Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots
Robert Leeshock as John Carruthers
Sarah Brown as Natalie Carruthers
Andrew J. Ferchland as Jonathan Carruthers
Kelsey Mulrooney as Debbie Broots
Somewhere along the coast
Jarod always found it satisfying to drive at night. When the world was dark, he didn't feel as different from everyone else as he did during the day -- every day of his life. Almost no one was on the road at this hour, and the later it was, the more he had a valid excuse for being tired, discouraged and deeply in need of rest.
At night, he didn't have to pretend to be anything or anyone… only survive being on the road, meeting the challenge of headlights. Sometimes he'd do a sim of people in the cars around him, wondering who they were, if they were his family, if they even had family. For all he knew, everyone he drove by could be in the same position he was: alone, lost, and unable to let themselves be found. If he ended up concentrating too hard on the road, it didn't matter. There were no prying eyes to see.
Maine was a good place for that kind of driving. Jarod had total isolation on the coast road, surrounded by trees and darkness. Cities like New York and Washington were the worst places to be driving at night, because there was always something going on. But, going south from Acadia National Park, there were only small coastal towns where all the lights had gone out by two in the morning. It was as though he were the only living person awake in the world. He'd actually left Acadia at three am, unable to sleep and tired of the bed and breakfast he'd been staying in. It didn't give him the scope that some of his hideouts did.
Dawn would be approaching soon, which would give him a chance to go exploring and make plans for where he would go next. In the meantime, he'd made reservations at a cottage in Wells. Renting his own place, even a small place, gave him satisfaction. Jarod pictured it in his mind: small, compact, and white. It was a place he'd want his family to visit. For enough money, the owners had mailed him the key, so he could arrive whenever he chose. Sometimes, Jarod traveled randomly; at the moment, he found security in having a plan.
His last pretend had involved the park service. Two college students, boy and girl, had been hiking in the park. When they hadn't shown up at the appointed time, their parents had called in the Park Service. They had already been lost for two days before he had seen the news story. Because of the ferocious downpours, it had been difficult to cover the terrain, but Jarod had been hiking in that area before and extrapolated their projected course. He had known that he wouldn't be the only person who could rescue them… but he also knew that he would be the only person willing to risk falling off the cliffs into the sea. At least he had no ties here. There was no one who would suffer, just because they found him amusing to have around.
Jarod sighed. The thing that kept him going was how happy the parents had been to see their children safe again. It was nice to know that even after children grew up, their parents worried about them. He wanted to share thoughts like that with his own family soon.
Jarod missed his father most in the daytime. He missed Zoe the most at night. He'd actually managed a deep and satisfying sleep when he was with her, because he believed that she truly cared about him. The past few weeks had been hard on his ability to sleep through the night. Everywhere he looked he saw pain, and remembered those who had been hurt because they were connected to him... Zoe, Kyle, Emily. Being alone was the only way he could keep from causing anyone that kind of pain again.
* * * * * * * * *
Outside Blue Cove
The Western Diner
Sydney entered the diner with a small briefcase and made for a table at the back of the restaurant. Two cups of coffee were already set out. He was expected.
Broots waited, nervously drinking from his own cup. Under the table was another briefcase, identical to the one Sydney had. Broots nudged his briefcase in Sydney's direction. Sydney made quite sure by touch that he had the correct briefcase. He'd put his initials in raised lettering on the
one he was giving to Broots, while the briefcase without the initials contained Raines' documentation on Ethan. With that information, Sydney would be able to help Jarod to help Ethan...or, at least get a better idea of what was going on. Raines had been keeping information from all of them for too long. That was about to end.
"I can't believe we're doing this, Syd." Broots fidgeted with his coffee. He really should consider switching to decaf.
"Calm down, Broots," Sydney replied. "This is probably unnecessarily dramatic. I wasn't followed. And we're far enough away from the Centre that no one is likely to walk in by accident."
"Yeah, I suppose. It's just that anything to do with Raines gives me the creeps."
Sydney took a sip of coffee. "Good. Those feelings will keep you safe. Now, I don't want Parker to know what I'm doing, so it would help if you pretend that you know nothing about any of this. As far as everyone at the Centre is concerned, I'm just off on a vacation."
Broots shook his head. "Miss Parker is not going to be happy about you going behind her back."
"If the subject comes up, blame me." Sydney's voice and gaze were steady. "But it would be better not to let the subject come up."
"What about Lyle?"
"Lyle is more likely to be suspicious of Parker than of me. That's exactly why I don't want her trying to help. It's too dangerous to tempt him into following her around."
Broots groaned and ran a hand over his non-existent hair. He didn't really have much choice, not since he'd agreed to give Sydney the information he and Miss Parker had found in Raines' Forest House. The files he and Parker had saved from being burned still needed a lot of salvage work. Since most of it didn't have to do with computers, and it did have to do with patient information, Sydney was the obvious person to try and decipher the files. Broots had also agreed to replace the files he was giving Sydney with the decoy files in the other briefcase. That way, if Miss Parker or Lyle came looking, he'd have something to give them. Not that Lyle had anything to suspect at this point, but Broots wanted to keep it that way. And Miss Parker, while not quite as scary, wasn't his favorite interrogator either. Sydney had sworn there was no way that either of them could be sure the decoy files weren't the real thing. He had spent a great deal of time forging them by using files from other patients. Raines, of course, would know the files weren't real. But Raines wasn't in the picture at the moment.
"Yeah, Syd, but what if information gets back to Raines or Lyle?" Broots hated that he had to do the worrying for both of them.
"For now, just look for Jarod in your usual manner, and report any possible sightings to Miss Parker. Spend time with your daughter. If you have a life, you're less likely to be suspected of doing anything clandestine." Sydney paused to drink more coffee. "Raines' one weakness has always been a tendency to assume business as usual. So even if he should return to his usual pursuits, as long as he thinks you aren't a threat he'll avoid you. Lyle will underestimate both of us if we let him. It's our job to let him."
Broots snorted. "The entire world underestimates me. That shouldn't be a problem."
"I know," Sydney said, smiling.
"You be careful, Sydney. I still think there's a lot of risk involved. If Lyle even suspects anything is going on, we're in big trouble. Somehow, I don't think that Jarod's going to be around for a dramatic rescue." Broots got up to leave.
"I never expected one, " Sydney replied.
* * * * * * * * *
On the coast highway between Kennebunk and York
Headlights appeared in front of him, beaming around the curve into the predawn darkness. They remained stationary, and Jarod slowed down as he approached. A car was stopped at the side of the road. He saw a man get out and attempt to flag him down.
It was unlikely to be a trap, since the Centre wouldn't have any way to be ahead of him. There didn't seem to be anyone else around, so Jarod decided it was worth the chance. They could probably use his help. He pulled his SUV over to the opposite side of the road, and when he left the car, he took out a flashlight and shone it in the direction of the other car. Inside he could see a blonde woman, and a small boy who rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Jarod kept his hands loosely at his side, in plain view as he walked across the street, so he wouldn't alarm them unnecessarily.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
The driver approaching was tall, light haired, and tough looking. He reminded Jarod of his father, and the many Pretends he'd done with military themes. The driver approached Jarod with the confidence that ranking officers usually had. Jarod reminded himself to ask which branch of the service when he got a chance.
"John, ask him if he can call a tow truck," the woman's high, excited voice called. She tucked the blanket around her son, who watched them with large, round eyes from the front seat. In spite of the safety factor, the boy -- who looked to be around eight years old -- appeared to have been sitting between his parents, sleeping against his mother until the sound of Jarod's car awakened him.
"Do you have a cell phone? The battery on mine is gone, and when the car died we were pretty much stranded. I thought I could get to the hotel blindfolded, but apparently I don't know the way as well as I thought." The man threw an angry glance back at the woman. "And we got off to a late
"Not that late. I don't even know why we bothered," she replied.
"Ma'am, I'd be happy to try and call, but it is probably a little late to get a tow truck. Or early, depending on your point of view. Why don't I tow you instead?" Jarod knew he had rope left over from the search and rescue mission, and although he'd enjoyed rambling on the dark roads, he could get back to civilization fairly quickly. The need to always be on the alert for escape routes meant that he had developed a love for map reading. Being physically lost simply wasn't a safe bet.
"Thanks," the man replied, extending his hand. "I'm John Carruthers. This is my wife, Natalie, and my son Jonathan."
"Jarod Forest," he said, looking at their car. It was a Toyota Corolla that had seen better days, yet they were obviously well-dressed and prosperous-looking.
Natalie smiled nervously. "We'd appreciate any help you can give us, Mr. Forest."
"Just Jarod is fine. We'll have you out of here in no time," Jarod answered. Nothing like helping people in trouble to get the day off to a good start.
"We started around six pm, but then we took some additional turns and detours. And neither of us seem to do well reading a map," John said.
Natalie sighed, and brushed her brown hair to one side. "We're just tired. Do you know how far we are from Wells?"
"Not far. I'm headed there myself. There are some lovely cottages there and I've rented one."
"Then we'll be neighbors," John told him.
"And neighbors should always help each other," Jarod replied.
It took very little time to tow them into town once he'd begun. The cottage he'd rented had two bedrooms, and Jarod offered them to the strangers. They were all exhausted enough to accept; so tired, in fact, that they didn't notice their host immediately set out jogging along the beach in the glow of dawn. Jarod slept very few hours per night, sometimes none at all. His time in the Centre caused him to cherish each day, and celebrate the dawn.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney walked down the corridor humming a quiet French tune. He was smiling, and dressed in a polo shirt and slacks, much more casually than usual. Miss Parker approached him, looking her usual efficient and sharply dressed self. She glowered at Sydney, annoyed that anyone could be quite that cheerful in the dark corridors of the Centre.
"Well, you certainly are a happy little camper, aren't you?"
"It's time I took a vacation, Parker. I'm going to visit with a friend. Perhaps you should try it.".
She glared at him. "What about finding Jarod? What about the other secrets lurking here at the Centre?" Sydney was her backup, someone she could always go to if she needed it. With him gone, she'd be on her own more ways than she liked to think about.
"I don't believe the search for Jarod is entirely dependent on my presence. And a continuously digging for secrets can be very boring," Sydney answered mildly.
Nothing showed on his face. He knew that everyone at the Centre must believe he was only interested in rest and relaxation. After the past few weeks, there was little doubt that all of them deserved some vacation time. It was safe enough for them to know he planned to visit Michelle. That was the story he'd given out to Broots, who undoubtedly would be asked to repeat it by Lyle or Cox.
His relationship with Michelle was well known. And he'd certainly spent enough time trying to convince Parker to have a normal life. If he looked as though he planned a normal holiday, there was the possibility no one would look beneath the surface. With the recent changes at the Centre, he knew he was no longer considered a principal player.
He'd applied for a two-week vacation, hoping that would give him a chance to talk to Jarod and find out what progress had been made with Ethan. He had little chance to help while he was still in the Centre; Jarod wasn't going to risk getting close enough to be hurt again. But if he was
in a place from which he could send a private e-mail, he had a chance to make contact. Sydney respected Major Charles, but the Major couldn't know the workings of Jarod's mind the way Sydney himself did. He might be Jarod and Ethan's biological father. But he couldn't provide Jarod with the guidance he needed to help Ethan.
Sydney knew Jarod's strong sense of responsibility. Jarod needed to help his family. And Sydney needed to help Jarod.
Parker sniffed almost audibly. "I thought you were my friend. Leaving me alone in this chamber of horrors is not my idea of friendship."
"Parker, you've worked here a long time. Now is not the time to become squeamish," Sydney replied blandly.
"I'm not exactly squeamish. I just don't like the things that are happening around here." Parker turned her glare up a couple of notches.
Sydney sighed. Only Parker would say something like that out loud. In theory, she should know how vulnerable she was. In practice, Daddy's little girl simply didn't believe it. "Then do something to change things. But do them carefully. You won't enjoy anything you aren't alive for."
"I am not responsible for any of the unpleasant situations around here."
"But you may be connected to the source of the problems in many ways," he reminded her. "Use those relationships to make the changes you want."
"Relationships," she snorted. "How would you feel if you found out you were related to the entire Addams family?"
Sydney chuckled. "That's certainly one way to describe things. But you need to continue to move forward. The answers you're looking for are not going to be found by attacking them. If you relax, you just might get the insight you need."
"If I relax, I might just be eaten alive around here," Parker snapped. "Staying here is not relaxing."
"That's why I'm spending this vacation with Michelle. Spending time with a friend you can trust outside of the Centre is bound to be better than staying around here worrying about things." Sydney moved forward a couple of steps. It wouldn't do to prolong the conversation.
"I don't worry, Sydney," she returned sharply. "I make the answers fit the questions."
Sydney made his exit, a surveillance tape tucked into his coat pocket. He was sorry that he couldn't stay and help her, but it would do neither of them any good.
Having discovered she had another brother had produced changes in Parker. Some of those changes had the potential to be frightening. Sydney doubted he'd seen more than the tip of the iceberg.
Later in the day
Things had not gone well for the Carruthers family. Without prior reservations they had been unable to get another cabin, so Jarod offered to let them stay in his. They'd been reluctant, but Jarod was persuasive. He'd sensed something was wrong, and wanted to keep them close while he figured it out. Besides, he reassured the family, as long as he had a room to work in he'd be fine. A travel writer can write anywhere.
While the family went grocery shopping, Jarod did a computer search. He found an intriguing amount of information about the Carruthers family. John Carruthers was a wealthy businessman, well represented in the financial news. His wife was equally well known for her charity works. Their only son, Jonathan, had shown signs of genius-level intelligence at an early age; as a result, he had been selected to go to a special school. From all accounts, that had proven a point of conflict, and the parents were in the process of a divorce. The wire service stories didn't seem to provide a full picture, though. Jarod's gut feeling said there had to be more to it than just a broken family.
His next project was to hack into the school records, and what he found startled him. The first week of school, Jonathan had started to have nightmares. He hadn't told anyone what the dreams were about, but each night he woke up screaming. The screams were reported, and went on his record. Jarod noted that no one had actually tried to help Jonathan until his mother finally intervened.
The doctor called in to treat the boy was a name familiar to Jarod from his exploration of the Centre's computer files. Sydney would have recognized the name as well, for he and Dr. Davenport had been colleagues at the Centre, long ago before Jarod was kidnapped. No doubt about it -- something in this scenario was very wrong.
* * * * * * * * *
The next day, in the afternoon
Jarod walked along the beach, dressed in navy shorts and polo shirt. As long as he was pretending to be a travel writer, he might as well do a thorough job and get enough information for some articles. Since he was supposed to be observing and taking notes on the attractions in the area, he had the perfect opportunity to spend time observing the Carruthers family as well.
"Come along, Jonathan," Natalie called. She seemed nervous, and out of place dressed in a matching short set with her hair perfectly coifed. She stood very erect, then moved daintily toward the chair. The boy held a book in his hand, much too heavy to be described as light reading.
"Just because we're spending time here doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep up with your studies," Jarod heard the woman say. Advanced algebra? That seemed too complex a math subject for an eight year old. Jarod wanted to interfere, but wasn't quite sure how. Natalie was obviously fiercely protective of her son. All three members of the family would need to be comfortable with Jarod in order for him to help them. It would probably work even better if he could create a situation where the Carruthers actually solved their own problems.
Jarod walked further along the beach, stopping for ice cream. This time he tried chocolate ecstasy. One of his hobbies was to try out every flavor of ice cream he could find. Cone in hand, he sat down on a bench and opened his red notebook. The Carruthers’ divorce had appeared in the business news, especially since John's business had taken a turn for the worse. It seemed that the disagreements between two parents could end up costing a Fortune 500 company its success.
They were a wealthy couple, yet they were driving an older car. Why?
The boy's mental achievements had given him his own measure of fame. Unfortunately, as Jarod knew all too well, being an eight year old genius wasn’t an assurance that you knew how to please your caregivers. Or, that you would ever be given the chance to just be happy. He was a child, a straight "A" student with an exceptional talent for mathematics and chess who was being pressed into higher and higher success.
Most of all, though, Jonathan reminded Jarod of the person he might have been -- if only the Centre hadn't kidnapped him.
* * * * * * * * *
At Michelle's home
Sydney cleared a spot on the dining room table, and spread out the files. Michelle was more than familiar with the Centre's ways, and very willing to allow him time to spend in quiet study. He needed answers, and he needed them quickly. While he was reasonably sure that he was not currently under surveillance, it was only a matter of time before someone would see him working on something that couldn't be explained away. What had Raines been up to with Ethan, other than simply stealing Mr. Parker's work out from under him?
He sorted the papers into several piles. One path seemed to lead toward gathering data on just what created loyalty. A possible inference was that Raines had intended this experiment to be part of a larger project, which would have loyalty to the Centre as a key component. A subset of that appeared to be that Raines had become a sort of foster father to Ethan. Ethan had adoptive parents, since Raines' notes indicated that he felt the lack of family had contributed to the failures of Jarod, Angelo and Kyle. Clearly, he had not been totally satisfied with any of the children that the Centre had raised. According to him, each of them had a different Achilles heel. The notes seemed to indicate that was both a positive and a negative finding.
In Ethan, it appeared that the need for family was as strong as in the others, perhaps more so. And since Raines had been Ethan's key father figure, the Centre would have a hold on him should they catch up to him. Perhaps there was a way to use that fact to help Ethan learn to control himself.
Sydney moved to Michelle's computer, and composed an e-mail. Try to reach Ethan through his need for family. Be there for him. Let me help. I have information.
The e-mail address would have to be the signature, since even now it was essential to maintain security. Sydney was fairly sure that Jarod kept a close eye on his e-mail. Now the question was how much of a chance he would give his former mentor to help.
* * * * * * * * *
Back in Maine
While he was online, Jarod decided to check his e-mail. Nothing from his family; but there was a message from Sydney, and the account was not immediately traceable to the Centre. If Sydney did have information, it would be worth the risk in finding out. Although Dr. Goetz's last message had assured him that Ethan was stable at the moment, Jarod was still concerned.
He dialed Sydney's cell phone, and waited for him to pick up. "Sydney, what have you found?"
"I've been doing a little research. I have access to some of Raines' notes on Ethan." Sydney took a deep breath. "There was so much I didn't know. I had no idea that Raines was using all of you to test out his pet theories. There are some very peculiar notations. And I've found references to yet another drug."
"Are you sure?" Jarod hadn't thought of Ethan's behavior in those terms. But it was possible that some of the stress his brother was under could be related to drugs of some kind.
"Not entirely. It's hard to tell when you 're piecing together bits of information written in shorthand on paper that was subsequently burned. But it is something to check into."
"Hmm." Jarod nodded to himself, and changed the subject. "Could you check into something else for me?"
"Whatever project Julius Davenport is working on. Is the Centre trying to revive the Pretender project again?"
"Based on what I know, Davenport was fired from the Centre due to his drinking problem," Sydney answered. "I doubt they'd trust any information from him, or accept children he had worked with. If he's working on anything that resembles the Pretender Project, he's probably doing it on his own."
"Could you verify that?" Jarod asked.
"It could be difficult. One reason I'm not working from the Centre is that the situation there has gotten very tricky. There are more than the usual number of secrets and undercurrents. But I'll try."
"I'll call you again in 24 hours." Jarod hung up the phone, and composed an e-mail to Dr. Goetz.
He also answered Sydney's e-mail, requesting that Sydney send him copies of the files to a post office box in Boston. That was far enough away to be hard to trace and close enough to get to in a hurry. Since Ethan was safe for now, Jarod didn't need to be in a hurry to get to the files. He'd wait awhile and be sure the Centre hadn't intercepted the e-mail before he tried to get the hard copy.
* * * * * * * * *
The private beach that came with the cottage was a good place for taking strolls. He found Jonathan there on the sand, collecting shells.
Jarod knelt down beside him. "That's interesting."
The boy shrugged and continued to line up his treasures. "It's just a clam shell. They're mollusks."
"And good to eat. Good food is one of the best things in life," Jarod answered with a smile. "What's your favorite food? Mine's ice cream."
Jonathan looked directly at Jarod. "Me, too. But I don't get it much. We have to eat healthy at school. And study a lot."
Jarod looked back, then picked up another shell. " I like to study. I've studied shells, too.
Do you like to go to school?"
"Sometimes. Mom thinks I should be in school more. That I should use my gifts."
"You can use your gifts once you're grown up. That can actually be quite fun. But it's fun to play, too." Jarod leaned forward, and his voice took on an earnest tone. "If you could do anything, what would you do?"
Jonathan thought for a moment. "Make a sand castle. Play knights defending the castle. It's safe there."
He began to work with the sand, patting and shaping the castle. Jarod watched, and helped. Jonathan taught him how to add water to make the castle sturdier. Before long, they were both relaxed, playing in the sunshine. They talked more, and Jarod found out that Dr. Davenport was actually one of the school's trustees. He was the one who had convinced Natalie Carruthers that Jonathan could only be happy if he used his gift for math to its fullest potential.
"Do you like doing math?" Jarod asked.
"Sometimes," Jonathan looked trustingly at Jarod. "But not when it makes Mom and Dad argue. They didn't used to do that, before Dr. Davenport came."
Jarod nodded. He diverted the boy's attention to sea gulls flying overhead, and to the dynamics of wind and wave. He mentioned the mathematics needed to compute the tides. Jonathan opened up more and more as the day went on. He seemed to enjoy finding someone like himself, who understood and enjoyed math.
Jarod brought Jonathan back at the end of the day. Both parents looked surprised; neither of them had actually expected their son to come back looking so relaxed and happy. It had been a long time since Jonathan had behaved -- been allowed to behave -- like a little boy.
"Jonathan was showing me about sand castles," Jarod said. "It's amazing how much skill it takes to make something which is so transitory."
"It's good to see Jonathan looking happy again," John answered. He then turned the conversation to dinner.
After dinner, Jarod brought the discussion around to the school.
"I went to a special school as a kid myself," he said by way of explanation. "It's not always the best thing."
Natalie looked at the two men defiantly. "He needs to develop his gifts. He's special."
Jarod thought quickly. "Special is fine. But if he forgets how to play, he won't have the compassion to help people when he uses his gifts."
Jonathan came in to get his book, and Natalie ruffled her son's hair. "I'm glad you're going to be studying. You aren't working too hard, are you?"
"No. It's a stupid book anyway. The answers are wrong," Jonathan said as he opened the book to where he'd left off.
"Let me see." Jarod looked at the equations. Sure enough, on one a minus sign had been misprinted where the proper result would have been positive. "It just goes to show that it is important to trust your instincts."
"Even when those instincts are contradicting the feelings of those you love?" John asked.
"Sometimes instincts are all we have to go on." Jarod got up to leave. "I'll be back in a little while. I want to enjoy the beach while I can."
* * * * * * * * *
Jarod walked back along the beach. There was something suspicious about the school, and about Davenport. John Carruthers had been right to pull his boy out of the school. But it would be up to Jarod to expose the school and to disconnect Davenport from any possible Centre connections. Evidence would be needed that would discredit Davenport publicly. For that, he would need Sydney's help. He was now far enough out of sight to use his cell phone without risk of being overheard.
"Sydney, were you able to find out anything more about Davenport?" Jarod asked.
"Yes. Broots was able to trace a money trail from the Centre. They are funding the school. I'll e-mail you the results and then I'll fax you the files, which are proof." Sydney paused. "I told Broots the research was related to Ethan. Neither he nor Miss Parker are aware I'm contacting you. It seemed safer that way."
"Thank you." Of course, the fax number was in Boston. Jarod wasn't going to risk leaving the Centre a trail to follow, however much he trusted Sydney. He would pay someone to pick up the fax and meet him in Portsmouth. It was convoluted, but such convolutions had kept him free.
He checked his e-mail again and noted that the funding was contingent on two things. The school had to be kept private, and very select. It could only accept very gifted students. And, there was a concerted effort to convince the parents that they were better off letting the children stay at the school. This was borne out by Jarod's conversations with the Carruthers. It was only because John Carruthers and his son had been so close that their plans had failed. Jonathan had begun having nightmares when he didn't see his father. Natalie had missed her son enough to visit him at school. When Jonathan told her how he felt, she had called her estranged husband. John had suggested the vacation as a way to help Jonathan get over his trauma. Natalie didn't want to believe that the special school was a bad idea, but she had been forced to admit Jonathan needed a change. Jarod had heard several low voiced arguments between the adults. What he'd been able to overhear convinced him that Natalie would need more persuasion than her husband or son could give her in order to take Jonathan out of school.
The Carruthers had been followed and traded their car in for one a little less conspicuous. John wasn't sure why he'd been followed. He was wealthy enough that it could simply have been curious newsmen. But that had seemed like too simple of an answer. John wasn't willing to take chances with his family. So he'd hired a family that was going to Disney World to register under their names. Natalie would have preferred the artificial world of Mickey Mouse, but she'd been persuaded when they had noticed a car following them the first day.
Jarod would have little trouble in getting them to confide in him now. All he'd have to do was to shade the truth about his childhood just a tiny bit, making the Centre sound like another version of the school that Jonathan attended. Jarod thought this pretend wasn't that far from what could have been reality.
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.
* * * * * * * * *
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.
At the Centre
She moved quickly through the Centre's corridors, an incongruous sight to those unaccustomed to seeing the totally composed Miss Parker with a baby who was, by definition, just a tiny bit messy. While Gabriel was considerably neater and better behaved than many babies, he still loved to do such baby things as play with his sister's hair. Not many people would have believed that Miss Parker would tolerate that.
Miss Parker brought Gabriel back to his room with two and half minutes to spare. Her father was waiting inside pacing impatiently.
"You're early, " she said as she got Gabriel out of his jacket and set him in his playpen.
Mr. Parker watched his daughter very carefully. "Angel, could you let me know if you take Gabriel out again?" He tried very hard not to show his daughter how much she was irritating him. If the baby became too distracted, there might be a chance that he wouldn't perform properly. And that didn't even begin to touch the consideration that there were those who wanted to harm his son. His daughter was more than capable of taking care of herself and there were relatively few people inside or outside the Centre who would dare be a threat to her. But Gabriel was just a baby. And her fondness for the baby was likely to have a negative impact on her effectiveness as a bodyguard.
"Daddy, I just took him for a little drive. I'm his sister. I'd never let anyone or anything harm him."
"I understand that. " Mr. Parker said tersely. "But I worry about him, about you both. It isn't good for his life to be disrupted. You must remember, Angel, how hard it is to grow up without a mother. He needs the stability of routine."
"Daddy, he'll always have the stability of a sister who loves him very much," Miss Parker replied, looking at her father head on.
Mr. Parker sighed. He didn't like losing control, even to one of his children. If his daughter got too out of line, he'd have to find a way around that without making her suspicious. Some days she was entirely too much her mother's daughter.
He squeezed her shoulders in a gesture that was almost a hug. "Just keep me informed."
Gabriel was watching quietly, his eyes moving from one Parker to another. He didn't know why Daddy was upset, but he did know that Daddy was hiding something from his sister. He didn't like to look to see the things that were hiding underneath because they made him scared. But whatever was keeping Daddy from being happy wasn't good.
Of course, Daddy," Miss Parker left with her usual loving smile on her face. Inwardly, however, she was more determined than ever to keep being a gentle, persistent, and loving influence on her brother. It was perfectly normal for her workaholic father not to know everything about child care. She hadn't known that much herself until she'd started reading. But she'd spent the last year proving that Jarod wasn't the only one who could study a topic and become an expert on it.
* * * * * * * * *
In Maine, four days later
Jarod, John and Natalie pulled up the news on the computer. It showed that the school was being shut down. And with information about how the children and families had been manipulated out on the Internet, it was less likely that the same scenario could happen again. Jarod's suggestion that they celebrate with ice cream sundaes was something both adults could agree on. Perhaps they'd continue to agree on other things. Jarod didn't have enough data to know for sure if the Carruthers would divorce or find their way back to each other. All he could do was to remove the road blocks and hope for the best.
* * * * * * * * *
In Maine the next day
John and Natalie Carruthers walked Jarod out to his car. As usual, Jarod's possessions fit easily into a small duffel bag. Jonathan started to come with them, then darted back into the cottage.
Jarod raised his duffel bag and lifted it into the back seat.
"It's time I left. I've got a lot more towns to go through before I have enough material for my article. It's been great meeting you." Jarod said as he started the engine.
"Just don't travel so fast you don't take time to relax." Natalie replied, most of her attention focused on her son.
Jonathan ran back to the car. He brought Jarod a sand dollar. "It's for you, for luck."
"Thank you, Jonathan." Jarod replied. "I wish I had something to give to you."
"You're my friend. That's something." Jonathan grinned up at him. "It's nice to have a friend who's older and knows stuff."
Natalie smiled. "Next time, we'll have more time to spend together."
Jarod nodded. He wasn't going to mention his lack of a fixed abode. But he didn't have to.
John Carruthers handed him a card with his e-mail address on it.
"We do expect to keep hearing from you. We've enjoyed this visit and would like to repeat it. Don't forget," John insisted.
"Thank you." Jarod was startled. Except for Argyle, who usually tried to use him for something, he didn't maintain contacts with people once he'd finished helping them. But it could be nice to see this family again. He might just take them up on it someday when it was safe.
* * * * * * * * *
Sydney sat on the porch at sunset waiting for Michelle to return. Some portion of this visit had been pure vacation. Not only did he want to have an answer in the affirmative if someone asked him if he'd had a pleasant vacation, but he had deeply missed having Michelle as a confidant. While he hadn't told her any details about what was going on, she was one of the few people he could confide in regarding his concern for Jarod and Miss Parker. It had been helpful just to have a chance to express that unspoken anxiety in words.
He'd had a chance to compile a separate set of notes, on Ethan, on Jarod, and on Parker. He wanted to have a bird's eye view of the puzzle that would let him help all of them as much as he could. He'd needed this time to think things out.
Sydney still wasn't sure exactly who he was the most concerned for. Ethan, definitely, was at a disadvantage. He seemed to have no defenses. Sydney realized that as he transcribed Raines' notes into the computer and e-mailed them to Jarod. Not directly to Jarod, of course, but to a dummy account they both knew the password to. Raines seemed to have left the boy with nothing to rely on except for a very unreliable inner sense. And if Jarod lost another brother Sydney didn't like to think of the consequences.
Miss Parker also had a strong investment in her brother. That was good. She'd have the best chance of finding her inner sense if she could learn to ease up on herself a bit. Parker didn't really know how to relax, and while that might save her life, it would also interfere with her ability to use her intuition. Her father was resenting the subtle changes she was making in Gabriel's life. Sydney couldn't tell Parker what to do. She had a way of never acknowledging that she listened to him. But Sydney was very concerned that someday soon Parker would face a choice between what was best for Gabriel and what her father wanted.
And where did Lyle fit into the picture? Broots had sent him an e-mail reporting that Lyle was keeping far too careful an eye on her. Considering Lyle's reputation, that couldn't be good.
So far, both Sydney and Broots had managed to stay out of Lyle's way. That was how Sydney planned to keep things if he could. Unfortunately, Miss Parker didn't have that luxury.
The phone rang. As he'd anticipated, it was Jarod.
"Sydney, are there ever any good answers?" Jarod asked. He had driven past Boston towards Cape Cod. He was now in a motel off of one of the many rambling roads that lined the southeastern edge of Massachusetts.
"To what questions?" Sydney looked at the pages of notes he'd made; full of questions to which he didn't have the answers. Questions about people he cared about.
"I suppose the question is why can't families just be happy? Why do people have to split them apart and take such delight in it?" Jarod asked.
"It's not that way for everyone. " Sydney reminded Jarod. "And as long as you're helping people you are making a big difference."
"Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your help." Jarod rested his hand on the case with the DSA's. He wouldn't watch one tonight. He wasn't ready to face his past yet.
"You're welcome, " Sydney replied, hanging up the phone. Even now Jarod didn't feel it was safe to have a long phone conversation. There was always the concern that the call would somehow be traced no matter how careful either of them were. Sydney had been reluctant to waste precious phone time telling Jarod about the precautions he'd taken on his end to be sure he was not being watched by the Centre.
Sydney was conscious of a great feeling of sadness. This man, who was as close as a son to him was always forced to deal with the fact that people didn't want him to be happy. More than anything, Sydney wished he had a way to help Jarod be happy and safe. Perhaps sometime he'd find a way.
Jarod hung up the cell phone. He had to keep searching for answers. For now, that search meant sending another e-mail to Ethan via Dr. Goetz. Ethan was the one member of his family that Jarod hadn't lost track of yet. Sydney's information would help him help his brother. Meeting Jonathan had reminded Jarod that using a talent could be a good thing if that talent meant a lot to you. Ethan had talents and he should be encouraged to use them. The person who Ethan might trust to encourage him was his brother.
He also sent another e-mail to an account he hoped was one belonging to his father. It had been too long since Jarod had had contact with his family. He could trust Sydney to tell him if he knew that the Centre had found his family. But Sydney wasn't always aware of what Lyle and the others were planning. Unless he was there to protect them, Jarod was going to worry. He had to find a way to turn that worry into something productive.
Jarod looked out the window. There was nothing outside but trees. It was always a comfort to him to be able to look outside and see the world, even through the cover of darkness. He listened to the wind make the branches tap on the window. Darkness and silence. But he wasn't in the mood for TV or DSA's.
Spending the night in a motel was boring. He went to the front desk and paid his bill. It was time to leave this spot and find another place to rest.
Perhaps his answers lay further south. Had Emily returned to Philadelphia? The night and the road beckoned to him and Jarod drove off into the darkness.