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Disclaimer: The Pretender and its characters do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: None to speak of.
Fandom: The Pretender
Rating: G

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 1 January 2014

Thanks to my husband and Alter Egon for beta reading and support.

Autumn Over Her

Jarod took one final look around the office that had been his for the last two weeks. This had been a frustrating pretend. He'd hoped for something simple and low key after last month's run in with human traffickers. Human traffickers and Lyle. It's hard to leave clues for Miss Parker without Lyle picking up on them. Lyle wanted Jarod alive, but the people around Jarod had no such protection. Therefore, no clues this time. He could imagine Lyle and his sweepers here in Wall Point High School. The picture wasn't pretty.

Jarod had come here to find out what drove a fifteen year old boy to take his own life. The affair hadn't had the sort of tidy resolution that he preferred; the culprits were other teenagers who had harassed and bullied the first boy. It had taken all of Jarod's ingenuity to balance appropriate punishment with the fact that his targets were so very young.

With a little luck, none of them will grow up to be monsters. He wasn't entirely optimistic. He tucked his red notebook into a drawer and turned to leave.

He waited until he had reached the nearest city before he called Sydney. "Why do children hurt each other? Why do adults let them?"

There was silence on the line for a moment. "Hello, Jarod. It's been a while."

Jarod didn't respond. He was waiting for Sydney to address his questions.

Sydney sighed. "I can recommend some books."

"I've probably already read them." Jarod twisted a paperclip in his fingers.

"Then you know that children-- Do you mean children or adolescents?" Sydney didn't seem to be giving Jarod his full attention.

"Teenagers, Sydney. Old enough to know better." Jarod closed his eyes. He could see the faces of the people involved.

"All people have the need to belong. One of the ways of defining the group is by exclusion."

"It's hard to have an 'us' without a 'them.'" Jarod frowned. He sounds distracted.

"Exactly." Sydney seemed pleased that Jarod understood. "Additionally, adolescence is the time when, studies show, human beings are likely to make decisions that are... less than optimal. It's also a time when perceived authority is less powerful. There are simply limits to what adults can do."

"I don't believe that." I don't.

"You can't fix everything, Jarod. You can't grant refuge to everyone who needs it."

Did I imagine it, or did Sydney stress the word 'refuge?' Jarod sighed. "I could do more if the Centre would leave me alone." Would he use that again? What does he want me to know that he can't tell me now? Jarod opened his laptop and began to type.

"You know that's not going to happen. Especially not now that Mr. Raines has set catching you as a competition between Miss Parker and Mr. Lyle."

"Why does he care?" Jarod let his frustration into his voice.

"He hasn't shared that information with me, but I have the impression that the orders come from higher up." Sydney hesitated then added, "I'm sorry, Jarod. Miss Parker trusts me, but nobody else does. They're too certain that I'm not trying to catch you."

Well, you're not. Jarod frowned. Are you on borrowed time, Sydney? I could help you disappear, but then you'd lose Nicholas and Miss Parker. And me. Would losing me matter? He realized he'd been silent for too long. "I'm sorry, too, Sydney." He hung up.

He stared at the laptop screen for a long time then closed the lid and went to pack. Blue Cove, here I come. Home sweet home.

Jarod approached Miss Parker's house cautiously. He'd been there before, and there'd never been bugs or cameras, but he had no faith in that state of affairs continuing. Raines doesn't trust her. More, he knows me. I'm sure there are memos about my attachment to Miss Parker, not as many as about my attachment to Sydney, but it's real. She has a better chance of catching me than Lyle does.

He parked two blocks away and approached on foot. He wanted to see if there were sweepers-- Or worse. --skulking around. He saw no one but a neighbor digging in her flowerbed. It's the right time of year for that, and the Centre doesn't run toward seventy year old ladies. He felt naked, walking down the street. Anyone might see him. Might recognize me. His back itched. Just one call, and it's Lyle and the sweepers. Might even bring out Raines himself.

When he got to Miss Parker's house, he felt as if there were dozens of people watching. He almost turned and ran. I didn't get this far by ignoring my instincts. No. The house looks empty. That's what's bothering me. Emptier than usual. He hesitated for a moment then went around to the back. No point in having the neighbors see me pick the lock.

He hoped he was understanding Sydney's coded message correctly. There's no other way to take it. Miss Parker is sick. She's seeing things, hearing things, but she doesn't have a fever. She's stopped eating.

He tried the door. When he found it locked, he worked carefully to open it. Miss Parker needs new locks. Any sort of security at all. She feels secure here, and she shouldn't. He let himself into the kitchen and looked around. Nothing.

He moved quickly and quietly through the downstairs, looking for the places Lyle and Raines might have put bugs. He didn't find anything. He also didn't hear anything. Sydney said she didn't leave the house. She wouldn't if there was something wrong that she couldn't hide.

As Jarod reached the foot of the stairs, Broots started down from the top. He carried a covered tray. When he saw Jarod, he opened his mouth to speak.

Jarod put a finger to his lips.

Broots nodded and continued down the stairs. He led the way into the kitchen. "She can't hear us down here," he said softly.

"I'm more worried about who else can hear us," Jarod replied, equally quietly.

"Oh, Miss Parker has me sweep for bugs and cameras regularly, especially right now." Broots took the lid off the tray and looked at the largely untouched breakfast underneath. "Are you hungry? I can't get her to eat. She says it's all over crawly things. She says I'm all over crawly things." He picked up the empty coffee mug and put it in the sink. "She'll still drink coffee."

"I ate at the airport." Jarod still found himself eying the scrambled eggs and toast. There was a little jar of jam next to the toast. Blackberry. He reached out, took a piece of toast and spread jam on it. "How long has she been like this?"

Broots cleared his throat. "Well, it's hard to say. She hid the symptoms at first, even from us. It's been four days since I came into her office to find her having an argument with her father. Mr. Parker, that is, not Mr. Raines. But Mr. Parker wasn't there. I mean, it wouldn't surprise me if he turned up, somehow, but he hadn't, so..." He shrugged. "I got her out of there fast."

"I'm surprised no one's come to check on her." Jarod took a bite of toast.

"We-- Sydney and I-- told people she was following up a clue to you. She's left us behind often enough for it to be kind of believable." Broots walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. "We think it has to be poison, but we can't figure out how. She hasn't been to the Centre for four days, and all the food is fresh. I threw out everything that wasn't sealed up tight."

"Did you replace the coffee maker and filters?"

Broots started. "No. Do you think--?"

"You said she's still drinking coffee." Jarod looked pointedly at the coffee maker. "I can take the machine apart and make sure it's not contaminated, but I don't have facilities to test the filters." I don't have facilities for any of the checks I'd like to make. Blood work would tell me a lot. Do I dare try a hospital this close to the Centre?

Broots poured the remaining coffee into the sink. He went to the cupboard, took out a box of filters and threw them into the trash. "I got fresh coffee, but I didn't think about the filters."

"Do you suspect who?"

Broots made a face, and Jarod wondered if the other man was about to spit. "It's got to be Lyle," he said. "Raines is having too much fun playing them off against each other, and there isn't anybody else right now."

Not that Lyle necessarily did it himself or even thought of it himself. Jarod frowned. Think like Lyle-- "Tell me what Miss Parker does."

"Well..." Broots frowned in turn. "She stays in her bedroom mostly. She says familiar surroundings make it easier to tell what's real."

"She sounds surprisingly lucid. Most people believe in their hallucinations."

Broots made a wobbling gesture with his hand. "She comes and goes. She almost shot Sydney before we got her gun away from her. I think-- Mostly, she seems to be seeing what's really there. She's just seeing other things that aren't there."

Jarod started taking apart the coffee maker. Not that I'm likely to find anything. If it's the coffee, it's the filters. That's much easier and more certain. Harder to detect. "You said she stays in her room mostly. What does she do when she comes out?"

Broots looked uncomfortable. "Well, she has to-- You know-- use the bathroom. She showers every day, too. She says seeing things is no reason to feel nasty."

"Have you been here the whole time?"

"When Sydney's not here. We can't leave her alone. She doesn't want either of us right there with her, but she knows we're in the house."

"Have you drunk the water?"

Broots looked alarmed. "Do-- Do you think it's in the water?"

"Not if you're not hallucinating."

"I don't think I am. Would I know?" He gave Jarod a long, hard look. "You could be a hallucination for all I know."

"Would a hallucination eat toast or take apart a coffee maker?" Jarod looked at the pieces he had strewn across the counter. "I think the coffee maker is clean." He started reassembling it.

"I might just think you did that."

"You said Miss Parker is seeing what's really there. How many pieces of toast do you see on the plate?"

Broots counted. "Three half slices. That means one's gone." He relaxed a little.

"After I put this together, I'd better see Miss Parker." He hesitated. "Did you take her phone away?" Jarod didn't think Miss Parker would call in the sweepers, but he wasn't certain how desperate she was. Raines doesn't like her. The only thing keeping her alive is that Raines distrusts Lyle. Well, and Raines thinks I'm attached to her. Because I am. His hands moved quickly, putting each part back where it had been. I know Raines. He probably hates her for being alive when his daughter-- his other daughter-- is dead.

"We were afraid she'd panic and call the wrong person." Broots shrugged. "She hasn't seemed to want to call anybody. She-- She doesn't know Sydney talked to you."

That makes it harder. No. She'd have vetoed it. "I'm here now, and she needs help. There." He looked at the reassembled coffee maker. "Get some new filters, and you're good to go." He dusted off his hands. "Now for Miss Parker."

"What are you doing here, Broots?" Miss Parker sat in bed with the blankets pulled up to her waist. She'd dressed for the day, but she hadn't brushed her hair after washing it and hadn't put on make-up.

Jarod hung back for a moment, letting Broots lead the way into the room. Can't put it off. He stepped inside.

Miss Parker's eyes passed over him, fixing on him for a long moment then turning to Broots. "Well?"

Broots waved at Jarod. "Sydney talked to him."

Disclaiming all responsibility? Probably wise.

Miss Parker glared at Jarod. "Come to gloat?"

"To help if I can." Jarod took another step into the room. He kept expecting her to pull out a gun. Even if Broots says they took it away. I can't imagine she doesn't have an extra somewhere.

Her hands clenched. "I can't stop you."

"He already has some ideas," Broots said.

Miss Parker turned her glare on Broots. "Don't think I'm forgetting this."

Broots ducked his head twice. "I'll just leave you two alone." He was out the door so fast that Jarod almost didn't see him go.

Jarod took a step toward the bed then hesitated. "It would help if I took your vitals." He kept his hands where she could see them.

Miss Parker's eyes darted to something Jarod couldn't see. She set her jaw. Her hands clenched on her blanket. She closed her eyes. "Sydney did that before he left."

"Does closing your eyes help?"

"Not really." She frowned. "Nothing helps. I can't shut my ears."

"Are you experiencing tactile hallucinations?"


"Are there times when it's better? Or worse?" Jarod wanted to touch her, to offer comfort, but he knew she'd reject it. Not when she's feeling this vulnerable. Not when her mind is betraying her.

"First thing in the morning," Miss Parker began. "I almost think I'm better then. After that, things get really bad. It's like Broots brings the monsters with him. At least, by evening, I can sleep."

Jarod studied her face. You're not sleeping well, are you? Are the monsters in your dreams? "Can you think of anyone who'd benefit from drugging you? Anyone besides Lyle?"

"If Raines thought it would bring you here, he'd do it in a heartbeat." Her eyes fixed on a corner of the room. What little color there was in her face drained. "You are not welcome here."

Jarod thought that wasn't directed at him, but he waited to be sure.

Miss Parker looked at Jarod. "She's dead," she said. "Brigitte. She's dead. She keeps showing up. None of us can make her leave."

Jarod walked over to the corner that had held Miss Parker's attention. "She's not really here," he said gently. "You know that."

Miss Parker rubbed a shaking hand over her face. "She's pregnant. Why is she always pregnant?"

Maybe you're feeling guilty. None of us knows what happened to that baby. "That must be when she made the strongest impression." He was pleased when Miss Parker's eyes stayed fixed on him." He walked back toward her. " But Raines-- You must have value to Raines for something besides catching me. I can't believe he hasn't thought of hurting you to draw me out."

"Daddy would never--" She broke off and put her hands to her face.

He was close enough to touch her now, so he reached out to put his hand on her shoulder. He expected her to shake him off, but he felt her shudder under his hand then go still.

"I forget sometimes," she said at last, lowering her hands.

Jarod decided not to mention that her face was wet. He squeezed her shoulder and removed his hand. "So things are better first thing in the morning and then get much worse? Is that before or after you have your coffee?" Let it be the coffee filters. That's easy to fix. Anything else gets complicated.

"Before. It's usually bad by the time Broots brings me breakfast. He waits until after I shower--" Her hands clenched. "After I shower."

Jarod nodded. He'd seen the connection, too. "Looks like I'll be a plumber today. It's not in the cold water or Broots would be hallucinating."

"The hot water heater, then." She wiped a hand across one cheek. "If I was willing to be dirty, I'd be getting better."

Jarod considered what he knew of hot water heaters. He'd once done a pretend that involved an exploding hot water heater. He'd learned a fair amount. "It wouldn't have been a simple job to put something in. I don't know if Lyle could have done it without help, and he'd have to have known you'd be gone for a long time. Was there a time recently when you went somewhere for a day or two?"

"There was a false lead on you," she offered. She twitched, her eyes fixed on something he couldn't see. "I wondered why Lyle didn't follow it up, too. We're constantly stepping on each other these days."

"Has he offered to collaborate?" Jarod was genuinely curious.

Miss Parker laughed without much humor. "Raines wants a competition. Not that that stopped Lyle offering. As if I could trust him."

"You're surprisingly coherent for someone who's hallucinating," Jarod observed.

"I'm simply focusing on you. There's a lot of other stuff going on, and it's hard to hear you sometimes, but--" She shrugged. "I can't drive. I can't read. I can't listen to music or watch TV."

"In other words, in addition to wondering if your mind is going, you're bored."

"Sydney plays chess with me. That almost works."

Jarod shifted his weight from one foot to another. I should go. The sooner this is done, the sooner I can leave. But we're having a civilized conversation. "I never pictured chess as your sort of game."

She sniffed. "It's not, but I know the basics." She fixed her eyes on one of her hands. "You should go. It's easier when I'm alone. Mostly. Then I can just assume nothing's real."

"Promise me you'll eat when Broots brings lunch." He wanted to smooth her hair, to reassure her, but he knew she'd take it badly. I don't want to remind her how helpless she is.

She frowned and ignored his request. "Be careful. Lyle has come by twice. Broots has put him off each time, but--" She shrugged.

Either he suspects she's at home and wants proof of it, or he's seeing if he can get in to make more trouble. Whatever's in the hot water, does it need renewing? Jarod shook himself a little. Speculation was pointless. "I'll stay away from the windows if you'll eat."

"If someone sees you, I won't try to help you escape." She raised her chin. "I'll take credit for tricking you into coming and trapping you."

He chuckled, but he knew the truth when he heard it. "You're no fool, Miss Parker." He took a step away from her bed then turned back. "You're going to have to do something about your security. If someone-- Lyle or someone else-- can get in to do this, they could do anything. Breaking in here is too easy."

She waved a dismissive hand. "I'll get a security company out." She didn't sound happy about it, but she also didn't hesitate. "I'll start taking precautions."

He nodded and left the room.

After warning Broots not to use the hot water, Jarod went into the basement. The hot water heater wasn't hard to find. The trouble also wasn't hard to identify once Jarod started looking. The hot water outflow pipe had marks on it showing that someone had removed and replaced it recently. Easier than getting into the actual heater, and more likely to deliver a steady concentration of whatever this is.

He set to work on the pipe and, after not too long, had it disconnected. He put on gloves before he started poking at the interior of the pipe. The gloves made working more awkward, but he had no intention of accidentally dosing himself. Skin contact. Hallucinating in Blue Cove would be a bad idea. Just being in Blue Cove is a bad idea.

It took a little doing, but he finally fished out something that looked like a large tea bag. So small to cause so much trouble. He dumped the thing into a ziploc he'd appropriated from Miss Parker's kitchen and started putting the pipe back.

He was lucky to hear the doorbell ring over the noise he was making with the pipe. As soon as he heard it, he stopped what he was doing and quietly climbed the stairway to listen at the door. He didn't expect to hear much. The basement stair wasn't particularly near the front door. He just hoped for some warning.

Would the mail carrier ring the doorbell? He tried to think of innocent explanations. No. I've got to assume it's Lyle. Or worse-- Raines. He hefted the wrench he still carried. If need be...

He could hear Broots' voice, raised, and the murmur of another masculine voice. He was fairly sure it wasn't Raines. He didn't think Raines' voice would carry quite so well.

The voices got louder and finally resolved themselves. "Miss Parker isn't here," Broots insisted. "I think you'd better leave."

"Nonsense. My sister wouldn't mind me taking a look around."

Definitely Lyle then. Jarod pressed his ear to the door.

"We're worried," Lyle went on. "My sister hasn't used her credit cards in five days. The last time was when she bought gas on her way home from work. At least we assume she was on her way home, judging by the time and location."

"Miss Parker went looking for Jarod." Broots sounded unsure, and Jarod wondered if he could hold the line against Lyle.

"If she did, I wonder how she's paying for it." Jarod could almost picture Lyle crowding Broots, leaning in to intimidate him. "Also, she didn't take the jet, and we can't find any record of her flying anywhere."

"She-- she must have driven."

"Then how is she paying for gas?"

Jarod considered. And I suppose Lyle tracks Miss Parker carefully so that he doesn't miss any leads to me. I wonder if Raines pays attention? He didn't like the idea. There's no good way to keep a secret as long as she's connected to the Centre. And she won't cut ties, not with Broots and Sydney to worry about. Not to mention the mystery of our mothers.

"I do wonder, Mr. Broots, just what you're doing, spending so much time in my sister's house. It seems that every time I come by, you're here. If my sister's gone, her house should do well enough on its own. If she's not gone... What are you hiding?"

"Nothing! Miss Parker asked me to check up on the house!"

Jarod wished he could offer Broots some support. Lyle can be scary, and Broots has a hostage to fortune. If Lyle wants something from Broots and thinks Miss Parker's not a factor, then Debbie isn't safe.

As if Lyle had heard Jarod's thoughts, he said, "And what about your beautiful daughter? What is she doing while daddy is here?"

Jarod set his teeth at the menace in Lyle's voice. And I'm trapped here as long as he's in the house. He wasn't sure what he'd do to protect Debbie Broots, but he knew that he had to do something. Would the Centre chase Broots if he and Debbie disappeared? That would take half of Miss Parker's support. Can she survive that?

"Debbie is visiting her grandparents." Broots sounded more sure of himself now.

He's found his courage now. Threatening his daughter backfired.

"I think you'd better go," Broots went on. "Miss Parker isn't here."

"Father isn't so sure. He wants me to check her bedroom for clues."

Laying it on thick, Lyle. Unfortunately, he can.

"She definitely would object to that," Broots said loudly.

Smart man. He's warning Miss Parker. Jarod frowned, trying to remember the layout of the upstairs. Can she hide without risking being seen from the bottom of the stairs? Is there an attic? Will Lyle search the rest of the house?

"I don't know if I can let you upstairs," Broots went on. "Miss Parker trusted me--"

"Miss Parker's not here." Lyle sounded menacing. "Or is she?"

Jarod could almost see Lyle leaning in on Broots. He must be terrified. He headed for the back door.

"I'm-- I'm more afraid of Miss Parker than I am of you."

"You might want to reconsider that. You know--" Lyle sounded less menacing now, and Jarod took that as a greater threat. "--When I catch Jarod, my sister and all her people will go the way of Mr. Parker. What happens to your daughter then? I could use someone with your skills and your knowledge of Jarod."

As quietly as he could, Jarod opened the back door and slipped outside. He closed the door behind himself with even greater care. He looked around. If Lyle has someone posted out here, I'm done. He saw no one. He sighed with relief and started around the house, using the bushes as cover.

No sign of sweepers. Does he not want witnesses? No, he needs witnesses. Maybe just not sweeper witnesses. He needs to get her back to the Centre, so Raines can see.

Lyle's car was in the driveway. He didn't call Broots on not having his car here. He should have. It's more evidence that something's not right. Jarod walked over to the car. Unlocked. Tsk. He should know better. He hesitated. I could take the car, but that will make it harder for him to chase me, and I want him to. Instead, he opened the door and took Lyle's briefcase.

He started walking back toward his car. As he turned the corner, he did something he never thought he'd do and punched in Lyle's cell phone number. The phone rang three times, and Jarod started to worry that Lyle had left it behind. It does no good if it's in the car or worse-- at the Centre.

Just as Jarod was thinking that he'd have to call Miss Parker's land line, Lyle picked up. "Hello," he snapped.

"I suppose that's better than 'What?'" Jarod drawled. "I thought being in her house might have rubbed off on you."

"Jarod? Jarod." Lyle's voice sharpened. "What an honor."

"I just wanted to tell you that you really should lock your car door. Even in a neighborhood like this-- maybe especially in a neighborhood like this. I'm sure there's something interesting in this briefcase."

"I know better than to carry anything important out of the Centre," Lyle replied.

Jarod thought he sounded worried. "I suppose I'll see. I was just coming to see if Catherine Parker left anything interesting behind. She knew all the secrets, so it's possible. I'm sure Miss Parker has looked, but you never know. A fresh set of eyes can see so much more, and how many opportunities do I get when she's away?" Take the bait. Come on. I can run. Miss Parker can't.

Jarod heard the sound of a door opening and closing. Good. Come on. Look for me.

"Where are you, Jarod?" Lyle didn't sound like he expected an answer.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Jarod smiled. "It must really chafe you that I can be so close without you seeing me." His shoulder blades itched. If Lyle picked the right corner, he'd see Jarod, but Jarod didn't dare run. I can't talk and run. Or maybe I should hang up and let him call for reinforcements? Yes. He removed the phone from his ear and closed it. Then he started jogging.

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