Disclaimer: They aren't mine, and I'm not making any money at this. I'm just borrowing them for a bit and giving them new friends to play with and new situations to live through. Please don't kill me...

Author's note: This is the last offering in a series of stories that are my idea of what happened in the Pretender universe after the end of the TV movie "Island of the Haunted." In order to understand previous events that have occurred and original characters that have been introduced in previous installments, you will need to read, in chronological order: Retrospective, Picking Up The Pieces, Family Ties, Balancing the Scales, and Truth and Consequences.

Resolutions - 1

Picking Up the Pieces Again

by MMB

Sam pulled the Centre limousine up right next to the jet on the tarmac, then turned in his seat and looked behind him. "You want to walk up those steps, Deb, or would you let me carry you so you don't hurt your foot?"

Deb peered out the window at the sleek, black jet and then glanced back at the huge Security Chief. During the past few days, while waiting for her therapist and physician to give the all clear for her to be released, Sam had been a nearly constant companion. Whatever business had kept him shuffling back and forth between Los Angeles and Victorville had evidently been concluded the previous day, for all day yesterday he'd spent most of his time sitting in her room with her, talking or playing checkers and backgammon.

The checker games had genuinely raised her spirits and made her much more comfortable with the ex-sweeper, since his skill on the checkerboard seemed not to have gotten appreciably better over the years since Miss Parker had had him baby-sit her. Sam had played with her, consoled, cajoled and teased her like an uncle, making her smile and even laugh occasionally - and in the process won back her trust and respect. He'd been there to lean on during slow walks down the hospital hallways, and she'd learned that she didn't have to flinch whenever he moved quickly or came too close.

And now, seeing his friendly face over the top of the front seat, she knew that she was safe with him. Still she hesitated and then turned to Miss Parker. "I suppose I could make it..."

"You know what Doctor Ramsey said," Miss Parker reminded her gently. "If you get a chance to take it easy on that foot, you're supposed to take it." She looked up at Sam. "She'll take that lift, if you don't mind."

"Yes, ma'am." The man's face crinkled into a contented smile, and he climbed from behind the wheel and handed the few pieces of luggage to one of the on-duty sweepers to stow aboard before opening the door next to Deb. "Scoot over closer, Debbie," he directed, then slid his huge hands beneath her knees and behind her back under one arm and lifted slowly and steadily. Deb wrapped an arm around the man's thick neck to steady herself and leaned willingly into him. This was Sam, she reminded herself, and him carrying her up the steps of a jet meant that she was on her way HOME!

"OK, so you know what I want you to do?" Miss Parker paused on her short walk to the jet to speak with Dave Anzio, the man she had appointed from the bank of new sweepers to replace Flores at long last as the chief of the LA Centre satellite office. "I want a report on my desk in Blue Cove in one week on your progress."

Anzio, a short and wiry man who was much stronger and dangerous than he appeared, gave his boss a nod. "Yes, ma'am. Consider it half-written."

She liked his style. He was a natty dresser and very no-nonsense in his business dealings. "Your probationary period will be like the others - six months. At that time, you'll return to Delaware for a review and, if you're doing your job properly, an assignation of stock and other benefits that go with your new position."

The little Italian man's eyes glittered, and he spared a glance of gratitude toward the back of the man he was replacing. Sam had chosen him, of all the sweepers currently stationed in Los Angeles, as the most capable of handling the busy office. Before he'd left to stay with the young lady, Sam had spent the better part of an entire day briefing him on protocols and procedures that would need to be followed - and then told him the kind of compensation would be his if he could hang onto the job long enough to make it truly his. For a man with a young family, it was enough incentive for a lifetime's worth of effort.

"Yes, ma'am. I look forward to seeing you in February, then." He shook her hand, finding her handshake firm and confident. He remembered back to his one interview with the man who had originally hired him, Mr. Raines, and decided that he by far preferred this new Chairman. Miss Parker had always had a reputation for being tough and no-nonsense - the few hours he'd spent with her prior to riding up with her in the limousine to pick up her niece had given him a chance to reassess that reputation. She had been very clear in punctuating the instructions Sam had already given him and had given him the kind of respect as a valued and integral employee he doubted would have ever come his way from Raines. He found he genuinely liked the woman and could see himself very contented working for her.

Miss Parker nodded at him in satisfaction. Sam had chosen well - this Dave Anzio had the kind of quiet get-up-and-go that could prove very useful to the new Centre she envisioned. The Los Angeles office had always been a west-coast hub for Centre activity. This was an arrangement that she had no intention of changing - and for which she needed JUST the right person. The new Centre she was still pulling together needed new blood in the chain of command - people who weren't dedicated to double-dealings and power struggles as daily routine - and from what Sam had told her, Anzio sounded like he would fit right in. Between his orientation with Sam and now interview with her, Anzio knew exactly where he stood, and seemed ready to carry out her wishes and make wise decisions on her behalf.

"Good luck, then." She turned and walked the short distance to the jet and mounted the steps. Inside, she saw that Sam had put Deb into a window seat where she could look down and enjoy the view. "All set?" she asked the girl.

Deb nodded. She wasn't unhappy to see the end of this God-forsaken desert community at all - and the sooner she was away from California completely, the better she would like it. "Any time you are," she replied.

Sam, listening, rose and went to knock on the pilot's door. "Let's go," he said loudly enough to penetrate the thin barrier, then planted himself back in his favorite seat - facing the back of the fuselage so that he could observe everything that went on - and strapped himself in. Miss Parker had already taken the inside seat next to Deb and had put her hand over Deb's on the armrest, patting it comfortingly.

The hum of the jet's powerful engines built to a high-pitched whine, and then they were moving. As the little jet rocketed down the runway and then threw itself into the air, Deb leaned back and watched the ground fall away. Then she turned away from the window and closed her eyes. It was done - it was behind her now, all of it. It had to be.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Emily dried her hands on a small towel and picked up the handset of the telephone. "Russell's..."

"Hi Em, it's Missy."

Emily smiled. "I was starting to wonder when you guys would start heading back..."

Miss Parker chuckled. "I hate to admit it, but I did have a small bit of business to transact before the jet took off. But we're up now, and we should be there in a couple of hours."

"I'll tell Ethan..."

"Not necessary this time," Miss Parker said regretfully, "as much as I know my brother just LOVES playing chauffeur to me. I'll have a Centre limo and my Security Chief as driver so as not to intrude on anybody's schedule there." She paused, listening. "How are things going there today?"

"All quiet," Emily answered, walking through the kitchen door to observe the goings-on in the living room. Sammy and Davy were contentedly playing with Sammy's cars and trucks again, while Margaret had Ginger up on the couch cuddled close to her while she read from a book of stories to her. "The boys are into the trucks again, and Mom's reading to Ginger."

Miss Parker closed her eyes, picturing the homey scene. "Tell my kids I'll be there as soon as I can - and remind Davy that he needs to set himself up in Ginger's room so Deb can have the guest room tonight. Nine chances out of ten, with Sammy there, he's forgotten."

"Mom and I were ahead of you there," Emily chuckled. "We wouldn't let the boys get down to their city-building until Davy had finished getting himself set up. And he had Ginger helping him, so it got done very fast."

Now Miss Parker laughed softly. "I bet. And I bet neither of those two gets any sleep tonight..."

"Probably not," Emily agreed with her. Her eyes rested on the dark-haired girl holding her teddy bear close and listening to her grandmother's story with a rapt face. "She's going to miss him desperately after you leave, you know..."

"I know... And he'll miss her too." Miss Parker was still astounded at the speed at which her son and Jarod's soon-to-be-adopted daughter had bonded to each other. When Sammy wasn't around, the two were virtually inseparable. "I almost hate to split them up, but Davy has school starting in just a couple of weeks..."

"Too bad you can't take her with you," Emily commented gently. "From the sounds of things, you know Jarod and Ethan have narrowed the field of potential partners to just a couple of guys..."

"Yes, but she needs to stay there in California until the adoption process is finished," Miss Parker reminded her soon-to-be sister-in-law. "I may have been able to get the wheels of bureaucracy to turn faster, grant Jarod his full guardianship already and put the adoption assessment process on a fast track, but it will still take a little while longer before he gets a court date. I don't know that pushing that much more would be such a great idea..."

"I know." Emily grumbled softly. "I just want... Heck, what am I saying? Sprite's adoption being final means Jarod leaving for Delaware - and I'm gonna miss HIM a lot!"

Miss Parker chuckled at what had become a sad inside joke between the two women. "I'm sorry about that..."

"Don't be! I'd have to be an idiot not to see how happy he is with you. It's time for him to have his family life with you now - and there's nothing that says that we can't visit back and forth. IF we can convince Mom that it's safe to actually go back to Delaware again..."

Miss Parker leaned against the bulkhead and smiled. Her improved relationship with Jarod's mother and sister had been one of the unexpected little boons of this trip - so many of the reasons for animosity and distrust on both sides had been slowly erased over days of long heartfelt conversations. She was genuinely fond of Jarod's California family now - leaving them behind on the other side of the world, practically, would leave a small hole in her heart now. "Well, I suppose I need to get back to my seat and let you get back to whatever you were doing," she said finally. "We can always yak when I get home."

"OK - sounds like a plan. See you in a few."

"Bye now." Miss Parker disconnected the call and put her cell phone back in her jacket pocket. She looked over at Deb, who was still sitting very quietly in her seat with her head leaned back against the headrest and her eyes shut. From somewhere, Sam had found a low cardboard box and topped it with a pillow to hold up the damaged foot. "Deb? You awake?" Slowly the blonde head straightened and the blue eyes opened. "Would you like some water, or maybe some soda?"

"Do you have any diet cola?" Deb asked sleepily. "I haven't had any for a while now, and all the hospital would give me was one kind of juice or another - or milk..."

Miss Parker bent to the small refrigerator and sorted through the various cans that were stored there. "Found one!" she called in triumph and lifted it. "You want it in a cup, or..."

"Just in the can is fine," Deb shifted in her seat to make herself more comfortable and help herself wake up a bit more. She took the can from Miss Parker. "Thanks."

"Sam?"

"I'm fine," the big man waved his hand in front of him to the negative, "thanks."

She took an old-fashioned glass from the wet bar and filled it with ice and then water for herself before returning to her seat next to Deb.

"We're just staying the one night at Jarod's, right?" Deb asked, turning her head to look at the woman who had rescued her from the hospital and the prying therapist. "We're going HOME tomorrow?"

Miss Parker didn't look overwhelmingly thrilled, but she nodded. "We need to get you home where you belong, and Davy back before school starts. And, much as I might like otherwise, I have to go back to work one of these days." She looked over at Deb and smiled as she patted the hand that still rested on the barrier between their seats. "But you'll like Jarod's house, Deb - right on the ocean, pretty view from the balcony. I think Jarod's mom and sister are cooking tonight - everybody will be at Jarod's for supper and to at least get a chance to meet you before you leave."

Deb's face had grown quiet and almost stony, and Miss Parker frowned slightly. She would be very glad when she had the girl home, where Sydney would be able to take charge of her further therapy to work through any parts of the trauma of being kidnapped and molested that the therapist at the hospital had left undone. There had been subtle hints that Deb's personality had changed significantly - her smile was less ready, her sense of humor dampened, and now she was displaying a real reluctance to meet new people.

She knew it had been a hard day for the Broots girl - hopefully the last hard day until the day she had to testify at trials - and she sincerely hoped that part of the sullenness now was simple fatigue and emotional release of tension. Arrangements had been made for her to finally give her deposition to the police in the therapeutic setting her therapist had insisted on. A female officer had been dispatched to tape the interview, and at long last Deb had told what she remembered of being snatched as she dashed in terror from Sydney's house in the middle of the night.

Her descriptions of how easily she'd been taken and her fleeting impressions during the plane trip to California had been stark. The time she'd spent with the books of mug shots, picking out the faces of the men who had taken her, had made her need to take a break to regain her composure when she saw for the first time since her rescue the face of the man who had touched her and given her almost a week's worth of nightmares. The worst of it, however, had come as Miss Parker had sat quietly while Deb detailed what that man had done to her while she'd been alone with him. Deb's tears had flowed freely, while Miss Parker's blood had flowed like acid within not only for the wounded girl who had yet to even begin to heal, but also in realization that her son had witnessed part of the outrage - been invited to observe, in fact.

Duncan and Cordoba had already been transported back to Delaware to sit in the Dover jail with Flores and their other two confederates pending their federal trial on kidnapping, attempted murder and molestation charges. Seeing the pain Deb was still in, a pain that the girl struggled to keep hidden deep inside her, Miss Parker wished that she'd kept Duncan in her own custody instead of turning him over to the authorities. She wanted revenge in the worst kind of way for what had been done. Her fury when she thought of those two men - of having to sit in a courtroom while they were tried - frightened her. The persona of Lyle that had gotten her through the ordeal was far too close to her yet - and Lyle wouldn't have sat back and let the legal system do what would be far more satisfying accomplished in person.

Still, Deb was at least on the first leg of a journey that would take her home, and at least Davy would be there in Monterey that evening. With any luck, the company of the one person who understood better than anybody else what she'd been through would help buoy her. Davy had worried to his mother at length after her first solo trip down to visit and cheer Deb while she was still hospitalized, his eyes haunted by the thought that he'd left Deb behind after all.

That had been only one of several of the very subtle signs her son had shown that the ordeal had changed him too. The experience had matured him in ways that were not right for one so young - and his new tendency to want to take responsibility for things going wrong around him regardless of whether it was right or reasonable was only the most obvious. He had grown cautious and shier around new people. As much as he had wanted to meet his grandmother and the brother both his parents shared, it had taken the better part of two days for him to genuinely warm to them so that he smiled easily again.

"Are you OK?" she asked the girl softly, smoothing some of the blonde hair back from her face.

"I just want to go HOME," Deb said firmly and unhappily, then turned her face away from Miss Parker and stared out the little window without really looking at anything.

No, Miss Parker thought as she exchanged a worried glance with Sam, who'd heard the entire exchange, things weren't going to be back to normal for a while yet.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Mr. Tyler? There's a Colonel Stiller on line two for you, sir." Mei Chiang announced over the intercom.

Tyler grimaced in frustration. This was the second time since Miss Parker had left him in sole charge of keeping the Centre afloat while she took care of important family business that this particular Pentagon official had asked for an appointment - and the third military visitor that had come calling because of executive decisions to cease work on some projects. Miss Parker had handled one such visit before she left - and the continued number of calls was starting to worry him.

The first time this man had walked into the office and seen someone besides Miss Parker behind the desk, he had turned on his heel and stormed from the room, bullying Mei Chiang for having him see someone other than the Chairman herself.

Tyler had had to admire the poise and unflappable nature of the pretty Chinese secretary that Miss Parker had taken for herself. Without seeming to have any anxiety from the blustering ire that the Air Force colonel was throwing at her, she simply told the man - several times until he finally would listen to her - that Tyler WAS in charge of the Centre until Miss Parker's return. That hadn't set well either, and Stiller had stormed off in a huff.

Now he was back again. Well, Mei Chiang wasn't the only one who could put on a bulletproof face. "Show him in," he responded, then arranged himself with his hands folded neatly on the desk in front of him. All too soon, as far as he was concerned, the door to his office opened and a slightly red-faced man in a crisp uniform marched in. "Colonel Stiller, I'm Cody Tyler, Miss Parker's assistant. Please," he rose and shook the man's hand and then gestured to one of the chairs in front of the desk, "be seated." He sat down himself and waited until the military man had finally folded his tall frame into the chair. "Now, what can the Centre do for you today?"

"You can tell me why the hell my pharmaceutical project has been kill-filed," the man demanded in a low and dangerous voice.

"Which project is that?" Tyler asked, reaching for the folder in which Miss Parker had left the list of military projects that she had decided were of questionable value and ordered stopped immediately.

"Project Veracity," Stiller informed him bluntly and then watched as the young man at the desk sorted through a number of papers until he pulled the one he wanted out to read more completely.

"I believe Miss Parker explained what was going on when she met with some of your colleagues about a week ago," the Southerner explained patiently. "She had serious concerns about the research being done without proper authorization by official Department of Defense personnel - the lack of an affidavit from any ranking Air Force official being one of the more glaring examples of what caused her concern."

Stiller bristled - this was obviously not the kind of news that he'd wanted to hear. "My office has made several payments on this project..."

Tyler nodded, still not letting the man's attitude get to him. "I see here that among the repayments made directly to the Pentagon for projects deemed inappropriate or inadequately authorized, a check in the amount of three hundred thousand dollars was cut as reimbursement for unused funds earmarked for Project Veracity." He lowered the paper. "I can make a copy of the documentation that I have, so that you can know for certain that we're not withholding any funding that rightfully belongs to you. But I suggest, sir, if you've not been refunded the money from your own people at the Pentagon, that you should take the matter up with THEM, and not US."

"Now see here! You people signed a contract..." Stiller exploded.

"Unfortunately, you signed your contract with the previous Chairman here. Since his removal, we've discovered that he was a man who was willing to have the Centre performing all kinds of research for all kinds of people - legitimate and otherwise. The administration of the Centre has changed, as much due to this fact as anything else, and the Centre is no longer willing to disregard legitimacy issues. In the case of ongoing projects, we have liquidated a goodly portion of our surplus in order to reimburse various former clients any funds earmarked for their projects, and we have a receipt on file showing that all research materials relating to Veracity were also turned over to a representative of the Pentagon, who signed for them." Tyler's voice became just a bit more firm and unyielding. "I suggest again, sir, that any questions or problems you have you should direct to your Pentagon representative who took responsibility for what happened to Veracity once it left our jurisdiction."

"I don't know if you're aware of just who you're dealing with, son." Stiller's voice had grown low and even more dangerous. "I represent a branch of the United States Military that has a vested interest in developing adequate offensive tools to use in the defense of the country. Veracity held the potential for helping us crack suspected terrorists, giving us a head's-up on future attacks still in the planning stages. You CAN'T just drop out of the development of such an important tool without jeopardizing your chances at winning future military contracts."

Tyler shrugged. "I'm really sorry, Colonel. The decision to scrap our involvement in Veracity wasn't mine, but Miss Parker's - and she's not here right now. I can pass along your concerns for our future ability to deal with the Pentagon," his tone had grown dry, "and, perhaps, you should consider scheduling another appointment with Miss Parker when she has returned. But until then..."

"You mean you don't have the authority to put things back into place and just get your people back to work on Veracity?"

"Colonel Stiller, Miss Parker left the Centre in my hands during her absence. I can do whatever the Hell I want that I think she would approve of. The problem is that, if this decision is any indication, she wouldn't approve of reactivating Veracity at the Centre at all."

Stiller's eyes narrowed. "Meaning you either don't have the authority, or the balls, to do it."

Tyler swallowed back a scathing retort. "I think our meeting is concluded, Colonel." He rose and walked over to his office door and opened it. "Further discussion at this time would be both futile and a waste of my time and yours. As I said, you can make an appointment with my secretary to speak with Miss Parker at a later date, if you wish."

After enough time to tell Tyler just how much Stiller resented being dismissed in such a fashion, the military man rose and stalked over to the door. "I don't do business with errand-boys, BOY. I expect the person occupying the Chairman's office to have the ability and the will to do what's right."

"I'm no errand-boy, SIR," Tyler finally let a little of his ire show, "and I believe that I AM exercising both the ability and the will to do what's right - both for the Centre and for my country. It just seems that our beliefs in that regard don't agree. Please do try your luck with Miss Parker - I will be interested in whether or not you have any better luck with her." Tyler watched the man walk past him the through the door. "Good day, sir."

Stiller didn't even bother to stop at Mei Chiang's desk, but he stormed down the hallway toward the exit without looking to his left or his right. Tyler leaned against the door and commented to the secretary, "There goes one unhappy man."

Mei Chiang nodded. "Very much, sir."

Tyler straightened and looked at his watch. "It's getting late. Tell me what kind of appointment schedule I have for tomorrow, and then go ahead and take off."

She dug out the loose-leaf notebook in which she kept all the appointments for the occupant of the Chairman's office and shook her head. "Looks like tomorrow's going to be a light day for you, sir. There's a representative from Dupont's R&D department at ten, and then you have a meeting at two thirty with the construction foremen and architects about progress on the reconstruction." She shrugged. "And that's it."

"Yes!" Tyler shot his arm into the air in a victory gesture. "And Miss Parker will be back in her own saddle the day after that - and I can go back to being an errand-boy for real."

"You're no errand boy, Mr. Tyler," Mei Chiang told him in a quiet and gently accented voice. "I think you've handled the job better than even Mr. Lyle would have, had he had any integrity at all - and certainly as well as Miss Parker could expect of you. That army man was nothing but a puff of smoke on the horizon - much hot air, little substance."

That struck Tyler's funny bone and made him chuckle. "Thanks, Mei Chiang - I needed that."

The classic Chinese features softened into an answering smile. "You're very welcome, Mr. Tyler. Good night, sir - I'll see you in the morning."

"Good night." Tyler moved back through the office door and closed it behind him. Something was brewing, he knew. Since the organizational shake-up in the wake of a demolished Tower and her taking charge of the place, it seemed that there was always something brewing. When she had first told him of the kind of place that the Centre had been for years - the kind of work that had been done there and the apparent reason for its existence - he hadn't necessarily believed her.

Now, however, between being part of the effort to disengage the Centre from its crime syndicate connections and now questionable military endeavors, he was starting to think that maybe she'd been making the picture even less ominous that it had really been. She'd asked him once, not long after they'd met, "what kind of organization keeps its own morgue?" He hadn't had a good answer for her then, and the answer that he was starting to put together now was even less comfortable to consider.

He sat himself down at his desk and began to read up on this Project Veracity. Just what exactly had this Stiller been trying to acquire?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Sydney sighed in relief as Kevin carefully moved the CPM machine from the couch that had been his day bed and prison for over a week now. "Ah!" he breathed, moving his legs over the edge of the day bed and preparing to rise. "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last..."

Kevin only wrinkled his brows together. "But Sydney, you ARE free..." he began to complain, only to see his mentor chuckle and wave at him.

"It's just a saying, Kevin - words to an old protest song," Sydney explained patiently and then carefully rose to his feet, hissing as the knee protested agonizingly at having weight put on it immediately after therapy. Kevin reached for the crutches that were the key to Sydney's mobility, and the older man carefully tucked them under his arms.

"How's the side this evening?" the young Pretender asked.

"A little stiff, but otherwise alright, I guess." Sydney began to move slowly and carefully in the direction of the bathroom - his usual routine now after spending the better part of the day strapped to his "gizmo". "Did you have a good time at the park?"

Kevin nodded while he straightened up the sheets and covers on the day bed. "I miss having Deb or Davy with me, though."

"They'll be back tomorrow evening," the old psychiatrist called from inside the bathroom before shutting the door.

"I know," Kevin said to himself happily. Ever since Sydney had relayed the message from Miss Parker of Deb's pending release today, he'd felt a surge of excitement building inside him. How he'd missed her gentle mentoring into the world of a free young adult! And even Davy's childish antics had been sorely missed. Kevin suddenly realized that he'd genuinely missed the members of his family and was looking forward to having them back in his life again. It was an unfamiliar feeling - but he was finding anticipation wasn't all that bad when the coming event was a GOOD one...

"Do you think that Deb will want to go to the movies when she gets home?" he pressed his mentor the moment the other man reappeared into the den.

"Kevin," Sydney cautioned not for the first time. "You're going to need to remember that Deb has just been through something truly horrific. She may not be in the mood to do much of anything for a while other than just soak up the feeling of being safe at home again. And you remember that it took time for you to start to feel safe here again yourself - it may take her even longer to make that same adjustment."

"Is she..." the young man began again, then waited for his mentor to work his way from the den into the kitchen to begin to go through the refrigerator in search of what would be their meal for the evening.

"Is she what?"

"Is she going to be OK?" Kevin's tone spoke his worry.

"Physically, she'll be healing," Sydney answered slowly. "Emotionally..." He shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine at the moment. Miss Parker did say that her doctor there wanted her to stay off of her foot as much as possible until it was completely healed." He gave his new protégé a sharp look. "I doubt she'll be wanting to go over to the park and swing for a while, just so you know..."

"I just want her to be all right." Kevin sank his chin in his hand.

"I know," Sydney responded in sympathy. "So do I, for that matter. And with any luck, and maybe if she'll let me work with her a bit, we'll be able to get her back to as close to the way she was before all this began as possible. BUT..." he twisted about as best he could to gaze at Kevin over his shoulder, "we'll both have to be very patient with her. She ISN'T going to be the same person - and our pushing or trying to force her to be won't help matters."

Kevin sighed, with no ready response to the advice. Yes, his best friend was coming home - but she wasn't going to be the same person she was when she left. It was confusing. Luckily, the telephone rang just as he was about to heave another heavy sigh that would have caught Sydney's attention and started him off on another round of cautionary advice again. "Hello?"

"Hey, Kevin, this is Cody..."

Kevin smiled. He and Cody had talked several times since Deb's disappearance, and the young man had become almost as much of a role model for him as Sydney was. "Hi, Cody."

"Listen, do you think I could talk to Sydney for a minute?"

"Sure." Kevin held the handset out. "It's Cody Tyler - for you."

"For me?" Sydney frowned slightly and then took the phone. "This is Sydney."

"I'm sorry to bother you - did I disrupt your dinner?"

"Not at all." Sydney shook his head. "It was just in the planning stages. What can I do for you?"

"First, DON'T tell Miss Parker I called you - we had a bet on that I wouldn't need to call you for help, and technically I'm not, but I'm guessing she'd still see this as reason to hit me up for a steak dinner..."

Sydney was chuckling heartily. "I tell you what. Whether I tell her or not depends on just exactly what it is you have to ask me."

Now Tyler was chuckling. He didn't know the aging psychiatrist very well, but what little he knew of the man told him that he had a good sense of humor and a willingness to play along when it came to his family. "I just want to pick your brain and see if you knew of a man by the name of Colonel Stiller."

"Army?"

"Air Force."

Sydney thought for a while, trying to remember back to the few times over the years when he'd actually been present for some of the client demonstrations of Pretender-worked projects. He shook his head again. "I don't remember that name ever being mentioned that I was aware of. What's up?"

"I just had him in my - Miss Parker's - office demanding that I restart a project that he evidently was the contact for. I was just wondering if you'd ever heard his name in conjunction with any other projects you knew of."

Sydney leaned his backside against his kitchen counter so that he could take a little of the weight off of the bad knee and still be stable. "All I can tell you is that the Centre did a number of projects with various branches of the military over the years - and I'm certain that I've heard several names mentioned in regards to those projects over the years. But Stiller was never one of the ones I remember. You are aware that several of those projects that Miss Parker killed were probably black-ops oriented..."

"That's exactly what this one sounds like - what other purposes could be put to a substance whose project name is 'Veracity' and, I was told, was supposed to be a substance to be used on cracking suspected terrorists?"

"Don't get me started," Sydney replied wryly. "Some of the truth serums that Jarod worked on over the years I later found out were put to use as brain-washing tools. Several of those chemicals leave the mind very open to suggestion - making them ideal offensive tools in the wrong hands. Several were downright lethal in sufficient dosages, and some could have been better classified as chemical torture."

Tyler was nodding. Sydney wasn't telling him anything that he hadn't already started to suspect, even though his knowledge of the terminology in the few documents left on the system pertaining to Veracity was extremely limited. "This is the third time we've had visits from the military about one cancelled project or another since Miss Parker took off - and I know she had at least one meeting with some Pentagon luminaries before she left. I'm starting to wonder whether there's a pattern developing - and/or whether we're going to have to be very careful lest we run afoul of government people not at all interested in seeing our rights protected, if you know what I mean..."

"I agree with you. If you'll take a word of advice, you'll want to document all your meetings or telephone calls with these men and turn the information over to Miss Parker and Sam the moment they get back. You DO still have the surveillance equipment in the office and on the Chairman's telephone lines, don't you?"

Tyler chuckled. "Sam wouldn't let Miss Parker remove them."

"Good man!" Sydney's chuckle held no mirth. "Then get DSAs made of any meetings you had - especially this last one - so that she can review the data for any clues she needs Sam to follow. And get a typist to make a transcript of any phone calls you took from this Stiller or any other military man who sounded upset. You can't afford to let this lapse - knowing some of these people and what they're capable of, every minute counts."

"Thanks, Sydney, I'll get right on it." Tyler paused. "So - what do you think? Are you going to tell her I called?"

Sydney smiled. "I don't think so. I would imagine that she would have been bouncing these same ideas with me herself in your place - so why should she weasel a steak dinner out of you for something that she'd have done too?"

Tyler laughed out loud. "I like the way you think, Sydney."

"I'm just glad you were there to give her a chance to spend time with her family," Sydney told him sincerely. "Between the explosion and now this, she really hasn't taken the time to do that properly."

"Glad to have done it," Tyler responded. "Talk to you later, then, and thanks again."

"Good night, Tyler. Have a good evening."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

As she'd been promised when she'd called San Francisco office, there was a Centre limousine just waiting on the edge of the tarmac for the little jet to pull to a stop in front of the Centre's hangar. Within moments, the driver had pulled the limousine close and had the trunk open to receive any luggage. Sam carried the few bundles down the steps and placed them in the trunk himself, then patted the sweeper who had driven the car on the back. "I've called for a rental for you and the pilot to use to get yourselves a room at a local motel for the evening," he told the man. "I'll take over from here. We'll have the limo back to you in the morning."

"Yes, sir."

The sweeper then stood by holding the back door open as Sam went back up the steps of the jet and came back down only minutes later carrying a very pretty blonde girl in his arms. The sweeper opened the back door to the limo and stood back while Sam carefully deposited his cargo on the nearest seat. Behind Sam by just a few seconds was the Centre's Chairman, Miss Parker, dressed in very informal clothing. "Ma'am," the sweeper nodded his head respectfully as she passed by.

Grey eyes came up and met very briefly and intensely with his, and the sweeper knew that his measure had been taken by one not only capable but likely to take such an action. "Thank you," was the astonishing thing to come out of her mouth. The sweeper's eyes widened - in all his years of standing guard over Centre assets, this was the first time he'd been thanked for doing his job properly - and by the Chairman herself at that. Just WAIT until he could tell the guys back in San Francisco!

She climbed into the limousine without another word while Sam moved quickly to the driver's door and slid behind the wheel. The vehicle's quiet but powerful engine turned over and the long black car moved forward and then turned toward the gate that would lead back to the open road. Sam watched for the landmarks that Miss Parker had described to him that indicated where he should turn on the trip to Jarod's home. He had spent the last hour of the flight memorizing the directions she'd given him so as not to have to ask her again.

Miss Parker sighed inwardly yet again. Deb was staring out the window of the limousine without much interest, her hands folded quietly in her lap. This was not the Deb Broots that she'd known and mothered over the years - that girl would have been chattering happily the entire trip. Maybe Jarod could give her some ideas on how to help the girl come out from under her dark cloud for the short term. As it was, she was starting to wonder if getting her into a institutionalized setting where she could get the kind of intensive therapy she needed hadn't been such a bad idea after all. She would call Sydney later that evening and spill her concerns into his ear and then wait for his assessment of the situation once Deb had been home long enough for him to see and talk to her at length.

Sam skillfully steered the big car through increasingly narrower and narrower streets until he finally entered a lane that obviously dead-ended at virtually the water's edge. "This the place?" he asked Miss Parker, not sure which of the drives to slip into.

"The last one," she directed, peering out and letting go a sigh of relief to see Jarod's little sports car parked in the garage. "You gotta know that it would be Jarod driving around in another one of those little bombs - the others are far too sensible for such things." With a chuckle, Sam nosed the limousine up the drive and close to the back bumper, then turned off the engine. Miss Parker reached for the door handle. "I'll get the bags, you take care of Deb..."

"I can walk," the girl insisted quickly, not wanting to be seen as an invalid by the strangers she was about to meet.

"Deb, no." Miss Parker shook her head firmly, then put her hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "You don't have to prove anything to anybody here."

Deb ducked her head down, feeling herself fog with unshed tears. "You mean everybody here knows..."

"Sweetheart," Miss Parker put her arm around her finally. "What they know is that you were injured and have been fighting an infection that kept you in the hospital - nothing else." Deb's blue eyes came up and looked sharply at her. "Jarod and I felt that nothing would be accomplished by telling them any of the rest of it. That part is private, and will stay that way."

Deb nodded in gratitude. It was bad enough that those who knew her at home would be looking at her with pity - and making her feel dirty and used in the process - knowing that she didn't have to face a roomful of strangers doing the same thing was comforting. And her foot really did hurt, despite Sam carrying her and the wheelchair that had carried her before then...

"Sam," Miss Parker beckoned as she headed for the trunk, and the big ex-sweeper reached in and carefully caught the girl up into his arms again as before. "This way." Miss Parker led the way around the carport posts and into the little courtyard that was the enclosed front yard to the house.

The door flew open just as she was putting out her hand to the knob, and then she had Davy with his arms clasped tightly around her waist. "You're back!" he crowed happily, then looked up at Deb in Sam's keeping. "And you're here at last too! Hi Sam," he added to the big man.

"Hi there," Deb relented and smiled a little smile for him. It WAS good to see Davy again.

"Hey, Squirt," Sam answered at almost the same time. The boy looked and sounded much better than he had the last time he'd seen him - much less sunburned and gravel-voiced.

"Davy, at least let your mother into the house!" Jarod's voice sounded as if he were standing just out of sight around the front door. The tall Pretender took charge of the door and pulled it open all the way so that his child-encumbered fiancée could squeeze through. "And there she is," he said gently to Deb, who leaned her head against Sam but smiled a greeting.

"Hi, Uncle Jarod."

"Sam."

"Lab-rat."

"You, young lady, get the comfy couch," Jarod announced, leading the way into his living room and pointing out a place already prepared with an ottoman handy for sore feet to rest upon.

Miss Parker deposited the small bundles that were Deb's and Sam's bags on the floor out of the way and then looked around. "Where's Ginger?" she asked Jarod, who merely turned to jerk his nose in the direction of the kitchen. There, with eyes wide at the virtual procession that had just come into her new home, was the little girl, still clutching her teddy bear with its arm in a sling to her chest tightly. Miss Parker walked up to her slowly and then crouched down. "Hi, baby," she greeted the girl softly. "Did you have a good day?"

Ginger's gaze flicked back and forth between the very big man who was helping get the new girl onto the couch comfortably and Her, and then nodded slowly.

Miss Parker saw the wary glance. "That's Sam. I know he's very big and maybe a little scary, but he's just a big pussycat. He helps take care of me at work, keeps me safe - and he'll help keep you safe too, you'll see."

Sam heard himself being mentioned and turned to find himself under the intense scrutiny of a tiny girl. Jarod pointed so that Deb could also see the child. "That's Ginger, Deb, Sam... Missy and I are adopting her." His lips curled into a gentle smirk. "We call her Sprite sometimes."

Margaret came through the kitchen door and put a comforting hand on her little granddaughter's shoulder. "I'm thinking, that with your young friend not walking so well, that we could just have an indoor picnic and eat wherever we want," she told Miss Parker. "We don't always have to be so stuffy and formal and eat at a table..."

"Sounds good to me." Miss Parker straightened to get a quick hug from Jarod's mother. "Very practical. One of these days, I'll be able to think like that..."

Margaret chuckled. "Takes practice, my dear. Just practice."

"I got my stuff moved into Ginger's room, like you wanted," Davy announced with pride.

"That's what your Aunt told me," Miss Parker replied. "How about you - did you have a good day?"

"Sammy and I played trucks most of the day, until he went home a little while ago."

"A problem?" Miss Parker looked her question at Jarod and Margaret.

Margaret chuckled again. "Nope. An accident with a glass of cherry drink."

Davy had approached Deb now that he'd told his mother that he'd done as she'd asked. "Can you walk yet?" he asked her quietly.

"Yeah, some," she answered equally softly, "but your mom has had Sam carrying me all over the place. My doctor told her he wanted me to take it easy, and I haven't taken a step on my own yet."

"Enjoy the pampering, Short Stuff," Sam said, looking down and hearing the exchange. "When you get to your Grandpa Sydney's, he won't be in any shape to cart you around. He's pretty well stuck on his couch or on crutches until his knee heals."

Davy and Deb exchanged a worried glance, and Deb's stomach turned sourly. More people had been hurt in that "dark time" than just she and Davy - Miss Parker had even mentioned Kevin's cut face once. Was there no way to escape the reminders... "I think I'll be ready to move around on my own by then anyway," she told him firmly.

"Sam," Jarod beckoned, and the ex-sweeper walked over, "I'd like you to meet my mother."

"Maggie," Margaret said, putting out her hand to someone she just knew at one time had been one of the people hunting her son. Since meeting and getting to know Missy a little bit over the last few days, she was starting to reassess her opinions of the people who had remained behind in Delaware that Jarod obviously cared for. Sam was one of those people - someone for whom Jarod had gained respect. For Jarod's sake, she'd give the man the benefit of the doubt.

Sam shook her hand carefully. "Pleased to meet you, Maggie," he said, then added, "I'm glad I'm meeting you under THESE circumstances, ma'am."

"Where are Ethan and Jay?" Miss Parker asked Jarod suddenly.

"Jay went back with Em and Nathan, and he'll be over in about a half hour with them. Ethan had a few things to do at the office after hours - he should be by anytime now." Jarod looked down when he felt a tug on his pantsleg and saw Ginger trying to sidle up to him and away from Sam. He bent down and picked her up. "He's big, isn't he?" he asked softly. Ginger nodded. "Does he scare you?" She nodded again. Jarod looked into Sam's face and saw the briefest flash of sorrow and decided to take the matter into hand.

"You know, Sprite, that Sam can give MUCH better tips than I can..." Jarod told her with a mischievous smirk on his face. "AND, if you can get him to do it, he'll put you up on his shoulders so that you can almost touch the ceiling."

Ginger gave the huge man another penetrating gaze and then let herself snuggle down on His shoulder. Maybe the big man could give neat tip-overs - she still preferred His company to anybody else's.

"Sorry, Sam," Jarod told his friend, "I tried."

"That's OK, Jarod. We'll have lots of time to get over the scaries when you get home."

There was a loud knock on the front door, and then Emily, Nathan, Ethan and Sammy were pouring through the portal. "Good. Everybody's here now," Jarod announced to nobody in particular. He put Ginger down. "You go see if your grandma needs anything," he directed her, and she trotted back toward the kitchen. "We'll put the kids at the coffee table," he announced, pulling the table out a bit from the couch so that all sides of it were available, "and dinner tonight is picnic-style."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"We simply can't have that," Stiller complained again, this time to a far more receptive audience.

"The Centre has been the backbone of our research and development for decades," General Curtis sipped at his whiskey sour unhappily. "There have been so few R&D firms willing to take on our projects."

"All of this because we weren't running through 'official' channels," Stiller complained again and took a big gulp of his beer. "And all our money - all our research to date - has been turned over to those paper-pushers at the Pentagon."

"Shit," Curtis grumbled. "If the Pentagon has our stuff, we'll have to start from scratch if we can't think of a way to change this Miss Parker's mind about working for us."

"Hell, she isn't even THERE to talk to. I ended up with a pimply-faced errand boy too scared of his boss' bark to just start Veracity back up on the QT without asking her permission."

"What if," Curtis leaned forward, "we found out who the researchers were on the project originally, and we do our dealings straight with THEM?"

"Timeframes, Doug, timeframes. Cliff Burkowitz wants to take a crack at a few of those Taliban boys in Guantanamo before the pressure builds to either deport them all home or they end up on trial."

"So?" Curtis leaned back and ran his hand across his steel-grey buzz-cut, the light from the dim bulb above reflecting weakly in the huge ruby of his graduation ring from The Fortress.

"Those Centre researchers aren't going to be just sitting around on their thumbs idle. No doubt the Parker woman will see to it that they get new projects to run. Even if we COULD get them to work for us under the table, the amount of time they'd be dedicating to our project would be seriously diminished - meaning that we wouldn't have Veracity by the time we need it."

"But even that would be better than being absolutely dead in the water!" Curtis insisted vehemently and then looked around the dimly lit bar before leaning forward over the table toward his colleague again. "I know that you have contacts in the Centre - people who are just as concerned about the security of our country as we are - who'll be able to give you a name or two."

"The errand-boy made it sound like the Centre handed over all the R&D materials for Veracity to those Pentagon lapdogs. That means that the researchers won't have their old paper to work from."

Curtis just shook his head. "I have yet to meet any scientist worth his salt that doesn't keep PRIVATE notes about on-going projects. Not all of them are doing the work out of pure altruism - some of them know that a certain kind of information, given to the right party, can be extremely lucrative..."

"So you're telling me," Stiller sipped thoughtfully at his beer, "that we not only need to find a Centre chemist who would be willing to work on Veracity on his own time - reimbursed by us, of course, but definitely moonlighting - but who was cagey enough to have held on to his research notes even when asked to turn them over?"

"Face it, once we've uncovered a man like that, we'll be able to sell that information to others like us who want to have their projects re-activated." Curtis smiled, his tooth-filled grin cold and calculating. "After all, why should it only be the US military establishment that has a shadow hierarchy? If we can resurrect a ghost of the old Centre at the heart of the new..."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"I'm tired, Uncle Jarod," Deb said a little bit louder to be heard through the chatter of other voices. That did it - she finally had his attention after several attempts to catch his eye. "I think I'd like to lie down, please..."

"Sam," Miss Parker also heard the call and motioned to her Security Chief, who rose immediately.

"I think I'd really like to walk, if you don't mind," Deb insisted, holding up a hand to keep Sam at bay. "I just need to know which room you have me in..."

"Doctor Ramsey..." Miss Parker started.

"Please, Miss Parker? Doctor Ramsey WAS letting me walk up and down the halls at the hospital too, you know... and I haven't taken a step on my own all day..."

Jarod rose and came over in front of Deb. "You can lean on me, and I'll show you the way," the Pretender moderated with an eye to Miss Parker. "I know how it is to get cabin fever just from not being able to move under your own power."

Miss Parker nodded then. Deb had been very quiet throughout the entire meal, despite Jay's obvious attempts to engage the pretty girl in conversation. And she knew that Jarod had been aware of the situation, having caught his eye and shared a glance of concern with him more than once. Maybe he could get her to open up to him a little now, before they headed home.

"Thanks," Deb said gratefully as she accepted Jarod's hand to help her pull herself to her feet and then felt his arm wrap around her middle to give her some stability as she walked.

He paused them as he neared the small pile of luggage. "Which one of these is yours?"

"The grocery sack," Deb said quietly. "I didn't exactly plan this trip..."

Jarod refrained from commenting on that; he just bent to pick up the sack and help Deb down the hallway to his second guest room - which, until that day, had been Davy's. "The bathroom's just right across there," he pointed and then walked her into the bedroom and to sit on the bed. "Anything else I can get you?"

"No," Deb said softly in a voice that he had to work hard to hear. "Just close the door when you leave. I'll be OK."

"Deb," he said gently and then crouched in front of her, "you don't have to come back here and hide.

"I know, Uncle Jarod. I'm not hiding, I promise," she lied glibly.

From the expression in his dark eyes, she knew that he didn't believe her. But, for the time being, he was going to let the matter rest. "Good night then," he said, rising and then bending over her to drop a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Sleep well."

"Good night," she said and watched him quietly close the door after himself, leaving her finally alone in the room.

With a brusque movement, she brushed the sack with her meager belongings onto the floor so that she could just slip beneath the blanket and sheet without getting undressed. It hurt to slide her foot between the covers, but stretching out on the comfortable mattress with the covers pulled over her head more than made up for the discomfort.

Now, at last, she was alone and could let loose the tears that had been slowly building up in her since the end of the police interrogation. It was SO hard, this Pretending, she decided. And she was going home, where Grandpa's quick eye and observant gaze would miss nothing.

She rolled over, keeping the blankets pulled over her head, and not for the first time wished she was dead.

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