By Brynna and jen
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Jamie Denton as Mr. Lyle
Paul Dillon (I) as Angelo
The office was dark, save for the low neon glow the laptop monitor provided. A solitary figure sat at the desk, a sad half-smile on his face as his fingers moved over the keyboard. His fingers paused and the smile faltered, briefly re-lighting his face before disappearing altogether. Slowly, his hand raised, fingers tracing the words in front of him.
As quickly as the spell of regret had been cast, it was shattered as silence gave way to the shrill ringing of the telephone next to him. “I was thinking about you,” he said into the mouthpiece, forgoing the niceties of etiquette as he raised the phone to his ear.
A soft, distant chuckle met his ears. “You’ve been honing your psychic abilities quite nicely,” the younger man answered. His voice lacked the light feel of his words, and it was picked up on immediately.
“What’s the matter?” Silence held a beat too long, before the older man spoke again. “And don’t tell me nothing. The last time you said that…” Letting the weight of his words hang in the air, he fell silent again.
The intake of breath was audible over the phone line. “I’m sorry for that.”
“Don’t apologize. Just tell me what’s wrong.”
Sydney’s gentle, prodding tone permeated Jarod’s shell of bitterness and with another sharp breath, the man on the other end of the line nodded into his phone. “I’m in way over my head here,” he whispered, the words almost snatched into the black stillness that wrapped itself around him. “I did something I can’t fix.”
“What?” The question seemed so simple as it was asked; it didn’t take long to become apparent how complex the answer must be.
“Someone’s life is in danger… with ramifications far beyond my control, but because of me.” It was the simplest of hard answers. “I couldn’t have avoided what I did --“ There was a pause and the sound of a deep, soul-reaching breath met the older man’s ears. “But I’ve destroyed a life because of it.”
Pouring sympathy into his voice, the man in the office spoke pensively. “If you couldn’t have changed your actions…”
“You don’t understand.” There was a sound in the background, tires spinning on gravel. “I… have to go. Trouble’s brew--” Mid-word, Jarod’s voice fell silent. The sound of tires reverberated in the distance again, closer this time; then silence.
The sound of Sydney’s voice, edged in desperation, echoed from the small cellular phone as it lay encased in darkness on the ground, the only sign anyone had been there at all.
* * * * * * * * *
Striding into Sydney's office, Miss Parker looked down at the laptop, open to a DSA. "You really should stop reliving all that."
Sydney glanced up at her before returning his gaze to a 16 year old Jarod, going through the simulation of a kidnapped child. "I know," he agreed, his tone resigned. "Bad habit."
"Sounds like you should talk to someone about this masochistic tendency. Not me, of course," she interjected quickly as her hand moved, index finger flicking off the DSA. "So, any idea where Boy Wonder might be today?"
Eyes clouding, he looked at his phone. "No, Miss Parker, I can honestly say I have no idea."
"That sounds ominous. Care to elaborate?" She frowned at the look she received; one that clearly said 'no.' "Will you anyway?"
"Don't I always?" Without waiting for a response, he tapped the phone once. "He did call me. Said he was in some trouble." Pausing, Sydney took a steadying breath. "He was cut off..."
His head shook automatically. "No. The line was open. Jarod... he was cut off. Mid-word."
Narrowing her eyes at the phone, Miss Parker's head tilted, regarding it. "I don't know what to say to that one, Syd. Maybe a new facet of the cat and mouse game he's playing."
"No." That notion instantly dismissed, Sydney stood. "He sounded troubled. I don't think he just went dancing off into the dark." Fingers wrapping around the cell phone, he lifted it, turning it over in his hands. "Jarod isn't cruel, Miss Parker. You know that, no matter what you may think of him personally."
"I don't know what I know anymore Sydney, let alone what I think." Her lips twisted for a moment before her teeth grasped the inside of the lower, worrying the flesh as she thought. "When did he call?" she asked, releasing her lip.
Turning at the sound of Broots' voice, her gaze pinned him in his tracks. "Don't you knock?"
"Sorry, Miss Parker." Shaking his head, his whole body seeming to follow suit, Broots stepped into the room. "You weren’t in your office, so I assumed… I just thought you'd want to know..." He looked at Sydney and back to her. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were in the middle of..."
"Broots!" Sighing, Miss Parker gestured for him to continue. "Just spit it out before it chokes you."
Nodding, he extended a file to her. "Lyle...he was asking for files on the baby. I thought you might want to know."
Her fingers snatched the file from him. "Very good, Broots. I don't want Lyle within smelling distance of Gabriel." Tucking the file under her arm, choosing to wait until she was alone in her office to read the contents, she turned back to Sydney. "Now, when did he call you?"
Sydney almost smiled at her. "You have the most one-track mind, sometimes. A couple of hours ago."
"And what do you suggest we do, since you don't think he's toying with us again?"
The older man shrugged a shoulder. "If we knew where he was..."
"Was the call on your cellular?" Broots stuck his head between Miss Parker and Sydney and nodded to the phone. "I can try and trace anything on that line."
Tapping her foot twice, Miss Parker turned on her heel and took a step toward the door. "Jarod has most likely taken his game to some new level here, but if you two want to run around playing with Broots' gadgets to figure this out, don't let me stop you. I'll be in my office when you're finished." She headed out of the room, making a bee-line straight for her own office.
Entering the room, shutting the door, she stopped in the middle, opening the file Broots had provided. Scanning the pages for what, exactly, her twin had been up to, her eyes narrowed at the list of videos of Gabriel's progression with language, and his remarkable comprehension. The paper copies of his medical reports and logs of interaction caught her attention as well. "What the hell are you up to, Lyle?" she asked the empty room, as the file closed in her hand. Dropping it on her desk, a manila envelope skittered slightly from its resting place, disturbed by the file’s momentum.
She picked up the envelope and opened it, extracting a single piece of paper. Staring at the note, she groaned. Her free hand reached for her purse, opening it. Doing a quick survey of the inside, she dropped it again, as the missing small, black tube confirmed. The note had indeed been written with her favorite $15-a-tube lipstick, which was now missing. Looking back at the note, she snatched up the purse again, walking to the door. Shaking her head, she dropped the envelope and the note on top of it, onto the small table next to the door as she left the room with an air of annoyance. She'd deal with that later. Right now she needed to see her baby brother and clear her head.
* * * * * * * * *
Pressing his face against the grate on the wall above the table in Miss Parker's office, Angelo tilted his head to better see the piece of paper she'd left behind.
Written clearly in a familiar shade of lipstick, he read what had annoyed her so.
If you want to find Jarod, try thinking like him.
* * * * * * * * *
The DSA played on in the background, no longer the focal point of Lyle's attention. His fingers tapped over keys on the keyboard in front of him, making notes. He didn’t like computers, didn’t trust them, but they had their uses. After taking a crash course in computerese on a business trip a few months earlier, he had begun to work on a project that needed to be kept private. He couldn’t afford to have fat files of paper lying around in his office for someone to snoop through, and since his aversion to electronic information was so well known, a computer made the perfect tool for him to keep covert notes on his latest project.
Too much compassion shown to Jarod as a child removed the edge a Pretender should retain. Same mistake should not be made with the baby. Removal of conflicting elements (i.e. Miss Parker) should be immediate.
Pausing for a moment, he smiled idly. Lifting the file on Gabriel he'd procured that morning, he flipped toward the center, skimming the first of the reports by his father. The old man realized things too late, which was just what Lyle wanted. Taking over wouldn't be easy, but with strategic pushes in the right direction, he had managed to worm his way into all sorts of places. Confident this time would prove no different, he reached over to change the DSA. Images of Kyle filled the screen next to him as his attention returned to the file. He gave peripheral attention to the sim the young man was performing as he delved deeper into the paperwork in front of him.
Like everything at the Centre, it started out innocently enough, and rather dull. Only when it had been cut deeply enough, bled enough, did it start to become interesting.
The problem with Kyle, he thought as the young man let out a yell that caught Lyle's attention, was that Kyle was allowed contact with Jarod.
Everything always came down to Jarod.
That contact had given Kyle something to look forward to -- a bright spot. The secret to control, he knew, was to keep things as bleak as possible. The less in a subject’s world that made them smile, the better they would fall in line.
Typing these thoughts out, Lyle thrummed the edge of the keyboard again. The computer was proving to be an ideal place to keep his thoughts together, and keep them private. There was too much going on, and too many people looking over his shoulder these days. He couldn’t trust anyone. His thoughts were still jumping around too fast for him to keep up. There was something missing in his trek to the top, he knew that much. What, he couldn't quite figure. He had ideas, but the answer hung just out of reach. A plan was developing, but not fast enough to suit his taste.
Getting his sister out of the way once and for all would, however, be a perfect place to start.
* * * * * * * * *
Entering the computer lab, note in hand, Miss Parker looked around, hoping for signs of life. The visit with Gabriel had calmed her considerably, even as it had put more concern for the baby into her mind. Their shared secret still bothered her. She knew he wanted to talk about “Dawid” but he sensed her fear for him, and had not mentioned that name again.
Stepping further, past the doorframe, the silence in the room wrapped around her as she surveyed her surroundings. The computers were off, the chairs tucked under their tables -- everything looked like it had been intentionally left in perfect condition, as if someone had been expecting a spot-check. Shaking her head, she turned to leave.
“Miss Parker upset.”
Spinning around, her eyes tracked the room, finding Angelo sitting on the floor by the vent in the back, looking up at her. She nodded at him, moving toward the center of the room. “Yeah, I guess I am,” she said softly, watching Angelo as he moved closer.
His fingers moved, hand stretching out to brush the edge of the paper in her hand. Looking down, she offered the note to him. “Who is this from, Angelo?”
Pulling the sheet of paper close to his face, Angelo turned it over. He inspected every corner as Miss Parker watched, waiting for an answer. His eyes trailed over the words as if studying the handwriting, and his fingers worried the edges of the page. When he finally looked up at her, his face was sober and serious. “Friend,” he said slowly, looking down at the words. “Friend… trouble.”
His face then turned back up to her, and he offered the biggest, brightest smile she’d ever seen from him. Miss Parker pursed her lips, raising an eyebrow. The confusing answer was not what she had been expecting. “What the f…”
The door behind her opened, interrupting her. “Miss Parker. There you are.” Broots walked into the room. “We were looking for you. We traced Jarod’s call. He was in Philadelphia.”
“Car’s waiting, Miss Parker,” Sydney added from behind Broots, extending his hand toward the door.
Angelo offered her back the note, the smile still firmly on his face. Reaching over, she snatched the piece of paper back from him, watching as he blinked a couple times, the smile disappearing, before heading back toward the vent. “What are we waiting for?” she asked, turning away from Angelo and striding past them, out the door, leaving the men to follow in her wake.
At the edge of an empty lot, a large warehouse sat in visible disrepair. So old, falling apart, the building wasn’t even used by transients except on the coldest, wettest days. There were dozens of sets of tire tracks in the gravel outside, the only signs anyone took interest in the building and its surroundings.
Inside, in the center of the large, dark room, a cell phone lay on its side, the power light flashing in a slow rhythm as if to slightly off-beat music somewhere in the distance. That modern object was completely out of place in this ancient building. Even the rats that lived in the sawdust piles didn’t come near it.
The phone let out a chirp into the silence, as if to remind its wayward owner it was still there. The sound echoed off the rotting walls like a sonar burst. It repeated once, accompanied by a final flash of light as the last of the power slipped from the battery, leaving the device as bleak as its surroundings.
* * * * * * * * *
Slowing the car to a stop, Miss Parker glanced toward Broots, who nodded.
“This is where the signal came from,” he assured her.
Opening the door, she stepped from the car and took a look around. “Why are they always abandoned warehouses?” she snarled. Not waiting for an answer, she removed her gun from its holster and made her way inside with Sydney and Broots following close behind. The room was nearly pitch black despite the dimming daylight outside, and Broots produced a couple of flashlights. Handing one to Sydney, he moved away from them to begin to look around.
The flashlights caught on fallen beams and cobwebs as they cast patterns of fragile light on the heavy shadows across the walls of the old building. It was a single large room with loft-like platforms around the edges, well above their heads. Piles of sawdust remained on an otherwise bare hardwood floor, buffering it from their footsteps. A large path had been cleared from the door opposite where they’d entered, straight to the center of the room, where it stopped. “Of course,” Miss Parker muttered. “Wouldn’t want to leave tracks, would you, Jarod?”
They moved along the perimeter of the building, slowly edging inward as they looked for any sign of Jarod or what might have brought him there. As they crept forward, an occasional drop of rain from the storm that had followed them in fell from holes in the roof, soaking instantly into the sawdust.
“Found the phone!” Broots called out after nearly five minutes. He was standing almost in the center of the room, just at the edge of the cleared space. The phone lay at his feet, and Miss Parker reached to collect it.
“He said he was in trouble…” Sydney looked around, worry coloring his voice even as his face was cloaked in darkness. A beam of light cut between Miss Parker and Sydney as Broots moved, allowing the older man to meet her gaze. “I do hope you’re right, that he’s doing this intentionally.”
“I know you do. You’re still his security blanket, Syd.” Tucking the phone into her pocket, she touched his shoulder before leading the way back out. “I just missed the part where he was still yours.” As they exited the building, she offered him a slight smile. “Broots, hotel for tonight. Somewhere with room service for once, please. If Jarod’s still around here, we have to find him.”
Sydney smiled back at her as they climbed back into the car.
* * * * * * * * *
Confident that he’d be able to waltz right in to see the baby, Lyle headed for the nursery. He’d spent the better part of the day going over Gabriel’s medical files, notes from his nurse, videos of his interactions and achievements thus far. Now it was time to see the child for himself.
He had never actually been in the room with the baby. It hadn’t been that important to him before, but as with everything, when it became so, he acted on it. Opening the door to the nursery, he cast his eye for Gabriel, who was nowhere to be seen.
“May I help you?”
“I certainly hope so.” Looking at the woman who had entered the room, he smiled. “I was hoping to see the baby.”
Her head shook instantly. “I’m sorry, but you aren’t on my list of approved visitors.”
Lyle’s smile faded to a frown. “But you don’t even know who I am,” he cajoled. “Why don’t you check your list again?”
“I know my list, Mr. Lyle, and you're not on it. I'm sorry, but you can't see Gabriel today.” She turned her back on him, as if that was the end of the matter.
“Fine,” he replied as he turned to leave. “I’ll be back later.”
As he walked toward the door, the faint sounds of the baby in the next room carried to him. His high-pitched baby voice said, “Lielee bad.”
“That kid is too smart for his own good,” Lyle said to himself as he entered the hallway. He’d go talk to his father, find out why there was restricted visitation on Gabriel. Perhaps there was a good reason, but somewhere deep down, he knew his sister was to blame. The woman would pay for her prejudice against him, and he would enjoy every moment of it.
* * * * * * * * *
From his position in the vents, Angelo looked down on Lyle as he walked away from Gabriel’s nursery. He could hear the baby informing his nurse that, indeed, “Lielee bad.” Angelo nodded in agreement with the young child as he moved along to follow Lyle through the halls of the Centre.
* * * * * * * * *
Settling down on her bed in the hotel room, Miss Parker picked up the phone they’d found in the warehouse. “Well, Jarod, I hope you left a breadcrumb or two this time. I’m tired of this already.” Noting the dead battery, she reached down for her bag, pulled out her charger, and plugged it in. Attaching it to the phone, she pulled the blanket back on the bed and slipped underneath. Sleep sounded like the most wonderful idea she’d ever had at that precise moment. The sound of rain and thunder outside was beginning to pick up as she slipped away into dreams.
* * * * * * * * *
Lyle’s arm was wrapped tightly around her, keeping her from moving. She struggled against him, as everything around her seemed to slow. His grip started to loosen as the gun in his hand went off. Hearing Jarod’s yell for his brother, her gaze went to him instantly.
The anguish across his face hit her hard, almost dropping her to her knees in sympathy for him. As she moved toward him, a flash of lightning made her jump. She turned back toward the man on the ground, and her breath caught. Blood oozing from the bullet wound in Kyle’s chest was bright red, seeming to glow in the darkness around them. The wounded man’s face shifted, showing familiar dark features -- not Kyle, but Jarod.
She gasped his name, stumbling slightly as she moved toward him. As she reached his side, everyone else vanished, leaving only the wounded man and his huntress.
“Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination,” he mumbled to her in a raspy voice, the effort obviously costing him. His eyes slipped closed as death took him, leaving her alone.
“Jarod!” she called out again. Dropping her head slightly, her eyes shut against another flash of lightning.
A young Miss Parker wandered through the halls of the Centre. It was dark and silent, eerily unfamiliar. People were always around that place, even in the middle of the night. Something felt dreadfully wrong, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. And she couldn’t find her way out.
She stepped inside an empty lab, taking slow steps toward the middle of the room.
The soft whisper caused her to spin around, to find only emptiness around her.
Again the name was whispered, but distinctly Jarod’s voice this time.
“Jarod?” The lights flashed above her, revealing her childhood friend sitting in the corner on a chair, staring intently at her. “Jarod, don’t call me that. You know how I feel about my name…”
His eyes met hers for a brief moment before the lights flashed again. "Because you were trained to hate it. Why is that?” he asked. His voice was not that of the child, but of the man. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness again, revealing that Jarod was indeed an adult now, and tied to the chair in front of her.
He looked to be slightly injured, a bruise on his cheek, slight trickle of blood on his temple. “Morgan.” Looking at her pointedly for a moment, he repeated her first name. His gaze dropped to the floor, the phone lying at his feet.
As she looked down, her eyes took in the phone. Looking up at him, she found he was gone from the chair. His breath washed across the back of her neck as he whispered her name once more. Her eyes shut at the sound, only to be forced open again by the insistent beeping of the phone.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker’s eyes opened and she shook her head, trying to clear the dream from it. One thing was for certain -- the longer she’d spent chasing Jarod, the more vivid her dreams had become. Her stomach flipped with unease at the lingering echo of Jarod’s voice, repeating her name. No one had used that name since… she couldn’t remember when. Certainly her father didn’t use it; the last time he had, it had come out sounding like a curse. Now he called her 'angel' as if her other name had never existed. Even her close friends never used her given name -- she had seen to that herself.
Her mother, she remembered. The last time person who had called her by her given name. The night before…
Exhaling a slow breath, she shook her head again. No, she wouldn’t think of that, not now. She’d go back to sleep, and let this all be just what it was -- a bad dream, and nothing more.
As she turned over, the phone caught her attention. It was charged now, and the ‘message waiting’ light was flashing.
“Well, we should obviously go see who he was supposed to meet. Maybe she’ll be able to tell us something.” The message was from a young woman, asking Jarod to meet her that evening outside a small café near the warehouse. She’d sounded out of breath as she spoke, assuring him that it was urgent, that it was safe.
Broots shrugged a shoulder, his back to her as he looked out the window. “They don’t always cooperate.” His shoulders squared as Miss Parker turned to glare at him. "What'll you do if she won't tell us anything?"
“You did order coffee, right?”
He nodded in confirmation. “Strong, and black.”
“Good.” Her attention went back to Sydney. “What do you think, Syd?”
The older man took a breath, glancing down at the phone. “Honestly, Miss Parker, I’m inclined to agree with Broots. Jarod’s friends only roll out the welcome mat if he’s suggested to them that they do. However,” he continued, a hand in the air to stop her from interjecting, “we would do good to at least see where they were supposed to meet, and meet this woman. Maybe you could charm your way into a conversation.”
“You’ve got the 'nice old man' angle to work, though. I think you should try.” A knock at the door drew her attention from the conversation. “Ah, coffee.”
Standing, she moved to the door, opening it for the young man with the breakfast tray. Signing for it, she stood out of his way as the cart was wheeled into the room, and he left. Heading straight for the coffee, she poured herself a cup, taking a sip of the strong, hot liquid.
Broots moved from the window to take his plate of bacon and eggs from the tray. “Hey, what’s this?” He lifted a manila envelope from under his plate.
Snatching it from his hand, Miss Parker opened it, extracting an 8x10 photo of herself, standing outside the warehouse the previous day. Another sheet of paper came with it, in the familiar deep red-brown of her now-appropriately named shade of lipstick, Rage.
Stop being you. You're getting nowhere.
"Your boy is playing with us, Sydney. With me, anyway." Holding up the photo and the note, she shot him an annoyed look. Once he'd taken them from her, she reached for her bag, pulling out the first envelope, and handing over the first note. "This was in my office yesterday," she added as it dropped to the bedspread beside her.
Sydney moved to look at it as Broots looked over the older man's shoulder. As they looked between the notes, Miss Parker weighed the envelope in her hand. Tipping it, a Polaroid slipped to the ground. Jarod’s face looked up at her from the floor as she knelt to retrieve it. In the photo, he sat in a chair, his back to a window, hands tied at his sides. Save for the missing blood on his face, he looked exactly as he had in her dream, and her fingers trembled slightly as she remembered. She inhaled slowly, studying the background of the image.
“Broots.” She lifted the photo and turned it around. “Take this back to the Centre and run it through the computer. See if you can get anything more details from it. Clean it up or something.” Her jaw was set, her face blank as she handed it to him. When Broots didn’t move, her eyes narrowed on him. “Now.”
He moved quickly, taking the photo. “Yes, Miss Parker.”
As he left the room, she turned back to the bed, picking up the 8x10. “What’s going on here, Sydney?” she wondered as she focused on the still image of herself. “Should I be waiting for Kyle to step out of the shadows again?”
“I don’t think so.” He took the photo from her. “You told me about the voices Ethan heard.” Tapping the corner of the first note, he met her eyes. “Maybe someone’s trying to help you find your own.”
She took another sip of her coffee. “I don’t know. It hadn’t occurred to me.” Her eyes clouded as she stared out the window. “Why? None of this makes any sense.”
“Maybe it’s not supposed to.” Sydney stood, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “And perhaps Jarod is just turning the tables on you. I trust you’ll figure out what you need, when you need it.” He left her alone with her thoughts and her coffee.
* * * * * * * * *
Sitting back, Lyle smiled at his computer screen. Having discovered that there wasn’t a justifiable reason for his denial of seeing Gabriel, he’d decided to take the time to do some additional work on his plan. He knew the old man couldn't run a carnival, let alone the Triumvirate. He would prove that fact and be poised to step into the vacancy left when he fell from grace. Lyle had painstakingly collected as much information relating to Gabriel as he could get his hands on. Gabriel was the key to Daddy Parker's success -- and his own, if he played his cards right.
His study of the DSAs of Jarod and Kyle had proved to him why they’d gone wrong. Too much kindness and generosity had bred weakness in the chain of command, and the Pretenders had manipulated that to their advantage. Sydney hadn't been able to control Jarod because he cared too much for his protégé. Those in power should be able to think clearly, to make decisions based on logic and need, rather than emotion.
And then there was his sister. She continued to operate on her own misguided agenda with hardly a word of criticism from her father, because he had a soft spot for her. The Chairman had no problem criticizing Lyle for his unfortunate loss of some of the Blue Files projects, through no fault of his own. His position had become shaky of late, and this project was sure to bolster his power in the Centre hierarchy. It wasn't his fault that the people he sent to find those lost assets failed miserably. He was working on getting them back, just as his sister was working on catching Jarod.
No, he admitted to himself. He was working harder. His people brought back concrete results. He was making progress in finding Ethan, just a step or two behind. Miss Parker was playing tag with Jarod, handling him with kid gloves and letting him get away when she should have been giving him high-velocity lead poisoning.
The Chairman was weak to allow such behavior. Whomever was in the power seat shouldn’t be swayed by emotions. The less ties to family, the better.
“I don’t have that problem,” he said to himself, as he watched the file download to a removable disk. There was no way he’d be able to re-create this data. Far too much of it he had stolen and consequently destroyed the originals to keep his involvement in the theft from being discovered. People had talked to him and had since vanished. He knew he was playing with fire, but had no intention of getting burned.
That was for the rest of them. His sister was first on his list. One way or another, he’d see her gone. She was a hindrance to everything in his life.
Slowly he’d come to realize that his rage toward her was drawn from jealousy. She hadn’t been raised in the hell he had. She’d had their parents. He’d had nothing.
That was going to change. He laughed silently at the thought. There was no reason he could see for this to not go according to plan -- and when it did, he’d have all the power, and she’d have nothing.
Just the way he liked it.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker sat at the windowsill, staring outside blankly through the streaks of rain on the glass.
Until Ethan had turned up, she’d almost completely forgotten about the times she’d thought her mother was talking to her, after she’d died. The last occurrence she could recall had happened one morning when she’d been alone in one of the labs, watching the bunnies in their hutch. Without knowing, she’d realized what was going to happen to the rabbits, and had sought to free them. Sydney had walked in, to find her with a bunny in each arm, looking for a way out.
“Mama told me to let them go,” she’d explained in a tear-strained voice as she’d looked up at him with wide, hurt eyes. “They’re going to be hurt. She whispered to me, told me to help them.”
Sydney had taken one of the animals from her, and led her to the chairs near the hutch. It hadn’t taken long for her to clear her emotions from the surface, allowing the stoic person she was becoming to take over, as he’d tried to coax more about her mother from her.
It didn’t take much to look at Ethan and think he was crazy. Hearing voices of people he’d never even known, trusting them -- this wasn’t exactly textbook normal. The fact that she found herself remembering being in that place, and understood, was bothersome.
When she’d first met him, and had instantly found herself identifying with him, it had scared her. The outward persona she’d perfected through her years had been chipped away in places the moment she’d found him, as she’d realized he still did what she had found herself forced to stop doing as a child. It was as if, the more she stopped identifying herself as Morgan, the further it slipped away. Her father had reinforced the lack of her name… and she had gone along with it out of need to please him. Rarely hearing him use her name, and having it be uttered as a curse was the worst thing, it seemed, he could think of to say to her. He had shot down the small joy she’d taken in what her name had meant to her as a child.
She couldn’t decide which bothered her more now; that it might be coming back, or that it might not. As she began to turn that over in her mind, her phone rang.
“I just sent you back a cleaned up copy of the picture.” Broots’ voice was hushed over the line, and she grabbed for her laptop, waiting for it to download her email. “I can probably do more, if you need it.”
As the image loaded on her screen, her eyes scanned the pixels, looking for a breadcrumb somewhere. Jarod’s eyes looked back at her, and she studied his face. “Where are you?” she asked the picture softly as it finished loading. Focusing on the window at Jarod’s side, her eyes narrowed. “Broots, the window -- can you scan that more clearly? There’s some sort of reflection there that I can’t make out.”
“Uh, yeah, sure. Let me go get the picture…” Broots leaned over to the end of the table, reaching for the picture. Angelo, who had been prowling around the room, moved as well, and grabbed the picture just before Broots got to it.
Looking intently at the image, Angelo smiled, handing it back to Broots. “Friend.” He grinned bigger. “Miss Parker. Journey.” Bobbing his head up and down in a nod, he turned away from the man on the phone, leaving him bewildered.
“Um, Miss Parker… something just happened here. Uh… Angelo had the picture… he looked at it, and said ‘friend.’”
“Yeah, and?” She sighed into the phone. “Broots, Angelo likes Jarod. He considers him a friend. This isn’t surprising.”
The sound of the scanner starting carried over the line. “No, that’s not all. He smiled at me, and then he said ‘Miss Parker. Journey.’ I think he might know something.”
Her eyes shut, and she rested her forehead against her hand. “Of course he does. Look, just get me that picture, okay?”
“It should be there in a minute.” His voice dropped even further. “Oh, another thing -- Lyle is up to something. I don’t know what, but he’s been prowling around, digging up information on everyone around here. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was trying to stage a coup.”
“Lovely. Just what we need, Lyle attempting a coup d'état. Such his style.” She clicked to download the new image coming through. “Keep an ear open. I’ll be in touch later.” Hanging up, she studied the new image, trying to make out the reflection in the window.
When nothing came to her, she finally got up to head out to where Jarod was supposed to meet the woman on the phone.
* * * * * * * * *
The café was closed.
This didn’t surprise Miss Parker, as she stopped her car across the street. Climbing out, she headed over to the building, noting the lack of anything resembling life. No cars, no people… The lights were all off inside, and the ‘closed’ sign looked like it had been that way for a while. Not drawing her gun, but keeping her hand firmly around it, she wandered to the back of the building, and around the side.
Coming up empty-handed in a search for anyone or anything, she crossed the street back to her car. She’d wait for a little while; maybe the woman was just late.
As she opened her car door, a manila envelope on the front seat caught her attention. Grabbing it, she pulled out another Polaroid of Jarod, tied up and looking back at her. Another 8x10 followed, this of her, sleeping in the hotel room the previous night. Her eyes narrowed dangerously on this image. “Jarod, where the hell are you?” she muttered.
Tipping the envelope, another Polaroid slipped into her hand. Again it was her. Getting out of her car, not five minutes before. Her head whipped around to focus on the angle the image had been taken from. A small line of trees next to the café stood, having to be where the picture was taken from. Stalking over, she moved through the trees, finding nothing, not even ground depressions where someone would have stood.
Heaving an exasperated sigh, she turned on a heel. Back at the car, she found a note lying on the steering wheel. ‘Watch your back. This isn’t a game.’
Turning over the photo of Jarod, her eyes shut. The reflection in the first flashed across her mind, followed by the window in the one in her hand. Blue neon.
“Damn it, Jarod.” Opening her eyes, she threw the car into gear and headed back to the hotel.
Pulling up at the hotel, Miss Parker headed straight back to her room. She yanked the door open, strode inside and fumbled in her bag for a moment, then began to pace. It was only afternoon, but the weather was dark and stormy. Many businesses had their lights on already.
Including the bar at the corner, with its blue neon sign glowing softly in the gray afternoon. She rested her forehead against the cool glass window and she stared at the bar. She couldn’t help but laugh at the situation, certain now that she had indeed been right, that Jarod was just turning the tables on her.
The mirth she found in the situation faded into anger. Anger with herself for letting him get to her -- the Polaroids had even given her a moment of concern -- and anger at him for putting her through that in the first place.
As she started to pack, she wondered if there had actually been a point to the exercise, or if Jarod had just decided it would be a fun way to pass the time.
Once finished with her packing, she left the room, glancing back at the door as she stepped into the hallway. A note was taped to the door, written in her lipstick.
How does it feel? At least you can go home.
Sighing, she pulled the note down. “Wherever you wanted me to go, Jarod, you gave me the wrong road map. This journey is over.”
As she walked down the hall toward Sydney’s room, Jarod slipped further into the shadows in the corner of the hallway. “Not quite yet,” he said softly, watching her go.
* * * * * * * * *
“Damned meetings,” Lyle muttered, opening the door to his office. At least the file backups would be finished, and he could set the next stage of things into motion. He tossed his latest report on his desk, irritated at the brow-beating he had taken for his unsuccessful performances of late.
“What the…” The monitor of his computer showed a transfer rate of 96%, but it wasn't data transfer. The top of his screen said ‘Format.’
“Damn it!” He lunged for the computer, hitting the escape key, pressing buttons all over the keyboard, doing everything he could think of to try to stop it.
The formatting process completed, leaving Lyle looking down at his computer in dismay. He didn’t know a lot about computers, but he knew that formatting the hard drive was not a good thing. He reached for the zip drive. Fury filled his eyes as he found it empty. Letting out a howl of frustration and rage, he shoved the computer onto the floor, listening to the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass with a thrill of satisfaction.
That was why he hated computers. They were not to be trusted. All he could trust was himself.
He took a deep, trembling breath, forcing himself to calm down. This was just a slight hiccup in the process. In time, he would be able to recall all the facts and figures, all the clever twists and turns that his rise to the top would take. It would be more difficult now without all the data at his fingertips, but it wasn't impossible.
And if he ever found out who had done this to him, he would pay them back tenfold for his loss.
* * * * * * * * *
Angelo watched Lyle pacing beside the wreck of his computer from the vent above the desk. With a grin, he pocketed the disk and crawled stealthily away, heading down the shaft toward the computer lab.
* * * * * * * * *
After a quick detour to drop Sydney at home, Miss Parker arrived at her own house, exhausted and fed up. Stepping up to the door, she fumbled for her keys, and managed to drop them in the process. She groaned, kneeling to pick them up from where they’d fallen… on top of an envelope, lying on her doorstep.
“Why?” she growled, snatching up the envelope, as well as her keys. Her cell phone began to ring the moment her door was open. Dropping her stuff on the couch, she sat, envelope in hand, and picked up the phone. “What?”
“Now you know how it feels to be hunted while you’re trying to help someone.”
“I don’t want to talk to you," she snapped. "I’m tired, I’m annoyed, and I just want to forget about the last thirty-six hours.” As she spoke, she toyed with the corner of the envelope at her side.
Jarod chuckled into the phone. “I don’t think you get it. I guess I’m not surprised. I could have taken this further, but I hoped this little push into my life might help you.”
“You made me think you were in danger,” she growled quietly. "That's not playing fair, even by your demented standards."
“I’m sorry, but I felt it was important that you understand what can happen with the wrong influences in our lives. And we don't always realize the damage that's done, until it's too late.”
Her voice softened slightly, and dropped. “Don’t do it again.”
“I won’t,” Jarod promised solemnly.
Miss Parker leaned back, her head resting on the back of the couch. “So, what was the point of this wild goose chase?”
“So you could learn something.” He paused for a moment, his voice growing husky as he added, “Open the envelope.”
The phone disconnected, and she stared distastefully at the envelope at her side. Lifting it, she opened the seal.
An unopened tube of lipstick rolled out onto her lap. She smiled slightly at it and shook her head. At least she got something out of the exercise that she could use, and put it into her purse. Removing the note she knew was inside, she read it a few times. Just to make sure she hadn't missed anything, she opened the envelope and peered deeper.
There was a small wallet-sized photograph in the bottom. She reached inside to rescue it, and held it up to see who it was.
Gabriel's smiling baby face looked back at her. A note written on the back in Jarod's handwriting said, Don’t let it happen again.