Author's note: Eight years ago, readers on my private archive were disappointed when I told them I was unable to finish this story - the last I will ever write for The Pretender. Of late, however, my Muse has returned and is enabling me to finish it at last. And so, without further ado...
Enjoy the ride.
Chapter 1 - Prologue
Sam rocked back on his heels and cast his eyes yet once more from his assigned post near the south exit over the crowd of people that had packed the Dover Convention Center ballroom floor. He'd been in that one spot for over two hours now, his feet ached, and he seriously doubted that anybody in their right mind would be even considering crashing the event he and fifty other sweepers watched over so carefully. But, orders were orders; and when orders like these came down from the Tower itself, the cream of the sweeper corps could do nothing but comply.
At the south end of the room, he knew that Willy and his so-called 'elite' group were clustered around Mr. Raines and Lyle. It was, after all, a celebration of their eighth year at the head of the Centre without old Mr. Parker in the way, eight years of a reign of terror that had nearly every reasonable Centre employee wondering whether it was safer to go to work every morning or to step in front of a speeding semi. Secrecy overall had been compounding almost daily, security clearances had been diminishing apace, the nature of the research done in Blue Cove turning ever more bizarre and morale was plummeting.
Sam knew this only because he continued to remain close to the top of the authoritative food chain with his permanent assignment as Miss Parker's personal sweeper; although as time was passing lately, he was noticing that Lyle was beginning to NOT pass along information that Miss Parker needed as the nominal head of Surveillance, Information and Security, otherwise known as SIS. Then again, much of that information was meant for Lyle to use against his twin sister, and the source of that information was most likely the Chairman himself, so being out of the loop was an executive decision. Since the spectacular failure of the effort to recapture Jarod was now standing at eight years and counting, Raines had obviously begun to play favorites, and Miss Parker seemed perfectly happy to NOT be the current beneficiary of his largess. She had survived the first 'contest' and was perfectly capable of holding her own, even with Raines feeding Lyle inside information.
The tall, dark-haired sweeper sniffed and let his eyes pick out his permanent assignment from amidst the crowd of government officials, Triumvirate representatives, military-industrial representatives and top Centre brass. She was, as usual, dressed to kill: stunning in a strapless, sapphire-blue sequined gown that made her sparkle like a slender, illuminated gem amidst the sea of black and white of the tuxedoes that surrounded her. She sipped delicately from her champagne flute and, to all appearances, seemed to be enjoying herself, but Sam knew better. He'd been around her long enough to see the frayed edge to that plastic smile she had pasted on her face, to see the coldness in her gaze that was fatigue and frustration.
His eyes darted about in her immediate vicinity and quickly found those he'd been looking for. Sydney was looking more dapper than usual in his tux, hovering close but not too close to his sapphire-clad colleague and watching over her as usual while seeming to participate fully in a conversation with someone Sam had never met. That vigilance actually made Sam feel better, because he knew deep down that the old psychiatrist would be quick to intervene if anything to do with Miss Parker started getting too intense. Then again, Sydney had been watching her more carefully of late anyway, long before this ridiculous soirée was even in the planning stages, so having him still on watch despite the formalities and crowd wasn't necessarily a good sign.
Broots, however, was finally located over by the buffet table, conversing with a great deal of animation with another of his Computer Technologies colleagues. Sam sniffed; they were probably talking that geeky lingo that computer users seemed to slip into at a moment's notice that nobody else on the face of the earth understood. All that alphabet soup – ISP, DNS, DSL – made for a language that was mostly gibberish. And yet… Yes, there it was! Broots' eyes cast out over the crowd and first touched Sydney and then Miss Parker. The geek was being as watchful as the psychiatrist.
Sam's eyes re-found his boss again. How did she do it, he wondered, keep all those corporate weasels at bay and still have a come-on smile on her face? No doubt her words were that delightfully subtle caustic that she used whenever dealing with Mr. Raines or his latest agenda, words that could keep a man nicely at bay without being totally repulsed. She hated shindigs like these, and he happened to know for a fact that she had actually had the guts to protest the order that had dragged her to this one to Mr. Raines himself. And yet she could put on a show like nobody's business when pressed into involuntary service despite her reasoned arguments. Sam's gaze caressed his boss with pride from across the room, where she'd never think to notice it. His position had its perks, one of which was being privileged to watch her survive and actually come out ahead in this tank filled with corporate sharks.
Then the sweeper's blue eyes darkened dangerously as he watched Willy, the new head sweeper as of last week, head in his direction. He'd never had much time for the dark-skinned bully that never seemed too far separated from Mr. Raines' side; having him for a direct superior of late had been downright infuriating. Willy played favorites with the corps members, and he seemed to now be prizing the Centre's version of political correctness over skill and training. Sam had made his resentment and disagreement with the policy anything but a secret, commenting on it often enough that word was sure to get back to Willy, and he knew that one day he'd hear about his border-line insubordination. But this was in public…
"Take a fifteen-minute break," Willy announced quietly when he'd drawn near enough. "This is going to go on for another three hours or more at least, so you take your break and be back promptly."
"Right." Sam had adopted the practice of giving Willy monosyllabic and monotone answers to his orders mostly out of self defense. If he ever told the man to his face what he REALLY thought of him, there'd be blood flowing somewhere by the end of the evening. Besides, his feet really were starting to ache, what with standing in the same place for all that time; he could use some sit-down time.
Willy twitched a finger, and one of those politically vetted 'elite' sweepers who couldn't shoot or think their way out of a paper bag moved into Sam's position and adopted the typical stance of a sweeper on duty: feet apart, hands hanging at sides, eyes constantly brushing over the crowd. Sam nodded at his relief and headed out the south exit he'd been watching and down the brightly lit and festooned corridor towards the restrooms he knew were not far away. He'd been careful to limit the amount of fluids he'd had before taking up his post at the celebration, but even that little bit had long since had its chance to work its way through his system.
Feeling lighter and far more comfortable everywhere except his feet, Sam spotted a small alcove not far away that had a table, chair, lamp and pay phone, and headed for it. There was no way in Hell that he was going to spend his fifteen – now twelve – minutes of freedom pushing through a crowd of people he not only didn't know but didn't really want to be with. Sighing, he settled into the chair, turned the lamp off so that his position wouldn't be readily noticeable, and relaxed, closed his eyes and let himself drift just a bit. His time sense was on alert status so that he'd head back to the ballroom in exactly eight minutes, but he'd have his break and his rest before then.
From time to time, a set of voices would approach and then dissipate as couples and clumps of guests would make their way to the restrooms or toward the main entrance to the convention center itself. Their presence kept him awake after all; and as his uncanny time sense told him his eight-minutes was almost up, he straightened in the chair and made to rise.
"Are you sure?" came the sound of one rather excited voice from nearby and drawing closer.
"C'mon, tell me you don't think the Centre is ripe for the slaughter after this," was the reply. Sam sank back into his pool of darkness to listen. Something was going on here that he needed to hear…
"What do the others think?" There was a short pause. "You have talked to them, haven't you?"
The second person gave a short, sharp laugh. "They're frankly astonished that nobody's ever seen anything like it before from the Centre. It makes for a window of opportunity that simply can't be ignored. What's more, if we managed to carry this thing off, I'm sure we'll end up with most of the business the Centre's been stealing in our back pockets once again, as well as most of the clients that have always done business with Blue Cove."
"I'm still not sure this is gonna work," the first voice hesitated. "They've got a pretty canny lady at the head of Centre Security. If she twigs to any of this, if we make any moves that make her suspicious, we're dead in the water. Game over."
"That's why we'll just have to make sure that she stays in the dark until it's too late," the second voice insisted darkly. "If she starts to suspect, we'll know because of where she starts to look and how she begins to modify the security there. At that point, she will have become more of a liability than we need, and we'll just take her out of the picture."
"And that won't call attention to what we're doing?" the first voice was astonished.
"Not if it's done right," the second voice shushed at its comrade. "Accidents happen all the time, you know…"
"What about that monster Raines keeps with him – Lyle?"
"You're the one who told me that the Yakuza want his ass in the worst kind of way, now that Sonny Tanaka is dead in prison. Hell, I've been thinking that they'd be the first clients in our pockets if we could give Lyle to them still kickin'." There was a short pause. "No, the one we really have to watch out for is the Parker bitch."
"Why don't we just get rid of her right up front, then?"
"Because the longer we can keep her in the dark, the closer we can get to running Raines and the Centre entirely into the ground before we jerk the rug out from underneath him. Once we have to remove Parker, our hand will be halfway revealed. The risks more than double then."
"I still don't like it." The first voice sounded very skeptical.
"You'll do as you're told," the second voice had a touch of steel will behind it. "Our techs have found a back door into the Centre mainframe, so it's only a matter of time now. You keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and stay on the job! You're the best one among us to know if they're starting to smell anything fishy. You've been there long enough and have enough seniority…"
"I hate being the insider. I'm ready to come home."
"You just hang tight," the first voice urged tersely. "If all goes as planned, you'll be stuck in the Centre for only a little while longer. But we need to get back before they miss you or come and find us together. No need to cause undue comment before it's necessary…"
Sam rose slowly out of his pool of darkness and stared thoughtfully at the gaping south entrance to the ballroom. He hadn't been able to see many of the features of the men who had just conferred without knowing he was listening, and they had faded quickly into the sea of tuxedos. He shook himself and walked briskly and with determination to the entrance and touched his replacement on the shoulder to indicate that he was back and ready to resume his duty.
"You're late," the sullen blonde sweeper grumbled as he shifted and let Sam take the optimal position that gave him the best view.
"I'm here, aren't I?" Sam grumbled back.
"Asshole," the sweeper tossed over his shoulder as he headed off through the crowd to rejoin his colleagues near Raines.
Sam's eyes sought out the glistening sapphire that was his boss, only now his gaze was troubled. Something was brewing, something that was designed to threaten, if not destroy, the Centre eventually; and the only way for him to protect his boss from near-certain death was to make sure she heard nothing about it. That didn't make sense, he told himself with a quick shake of the head. The more aware of what was going on around her Miss Parker could be, the better she could defend herself…
Against an accident? Against an attack made to look like an accident?
What was he supposed to do? If he uttered a word of what he'd overheard to Miss Parker, there wasn't a doubt in his mind that she'd do exactly as the conspirators had anticipated: she'd begin poking around in things she normally left alone AND she'd begin making adjustments to the Centre security systems. Yet if he kept his mouth shut, and she innocently began to poke around anyway – even if out of sheer boredom – he'd be running the risk of her ending up the victim of an arranged accident.
Who could he tell, then? Certainly not Raines! If it weren't for the fact that the old ghoul's moniker sat on his paycheck every week, he wouldn't care if those men DID rip the Centre out from underneath him. He could always get another job, and no doubt so could Broots and Miss Parker while Sydney could just retire. Tell Lyle? Not a chance in hell. Telling Sydney or Broots was out of the question as well, because in telling them he might as well tell Miss Parker too. Their concern for her welfare would give everything away without the need to utter a word, and then she'd be in danger.
No, it looked as if he was going to have to deal with this conundrum on his own. He had to protect Miss Parker, even from herself, if need be. He'd probably end up regretting it, but he really didn't have any choice.