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The Centre

Crack.

The headphones muffled the sound of her gun firing. Practice makes perfect, Angel. She heard her father's voice in her head. But it wasn't her father that prompted the session at the target range.

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a woman of action is for action to have consequences that could be potentially fatal. Parker had been poised on a knife-edge of danger ever since she had started the search for Jarod. The discoveries Jarod had been feeding her had forced her to accept a reality she wasn't comfortable with. That reality was her role in the Centre was precariously balanced. As long as her father was in the chain of power, she had a chance to change things at the Centre. She shrugged. On the other hand, she was alive. There were days when she wondered if that was all there was.

Being Gabriel's sister made her stop suppressing those parts of herself she'd kept hidden. Gabriel was vulnerable because he was a new, fragile little person. He made her want to be a new person as well. The kind of person her mother had been. For so long she had buried all her compassion, because sentimentality could get her killed. Compassion had been the only way to avoid being Ethan's executioner. And unlike Lyle, she simply wasn't capable of cold-bloodedly murdering a sibling. She could defend herself. She'd practiced. Every time she saw Lyle, she was reminded of the necessity for target practice. Because if Lyle ever caught her with her guard down, she'd have to kill him in self defense. That simply was the only acceptable solution.

Whatever happened in the next few months, fighting was going to be necessary. Centre infighting, certainly. But even more importantly, she might need to fight just to survive, and to keep her little brother alive. Whatever it took, she'd do.

Miss Parker knew that the most significant part of her routine was to visit Gabriel. Sydney had given her the clues, the same way he'd dropped clues all over the place ever since Jarod had left the Centre. He wanted her to be the same kind of person that her mother had been. That was obvious from all the bread crumbs both Syd and Jarod kept dropping in her way. Sometimes she wondered if the two of them were conspiring together to get her to change. But that was ridiculous. It just proved that being isolated at the Centre made even the most stable person a little paranoid.

Sydney felt she was the person who could make the most difference for Gabriel. So did she.

Watching him being isolated the way that Jarod had been made her realize that it had been circumstances rather than Jarod's personality that had made him different. And her brother wasn't going to be just a lab rat. Nor was anyone going to have the chance to make him into another Lyle. Gabriel was a Parker and they weren't anyone's toys. Not ever.

She made her way to Gabriel's quarters. Once there she glowered at the nurse who answered the door, and kept her waiting in the corridor. That was intolerable.

"Miss Parker, don't you have other things to do with your time?" the nurse said.

"There is nothing more important than keeping my word to my brother," Parker replied.

"But he's due to visit with your father in two hours," the nurse answered.

"Then he has a little time to spend with his favorite sister," Miss Parker pushed her way forward.

The nurse shrugged and clenched a fist. She waited outside Gabriel's room thumbing through a magazine.

Parker walked in boldly. Someday someone might succeed in getting in her way and getting away with it, but it wouldn't be some insignificant nanny. She composed herself and smiled warmly.

Gabriel was sitting on the floor, working one of the puzzles. The colors amused him. But he stopped when he saw Parker and reached out his arms. She bent and picked him up, feeling the still small body, the infant smell that meant he was still a new person. She cradled him for a moment, then realized she couldn't just spend time here. She needed to do something to be sure that Gabriel would have experiences that were different from Jarod's.

"Mine, p'ay now," Gabriel said with a big smile. He seemed to reserve his biggest smiles for her alone.

Parker smiled back. "Yes. We'll really go play, darling. I promised I'd take you to see Benjamin Bunny, and that's just what we'll do."

"Bendamin," Gabriel repeated.

"Bunny rabbit," Parker repeated, in the way that adults do to small children. "We'll go see the bunny rabbit."

She dressed her brother in outside clothes. "We'll be back in plenty of time to see Daddy," Parker called over her shoulder as they exited the room.

The nurse was not happy to see them leave. She quickly made two phone calls. But she knew she didn't dare stop Miss Parker.

Miss Parker strapped the baby in the back seat of her car. She made sure he had the special toys she always brought for him. Dr. Seuss books, Winnie the Pooh toys, Peter Rabbit bibs. Her brother was going to have exposure to all the classics. Anything she could do to make him different from both Jarod and Lyle would be her goal.

Miss Parker arrived at Broots' house. Debbie happily greeted Miss Parker and Gabriel. Debbie loved the baby, and considered him just a large, talking doll. But then, as she'd told Miss Parker, some of her friends had baby brothers and sisters. Playing with Gabriel was a way for her to be even with her friends while not getting stuck with diaper duty every spare minute.

Parker paid careful attention to Debbie's chatter. She intended to make a special effort to keep Gabriel up to date on the latest fads kids were involved in. While it didn't matter so much while Gabriel was so young, it never hurt to plan for the future. She remembered the almost unacknowledged feelings of differentness she'd experienced when she went away to college. Gabriel wasn't going to spend his childhood feeling different.

They went to the back yard and Debbie brought the bunny out of his pen.

"Pet him really carefully, Gabriel, " Debbie said.

Miss Parker showed him, then guided his hand over the rabbit's fur.

"Bendamin," Gabriel said. He giggled, a baby sound he rarely made inside the Centre. He reached for the bunny's ears and Parker guided his hand so that he petted the bunny gently.

"Careful, sweetie. We don't want to hurt the bunny." Parker loved to watch the baby, as he explored the outside. Gabriel liked to be outdoors and considered it a special treat. His quick little eyes were always watching the scenery, always seeing something new and wonderful. "Ooh, " the baby cooed.

Parker and Debbie watched the bunny hop in circles around the baby. They carefully kept Benjamin just barely within reach so that Gabriel could pet him, but not actually take him in his hands.

"Is your father around?" Parker asked Debbie.

"No. He won't be back until after dinner. He didn't say why." Debbie paused. "But you know how computers are always acting up. I wish the Centre would upgrade its equipment so Dad could stay home more."

"Maybe someday soon," Parker said. She always felt a touch of sympathy when Debbie mentioned how hard her father worked. It was similar to her own childhood.

* * * * * * * * *

Maine

Jarod held the kite, shaped like a diver. It was one of the more interesting things he'd discovered in the shops of nearby Ogunquit. Jonathan was fascinated by the fact that Jarod hadn't seemed to know a lot about kites. All the Carruthers had been a bit bemused to realize Jarod's school hadn't allowed him access to kites, or sand castles or ice cream.

Jarod shared the math that would allow them to calculate how the kite would react if the wind was going at a certain rate of speed. Doing such math problems was second nature to Jarod and never deflected him from the sense of wonder that playing brought back.

Both he and Jonathan then received a surprise. John replied with a mathematical formula.

"I didn't think you liked math stuff, Dad," Jonathan said.

"Of course I like it. I do it in my work every day. I just don't think it should be everything you do all the time," John replied.

"Why not?" asked Jonathan.

"How about I tell you later?"

The three of them enjoyed the rest of their day at the beach. A red eyed Natalie joined them in the afternoon.

"Are you OK?" her husband asked.

"Jarod, would you excuse us for a minute?" Natalie centered her attention on John, knowing that this conversation would be difficult.

"Sure." Jarod busied himself with the kite and distracting Jonathan.

The husband and wife moved to another part of the beach, in sight but out of earshot. Natalie pulled some files out of her beach bag and showed them to John.

"These came today by special messenger. I've been an idiot," Natalie said as she handed the files to John.

John read through the files. He got more and more angry, though the only place he let it show was in the small frown and tightly compressed lips.

"It looks like we were both manipulated." John stared into space. "I wish we hadn't let this come between us."

There was no reason that Jonathan needed to stay at a special school, except that it gave Dr. Davenport test subjects for his psychological theories. It was all down in black and white.

The intense testing had been one of the factors that had caused Jonathan to have nightmares.

Reading about that, in detail, had made Natalie cry. She'd never really wanted to hurt anyone.

"The important thing now is to make a clean start. We need to do everything we can to help

Jonathan feel like a normal little boy. That means taking him out of the school for good. " John breathed deep and tried to calm down.

Natalie looked in John's eyes. "There has to be a way to help the other families as well. We were lucky. We had the money to leave when Jonathan got uncomfortable. It looks like other families have been offered scholarships and the children are being kept there under pressure."

John nodded. "I think our new friend will be able to help us with that. " They both looked at Jarod who had been covertly keeping an eye on them.

Jarod sent Jonathan up to the cottage and approached the couple.

"I'm sorry I had to do it like this. I know that you want the both want the best for Jonathan. A school might be helpful, but an institution like this could only be hurtful. I grew up under similar circumstances. I didn't want what happened to me to happen to Jonathan and other children like him." Jarod said. He very carefully didn't tell them exactly where he'd gotten the documentation.

"But you turned out all right?" Natalie said.

"Not exactly. It's taken me a long time to catch up from the lack of a real childhood. And I lost my parents. I haven't been able to recapture the feeling of having parents who care about me, because I never saw my parents when I was growing up. If Jonathan spent all his time at school, it would be the same thing in the end. He'd know where to find you, but he'd have to spend a lot of time catching up, trying to remember what it is like to feel. No one should have to do that." It was impossible to doubt Jarod's sincerity.

"We can stop them, if you're willing to help." John said. "I think you have access to resources I don't, and vice versa."

"You have to stop this." Natalie insisted. "It could begin over again." Jonathan had been located through ordinary school records and identified as a potential gifted child. Then the manipulation had begun to push Jonathan to excel and his parents to put him in Davenport's care.

"I have an idea about that, " Jarod said.

* * * * * * * * *

Over several days at the cottage

Jarod and John were bent over the computer. Natalie and Jonathan were in a corner of the room happily playing checkers. Jonathan still needed to spend time with his parents to counteract the feelings of isolation he'd developed. During the day, that would be Natalie's job.

John's expertise was in the area of financial manipulation. One way to hurt the school, and Dr. Davenport, was to discredit him with his funding sources. Then, even if he tried to start over, he would have no effective way to do so. They also sent a message out on several listservs. Malpractice charges would be brought. Since this was all being done on John's computer, Jarod wouldn't be traceable.

Natalie spent her evenings making phone calls. She made sure that the contacts she had through her charity activities became aware of Davenport's manipulations. The information escaped subtly and she was very careful to say nothing that could be construed as libel. John and Jarod had both helped her work out the phrasing. She normally would have been too proud to accept advice from any man, but for her son she was willing to swallow her pride.

Jarod was relieved that the sole responsibility for shutting down the school didn't rest with him. He'd be able to leave the family to manage on their own with no regrets. Already he was starting to look forward to a chance to slip into the night again.

* * * * * * * * *

Back at Broots' house

Miss Parker took Gabriel into the house to change him. Debbie had the put TV on. Gabriel made cooing noises at it. Winnie the Pooh was dancing on the screen, singing about honey.

"Pretty," Gabriel smiled at the screen.

The story was about bouncing Tiggers. Parker made Gabriel bounce as she got him dressed.

"Bounce, bounce, little Tigger."

"Bounth," said Gabriel waving his little hands up and down.

Parker glanced at her watch and quickly bundled Gabriel up. "We'd better hop quickly home, little bunny."

"See Bendamin?" Gabriel asked.

"Oh, yes, we'll be back. And we'll go to the park, and maybe even find you a pony. OK?" Parker answered with the relaxed smile she kept just for Gabriel.

Gabriel smiled back. He seemed to understand the promise that she wouldn't leave him.

"Bye, baby. You're my little friend, right?" Debbie said.

Parker said good-bye to Debbie who waved from the doorway. She thought it would be good for Gabriel had a chance to keep contacts outside the Centre, to have friends who had nothing invested in his growth except to enjoy it.

Her determination to give her brother a normal life was always strongest when she saw Debbie. Although she didn't say it aloud to Broots, she admired the way that he had made a home for his daughter. Debbie had developed into a very strong young woman with few bad habits. She'd be a good role model for Gabriel.

Parker continued to plan. A play group of some kind might be nice, too. Gabriel was more advanced than some of his peers, but surely there were other children both in and out of the Centre who could provide him with additional socialization. Gabriel didn't have a mother to have plans and dreams for him. Parker was just going to have to be both mother and sister at once.

On to Act IV

 
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