Season of Fire
Part Two

by Victoria Rivers and Blue Cove

Starring

Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots

Guest Starring

Jamie Denton as Lyle
Harve Presnell as Mr. Parker
Marisa Parker as Emily
Tyler Christopher as Ethan
George Lazenby as Major Charles
Catherine Bent as Dr. Goetz
Jeanette Miller as Mrs. Carson


Act I

Pleasant Wood Psychiatric Institute
Towson, Maryland

"Are you sure we can trust this woman?" Parker asked for the third time as they pulled into the parking lot.

"It's a little late to be second-guessing our choices," Jarod reminded her. "Dr. Goetz is a caring person, and a good psychiatrist. I'm sure that once I explain things, she'll be willing to help."

"You'd just better hope she believes you," Parker added. "The last time we were here, you were a patient, and I told her the Centre was an institution."

"It is, Miss Parker," he replied as he started to get out of the car. "Just one you won't find in the phone book." He shut the door, then poked his head back in through the open window. "She doesn't know we're coming, so you'd better wait here until I've spoken to her."

"Fine. Whatever."

Jarod couldn't deny that returning to Pleasant Wood was a little risky; Jimbo and some of the other staff might recognize him. Still, he couldn't very well go snaking through the air vents this time, not with a cast and taped-up ribs. So, he did the only thing he could: he walked in the front door and headed straight for Dr. Goetz's office.

Luck was with him--although his cast attracted a bit of attention, he saw no familiar faces in the hallway. Finding the right door was child's play, since he still had the building floor plan fixed in his head. It was closed, but he knocked quickly and entered before anyone else came along.

Dr. Goetz was alone, thankfully, taking some books off the shelves. She turned to face him, and her eyes widened. She looked much the same as he remembered, except perhaps a few more lines on her face, a bit darker under the eyes.

"Jarod!" She took in the cast running the length of his arm. "What in the world happened to you?"

You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Then again, maybe you would, considering what I'm about to ask. "I had an accident," he explained. "Nothing that nature won't mend."

She nodded, and looked him over carefully, her eyes settling on his face. One thing a shrink needed to be able to do was look people in the eye when speaking to them. She'd had two years to digest all the things he'd told her. He hoped it was enough.

“I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again,” she told him honestly. “Except maybe in a front page photo or CNN clip.”

“I tend to keep a low profile, doctor,” Jarod answered with a slight grin, just enough to flex the dimples in his cheeks. “It’s better not to attract attention to myself, if I want to maintain my undercover status.”

“Undercover, huh?” She moved toward her desk and set the books down in a stack. “I figured you’d be in therapy for the rest of your life, when those people caught up to you.”

Jarod’s gaze tilted downward. His dark eyes burned. “They won’t catch up unless I want them to.”

Dr. Goetz kept her expression carefully neutral, betraying neither disbelief nor acceptance. Then a shadow of sadness crossed her face. “I also didn't think I’d get a chance to thank you for helping Mary recover her memory of what happened to Erica Michaels. It was the breakthrough she needed. She’s doing great now, back with her family and working on a new life. All because of you.”

Jarod’s jaw tensed. His eyes were gentle now, understanding. “I know it was hard for you to believe that Dr. Blythe could do what he did to a patient. Trust is pivotal in your profession.”

The woman nodded and sat down in her chair wearily. “Yes, it is. But after your revelation, it became pretty clear that he had abused not only Erica, but also a few others here. Hell of a thing to discover under your very nose. I really thought I knew him.”

Jarod lifted his chin and met her gaze evenly. “And there’s even more happening out there in the rest of the world. Maybe you’re ready to believe some of that, as well.”

She leaned her head back against her chair, weariness evident in her features. “I questioned a lot of things after you left, Jarod. Yours was a pretty fantastic story. Would it surprise you to know that I did a little checking?"

He kept his expression even. "Not really. What did you find?"

"That officially, there is no organization called The Centre." She crossed her arms, elbows on the desk, and leaned toward him. "It isn't listed in any book at the library, you can't search for it on the Internet, and you can't find it on a map."

Jarod inclined his head. “Did you really expect to, given what I’d told you?”

“Frankly, yes, especially after Dr. Parker and Dr. Lyle came looking for you. Lyle called me a couple of times afterward, to ask if I’d heard from you. And there were a few instances when I thought I was being followed shortly after you left. But once I dropped my inquiries, everything seemed to settle back into place.”

“I have it on good authority that they haven’t been watching you for some time, if that makes you feel any better,” he assured her. He wandered further into the room, glancing around at the distinct lack of ornamentation that had been present when he was there the last time. “Which is another reason why I’ve come to you.” He turned to face her again. “I need your help, doctor. And this time, I need you to believe me.”

She did not smile, sigh or otherwise show levity or impatience at his request. “I thought a lot about that story you told. The people who came looking for you confirmed that the Centre existed; but when I couldn’t find a trace of it, I wondered if it was possible you might have been telling the truth. After all, what better cover story could you have than a truth which sounds like a fantasy?"

She brushed her bangs back off her forehead. "I’m a different person than I was, Jarod. I like to think my eyes are a little more open now. So why don’t you sit down and tell me why you’ve come, and we’ll see what we can work out.”

Relief flooded his features, and he took the chair across from her desk eagerly.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker sat impatiently, waiting for Jarod's "all clear" signal, when her phone began to ring. After a few moments, she pulled it out of her pocket, determined to blast whomever was on the other end of the line. "What?!"

"Um, M-Miss Parker?" Broots sounded even more timid than usual. "I'm really sorry about calling when you said not to--"

"If you were sorry, you wouldn't have done it in the first place," she snapped.

"B-But there are some things going on that I thought you should know about."

"Don't whine, Broots, it makes you sound like a two-year-old." She sighed, and softened her voice a fraction. "What do you want?"

His voice dropped to a whisper. "Well, first of all, Mr. Lyle's looking for you."

What else is new, she thought to herself. "And what exactly did you tell him?"

"Nothing, just that you were following a lead on Jarod." He sounded nervous. "That isn't really a lie, is it?"

Parker knew an answer like that would only satisfy her brother for a short time. The fact that she had failed to take Sydney, Broots himself, or any of her usual sweepers along was bound to look suspicious, even to someone as dim-witted as Lyle. "No, it's not. I’m so close I can smell his aftershave. But if Lyle asks again, that's all you know. I'll take care of it when I get back." Broots was silent for a moment, so she added, "Was there something else?"

"Well, there's this rumor going around. See, my friend Grimby helped set up one of the conference rooms--he's the guy with part of one ear missing, but he hears really well with the other, and--"

"I'm not interested in which of your friends does the best Van Gogh impression." Her voice was rising again. "What does it have to do with me?"

"Rumor has it that Triumvirate Station is moving… leaving Africa."

"That's not surprising, since Mutumbo's been dead for months. So, where are they setting up shop this time?"

"That's just it, Miss Parker. They're coming here, to Blue Cove. At least, that's what the rumors say."

For a moment, Parker was speechless, dumbfounded. "That would only happen if…"

Broots finished her sentence. "…if whoever's in charge works here."

It was too bizarre to contemplate. Whomever the Triumvirate picked would already have a fair amount of power. Raines was dead, so that left him out. Lyle? Unlikely. Ditto for Mr. Cox. Both men were killers, but they weren't high enough on the food chain to claim such a prize. That left only…

"My father," she breathed.

"Pardon?"

Broots' question yanked her out of her reverie. "Never mind. Just keep it business as usual, and don't talk to anyone else about this. Have you got that?"

"Yes ma'am. And thanks for--"

She hung up before he could finish. Probably grateful she didn't completely bite his head off, and well he should be. Still, he'd given her some valuable, if puzzling, information.

Parker glanced back at Ethan. He looked half-asleep, off in a world of his own. For his sake -- for all their sakes -- she hoped Broots was wrong. If the Triumvirate was intent on making Blue Cove their next home, then the ante in the game they all played had just gone up considerably.

* * * * * * * *

“A lit candle -- that's what I remember most about our sessions,” Jarod observed. “It must be boxed up with the rest of your things. Are you going somewhere?”

She smiled indulgently at him. “The candles are only for my patients,” she reminded him. “And I don’t see one just now.” Her smile dimmed. “I was planning to take some time off, go on sabbatical for a few months. I really need a break from this place.” She chuckled and shook her head. “I’m not even sure where I’m going yet, but I leave tomorrow. All packed and everything.”

Jarod brightened. “Perfect! That’ll work out just fine.”

“How so?” She was beginning to look a little suspicious.

“I’ve brought you a new patient, one who needs full time attention. And I’m more than willing to provide you with all the funds you’ll need for his care. And for yours.”

She heaved a heavy, unhappy sigh. “More work is not what I need just now, Jarod.”

There was understanding in his hesitant smile, and hope in his eyes. “I know. But this won’t be all work. Ethan’s is a special case… another product of the Centre.”

“Jarod, I--"

“Before you turn me down, let me explain. Please?”

Goetz stood up and ran her hand through her short brown hair. “I really don’t think I’m up to this right now. But I’ll give you five minutes.”

The Pretender told the tale in as much detail as he knew, and filled in the parts he didn’t with extrapolation. By the time he finished, the woman was sitting down again, her mouth hanging open, eyes wide with surprise. She laughed nervously.

“That's the most fantastic story I’ve heard yet.”

“And, wonder of wonders, it’s actually true,” said Miss Parker from the doorway.

* * * * * * * * *

Lyle was impressed. The entire trip had taken less than a day, including Cox’s swift location of the girl. He wished he could have been there for the event itself, but knew that, in order for it to have the desired effect, Cox had to act alone. Zoe’s death would be a thorn in Jarod’s Achilles heel that would fester and swell, and eventually bring him down. All it needed was the necessary time for the wound to close up and begin to manufacture its poison.

He rang his sister’s office after he had settled in, but there was no answer. By all reports, she still had not returned from her enigmatic lead on Jarod that Broots had tried to palm off on him.

She was definitely up to something.

The other techs looked overtly suspicious when he stormed into the Tech Room looking for Broots -- who was mysteriously absent just then -- so he decided to rattle Sydney’s chain instead.

There were a variety of projects on the shrink’s schedule, and Lyle found him on SL-7 in the Nursery Wing, lecturing a class of caretakers on early childhood development. He caught Sydney’s eye as he eased into the back of the room and crossed his arms, waiting for the seminar to end. This one wasn’t going to get away from him so easily.

Sydney wrapped up in short order and dismissed the class, smiling and apparently eager to answer the questions put to him by a few of the students who wandered up afterward.

Lyle chose to get rid of them.

“Interesting speech, doctor,” he announced. Heads turned everywhere, and as soon as he was recognized, people began to hurry out the door and away.

He loved that effect. Let them think they could run from him. That only happened when he allowed it, and today, he felt generous. Sated, in a way.

“Very moving topic,” Lyle observed. “But then, I guess this class is watching a crop of unusually precocious drooling toddlers, so they’ll need a little extra coaching. Isn’t that right, old man?”

Sydney’s earlier good humor vanished. He packed up his materials and headed for the door, with Lyle in tow.

“Listen, I was wondering if you’ve heard from my sister lately,” Lyle went on casually. Into the elevator they went, the doors sliding silently closed and locking them into the tiny room. “She’s been incommunicado the last 24 hours and I’m getting a little worried about her.”

“Of course you are,” Sydney returned flatly, not a trace of belief in his voice or expression.

Lyle cocked his head and gave the Belgian a sidelong glance. “No, it’s true.” His voice hardened, though his face remained soft and pleasant. “I’m afraid she’s becoming too sympathetic to Jarod, that she may not be trying hard enough to bring him back.”

Sydney shot him a long-suffering look, and said nothing. The elevator car stopped moving and the doors slid open. Both men emerged in step, and Sydney went straight to his office with Lyle right behind him.

“She seems to be getting sidetracked on far too many of Jarod's wild goose chases,” Lyle continued. “Not exactly displaying the toughness that the Parkers are known for. Can’t have that.”

“You sound just like your father,” observed Sydney dryly. He laid his papers down on his desk and took a seat in the big chair. “And in my opinion, she is as focused as always.”

Lyle sat down on the opposite side of the desk, leaning close to the older man, lowering the pitch of his voice as if they might be overheard in the otherwise empty office. “Word has it that you haven’t been out of this place since she left. Might it be that you’re a little worried, too?”

Sydney’s brown eyes rolled impatiently up to regard him. “Miss Parker’s a big girl. I’m sure she can take care of herself.”

With a smile, Lyle added softly, “But she’s not made of steel. And when things are blowing up, people can get hurt. You sure you haven’t heard anything?”

Wearily, Sydney faced the younger man fully. “If she was hurt, do you think I’d be sitting here at my desk, business as usual, Mr. Lyle?”

Lyle leaned closer. “So where is she, Sydney?”

The psychiatrist shrugged and settled back into his chair. “I don’t know. Have you tried calling her?”

“She’s not answering,” Lyle growled back irritably.

“Then I suggest you wait until she is. I don’t have the answers you’re looking for and neither does Broots, so you might as well leave us both alone and let us do our jobs. Don’t you have a project somewhere that needs your attention?”

Lyle’s blue eyes narrowed. His expression darkened. He slid off the desk, straightened his Versaci suit and took a step back. “I’m working on it,” he snapped.

Sydney cast him a jaundiced eye. “So I see.”

Lyle turned on his heel and stormed out.

He was partway down the corridor when he realized that Sydney hadn't questioned his reference to an explosion. Apparently, Jarod's mentor was already familiar with the events in DC. Very few people in the Centre knew about Mirage, so that information had either come from Jarod, or from Parker herself. Judging from Sydney's attitude, Lyle's money was on his wayward sister. She was involved in this mess, just as he suspected.

Well, she wouldn't be able to hide that bleeding heart attitude from their father or the Triumvirate much longer. And if they ever found proof she was working against Centre interests…

The thought put a bit more spring in his step as he headed back to his office.


Act II

Jarod turned to look at Parker, a trace of amusement in his eyes. "I thought you were going to stay in the car."

"I got tired of feeling like a wallflower at the school dance," she shot back.

Dr. Goetz frowned, and rose from her chair. "I'm afraid I don't understand. Dr. Parker, isn't it?"

"Miss Parker, actually," she replied. "And to answer your next question, I was after Jarod the last time you saw me. We've formed a... temporary alliance, until this matter is settled."

"I see. And that 'matter' would be the young man Jarod was talking about?"

The expression on Miss Parker's face softened. She reached out into the hallway, took Ethan's hand, and led him into the room. Once inside, she slipped her arm around his shoulders, stroking his back comfortingly. Then she turned to meet the other woman’s astonished gaze. “This is Ethan. Our brother.” She offered a trembling smile. “We need your help. Please. For his sake.”

Dr. Goetz took in the young man’s rumpled clothing and disheveled appearance. Ethan's eyes wandered around the room, but he seemed detached, almost as if he were off in a world of his own. So far, her impression fit with the one she had received from Jarod. Basically nonviolent, but deeply troubled. Possibly even suicidal.

"Ethan," Jarod said gently, "this is Dr. Goetz. She's going to help you."

Almost instantly, Ethan's eyes snapped into focus, and settled on her. His voice, although soft, was more confident than she had expected. "Are you the one? The one they said was part of my future?"

She was intrigued by the change in his demeanor, but uncertain of his meaning. "Your brother and sister have probably told you about me..."

Jarod smiled and shook his head. "He’s not talking about us, doctor. This information comes from his inner sense." He turned to Parker, his eyes bright with hope. "He's listening to them. To your mother.”

Parker lifted her chin as if to defy him, and then abruptly nodded. “Yes. I know.”

“What’s this ‘inner sense’ business?” Dr. Goetz inquired with more than a trace of skepticism.

“Think of it as a form of ESP, with more of a kick.” Jarod got up and meandered toward Ethan, patting his back as he eased around him. “Knowing what the traditional schools of psychology think of the paranormal, let’s just say that he comes with a few extra tools for you to use in helping him get his feet back on the ground. It will take time to undo the damage that's been done, but eventually, with you to guide him, he'll learn which voices to listen to and which to permanently ignore."

Goetz frowned, her gaze returning to the other man. “I can see how this could be a full time job.”

Jarod leaned close and whispered something in Ethan’s ear. The younger man nodded, and turned his attention back to the psychiatrist. He went up to the desk and put his finger on the spot where she always kept her candle.

“You make your own candles,” Ethan murmured, his head bowed. “You like to do that to relax at home. And it helps you focus here, just like it does your patients.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open, and snapped quickly shut. “Nobody here could have known that. I never discussed it with anyone on the staff, or with any of my patients. How did you know that, Ethan?”

He looked up at the ceiling and tilted his head, as if listening to something no one else could hear. “Your grandmother heard voices, too. And when you were a little girl, you thought that was a special gift.”

Tears gathered in the woman’s eyes. “That’s -- that's right. She never told anyone but me. She didn’t want people to think she was crazy.”

“She called you Cricket.” His vacant gaze focused gently on her face. “And she believed this is what you were meant to do. 'A special person, to help special people.' Am I special, Dr. Goetz?”

She smiled then, and blinked away her tears. “It looks that way, Ethan.”

Jarod pulled a small gold plastic card from his wallet and laid it on the corner of the desk. “Anything you need, doctor, use this. I’ll make sure there’s always plenty of money in the account.”

Parker guided Ethan over to the empty chair in front of the desk, and urged him to sit in it. “I can’t stress enough that you’ll need to keep a low profile,” she told the other woman. “Wherever you go, try to avoid urban areas. And stay out of Germany and South Africa. Those are hot zones where Ethan might be recognized by people you don’t want to find either of you.”

“I thought The Centre was in Delaware.”

Miss Parker straightened and met the woman’s gaze with a steely, uncomfortable one of her own. “It’s everywhere, doctor. You can’t be too careful. Live simply. Stay in one place as long as you can before you move on. But if anyone -- and I mean anyone -- starts asking questions about him, or calls you by name, get the hell outta Dodge.”

Dr. Goetz nodded. “Maybe along the way, Ethan can help me with some of my research.”

Parker glared at her. “Just don’t turn him into a guinea pig,” she snapped. “Jarod said we could trust you to take good care of him. Don’t forget to do that.”

“Of course not, Miss Parker. My patient’s welfare will always come first with me.”

“All right, then. I hope you don’t disappoint me.” She moved around the chair and squatted down so she could look up into her brother’s face. “I have to go now, Ethan. But the doctor will help you. And I’ll be thinking of you every day.”

He laid his right hand over hers as she smoothed her fingers over his sleeve. “We’ll think of you, too.”

Parker knew instantly who he meant, and smiled. Fondly, she touched his stubbly cheek, and stood up with the grace of a cat, smoothing down her trousers.

Dr. Goetz glanced up from the warm good-bye between brother and sister to see that the three of them were now alone in the room. "Jarod?"

“He had to go,” Ethan responded softly. “Someone he has to see." He looked up at his sister. “I’m supposed to go away now. Right?”

“With Dr. Goetz, yes. You stay with her, understand?” Ethan nodded, and she gave him one last hug. Then she sighed, turning her attention to the other woman. "Since I have no doubt that Jarod disappeared with my car, would you mind driving me to a place where I can rent one?”

“I’ll be done here in a few minutes.” Dr. Goetz returned to packing up the last of her things.

“You'll be seeing him soon,” Ethan murmured.

“Who?” Parker asked

Ethan did not elaborate, and she decided he must mean Jarod. Though her adversary was very good at his frequent disappearing acts, he always managed to keep in touch. And one day, that habit would land him right back inside The Centre.

* * * * * * * * *

Sisters of St. Catherine Convent

Emily had been cooped up in her room far too long. She was feeling better, and eager for a breath of fresh air, though her legs weren't up to walking very far just yet. She was delighted when Sister Mary produced a wheelchair left behind by the room's previous occupant. Finally able to move around, she made her way outside and wheeled along the path which ran across the grounds.

The sun was shining bright and unseasonably hot, the air incredibly still and heavy. Nothing moved, not a bird or insect, not a leaf or twig stirring. It was as if a season of fire had descended upon the convent, driving everything and everyone toward the shadows to seek some relief. Her arms prickled with gooseflesh as a premonition swept over her, and she stopped in front of a statue of the Virgin Mother to pray for her family. But the nagging suspicion of terrible things looming in the near future did not go away, even when she gazed up into the statue’s beneficent face of white stone.

She crossed herself and turned around, preparing to return to her room, when she spotted a car pulling into the parking lot some distance away. She watched hesitantly, and as soon as she saw the shape of the man and his stride, she knew who it was. She wasn’t up to walking just yet, but her heart had wings as she waved and waited for him to find her.

“Daddy!” she cried, when he was close enough to hear her. He turned toward her instantly, angling away from the convent’s front doors. He jogged to close the distance, his eyes searching the landscape around her as he drew near.

“Have you seen Jarod?” he asked when he reached her.

“No. I was hoping you’d heard from him,” she answered. He looked worried, and that wasn’t good. “What’s the matter?”

“We have to go,” he answered brusquely. “Let’s thank the sisters and get out of here before unwanted guests arrive.”

She didn’t have to ask who he meant.

“What about Jarod?”

Major Charles grabbed the handles of her wheelchair and hurried her inside and back to her room, careful of her injuries but needing to move quickly. “He’ll be back soon, I know,” Emily told her father worriedly.

“We can’t wait for him,” he said sharply, irritation and concern in his voice. “We’ll have to meet up with him someplace else.”

“But, Dad --"

He came around to stand in front of her, his eyes glinting. “I won’t let them take another one of my children, Emily. Jarod has managed to elude them so far, and I’m sure he’ll be fine. But you’re too weak to manage on your own for the time being. So don’t argue with me.” His expression softened to one of love, and he pulled her out of the chair and into his arms.

She didn't need to know that he had seen what he thought was a Centre vehicle in the Mercy Hospital parking lot. It was probably his imagination -- paranoia born from so many years on the run -- but he couldn't be sure. If The Centre had indeed gotten that far, there was a chance they had a lead on Jarod… or on him. With Emily still in a somewhat fragile state of health, he couldn't take that chance.

Emily hugged him tightly, aware of his pain. He would tell her about it when they were away from the convent; now was definitely not the time. She seemed to understand. “All right, Daddy. Let’s say our goodbyes and leave a message for Jarod.”

“You get your things together, and I’ll come back for you. We’ll leave Jarod a message with the sisters.”

Emily nodded, swallowed the lump forming in her throat, and went to do as she was told. There weren’t many people in the world who could get that sort of obedience out of her, but her father was one of them. She knew that look in his eyes. Unpleasant things were in store, and he was trying to head them off as he had done countless times in the years she had spent growing up with him.

“Tell Jarod I love him.”

“I will, Kitten. I will.”

Emily paused as her father headed out to locate one of the nuns. “Where are we going?”

He stopped halfway across the room, and turned slowly to meet her eyes. “To a place I know in the mountains. It’s quiet there, and cool. And there’s someone I want you to meet. I’ve named him Jordan.”

There was such a conflict of emotions on his face that Emily couldn’t decide what he was trying to convey to her. Mixed in with pride and wonder were enough pain and horror that she wasn’t sure at all she wanted to meet this person.

“Who’s Jordan?”

“That’s complicated. But I suppose it’s safe to say that he’s your brother.”

“Another one?”

“What do you mean, ‘another one?'”

Emily sighed. “Looks like we’ve got a lot to talk about in the car,” she mused, and began gathering her few belongings together.


Act III

Miss Parker's stomach burned as she headed for her office. It had been a long drive back from Towson, or at least it seemed that way. She had stopped just long enough to reassure Sydney and Broots that she was still in one piece; now all she wanted was to take care of essential business as quickly as possible and get out.

She and Jarod had both done the best they could for their brother, but she couldn’t help worrying about Ethan. That he was in the hands of an able professional was comforting, but he needed stability more than anything else, and traveling would not give him that. The time bomb inside him was still ticking, and she did not want him to explode. She wanted him whole again.

She needed the connection with her mother that he provided.

Ethan could hear her voice. That alone was a shining ray of hope in Parker's life, almost enough to make her turn her back on the Centre and everyone in it, just for the chance to strengthen that connection. But there was one person who needed her even more than Ethan did.

As she set her briefcase down beside her desk, she picked up the newly framed photograph and smiled. Gabriel was so beautiful, with his soulful dark eyes, and big dimples just like her own. He was one of the few reasons she remained at the Centre. She would always come back for him, and it had been too long since she had seen him last.

If only Jarod hadn’t given her the slip, she might have been home for good. Gabriel needed that, needed to see her every day, without having her disappear on him for days at a time.

A birthday visit would be just the thing, she told herself. Gabriel could use some time alone, just the two of them… and so could she. In fact, just thinking about it made her feel better. She set the photo down, reached for her desk phone and started to input the code to retrieve her messages.

“There you are!”

She jumped at the sound of Lyle’s voice, and turned to meet him with a glare. She was in no mood for his harassment. “What?” she snarled.

He gave her a look of mock disappointment. “You’ve been gone for nearly 24 hours without a word, and I can’t be concerned?” he pouted. “Come on. Share with your brother. What did you find out?”

“Well, that has to be the shortest concerned brother act in history,” she shot back. “And everything will be in my report, as soon as I get around to writing it. I’ll make sure you get a copy.”

“So you wasted an entire day on smoke and mirrors again?” he pressed.

“More smoke than mirrors,” she mumbled to herself as she turned away.

“What was that?” he prompted, stepping closer.

She pushed her hair back from her face and nailed him with an icy blue gaze. “I am not in the mood for your questions right now. If there had been anything urgent, I’d have been in Daddy’s office delivering the news to him in person. And right now, I am up to here--" she illustrated with her hand slicing the air above her head, “--with your Spanish Inquisition! I said you’ll have your answers when I’m good and ready. Being my brother doesn’t give you any special privileges.”

She narrowed her eyes and leaned closer to him, chin extended defiantly. “Just remember, Lyle. I know what you are.”

He smiled. Something cold and excited gleamed in his eyes. “Yeah,” he whispered back. “I’m a Parker. Just like you.”

He turned and strolled confidently toward her office door. “I’ll be waiting for that report with bated breath.”

“I’ll make sure it takes a good long time, then,” she mumbled to herself as she watched him leave.

Lyle’s visit had destroyed the good mood Gabriel’s photograph had brought her. Now she was going to have to take some time and settle down a little before she went to visit him. He was a very perceptive child and always seemed to know when she was upset. She wanted him to be happy when they were together, so she worked on improving her mood before she went to greet him. Maybe writing up a highly fictionalized version of her report would help to calm her down.

Gabriel loved fairy tales, after all.

* * * * * * * * *

As soon as Jarod was far enough away from Pleasant Wood -- in Miss Parker's car -- to give him a margin of safety, he found a pay phone. Calling his father directly was still a bit risky, so he tried the convent instead. Sister Mary told him that he had just missed his father and Emily, but they sent their love. She also told him about Zoe.

It took less than an hour to reach the hospital. Driving with a cast wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever done, but compared to what he'd been through in the last several days, it wasn't the most challenging, either. What would be challenging was understanding why she hadn't told him the truth about how sick she really was. Zoe had sworn that she was in remission; it was her first, and, he hoped, her only lie to him.

The hospital was small, so he found her room very quickly. Sitting in a chair out in the hallway was Zoe's grandmother, who looked up as he approached. "Jarod! My Lord, what happened to you?"

"An accident," he replied offhandedly, wondering how many more times he would have to give that explanation. "I'm sorry it's taken so long for me to get here. I only got my father's message an hour ago."

He started to open the door, but Mrs. Carson's hand on his arm stopped him. "Jarod… Zoe's not there."

"Has she gone for tests?" he asked, concerned. "I know she's not in remission, but I can --"

The older woman shook her head. She took Jarod's hand, and her eyes were moist as she looked into his. "Zoe's gone, dear. She passed away a couple of hours ago."

Not possible. Jarod was sure he must have misunderstood. "What?"

Mrs. Carson's faint smile was understanding. "I know it's a hard thing, but at least she's in heaven now, with her twin."

For a moment Jarod simply stood there, stunned. This is some sort of dream. I'll wake up, and Zoe will laugh at me for being so silly. "No," he whispered. "No, it can't be." He shook off the woman's hand and pushed the door open, hoping against hope…

The bed was empty, the sheets still showing an indentation where Zoe's body had been. They hadn't had time yet to remove her things. The room had the obligatory hospital smell, but underneath he could detect the scent of her perfume -- one he particularly liked. Even when ill, she had done her best to be ready for him. He made a small moaning noise in his throat, closing his eyes against the reality in front of him.

Mrs. Carson came up behind him, and put her hand on his shoulder. "It's hard to understand how someone so young, with so much to live for, could go just like that," she said quietly. "The doctors aren't sure why she died so suddenly, but apparently without her medication the cancer spread very quickly. We were prepared for that possibility. I don't think you were."

She turned him around to face her. "Zoe loved you very much. I know you weren't really her husband, but… she liked to think of you that way. We all did. You're a special young man."

Last night was incredible, Jarod…but falling in love wasn't part of the plan.

"Thank you," he said, distracted.

She reached up and gently touched his face. "I'll give you some time alone, dear. Let me know when you've finished. I'll be right outside." Quietly, she left the room, closing the door behind her.

Jarod sat down heavily in a chair next to the bed, trying to absorb what he had just learned. The room was so sterile, so quiet. Zoe wouldn't have wanted that. She liked activity, conversation, laughter. He could still hear her laughter echoing in his mind.

She wasn't there now -- at least her body wasn't, but Jarod wondered if some part, any part, of her remained. He'd been denied a last chance to talk to her, but maybe… somewhere, somehow… she was listening.

"I'm sorry I wasn't here when you needed me," he murmured, absently stroking the pillow where her head had rested. "I thought it would be okay. I didn't know you were still so sick. I didn't know."

Swear to me that you're in total remission.

Yeah. Probably pissed off a few HMOs along the way, but what the hell...

"Why did you think you had to lie? Didn't you know that I would have taken care of you, no matter what?"

We still have time…lots of it, if I have anything to say in the matter.

He closed his eyes again, conjuring an image of Zoe as he had last seen her. Fresh out of the hot tub, her hair still damp, wearing a belted wrap he had enjoyed removing an hour earlier, and making jokes when she saw his father for the first time.

He's cute, what happened to you?

Jarod wondered if his father knew. No doubt the Major had stayed with her as long as possible, but his own safety, and Emily's, had to come first. Zoe was Jarod's responsibility, one he had accepted willingly.

"We never talked about it... but...." He stopped, and tried again. "Love has always been a hard for emotion for me to figure out. I think… I think maybe…."

No. He wasn't ready for that admission yet. Maybe, in time, he would be able to unravel the tangled web that was his feelings for Zoe -- but not here. Not now.

Jarod stood, and looked around the room. For the first time, he noticed a small origami figure sitting on top of the morphine pump. Strange. He moved closer to examine it, and as it came into focus, he recognized exactly what it was.

An angel with bent wings. Onysius, the Greek god of retribution. Symbol of his fight for justice, and reminder to the Centre of their failure to keep him under lock and key.

The doctors aren't sure why she died so suddenly...

In a sickening rush, Jarod knew Zoe's death wasn't an accident, or a case of nature taking its course. Someone from the Centre had done this, leaving a calling card only he would understand.

He felt the entire world beginning to slide sideways.

Oh, God. I left her at their mercy.

It was exactly what he'd told himself he could never do. By coming back without warning… by sharing her life and her bed without any explanation of the danger involved… he had effectively put her in the Centre's crosshairs, allowed them to use her as a pawn. And while he was off taking care of Ethan, they exacted revenge on a woman who committed no crime. The Centre killed Zoe, but he had allowed it to happen.

He was a Pretender. He was supposed to be a genius. But there were times when he was very, very foolish indeed.

This is my fault.

The pressure built inside him until Jarod could no longer contain it. He let out a scream, and flailed blindly with his good arm. The morphine pump he knocked over fell with a crash, the figure of Onysius crushed beneath it. The tray, still holding a cup of melted ice chips and the remains of a Blizzard, spun across the room until it hit a wall. Zoe's hairbrush, the basket of flowers from her sister -- everything went flying as a burst of raw anguish took him over.

Zoe's grandmother came bursting into the room, taking in the sudden destruction. "Jarod, what --"

He turned to look at her, breathing hard, and tried desperately to center himself again. She wouldn't understand. She didn't know who he really was. He owed her an explanation. He needed her to tell him if anyone would ever forgive him for being so stupid. And, he realized with suddenly dawning clarity, that he needed to get away from this place.

The Centre knew where Zoe was. They had to know Jarod would come for her, sooner or later. Almost certainly, they had a surveillance team in place, waiting for the right moment to swoop in and grab him. He couldn't let that happen.

Time to leave. Now.

"I -- I have to go," he told the confused woman. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Carson. Please tell everyone I'm sorry… I just…have to go now…."

She tried to speak to him, but he ran out of the room, leaving her behind to watch helplessly.

His brain on auto-pilot, Jarod instinctively searched for a back door, the exit sweepers would be the least likely to suspect. Once again, he would do his best to see that he slipped through their fingers and escaped into the world.

Zoe's family would wonder where he had gone, especially if he didn't come back soon. But they needn't worry. Jarod knew he'd just left a piece of his soul, and perhaps the last remains of his innocence, behind forever.


Act IV

“Happy birthday, Gabriel!”

Miss Parker stood in the nursery doorway, her arms loaded with goodies for the baby. A bunch of brightly colored balloons floated above her head, tethered to her slender wrist by several lengths of curled ribbon. Tucked beneath her left arm was a new blue blanket, thick and soft, and under her right was a stuffed rabbit made of plush brown fake fur. She hurried into the room and sat her gifts down quickly, tying the balloons onto the crib railing before she hurried to pick him up.

Gabriel had seen her from the moment she entered the room and sat with arms outstretched toward her, smiling brightly. He flexed his chubby fingers in a grasping motion, and burbled, “Mine! Mine!”

He was always very possessive of his big sister when she came to visit him.

The nurse looked on disapprovingly, eyeing the pile of wrapped packages. “Your father won’t be happy with all this extravagance,” she reminded the young woman. “He doesn’t want the baby spoiled.”

Parker rounded on the woman with a fierce glare. “Gabriel doesn’t have a mother anymore. He’s raised by strangers since his father’s so busy. Even I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like, so he deserves to be spoiled. And I don’t want to hear another word about it. Understood?”

The nurse cowered. “Yes, Miss Parker.”

“You can leave us alone now,” Parker snarled. Her frosty demeanor thawed instantly when she turned to look into Gabriel’s sweet, happy face, and she smiled at him. “Besides, it’s your birthday, baby brother. Everyone deserves to be spoiled on their birthday, don’t they?”

Parker listened to the nurse’s footsteps as she retreated, closing the door after her.

“That’s better, isn’t it?” The redhead carried Gabriel over to the pile of packages, sat down with him on the floor with the grace of a dancer, and settled the baby on her lap. “Now let’s see what Big Sister brought you. Which one do you want to open first?”

For the next half hour she and the baby worked on packages, opening each one and taking their time with the gifts until all had been thoroughly examined. Gabriel settled down with a book, turning the pages one by one, pointing at the pictures and burbling over them with nonsensical consonant sounds. Parker laughed at his mispronunciations and cheered him when he correctly identified items in the illustrations. She watched him play, joined in when he brought her toys even though she hadn’t the faintest idea how she was suppose to play with him, and cuddled him into her lap when he brought the bunny and the blanket and asked for a story.

She carried him to the nearby rocking chair, snuggled him under her chin and began to read The Velveteen Rabbit to him. Before she finished the story, he was sleeping, but she didn’t want their visit to be over yet. She enjoyed the feel of his tiny warm body relaxed and heavy against her. She loved the sound of his laughter, the enthusiastic way he greeted her whenever she came to visit. There was never enough time to spend with him, but she made it a point to come see him at least once every day she was at The Centre.

Parker glanced around the nursery. It was truly a child’s room, with bright primary colors, cartoon animals illustrating the alphabet pasted on the walls, molded plastic jungle gyms for him to crawl through and learning-oriented toys for his amusement and stimulation. But there weren’t enough soft, cuddly things, which was what prompted her to buy the stuffed bunny and the blanket. Babies needed soft things.

She chuckled at herself. Glancing down at Gabriel’s dark head resting against her chest, she said softly, “If Mom could see me now…”

Her smile faded. She was never so maternal before her little brother’s birth. Something about Gabriel brought that out in her. More than likely, it was the fact that both of them had lost their mothers, and that bond drew them together. She wished he could grow up in a home like she’d had herself, with a mother and father looking out for her, rather than a paid staff in an institution. Parker had promised herself not to let The Centre ruin this child, not to let him grow up to be like Jarod and the others that had spent their entire lives in that place.

But then, Gabriel was a Parker. He would not be imprisoned there. He was not a test subject, but a company child and as such, he would be offered the best in education, health care and environment that their resources could offer. That would also mean he would spend very little time outside The Centre’s walls, unless she did something to change it. Her father rarely left the building anymore, except for business travel, and spent so much time working that he rarely saw Gabriel either. That was no way to raise a baby, especially not the Parker heir.

If she had any say in the matter - and in The Centre, she did - Gabriel would have a very different life, indeed. She would see to that personally. He mattered more than her vendetta against Jarod, more than the Triumvirate’s directive to catch the Pretender, more than anything or anyone else in the world. She would see to it that Gabriel had the love and attention he needed, just as her own mother had given to her. And until her father found a new mother for his son, Big Sister would just have to do as a surrogate mom.

Maybe she’d bring him a puppy, or some other gentle pet to help keep him company when she wasn’t around.

She thought about Benjamin, the rabbit Jarod had sent her as a Christmas gift a few years back. Debbie Broots kept the rabbit in a hutch in her back yard since Parker couldn’t be there to care for it on a daily basis, and she had adopted the habit of visiting Benjamin and Debbie routinely each week. The next time she went, she promised herself to take Gabriel as well, so he could meet Benjamin and see a real rabbit. The baby needed an outing, and she needed to visit her furry little friend.

Benjamin was a very good listener. She could tell him anything, cry into his fur and hold him close, and he never objected. Parker smiled as she looked down at Gabriel and saw his tiny little arm wrapped around the stuffed bunny’s neck. She would have to be careful in teaching him the difference between a real bunny and a stuffed one, but the story she had read would help with that and she knew Gabriel was smart. She was sure he would understand that he had to be gentle with Benjamin.

She sighed. Pets would probably be frowned upon by the staff, since they’d have to clean up after the animal and see to its needs in addition to the baby’s. That probably wasn’t a good idea, but she could still take her brother out to see animals and go for picnics and play in the park when he was a little older. She could do lots of things with him, and thinking about them brought a sense of satisfaction and peace that warmed her and made her feel complete in a way she had never imagined. He was going to be very good for her, indeed. Her mother would be proud.

Gabriel stirred, opened his eyes and squirmed to get down from her lap. She helped him down to the floor, and he dropped the bunny but kept one little fist closed around the blanket as he toddled toward his toys. At the last minute he swerved away from the jungle gym and headed for the presents and the crumpled pile of wrapping paper.

Parker watched him play for a few minutes, leaning forward on her knees. He was beautiful, with that thick mane of dark hair grown out in a natural Caesar. It was just beginning to curl up at the nape of his neck, and soon enough he would experience his first haircut. She wanted to be there for that, and take pictures for her album.

The baby crawled over to the wall underneath the letter “B” and stood up. He stared up at the white bunny for a minute, clambered to his feet and pointed at it, then turned to face his audience with a question wrinkling his brow.

“Ben-da-min?” he asked softly.

“Benjamin?” she corrected, not sure if she understood his mispronunciation. “Benjamin Bunny?”

Gabriel bobbed his dark head and smiled, showing off all eight pearly-white teeth. “Ben-da-min. Go see Bendamin?”

Parker sat up slowly. She had never mentioned the rabbit to her little brother, and she was sure no one else at The Centre even knew Benny existed, except for Broots, and he had been sworn to secrecy. She hadn’t even thought of the rabbit within those walls until a few moments before the baby awoke. But what she was thinking now was impossible. Gabriel couldn’t read minds. No one could. There had to be some other explanation. She glanced around the room for a Beatrix Potter book, but saw none.

She shook off the unsettling thoughts and smiled. “Yes, we’ll go see Benjamin soon,” she promised. “Maybe tomorrow. Okay?”

That seemed to satisfy Gabriel, and he returned to the pile of papers and began to tear some in tiny pieces, and crumple others that made crackly noises. After a while he returned to her chair and took the book from her, sat down with it on the floor and flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures. For several minutes, he stared at the last page intently, then looked up at Parker. There was obvious sadness in his eyes.

“Bunny is real?” he asked, garbling the last word.

It took her a minute to figure it out, and then she smiled and nodded. “Yes, the bunny became real. The nursery fairy made magic and made him real. You’re a bright little guy, aren’t you?”

“Is Dawid real?”

“Is what?” she asked. “What is Dawid?”

Gabriel retrieved his stuffed bunny and thrust him into Parker’s lap. “Dawid?” Then he toddled over to the “J” on the wall and slapped his left hand against the picture of the jackal.

She made the consonantal sound of the letter and tried to work it into the word.

“Jawid?”

Gabriel nodded, smiling at her efforts. “Dawid.”

“Jawid. Is Jawid real...” She turned it over in her head, and still couldn’t decide what he was asking. Her confusion must have been clear on her face, and Gabriel helped her again. He put the book in her lap.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t get it,” she apologized with a shrug. “Maybe later, when I’ve learned to interpret baby-talk better.”

Gabriel toddled a few steps toward his jungle gym, then dropped to his knees and crawled quickly into it. In a moment he came out with a few alphabet blocks, then ducked back in for more. Once he had several of them in a group, he sat down and started to arrange them in several piles. Parker watched him, still trying to figure out his odd question. But time was ticking away and as much as she wanted to stay, she knew that time for her visit was drawing to a close.

She rose from the rocking chair, strolled over to him and squatted down. Gabriel had five blocks placed off to one side in a crooked line, but was busy stacking the others into an uneven pyramid. Parker glanced at the ones he wasn’t using, and felt the breath catch in her throat for a moment.

The blocks spelled J-A-R-O-D.

Is Jarod real?

The question hit her like a bucket of cold water in the face.

Just a coincidence, she told herself. Gabriel wasn’t asking her about Jarod. He had never met her quarry, and she was sure no one had talked about the Pretender in front of Gabriel. There was no way Gabriel could know about him.

She kissed the baby, gave him a big hug and more kisses, and went to the door to call for the nurse.

But as she marched down the corridor to her office, that question rattled around inside her head like dry seeds inside a gourd.

When she was much younger, The Velveteen Rabbit had been her favorite story. She associated Jarod with rabbits because of a clandestine meeting she’d had with him in the laboratory when they were children. She had sneaked off to see the bunnies, and found him there as well. She had been sad that Jarod never got to go outside to play, and began to see him as the rabbit in the story, wishing he could have a home of his own, where he could become a real boy and do the things boys did.

She had grown up since then, and her view of Jarod had shifted radically as well. But still there was that trace of wistfulness whenever she read that story. Some little part of her always thought of Jarod. And now Gabriel had asked her if Jarod was real.

Gooseflesh rose on her arms beneath her Versaci suit. She took a deep breath and decided it was just another odd coincidence. And after that, she pushed the thought into a dark corner of her consciousness, and chose not to think about it again.

* * * * * * * * *

The message from Cox was simple, one Lyle had been waiting for. In fact, it contained just two words, but they flashed like a beacon on the computer screen:

JAROD KNOWS

The single sweeper they left behind at Sisters of Mercy Hospital had done his job; don't engage the subject, simply observe his comings and goings and report back. Lyle had never been a frivolous man, but he would have paid handsomely to be a fly on the wall when their Pretender discovered that his precious Zoe was gone forever.

His grin became a smile, which became a chuckle, which inexorably developed into a deep, rich laugh.

Some days it really did pay to get up in the morning.

* * * * * * * * *

Sydney stacked the files neatly on his desk and turned off the light, prepared at last to put an end to the day. Now that he knew Miss Parker, Jarod, and Ethan were safe, he could relax and allow himself to sleep.

He picked up his briefcase and started to walk out of the office, when his cell phone rang. He debated not answering, but decided it could be important. "This is Sydney." No one spoke at the other end, though he could definitely hear breathing. "Hello? Who is this?"

He was on the verge of considering it a prank and hanging up, when a soft voice croaked "Sydney..."

"Jarod?" He barely recognized his protégé's voice. The confident, in-control tone Jarod almost always used was gone, replaced by someone who sounded very near tears. Alarm bells began to go off in his head, and he went back to his chair and sat down. "What's happened?"

"Zoe, she's... she's gone."

"Zoe?" He struggled to put a face with the name. Jarod interacted with so many people on his travels -- and though the Centre eventually caught up with most of them, Sydney wasn't always privy to their discoveries.

"Someone I met… a few months ago."

His inflection said it all. To Sydney's knowledge, Jarod hadn't had a real girlfriend since Nia. He had grown in many ways since then, but his stronger emotions still tended to be raw, and he frequently wore his heart on his sleeve. "She was someone you cared for," he acknowledged.

"Yes."

"Tell me what happened."

Jarod paused, as though trying to find the right words. "They killed her. I killed her." Another pause. "She's dead, Sydney."

The psychiatrist's heart sank. Jarod blamed the Centre -- specifically Lyle -- for the loss of his brother, Kyle. He frequently raged at the way his family had been torn apart, his parents kept from him for so many years. But this loss would be unlike any other. This was an intimate partner, and the pain would run very deep indeed. That the Centre would deliver such a terrible blow only made it worse. "I'm so sorry."

The words came pouring out of Jarod, as though he couldn't hold them back. "I shouldn't have gone back to her. I knew it was a mistake. I knew they could be watching. They're always watching. Always. I just -- I needed --"

Sydney knew what he was trying to say. The Centre hadn't killed Michelle, although they could easily have done so, but she and Jarod had been the bright spots in his otherwise dangerous world. He felt the lack of closeness with both of them to this day. "You needed her," he finished. "You needed the joy she brought into your life. And you needed to make believe, if only for a day or an hour at a time, that you could fall in love and have a life, like everyone else."

"But I'm not like everyone else," Jarod answered, his voice turning bitter. "I'm a white leopard, a laboratory rat. I'm Centre property. And Centre property isn't allowed to have a life."

He was silent again; then his voice hardened, becoming more like the Jarod Syd recognized. "Thank you for listening, Sydney."

"Jarod, wait! Where will you go?"

"I don't know. Right now, I'm not sure it really matters."

Abruptly, he hung up. It was always his habit to end a phone call when he had nothing else to say, but this time Sydney was concerned. From the sound of it, Jarod truly was a loose canon now. There was no telling where his grief and loss would take him.

Only a few moments ago, he had thought it was time to rest… but that time hadn't come after all. Sydney no longer felt the desire to go home. Instead, he would spend the next few hours sitting in his chair, in his darkened office, wondering if in fact a season in hell was just beginning… for all of them.

* * * * * * * * *

Jarod placed the pay phone's receiver back in its cradle. For a moment, he leaned against the wall of the booth, trying to gather whatever strength he had left.

Always pay phones. Always on the run. It seemed that, no matter how badly he wanted it, his life never really changed. Everything he touched turned to death, and everyone he cared about was marked for termination.

He would do well to remember that in the future. This time he had let down his guard, and Zoe paid for it with her life. That wouldn't happen again. He would make sure of it.

With that thought, Jarod hefted the small duffel bag over his shoulder, picked up his Halliburton, and disappeared into the darkness.

End of Episode
Season of Fire