Searching (Part 1)

"Now don't worry about a thing, Mr. Allan," Dr. Jarod Trapper told his last patient of the day as he ushered the old man out the door. "Just take your medication every day, like I told you, and you'll be fine."

Jarod closed his office door and flipped the 'We Are In' sign to 'We Are Out'. Not that it would make much difference, since he lived above the office and everyone knew where to find him -- the disadvantage to being the only doctor in 100 miles. But at least it made closing time official.

"We're off the clock, Helen," he told his nurse/receptionist with a smile. "I'll take command of the munchkin now. Thank you for watching her; with the preschool closed for the snow again, I'm really grateful for your help."

Helen Waters finished gathering her files and left her desk. "Oh, it was no trouble, Dr. Jarod," the blonde woman said with a fond smile down at Kristin, who was sprawled on her stomach behind the reception desk and wholly occupied with a notebook and a vast array of crayons. "She's a treasure -- both of you are. If we'd had to spend the whole winter without a doctor, the whole town would have been in a sorry mess. Why, I just don't know what we would have done these last few months without you."

"Well, it's mutual, since I don't know what we'd do without you," Jarod smiled back at her.

She blushed slightly, flustered, and put on her heavy winter coat. "Good night, Kristin sweetie," she said, bending over to give the little girl a kiss. Kristin bounced from her sprawl to her feet so she could return Helen's hug.

"G'night, Helen! You're coming back tomorrow?"

"Well, I don't know," Helen pretended to consider. "Do you really want me to?"

Kristin's eyes went wide. "Yes! Come! I'll draw you a picture!"

Helen thought another second, then 'gave in'. "Well, all right. If I get a picture."

"All right!" Kristin hugged Helen ferociously to end the nightly game, and Jarod kissed the nurse on the cheek on her way out the door.

"Drive safely, it's still icy out there," he warned her, before letting the door swing back shut against the cold of a Colorado April. Apparently this part of the state didn't believe in spring.

"Daddy! Come look!" Kristin called and he walked back to the desk to sit on the floor next to his daughter. She proudly displayed a drawing that was probably three people, standing in front of green blobs that vaguely resembled trees and grass, with brown mountains behind them.

"This is really good, sweetheart," Jarod praised her, hugging her close with one arm so he could kiss the top of her head. She snuggled against him contentedly. "Is this you?" he asked, pointing at the smallest figure.

"Uh-huh, and that's you," she pointed at the tallest stick.

"And who's this?" he asked, gesturing at the third, who stood between his and Kristin's figures.

Kristin's face went sober. "That's Mommy. After we're all together."

Jarod blew his breath out hard and pulled Kristin more tightly against his shoulder. His daughter had accepted that she couldn't see her mother, but that didn't mean she was happy about it. Not one bit.

And, to his surprise, Jarod wasn't all that happy about it either. In some odd way, he missed the fun of making Miss Parker crazy; he missed the challenge of sending her stalking one way while he was ducking out the other, and the odd tie between them when they were both working on the puzzle of their past....

He missed *her*. And Sydney, and Broots, he admitted. The strange relationship the four of them had forged over the last few years had become more a part of his life than he'd realized until he'd had to cut it off. But that might not be true for much longer. Not if what Angelo's last e-mail had said was true.

He sighed again and resorted to distracting Kristin (and himself) by standing up and taking her with him. She yelped once at finding herself upside down two feet off the floor, then dissolved into giggles. "Daddy, put me down! No fair!"

"Of course it's fair," he responded, heading for the stairs up their living quarters. "I'm bigger than you are."

"*Doesn't* make it fair!" Kristin pouted, still upside down. "And we didn't clean up the crayons. We *have* to clean them up, or someone could trip and get hurt. Helen *says* so!"

And that, of course, ended that argument. Chuckling, Jarod released his daughter and helped her clean up the crayons.

It was another beautiful sunny April day in Blue Cove. Miss Parker was staring out her office window, her expression serene and removed as she kept her emotions under ruthless control. Presenting the perfect facade of a contemplative executive to anyone who should care to look in on her in passing. Not that anyone other than her father would dare, not after this morning's blow-up.

She tilted her head back against her chairback and let out a careful breath, her eyes fixed on the distant horizon while her fingers idly traced the edges of Jarod's last red notebook. She'd already memorized the contents--- details about his efforts to clear a university professor in Seattle of plagiarism charges. The man had been exonerated, of course. Jarod had never failed at any simulation he'd undertaken yet. The few failures in his life were all much closer to home, or rather, the Centre. The loss of his family. Kyle. His inability to completely cure Angelo. A few other incidents. Even Jarod can't always win against us...

Three months. Three months without a glimpse, a hint, or the tiniest fragment of a clue to his whereabouts. She hadn't slept well the night before, nightmares alternating with bouts of ulcer-induced pain, and as a result she'd taken out her frustration on the tech crew down in Reports when they'd given her an excuse earlier in the day. Broots was going to have to explain to those pinheads how she wanted their work done. There was no *reason* why they shouldn't be able to anticipate a few simple requests by now, but they still showed all the initiative of a cage full of well-trained baboons. It was enough to send her on the low-voiced even-toned lecture that had left most of them shaking in front of their work stations by the time she exited the Computer Room.

She pressed her lips together and tightened her grip on the notebook. It had felt good to do something, anything, after so much prolonged inactivity, even if it was something as counter-productive as terrifying her subordinates. The rage that had fired her immediately after Jarod's break-in and which had led to uncovering the Legacy project was dying down. She didn't have her usual target to focus on since he was still being uncharacteristically elusive. With too much time on her hands, she was being forced to think. Which was a spectacularly bad idea.

Jarod's continued absence on the horizon was making her crazy. He was doing it on purpose, she knew it. The cocky bastard wanted her to have a nervous breakdown so he could sneak into whatever sanitarium they put her in and pose as her doctor, just to mock her and push her even further over the edge. At which point she'd strangle him with her bare hands, no matter what straitjacket they put her in.

Miss Parker enjoyed the mental image of choking the life out of Jarod for a full minute, picturing his face going blue, his gasped pleas for his life, then it began to fade in spite of how much effort she put into calling it back. Unfortunately. That little fantasy was the most fun she'd had in an entire week.

The problem was that she had too many thoughts, too many options. Being left on her own without an immediate goal sent her in ever-widening circles. He could be planning another attack on the Centre; he could have found his parents, learned the reason for Catherine Parker's death, and decided to disappear; he could be in a hospital somewhere, hurt and unconscious without I.D.; or he could be acting out any one of a hundred other scenarios she couldn't begin to imagine. She hated that about him. She could never, ever count on Jarod to do things for rational reasons. Even after three years of chasing him, knowing when he'd react out of self-preservation and when he'd succumb to his social-worker impulses escaped her. He's like some damn idealistic twelve-year-old. With the warped sense of humor and total recklessness to go with it.

She flipped the book open again, flipped it shut, then slapped it down on her desk, rubbing her temples, trying to fight off the headache that was coming. They'd had a deal. He wouldn't just welsh on their deal without any notice. Unless it was for the good of his family... No. He wouldn't. He knew how important her mother's murder was to her. He'd get a clue to her, a good-bye note, something. I think. She dropped her hands from her head and closed her eyes.

There had been a bunny under her Christmas tree two years ago. A candy heart that said "Be Mine" last Valentine's Day. Another one of her mother's rings on her birthday. The music box. He'd warned her about Lyle's little... hobbies. Called her when he knew that Centre developments would have left her vulnerable and confused. He'd told her when her father's life was in danger, just because he knew how much she loved her father. And he'd never lied to her, as far as she knew.

He'd given her the flu. Deliberately. Glued her to the floor of a roach-infested motel in New York City. Had her arrested on a concealed-weapons charge in North Carolina. Given her the damn ulcer. Used her calling card to rack up over ten thousand dollars worth of phone charges. Made a fool of her in front of her father. Had her *strip-searched* in Vegas, dammit! Sonuva*bitch*....!

He was immature, arrogant, judgemental, thrill-seeking, demanding, hopelessly naive, totally unrealistic, ruthless, manipulative, and had the habits and emotional stability of your average adolescent sugar freak. He scared the living hell out of her without warning, and then unexpectedly made her feel so damn sorry for him that she had to lash out or be tempted to mercy. He constantly challenged her loyalty to her father even as he asked for help finding his family by using her connections at the Centre.

He could disappear at any time and she'd never see him again, and that would have been a huge relief... except for the consequences.

He kept reminding her that she had a choice in doing the things she did. Not that it was much of a choice; if she left the Centre before Jarod was caught, she'd have to endure the same pursuit that he seemed to enjoy so much. If she left, she'd never find out who murdered her mother. She'd be leaving Sydney, Angelo, and Broots utterly open to the manipulation of whichever Centre player came into power after she left ---- and the thought of Lyle or Raines controlling their lives didn't bear thinking of.

Sydney could handle it, maybe, but Broots had a daughter, and Angelo was incapable of fighting anyone. More, whatever brakes on new projects were currently operating at the Centre would ease up another inch if she weren't there to apply them. And there was the thought of her father's disappointment in her; he expected her to last the course of the Centre's power struggles and take the reins from him, if Lyle didn't.

Which was one more thing she had to prevent. No way was that psychotic going to be allowed back in the driver's seat behind Centre policy. Not if she had anything to say about it.

Easy enough for Jarod to *say* she could quit the Centre, to taunt her with all the things he knew about her mother and might be able to share if she left. But it wasn't so easy to do, was it?

Although it might be something she would *have* to do, if Jarod stayed out of sight long enough. She couldn't accomplish anything if the Tower decided to punish her for his vanishing act. Much more of this, and they'd start to consider it.

She planned on being ready long before it came down to that.

Picking up the red notebook again, she threw it into the trash, and then unhurriedly rose and walked to the door. A long drive in her car would clear her head, and on the way back, she would start making arrangements. Just in case.

A little while later, Kristin and crayons were both ensconced on the floor of their tiny living room, while Jarod fried cheeseburgers in the kitchen and put broccoli in the steamer. Kristin would fight the broccoli, but the cheeseburgers would help make up for it. Many compromises had to be made concerning the balanced diet of an almost-five-year-old.

"Kristin?" he called, shoveling burgers onto buns with the aplomb of the short-order cook he'd been once or twice."Dinner's almost ready."

"'Kay!" she called back. He could hear her bounce down the short hall towards him, her sneakers thudding against the hardwood floor. She never walked when she could run, he thought with a smile.

"You've got mail, daddy!" she informed him, sticking her head around the doorway. "The computer went 'beep', like when mail comes. Can I help get it?"

Jarod put the plate he was holding down slowly. "I don't think you can, this time. I think it's grownup business." Kristin didn't like that, but didn't say anything. She'd learned by now that 'grownup business' was one of the few things she couldn't talk her father out of.

He barely remembered to move the steamer off the burner, then headed for the living room and his laptop, with Kristin tagging behind just in case he changed his mind about her 'helping'. She stood patiently and eagerly next to him even after he sat down, until a pointed sideways look sent her pouting back to her crayons.

The e-mail was from Angelo, just as he'd expected. And it told him what he wanted to know. Needed to know, he amended to himself. In some ways, I'd be just as happy not to know this. Because knowing means we have to leave.

He turned in his chair just enough to look at his daughter, who had already abandoned her pout for the more entertaining business of coloring. Kristin's hair escaped in fine brown wisps from her ponytail to fall around her face as she carefully filled in the lines in her coloring book; her tongue was caught between her teeth in concentration, as if the fate of the universe rested in making ninja turtles the correct shade of green.

Her tiny blue jeans, new three months before, were already wearing out at the knees, and were already almost too short for her -- she seemed to grow every time he looked at her. Her sweatshirt, emblazoned with a big dinosaur in a shade of purple he was fairly certain no dinosaur had ever been, looked as if it had been through a small war, fought with crayons, dirt, chocolate, snow and peanut butter. He winced, remembering the incident with the bubble gum, and the subsequent visit to the barber after Helen's suggestion of peanut butter to remove gum from hair had proven to be not quite effective enough.

Miss Parker would have a heart attack at the sight of her messy daughter, he mused, caught between amusement and regret. Even as a child, she'd always been clean and pressed -- until a chase through the ventilation systems of the Centre with him and Angelo had done their damage, anyway. But those had ended not long after they'd begun, and he'd never seen her so much as smudged since. Unless he'd done the smudging, of course. She was always perfectly dressed, sleekly groomed, and totally in control, of her wardrobe, at any rate.

He tried to imagine her joining in the wild snowball fight he'd held with Kristin earlier that day, and failed completely. Maybe if the snowball were loaded..... His sigh was quiet, but caught Kristin's attention; she bounced to her feet as soon as she realized Jarod had abandoned the laptop for her again.

"Did something good come?" she asked, climbing onto his lap and snuggling in securely. There was a smudge of dirt on her forehead, a new rip in the sweatshirt, and the remains of a scrape on her cheek where she'd lost an encounter with a bush, and she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen in his life. The frightened little girl he'd rescued from the Centre three months before had turned into a fearless, rampaging child fully capable of taking on the world and arguing it to a draw. She was safe here, happy -- and he was going to have to take her away from it again.

"It's something that might be good," Jarod answered after a moment. "I'm not sure."

She cocked her head to the side to look at him. "Why?"

He'd done the exact same thing to Sydney a thousand times; seeing her do it could still make his breath catch. "Because.... Because it means doing something I don't want to do."

She considered that. "Then don't do it."

"I have to."


"Because... if I do something I don't want to now, it might lead to being able to do something I want to do very much."

The conversation was getting too abstract for Kristin. "What do we have to do, Daddy?" she demanded, her eyebrows furrowed and her face set stubbornly.

He smiled in spite of himself, and tugged on her ponytail. "It's *we*, huh?" She nodded emphatically and he smiled again, this time at himself. It was going to be all right. They'd do this, and and whatever else they had to do.

"Well, the thing that I don't want to have to do is leave here."

She sat bolt upright, her eyes went wide with fear. "You're leaving? Without me?"

"No!" He hugged her hard, pulling her securely against him again. "No, munchkin, I'm not going anywhere without you. We're both leaving."

"Oh." She relaxed again with a gusty sigh, replaced almost immediately by apprehension again. "But, we'd have to leave Helen, and the office and Mrs. Kay and..."

"I know," he cut the litany off gently. "That's why I don't want to do it."

"Than we won't!"

Another conversation come full circle; that seemed to happen a lot with Kristin. "I know you don't want to leave, sweetheart, but we have to go to a place called Los Angeles."

"In California?" Her eyes were wide again, with amazement at the idea. "Like on TV?"

"Just like on TV," he nodded. "I've got to do some grown-up things, but I have a friend who lives there who I think you'll like. He's very nice, and he'll help me take care of you for a little while."

Kristin thought about that. "Like Helen?"

"No, not like Helen." Although they did have the same taste in shoes, Jarod reflected. "Helen is special, but so is my friend."

"Are we going to stay in Los An-gel-es?" She pronounced the city's name very carefully.

"I don't think so, Kristin. But after we're in Los Angeles, I think I'll be closer to finding a place where we can stay."



She considered again, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyebrows furrowed again. But, finally, she looked up at him. "Can we come back someday? To see Helen?"

He nodded. "If there's any way to do it, we will. I promise."

She nodded. "'Kay," she said reluctantly. "We can go to Los An-gel-es."

"Good." He kissed the tip of her nose, which usually provoked a giggle, but only got him a small smile this time, and reached past her for the phone on his desk. "I'm going to make one phone call, and then we'll eat dinner."

"The broccoli's going to be cold," she pointed out with a crafty tilt of her head.

"Well, then, I guess we'll have to have potato chips, won't we?"

"Yay!" All sadness forgotten, she slid off his lap and raced for the kitchen, presumably to get a head start on the potato chips.

"With milk!" he called after her, dialing.

The phone rang a few times, then a familiar voice purred, "Dexter Limosine Service, how may we help you?"

"Isaac? It's Jarod. I've got a favor to ask you...."

The plane was lots bigger than she'd thought it would be. It was taller, and it had many, many more seats than her toy airplane. She was being very good, like Daddy had asked her to be, and not yelling and not running around, because she could get lost in the airport. That would be bad.

So she was staying very close to him, even though the line was *very* slow, and not making faces at the little boy in front of her. Even though she wanted to. Instead, she held onto her daddy's hand when he gave their tickets to the man at the gate, and walked down the long, long hall to the plane.

They were going to Los An-gel-es, Daddy said, to visit Daddy's friend Uncle Isaac, and so Daddy could do his work there, although Kristin wasn't really sure what Daddy's work was. He was a doctor. He'd been a doctor most of the time since they came to Colorado. But before that he played with his computer and made some money that way. He said he wasn't going to be a doctor in Los An-gel-es, but he hadn't said what he was going to be. Exactly.

Sometimes Kristin thought that her Daddy wasn't really a grown-up, just like he'd said the first time they met. And sometimes she just thought he was the smartest man in the whole world, because he could be anything.

"When is the plane going to take off? When? When?"

Daddy rolled his eyes, but he didn't get mad. He almost never did. "Pretty soon, sweetheart. Is your seat belt fastened?"

"Uh-hunh." She bounced a little in the seat, and kicked her feet; the seat was too high. Like most chairs, she couldn't reach the floor. She couldn't kick the seat in front of her either, which was probably a good thing.

"Is your seat belt fastened?" She checked, then nodded. "Good Daddy."

Daddy laughed and made sure his big silver case was still safe under the seat in front of them. He never went anywhere without the case. They had new clothes since the Bad Place, and they'd had three new cars, but Daddy always had his case, and she always had Henry.

She cuddled Henry a little closer to her now, and studied the people around them. There were lots of people in suit and ties who didn't look happy about being on the plane; she wondered why they came, then? She and the little boy in front of her, who was playing with a truck and making vrooming noises, were the only kids on the plane, but there was a pretty lady in a blue uniform moving up and down the aisles.

"All set?" The pretty lady stopped at the seats right in front of them, nodded and smiled at the little boy, then moved to their aisle, and her smile got a little bigger. Kristin smiled back, and her Daddy nodded to the pretty lady, looking kind of not-there. He got like that sometimes, when he was thinking hard.

"Yup. This is my first time on a plane!" Kristin informed the lady. "Do you ride on lots of planes?"

"I'm the flight attendant. It's my job to ride on the planes, and help the passengers. If there's anything you or your daddy need, I'm here to help."

Daddy blinked a little bit, and then smiled at the flight attendant and said, "Thank you... Patricia. We appreciate it."

"No problem. If you need anything, you just let me know."

Daddy blinked, and smiled again, kind of funny. "We will."

The lady smiled back, then kept moving down the aisles.

Kristin looked at her Daddy, who was busy adjusting Kristin's seat belt, even though it didn't need to be adjusted. "Are we going to take off *now*?"

"Any minute, Kristin. Is this too tight?"

"I'm *fine*, Daddy." She crossed her arms, and remembered what Aunt Christine had said to him once. "You worry too much."

"Well, maybe I like to worry. Especially about you, munchkin."

"It's okay." She took his hand and squeezed it hard, still feeling real excited. Her daddy stopped fussing, and smiled his nice I'm-silly smile, and then sighed and leaned back in his seat.

The plane started moving and Kristin squeaked, trying to lean past her daddy to see out the window.

"No, no, sit back, Kristin. Wait until the plane's in the air." He unwrapped a stick of gum and put it in his mouth and then gave her some. "Remember to chew it so your ears pop the way they're supposed to."

She chewed ferociously, and the plane finally started to speed up. She could hear the engines get really high and loud, and she could *feel* the airplane moving. Faster and faster, and even more fast, and then --- and then --- the plane *tilted*, up, so she was leaning against the back of her seat, and she could feel the vibrations in her seat go away as they left the ground.


Daddy tousled her hair and laughed at her, but that was okay because it wasn't a mean laugh, just a funny laugh that made his eyes crinkle up. "Pretty cool, hunh?"

"*Really* cool! I want to fly all the time!" Just then her ears popped, not so much that they hurt, but it surprised her. She opened her mouth really wide to make it stop, and then her other ear popped. "If my ears don't do this all the time."

She craned her neck around, and then stared up at the seat-belt light that Daddy had explained when they got on, and wished and wished at it to turn it off. She thought of something while she was wishing. "Daddy? Can you fly airplanes?"

Daddy smiled his funny smile, the one that looked like he had a secret he wasn't going to tell. "Sometimes." Kristin waited for him to tell more, because if she waited, once in a while he would. It didn't look like he would this time, though.

"Can I go with you the next time you fly the plane?"

"Oh, I think we can work something out. Do you want to be my copilot?"


"Well then, it's a date." He leaned over and kissed her on the nose, and she wrinkled it at him.

The blinky seat belt sign finally shut off, and Kristin wrestled with her seat belt. "Can I look out the window now? Please?"

"All right, you can have my seat for a little while." Daddy squeezed past her out into the aisle, and she scooted over as fast as she could.

"Thank you, Daddy." It was easy to remember to be polite to her daddy. Easier than it had been when she was at the Abbots, because Daddy was nicer. And because he'd answer her much faster than the Abbots, and he paid more attention when she asked him something.

"You're welcome, munchkin." He sat back down next to her. "Fasten your seat belt again."

"But the sign isn't on!"

"It's for safety, Kristin. It's better to have the seat belt on, no matter what."

"'Kay." She only pouted for a second; the view out the window was lots more fun. Clouds went by, real clouds, and Kristin was only sorry she couldn't touch them. Way underneath the clouds she could see brown bits of the ground, and green grass. She held Henry up to the window so he could see too.

"Look, Daddy, the mountains! They look different!"

Daddy leaned over, and pointed down to the left. "And see, over there, the shiny bit? That's water, the Colorado River..."

"We're up way high, aren't we?"

Daddy laughed again. "Very, very high."

"Can we go even higher?"

"I don't think that would be such a good idea..."

"Why not?"

"Well, if we went any higher it would start being hard to breathe. And we're up pretty high already." He smiled at her again. "Maybe when you're older, you'll get to go higher."

"When I can fly the plane."

"You'll be able to fly anything."

The stewardess --- Patricia--- stopped by their seats when Daddy said this. "Do you want to be a pilot when you grow up?" she asked Kristin, lifting her eyebrows up in a question.

"Daddy says I can be his copilot! I'm going to be a pilot and a doctor and a p'leecewoman and a princess. And a chef, too." She stopped and thought. "But I'm going to be a copilot first."

"Well, if that's the case, maybe you should get to see the cockpit, where the pilot flies the plane." Patricia smiled at Kristin, then at her Daddy, and her smile was a little funny like she was joking with him about something. "If it's okay with your daddy."

Daddy's eyebrows went worried again. "I'm not sure she should...."

"Oh, oh, oh! Please, daddy, please?"


She crossed her fingers and closed her eyes, wishing hard. "Pleeeeease?"

Patricia smiled again. "I promise, we haven't lost a little girl yet."

Now her voice was like she was telling a joke, and Daddy smiled. Kristin knew that smile and was already undoing her safety belt when he finally said, "Well, all right. But you have to be good, and not get in the way, all right?"

"Yayyy! Yes, I promise. I won't touch anything. Not at all." She got down out of the seat. "Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Patricia. Move over, Daddy..."

Daddy's eyes still looked a little worried, and Kristin hugged him on her way past. Patricia took her hand when she got out of the seat, and told Daddy, "We'll take good care of our little copilot here."

Kristin hopped up the aisle, hanging onto Patricia's hand the whole way, wanting to yell but remembering Daddy had said not to do that before they got on the plane. She waved to her daddy then kept hopping.

They got to the front of the plane, and Patricia knocked on the door, then turned to Kristin. "So, are you meeting your mommy in Los Angeles?"

Kristin felt a little sad all of a sudden, and she shook her head. "Uh-unh. We can't see my mommy. Not for a long time."

"Oh, that's too bad." Patricia didn't sound sad though, and she was looking down the aisle at Kristin's Daddy. Kristin frowned, and squinchied her eyes at Patricia.

"But we will someday. Just not today and not tomorrow and not the day *after* tomorrow. And my mommy will come and we'll all be together. Daddy promised," she said firmly, as the door opened.

"Oh. Oh, hi, Frank, this is Kristin. She wants a tour of the cockpit," the flight attendant said to the man who opened the door. "Is now a good time?"

"No problem." The man who answered the door smiled at her, and moved so they could go into the cockpit. He was wearing a uniform kind of like Patricia's, but different. "You'll just have to be real quiet, because we're all working here, flying the plane."

"Okay. I can be quiet. I can be really really quiet."

There were lights all over the little room, even on the ceiling; and there were voices talking on the little radio. "Kristin, this is Greg, he's my co-pilot; and this is Reggie, our navigator. He tells us which way the plane should go."

Kristin wondered if nav-i-gator was sort of like alligator, but she didn't ask, because Greg was talking into his headphones. "Salt Lake, this is Flight 577, we're continuing on-course for Los Angeles..."

The lights were red and yellow and some were green, and they were in rows and in circles and all over the place.... Patricia put her hand down over Kristin's just as Kristin started to reach for one near Reggie. "Uh-unh-unh. What did you promise your dad?"

"Ooops." Kristin blinked and put her hands behind her back. "I forgot. Sorry."

Reggie laughed, nice like her daddy, and said, "Pretty cool, hunh?" At Kristin's nod, he said, "It's okay. Look, you can touch this dial here --- just don't move it." He pointed to one with a little sign that said "Heading" on it, and Kristin got closer to look at it.

"Forty-seven," she read off the dial. "What's a heading?"

Patricia laughed, sounding surprised. "You can read that?"

Kristin smiled, feeling smug. "It's not very hard. What's a heading?" she asked Reggie again.

"It's the direction we're going. Like heading out." Reggie pointed to another dial. "And what's this say?"


"Velocity," Reggie said. "That's a hard word. It means how fast we're going. What does it say?"

"Six hundred." Kristin leaned back, impressed. "Wow. That's *fast*."

Reggie looked over at Patricia, who shook her head, looking like Aunt Christine did when she read to her the first time. Reggie looked the same way. "I think you'll be very good at flying a plane, Kristin," Reggie told her. "You can already read the dials and numbers real well."

"Maybe we should have her do it instead of you, Reg," Greg said in a funny voice.

"Cool!" Kristin smiled up at him. "Can I try?"

"Well, we'd get in trouble if we did that --- but you can read this dial for the captain, so he knows how far we're turning," Reggie said, with a kind of mean look at Greg, but Greg just laughed. Reggie pushed some buttons, and turned one of the dials, and then said, "There. Tell the Captain what the heading says now. This dial, then this dial, then these letters."

"47... 60... 00... S.S.W." Kristin stared at the letters hard, and then asked, "Is that for south? Like on a map?"

"That's right. You're doing a great job," Reggie answered, patting her shoulder. "Navigators read the map for the Captain, so he knows where to go."

"Like me and daddy in the car."

Patricia laughed, then said, "Speaking of your daddy, I better get you back to him. He's going to worry about you."

Kristin made a face. "Daddy always worries. He says it's his job."

Patricia laughed at this too, and Reggie and Greg chuckled. Kristin sighed hugely. "O-kayyy... Thank you all, very very much! I had a very nice time!"

"Wait, Kristin!" Reggie dug around in an envelope next to him and brought something out. "For being such a good navigator's assistant," he said, and pinned a pair of shiny silver wings on her chest.

"Ooo!" Kristin's eyes went wide as she studied them upside down. "Coool. Thank you!"

"Thanks for visiting, Kristin," Captain Frank said. "And you definitely better sign up for flight school when you get older."

"Okay!" Kristin took Patricia's hand and let her lead her back down the aisle, even though she could have found the way.

Daddy was standing up when they got there, looking worried, and then his face got all relaxed when he saw her.

"I was just... getting something out of my case."

"Your case is *under* the seat, Daddy." Kristin rolled her eyes, and then whispered to Patricia, "Told you."

Daddy looked embarrassed, and smiled at Patricia. "I hope she wasn't any trouble."

Patricia shook her head. "Not a bit; she was a big help to our navigator. You have a very bright little girl here."

Daddy smiled again, but it wasn't quite real. "I know."

"Look, look, they gave me wings!"

This time, his smile was better, which made Kristin happier. "And very nice wings they are; I guess you *must* have been a help. Ready to sit back down?"

"I guess I can sit down..." Kristin scrambled reluctantly back into her seat, picking Henry back up and snuggling him close. She didn't like being away from Henry for very long.

Daddy turned back to Patricia. "Thanks for giving her the tour. I can tell she enjoyed it."

Patricia smiled really wide. "My pleasure."

Daddy's smile was nice, but it wasn't his best smile now. Patricia leaned on the seat in front of them for a second. "Are you going to be in town long?"

"We're... still figuring that out."

"Well, when you make up your mind, you could... let me know. I'd love to show you around."

"Thanks." Daddy scratched his nose, then gave her his very very best smile. "If we have time, I'll be sure to do that."

"I'll look forward to it." Patricia leaned down to Kristin. "Thanks for being so good, honey. If you need anything, push the button, okay?"

"Okay," Kristin said politely. She waited until Patricia had gone before she said, "She likes you."

"I like her, too. She's very nice."

Kristin sighed really heavy. "No, I mean she *likes* you."

Daddy stared at her, then raised his eyebrows. "Oh, she does, hunh?"

"Uh-hunh." Kristin made a face. "I *told* her I have a mommy. I don't need *two* mommies."

Daddy looked like he was trying *really* hard not to laugh. "You're right, sweetheart -- one mommy is definitely enough for you to handle. Fasten your seat belt."

"'Kay." She fastened the snappy buckle (and unsnapped it and resnapped it a few time, because it was fun), then sighed and snuggled up against her daddy's shoulder. He was reading a big thick book with no pictures, but he still put one of his arms around her and hugged her tight.

"Sleepy, munchkin?"

"Uh-unh," Kristin denied firmly, as her eyelids started to droop. "I saw the cockpit, and I read a heading and Reggie gave me wings, and...." She had to stop to yawn, so wide her ears popped again. "And it was fun."

"I bet it was," Daddy said, sounding very impressed.

"Uh-hunh." She yawned again and wriggled a little bit closer, clutching Henry to her chin and feeling warm and safe. It was nice to have a daddy of her very own, she thought drowsily. She hadn't been sure when he'd first told her he was her daddy if she would like it, but he sang lullabies, and gave her Twinkies and piggyback rides, and took her on a plane and made her eat her vegetables, just like the daddies on TV.

Only this was her very own Daddy, and he would never never ever go away. Daddies were good things to have, Kristin concluded, as she drifted off to sleep against hers.

No one looked twice as the limousine screeched to a halt in the holding lane at LAX, nearly demolishing three cabs and another limo in the process -- this was L.A. after all, home of the world's craziest drivers. And, intent on their luggage and children and cars, no one really noticed the driver who leapt out of the front seat and raced towards the gate, checking his watch and sighing, "Oh, dear God, I'm late, please be on a late flight, I'm late!" under his breath.

But inside, at the ticket counters, people stopped dead at the sight of a black man the size of a linebacker rushing through the ticket area and the security checkpoints, wearing a bright red dress stretched tight over an impressive bustline, matching lipstick and three-inch size-14 heels, and a wig in a shade of blonde that was highly improbable at best. Tourist elbowed each other and snapped pictures, seasoned Angelenos rolled their eyes and moved on, and the two guards at the security station declined to keep him around even after his chunky jewelry set off the metal detector.

Isaac Dexter was used to the reaction his appearance usually caused, and generally either ignored it or reveled in it. Since he was almost twenty minutes late meeting the plane, he mostly ignored it this time around, except to wink flirtatiously at one of the security guards, and snarl at a group of Marines catcalling and shouting out "Hey, baby!" in his direction.

"Oh god, oh god," he gasped, skidding to a halt and teetering on his stiletto heels as he scanned a monitor. There it was, Flight 782 out of Denver... delayed!

"Thank the Lord!" he sighed heavily, checking the gate number and leisurely strolling towards the end of the concourse. It would never have done to be late picking up Jarod, not after everything Jarod had done for him.

If it hadn't been for Jarod, the best defense lawyer in L.A., Isaac would have been in jail fighting off potential boyfriends every day. Instead, he was a free man, independent and owner of his own limo service, thanks to Jarod's gift of the first car in the fleet. Picking the man up at the airport was the *least* he could do.

Besides, being around Jarod was never boring. Kidnapping, people being released from prison, people being *sent* to prison.... One thing after another! Isaac himself had never been able to raise as much of a ruckus as quiet, unassuming Jarod could, and he was looking forward to seeing what would happen this time around.

The attendant announced the arrival of Jarod's flight just as Isaac made it to the gate; he leaned casually against a pillar, carefully arranging his dress to fall just right around his knees, and waited.

Several businessmen flooded out of the gate first, carrying briefcases and tugging at the knots of their ties; Isaac adjusted the low neck of his dress and smiled a bit smugly. The smile widened into genuine pleasure as he spotted a familiar head of short dark hair coming out behind the suits.

"Jarod! Over here, honey!" he shouted, drawing a few stares and snickers. But Jarod looked over, and smiled broadly, waving in return as he cleared the gate and tugging at the hand of...

Isaac's jaw dropped. Hanging onto Jarod's left hand was a little girl of about five, with a wide grin and a bounce in her step, clutching a tiny stuffed dog. Jarod kept her protectively close to him as they wound their way through the crowd to the still-astounded Isaac.

"Isaac! It's good to see you!" Without even a glance at their audience, Jarod offered a bear hug to the big chauffeur, which Isaac, getting over his shock slightly, returned.

"And it's good to see you, Jarod," he returned. "But I was not expecting to see you with a little child like this one. What's your name, honey?" he asked, kneeling down carefully so his skirt wouldn't ride up or get wrinkled. Ironing was such a bore.

The little girl's eyes, the same color as Jarod's, were wide, studying Isaac up and down carefully and measuringly. Isaac braced himself for whatever her reaction would be.

The little girl finally finished her inspection and chewed on her lip, cocking her head to one side. "I like your lipstick," she finally concluded.

Isaac blinked, then laughed in delight. "You can try it on, if you like."

"Cool!" She gave a little bounce, then looked up at Jarod. "Daddy, how come you don't wear lipstick?"

Jarod looked like he was trying not to laugh, but answered her question with a very serious face. "Because I wouldn't look as good in it as Isaac does."

The little girl -- had she called him 'daddy'? What was up with that? -- thought hard about that answer, then nodded. "Nope. I like it on Isaac." She grinned charmingly up at Isaac and offered her dog for inspection. "I'm Kristin. This is Henry."

"Well, I am very pleased to meet both of you, Kristin and Henry." He shook Kristin's free hand, petted the dog carefully on the head, then stood and gave Jarod a "hmmm?" look and moue.

Jarod returned an "I'll explain later" expression, and caught Kristin's hand again, starting towards the baggage claim. "Thank you for coming to get us, Isaac. I appreciate your help."

"My pleasure, darling," Isaac drawled, falling into step beside them. "So, what brings you back to the City of the Angelic and the Not-So-Angelic?"

"Business," Jarod answered briefly, grimness settling over his face for a moment.

"Mm-hmmm," Isaac nodded, pursing his lips. "The same kind of business that brought us together last time?"

"In a way. It's more... personal this time."

"Ooo, personal business, my *favorite* kind!" Isaac gave a little shiver; as intended, Jarod smiled and Kristin giggled at the over-the-top delivery.

There was no problem with crowds at the baggage claim -- people tended to keep their distance from Isaac for some reason -- so they were out front with the suitcases within ten minutes.

"A limousine?!?" Kristin squealed as she caught sight of the big black car. "Coooool!"

"My kind of lady," Isaac said approvingly. "Always travel in style."

"Yup, yup, yup!" Kristin agreed happily. "Does it have a TV and a window in the roof and a refrigerator?"

"But of course." Isaac opened the door and let Kristin scramble inside and start pushing buttons -- there wasn't much damage she could do with the engine off. Then he joined Jarod at the trunk and crossed his arms, waiting.

"It's a long story," Jarod answered the unspoken question.

"Uh-hunh. Well, why don't you start now, and we can be finished by the time we finish loading all of these suitcases?"

Jarod followed Isaac's pointed stare to the pile of luggage and chuckled. "I used to be able to pack light. Now, Kristin's luggage weighs more than Kristin does."

"Kids'll do that." They bent to the task of fitting it all in the trunk. "So, when did we begin to discover the joys of fatherhood, hmmm?"

Jarod sighed. "About four months ago, when I found out about her."

"Mmm-hmmm." Isaac nodded wisely. "Her momma didn't tell you?"

"Her mother didn't *know*."

Isaac stopped mid-swing to let that sink in. Finally, he finished lowering the suitcase carefully. "That's one of the reasons this is a long story, isn't it?"

Jarod grimaced. "Yes."

Isaac pursed his lips. "And would it have anything to do with the oh-so-nice and scary men who came to see me about why I'd been driving you around in my cab?"

Jarod looked at him, startled. "I didn't know Miss Parker had managed to trace you. I'm sorry, Isaac, I didn't think--"

Isaac waved him off. "Oh, they were no problem, sugar. I just flirted with one of those boys for a few minutes, they got all nervous and left just like that." He snapped his fingers in the air to demonstrate. "Maybe it was something I said."

Jarod still looked worried, but chuckled anyway. "I should have known you could handle them, but I'm sorry you had to. And yes, this has everything to do with them. I'll understand if you don't want to..."

"None of that," Isaac cut him off. "Leave you in your hour of need? Abandon that beautiful little child with the excellent taste in makeup? Ruin my chance to be on the front page of the National Inquirer again? I don't *think* so." He slammed the hood of the trunk shut in emphasis. "Let's go get that little girl some real food, and then you can tell me *all* about it."

Real food turned out to be a large pizza with everything and homemade garlic bread. They stuffed themselves and Kristin and Isaac cemented their friendship until the little girl finally collapsed from exhaustion. Jarod tucked her carefully into the bed in Isaac's guest room, then settled down to explain the whole mess to his friend.

Isaac listened thoughtfully to the whole story, from the very beginning -- Jarod's arrival at the Centre, through the simulations to his escape, and finally to his subsequent rescue of Kristin. If Isaac was going to be involved in this, he'd better know all of it, Jarod had decided on the plane.

When Jarod finished, Isaac sat thinking for a long moment. "Well," he finally broke the silence, "I must say, if I'd known what those suits were when they came to ask about you, I would have done a *lot* more than flirt with them. In fact, I do believe I would have sent them off with some extremely vital body parts in their hands."

Jarod grinned wearily at Isaac. "I wouldn't advise it, they're usually armed."

Isaac raised one plucked eyebrow. "So am I, sweetheart. You think I keep this manicure this long because it's so much fun when I'm typing?" He raked the air in front of him in demonstration and won another half-laugh from Jarod.

But Jarod sobered quickly. "I'm serious, Isaac, these are very dangerous people. They've killed before to get what they want, and right now they want Kristin, even more than they want me. We're not safe people to be around right now."

"I got that." Isaac's face, usually creased in an amused smile, had gone as grim as Jarod had ever seen it, his voice devoid of any of the airs he usually put on. "But there's no way I'm going to let you take these people on alone, not when I can help. I owe you too much."

Jarod started to object to that, but Isaac cut him off. "And I owe myself a thing or two. Some people you got to stand up to, or they just roll right over you and everyone else. You let me worry about taking care of myself; you just worry about your little girl."

Jarod finally gave in, giving his friend a grateful smile, and allowing tension he hadn't realized was there to drain out of his body. They were safe for now, then. "Thank you, Isaac. It... means a lot to me."

Isaac smiled and fluttered his false eyelashes. "And so it should, sugar." Jarod chuckled, as he'd been meant to, and Isaac's grin turned wicked. "So, stop trying to talk me out of helping and tell me what I'm going to be helping with. Do I get to kidnap anyone this time?"

"Not if I can help it. Mostly, you're got an even more dangerous job."

Isaac lifted one eyebrow as far at it would go. "And that would be....?"


Kristin sat in the front seat of Uncle Isaac's taxicab and stared wide-eyed out the window at the street around her. There were real, live palm trees growing everywhere, and lots of people, more than she'd ever seen anyplace except the big airport in Denver. And it was always warm, even if the air was a funny color, and Uncle Isaac and Daddy had promised to take her to the ocean after Daddy finished his business.

"You okay down there, honey?" Uncle Isaac asked from the other seat, looking down at her over the big yellow sunglasses he was wearing. They matched his pretty yellow blouse and his big earrings shaped like bananas; she wasn't sure about the purple lipstick, but all of the yellow was nice against Uncle Isaac's really dark skin.

She grinned up at him and waved Henry. "We're okay. I colored a picture for you."

Uncle Isaac studied the page in her coloring book and looked very impressed. "Well, that is a fine piece of artwork, Miss Kristin. We'll have to find someplace *very* special to hang it at home."

She grinned even wider and bounced a little in pride. Uncle Isaac made even more a fuss over her drawings than Daddy did; actually, Uncle Isaac made more of a fuss over just about everything than Daddy did. Uncle Isaac was just fun -- he was always smiling and he always glowed with warm things and happy things, that made Kristin happy to be around him.

Uncle Issac pulled the cab over to the curb to pick up a 'fare' and looked over the back of the seat as the man came inside. "Where to, sugar?" Uncle Isaac asked with a really nice smile.

The man in the business suit looked like he'd just bitten into something that tasted like medicine; his face got all twisted for a second. "Times-Mirror building, east entrance," he finally said, in a not-nice voice. Kristin wanted to make a face at him, but Uncle Isaac didn't say anything, so she slouched down in her seat and pouted until Uncle Isaac winked at her and let her make the meter start counting. The man got a funny look again when he saw her, and Kristin wrinkled her nose at him.

They let him out at a big building in the middle of a lot of other big buildings, and Kristin finally got to stick her tongue out at the mean man's back when he left.

"Kristin, honey..." Uncle Isaac warned, but he didn't look mad

"Why was he all mean and squinchie?" Kristin demanded. "You pulled over and you gave him a ride and you smiled at him. Why was he mean?"

Uncle Isaac shrugged, and took out his lipstick so he could fix it in the mirror. His eyes were a little sad, even though he was still smiling. "Some people don't like people who are different than they are, and I am what you'd call really different."

"Cause you wear lipstick and stuff?" Uncle Isaac nodded and Kristin's scowl deepened. "That's dumb. Your blouse is much nicer than his dumb old suit. And so are your sunglasses."

Uncle Isaac laughed, a big laugh that made Kristin happier, and pretended to put lipstick on her nose. She squealed and he laughed again, and his eyes weren't sad any more when he made the taxicab start moving again. And then they picked up two pretty ladies, one with blonde hair and one with dark hair, and the ladies laughed, too, but they were laughing with Uncle Isaac instead of at him, so that was okay.

But she kept remembering the mean man in the dark suit, and he reminded her of the other mean men in their dark suits, and the Bad Place, and that reminded her of her mommy.... She stared out the window at the palm trees until Uncle Isaac asked, "Hey, sweetheart, you want some ice cream before we go pick up your daddy?"

"I guess," she answered, without looking back from the window. Uncle Isaac looked at her, then pulled the taxicab over at a pretty place with grass and trees and a big stone building.

"Now, what is the matter, Miss Kristin?" he asked over his sunglasses. "Not a word for ten minutes and now you're not happy about ice cream? I'm going to start thinking you don't like my taxicab."

She grinned at him. "No, Uncle Isaac, I like it lots. But.... I didn't like that man, Uncle Isaac. He was like the people in the Bad Place. I don't want to go back there."

Uncle Isaac took off his sunglasses and looked very serious. "You are *not* going to go back there, sugar, you hear me? Your Daddy won't let you, and neither will I."

She bit her lip. "But my mommy's there and I want my mommy. So I might *have* to go back."

Uncle Isaac shook his head. "No way, sugar. You know what your daddy said; pretty soon, your momma's gonna come for you, I know she is. You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to. Cross my heart."

She thought about that, and finally nodded. Daddy had said, and so did Uncle Isaac, so it had to be right. Mommy would come.

"Okay," she finally said. "Can we get the ice cream now?"

Uncle Isaac thought that was funny. "We most certainly can."

There. The second Sweeper had finally given in to a nic fit and left the annex in for a smoking break, only ten minutes later than the day before. A very bad habit for his health, but very useful for Jarod's current purposes.

He took a deep breath, then folded his newspaper and left the bus bench, tucking the paper into his briefcase and striding across the street as if he owned every inch of pavement, and was ready to kill anyone who even looked like they were going to dispute that ownership. Attitude was going to be everything when it came to pulling off this pretend.

This particular Centre Data Annex was hidden in the middle of the garment district, masquerading as one of the many wholesale boutiques that took over three square blocks of downtown Los Angeles. Casual shoppers streamed up and down the sidewalks in front of the store, and a few even went in, to be greeted by smiling Sweepers who hadn't expected to become retail clerks when they signed on with the Centre. Jarod didn't spare them much sympathy, just walked past them to the back of the store, where a bored looking Sweeper whose trendy suit didn't quite hide her gun guarded the back rooms.

The Sweeper, only on her second day of the job and feeling it, almost came to attention when Jarod stopped in front of her. Her eyes widened as she took in his dark, severely tailored suit and his general aura of menace; she swallowed hard, then rallied. "May I help you, sir?"

"You'd better be able to," Jarod informed her, a bare layer of charm overlying the threat. "I believe I'm expected?"

If anything, her eyes got wider. "Mr. Lyle. We weren't expecting you for another hour, sir."

"That's what you get for expecting things," Jarod informed her. "I'm here to make sure everyone's getting their jobs done, so open the door."

Her hand actually started to automatically hit the buzzer, before Sweeper training finally asserted itself. Jarod reminded himself to tone down the menace -- Lyle was usually a bit smoother than this. "Sir, I'm sorry," the Sweeper said, meeting his eyes levelly. "I'll need to see your identification and your pass card."

Jarod matched her stare for stare; her jaw worked nervously, but she stood her ground. Abruptly, Jarod smiled. "Good. That's the kind of performance I like to see." Casually, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the requested documents -- a Centre pass card, and a Centre identification, with Lyle's name and Jarod's face.

It had taken Angelo almost a month to snag Lyle's pass card long enough to scan and duplicate the coding, followed by another month of nervous waiting for this new data annex to open. Then another week of waiting here in L.A. for a new Sweeper, who had never met Lyle in person, to be on duty at the right time. Everything had finally come together today -- the fact that Lyle himself was due in town to oversee the final product was just a bonus. It made Jarod's timetable that much tighter, but Sweepers were much less paranoid about scheduled visitors than surprise inspections.

But it would all fall apart if Lyle's pass card had been updated in the last two months. Jarod tried not to hold his breath as the Sweeper ran the counterfeit card through a reader -- then tried not to visibly let his breath out when the reader blinked green. "You're all cleared, Mr. Lyle."

He just nodded and straightened his tie, then strode past the Sweeper through the heavy door that clicked open at her touch on the button. "Don't tell anyone I'm here yet," he said over his shoulder, with the kind of all-teeth smile Lyle used when he was being charming. "I want to surprise them."

"Yes, sir," the Sweeper acknowledged.

The Annex was still fairly lightly manned at this time of day -- the Centre preferred to depend on small, trustworthy or blackmailable staffs, then work them hard enough to make up for their small numbers. No one stopped to look twice at Jarod, intent on their own work. News of Lyle's inspections tended to have that effect on people, and this office was Lyle's brainchild, entirely staffed by his own people, probably in an attempt to prove his people really were better than Broots.

Not likely.

Considering the massacre Lyle had pulled off at a Centre data annex barely a year before, Jarod tended to wonder who had actually put Lyle in charge of this one, but he'd given up understanding the Centre. He would settle for stealing every ounce of information they had, instead.

"Sir." A guy with glasses, in a suit that had been made for someone ten pounds heavier and two inches shorter, came hustling over to meet him. "We weren't expecting anyone except Mr. Lyle, Mr...."

"I'm here for Mr. Lyle," Jarod cut him off coldly. "To inspect the data transmission system and make sure the security is as high as Mr. Lyle expects."

"Oh." The head computer geek blinked rapidly, looking deeply unhappy. "Of course. You can use my terminal, it's already logged in to the Centre...."

"Fine," Jarod cut him off again. "That'll be fine."

Yes, the computer was already logged into the Centre mainframe, saving Jarod precious seconds. It took only a few moments to access the worm program he and Angelo had inserted into the mainframe months ago, the night they stole Kristin back.

Broots hadn't found the subprogram, thank God, although the man had shown his usual almost supernatural skill at finding everything else Jarod had left behind. If Broots ever grew a spine to match his skill with computers, the Centre was going to have a whole new set of problems. Jarod fed in a few commands and, on cue, Lyle's password popped up onscreen. Jarod grinned to himself as he logged off, then reentered the system under Lyle's login, typed in his prepared search terms, and let the worm go again. Lyle was going to have a lot of explaining to do after this.

If everything went correctly, the worm would not only retrieve and bring back every bit of applicable information Lyle had access to, but would also dig deeper into the mainframe for certain other passwords -- like Mr. Raines's and Mr. Parker's -- and steal everything they had access to, as well. There was no point in trying to access the Triumvirate records, even with the bootstrap Lyle's password afforded; they were on a mainframe unconnected to any phone line or data line outside the Tower.

But this would do. He turned in his chair, siting with his back to computer, crossing his arms, and letting his eyes run over the room as if cataloguing the furnishings, and the occupants, for future demolition. After the first few brave souls tried to return his look and were stared down, no one else took a shot at it.

The search seemed to take forever; Jarod fought the urge to check his watch every ten seconds. Lyle was due in less than half-an-hour, if he was on time, and Jarod could not afford to run into the man on the way out, not if he wanted to keep Kristin safe. Oh, Lyle would figure out within two minutes who had been here, but he wouldn't have any idea where to start looking. Miss Parker would, but that was an entirely different problem.

The computer chimed softly, indicating the search was done. Jarod spun back around and typed in a few more commands, transferring the data through the Annex's satellite hookup to his own private computer set-up. It would take even Broots hours to trace this transmission, and the data would be long gone before he succeeded. Jarod waited impatiently for the transfer to be completed, expecting every second to hear the alarm go up. He would turn around and see Sweeper guns pointing at him, Lyle standing over him grinning, gloating....

'Data transfer complete.'

He'd pulled it off.

Casually, he severed the connection, and activated the purge command for the worm. It had served its purpose; he would leave no evidence this time. For a moment, he looked at the computer screen, flashing the Centre icon, with something like nostalgia -- if everything went as planned, this would be the last time he risked breaking into the mainframe.

Then he turned on his heel and left the office.

The head geek looked up nervously as Jarod came back into the main room; Jarod gave him with a tight smile. "Not bad. I'm sure Mr. Broots could better, but this will do. I'll inform Mr. Lyle."

"Um, th-thank you," the geek stuttered, looking torn between gratitude at the praise and being peeved at the uncomplimentary comparison to Broots. Jarod hid a grin. Broots wouldn't really thank him for that, but he'd probably still get a kick out of it.

Without looking anywhere but in front of him, Jarod strode towards the exit, and through the guarded door. The second Sweeper still wasn't back from his smoke break -- heads were going to roll for that -- and he favored the Sweeper with a Lyle-charming grin. "I'll be back later. Keep up the good work."

"Y-yes, sir," the Sweeper stuttered; he could feel her eyes on his back all the way to the front of the store and out, past the Sweeper who, was just finishing his second cigarette.

Isaac's cab was waiting half a block away, right on time; he'd taken back control of his baby from the car's usual driver for this job, since it was a bit less conspicuous than the limo. Jarod waved, seeing Kristin's ponytail bounce as she waved back.

The plategalss window next to him reflected the street behind him perfectly, as a dark sedan pulled upand disgorged its passengers -- two men in dark suits, and the lean, handsome, psychotic form of Mr. Lyle. The smoking Sweeper came abruptly to attention; Jarod's grin got wider in anticipation of the coming scene, and he started strolling down the street towards Isaac.

Yes, indeed; Mr. Lyle was going to have some explaining to do.

Miss Parker leaned back in her chair and regarded one perfect silvered nail, satisfied with the job she'd done filing away a potential break. Can't let the appearance show any cracks. Not at the Centre. They'll think you're losing your edge. Opening her bottom desk drawer, she dropped the nailfile in and reached for the Maalox next to it.

Of course, it would help preserve my image if I didn't have to guzzle this junk to keep the ulcer from burning a hole through my stomach and continuing into my liver.... She'd never had ulcers before being assigned to finding Jarod. The very fact that she needed to swill this chalk-flavored sludge was his fault. Miss Parker added it onto the list of things she blamed him for, right next to the ulcer.

She unscrewed the cap and took a morose swig from the bottle, grimacing at the taste. He's doing it deliberately. He's trying to drive up the stock prices on Maalox and Pepto Bismol, and he figured the easiest way to do it was to give me an ulcer, so I'd have to consume this stuff in bulk. Me, and everyone else at the Centre. Mostly her, though. He was probably chortling somewhere over the NASDAQ index for Johnson & Johnson, and collecting another easy million to augment his stolen savings. She could just see him timing his next stunt, knowing exactly how much it would enrage her, then calling his stockbroker and buying another fifty shares.

Four months. Four months of dead-ends, mock-ups, and stupid wild goose chases since January, and what did she have to show for it? A twelve-pack of Maalox and a six pack of Pepto. She knew, she *knew* , in the same way she knew the difference between Italian and French pumps, that none of the leads the Sweeper teams had followed up or that Broots had dropped in her lap since the Legacy debacle had been genuine. Every time a lead popped up, she dispatched her people to check it out, knowing in her gut that it was a waste of time. None of the trails they'd been exploring had borne that trademark Jarod sting; not even the one or two where it looked like they missed him by barely an hour. None of them had turned up any trace of the little girl he'd removed from the Centre, either.

False leads. Fake clues. Somewhere out there, Jarod was laughing his ass off. And buying more shares in Johnson & Johnson. She took another gulp of medicine at the thought, nearly choking.

I wonder if the Centre has stock in Maalox? They probably did. They had their fingers into everything. Maybe *they* were trying to drive up the market price on Tums, too, just like Jarod was. Maybe they were in it together, the Centre assigning her to Jarod, Jarod just staying out of reach, while they both cleaned up on the margin trading.

The scary thing was that as ridiculous as those scenarios sounded, she wouldn't put it past any of them to do it to her.

Miss Parker abandoned her paranoid musings as her door was pushed open without so much as a knock and Broots and Sydney barged into her office. Well, Broots barged, nearly banging his shins into the coffee table in his eagerness; Sydney just wandered in, looking immensely pleased with himself. "If it's another useless phony tip about Jarod, I don't want to hear it," she warned them. "Unless you've got video surveillance of him breaking into Cheyenne Mountain, I am *not* in the mood. And haven't either of you heard of knocking?"

"Miss Parker, you've gotta hear this. Jarod's in Los Angeles, but that's not the best part!" Broots was grinning, completely ignoring her foul mood, and she frowned. High spirits was one thing, but this was out of hand.

"Broots," she said softly, her voice deadly. "I told you I wasn't in the mood for uselessness. Do you want to know what I *am* in the mood for?"

His eyes widened and he backed up a step, clearly responding to the implied threat. Sydney picked up the Maalox bottle and studied it with interest. "Not feeling well, Miss Parker? I'm so sorry. I understand they make this in cherry flavor now---"

"Give me that," she snarled, snatching it back out of his hands.

"We have some information that will lighten your spirits, Miss Parker," Sydney continued, blithely ignoring her evil attitude. As usual. "And it does not solely concern Jarod."

"He got into Mr. Lyle's new data annex in L.A.," Broots jumped in, recovering from his bout of cringing and back to babbling again. "He could have swiped a ton of data but they're not sure, he walked right past a full Sweeper team, and he did it all using Mr. Lyle's password and identicard!"

Miss Parker stared at him a moment, then felt a slow, gleeful smile spread across her face. "It was really him." She could feel it. This had Jarod's fingerprints all over it.

And for once, he was torturing someone other than her.

"It really was!" Broots looked like he'd won the Superbowl sweepstakes, and Sydney was radiating a smug amusement that confirmed the tech's words and her instincts. "And he did it all just before Mr. Lyle showed up at the Annex to check on their progress!"

"I take back everything I said. You were right. This *does* make me happy." She leaned back in her chair, and stared blissfully at the ceiling, contemplating the load of trouble Lyle had just bought himself by letting Jarod not only escape, but impersonate him and punch more holes in Centre security as well. Damn, she wished she'd been there to see it. "This is beautiful. This is absolutely... perfect." Better than Maalox. The burning in her stomach had stopped, too. She sighed in contentment, savoring the news for one more moment, then straightened and stalked out of her chair toward the door. "Have the hangar ready a plane, get copies of *every* download from all Centre annexes and mainframes, start a search through the files that connect to Raines' Legacy project and Jarod's other known priorities, and meet me at the runway in twenty minutes. We are *not* going to let this situation get any worse because of Lyle's fumbling."

"Perhaps Mr. Lyle will not want our help," Sydney murmured. "He may feel he needs to deal with matters himself."

Miss Parker grinned wickedly at him, recognizing in Sydney the same sense of malicious delight in the situation that she was currently enjoying. "Oh, but how can he turn us down? We're there to support him in his hour of need. Besides, he's so completely helpless without us." She dropped the joking tone and added grimly, "And I'm not letting him lose Jarod again, not this time. He can shriek as loud as he likes. It's my turn to be in charge, and I am going to bring Jarod back."

It was late when they got into L.A., but Miss Parker ordered the driver to take them to the newest data annex directly from the airport. She'd already paged through her lists of Jarod's priorities based on past forays into the Centre's networks and mainframes, as well as his last target, the Legacy project. Broots was typing away, going over the list of data downloads from all of the Centre satellite branches as well as the main facility on his laptop; with any luck, something at the L.A. annex would match up, and they'd be able to trace most of what Jarod took or copies. Sydney was frowning out the window as they drove into the garment district.

"Something bothering you, Sid?"

"It's nothing," Sidney responded, after a pause. "This latest excursion merely strikes me as... uncharacteristically rash."

"Really? I would have said it was par for the course by now. As well as very similar to the job he pulled in January," Miss Parker commented, tapping her fingers against the seat rest. "Obviously, he thinks he has a line on his past, and he's pursuing his search by using the Centre's resources." She grimaced, her fingers drumming faster. "We have to find him soon. This is getting ridiculous."

Sidney shot her a sharp glance. "Has your father been putting more pressure on you to capture Jarod? I thought that your consumption of ulcer medication had increased recently---"

"Daddy has said nothing," she snapped back as the car halted next to the curb. Broots avoided her eyes; Sidney raised his eyebrows, and Miss Parker made a conscious effort not to grind her teeth as she got out of the car. Daddy didn't have to. His eyes give him away. We're in deep trouble if we don't find some real trace of Jarod soon. The Tower is getting tired of waiting. Remembering why they were in Los Angeles lightened her attitude a moment later. But right now, Lyle's the one whose blood they want. And they can have it. I think I'll go in and withdraw a few pints while I'm here....

It had only been seven hours since word reached her at the Centre of Jarod's latest coup; merely nine hours since it actually occurred. Stalking through the facade of the shop, Miss Parker was both pleased and displeased to see that the Centre employees present were looking frightened and disorganized. "You. Get back to work," she hissed at one of the 'salespeople'. "We're not paying you to stand there looking decorative, we're paying you to maintain a front. Do it."

"Miss Parker---"

"That's right. Miss Parker. Pity you weren't so perceptive when Jarod was here."

They scattered in front of her like a herd of frightened antelope sensing the approach of a leopard; none of them looked back, revealing the direction of the hidden back entrance with their speed in running elsewhere. Pathetic. If these were Lyle's people, he deserved to have Jarod undermine him.

The Sweeper at the door was scrupulous in checking her I.D., as well as Broots', Sam's and Sydney's. Nothing like learning your lessons too late, is there? "You saw Jarod when he was here earlier," she accused the Sweeper on duty.

"Uhh, not me, ma'am. That was Clark, she and Turlough were stationed here." The Sweeper swallowed, looking vaguely sick. "They're inside, talking to Mr. Lyle."

"Good. Don't announce me."

He shook his head, looking even more nauseous. "I have to, ma'am. That's how Jarod got past our Security, he told Clark not to announce his arrival--- "

"Is it?" Oh, delightful. So it hadn't simply been that Jarod had the right documentation; Lyle's people really blew it. "Well then. We wouldn't want a repeat, would we?" It would be far too easy to shred the doorman into little pieces for doing his job. Besides, she needed to save some of her venom for her dear brother.

Miss Parker stalked inside, Sydney on her heels, Broots and Sam bringing up in the rear. A skinny geek who could have been Broots' more badly-dressed cousin came up to greet her, his forehead shiny with sweat. "Miss Parker, we weren't expecting you. Mr. Lyle's in Conference Room C---"

"Good for him. Show Broots the terminal that Jarod accessed," she ordered, marching forward through the annex, studying the layout and the data processors around her. More downcast eyes from Lyle's people; they were already obviously terrified, and a few looked like they were about to be sick. Well, if they work for Lyle, they know how much trouble they're in. Why *shouldn't* they be sick? Lyle's management techniques left a lot to be desired. She swung around, surveying the room, and barked out, "*All* of you morons saw Jarod walk in here, and not one of you wondered who the hell he was?"

Silence for a moment, then the geek that had greeted them stuttered, "He said he was with Mr. Lyle---"

"And you didn't ask his name. You just accepted it." She shook her head in wonder. "Priceless."

"Sis." Behind her, Lyle's voice sounded annoyed, and Miss Parker stifled a grin. He only called her 'sis' when he was trying to get to her; or when she'd already gotten to him. "I wasn't expecting you. What are you doing here, and how did you find out about this?"

She spun around on her bootheel, hands on her hips, and tilted her head. Lyle's eyes were narrowed and searching the room, looking for someone to blame. "*My* people are capable of doing their jobs," she said sweetly. Lyle's attention snapped back to her at that, his lips thinning in anger. "So of course, I was informed of Jarod's attack on the Centre as soon as you asked for data download verification. Instead of being informed immediately as I should have been, the second you realized who was responsible for this. I'm *very* disappointed in you, Bobby." She let the grin loose at the sight of the angry sneer curving over Lyle's face. "But I'm willing to forgive you. We're only here to help, you know that."

"I can handle this."

"I'll bet," she cut in, her smile gone. "I want to talk to the Sweepers who were on duty. Now." Lyle stared at her, rage coiling behind his eyes. Miss Parker lowered her voice and took a step closer to him. "You better not have killed them already, Lyle. Not before I got a chance to question them about what they know."

"Of course not." His most plastic, reassuring smile flashed meaninglessly at her, and she took a petty satisfaction in knowing that she'd frustrated his plans for removing his incompetent subordinates before anyone missed them. "They're in Conference Room C."

"Fabulous. Syd? Have a look around, see if anything strikes you." She strode down the hall to the conference room without shooting Lyle a second glance. Heads would roll over this, but with any luck, not literally. If she played this up correctly to the Tower and the Triumvirate, the blame would land squarely where it belonged --- on Lyle's shoulders --- and spare his people anything more than being fired.

The two Sweepers waiting in the conference room looked like they'd already been through the wringer, as well as a shredding machine. The woman's eyes widened at Miss Parker's entrance, and the man stubbed out his cigarette, his hand shaking. "Miss Parker," the woman greeted her, getting to her feet and surreptitiously nudging her partner to do the same. "We weren't expecting you."

"You should have. Jarod was here, so it would follow that I'd arrive eventually." She folded her arms, her gaze disgusted. "Sit down. Which one of you is Clark?"

"I am, ma'am..."

"Run through events exactly as they occurred."

The holes in Lyle's security never should have been allowed to happen. A combination of laziness and fear of Lyle had caused them--- something she would be sure to mention to the Tower. At least I can make sure they don't give him a supervisory position again. Miss Parker was finding it very difficult not to be grimly amused at Jarod's little impersonation of Lyle; in fact, if it hadn't been for the circumstances, she would have sent him a thank-you card for humiliating her brother. "And you say the cab was waiting for him when he left?"

"Yes, Miss Parker." The nervous Turlough swallowed, inhaling another drag off his cigarette. "I saw him get into it just as Mr. Lyle arrived."

"Typical." Something about the mention of the cab was bothering her.... Her eyes narrowed on the cigarette, and she shook her head. "Around here, those things can really be bad for your health," she said mildly. Turlough nodded miserably, fully aware of how his little addiction had opened the door for Jarod. "Given what you've told me, I *might* be able to put in a good word for you two, and give you another chance to kick the habit."

Turlough coughed, and Clark swatted him on the back and took the Camel from between his fingers. "He just quit, ma'am."

"Glad to hear it." She stalked out of the conference room, turning at the door to add, "I'm sure it'll prolong your lifespan. But if there's a next time...." She smiled evilly, and the pair shivered. She shrugged and walked out the door, leaving the two Sweepers to contemplate their sins, and strode back into the main data processing center.

"...and you didn't activate the lockout protocols yet?" Broots' voice was incredulous as she joined him and Sidney next to an active terminal. "You mean, even if he had tripped one of the alarms, it wouldn't have caught him while he was still here? That's pretty sloppy."

"We weren't expecting anyone but Mr. Lyle or his people to be using the annex yet," the other computer nerd said defensively. Lyle stood next to his man, seething like a vat of poisonous acid. "There was supposed to be plenty of time---"

"But *still*... oh, hey, Miss Parker. Did they tell you that Jarod used this guy's logon to get into the system?" Broots rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and Miss Parker glanced at Lyle, hiding her amusement at her subordinate's reaction.

"Really? That was careless."

"And they didn't even ask him to give them a copy of his download logs!" Broots made an amazed "hunh!" sound to emphasize his disbelief. "Plus, they must never *look* at the bulletins we send around --- I mean, from what they've said, Jarod wasn't wearing a disguise, so it should have been easy for them to spot him if they'd been paying attention...." He shook his head, then finished what he was doing at the terminal with a flurry of typing. "Well, that's as much as I can get now. It's going to take hours to trace where he sent the data to. And you just *know* it'll be gone by the time we catch up to it." He sighed fatalistically. "Same old Jarod. But we'll do what we can."

"You'd better find out what he took," Lyle threatened. "Or we are *all* going to have to answer for it, Mr. Broots---"

"We?" Miss Parker leaned forward, widening her eyes in deceptive innocence, and Broots' instinctively cowed expression eased. "What do you mean 'we', Lyle? You. You will have to answer for it. *We*," she straightened, nodding to Sydney and Broots, "have to find Jarod. Fortunately your Sweepers have provided me with an idea of where to start. Even if you couldn't see it."


"It doesn't matter," Miss Parker said, cutting him off, "since you'll be too busy here to join us. Time to leave, gentlemen. Now."

"Parker!" Lyle's face had gone that unattractive shade of red underneath his tan; it was at times like these that she was most unpleasantly reminded of her father. She raised one cool eyebrow at him, then strode for the door. Broots closed up his laptop and scurried to catch up to her, and Sydney sent one last thoughtful look around the room before joining them, Sam following behind, looking as stone-faced as usual.

"Remember to call if he breaks in again," Miss Parker threw back at Lyle over her shoulder as she breezed out the door. Lyle's face had crumpled into a mask of frustrated temper, and it twisted just a bit more at her last shot.

"Whoa, he's mad. I mean, I've seen him mad before, but that was really --- do you think it's safe to leave him back there?" Broots wondered as they approached the limo. "I mean, what if he decided to do something about us---"

"He doesn't have the time. He's in too much hot water as it is." She studied Broots for a moment as she settled into the back seat, turning over his analysis of the security at the annex in her mind. "Broots."

"Yes, Miss Parker?" He jerked his head up from looking at the laptop, already open in front of him again.

"You enjoyed that," she observed. His eyes grew hunted, the whites showing around the edges. "You enjoyed showing up Lyle's people for the incompetents they are."

"Umm.... well... y'know, it's just..." He ducked his head. "It was so *obvious*...."

"Good work," she said crisply, gazing out the window. Broots was sneaking a look at her; and without glancing at him, she let a little smile creep around the edges of her lips.

"I think he's picked up some bad habits from you, Miss Parker," Sidney murmured.

"Don't be absurd, Sydney." Broots was trying not to grin. "Broots, pull up the list of interviewees from Jarod's last visit to L.A., and read it to me."

"Uhh... okay..." Broots was half-way down the list when he hit the one that she hadn't been able to remember; the one that she had subconsciously connected to the presence of the cab outside the Data Annex.

"What did Isaac Dexter do for a living?"

"It says here he drove a cab, but Jarod set him up with a limo service--- Dexter Limousines ---"

Sydney's head came up, his eyes speculative, and Miss Parker knew she had the right one. "I'd think that such an action would make Mr. Dester grateful," Sydney was saying carefully. "Although, it's out of character for Jarod to return to visit someone he knew we had on file---"

"Which is precisely why he *would* do it this time. The sneaky little bastard is going backtracking his own trail." Miss Parker turned and rapped on the glass next to the driver's head. "Dexter Limousines. Get us there as quickly as possible." She swiveled back around, feeling the adrenaline of the hunt kick in. "I've got a feeling, Sydney. We're getting close. Very close."

Sydney didn't say anything, but his expression remained troubled as their car began to climb toward the Hollywood Hills.

The sun had long since set over Venice Beach, leaving a very tired little girl laying limply in her father's arms as they stood with Isaac outside Jarod's new sedan.

"Well, you two promise to keep in touch, you hear me?" Isaac told Jarod sternly. "I need to know how my precious little girl here is doing." He touched Kristin's cheek and she giggled up at him without lifting her head from Jarod's shoulder.

"Bye, Uncle Isaac," she said sleepily. "Daddy says we'll come back soon as we can. I won't let him forget."

"As if anyone could forget Isaac," Jarod pointed out, smiling, then gave Isaac a one-armed bear hug. "Thanks, Isaac, for everything."

Isaac returned the hug with interest, careful not to squish Kristin, who wasn't objecting. "It was my pleasure, sugar. As long as you got everything you needed."

"Enough, I hope," Jarod nodded, looking soberly down at Kristin's hair. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, and added, "And using what I got should be a little less dangerous than getting it."

"You hope," Isaac completed the sentence with a knowing glance. Jarod shrugged with one shoulder as Isaac's pager went off. "Now, who could that be? I told Yolanda I was out all evening...."

Jarod suddenly looked very grim. "I'll give you one guess."

Isaac lifted an eyebrow at him. "One of your, ah, entourage?"

Jarod nodded, his arms tightening around Kristin, then loosening at her sleepy protest. "I didn't expect her... them to get here so soon."

Isaac pursed his lips and reached for Jarod's cell phone. "Well, then, we'll just have to slow them down a bit, won't we." Dialing his office, he told Yolanda cheerfully, "Returning the page, darling. Visitors?"

"Yes, Isaac... um, Mr. Dexter. We have a Miss Parker here, and she's rather anxious to speak with you, something about a Mr. Jarod?"

'Miss Parker?' Isaac mouthed at Jarod, gesturing with his head towards Kristin. Jarod nodded, then got busy settling his daughter in the front seat of the car, and, not incidentally, out of earshot of Isaac's conversation. Isaac took a couple steps away from the car, his high heels teetering in the sand, just to be on the safe side, before telling Yolanda, "Well, put the lady on. The customer is always right, you know."

"Mr. Dexter, this is Miss Parker." A very cool voice, to match what had to be a very cool customer. "I work for an institute out of Blue Cove, Delaware. I'd like to meet with you as soon as possible -- it's about a former friend of yours, a Jarod Holmes? We have reason to believe he may in Los Angeles, and we're eager to get in touch with him."

Isaac snorted, careful not to do it into the phone. I bet you are, little Miss Parker, he thought. Out loud, he only mused, "Let me think.... Jarod.... Well, you know, I run into a lot of people, that's why I love this line of work so much. Jarod... Jarod.... Oh," he said in the voice of someone suddenly divinely inspired, "there was a Jarod a few nights ago at the bar!" And if she bought that, then she was lots dumber than he was gonna believe of Kristin's momma.

Not even close. "Bar? He helped you *buy* your limousine service." It came out with the whine of fingernails on a chalkboard, or a short temper getting suddenly shorter.

Isaac repressed an unladylike snicker. "Oh, *that* Jarod. Oh, yes, I remember him! Tall man, handsome...?"

"Some would think so."

But not you, Miss Thing? Tell us another one, sugar.... Isaac mused, looking at Jarod, who had finished settling Kristin and was leaning against the car listening to Isaac's end of the conversation, his expression caught somewhere between anxiety and unholy amusement. "Oh, yes, such a nice man. And you're looking for him?"

"Yes." One word, bitten neatly in half. "Look, would it be possible for me to meet with you face to face? I have several questions, and doing this over the phone is rather awkward---"

"Oh, of course. Just give a me a few minutes to wrap some things up and I'll be right along, sugar."

Miss Parker was anything but amused. "Thank you, that's appreciated. We'll wait for you here."

"All right then, see you in just a bit. Bye-bye." Isaac disconnected the phone and slapped it closed with a flourish, just as Jarod lost his struggle and doubled over in laughter. Kristin roused enough to stare curiously out the open car door at her daddy, confused, but obviously entertained.

"S-sugar?" Jarod managed to say through his laughter.

Isac blinked innocently. "Just a friendly gesture," he said sweetly, "Since I know the two of us are gonna be *real* good friends."

"I wouldn't count on it," Jarod said as he regained something like control. "I'm sorry, Isaac, I didn't expect her to catch up to us so soon. Are you sure you can handle her?"

"Of course, *sugar*." Jarod nearly lost it again and Isaac grinned, already practicing his lines. "I intend to do what any red-blooded woman would do in my place. Lie through my pearly white teeth."

Jarod grinned widely. "Good luck." Another bear hug, another good-bye kiss to Kristin, snuggled in the front seat with her Henry, and then Isaac waved as they drove away.

"Good luck," he echoed quietly to their backs, already missing them, "because I sure do think you're gonna need it." Then, with a smug grin, "and a little help from your friends."

Whistling a jaunty tune, Isaac strolled back to his cab, his three-inch heels slipping in the sand, and prepared to enjoy himself at Kristin's momma's expense.

A little while later, Isaac adjusted his earrings, checked his hose for runs, then straightened his blouse before he reached for the doorknob to his limousine agency. He could hear an woman's angry voice being raised, and his dispatcher Yolanda's defiant response through the door, and he grinned in anticipation of a nicely melodramatic confrontation with Jarod's 'old friends'.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. Dexter *couldn't* cut his appointment short.... Oh, there you are, Boss."

The well-dressed woman at the counter spun on her heel, prepared to flay him alive from the look on her face, then stopped, blinking. The older man seated in one of the waiting room chairs raised one eyebrow, and the hand he'd been leaning on twitched forward to cover a smile. The geek leaning against the wall gaped openly--- clearly not from L.A. Isaac preened, conscious of having made the perfect entrance, then sailed in, ready to begin fabricating in fine style.

"Yolanda, precious, I hope you've been making our visitors comfortable?"

"Yes, sir, but they're very impatient---" Yolanda rolled her eyes, and the woman who *had* to be Miss Parker shot her a nasty look. Oh, Jarod hadn't been lying about her, no indeed; sharp, shiny, and pretty as a crease on a Versace suit, without any of the softness to go with it. Isaac could see what Kristin might grow into if she was taken away from Jarod, and he didn't like it one bit. Not that she wasn't charming. An instant after skewering his poor dispatcher with her eyes, Jarod's Miss Parker was turning to him as if they were at a luncheon at the Rotary Club: professional smile in place, no trace of the impatience he'd heard out in the hall, her voice cool and sugar-sweet.

"Mr. Dexter?"

"Oh, I am so sorry to keep you waiting. Traffic, you know. Why anyone lives in Los Angeles, much less drives... and some of those drivers, oh my! They just shouldn't be allowed on the road!" Isaac huffed as he set his purse down fussily, patting at his hair while the skinny nerd's eyes got bigger and bigger, and Miss Parker's smile took on a harder edge.

"I couldn't agree more." Miss Parker shook her head, dismissing the pleasantries, then moved on to the subject that interested her. "Mr. Dexter, I understand that your limousine service still maintains a few cabs left over from your previous job."

"Oh, of course. It would be like, well, cutting off an arm to sell my cabs! That's how I got started, you know, and you should always remember your roots." Isaac settled himself, leaning against the counter, and stretched out one long leg to admire his shoes. Mr. Computer Nerd looked down, looked up, and blinked again.

Kristin's mother wasn't the least bit interested in his roots, more shame to her. She could've learned a lot about people if she'd been just the teeniest bit nicer..."Would you happen to have a log of those cabs' locations at noon today?"

"A log? Well, let's see, do we?" He turned toward V'Londa, and dropped her a long-lashed wink on Miss Parker's blind side. V'Londa grinned, then sobered up fast. Miss Thing caught part of their exchange, though, and those ice-blue eyes narrowed into ice drills. Uh-ohhh.... Better be more careful. She may not be up to catching Jarod, but she's not stupid...

"Well, you know, the computer system is down right now -- it'll take a little while to pull it up---" V'Londa was a bit too cheerful, so Isaac cut in before she could overdo it.

"Oh, I am sorry. Computers--- they can just be so unreliable! Why don't you have a seat in my office until we can get that for you?"

"Would you mind if my man Broots took a look at it?" That evil smile on Miss P's face was purely happy nastiness. "He's very good at that sort of thing."

Mr. Broots, if that was his name, had evidently finally recovered from the yellow blouse and wild skirt. Unfortunately. He stood up straight, and took a step toward the dispatcher's cube, looking ready to help. Oh, dear.

"Oh, of course. I just love a man who's good at... making things go." Isaac twitched his shoulders at Broots and batted his lashes, pursing his lips into a moue. Isaac would have rolled his eyes in disgust (if he hadn't wanted to bust out laughing) when the geeklet almost fell over, cringing in shock and panic.

At least until Miss Parker kicked him *hard* on the ankle. Then he straightened right up, except for the limp, and made a bee-line for the computer. Jarod's 'friend' smiled false-sweetly at Isaac, and *that* was when he saw the resemblance to Kristin: it was the exact look that Jarod's daughter got right after she'd stuck her tongue out at someone and was real pleased with herself, and didn't want you to know. Isaac had a sudden, intense wish to see the look on Miss Parker's face when she was introduced to her daughter at some point down the line.

Isaac turned sideways and frantically signaled V'Londa, waving his fingers at the computer. Lucky thing the girl was no slouch, because she hit just the right keys to make it die. Mr. Broots' face got all tight and scared, and his eyes darted from Isaac to his boss and back to V'Londa. "Uhh, Miss Parker... they killed it."

"I *knew* it." All the pretty faded into the background in a second, and Isaac was staring at someone who had been hunting Jarod for three years. "You're covering for him. You knew *exactly* what you were doing this afternoon---"

"Excuse me? All of my business records are on that computer. To even suggest that we would *deliberately*---" Isaac could see that the older man's shoulders were shaking with silent laughter, but he was prudently keeping his eyes on the floor and not drawing Miss P's attention.

"It *was* you who picked him up in the garment district. Where is he? Don't give me that 'deliberately!' WHERE. IS. HE?" Jarod would have loved to have seen it, his Miss Parker nearly stamping her feet in Isaac's office, her voice rising with frustration. It made Isaac sorry he didn't have a video camera.

Since that wasn't possible, he settled for making her madder and blinked, stepping back and putting his hand to chest in feigned outrage. "Well, I never."

"I'll bet you never, you--- That little rat got you to help him. Where did he go!?"

"Miss Parker, I am afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave! I have customers due here, and I will not tolerate this sort of disruption in our offices!" Isaac tossed his head, raising his eyes to the ceiling for help from some heavenly source, hearing V'Londa's smothered laughter behind him.

The older man finally broke in. "Miss Parker, perhaps Mr. Dexter could be persuaded to help us if you would calm down?"

"Don't start with me, Syd---" Ooo, that snarl belonged in a zoo!

"Parker." The lady in charge stalked off a few feet to get herself under control, fuming, and Syd rose from his seat to approach the counter.

"That's what I love, a man of reason." Miss Thing snorted, and Isaac hid a smile at Broots' expression.

Syd ignored both reactions and smiled patiently at Isaac. "Mr. Dexter, did Jarod mention where he was staying, or where he was planning on visiting after Los Angeles?" Broots was still trying to get the computer to work, sending Miss Parker little scared looks every few seconds. Parker was practicing her deep breathing. V'Londa was giggling openly, and Isaac shot her a stern look before widening his eyes at Syd.

"Jarod was in Los Angeles?" He blinked, trying to look as flaky as possible. Not too difficult in yellow lace, actually. "And he didn't stop in to see me? Well, I am so disappointed in that man!"

"He can't have left already." No, she wasn't dumb. Not as fast as Jarod, but then, who was? Miss Parker was sure looking aghast enough now, wasn't she? Isaac couldn't help smirking a little more. "Oh, *hell*!.... This is pointless. Chiquita Banana here was helping him, believe it." She glared at Isaac again, and he sniffed at the slur on his fashion sense, but stayed quiet, hiding his glee. "I'm going to have you taken in as an accessory to theft---"

"Theft? Of what, pray tell?"

"Miss Parker, you can't do that," Broots whispered urgently. Evidently the same thought, whatever it was, had occurred to his boss at the same time, because her mouth snapped shut and she paced away to simmer again.

Syd moved in to smooth over the awkward moment. "Jarod is in need of help, but of course, no charges will be pressed."

Isaac snorted, his patience and enjoyment of the little melodrama coming close to an end. "There's nobody that needs help *less* from you than my boy Jarod."

Miss Thing whirled, growling, clearly sharing his lack of patience. "Forget it. Just forget it." She smiled grimly at Isaac. "If you see Monkey Boy? Or talk to him? Tell him I'm getting close. He'd better not look over his shoulder." She turned and began to stalk toward the door and he couldn't resist teasing her just one last time.

"Oh, Miss Parker, one thing...?"


He smiled whimsically at her, pressing one lacquered nail to his cheek. "Where did you get that *lovely* shade of lipstick?"

She stopped, nonplussed, then turned and smiled wickedly. "Paris. And it's been discontinued." She cocked a triumphant eyebrow at him, sweetly said, "*Good*-bye," then stormed out, snapping, "Broots! Sydney! We're leaving, you geniuses!" as she slammed the door.

Isaac pouted in mock-disappointment as Mr. Broots ducked out the door after her, looking hunted. Sydney, on the other hand, was still there, and Isaac lifted one inquiring eyebrow at him.

Sydney took a step forward, then smiled meditatively. "I trust that Jarod's... young friend... is as well as ever?"

Isaac blinked, then smiled slightly. Oh-hoo... so you're *that* Sydney. Well. Wouldn't Miss Parker love to know what *you* know. Dexter grinned smugly. "Oh, she's doing just fine. But now I know where she gets that temper from," he added, tsk'ing in Miss Parker's departed direction.

Sydney smiled in amusement, opened his mouth to say something, and then a bellow of "SYDNEY!" came from down the hall.

"On my way," Sydney called back in resignation. He bowed to Isaac, then hurried to catch up to his demanding employer.

"Bye now!" Isaac called after his back, then turned to the dispatcher, shaking his head. "People today... Mmm, mm, mmm...."

V'Londa giggled. "The old guy was cute. But *her*..."

"Oh, yes. *Her*. Some people, V'Londa, are just itching for the Lord to teach them a lesson, you hear what I'm saying?" Isaac grinned happily. "And I know just what package that lesson is coming in. Dear me, yes..." Jarod would *have* to tell him how this little mystery played out. If he didn't, Isaac would have to start tracking him himself, just to hear how Kristin dealt with her momma.

Hiding | Searching (Part 2) | Main