Season of Fire
It was a fitting celebration for the baby’s first birthday. Mr. Parker wore a new suit, specially handmade in Rome for the occasion, and walked proudly beside the nurse assigned to care for his heir. His eyes swept the room as he entered it, remembering all too well how things had gone the last time he entered the Triumvirate chamber in full session.
Brigitte was pregnant then, her belly still flat. Her body had tried to reject the pregnancy, and Dr. Cox had prescribed the hormone shots that helped her keep the baby, but made her emotions a wreck. That was a dangerous time for them both, with so much in flux. Parker had stated his case eloquently, but Mutumbo was in charge then, and his plan had fallen on deaf ears. He had made outrageous promises, given a history of the red file projects and then the status of the blue files, and talked of the future of the coming yellow files.
No one would listen, without the proof before them. With the baby’s birth he had another chance to prove himself against the rumor and politics that had sent him and Brigitte on the run. And now that Mutumbo was gone, there was a prominent spot on the council for the right person. When he presented the child to them, he had won a spot on the American panel of the Council of Nine who made up the Triumvirate. He had succeeded against Raines, who was also competing for a seat on the panel, and now that Raines was conveniently out of the picture, he could have a free hand in redesigning how things at The Centre were done.
He saw the Americans first, the other man and woman who, along with him, made up the three officers from Delaware, Washington DC and New York. At the far end of the semi-circular dais were the South African representatives, with a new face where Mutumbo once sat. And at the center were the originators of the new regime, the Germans. They would be gone soon, victims of age, and would be replaced by younger representatives whose ideas were not as clear as those of their elders.
But Parker’s vision burned clear and bright in his soul, embodied by the baby gazing around the room with his soulful dark eyes. Gabriel would already feel how important this day was, though he wouldn’t understand its magnitude. The child would know only that he was the focus of all their attention, and be eager to please. That was how children were, and The Centre used that instinct well.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Parker began, his gruff voice smoothed with a note of pride, “may I present to you the youngest of the Yellow Files children. He is the herald of a new age of humanity, and I have named him Gabriel.”
The nurse walked the baby slowly down the inside curve of the dais to give each member a good look while Mr. Parker took his place on the council. He did not sit in his plush chair, but remained standing, watching until the woman finished her tour of the members and sat the baby down on the floor some distance away. Men and women in lab coats gathered behind them, each of them holding a variety of objects.
One young woman came forward on a signal from Mr. Parker, and dumped a box of colored blocks, each in complicated geometric designs, onto the floor in front of the baby. From the box she withdrew a board with holes cut out of it, into which the blocks would fit. The scientist stepped behind the baby to keep from blocking the view, and spoke softly to the child, encouraging him to begin placing the blocks into the holes.
Gabriel complied as the scientist withdrew a stopwatch from her pocket and timed the exercise.
Mr. Parker began his dialogue on the child. “Esteemed colleagues, our research is progressing rapidly. Gabriel is a prime example of this. His level of development far exceeds that of other children his age. As you can see, his motor skills are excellent…”
The child finished assembly of the puzzle quickly, and beamed a smile at his trainer. The scientist gave the baby a gentle pat on the back as a reward, then scooped up all the toys and returned to her place in the lineup. Another came forward, a gray haired woman with a stack of large cards on which single words were printed. She knelt down beside the baby and showed the top card first to the council members, and then to Gabriel.
“Dog,” said Gabriel clearly.
The council murmured its approval.
“Not bad for a one year old, wouldn’t you say?” Parker’s chin lifted as he gazed proudly down at the baby.
“Ap-poe,” Gabriel read when the card apple was held up for him.
“His oral dexterity is still developing, but he’ll get there. There are no pictures, no secret signals, no memorization of word patterns going on here. Gabriel is actually reading at the age of one year.”
The words continued, some more difficult, and except for garbled pronunciation the baby never missed. When he finished, the woman gave him a hug and a smile, and returned to the line. Gabriel turned around and started to crawl toward them.
The nurse picked him up and sat him back where he was before, facing the Triumvirate.
Parker nodded toward another man, young and handsome, who stepped forward eagerly.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Dr. Everson,” Parker began.
Everson smiled and gave a slight bow toward the council, then turned and picked up Gabriel. He spoke softly to the baby for a few moments, gaining the child’s full attention. Gabriel made an unhappy face and shook his head, holding his chubby arms tightly against his body.
“No,” said Gabriel. “Don’t want to.”
The scientist cajoled, teased and tickled the baby until he relaxed and smiled again. He gave the child a kiss on the cheek and patted him affectionately. And then Everson strolled close to the table on the South African end and looked each member in the eye.
“Gabriel,” Everson said softly, smiling, “I want you to tell me which one of these people isn’t supposed to be here today. Someone is lying about who he or she is. Which one is it?” He began to walk down the inner curve of the dais, watching the baby’s face rather than the faces of the council members, while Gabriel chewed on one of his hands.
At the chair of the first German representative, Gabriel pointed with a finger covered in his own saliva. “Her,” he announced clearly.
The woman stood up. And then she smiled. She reached up and removed a gray-streaked wig, and began to peel off a latex face that wasn’t her own. Beneath the mask and wig, another woman appeared. She laughed softly. “I must confess, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she announced. “This baby is incredible! I don’t know how he did that, but he’s a genius. I guess that’s why he’s in this think-tank environment, though, right?”
She stepped back from the council seat, took her wig and mask and passed the real councilwoman entering the chamber on her way out.
The Triumvirate broke out into applause. Gabriel was delighted, and slapped his tiny hands together with the rest of them, oblivious to the fact that he was the inspiration for all the noise. Dr. Everson walked him back to his nurse and handed him over to her.
Parker’s chest swelled with pride. “As you all know, each of you was asked to provide an actor for your place at the council meeting, and it was decided at the last minute which of you would be selected to be replaced. Neither my staff, nor I, nor Gabriel have been instructed in advance which of you would be the one substituted. The child has natural empathic abilities, as well as his father’s intelligence.” He beamed at the baby. “We have indications that he has also inherited the desired gifts from his mother’s side of the family. That’s a little more difficult to demonstrate at a dog-and-pony show like this, but my scientists assure me that Gabriel’s abilities are developing with astounding speed. His mother’s contribution should prove an invaluable addition to his other skills.”
The councilwoman took her seat and turned toward the American officers. “Mr. Parker, how are the other children coming? When will we see the results of those experiments?”
“Soon,” Parker promised with a chilling smile. “There are several that were not viable, for one reason or another, and none have shown the exceptional talents of my Gabriel, here, though we should have some good candidates for a number of our research programs. But for the moment, I think we need to be looking toward the appointment of our next chairman, after the demise of Mr. Mutumbo. Shall we begin the discussions on that point of business? We need someone to steer this ship, if we’re going to reach the stars.”
He took his seat, aware that every eye in the room was trained on him. With a flick of his hand he sent the bevy of scientists away, along with the nurse and his prize. Brigitte’s sacrifice had been a worthy one, and he was grateful for that. She knew the bloodlines of the child she had agreed to carry, and she wanted the power that went with being his wife. He hadn’t expected her to be so sentimental about him - after all, it was a business arrangement first and foremost. It had been fun, of course. Brigitte had been an exciting, dangerous woman, and he liked that type. That she fell in love with him was an added bonus, because it kept her from backing out when she found out later in the pregnancy what would happen to her. And that had been very, very good for him.
The German councilwoman nailed him with her cool, blue-eyed gaze. “Mr. Parker, can you tell us where Mr. Raines’ presentation is? I understood that his project would be considered even in light of his… absence.”
With a sigh, Parker rose and turned weary eyes on the woman who had addressed him. “Ethan is missing, Frau Berkstresser,” he stated clearly. “Raines’ programming was faulty, and until we can determine whether or not Ethan was killed in the blast, I’m afraid that entire project is in question. Ethan’s contributions are minimal at best, anyway. He has never been a reliable subject, too erratic and unable to focus properly.” He straightened in his chair, a tiny smile playing about his lips. “But we have more than enough potential in Gabriel, as I’m sure you’re aware. Perhaps we should move on, until Mr. Raines can demonstrate good reasons why Ethan should still be considered a worthwhile subject.”
Parker turned his eyes to the new member in Mutumbo’s chair, and gave him a nod. The man rose and solemnly made his speech. At the end of his stirring oratory, he nominated Parker for Chairman of the Triumvirate.
All according to the plan.
The American nodded and accepted, keeping his expression carefully neutral.
Inside, he was dancing and shouting at the top of his lungs. It would be several weeks before the votes were cast and counted, giving each of the nominees time to campaign and prepare. That would be time enough to get his operatives up to top speed in the plan already in motion.
If only he could keep Jarod busy with his daughter, things would fall neatly into place. And neither of them would ever know what had secured his move to the top of the food chain. Only a handful of people had access to that information, and he had them all securely under his thumb, carefully watched 24-7.
The world was becoming a more beautiful place every day, bending meekly to his will without complaint, just like his angel. Like both of his angels. And everything he touched turned to gold.
He felt like a god.
* * * * * * * * *
Major Charles stared out the window at the bright morning light.
Still no word from Jarod. He was getting worried, and he knew Zoe could tell. They didn’t know each other very well, but the girl was perceptive, even through the haze of the potent medication flowing into her veins through the intravenous hookup to the morphine pump.
The hospital had just moved her into a private room, which he paid for himself. Her family had gone down to breakfast at his insistence, so he could have a little time alone with his son’s girlfriend.
He had spoken with Sister Mary at the convent and heard that Emily was steadily improving. But time was ticking away, and he needed to leave. He needed to see to his daughter, and make sure that, as soon as she was able, he got her out of there before she was discovered.
With a sigh, he turned away from the window.
“Still can’t get ahold of him?” Zoe asked, her speech slowed by the drugs.
Charles turned with a sad smile. “No. But don’t worry. I’m sure he’s fine.”
She smiled indulgently back at him. “Yeah. I can see how much you believe that,” she teased. “So what have you been thinking about so hard over there? You look like you’re carrying the world on your shoulders.”
He shrugged, straightened and came over to the bed, leaning his forearms on the rails pulled up along the side of the mattress. She looked fragile now, her complexion gone pale, dark circles under her pretty brown eyes. But her bright spirit struggled valiantly onward. She was a fighter, and he hoped she would beat the terrible disease ravaging her body.
“I have to leave soon, Zoe,” he confessed reluctantly. “My daughter was injured not long ago, and I need to go to her.” He stroked her hair fondly. “I don’t want to leave you until Jarod gets back, but you’ve got your family with you now. You’ll be all right.”
Zoe patted his hand. “Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she assured him.
“As soon as I can contact Jarod, I’ll send him straight here. I promise.”
“I know you will.” Her eyes revealed how frightened she was, though her lips were still curved into a soft grin. “You’re sure he’s okay?”
Charles chuckled. “We tend to land on our feet, like cats,” he teased. “Jarod’s smart. He’s wary. He’ll be just fine, I swear.” But in his heart, his conviction crumbled into deadly uncertainty. Jarod could already be dead, and he might never know what happened to his son.
He bent down and kissed her cheek. “Jarod will be back by your side before you know it, dear. But for now, get some rest. Okay?”
She nodded, apparently bolstered by his pep talk.
The door opened, and Zoe’s grandmother came into the room, carrying two cartons of yogurt and a glass of orange juice she had bought at the cafeteria downstairs.
“Any word from your son?” she asked hopefully.
Charles shook his head. “Not yet, but I’ll keep trying. I know he’ll get back to me soon.” He squeezed Zoe’s hand and gave her a reassuring glance. “I’ll call as soon as I know something.”
He turned his attention back to the older woman. “I have to go now, Mrs. Carson. I know you’ll take good care of Zoe for us.”
Mrs. Carson’s expression softened with sincere affection as her gaze drifted to the young woman in the bed. “Of course we will.”
“I wish I could stay.”
“But it’s time for you to go. I understand. And thank you, Major. Thank you for everything.”
“My pleasure. Zoe means a great deal to my son, and therefore to me as well.”
Mrs. Carson sat the yogurt and juice on the nightstand by Zoe’s bed, gave her granddaughter a kiss and nodded toward the food and drink. Then she turned back to the major. “Let me walk you to the elevator. I’ll give you my phone number so we can keep in touch.”
Charles offered her his arm like a proper gentleman, and let her escort him out of the room.
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod's insistence on using secondary roads to reach Towson, rather than Interstate 95, was beginning to grate on Miss Parker. She knew he did it to avoid detection, make it difficult for any potential pursuit; but the continued need to take the long way around was wearing thin.
While she drove, Jarod sat in the back seat with Ethan, trying to "work with him," as he called it. As far as she could tell, it mostly consisted of platitudes and new age-speak. "Trust in the Force, young Jedi," she murmured sarcastically.
Ethan suddenly screamed in pain, and clutched the sides of his head. "No, no, no!"
Miss Parker threw a quick look over her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"We need to stop," Jarod shouted back. "Pull over!"
She pulled out of traffic and onto the side of the road as quickly as safety would allow. Jarod opened the back door and got out, pulling Ethan with him. Miss Parker shut off the ignition, grabbed the keys, and ran around the car to join them.
Ethan's legs buckled and he went down on his knees. Jarod joined him, speaking softly. "It's okay, Ethan. I know you were conditioned to listen to Raines. I know he's telling you not to do this. Just let his voice flow through you, and concentrate on the others."
Ethan looked up at his siblings, and his dark eyes were filled with pain. "It never stops! I hear one thing, then I hear another. I don't know who to believe anymore…."
"Yes, you do. Listen to your mother's voice, Ethan, the way you did on the train, and back at the motel. She will always tell you the truth." Jarod paused, then added, "What is she telling you now?"
For a moment, Ethan's expression went blank, his eyes fixed on an inner landscape only he could see. Not knowing what to do to help him, Miss Parker found herself stroking his face, pushing the hair back off his forehead. It was the sort of thing her mother had done for her, and maternal or not, it felt right.
Eventually, Ethan took a deep breath that seemed to calm him. "She says... I should trust you." He looked at Jarod. "You know the song. You're the only one who ever sang it back to me."
Parker frowned slightly. "What song?"
Jarod smiled. "A nursery rhyme, Miss Parker. A tiny piece of childhood we both managed to hang onto." He offered his good hand and Ethan grasped it, managing to pull himself to a standing position.
For a moment, Ethan’s gaze locked with Jarod’s, and then he just seemed to wilt. He leaned heavily against the bigger man, his head on Jarod’s shoulder, and Jarod wrapped his arm around Ethan fondly.
“I know you’re tired, Ethan,” the Pretender said quietly. “You want to rest. You want to find a quiet place. And I promise you, I’ll help you find it.” His left hand reached up and stroked the back of the other man’s head, the way a parent comforts a frightened child. He hummed the song, and Ethan struggled to stand on his own.
Miss Parker moved close as Jarod stepped back, allowing her to help Ethan back to the car.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” the Pretender warned gently. “But we’ll get you through it. We’ll help you sort out the noise and make it bearable. But we can’t do it alone. You have to try. And you have to trust us.” Ethan nodded. “We’re taking you to someone who can help you every day, for as long as it takes, to learn to deal with the voices. Would you like that?”
Ethan stiffened, turned on his heel and stared at Jarod with distrust flaring in his eyes. “You said you would do it!” he accused. “She said to trust you!”
Jarod nodded, keeping his expression neutral. “And I trust Dr. Goetz. She’s a nice lady. She’s very good at helping people, and she’ll be able to spend every moment of every day with you, if you want. Would you like that? Someone just for you? Someone who can help you with the voices?”
The younger man’s brief flare of anger faded quickly into relief and resignation. “Yes. I -- I want that.”
Miss Parker hugged him to emphasize Jarod’s words of encouragement. “We won’t let anything bad happen to you, Ethan,” she promised. "We’re going to help you get better.”
Tears gathered in his eyes as he regarded her, his face screwing up to cry, and then suddenly relaxing. A single tear rolled down his cheek, and his eyes roamed over her face. “Are you my sister?”
She smiled then, glad that he had acknowledged her at last. “Yes, I am.”
Ethan turned to Jarod. “My brother?”
The Pretender nodded.
“Family,” Ethan pronounced. “My family.”
With a sigh, he eased back into the car, collapsing onto the rear seat wearily. Once they were back on the road, he moved to a sitting position, buckled his seat belt, and looked out the window at the scenery flowing by.
“Let’s try again,” Jarod suggested, making eye contact as he turned in his seat to look behind him.
The corners of Ethan’s mouth softened, and he almost smiled.
* * * * * * * * *
Dressed in a stolen lab coat, his own stethoscope draped around his neck, Cox looked like the medical professional he was. He knocked on the closed door, and pushed it open when no one answered. He had confirmed from the name tag outside that this was the right room, and as he stepped inside, listening for the sounds of voices or activity, he saw the redhead sleeping in the hospital bed. Quietly, so he wouldn’t wake the girl, he checked to make sure she was alone in the room.
From his pocket he withdrew a syringe, already loaded with a lethal dose of potassium nitrate. He stood beside the bed, removed the plastic guard and pushed the needle into the IV port. Slowly, expertly, he pushed the plunger and sent the deadly poison into her system. It wouldn’t take long.
And then, for his own satisfaction, he jiggled her arm to try to waken her.
Zoe’s eyes opened, and looked into his. She started to inhale, so she could scream. And then her heart stopped beating, her entire body shutting off as if a light switch had been pulled. Her last breath rattled out of her lungs as all the muscles relaxed, and her head lolled sideways on the pillow. Her eyes stared blankly at the bed.
From the pocket of his lab coat, he withdrew a tiny origami figure of an angel with broken wings, and left it standing on top of the morphine pump. Onysius, the bent-winged god of retribution. There was a price to pay for crossing him.
Cox smiled, dropped the syringe into the sharps disposal unit on the wall by the door, and left as unobtrusively as he had entered. Only this time, he was smiling. There was much satisfaction in revenge, and he was certain Jarod would recognize the calling card he had left behind for him to find. That would be worth waiting for, and he was only sorry he couldn't stick around to see the Pretender's face when he found it.
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