Disclaimer: If you saw 'em on TV, they ain't mine. I'm just borrowing them for a bit and giving them new friends to play with. Please don't kill me...

[Author's note: This story is fifth in a series. In order to understand new/original characters and past events of which knowledge is taken for granted here, I highly recommend reading, in order: "Retrospective", "Picking Up the Pieces", "Family Ties" and "Balancing the Scales". MMB]

Truth and Consequences - Part 1
Taking Stock
by MMB

Miss Parker could never drive past the chain link fence that prevented the unwary and curious from venturing too close to the site of the demolished Centre Tower without slowing to a near stop and staring. So much of her life had been tied tightly to that imposing, intimidating structure that had been exploded into twisted and crumpled wreckage. Now, like the Centre itself, her life was slowly changing and transforming itself into something completely new and different after having gone through a similar deconstruction and renaissance.

After decades of struggling to find a purpose and sense of belonging to someone or something, she had succeeded past her wildest imaginations. She now had a child - a son she loved almost more than life itself - and a close-knit family of surrogate father, brother and niece cobbled together from work associates from the Centre and their families. She had friends - friends who might as well be family. And most importantly, she had the love of her life BACK in her life. Jarod - Lab-Rat, boy-genius, the Centre's prized and then escaped Pretender - had come back, discovered that her son was his son too, and ultimately stepped willingly and determinedly into the role of father and man of the house. But he had come back in the first place to accomplish a specified end, and what faced her now was the result of that end being accomplished at last.

The old regime of the Centre - started by her grandfather and continued by two men who, in their time and in their turn, had each claimed the honor of her paternity - was gone. Raines, the previous Chairman, and Lyle, his psychopathic assistant, had been assassinated by the Yakuza not long before the explosion. She, born and bred to Centre life and trained to take over the reins of the organization in time by Raines' immediate predecessor, had nevertheless for years hoped to escape the destiny her father/s had planned for her. But in a stroke of irony she was only now beginning to fully appreciate, when offered the chance to walk away with impunity by the Triumverate itself, she had instead turned about and willingly accepted her fate as Centre Chairman. In that instant she had taken all the training her father/s had given her and begun walking down the path set forth for her by her mother instead. If she succeeded in her plans now, the Centre would never be the same again.

And now, she was hurrying to make the first of her three meetings for the day, meetings that hopefully would give her a leg-up on starting the rebuilding of the physical plant in Delaware and the reorganization of the Centre as a completely benevolent research and development firm. It had taken her and her staff a week of re-establishing offices, restoring functional telephone and computer access and making personnel schedule adjustments and travel plans to even make these meetings possible - and she definitely didn't want to be late today.

Her first meeting, scheduled to start in fifteen minutes, was with the various construction foremen who would be responsible for the actual clean-up of the demolished Tower. Also at the meeting would be the structural engineers who had spent the last week inspecting and investigating the underground facility, and whose report would determine how and when the work both above and below ground would proceed. The most urgent need at the moment, organization-wise, was the excavation and retrieval from the existing subterranean facility sublevels of all documentation and hardcopy archives to a safer location above-ground. The final extent of the removal and disposal of the Tower debris would depend entirely on whether or not the structural engineers determined the underground facility sound enough to continue using or unsafe and needing demolition as well. That report was the first item on the agenda.

Immediately on the heels of that was a luncheon meeting at noon with the various supervisors of the many satellite Centre offices. She had ordered them all back to Blue Cove in order that they could bring her up to speed as to what projects they had been overseeing and any progress reports to be filed. Something told her that particular meeting would be a very stressful one, as many of Raines' 'extra-curricular' projects had been moved from the Delaware facility to one of the outlying satellites to avoid Triumverate detection. She had asked Sam and Tyler to be with her at that meeting, in order to have a short meeting afterwards to assess any security issues posed by any of the projects still in process. She also trusted them to recognize and be ready to address any risks and possible loyalty problems that could arise from a redirection of both efforts and resources in the near future.

Finally, there was a mid-afternoon meeting with Dr. Stevens and his staff from the psychiatric sublevel regarding the disposition and status of the remaining psychiatric patients that had been housed at the Centre. Jarod would be coming in to attend that meeting as Sydney's representative, since the older psychiatrist was still the nominal head of the Psychogenics Department under the auspices of which Dr. Stevens had been functioning and needed the update as well. Sydney himself, however, was still in no condition to do much of anything in his official capacity.

Sydney's gunshot wounds had proven serious enough the previous week to land him in the hospital for surgery to address the cause of his peritonitis once and for all. Her running behind schedule today had been because she had stopped at his house for a quick visit now that he had finally been released and was recovering under Jarod's and Kevin's watchful eyes once again. The downturn in his health while everything around her was in such chaos - and while Broots continued to remain on the critical list with his own very nasty set of injuries - had rattled her badly. That morning she had needed to reassure herself that at least one of her beloved friends was truly on the road to recovery before she could focus fully on the task ahead. He had been weak but in good spirits - and his "Give 'em hell for me, Parker," whispered into her ear during her leave-taking hug had been just the dose of incentive that she'd needed to face the day.

She stepped on the accelerator of the sports car she now drove to work as often as not and steered the little racing machine towards the temporary parking facility near the end of the annex building that had become the temporary administration wing. She could see from the cars already in their places that both Sam and Tyler had arrived at work earlier than she for a change - no doubt she would be hearing about it for a day or so at least. That thought made her smile as she climbed from the little car and walked quickly and purposefully toward the annex entrance closest to her new office.

Those two - the ex-sweeper who was now the head of Security and the ex-morgue attendant who was now her personal assistant - had formed a very interesting and effective working partnership. She had a suspicion that they had also gotten together and quietly conspired never to allow her to get too full of herself in her new position of authority. In many ways, their continued injection of humor and good-natured ribbing into their private interactions with her kept her feet on the ground as the job she was attempting to step into seemed to get larger and more unmanageable without help.

"Good morning, Mei-Chiang," she sing-songed to the impeccably dressed Chinese secretary in the sky-blue cheong-sam who had taken over as her private secretary when it was discovered that Miss Parker's long-time secretary had perished in the explosion.

"Good morning, Miss Parker," the almond eyes smiled at her new boss. She had been Lyle's personal secretary during the last week of that man's life, and she had heard enough of both his excesses and rumors of his less-savory escapades by now to really appreciate her new position and superior for a number of different reasons. "You have a call on line two - Mr. Ngawe's representative."

"Notify the board room that I'll be in momentarily," the brunette nodded and pushed through the simple wooden door into the even simpler office that she had claimed as her own. This was a working woman's office, not a model of ostentation and intimidation like the office that had been destroyed. No expensive works of art covered the walls, but rather a photograph of her family hung where she could look at it across the room. Her desk, neat but occupied with inboxes and outboxes, was not massive or expensive, but it was a rather large corner unit turned inward towards her door. She settled into her chair and lifted the receiver, punching the blinking light. "This is Parker," she announced brusquely.

"Mr Ngawe would like to schedule a meeting with you today here in Dover," stated the melodious African-accented voice on the other end of the line without introduction. "He would like to discuss arrangement for..."

"I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint Mr. Ngawe today," Miss Parker said with a glance at her calendar. "I've already got meetings scheduled to run all day long here and simply cannot get away at all. I can be there tomorrow morning, however. Will that be satisfactory instead?"

She could hear the speaker conferring with another - the voice deeper and obviously Ngawe himself - and then: "Is nine-thirty in the morning convenient?"

"I'll be there," she replied, noting the new appointment on her desk calendar. "Until then." She hung up and retrieved her briefcase from where she'd put it at her feet and headed directly out the door again. "I have a nine-thirty in Dover with Ngawe tomorrow, Mei. And for the rest of the day, hold all my calls unless they're family emergencies."

"Yes, ma'am." Mei-Chiang opened the thick appointment calendar notebook and recorded this new appointment with practiced efficiency. "They're ready for you."


Special Agent Thomas Gillespie of the FBI stared at the board that contained all the facts and photos pertinent to the investigation into the bombing of the Centre Tower and frowned. Of photos there were plenty - most of them pointing to mysteries and dead ends. Two corpses had been found on the perimeter of the property - two men murdered by different means at approximately the same time - of which one remained unidentified. The other was a gardener in the Centre employ - that information having just been given to them by their new Centre liaison. The delay had been understandable, since the computer that had held all employee information had been one of the victims of the bombing.

The Blue Cove Police Department wasn't having any more luck uncovering motives for the murders either. The gardener had been a deaf-mute hired by the Centre years ago, whose entire life seemed dedicated to keeping the lawn trimmed to a standard height. His family had reported that he had no enemies, no drug or gambling problems - he had been a simple soul evidently in the wrong place at the wrong time. The question is, what had he run into and why had killing him been the response?

The Centre administration, while openly cooperating with both the local and federal agencies to the best of its handicapped abilities, had still been far less than helpful. The new Chairman, a beautiful and intimidating woman by the name of Parker, had seemed more than willing to answer all the questions they had thrown at her at the time. But the mere fact that she had taken over as Chairman literally only an hour or so before the bombing made it unlikely that she actually knew anything that would provide a viable lead. Her organization was in enough chaos, being the primary victim of the bombing, that it was hard to expect much from her even in the best of times.

Another mystery had surfaced in connection with the case several days earlier, when one of the survivors of the blast and subsequent collapse of the Tower had attempted suicide in the hospital. Only the sharp eyes of one of the nurses had prevented the attempt from being successful, and now the man lay in a coma - completely unresponsive after a prolonged period of extreme blood loss. Another mystery was why an associate of one of the other two Tower survivors had been in the suicide's room - the man had simply refused to answer any questions whatsoever. Since he rarely left the hospital, his whereabouts for further questioning was never much of an issue - but it had been another itch that needed scratching and remained out of reach.

"Here's the Forensics report you asked for," Agent Winters, a slender young man with a Virginia accent, said as he handed over the folder to the tall and middle-aged SAC. "Evidence of the use of plastique - and lots of it - was all over the place."

"What about that remote we found with the unidentified body?"

"Consistent with the quality of explosives used," Winters nodded. "All of this stuff was of the latest and greatest quality - the remote was practically a prototype."

"Any leads on manufacturer?" Gillespie looked up from the report.

Winters was shaking his head. "Other than it looks to be of Japanese origin, from the type and coding on the wiring used, your guess is as good as mine. The head Forensics guy is having detailed photos and wire samples shipped to Tokyo to see if anybody there has any ideas."

"Wasn't that suicide attempt a Japanese fellow?"


Gillespie rubbed his chin speculatively. "Why do I get the sneaky suspicion that the suicide attempt had to do with the bombing - and that maybe the African survivor knows more about this than we imagined?" His hazel eyes lit on Winters, who shrugged again. "Have we even DONE an interview with this..." he turned and browsed the information on the board until he found what he wanted, "...Ngawe person to see what he does or doesn't know?"

Again, Winters only shrugged. "We left a lot of the grunt work to the Blue Cove PD, you know..."

"Yeah," Gillespie sounded disgusted. "We may have to rethink that..."


Miss Parker looked about the table expectantly. "Well?" she asked without apology or preamble.

Hal Thorpe was a serious-faced young man with a legal pad filled with notes and comments sitting on the table in front of him, and it was to him that the entire meeting was now deferring. "Well," he echoed Miss Parker's beginning, "in a nutshell, I can say that MOST of the underground facility is in perfectly sound condition. Only the first two sublevels show any real signs of stress on weight-bearing structures."

"Is it safe to clear the stairwells so that important documents and equipment can be retrieved prior to new construction?" she asked, heading straight to the heart of the first task that needed attention.

"Yes, but it will have to go slowly because of the weakened status of the upper structure. Until SL-1 and 2 can be reinforced, there should be little or no heavy machinery used in the area unless absolutely necessary." Thorpe dragged up from a portfolio several poster board, which he propped up on the desk in front of himself and then began pointing as he continued his presentation. "As you can see from the areas colored in red, we've already had a couple of areas where the bedrock that forms the ceiling of the sublevel and the foundation of the building above it have been compromised and collapsed a bit." He lifted that visual aid and slipped it behind his next offering - a cut-away diagram of the structure of the first five sublevels. "I'm suggesting that we may need to excavate the debris from those areas, then reinforce all the damaged walls with cement and rebar up the wazoo, and finally construct a steel girder and cement slab patch to replace lost material in the areas of actual collapse. At that point, it should be safe to have workers moving in and out of the sublevels."

"How about the elevator shaft? Can we re-establish elevator service to the lower sublevels at the same time we install the upper-level reinforcement?" After all, the bulk of the information that was desperately needed was all the way down in SL-25, in the archives.

"My investigation found no serious weakness to the shaft itself, and construction of a control shed and ground-level access is, technically, possible." The young man answered thoughtfully. "However, one of the first things that will have to happen before much of anything is restoration of electricity to the lower grid. Without it, working in the sublevels will be a form of spelunking."

"All right, Jim," Miss Parker turned her attention to her head construction foreman. "Seems that other than being limited in the use of heavy machinery, it will be up to you to clean up this mess so that we can start thinking about building us a new administration building..."

"Yes, ma'am." Jim Gantry fit the stereotype of construction worker so well that it could almost be assumed that he posed for the job. He was balding, middle-aged, tended to wear faded jeans at not quite half-staff and boots that looked as if they'd seen WWII. "I'm in the process of rounding up as many jack-hammers and cutting torches as I can already. I hate to tell you how long it will take to just get the site to a state where we can even begin to consider reconstruction, though, if we have no ability to use the heavier machinery."

Miss Parker rounded on Thorpe again. "Hal? Surely the restriction on heavy equipment won't be a permanent one?"

"True," the engineer replied easily. "What's more, I can have a survey party on site within a day or two to stake out the areas where no machinery should be, so that all of the debris on secure foundation can be reached by crane and trucks. A great deal of the sublevel structure actually lay beneath the hillside that was behind the Tower, with the elevator shaft, stairwell and corridors being actually beneath the Tower itself. So cleaning around the access points will be a manual proposition, with the rest of the clean-up perfectly feasible with regular demolition procedures."

"Good. All right, gentlemen, then this is the way that I'm seeing us proceed," Miss Parker spoke determinedly. "Hal, you and Jim lay out a schedule for having the top sublevels reinforced and secured, complete with estimated materials list and manpower assessments, on my desk by this time tomorrow. Frank," she looked over at another quintessential construction worker, "you begin to organize teams to man the jack hammers and cutting torches and get that area around the elevators and stairwell cleared up ASAP - I want your estimation of time and manpower needed by tomorrow too."

"Jerry, you take your teams and begin handling the problems with the annex structures, starting with the new administration wing. I want rubble cleared and temporary walls on the ends of those buildings before the weather starts to cool down in the fall." She looked around the table. "Is there anything else that you folks feel needs to addressed today?" At the general lack of response, she stood. "Then you have your assignments. Thank you very much for coming."


Debbie pushed open the door to her father's hospital room and peeked inside. The past few days, it had been a question of whether or not she would find her father awake or not, and a lengthy discussion with his orthopedic surgeon had told her why. The type of crushing his pelvis had sustained had driven bone fragments into his intestines, and given the amount of time between injury and treatment, he'd developed peritonitis. The antibiotic drip would soon be augmented with morphine in order to initiate a drug-induced coma to promote the healing process with as little discomfort as possible. The most recent X-rays of his legs had been encouraging, the bones were knitting as expected around the pins that had been necessary to piece the shattered femur together again.

Broots was asleep. Debbie moved quietly to her father's bedside and set the small flower arrangement on the wheeled stand arranged parallel to the bed. This was the most difficult part of her day, when all she could do was look down into her father's sleeping face and pray that all of the efforts that the medical team had expended on his behalf would eventually restore him to her as good as new.

She hadn't been to her own home for days now. In the days immediately following the explosion, she had been with her Grandpa so that the two of them could support each other. When Sydney's condition had worsened, she had moved to Jarod's and Miss Parker's at Miss Parker's insistence on propriety, but stubbornly insisted on moving back into Sydney's to help Kevin with her Grandpa's care once the older man had been released.

She also had called Amherst and deferred her first term at the college until at least the Springtime. The counselor she had spoken to had been very understanding once the situation had been made clear, although there had been a clear warning that deferring two terms might result in her having to go through the application and acceptance process all over again. Instead, she had called the community college in Dover for information on registering for a night class or two.

Throwing her long braid back over her shoulder after leaning over to deposit a kiss on her father's forehead, she pulled the nearby chair close and seated herself, then took hold of his hand. "Hi, Daddy," she began as she each and every one of these visits. "Everybody at home wanted me to tell you hello too. Grandpa's home again and feeling better finally. Miss Parker is hard at work at the Centre - and from what Sam says, she's raising Hell and putting blocks under it trying to dismantle all the stuff that used to make you so nervous. And you'll like that new assistant she has - Tyler. He sounds like he just walked off a plantation sometimes, but he knows what he's about. He and Sam have turned into quite the pair - you should see them pick on Miss Parker sometimes, it's a real hoot!

"Incidentally, I've talked Kevin into taking a night class at Dover Community with me. Even Sydney thought it would be a good idea for him to get a chance to see the education system from the student perspective - not to mention, get to know some other people our age. I like Kevin, Daddy - a lot. Sometimes it seems like he's just a little kid, all wide-eyed and curious about the world; and then other times, he becomes this thorough professional with all kinds of experience. Sam's teaching him how to drive so that I don't have to be Grandpa's chauffeur all the time, and to give him a bit of independence after a while."

She smiled inwardly. "You should have seen him last night, though. I think he's jealous of Tyler - afraid that I'll be attracted to someone other than him. Not to say that Tyler's not hot... uh... cute..." She blushed despite knowing her dad hadn't seen her Freudian slip. "He's been lots of places and done some interesting things, and he can make me laugh better than just about anybody. When he's over with the rest of us, Kevin gets this real pinched look on his face and clams up, sticking close to Grandpa.

"I hope you don't mind, but Jarod has your computer over at Miss P's now. Whatever it was that you had backed up onto it is being used as what will begin the restore process when a new mainframe is installed at the Centre. He told me to tell you that you saved him a LOT of work, keeping that stuff the way you did."

She chafed her father's hand and swallowed hard. "I know that you probably can't understand me really well right now, but I want you to know that I really miss you. The doctor says that your legs are healing well, and that the antibiotics are starting to work on the infection. He told me how many pins and bolts he needed to tack you back together, but I can't remember how many went where. He did say that you'll probably end up setting off any metal detectors you run across from now on.

"I'm still staying with Grandpa, Dad. I really don't want to be all alone in the house at night. Grandpa's still sleeping downstairs, so I have his room to myself right now. I cleaned out the refrigerator the day after you were rescued, so we haven't got anything going bad or nothing. I locked the place up tight and set the alarm. Hurry up and get well so that we both can go home, OK?"

Carefully she set the hand back down on the top of the blanket. "I also thought that it would do me some good to get a morning cashier's job over at Oggie's Market. Seems Phyllis is pregnant and is going to quit, so he'll need someone to take over her shift. I could use the money so that I'm not dipping into your checking account for gas and stuff. Oh yeah - Grandpa's helping me make sure all our bills get paid too, so you don't have to fuss about that either.

"Anyway, I have to stop by Oggie's on the way back to Grandpa's this afternoon, and after tomorrow I'll be coming by just after lunchtime. Kevin and I start our English Comp class as of next Monday too, so hopefully you'll be awake again by then and can help us proofread our papers." She swallowed hard. "You know how hard writing term papers and stuff is for me, Dad - I'm really gonna need your help!"

She rose and kissed her father's forehead again. "Well, I suppose I should head out again for the day. Like I said, I'll be here tomorrow a little after lunch - maybe I'll have Kevin with me next time. I'll let him drive the highway between Blue Cove and Dover, just so he can do a little more than putt around our narrow lanes. You keep yourself out of trouble and don't chase any of the nurses, OK?" Her voice caught slightly on the otherwise easy ribbing - right now she'd give just about anything to see her Dad chasing a nurse or an orderly. "See you tomorrow, Daddy. I love you."

She moved to the door and turned to take another look at her sleeping father in his bed. It had been long enough since she had last heard his voice that she was desperately lonely for him. She swallowed hard and decided that she might want to spend some time over at Miss Parker's that evening. Hopefully the woman who had been surrogate mother/aunt to her all these years would be able to ease some of the heartache. If not, then a long talk with Grandpa would be in order.


With a puff, Jarod eased down from the pace he had set for himself when he'd started this jog around the park near Sydney's. A quick glance over told him that Davy had found his little wad of friends, and a game of softball was on the verge of breaking out at the park's diamond. That would be good, he decided. Davy had been almost overwhelmed by the series of events that had rocked his family over the course of the last week or so - he really could use some time and reasonable venue to work off some of his worry. That was, after all, fully part of the reason he himself had started jogging again - Sydney's condition not improving without surgery had been a disappointment and worry at a time when he really needed to focus on the task at hand.

He dragged himself over to the cement bench where, years earlier, he had bid his mentor goodbye and beneath which, just a half-hour earlier, he had stowed some bottled water and a face towel. He sat down hard, his legs spread wide in his tiredness, and drank deeply of the water, then took one end of the towel around his neck and wiped at his face and then looked at his wristwatch. The meeting he needed to make at the Centre wasn't until two - he had several hours to check up on Sydney's condition that morning then get back to the house and take a shower before heading off. From the looks of the game getting started, he might have time to do a little cheering first.

Just as he was tossing the now-sweat-dampened towel and nearly empty water bottle into the backpack he and Davy had thrown together for this little fresh-air jaunt, he heard his cell phone begin to chirp from the front pocket. Quickly he unzipped the pocket and pulled out the little instrument. "Yes?"

"Jarod?" It was his mother, her voice tight and upset-sounding.

"Hi Mom," he said, tucking the device against his shoulder and continuing to pack up the jogging supplies so that he could eventually go over and cheer on Davy. "What's up?"

"I just hadn't heard from you in a while - and I thought I might call and remind you of the family who is waiting very patiently for you to finish whatever it is you're doing over there and come home," she stated plaintively.

"Mom..." he drew out the name with a sigh. With the Centre's bombing having been all over the national news, she had started calling him every other day to inquire into whether he was ready to return to California. The last three times she had called had ended in an argument when, with Sydney recovering from surgery and Broots facing another trip under the knife, he had simply refused to discuss the matter at all.

"You promised..." she reminded him pointedly, something she never failed to do. "You said that as soon as you'd taken the Centre out, you'd be back."

"I know I did - and I will be," he reminded her, just as he had each and every time they'd spoken lately. "But not until things are a little more settled here first, I told you."

"WHEN, Jarod?" Margaret demanded.

"As soon as I can," he replied evenly, his heart heavy. In all of his many years of searching for her, he could never have imagined that the day would come when he wished she'd just leave him alone. "That's the best I can give you right now." He paused. "Mom, where's Em?"

She hesitated, and he knew instantly what was going on. He and his sister had had one long phone conversation after the repeated calls had started, and Em had promised him that she'd try to convince her mother to patience. That Em herself had not sounded entirely happy about the situation hadn't helped, but she had at least commiserated with the near-harassment complaint. Em must have had to leave the house for a while, and Margaret had seen an opportunity.

"Mom, you aren't helping," he told her in a gentle and sad tone. "You ought to know me by now, and know that I intend to keep my promise."

"But you said you were only coming back to tie up loose ends here," she complained bitterly, "and then heading back there - to THEM."

"That 'THEM' you want to dismiss is my son, your grandson," he shot back, stung. "And like it or not, I still happen to care what happens to some of these people."

"You mean HER," Margaret hissed.

"Yes, she IS one of the people I happen to care about very much." He paused, having not had the heart yet to tell his mother that he'd given Miss Parker a diamond ring and asked her to marry him. "There's also Sydney, who is still recovering from gun shot wounds, and then there's Broots..."

"Tell me, Jarod, do you care more about them than about us?"

"Mom..." Again he drew out the name with a heavy sigh. "This isn't getting us anywhere, and you know that. I'll tell you when I'm just about ready - and until then, you can assume that I'm not." He ran a frustrated hand over his beard. "What is so hard about that to understand?"

"We're your family," she shot back angrily. "We should be able to expect better from you."

"They're my family too," he retorted, a little more angrily than he'd allowed before. "And until you understand and accept that, there are a lot of things that are going to give you problems." He rose from the cement bench and shouldered the backpack. "I gotta go now, Mom. Davy's in a softball game, and I want to get a chance to cheer him on a bit before I have to get over to the Centre."

"What on Earth would you want to go THERE for?" Margaret demanded again. "I thought..."

"Mom, I gotta go," he interrupted her. "I love you, and I'll talk to you later." He disconnected the call without waiting for her to say goodbye and folded the phone up with a snap and thrust it back into the pocket below his other arm. He would have to have a long talk with Sydney before going home to shower - this feeling of being literally torn in two couldn't go on much longer before it started to give him serious grief.

With one last, heavy sigh, he put the entire California part of his life out of his mind and headed off across the springy grass toward the softball diamond.


"How is he?" Jarod asked as he moved past Kevin into the house.

"Starting to fuss again at being kept quiet, even though he knows he doesn't have a lot of energy yet," the younger Pretender smiled at his older counterpart. "You know how he gets when he starts to feel the least bit better. But I guess the surgeon let him know exactly what he can do and when he can start to do more, so he isn't doing much besides grumbling - yet." The sandy head looked carefully behind Jarod, turned around to check past himself into the house, then turned confused blue eyes to the older man. "Where's Davy?"

"Over there." Jarod jerked his head toward the front door and the park beyond. "There's a softball game going across the street at the park that he's in - from what I gather, he's the one team's regular pitcher."

"Oh yeah?" Kevin's face showed curiosity. "Softball?"

"Yeah." Jarod smiled. "Listen, I want to talk to Sydney privately anyway, so why don't you go over and cheer him on? I'm sure he could use a rooting section back..."

The younger man frowned in confusion. "Rooting section?"

The dark-haired Pretender laughed out loud. "Go on with you. I'm sure you'll figure it out soon enough."

Kevin smiled brightly and with a nod headed for the door and the park beyond.

"Syd? You decent?" Jarod called into the house as he moved surely through the kitchen and toward the door to the den.

"As decent as I can get being stuck in a bed perpetually," Sydney grumbled and then smiled at his former protégé. "I thought you had a meeting at the Centre today - that you were going to try your hand at being me officially for a change."

"I do. I just was hoping maybe you and I could talk for a minute. Alone."

Sydney looked a little more closely and saw the signs of strain that an hour's worth of cheering Davy and his team on hadn't managed to completely erase. "What is it?"

Jarod plopped himself on the coffee table with a sigh. "I got a call from my Mom again today."

The psychiatrist's heart went out to the Pretender. "She was insisting again that, now that the Centre is 'taken care of', it's time you came home, was she?"

"Why does she refuse to listen, Syd?" Jarod burst out in frustration. He leaned his elbows on his knees, leaving his hands still free to gesture. "I keep telling her that I AM going to go back, and that I'll let her know when, but..."

"But she resents the time you're spending here, right?" the Belgian filled in the gaps.

"Yeah." Jarod drooped in defeat. "I was kinda hoping that maybe knowing she has another grandchild here might help smooth things, but..."

"Jarod..." Sydney began, shifting cautiously against his pillows and the cushions of the couch that had become his day bed recovery center. "You have to remember that your father died not all that long ago, so her sense of family has been seriously compromised. Then you took it into your head to come back here, essentially walk straight back into the mouth of Hell itself, to settle some score that only you understood. After everything she's been through over the years, that's enough to make even the strongest person feel dreadfully insecure. You're a psychiatrist, man, you should recognize the signs of someone with some fairly large dependency issues - a good deal of it grief-related."

"But..." Jarod hung his head. He knew all this - even his father had sometimes aired a very private sentiment of feeling sometimes smothered by his wife's fears and insecurities. "I suppose she's right in a way. The Centre I came back to deal with IS gone now."

"Yes," Sydney agreed all too smoothly and evenly, with greying eyebrows soaring pointedly, "it is."

Dark chocolate eyes probed deeply into sympathetic chestnut. "What are you trying to say?"

Sydney's face softened. "You already know. Do I really need to say it out loud?"

The Pretender's expression grew fleetingly guilty, and he looked away. Yes, he did know exactly what Sydney was implying - and he didn't like it from Sydney anymore than he liked it from his mother. "I can keep finding excuses, or I can decide to go home and face the music of my decision. She already knows I'm not going back to stay..."

"You did promise her you'd come home, Jarod," Sydney's voice was gentle but firm. "And I know I taught you the principle that you don't make promises you can't keep. It was why I never made you any promises back when, if you think about it..."

"I know." Jarod's concession was grudging. At least Sydney had never strung him along - the only disappointments he had been a part of were ones against Jarod's own expectations and wishes. It had taken him years of careful analysis and SIMming of their sessions together to finally understand that little bit of integrity from his former mentor.

"Then you know what you have to do." He watched the unhappiness float across his protégé's face. "Parker knows this is coming, doesn't she." It wasn't a question.

"Yeah. We discuss it every now and then." Jarod put his head in his hands for a moment then looked up, running his fingers through his dark hair with its striking silver threads. "Davy doesn't know, though."

Sydney's hand landed on his former protégé's knee. "Then I think it's about time you started preparing your son for your being gone for a while, isn't it?"

Jarod stared into chestnut pools of sympathetic understanding, then nodded slowly. "You're right." He slowly removed his glasses and rubbed at one eye. "I just worry that I'm leaving before everything's settled properly..."

"Jarod, Jarod..." his former mentor just shook his head. "You should know by now that there IS no such thing as an 'ideal time' to do anything. All we can do is decide what it is we need to do, and then only put it off for as long as doing so doesn't make matters worse." He patted Jarod's knee again. "I think you're a bit past that point now, my boy. The longer you take to go back to California, the harder it will be on both ends."

"Sydney, is it..." Jarod stopped. This was a thought he hadn't even allowed himself to entertain privately - so blasphemous it seemed to his entire set of principles.

"What?" Sydney settled back, willing to wait for his former student to get to the heart of his dilemma without pushing. Whatever it was, it was tearing Jarod apart at the seams.

"Is it wrong of me to NOT want to go back?" Jarod said very softly, then looked up at his mentor with a pained expression. "For so long, it was the Centre making choices for me of who I could see or talk to, make friends with... Now, it seems that it's my mom, and Jay doing the same thing all over again..."

"Are you seeing the actions of your family in California as controlling or restrictive?" Sydney asked quietly.

The dark head nodded. "In some ways."

"And it bothers you."

"It pisses me off royally," the Pretender's eyes snapped with anger he hadn't really let himself feel until now. "Damn it, I'm a grown man who should be free to live his own life. Why won't they let me, Sydney?"

"Because they don't fully understand what it is that ties you HERE," Sydney explained patiently, feeling a little as if he were once more directing Jarod's understanding of underlying attitudes in a SIM the way he'd needed to do years ago. "They don't understand what you taught me when you found Nicholas for me - that the bonds of family aren't always limited just to matters of blood. To them, the Centre represents horror and separation - they don't understand that you have other associations with the people involved there, that you feel a sense of 'family' HERE, too as well as have a son here." He patted Jarod's knee again. "And remember, your mother searched for you for thirty years - all of it spent on the run for her own freedom and searching for her husband as well. Now that she's found you and just lost her husband, she doesn't want to lose you again."

"I know that," Jarod grumbled, his face in his hands. "But I feel hamstrung sometimes - kinda like Parker used to feel when she finally woke up to the fact that they were never going to let her go, no matter what she did. Her very freedom was her cage. They're doing the same thing - turning my freedom to come here into a cage to drag me back."

"Well, you didn't promise her you'd come back to stay. That you won't be staying will be a disappointment, not a broken promise. But you will have to go back there and establish your independence from them now for much the same reasons you felt compelled to come back here and remove the Centre as a force devoted to controlling you. AND You will have to understand that she, and maybe some of the others, WILL be hurt by your choice," the Belgian stated with conviction. "It isn't blasphemy to realize that there is a large part of that situation that you love dearly, and yet there is a facet that you just don't want to tolerate anymore that is enough to push you away. That's just simple human dynamics - made just a little more pointed within a family."

"Damn, Syd, I'm gonna miss you," the Pretender said gently. "It's strange - I think I've been closer to you these past few weeks than I ever was before, and I'll miss not being able to just drop by and let you screw my head back on straight for me again."

"You mean you'll have to do without your own, personal, in-house shrink again for a while? Oh horrors!" Sydney chuckled, then grimaced as the action pulled at his stitches. "Well, think of it this way: at least when you take off this time, we'll be talking by phone regularly. You're not just evaporating into nothingness, nor are you cutting me out of your life again." He smiled sadly at his protégé. "But I'll miss you too, son - these past few weeks have been a time when I've been able to get to know you the way I'd always wished."

He paused, no longer quite so hesitant to voice his feelings as he had been that fateful day on a park bench. "The thing is, though, that I do understand exactly how your mother feels, Jarod - because I find myself feeling just as possessive of our time together now as I image she does. Now that I've found you again, I don't want to lose you either."

"But you won't be pressuring me to 'come home' constantly..."

"Not this time, perhaps - but I did it a long time ago, for all the good it did at the time," the psychiatrist reminded him sharply. "Remember?"

Now it was Jarod's turn to chuckle. "There is THAT..."

"You know that the one who's going to miss you most is Parker," Sydney continued, "and she'll probably come hunting for you again if you don't come back in time for the wedding."

Jarod's grin grew slightly mischievous. "I think I know better than that one, Syd." He chuckled. "I think she'd shoot me for real for that one."

Sydney's chuckle became a genuine laugh, followed by a groan. "You're probably right."


"Gentlemen, if you will all finish getting your sandwiches and drinks and find a seat, we can get this started." Miss Parker announced from her already-seated position at the large conference table that had been set up in the former workout room for sweepers. To her right, Tyler was checking the sign-in sheet of those attending against a list of Centre supervisors culled from Broots' computer the night before. Sam, on the other hand, was somewhere behind her keeping an eagle eye on all the occupants of the room - aided in his role by two more hand-picked sweepers stationed on opposite sides of the room's perimeter.

Twenty men had shown up in person for this meeting - representing the thirty satellite Centre offices. The others, from foreign satellite offices much further away, had taken advantage of the offer of teleconference links to the meeting in lieu of plane tickets - the arrangements for which had been one of Jarod's minor miracles of technology despite the current state of the Delaware facility. The faces of each of those gentlemen were on monitors at the far end of the room, while one of Broots' computer underlings controlled the web cams that sat in front of all present and would broadcast the face of anyone who spoke for the distant attendees. The attending supervisors wisely finished getting their lunches and sat down at the places they'd been assigned and, while quietly beginning to eat, gave their entire attention over to the new Chairman.

"As most of you know, I was appointed Chairman of the Centre by the Triumverate just before suffering from a saboteur's bomb. When I accepted this job, I decided that I would not just be another in a line of Chairmen overseeing a 'black ops' think tank dedicated to all kinds of nefarious and dangerous projects." Miss Parker looked around the room, her grey eyes pausing briefly at each and every face and assessing the reactions. "The Centre, under my administration, will no longer be a force to be feared and despised by people of conscience, and it will be discontinuing any and all project that present the least evidence of being unethical."

"With all due respect..." A rich and basso voice from her left took the opportunity offered by her short pause in her presentation. Miss Parker's gaze quickly located the thin, greying man who owned the voice and then glanced down at a seating chart to identify him: Stewart Berringer, supervisor of the Las Vegas office.

"Yes?" she gazed into Berringer's face unflinchingly.

Berringer found the new Chairman's full attention quite daunting - he had begun his statement as a form of complaint, and now he saw that he wouldn't be able to get away with it anonymously. He cleared his throat, suddenly nervous. "Our reputation as an organization with clout shouldn't be something to be discarded so quickly or made subject to somebody else's code of ethics. Some of the research we do is cutting-edge, decades ahead of that being done elsewhere..."

"Your point being...?" Miss Parker settled back into her chair, nursing her mug of hot tea close to her chest, wondering just how far this Berringer was willing to stick his neck out on his own behalf.

"Why should we give up the intimidation factor our reputation has given us?" demanded the fat man to Berringer's left that Miss Parker's chart identified as Gilbert Flores from the Los Angeles office. "Some of what we're doing, if handed over to the wrong people, could cause us serious problems."

"Such as?" Miss Parker's voice was calm and smooth. A glance at Tyler reassured her that he was paying very careful attention to who was making the most noise, and who was quietly nodding agreement.

Flores suddenly glanced around the table. "Don't you think that this is an inappropriate place to talk about such things?" he shot back. "There IS such a thing as 'need to know'..."

"Ah, yes," Miss Parker now sat forward, "the ever-present 'need to know' concept that keeps everything quietly under the carpet and everybody else out of the loop so that accountability becomes almost impossible." Her brow furrowed. "But you're in a meeting with others at the same security rating as yourself, Mr. Flores. Surely you can take some assurance that nobody will be hearing anything from you who isn't in a similar situation themselves..."

"What about them?" Flores blustered, gesturing first at Tyler, then at Sam and the other two sweepers. "Do they need to be here?"

"Oh, absolutely." On that point, Miss Parker was inflexible, and her voice communicated that clearly. "They are my support staff, hand-picked for their suitability to attend any and all meetings with me. I trust each and every one of them with my life and the Centre's well-being. Now, quit stalling and tell us exactly what you think we're doing that could cause us serious problems if others knew about it."

"Our pharmaceutical research into the causes and degrees of chemical addiction, for one thing," Berringer broke in. "Some of the synthesized or refined drugs we've been developing from existing street drugs would be dangerous if dealers or the DEA got wind of them. As it is, the Yakuza have paid us quite well to..."

"Enough. Our dealings with the Yakuza and the mob have finished, with absolutely no exceptions allowed," Miss Parker interrupted him. "We will no longer be dealing either directly or indirectly with any openly criminal organization, no matter how lucrative past dealings have been. Is that understood?"

"Then what are we going to do about the on-going pharmaceutical R&D?" the man from Nevada demanded. "Like I said, this is cutting edge stuff we're talking about here. If not for the Yakuza, then for whom?"

"Some of these projects were at the direct request of the Triumverate," Flores tossed out with a triumphant tone. "I'm sure THEY won't be happy to note your reluctance to do the work we contracted to do for them..."

"You are overseeing this research, I take it?" Miss Parker asked in a neutral tone.

"Several of us are," Flores answered for his friend and associate. "The Southwest region was hand-picked by Mr. Raines as the best suited to conduct this kind of study with the least chance of governmental interference."

Miss Parker frowned. "I will take your project and its goals under advisement and meet with you and your associated supervisors privately tomorrow after I'm more up to speed on just what all is involved. But we will waste no more time in pissing contests between subordinate facilities and Centre administration. I didn't call this meeting to get your collective permission to run the Centre my way, gentlemen - so kindly give me your attention and learn the way things WILL run from now on."

"I will not be talked to this way," Flores blustered, pushing his plate away angrily. "I've worked for Mr. Raines and Mr. Parker - both of whom knew to ask and not make demands." He rose to his feet and reached for his briefcase.

Miss Parker had only to give a faint nod to Sam, and the head of Security had pressed a hidden button that summoned three sweepers each through each of the two doors to the conference room. Flores and those who had considered following his lead looked about the room nervously, then retrained their attention to the woman at the head of the table, who rose to her feet slowly and dangerously.

"You seem to be working under the assumption that you people are in charge here, with me here only in an advisory or coordinating capacity," she spoke softly, forcing each and every one of the supervisors to bend forward slightly so as not to miss a single word. "And that may well have been the way things worked in the past - but no more. So disabuse yourselves of your illusion of authority - and you can Sit Down, Mr. Flores."

Flores took one look at the stony face turned in his direction, and the storm-warning grey eyes that glared holes into him, and slowly sank back into his seat. Miss Parker then looked about the room with no further pretext of any easy-going nature or amicability.

"You gentlemen may also all be working under the assumption that I am just a puppet of the Triumverate. It is true that, in the past, the Centre has depended heavily upon Triumverate financing and contracts - but that too will be changing. Part of the reorganization of the Centre will be the establishment of a governing Board of Directors and the eventual public issuance of stock, which will make our reliance on the Triumverate for working capital a moot issue." She smiled coldly. "So as you can see, Mr. Flores, I couldn't give a rat's ass if the Triumverate DID order a project carried out. If it's theirs, and it isn't something that we will be doing in the future, they'll be informed where and when they can pick up the resources and documentation as of the date of closure - and then it will be THEIR problem to farm the project out to somebody else. Do I make myself clear?" She looked around the room and saw amazement on several faces, distress on several.

"Now that we have THAT out of the way, we can get back to setting out the new ground rules of Centre operations that go into effect as of right now. The top of that list is that I am in charge, and I, gentlemen, control the purse strings - where I get the money being my business and none of yours. The logical consequence of that fact, gentlemen, is that all of your funding is under my control - and that funding CAN be turned off at the source. There will be NO more independent contracting with individual offices - all contracts will be run through and made with headquarters from now on." She paused and could see the realization of their complete dependency slowly dawn on the faces of some of the slower members of the group. "Now you can bluster and rant and rave all you want - but the fact remains that each and every one of you are now directly responsible to ME and my staff. And I assure you, we will be overseeing YOUR actions on a far more intense level than you've ever had before"

"Don't you trust us, Miss Parker?" inquired the smooth brogue of the supervisor of the Dublin office from the monitor on the wall.

"I know better than to trust anybody without verification," Miss Parker answered shortly, not even sparing the man a glance. "If you people want my trust, you're going to have to earn it. Earning my trust will have its own rewards, I assure you, but I will not give it freely."

"That's a helluva way to start out your administration, Miss Parker," commented Fredrick Bryce from the New York office, "with a statement of complete distrust of your team."

Miss Parker nodded. "I realize that. I honestly wish I could do otherwise. But the fact is that I'm attempting to turn this place around entirely, make it into something we can all be proud of being part of - rather than something that hides in shadows and does its best work while frightening others into giving us respect. And I'm well aware that several of you would rather the old status quo be maintained. So until I know exactly which ones of you are amenable to change, I have to assume that all of you don't. This doesn't change the fact that the Centre is going out of the terrorism business as of right now, gentlemen - your job now is to get used to it and manage your offices accordingly."

"About time," was a stagewhisper from Bryce to the supervisor from Portland, to which that gentleman nodded his agreement. Miss Parker took that as encouragement.

"Over the course of this next week, all of your respective operations will be subject to review with an eye to assessing the projects you each have been overseeing. Mr. Tyler here has a copy of the new guidelines for Centre projects for each of you to take with you when you leave here - our overseas members will be receiving their copies by fax by the end of the day. Now, IF any of the projects you've been coordinating is deemed outside or contrary to the new scope of acceptable Centre activity, all funding for your entire facility will cease until all elements of that unacceptable activity have been eliminated. A representative of my office will be dispatched to oversee the dismantling of the project and transport of all associated documentation and resources personally. This will prevent the kind of extra-curricular activities that got Mr. Raines in so much trouble in the long run."

"Another major change in organization will be that the responsibility for ALL security measures and security personnel will now be under the direct control of the Delaware office of my new head of Security, Sam Atlee. Your offices are, as we speak, each receiving travel orders and tickets for the security team currently assigned to you to return to Delaware after their replacements FROM Delaware are on-site and fully briefed. Any member of Centre security currently assigned in the field who does not return to the main branch within a week of receiving his or her orders will be considered as having quit without notice, forfeiting any contracted severance pay."

Again she looked about the room, and took some satisfaction at the expression of reluctant respect on the faces of some who might have risen with Flores in opposition to her. Key to her gaining control over the massive organizational hierarchy that was the global Centre was to declare her position as top of the heap and then simply do whatever it took within reason to assure that there would be no coherent opposition or challenge from the ranks. She and Jarod had gone over this meeting several times over the past few days, and so far, things had gone pretty much as he had SIMmed and she had practiced.

"Finally, as I imagine was the case with previous administrations, you should be aware that I will tolerate absolutely no subordination or open mutiny from anyone at any level of this organization. That goes from satellite supervisor to lowly mail clerk. However, I do expect that if you can find GOOD arguments for disagreeing with me, or if you have an idea that you think will be of benefit to the Centre as a whole, that you will present them in an open meeting like this one. I want people willing to put their own butts on the line when they think they're right - and 'yes-men' will eventually find themselves weeded out. Also, 'need to know' as an operating concept for security reasons is hereby suspended indefinitely - at the management level, we ALL need to know everything from now on. If you cannot tolerate the new terms and conditions being levied on your respective offices from now on, I suggest you tender your resignations immediately who will work WITH me, rather than against me."

"Are there any questions at this time?" She looked around the room again, noting that the collective body of supervisors seemed about as tamed as she could expect from them at this early date. "In that case, I will be expecting each and every one of you to be making appointments with my secretary for private conference over the course of this next week. We will meet again as a body one week from today to discuss the practical working relationship your offices will enjoy with your headquarters here at that time. Meeting adjourned."

She bent towards Tyler. "Did you pay attention and note down who all were even remotely ready to throw in with our small rebellion from California there?" Her assistant nodded quietly. "How many were there?"

"I saw ten of 'em myself," came the immediate drawling reply.

"That was about the number I had too. I want a list of names on my desk by mid-afternoon, then, with a copy to Sam first." she nodded. "I'll be preparing pink slips tonight. We don't need that kind at the Centre anymore." She beckoned Sam to take the chair at her right, then pointedly waited until the room was cleared of all but the three of them. "I want you to assign surveillance on each of the men on the list Tyler will compile for us. I want to know if they hold a meeting without notifying Corporate, if they have dinner together, anything that might be the beginnings of an internal challenge to my authority."

"Yes, ma'am!" Sam straightened and immediately summoned his sweeper team and began softly issuing orders. Now the fun of reorganization would REALLY begin.


"Hi!" Debbie called into the house and draped her purse on the coat rack after tucking her car keys into one of the gaping pockets. "Anybody home?"

"In here," Sydney called back. "How's your Dad?" he asked as he waited for her to join him.

"Still out like a light," she answered, stopping in the kitchen to get herself a drink of water. "You want anything to drink or munch on, Grandpa?"

He grimaced at the sound of the pain in that breezy update on Broots' condition, knowing the fact that her father was currently still unresponsive was weighing heavy now on her. "No thanks, I'm fine." He waited until she carried her glass into the den and parked herself on the end of his day bed, smiling indulgently and moving his legs slightly toward the back of the couch so that she could fit. "There are other places to sit..." he reminded her with a grin. Perhaps he could tease her a little and raise her spirits again.

"Yeah, but that's too easy," she chirped back at him with a mischievous smirk that told him his idea had been a good one. "There's no challenge in winning the space when there's no competition for it." She looked around the room. "Speaking of competition, where's Kevin?"

"At the park, where else?" The wide grin was contagious. "I think he has a standing appointment with the swing set about this time every afternoon since you introduced him to the concept of 'play'." The chestnut eyes began to twinkle. "I suppose you could go join him for a while before supper..."

"Grandpa..." She drew out the name complainingly, but smiled to show him that she was well aware that he was just giving her a bad time.

"It was just a thought," he shrugged dismissively. "Did you get over to Oggie's already?"

"Yeah - I stopped by on the way home from Dover. Everything's all set for me to start in the morning tomorrow," she told him, sipping at her drink. "He wants me there at eight-thirty sharp."

"So early?" The eyebrows soared.

"I get to help him open up the store first thing in the morning, I guess," she shrugged then tossed her braid back haughtily. "Just think, you'll get a whole morning to yourself when I can't pick on you."

"Thrills." Sydney gave her an indulgent frown to go with his unexcited voice. "And what about your school?"

"First day of class is Monday - and Kevin's taking that one with me, remember?"

"I may not be able to chase you around the room anymore, young lady, but my mind is as sharp as ever," he grumbled good-naturedly.

"So you say," Deb smirked at him again. "I'm glad you're home again and feeling better," she continued with a heartfelt tone, her expression sobering quickly. "I don't know what I'd do if you had stayed so sick too."

"Hey there," Sydney carefully shifted so that he was actually sitting up properly on the couch with his legs tucked as close to the back of the couch as possible and then patted the blanket-covered cushion next to him. "Feeling a little less than secure today, are we?"

She willingly scooted closer and leaned into him, grateful for the arm that wrapped around her shoulder. "Lately," she corrected him quietly. "Everything just happened so fast."

"Everything will be OK, cheri," he soothed, wrapping the other arm around her to complete the embrace. "You just need to be patient now while your Dad heals."

"But," she drew in a breath, almost afraid of giving voice to her worst fear, "what if Daddy never walks again?"

Sydney closed his eyes. He knew it was a possibility that Broots might suffer a permanent handicap, considering the severity of his injuries, and he was no more happy about the odds and possible outcome than Deb was. "Let's not borrow trouble, ma petite," he said softly, kissing her cheek. "Let's just face each day and its challenges as they come. That's the only way I can keep from going stir-crazy, chained to this bed all this time - so I know for a fact it will help you too."

She nodded against his chest. Grandpa always knew the right thing to say to help her - or when it was best to not say anything. She wrapped her hand carefully across his chest, mindful of the bandages, and hugged him back.


Flores tossed his briefcase onto the bed of his hotel room and with a jerk loosened his tie. "Who the hell does that bitch think she's dealing with?" he spat at the empty room, stripping his sports coat from his shoulders and throwing it down with an unsatisfying release of frustration.

He ran his fingers through his curly salt-and-pepper hair, back and forth, until he came to a decision. Seating himself on the edge of the bed, he scrabbled through his coat until he found the little black book in the breast pocket and flipped it open. Then he picked up the phone and dialed an outside line, and then punched in a fourteen-digit long distance number.

"Yeah, it's me," he announced sourly when the other end was picked up. "We've got problems."

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