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Pandora's Box

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Stiletto heels clicking down the marble hallway, Miss Parker did not look left or right, did not meet the eyes of anyone she passed on the way to the penthouse office. Her palms were sweating, her stomach queasy, and she couldn't remember if she had taken her ulcer medication that morning. Mr. Raines had called her, and as she took the doorknob in hand, she felt a pain in her gut, knife-sharp and cold as ice. It wasn't the ulcer. It was fear.

She strode in with the appearance of more confidence than she felt, and stood at attention on the far side of the huge mahogany desk. "You wanted to see me, Mr. Raines?"

He was sitting in his tan leather chair, which rumor had it was upholstered with human skin, facing the tall arched windows that looked out over the rocky Delaware coast. Oxygen tank nearby and plugged into his nostrils to help him breathe, he rasped, "You were supposed to be the best, Miss Parker. I'm disappointed in your track record on this case."

Her fingers twitched at her sides, and she stilled them quickly. "I have every resource the Centre can spare working on it, but we can't predict where he'll be," she explained. Her voice sounded weak in her own ears, and she hated it. "Even the handful of paranormals we have don't seem to be able to--"

"Able and willing are two different things," Raines interrupted. "And it seems to me that the operatives you have working on Jarod's case feel a certain... sympathy toward him. Therefore, I think it's time we looked in another direction, to someone who is less predisposed toward kindness, to help you track him down." He turned just his head, fixing her with his watery blue eyes meaningfully. "Jarod will be caught, Miss Parker. At all costs."

She trembled beneath his skeletal gaze and couldn't stop herself. "Yes sir, Mr. Raines."

"I want you to pay a visit to Damon Winterbourne and enlist his aid."

Miss Parker flinched as if she had been struck.

Mr. Raines smiled. "Give him whatever he wants, as long as he agrees to help us catch our runaway."

She swallowed twice before she could manage to get her heart out of her mouth. Words took a little longer to force out. "D-Damon? But Mr. Raines--"

"Anything he wants, regardless of the cost," said the man in the leather chair. His eyes narrowed in silent threat. "Even you."

Her heel caught in a crack in the marble floor as she stepped backward and she almost stumbled. Without another word she turned and left the office, her stomach on fire, struggling to keep tears out of her eyes. Once she had cleared the door and closed it behind her, she leaned against it, covering her face with her hands.

"Not Damon," she whispered to herself.

Her hands were shaking. It took her several minutes to pull herself together enough to continue down the hallway toward the elevator, force herself into it, and key in the descent code to Maximum Security at the bottom of the Centre complex. When the doors slid open she glanced at the receptionist, a burly security guard with a long, ugly scar across his face and a cold gleam in his eyes.

"Miss Parker," he said formally. "We've been expecting you."

She remembered the last time she was with Damon before his imprisonment, the screams of the man he had gleefully disemboweled in the lab, and what he had done to her as well. Suddenly she punched the ascent code and watched the doors close smoothly, fidgeting as the car traveled upward to Corridor 15. Down another hall she strode, wishing she had a cigarette. They were forbidden in Mr. Raines office, so she had left them behind in her own, several floors up. Into Sydney's office she stormed, flinging the door closed behind her. Broots sat in the guest chair across the desk and glanced up at her, cringing inwardly at the look on her face.

"Out!" she commanded him.

Broots dropped his stack of papers on the floor and bolted.

When the door had closed again she turned to Sydney and said dispassionately, "Mr. Raines wants to use Damon."   

The man's curious smile broke in pieces and alarm flared in his eyes. "Oh, my God! Does he realize what he's doing? Doesn't he know what that will entail?"

Miss Parker examined the cuticle of one of her elegantly painted fingernails in detail. "Oh, he knows," she said casually. "He just doesn't care." When she looked the man at the desk in the eye at last, she was aware that he could see her fear and didn't try to hide it from him at all. When she spoke her voice was barely a whisper. "He wants me to ask for Damon's help... I... I don't think I can."

Sydney tore his eyes from hers and scanned the top of his desk so he wouldn't have to look at her. Seeing vulnerability in that face was too much pain to bear, but there was nothing he could do to help her. If Raines gave her the order directly, then he would expect her to carry it out without question. He was feeding the lion a lamb, and knew it.

"Does your father know?" Sydney asked softly.

She quivered and crossed her arms over her chest, trying to look nonchalant and failing miserably. "Does it matter?" she shot back.

He sighed. "What do you want me to do?"

"Damon is your creature, Sydney. Tell me how to deal with him. What can't he resist? How do I play him?"

"All I did was add fuel to the fire that was already burning, Miss Parker," Sydney corrected sadly. "He was already the monster he is when he came here. I just... sharpened the blade a little."

She glared at him morosely, and said nothing.

The fact that she did not fling a verbal barb at him was frightening in itself. "He'll take the case, Miss Parker. The one thing he can't resist is challenging someone as smart as he is to a game, and there aren't many as brilliant on the whole planet. He'll be happy to play chase with Jarod. But he won't want you to think he's that easy. You know what he's going to ask for, don't you?"

Her gaze fell to the toes of her shoes. "He was always fond of me," she answered meekly. "But what he'll want is out. Freedom will be his price."

Sydney shook his head. "Freedom will be his means of playing the game," he told her. "You will be his price." He rose from the desk and crossed the room to stand before her. "I can help you through it, if you want. And if you're lucky, you won't remember a thing."

Green eyes met stormy brown ones, and a silent agreement was made.

 

Man and woman stood side by side before the steel wall that sealed off the cell at the end of the hallway. This was the last cell in Maximum, at the far end of the corridor, cut off from the elevator by a series of mechanically controlled doors. No expense had been spared to make sure that the man behind that final door would be locked in forever, but the couple standing before the thick steel barrier were watching it swing open for the first time in three years.

Damon Winterbourne stood in a tiny steel cage in the back corner of the cell, his hands clasped lightly in front of him. He was twenty-five, slight of build and blessed with a boyishly innocent face, clear, guileless blue eyes, rounded cheeks and a dimple in his chin. His straight sandy brown hair hung nearly down to his waist, since no one had cut it in a decade. He did not like to wear his hair long, but it wasn't safe for anyone to come close enough to him with cutting implements to do the job, for Damon Winterbourne had a taste for blood, and enjoyed watching it flow. He was allowed a depilatory cream to remove his facial hair, but that was a once weekly concession to his tidy grooming habits.

He smiled warmly at Miss Parker as she approached, noting that she stopped well away from the containment cage in his room. "I've missed you," he said smoothly. "Give us a kiss?"

"In your dreams," she snarled. A lit cigarette burned between her fingers. She had refused to come down the hallway without one.

"As a matter of fact," he chuckled darkly, "you star in them quite often."

Miss Parker shuddered, and looked away.

"You want me for something," he stated certainly. There was a pleasant, deceptively musical quality to his voice that was soothing to those who didn't know what he was. "What is it this time?"

Sydney cocked his head, studying the young man's casually contained facade. "The game's afoot," he said with false brightness. "Are you up for it?"

Damon didn't take his eyes off the redhead, ignoring the man completely. "What do you want, pretty lady?"

She dragged her eyes up to his and flicked her cigarette, knocking a column of ash onto the floor. "One of our Pretenders has escaped," she said flatly, watching his eyes follow the debris as it fell onto his clean tile floor and then skim slowly up her legs and over her body until they met hers again. She suddenly wanted a bath. "Mr. Raines wants you to find him. If you can."

He licked his lips and smiled. "Which one?"

"Does it matter?" asked Sydney.

Damon's eyes slid over to acknowledge the man at last. "Of course it matters, Sydney. Which one?"

"The best. Jarod."

A quickly in-drawn breath and brilliant flash of perfect white teeth signaled Damon's pleased surprise. "Tall, dark and handsome?" he asked. A flare of excitement flickered in his eyes and then was quickly reined in. He leaned forward and placed his hands on the bars, his smile darkening. "The one who did the ebola simulation?"

"I didn't think you'd remember him," Parker commented. "You only saw him for a moment on the other side of the observation glass. That must have been... what ten, twelve years ago? He must've made quite an impression on you."

Damon smiled, and Parker looked away again.

"So will you consider hunting our runaway?" Sydney asked. "Mr. Raines would like it very much."

"And what kind of perks do you think I'm going to get in here?" Damon demanded harshly, the innocence of a moment before replaced with bright rage. He gripped the bars until his knuckles turned white. "What do I care about your problems? Your Pretender can do as he pleases now. Maybe he'll open Pandora's box and unleash his little project on the world. Wouldn't that be fun?"

An ironic grin slid over Miss Parker's lips briefly. "He's pretending to be Dudley Do-Right, Damon. Trying to right all the world's wrongs wearing a thousand different hats. And in the meantime, he's playing games with us, showing off how smart he is." Under her breath, she cursed him. "Think you can beat him at his own game?"

The man in the cage relaxed again, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the polished steel wall backing his temporary prison. "You want me to second guess a man who can be anything? I take it you haven't had any success doing it yourselves. How long has he been out?"

Sydney lifted his chin. "A little over ten months."

Damon cocked his head, studying his visitors. "But there's more to it than that. Isn't there?"

"Details later, if you agree," Parker snapped. "Do you?"

"I'll let you know," he smiled, once again deceptively calm, charmingly boyish. "Maybe you could persuade me, Miss Parker. I can smell your perfume from here."

"I'm not wearing any perfume."

He chuckled delightedly. "I said your perfume, siren. Not Chanel. The scent of that lingers in your clothes beneath the haze of cigarette smoke." He took a deep breath, inhaling her, eyes closing in pleasure. "You're ready, aren't you? You've been thinking about me, remembering how I felt inside you--"

"Get over yourself, Damon," she snarled, and pivoted on her heel to leave.

"Entice me," he called.

"I wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire," she growled.

Sydney straightened, scratched briefly at his temple. "She hasn't forgiven you for what you did to her before we locked you up," he mused. "And I think she had the scar removed with a little plastic surgery."

Damon rubbed a hand over his chest and grinned. "Ah, but the memory will always be there," he said brightly, immensely pleased with himself. "It was good to see you again, Syd. You should visit more often. We could talk about psychology. I keep updated on the latest in the field, you know."

"So will you help us?"

"I always thought Jarod was just short of spectacular," Damon mused. "Will I get to have him before you lock me up again?" The young man encircled one of the bars on his holding cage with finger and thumb without touching the cold metal, and ran his hand slowly up and down the column of steel suggestively. He was sure Sydney wouldn't commit to anything once Jarod was in custody again. "You knew the answer to that before you came down here," he said softly. "And you have a pretty good idea what I'll want to ensure my cooperation."

"How will you go about it?" Sydney felt the skin on the back of his neck and shoulders rise up in gooseflesh as he watched the monster's innocent-looking movements. He knew, all right.

"I'll send Jarod an invitation," said Damon with a gentle smile.

"How can you, when no one knows where he is, or where he'll be next?"

Damon laughed, leaned his head back and caressed Sydney with a coquettish gaze. "All I have to do is write his name on it, Syd. He'll get the message, though I doubt he'll know who it's from. I saw him, but he never knew about me, did he? It isn't Centre policy to discuss the other creatures in this zoo."

Something cold and heavy congealed in the pit of Sydney's stomach. He could see the outer charm of the sociopath and felt himself attracted to the pleasant exterior, the desire to warm up to him as a friend, but he knew what lay beneath the handsome package and the full force of the camouflaged menace hit him hard. He started to perspire, and knew that Damon could see it forming on his upper lip and forehead.

"You'll have to be kept on a short leash, you know." The Centre would be implanting a tracking device in Damon's wrist, before they released him so they wouldn't have the same problem catching him if he managed to elude their grasp once the job was done. Sydney wanted an ironclad guarantee that Damon would return with them when Jarod was in custody again.

"You can be my audience, if you want," Damon offered generously. "I always envisioned being a performance artist, you know."

Sydney lifted his chin and glanced down his nose at the young man. "I think I'll pass, Damon, but thank you for the invitation. I'm sure this will be some of your best work."

Damon winked at his visitor. "You can count on it. I'll need a US map, six compasses -- wait. Do you spell Jarod with one 'r' or two?"

"J-A-R-O-D."

"Then make that five compasses, first class accommodations in the cities I select, and a bed to share with Miss Parker before we leave. I want to spend one night with her. In Jarod's room. And I want all the case material you have on him to study."

The older man took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and felt his heart sinking into his shoes. "Done," he agreed flatly. Without another word he turned and left the room, listened for the foot-thick cell door to lock into place, and watched on the monitor suspended in the corridor as the cage door opened and Damon stepped out of his temporary holding cell and into his more spacious quarters. He looked directly up at the camera focused on him, and smiled with his angel's face. With a dreamy look he hugged himself, danced a pirouette and said softly to the empty room, "Here I come, Jarod, baby. You're about to be mine at last!"

"My God," Sydney breathed. "What have we done?"

 

Jarod sat on a stool before the bay window dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts, paintbrush in his right hand and wooden palette in the other. Smears of oil colors dotted the oval board and he had a swash of ultramarine blue on the knuckle of his left thumb where it emerged from the hole that provided a grip. The painting before him was taking shape, and he smiled as he added a highlight to Athena's left eye. He always enjoyed painting, though he rarely had time or opportunity to indulge in it, but now the front bedroom of the mobile home they shared was filled with canvases of all shapes and sizes to reflect his efforts in the different media. There were charcoal drawings of Athena, water-color paintings of the desolate country surrounding them, pastels of desert vegetation, acrylic character studies of the handful of people he had known, and now an oil portrait of himself and his lady love in the throes of a passionate embrace.

The pose had been Athena's idea, to cover the romance novel she'd written and hoped to publish one day. Jarod hadn't allowed her to see it yet, and knew he would have to repaint it when he had it done, since they had no clothes on and her belly was round as a ripe watermelon. It was wishful thinking on his part, but he couldn't keep from smiling as he worked on it. Just that morning she had felt the unborn twins move for the first time, and he couldn't wait to experience that miracle for himself.

She was in the kitchen, humming as she sliced tomatoes for a salad, glowing from within. Jarod had been home for almost a week and a half, and had decided to stay the last few months until the babies were born and Athena was settled in a rhythm of motherhood before he would venture out into the world again. For the first time in his life he was lazy, sleeping late in the mornings and napping with Athena in the afternoons when the late summer days were hottest. He still read voraciously, but chose books for pure pleasure rather than education, and between them they were collecting a large quantity of children's stories which they read faithfully to her slightly bulging belly. At five and a half months she was still barely showing, just starting to wear maternity fashions, and keeping up with a regular regimen of exercise to make sure she stayed in good shape.

They were happy together. No one knew where they were and no one would know as long as they stayed in the desert and had Ernie Two Feathers and a handful of his friends do their shopping for them. But sometimes they were restless and took up projects to fill their time and siphon off their creative energies, and lately for Jarod that became art. He was good at it, probably better than at most things he had tried, and it was satisfying to watch the paintings take shape under his hands. He even considered taking it up as a second career, if he could find an agent who would be discreet with his identity.

He studied Athena for a moment, watching the way she moved and how the late afternoon sunlight made a golden halo around her head. She was beautiful, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and she was in love with him. She was carrying his babies, and he felt a sense of completeness unfolding within him, filling him up until there was no room left for sadness or worry. She was a large part of what he had been searching for, and at last he felt he could spend the rest of his life in one place, doing one thing, with one person. The only other piece missing was the mother and father he had lost decades earlier.

She glanced at him, and smiled. "Penny for your thoughts?" she asked softly.

"Just wondering when you were going to let me read your novel," he returned easily.

Her gaze lingered on his face for a moment. "God, I love that dimple of yours," she swore, and shook her head at her rising desire. "You could get anything you wanted from me with nothing more than that, Jarod. You're a dangerous man."

"You didn't give me an answer." He wiped his brushes on a rag and started cleaning them in a small pot of turpentine. He knew that look she had given him, and his body responded without hesitation. By the time she had dinner on the table, he wanted to be ready for a little romantic interlude.

"Which version?" she teased. "The one I intend to publish, or the X-rated version you inspired?" Athena set the salad on the tiny kitchen table and went to fetch dishes and utensils.

"The good one," he chuckled. "But we have to act it out."

"We already have." She froze in mid-stride, curling inward and staring at her belly. "It's moving! Come feel, honey."

He rushed to her and placed his paint-stained hands where she indicated. For a moment there was nothing, and then suddenly something rounded pressed against his palm, jerked and was still.

"Oh, my God." He was smiling so broadly his cheeks hurt, and he could hardly breathe.

They made it as far as the sofa before passion got the best of them. Dinner was forgotten, and they celebrated the first stirrings of life that their love had created.

 

Miss Parker lay quietly in the bed, reluctant to open her eyes to morning. She had been awake for some time, drifting in and out of cognizance, trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing. She felt the residual effects of medication, but couldn't recall what she had taken that would cause such disorientation. The bed was hard and unfamiliar, but she was accustomed to waking up in strange beds and thought nothing of it, until she opened her eyes.

The bed was in the far end of the room, and the bland white walls were instantly familiar. There were bookshelves in the bedroom filled with technical manuals on all sorts of intellectual subjects, and a collection of chess pieces from a variety of different sets standing on the edges of the shelves as if they were stationed in a multi-level game. She had been in that room before, and recognized it instantly as Jarod's. She sat up quickly and started to fling off the sheet, but gasped as the first wave of pain hit her. Glancing down at her body where the sheet had fallen away to bare her skin, she saw bruises, teeth marks and dark scratches that had drawn blood. Her whole body was marked, and as she moved gingerly toward the edge of the bed, she knew that the surface was not all that had been damaged. When she stood up she looked at the sheets and took note of the bloodstains on them, drying to a crispy brown. She didn't remember who she had slept with the night before, but whoever it was treated her much worse than usual.

She hobbled into the bathroom to shower and try to assess the damage, and found her clothes on the counter, neatly folded. Once she was dressed and medicated, she strolled carefully into the den of the tiny apartment to see if she could find her way out of the prison cell.

"Well, good morning," said Damon Winterbourne from the sofa. "I see you're finally awake. It was unfair of you to take drugs before letting me fuck you. I'll have to make up for that somewhere along the way."

The redhead stared at him in horror, wondering how he could possibly have gotten out of his cage and into Jarod's room. But a moment later she remembered the deal Mr. Raines had made, and that Sydney had promised to give her medication to take during the course of her evening with the sociopathic Pretender. She couldn't recall much after that, and suddenly was thankful.  She didn't want to remember what he had done to her.

"You got me once," she snarled. "You didn't specify I had to be conscious."

He flashed her a bemused smile and picked up the origami figure that Jarod had left on his desk, the bent-winged god of retribution that signaled his intent. Damon admired the neat folds, the attention to detail, and the fact that there was not a single pencil mark or errant crease to aid in designing the piece. "I learned a great deal after you passed out last night, Miss Parker," he announced casually. "I think I can get inside Jarod's head and read him properly now. But before we get started, you should probably get to the infirmary. You'll need a few stitches before we leave."

She nodded numbly and went to the door, which buzzed open to allow her to exit.

Sydney was waiting for her outside, pacing the floor. He smiled in relief to see that she was still alive, then frowned when he saw the bruises on her jaw and neck and the red swelling on her left cheekbone. "Nothing broken, I hope?" he asked solicitously.

"Not that I know of," Miss Parker replied sourly. "Your creature is ready to leave, but I need to stop by the infirmary first. Get the plane tickets and have Broots meet us in the lobby. Damon's all yours." She winced as she took a step away, then halted. "What did you give me last night, Syd?"

"It's called Rohipnal," he answered gently. "It's a favorite for date rapists. They drop it into a woman's drink, take her home, and when she wakes in the morning she doesn't remember a thing."

For a moment the question of whether Sydney had ever used it in such a fashion hovered on her tongue as a barbed insult, but she also knew that he was familiar with the uses of many tranquilizers in his line of work, and she was grateful for his assistance. "Thanks, Syd," she said quickly, and hurried into the elevator as quickly as her damaged body would take her.

Sydney stepped into the apartment and slipped his hands into his pockets, aware of how vulnerable he was. He observed the young man reading through the red casebooks they had collected in Jarod's pursuit, saw him smile and chuckle softly to himself, and wished to have him locked safely away again. Instead he cleared his throat, unwilling to get any closer to Damon, and asked if his new partner was ready to go.

Damon scratched at the cast covering his left forearm, laid the book neatly on top of the stack on the coffee table, and rose. His movements were elegantly graceful, and he looked fresh and clean, newly shaven, hair fashionably trimmed, dressed in the latest style. His shirt was royal blue, high collared and tieless, beneath a dark gray tweed jacket that matched his smartly creased trousers. He looked like a GQ model except for his slightly less than average height, and his presence conveyed an air of affluent upbringing that had been a part of his early heritage. But there was more to Damon Winterbourne than met the eye, and few learned what lay beneath the pleasantly deceptive surface until it was too late.

"You know, this was completely unnecessary," he mentioned to Sydney, knocking on the cast covering the incision where a transmitter was implanted early that morning. "I much prefer my cozy cell down below to being executed in the gas chamber, so rest assured I'll always come back."

"We can't take that risk, Damon," said Sydney disbelievingly. "At least this way, we'll always know where you are."

The young man glanced up at him with merry blue eyes and said nothing.

"We should be heading upstairs now," Sydney told him, and Damon began to hum Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie as they exited the room and strolled casually down the hall. "This is going to be fun!" the Pretender smiled exultantly as he stepped into the elevator beside his former trainer.

Sydney did not take his eyes off the man beside him. He would have to be ready for anything, since predictability was not one of the young man's strong points. And he definitely wanted to end this manhunt still breathing, rather than in a box six feet underground.

 

Jarod put away his paints and studied the finished portrait, pleased with the results.

"I'm done with it, Athena," he called into the living room.

There was no answer, and she did not come to see his painting as he expected. She was watching television on the sofa, so he rose from the kitchen stool and wandered into the next room to share her company. She sat upright on the couch, her attention riveted to the newscast, remote control in hand and raising the level of the volume so he could hear it, too.

"Listen," she commanded abruptly.

"...The murders have had few similarities, except for the compass found on each of the victims' bodies," the television anchor noted. "The method of killing has been different each time; the victims themselves are completely dissimilar and discovered in widely separated areas of the country, one as far away as Alaska. The police are completely baffled. The Compass Killer, as he has been dubbed, seems to be an unusually creative murderer, using methods as simple as asphyxiation and as exotic as poisoning with blowfish liver, which contains a deadly nerve toxin..."

"What is it?" he asked her gently as he sat down beside her on the cushions. "You look pale. Are you feeling all right? No contractions? It's still too early for that."

"I'm fine," she answered brusquely. She didn't take her eyes off the television until the report was finished and then hit the "mute" button on the remote, turning her full attention to the man she loved. Concern was etched deeply into her face, and there was fear in her eyes. "Just listen, and tell me what you hear in this list. James Johnston in Juneau. Alice Andrews in Aspen. Robert Reyes in Ruidoso. Orville Oakes in Oklahoma City. David Dean in Detroit. What did you notice about the list?"

His brown eyes met her blue ones and he took her hand in his. "I heard my name," he said softly. "Someone is spelling my name with murder."

She nodded. "I know it wasn't you, because you've been here with me the whole time. But who else--"

"I have to find out more about this," he told her quickly. "I'm going into town for a newspaper."

"No. Get online and search the news services," she suggested. "It'll be faster and you won't risk being seen that way."

Both of them went to the desk in the front bedroom. Jarod sat down and turned on the computer with Athena watching over his shoulder, and after connecting to the Web he checked his e-mail in the various places he had it stored. There was a message from the Centre Underground, and he read that first.

Watch your back. Damon is free.

"I wonder what that means?" he mused aloud. Jarod did not see Athena's face grow paler still behind him, nor did he feel her hands tighten on the back of his chair until her knuckles turned white. He initiated a search for news articles containing information on the Compass Killer, and discovered that the murders occurred every other day for ten days, and then suddenly stopped. There was no apparent pattern or logic to the killings except to him, and he understood all too clearly. Someone was trying to get his attention, and they had done it. Someone who knew his name. Someone who wanted something from him.

Athena was forgotten as the wheels began to turn, and he hit upon the idea to scan the newsgroups in the cities where he had been for familiar names. In Chicago, a nurse who worked at the Queen of Angels Hospital had been found dead in her car of an apparent drug overdose. In Las Vegas a casino owner was the victim of a gangland-style hit. A mechanic formerly employed by Skyvionics died in a fire at his home, assumed to have been started by a cigarette catching his sheets afire as he slept.

Everywhere Jarod had been since he escaped, someone had trod in his footsteps and brought death to those he had helped. He knew the names, every one of them, and could feel the grief and sadness of those lives he touched so briefly with his own. And the only place that information could have come from was the casebooks he left behind for Miss Parker to find and return to the Centre.

Someone was hunting him, and soon they would be where he was now, hidden away in the desert with Athena.

"You have to leave," he told her huskily. "You have to go someplace where not even I know where you are."

"Why?"

"Because the Compass Killer is on the way here, and I don't want you hurt," he answered truthfully.

She stared into his eyes, reading his fear and concern accurately, and something else as well. "You intend to be here where he can find you, don't you, Jarod?" she asked softly.

"You don't know the killer is male," he returned, glancing away and shutting down the computer.

"I even know his name," Athena told him, turning his head with a light touch of her fingertips against his jaw. "It's Damon Winterbourne." She swallowed hard. "He's my half brother."

Athena spent the rest of the afternoon relating to Jarod her experiences in the Winterbourne household. She told him how Harmon Winterbourne had swept her mother off her feet and married her before she realized what a tyrant he was. Rose gave birth to a son two years later, and decided she could not leave him behind. She sent Athena off to boarding schools for the next several years, and through her husband's contacts discovered the whereabouts of Athena's father. But every time Athena came home for school holidays, she discovered horrible secrets about her younger brother, and the things he liked to do. Torturing animals was his most favorite activity, and that was only the beginning.

Through occasional contact with Sydney after her expulsion from the Centre, she learned that Damon's talents earned him a place as a viable Pretender at the age of 10, and only recently did she discover that Harmon Winterbourne sat on the Board of Directors for the institution. When Athena saw the coded message from the Underground, she knew exactly what the Tower had done.

Damon is free. The Centre had released Damon Winterbourne to hunt for Jarod, and the young man left a bloody swath in his wake, just to make sure he got the right person's attention.

Instead, he got them both.

"I'm staying," she told him. "He'd find me anyway, no matter where I went and eventually he'll figure out I'm involved with you if Miss Parker doesn't tell him that fact up front. He's pretended to be me several times already, growing up. He knows how I think. And I can help you be ready for him. Even though I haven't seen him since he was about ten years old, I know how he thinks, too, and the influences that made him what he is."

Jarod pressed his face against her slightly bulging belly, embracing the roundness with his hands. "Miss Parker and Sydney will be coming, too," he cautioned sadly. "I don't want them taking you back there again."

"I went voluntarily," she reminded him, stroking his hair, his face tenderly. "Had I not been pregnant I would have stayed there. It's tough living like we do. Takes a lot of energy, and I was tired. But somehow, I don't think I would have stayed there for the rest of my life." She smiled secretly, chuckled softly to herself. "I got out on my own before, didn't I?"

He raised up on his elbow on the sofa and met her sparkling eyes. "They threw you out."

"Because I was useless to them," she emphasized sagely. "I knew exactly what I was doing, Jarod. And the risks it entailed. They might have just killed me, but Harmon Winterbourne knew I'd keep my mouth shut. And I did. Only I couldn't take that same risk this time. I have more than just myself to think about."

Jarod kissed her belly beneath the maternity blouse and flicked the lightweight cotton cloth back into place as he sat up. "Then we'll just have to make sure we stay well ahead of them. All of them."

 

Dr. Kim Fujimora shook hands with the young man in the lab coat, and smiled in greeting. "Glad to have you here, Dr. Dickens," she told him eagerly. "We seem to have a problem keeping steady employees lately. I hope you'll decide to cut us a little slack and forgive us our errors of the past. We're under different management now and--"

"Oh, you mean the incident with the coroner killing that homeless guy and then almost winding up a cadaver herself?" Dickens smiled warmly and saw the woman tensing in response. "Yeah, I heard about that. But you're the chief coroner now, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am," she admitted proudly, beaming. "And I will not allow things like that to go on in my morgue. I expect honesty from all my staff, and you follow the schedule unless I approve the change. Even I have a watchdog, so situations like that don't happen again."

"That's great. I have every confidence that things'll work out for me here just fine." Tim Dickens signed the handful of forms that would initiate his employment by the county coroner's office, shook the woman's hand again, and promised himself to find her home address that very evening. She would be perfect for Damon Winterbourne's next message to Jarod, and he promised himself to enjoy every minute of what he planned to do to her.

Once he had completed his first shift, he spent a little time at the computer, digging out the information he needed. Damon was not a careless man, and every detail of his scenario would need to be planned in full to ensure its eventual success. He was certain his message had been received and acted upon, and it was simply a matter of time until he intercepted his prey. The Centre had their plans for Jarod, but Damon had his own agenda. He was free again at last, and the transmitter embedded in his arm was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. He would let his keepers think they had him in hand until time to make his move, and after that they would learn just how little control they really had over him. And he would laugh at them every day after that, for the rest of his life.

Damon clocked out, amused that he had been given the graveyard shift, and hung his labcoat in his locker. He went outside to the car where Sydney and Broots waited for him, and instructed them to drive to Dr. Fujimora's apartment building. Half an hour later he signed the lease on an apartment, carried his bags inside and offered his keepers a bed on the floor of his empty digs.

They declined, and waited for dawn in the car outside, watching him electronically from a safer distance.

 

Jarod saw the sun rise over the apartments across the street from a tiny, nondescript diner, watching the occupants of the car parked at the curb stir and roll up their windows as a light rain began to fall. When Sydney exited the vehicle and headed toward the diner for breakfast, Jarod paid his bill and left quickly, ducking into a convenience store a few doors down and around the corner. From that vantage point he could not see the young man coming out of the apartment building and speaking to Broots, then heading down the sidewalk away from the car. Jarod did not turn to look at the young man who sidled up next to him as he pulled a pair of Pez packages off the display, trying to decide which one he wanted, but made eye contact as soon as the fellow spoke to him.

"You like Pez?" the man asked casually. "I just found out they have a website last week. You can get the European dispensers through there, if you're a collector."

"Really? Cool," said Jarod. "I'll have to look it up. Thanks for the tip." He decided to take both packages and turned away to carry them to the counter.

"Sure thing," said Damon with a knowing smile, and watched him walk out of the store without saying another word to him. Vivid pictures of himself and Jarod naked in bed cavorted through his consciousness and he had to calm himself before he could finish his business. Jarod was everything he remembered -- tall, handsome, strong, with an openness that Damon found powerfully attractive. His arousal needed quenching, and the next best thing would have to do. He bought his morning coffee and a doughnut and hailed a taxi to take him out into the world, hunting for completion. His quarry had been spotted at last, and he could play the game a little differently, knowing that Jarod had arrived. He headed straight for Miss Parker's hotel, hoping she had not yet awakened.

 

"That's enough, Damon!" Sydney called harshly. He stood in the doorway of Miss Parker's suite, staring at the young man kneeling over the redhead, his hands clasped around her wrists and pinning them to the bed. To her credit, she did not scream, snarling at him and reminding him of the price of his freedom instead.

"Don't you want to watch?" Damon demanded smoothly. He glanced over his shoulder at the two men on the threshold, then turned his attention back to his victim. He pulled both her hands together quickly, gripping them tightly together with one hand, then shoved the covers down with the other and forced her legs apart with his knee.

"You've had your one night!" Sydney reminded him, stepping closer. "Let her go, or--"

"Or what?" demanded Damon, working the zipper on his trousers with his free hand. "You'll have me arrested? You'll send me back to the Centre before we catch Jarod? Raines would love that." He focused his attention on his victim's face, tasting her fear and revulsion and reveling in it.

"Oh, God," moaned Broots, and turned away from the scene, retreating to the sitting room where he wouldn't have to see.

"Stop it, damn you!" Sydney shouted. He took another step closer, unable to decide which was more important -- helping Miss Parker or completing the mission. "Leave her alone!" He was close enough now to pull him off, but his gaze flicked to the woman's face before he made contact.

"It's all right, Sydney," she said resignedly. "You can go now."

Damon stabbed into her, his face transforming into a hideous mask of hatred. "Fight me, you bitch!" he growled above her. When she remained still he thrust harder, wanting to see pain, rage, shame on her beautiful face, but there was only bland acceptance. She was simply waiting for it to be over. He shut his eyes and remembered how it was the last time, forcing himself to finish quickly, only moments after Sydney walked out of the room.

A sharp, stabbing pain in his buttocks levered him up off the woman and he turned to see Sydney yank a hypodermic out of his flank. He spewed a stream of invectives even as he tried to push off her and gain his feet, but the drugs were already taking effect and he fell backward onto the bed instead. In seconds his eyes closed and he lay still.

Sydney shoved his inert body onto the floor and kicked him, knowing it would not be felt but needing to deliver the blow anyway. Then he turned his attention to the woman still lying on the bed, her back turned to him, not moving. He sat down beside her and pulled the sheet over her to cover her before he spoke.

"I'm sorry, Miss Parker," he murmured thickly. "I should have pulled him off. I should have--"

"Just stop it, Sydney," she grouched. "We all knew this was going to happen, and it won't be the last time before it's over. He has a fixation on me, though I can't possibly fathom why."

Sydney reached out to move a lock of her hair away from her cheek, searching for something soothing to say, his emotions clouding his thinking so thoroughly he said only what came to mind first. "You're a beautiful woman. Anyone can see that." He regretted it instantly, but his sorrow and impotent rage had opened doors in his subconscious that he had never gone near.

She turned to stare at him over her bare shoulder incredulously. "I wasn't aware that you'd noticed, Syd," she said sharply, with a note of wonderment in her voice.

He focused on her, searching in his clinical intellect for something appropriate to say to help her over this trauma, even though she was still trying to cover up the fact that she had any feelings at all. "I know you're not made of stone," he said gently. "And I know that you're in denial right now, but later on, when it sinks in what's happened, I'll be there to listen, to help you through it. No one needs to know, if that's how you want it. Or we can see that the bastard gets what he deserves before we go back home. It'll be your call, and I'll support you in whatever you decide to do."

The woman nodded against her pillow. "I don't suppose your medical background would allow you to do a little surgery today, would it?" she asked with a small, cold smile. "He's already out. We could give him a big surprise to wake up to."

Sydney shook his head. "Not if you expect him to survive and get on with this mission."

"Later, then. I can wait." She didn't look at Sydney when he rose from the bed and started to drag Damon's unconscious body into the sitting room. "Sydney," she called as she sat up, holding the covers over her. When he glanced up she gave him a fragile little grin. "Thanks. For trying to help me."

For a moment the older man stood perfectly still, stunned by her expression of gratitude. Then he pulled the body into the next room and closed the door behind him.

She rose from the bed and went to take a long, hot, soapy bath to wash Damon Winterbourne off her skin, wishing she could remove him as easily from her mind.

 

"Hello, Kim."

The coroner turned quickly to face the man who had called her name as she fitted her key into the lock on her front door, and smiled. "Jarod! I didn't expect to see you back here. Where've you been?" She reached out and gave him a quick hug, her sack of groceries between them. "Listen, that was some sting you pulled off last Christmas. People are still talking about it around here." She opened the door and pulled the keys out of the lock. "You want to come in?"

He glanced up and down the hallway to see if anyone had seen him. "Sure," he grinned, and followed her in, closing the door after himself. "Can I help you with that?"

"Nah, I've got it," she answered quickly, tossing her keys onto the foyer table and heading for the kitchen.

A moment later a voice called from the bedroom, just before a blonde woman in a bath towel, her hair still dripping from the shower, waltzed into the living room. "Oh. I didn't realize you had company, honey. I'll get dressed."

"S'okay, Jeanette," said Kim casually. "Jarod's an old friend of mine."

Jeanette's face brightened at the mention of his name. "You're the Jarod? Jarod Marley? Wow! Kim's told me all about you! Listen, I'll be right out. Don't go away, okay?"

He shrugged. "I wasn't planning on it anytime soon," he admitted, and went to sit at the bar separating the kitchen area from the living room. "So Jeanette's your new roommate?" he guessed casually as he watched her putting the groceries away and scanned bowls of refrigerated leftovers for dinner ideas.

"I think maybe we'll order out," she said to herself, then glanced up at him. "You are staying for dinner, aren't you, Jarod?"

"Okay. As long as it isn't fugu."

She laughed. "Or fruitcake. Honestly, Jarod, I never saw anyone actually eat that stuff before. Don't you know the rules? You give fruitcakes to people you're supposed to give something to, but don't actually want to put any thought into it. It's kinda like a Christmas card. You don't eat them either."

Jarod grinned. "I didn't know there were fruitcake rules, Kim, but I'll try to remember that this year."

Jeanette rushed out of the bedroom in faded jeans and a tight T-shirt, her damp hair brushed back from her face but tendrils curling over her forehead anyway. She hurried into the kitchen and slipped her arms around Kim's waist, hugging her and planting a kiss on the side of her neck. Kim snuggled against Jeanette for a moment, smiling happily, and continued preparing some crackers and cheese for an appetizer. She glanced up at Jarod and noted the confusion in his eyes as he watched them together.

"A lot's happened since last Christmas, Jarod," she told him shyly.

"Kim and I are lovers," said Jeanette proudly. The two women shared a brief but passionate kiss, and then Jeanette started to help arrange the snacks.

"I didn't realize that was possible," Jarod mumbled innocently. He thought about himself and Athena, and remembered the uncountable things they did to each other to bring pleasure, only one of which involved male-female penetration. That started him thinking about other possibilities, which he would ask Athena about later. She was so much better acquainted with the world than he, and she had been able to answer a lot of questions for him that he couldn't ask anyone else without revealing his inexperience, which would lead to other questions he wouldn't be able to answer.

The women giggled lightly at his naivete. "What rock have you been living under?" asked Jeanette.

"A pretty big one, apparently," he joked back. "I've just been so involved in work for such a long time that I never made time for much of anything else."

Kim gave Jeanette a hug and headed into the living room with her tray. "Jarod, you need to get a lover."

He beamed. "I did," he admitted frankly. "And I'll be a daddy before Christmas this year."

Both women hugged him in congratulations and they sat down to talk about family and work and other things for several hours. After dinner he finally broached the subject that had brought him to the city, and warned Kim to be aware of strange men entering her life, asking about any newcomers that she could describe to him. But Kim assured him that there was no one but a handful of new employees at the morgue, and each one of them had been thoroughly checked out before hiring.

He cautioned both of them to be careful nonetheless, keeping their doors and windows locked, staying aware when on the street or in parking lots, though he refused to tell them why, saying only that he was working undercover. Kim's previous experience gave her the assurance of trust, which bled over to Jeanette as well, and he was fairly certain that they would be more cautious than usual until he gave them the all -clear. He hoped it would be enough, but knew in the back of his mind that no preparation on their part would keep them safe if Damon had targeted them as his next victims.

Jarod wished them a good evening and left, standing in the hall for a few minutes to decide if there was anything more he could do for them. He heard whistling and recognized the Wagnerian tune, then started toward the stairs that would take him to the roof. He had come across the tops of the buildings rather than take the chance of being seen by the people staked out in the car downstairs, who he felt certain were watching Kim Fujimora just as he was, waiting for him to show up and contact her.

The man he'd met at the convenience store came out of his apartment just then, dressed in black jeans and an open shirt, and clutching a Pez dispenser in one hand, his keys in the other. "Well, hi there!" said the stranger. "Fancy meeting you here. Been visiting Kim and Jeanette?"

Jarod nodded. "Yeah, they're old friends. Well, Kim is, anyway. You lived here long?"

"A few months, I guess," Damon lied. "The girls are good neighbors. Funny, I haven't seen you around."

"I've been out of town," Jarod admitted honestly. "Just got back and wanted to catch up on things. I'm Jarod. Jarod Marley."

"Jeff Lecter," said Damon, and extended his hand in greeting. "Say, I was just going out for more Pez. Wanna go shoot some hoops or something? The night is young."

"I've got to get home, but maybe some other time," Jarod told him, taking note how warm and firm the man's handshake was, and also that he did not immediately let go. There was a look in Jeff's eyes that he could only describe as desire, and was certain he was mistaken. Jeff Lecter buttoned his shirt as he sauntered casually away toward the elevator and when he was out of sight, Jarod continued on toward the stairs and the roof, retreating into the darkness the way he had come.

In the quiet of his hotel room Jarod plugged in his computer and contacted Athena, asking her if it was possible for men to be attracted to other men, and she assured him that it was. They did not talk long and Jarod promised that all was well so far before wishing her a good night. He lay awake in his empty bed for a long time, thinking about Athena and the twins she was carrying, and wondering what other surprises the world had in store for him to discover. He wasn't sure how he felt about the young man's attraction to him, but he was certain it would hurt Athena for him to explore it further, and decided to let it go without resolution. He turned over and hugged the pillow beside him, wishing he was home with his lover, and drifted into a troubled sleep.

 

Jarod spent the day at the orphanage, reading to the children, visiting with the staff and doing a few minor repairs to the building that the sisters couldn't afford to have done professionally. As the day wound to a close he left and headed to the morgue, watching from a safe distance as all the people came and went when the shifts changed. Most of them were strangers to him, and there were so many new people he couldn't begin to guess which of them might be Damon Winterbourne, but he was sure the man was in the city somewhere. This was the next place on the list, and after that would be the skydiving school in West Texas. He had to find Damon here and stop him somehow, before he had the chance to kill again and discover what Jarod had hidden in the desert. Only with no way of knowing what Damon looked like, Jarod was lost. He would have to wait until he struck to find him, and that would mean losing a friend to him first. He had issued his warnings, but held little hope that the words would help anyone survive a surprise attack.

The next evening he was sitting in the diner, preparing to order a late supper, when he saw Jeff Lecter stroll in and catch his eye.

"Hello, again," he said warmly. "Mind if I sit with you? I'm not much of a cook and this place is close to home."

Jarod folded his menu and said quietly, "I was just leaving."

Damon reached out quickly and put his hand on Jarod's wrist. "No, man, I'll go. You eat your dinner. I didn't mean to bother you."

Jarod frowned. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I've just--" He decided not to mention his conclusions, just in case he was wrong about the young man's intentions. He was still learning about relationships, after all, and knew it was a complicated process with rules he didn't understand completely yet. "It's okay. Sit down and join me for dinner, Jeff."

"Well, I... okay. You're sure you don't mind?"

With a nod, Jarod launched into a conversation, carefully feeling the man out about what he wanted, but getting no concrete answers, nothing he could be certain was a direct attempt at seduction. The subjects wandered from sports to history to science with alarming speed, and Jeff seemed well informed about every topic Jarod broached.  He found himself enjoying the time, even forgetting about the car parked across the street occasionally. Jeff seemed relaxed and animated all at once, and laughter came easily between them. Jarod excused himself to go to the men's room at the end of the meal, and Jeff followed him in a moment later.

"This has been great," said Damon as he eased up beside Jarod. "I've had the best time with you." He made eye contact and reached up to pull Jarod down to him with one hand, stealing a kiss before Jarod had time to react.

Jarod didn't move. He wasn't sure what to do. He just stared at the man, and Jeff took that as a positive sign. He put his arms around Jarod's neck and kissed him again, hungrily, deeply.

He was breathing hard when Jeff pulled away, smiling, and flinched when he felt Jeff's hand move down from his neck and stroke his trousers, hoping for a response. Jarod felt his face heat up as his body answered the touch shamelessly. He didn't yet have enough experience with sexual stimulation to know how to resist it yet.

"I have a girlfriend," Jarod told him brusquely. He stepped backward and pushed Jeff's hands off him slowly. "She's pregnant. And I'm happy with her. Thanks, anyway."

Damon smiled. "You could have a boyfriend, too," he suggested. "I won't tell on you." He sighed. "You're really something, Jarod. I never met anyone like you before, and I want to have sex with you, very very badly. More than I've wanted anyone before. It'll be good, I promise. Probably the best you've ever had."

Jarod shook his head, warily eyeing the man. "No, thank you, Jeff."

"I'll let you fuck me, then," he offered softly. "I'll do anything you want. Just tell me yes."

Without another word, Jarod turned and left, tossing a $20 bill on the table and hurrying out the side door and around the corner with hardly a glance at the Centre operatives still waiting across the street.

Damon stood alone in the men's room, gripping the sink until his fingers hurt. Rejection stung worse than a slap in the face, and all he could think about was the kiss he had shared with his quarry. From the moment he had first seen Jarod years before at the Centre, he had carried around an image of the ideal man, the one person worthy of Damon's affection. He was beautiful and strong and brilliant, an equal in every way to Damon's own perfection, and he was certain that, given the opportunity, he would recognize their shared destiny and take advantage of what was offered so freely. Instead he had said no and walked away, even though his body had said something entirely different.

He would have Jarod, he promised himself. And Jarod would watch his pregnant girlfriend die as penance. Provided he really had one, and wasn't just blowing smoke to extinguish Damon's attentions. That was easy enough to find out, though. If he was traveling with a woman, Parker and Sydney would know. He strode out of the diner with his hands in his pockets, whistling to himself as he headed straight for the car.

Climbing into the back seat, he wished Broots and the redhead a pleasant good evening, and started working up to the subject foremost in his mind while they drove him to work at the morgue.

 

Damon finished the autopsy in record time, but before closing up the body he sterilized the surgical instruments, used a small electric saw to remove the cast covering his left wrist, and quickly removed the transmitter. Deftly sewing up his wound, he medicated and bandaged it, then implanted the device in the corpse, stitching it closed and sliding it back into the drawer. He stopped by Dr. Fujimora's office to make sure she was in, and left without clocking out through a rear entrance. He took a taxi back to the apartments, turned on his new stereo, changed into a pair of black satin boxer shorts and went out into the hall, leaving his door standing open. He knocked on his neighbors' door, and Jeanette answered without opening to him, peering out the peephole instead.

"Hi, Jeanette," he called with a sheepish smile. "They still haven't come to install my phone yet. Can I borrow yours? I need to call management. My toilet's leaking all over the bathroom floor."

"Oh, sure, Tim. Just a minute."

He heard the chain sliding off and locks turning and felt the presence of adhesive tape against his thigh, hiding the hypodermic he planned to use on her to keep her quiet while he did his work. Smiling warmly, he cruised into the open door with an apology for his state of undress, then as soon as the door closed behind him and Jeannette's back was turned he struck. His hand covered her mouth until the drug took effect, and when she fell limply to the floor he let her drop in a heap at his feet, and laughed.

 

Miss Parker glanced at her watch again. It was over an hour after time for Damon to have left work, and still there was no sign of him. She faced Broots and ordered him to go inside the morgue and ask for him.

"It would look better coming from you," Broots suggested meekly. "You could say you're his girlfriend, and he's late for a date."

Her eyes were bright with leashed hatred. "You could tell them you're his boyfriend, Broots," she offered with a humorless smile. "He swings both ways, you know." She lit a cigarette and blew smoke in his face. "Sydney did tell you to watch your back, didn't he?"

Broots frowned. "Well... yeah, but--"

She laughed softly. "Well, he meant it literally. Now be a good boy and go fetch our stray. He can work late another time."

Ten minutes later Broots exited the county morgue at a dead run and slammed into the car, closing and locking the door quickly behind himself as if the Devil himself was in hot pursuit.

"He's gone," Broots panted, frightened eyes checking the readout of the tracking device to confirm the report he'd been given.

Miss Parker glared at the monitor. "Not according to this," she hissed. "Don't tell me. In a room surrounded with surgical equipment, he removed the device and slipped away, right?"

Broots nodded, too terrified to answer verbally. He sat hunched over beside her, as if his posture would protect him from the potent threat Damon posed to both of them.

"Shut that damn thing off," she snapped, reaching for the keys. "You phone Sydney at the hotel and tell him we're on our way to pick him up. We've lost both of our little monsters now."

 

Jarod was pleased to see the car drive away, and once it was out of sight, he walked into the morgue and headed for Kim Fujimora's office. She was just finishing up her day's work and scheduling two new autopsies for the next shift when he arrived.

"Well, hi there," she greeted him warmly. "What can I do for you, Jarod?"

"I was wondering if I might trouble you to look at the ID badge photos of your newest employees," he told her casually. "Just the ones who've started within the last month. Men only."

She stared hard at him for a moment. "This has something to do with the case you're working on?" He had told her previously that he was an undercover cop, which she still believed even though he had never shown her any proof of that.

He nodded. "I'm hunting someone who may be responsible for more than eight deaths in the last month."

"Pretty busy guy," she said soberly. "And you think he may be working here? Jesus, that gives me the creeps."

She pulled all the files in question and let him look through them one by one. He stopped on number three, staring at the photograph of Tim Dickens in horror. His hand came up to wipe across his mouth reflexively, and he pushed the file folder toward Kim.

"Did you know this man lives right next door to you?" he asked softly.     

The coroner paled and nodded assent. "He just moved in there a few days ago. Same day he was hired here. Is that the man you're looking for?" She saw the answer in his eyes. "Oh, my God. He left today at lunchtime and hasn't been seen since."

Cold fear clutched at Jarod's insides. "Call Jeanette. If she answers, tell her not to let him in, not for any reason."

Kim swallowed hard, tears springing into her eyes. "And if she doesn't answer?"

"Would she be at home right now?"

She nodded.

"Then we go over there immediately and be prepared for the worst," he answered honestly.

 

Kim's hands shook so badly she couldn't fit the key into the lock, so Jarod did it for her. He pushed the door open carefully, listening, looking, wary for any sudden movements, but there were none. The apartment was bright with light, and the stereo was playing in the background. Candles lit the scene as if it were some grisly altar, with Jeanette's body stretched out on the middle of the living room floor, the furniture pushed back along the walls to make her plainly visible from the doorway. Blood was everywhere, streaks and spatters and rivulets of gore painting the buff colored carpet all around the body.

The coroner screamed and crumpled against Jarod. He grabbed her and turned her face away from the gruesome scene, holding her as much in support as to keep her from running away. He would need her to call the police, but only after he'd had a chance to look for the clues he knew would be left for him there.

The song playing on the stereo finished, and started up again immediately. He didn't place it at first, but committed the words and tune to memory as he surveyed the placement of the body and the precisely straight lines radiating out from it, drawn in Jeanette's blood. It looked like a compass rose, and even without having a magnetic compass handy, Jarod knew that her head would be aimed due north. Her legs, tethered together at the ankles with a length of her own viscera, pointed straight south, and her arms were spread out to indicate east and west.

Damon had made Jeanette a compass, pointing the way back to the Centre. Rage and helplessness built up within him, seeking an outlet. He was trembling as he held Kim tightly, clinging to her as much as she to him. Other residents of the building came out into the hallway, cautiously edging toward the couple to see what all the screaming was about, but Jarod could not look away from the gruesome scene.

"Time to go, Jarod," said a familiar voice from directly behind him.

He stiffened, feeling the muzzle of a pistol press discreetly into his back.

Something in him snapped. He held Kim gently away from him, ordering her gruffly to borrow a neighbor's phone and call the police, then turned swiftly and grabbed the woman behind him by the hair, yanking her savagely to the open door so she could see inside.

"Look, Miss Parker," he growled harshly. "Take a good look! This is what your bloodhound has done!"

He watched her face, saw the horror seeping in as she surveyed the abbatoir, saw tears blinked hastily away and a familiar coldness settle into her lovely features. He let her go but did not move away, aware of both her covertly held pistol and their audience, which might protect him somewhat from her using the weapon.

"Is this what you wanted?" he demanded, barely able to contain his emotions and the volume of his voice. "Is this how you wanted to get me back?"

"No," she returned quietly. "But it wasn't my decision, Jarod."

"Call him off!" demanded Jarod. "Lock him up, and I'll go with you."

She didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and gave him a lopsided smile instead. "I can't Jarod. Damon's gone. He got away from us this evening, and is probably on his way to that skydiving school by now. At least, I think that's where he was headed. It was the next place on the list."

His heart stopped beating for a moment. When it squeezed its next agonizing pulse, it forced out a wail of grief and despair from his throat that reverberated down the hallway and made the onlookers fall back in panic. Without another word he turned and ran for the stairs, pushing people out of his way heedlessly, still crying out the broken denial of what he knew Damon's next target would be.

"Stop, Jarod!" Miss Parker shouted, raising her pistol to aim at the fleeing figure. But she knew he wouldn't. She drew a bead on his leg to injure but not kill, and fired, knowing she had not missed a second time. She watched the impact slam him against the wall, off balance for only a moment, then steady himself into his stride and keep going, through the stairwell door and out of sight.

"After him!" she commanded the two men with her.

But pandemonium had broken loose in the corridor when her gun came into play and none of the three of them could get to the stairwell quickly enough. By the time they made it to the alley at the rear of the building, Jarod was out of sight and police sirens blared a warning for the trio to go speedily elsewhere, lest they be caught up in the murder upstairs as well.

 

Under normal circumstances, stealing a plane would have been an easy thing, but not with a bleeding wound in his leg. Jarod spent precious time at his hotel dressing the gunshot, but did not bother trying to fish the bullet out of his thigh before stitching it up with needle and ordinary thread he had ordered from the front desk. There would be time for that after he was home with Athena, after he made sure she was all right. He felt the minutes ticking swiftly away while he worked, made arrangements to charter a plane over the phone, and then dressed in fresh clothing.

By the time he was ready to leave Baltimore almost seven hours had passed since Damon had left the morgue, seven hours that would put Damon closer to Texas and everything Jarod held dear. To make time, he would have to cut corners in the air, and hope that Sydney and Miss Parker weren't waiting for him when he arrived at the airport. But now he knew his enemy's face, and whatever the outcome, he promised himself that he would hunt Damon Winterbourne down and make him pay in kind for what he had done.

 

Finding Jarod's hideaway was easy. Damon had a list of names of people his prey had known in the red casebooks, and Angela Miles led him to Ernie Two Feathers. Following the old man out to his desert home was less easy, since another traveler could be seen for long distances in almost any direction by the dust trails kicked up by the tires. But a rented dirt bike gave Damon a perfect excuse for being in the hot wasteland, and he enjoyed a little off-roading excitement while pursuing the beat-up old pickup into the foothills. Seeing the two trailers in such close proximity made Damon sure that he had found the right place, and when a blonde woman with a rounded belly exited the larger mobile home to pay a visit to her neighbor, Damon knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be. All that remained was an introduction, and finding the proper place to obtain payment for Jarod's rejection, and then he would wait for Jarod to come to him. Damon had just such a place in mind, but it would need a little work. He had a few hours still before Jarod arrived, and by then it would be nightfall.

Everything was shaping up perfectly, and Damon made his way stealthily toward the temporarily empty trailer that was Jarod's home.

 

Jarod went over and over the scenario in his mind, wondering if he should have tried to e-mail Athena to let her know Damon was on the way. They had no telephone line installed at the house except for the one hooked up to her computer, so he couldn't call her or Ernie, who had lived without a telephone his whole life. But Athena didn't usually check her e-mail at a regular time and he hoped she would be ready anyway for Damon's inevitable arrival. He had to trust that she would know how to handle her half-brother, and that her intelligence and the close support of their friends would keep her safe. Believing that, grasping for that slender hope was all that kept him sane during the long flight from Baltimore to West Texas.

 

Damon hated making things too easy, but using a pistol was sometimes a necessity in the interests of speed. He made himself a sandwich and sat at the kitchen table, just finishing it up when he heard Jarod's girlfriend crossing the dusty yard to return home. He was ready for her to open the door and come blithely inside, but she stopped on the steps for a moment, and he knew then that she must have set up some kind of warning system that would let her know when her house had been invaded. She turned on the steps and ran back toward Ernie's little Airstream, clutching her belly to support the ungainly burden. Damon was out the door and after her in seconds, pulling the weapon out of his shoulder holster and aiming it at the back of her head.

"Stop, or I'll kill you right now!" he ordered harshly.

The woman started to zigzag without slowing down, making herself a more difficult target to anticipate, not even looking back at who was chasing her or how close he might be. Damon found it odd that she had no curiosity about him, but didn't have time to consider it because a shotgun blast kicked up the dirt at his feet and he dodged right, focusing his attention on the old man firing at him through the window of the little silver trailer. He paused long enough to put a bullet in the Indian's chest, then continued after the woman. She was sitting on the front seat of Ernie's ancient pickup truck, reaching for the key to start it when he located her again. He didn't want to kill her just yet, so when he fired into the cab he aimed to miss, to frighten her into stopping, dodging, leaping out of the truck, but it seemed to him that she was expecting that and barely flinched. He ran closer, shouting at her to stop. He heard the engine grind to life, saw her shift gears and put her whole body into stomping the accelerator, and then she turned the wheel and aimed the vehicle straight at him.

Damon leveled the pistol and centered the muzzle on her face.

That was his first good look at her.

The last time he had seen her she was all of 17, but her features had already acquired their adult set, and he knew at once who she was.

"Athena!" he cried. "It's me, Damon!"

He had only a few seconds of reaction time left, and she gunned the engine faster as she came on toward him. Damon sprinted for the front steps of the other trailer, dashing into the front door and turning on the threshold to unload his pistol into the truck's engine. He knew how a combustion engine was structured and approximately where the most vulnerable areas were, and aimed for them the best he could in the time he had available. The woman lost control of the vehicle and screamed as it hurtled toward the trailer. Damon dashed down the central hallway and toward the rear of the house, putting several cushioning walls between him and the impact as the truck slammed into the side of the house.

For a few minutes he stayed in the back, waiting for the dust to settle, listening to determine whether the gas tank would explode and set the house afire, but there was only the tinkle of falling glass shards and the groan of shredded metal settling into place. He peered out the bedroom window and saw that Athena lay crumpled against the steering wheel, unmoving, and he cursed. He couldn't leave her body there for Jarod to find. He needed her to exact the proper revenge on Jarod for rejecting him.

It only took a moment for him to figure out what to do. He dug through the closet for a set of Athena's clothing and climbed out the window since the front door was completely blocked and he didn't want to chance the truck igniting when he was close by. Jogging to the little Airstream, he pulled Ernie's body out to the truck and replaced Athena's body in the driver's seat. Both of his victims were still breathing, but in the September heat in the Guadalupe Mountains, he knew it would be only a few hours or less before both of them expired from the assault of the elements and their massive injuries combined. That would give him plenty of time to finish his business and be ready for Jarod. He tied the bundle of clothing to his motorcycle, hauled an unconscious Athena onto his lap and headed back for the main road to Cornudas.

A small ravine ran parallel to the highway, deep enough that its bottom could not be seen by passing traffic. Dismounting from his bike, he lifted Athena and carried her to the edge of the shallow cliff. Her face was smashed to a bloody pulp, her left shoulder shattered and the bone extruded through the flesh of her upper arm. Her left thigh bent at several odd angles, and the bones of her left foot lay exposed where the skin had been abraded away. He guessed she must have turned sideways at the last moment to try to protect her belly from a forward impact, following her maternal instincts, when all she had accomplished was making things a little more difficult for her younger brother.

Damon checked his clothing for blood and decided he would have time to change once he hit Cornudas, mounted his bike and headed into town.

 

Late afternoon was settling toward dusk when Jarod arrived at the trailers. Shadows were long and the sunlight was dimming as he peered into the cab of the pickup. He pulled Ernie's body out and laid him on the sun-warmed earth, quickly checking the extent of his injuries and his pulse, thready and fading with every beat of his heart. Ernie was dying, and there was no way Jarod could save him without medical equipment. There was no time to get him to a hospital either, and Jarod held his friend's hand, apologizing for not being there to help him.

"He took her," Ernie wheezed haltingly. "Athena... gone."

"I know, Ernie," whispered Jarod painfully. "But I'm not going to leave you alone."

"You go help her," Ernie insisted. "The babies..."

"Not yet," argued Jarod gently.

A weak smile lifted Ernie's mouth on one side, showing a flash of white teeth. "Then... guess I better go."

Jarod saw the light fade in his friend's brown eyes, though the smile remained for a moment longer, and he knew the old man was gone. Jarod raced back to his rented car with his heart in his throat, trying to think where Damon might have taken Athena, and only one easily reachable place came to mind. He headed for the hangar without regard to stop signs or speed limits and flung himself out of the car as soon as the wheels stopped rolling. Dashing in the front door, he saw that Angela Miles had decided to rent it out as storage for a new factory being built in town, and there were huge crates and islands of machinery waiting to be installed as soon as the building was finished. The place was a maze, and as darkness settled outside, it filled with sinister shadows that made the hackles rise on the back of his neck. He knew Damon was there, waiting for him. And Athena was with him.

He eased toward the nearest light switch and flipped it on.

"Well, well. You've arrived at last," called a pleasant voice from somewhere in the middle of the room. "I missed you."

Jarod couldn't see anyone from where he was standing. Cautiously, he edged around the nearest crates and a large bottling machine, warily wending his way closer to the sound until he could see movement atop a large metal tank. It was a woman, her wrists tied over her head, hanging by the bonds with only the tips of her toes able to reach the tank beneath her. She had a canvas bag covering her head and tied with a knotted rope around her neck. The canvas was bloodstained, but Jarod recognized her clothing instantly. She was sobbing quietly, and made no attempt to speak.

"I'm coming, Athena," Jarod called, aware that his voice cracked on her name. His heart was beating so hard he thought it might explode in his chest, and his eyes were burning. He felt sick, but couldn't allow himself that luxury. "Where are you, Damon?"

"I should have guessed," said the younger Pretender. "But I never thought you would have hooked up with my sister on the outside. Still, she and I always did have similar tastes in lovers."

Jarod edged closer, watching the man rise beside his victim and grasp her arm. She whimpered to him, and Damon gave her a solid punch in the rounded swell of her abdomen. Her scream of pain rent the air and echoed beneath the vaulted roof, and Jarod stumbled as if he had also been struck. He could feel the pain in his own body, but greater still was his outrage, his growing hatred. He came closer, walking faster, his eyes fixed on the two figures above him.

"I was her first lover," Jarod told him, his voice thick and black with emotion.

"Were you, now?" Damon mused, giving the woman a rough shake. He spotted his prey moving closer and smiled. "I'd have thought Sydney would have that dubious honor. But perhaps his tastes are a bit more perverse than yours. He could have had her anyway, and unless she told you, you'd never have known, eh? Can't you picture them together? I can."

Jarod felt the goad and ignored it, glancing about for something to use as a weapon, something he might throw to knock Damon off his perch, but everything available was too large and too heavy. He began to climb the crate beside him, needing more even footing to be able to attack.

But Damon was ready for that move. "Take a last look, lover," he called to his opponent. He drew a knife from his boot and, when he was sure Jarod was looking, he plunged the blade into the woman's heart.

She and Jarod screamed simultaneously, and he fell to his knees on top of the heavy wooden box.

Damon tugged on the blade, sawing it downward, slicing her writhing body open. Slowly the struggle stopped and she dangled from the rope above her head in silence. Damon saw Jarod leap across to the next crate, heard him wailing in grief and anguish, and as a piece de resistance he drew back her limp head and cut her throat. He laughed, leaped onto a nearby crate and ran across the wooden islands toward the rear exit.

Jarod's stride was longer and his rage drove him faster, and before Damon could reach the rear of the room Jarod was on him. The two men tumbled to the floor, crashing hard against the polished cement floor. Jarod fell on his wounded thigh, but the pain was only an inconvenience. Damon was quick, dodging through the maze faster than Jarod's longer stride would allow, but once they reached the aisle next to the wall Jarod caught him easily, tackled him and smashed his fist into Damon's face as they hit the floor together. He didn't hear his own cries as his hands doled out the punishment, didn't feel the pain of his bruised knuckles as they crashed into flesh and solid bone. He barely felt the sting of Damon's knife slicing into his side, and wrenched it out of the other man's grasp. Rage and pain demanded vengeance, and Jarod raised the blade to plunge it into Damon's body as he had done to Athena's, his free hand wrapped around Damon's throat, and squeezing.

"Wait!" Damon cried, coughing for breath. "I've got to tell you--" He had an ace card to play, one that might save his life, if only he could get the words out. But the gleam in Jarod's dark eyes was bright with madness, and Damon felt the grip tighten, his breath cease, and saw with terrifying clarity the bloodstained blade rise up and fly home.

Jarod sat back, tears streaming down his face, his hands covered in red. The man beneath him lay still and empty, but there was no satisfaction in it. He dragged himself off, staggering weakly to his feet, and stared down at what he had done. His soul was fractured into a million shards, and he thought about using that deadly knife once more to wreak the final element of justice, but he had no strength to follow through with the thought. He just stood there, staring down at the body, his mind empty until he heard the door open and saw the three silhouetted figures step into the hangar from the dark of night.

"He killed her," Jarod announced brokenly. "He murdered Athena. Our babies. Damon murdered them."

Three pairs of eyes shifted downward to regard the gory body and Jarod's bloody hands before moving back up to his grief-stricken face. "It's all right, Jarod," said Sydney comfortingly. "You're going to be fine..."

Anger flicked on in Jarod's eyes, and intelligence kicked in again. "No, Sydney, it's not all right. How many people did the Centre kill this time? Do you even know? Do any of you care? How can you continue to serve the monsters who let this... this thing loose on innocent people?  How can you sleep at night?"

He regarded the shame in their faces and made his decision quickly.

"See that Athena and Ernie Two Feathers are buried with honor," he ordered. "Use the money the Centre's still holding in my Alaska account, all of it, to give them the very best of everything. And whatever..." Tears suddenly clouded his voice. "Whatever my name really is..." He sniffed them back, but one of them spilled out anyway. "Put it on Athena's headstone. Maybe one of these days I'll get to read it, and put flowers on her grave."

"Let's go home, now, Jarod," Sydney encouraged warmly.

"Home?" Jarod was incredulous. "You took away the only home I've ever known, the only people who ever loved me! Why the hell do you think I'd ever go anywhere with you? You'll have to kill me first."

Miss Parker swallowed hard and drew her pistol from her shoulder holster beneath her jacket, but by the time her eyes glanced back to the tall man in the shadows, he was already moving. She fired, but the bullet clipped a crate just as he dashed behind it. By the time the three of them found their way to the back door, the sound of a car engine coming to life spurred them outside and on the run to their own car, only to find the front tire slashed, a bloodied blade still sticking in it.

"What do we do now?" asked Broots. "I mean, about all that in there?" He nodded back toward the hangar.

"We get back on Jarod's trail, is what we do, Broots," said Miss Parker coldly. "The local authorities can take care of that mess."

Sydney stared at her in the faint light pouring out the hangar door to illuminate the night. "No, Miss Parker. You go. I'm going to see that Athena gets a proper burial, as Jarod asked. It's the least I can do for him. And for her."

"Then I'd suggest you two get started with finding us another vehicle since we can't exactly limp out of here with this one," the redhead snarled. "And I'd suggest you do it quickly. I, for one, don't want to be found this close to yet another of Damon's murder scenes. Not even to gloat at his passing. Oh, and, by the way, Sydney. Make sure Damon's dead, will you?"

The three each headed in different directions, hoping to find something that would carry them far away from the slaughterhouse that would follow them all in their memories for the rest of their lives.

 

EPILOGUE

Jarod sterilized the surgical instruments and sat down on a wooden chair in the kitchen of the wrecked trailer. He had a little time, and needed to repair himself before hitting the road again. There were no anesthetics available, but he didn't need them. The pain was good, giving him something to focus on, to remind him of what he was doing. He dug out the bullet lodged in his thigh and carefully stitched both his wounds closed, cleaned, disinfected and bandaged them with the efficiency of a skilled medical professional, except for the lack of sterile facilities. When he was finished he gingerly stepped into a clean pair of pants and went to the front bedroom to pick up the aluminum Halliburton that contained the remnants of his past and prepared to leave his only home.

He took one last look at the painting he had finished just before he left, and saw that there was an envelope balanced on the top of the canvas, propped against the easel, and Athena had written his name on it. Without reading it he knew what it was, and why she had left it there. Just in case. He opened the shiny briefcase and slipped the envelope inside it, along with a photograph of her that he kept taped to the computer monitor on the desk in the front bedroom. It was a silhouette shot of her, showing off her maternal figure, celebrating the advent of her sixth month. He could not say goodbye to her yet, could not admit to himself that she was dead, that the babies would never be born. Later, perhaps, but not just yet. He crawled out of the house through the open bedroom window, got into his rented car and left, hoping he would find no reason to return to Texas anytime in the near future. There was too much pain in the desolate western counties for him to bear, so much that he couldn't feel anything at all anymore. The emptiness threatened to swallow him up in it, and Jarod welcomed oblivion with open arms.

Only it did not come.

 

El Paso, Texas, two months later

"Have you decided yet?" asked the nurse as she fitted a straw into a tall glass of chocolate flavored nutritional supplement.

The woman in the bed shook her white-swathed head and tapped the paper on the tray beside her. There were two neat columns of names, and several in each column were highlighted.

Nurse Rho smiled. "Well, looks like you're narrowing down your choices," she said brightly. "I guess you're pretty tired of being 'Jane Doe.' Still no word on any missing persons fitting your description." She sighed. "That one woman from Cornudas was the only real close one, but your fingerprints didn't match hers. Pity. I'm sure you must have a husband out there worried sick about you."

Jane Doe nodded, turning her one unbandaged blue eye to gaze out the window. The cast had already come off her arm and leg, and most of the other injuries had healed, but the damage to her face had been so extensive that she needed several operations to try and rebuild it. She had been found by a passing motorist who had stopped to take a leak in the ravine by the highway outside Cornudas, and since regaining consciousness weeks later, she had not been able to recall how she had come to be there, moments away from dying. Since she had no identification, and was unable to remember who she was, the doctors had no idea what she was supposed to look like. They were doing the best they could with what they had, taking pieces of bone from other places in her body to build a new front to her skull. She still could not talk yet, communicating with pen and paper while learning sign language, which she picked up rapidly. All the nurses on her shift were working to learn it as well so they could communicate more readily with each other.

I don't think there is anyone, Jane Doe signed slowly.

"Oh, did you remember something?" Nurse Roh asked hopefully.

Jane shrugged and shook her head slowly. Just a feeling. I think I may have been running away from someone. All my dreams lately have been about fear and running.

"Actually, those are pretty common dreams for pregnant women," the nurse said warmly, patting the injured woman's arm and taking a seat for a moment on the edge of the bed. "It's rooted in fear of the new responsibilities of motherhood. I wouldn't worry about it." She gazed into that blue eye sadly. "It's going to be hard for you at first, with the rest of your surgeries to get through, plus the labor and dealing with twins and all. But Dr. Garcia and his wife are good people, and I know they'll be happy to help you get on your feet again. You'll like staying with them, Jane." She smiled again. "You're gonna do just fine, dear. You just concentrate on your babies, and everything else will fall into place." She rose, patted the younger woman on the arm again, and went back to her rounds.

The woman in the bed lifted her glass and held her lips closed with her fingers to get enough suction going to bring the liquid into her mouth. She wondered again who her twins' father might be, and whether she loved him, whether she would ever remember anything about who she was. But the dreams she had were not vague in their threats, and that worried her. The monsters that haunted her nightmares had faces, always the same faces every time, and she believed that had a very important meaning, one that was real and tangible and not the stuff of ethereal musings. And with that in mind, she decided she would make no effort to try to discover her past, not anytime in the near future, and would wait and see what time brought her as she healed.

She finished the supplement, sat the glass back on the tray and lay down to try to get some sleep. The babies were wiggling inside her and fighting each other for space, which made her tired and in need of frequent naps. But she couldn't close her eye, wondering once more about the man who had fathered her children.

Reaching for the drawer in the nightstand, she pulled it slowly open and picked up the little golden necklace she had been wearing when she was found. The charm was heart-shaped and incised with interlaced grooves on both sides and the edges as well, giving it the appearance of a solid piece, delicately carved. There was an inscription on both faces, one in Latin and one in Greek, both of them translated by the staff for her. Wisdom and Fidelity or Faithfulness, they had told her it said. She traced her fingers over the delicate design, squeezed it between her fingers as if a stronger grip might make it tell her more.

Something moved under her fingertips. A small panel slid to one side, revealing a tiny latch. She opened it and the two halves parted neatly to reveal a photograph hidden inside the locket. Staring back at her was the smiling face of a handsome, dark-haired man with a tiny mole by his right eye, his teeth white against his deeply tanned skin.  Her heart jumped up in her throat, and her vision blurred in her undamaged eye. There was no joy in seeing that face, no recognition, but an overwhelming sensation of sadness filled her to the brim and spilled over. The sense of foreboding was palpable, and she closed the locket quickly, hiding the latch again and dropping it back into the drawer.

Not now her heart whispered into the empty room. Best not to know just yet...

 

NEXT: Red Rain