Chain Of Eyes


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title Chain of Eyes
Synopsis What a tangled web we weave when we struggle to perceive.
Date February 11, 2020

The Linderman Building

Financial District

May 1st


The streets of Manhattan are crowded with people. A sea of people, surging like swollen rivers during a rainy season. There are yellow cabs, box trucks, personal vehicles, and all the pedestrians moving forward with their daily lives. On the street, it simply looks like life. A microcosm; people living their lives and their individual stories. From higher up — from a different perspective — the shape of things starts to change.

From a farther perspective, the individual stories start to blur. It becomes harder to see the personal struggles, but the bigger picture becomes evident. New York City is home to nearly 8 million people, more than the ancient city of Rome at its height, more than it can realistically sustain itself. For something like New York to survive, it requires the sustenance and support of thousands of other cities, of distant farms, of a complex network of agriculture and finance. A support structure so delicate that should it collapse, the city itself could not support itself, nor the millions within.

This is the rainy season of mankind. But one day, some day, drought will surely come.

Standing by the tall windows of his penthouse office, Daniel Linderman cuts a dark silhouette against the rainy sky turning the horizon to a matte field of pale gray. The dark lines of skyscrapers rise up like cemetery monuments, stark and cold things. Rain streaks down the windows, splitting into forking paths that inexorably travel from view; ever changing in their journey.

"I'm glad you could come and see me, Doctor Morrison." Linderman says to the reflection of a man visible in the window. Daniel's own muted reflection in that same vision reminds him of his own forking journey down the rainy glass of life; the wrinkles and scars that serve to show where he'd been on the way.

Not far into the office, across the room from Linderman, Doctor Morrison approaches with noticeable hesitation. He's taller and thinner than Daniel, several years his junior. Stefan's sleek midnight blue suit gives him a narrow silhouette, accented by his height and his long face. Dark hair is swept to one side atop his head, hands folded behind his back but posture ever so slightly stooped as if in a constant state of near apologetic prostration.

"It isn't every day one of the most powerful men in New York asks for me by name," Doctor Morrison says with a raise of one brow. "That said, your people weren't very clear over the phone as to why my uh, presence was requested?" One corner of Stefan's mouth twitches up into a nervous tic. "I don't presume this is about your blood pressure."

Linderman laughs, softly, unexpectedly. He regards Stefan with a newfound fondness, shaking his head and trying to minimize his amused smile. "No, Doctor Morrison, I assure you I am in perfect health." Turning his back to the windows, Mr. Linderman walks with a casual gait over to his desk and makes a motion for Stefan to join him. The taller man does, stooping to sit as his attention anxiously flits around the room. He'd heard enough rumors of the Linderman Group's dealings to be rightfully nervous in this situation.

"Then…" Stefan shifts nervously, and Daniel raises a hand to stall whatever further line of questioning he'd had.

"Tomorrow, the Baltimore Police and the FBI are going to raid your home." Daniel's delivery of that is matter-of-fact. It is something unavoidable, a milestone in the road unmovable by either man. Stafen's expression shifts to confusion, but before he can stammer out a query Linerman continues. "The private work you do with your company Tetradyne is about to become public knowledge. The FBI has been quietly building a case against you for some weeks now, and they're ready to bring you in on charges."

Stefan covers his mouth with one hand and slouches back into his seat, trembling. Disbelief is evident now, a flash of anger, too. Daniel continues to press down on him with information, though. "You may wonder how I came to know this, or why I am inviting you here to my place of business in spite of that. You don't need to, and will not ever, know the answers to those questions." Mr. Linderman folds his hands on his desk and leans forward. "I need you to focus on the future."

"What do you want?" Stefan barks out, as if this were all somehow an extortion tactic. Linderman laughs again in return, wagging a finger at Doctor Morrison.

"Now, now, Stefan. I'm here to help, not bully you." Linderman's brows raise as he regards the wiry doctor. "Your work in genetics is outstanding, and under any other circumstances on any other day I might have recruited you to a different organization. But, now is not the time, and now is not the place." From his desk, Linderman retrieves a business card and slides it across the table to Stefan. It sits there, awkward and disregarded for too long, so Linderman raises his brows imploringly and motions to Stefan. "Do be a dear and look at that, please."

Stefan's eyes flick down to the card, then back up. His gaze doesn't leave Linderman as he slowly leans in and takes the card, sliding it up off the desktop.

Biomere Corporation
Doctor Stefan Ford
Medical Consultant

"Who is this?" Stefan asks, looking up to Daniel.

"You," Mr. Linderman says with a satisfied smile, leaning back into his chair. "We're going to help you disappear, we're going to keep you out of prison and ensure your silence in a way mutually beneficial to us." One of Linderman's brows rises, and he watches Stefan just stare at the card vacantly.

Stefan swallows, anxiously, then looks up to Linderman again. "You— you can do— " He shakes his head. "Why?"

"All in due time," Linderman says quietly. "You're going to become a consultant from Biomere Corporation, advising us on certain medical research practices. Your genius is… well, it would be wasted elsewhere." Linderman folds his hands in his lap, watching the array of emotions flash across Stefan's face. "I'm going to assign you a handler, Paul Oaks, who will be able to answer more of your questions. Of course, you won't be leaving the building today, and… do you like it warm or cold?"

"E-Excuse me?" Stefan stammers.

"We're going to get you out of the country for a little while," Daniel says as he picks up the receiver of his desk phone, holding it between his shoulder and chin as he dials an internal number. Stefan's blank stare implies that isn't a question he's capable of answering right now. "Well, let's just say temperate then, shall we? Germany is wonderful this time of year."

Then, to the voice on the other end of the line, Daniel makes a simple request. "Celine, would you please send Mr. Zarek up?"

"I have someone he needs to meet."

Seventeen Years Later

Praxis Ziggurat
Praxia, California Safe Zone

February 11th
4:17 pm Local Time

Doctor Stefan Morrison always eats his lunch alone.

Seated in the 33rd-floor employee cafeteria, Doctor Ford stares out the massive floor-to-ceiling window that spans the entire length of the cafeteria, looking out at the gray horizon of Praxia set against an equally gray sky. Half of his chicken salad sandwich is finished, crumbs scattered across his plastic plate. Lunch at this hour of day is unusual for Stefan, as he tends to keep hours in time with his various projects, the most recent of which has involved one Devon Clendaniel. But today, of all days, he’s taken lunch a few hours early.

“Strange to see you up here,” draws Stefan’s pale blue eyes away from the window, over to a man standing beside him and then up until he recognizes the face of doctor Shengjiao Wu. The blonde woman standing behind him is entirely unfamiliar. “Can we join you?”

Adrienne Allen isn’t looking at anything other than her feet, hands folded behind her back and head down, brows creased and posture stiff. Wu looks back to her, putting a hand on her arm that draws a sudden look, though she knows it’s an attempt at moral support rather than coercion.

“I suppose,” Stefan says, throwing the unfinished half of sandwich down on his plate with a passive-aggressive slap, “you won’t listen if I say no.” He adds, more aggressive than passive.

Wu pulls out a chair closest to the window opposite Stefan and Adrienne comes to sit down beside him, cradling a paper cup of coffee in both of her hands. Stefan looks at Adrienne, still chewing the last mouthful of his sandwich and blinks a languid look over to Wu. “Does she not talk?” He asks, mouth still somewhat full.

“Doctor Allen has had a hard few weeks. She’s reintegrating with our research team,” Wu says, angling a look to Stefan. “The Director has informed me that we’re going to be working together for the next week.” It’s news to Ford, who pushes his plate aside with disgust.

“I’m busy,” sounds a lot like go fuck yourself the way Stefan spits it out. Wu seems unimpressed.

“Doctor Allen and I need to verify a biological weapon’s viability,” Wu explains, “and the targeting mechanism it uses runs parallel to your research on Umbra. Your expertise is…” Wu narrows his eyes. “Stefan?”

Stefan’s attention has drifted over Wu’s shoulder, wide eyes focused on someone across the cafeteria holding a tray of food. Copper hair, blue eyes, freckles. Stefan’s heart races in his chest, palms become sweaty. She has her mother’s eyes.

It’s Jac.

Since food seems to be almost always available, a certain teenager has taken to snacking when she wasn't busy with training or practice or other forms of learning. The kitchens are the absolute best place to get food, it's freshest there, but the cafeteria offers a chance to listen to the gossip that's usually reserved for employees’ ears. Of course, most of what she overhears is usually useless and uninteresting.

In contrast to the attention that's been fixed on her, Jac hasn't noticed Stefan yet. That happens after she's left the line, exchanged some words with a gray-haired someone in a suit, and angled for a preferred seat.

Then she sees him.

The girl recognizes Stefan immediately, even with his table mates partly masking his face. Jac’s fingers tighten and clench the edges of her tray while she stares back at the old man. Her insides go cold and a familiar sickening fear creeps into her stomach. She huffs a breath, straightens, stands taller in spite of it, and turns to sit at the nearest table.

Adrienne notices the unusual look from Stefan and manages to narrow down the focus of his thousand-yard stare to the redhead across the cafeteria. “Who’s that?” She asks with one brow raised, eliciting a momentary look from Wu, though nothing he comments on openly. Stefan wipes his mouth with a paper napkin, angrily tosses it onto his plate and pushes out his chair with the back of his legs as he stands.

“Mind your own business,” Stefan grouses, running a hand through his hair as he makes a straight path from his table toward where Jac is sitting. Wu turns to look at Adrienne who seems frozen in focus on Stefan, only belatedly noticing Wu watching her. She shrugs helplessly and Wu settles in at the table with a shake of his head as Stefan’s closes the distance between he and Jac.

Jac sets her tray down on the table she's chosen with a definitive force. Her choice of fruit and sandwich jostle, the juice in her glass sloshes enough to threaten spilling. Most anyone else would probably take it as a sign to leave her alone. And some part of her actually hopes that Stefan would read it that way.

A glance up smothers that dream.

Blue eyes track from the man who'd lied to her for years, who insisted on being called Dad but never once acted like one, to the pair who had intended on joining him for lunch. Jac stares at them for a long second, seeking, silently pleading for either or both to retrieve Stefan. Her eyes tick back to the old man approaching, filled with a hatred that turns her knuckles still curled over the edges of her tray white.

It’s Stefan’s eyes that are the most harrowing part of seeing him again. Because she has seen him. Recently.

Just not…

…in the flesh.

March 20th

Screening Lab 6
Outer District

Wasteland Timeline

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Squeaks’ ears are still ringing from the gunshots. She can still hear the confused cry come from Robyn Quinn a split second before the firing squad executed her and the other Resistance members lined up against the wall. She can hear the softly tinkling shell casings as they rained down on the asphalt, she can hear the barked demands of the officers on site. She can hear the whining whirr-click of the Centurion’s lock-step march past their corpses.

That horror drowns out the buzzing of a fluorescent lamp overhead. The full-body shakes she’s experiencing drowns out the feeling of skin-prickling cold coming from the dimly lit confines of a too-sterile medical exam room. This was their next destination after the gate checkpoint. A screening process before being committed to the relocation center. She was separated from Lance, from Cassandra, from the survivors of that massacre and told to wait.

Judging from the clock on the wall, she’s been waiting an hour. Judging from the frantic beating of her heart, she’s been waiting an eternity.

Thin arms wrap tightly around her middle in an effort to still the trembling. Her teeth chatter and make her jaw ache, tears that refuse to fall sting her eyes. In her mind, the execution plays out again, gunfire matching the tick-tick-tick of the clock on the wall. The fear Squeaks knows now is colder and deeper than any winter she remembers.

Why? Blue eyes squeeze shut as she mouths the question that will probably never be answered. Her head turns aside and she swallows against an ache in her throat. Why? She takes a deep, unsteady breath and searches for a braver face. She might never know or understand why, but she can try to mask the terror they've driven into her.

When the door finally opens, it isn’t the relatively young DoEA doctor that greeted her coming back into the room. The sunken cheeks, bulging blue eyes, and wispy thinning hair makes Stefan Ford look so much older than he is, but radiation poisoning will do that to someone. Though he is long recovered, his body never fully did. Stefan is a haunting specter emerging into Squeaks’ periphery, a ghost from her past long-thought exorcised.

Unbelievable,” Stefan whispers, unable to draw his eyes away from Squeaks as he slowly pushes the metal door shut behind him. “You are her spitting image,” comes with a hint of reverence, those horrible blue eyes searching Squeaks’ body up and down in ways both possessive and unwelcomed. “You have my full attention.”

Eyes swing to the door when it opens, and the color drains from her face. There are easily a half dozen other horrors that Squeaks could have faced when the door opens. Stefan Ford is not on that list, not even in the top fifty. Her heart hammers against her chest hard enough it aches, loud enough in her own ears that it seems to punctuate the old man’s words. She withdraws, limbs pulling in like a protective casing for her torso and she tries to swallow. Her mouth has gone dry.

A glance shoots for the door just as it clicks home, a reminder that there is no escape. “Go away.” Little force is carried in those words. Stefan never listened before, there’s no hope that he would now. Squeaks bites down on her lip, casts a desperately searching look toward the door again — where is the other doctor person? — that’s short lived. Her focus returns to the living nightmare that’s present.

“You even sound like her,” Stefan says in complete ignorance of Squeaks’ protest. “My precious Jacelyn,” he says in precisely the way she hates to be called that. Stefan closes the distance to her with one thin brow lifted, regarding her over the wire frames of his glasses. “But you can’t be her,” he says with a hint of disappointment, “though I suppose there will be… ways to tell.”

Stefan retrieves a pair of rubber gloves from a box on the nearby cart, tugging them on one at a time. “We are going to take a bone marrow sample from you and install a thoracic negation pump into your chest cavity. Fortunately for you, my love, I requested anesthetics.” He affects a frown, voice lowering. “We tend not to waste the supplies on most transients.”

Who she looks or sounds like is the last thing Squeaks cares about. Her lips pull back like a creature showing its teeth at Stefan’s continued, unwanted doting. “Jac,” she hisses, at the same time shrinking away from his approach. “It's Jac.” Hands and feet work in tandem to move her small form to the far end of the table, and she coils again should he come nearer.

“You're not.” She'd never been defiant, in all her childhood she kept her head down, eyes lowered, did as expected. Squeaks' eyes watch Stefan’s every move now. It was entirely out of self preservation. But a cornered animal will strike to protect itself. “Go away.”

Stefan’s upper lip curls into a sneer. “Don’t you dare take that tone with me,” he says in a way he’s said to her a hundred times before in a different world and a different time. Stefan lashes out, grabbing her arm at the elbow so hard it hurts. His thumb dimples the skin at the inside crook of her elbow. With his other hand he’s fishing for a syringe sitting on the wheeled cart. “Unless you want to wind up with your brains scattered across the floor like the other insurgents.”

Stefan’s threat is not a thinly veiled one. The implication of violence, whether enacted by him or another, is clear. Squeaks has no way to be sure if the security cameras in the room are on. Or if anyone would truly listen to Stefan’s destructive orders. “Do what you’re told.”

Instinct makes her twist in Stefan’s grip. Hatred and fear play out in the look she directs at the old man, frustrated tears well in her eyes. The possibility of death keeps Squeaks from speaking defiantly further, but it doesn't hold her from pulling against the hold on her arm.

“You're hurting me,” she points out, voice quiet and pleading. The girl’s actions to get free aren't forceful, only constant. The first set of tears cut tracks down her cheeks as she leans away. Defiance swells again and she turns her arm against the fingers digging into flesh and muscle. Then all at once the primal need to escape the predator overrides the common sense of obeying.

Squeaks’ legs uncoil as a rabbit kick, both flung at Stefan’s face.

Present Day

Prime Timeline

Cat got your tongue?” Stefan asks a conversational distance from Jac’s table, tension in his shoulders and back. He would say that regularly when she was a child, when she was uncomfortable at the dinner table and didn’t want to talk but he thought she should. Jac’s stomach twists unconsciously at the tone of his voice, demanding of her time and service regardless of the timeline.

Even though the memory of her other self came months ago, it drives like a dulled chisel. Painfully. It rocks what resolve had been built regarding the man in front of her. Jac stares at Stefan, unable to retreat, tensed in anticipation for what the lack of an answer would have brought years ago. What the lack of an answer would have brought to her other self.

Is the monster he was in the other world any different from the one he is in this world?

It makes her angry. To need to wonder and worry about things like the man who was supposed to raise her. The way she was treated by him, by his wife, by the doctors she was always taken to. She was never a kid, always an inconvenience, a lab rat, an experiment.

Why couldn't Stefan just stay dead?

“Go away.” Her voice isn't very loud, it carries enough that Stefan can easily hear it. Jac makes her hands release the tray before it breaks in her hands. Her fingers curl into her palms, containing and grooming her anger. “I don't have anything to say to you.”

Stefan’s expression is momentarily placid, but a feigned smile crosses his face as he takes a few steps closer. “I think you might, if you knew what I know.” He comes to rest at the other side of the table from her, one brow raised. “I’ve been getting samples from you in the lab for quite some time, I’m surprised Mister Monroe didn’t tell you I was here. Maybe he…” Stefan looks down at the table and rests his hands on it, fingers spread, “prefers to keep some things close to the chest.”

Those haunting, blue eyes of Stefan track back to Jac. “I was genuinely worried when we were separated during the conflict. You were, are, my life’s work, Jacelyn. I just wish it was a success in every respect,” he admits with a faltering smile. “Still, I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for you and my niece.”

One of Stefan’s eyes twitch, narrowing more than the other. “I have meant to ask,” and this seems to be the thrust of why he came over, “did you ever find her? Your mother?” His brows rise slightly. “I do genuinely wonder if she survived the war.”

“He told me,” Jac counters, parrying with words as smoothly as she would with a sword. She ignores the bait, stands instead. The chair she had claimed skids back slightly, pushed by her legs. “He told me a long time ago you were here. Maybe he didn't tell you because he prefers to keep some things close to the chest.” Her eyebrows raise slightly, to underscore that thought.

There are probably a lot of things that Adam hasn't told her, but there's possibly even more that he hasn't told those who work for him. And she knows it, from all her days of silent observations, paying close attention to the adults, the interactions, conversations, all while being casually ignored.

“No part of me is ever yours to claim,” she goes on. She stands tall, though she's still far smaller than Stefan. Fear of him, of what he's done, what he can still do, is doused by the cold apathy she feels toward him. “Nothing I do or have, none of my successes or failures or strengths or weaknesses, is because of you. Your life’s work was to allow a child in your care to be abused and used and turned into a science experiment and you failed. That’s your life’s work and that is the only remarkable thing about you.”

The girl pauses, wills her hands to relax from their white knuckled clench, tips her head up just slightly in defiance. “My mom is here,” she answers easily, knowing it isn't Gillian that Stefan means. That doesn't stop her from avoiding the topic of Cindy. “And, Stefan, it's still Jac.”

Stefan’s mouth twitches at the corners, fingers curl into his palms and tension rises in the back of his throat. The silence is tense and other diners nearby have taken notice, looking up from their meals and watching the exchange between Jac and Stefan intently. The old doctor’s expression continues to twitch between a smile and a sneer. “Your gene donors are here,” Stefan says with the venom of resentment in his voice, “the people who took you in off the street like a stray dog out of pity are here. But I am your family.” He says with two fingers drumming at his sternum.

“Your mother, the woman who gave birth to you, was kept in a prison most of her adult life. But it was not I who gave those orders, it was not your doting gene-donator, Mr. Monroe. Every single person responsible for what happened to Cindy Morrison is dead.” Except one, but Stefan refuses to take any responsibility for what happened to her.

You think you’re special,” Stefan says with a tremor rising in his spine. “Perhaps you should ask Adam what happened to Agent Gilm—”

A hand claps down on Stefan’s shoulder. His voice dies in the back of his throat as he looks to the woman’s hand, then over to Doctor Adrienne Allen standing behind him. Back at the table, Doctor Wu watches on in silent judgment. Adrienne, however, isn’t going to let this go on any longer.

“I believe the girl asked you to leave, Stefan.” Adrienne’s dark eyes stay fixed on Stefan’s paler ones. He looks from Adrienne to Jac and back again, then sucks in a hissing breath like a serpent and recoils from her grasp. Brushing at his shoulder like Adrienne got something on it, Stefan makes a discomforted noise in the back of his throat and starts to walk back to Wu at the table, only for Wu to abruptly pack up his tray and stand.

“You okay?” Adrienne asks, quietly, angling a look down to Jac.

“You will never be my family,” Jac hisses back, like a cat backed into a corner. If not for the table in front of her, she likely would have lashed out at him with more than just words. Its feet creak against the floor in protest when she bumps into it. “Gillian is the best mom who wanted me and Adam, my dad, has done more for me in a few months than you ever did in years! I am — ”

Her focus whips to the owner of the new voice and she swallows the rest of what she had to say. With intentional slowness, her eyes return to Stefan, track after him as he walks away.

Jac lets out a breath and presses shaking hands against the sides of her legs. “Yes,” she answers much more quietly than she'd been speaking only seconds ago. A small tremor in her voice highlights the slow drain of emotion. She lifts her gaze when Wu abandons Stefan’s table and looks up at Adrienne. “Thank you, for making him go away.”

Adrienne angles a look back over to Stefan, silent but anchored beside Jac. She waits for Stefan to sit back at his own table, by himself, and then watches Wu leave the cafeteria. Only then does she turn back to the redhead at her side, one brow raised. “Your mom’s Gillian?” Adrienne asks, glancing back to Stefan, then returning her attention to Jac. “Gillian Childs, the… author?”

The nod Jac offers first is small. A flick of her eyes checks on Stefan’s location. It's a small relief that he isn't coming near again. Then she takes a quick peek to neighboring tables. “She adopted me last year.” Her eyes find her tray, but the food on it doesn't hold any interest just now. So she looks up at Adrienne again, frowning faintly. “Do you know her? Or just read her books?”

Adrienne stares down at Jac, unable to form an answer at first. It seems like a difficult question for her. One that she reluctantly answers with, “Everyone’s heard of her. She’s a wonderful person… and she’s done a lot of good for a lot of people.” Though Adrienne’s smile is a sad one, tinged by something that feels like regret.

“If he gives you anymore trouble,” Adrienne says as a deflection from the question, looking back over her shoulder to Stefan, then back to Jac, “you let me know, and I’ll make sure he never bothers you again.”

The frown that wrinkles her brow deepens, but Jac isn't angry now. Not at Adrienne. The emotional pressure that had her feeling shaky when the confrontation ended has eased a little bit, enough that she regards the woman who rescued her with curiosity.

Another look is shot in Stefan’s direction, but that's as much deflection the topic of Gillian gets. “She still does good.” The girl dismisses the old man with a huff and returns her attention to Adrienne. “I could take you to meet her. I'm Jac, by the way.”

Adrienne flinches at that, then smiles nervously. “No I— have to get back to the lab,” she says with a moment of uncertainty. “I’m Adrienne,” she adds, trying to mask her discomfort. “It’s nice to have met you, Jac. The ziggurat is massive, it’s sometimes hard to know who your friends are in a place this big.” She grimaces. “Reminds me of high school.”

The French doctor takes a step back, looking to where Stefan is sitting, then back to Jac. “Tell your mother I…” she looks down, away, then shakes her head. “On second thought, maybe— I should go back to work.” Her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes, and as Adrienne steps back from Jac she adds, “It was— it was very nice to meet you Jac.”

“Wait.” Persistence isn't always a virtue, but Jac’s curiosity piques. Almost like an itch she can't quite reach. Her eyes dart to the table, searching for a reason to delay Adrienne longer. “Would you…” She sees the tray first, recalls that the doctor isn't carrying one.

She looks up, blue eyes seeking Adrienne’s. “What do you do here? How do you know him?” Jac doesn't look in Stefan’s direction again, it's pretty clear by her tone who she means.

Adrienne hesitates, and for a moment it looks like she isn’t going to stop. But she does, pauses again, then turns to regard Jac in profile. “I’m a biologist,” she says in generalities. “I specialize in epigenetics, primarily for anthropological biology. I study the genes of the past.” Her dark eyes flick over to the table Stefan is at, then back to Jac.

“We work together in the same lab,” Adrienne confides, though she doesn’t sound particularly happy with it.

“Woah.” Jac collects her tray with the still untouched food. She nudges her chair in with a hip and turns after the doctor. It looks like she has every intention of following Adrienne — at least as far as she can for as long as she can. “I studied that, epigenetics. Well. Genetics, mostly. From books in the library. It's really fascinating.”

A quick look passes to Stefan. “That sucks a lot,” Jac commiserates. “But at least you get to do some primal work.”

Adrienne’s brows furrow for a moment, followed by a small laugh. “Hey,” she says with a lopsided smile, “maybe you’ve got a leg up on me in the knowledge department.” It sounds playfully patronizing, but in a good-natured way. “I’ve gotta get back to the lab, but… stay safe, Jac.”

But the fact of the matter is…

…it’s true.

Seventeen Years Earlier

Financial District
May 1st

The double doors to Daniel Linderman’s office slowly open and through walks a tall, gaunt man with piercing blue eyes and high cheekbones, hair swept back from his face. He offers a knife-like smile across the room to Mr. Linderman, then turns his attention down to Stefan. “Well, y’all ain’t told me there’d be no suit an’ tie needed…” he says in a thick, creole accent. Mr. Zarek isn’t dressed for the occasion or for the room, his olive-drab jacket hangs loose off of his shoulders, the tanktop beneath isn’t even tucked in. His jeans have holes in them, boots partly unlaced.

Mr. Linderman manages a patient smile, gesturing toward Stefan with a layer of decorum his new guest does not deserve. “Mr. Zarek,” Daniel says, “this is Stefan Morrison, soon to be Stefan Ford. I’d like you to head back to New Orleans and… clean up the Ford family, make some room for new identities among them. You’ll be paid well for your time.”

“Fords,” Zarek says with a roll of his tongue over the inside of his cheek, “yeah, they ain’t got a lot of connections. Stefan lives with his brother. Y’all want me t’clean all’a that up?” Daniel nods, as if frustrated by the fact he had to over-emphasize the point. All the while, Stefan looks nervous about being party to what sounds like murder and identity theft.

“I’m not sure all of this is nn— ” is about as far as Ford gets before Linderman cuts him off with a shushing gesture.

“Stefan,” Linderman says patiently, “let us focus on the value you can bring to our organization and how we can help one-another, and rest well knowing that a professional like Mr. Zarek here will have you in good hands… and be nearby whenever you need him.”

Mr. Zarek steps over, his smile spreading to reveal a missing tooth near his molars. “Pleased t’meet’cha,” he says with a hand offered out. Stefan eyes the hand and nervously takes it, if only because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Ah’ ain’t much fer’ formalities,” he admits, “so y’all can go’n call me Jon.


“An’ Ah’m gonna’ make you a whole new life.”

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