Bittersweet Rivals


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The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Sunday: Afternoon

“What?” she asked upon hearing the rapping at her door. A slice of light broke in and grew as the door was pushed open.

“Miss Parker?” Broots poked his nose into the office.

“Yes, Broots?” she responded without looking up from her computer.

“I found something you may want to see.” He stepped carefully into the office, glancing over his shoulder as the door hissed closed.

She waited for him to approach the desk and stand patiently by her side. Turning her chair to face him, she asked, “So, what have you found for me?” She flashed her classic, white smile at him.

“I found this DSA.” He held up the tiny, silver disc. “You’re not going to--”

Miss Parker plucked the disc from his hand and inserted it into the player. An image appeared on the screen, of her Miss Parker carrying baby Gabriel from the nursery. “Where did you find this?” she hissed through clenched teeth, angry that someone had been watching her so closely.

“Well, I found the DSA in your father’s office. I was in there to retrieve some reports he had asked me to go over,” Broots began, feeling the need to explain why he would be in Mr. Parker’s office, “and I saw the DSA underneath this.” Broots slid a confidential memo across the desk. “The memo’s anonymous, but I traced it back to a computer in the Tech Room.”

Miss Parker scanned the memo and snapped her head toward him. “Who wrote this?”

“Well, I traced the login and password and came up with the name of an operative who died three years ago. And there aren’t that many people who have the clearance to locate those files…”

“Out with it, Broots.” Her patience was beginning to wear thin.

Broots took a deep breath. He hated breaking bad news to people. “Well, I’ve checked all the people with clearance and the only person who’s accessed any of those files is…” he lowered his voice to a husky whisper, “Mr. Lyle.”

“Lyle?” Miss Parker repeated. Lyle had seen her with Gabriel, had he been jealous that she was permitted to see the baby, but he was not? "He's going to wish he was never born," she snarled.


American History Museum
Washington, DC
Sunday: Afternoon

Jordan had waited until Emily slipped into the ladies room at the American History Museum. Studying the length of the line, he figured he had enough time.

"Jarod, do you ever wonder why we're here?” the boy asked. “I mean, I guess I still want there to be some meaning to all this. Some reason to be alive."

Jarod was dumbstruck. This was not the question he had been expecting. Yet it was a question he had asked himself at that age. For the first time it occurred to him that maybe there was a reason Sydney had kept him at a distance as a child. Jarod had not quite realized how complex the questions coming from a young man could be, until he was on the receiving end of those questions.

"I don't know that there has to be a reason. Sometimes things do happen that seem to make sense. Like our brother Kyle, shot at exactly the time he could donate his heart to someone who needed a transplant. Like us meeting when you were old enough to understand. Those are acts of order. But then the fact that we were kidnapped, Kyle, myself, and others, there is no sense in that. So it is hard to know if everything is part of a plan or just random. I don't have an answer to that one."

"Could you help me look for one? I tried to ask the nuns, but I got a lot of comments about having faith. And I don't know if I do have faith." Jordan shook his head sadly.

"You have to believe in something, even if it is just yourself and the fact that your family loves you. You have to carry that in your heart and move on from there."

"Yes. But I miss you. I miss Emily when she isn't there. I know it's odd. I never had it before. I still miss it." Jordan looked at the ground.

Jarod put an arm around his brother's shoulder. "I know. I miss you all as well. But you have to stay safe."

"Why should I be safe when you're not?" Jordan asked.

Jarod sighed. Another hard question. "Because you can be. I can't. I'm their primary target. They won't give up on me. If they don't find you right away, they may just let you go."

Jordan looked at his brother with the brown eyes that suddenly knew more than a boy his age should. "Jarod, why can't we fight back?"

"Because I truly believe we don't have enough evidence. We have no real identities. Nobody would believe us. I'm afraid the same thing might happen to us that happened to Kyle in prison. They'd write us off as crazy and wouldn’t want to help. It's a risk I can't justify," Jarod answered solemnly.

"We couldn't just blow the place up?" Jordan suggested.

Jarod hoped his brother was not serious. Three bomb building brothers was a bit much for anyone. "Not hardly. Too many innocent people get hurt in the crossfire."

Jordan frowned in return. "But I want to do something. So does Emily. It isn't fair that you have to be the only one in danger."

Jarod smiled and put an arm around him. "As long as I know you're safe, it doesn't matter. Just grow up to be happy. That is what’s important."

Emily emerged from the ladies room, and gestured to them. "How about my two favorite men taking me out to dinner, hmm?"

"Why don't we go back to the hotel and have our meal there?" Jarod suggested.

"Lead on, big brother, " she said.

They moved through the museum together and hit the metro. Jordan was fascinated by this mode of transportation. He felt at home there. It was dark and kind of gloomy. He looked at Jarod, who was relaxed as usual.

"How come nothing ever bothers you? I mean, you like crowds. You like open spaces. Do you really like everything?" Jordan asked when they returned to the hotel room. The three of them had tackled the room service menu and had an order sent to the room. Jordan was secretly glad. He liked being with his family, but the crowds got to him after awhile.

"I like to try new things. I get bored easily. Do you find that happens to you? You know a lot, and when you learn all you can about one subject you want to move on to another?" Jarod asked.

Emily answered before Jordan. "Yes, actually. It's what I like about reporting. I investigate something new each week."

Jordan looked puzzled momentarily. Then he realized. It was boredom he felt sometimes. "Oh. I guess I hadn't thought about it like that." Maybe it was boredom that made him feel purposeless. So if he learned new things, he would have a purpose. This could be neat.

Emily smiled. "We'll keep you busy. One way or another."

They began to play cards. Jarod had learned to play poker on one of his Pretends. Emily described learning how to play in the newsroom while waiting for stories to break. Jordan was the only one who had been taught by their father. In spite of this, the three were evenly matched, and by eleven o'clock, the piles of coffee beans they were using to keep score were almost even. Jordan did not want to admit he was tired, but he could not help yawning.

"I'll just turn the news on while you get ready for bed. I'll sleep out here. You can take the bedroom," Jarod said, turning on the TV.

Emily nodded. "It's been..." She stopped. The newscaster was talking about a scandal with Initiative Enterprises. Speaking for the company was a fair-haired young man, with an almost baby-face. The woman's picture shown on the screen, Sun-Chai, was Asian, slender, and very beautiful.

"I guess the story has broken," she said.

"Shh." Jarod continued to listen. The more he listened to the spokesperson, the more concerned he looked.

When the story ended, Emily asked, "What is it?"

"Duncan is with the Centre. He used to be a sweeper. People don't change that fast." Jarod answered.

"Do you think he's setting up the woman?" Jordan asked. "Are you going to fix things?"

"I'm going to look into it. And you two are getting out of here." Jarod tried to look firm.

Emily shook her head. "One man, probably an ex-sweeper, isn't a reason to cut things short."

Jarod looked ready to explode.

Jordan sighed. "We might as well go. We're not wanted."

"I didn't say that. I just don't want you two in danger," Jarod explained.

"At the first hint of danger, we'll go, " Emily promised.

"This looks like a hint to me," Jarod answered. But he knew he would not get any further. "OK. I’ll tell you what. You two explore Washington tomorrow. I'll get my foot in the door. If it is nothing, we'll spend more time together. If it is the Centre, promise you'll leave."

Emily nodded. "OK. You have a deal." She put an arm around Jordan. "I think we can all be grown up enough to deal with that."

When put like that, Jordan did not have an answer. He wanted to measure up to his older siblings. "Sure, Jarod. You have a deal," Jordan repeated.

"Thanks." Jarod hugged them both.


The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Monday: Morning

Now was the perfect time. The *auditors* had just left The Centre and dear brother was alone in his office. She walked the corridor silently. He had kept too many secrets from her; she was not about to let him keep this one. It was near the same time of day it had been the last time she had caught him, perhaps she could do it again. Miss Parker pushed open the door a crack and peered through the space she had created. That sly smile passed over her face. Perfect.

She stepped back from the door, collected her thoughts, then yanked both doors open and strode into the office. “Lyle, I have…” She stopped just in front of his desk.

“What the hell are you doing in here?!” Mr. Lyle shrugged his shirt back onto his shoulder, snarling at his intrusive twin.

Miss Parker crossed her arms over her chest. “That can wait. What exactly is it *you* are doing?”

He closed his eyes, sighed. He started to tell her it was none of her business, but she was painfully persistent when she wanted to be, and he opted to tell her now. “If you must know, I have a vitamin deficiency. I have to inject a specific quantity of vitamin supplements every day.” He peeled his sleeve away again, revealing his left shoulder and the Andromeda constellation tattoo Jarod had given him.

“Is this a life-threatening condition?” Miss Parker asked with mild concern showing in her face.

“So they tell me,” Mr. Lyle replied unemotionally, resetting his hypodermic. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” She shook her head as she spoke.

Mr. Lyle furrowed his brow and proceeded with his injection. He tossed the empty hypodermic onto his desk; he would dispose of it properly once Sister was gone. “Now, I assume you had a good reason for invading my office?”

“Let’s go.” She nodded to the door.

“Go where?”

“Lunch. You coming?”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes. Let’s go.”

“Who’s putting you up to this?”

“No one. Are you coming or not?” No. No one had put her up to this, but things were getting interesting. Mr. Lyle thought he had a vitamin deficiency; she knew differently, and The Centre had Mr. Lyle under its thumb. Lunch was a nicety, to avoid suspicion of her true intentions. She was not going to give up a juicy piece of information, especially after learning that Mr. Lyle was responsible for pushing their father's decision forbidding her from seeing Gabriel.


Initiative Enterprises
Monday: Morning

Jarod entered and stopped by the receptionist’s desk.

"Hi. I'm here from the IRS. I was told there were some discrepancies," Jarod said.

"That's odd. We have someone here right now who is with the IRS," the pretty woman behind the receptionist's desk stated.


"Jarod Carver.”

The Pretender paused. "I see. We've worked on similar projects before. I'm Jordan Carter. And I'm with International Retrieval Specialists. We have the same initials as the Internal Revenue Service. Sometimes we can use that to our advantage. I guess today isn't one of those days." Jarod smiled. "I'm a programmer and it may just be a bug in the system causing all the problems." Luckily, Jarod always had several forms of ID on him. He presented one to the receptionist.

The pretty blonde studied the identification and, satisfied that it was legitimate, handed it back to the man across the desk.

"May I speak with the head of accounting? Perhaps we can set something up which will correct the problem," Jarod said, giving her the full benefit of his charm.

"Sure." The receptionist was a slim blonde who was more interested in how Jarod looked than what he was doing there, anyway. She led him down the corridor to Sun-Chai's office.

"This guy says he's here to look at the computers," the receptionist said, holding the door open only long enough for Jarod to enter, then shutting it with finality.

The woman who sat in the office was quite different from the Sun-Chai who had met with Mr. Lyle. She was dressed in a dark blue business suit and maintained a very formal appearance.

"I'd like to do a little more than just look at them, " Jarod said, making eye contact.

"What do you expect to accomplish by looking at the computers, and exactly who are you?" Sun-Chai challenged.

"I'm Jordan Carter. I've been sent by corporate headquarters to look into some of the accounting discrepancies," he replied.

She caught the slight pause in his voice as he spoke his name. Jordan Carter. Interesting choice.

"I don't think I need another white, American male telling me I've messed up," she snarled.

"That's not my job." Jarod put on his most innocent expression. "My job is to find the truth. If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about."

Jarod handed her his credentials. She examined them carefully. "I see. I suppose I should be flattered, really. After all, if I were a common criminal, anyone could figure it out."

"Right now, there isn't enough evidence to show where the missing money is. It could have been diverted anywhere."

"And it is your job to discover where?" Sun-Chai kept her voice deliberately non-committal.


"Very well. Where do you want to begin?" she asked.

"With a grand tour, if you don't mind."

Sun-Chai nodded. "This way." She led him through the building, describing the individuals who worked there and what they did. She seemed to know the entire staff, asking personal questions along the way of certain staff members. It was entirely too practiced, in fact.

"I take it you've done this recently?" Jarod asked.

"Mr. Carver also wanted to get the lay of the land." Sun-Chai was very careful to put just the right amount of hesitation in her voice.

"I'm sorry that you have two of us making nuisances of ourselves. But you can see why Corporate feels it has to be done." Jarod walked next to her, noting that she did not wear business shoes. The traditional Chinese shoes were an important clue to her identity. That, of course, did not mean she really was not a thief.

"Yes. I just want it over with, Mr. Carter." Sun-Chai gave away very little.

She showed Jarod to his new office and saw to it that he had all the basics he would need to do his work.


Two hours later

Jarod appeared inside the door of Sun-Chai's office confidently. He had often found that a positive approach let him gain entry where others might have been stopped.

"What do you want now, Mr. Carter?" she asked.

"Coffee. You forgot to show me where you get it."

"I most certainly did show you, " she protested, getting up from her chair and walking toward him. "It's right..."

Jarod interrupted her and took her arm, propelling her toward the building exit. "I just think we'll talk a lot more freely over coffee, outside the building."

Sun-Chai executed a dance-like move that disentangled her from Jarod. "If you insist. But kidnap victims don't have to buy their own coffee."

"No, they don't." Jarod did not tell her that in his experience, kidnap victims did not get to drink coffee. "I'm happy to buy. I just want to pick your brains in a more relaxed atmosphere."

Sun-Chai walked beside him, easily keeping the brisk pace Jarod set. They stopped at a little coffee shop a few blocks from Initiative Enterprises. Jarod and she talked for awhile and she convinced him she cared about the welfare of her employees. She might be a new transfer, but she knew who was having a baby and when it was due, who had boyfriend problems, and who had just returned from Paris. Sun-Chai knew how important it was that Jarod believe the basic premise that she was a good person and she did her best to be convincing.

Jarod had wanted to be sure they were not in the building; he was sure Duncan would have the office under surveillance. He had a gut feeling the Centre was behind this, and that, somehow, Duncan was a key figure. Duncan had turned up in the records as having received several payments, traceable to Centre accounts. Jarod knew confronting Duncan would bring the Centre a little too close to home.

"Have you known Mr. Duncan long?" he asked.

"No. He just arrived this month. Why?"

"Looking at new employees is the best way to find out what problems are being caused in a business."

"Anyone would think you didn't like young, blond, American males," Sun-Chai responded.

Jarod could not explain the Centre connection to a stranger. "I guess I was wondering what his connection to the current problems might be. He seemed to be pretty outspoken on the news."

Sun-Chai let a worried frown appear on her face. "I know. It concerns me. I don't feel I have the power to change things. And they certainly appear to be going downhill fast."

"Yes. And the timing is very bad. If the market continues this way, there may have to be layoffs," Jarod answered.

"I know. I don't like that thought at all." Sun-Chai lifted her coffee cup and regarded Jarod over the rim. "Are you willing to help fix things, then? Have you a suggestion?"

Momentarily, Jarod's first suggestion was that she leave and let him take over, but he could not say that to someone who needed to work for a living. And all his preliminary investigations seemed to show that Sun-Chai both needed and wanted her job.


The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Monday: Afternoon

She watched the sweeper cross the room deliberately and lay a folder on her desk. Her eyes raised as he began to speak.

"We didn't find anything. Except that." He indicated the folder.

"Thank you." She sighed and flipped open the folder. "Dear God." Her head fell to her desk, landing in the center of the folder.

"What's wrong with her?" Broots, who had recently entered the room, whispered to Sam.

Sam tugged the sheet from beneath Miss Parker's forehead and held it up for Broots.

His eyebrows rose as he spoke: "Wow, how did they get Miss Parker on that elephant?"

Sam could only shake his head.

"They didn't. Jarod put that together," Miss Parker responded, her head still planted on her desk.

"Nice outfit," Broots whispered to Sam.

Miss Parker sighed again. "Will you two just leave?"

Sam placed the photograph back on Miss Parker's desk, then pushed Broots through the office door ahead of himself.


The Mall
Washington, DC
Monday: Afternoon

“Wow! This place is so big.” Jordan turned around in the open grass of the mall. He could not help contrasting it to the walls he had grown up behind, dark, claustrophobic; this space was so open and free and bright. He wanted to stay here forever.

“Yes, Jordan. It’s very big.” Emily smiled at her happy brother.

He stopped turning and faced his sister. “Emily, why can’t we go with Jarod?”

She smiled again, touched his shoulder. “Jarod is very busy trying to make sure that we’re safe. He’s been searching for his family for a long time; he doesn’t want to risk losing what he’s found.” Was she really making this argument? She had argued to Jarod that she would be all right without his protection. Maybe it was the *big sister* in her.

Jordan nodded. “I understand.” He tilted his head to the side. “Can we go to the Reflecting Pool?”

“Sure.” Emily took Jordan’s hand and they walked across the grassy mall, past the tall, monolithic Washington Monument. Emily watched Jordan wonder at the monument and the trees and grass and the large varieties of people they passed. He was amazed by everything; he certainly shared his big brother's curiosity in the world. The long, shallow pool reflected the obelisk behind and the edifice housing the grand, seated Lincoln before them.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” Emily agreed, shielding her eyes against he afternoon sun as she studied the marble Lincoln from across the Reflecting Pool. She wondered if Jarod ever took the time to stop and enjoy the sites of the places he visited. Did he wonder at the statues and buildings, and admire their beauty? The thought that he rarely had the time saddened her.

On to Act III

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