Season of Fire
Lyle watched his secretary slink out of his office, her curvaceous figure enhanced by the satin brocade dress she had poured herself into that morning. Ordinarily, he loved looking at her, imagining, fantasizing all the stimulating things he might do with her… but today he turned angry eyes from the closing door to the papers she had laid on his desk.
The reports of the previous day's bombing in DC were disheartening. No bodies had been found at the site, and no indications that anyone had died there, which was disappointing. That would have tied up Ethan's disappearance neatly enough, but now he would have to continue searching for his errant little brother. None of his people had turned up anything in the area surrounding the explosion, not even sufficient eyewitness accounts to indicate a mumbling psycho might have been in the neighborhood.
He began to wonder if his sister might have managed to locate him and get him out of harm's way before the bomb went off. Or if she had run into Jarod wearing his usual white hat, and decided to work with him for a while instead. Sympathy for her new brother would be in her profile, and if Jarod was somehow controlling Ethan now, she might have had to go along for the ride until she could pry Ethan away from big brother.
"I don't know what she thinks she'll do with him," he mused aloud to the empty room, "but if she's turned coat…"
Best to yank on the weakest link in the chain.
He rose from his chair, smoothed a hand over his carefully coifed hair, and strolled out of his office in search of her favorite henchman. If anyone knew what had become of her, it would be Broots or Sydney. The psychiatrist could wait for his grilling, since he'd be tougher to rattle. Lyle headed for the Tech Room, slowing his pace until his footsteps were silent as he approached the desk he wanted.
"Good morning, Mr. Broots," he boomed. It was satisfying to watch the tech practically jump out of his seat.
"G-good morning, Mr. Lyle." Broots seemed to know what was coming, and tried to look busy, burying his head in some printouts that were scattered across his desk.
"I'm looking for my sister. You wouldn't happen to know where she is, would you?"
"I, uh--" Broots swallowed hard. "I think she hah… had a lead on Jarod."
Lyle leaned closer, until his face was directly in front of the other man's. "You think?"
Broots cowered into his chair. "We didn't exactly have much time to talk before she left."
Lyle's nose was only inches away from the technician's. "She never goes to check on leads without dragging you and Sydney along. Why not this time? What was she hiding? Where was she headed?"
"I don't know!" Broots' body slipped so far down into the chair that he slid off, landing in a heap in the knee well beneath his desk. He pushed the chair back and climbed slowly up into it again, rubbing the back of his head where it had bumped against the chair cushion. The pain of his indignity and hard landing blunted his fear slightly, making his added response seem calmer. "She hasn't called in yet."
Lyle glowered. "But you'll let me know when she does, won't you, Mr. Broots?"
With a guilty glance, the tech nodded. "Sure thing, Mr. Lyle."
Broots resumed his seat, head down, pretending to search his papers for something, and Lyle swung out into the hallway, stomping toward the elevator. He knew his sister was up to something, but had only his intuition to confirm that. Heading for the nearest elevator, he caught the doors just as they were closing, pushed them open again and strode inside.
Cox smiled at him as the doors slid closed, shutting the two of them off from the rest of the Centre for a few moments.
"Having a bad day?" Cox asked with a distinct note of pleasantry.
"Like I could have a good one after Jarod's latest intervention," Lyle snapped. "I know he's got his fingers into this Ethan situation, and my sister's in the middle of it, too. I just can't prove it." He sighed. "Jarod's more trouble than he's worth. Ever since he escaped, my life has been a living hell, and it's all his fault. He stole the Gemini Project, stays just out of our reach…" He rubbed at his belly. "If I don't watch it, this Pretender is going to give me an ulcer."
Cox smiled. It was a little smile, soft and subtle, contrasting with the hard glint in his pale gray eyes.
Lyle's head swung around to face the other man, and frowned. "You're awfully smug, considering all the losses our team has had recently."
The doctor laughed softly, and clasped his hands in front of him. The doors parted, and Lyle stepped out, gesturing to Cox to follow with his gloved left hand.
"And I'm betting Jarod knows where that head case he calls a brother is. Probably hiding him somewhere."
"Jarod has a particular weakness, does he not?" Cox fell into step beside Lyle as they headed down the corridor toward Lyle's office.
"You mean Zoe? My father has already made clear what he thinks of that little fiasco." Lyle could feel the sting of those scathing remarks even now, a day later.
"That was unfortunate, but only a temporary setback." Cox quickened his pace and stepped in front of Lyle to open the office door for him.
Lyle shook his head. "We've lost everybody at this point, Cox."
"Zoe isn't like Jarod," the doctor reminded his boss. "She has roots. That's how we found her in the first place, and we can do it again." The door closed silently in Lyle's wake. "I suggest we backtrack to the house where her grandmother lives, and see what we can find there. I'm sure there will be a clue to where the Major might have taken her, and if not, there will be family we can…ask politely for assistance." He smiled broadly in expectation.
Lyle fell heavily into his chair and tugged on his glove to adjust the fit. "You really think wasting time finding that bimbo is going to help?"
Cox exhaled softly, a dreamy look in his eyes. "She's the key to your Pretender's heart, Mr. Lyle. Once he knows we have her a second time, he'll come running. Especially if we give him…incentive to hurry."
"Like, if he can watch her screaming." Lyle was nodding, understanding the other man's suggestion completely. "If Jarod's got Ethan, he'll certainly trade Zoe for his brother. Which will make my father a happy man." He smiled and cocked his head. "And the look on his face will give me a little personal satisfaction." He raised his left hand and let his eyes rest on the space where his thumb used to be. "Small price to pay for a little payback, don't you think, doctor?"
Cox's eyes gleamed in agreement. "Shall we go?"
Lyle reached for the phone and ordered his secretary to make the necessary arrangements for a car.
* * * * * * * * *
The sound of running water woke Jarod from his troubled sleep. Still sitting upright in a chair in the corner where he had placed himself to wait for the plaster to dry, he opened his eyes to check the room. Ethan lay on one bed, still wearing his rumpled clothes, the nondescript bedspread pulled over him. The younger man was still blissfully asleep.
Miss Parker, then, would be the source of the shower noises. The second bed was turned down, the impression of a body on the sheet and pillow still obvious. She had risen recently, and would no doubt be hustling them all out the door soon. Jarod checked the plaster, pleased that it had set and would give his bones the support they needed to heal properly. With his left hand he probed the bandages wrapped tightly around his ribs to hold them in place. Taking a deep breath would be painful for a while, so he probably wouldn't be able to run very far, if that became necessary.
Slowly, carefully, he reached for his shirt that he had left on the foot of Ethan's bed the previous night. He managed to slip into it with his left arm, but the right sleeve would need to be split before he'd be able to get it fully on and buttoned. Miss Parker might help with that. He looked around for the scissors she had used to cut the gauze, and spied the remains of his cellular phone in the trash can. He had found it crushed to pieces in his jacket pocket when she was out at the drug store, and seeing it again reminded him that he needed to call his father. Major Charles would be worried about him, wondering what had happened, but he couldn't use the motel phone and dial direct--that would put his father's safety on the line. He couldn't call the convent where Emily was staying and leave a message there for the same reason.
For a moment he toyed with the idea of borrowing Miss Parker's cell phone, but that would be even worse. Someone was bound to check her phone records soon, since she hadn't checked in either, and that brief call from Sydney as they were leaving the scene of the bombing was sure to make him and Broots even more nervous than they already were. Contacting his family and Zoe would just have to wait until he was in the clear.
The bathroom door opened, and Miss Parker emerged, combing her hair into place. Her makeup was perfect, and Jarod assumed she had picked up the necessary items while she was at the drugstore getting his first aid supplies. While the toiletries wouldn't have been her usual expensive brands, they were utilitarian enough to preserve her high grooming standards and get her through until she could return home.
"Good. You're awake," she mused, with a glance at the bed, where Ethan still slept. She kept her voice low and came to stand close to Jarod so he could hear her well enough. "I'll be taking Ethan with me as soon as he wakes up. You're on your own, so hope for a good head start."
She crossed her arms over her chest, defying him to countermand her order.
"They'll find him wherever you take him," Jarod reminded her.
"I'll figure something out," she assured him stiffly. "Maybe Sydney can help. He knows people."
"And The Centre knows everyone he knows. They'll be checking up on everyone both of you know, anyone you trust. It's what they do."
She hung her head and sighed, her hands tightening their grip on her arms. "I know. I couldn't sleep last night, thinking, wracking my brain to try to come up with some place where he'd be safe." She turned and gazed longingly at the younger man's innocent face, shadowed with beard stubble, lax with peaceful sleep. "I couldn't think of anything at all, any place I wouldn't look myself. So what now? I can't just let you take him, Jarod. He can't live the way you do."
"I know. And by now they've figured out that there were no bodies at the bomb site. They're looking for him. And for you. For all of us."
There was such despair in her eyes when she turned them on him again. "So what do we do? We have to save him."
Jarod smiled bitterly and looked at his brother, stirring slightly now in response to their soft voices. "I think I may know someone who can help. But it'll take a little time."
"How much do you need?"
"Just a few hours, I hope. If she'll listen." He inclined his head. "There's a diner next door where you can get something to eat. If you'll let me borrow your car--"
"I want to go with you." Both of them turned at the sound to find Ethan awake, and speaking to Jarod. "She says I'm supposed to go with you," he added. He sat up slowly on the bed, letting the covers fall away. Bleary eyes found the man and woman standing beside the other bed.
Jarod attempted a shrug, sucked in a pained breath and winced. He groaned softly, reminded of his injuries. "I can't abandon Ethan right now, even for a short time, Miss Parker. I made a connection with him, and I can't risk breaking it just yet. You'll have to let me take him and trust me with him."
"Then I'm riding shotgun, till I know he's in safe hands."
With a sigh, Jarod added, "Aside from Mr. Raines -- whom, you assured me earlier, is dead -- mine is the only familiar face Ethan knows. He trusts me. You know I won't hurt him."
"Not dead," said Ethan. He rubbed his face wearily, and sighed. More quietly, almost in a whisper, he repeated the phrase.
Parker sat down on the bed beside her brother, and stroked his shoulder comfortingly. "I know you don't want to think about that right now, Ethan," she told him gently, "but I saw it happen. He won't hurt you anymore, I promise."
She rose and sauntered closer to Jarod. He looked at her speculatively. "You wouldn't have been the one to hasten his departure, by any chance?"
Parker's voice dropped so that only he could hear her. "Unfortunately, I lost my place in that interminably long line of people who wanted him dead."
"Not dead," Ethan insisted. He scooted off the bed and headed for the bathroom, shuffling sleepily into the room and closing the door after himself.
Jarod's eyes moved from the door back to Parker's hard gaze. "He may need to believe that for a while yet. Raines was his anchor. His voice is the one Ethan has been trained to listen to, and if it's suddenly gone, that could have dramatic repercussions on his psychological stability."
"Fine. I won't argue about it," she snapped. "Meanwhile, someone's going to be on my trail fairly soon. We need to get the hell out of here before the cavalry comes."
"I may know someone who can help, if you're willing to trust me. I want what's best for Ethan, a place where he can start to heal and learn to trust his inner sense again. We need to get him someplace fast, and he's not strong enough to be on his own. Will you trust me on this?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Fifteen minutes later, they were pulling out of the drive-through window of a fast-food place offering breakfast fare, then pulling out into traffic heading east into the heart of Maryland. Towson was less than an hour away, and Miss Parker had to admit she would never have thought of that particular place; at least, not right away.
But she had already promised Jarod that if she didn't approve of his plan, she would do things her way instead. Ethan's welfare was her only concern at the moment, and when that was fixed, she could turn her attention to other things.
Jarod knew that, too. And she was certain he had something prepared for that eventuality as well. If he didn't, then it would be his own fault if he found himself on the way back to The Centre.
* * * * * * * * *
Bright sunshine streaming in her window wakened Emily peacefully. She sat up in bed, gingerly testing her battered body and finding the pain tolerable now. She was healing well, feeling better every day, but she was worried about her father and her brother. She should have heard something from at least one of them by now.
The last time she had spoken to her father, he told her he was taking Jarod's girlfriend to the hospital. He had wanted her to pass that message on to her brother, but Jarod hadn't called in yet. Since then, neither had her father. Zoe was sick, he had said, but Emily was not to worry. It was something routine that Zoe had been expecting; he just needed to see that Jarod got there as quickly as possible.
She had the feeling he was trying to protect her from something unpleasant, which only made her worry more. For the first time since arriving at the convent, she helped herself to the bathroom, taking it slow and easy, and was just getting back into bed when Sister Mary came in with a breakfast tray for her.
"What's this?" Sister Mary asked with a smile. "Out of bed already?"
"And back, all by myself," Emily bragged happily. "Have you heard anything more from Daddy, or from Jarod, Sister?"
The nun tucked her back under the covers and set the tray on her lap. "Not yet, but I'm sure they're both just fine, dear. God is watching over them both." She chuckled. "Especially that brother of yours. He has a special place in God's heart, for all the good he's done for other people."
Emily sighed. "I hope you're right, Sister."
She glanced at the food on her tray. It looked wonderful, and smelled delicious, but she just wasn't hungry. She wanted answers, and there were none to be had at the moment.
"Eat," the sister urged gently. "You'll need your strength when they come back for you."
Emily picked up a croissant and diligently took a bite.
But she didn't taste anything. It had been hours, and she was certain something was dreadfully wrong. As she chewed, she began to play through all the possibilities, and none of them made her feel the slightest twinge of relief.
* * * * * * * * *
Cox strolled through the farmhouse, his pale eyes taking in the simple, tasteless décor. He had been there before, inquiring of the family who lived there, gotten his information and gone. But now the house was empty, and he had no clue where to look for the matriarch or her granddaughter.
He heard the door open, and glanced at the young man standing on the porch.
“Anything?” Lyle asked.
“Not yet.” Cox finished his tour of the living room and wandered into the bedrooms, one by one. “This would be Zoe’s room,” he mused aloud, taking note of the sexy clothes in the open closet. He rummaged through the skinny little sundresses, the thin shirts that would show off her figure so well, and turned toward the vanity table to search for more clues. Surely there was something that would tell him where she and her family were.
When he saw the prescription bottles, he smiled and picked one up, then another and another. His black-gloved fingers would leave no prints, but after perusing the labels on those bottles, he had more than enough information to find her, wherever she might go. Setting the last bottle back down exactly as he had found it, he turned and started out of the room.
On the nightstand was a photograph of the lovely redhead with a favorite pet. Cox took it, frame and all, and went to meet his partner at the door. He carefully locked it and closed it behind him, then strolled down the steps to the hard-packed dirt driveway where they had left their car, with Lyle in tow.
“What did you find?”
“It seems poor Zoe is dying,” Cox answered cheerily. “Once we’ve located her we can either watch and wait for Jarod to rush to her side...or, we can use her to cripple him and run him to ground.” He turned with a chillingly bright smile when they reached the car. “Which would you prefer?”
“What do you mean by ‘crippling’ Jarod?”
Cox sighed, opened his door and got in, waiting to respond until Lyle had taken his seat on the passenger side of the car. “What I mean is… Zoe is the first person to whom Jarod has returned to re-establish a relationship once he’s cut himself off from it. That’s significant in itself. What he gets from the little bimbo I don’t understand, since it’s not in his nature to indulge in gratuitous sex. But there is some esoteric quality in her that draws him, and I’d wager there are some strong emotions attached to her as well. If Zoe dies…” He started the engine and put the car into reverse to back out of the driveway.
“Then Jarod will suffer,” Lyle finished for him. He smiled. “Yes. I think we’ll do that.”
“Jarod will suffer even more if Zoe dies alone,” Cox added as he turned the car onto the blacktop road leading away from the house. He changed gears and met Lyle’s eyes briefly. “The guilt will eat away at him, and at some point along the way, he’ll stumble and fall.”
“And I’ll be there to catch him, after he's suffered for a while.” Lyle nodded. “I like this plan. So where is she?”
Cox eased the car forward, keeping his eyes on the road. “I don’t know yet, but she won’t be hard to find.” He handed over the framed photo. “Take that out, would you?”
Moments later, the brass frame flew out the car window, crashed to the pavement and shattered the glass as it went tumbling off the side of the road. The broken frame landed in a patch of tall grass, where no one would see it from the road.
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