Jhondie
Jhondie

Sometimes I watch the sunrise and think about the first real one I saw.  Everything was gray and white, and then there was an explosion of color from above.  I was free from my captors, but I was also very alone.  I was nine, and had just escaped from a top-secret military project.

Zack had made us all separate.  I didn't know if any of the others got away.  I had slipped down a ravine, and crashed into a river.  The current swept me away fast, taking me from the dogs and helicopters and guards.  I headed south for no particular reason, except maybe that I had been told it was warm there.  After spending a few hours in a cold river, warmth seemed like heaven.

The first six months were harder than anything I had gone through at Manticore, except for when some of the others were taken away.  I spent most of my time hiding from everyone, terrified that I would be caught and sent back.  I scrounged for food, and ran anytime anyone approached me.  Genetically engineered solider I might be, I was also nine.  I missed my siblings terribly, and Zack's promise to meet with us again seemed far off.

Six months after the escape I was almost ready to go back.  I was exhausted, and hungry and lonely.  I was in the back of a Las Vegas park, in a clump of trees.  I was trying to bandage my cut foot, but I was so tired I was making more of a mess of it.  I was crying, and thinking that maybe since Zack abandoned me, maybe I should go back to Manticore.

"Why you cry?" a tiny voice peeped up.  I was too tired to even think about running.  A little girl, maybe four or five was looking at me.  She was so pretty and clean.  I wished I could be her.

"I hurt my foot," I said.  She perked up a little.

"Daddy fix owies."

 

Just then a woman came up behind her.  They were so obviously mother and daughter that I wanted to weep from jealousy.  It wasn't fair.  I didn't ask to be born.

"Kayla," she called, "what have I told you about…" she broke off when she saw me.  My hair had grown out a couple of inches, but still looked very strange on a little girl.  I was wearing a jacket with the collar up.  It was the only way to hide the barcode.

She looked at me with such sympathy that I didn't try to run.  "Honey," she said, "where's your mommy and daddy?"

"Don't have any," I sniffed.  She looked even more sympathetic.  I didn't know it then, but she had lost a little girl to leukemia a couple of years before.  Her daughter would have been my age had she lived.  Maybe fate had taken my siblings, but it had sent to me the one woman who was willing to be my mommy.

I don't know why I didn't resist her.  Maybe it was because Kayla took my hand and announced she was keeping me.  They took me to a place that only existed in my imagination.  It wasn't huge, or glamorous, but it was warm and clean, and well, homey.   I had always wanted a real home.  At Manticore I had heard guards talking about home, but I never really thought that such a place could exist.

The woman had introduced herself as Ashley Harris.  I told her my name was Jhondie.  She asked me what my last name was.  I told her I didn't have one.  She bandaged my foot, and gave me a bath, and the first real meal I'd ever had in my life.  I knew she saw the barcode when she washed my filthy hair, but she didn't say anything.  She put me to bed, and I slept so deeply that it was nearly a coma. 

I woke and it was dark outside.  I had been brought in that morning, and had slept for nearly ten hours.  That was an extraordinary amount of sleep for me.  I crept out of the room and saw Ashley talking to a man.

"I know I should have called social services," she was saying, "but there's something very strange with this girl.  Why wasn't she put into foster care when she was orphaned, and what kind of monster tattoos a barcode onto a little girl's neck?"

It was fear of going back that made me speak up.  "It's not a tattoo," I said.  "It's a genetically encoded tracking system.  I was born with it.  Please don't make me go back.  He killed Eva.  He was going to take Max.  Please don't make me go."

Later I was told that it was like hearing a twenty-nine year old speak rather than a nine year old.  They both looked so shocked at what I had said.  I started to cry like the little girl I really was.  All my enhanced abilities were no good to me at that moment.  I was far more mature than people twice my age, but I was still child enough to need others.  Maybe Zack was different, but I needed help.

Ashley took me in her arms, and I told them everything.  Manticore. The genetic engineering.  Training.  The seizures.  Escaping.  The only thing I couldn't bring myself to tell them about was the experiments.  I didn't want to even remember them.  I just told them doctors did bad things to us.  They listened, horrified, but they believed me.  I told them how I had survived over the last six months, and I was scared that Lydecker would find me.

"Jack," Ashley said, looking at the man I had realized was her husband.  I had brought something bad into their house and put them into danger.  Lousy repayment for kind treatment.

"I'm going to leave now," I said.  "We have to keep moving while behind enemy lines.  Thank you for everything."  I tried to get away, but Ashley held me firmly.  I could have thrown her nearly across the room, but I didn't really want to go.

"Young lady, you're not going anywhere," Jack said firmly.  "Does this Lydecker guy know where you are?"

"I don't think so," I whispered.  "Zack told us to separate, and we all went in different directions.  I haven't seen any Manticore here."

They had reached a decision without even talking about it.  Jack was a doctor, and knew that such experiments were theoretically possible.  They both knew what had been done to me was wrong.  If they let me loose, capture was too much of a possibility, and if they gave me to social services, the barcode would get Lydecker on me like a rabid dog.

So, I became Jhondie Katherine Harris.  I had a mom and a dad and a little sister.  I was still worried about getting tracked, but then the Pulse hit, and without computerized records, tracking me was nearly impossible.  Mom started running a home school after the Pulse, and dad was able to stay a doctor.  Vegas dried up a lot after the Pulse, but it was still a decent place to live.

Little by little I started becoming a normal girl.  My hair grew in a light brown, and I felt better when it covered the barcode.  I learned that I couldn't play sports because of my abilities; after all it was unfair to play basketball with someone that could grab the ball, move faster than you can see, and then leap eight feet into the air to dunk.  It took time to learn how to conceal the fact I was "special" as mom called me, but I did learn. 

Three years passed.  I was happy.  I still thought about the others, but not as often.  The nightmares had ended long before, and I sometimes spent days, even weeks at a stretch not even thinking about Manticore.  As a doctor, dad was able to get drugs that controlled my seizures, finally settling on Tryptophan.  It was more of a dietary supplement, but then again, my seizures weren't exactly normal ones.

Then one night I went to go to bed.  My window was open, and Zack was standing there.  I wanted to jump around, and hug him, and ask a thousand questions, but there was something in his face that killed that.  He was still my CO, and I guess at the time I was still enough Manticore to immediately go back to being a solider.  I snapped to attention before I even realized that I had done it.

"Grab your gear," he ordered.  "We have to get moving now."

I would have obeyed.  Now, well, I'm a lot older and far more independent, but then, yeah, I would have done it had dad not walked in.  Things happened real fast.  He walked in and saw a boy in his young daughter's bedroom.  He made a grab for Zack, and was shocked as all anything to suddenly find himself pinned to the wall by a kid. 

I grabbed Zack, and did a quick takedown on him.  Zack was on his feet in a second, in a defensive stance.  I'd never seen him so furious in my life.  My parents had never really seen my martial arts skills.  I had always done my best to not remind them that I was trained to kill.  For a second everything was still as Zack decided which of us he was going to kill first.

Mom had heard the commotion from across the hall, and had come into my room.  Dad was still against the wall, and Zack and I were in fighting stances at each other.

"Zack," I said firmly.  "You cannot injure my parents.  I'll go, but I'm not letting you hurt them."

He seemed to ease back a little, and I realized that introductions were in order.  I took a deep breath.  This was not easy.

"Mom and Dad, this is Zack, my brother.  Zack, my parents Ashley and Jack Harris."

He nodded at them.  "Get moving solider," he ordered again.

Mom looked distressed.  I couldn't blame her.  I had started to move the minute he'd given the order.  Some habits were pretty deeply ingrained, and I didn't know until then that I still had them.  She took me gently by the arm.

"Jhondie," she said.  "You don't have to leave."

Zack's eyes blazed with anger at her interference.  She looked at him.  "And you young man, have some explaining to do before we let our daughter leave her home."

Zack didn't know it, but when Mom decides to do something, the best things to do is shut up and stay out of her way.  She has a way of having you doing what she wants before you even realize that you're doing it.  Zack was strong, but he was no match for her.  Before any of us realized it, we were all in the kitchen.  She made Zack a couple of sandwiches and milk.  He didn't want to eat, he wanted to be the tough solider, but Mom wanted him to, and well, she got her way.      

"Why do you want Jhondie to leave?" Dad asked.

I knew Zack didn't want to answer.  I would have followed without question, but now I did want to know.  "They know everything," I said.  "I told them about Manticore."   I knew he was angry that I had revealed such classified intelligence, but oh well.

"Lydecker is going to be here soon," he said.  "He has a lead about an X-5 here.  He's mad about not catching the one in…in the other place he was looking, and he's after you now."  It was all my nightmares come true.  I nodded.  Then it hit me.

"You knew the other place he was looking?  You know where the others are?"  His silence was enough of an answer.  "Where are they?  Are they all right?  How many got away?"

"There's twelve of us," he replied.  "They scattered as ordered, and they haven't been caught because they obeyed orders," he said looking hard at me.  It hit me then.  He knew where we all were.  He'd known where I was for a long time. 

"You don't have to leave," Mom said.  "We'll take care of you."

I looked at the two people who'd chosen to become my parents.  If I stayed, I knew what would happen.  "He'll kill you all," I said sadly.  It hurt worse than anything I could have imagined.  "He'll kill you and take me anyways.  I have to go."  Zack seemed relieved that I was going to listen to him.

"I have a different solution," Dad spoke up.  We looked at him hopefully.  "I was offered a position at Los Angeles County Hospital.  What if I took it?  LA is a big place, even now." 

To make a long story short, we ended up moving.  Kayla wasn't thrilled about it, and nobody wanted to tell her the real reason, but she was happy in the end.  She liked California more than I did.  It was different, but I felt safe again.  LA was huge.  It would take a miracle for Lydecker to find me here.

Over the next five years, things continued.  I saw Zack occasionally.  Now that the ice was broken, he would show up to check on me.  I learned not to ask about the others.  All he'd say was that they were safe.  He learned that Mom and Dad would let him in anytime he wanted.  It wasn't easy on them, but they knew he had my best interests at heart.

I went to a real high school.  My parents still had the birth certificate and records for their older daughter who had died.  Her name was Katherine (I had taken it as my middle out of respect to her) and it was easy for a doctor to make a few adjustments to make it seem like I was their older daughter.  Without the computerized records, nobody even questioned who I was.  Once again, I was happy.  I thought that maybe I would go to college, get a job, and maybe have a life.  Maybe, just maybe, I could be free from my demons.

But life can be funny. 

Justin

When I started out on my degree in journalism, I never thought things would be like this.  My hero was the great Eyes Only.  Of course, I couldn't tell anyone that, but I admired him.  That was real journalism.  Exposing the evils of the world, becoming the hope and salvation for so many.  It was amazing, and I wanted to be like him.

That's where the trouble began I think.  I was 19, a sophomore in college, and I wanted to become part of the informant net.  Of course, you had to have something to inform on before you could join.  And you also had to have proof.  Like most kids, I knew I was invincible, and I would get something that he could use.  Like most kids, I was an idiot.

I still lived at home even though I was going to college.  My mom had died a couple years after the pulse.  I have a younger brother and sister, twins as a matter of fact, that were 10.  They had been a big surprise to my parents.  Anyways, I decided to go to school close to home so that I could help dad with the kids.  My classes were arranged so that I could get them to school before I left, and dad would be there for them at night. 

The arrangement worked out even better because that meant I was "studying" at night.  I was actually running around trying to get something for Eyes Only.  I gave him a few tips of things I had seen, and even sent him a picture once of an unnamed politician going into a hotel with a prostitute.  I know that sounds tacky, but this was the same guy who announced that he was cracking down on cops taking bribes from working girls.

It took a while, but I finally got a message from EO about a tip I had given him.  One of the city councilmen was being bribed to keep the police away from fencers.  Drugs were involved, and I suspected a lot of other things.  EO told me he thought I was on the right track and gave me an address.  He told me to try and get a picture or some kind of proof. 

I went that night.  Looking back, I'm not sure if that was the smartest or stupidest thing I ever did in my life.  Maybe I should have gone into veterinary medicine.  Thinking about it, maybe I did.

Jhondie

So, I'm 17, and in high school and I have friends that come over, and we hang out together, and talk about boys and singers, and life in general.  I've never told anyone about the first nine years of my life except my parents.  Not even Kayla knows.  Sometimes I wonder if she even remembers that I'm not really her sister.  If she does, she's never asked me any questions.

Zack had shown up a couple of months ago.  My parents always got nervous when he did, thinking I'm going to jet with him, but I was much more independent than I was then.  Still, I'm glad to see him when he does come in.  He's not a warm person, but he's my brother.  Mom and Dad don't really understand why I like seeing the reminder of a nightmare, and it's not something I can explain, but I miss him when he's gone.  He checked in on me, and let me take him to a movie.  I think he was lonely, but he'd never admit to that.

Then a good friend of mine showed up early Sunday morning in near hysterics.  My parents had taken Kayla out that morning, but I wasn't feeling so hot.  Actually it was "that time" for me, and I'd learned for about 12 hours I had to be locked away from the world or risk attacking everything male I saw.  It was almost over and I was very grateful.

I got Cheryl to calm down enough to tell me what had happened.  She looked like hell, and I thought maybe her dad had gone after her again.  She'd shown up to school bruised more than once, but she'd made me promise that I'd never tell.  She was going to college next year, and she'd be far away.  I would have preferred to kick the crap out of him myself, but I did as she asked.

She told me her boyfriend had stolen some jewelry that her mother had left to her.  It was actually some pretty expensive stuff.  It was something her dad checked constantly to make sure she hadn't pawned.  Cheryl knew who was going to take the beating for it, and this time she was going to be in a hospital.

I asked Cheryl where the stuff was.  She told me that her boyfriend had traded it for drugs.  She told me where she thought it might be.  I hadn't really used my abilities in a long time, but I had kept in practice.  I never told my parents; they still worried when I jumped off the roof.  I told Cheryl I had some money, and maybe we could get the stuff back.  I didn't have nearly that kind of cash, but getting a certain object or information out of a location was Manticore all over again.  I wasn't worried.

Justin

It was nearly one in the morning, and I hadn't seen anything of interest outside the address.  If it was a movie, I'd have seen the mayor or someone go in, or something, and then there would have been a big car chase.  Instead there was a journalism student trying not to fall asleep.  This was not what the movies had said it would be.

So I decided to get a closer look.  OK, I had decided on a little breaking and entering.  It was probably the stupidest thing I could have done, I know that now, but like I said, I was a kid, and kids aren't known for reasonable actions.  I snuck around to the back.  There was a fire escape that I could use.  At least I was smart enough to realize that I needed to be very careful. 

I didn't get the chance.  I had gotten around the back, and there was a crashing sound from above.  My camera came up immediately.  I'm not sure why, but it did, and I got a single snapshot of a girl going headfirst through a third-story window.  First time up to bat, and I caught them committing murder!

Except that wasn't exactly how it was.  The girl was in a swan dive, and then flipped so that she landed on her feet, a few inches from me.  She was crouched but jumped up easily, unhurt.  That was not possible.  Our eyes met, shock mirroring itself at seeing another person.  Who was she?

I didn't get a chance to ask.  There were several gunshots, and she looked back up.  That's when I noticed she was carrying a backpack.  Was she a thief?  That would be ironic.  Except that no thief would dare rob this place. 

"Run!" she ordered, and took off.  It was pretty good advice, and I started to move.  I made it to my car, but she was nowhere it sight.  I peeled rubber to get out of there.  As I drove I glanced at my camera.  Drugs were all well and good, but I wondered if EO had any information about girls that could jump down three stories and take off running.

Jhondie

It went well and good except for one, ok, two minor problems.  I got caught, and then someone else saw me.  Getting in was actually fun.  I even wore a ski mask.  How's that for commando action?  It was easy to leap from one roof to the next.  I hadn't stretched my muscles like that in years, and it felt wonderful.  All my feline senses were stirring awake.  I think I even purred.

I had done a little poking around.  Well, more like slapping Cheryl's boyfriend around until he talked.  I wasn't worried about him saying anything.  What seventeen-year-old boy is going to admit to getting beat up by a girl?  It was a five-story building, and all the action took place on the third.  OK, it's a place to start.

There was a security system, more like a joke system.  I had always excelled in disarming and entrance.  I shut it down in less than three minutes.  It helps to have enhanced vision to see the tiny wires that if cut, set off another alarm.  Of course, most people aren't expected genetically engineered soldiers to break in, even drug dealers.

I got in and began searching the place.  Some of the doors were actually locked.  Ha.  I picked them rather than just ripping out the door handle.  It might be better if the place didn't look ransacked.  After a little while, I found an office with a safe.  With my hearing, it was easy to open the safe by listening for the tumblers.  Luck was on my side, because the jewelry was still there.

That's when I heard the noises from the hall.  I stuffed the stuff in my backpack, and jumped up, hoping they weren't going to come in here.  Go past, I pleaded mentally.  Just keep walking, nothing's wrong.  Luck ran out.  Three men walked in.  I could take them in hand-to-hand, but they were all armed. 

They didn't move for a minute.  I think they were so shocked that someone would dare rob them; they didn't know what to do.  I did know.  There was a window right there, and well; I did a swan dive, ripping off the ski mask as I went through.  I was going to need every bit of my vision and senses now.

I landed in a crouch, roughly two inches from a set of jean-clad knees.  I stood, and our eyes met.  I don't know who was more shocked, he or I.  There were some gunshots and I told him to run, then took my own advice.  I ran about two blocks, and then went up a building.  I made sure I lost them, and that the mystery man outside wasn't pursuing, and then I went home. 

I had been seen, and did not immediately eliminate all possible witnesses.  Lydecker would have been so disappointed.  For that, I was glad.

Justin 

So a beautiful woman had jumped out of a building at me, EO was looking for proof, I had a killer exam coming up, and my younger sibs now needed to be taken to soccer practice in the afternoon.  Not a big deal.  Sure.  I was seriously considering going into the exciting world of real estate.

It had been over two weeks since the encounter.  Who was she?  I had tried staking the place again, but they moved operations.  Can't say I blame them.  I knew I was supposed to be looking for proof that Councilman Harper was taking bribes, but she kept taking up all my thought.  I know, typical male, being led around by …well, you know the rest.  It wasn't like that though.    It was driving me nuts.  Was she real?  Three stories, that's impossible.  Had I dreamt it?

While I was being driven nuts, I was also driving dumb and dumber to soccer.  The twins are cute when they want something, but they knew I was under orders to take them, so they were basically flying around the car.  They knew I wouldn't carry out my threat to take them home because I didn't want them around while I tried to study.  However, I was seriously considering tying them to the roof until we got there.

I was going to just drop them off, but for some reason I looked over the few soccer moms watching their kids.  The Pulse reduced a lot of extra curricular activities, but for the people that were well off before it, they survived.  Dad's business wasn't hurt too badly, and we're rather comfortable.  Anyways, since there weren't too many women who could afford not to be working, the kid watchers were a small crowd.

She was easy to spot.  It wasn't that she was taller than most of the women, or that she was much younger than most, but she stood out.  Can't say why, she just do.  Her light brown hair was loose, falling midway to her back.  Even with it not tied up, I recognized her.  I think even blind I would have known her.

Before I could think enough to stop myself, I went to her.  She was sitting in a low chair reading a book, and me in all my teenage suaveness said, "We've got to stop running into each other like this."

She looked over the edge of her sunglasses at me, her green eyes meeting mine.  I suddenly felt my stomach jump, as I read the look.  Kid I might be, I knew a you're-getting-a-butt-kicking look when I saw it.

Jhondie

People are funny when it comes to falling.  There are some who have to go to shrinks because of falling psychosis.  For the first couple of years that I lived with my family I never even thought about my ability to fall.  I had never seen anyone else fall, and it never crossed my mind that it was based on my genetics.

I realized how strange it was when I was 11.  I was on the roof trying to get a ball I'd lost up there.  My friends had all gone home, so I jumped up there.  Mom and Dad came out, and Mom ordered me to get down immediately.  She told me later she thought I had a ladder on the side.  It was only ten feet or so.  I jumped.  She almost fainted.  I had lost my balance when I landed and rolled out as I had been trained to do. 

From the looks on their faces, I thought they were going to kill me.  It took some talking, arguing, and a threat of another demonstration before they understood that I could do that easily.  Dad explained that a ten-foot fall could kill a regular person.  He knew that cats could fall long distances, and we figured that's where I got it.  I promised not to do it again.  Well, at least not in front of others.

I kept that promise until one night I leapt out a window and landed at some guy's feet.  From my parents' reaction to a ten-foot fall, I knew his must be pretty extreme.  It didn't matter because I'd never see him again.  I had returned the jewelry to Cheryl, and made her promise to never ask questions.  She never did.  I think she knew that she didn't want the answers.  Life went on.

Kayla had started playing soccer for a league team.  They had things for all different ages, and at 12, she was turning into a great athlete.  She tried to show me up sometimes by being the star athlete, but I wasn't about to explain why I never played.  I took her to her practices, and would sit and read while she played.  I always acted like I was more interested in "girly" things, but in truth I loved physical activity.  That's why I had so much fun getting the jewelry back.

So I was at her practice, and I hear some jerk standing over me saying something about meeting like this.  I glared at him over my sunglasses; ready to tell him where to go, and what to do when he got there.  I didn't get a word out.  Black hair.  Blue eyes.  Good build.  Familiar knees.  The only words I know to describe the situation should probably be left to the imagination.

He's Manticore I thought.  They found me.  I had to get away.  If they saw Kayla, they'd track her through me, and then Mom and Dad.  It was panicked thought I know, but in my situation your fear antennae is always on high.

I took off running into the wooded lot next to us.  Some of the women probably thought it was strange, but later I learned that most thought he was my boyfriend or something.  I'm running for my life and they think I'm romping in the woods.  Life is not fair.

Justin 

I didn't know why she ran, and I have yet to figure out why I followed.  It was the reporter instinct I think.  Get the story at all cost.  Or I was dumb enough to think that I could catch her.  Probably the later.  If I had known then what I know now…I would have followed her anyways.

She got way ahead of me, and I am a very fast runner.  I got into the wooded lot, which was at least an acre or two, and lost her.  Being the rational, intelligent person I was, I started looking for her.  There was supposed to have been a building here once, I knew.  It's probably one of the only pieces on undeveloped property here.  There had been legal battles, something about a graveyard or something, and then the Pulse hit, and it didn't matter anymore. 

It was spooky wondering if I was going to step on a grave.  The day was overcast which didn't help the mood here.  Even the birds were quiet.  All of this was probably why I screamed when something hit me from above.

Jhondie

He had been looking for me on the ground, like he wouldn't realize that I'd be in the air.  I'd been trained to get the best vantage point possible, and assess the situation.  I watched him as he searched.  My eyes focused on the back of his neck.  He was wearing a T-shirt, and I could see his neck was bare.  There wasn't even that red, irritated look of a removed barcode.

He hadn't been able to keep up when I ran.  He was only searching the ground.  His neck was clean.  It looked like he wasn't another Manticore kid.  He looked a couple of years older than me, so he could be an X-4.  If that was so, I could take him.  He came closer to the tree where I was.

I took the risk, and jumped.  I caught him by the neck, and tossed him to the ground.  "I'll be dead first," I hissed, and then took off.  He was stunned, and from the scream he let out when I caught him, not expecting death from above.  I made it to my car, and took off.  Nobody was following.

I ran into the house.  Mom was home, and she started to question me about what had happened to me, and where was Kayla.  My appearance would have worried anyone.  I had leaves in my hair, a couple of scratches from being poked by branches, and tearstains on my face.  I ignored her, and grabbed the phone, dialing a number I'd never used before.

The "leave a message" message played.  "Zack," I said.  "I think they're here.  I don't know, but there's somebody stalking me, and I don't know if it's Manticore, or someone else.  Is Lydecker here?  Please call me."  I hung up, and looked into my mother's white face.

Justin

I admit it, my pride was far worse off than my body.  I was still confused as all anything though.  Who was this girl?  What did she mean by I'd have to kill her first?  I brushed myself off and went back to the playing field.  She must have been there for someone, but none of the kids looked like they were looking for anyone.

I waited till after the practice, and was waiting for the terrible twosome to finish up when I saw a woman talking to a girl.  She was one of the women that my mystery lady had been sitting near, and the girl was looking kind of confused.  Maybe…I wandered near, acting like I was looking for someone and listened.

"Jhondie wasn't feeling well, so I'm going to take you to the Marshall's," she was saying.  The girl brightened.

"Cool!" she exclaimed.  "Didn't want Jhondie hanging around the pool anyways."  If that wasn't sibling rivalry, I'd never heard it before.  The girl turned to get into the car, and I saw Harris on the back of her jersey.  Jhondie Harris?  This reporter scented a clue.

Jhondie

I sat there waiting for Zack to call.  I had told Mom what was going on and she called Anna on her cell and had her take Kayla to a party after practice.  I was supposed to take her, but I didn't want anyone to see me with her again.  Cody had jumped in my lap, and I sat there petting him while I waited.

Cody is actually short for Barcode.  He's all white except for a black smudge on the back of his neck.  Three years ago he adopted me when he was about six weeks old.  I never really liked cats, probably because I don't like being reminded of my genetics, but Cody was special.  My parents let me keep him.  His original name was Smudge.

He's funny because he didn't seem to like anyone but me.  He tolerated my parents and Kayla, but I was the only one he'd come to for affection.  Then when he was about 10 weeks old, Zack showed up.  He had been on my dresser, but he jumped on Zack's shoulder, and purred in his ear.  That was Cody's signal for I like you.  I figured he must have a thing for barcodes, and he was re-christened Cody.

Zack actually liked the cat back.  He'd always have something for Cody to play with whenever he showed up.  Zack never had time for pets, but I knew he liked animals.  I think Cody liked Zack more than me, but he knew who fed him and so still gave me love and attention.

I think Cody could tell I was upset.  I wouldn't let Mom call Dad because I didn't want to miss Zack.  I was terrified.  I didn't want to leave.  Maybe I should have gone with Zack when I was 12.  Now everyone was in serious danger, and it was all my fault

Jhondie

The phone rang, and I picked it up before it could even finish. 

"Jhondie?" Zack said.  I almost cried with relief.

"Zack, I know this is for emergencies, but I don't know if I should leave or stay or find the guy or…"

"Lydecker's in Europe right now," he said cutting me off.  "He'll probably be there for a while."  He sounded so smug.  How did he get Lydecker running in the wrong direction?  It wasn't the first time he'd done it.

"Tell me everything," he ordered.

I took the phone in the other room and told him everything from the jewelry to the woods.  I know Mom was hurt, but she needed to know as little as possible.  Sometimes my Manticore training shows up at the weirdest times.

"I'll be there soon," he promised, and hung up.  Zack didn't seem too concerned.  Maybe the guy wasn't Manticore.  But he was following me.  I looked at Cody. 

"Maybe I ought to remember that I'm the cat around here," I said firmly to him.  Cody gave me a rather superior look and meowed.  Maybe it was the cat genes, but I was pretty sure he was saying something like 'bring it on'.  Good advise.

Justin

In reality, I'm a pretty resourceful guy.  I can usually get what I'm after by myself.  But finding a person in a city of millions, sometimes you need a little extra help.  In this city, in this field really, help has all different costs.  I had one contact that liked dead birds.  I don't ask questions because the guy's information is always right on.  I had learned that the policy "to each his own" was a good idea.

Anyways, I was glad I didn't have to go to Birdy (he named himself, not me) for information.  Dad had told me the next time I sent the twins out to find a dead bird; he was going to make me bathe them.  Like I said, if I get the goods, I don't ask questions.  Even if my young siblings come home soaking wet, with drying road tar on their clothes, and smelling like a dead skunk.   They got what they wanted and I got what I wanted.  But, cleaning up the mess was not part of the deal.  Trust me, you don't want to clean up after those two.  It's scary.

I needed to see Dink.  He's a very strange guy.  Coming from a guy who paid his siblings to find him a dead bird, that's saying a lot.  He's a hacker.  I don't think he's ever had a girlfriend.  He has to move his hair when he sits down, but that's not because he likes long hair, but because he can't leave the computer long enough to have it cut.  I think he tried to kill himself when the Pulse hit, and wiped everything out.

Dink maybe a twisted soul, but he has access to driver registration and licenses files.  I met him when I was looking for some information about a child pornographer.  It's a long story, and one I'm proud to say was part of a ring that EO brought down, but even better, I met Dink.  I also learned that Dink has a weakness for fresh fruit.  Bring him strawberries, and he'll tell you anything.

It took a day of trading and negotiating with a few others, but I got the strawberries.  They were in season, and there was a woman and she grew them, and she needed…well, never mind, I got the strawberries, and the twins told Dad they fell into a ditch on accident. 

I gave Dink the strawberries and the name.  He did a search, and there it was.  Jhondie Katherine Harris.  Even a picture.  I love being right.

Jhondie

I wanted to stay home from school Monday.  I hadn't seen a sign of my stalker Sunday, but that didn't mean he'd left.  Mom told me I should probably stay home, but in the end I decided to go.  Maybe he was just some freak or something.  I could handle that.  A few broken bones and he'd back off.

Dad took me to school before going to the hospital.  He asked me a thousand times if I was going to be OK, and I promised him a thousand times that if I got a whiff of bad news, I'd be out the door.  I hoped Zack would get here soon.  I wondered if he was in Europe.  If anyone could jump around the world and not get caught, he could.

School was school.  I was in all of the advanced classes, and was still bored most of the time.  I mean it's silly to be in a chemistry class when you know more that the teacher.  It's amazing how much was dumped into our heads at Manticore.  Plus, I don't sleep, and wanted to learn more about my biology and genetics.  I had to tone myself way back in PE, and the coach always talked down to us non-athletes.  One day I was going to show him how a mile was supposed to be run.  Maybe I'd try out for the long jump.  That'd show him.

When you have a photographic memory studying is a breeze.  Math becomes simple.  Literature is simple because I spent years learning how to analyze.  In reality there isn't much difference in breaking down a battle plan or a novel.  You take it apart; see how it works, and then laugh at it.

Anyways, I was getting ready to go home, feeling much better about life in general, when I saw him.  He wasn't staring at me, but he was talking to one of the teachers.  I was torn between killing him on the spot, or finding out what he wants, then killing him.

"Jhondie?" Cheryl said, regaining my attention.

"Yeah, what, I'm sorry." 

"I said do you want to do some shopping this weekend for our Prom dresses?"

Prom was still ten weeks off.  I was thinking Kyle was going to ask me, but Alex was also interested according to Lisa, the authority on who likes whom in the high school world.  "Sure," I said, still watching him.  "You going with Tyler?"

"Umm, well, I don't know if he wants to go.  I was thinking if I got the dress he'd want to, and then well, you know."

Unfortunately I did.  But I had other things to do right now.

"Listen," I said, "I got some stuff to do before I go home, and so I'm just going to walk today, OK?"

"OK," she replied, still thinking about how to get Tyler to go to the Prom with her.  She left, and I blended into the hallway.  You want to stalk, I thought, a tiny smile on my face.  You just met the chick that KNOWS how to stalk.

Justin

I couldn't look for her Monday.  I had her address, but I also had responsibilities.  The twins needed to get off to school, and I had classes, and there was an internship at the LA Times, but I needed like three teachers to recommend me for it.  My old journalism teacher from high school had gone to a new school, so I tracked him down. 

We talked for a while, and he signed the recommendation.  I told him I was doing some things on the side, and he laughed.  Said that all young reporters tried that but eventually they would get serious.  I didn't tell him whom I was working for.  It already was serious.  Well, it would be if I could get back on track at least. 

I decided not to do any fieldwork that night.  I meant to stalk Jhondie for a while, but I had a killer exam to study for.  It was the last test before the semester final, and I really needed to study.  Fieldwork for EO is plenty exciting, but it doesn't get the "A" in my biology class.  I was up until around two in the morning.  Who cares about the effect of the photosynthesis in plants?  I was a journalist for crying out loud, not a botanist.  I mean, if I need energy, I eat.  I don't want to know why it works, so long as it does.  There are some things that should remain a mystery.

I finally crashed.  I was exhausted.  Plus I had to get the brats up in a couple of hours.  I went to bed and slept so deeply, it was nearly a coma.  In retrospect, that would explain why I had no idea what was going on until the feeling of rope tightening simultaneously around my ankles and wrists woke me up.

I tried to jump, but I was spread eagle on my bed.  I wasn't going anywhere.  Before I could say anything, a voice hissed out from the darkness.

"Scream and you'll be doing it soprano," a woman said.  There was something very sharp poking me where no man wants to feel something sharp poking him.  I shut up.  It seemed to be the wisest course of action at the time.

"You follow me one more place and you're a dead man," she snapped.  Who was I following?  Jhondie?  I hadn't even been looking for her since I ran into her at the soccer field.  Had my ex sent some psycho?  That seemed like something Denise would do.

"Who are you?" I asked quietly.  I pulled at the ropes slightly.  No give.  What if she wanted something from the Informant Net?  "You're not getting anything about the Net from me," I snarled with bravado.

"This is your one warning," she said ignoring my comments.  "I meant what I said.  But I'll take you to Hell with me."

Suddenly the ropes went slack and she was out the window.  There was a scampering on the roof, and I knew she'd be gone before I could get up.  I unwound myself, and then realized that she'd been holding the ropes.  That was dumb.  One good pull and I would have sent her flying.  Except that I'd tried to pull, and there was no movement.  Could a girl be that strong?

I got out of bed, and looked out the window.  I was on the second story, but from my vantage I still couldn't see her.  She wants to play rough, I thought.  Fine.  I'll play rough.  After my Biology exam.

Jhondie

After my little show Monday night, I didn't think I'd have any trouble out of my stalker again.  I was positive that he wasn't Manticore by now.  I called Zack and left a message that I had taken care of the problem.  He didn't call back, so I figured that he was pretty busy.  I told my parents that I wasn't worried anymore, but didn't tell them why.  Mom tried to get it out of me, but I managed to get around telling her.

I had to take Kayla to soccer practice after school Tuesday.  They were practicing every other day getting ready for their first game this weekend.  I didn't mind taking her now.  My stalker might know where she was, but he knew better than to mess with my little sister now.

I decided to stay and watch her practice.  Cheryl had wanted me to meet her at her house and go through magazines for Prom ideas, but I needed to prove to myself that I was over the scare.  I had spooked way too easily instead of remembering my training and abilities.  I should have just kicked his butt the first time I saw him.

Kayla ran to her team, and I went over to where the other parents were watching the twelve year olds.  That's when I remembered I left my book in the car.  I had been working on learning different languages for several years now.  It's easy when you don't sleep so that you have extra time to learn, and memorize anything you read instantly.  I was now fluent in Spanish, French and Chinese.  I was working on German.

I went to my car, and then heard a familiar voice.  I ducked, and peered over the hood of the car.  There he was.  His back was to me, facing another car.  That was it.  He was history.

Justin

I passed my biology test.  My grade was lousy, but it was enough that I wouldn't have to take the stupid class again.  Not bad though considering the night before I was tied up by a knife-wielding nut case.  She hadn't scared me off though.  I was just going to have to be subtler.  I had to run the twins to practice Tuesday, and then I was going to do a little more research on this girl.  Dad was going to pick them up, so I was free for the rest of the night.

Brittany and Bryan (weren't my parents so cute giving them matching names) jumped out of the car and headed towards the field.  Brittany promptly left her permission slip in the car.  She had to have it before the first game.  It was OK. Dad forgot to sign it.  Lucky for the little brat, I knew Dad's signature better than he did.  I went to sign it against the car and saw a quick reflection in the window.  She was there, watching me.  All right, this was enough.  I waited.  I knew she was going to make the first move.  This time she didn't have the element of surprise.

She came over the hood of the car so fast I almost didn't catch her.  I went to the side fast enough that all she caught was my arm.  My movement knocked me off balance when she grabbed me.  We both went to the ground, and I somehow got her pinned under me.

"Who are you?" she snarled, not intimidated by me being on top of her.

"I'll ask the questions," I snapped back.  I was pretty confident that I had the upper hand.  I work out, and it's given me a rather muscular build.  I had four inches and about sixty pounds on her.  She wasn't going to be able to do……exactly what she did.

He leg and arms came up simultaneously and she lifted me straight up, tossing me over her head.  A girl just tossed me like a doll?  I landed flat on my back.  She was on her feet before I could even get rolled over, standing in a defensive stance.  I got to my feet, a little unsteady.  She had knocked the wind out of me and wasn't even breathing hard.

"I'll ask the questions," she snapped sarcastically.

Justin

If I hadn't been right on top of her a minute ago I'd think she was a robot or something.  There's no way a girl could do what she's doing.  Actually, there's no way any human could leap out of a window and run off like she did.

"Why are you following me?" she said.  I couldn't tell if she was terrified or furious.

"Maybe I liked being tied up," I retorted.  "Why are you following me?"

"You followed me to that building and here and school," she growled. 

"I wasn't following you at the building," I said.  How vain can you get?  "I was looking for evidence of crooked politicians."  I felt a sense of moral outrage.  I was willing to bet that EO didn't let a girl interfere with his work.

"You're a cop?"  She seemed a little less defensive.  Made me madder though.  I would never be a cop.

"Cops are worse than the politicians," I snapped.  "I'm a journalist."

Jhondie

He was a journalist?  Oh, boy had I just pulled a good one.  Still, being a journalist was worse.  He'd seen what I could do.  If he wrote one word, Lydecker would be on me in no time flat. 

"If you're not looking for me why did you follow me here and to school?" I asked suspiciously.

He looked a little confused.  "I wasn't following you at all," he said, and then smirked.  "I had important things to take care of."  Ouch.  That kinda wounded the pride there.

"What were you doing jumping out of third story windows?" he asked me.  That was a place I was not about to go.  "How did you do that?" he continued.

"Is that why you tracked me to here?" I asked hotly.  I wanted him to admit he'd been following me.  Then I'd know I wasn't getting paranoid at least.

"You aren't the reason I'm here," he began, and then the reason wandered around the corner of his car.  She was ten or so, with his black hair but dark brown eyes.  They had the same nose and mouth.  She was too old to be his daughter, maybe his sister or niece or something?

"Justin! I need my permission slip!" she hollered.  She froze at seeing him and me.  A devilish look lit up her face.  "You're meeting a girl!  I'm telling!" she shrieked.  "Justin's got a girlfriend!  Justin's got a girlfriend!" she chanted.

"Britt get out of here!" he snapped.

"Ooohhh you want to kiss your girlfriend!" she squealed.  She made kissing noises.

"I'm warning you," he snapped.  He had a piece of paper in his hand, and acted like he was about to tear it in half.  I could see some of the writing on it.  It was the same permission slip Kayla needed to play for this league.  The girl looked stricken and immediately shut up.

He handed it to her.  "One word and I'll tell Bryan no more birds ever," he warned.  Her eyes got big and she ran a few steps.  She turned, stuck out her tongue, and then took off for the field.  That was a sister for sure.  His sister played here too.  No wonder he'd been here.  Maybe I should change my name to Zack.  I was certainly getting as paranoid as him.

Justin 

She looked almost sheepish.  Britt had run off and now neither of us was talking.  "Looks like we have something else in common," I said. 

"Bratty sisters or the same hang-outs?"

"Both," I replied.  It was time to make a truce.  "Listen," I said in my most reasonable tone, "how about you promise not to jump on me, or tie me up, or try an kill me, and I'll buy you a cup of coffee and we can talk."  I held up my empty hands.  "No cameras or recorders, just talk."

I wasn't sure if she was going to run or go.  She hesitated at least.  "It's just across the street," I continued.  I gave her my most charming smile.  "Besides, I think you can kick my butt if I try anything."

She relaxed.  "OK," she said, looking like she really wanted to run as far from here as she could.  Why was she so edgy?

We went across the street and she sat down in a back booth.  Luckily the place wasn't crowded.  I got the coffee and sat down across from her.  Neither of us talked for a few minutes.  I had the feeling she wasn't into the idea of being questioned.  Why she agreed to come here was still a mystery to me.     

Jhondie

I was pondering how I was going to find out what he knew about me without telling him anything, or making him want to look further.  There was no way I was telling him about a little project called Manticore.  I knew he wanted to know about my abilities.  I reminded myself to kill Cheryl for getting me into this mess.

"So," I said, "why do you think there are crooked politicians working out of that building?"

He looked at me for a long moment.  "A little birdie told me," he said smugly.

"So you're one of those savior of humanity kind of writers?" I paused.  "Aren't you kind of young to already be saving the world?"

"I'm older than you."  I could feel my pulse pick up.  He was positive of that.  Why?

"What do you know about me?" I asked coldly.

He took a drink of his coffee.  I already disliked that arrogant look on his face.  "Jhondie Katherine Harris," he said.  He then rattled off my assumed birth date, and license number.  "Now it's my turn to ask the questions."

I should have ran out the door and never looked back.  I was in dangerous waters, and the sharks were circling.  Why I stayed has always, and will always be a mystery to me.

Justin

"So, why were you at the building I was staking out?" I asked her.  She looked a little more relaxed that I didn't ask about her personally.  I had a good instinct about questioning people.  If I had asked for one personal scrap of information, she would have been out the door in a heartbeat.

"One of my friends had something stolen and sold for drugs," she said.  "I got it back for her." 

"You thought I was one of the drug dealers or something?"  That made sense!  She had broken in to their place.  She must have thought I was taking a smoke or something and was coming after her.  Still, it didn't explain why she said she'd be dead first.  Oh well, one step at a time.

"Something like that," she said and smiled at me for the first time.  I'd have to be dead or gay, possibly both, to not appreciate the way her face lit up when she smiled like that.

"Jhondie," I began, and then hesitated.  "Do you mind if I call you Jhondie?"

"You scared the heck out of me and I tied you up.  I figured we were already on a first name basis," she replied.  We both laughed. 

"How did you do that?" I asked softly.  She immediately tensed.

"Do what?"

"You know what I mean.  I don't know any athlete that can leap out of buildings like you did.  And I definitely don't know any other female that can lift 180 lbs of dead weight and flip it without any strain at all."

"I probably should get moving," she said immediately, obviously very uncomfortable with my question.  What was the deal with this girl?  I was going to have to do some digging.  Before I could say another thing, a girl ran up to our table.

She was about Jhondie's age with red hair and gray eyes.  Except she was in total hysterics, and I had a feeling Jhondie didn't know what hysterical meant.  "Jhondie," she wailed.  "Jhondie, oh my God, Tyler, they think he did it, and now, oh my God."

Jhondie

I was about to leave when Cheryl came running up.  I stood up, and grabbed her upper arms, grateful for the distraction.  Justin wouldn't expect me to answer questions while trying to take care of a hysterical friend.

"Teacup," I said firmly.  She looked stunned and stopped babbling for a moment.  "Say teacup," I ordered firmly.  It was a technique I'd learned at Manticore.  "Teacup and saucer."

"Teacup," she gasped.  "Teacup and saucer" She was calming quickly.

"OK, what happened to Tyler?" I asked.

"They think he stole my jewelry back, and they beat him up and he's in the hospital and they're going to kill him if he doesn't pay up for it," she sobbed in one breath.  "I thought you bought it back!"

I never thought they'd go after Tyler.  Tyler was a thin guy.  My back had been towards them when I pulled off the mask.  I didn't really mind the thought of him getting beat up, but he shouldn't get killed for what I did.  Even if the jerk deserves it.  Sometimes I do things I think just to prove I've risen above Manticore.  I wasn't sure how to save Tyler and keep Cheryl from getting killed by her father, but I knew I was going to try.

"I have to go," I told Justin.  I took Cheryl's hand and we left the coffee shop.  She had started to weep silently, but I didn't know what to say.  All I knew was what I had to do.

Jhondie

I took Cheryl to the hospital.  Anna told me she would drop Kayla off at home.  I called Mom and told her what was going on as soon as I got there.  Dad was still on shift.  He came down to the ER and let us know what was going on with Tyler.  He had been beaten up really bad.  Bones were broken, his spleen was ruptured, and there were a lot of other injuries that Dad was kind enough not to catalog in front of Cheryl.

Tyler's mother was there with his half a dozen siblings.  None of their fathers were present.  The kids were running wild through the hospital until security threatened to have them thrown out.  No wonder Tyler had turned out a drugged up mess.  She kept throwing dirty looks our way whenever a doctor or nurse would talk to us and not her.  I knew most of them personally and they preferred me to her anyways.

I kept thinking about what I had found in my backpack under the jewelry.  There was a single sheet of paper with a name, a dollar amount, a number that looked like a date maybe and then a business sector.  One of them was Langston, $10,000, 15th, girls.  Another was Harper, $5,000, 1st, fencers.  Tillman, $2,500, 30th, shipping.  Why would someone write down whom they're bribing and for what?  Langston was the police commissioner, and Harper was a city councilman.  I didn't know who Tillman was.

I never meant to get involved in a crusade.  I never wanted to be noticed.  But I knew someone who would want this information.  If the protection were exposed, the underside would have to crumble.  If a politician were exposed as dirty, he'd have to go after what he was protecting in order to save himself.  Maybe in the meantime they'd forget this kid in the hospital. 

I took Cheryl home.  She wanted to stay, but Tyler was in recovery, and Dad promised to call if there were any changes.  I ran home and snuck into my room.  I didn't want Mom noticing I'd been home and left again.  I didn't want to answer any questions, and I made it a point not to lie to her.  I don't know why I didn't burn this paper, but I didn't.  I left again and headed for a place I'd been before.

Justin

I was up pretty late that night.  I had called in a favor and gotten some information that was very disturbing to me about Jhondie.  I had no idea what to make of it except there was a girl with amazing abilities who was very determined to keep a major secret.  Determined enough to hide behind the dead for it.  There was somebody behind me.

I spun around and Jhondie was sitting on my windowsill.  I had no idea what to say.  She had the grace to look uncomfortable at least.

"I normally have enough manners to wait until I'm invited in through the front door," she said.  "But it's late, and this is real important I think."

I shrugged.  God help me if Dad or one of the twins walked in right now.  "What you got?"

She gave me a piece of paper.  I thought I was going to pass out as I scanned it.  How had she gotten this?  It was impossible.  There was no way anyone could get their hands on something like this.  Of course there was no way someone could jump from a third story window either.

"I know what it looks like," she said.  "But why would anyone write down who is getting paid when?"

"The leader of this group is a guy named Brent Lake," I said absently, still reading.  "He works for someone else, someone real big, but he can't remember anything.  He's always writing everything down.  If his boss told him who to pay, he'd have to write it down or he'd forget."  I looked at her dead on.  "How did you get this?"

"When I was getting Cheryl's stuff, I just grabbed it, and accidentally caught that paper under a piece," she replied.  Comprehension dawned.  "No wonder they went after Tyler!  They think he has this!"

She sat down heavily.  I had an attractive girl on my bed.  Please don't let anyone come it, I prayed silently.  "They're going to kill him," she said.  "They almost beat him to death today.  He'll be in the hospital for a month at least."

"Not if someone else exposes them," I said, thinking fast.  The paper said Harper gets paid on the first.  I had a feeling that meant the first day of the month, which was two days off.  "Kid's in the hospital, right?  They know he's a junkie, not a rat.  He won't be able to talk for a while anyways.  Besides, Harper will be scrambling to save himself, and everyone else on this list.  They might forget the kid."

"What are you going to do?" she asked, a little suspiciously.  I think she already had a clue as to what I was going to suggest.

"We find where the money changes hands," I said.  "Then we get proof.  Then it gets published."

"We?"

I was still thinking fast.  "I'll make you a deal," I said.  "I won't ask how you can do some things, and you help me get the proof I need.  Kid gets saved and bad guys go down."  I held out my hand.  "Partners?"

Jhondie

I am not a savior of humanity.  I am not a destroyer of humanity.  I am a teenager.  I should be hanging out with friends and looking at Prom dresses, and getting Kyle to ask me out.  Life gets funny when you least expect it.  I wanted to tell Justin no and leave.  Then I'd be responsible for what happened to Tyler.

Before I took his hand, I had one more question.  "These are powerful people.  You'll never get anything published about them like this."

"I have my ways," he said with an arrogant little smile.

"How?"

"You keep your secrets, I'll keep mine."

What the heck, you only die once, I thought, and took his hand in a handshake.  "Partners," I said firmly.  "Where's the money going to change hands at?" I asked.  I needed to stake the place, get the layout, and decide on my insertion point.  God, this was just like Manticore.  Maybe I'd been taught for real life better than I could have imagined.

"That's the tricky part," he said, turning back to his computer.  He pulled up a map of the city.  "They're not working in the same place anymore.  So, we're going to have to tail Harper and hope he leads us to the right place."

"You know where Lake lives?" I asked.  Amateurs, I thought.  Always have to do things the hard way.  If this guy writes everything down, then he's got to have an appointment book somewhere.  If Harper gets tailed, he'll get spooked. 

He pulled it up on the map.  "Plush penthouse suite," Justin said.  "Way to much security to even think about breaking in," he said very seriously.  Well, too much for him.  Not nearly enough for me.  I memorized the address and location in a flash.

"So how do we even know they're going to keep the same schedule?" I asked.  In the event of a security breach, keeping to the compromised plans was a mistake, but then again, I had more training than most in such things.

"Lake works for someone else," he said.  "The big guy isn't in LA, and Lake wouldn't want him to know he screwed up.  He won't want his pay off's to know that he let someone take off with his who's who list.  He's going to play it cool."

He had pulled up a picture of Lake while we were talking and I leaned over his shoulder to get a better look.  He looked up at me, and suddenly being that close felt very weird.

"I probably should get moving," I said.  It was very late, and I didn't want my parents finding out I were gone.  They know I don't sleep and often go roaming at night, but they don't like it.  I was halfway out his window when he said one more thing.

"Jhondie," he called.  "You got less sleep than me last night.  I'm about to drop, and you're not even tired are you?"

He would notice something like that.  I shrugged.  "It's called a nap," I said.  He looked doubtful.  I hate lying.  I'm not very good at it.  It's better for me to avoid a question all together.  I slipped out the window and was gone before he could say another thing.

Justin

She was enigmatic to say the least.  I could only hope she was smart enough to stay away from Lake's place.  This guy was slightly paranoid, probably more so since his place got ripped off.  There was something very off about her.

I pulled up the information that I had received.  She had said I followed her to school, so I knew her high school.  I had done a favor for a secretary there (not THAT kind of favor) and she paid me back by sending me Jhondie's school records.  Pre-pulse records on computer were wiped out, but there were ways of getting the paper back-ups.

Jhondie had been born in Atlanta.  I told another contact that I needed a birth certificate from an Atlanta hospital, wanting to prove to myself what my instincts were telling me.  They didn't have any records of a Jhondie Katherine Harris being born at that hospital at that time and date.  So what Jhondie had given the school was false.

But, my contact also said that there was a record of a Katherine Margaret Harris being born.  Her father was a resident at the hospital at the time.  Dr. Jack Harris.  Except the odd thing was that Katherine died six years later of leukemia at the same hospital.  Jhondie's school records show that she missed the first few years of school due to, you guessed it, leukemia.

Dr. Harris left Atlanta shortly thereafter, and took a position in a Las Vegas hospital.  Four years later they all move to LA.  Suddenly Jhondie shows up.  She was home schooled after the Pulse, so there's nothing in her school record.  Sometime in Vegas she had taken the identity of a dead girl, and her "parents" had helped. 

I leaned back and looked at the information that I had gathered.  She wasn't a typical teen.  And I wasn't the type to let secrets go uncovered.

Jhondie

I could not believe how excited I was to be getting ready to break into this guy's place.  What was the matter with me?  I should be ticked as all anything that I had to do it to save Tyler's sorry butt.  If there was anyone that needed his butt kicked, Tyler was one of the first in line.

And no, it wasn't because Justin was a hottie.  Maybe it was partly him.  He was the big reporter man, hot on the trail.  I was supposed to be well, hired muscle I suppose.  I couldn't wait to show up with the location of the drop in my little hands.  He'd flip out.  Way too cool!

I kept my excitement down while I was at home that day after school.  I think Mom knew something was up, but she didn't ask me anything in front of Kayla.  Kayla dominated the conversation at dinner anyways talking about the first soccer match this weekend.  We both promised to be there, and dad had told her he'd rearranged his shifts to be there.  You would have thought she was being crowned Queen of the World.

After everyone had gone to bed, I slipped out.  I think Mom knew I was running around at night again, but she trusted me.  They'd gotten used to the fact that I may sleep one or two hours every few days and that was all I needed.  Staying inside all the time they were wasting was boring to me.  They knew I'd be careful, and there wasn't much that could hurt me.

I went to the right address.  The penthouse was like thirty stories up.  No jumping out windows on this one.  I went into the apartment building and made my way to the roof.  I had found the blueprints of the building on file in the city archives.  I pulled my ski mask on, not wanting them to know what I looked like.  I wasn't afraid of being caught.  I just didn't want my picture getting back to Lydecker.

It's easier to go down then up.  I used a rope to lower myself, and disarmed the security system.  There were cameras, but I shut them down easily.  I wished I had some of the toys I used to have at Manticore.  There was one that you attached to a camera that would shoot thirty seconds of film, and then play it on a continuous loop.  It made an empty hall always look empty.  Oh well, I could improvise.

I am very gifted with security.  Even at Manticore I was rarely challenged with breaking and entering.  Max had a hard time.  Even Zack did.  Tinga was awful.  But, their talents lay in other fields I supposed.  I wondered what they were doing with them now.  No time to wonder, I had a job to do.

I peeked inside a window, and saw an office.  It looked like a good place to work at least.  Rather garish for my tastes, but if he wanted an interior decorator from a harem, that was his business.  It had a desk and computer and other office-type equipment buried within the seraglio backdrop. 

I broke into the office carefully.  The desk was locked, but I picked it within a few seconds.  I could not get caught this time.  If I did, Lake would know he was being tailed, and would change plans.  I searched carefully, feeling more anxious as minutes ticked past.  Then I found it.  A drawer full of spiral bound notebooks.  What century did this guy live in?

One said appointments on the front.  I opened it, and flipped through.  Busy guy, I thought as I saw the lists of people he was meeting.  He wrote names, which surprised me.  Actually it didn't looking at the names.  No way cops were ever going to raid this place.  Too many of them were getting his money.  The only time a name wasn't used was one last month that simply said, "Meet GB, 8:00, his place".  Strange.  But I found where Harper was meeting him.

I had an instant camera, and snapped a picture of the page that showed the meeting place and time.  I put everything away and made sure the desk was re-locked.  Then I got the heck out of there and headed to Justin's. 

Justin

"You did what!" I hissed at her.  I was starting to get used to her breaking into my room at night.  If this kept up I might as well leave my window unlocked.  She was sitting there, looking so self-satisfied that I was tempted to hit her or something.  I am not a violent person.  But there was something about her that made me just want to choke her or something. 

"You're acting like I did something bad," she said smugly.  "I was under the impression you wanted to know where the meeting was."

I looked at the picture again.  It clearly listed the meeting place and time.  How did she get this?  This guy's security was supposed to be second to none.  She swore that nobody saw her, but there's got to be cameras everywhere.  But there was something about her confidence that said she knew for certain that she'd done it cleanly.  She was seventeen for crying out loud!  How does a seventeen-year-old "good kid" know how to disarm major security, get information, and sneak out without detection?

"Listen, I checked the place out," she continued.  "We have a great insertion point, planned escape route, and line of sight.  We get in early, get some video and take off running."  She sounded like a general planning a battle invasion.

I checked my clock.  It was four in the morning.  When does this girl sleep?  "OK, I said.  "Where do you want to meet tonight?"  The meeting was scheduled for nine tonight in an alley.

"Here," I answered for her.  "If you don't mind that is.  I've kind of run through my A material on why I'm out late, and if my dad thinks its with a girl, he won't say anything."  It was true.  Dad doesn't like me running around doing weird things.  After the last dead bird incident, well, if I wasn't of age, he would have had me seeing a shrink.  "He doesn't know what I'm doing, and I'd like to keep it that way," I explained.

She smiled a smile of understanding.  "If my parents knew where I was, I'd be dead too," she said.  "Speaking of them, I better get moving.  Mom gets up early sometimes."  She crawled back out the window.  There was a person outside jogging and she ducked and froze on my windowsill waiting for him to pass.

A slight breeze picked up, blowing her pony tail off of her neck, and very clearly I could see black vertical lines at the base of her neck.  A barcode?  She wasn't the tattoo type.  Why did she have a barcode on her neck?  Before I could ask, she was gone again.  I went to my computer and started to do a little searching. 

Girl with no past, I thought.  She doesn't really exist until five years ago in LA.  Maybe a little before that in Las Vegas.  She can jump three stories, kick the tail of a man much larger, run like the wind, and break into complex security systems.  Plus, she has some artwork on her neck.  I knew a place that published crazed conspiracy theories.  I didn't think she was a robot or something, but something happened to her.  At that point I was willing to believe in alien abduction.  What I found…well, the aliens were more believable…and far less frightening.

Jhondie

I told my parents I was meeting Cheryl after school.  She had gotten a little behind on her school, and her dad told her she couldn't see Tyler unless she spent tonight catching up.  I told Cheryl the story, and she promised to cover for me.  I warned her that if she went to the hospital, and dad saw her, I would personally kick her butt.  She asked me if I was meeting a boy, but I told her it was a secret.  I think she thought I was running around on the sly with Justin.  She had seen us together in the coffee shop.  It's nice to have a friend that won't ask questions if you tell them not to.

I was more nervous about knocking on Justin's door, than I was about filming a pay off.  I was so glad to see Justin open it.  It was funny that I'd been here three times, and had yet to see the living room.  We went into the family room, and scattered some books and notes and stuff to make it look like it was a study date or something. 

We decided to get there around seven.  It would be getting dark then, and we could get Justin's video camera set up.  Then it was a matter of waiting for the pay off to be made, getting the tape, and Justin to publish it.  I was still curious as to how he was going to handle getting it published, but he said he could.

Justin

We decided that we were going to wait on top of the building where the buy was going down.  It was only three stories high, which wasn't that great for cover, but we'd be able to film it easier.  Jhondie wanted to plant the camera and then wait at a safer distance, but I wanted to keep it on me at all times.  If we had to run for it, I'd still have the evidence.  EO was going to love this.

She had arrived at four.  We were getting ready to leave around 5:30, when Dad came in.  I had been hoping to make a clean getaway.  I was just grateful that the brats were having dinner tonight with some friends.  The last thing I wanted was Brit hopping around screeching about my girlfriend.

"Dad," I said.  "This is a friend of mine, Jhondie Harris.  Jhondie, this is my dad, Dan Carter."  Dad hadn't really seen me with any girls since Denise and I broke up about eight months before.  I'd gone out like maybe twice, but working for EO had kept me too busy to have a social life.  Dad thought I was pining for Denise.  In truth, I was glad to be rid of that psycho. 

"Hi Mr. Carter," she said with a big smile, extending her hand.  "It's so nice to finally meet you."

"And you," Dad replied.  He checked the room covertly.  We were both dressed, and it looked like we were studying.  Good enough for him.  I'd get the third degree later.

"Umm…we were just about to go and get some dinner," I said, giving him my best trying-to-impress-a-girl look.  It's kind of a covert look that Jhondie couldn't see, but Dad knew what it meant.  "You're more than welcome to join us."  The look meant, please say no, I'm just asking to be polite and look gentlemanly in front of the skirt.

"No, that's quite alright," he replied.  Saved.  "I've too much work to do.  You kids have fun."  I knew he was going out with his girlfriend tonight, but if he said that, the polite thing would be for the four of us to go out.  Sometimes it's great having a dad that "gets" you.

Jhondie and I grabbed our gear and left.  "So, umm…you want dinner or anything?" I asked, not sure what to say as we drove.  After what I learned, I wasn't sure if she did eat.  I mean nothing was confirmed, and I wasn't going to say anything until after tonight, but it made sense.  I hoped it wasn't true though.  Actually, there had to be another explanation.  I mean, the conspiracies that this guy posted were so whacked, none of them had ever been proven. 

We could talk about it later.  In the meantime, there was work to be done.

Jhondie

I wasn't hungry.  It was sweet for Justin to ask, but I was getting into the mood.  I have to go back to Manticore, figuratively speaking of course.  It was amazing how Manticore is always just an arms length away in my memory.  I imagine myself sitting in the classroom, listening to Lydecker.  Sometimes my scalp gets that itchy feeling of peach fuzz hair growing back from where it was shaved. 

Justin noticed the difference I think.  He kept looking at me weird.  He didn't have a clue what I was doing, and that was perfectly fine with me.  It was almost like having a split personality.  Maybe not exactly, the memory of a live ordinance drill still scared me to death like it did then, but there was a definite difference in my behavior.

We parked about half a mile away in a parking lot next to a store.  It was a pretty upscale part of the city, which was kind of surprising to me.  Shouldn't criminals be meeting in abandoned warehouses or something?  I mentioned it to Justin and he told me I'd been reading too many comic books.  Hah!  My life is a comic book.

We were in position by 7:00.  The drop was at eight.  I had been all over the place, making sure we were set and ready to run.  This was crazy.  We should not be here.  No, I had to get rid of those thoughts.  I had to be a solider.  Keep alert at all times.  Never let your guard down for a second.  It was getting dark but that didn't bother me.  It would protect us, and I could see far better than anyone else at night.

Justin's video camera was rather impressive.  He said that his father had gotten it for him for his last birthday.  It digitally recorded everything to a CD.  It was very light, rather small, and worked extremely well in low light conditions.  The digital images could be cleaned easily for when the footage was aired.  I just hoped it would get what we were hoping to see.

Justin

I was worried about Jhondie.  She was acting different.  She prowled around making sure the perimeter was secured.  Her words, not mine.  I started to think again about what was possible, and dismissed it.  She'd seen too many spy movies.  That had to be it.  I was far more experienced at this than she was.  I knew how to handle myself.  She was just imitating movies and TV shows she'd seen.

Finally we both ducked low as men entered the alley.  There were several, and I recognized one as Lake himself.  My heart was slamming against my chest.  This was actually going to go down.  And I was getting it all on video.  I was going to get a tape of a crime boss bribing a politician.  Any journalist would kill for this moment.  I had to think of a way to say thank you to Jhondie.

Harper showed up a few minutes past eight.  He looked really nervous.  My camera was fabulous.  I could almost smell Harper's sweat.  I knew he'd been getting bribed for a while, so why was he so stressed?  This should be old habit by now. 

Lake approached him with an envelope.  "Five large as usual."

Harper smiled weakly.  "Nice doing business with you gentlemen."  He turned to leave.  I was ready to tap dance.  There it was in living color.  What more could I ask for?  Well, I could ask for Lake to take out a gun with a silencer attached.  You know, like what he did.

"You got greedy," Lake snarled.

Harper went dead white and almost passed out as he saw the barrel of the gun pointing at him.  "I…I…what are you…Lake, you know me…what's the deal?" he stuttered.

"The kid squealed," Lake sneered.  The kid?  Jhondie's friend?  What did he say?  "Told us how someone was looking for something they wanted.  'Course he couldn't talk very well by then, but I ain't dumb.  You wanted to know how much everyone was making.  Wanted a little renegotiation with the big guy, huh?"

"That's not it!" Harper bleated. "I only wanted to talk to him about his expansion, that's all!  I swear it on my mother's grave!  I don't care what you pay everyone else!"

Lake grinned nastily.  Then he pulled the trigger three times.  Harper flew back as the first shot caught him in the chest, and the other two in the face.  I almost fell off of my perch.  Please let me have caught that on camera I prayed.  If you're up there, then this thing will have worked well.

Jhondie suddenly moved beside me.  She could move like a streak of lightning.  I wanted to tell her to be still, but she was already a shadow in the dark.  There was a sound of a fight, and then a single gunshot rang out.  It hit the masonry a few inches from me, scratching my face with chips on concrete.  I was on my feet pretty quickly too.

Jhondie

When I saw Lake pull out the gun, I knew what was going to happen.  Justin had this I'm-so-excited-I'm-going-to-wet-myself look.  So he was going to blow Harper away.  It really wasn't a big deal, just one scumbag taking out another.  I couldn't get the credit for reporting it, but I knew Justin would.  I didn't think anything would happen to Lake really even with the video.  Not much can happen when you own half the judges and prosecutors and cops in the city.

A second before he fired the first shot, I heard something on the roof.  There was a door that led from the top story up here, and I could hear something moving there.  I looked over there, my night vision easily piercing the darkness.  Goon.  Goon with gun.  I was on my feet in a flash, and caught his wrist just as he pulled the trigger.  I heard the bullet whine off of concrete rather than Justin.  There wasn't any time to be relieved.

I still had his wrist, and yanked his solar plexus into my knee.  He was shoved back, and I kicked him full in the face.  I felt his nose crunch under my foot, and he crumbled to the ground when I let him go.  Several more gunshots rang out from above.  Lake had stationed some men in an office building, two floors above us.  Someone must have seen us.  I'd curse myself later, but for now, we had to move.

Justin was suddenly beside me.  He didn't seem damaged, and he still had the camera.  If I had been alone, I would have just jumped rooftops until I got far enough away to be safe, but I had to make sure Justin would be safe too.  We nearly flew down the stairs, bumping into three of Lake's men on the second floor landing.  They went to shoot, but I leapt slightly, and caught the wall, running sideways down it.  Their guns traced after me, ignoring Justin for a second.

I saw him grab one guy from behind, and deck him hard.  Good, he wasn't afraid of a little fight.    As I ran the wall, I grabbed two of their guns.  The neat part about the wall trick is that people are so stunned you're doing it; they forget to do other things like shoot.  I threw the guns as hard as I could out the window. 

The two disarmed men tried to come after me.  The third had gotten away from Justin, and they were still fighting.  The goon was much bigger, but Justin was holding his own.  Pretty good, actually.  The first man took a swing at me, but I grabbed his fist and snapped his wrist.  I spun him around, and did a spinning kick into his back.  He flew into his partner.  More men were coming in.

The guy Justin was fighting had gotten a hold of the camera, and threw it back.  It smashed against the wall.  The goon I didn't kick grabbed it up.  I went after him, punching him hard enough to feel ribs crack.  My hand got a hold of the camera for just a second, and then it was ripped from me, flying out the window.  Furious, I backhanded the guy, sending him spiraling down the stairs, knocking down his partners that were running up them.

Justin had taken out his guy, and I grabbed his hand.  "Trust me!" I yelled, and yanked us both through the open window.

Justin

I was not expecting to have a flying lesson.  But why not, everything else was useless.  All this had been for nothing the second my camera went out the window.  Somehow Jhondie wrapped herself around me, and a few feet off of the ground, we flipped somehow so that she landed feet first.  I can't explain better than that because I've never fallen like that before.

We hit the ground hard, and she rolled out from me.  There were a couple of gunshots from above, and we took off running as fast as we could.  We cut down a back alley, and then another one.  Some of Lake's men were following in a car.  Jhondie was leading, and I was barely able to keep up.  She veered hard into one alley and then it seemed she disappeared into a brick wall.  I saw the flash of her hand, and realized that she'd seen that a board wasn't nailed down.

It was dark enough that noticing the board wasn't nailed was nearly impossible.  Her vision was incredible.  We ducked inside, and then went up onto the roof, panting.  From the vantage point we could see Lake's men searching, but they didn't see us.  When they left the block, we moved carefully, working our way back to the car. 

The second we got to it, I peeled rubber to get out of there.  I'd never come so close to death, and it was all for nothing.  I'd lost the evidence.  True, I got to see Jhondie run up a wall, which was pretty interesting, but the biggest break of my life was the most broken thing in my life.  I glanced over at Jhondie who looked, well, like she was having a blast.  Weirdo.

"You OK?" I finally asked.  She nodded.

"You?"

"Yeah," I said with a shrug.  "Lost my camera though."  I was so angry with myself for being so stupid.

"I'm sorry."  She sounded sincere.  She was here to save her friend's boyfriend.  After finding out that Lake thought Harper was behind it, maybe they would leave the kid alone.  That had to count for something.

"I think they'll leave your friend alone," I said.  "I guess we'll be saving the world one messed up kid at a time."

"That's sweet," she said with a mischievous little grin.  "You know, you can get much more out of a girl when you act sweet instead of prying her with questions."  She reached down the top of her shirt.  I almost got into an accident.

He hand emerged holding a small CD.  One that was amazingly like the one my camera uses.  "If I'm not mistaken," she said with a smile, "it's the film that counts, right?"

Jhondie

Saturday was Kayla's first game of the season.  We were all going to go.  I knew Justin was probably going to be there too.  We hadn't seen each other since we got the video, but he'd called me once to say thank you.  I think it was mostly to show that he had my phone number.  I wasn't worried.  He kept his end of the bargain and not asked any questions.

We had to get to the playing field like an hour early for Kayla.  Justin wasn't there yet, so when Mom mentioned that she'd forgotten a book that Anna had loaned her, I volunteered to go home and get it.  She asked me if I would also turn off the TV.  Dad had a bad habit of leaving it on when he left.  He said that it made the room sound like someone was in there and it would scare off burglars.  It was one of those ongoing battle things they would be having when they were ninety.

I grabbed the book, and went to turn off the TV.  Before I could hit power on the remote, red, white and blue line appeared running vertically with a man's eyes in the center.  Everyone knew an Eye's Only broadcast.  You rarely got them here in LA, but they were usually pretty cool.  Somebody was getting nailed.

I didn't really hear the broadcast.  All I saw was the footage Justin had shot a few nights before.  This was how he was getting stuff published.  Oh my God.  He worked for Eye's Only.  If Eye's Only ever got a hold of information about me, he would of course publish it, and nobody could stop him.  Justin had seen me do things.  What if he asked for some help to figure out why I could do that?  What if this hacker knew something about Manticore?  One word and Lydecker would be here in a second.  Oh my God.

Justin

The twins were the stars of their team Saturday.  They did some tag-team action and scored three goals.  Their team won easily, 4-1.  They were finishing as the Jhondie's sister's team was finishing.  I went over there to say hi, but all I got was a cold hello, and she left to go back to her family.  I knew that I did something wrong, but what?  Women were impossible. 

Her sister and mother went to talk to another woman, and her dad was talking to the coach.  I figured I might as well try again.  What could she do?  OK, what would she do in front of her mother?

"Jhondie," I asked, "did I do something?"

She glared at me.  "You didn't do something," she snapped.

I had called her!  I didn't have time to come over, or take her out or anything, but I had called.  I had classes and a story for EO to edit.  Women!  She went to stalk off, but I grabbed her arm.  I'm lucky I didn't get mine broken for the effort.

"What didn't I do?" I asked, completely puzzled.

"How are you getting your story published?" she asked.  I had a feeling she knew.

"How did you find out?"

"Oh, your boss did a front page spread," she hissed.  I got to see the footage run through twice.  He even did a close up on Lake smiling when he shot Harper."

She yanked away and started walking.  I followed her and we ended up in the wooded lot beside the field.  Amazing how history repeats itself.

"Jhondie, let me explain," I said.  She slowed and then turned to me.  She was furious, but I had an instinct there was more than just finding out I was involved with EO.  It was time for a little truth or dare.

"I didn't say anything because I have to keep it low," I said.  "Not even my father knows.  You're the only one.  If it got out, I'd be a dead man.  Especially now."

"You must be so proud," she said sarcastically.  "I'm honored to be part of your inner circle, but if you don't mind, I'm breaking out."  She turned to leave.  It was now or never.

"Manticore," I said simply.

Jhondie

I froze while my entire world shattered.  I mean, literally.  I could see glimpses of my life with my family simply peeling away until there was nothing left but Manticore.  He knew.  He would have to have it published; there was no way he could resist a story like this.  I would have to call Zack tonight, and leave.  He'd help me get things going somewhere else.  What if Lydecker found my parents?  He'd never believe that they didn't know where I was.  He'd torture them.  I could still remember every detail of what was done to me. 

It would happen unless I killed Justin right now.  If he hadn't told his boss yet or even if he had, it would buy me enough time to get away.  Lydecker might see that I'm nowhere and leave my family alone.  I wasn't naïve enough to believe that if I turned myself in he would spare them.  The only thing I could do was to get his attention off of them.  Could I kill Justin?  Yeah, then, I could.

I turned slowly, consciously forcing my hand to stay off of my neck.  I have the tendency to hide my barcode with my hand whenever the "M" word is mentioned.  "What are you talking about?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.  "You lost the rest of your warped mind or something?"

Justin

I had her.  It was so obvious in her body language.  I had learned about a secret project known as Manticore.  Kids were being trained to be super-soldiers.  A group had run away back in 2010 or so.  She was one of them.  They all had barcodes tattooed on their necks.  I wasn't sure how training got her to be able to jump like she could, but it explained why she said she'd be dead first.

"Bunch of kids took off from Project Manticore in 2010 when they were 11," I said.  "Kids with barcodes on their necks.  Barcodes like yours.  Kids who were being trained from birth to become the ultimate solider.  Kids whose adoptive parents would have to change records to show their older daughter didn't die of leukemia, and had a different name than before." 

I could see tears of fury in her eyes, but I pressed on.  I have no idea why I was so suicidal, but I kept pushing it.  "That's why I scared you so bad at first.  You thought I was with Manticore.  Was it that bad you'd rather be dead than go back?" I asked skeptically.  It was the wrong thing to say.

I was against a tree in a second.  I didn't even see her move that time.  All I knew was that she was lifting me with one hand around my throat.  "It was Hell," she snarled.  "They did things to us that no person with human feelings would do to children."  She dropped me, and I landed in a heap gasping for breath.  Mere training got her that strong?

She backed off a few paces.  "We were nine when we ran in '09," she hissed, correcting my misinformation.  "My life was one long nightmare until I met Jack and Ashley Harris.  They didn't burn me or break bones to see how long it would take me to heal.  They didn't teach me how to kill more efficiently.  They didn't hold me underwater for four minutes.  They were my parents.  I had a family.  And you destroyed my entire life."

Her voice rose with fury.  I realized that I was in serious trouble.  Trained to kill.  She was trained in the fine art of killing, and she wouldn't have a problem doing it to me.  "You'll be revered for getting this story out," she yelled.  "But I'm the one who'll be hunted like an animal.  Does your boss give you special treats for destroying lives if the story is real juicy?"

She thought I was going to EO about this.  OK, so I had thought about it, but I didn't know how bad Manticore was.  Burning and drowning them?  What kind of monsters do this to little kids.  She had been a little younger than the twins when she ran.  I couldn't imagine them being forced to go through all that.

"Why not tell your story?" I asked.  "Get it out.  Let other people know what was done to you.  Maybe they can't look for you if other people know who you are too."

Jhondie

It was tempting.  Let the world know.  Except nobody would believe it.  Sure, the Eyes might do the story, but no major publication would.  He could tell about Manticore, but who would believe something so crazy.  I wouldn't if I didn't know any better.

"You talk and Lydecker will find me.  It wouldn't matter where I was or who knew, he'd track me down and drag me back."

"I'd never tell a Manticore person how to find you," he said arrogantly.

"Oh?"  I had to make him see.  "And seeing a butane torch turned on the soles of your sibling's feet wouldn't make you want to tell him where I was?  Maybe watching your father's fingernails getting ripped out would loosen the old tongue."  The look of horror on his face let me know he was getting it.  We weren't talking about small time hoods that broke knees.  We were talking true evil.

I turned my back to him.  "I have to leave everything I love now," I said feeling tears running down my face.  "I hope you're very happy, oh great journalist."  I started to walk away.  I had to leave.  It was the only way to protect everyone.

"Nobody knows!" he yelled.

I stopped and turned.  He ran over to me.  I could already see a few bruises on his throat.  I didn't mean to really hurt him.

"Nobody knows Jhondie," he repeated.  "I haven't told EO anything.  I don't have to.  Nobody has to know anything."

Justin

I could see the hope in her eyes.  I hadn't told another soul about her.  I wouldn't tell another soul about her.  Nobody should ever have to live through what she did.  I'd rather die than be taken to a place like that, and I didn't get to experience it firsthand when I was a kid.

"I might tell my boss about an informant, but I would never rat out my partner," I said with a small smile.  "We're partners, remember?"

"Were partners," she said coldly.  "You don't need me anymore.  There's no way you're giving up on a story like this."

I pulled the picture I had of her leaping out of that window from the inside pocket of my jacket.  I ripped it in half, then in fourths.  "It's the only copy I have."  I reached in again and pulled out the negatives.  Maybe it was instinct that told me to bring them, but I was glad I did.  I handed them to her.  "That's every bit of proof that I have about you."

Her hands were shaking as she took the negatives and torn picture.  "They would put me in a cage," she said softly.  I wasn't sure if she realized there were tears running down her face.  I'd never felt so bad in my life for bringing back this nightmare for her.  "If I didn't do what they said, they'd kill me."

"I still need you," I said.  "You're the best partner any journalist could ever hope to have.  I'll trust you with Eye's Only and you trust me with Manticore.  Either of us rats, we're both dead meat."

She was wavering.  I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever get involved with something like this.  This is something that only happens in comic books and stuff like that.  She sat down, pondering what to do.  I sat down beside her.  I had a feeling her killing rage was over.  At least I was hoping so.

Jhondie

What was I supposed to say?  I had a feeling I was being blackmailed a little, but it was the only way to keep what I had.  I didn't really want to kill Justin.  I was better than that.  Sure, I liked what we did together, but I couldn't take that kind of risk.  I could get exposed.  Except that it was Eyes that was the one being exposed.  I'd just be an informant.  Whenever I did something noble, I always felt like I was rising above Manticore.  Maybe that's why I felt so called to purging the corruption and evil in this world.  Whatever the reason, I smiled at Justin and held out my hand.  He took it immediately.

"Partners?"

"Partners."

"Your boss not going to mind?"

"Our boss isn't going to mind one bit.  Especially with the results we get together."

He hesitated, and then it seemed he went for it despite better judgment.  "How did you jump out of that building?" he blurted.  "It's been driving me crazy!"

He did need a partner.  Somebody needed to check his information for him.  "Manticore wasn't just training," I said.  "It was a genetic engineering research lab.  Amazing what happens when you add a little cat DNA to the mix.  You get a kid that can jump around like one."

He looked absolutely dumbfounded.  He opened his mouth to say something, and then snapped it shut.  He reminded me of a guppy.  I had to laugh.  "What, the great journalist speechless?"

"You always going to keep me on my toes?" he managed to get out.

"It's a little late to complain now."

He grinned.  So did I.  Partners.

The End