“Hear you’re offering money.”
Miss Parker turned and drew her gun in one smooth motion. She had been out for a smoke and hadn’t felt anyone come up behind her. No one should have been able to come up behind her. The young male punk facing the barrel of her gun never blinked. He was staring into her eyes.
“You know where Jarod is?” Miss Parker did not lower her gun.
The man nodded.
Miss Parker was suspicious. “Did Jarod put you up to this?”
The man shook his head, ‘no.’
“Than why are you just now coming forward?”
He motioned to the coffee shop across the street. “Shift starts in ten minutes.”
Miss Parker slowly put her gun away. “How do you know Jarod?”
“Comes in for ice cream.”
Miss Parker offered a brilliant smile. The young man’s expression never changed. “Really? And why are you doing this?”
“I’m broke,” he shrugged.
Miss Parker’s grin widened. “I’m sure we can help with that.”
The man nodded and walked away.
“Hey!” she called after him.
The man was not walking fast but his stride covered the distance in a remarkably short time.
“Damnit,” she muttered. This stank of a Jarod trap, so she drew her gun. She followed the punk around the corner . . . where she was grabbed. The punk threw her against the brick wall and a dark-haired female disarmed her.
A gag was stuffed in her mouth, cutting off her stream of curses, and her hands were cuffed. She was thrown into a dumpster. Miss Parker was rolled onto her back. Her eyes went wide with shock when she focused on her captors. The punk, she dismissed out of hand, but the woman . . .
Miss Parker’s first thought was that she had another twin floating about that Daddy hadn’t mentioned. The woman looked exactly liked her, the woman walked like her, the woman dressed like her. Her eyes narrowed. Damnit! Those were her clothes that the airline had lost!
The woman pirouetted awkwardly on the stilettos. “So Miss Parker, what do you think? How do I look?”
Miss Parker lowered her eyebrows, confused. It sounded like her, but the cadence was wrong.
The punk handed the other Miss Parker her gun, which ‘she’ placed in the small of her back. The woman searched the real Miss Parker’s pockets and retrieved her cigarettes and lighter.
‘She’ closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Miss Parker!” the trio heard Sam yell.
‘Miss Parker’ rounded the corner in full fury. “What!” she yelled.
The sweeper was instantly repentant. “Sorry. You said that everyone had to keep in sight of the motel room.”
“Did you think I included myself with the rest of you?” the pretender snarled. “I have someone here that will lead us to Jarod.”
Miss Parker watched as the faux Miss Parker and the punk kid walked out of her line of sight without looking back. That damned pretender. Miss Parker paused in her thinking. Jarod had to be behind this one but how?
That damned Pretender!
Riley snapped the cell phone closed with a sense of purpose.
“Done?” asked Sam.
“Done,” Riley confirmed. “The Gunny’s body is on its way to a research facility and the mage and the men cleaned up any trace of the fight and the chase. Nobody will find any evidence of the body. The Army already has paperwork for a training exercise in the area to explain away all the footprints. Gunnery Sergeant Trelfelger will be declared AWOL and will never be heard from again. It’s a satisfactory conclusion to the mission.”
Sam shook her head. “What do you owe Oz?”
Riley grinned. “What you really mean is, what do we owe Oz?”
She frowned. “Both of us? Why did you drag me into the mess?”
Riley waggled his eyebrows. “I promise you’ll enjoy how we get to pay this one.”
Sam was instantly suspicious. “Oh?”
“You and I are going on a little romantic get-away.”
“Like a second honeymoon?” Sam asked.
Riley nodded, still grinning.
“What are we going to kill?”
“Probably nothing, hopefully.”
Sam’s unease went up a notch. “So exactly how are we going to pay this little debt?”
Jarod placed every step purposefully. He was Miss Parker, for now. He knew how she thought and how she acted; one of the reasons that he had been free for so long. But now he was her. Everyone of the Centre team believed his acting skills. Tripping in Miss Parker’s three-inch heels would make the sweepers wonder. It was a good thing Jarod was a quick learner. Next time, Jarod would send Miss Parker some tennis shoes. Bright, white tennis shoes that she’d never wear. With sparkles, hot pink sparkles. The thought made him smirk. Jarod had caught Sidney gazing at the glamour once or twice, but the psychologist had remained quiet. Oz had warned that for the most part, people believe solely what they see, even the most trained of personnel.
Speaking of the most trained of personnel, the Navy NCIS team had insinuated themselves on the retrieval of ‘Jarod Waters.’ Jethro was keeping his team near the action. He was eyeing Miss Parker closely.
Then there was Tony.
Jarod delighted in sending the poor man mixed signals. The Pretender barked at the man one moment, and then he dropped Miss Parker’s hotel room key in Tony’s lap the next. Jarod was relatively sure that Tony wouldn’t lose anything important if the NCIS agent visited later that night. Jarod kept his DSA case always at hand, ‘So that damn lab rat can’t nab it.’
Jarod made Sydney and Broots lead the caravan of cars to Oz’s cabin in the swamp.
Riley was tasting the underside of his wife’s chin when he heard the outer door open with a crash. “Showtime,” he muttered.
Sam giggled. “This was definitely not what our CO had in mind when he gave us those civvie ID’s.”
Then the tiny bedroom of the Oz’s cabin was filled with officials. Sam and Riley jolted to a sitting position in a reasonable facsimile to shock.
“Hey!” Riley shouted. “What’s going on here?” Sam fumbled with the blanket.
Some of the intruders dropped their eyes only to see Riley and Sam’s clothes strewn across the room. Others chuckled but the ones in charge glared.
“What are you doing here,” a man demanded. Riley recognized him as the NCIS Agent-in-Charge.
Riley grinned, “What does it look like? I’m enjoy the quiet woods with my wife.”
An elderly gentleman stepped forward. “May I ask how you found this cabin.”
Riley shrugged, “Some guy gave us the keys and told us that we deserved to go someplace for our honeymoon.”
Jarod, as Miss Parker, snarled. He grabbed Oz by the arm and hauled him out of the cabin. “We’ll be right back,” she/he warned everyone. “Just going to have a little chit-chat.” The others stayed to question the naked couple.
As soon as the two were out of the house, they hurried for the car parked last in the driveway. “No one was supposed to be here,” muttered Jarod.
Oz shrugged as he climbed into the passenger’s seat. “Ri and Sam will keep them busy.”
Jarod started the car and shoved the gear-stick into reverse. Gravel flew as he gunned it.
Oz saw the rest of the Centre and the NCIS teams come running out at the sound. “Will they catch us?” he worried.
Jarod grinned at his friend. “Nope. Yesterday, I took the GPS for this car off-line. And I last drove the car that’s blocking all the other cars in. It’s going to have a little problem starting, or even being put into neutral so that they can push it out of the way.”
Oz nodded, relieved.
Abby shook her head, disappointed. Her face distorted on the plasma screen. “Sorry Gibbs. There’s nothing out there about the Centre. They have a flawless, if shady, reputation and a lot of governmental contracts. They call themselves a think tank. And they haven’t done anything that I can find.” McGee mumbled something to the side and Abby piped up. “Oh, I finally got through the wicked-cool computer maze Jarod left me to turn the GPS back on for the NCIS car. You’ll never guess where he left it.”
Gibbs growled. “Let’s hear it, Abby.”
Abby grinned, disappeared off screen for a moment, then returned. “It’s in Tony’s driveway.”
Tony’s head shot up. “What?”
Abby nodded. “It is. And Kate will find this interesting . . . every secret word that I had to type in to advance through the maze was a kind of junk food. You know, like ‘Ho-Ho’s’ or ‘Twinkies’ and the last one was my favorite kind of beverage.”
“Caff-Pow,” Kate filled in the blank.
“Got it in one, Kate.” Abby waited for a moment. “Need anything else, Gibbs?”
“No, Abby.” He turned off the screen to the lab and waited.
“But why is the Centre chasing Jarod?” asked Gibbs after a moment.
“Runaway employee? He’d fit right in with a think tank.” Kate offered.
“Could they be the conspiracy that Jarod can’t expose?” Gibbs questioned.
Kate stilled. She nodded her head. “It makes sense. But that makes the Centre extremely dangerous. An unknown danger.” Her eyes widened. “And Abby’s done a lot of searching about them.”
“She’ll stop,” Gibbs promised. “She’ll stop right now.” He was not about to put a member of his crew into untold danger. Gibbs might not stop looking, but Abby would.
“Are we sure Miss Parker did not help Jarod escape?” the bald old man wheezed.
The taller man stood up straight. “Yes. My daughter would not drive off with a witness and the DSA’s. She knows those are her only hope for ever leaving the Centre. The woman who impersonated her stole my daughter’s luggage from the airport.”
Raines sniffed. “A likely story.”
“A pathetic story,” Mr. Parker retorted. “My daughter would never tie herself up and lie willingly in a dumpster for hours. Jarod called and told Sydney where to find her. Both Sydney and Broots agree that somehow Angel was in the dumpster during the time she said she was.”
Mr. Parker stepped closer to Raines. “A person might wonder in such a situation. A person might remember that a son was taken from my family.”
“Sometimes, memories should be short-lived.”
“Sometimes, so should careers. Raines, I don’t like Jarod finding out Centre secrets before I do.”
Tony stared around the hotel room in shock. The wine he had brought was forgotten in his hand. The woman’s room was beyond spotless and the cleaning staff hadn’t gotten to this part of the building yet. Tony would bet that if he dusted for prints, there wouldn’t be a single one to be found.
Who would be that thorough? Why had Miss Parker given him her room key if she wasn’t planning on sticking around? What was the point? Unless to make a total idiot of Tony.
Tony would keep this little foray to himself.
“You are Daniel, aren’t you? Daniel isn’t a beast you trained. Daniel is you, the beast inside you. A . . .” Jarod searched for the right mythological term, “Were-wolf?”
Oz just stared at the on-coming bus. This was his ride to who-knew-where. Did it matter where he was going? No place out there would be home.
The musician still did not reply.
“I think I understand why you killed Gunnery Sergeant Trelfelger. You were the only one who could stop him and somebody needed to stop him. Jail would not have stopped him. He was in your territory and he was killing people and your animal instinct just . . . cut loose.”
Oz finally looked at Jarod. “What do you know of animal instinct?”
Jarod tried to chuckle. Instead it sounded like a gurgle. “About as much as I know of magic, but I want to learn. Oz, you are my friend.”
Jarod smirked back. “Honest, you are a friend, not just a subject to study.”
“Though I admit that I wouldn’t mind if you traveled with me for a little bit . . . and answered some questions.”
Jarod flipped open a little red book to a newspaper clipping inside. “How about Tennessee? A girl was killed there and the paper mentions that she thought she was a witch. I’ll need help to know if magic really was involved.”
Oz thought. “Was she a red-head?”
Jarod reviewed the case. “Ah, no. I don’t believe so.”
Oz picked up his guitar case and walked toward Jarod’s car. “Works for me.”
Miss Parker walked into her house, slammed the door behind her and swore. She would kill Jarod the next time she saw him. It had to be his fault that she had spent seven hours in that stupid dumpster before Broots and Sydney had found her.
Where had the ‘Miss Parker Double’ come from? And why had she helped Jarod? How had she escaped the Centre? How would Miss Parker find out about the mysterious relative without consigning her to the hell of the Centre?
A knock sounded on her door and Miss Parker snarled as she open the door. “What do you want?” she demanded of the delivery guy.
The mousy man ducked his head. “Sorry ma’am,” he held out his clipboard. “If you would please sign here, I’ll let you get back to your evening.”
Miss Parker signed the paper, grabbed the package and slammed the door shut on the man. There in the entryway, she ripped open the package.
The white tennis shoes inside were a surprise. What kind of clue was this? They were her size. Miss Parker looked them over and there was no note, no gloating, no nothing. She threw them in the trash with the packaging and walked into her bedroom to change into something more comfortable.
She turned on the light in her walk-in closet and picked out a sleepwear set. Then she looked down and glared. Seven pairs of white tennis shoes were neatly lined up and every pair of her many stiletto heels were no where to be found.
The tennis shoes even had sparkles on them.
“Damn you, Jarod.”
THE END, so ABSOLUTELY NO SEQUEL, understood?
Any other comments are welcome.