Bittersweet Rivals

 

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The Centre
Mr. Lyle's Office
Tuesday: Morning

Mr. Lyle rose from his desk and glanced out the window to the water below before speaking. "Well, I can see that you are no more successful here than the rest of us." She had been in contact with Jarod for several days and was no nearer to bringing him back to The Centre than Miss Parker. As he began to turn, he heard a noise growing louder and louder in his ear. The sound crept closer until it exploded beside his head. It happened in a matter of seconds, but it seemed to take several minutes. Something was not right; he looked to his left and noticed the object protruding from the wall, his wall. A knife with an eight-inch blade and a six-inch handle was firmly lodged through his jacket and into the wall. It was so close, he could almost read the serial number on the blade. His eyes rose to meet those of the woman across the office from him; cold, dark, angry.

A sly smile crept over her visage as she crossed the room to retrieve her prized blade. "Feel lucky, Mr. Lyle. I could have pinned your other thumb." Sun-Chai dislodged the handmade blade from the wall and pressed the razor-sharp edge against Mr. Lyle's cheek, sliding it slowly down to his chin. "Don't let down your guard, Mr. Lyle. It could prove detrimental to your health."

He held his breath as she left the office, sheathing the dangerous Ka-Bar. Once the door was closed he exhaled heavily and looped his finger through the clean-cut hole in the shoulder of his $500.00 jacket. Exhaling sharply, he returned to the files on his desk. “Can I help you with something?” Mr. Lyle snapped at the next office intruder.

Sneering, Miss Parker crossed the floor, but stopped when she saw the deep indentation in the office wall. Her eyebrows rose in wonder. *What is baby brother into now?* “New assistant?”

“What?” He looked up from his desk, brows knitted fiercely.

“The lovely woman who was just leaving your office.”

“She’s the auditor, Sis,” he replied annoyed

“Find something she didn’t like?” She knew who the woman was; she just wanted to irritate dear brother. He deserved a little irritation. Miss Parker pressed her palms into the solid desk, leaning forward.

“If you don’t mind, I’m busy.”

“What was she doing here?” She was sure to avoid an inadvertent glance to the nick in the wall, but noticed a clean cut in Mr. Lyle’s suit jacket.

Miss Parker jerked backward at his sudden rise from the chair. He leaned across the desk, face very close to hers. “None of your business,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “Now - Get - Out - Of - My- Office!”

Defiantly, she raised her head and stood. She gave him a sharp look before turning on her heel and obeying his order. Mr. Lyle could not see, but she allowed a small smile to light her face. *It seems baby brother has a new love interest, who isn’t so interested in him.*

*******************************

Miss Parker strolled the hall to her office, several ideas rolling around in her head. She found Broots standing before her desk, twisting a pencil in his hand. "Can I help you with something?" she asked, crossing the room.

"Um, well, I saw that woman leave Lyle's office, just before you walked in, and thought you might want me to find some information on her, or something." His voice was remarkably strong.

"Initiative. I like it. Dig up whatever you can." Content, Miss Parker sat behind her desk and watched the computer tech exit her office.

She thought over her recent conversations with Mr. Lyle. She knew he had talked their father into taking that final step -- the decision to cease her visits with Gabriel -- from the memo Broots had found, using that DSA of her toting Gabriel outside as his "evidence" of her defiance. That one small maneuver made Mr. Lyle responsible for her separation from her baby brother -- indirectly responsible, but responsible nonetheless.

He was under the impression he needed injections to maintain a proper level of vitamins and he seemed to have an interest in this new *auditor*, whoever she was. While they were having lunch she had asked him more about his injections. He tried to skirt around her questions, she would have to teach him a little something about herself, but she pushed hard enough to get what she wanted. She had learned that Mr. Lyle had been taking the injections for as long as he could remember, even during his stint as "Bobby Bowman." What she did not understand was how the Centre convinced him to believe that something like this vitamin deficiency he was told he had, could be so life threatening he needed several injections per day. She did understand, however, that if he ever discovered the Centre had lied to him and was responsible for giving him Kronos I, which she was sure he knew nothing about, he would not hesitate to use his own subtle form of justice.

*******************************

Initiative Enterprises
Tuesday: Late Afternoon

Jarod had developed many programs that let him see how things progressed in other computers. There was definite evidence of tampering at this facility. He was not happy about that, since the IP number of the PC from which the message originated was in the office Mason now occupied. He would have to go there, and risk being seen, in order to get to the original file.

Jarod meandered down the hall, trying to look as though, perhaps, he needed the men's room. He knocked on the door, and was rewarded with the words: "Come in."

He entered, and sprawled in the narrow office chair, making himself completely at home.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" Mason said, casually looking up from the document he was perusing. He had been expecting this, but he still found it amusing. Someone who was trying to take over his space would always be a source of amusement.

"I need to speak to you about some of these figures. They just don't add up."

"It isn't my job to explain them. It is Sun-Chai's. I thought she would have told you that. For all her other defects," Mason paused, leaving just the right amount of time for Jarod to assume he was counting real flaws, "she has a certain honesty which I am hesitant to challenge."

"Oh." Jarod did not want to challenge the other man; he just wanted him to go away. "Could you possibly call her in here? I don't really want to go behind your back, Mr. Carver."

"Oh, please, call me Jarod." Mason stood, watching the other Pretender's face for any sign of surprise. "Very well. I'll see if she's still around." He left, as he had planned, knowing Jarod was expecting exactly that; knowing Jarod would find more breadcrumbs on his computer to lead him still further into the murkiness of the muddled accounts.

Jarod slid into Mason's seat, and checked the files. One file, password protected, had been placed there to particularly gain Jarod's interest. It was labeled Centrefile70 and Jarod copied it onto a disk. He also loaded several Excel accounting files, which would help him learn more about the accounts.

He then slipped back into the chair he had vacated, resuming his sprawled position. He, after all, was being paid by the corporation to investigate them.

Sun-Chai entered behind Mason. She, Jarod, and Mason bent over the figures Jarod had brought with him. Sun-Chai's fingers moved across the top of the computer screen, highlighting the numbers she needed Jarod to see.

Mason stood a few steps behind them, letting Sun-Chai take the lead. He liked this, watching his partner work. Under other circumstances, he would have taken a stronger position, but right now, Jarod had been primed. He had all the data Mason and Sun-Chai had so carefully chosen. All that data led right back to the Centre. After a few more minutes, Mason called a halt.

"Enough for tonight, I think." Mason reached over and saved the file. He knew that, without being rude, there was not much Jarod could do. Mason's research had alerted him that rude was not Jarod's style. "I'm certainly in need of a break. We can start again in the morning."

"Yeah." Jarod stretched, mildly cramped. Taking a break would give him a chance to move on to other things.

Sun-Chai exited ahead of Jarod. He took two large steps and caught up to her.

"Hi. I was wondering if you'd mind going over some more of this during dinner? I just don't feel we've gotten as far as we need to, if we're to find out where the money is going before we get called to court." Jarod kept pace, following her down the corridor to her office.

Sun-Chai hesitated, then said, "All right. What did you have in mind?"

"Chinese, perhaps?" Jarod asked. "There is a wonderful restaurant that just opened."

"When?"

"I'll pick you up in front of this building. Around seven, if that's OK?"

"Seven will be fine." Sun-Chai crinkled her eyes in pure pleasure. This would be fun. She liked a game of cat and mouse.

****************************

Initiative Enterprises
Tuesday: Evening, 19:02

Jarod pulled up in a cab, exited and held the door for Sun-Chai.

"I see you've learned the first survival trait in a large city. Avoid bringing your own automobile," she said.

"In a city like this, it doesn't pay."

"And you always think of the bottom line, Mr. Carter?"

"I try. And please, call me J… Jordan." Jarod felt annoyed that he was not able to use his own name. Not that there was anything wrong with the name Jordan; he just had reservations about being on a date with a beautiful woman and not being able to tell her his own name.

"All right. Jordan. Is it a family name?" Sun-Chai asked as she exited the cab in front of the restaurant.

"You could say that," Jarod answered. "Is yours?"

Sun-Chai nodded. "My family was well known on Mainland China. But then came the split with Taiwan, and political troubles that served to split my family apart."

"That sounds rough." Jarod turned to the waiter and gave his order in fluent Mandarin. Sun-Chai ordered in the same language. Both locked eyes.

"It seems we speak the same language," she said.

"Yes." Jarod poured tea. "Do you like the corporate world?"

"Sometimes. It is very challenging. And I need the money." She put a hand up in embarrassment, then lowered it in a graceful gesture. "But however much I might want money, I would not steal it. I am not a thief."

"Hey, I didn't say you were," Jarod defended.

"Sorry." She looked down, then at Jarod. "I don't mean to be defensive. But it is hard to be under suspicion when I know I didn't do anything."

"It's just that some of the problems seemed to take place exactly at the time you transferred here." Jarod drank more tea. "I'm not pointing a finger at you. I'm just looking at the facts."

The food arrived, ceasing that line of conversation. Sun-Chai ate slowly, delicately. Jarod watched her eat while he expertly manipulated his own chopsticks. Conversation turned to innocuous topics, like the weather and American politics.

"Can I ask if you are an American citizen?" Jarod had not meant to open up a land mine with this question, but Sun-Chai froze.

"Why do you ask?"

"I don't know. You just remind me of someone who hasn't been in this country very long," Jarod answered. "And you aren't answering like someone born in the Bronx."

"No? I was born in San Francisco, but shortly after I was born, my family returned to China. My younger sister was born there, and we have lived there all our lives. That, Jordan, is home to me. And, yes, I miss it. But I cannot return."

"Why?"

"There is nothing worse than a home one loves and cannot return to, this is true. But the politics, the oppression, they had become too much to bear. There was pressure put on my father, which eventually resulted in his death. I had to leave the country, and fortunately the circumstances of my birth allowed me to enter this country freely. My mother and sister escaped with me. But my younger sister isn't well, and the treatments she needs exist only in the West. I could not return without her, nor could I risk her health."

"Yes, family is important." Jarod looked into his teacup, as though trying to read the future there. "A while back, I was separated from my family. I miss them every minute I'm not with them."

"But you will see them again?" Sun-Chai asked, putting concern into her voice.

"I hope so." The one thing Jarod always had trouble lying about was his family, perhaps because he did not know the truth about them.

Sun-Chai nodded in agreement. "Yes. But it is more important to protect one's family than to be with them, sometimes. As long as I can help them, it is worthwhile."

Jarod nodded. Being with his family had reminded him, again, how very much he wanted to protect his family. He did not blame his father and mother for not protecting him as a boy. It was not the kind of thing people, normal people as his parents had been, expected. And speaking of protecting people, he began to change the subject back to his originally planned subject. "How long have you been at IE?"

"A few months. I was transferred from Baltimore. It was supposed to be a promotion," Sun-Chai answered.

"Some promotion," Jarod commented.

"Yes. Life certainly has had its surprises lately," Sun-Chai said, ruefully.

************************

The Centre
Miss Parker's Office
Tuesday: Late Evening

"Miss Parker?" Broots asked as he knocked and pushed open the door. "I have the information you wanted on that woman."

She waved him over. "What do you have?"

"Can I use your computer?" he asked, running a hand over his hair. She rose from her chair; he watched her move with a dancer's grace. He slid into her chair and keyed up several files. "Here." He pointed to the screen.

Miss Parker leaned over the desk, her eyes widening at the revelation on the monitor. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes. I've plugged in every cross-reference. This is what I got." He looked over his shoulder at her.

She rubbed her temples. "All right. Mason, he's Sun-Chai's partner?" She waited for Broots' affirmative nod. "It says he's a Red File. I didn't recognize the man I saw the other day."

"Maybe he's disguised his appearance so you wouldn't."

"Right. He would do that, the bastard."

"You knew him?" Broots asked, interested but confused.

"No. He's a bastard for making my job hell."

Broots shook his head. "The other file, Sun-Chai, she's a Blue File."

"Great. Just what we need, more files to chase around."

*********************************

Marriott Hotel
Washington, DC
Tuesday: Later that Same Evening

The conversation with Sun-Chai rolled over and over in his head during his return to the hotel. He needed to get his family to safety. He would try sending them away again.

Jordan was awake. Jarod should not have been surprised, but he was. The younger version of himself had apparently inherited insomnia, either from their father or his days in the Centre's care.

The boy looked up from his book. "I'm glad you're back, and safe."

Jarod walked over and gave him a hug. "Of course I am. Dinner is not usually a dangerous meal."

"But you are worried, aren't you?"

"About you two. I really think you need to go somewhere safe, just in case."

"Yeah. Emily thinks so, too. That's partly why I'm up. I wanted to talk to you before we leave in the morning."

"Okay." Jarod sat down cross-legged on the floor. Jordan looked at him from the chair, then slid himself to the floor. "Jarod, could you try harder to keep in touch? I mean, I know you try, I really do. But it seems to take a long time and I miss you."

The implied criticism would have hurt had it been said in anything other than a very sad, little boy voice. Jarod remembered that feeling all too well. Jordan was too old to cry, and too young not to want to.

"I promise. You know I would never deliberately do anything to hurt you or Emily, don't you?" Jarod said quietly.

"I guess I just miss you more than Emily because you are the first person who ever considered my feelings. Emily helps me have feelings. She's neat. But you're just kinda special." Jordan climbed back into his bed.

"So are you." Jarod tucked the boy into bed.

In the morning, they left, the slim boy who was growing up too quickly, and the brunette who shared her brother's sadness. Emily had every intention of coming back to track Jarod. But the information Jarod showed her at breakfast was convincing enough for her to be willing to get Jordan out of the way.

On to Act IV

 
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