To Save a Child - the RP

Part 5

Dan turned to the group in the van. "Jess signals the all clear. I'll pull around the block again to make sure we are not being followed, then deposit you safely in the nearby alley." Dan's eyes glazed over for a moment, as he accessed the Eurovan's onboard surveillance equipment.

After moments that seemed to drag on forever, he nodded and pulled into the alley to the East side of Jess' building. Leaving the engine running, he turned to Sticks and Tal. "Are there any supplies or information that you chaps need?" The ork motioned towards the floor board at Sticks' feet.

Sticks replied: "We thank you for all that you have done. Your aid has kept us from a dangerous meeting. If you find a time when YOU need something, call on me. I am in your debt." He offered Dan his hand with a solemnity wholly at odds with his youthful appearance.

The ork nodded, taking the young man's hand in his thick fingers. "It was an honor to me to be involved in such an endeavor." He gave Sticks a look that spoke volumes. "You are quite a man, sir. A gentlemen and a warrior. A very hard balance indeed."

Dan bowed his head to the Filipino. "I would be honored to call you in a time need, so long as you give me the same privilege."

Sticks nodded back, accepting the compliments in stride. He wouldn't let pride begin it's growth within his chest, but he did appreciate the ork's words.

"And for you, my good man?" Dan asked Tal. "Can there be anything I can do to repay you for your chivalrous work upon my wound?"

Tal smiled at Dan and offered his hand after the ork had shaken Sticks'. "Yes, that goes for me as well, my friend. Perhaps when this is all over we can have a pint or two and discuss Cymru." With a nod of farewell, he exited the van.

Sticks helped the Gillian's exit the van. Then the group moved to the side entrance to Jess' apartment building. Once upstairs, the group spotted Jess waiting for them, a pair of cats in her arms.

"Hope no one's allergic," she says with one of her warm smiles.

Tal smiled, his already-high estimation of Jess going up a couple of notches. "Well," he said softly, leaning down a bit to meet the cats' eyes, "what have we here? A couple of fine beasties, it looks like." He extended his hand for the cats to sniff, then redirected his smile (a little sheepishly) at Jess. "Sorry," he said. "Weakness of mine."

Jess looked at Tal and smiled. "This is Taco, and Maxwell" she stated as she nodded at each cat in turn.

Then she turned towards the others and nodded towards the door. "This is the place," she stated as she let the others in, following up behind. As she closed the door she took one last look around outside, then locked the door. Once they were inside and the door was locked, Jess relaxed just a hair.

The cats didn't seemed put off by the company which was a good sign.

"I'm afraid I can't offer you much, but if you all sit down maybe we can work our way through this mess."

In an effort to maintain what he thought of as professional behavior, Sticks ignored the cats and began reviewing how he would present the data he had uncovered to his teammates. As so often happens, this effort was perceived by the felines who, naturally, devoted their efforts to getting Stick's attention. Amid helpless looks at both the cat shaman and Jess, Sticks acted as if Taco and Max were not headbutting his ankles as he asked "What have you got?"

"A headache," Jess answered quietly then looked from Sticks to Tal. "We need to get them somewhere safe," she stated, keeping her voice low enough that the Gillian's couldn't hear.

"This thing is a lot bigger than just an mp case," she added. "And I'm not really equipped for protection work. If you guys think you can handle it, that's fine. I just don't know how safe this apartment's going to be for them."

She waited for the other's input on how they wanted to proceed.

If we were not traced or followed, this is safe enough for the moment," Sticks said. "If we were traced or followed..." he shrugged. Seeing the surprise at his seeming fatalism the teenager explained "I have done some protection work. After the reception the other side got at the Gillians, I think this is no longer a talking matter. I also think that the other sides' firepower will be too much for us in a stand-up fight. Rather than give them more chances to find us as we run from bolt hole to bolt hole, I think we should stop here, go over what data we have and then plan from there. Is this acceptable?"

"My only concern is that if we work from here, that we would run the risk of leading them back to the Gillains," Jess answered, then shrugged. "I guess I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get to it."

"There are at least two forces at work here," she began as she looked around then nodded towards the livingroom where the Gillian's had already gone. "Pull up a seat and I'll explain."

Jess waited until everyone was seated, then sat down in the rocking chair. As she looked at the others, Taco jumped into her lap and butted her hand with his head.

Jess looked at the others for a long time and then, turning her attention to the cat in her lap, she began recounting what had happened in the matrix. "Everything seemed normal," she stated as she concentrated on the cat. "I almost missed it, but there was a 'watchdog construct'... like your watcher." She added as she looked at Tal.

She paused as she gauged his reaction, then continued. "I followed it. It almost got away from me, but I was able to follow it to a node. The node was marked LD, but I'm not sure that's where I ended up..." she paused again as she thought about what had happened and tried to put it into words she hoped the others would understand.

"There was black IC all over the place..." She paused then shook her head. "Security, Intruder Countermeasures... usually they try and trace you down, some will try to ruin your equipment. Black, goes for the mind. Killer."

Again she paused as she pulled Taco closer, almost as if his presence could protect her. "When the watchdog finally reported in, it reported to someone. At least I'm pretty sure it was a person, not another construct. Then it got weird. Weird even for the Matrix. When he looked at me, he hit me with something. I tried to Jack-out. Dump myself out of the matrix, but I couldn't move. I should have been able to move, but I couldn't, he did something to me."

Jess stopped as she tried to find the words to describe how wrong it was. When she couldn't, she merely shook her head and continued.

"He started asking me what I had done with the boy. He pulled another program out, it was small the size of a cherry bomb, but man... black... I couldn't even get a counter measure out. It hurt... bad..." she shrugged. "That's why I was hitting the aspirin as hard as I was."

She shook her head as she looked at the two men. "He closed in for the kill. And then stopped. He realized I didn't have Darren but was looking for him. He told me that he'd be in contact with me if I found the boy, then he booted out. He dumped me. I didn't get out."

Saying it brought home the fact that she'd be able up until now to ignore, he had her dead to rights. He could have killed her if he wanted to, but he hadn't. There was no doubt in her mind that if she had taken Darren, he would have killed her without a second thought, but only after he had gotten the information he wanted.

Noticing that her hand had started shaking, she took a deep breath and forced herself to continue. "Then, the weirdest part. After he booted me out, I heard him in my head. He told me 'I'll be watching you.' I checked the connection, I was in 'real space'..."

She let her breath out as she watched their reaction to what she had told them.

"I did not understand the danger of the matrix world," Sticks said. "You show great courage." This last was delivered with a solemnity that indicated the teenager was acknowledging a fellow warrior.

"I have only this," the Escrimador said as he pulled the chip and reader from his jacket pocket. "It seems to need a matrix connection to give up its secrets, but I am sadly ignorant in technical matters and perhaps it is just my....ignorance."

"I did encounter some opposition. Frankie and Johnnie, a not-entirely-sane pair of female enforcers, introduced me to an unseen third person who paid me 10k to tell the Gillians I would drop the case." As Sticks held the cred stick aloft he noticed the look of alarm on the Gillians' faces. "I was threatened with a prolonged and...unpleasant death at the hands of the ork sam and elf magic user if I did not accept. Such agreements are not binding." Tucking the credstick back into his pocket, Sticks added, "I...uh, indicated my displeasure with the ork's...... familiarity in a forceful way when we parted company. The attack on the Gillian's home may have been related to the fact that I did not remove myself from the case as I was expected to. Perhaps our opposition grew tired of waiting."

Finishing his narrative, the teenager looked expectantly at Tal to hear about the magical investigation.

Tal leaned back in his chair, and immediately Maxwell stopped what he was doing and jumped into the elf's lap. Tal stroked the cat almost absently as he spoke.

"I think you've all already heard everything I've discovered, but for the sake of completeness, I'll recap. My astral investigation of Darren's room found a small patch of darkness on the astral plane, as if there had once been fairly strong negative emotion there. This seems a bit at odds with Jess' finding that Darren left willingly, but perhaps it can be accounted for by the moods of the abductors.

"As I was examining the room, I noticed a watcher--a small spirit useful for surveillance, among other things--observing me. When it noticed that I had spotted it, it fled. I set off after it, wondering if I would be able to follow it back to its source.

"When it disappeared, I took careful note of its location and tried to make sense of the area in terms of the physical world. It seems," he added softly, looking at the Gillians," that this was unnecessary, since Mr. Gillian immediately recognized the location as that of his office." His green eyes tracked around the room, holding the gaze of each individual for a second or two. Then he returned to stroking Maxwell.

Jess waited until the others finished and shook her head. "So we've got at least one group actively working against us, possibly another working cross purposes."

She refrained from showing her rankle at a teammate being threatened, but somehow she knew, this wasn't just an 'assignment' (if it ever was) it was personal. In the few hours she'd known both men, she knew that they were honorable and resourceful. They weren't like the runners she'd worked with on a pickup basis. These two reminded her of her brothers, so like them, yet so different...

She stretched, much to the annoyance of Taco, who had decided he needed a bath. "Sorry Kiddo," she stated as scooped him up and stood. As she placed him back in the chair she had just vacated she thought about what they knew and how little they actually had.

"Sticks, if you don't mind, I'd like to make a backup of that disk of yours. I'd also like to take a crack at it, but I'd like to wait until morning for that. There are some places I need to check and I don't want to risk a matrix run being traced back here.

"In the meantime," she added. "I'd like to start a timeline of what happened and what happens from here on out." She pulled several pieces of paper from the desk and tacked them to the wall, as she had seen Alan do so often when he was trying to figure out the complexities of a spell.

On the first point she wrote down the date-time stamp of 'the file' in red ink. This was when Darren had disappeared. She checked her pager and added the time stamps from Mr. Gillian's calls in black. Next she changed to blue for the approximate times of her matrix run and the subsequent events at the penthouse.

Then she asked the others to do the same.

Tal rose from his chair, holding Maxwell cradled in the crook of his arm, and added his information to the timeline. "Don't have exact times," he said apologetically, "but these should do for now."

Sticks hesitated before the sheets. In his mind a battle between personal pride and professionalism raged. He knew that even his printing betrayed both a lack of sophistication and the lack of simple practice. Part of his mind demanded that he find some other way to share data with his teammates, in order to protect his dignity. The other, and prevailing part of his brain pointed to the honesty and openness of his teammates. Jess acknowledged her limitations in the matrix and Tal had been open about the limits of what he could add from the magic side of things. Was it honest or fair for the young man to hide his limitations? Deciding it was less than honorable to avoid contributing as the others had, he laboriously added what he could to the time line. The Escrimador then started a second sheet where he listed his speculations about the data he had uncovered as well as what conclusions might be indicated by other information.

He looked both Jess and Tal in the eye before saying "If you cannot read what I write, please ask. I will explain."

Tal immediately picked up on Sticks' dilemma as he watched the young man writing out his contributions. Although it was difficult for him to make out a few of the words, he studied the paper with the same seriousness with which he had studied Jess' writings, until he could read the whole thing. "All clear to me," he said casually. Maxwell purred in his arms, and he turned his attention to the cat to avoid making Sticks feel self-conscious. Inwardly, he respected the young man's courage, and wondered if he would display the same in a similar situation.

Jess smiled respectfully to Sticks as she went over his notes. "We seem to have come to a lot of the same conclusions," she stated with a nod.

She couldn't understand what Sticks was so worried about. She'd seen doctor's writing that was harder to read. Then she nodded towards Sticks and Tal. She checked and made sure the Gillians couldn't hear her then looked at the two men.

She thought about her plans for the morning, the 'John Doe' run: a check at all the morgues and hospitals for all their unidentified charges. She'd been making the check for seven months now, and now she had one more face to look for: Darren and her family.

The thought struck her like a bolt. If the opposition knew that Sticks was on the case, there was always the possibility of them knowing about her and Tal as well. She had no real ties to the area except for her job, and three brothers that had vanished almost nine months earlier. But the others...

Jess took a deep breath and shook her head. "In the morning, I'm going to check the local hospitals and morgues," she stated quietly. She did not want the Gillians to even think about where she would be going. "They don't need to even think of such things."

She paused as she thought about how to phrase her next concern.

"Another thing I've realized. Sticks, if they know you're on the case, they may know about us as well. If you have anybody who'd be vulnerable," she urged looking at both men, it might be best that you warn them.

Jess took a deep breath as she squared her shoulders. She was done running. It was time to start fighting back and getting some answers.

Tal looked at Jess, his respect for her growing once again. Accustomed to wandering and rarely establishing close ties to anyone, the implications of what they were doing had not yet occurred to him. The only friends he had made so far in town were not close enough, nor did he spend enough time with them, that anyone would likely peg them as potential connections to him. He took a deep breath. "It seems we're in the thick of it now," he said at last. "Best if we carry on and try to finish this as quickly as we can, and keep our wits about us. I know a few places we can hide if we need to." Specifically to Jess, he added, "Want some company with the rounds? I might be able to be of some assistance in locating our young fellow if he's there."

Jess took a deep breath. The John Doe check was not a pleasant experience even for someone who'd been through it before. Some of the things she'd seen had given her nightmares, and she'd been making the check once a week for the past seven months.

On one hand company would be welcomed, but on the other, there was no need to put another person through the ordeal. However, she would need some one to watch over her when she made the matrix run though.

"Its not a very pleasant prospect," she warned. Then she looked at Sticks. They were a team now, they needed to learn to work together. So far, they'd been lucky, each managing to cover for the others. Now they had to start co-ordinating their efforts.

"Much of life is not pleasant," Tal said, "but that does not mean that it is to be avoided. We've been hired to do a job, and I think my magical abilities might make this particular job a bit easier, if you'll have me along."

Jess bowed her head and chuckled. "Sorry," she told him. "I'm so used to trying to look out for others. I can be a bit headstrong when it comes to things like this. I don't like doing it, so nobody else should have to go through it."

She stopped for a minute as she tried to explain. Then she looked at the two men. Nodding towards the back hall she led them to the portrait.

It was a shot of the four of them, Jess surrounded by her brothers. "They're the reason I'm here," she told them softly. If they were going to be working with her, she wanted them to know the whole story.

"My brothers disappeared about nine months ago, the star didn't find anything, didn't do anything... I came out here about seven months ago, to see what I could find. I've been making this check ever since."

"I'm used to working alone. I've had to," she stated as she looked at the pictures of her brothers. "Forgive me if I sometimes try to take everything on myself."

She turned to Tal and let out a self derisive chuckle. "If I do it again, just hit me upside the head."

She stopped. Looking from Sticks to Tal she dropped her protective humor for a moment. She tried to keep her expression neutral, but her eyes burned with emotion. "You can see why this case is important to me. Its bad enough when three grown men dissappear, they could take care of themselves, but Darren's just a kid."

"I can't leave this alone, and I know I can't handle it alone, I just..."

"Company would be appreciated," she stated after a pause.

Tal nodded soberly, thinking of his own two younger siblings back home, and how he would feel if they were to disappear in a strange place. He understood her self-reliance all too well--he'd had to depend on nothing but his own resources in his travels as well, so he had gotten used to depending on no one but himself early on. "Tomorrow, then," he said.

Sticks had been deep in thought through Jess' revelations.

"This woman reveals so much of herself!" He thought. "Truly, she has great courage to expose her vulnerability. I will help her in her search! I will.......wait. I have another responsibility first. I have sworn an oath. Until I complete this job, I am not free to volunteer for other responsibilities, but perhaps I can help her while I search for young Darren. It is so complex being professional!"

Realizing that the others were looking at him, Sticks broke from his reverie and said "I apologize. I was thinking about why I was approached by our opponents and you were not. I cannot be sure, but I believe our opponents found me because of one of my sources of information. I foolishly allowed an informant to bring me the chip instead of going to him. If he were being followed, he might have led the other side to me. It makes some sense if one realizes that it would not make sense to buy me off (or scare me away) and leave both of you on the case. This is why I think we are relatively safe here."

Looking at Jess, he placed his right fist in the palm of his left hand, bowed deeply and said, "Your courage does honor to your family. I am proud to work with you. I will do what I can to aid you in your search for your brothers but I....we must make the search for Darren the team's first priority. I hope you agree."

Jess recognized the respect in Sticks' bow and returned it in kind. She had seen Matt perform the same bow to his teachers, and she mirrored Sticks' action as closely as she could.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then meeting Sticks eyes, she answered his question.

"Like I said, my brothers are big boys and can take care of themselves. Darren is another thing entirely. He takes precedence over everything else, my brothers would agree if they were here." She smiled at both of them, her teammates, her new family and bowed her head. "Thanks."

Thomas walked slowly up to the conferring group, being careful to not interrupt any planning. Satisfied that he could enter the conversation he posed a question to the group.

"I'm due to be in the office in a few hours," he announced while looking at his watch with a bit of shock. "Didn't realize it was so late," he mumbled. Looking from person to person, "Should I still go in? I don't know if I should just go in and play dumb, or call in sick."

He paused, focusing on the floor for a moment in concentration. "They probably know that I'm not in a cloud anymore. I don't think it'd be safe to return." he said quietly. He looked back up to the group, his eyes showing some inner strength that the team was surprised to see. "I'll go in though, if you think it'll help. Perhaps I can dig up something being that I'll be on the inside. Maybe Darren is there..." Thomas' voice trailed off. The older man closed his eyes and bowed his head.

"If this has been my fault...I could never forgive myself. 'Ignorance lays it's blame on the doorstep of the fool who does not listen.'" He seemed to be quoting something. He looked to Sticks, and nodded. "Something my father taught me long ago."

Gillian took a deep breath, "What can I do to help?"

Jess felt a cold chill wash through her. A watcher originating from the same building as his company's didn't necessarily mean anything, but still...

The trouble at the penthouse didn't happen until after Tal had checked the place out astrally, and after her matrix run, Jess reminded herself.

Then there was the incident Sticks had mentioned. Something told her she wanted to check the credstick they'd offered, see if she could trace it back to its owners. The cold chill increased as she thought about the credstick Mr. Gillian had offered her. If there was the possibility of her tracing them, couldn't somebody trace the Gillians, or their employees through theirs.

"I don't think going anywhere would be a good idea right now," Jess stated softly as she looked at Sticks. She took a deep breath and then scanned the other's faces.

"Sticks, did you use the credstick Mr. Gillian gave you? Tal?"

When they shot her a concerned glance Jess let her breath out slowly.

"There's the possibility that they could be tracking us through stick usage. I'll need to call a friend of mine to be sure, but its something very serious we're going to need to think about."

Tal shook his head. "I haven't used it yet, although I'll likely be needing to before long. Do you have some suggestion about how we might 'launder' these credsticks so they're safe to use--" a small crafty smile appeared on his face "--or perhaps come up with a way to redirect our pursuers if they *are* using the sticks to track us?"

He looked at Jess questioningly. "Is that something that could be done, and if so, can you do it?"

Jess smiled at Tal's suggestion. "I like the way you think," she stated as a mischievous gleam sparked in her eyes.

"I'll need to check with a friend of mine," Jess told him. "But I think it can be done, and if can tell me how..."

Then Jess thought about the reader Sticks had shown her. "As for laundering the sticks, that reader you have my friend, may come in very handy."

Jess flashed Sticks a great big smile. "I'm not even going to ask how or why you picked it up, but its going to be very useful..."

"I picked it up because I was trying to read the chip. If it actually proves useful, I am glad." Sticks said with a self conscious smile as he handed reader, chip and both credsticks to Jess. "I have used the credstick from Senor Gillian when purchasing information and the buying the reader. I have not used the bribe stick from my...uhm...friends. I apologize if my actions have made our lives more difficult." Turning to Mr Gillian, Sticks said quietly, "I agree that you should remain here, Senor. I would ask that you and your wife talk about your clients and things that have happened recently at the office. It will keep your lady's mind from dwelling on your son's danger, and you may be able to come up with something that will help us. Please try to examine anything out of the ordinary in the past several weeks."

Noting the looks from Tal and Jess the teenager explained, "They must have something to do or the worry will make them crazy. Perhaps they will think of something that will help."

"I don't think you've made anything more difficult," Jess assured Sticks. "As a matter of fact you may have made things much easier."

"I have some money we can use until we clear the sticks," Jess stated as she looked from Tal to Sticks. "Tomorrow when we're out, I'll see about talking to a friend or two about dealing with these," she said indicating the credsticks Sticks had handed her.

Jess nodded at them for a minute as she thought about the possibilities. "Oh yeah, this may really work to our advantage."

Jess activated the little Toshiba reader, the screen springing to life in her hand. In the other, she held the chip that Sticks had procured from his informant. Might as well give it a look. she thought to herself. She slid the little chip into the reader as soon as it was done booting up. Immediately she used the machine's scan function to check the chip for any homing properties. Satisfied for the moment when the display reported none, she keyed up the information on the chip:

Post to Flasher/Daemonist

positive on delivery...small package pick-up

-transit 2ld...

Host disconnect ... ...


Data support malfunction...

Request for matrix connect...

Jess looked at the blinking cursor for a moment, recognizing that the chip needed to connect to the net in order to provide the rest of its information.

Jess nodded as she looked at the reader. It was as she thought. She'd have to talk to PushCiti in the morning. She didn't know exactly what connection it was looking for, but she knew two things.

First, she was going to make a copy of it. Second, she was going to reverse it and try and find the site she was looking for. That's where PC would come in. There was no way she was going to run the chip before she knew exactly where it was going and how to scope it out. There was not telling what all else its activation would trigger.

Jess looked at the clock. It probably wasn't too late by PC's rating, but it was way too late for her. Especially since she had no intention of calling from the apartment.

She looked at Tal and shook her head. "Tal, do you still have my pouch?" she asked.

Tal nodded. "Right here." He dug it from one of his numerous pockets and handed it over.

Jess looked at the pouch as she emptied the contents into her hand. "Thanks," she stated, then turned and looked at Tal and Sticks for a minute.

"If anything happens to me, there will be a copy of everything I've found in this pouch. There's also a key for a safety deposit box. It has a backup of everything I find." She looked at them each then smiled.

"Just in case," she assured them. "If you need the info, it's backed up."

That said, Jess switched back into 'hostess' mode. "I figure the Gillians can stay in Matt's room, that's the first bedroom.

"Figure each of you can take one of the other rooms, and I'll stay on the couch."

Tal shook his head, smiling. "No--I wouldn't think of allowing you to sleep on the couch in your own home. I'll take the couch--I assure you it will be finer than most of the accommodations I've enjoyed of late. Taco and Maxwell here will keep me company." His voice, though soft, was adamant.

"I will keep watch" Sticks said. When he started for the door he saw some consternation in his teammates and, remembering his father's words about working with others, explained: "I will have a look around and then find a perch to watch from." With a self conscious hint of a smile he added- "I will rest better in a spot where I can act. I do not sleep easily when working." The Escrimador then moved out.

Jess watched as Sticks left then turned towards Tal. "I appreciate your offer regarding the couch, but this is my brothers' apartment. If I take one of the rooms I'd have to admit they aren't coming back..." her voice was quiet almost ashamed of her melancholy.

She smiled at him then as her humor took over. "Besides, on the off chance they do come home, I want mine to be the first face they see. Because when I get done with them, they're going to need a paramedic!"

She winked at him, then turned her attention back towards the Gillian's and getting them comfortable. She found herself wishing Sticks had waited long enough for her to give him the number.

Thomas nodded towards Jess, offering her a smile spoke volumes as to how tired he felt. "I must thank you again for your hospitality, Jess. It's very welcome in the situation my wife and I find ourselves in." He paused and turned to his wife.

Mrs. Gillian squeezed her husbands hand, then in an unexpected gesture, moved over and gave Jess a tremendous hug. "Thank you," she said, then looked over at Tal. "Thank you all for your help. It's nice to know there are still some good people in the world."

And with that the couple let Jess lead them towards their new residence.

Jess returned Mrs. Gillian's hug, which had taken her by surprise. For as much as they thought it was rare to find people like Tal and Sticks, even rarer was it for someone to notice.

"Just rest and we'll take care of the rest," Jess assured them both. "Just yell if you need anything, she added as she headed back towards the living room.

With the Gillian's situated, Jess turned her attention to the current situation and her teammates. Tal was still a mystery; Sticks she knew was a crusader on a mission.

Again she worried about the young man who had insisted on going out to watch over them. He was taking too much on himself. She stopped herself. 'He's almost as old as Andy, and he knows what he's doing,' she reminded herself. She hoped that was the case since the locals could be very unforgiving.

She thought about the first time she'd met them, 'the Damiens,'they called themselves. They were a motley bunch. Her humor got them into trouble with them, oddly enough it was her humor that got her out too. Since then, they seemed to look out after her when she was in the area. Being a paramedic that was willing to take care of people after hours did have its advantages.

She shook her head and looked back at Tal. There was a time and place for reverie and this was not it. She pulled some sheets out of the closet and tossed them onto the couch. Then she started going over her equipment and verifying its condition.

She watched Tal as he looked around the apartment, unsure what to say.

Tal watched Jess work for a few moments, unobtrusively. "You seem troubled about something," he commented softly. "I mean, more than just our situation. You are thinking of your family, perhaps?" Coming over, he perched on a chair near where she was working. "I wish that there was something I could do to help you find your brothers."

Jess shrugged and shook her head. "Me too," she finally said. Then she chuckled to herself and looked him in the eyes. "Don't worry about it, I just tend to get maudlin when I'm here."

She stopped realizing that he wasn't buying it. She let her breath out slowly. "I take these cases in the hopes of finding something, anything. Or at least to make up for what I wasn't able to do for them, does that make any sense?"

"And Sticks," she added disjointedly. "He's so much like Andy, I want to slug him!"

She paused as she tried to sort out what she was feeling, aside from the need to sleep before she lost any semblance of control.

"You have any brothers or sisters?" she asked, hoping he'd understand.

Tal smiled a bit wistfully. "Oh, yes. Two. A brother and a sister, both back home. I don't see them often anymore, though. They're both much younger than I--they haven't figured out what they want to do with themselves yet." He paused, then glanced toward the door. "My brother's about Sticks' age, and just as full of fire and idealism."

Jess smiled and nodded. "Then you know what I mean?" she asked as she studied Tal for a minute. "Its like when they're around, you aren't alone. Yeah, they get on your nerves, but when they aren't around you kinda miss 'em..."

Jess looked around the apartment as she tried to explain and couldn't. "Its been a while since I talked to anybody about it," she told him.

He nodded. "I understand. I don't talk about my family much, because if I do I end up missing them." His smile got a little bigger, but still a bit wistful. "But I've been told I'm a good listener."

Jess nodded. "Sometimes I feel the same way. Its like if I don't talk about them, I won't notice that they're... missing... "she hesitated then pulled herself back together.

She shook her head. "Why would somebody take a child like Darren and do it they way they did," she asked him trying to change the subject.

"I wish I knew." Tal sighed. "I'll never understand people who feel they must use innocents to further their goals." Unable to sit still any longer, he once more began pacing. Arriving at the window, he stared moodily out. "It's raining. I hope Sticks has found a place under cover. Miserable night to be out in it."

Jess nodded as she looked around the apartment. "I think he's fine," she stated. "At least I hope he is..."

Part 6
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