Gary was slightly surprised when Jarod agreed to go to the Emergency Room to get his shoulder checked. He had honestly expected some kind of fight about it. He guessed that Jarod was running low on tolerence.
It was suspicious, though, that Jarod was in and out of the hospital in an hour, especially when the lobby was filled with broken bones and bleeding apendages. Gary didn't question him on it. He would ask his questions when Colby wasn't around. Colby had raised an eyebrow once or twice, but never asked any questions. He probably dosn't want to get himself involved, Gary mused wryly, Smart kid.
When they got back to McGinty's they sent Colby home in a taxi. Jarod was determined to fix Colby's car and so he had him leave it in the rear parking lot behind McGinty's. Gary was again surprised to learn that he had missed a lady visitor, one that had left Chuck drooling. But that part was nothing new. It was the description that floored him. Jarod even had Chuck repeat it .
"I said- You guys are listening this time, right?- dark, perfect hair, short skirt, long legs- the word Goddess comes to mind. Anyway, this babe walks in on the highest heels you've ever seen, asking for you," Chuck pointed at Gary as he spoke, "and showing your picture," he added, pointing now at Jarod, "called you a mental freak of nature,no offense, and she said she wanted to talk business with Gare over here, the lucky dog."
Gary leaned on the bar with his face in hands. He gave an involuntary smirk and countered, "Yeah, uh-huh, real lucky! May...maybe you can have that engraved on my tombstone." Chuck hadn't heard him.
"Hey, you think I got a chance with this Parker-- oh by the way she said her name was 'Miss' Parker," he added a romantic flourish to the 'Miss'.
"There was an older gentleman with her, right?"
Chuck looked from the stressed Gary to the pallid Jarod. He was about to crack something wise, when he noticed the distress on the new cook's face.
"Yeah, how'd you...Jarod! What's wrong, man?" he asked with a gentle clasp on the shoulder. He noticed a sling on Jarod's arm. Where did that come from? he wondered.
"How did they find me?" Jarod looked to Gary, completly ignoring Chuck.
"Well... uh...the paper... see, it had my name in it...and I'm not
that hard to associate with this place," Chuck's blue eyes darted back and
forth from Jarod to Gary.
"You told him about the paper!" Chuck exploded. Gary put a hand to Chuck's mouth and told him to keep his voice down. He was telling the whole room about it.
"You told him about the paper!" Chuck repeated, whispering harshly now.
Gary looked around nervously. Crumb was eyeing the trio from the other end of the bar. They had also attracted the attention of a few customers. Gary moved the discussion into the office. Once there, they picked up where they had left off.
"No!...well, maybe a little, I...okay, yeah, I did," Gary caved.
Jarod still stared blankly at Gary. He was finding the tale about this newspaper a little hard to believe.
"Come on, Gary! I'm not holding a gun to your head, you don't have to tell me any stories. Did somebody here contact the Centre about me, yes or no!" Jarod threw his free arm up disgustedly. He was now pacing behind the desk like a caged cougar.
"Whoa! GUN? That's just a figure of speech, right? What's the Centre?" Chuck interjected, "Just what happened today?"
Gary nodded, stood a little straighter, and looked at Jarod defiantly.
"He's got a good point; wha..what's this Centre place...or- or thing... or whatever, and why is it that they are now after us?"
Jarod stopped pacing at the last word. "Us?" he repeated. Even speech was becoming more difficult to maintain it seemed. Nothing was making sense anymore. He was going to loose it. Magic papers don't give away locations to far away think tanks. Damn, his shoulder hurt. Gary shook his head vehemently.
"Yeah... us! I don't know if you noticed, but I was dragged into that van, same as you were. Then -what's her name?- Parker shows up at my resturant looking for me. I'm not any kind of an expert - like you- but I'd say that means they're after me too."
There was a moment of silence. Finally Chuck's curiosity got ahold of him. "What happened to you guys?"
Gary gave him a quick Reader's Digest version of the day's events.
Chuck was not exactly happy to hear all of it, especially the part about Miss Parker and the guns- all his dreams just went up in smoke at that point.
"Well, how's this gonna go? What's the paper say about it? Don't just leave me hanging like this!" Chuck fretted absently. A half crazed look passed over Gary's face. The paper?
"The paper! I...forgot about it! The... 'cause a' the car and then the hospital an..." Gary went on and on quietly as he searched his jacket for the paper. It wasn't there! He had extended his search to the desk when Jarod reminded him that the Sun-Times in question was in the posession of a certain "Goddess".
Gary collapsed into a chair. Chuck turned and glared at Jarod. Jarod looked back, surprised at the anger he could read on Chuck's face. It was clear that he owed them some answers. Jarod wasn't the kind to be stared down but he had put Gary into a very dangerous position that he in no way deserved. The accusation in Chuck's entire manner left him floundering around for a moment because he didn't know how to fix it. Suddenly a thought hit him.
"The DSA's!" Jarod thought out loud. If Miss Parker had been there, had she found the disks? Gary and Chuck shot puzzled looks at him.
"What's that?" they asked in unison. Jarod opened his mouth to stutter out some sort of an answer, but the door opened. Zeke Crumb walked in, closed the door, and stood in the middle of the room with his arms crossed. Oh, no, Jarod thought, more questions!
He told Gary and Chuck that he would meet them upstairs. Before Crumb had a chance to object, Jarod was gone. Chuck was the first one to recover.
"What's on your mind Crumb?" he asked loosely. That brought Gary back to the matter at hand. He focused on Crumb and let Chuck talk.
"Well, it's not on my mind, it's some of your customers'. They been hear'n bits an' pieces of yer conversation back here and I was suppos'd to come check it out, ya know, make sure there's no dead bodies or nothin'."
Gary changed his mind and decided he would talk after all. Chuck was just as lost for an explanation as he was.
"Well, yeah... um, tell 'em...uh, see, we got into this thing and uh... well, we're sorry, an- an' it won't happen again."
Crumb nodded. He had apparently expected Gary to say something like that.
"I had a feelin' I didn't wanna' know."
Gary smiled thankfully and relaxed. Crumb didn't usually want to
Jarod got up to Gary's appartment and found his stuff piled just as he had left it. The case holding the DSA disks was still there, untouched.
Those digital archives were the only other physical proof that he existed and he wasn't too eager to lose them. Jarod picked up the Halliburton case and set it up on the coffee table. There were going to be some questions to answer about the Centre and his involvement with it. He reluctantly decided that the best way to explain why he was being hunted would be to show what he used to do and why he left. Besides, if Gary felt he could trust him with his crazy newspaper story - which, if certain people ever found out about, would land poor Gary in an asylum for the mentally ill- then he could trust him with a little knowledge of the Centre.
He found the simulation archive that he wanted and put it in the player. Then he shrugged off his jacket. It was either getting warmer in the apartment or Jarod was getting a bit anxious. The jacket caught on his ripped shirt. Jarod smiled absently. He'd forgoten about that. It was probably time to change the bandage again anyway.
Jarod grabbed the remote that would control the DSA player and a new shirt out of his backpack. As he was walking toward the bathroom, he heard voices on the landing outside. He ducked calmly inside and waited with the door half open so he could see Gary and Chuck walk in.
They made their entrance loudly, but grew quiet when they saw the strange mini TV set on the coffee table with no Jarod. Jarod pushed a button on the remote and closed the bathroom door silently.
"What the... Hey- Hey! Chuck!"
Gary grabbed his wandering friend's arm and pointed at the coffee table.
A man was on the black and white screen, walking toward a table set up with a model cityscape. Jarod was sitting at the table.
"Wait a minute, that man was... he's... she called him Sydney," Gary stammmered, tripping around the edge of the couch and sitting down to watch. Chuck jumped over the back and landed beside him.
"And that's Jarod!"
"SHH!" Gary was trying to listen.
"The victim will be arriving in the third vehicle of a heavily... armed... motorcade," the man said, walking around Jarod and pointing at a street on the model.
"Why was this person kidnapped?" Jarod asked.
Kidnapped? Gary's mind screamed. Great, he thought, I'm harboring a criminal!
"That's not important. But I need you to continue a rescue plan,"
Jarod stood up next to Sydney and moved a toy van into a position on the street.
"Because the victim is located in a transport vehicle here, I would suggest a second and third scenerio. Automatic gun fire around the back of the building here, and a staged auto accident somewhere... over here... That would leave the transport van vaunerable to assult. Colored smoke grenades could be detonated here... and here," As he spoke, the Jarod on the small screen pointed and manipulated objects on the small scale model of a city block.
"What is going on here?" Chuck breathed. Gary shook his head and continued watching.
"It's still flawed Sydney," the TV Jarod said, picking up a miniture van, "In order for the rescue to succeed, the van driver will have to die."
"Geez," Gary sat back in his seat and rubbed at his face. What had he gotten into this time? Kidnappings, guns, and dead drivers; things he normally would prevent were being tossed around and observed like they were part of a science experiment. Suddenly the screen went blank. The sound of his squeky bathroom door made Gary's head turn with a start. Jarod was there, holding a remote out in front of him.
"I was isolated by the Centre when I was a child. Until two years ago, I was raised to do simulations like this through a method known as 'Pretending' in some circles. Those people- Miss Parker, Sydney- are in charge of bringing me back to the Centre. They're also the only link I have to finding out who I am,"
"So why did you do these simulations?" Gary asked. Jarod gave him two reasons; the first being that he thought they were being used for a good cause, the second because he really had no choice. Chuck thought that was ridiculous.
"Everybody has a choice. It's like a law of nature, you do it or you don't. It couldn't have hurt anybody if you hadn't."
Gary looked at him, a little more understanding of Jarod's position after actually meeting his former employers. What Chuck said was almost offensive to him because of the paper.
"Now, jus' wait a minute...What would happen if... if I suddenly didn't read that paper every morning? I tell ya' one thing, none of us would be standing right here, right now, that's for darn sure, so you don't *always* have a choice."
Chuck shrugged indifferently and admitted that Gary was right.
"I was right, the driver did die," Jarod added flatly.
"And you're proud of this?" Chuck questioned.
"No, I'm not. But I thought you should know. The entire scenerio was lived by a Baltimore woman a few months ago. That recording was made about a year before that. I was told that it was a rescue scenerio, when in fact, the Centre used it to kidnap a Yukaza crime witness named Emma Barett. They were going to ransom her, if you will, to the Tanaka family but that deal fell through and she was returned to the authories... in time to testify against Sammy Tanaka."
Jarod looked at Gary to see if the names or story registered, considering he liked to read the newspaper. It didn't seem to, so he continued.
"That was one instance where the Centre made a profit off of my simulations. There are others, but they are... more controversial, harder to prove. Eventually I escaped because I realized what was going on."
"Mayb-I mean do ya' mind if... we see som' more?" Gary asked, looking down at the tray full of little disks next to the built in keyboard.
Jarod stepped forward somewhat defensively.
"I don't see a reason to," he answered briefly, shutting the case.
Chuck sheepishly handed him one of the disks that he had been looking at. They were just little CDs.
"And I would apprieciate it if you didn't tell anyone else about it. The more people who know, the more compromised the Centre and myself become," Jarod added pleadingly, his dark eyes moving from Chuck's to Gary's.
"Why do you want to protect these people after what they did to you? If it were me, I probably would've gone straight to the cops or something, just to make sure it doesn't happen again," Chuck asked. His attitude had changed, considerably sympathetic now. Jarod didn't want sympathy, but that's all he could read from either man's face.
"It's more complicated then that. If I try to shut it down then I'll be treated like a guinea pig for the rest of my life, only this time by the government and the press. Besides that, I wouldn't have a chance of finding out who my parents are, of having a family. That information is buried somewhere within the Centre. What good would that do me, to be right back where I started from thirty years ago?" he answered, his voice low and gruff. Jarod was getting tired of this subject. If he wasn't careful, he'd end up yelling at them again.
"So, what is so important about the newspaper?" he asked.
Chuck's expression changed to confusion.
"I thought you told him?"
"I didn't tell anybody anything! Parker did the assuming and I... well, I just didn't deny anything, that's all... But- but I didn't confirm anything either."
"I've heard that you get tommorow's Sun-Times. That would explain a lot of what I've seen happen today. But that's not possible, and Miss Parker's not the type to play gullible," Jarod interrupted the squabbling. He sat down in a nearby chair.
"I don't ... I just ... it shows up at my door everyday- with the cat- an' I just, ya' know, do my best to change what I can by the end of the day." Gary shrugged and examined his shoes as he talked. The ginger tabby jumped onto the back of the couch when it was mentioned.
Chuck pitched forward on the couch suddenly as if he'd been kicked. He hadn't placed any bets on the game!
With a glance at his watch, he realized that it was already into halftime. Oh, well, at least he could watch it on the set in here. He grabbed the remote and switched it on.
He was right, half time had just ended. He grumbled and sat back to watch.
Jarod figured that the conversation was over when the television was turned on. He sank further into his chair. There were things he needed to be doing- like picking up his stuff and moving on- but he was tired. He should probably go get something to eat as well, since he hadn't eaten anything all day, but he wasn't hungry. The concussion was the only reason he was staying awake, and most likely why he wasn't hungry. He started watching the game, wondering what was so appealing in the sport that Chuck would act so strange.
Gary smiled distractedly as he noticed Chuck's disappointment with the television. He had the sports page in his hands all day long and hadn't placed any bets. Serves you right Chuck...wait a minute! The sports page! Gary thought. He franticly started searching the coffee table for the section he thought he had left there that afternoon. When he didn't find it there, he stood up and checked the couch. Gary slid Chuck onto the floor as he checked under the cushions. Chuck protested and was ignored. There wasn't any paper. He plopped back onto the couch and bent down to look under it.
"Ah, com'on! I know I left it here somewh... HERE! Ha!" Gary exclaimed as he dragged the paper out from under the couch. He didn't know how it had gotten kicked under there, but figured it didn't really matter and blamed it on the cat.
"What are you doing?"
"I found the sports page!"
"I could'a told you I was sitting on it, you didn't have to kick me off the couch!" Chuck complained. He had walked in with it under his arm, hoping to put it with the rest of the paper before Gary noticed.
"Why were you sittin...nevermind- I think I know why," Gary resolved, his voice almost threatening to Chuck's ears. Chuck grinned sheepishly and sat back down on the couch, clearing a path for Gary to get to Jarod.
"Here...look at the scores. This is *tommorow's* paper." Gary handed the paper to Jarod and pointed at the TV and the game. While Jarod checked the scores, a muffled 'woof' sounded from the open door. It startled Gary and Chuck; Jarod looked calmly at the source of the noise.
"Hi, Marissa!" he greeted before returning eagerly to the paper.
"Hi Jarod." Marissa sounded uncharacteristically troubled. Gary looked at her with concern. How much had she heard? He motioned for Chuck to turn off the TV.
"How long ya been standing out there?" he asked. Marissa urged Spike into the room in front of her and closed the door.
"Not too long," she lied. She had heard every word that had been said about Jarod. It had taken her a while to piece it all together. Now she was trying to respect his request for secrecy.
"Uh, Gary...that woman's here to see you again. Crumb sent me up here to get you...She showed up right after you left the office..."
There was complete silence in the room. Marissa didn't even hear the men's breathing. Gary had actually stopped for a moment. He didn't want to talk to her again! His stomach suddenly hurt from the sucker punch she threw at him earlier.
"Do you want me to tell them I couldn't find you?" Marissa's voice seemed a million miles away to Gary. He scolded himself for whimpering like he was. This was gonna' stop, now.
"No, tha-that's okay, Marissa. I'll be down in a minute,"
There was a collective gasp from everyone else.
"What! Are you crazy Gare?" Chuck was on his feet in a second.
"Well, I'm not gonna' hide from these people for the rest of my life!"
Gary turned his head slightly, his eyes never leaving Marissa's concerned face. For some reason her faith always managed to keep his courage up.
"You have no idea what you're getting into," Jarod warned, standing up and placing a hand on Gary's arm. "These people don't mess around. I mean, you can guess what happened to the EMS team,"
Gary sighed and looked back at Jarod.
"I know, I know, they're dea...Look, it's gonna' have to happen eventually, right? You said yourself, they're after you because you left. I'm not gonna leave, so these people oughta know it. I'm not running from anyone...I-I'm staying here,"
Jarod relased Gary's arm. He had a point, but that didn't mean that Jarod agreed with him. Gary walked slowly past Marissa, Chuck following closely. She wished them good luck. Gary stopped at the door and hesitantly looked back at Jarod's drawn face. Before he went out, he quickly grabbed the hockey stick that was standing against the wall by the door. It never hurts to be prepared, he thought. Chuck smiled a little and grabbed a baseball bat.
Jarod listened to their footsteps fade on the stairs. Morality kicked in a moment later. He couldn't let them go down there. It was a suicide mission, in his opinion, but he couldn't sit by and wait for them to get themselves killed. Marissa still stood where she had a moment before, hopeful and calm, but there was no denying the worry she tried to hide. Jarod removed the sling, dropping it on the table. He shoved the Halliburton Case under the skirting of the couch. At least it wasn't so obvious now if someone were to walk in.
"Come on. Let's go see if we can help." He offered his good arm to Marissa.
She smiled as she accepted. Jarod took Spike's harness and led the
way down to the kitchen.
"It's about time you showed up! Going out for a little mid-night sports camp or something?" Miss Parker laughed as she saw Gary walk through the doors, the hockey stick held at his side.
Gary looked around the room. Centre thugs had already helped most of the customers out the door. Crumb wasn't even at his post. Little did Gary know that he had been locked in a storage closet after threatening to call the police.
"Look, I don't know who you guys are, an' I don't wanna either, so why don't you jus' leave me an' my friends alone?" Gary moved protectively behind the bar. He felt stupid, just him and Chuck with wooden sports equipment, up against a room full of people with guns in their pockets. Chuck stood behind him, the baseball bat on his shoulder and ready to swing... at what, a bullet? Yep, stupid.
Chuck could almost hear his knees knocking together. What a time to turn chicken, Fishman! he admonished silently. But that didn't keep him from wishing he could run away- someplace far, far away. At the same time, he wanted to kill -or at least sevrely injure- every one of the suited bastards for chasing away the customers. What had happened to Gary was almost an afterthought. He left his thoughts at the sound of the wicked, yet beautiful, Parker's laughter. Okay, Gare, whaddya do to make her laugh? You're supposed to make her leave! Chuck's mind accused as his eyes darted around the room at the menacing Centre employees.
"Find Jarod too. He wouldn't want to miss out on a party like this."
Miss Parker snapped her fingers and members of her team moved to the kitchen. Gary and the hockey stick stood in the way.
"There's nobody back there."
A second later, two figures emerged from the kitchen, proving Gary twice the liar. Miss Parker was less then amused when she called him on it.
Gary looked exasperatedly between Marissa and Spike to Miss Parker.
"Well I didn'... That's not the point!" he replied defensively.
Chuck, meanwhile, tried to coax Marissa into leaving.
"This isn't exactly the kind of thing you need to get involved in," he whispered through clenched teeth. "Now, get outta here before they decide to keep you!"
"No! Gary, now I can't find Crumb. I'd like to know exactly what's going on here!" Marissa persisted, even though Jarod had told her what he had seen from the circular window on the kitchen door. No one could tell that she was stalling for time. She hadn't been lying about Crumb's disappearance, though. That was beginning to gnaw at her a little.
Now Chuck and Gary were both trying to convince Marissa to leave, and still convey an image of control on their part.
"Well, Crumb probably just... just took off for something. Everything is fine, so you can go home for the night, okay?" Every second, Gary cast a worried glance at the annoyed and impatient Miss Parker. She had her arms crossed and her toe was tapping angrily. Her agents seemed equally annoyed. Sydney was the only person in McGinty's who looked even slightly amused. Miss Parker had that checked quickly.
"I hate to interrupt your little tet-a-tet here, but..." Miss Parker began.
The quiet sweeping noise of the restaurant's front door caught everyone's attention. Marissa smiled to herself and waited for Chuck to try and push her into the kitchen again. He didn't, so she and Spike stayed put. Chuck had turned toward the new noise just like everyone else in the room.
"Jarod!" Sydney chuckled. Finally a sane face! No more talk of tomorrow's newspaper.
"Hello, Sydney! Miss Parker, you surprise me... Acting without a Tower directive? What would your father think? Tsk, tsk..." Jarod stood in front of the entrance with his hands casually in his pockets. The sling was gone. He managed to stump every one with his heathy appearance. Gary went slack jawed. Wasn't he the guy who had taken a bullet in the shoulder a few hours ago? Gary began to wonder about the sincerity of Jarod's injury. I got my hands all bloody trying to patch him up! He can't fake that... can he? This is crazy! Gary thought.
"Don't just stand there! Get... him!" Miss Parker cursed as she pulled her gun out of her belt. NO one had made any kind of movement toward Jarod in all this time. That fact pissed her off, considering he had been standing there for nearly a minute.
Jarod ducked back outside again into the cold, dark night as the sweeper team tripped over chairs. The crowd who had been inside McGinty's was beginning to grumble about their bad dining experience. Jarod pushed through them, spouting assurances that they would be back inside momentarily. His feet pounded the damp pavement as he ran under the El tracks. The Sweeper team was a few yards away, he guessed from the sound of Miss Parker's stiletto heels on the street behind him. Jarod found an alley, then saw the fire escape mounted above a dumpster. Jarod was going for distance, not hiding spots, and the upward movement suited his purpose fine. His shoulder complained, but not enough to slow him down too much. Jarod climbed onto the dumpster and mounted the stairs. There was a boarded window half way up to the roof. Jarod paused long enough to kick it in- for effect only, he left pieces scattered on the small landing. Another puzzle for the graceless trackers to ponder.
Jarod was on the roof and out of sight by the time the group hit the corner. It had taken them awhile to get through the upset customers who were trying to flood back into the restaurant. Jarod listened as the first of his assailants clambered onto the dumpster. Jarod smiled at the muffled curses that followed.
"Oops, I forgot to close that." He had thoughtfully opened the lid of the dumpster before he had started his climb. Some Sweeper was probably floundering around in a combination of stale rain water and week-old trash from the Thai Fish Market that shared a back door with the alley. The lid slammed shut and Jarod started looking for a way off the roof.
The roof's access door was made of steel and deadblolted a few times from the outside. With no time to pick the locks, Jarod looked for another out. He didn't want to have another ladder to climb, but as the voices got closer, he decided not to be picky. His wounded shoulder's only saving grace was that there was no other fire escape - which was very bad news for the rest of him.
Panic began to set in as an angry voice from below yelled, "He's on the
roof, you moron!" There was more clanking as a dozen shoes ran up the remaining
flight of stairs to the roof. Jarod looked over the edge of the building
and saw that the nearest balcony was too far for him to jump to and still
land in one piece. But it was only ten feet to the next roof-top.
Without thinking, Jarod tore across the gravelled roof to make the jump.
Miss Parker and her thugs hadn't been back to McGinty's since Jarod had led them away. The customers had rushed back in out of the rain right after they left, but after finishing their drinks they were slowly drifting home. It was awhile before Gary and Chuck gave in to Marissa's nagging about Crumb's disappearence and went looking for him. They found a cold and fuming Crumb rubbing his hands together inside the walk-in freezer.
"I don't want to know! Nothin' you guy's say 's gonna make any sense right now. I can't belive you couldn't hear me yellin' in there," Crumb grumbled at Gary as he tried to explain what had happened. Marissa brought Crumb some coffee, and Chuck had found a thick blanket lying on Gary's couch upstairs. Wrapped up like an eskimo, Crumb still refused to talk to anyone but Marissa.
Gary mumbled his extra appologies and moved to the other side of the room to play pool with Chuck, leaving Marissa to attempt an explanation of why they had left poor Crumb in the freezer for over forty minutes.
"Do ya' think maybe I should go look for 'im? I mean, it's been two hours already," Gary wondered aloud later as he picked up chairs and put them on tables. There weren't too many customers left now at one in the morning. The cleaners would be by in the morning, and that new geezer got a little bit testy last time he had to move furniture. Gary preferred lifting the barstools to dealing with him.
"I think he can handle them, Gary. After all, it seems he grew up contending with people like that." Marissa sipped at her tea. From the look on her face, Gary guessed that she had complete confidence in Jarod. Strangely enough, he did too. Chuck wondered what they knew that he didn't. But if Gare, of all people, wasn't going to go risk his neck for the guy, then neither should he.
No one said anything else until Gary and Chuck finished the seats. Then Chuck locked up the bar while Gary took Marissa home in the van. The still disgruntled Zeke Crumb caught a ride home with Chuck.
Gary awoke the next morning a few minutes before his alarm clock went off. He didn't exactly have a restful night's sleep, but at least he didn't dream about zebras. He swung his feet out of bed as the radio came on and he switched it back off. As his eyes began to focus again, Gary noticed that his sofa had grown a pair of shoes with a blanket over them.
He vaguely heard the 'plop' of the paper outside. Gary stood up and stumbled around the edge of the couch to see just who was occupying it. Just Jarod, he thought, recognition dawning on his tired face. Gary turned back to his front door.
"*Just* Jarod? Who...How'd you get...aw, forget it!" he grumbled, dismissing the sleeping Jarod with of a wave of his hand. Nothing surprised him anymore, least of all Jarod picking one of the many deadbolt locks around McGinty's. He could have climbed a drain pipe and lifted a window for all Gary knew or cared. Who knew what those Centre people had taught him.
Gary opened the door slowly so it wouldn't squeak and crept onto the landing where he slid the cat off the paper as he picked it up.
"I suppose you can talk, too," Gary scoffed, going back into his apartment. The cat meowed loudly and trotted in behind him. Gary perused the headlines. Not much to do today. A little boy was going to wander away from his mother at the Shedd Aquarium and choke on a stuffed angel fish; a boating accident on the lake was going to leave a couple of newlyweds with injuries and some seriously expensive damage to their boat; and five people were going to be killed in a late night explosion at an old armory.
Other then that, the day belonged to Gary. All the accidents were spaced far enough apart, time-wise, that he would be able to actually relax in between. None of the incidents occured until after twelve either. Was the cat really trying to give him a morning off?
Gary dropped the paper on his bed and headed for the shower. He was dressed a few minutes later in his usual jeans and sweatshirt. Then he padded around the apartment in his socks for awhile, mostly wasting time by picking up scattered bits of laundry or old newspapers. Before long it was time to open up downstairs for the janitor. But once that was done, Gary found himself back up stairs with nothing to do. All this had been done as usual, taking no special care to not make unnecessary noise on Jarod's behalf. It didn't seem to bother him anyway. Gary was curious as to how Jarod's night had been, but he wasn't about to wake him up just to find out. Instead he flipped on the TV and watched reruns on TNT. Half way through C.H.i.P's, Jarod showed signs of consciousness. He sat up quickly, his stomach reeling from the pain it caused in his shoulder, and asked what time it was.
"Nine thirty. You got somplace to be, Jarod?" Gary turned off the television. Jarod was looking worse then he had yesterday. His tired and bloodshot eyes were framed perfectly with dark circles. He was as white as a ghost too. It didn't look like he had bothered to change his clothes before he had collapsed on the couch. His turtleneck was crusted with dried blood in a circle at his shoulder and in places it was fresh blood.
"Hey, hey... You're bleeding on the sofa, Jarod..." Gary pointed out. He pulled Jarod to his feet and helped him to the bathroom to clean up. Jarod was thankful for the help- just sitting had made him dizzy, but standing up sent the world spinning around him.
"Here, lean against the sink if you have to... I'm gonna' go get some towels...or something," Gary left Jarod alone and saught out anything that would stop the bleeding.
Jarod's mind began to clear as he woke up more. He found that he could actually support himself now. Jarod carefully peeled his shirt off and got a good look at his shoulder in the mirror. The bandage was pretty soaked around the entry wound, but the stitching he had been able to do at the hospital kept it from bleeding too much. Jarod realized that he had managed to loosen the bandaging on his back while he shifted in his sleep on the couch. That could be a problem. Maybe he should get another doctor to look at it.
Gary came back again, carrying the first aid kit in one hand and a stack of towels in the other. Gary handed them to Jarod and stood by the door.
"You didn't actually see a doctor yesterday...did you?"
Jarod nodded his head. He busied himself with the first aid kit.
"You tried to fix this yourself?"
"Yeah. Believe it or not, I'm a fully qualified doctor."
"I see...You're just lousy at taking care of yourself."
Jarod bit his lip. A moment later he was asking about the van he had seen in the back lot. Gary nodded, catching the gist of what Jarod was saying.
"Yeah, I'll get you to the hospital..." Gary sighed. It was with some displeasure that he realized he would probably be a little late to save the kid. He cursed under his breath as he grabbed the keys to the van.
There was a note waiting for Chuck on the office door. He grabbed it, read it, and went off to look for Marissa. Gary would be late, according to the note, and he wanted Chuck to take care of one of the paper's 'errands'. A little boy was going to choke on a fish at the aquarium, and the note thoughtfully included the kid's name. Chuck found Marissa at the bar, talking with Robin as they prepared to open up McGinty's.
"Hey, guys! Guess what! It's just you two and the rest of the staff this morning, okay?" The casualness in his maner was an obvious bluff. Marissa was the first to pick up on it.
"Sure, but why?"
"Gary had to run Jarod to the hospital and so now he wants me to do something for him...real quick like, but still, I'll be gone for awhile. Just wanted to let you know. Okay...Bye!" Chuck tried to finish as fast as he could so maybe Marissa would miss the word 'hospital'.
Of course, he failed and she demanded to know the whole story. All Chuck knew was that it was because of Jarod's injury, and he stuttered over the part about the gun. He really didn't like the stupid things, especially since they always brought questions up.
"How'd Jarod get shot?" was one of the questions he was hoping wouldn't come up. Robin asked it. Chuck ran out the door and left Marissa to answer questions. The paper waits for no man, he reminded himself as he hopped into his car and drove toward the marina.
"I don't think he'll go back to the resturant, Parker," Sydney offered.
They had been looking for him all night, checking and rechecking every building Jarod had been spotted in at least a dozen times. Actually, Miss Parker's team had checked and rechecked. She, Sydney, and Broots had gone back to the hotel to search via satelite, or in Syd's case by dreams as he was falling asleep in a chair by the corner.
Broots hacked away at every surveillance feed he could find in Chicago- Miss Parker hoovering around him - to try and find the Centre's runaway protégé. They finally gave up at four in the morning to let Broots sleep. Now they were out in the field eight hours later. The other agents were complaining, and half of them smelled like fish. Miss Parker had relieved them, giving strict orders on when they were to get back to work.
"I don't care. They can at least point us in the right direction, besides... I still want to know where Hobson got that paper." She wouldn't admit to herself that she just wanted to see the guy again.
Sydney grumbled at the mention of the newspaper.
"Aren't we a little old to believe in superstition, Miss Parker?"
"I- I saw it Syd... that paper was too real to...well ... to not be," Broots broke in. Sydney rolled his eyes. The car stopped at its destination and immediatly lost it's passengers.
"Just let me do the talking then, if you won't listen to reason." It was really more of a command then anything else. As he held the door open for Miss Parker, she motioned that her lips were zippered shut,locked and the key thrown away. Sydney smiled. Round one went to him. With any luck he wouldn't have to hear about a mystical Sun-Times again for awhile. The three of them approached the bar, where the attendent was chatting with someone who appeared to be a customer. Broots noted the seeing-eye dog at the customer's feet and steered clear.
"Excuse me," Sydney asked in a friendly voice, "Could you tell me where I could find Jarod?"
Marissa's attention was diverted to this new stranger. Jarod certainly knew a lot of people. Before she had a chance to interrupt, Robin was telling the man he had gone to the hospital.
"The hospital?" the man repeated, obviously concerned. Marissa seized the chance to break in.
"Are you a friend of his?"
There was a barely noticeable pause before he answered simply, "Yes."
With all the trouble Marissa had overheard last night, she wanted to be sure this wasn't anyone she should be worried about. But the man's voice sounded friendly enough, and he seemed to care about Jarod's well being - something the intruders last night showed no sign of. Marissa nodded and didn't say anything else.
"Why? Which hospital is he at?"
"I'm sorry, but I can't say. All I know is he got shot or something yesterday and he didn't have a chance to see a doctor then. It sounds rediculous- not going to get help about it- but, hey, I'm just the bartender. It didn't even happen on my shift, so I..." Robin's chat was interupted by a new voice.
"That's Jarod for you. Let's go!"
It was the ringleader from last night...what had Jarod called her?...Miss
Parker! Marissa held back a gasp. This was not good! She had
to call Chuck. She stood up and excused herself as Spike led her to
the managment office.
Chuck stood in line to pay the admission fee. There's five bucks out of Gare's pocket, Chuck thought with a smirk as he handed over the cash. He was going to get every penny back, even for the gas he used up in that traffic jam back on the mainland.
The note said that little Jeremy Current was going to be in the gift shop. Chuck hurriedly brushed by a young mother carrying an infant as he entered the store. He noticed an empty child leash hanging from the edge of the baby buggy she was pushing. That would be Mrs. Current, Chuck guessed. Just then his cell phone rang. The baby in Mrs. Current's arms started crying and she practically ran from the ringing phone to put the child back to sleep.
Chuck swore and grabbed the phone. He started looking for the little boy.
"This is Chuck,"
"Chuck? You have to find Gary, quick!"
"He's at the hospital. Gare's found- next problem?" Chuck spotted the kid.
"Ha ha! Found you, ya' little...Hey... put that down! YOU CAN'T EAT THAT!" Marissa moved the phone away from her ear at the happy sqweal of a loud little boy in the background.
"Chuck! I'm serious!"
"Would you gimme' this? Now, that's better," Chuck scooped up the squirming two year-old and stalked out of the store to find the mother.
"Sorry Marissa. What's so important?"
She quickly explained Miss Parker's appearence and Robin's rather one-sided conversation.
"Oh, man! I guess I'd better go find him, huh?"
"Yeah, I think so!"
"Okay, I'll see ya' later," Chuck put his phone away and could concentrate solely on the cooing little kid. He tracked down the mother and, after a hurried, pain-induced explanation as to how he had gotten her kid, headed to Cook County Memorial Hospital. As Chuck walked to his car, he rubbed his cheek gently.
"What *do* moms keep in their kid's diaper bags, anyway?" he wondered
Gary's leg had begun to fall asleep in the uncomfortable lobby chairs, so he got up and started to pace the hallway a few feet away.
He began to worry that maybe Chuck wouldn't get to the kid. A nurse had stopped him once and asked what floor his wife was on, thinking he was an expectant father. Gary realized abashedly that he probably did look like one; glancing at his watch every two minutes, pacing in the hallway etc. helped establish the assumption.
He apologized and explained that he was late for an appointment, but, no, he did not need to use the desk phone to call a cab. When she had left, Gary pulled out the paper. The article about the little kid, Jeremy, had changed to a full page add for Sacks Fifth Avenue. Gary said a thankful prayer and sat down to watch the football game on a lobby television. It was nice to know that his friends could come through for him when they wanted to.
Jarod walked in a few minutes later, but Gary didn't notice. He and another spectator were argueing over the best team to win. The other guy was an ardent Chicago fan and refused to believe that Pittsburgh was going to win.
"Anything intresting in that paper of yours?... besides the game, I mean," Jarod interrupted politely, sitting down next to Gary. He fell more than sat. But Gary noticed he was looking better. His arm was in a sling again, and the doctor had had to cut his turtleneck down the side to accomodate the bandaging.
"Nah. The biggest thing is this fire at the armory... Hey, you gonna' leave that on this time?" Gary pointed to the sling.
"Last night was just for effect, so yeah, it's gonna' stick around for now," Jarod replied with a half smile. Gary started to stand up. Jarod stopped him. "We're probably going to be here a few more minutes. They want to be sure my credit's legit. You might as well watch the game." Jarod hid a grin as he was reminded of the nurse checking up on Mr. Reines credit instead.
"Yeah, so you can watch your precious Steelers loose!" the other guy taunted. Gary looked at him defensively.
"I... I never said I liked the Steelers, I just think they're gonna' win is all."
Jarod bugged him for the paper as he argued, but Gary was a little hesitant to hand it over. After a moment, he realized that Jarod wouldn't do any harm, and he already knew about it anyway, so he dropped it on the arm rest for him. Jarod leafed through it, stopping on the story about the fire at the abandoned armory. Ever since he had first donned the firemans gear, he had taken an intrest in pyrotechnics and the like. He had certainly learned a lot about it. When there was a lapse in the football dispute, Jarod interrupted again.
"You mind if I tag along for this one?" He spread the paper on his lap and pointed at the article. Gary thought about it. At the end of the commercial break, he agreed. Jarod had a feeling it was just to avoid another argument so he could watch the Steelers win the game in peace.
By half time, things were looking pretty bad for the Bears, but Jarod's credit had turned out okay. Gary reluctantly tore himself away from the TV.
Miss Parker stooped down from her high heels and hung over Broots' shoulder. The black and white image on the lap top screen was small and she could barely tell what she was looking at. She knew that it was a picture of Jarod and Hobson in a hospital waiting room though. She also knew that Broots' technology was too slow and that they had received the hospital's surveillance feed too late to act on it. Miss Parker dispatched the Sweeper team just for the hell of it.
"Make it bigger... and rewind it. I want to see what he's saying."
Broots obeyed. It still wasn't clear enough for her to read Jarod's lips.
Sydney couldn't tell what he was talking about either.
"Urrgh! I hate this!" Miss Parker growled. She stood up again and started pacing behind Broots' chair- making him incredibly nervous.
"Aren't you glad you aren't deaf?"
"You aren't helping, Syd..." Parker warned. She resumed her post over the computer technician's shoulder. "Make this... here, in his lap, the place on the paper that he's pointing to... make it bigger now,"
"FIVE DIE IN ACCIDENTAL BLAZE? What has that got to do with anything?" Broots questioned. Sydney bent down over his other shoulder and read what he could out loud.
"'It took the C.F.D. three hours to control a fire at the Rogets Road Armory thirty miles north of Chicago. The building ocasionally houses any army surplus or transports that can't be stored at the nearest air force base. Fortunatly, it has been completely empty for over a month. The interior levels were demolished, though the outside walls seem un-touched to the naked eye. However, five unidentified bodies were found in a stairwell. Investigators are suggesting that the fire was caused by a gas leak from the boiler room and eventually worked itself up to the ground levels, trapping the apparent trespassers. There's some speculation...' Miss Parker? What are you looking for?" Sydney and Broots looked up from the screen at the sound of Miss Parker's cursing.
"Um, I think I left that in the bathroom," Broots said, craning his neck to look behind him. Miss Parker arched a disgusted eyebrow.
"I don't want to know!" she decided, coming out of the bathroom delicately holding the newspaper like it had the plague. "What page is that article on? And, I need the date too."
Broots zoomed in on the corner of the paper.
"C-1... but it's dated ...well, uh... tommorow's date!"
Miss Parker found the said page and handed it to Sydney.
"Analyze this, Freud."
Sydney looked at the page she showed him, then turned to the next one, then back again.
"I'll be damned... It's not here!"
Miss Parker smiled sarcasticlly.
"It must be another misprint! Isn't it a bit strange that a newspaper would have 'misprinted' two papers, two days in a row, and given them both to a boring Joe like Gary Hobson? There's something up with that, Sydney."
"It's certainly strange, but that's not our business right now."
Sydney dropped the paper and tried to put the spotlight back on Jarod. Miss Parker demanded that Broots print out the picture.
"My guess is that Hobson- and Jarod- are going to try and stop this little
accident tonight... And guess who's gonna' be waiting for them,"
"Where are they?" Miss Parker demanded impatiently. She drummed her fingers on the dashboard and ignored Sydney's advice to calm down. They were so close to getting Jarod this time. Her nerves were fraying from all this waiting, and all she wanted was a cigarette. She had been sitting in the car for over an hour, and in all that time, not one cigarette had been allowed to her. Sydney's car, Sydney's rules. There was a static noise from the radio by her hand. Sam's voice came across the air.
"Didn't you say they were going to be here tonight?" There was more static. Miss Parker chose to ignore him. Finally she opened the car door and got out. Leaning on the rented car, she pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Her lighter was the only source of light for miles around, or so it seemed to her. Miss Parker heard the radio crackle again and Sam asked what was going on. Sydney explained and the conversation ceased. Miss Parker grumbled unhappily about her life as she puffed away at the filter.
Gary was speeding along the hidden, military maintained, dirt road. He didn't want to get caught there and then, so he didn't mind the occasional pot hole. Jarod, however, did- but he never said anything.
"We're almost there. This is just a shot in the dark, but do you have any experience with ga... this kind of stuff?" Gary ventured. From what he could tell, Jarod was probably an expert at that too.
"I was a fire fighter once," Jarod offered, "Know a little about bombs too,"
"Let's hope you don't have to use either of those talents. What I meant ..."
Jarod interupted him with a request to kill the head lights. He sounded urgent, so Gary complied.
"What is it?"
"Stop the car... !"
"They're here!" Jarod pointed out the dark windshield at the faint silhouette of a car. A body was outside of it, a small orange light that looked like it was a cigarette flicked around the person's head.
"That's only one person. An--and how do you know it's them?" Gary caught himself almost whispering. They are still a mile away, what are am I afraid of? he wondered.
"Where there's one, there's another. Trust me. See? Look behind the building."
Gary looked. Another car shape broke away from the building, slowly approaching the first.
Miss Parker straightened at the sight of Sam's car.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Sam leaned out the window.
"One of my guys suggested something,"
Miss Parker put one hand on her hip and raised her light with the other. She glowered at the other three men in the car.
"And what might that be?"
"That they're already inside. I think we oughta' check it out,"
Miss Parker thought it was a plausible suspicion. As long as they were out before it exploded.
"Sydney, you stay here. If anything- and I mean anything- goes in or out of that building, you had better let me know."
Sydney picked up the portable radio with an unamused smile and waved it in her direction to show that he understood, though her distrust was a bother.
"Let's go, people! Move!" Miss Parker snapped as the team jumped
out of their car. Sam used a magnetic card to break the card lock
on the building entrance and sent another member in to take point.
The five of them crept inside and split up.
Jarod and Gary got out of the van and walked across a lot full of dry weeds, eventually stopping a few feet behind Sydney's car. Jarod had noticed that the man inside would periodically bring something up to his face. A radio, he guessed.
"Stay here!" he told Gary, starting to move toward the car.
"Wha...? Wait a minute! You can't..." Gary stammered from his hiding place behind a shabby looking bush. Jarod ignored him. He stopped in front of the driver's door and peeked his head inside.
"Hello Sydney." Jarod surprised him and he jumped.
"What are you doing out here?" Sydney grinned. He intentionally kept his hands in Jarod's view on the steering wheel instead of grabbing the radio and calling his attention to it.
"The question is, what is Miss Parker doing in there?"
"Looking for you, naturally."
From behind them a few feet away, Gary could hear most everything they said. It was the Parker woman, then, that he'd seen with the cigarette. Gary reached into his jacket pocket and produced the Sun-Times . He read the article again and things were starting to make sense- at least as much as they ever did in the paper's cosmic, karma- like little ways. Miss Parker and her crew were the five who would die in the explosion. So what's wrong with that? he thought, immediatly scolding himself for it. But it didn't make sense to him why Jarod would want to help them out. He stood up and walked toward Jarod. Jarod also had straightened. He now held a walkie-talkie in his hand though. He waved it proudly to Gary. It wouldn't do to have Sydney warn Miss Parker of their arrival, would it?
"Why are we here?" Gary asked him, pointing out what he had figured.
Jarod looked at him, a minimal amount of surprise on his face.
"We can't just let them die, Gary," His eyes gleamed mischieviously as he spoke. Gary didn't miss it.
"Well, yeah, I kno...What are you up to? Give him back the radio and tell that guy to get them outta there. I don't wanna' risk my neck for someone who tried to kill me just yesterday, and I would think you're in more trouble than me."
Jarod grabbed his arm and practically hauled him to the building, Gary protesting all the while. He was trying to get out of Sydney's range of hearing.
"I'm not going in there."
"I'm not asking you to. Let me see the paper."
Gary stared at him suspiciously. Jarod kept his hand out until he got what he wanted. He read the article again. The fire was going to start in the boiler room with the help of an improperly extinguished cigarette, but the bodies were found two floors up on the ground level.
"So right now they should be directly below us," Jarod reasoned. He gave the paper back to a confused Gary, saying that he would meet him back at the van later. Gary watched him disappear through the door before his conscience hit him. Gary couldn't help thinking that what Miss Parker and her operatives hadn't done anything to him really deserving of a death sentance like this. And despite Jarod's 'nice guy' attitude, he sure had a lot of reasons to get rid of them. Maybe he should help Jarod with this after all. Reluctantly, Gary followed behind him. When he caught up, Jarod was toying one handedly with the walkie-talkie.
"Oh, Miss Parker..." Jarod taunted into the radio. Gary couldn't help thinking that he should've quit while he was outside.
"Where are you, Jarod? Is Sydney with you?" came Miss Parker's angry voice.
"Nope. He's outside in the car. I'm one floor above you, I believe," Jarod answered. They turned a corner and were stopped by a grated iron door that was still slightly open. "Sub Level Access" was painted above it in red stencil. It was a key pad lock that hadn't been shut when Parker and her team happened upon it. There was no way to open the gate from the inside. Jarod smiled and pushed it shut.
"Uh, 'scuse me, but what are you doing! I thought we were gonna' save 'em!" Gary's voice echoed through the stairwell beyond the gate. Jarod ignored his question, motioning him over to one side of the gate where they couldn't be seen.
Miss Parker's voice could now be heard below them, issuing commands.
"He's upstairs. Move it!" she barked and pointed at the stairwell again. All of her team convened on the stairs at once. Miss Parker couldn't help but notice the huge rip in the arm of Sam's Armani suit and the blood flowing freely from it as he ran in front of her.
"What did you do now?" she asked, stopping him and glancing at the arm. Sam shrugged.
"Had a little run in with some pipes down in the boiler room. A rusted one broke when I bumped in to it. I'm okay."
The image of a falling cigarette came to Miss Parker's mind. She froze.
"Oh my god!" was all she could say.
Sam stopped again, "Well, it ain't that bad..."
"This place's gonna' blow!" Miss Parker realized. Then she repeated herself louder so the others on the floor could hear her.
She reached the top of the stairs to see a closed gate. The idiot who shut this was going to get throttled if she ever found out who had done it. She went up to it and rattled it. Not so much as a budge. She swallowed her pride and yelled out to Jarod for help. He had said he was on this floor, hadn't he? Like it or not, he was the only person who could help her out at the moment. Miss Parker gasped when a dark figure stepped in front of her from the shadows.
"Welcome to my life, Miss Parker! Or at least, my life within the Centre,"]
"Jarod!" she closed her eyes for a moment, counting to ten to keep her anger from surfacing completely. It didn't work too well.
"Jarod, let us out of here!"
Jarod's smile was instantly gone. In the dull light of the exit sign above her head, Miss Parker swore he looked like the embodiment of evil. Gary, hidden off to one side, even thought that. Then he realized that the streaks of oil all over Jarod's face were responsible for the distortions, not shadows.
"This is what it's like to be scared Miss Parker. Alone, and scared- without Daddy to protect you. This is how I lived thirty years of my life, Miss Parker. And now that I'm free of this terror, you want to return me to it. How eager do you think I am to go back to that?"
"This isn't funny, Jarod. Get this door unlocked, now!"
Sam and the other opperatives behind Miss Parker had drawn their guns. Jarod noticed this, but kept talking.
"Gee, I'd like to, Miss Parker, but I can't right now. You see, in a few minutes, the room where you carelessly dropped a cigarette, is going to... blow up! Ha, and well, I'd rather not be here when it does."
Miss Parker was very close to being shocked. "You aren't really going to leave us here are you?"
Jarod didn't answer, but his smile returned. Slowly, he stepped into the shadows again. Miss Parker pounded on the bars. Some sweepers joined in.
"Jarod!" It was almost a chorus.
Gary jumped when Jarod came up behind him. He put a heavy, metal object in his hand.
"There's at least five minutes before the place goes up in smoke. Wait until you see me leave, then let them out. I'll see ya' at the van,"
Jarod whispered, almost cheerfully. Gary turned as if to ask him something, but he never got the question out. He saw the mischievous smile play across Jarod's mouth. It was almost like he had planned this entire thing. Gary couldn't help but smile to himself as he watched the Pretender disappear around the corner. He waited another minute before finally letting the others know he was around.
"Would ya' shut up already?" he demanded wryly, stepping in front of the gate.
"Hobson! Tell me you have enough sense to get us out." Miss Parker put an end to the pounding.
"Well, uh, t-that all depends on your boys back there. I don't do to well with automatic weapons pointed at my head, as I'm sure you could understand."
The guns were instantly lowered.
"Thanks, but how 'bout just tossing 'em down those stairs there. Yeah... that's it. I'd appreciate if you would do the same, Miss."
Gary realized that he was gesturing away with the hand that held a gun. He sheepishly changed and started pointing with the other. Once the last operative was disarmed, Gary focused on opening the door. He felt suddenly stupid, but asked anyway, "How exactly do you open this thing?"
"Just shoot the lock!" The anteroom echoed with the anxious voices.
Gary took a step back from the lock and pointed the gun at the panel on the wall that controlled it. He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. A moment after the gun was fired, the suits from the other side of the door rushed by him. Gary stood off to the side, thinking, Hey! I did it!. Then he dropped the gun and ran after the others.
No sooner had Gary cleared the exit door when he heard an explosion from behind him. He got another forty feet before the explosion had worked its way up to the ground level. The immense heat and its subsequent wind force sent him rolling to the ground. Gary hid his face behind his hands as debris fell around him.
After awhile, the ashes ceased to fall upon Gary. It took a while for him to venture getting up. When he did, he took off immediately for the cover of the brush a few yards away. He had to get to the van before Miss Parker got her team together again. Luckily, a huge cement block had crashed through the windshield of one of the Centre's vehicles. They wouldn't be going anywhere for awhile.
Gary got to the van with time to spare. The keys were already in
the engine when he fell into the seat. Jarod was smiling proudly, already
buckled into his seat. Without a word from either one of them, Gary
made the long trip back to downtown Chicago.
The next morning, Chuck followed Jarod to an auto body shop to drop off Colby's car. Jarod had stopped along the way and managed to pull a lot of money from an ATM. The mechanic agreed to get Colby's car back to him in mint condition by five that night in exchange for the wad of cash up-front. Jarod then rode back to McGinty's with Chuck.
Along the way, Chuck grilled him for details about the armory explosion. Gary had been too tired the night before to give him anything but, "the building blew up."
Jarod filled him in on the highlights of the evening, but left out all refrences to his confrontation with Miss Parker. The less Chuck knew about the Centre, the better off they all were. During his three hour shift, Jarod avoided any contact with anyone other than staff. Miss Parker's readiness to shoot him was enough to let him know that the Centre was getting rather desperate. He had tried to explain to Chuck that he was endangering his business and customers by staying around, but Chuck insisted that he work despite the Centre. He said that Gary and Marissa would be offended if he left without saying good bye, besides he was a little short handed at the moment. Jarod agreed, thinking Marissa and Gary were taking care of something from the paper. He later found out from Robin that Marissa had gone to visit a friend for the day. But Chuck had already managed to convince the staff that Jarod was no longer working at McGinty's in case someone at the bar should ask. Reluctantly, Jarod stayed.
After his shift ended, he moved his stuff from Gary's apartment to the basement. He cleaned up a corner of the floor and furnished it with a squeaky cot and clean sheets from Gary's linen closet. Maybe he could catch a little more sleep.
When Gary got back, he was surprised to find that his apartment had been cleaned up and Jarod's things were gone. He instantly thought of Miss Parker. One of the kids in the kitchen, the new busboy Marco, had said Jarod didn't work there any more.
"Wha--whaddya mean he doesen't work here anymore?"
The boy shrugged.
"Just what I said, Mr. Hobson."
"Well, did he quit or- or disappear...what?" Gary couldn't believe that Jarod would leave, it just didn't seem like something he would do. Marco pointed behind him and Gary turned to see Chuck walk in the kitchen from the bar. Reality began to dawn on him.
"I just know that when I got here at three, Mr. Fishman was telling everyone that Jarod had quit."
Gary started walking toward Chuck before Marco had finished his sentence. Chuck's smile faded slightly when he saw Gary. His friend didn't look too happy with him.
"Whaddya let him leave for?"
"Who? You're an owl now? I mean Jarod. I was just up in my apartment and his stuff's gone, an- and the staff says he disappeared."
"I'll be darned, it worked!" For once he had managed to convince somebody of a worthwhile lie.
"What worked? I'm serious Chuck! What if he got nabbed by th..."
"Calm down, Gare. He's camped out in the basement."
"Oh, the base-... why's he in the basement?" Gary asked. He gave Chuck a look of pure puzzlement.
"Dunno'. You'll have to ask him." Chuck bit into a carrot stick and walked around Gary and into the office. Gary stood there a moment trying to make sense out of what he had just learned before going to the basement.
Gary found Jarod in the process of organizing boxes, something he had asked Chuck to do months ago. Gary been meaning to get to it himself, but hadn't had the time. Jarod looked up when he heard Gary come in.
"Well, there's one less person to wait for," he smiled. Gary didn't know what he was talking about, so Jarod explained.
"If you've really gotta go, Marissa will understand. No offense or anything, but Chuck didn't really need you as much as he said he did, either. I don't know what he was up to."
Jarod nodded. It had seemed to him that the kitchen was a little more populated than usual when he was up there.
"I'll stay for a little while longer, Colby's car is still in the shop. I'll take that over to him tonight on my way out of town."
"Where're ya going?" Gary started helping move boxes against a far wall. Jarod shrugged and pushed at a box with his foot.
"I haven't been to California in a while."
"That's a long ways away," Gary said between coughs. He had managed to find a particularly dusty box to heft onto his shoulder.
"Yep. It should be a nice drive too."
"You're gonna drive all the way to California?"
Jarod nodded eagerly, replying that he liked to drive. He said that there was a Rent-A-Car near Colby's apartment building that had already reserved him a Jeep.
"So what was in the paper today?" Jarod changed the subject. For the next hour, the two of them piled boxes and Gary told him about the former nurse who went postal at the convelesant home on the other side of the city. At four o'clock, Gary looked at the paper again. A drunk driver was going to run into a day care center full of little five-year-olds and kill one of the teachers. Gary excused himself and ran back up stairs. Jarod stopped working and tried to fall asleep on the cot. It would be a long drive to California.
Gary borrowed Chuck's cell phone and called the police on his way to the daycare center. The paper had included a picture of the accident and there was a clear view of the car license plate. Gary reported seeing "a weaving and dangerous vehicle" and then waited in front of the daycare. A half hour later the car was pulled over by a cop on the street corner right across from the place Gary was sitting. Gary walked home grinning.
Jarod was saying goodbye to Marissa, and Spike too, when he walked into McGinty's office. Colby was there, discusing baseball with Chuck. Gary put the Sun-Times on the desk and shook hands with Jarod.
"Sorry I brought you so much trouble. But once I leave that should disappear too." Jarod apologized, taking his hand.
"No problem, really. Next time you're in Chicago, you're welcome to stop by. Your job will probably still be free, so you could claim it when you want to," Gary mused with a grin. From behind him, there came a loud "meowrr". The cat sat on top of the newspaper and pawed at Jarod's jacket. Jarod smiled.
"Goodbye to you too, Cat." He scratched the animal between the ears. The cat continued to paw at him. Gary realized what he was trying to do. He carefully picked up the cat with one arm and handed Jarod the paper with the other.
"A souvenir from Chicago."
Jarod took the paper from Gary and thanked the cat. He pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket that had his e-mail address written on it.
"And if you ever want a vacation from *ahem* yesterday's news, as you called it, drop me a note some time." He waved the newspaper slightly.
Gary hid a laugh as he took the address. Colby was watching over Jarod's shoulder. He obviously wanted to go get his car. Jarod turned and led Colby out of the room, saying a goodbye at the door.
When they were gone, Gary collapsed into a chair, still holding the cat, and let out a sigh. He was ready for a vacation already.
"Hey, Chuck, do you think we could trade jobs tomorrow? You know, I help out around here, you take the paper. Whaddya say to that?" Gary wasn't really serious, he was just making noise.
"Sure, Gare!" Chuck's face lit up. Greed shone through his blue eyes.
"Of course, I'd keep the sports page," Gary added. "Maybe wager with the customers a little..." Chuck's tone immediatly changed.
"Oh, um, on second thought... no thanks Gare. I'm happy to help out here on the homefront."
Marissa laughed, "Nice to know things are back to normal again."
"You're calling *his* life normal?" Chuck asked.
"You're calling *my* life normal?" Gary asked at the same time.
Marissa laughed again.
The cat let out a long complaint and everyone quieted. Seemingly happy with the silence, it curled down into Gary's lap and was soon snoring softly. That cat... Gary regarded him thoughtfully.
"But then again, if this isn't normal," Gary answered with a contented smile, "What is?"The End
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