Bittersweet Rivals


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The Centre
Mr. Parker's Office
Saturday: Evening

Heavy clouds rolled past the office window, an ominous gloom settling over the sky. The slender, dark-haired woman turned away from the window, arms crossed comfortably over her chest. She waited for the gray-haired man to speak; she was the invited guest, called here for a specific purpose.

“We need you to tie up some loose ends.”

“I see. And do these *loose ends* have names?”

Impressed with her clarity of thought, Mr. Parker allowed a smile to creep onto his face. “Your primary assignment is to keep close watch of Mr. Lyle.”

“He’s your son, correct?” The elegant woman gracefully rounded the desk and took a seat.

“Yes. But he’s slipping. He isn’t as,” Mr. Parker paused, searching for the correct word, “effective, as he should be.”

“The Jarod search?”

Mr. Parker nodded once.

“And you want us,” she indicated the ominous man hidden by the shadows, “to find him?”

“As a secondary objective.”

“Of course, Mr. Parker.”

The heavy office doors parted and a tall, confident man entered and approached the desk. “You wanted to see me?” his rich voice asked.

Mr. Parker rose from his chair. “Lyle, I’d like you to meet, Sun-Chai. She and her partner Mason are here to *audit* several of our operatives.”

“Am I included on that list?” Lyle took offense at the implication.

“Yes. You. Your sister, Mr. Broots, Sydney, Raines…”


“Yes. Mr. Raines. No one is immune, Lyle. This is for the benefit of The Centre.” Conversation finished, Mr. Parker returned to his chair and the unfinished paperwork on his desk.

Sun-Chai rose from the chair, the silk of her dress falling smoothly to her ankles. She could see that Mr. Lyle was impressed with her style of dress, but a little intimidated by how tall she seemed, though she was only 5’1”.

Mr. Lyle crossed the room and opened the door, stepping back to allow the beautiful woman to exit first. He took note of her soft scent as she passed. *Some audit this is going to be. I’ve met scarier people in the mailroom.*

Sun-Chai waited patiently as he spoke, though the feeling of his four-fingered hand kneading her shoulder was repulsive. He commented that he and she were on the same level and should cooperate. Sycophants, she despised them, especially when all they were truly interested in was sex. Sighing inwardly, she grabbed his thumbless hand and twisted. His arm bent at an awkward angle, she forced him to his knees, admiring the grimace she brought to his face. “Let me assure you, *Mr.* Lyle, we are, in no way, equal.” Sun-Chai took one step away, relinquishing her hold on his hand, and turned to leave.

Mr. Lyle opened his eyes and took several labored gasps before realizing he was on his back, on the floor, his neck dangerously close to the business end of a beautifully crafted samurai sword. This can’t be good for me, he thought, wanting to stand, but noticing an increased pressure against his jugular when he raised his head.

“You do not listen well. The next time you draw a gun on me…” she glanced down the hall, barely able to discern the outline of the .9mm that had flown from Mr. Lyle’s hand, “… you had better pull the trigger, because you will not get another opportunity.” Sun-Chai tucked her blade against the back of her arm, stepped over the prone Mr. Lyle, and proceeded down the corridor.

“Love your style,” a darkly dressed man whistled, stepping in time with Sun-Chai. She smiled and glanced over her shoulder, glimpsing Mr. Lyle’s return to the erect world and his verification that his head was still attached.


Philadelphia, PA
Sunday: Morning

Emily closed the e-mail message from her brother and turned off the computer. Now was as good a time as any; her little brother, Jordan, had been asking to visit big brother, Jarod, and she had been putting it off, but no longer. She collected some clothing and other items and packed them in a bag, then made a quick phone call to let Jordan know she was on her way.

The convent was pleasant from the street side of the long drive. Her father had made arrangements for Jordan to stay there, near Philadelphia. Emily did not have enough room in her small apartment for Jordan to stay with her and she would not have felt comfortable leaving him there alone while she was at work. The sisters were always willing to house relatives of Major Charles and Margaret. They appreciated Jarod's kindness to them and were happy to help him any way they could

“Hi, Emily!” the boy beamed when she entered the room. Sister Mary Kyle busied herself with tidying the nearby table.

“Ready to go?” she asked, a warm smile on her face.

Jordan nodded eagerly, and collected his bag. He said goodbye to Sister Mary Kyle and bounded out the door. He loved these visits from Emily. She had not been able to visit as often as she wanted, but during the last month, while Jordan had been at the convent, she had tried to visit each weekend and call once a week. Like Jarod, Emily understood the meaning of family.

He climbed into the car, waiting for her. Emily finished her chat with Sister Mary Kyle, and slid into the driver’s seat. “All set?”

“Yes.” Jordan fastened his seatbelt.

Emily keyed the ignition and turned the car into the street, beginning their journey to visit Jarod.


The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Sunday: Morning

The door opened and two figures emerged. She did not recognize either of them. Who were they and why were they in Lyle's office? Not even considering passing up the chance to haggle dear brother, she approached as he exited the office behind the newcomers. "So, who are the new folks? Bonnie and Clyde?" Miss Parker asked over her brother's shoulder.

Mr. Lyle took a deep breath. "Just corporate auditors, Sis. A different form of shark from the usual." He glanced at her over his shoulder and re-entered his office, pushing the door closed behind him.

Miss Parker was not sure she believed him, but would let it slide, for now. However, anyone who could rattle little brother, even if it was only a small shake, might be an acquaintance worth pursuing.

Panting and shuffling brought her from her musings. She rolled her eyes and turned to face the scrambling tech. "What, Broots?"

"Uh.. Miss Parker. I … uh… think you're gonna want to see this," the balding man huffed, trying to catch his breath.

"What?" Irritation laced her words.

"It's from Jarod."

"Of course it is." She was waiting, impatiently, for him to reveal whatever it was he wanted her to see.

"Miss Parker, it's outside." Broots blinked hard, as though he could not see how she did not understand.

Sighing heavily, tired of playing all these Jarod-games, she followed the shuffling tech down the hall to the elevator.

Stepping off the elevator ahead of the bumbling Broots, Miss Parker strode to the heavy exterior doors and waited for them to be opened. Outside was a very large, gray object.

"What is an elephant doing here?" she snapped, examining the Asiatic Elephant before her.

"I told you. Jarod sent it to you," Broots answered. "This guy came with it."

The small, cigar smoking man, could only be described as ugly. His soft patting, pleasing to the elephant, was enough to enrage Miss Parker.

"Look, lady, I just want to know where to put the elephant. Peanuts Parker is a special little lady and it's my job to see that she gets taken care of right."

"What did you say the elephant's name was?" Miss Parker asked, getting a little too close to the cigar and blinking against the smoke in her face.

Broots was very careful not to laugh in the background, and having difficulty breathing as a result.

"Peanuts Parker. She's a very rare elephant and Doc Jarod suggested that she could try getting pregnant here. Then the zoo would get her back, and you guys could keep the baby. On account of you're always doing new stuff with breeding."

"Jarod said that?" Parker hissed.

"Yeah. He said you was all involved in all sorts of experimental things and it got Dr. Kirschner interested like. So he said OK, as long as the person in charge would sign bond, he'd let Peanuts come here. And it's got your signature on the form, only you gotta sign it now we're here or else you're out the dough." The little man tipped some ash off his cigar.

"Let me see that." Parker snatched the papers, which did have her signature nicely forged on them. Unfortunately, not only was the other signatory the head of the San Diego Zoo, he was actually a corporate sponsor of some of the Centre's profitable and public investments. That meant she could not just pass this off as one of Jarod's little jokes and send the elephant to the nearest circus.

"OK. I didn't order the elephant, but we'll keep to the contract. Broots, call Luther and have him arrange for," she paused, "Peanuts to join the other elephants in the usual manner."

"Thanks, lady. You Parkers are real sweethearts." The little man gave her a look that was meant to be suave, but came across rude. "So where do I get to bunk?"

"Excuse me? I doubt that's my problem," Parker answered.

"Sure it is. Says so on line 17." The little man patted the elephant again, and she swung her trunk a little closer to Miss Parker than was comfortable.

However, she did not let herself be distracted and returned her gaze to the contract. Sure enough, the elephant caretaker was included in the bargain. Miss Parker sighed inwardly. Of course Jarod would know that she did not dare eliminate a witness under these circumstances.

"Very well. Broots, why don't you see about getting this man and his extremely large lady friend settled in?" she said, turning on her heel. "I'm going home to try and get some rest."

"Boy," said the little man, "she sure can cause as much commotion as Peanuts here, even if she hasn't her sweet personality."

Broots nodded in agreement. "Come on. We'll get you all settled in." He did not want to think about what point Jarod had in sending Miss Parker an elephant. He just knew that as usual he would be the one cleaning up the mess.


The Centre
Mason's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

Mason moved with practice through the Centre records. He was fascinated by the details of how Jarod managed to escape capture each time. It was not that Miss Parker was weak and Mr. Lyle ineffectual, although certainly these aspects of their personalities had been made to work in Jarod's favor; details, it seemed, were everything. Jarod would notice if there was the tiniest flaw in a plan, and use the smallest opportunity to escape. It was clear from Jarod's expressions that the Pretender had not been happy with his sheltered life in the Centre even before his escape. Jarod's loyalty had not been bought, or coerced. That was a mistake he and Sun-Chai would not make. When Jarod was returned to the Centre, he would be happy to come.

He looked at the e-mail from Mr. Parker. It outlined the many reasons why the Centre needed this particular Pretender returned. They were good, lucid reasons. The Centre had originally hoped that with no other example, Jarod would not want to leave the Centre. But in order to be of any use at all, Jarod needed to know how others lived once he reached adulthood; and, armed with that knowledge, he could not stay within the Centre.

Mason wondered if the Centre had not made a mistake in releasing the Major in exchange for the Pretender. Jarod needed something to tie him to the Centre, and Sydney was not enough of a lure, definitely not the right bait.

Mason left the office, a long trench coat covering his *working clothes*. He met Sun-Chai in a cab to the rear of the main Centre complex.

"Ready?" she asked.

"As always, you are prompt." Mason smiled as he slid into the back seat. Later, they would change into *burglar black*. If the plan was to work, they needed to be sure they could see anything Jarod did inside Initiative Enterprises. Mason had seen, as he sifted through the files, many people duped because they lacked the information they needed. Jarod was very good at making victims out of those who opposed him. The only way to stay a step ahead of him was to actually set the stage and hope Jarod would want to play.

Sun-Chai looked at Mason in the rearview mirror. "I'll keep watch. You go in through the entryway and let me in."

"Too tired for athletics?"

"There's no need to practice just because the opportunity presents itself," Sun-Chai answered.

"True. The computers will take some time, however." He saw her frown. "Yes, I did set things up last week. But this is the final stage, and it requires delicacy. "

Sun-Chai nodded. "Very well. I'll go in and activate the scans. Duncan will be in place tomorrow and can intercept the tapes so we can review them. Once Jarod enters IE he will be thoroughly watched."

"I wish we didn't have to use Duncan. The boy is so simple he almost reeks with it. He will give the plan away."

"It was a necessary concession. Mr. Lyle insisted someone established in the American side of the Centre take an active role. In any event, it will give Jarod something to work with." She paused a moment. "And speaking of the plan, what name are you planning to use for this little excursion?"

"I thought Jarod would be nice." A wry smile crossed his lips.

Sun-Chai returned the smile. "Excellent. One more tweak to give us an advantage." She was well versed in the manner in which Jarod performed his "pretends". He would walk in and make himself comfortable by giving his name and credentials. This time, he might have to do some quick thinking, or backpedalling to establish his position.

Mason nodded in agreement. They left the cab and proceeded to Initiative Enterprises, where they set up a series of surveillance devices. Mason also activated several programs inside the central computer system. While that could have been done from a distance, he preferred to work onsite if possible. It increased the danger, and thus his enjoyment.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

An elephant. He had sent her an elephant. What was going on in his head? She did not know, did not want to know. That was why she was sending a sweeper team to San Diego. She leaned her head against the back of the chair, closing her eyes, waiting for Sam. She began to regret her decision to forego the trip home for a nap.

A tap on the door interrupted her quiet moment. "What?"

The door opened and Sam stepped into the office. "You wanted to see me, Miss Parker?"

"Yeah. Get a team together and head out to the San Diego Zoo. Find out what Jarod was doing out there," she responded without opening her eyes.

"Yes, Miss Parker." Sam obediently left the office to collect a team and leave for San Diego.


Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
Sunday: Afternoon 

Jarod sat in the Marriott hotel room eating ice cream. He really liked the concept of suites. The room had a small kitchen, so he could do his own cooking, but gave him the impermanence his traveling life required. *Caramel Fudge Decadence*, the newest flavor Jarod had added to his ice cream repertoire, was excellent. The sweet, gooey caramel played on his tongue, sweet as a lullaby; the heavenly chocolate melted in his mouth, and he was completely oblivious to the DSA running on the machine. The images did not matter, nothing mattered; nothing but the ice cream.

A crisp rap on the door shook him from his reverie. The cone, ice cream side down, was on the floor, a melting, gooey mess, and the chair overturned behind him. He bypassed raising the chair, cleaned up the ice cream, and walked to the door. Peering through the spy-hole in the door, he recognized the figure on the other side. The chain slid free and the deadbolt snapped open.

"Em?" His voice caught as he opened the door.

"Hi, Jarod. I've brought someone who really wanted to see you." The woman smiled, placing an arm around the shoulders of the young man beside her.

Jarod stepped to one side and motioned the two inside. "Emily, what are you doing here?"

She understood his concern. "I'm on assignment for the paper. Jordan wanted to see you, so I brought him along. We're fine."

"You're right." He hugged both of them. "So, how was your trip?"

"Uneventful, thankfully," Emily responded.

"We rode on a train." Jordan's voice rose in pitch with his emotion. "We could see everything. Grazing cows and long rows of crops. It's just like it is in books."

"I'll bet you had a great time." Jarod smiled at the younger version of himself.


"Would you like some ice cream?" Jarod asked, walking to the refrigerator.

Jordan glanced up at Emily as though asking for permission. When she smiled at him, he nodded eagerly.

"All right, then." Jarod's eyes lit up like candles and he prepared a cone of *Caramel Fudge Decadence* for Jordan. "Here you go. You can watch TV if you'd like."

"Thanks, Jarod." The boy licked the ice cream that slid down the cone as he crossed the room to the couch. "You've got good taste," he grinned.

"Emily," Jarod placed a hand on her shoulder as he spoke, "Why are you really here? Is something wrong?"

"I told you, I'm on an assignment. What I didn't tell you is it involves the Centre."

"You shouldn't be digging around in there. It's dangerous."

"I'm no more breakable than you are. And I'm careful."

Jarod sighed and plunked down in the wing-backed chair. Emily sat in another chair, and removed some papers from a folder she had been carrying. "Here. Take a look at this."

Jarod flipped through the papers. His eyebrows rose in surprise. "Someone is embezzling from a Centre affiliate?"

"So it would appear. It's a small affiliate, and there don't seem to be any sweeper teams around. It might be worth checking out."

"Okay. But I don't really want you guys around when I'm going after the Centre. It's too dangerous," Jarod said. He tried to pin her eyes with his, to make her understand the danger was too great.

Emily shook her head. "You can have a bit of your way this time, Jarod. Jordan wants to spend some time with you, and if we get that, we'll go quietly." She paused. "This time."

"Emily..." Jarod did not get a chance to begin. Jordan had finished his ice cream and wanted his share of Jarod's attention. He kept a running conversation about museums, and how he wanted to show Jarod stuff he had found on the internet. Jarod allowed the diversion; it seemed that the relationship between Jordan and Major Charles had improved. The boy was happier and more outgoing. But he could not stop worrying. And his sister had something planned. He knew it.

On to Act II

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