Penumbra

 

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Jarod hadn't gotten very far into Penumbra before he realized that Cletus was right. The man in question was a younger Will Chatham. Not a particularly flattering portrayal, either.

Chatham had been a profiler on the FBI team assigned to apprehend the Bridesmaid Killer, who had plagued Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas a decade earlier. The only problem was, his profile had been seriously flawed, and pointed to the wrong man entirely. Only through another profiler's intervention and some brilliant police work had the right suspect eventually been found. A large part of the book was about this second profiler, and how hard he worked to overcome his colleague's shortcomings.

Talbot Davies had done what any good journalist would do... he was loyal to his material. He had paid for that loyalty with his life.

Jarod could picture it happening. Chatham had been distressed over the book's final content, and went to confront Davies about it. Davies had refused to put his name to a lie, and insisted that the truth be told. Desperate to get his hands on the manuscript before it was sent to the publisher, Chatham had managed to slip Davies enough ginko to cause a drug interaction. Then, while Davies was on his way to the hospital, Chatham proceeded to destroy the offending disks, and wipe any trace of the "A" version off the computer's hard drive.

Perhaps he hadn't even meant to kill poor Talbot, just incapacitate him. It didn't matter. Jarod had seen no trace whatsoever of remorse in the man's eyes. As long as his reputation was intact, that was all that mattered.

Jarod blanked the computer screen, and turned away. He knew exactly how to lay out a sting for Chatham. He knew what to say, how to draw him into the trap, how he would suffer with guilt and eventually break under the fear that Jarod would inflict upon him.

He just couldn't bring himself to do it.

Normally, his stings gave him a sense that justice had been done in an otherwise unjust situation. Truth be told, he enjoyed setting them up. But this time was different. This time, Jarod found he had no desire to follow through.

Someone else would have to bring the man to justice, then.

Jarod packed up the reports, the photographs, all the electronic files, everything he had on Talbot Davies' case and shipped them to Cletus Malcolm, with a letter of resolution. He knew Cletus would leave no stone unturned to get a conviction on Chatham, and though prison itself would hardly be punishment for Chatham's crimes, it would have to do in this case.

And by the time the package arrived at FBI headquarters, Jarod would be long gone from Braden University. The evidence would have to stand up on its own in court. Jarod knew that investigators would do what they could to see there was enough of it.

Still, the images of the aborted sting haunted him. He could feel himself pushing his own limits, taking one step too far to wring the confessions he wanted out of the professor. For the first time since he took on his first hopeless case, he felt the shadow of fear that he was not fully in control of himself. He thought about those men at Peltier, about the uncomfortable sense of deja-vu that Lung Li gave him, and the others as well. Something about those men haunted him, teased him with memories he couldn't quite touch. Jarod knew instinctively that those were thoughts he didn't want to explore. He wanted to leave them as far behind as he could get.

This time, he would have to let the authorities handle it in their own way.

This time, he didn't trust himself to do the right thing at all.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker yanked the glass doors wide and stormed into her father’s office, stopping three steps inside.

There were people in there, half a dozen if she counted right, and all of them had that unmistakable air of power that indicated how important they were.

“Oh, Daddy, excuse me,” she said contritely now, her anger of a moment before lost to embarrassment. “I didn’t know you were busy. I’ll come back.”

She started to turn, but heard her father’s gruff voice say, “Nonsense! I’ve always got time for my Angel.” With a flick of his wrist, he motioned his visitors out the door. “We’ll finish this business later, ladies and gentlemen. For the moment, I need to have a word with my daughter. So if you’ll excuse me…”

The men and women offered her patronizing smiles or nods of acknowledgement as they passed her on their way out the door.

She felt like a fool. And she felt like a queen, with the way those people looked at her. And then she remembered why she had come, and anger flared up inside her again.

When she was sure they were alone, she swept up to his desk and glared down at him. “Daddy, what the hell is going on here?"

He sat back in his chair, gazing smugly back at her. “What do you mean, Angel?”

“I found Raines in the Renewal Wing.”

His blue eyes glittered, and one side of his mouth quirked up into a smile. “You didn’t think I’d just leave him there to die, did you? What sort of a monster do you take me for?”

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. The accusation stung, and left her without the sharp retort she had planned. “You shot him, Daddy.”

Parker lifted his chin. “I did. But I’m not a murderer. Raines has been a thorn in our family’s side for decades. I only meant to throw a stumbling block in front of him, slow him down, get him out of our way for a while. I never meant to kill him. Surely you believe that.”

“I -- We --“ She kept stumbling over his reasoning. She stopped, and sighed. Arguing against her father never worked. He made things sound so right. “Of course, Daddy. I know that.”

“And besides,” he growled with a feral smile, “we got exactly what we needed. With him out of the way, I was able to make a move up the ladder.” He rose, stepped from behind his desk and grasped her by the shoulders. “No more T-boards. No more explaining to the Triumvirate why we haven’t caught Jarod. You won’t have to worry about a thing, Angel. The only person you’ll have to answer to now is me.” He laughed, and pulled her into a tight hug. "The Parkers are back! We've got all the marbles now. And this time, it's our show!"

She pulled back as soon as he let go of her, so she could make eye contact. Fierce pride burned in his face with that gleaming smile. “I always answered to you, Daddy,” she reminded him.

“No. No, you didn’t,” he corrected. “You answered to me, and I answered to the Triumvirate.” He chuckled softly. Darkly. “Now you just answer to me.”

Her brows twitched together. “What are you saying?”

He turned to make his way back behind his desk, and glanced at her slyly out of the corners of his eyes. “Haven’t you heard the rumor about Triumvirate Station?”

“That it’s moving here, yes. And that would only happen if…”

“The head of the Triumvirate was here.” He beamed at her.

She felt her mouth drop open. “Then it’s true? You’re the new Chairman of the Triumvirate?”

He held up a finger to his lips conspiratorially. “Shhh! Nobody needs to know that but you and me. You know how the Triumvirate works. They manage from behind the scenes. Way behind the scenes. So as far as everybody else knows, it’s business as usual.”

Excitement leaped up inside her. “Congratulations, Daddy,” she said quietly, working hard to maintain her professional demeanor. “I guess this will mean big changes in the works.”

“You betcha! Nothing’s beyond our grasp now, Angel.”

Then she remembered the other reason she had come. “Good. Because I wanted to talk with you about Gabriel.”

His smile vanished, and a dark cloud passed over his face. “What about Gabriel?”

“The nurse said you ordered his birthday presents taken away.” She recalled her initial surprise when she didn’t see them in the baby’s room, her disbelief when the woman explained where they had gone. “Gabriel needs those things, Daddy. He needs more time with his family, and those gifts remind him of us, that we love him.”

“I spend as much time with him as I can,” he growled back. “And Gabriel is different from other babies. He’s special, and he needs a special environment that will encourage his growth into his full potential. You want him to have the best education, right?”

“Of course, Daddy, but --“

“And you want him to have plenty of stimulation, lots of interaction with the right kind of people, don't you?”

“Of course, Daddy, but --“

“Then you leave his upbringing to me,” he told her, moving toward her and leading her toward the door. “I did all right raising you without a mother, and I’ll do fine with Gabriel, especially since I’ve got more staff I can devote to his care when I can’t be with him.”

“But Daddy --“

“I know you worry about him, but he’ll be just fine. He's a Parker, after all.” He started to reach for the door to usher her out.

She stopped in her tracks and shook his arm off her shoulder. “Daddy,” she seethed, “I will not stand by and watch Gabriel be treated like one of The Centre’s lab rats. I gave him things he needed and I want them given back. Period.” She crossed her arms defiantly over her chest and glared at him, daring her to countermand her ultimatum.

Something unpleasant gleamed in his eyes for a moment, and then he smiled at her, all warmth and comfort. “Of course. You’re right, Angel. He’s a staff child and should be treated as such. I’ll see that he gets his toys back today.”

Her posture relaxed, and she nodded but did not smile in return. “Thank you, Daddy. I know I’m just his big sister, but he means a lot to me.”

“I know he does. And you both mean the world to me.”

She tiptoed up to give him a kiss on the cheek, and took a step toward the door.

“Angel.”

She turned. “Yes, Daddy?”

“Don’t question my orders again. In my new post, I’ll have to make some hard decisions. You won’t always like the choices I make, but until you can see the Big Picture, you won’t understand the reasoning behind everything I do.”

“You could always explain it to me, so I’ll understand.”

He shook his head. “I can’t do that. You’ve got your projects to work on, just like I’ve got mine. Gabriel’s a part of that, an important part of my life. I’m the one responsible for making all the decisions regarding his care, not you. And there will be some things that you won’t necessarily like that come up along the way. Do you understand me?”

She frowned. “As long as you act out of love for him, then I know you’ll make the right decisions, Daddy.”

“It isn’t always a question of love. Sometimes it’s a question of what’s best for him.”

“We’re what’s best for him, Daddy. You know that.”

“He needs his family, yes. But he also needs a stellar education, training --“

“He’s not Centre property. He’s a Parker!”

“He’s mine, and I’ll decide what he needs!”

Parker pivoted on her heel and stormed out the doors, pounding her palms on the wooden frames and hoping the glass would at least crack from the shock. She was furious now, white-hot anger boiling up inside her at her father. For the first time in ages she wished for a cigarette, and headed up the elevator to the outdoors.

It was cooling off now, a bite in the wind that blew through her elegant gray suit. But she didn’t feel the chill at all. She would not allow Gabriel to be raised like a guinea pig. And if they took away his toys every day, she’d be sure to bring him new ones that he could enjoy as long as she was with him. She would be his symbol of happiness, and stay with him as long as she could every day, in spite of what her father ordered.

She strolled along the green grass until her temper cooled, and then went back inside to the nursery to visit her little brother for a few hours.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Package for you, sir,” said the morgue attendant. He handed it over to the man in the white lab coat, and went on his way with a gurney draped in a white sheet.

Cox turned the package over appreciatively, admiring the neat, even folds, the precise lettering on the label and the otherwise seamless brown paper wrapping on the box. Someone had taken a great deal of care in putting that package together. He felt a touch of curiosity regarding the sender, since it had gone directly to the numbered post office box that was The Centre’s delivery point. No regular mail trucks ever came onto Centre property -- daily deliveries were trucked in by Centre personnel from the Blue Cove postal branch. So whoever sent it knew the routine.

He wasn’t expecting any packages. Rather than ripping open the tape, he took it to his desk in the depths of the morgue offices, withdrew a small, specially sharpened letter opener and carefully sliced through the tape closures. Taking his time, he unfolded the corners, unwrapped the brown paper and discovered a small hand-made white cardboard box inside. He lifted off the lid and peeled back the yellowed, neatly folded newsprint to reveal the treasure inside.

His brow furrowed. There lay a small doll made of cornhusks, worked into a vaguely human shape, tied at the neck with a length of pale pink yarn, knotted at the back and tied to a large loop of yarn that would allow the charm to be worn as a necklace.

He wondered what it meant. Had the length of yarn been tied off into a hangman’s noose, the message would have been clear. However, he suspected that, even with that omission, the gift had originated with Jarod.

Cox smiled. He took the necklace out of its box and glanced at the packaging once more. The headline on the newspaper article beneath where the figure had lain caught his eye.

FAMILY MURDERED AT MILL

He gently flattened out the newspaper and examined it. The date was almost 30 years past, and the article concerned a mass murder at a corn mill in a small Arizona town. While the subject matter intrigued him, he had to wonder exactly what Jarod was trying to tell him. The subject, of course, was death… but whose? The sweeper they had set to watch Sisters of Mercy Hospital confirmed that Jarod had been there, and that he left in quite a hurry.

Cox read the article again, hoping to understand the Pretender’s hidden meaning, but there wasn’t enough information. He would love to visit that little town to do some investigating, but such a foray on his own time would only lead to questions from Mr. Lyle… and this was something Cox wanted to keep strictly between himself and the Centre’s property.

He would not be reporting the package to Lyle or anyone else. This was private now. He had touched Jarod’s life with a shadow, and now there was a new game afoot.

He smiled to himself, slipped the yarn loop over his head and tucked the cornhusk man into the collar of his shirt, where it would rest unseen against his beating heart, a constant reminder of Zoe’s death.

* * * * * * * * *

"Thanks for coming, Jarod," Dr. Prescott said with a relieved smile. "I know these are good for us, but sometimes it's hard to get the energy together to participate."

He nodded. "I know. You feel like you can't talk about him without crying, and you don't want to do that because he gave you so much happiness."

"Exactly." She showed him into the meeting room; a small, quiet conference room in the university library. "I'll bet you've done a lot of group therapy sessions as a intern at Bellevue."

"Only one," he admitted truthfully, remembering his participation in a therapy session for families of missing persons several years earlier. He had been a police officer at the time, hopeful of finding some information about his mother.

"Well, then this should be a treat for you tonight."

There were already a handful of people there, and a few more straggled in before starting time. Jarod watched as Dr. Prescott introduced him and the subject for the evening's discussion: dealing with work in the wake of a loved one's death. He studied the faces of each of the members of the group, taking note of the weariness and grief so evident in their eyes. He hardly listened to any of the comments, so lost was he in his own simulations of these sad people.

He felt embarrassed that he had suspected Tamara Prescott, even for one second, of having anything to do with her fiancé's death. Her grief was so genuine, so deep and all encompassing that, as he listened to her describe her difficulties with getting back into a normal routine, he did not hear her call his name and shift the commentary to him.

"What about you, Jarod? Will you tell us about your loss?"

His mind stopped working for a moment, drawing his thoughts to a screeching halt. When it started up again, the image of a beautiful face framed with coppery curls was all he could see. "Her name was Zoe. She died several weeks ago… from cancer," he lied. He could not tell those people that someone had murdered her because of him.

Murmurs of sympathy went up from everyone, and Tamara reached over to stroke his shoulders comfortingly.

He was suddenly uncomfortable with his public confession. "That's why I'm… moving. Starting over, with someplace that doesn't have any memories of her in it." He glanced at Tamara, hoping for understanding.

"Yeah. Some people find that easier," she agreed. "For me, I need to hold onto every memory of Tal that I can get. I'll be moving into his house as soon as I can arrange it." She smiled, tears gathering in her eyes. "I find a closer connection to him when I read through his books. Even though they're non-fiction, I can hear his voice speaking the words. It's like he's snuggling me up in his lap… almost."

Her breath caught, and she shifted the conversation to someone else.

At the break, Jarod stepped out of the room, all but bolting for the doors to get some fresh air. He didn't want to go back in, and needed to find a graceful way of leaving. Dredging up his memories of Zoe was too fresh, too painful. And the guilt he carried, knowing that she died because he had touched her life, was almost too much to bear. He couldn't talk about her. Not yet. Not now.

"Are you okay, Jarod?" Dr. Prescott asked from behind him.

He whirled around as if he had been caught stealing. "Fine. I'm… fine," he assured her. But he knew the hesitation in his voice gave him away completely.

She gave him a sympathetic smile. "It helps to talk about those feelings, get them out. If you deny they're there, they'll eat at you until something gives."

"I know. I'm just not ready yet."

"Then how are you coping with your loss?" Her face was gentle, concerned.

"One day at a time, doctor. That's the best I can do."

She nodded, reached up to give him a warm hug, and guided him back inside to start the second half of the session.

When it was over, Jarod strolled out of the library, his head down as he contemplated the highlights of the session. Those people were all in pain, injured by the deaths of those whom they loved. Even now, Jarod wasn't sure exactly how he felt about Zoe. He was reluctant to put a name to his feelings, yet her loss was a bleeding wound in his heart.

The sound of laughter made him look up. Across the street was a small park, and every picnic table in sight was crowded with people. A banner tied between two trees proclaimed the spot was reserved for the Taggart Family Reunion.

Family. That was something he could never have. The man and woman who had given him life were on the run simply because he existed. His brother and sister were fugitives as well. Another brother was dead because of him, as was the one woman he had truly allowed inside his heart.

He tried to imagine himself in the midst of that family gathering. One moment, they were all smiling and happy, pleased that he was among them. But the next moment, men in dark suits and sunglasses were swarming among the celebrants, destroying whatever got in their way as they chased him through the park. He eluded them neatly enough, but once he returned to the scene, the sight that greeted him revealed the truth of his very existence. The reunion was over. Bodies lay strewn about like dry leaves in autumn, fallen against the grass beneath the trees.

Jarod shook his head to clear his thoughts. That scenario would never become reality, because he wouldn't allow it. He had seen the results of allowing himself to get too close. And he had resolved never to put anyone else in that position again.

Avoiding the park and what it represented, he chose instead to walk down the opposite side of the street, back toward his rented room. There he would pack up his things, and be on his way.

It was definitely time to leave.

On to the Epilogue

 
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