thing Miss Parker did when she arrived at the Centre was head for Gabriel's
quarters. He had just finished breakfast, and still held his sippee cup
filled with juice. He smiled at her, and banged his cup forcefully on the
“Mine!” he called, and reached out to her with his chubby hands grasping in the air.
“Here I am, sweetheart,” she cooed, and took a moment to clean him up before pulling him out of the high chair.
The nurse frowned, but said nothing. She busied herself with putting away the food and cleaning up the tray.
"You need to get out of here," Miss Parker told the child. "My goodness, it wouldn't kill anyone to take you outside for a walk now and then." She glared meaningfully at the nurse. "Would it, Ms. Pennywhistle?"
The woman stiffened. "That’s Penfield. And Mr. Parker says that Gabriel is to remain in his quarters until--"
"Hell freezes over?" Parker finished for her silkily. She smiled at the woman, ice glittering in her eyes. "Well, I guess it's my job, then." She turned to the toddler and warmed immediately. "Let's go to my office, Pumpkin. You need a change of scene, and I need a visit."
She started toward the door.
"Miss Parker!" Penfield screeched. "He'll be late for his classes!"
Parker paused long enough to grab the diaper bag that went with Gabriel wherever he did, and called over her shoulder, "What does a baby his age need with classes, Renfield? He'll be just fine with me."
She ignored the nurse's gasp of outrage, and headed for the elevator with Gabriel hugging her neck and leaving huge slobbery kisses on her cheek. Part of her cringed at the mess, but it was only a small part. Somehow she had grown to enjoy this particular child's displays of affection, unsanitary as they were. Gabriel was special to her.
In her office, she sat him down on the floor, and from a box she had waiting there, she pulled out some toys, a large pad of drawing paper and a box of big, fat crayons. For a few minutes she sat with him and showed him how to hold the crayons and press them to the paper to draw. Gabriel took to the new tool quickly, and sat quietly coloring random shapes across the paper.
While he scribbled, she went to her desk to catch up on paperwork, and write a little more on the report concerning the items found at Jarod's latest lair. Every so often she would glance down at the baby, watching him discover the fun of tearing pages of paper out of the big tablet. Her office was going to be a mess when he finished.
But that was what janitors were for. She smiled and cheered him on, clapping when he finally succeeded in tearing out one whole sheet of paper, which he then brought to her and laid in her lap like a trophy. She kissed his dark head, and watched him return to his seat on the floor, ready for more discoveries in the crayon box.
She didn't feel much like working at all, and enjoyed watching him for a long time instead.
* * * * * * * * *
“Kind of a weird place for a romantic getaway, isn't it?” Zoe asked as Jarod rolled over in the half-light of early dawn.
He gasped. Pushing bolt upright on the bed, he stared at the apparition lying on the mattress beside his sleeping bag.
She was wearing the sweater he had shed the night before, and nothing else, as far as he could see. She rose with a bounce on the edge of the bed and strolled to the fireplace, squatting down on the hearth with a stick she had broken off one of the pieces of cordwood he had brought upstairs with him to feed the fire. She grinned at him over her shoulder and gave him a saucy wink. “Miss me?”
Jarod shook his head to clear it. He had expected an apparition, if he saw one at all, to be the spirit of someone who had died long ago -- not someone he actually knew. This was not possible. His imagination was in overdrive. He was hallucinating, or dreaming.
But he would play along nonetheless. It was his dream, after all… even though it felt as real as waking. And it was an opportunity to probe his subconscious mind for good memories of her, to enjoy her one last time and tell her the goodbye Cox had denied him.
“Yes, I missed you,” he answered soberly. “Why did you come here?”
She shrugged and stood up, letting the sleeves of his sweater drop and completely cover her hands. The cuffs dangled several inches below her fingertips as she strolled seductively toward the bed. Her long, beautiful legs stretched out from beneath the hem of his sweater, almost long enough to be a dress for her.
“Because I missed you, Jarod,” she answered innocently. Then she slowly lifted the sweater off over her head, revealing the lacy black underwear underneath. “Wanna see how much?”
Walking across the dusty bed on her knees, she came to him, toppled him backward and proceeded to demonstrate.
When he awoke later -- was it possible to sleep inside of a dream? -- she was still there, snuggled right beside him in the sleeping bag. Already awake and watching him, she smiled up at him and giggled in that slightly hoarse, sexy voice of hers.
Jarod was lost. They made love again, and he felt his perceptions beginning to slide.
Maybe this wasn't a dream. Maybe she really was here, and not just a figment of his imagination. There was substance to her, and perfume, and the music of her sighs. All of his senses told him this was real.
Zoe had come back to him.
He rose at her urging and stoked the fire while she dressed again in his sweater and padded toward the bathroom.
“I love your dad,” she called. “He’s a wonderful man, someone you can depend on. He took good care of me.”
Jarod smiled with pride. He hoped he was like his father.
“Unlike some people I know,” she added irritably.
His smile vanished. He rose, the fire forgotten, and turned toward the door. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She strolled out of the bathroom with a coquettish smile. But there was something hard and cold in her beautiful brown eyes. “You know what I mean. But don’t worry about it. It’s all over now anyway. Why don’t you go rustle up some breakfast?”
The pit of his stomach was churning. “Do you want some, too?”
Zoe laughed. “No thanks, I'm not hungry these days. But you need to eat. I’ll meet you downstairs.” She wandered out of the room and down the hall toward the staircase.
He bent down to stoke the fire again, visited the bathroom and went to make the breakfast she had ordered.
But he didn’t feel like cooking. Instead, he unwrapped a Wildberry Pop Tart and began to munch on it as he checked on the equipment he had set up the night before in the kitchen, where the previous disturbance took place. All the machinery had been switched off again.
He turned everything back on and checked the readings, but there was nothing recorded on any of the devices. In fact, from the moment he had gone upstairs, they had ceased to operate. Dutifully, he began to move the equipment piece by piece up to the bedroom, hoping to record something there. Surely when Zoe returned, there would be some evidence that something was there with him.
He would have proof that the human spirit was eternal.
As soon as he had unplugged the last device, he heard her laughter.
“Come outside with me!” she called. “We’ll play in the snow.”
Jarod followed the sound to the living room, where she stood beside the door, dressed in his sweater and nothing else.
She was so beautiful she made his heart ache.
“C’mon! I bet you’ve never built a snowman, have you?”
He loved the sound of her laughter.
He loved her.
“Get your coat and join me!”
The door opened, and a gust of wind blew inside, chilling him to the bone. He wasn’t sure if it was a faulty locking mechanism coaxed open by the wind, or the ghost he could so clearly see. But he wanted more than anything to have a little more time with her. He grabbed his coat and gloves off the draped sofa where he had left them the day before, and donned them as he raced outside.
She danced in the whiteness, her arms outstretched, her beautiful face tilted up toward the sky and the peacefully falling flakes. She was laughing, and the sound sliced into him with an agony he could not contain. Tears gathered in his eyes as he approached her, his hands outstretched to touch her, but she hopped playfully away.
“C’mon, snowman time!” she announced, and picked up handfuls of snow, packing them together into a tight ball. “Like this, only bigger. You make a big ball on the bottom, a medium sized one in the middle, and a small one for the head. Then you decorate it with hats and stuff, with features made of carrots and sticks and things like that.”
There was such humor and happiness in her expression and voice that his tears faded quickly, freezing onto his eyelashes. He began to build according to her instructions, while she scampered around him. His hands were freezing in short order, but he did not stop to warm them. When he finished the ball for the head and set it on top of the developing structure, he turned to face her and got a fluffy snowball in the eye.
“Ha ha!” she crowed. “Gotcha!”
He scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at her, but she seemed to dodge everything he launched. And then he forgot again that she wasn’t real, laughing and trying even harder to tag her with a snowball or catch her as she leaped and danced around him in unbridled joy. She caught him with a kiss as soon as he stopped for a breather, and then shoved him backward into a thick pile of snow.
“Snow angels! Betcha never made one of those, either,” she cheered, and fell backward into the snow beside him. She moved her arms and legs in the familiar pattern to demonstrate how it was done, and when he got the idea, she rose and dusted the dangling sweater arms over the impression she had made, obliterating it thoroughly.
“Hey! What’d you do that for?” he demanded playfully, standing up again to admire his handiwork.
“’Cause I’m already an angel,” she reminded him, head cocked to one side with a bitter smile sliding across her lips. “Don’t you remember?”
His throat closed up. He nodded, the happiness of a moment ago gone utterly.
“It didn’t hurt,” she assured him. “I just went to sleep and woke up… like this.” Zoe danced away a few steps, kicking up snow with her bare feet. “I was dying anyway, you know. I guess I should thank you for sparing me the pain I was facing.” Her expression sobered. “But then, I’d have had more time if you hadn’t walked back into my life.”
“I know,” he rasped, the words burning in his tight throat. “I’m so sorry.”
She nodded. “I know. But that won’t bring me back, will it?”
He hung his head guiltily. “No, it won’t. I would have--“
When he looked up again, she had vanished.
He glanced around himself at the snow, noting that the only footprints in the powdery flakes were his own. The place where she had lain bore no evidence of her slender body having been there. He stood alone, waiting for her for a few moments, and then moved toward the unfinished snowman and began to scoop up handfuls of the white stuff to change the figure’s shape.
Hours later, his hands all but frozen, he trudged back into the house without a final glance at the winged snow angel standing guard over the frozen lawn behind him. The sculpture was fashioned Greco-Roman style, the woman’s body softly draped with frozen fabric made entirely of hand-shaped snow. Her bowed head bore a striking resemblance to someone he had loved and lost not long ago, someone he would never see again… at least, not in the flesh.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker was actually making progress. The theme of the afterlife was leading her somewhere, if only she could grasp that one element that kept eluding her. She narrowed her focus completely to the words she had keyed in on the computer screen, and re-read the last paragraph yet again, her keen intellect zeroing in on…
Nothing. She sighed. Whatever it was that had almost been there, slipped out of her grasp.
When she looked up again, Gabriel’s crayons and paper were scattered across the floor, but he was nowhere in sight. She started to rise in alarm, then realized he had come around the desk to stand next to her chair. “What is it, honey?”
Gabriel’s large, dark eyes were solemn. They seemed to swallow the rest of his features as he looked up at his big sister. “Go see Dawid.”
Instantly, she flashed back to his birthday, to the moment when he asked her if “Dawid” was real. She had dismissed the idea, knowing it was impossible that he could be talking about Jarod, someone he'd never met, never even heard mentioned. She still didn't want to believe.
"Gabriel, I don't understand." She reached down to pat his head. "What are you trying to say?"
Immediately he started to crawl into her chair. With a sigh she picked him up and placed him on her lap, where he squirmed around until his back was to her and he faced the desk.
"Are you going to write my report for me?" she asked lightly, one corner of her mouth turning up as she held him steady. "Because I really wouldn't mind that at all."
Gabriel busied himself by pawing through her papers. There among the lists of videotapes, the roster of people interviewed and other information on the firehouse, lay the photograph she had shown the realtor who rented the old building to the missing Pretender. Gabriel picked up the photo, his chubby fingers having difficulty with the fine motor movements needed to grasp the thin paper.
"Dawid," said Gabriel.
She took the picture out of his hand and looked at it. There was no longer any doubt. Gabriel knew exactly who Jarod was.
She felt as if she had been punched in the gut.
With trembling fingers, she guided the photograph back to her desktop. "Honey, do you know where Jarod is?" It was a long shot. A lost-in-space-type long shot. But the question had come out of her without conscious thought.
Gabriel turned around and buried his face against her neck, grasping at her shoulders with his soft baby hands. "Bad house," he said in a tiny, frightened voice. "Mine, go see Dawid."
She cuddled him close, and kissed his hair. Things she hadn't been quite able to reach now danced in her mind's eye. She picked up the phone and dialed Broots' desk in the Tech Room, hoping he would be there and not off with Sydney doing God knew what.
"Broots, I've got a job for you," she said quietly into the receiver. "Stop whining. You can do this at your desk." She sighed. "I want you to start in the area of Jarod's last lair, and work outward. You're looking for houses with a reputation, something out of the ordinary."
Gabriel slid down to the floor and toddled back over to the crayons and paper, but now he didn't touch them. He climbed into the box with the toys instead, and tossed them out, one by one. Then he just sat there for a moment, staring straight ahead.
"Bad house," he said again. And then he turned around to look at his sister.
Parker stared right back. "No, I'm not sure what you're looking for. But don't do anything else -- don't even breathe -- until you've brought me everything you can find within a 50 mile radius of that lair."
She hung up, and went to sit with Gabriel on the floor.
* * * * * * * * *
As soon as his shift was over, Willie handed over the keys to Raines’ office to the next sweeper assigned to guard duty, and headed for the elevators. He glanced at the control panel, aimed for the button that would take him to the top floor and home for the day, but changed direction and punched a lower floor instead. When the doors opened, he stepped out slowly, glancing right and left to see if anyone had seen him exit, but there was no one in the corridor.
He headed for Renewal, walking softly to listen for other footsteps or voices that would tell him someone was approaching. Cautiously, he opened the steel door, stepped inside and strolled between the curtained exam rooms, therapy rooms and wards. All the way to the rear of the wing he went, pausing outside one of the last private rooms where Centre secrets were locked away from prying eyes.
Quickly he eased inside, closing the door behind himself. With a glance through the glass panel in the door, he confirmed that no one had seen him enter that room. He turned around, his dark eyes studying the limp, apparently lifeless form of William Raines.
“Hello, Mr. Raines,” he said softly.
The other man didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t acknowledge that he was no longer alone.
Willie pulled up a chair from near the door, so he could sit close to the man in the wheelchair.
“There’s some friction between Mr. Parker and his daughter,” he reported quietly. “I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but I think it has something to do with the baby. Something suspicious is going on with him, and I think Miss Parker knows what it is.”
Raines blinked, his watery blue eyes vacant.
“There’s a rumor going around that she’s trying to sabotage the program,” Willie continued. “I don’t think there’s anything to that, personally, but then… I know what happened with her mother. Maybe history’s repeating itself.”
The sweeper stood and laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I just wanted to keep you up to date, sir. I know it’s hard to hear anything down here. Not much gossip going on with the frea-- with the other patients here. And I know how you like to stay on top of things.”
Willie carried the chair back to its former position, adjusted his suit and turned to offer his boss a conspiratorial smile. “I’ll be back when I’ve got more, Mr. Raines, just like I promised.” He slipped silently out the door and let it close on its own behind him.
The old man sat perfectly still, his eyes blank, head lolled forward on his chest. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, whistling around the oxygen tube just below his nostrils. The corner of his mouth twitched, jumped and pulled tightly into his cheek.
It almost looked as if he was smiling.
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