for her gun. Not her gun, it was too heavy, unfamiliar, didn't feel alive and responsive in her hands, but it would do, it would have to do ...

She couldn't see anything out of the bloody window. She whirled, looking out the back, and saw a crowd of people huddling on the sidewalk, some of them screaming now and running away, nobody making a move to help.

Where the hell were Sam and Tony?

She couldn't see the killer. She had to get out of the car. Out. She was a fish in a barrel, the velour upholstery nothing but the lining of a coffin ...

She scrambled over the seat into the passenger side and reached for the handle. Still no sign of him, and her heart was beating so hard it was a constant hammering ache in her temples, God, God please let me get out of here and I swear, I swear

She eased open the door and came out fast, gun ready, searching for targets. Nobody but innocent, fleeing civilians. The homeless woman lying by the rear tires was bloody and unmoving. So was the Sweeper. Where the hell was –

Hands grabbed her ankles and jerked, hard, backwards. She fell to her knees, screamed both from the pain of bruised kneecaps and shock. She tried to roll, to get a shot at her tormentor, but the hands kept their grip and pulled her remorselessly back under the car.

Something stung her in the leg. She yelled wildly and kicked, tried to get the gun lined up, but knew if she tried it she might shoot herself as easily as him. Then warmth was speeding through her body, false chemical warmth that sucked away her fear and her anger and muffled her in cool white mist. She felt a weight disappear from her hand and no longer knew it was the gun. Felt herself being dragged.

Felt nothing at all.





Chapter End Notes:
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