Jarod came into the office. He’d been wearing a friendly smile since he came up. Sydney wasn’t far, he wasn’t supposed to be. Light shined through the windows of The Centre. Real light from the sun. He saw one of his ‘team mates’ clacking away on the computer. Balding, very focused, his work area was messy, he had a picture of a young girl, probably talented and not there as a cleaner or sweeper. Good.

“Uh?” He turned around. Bright eyes. Seemed friendly. “Can I help you?”

“I’ve been sent by Mister Parker to join the case on Alex.” Ooh. What was that? Sparkling. Different food in the corner. Not wheat grass. He could smell the aroma coming from an open box. He went over to the box and took one.

“Oh. Take all  the donuts you want,” the man said to him. “There’s soda in the fridge if you are thirsty. So, you are the new one on the case? Are you helping on the computers or, or sweeper?”

Hm. Not very perceptive. Stuttering. Shy. Not Centre material. Maybe side job, part job, or part of a job that didn’t involve skill in serious Centre business. Jarod took a couple more donuts and went for the ‘soda’ in the fridge. He definitely wanted to try that. “Computer.” Not a lie, he wasn’t a sweeper. “Is that your little girl in the picture?” Ooh. Colorful cans. Aluminim. Big and bold lettering, flashy, advertising. He grabbed one and opened it up. Pull the tab and it popped open. “It pops open. It’s nickname is pop.”

The guy just chuckled politely. “Yeah, never about that. Uh? Yeah, that’s Debbie. My daughter.”

“And your name?” Jarod asked as he started to drink down the pop intermittently with eating the donuts. This is what freedom tastes like. Limited freedom but freedom nonetheless, until he could find a real way out.

“Broots.”

Typical. One name in the Centre. He’d test it. “Nice to meet you, Mister Broots, I’m Jarod. What are you working on?”

“The latest downloads of the latest victims by Alex.”

Said just so casually. Jarod went over by the computer and continued eating his donuts over Broots’ shoulder. He wasn’t giving them up. They were his. He pointed to the computer. “That, check that closer.” Addressal. “His mom and dad. Anyone else?”

“I think, um, no so far,” Broots said.

That he knew of. “Do you have the address book of the victims?”

“There was no matching cross references,” Broots answered back. “They didn’t really keep a lot of names in there though. I haven’t checked through the photo albums yet. This is just from this morning.”

“Damn.” Jarod looked at the faces on screen. I just wanted freed. They wanted freed. I thought they would run and hide. Find their families. That’s what he would have done. Instead, he set a killer loose. Every person Alex killed, Jarod was responsible for in a way. He helped him escape. They were all supposed to escape.

“If you want something small to work on, here’s a small purchase traced to Eddie,” Broots said handing him another file. “You can put that in the computer system. It’s underneath all the paper over there. Sorry, it’s a mess.”

Heh. “Thanks.” Jarod knocked all the papers backward and turned the computer on, while also turning the shredder on. He started to shred the files. He would help them catch Alex, but he’d help them miss Eddie.

“What are you shredding?” Broots asked still glued to his computer screen.

“Oh just some old expired files of mine. The Centre hates messy footprints,” Jarod said as he continued to shred Alex’ information up. “It’s a strict place to work. Sometimes I don’t know how I got here. What about you, Mister Broots?”

So far, Broots still hadn’t corrected him. Broots must have been his last name. That meant his daughter would be Debbie Broots. How many Broots lived in that town? Something to check into. For his freedom, Jarod would use any scrap he could.

Even better though, Broots actually answered. “Feels like you just fell on a snowflake in the wrong direction. I lost my last job due to lay offs. I’m in the middle of custody with my daughter, I have to have a job especially if I want to keep her one day, so? Here I am. You?”

“Roped in,” Jarod settled on. “These donuts are okay, but do you have anything else around here?” Broots looked back at him and then gestured toward the next office. 

“There’s some coffee and cookies in the next room over. There’s some juice too,” Broots answered.

Jarod left a second to check it out. He’d heard of cookies before. Miss Parker talked about those when they were younger. He already had juice, but the juice was orange. He took some of it and the cookies. He walked back over and sat down. He got behind the computer. It was booted up finally.

First thing Jarod did wasn’t anything to do with Alex. He just smiled and continued to make small talk as he dug up anything and everything he ever wanted to know.

That was, until she came in. She about choked on her drink as she saw him hammering away on the computer. “Good Morning, Miss Parker. Did you talk to your Daddy today?”

She yelled for Sydney and Broots, and demanded to know what the hell was going on. Sydney gave her the skinny, but when she pointed out where he was, that was the end of that. Sydney turned off the computer and scolded him like a child.

“Jarod. The deal was-“

“Mister Broots asked for some help,” Jarod said, using him as an excuse. “He’s a team mate. I couldn’t refuse.”

“And what did Broots ask you to do?” Miss Parker was glaring at Broots who still had no idea what was going on.

“Input files for Eddie,” Jarod answered.

“Then where are they?” Oh, she already knew.

Jarod shrugged. “Somewhere in all this paper mess I think. Unless I got confused.”

“Broots!” She was practically barking now. “Did you let him shred files?!”

“N-no? Yes? He shredded something,” Broots said confused. “Not the files. He shredded some messy footprint files on him.” He just stared at her. “What’s wrong?”

“Jarod is a special team mate,” Sydney said specifically not trying to step on any toes. That was Sydney. “He is a Pretender.”

“He’s one of the idiots that tried to run away, but didn’t make it.” Miss Parker’s eyes didn’t lift from his. “There has to be a damn good explanation you are in here right now.”

“Run and talk to your Daddy,” Jarod informed her. “If he’ll bother to listen to you.” He leaned over in the computer chair. “Which he never did.”

“Jarod doesn’t want to willingly work on a computer and give information like Broots does to catch Alex,” Sydney informed her. “He made a deal last night with your father. One of his inventions he made a long time ago is on his leg. Originally created for felons, he can’t leave very far from me without creating a terrible shock to himself.”

“Like a dog collar?” Miss Parker looked impressed. “You leashed yourself to The Centre.”

“Yeah. Just like you,” Jarod said removing the small smile she had for half a second.

“As long as he doesn’t leave too far from me, he’ll be fine,” Sydney said. “He will be able to track Alex.”

“While stuffing down donuts and juice,” she said, noticing probably all the sugar on him. Not like he cared. He liked sugar. A lot, and he was going to get a lot more of it. “Fine. Did you discover anything?”

“You bet,” Jarod smiled. “Donuts taste very good. So does juice. Soda too.”

“Sydney, when did you start to get even more vindictive than me?” She criticized him. “If he gets away far enough, he could get that thing off.”

“The Centre thought of that,” Sydney said, “but they also agreed that Jarod’s caring personality would probably not kill me in an attempt to escape.” Sydney lifted his own pant leg. “It goes both ways.”

“You’ll get shocked too, Sydney?” Mister Broots sounded worried. “Oh. That’s kind of far.”

“The Centre doesn’t know the meaning of too far,” Jarod argued. “Anyhow? I guess, this is my chance to be free, in a way.” He gestured to the donuts. “I want more of those kinds of things. Cookies. Good tasting things.”

“You need a thing called money, and I doubt you are getting a paycheck,” Parker harped on him.

“Miss Parker,” Sydney said. “Mister Parker has exclusively given instructions for you to take care of him. A small daily allowance.”

“A thousand dollars.” Jarod held out his hand. “Daily. I’d like cash please.”

“Are we really going with this?” She looked like she was trapped in a different dimension. “I have to give Jarod a thousand dollars a day? For what?”

“Anything he likes or needs,” Sydney said. “Mister Parker seemed . . . avidly fond of how much Jarod wished to pursue Alex. He also liked the idea of Jarod using his Pretending skills in real life situations to track him down. It could be worthwhile research to The Centre.”

A small stiletto click. “I don’t carry cash.”

“Then you better get some,” Jarod said as her phone began to ring. “Ooh. Do you think it’s finally Daddy ready to tell you something about me?”

 

 

Freedom was sweet and bittersweet. Real freedom would have been different. Here, he was still limited. He could eat different things, he could leave The Centre, and he could even go outside. As long as Sydney was in a decent approximation, he could go there. But? He wasn’t allowed to be on the computers without someone watching over him with approved activity. He wasn’t allowed on any Pretend ideas he couldn’t figure Sydney into. If Mister Parker hadn’t pushed so hard for a way to track Sydney next to him also like a criminal, he could have been out in day one.

Jarod could still do some things though. He could have fun. Sydney didn’t have to be extremely close, he could go shopping by himself. Talking to people by himself. He would only fall into trouble if he reached over 200 yards away, then they’d both be in for a shock. It would start small but get worse as the distance increased. Not only that, Jarod could never say it was true freedom. The only reason he was out there was to get Alex under control, and then he’d be placed back in The Centre as before. Unless The Centre approved of his methods.

He said that. Mister Parker said that and Jarod could barely keep himself from glaring. Like they thought it might be possible to teach him how to be a cleaner. How to Pretend for them. How to get them what they want? Alex only, and only because Jarod was correcting his own mistake. Alex was killing good people who did no wrong, and if Jarod didn’t help, there was no telling how long it would take before he was captured.

In the meantime though? The sun felt nice through the shades. “I want to go outside.”

“Of course, Jarod. Let’s go outside.”

 

 

People came in and out of the door that led to freedom. Jarod walked along the halls, making sure Sydney wasn’t too far behind or too close. He didn’t want him being extremely close all the time too. He reached the doors, pushed them open and felt the sun on his skin. Sydney gave him a bogus reminder about staring into the sun like he might forget as he came out. He stood there, eyes closed, feeling the sun on him. He observed everything with new eyes, all of the new objects that were in brilliant displays of color that the florescence inside could never match. He moved toward the ‘cars’ Miss Parker used to tell him about. He could see all the trees and grass. All the natural beauty of the forest ahead of them, past the parking lot full of the cars.

Jarod heard Sydney warn him not to go into the parking lot with the cars without watching in all directions. Cars moved fast and could be unpredictable sometimes. Only for those not watching, but Jarod could see how it could be hazardous. A person would have to watch the shadows in every car and notice all the subtlety of starting if they gave no outward light symbols.

 

 

Miss Parker kept her head down as she worked. Working with Jarod of all people. A big kid, a bigger annoyance, and someone she was deemed not to have much contact with as she grew older. And now, that same priority was putting her right back in the saddle. Right next to him. She tried to work in her own office to get away, but there wasn’t much to get away from. Sydney was charitable to him, and he did let Jarod go almost anywhere he wanted to. He haunted the lounges, probably tasted every piece of already made breakfast everywhere, visited the toilet (because a diet doesn’t change that quick), and visited outside more than once. At least that was some relief.

When it came to lunchtime, Broots ordered sandwiches for him and Sydney. When he asked Jarod what he wanted, of course he wanted to try the entire menu. In fact, now he wanted Sydney to take him to the restaurant to pick them up. At least more solo time. Jarod’s curiosity was not an easy thing to take. She could do it as a child, but not as an adult. Since she was under her Daddy’s orders, and Jarod wasn’t a trivial annoyance from her past but someone she needed to work with, she was silent. She couldn’t pick on him, curse at him, or show any unwanted favor. Her Daddy told her to treat her as she would someone from The Triumvirate visiting. That meant utter respect and mostly no talking. Her father never wanted her speaking up to The Triumvirate.

Just a new typical day at work, with a boy that became a man that never experienced the outside world. Hm. Typical day at The Centre, never knew what it would bring.  She was trying to find one of the leads they had had on Eddie now too. Jarod was supposed to find both of them, but she knew he’d never catch Eddie. He would be working to destroy their hard work on finding Eddie. Just like he probably shredded those files. Eddie was small time, so was Alex, but because one of them might be holding onto Jarod’s DSA’s for him, each of them were given higher priority to find. The Centre couldn’t have proof of it’s existence out there with those DSA’s.

At least she wasn’t the only one in culture shock. Broots didn’t quite know how to take it either. He’d experience The Centre before, and he’d met Angelo, Raines little sidekick that helped with the investigations too, but side by side. With not an empathic mushhead, but a man that made his brain probably look like swiss cheese that was technically owned by the place he worked at? Yes. He had a couple of moments too.

“I don’t get it, I don’t see the reasoning,” Broots said as he stared at the computer. “If the Pretender was separated his whole life, wouldn’t he want to be reaching his family, not killing them? They’re innocent, they didn’t do anything.”

Broots was like that. Open mouthed and sincere. Miss Parker waited for it. The angry shutting of a folder.

“Yes, one would think that,” Jarod came back on Broots. “Especially one that suffered the same fate as him, but didn’t get access to see any past violence because they were also deemed a Pretender.”

Yep, there it was.

“I? I-I didn’t mean anything by it,” Broots apologized.

“Of course you didn’t. You’re just hunting Pretenders like animals, and forgot you have to work with one.”

Oh the love these two expressed. “Broots gets on everyone’s nerves,” she said to Jarod. Less to save Broots, more to annoy Jarod without seeming like she did.

“Like you’re any better,” Jarod came back on her. “At least he realizes his mistakes. You? You still think of me as property.”

“I sure do.” She wouldn’t let up right there. “Technically that’s not being rude, that is a simple fact. You belong to The Centre, Pretender. So do they.” She wouldn’t go into apology mode. She didn’t apologize. This was her job. If it wasn’t her job, she wouldn’t be there.

“I think everyone needs to settle down,” Sydney said. “This situation is new to everyone. Let’s relax and we’ll adapt to it. Jarod? We can go to the restaurant but you shouldn’t order everything on the menu. You’ll be wasting food. Broots often picks the same place, you can get something different next time.” Jarod seemed okay with that and left the office with Sydney.

“Oh whoah,” Broots sighed in relief. “I-I didn’t meant to offend. It’s just that, well, he’s here. We’re chasing what he is. Which? I mean, he is still a person, but The Centre. I mean it’s our job.”

“Stop questioning morals, they only get in the way,” she reminded him. “Concentrate on finding Alex. Don’t apologize for doing your job. The Centre pays you to work for it. That simple.”

“Yeah, I know, but . . . i-it’s just different when one of them, I mean, a Pretender that was trapped here. Just like them. That’s still technically trapped, that he’s . . . I-I-I just have to watch my mouth.”

“Good start,” she muttered. Jarod was touchy, he’d lay into Broots more than once, but that was Jarod. Anyone having anything to do with The Centre would eventually get criticized. Broots was probably on his good side better than he thought though. Jarod had a weakness for things like children and Broots didn’t exactly spell out Centre tough. He wouldn’t push him too far, but he better watch it. Broots was also the head computer guy. The last thing The Centre needed was for him to start getting a moral conscience and bail.

Morality. It just got in the way of business.

 

 

Addresses. Connections. Albums. Pictures. Jarod tried to decipher what the connection were to the new victims. If Alex had a vendetta against his family, then these latest victims should be relation. Some kind of connection, but no one in any of the photo albums The Centre had confiscated had been them. He watched as Broots packed up. He was going to go home to his daughter. His family. Family. It’d be nice to go home to family. Sydney had an extra room he could sleep in. In fact, Sydney said his place was so big, that he could have any of the backrooms for any of his projects. He didn’t go back there. Jarod would find out the story to that later.

He could have got so much farther if he wasn’t tethered to ‘being watched’ and restricted on the computer. Miss Parker was still in the corner, going over useless data she’d already went over. “Trying to make those hours count so it never looks like you go home early to have a life,” he said to her. “Nice job. Daddy must be proud.” So far, she’d ignored him most of the day. Besides that small interlude with Broots she hadn’t said much of anything directly to him. Mister Parker must have ordered her to be nice in some way. “I get to go home with Sydney soon.”

“Ooh, what a dream come true,” she said as she flipped the paper over she was looking at.

It was, when he was a kid. All he ever wanted to do was leave his room and go home with Sydney. She’d be able to get away with that comment. “Look at us. Me still doing your bidding, and you still in charge. It’s just like when we were kids,” he said. “Except you used to be a lot nicer.”

“I haven’t done or said anything wrong.” Jilted. Staccato.  She yawned. “Any connections?”

“None that I could find,” Jarod said, “with these restrictions on me.” Come on. She knew he wasn’t going to hurt Sydney. He watched her as she flipped through the paper again. Waiting.

“Look up anything you know you shouldn’t and I’ll shoot you in the foot,” she warned him.

Yes. He knew it. She wanted to get Alex off the streets too. Jarod started to crack into different systems he wasn’t supposed to be cracking into. He didn’t have much time, Miss Parker wouldn’t defend him if Sydney walked in. It only took a few minutes before he found the connection. It wasn’t family. “The man worked for an electric company. Alex’s parents had called the electric company to take care of their heater problems the day of the murder.”

“He’s still in the vicinity?” she questioned. “Was the man a witness.”

“No.” No he wasn’t there at the time of the murder.

“Then why bother killing him?”

Alex. I can’t believe this. “He’s playing with The Centre.” Toying with whoever was supposed to hunt him. Leading them right to him. “This man’s life was nothing but a calling card.” Alex. “We have to stop him, Parker. He’s going to keep killing as hello messages to The Centre.”

She didn’t answer at first, but he noticed a thoughtful look in her eyes. A caring look she’d never reveal to anyone as she put the papers down. “We’ll visit that town again first thing in the morning.”

Jarod’s first trip out of town. Out of Delaware. From a restaurant now to out of Delaware. Limited freedom was still a form of freedom. As Sydney came over, it was time to go home.

Tomorrow. Jarod would visit a town Parker, Sydney and Mister Broots had already visited. Hopefully, he could find something they missed that would lead them to Alex.

 

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