The Crisis Management Team assembled quickly, given the early-morning hour. They sat around the table, representing the impacted departments: Mr. Parker, the Triumvirate; Eve, Jarod's handler; Dr. Cox, the Seraphim; and Mr. Lyle, the Centre at large. No one had so much as a cup of coffee in front of them, because they all knew the Chairman wanted their undivided attention in this matter.
The Centre had been thoroughly searched; Jarod was definitely gone.
"All right," Mr. Parker harrumphed. "I know it's early, but word of this is spreading through the Centre like wildfire. I'm going to have to tell the Triumvirate something. Before that happens, I want an explanation for how Jarod escaped, and I want to know what would have given him the idea to take off in the middle of the night."
Cox nodded his head in agreement. "It was a well-timed maneuver.
If the children hadn't raised the alarm, we still might not know about
"I'll deal with her in due time, but this comes first." He turned to Eve, who had obviously put herself together quickly after receiving the call. It was the first time any of them had seen her looking less than immaculate. "Security on Jarod was lax," he told her. "You assured me there would be no escape attempts while he was on the Aurora protocol, and I took you at your word."
Eve stiffened under his barrage. "I still don't understand it. We had no indication that Jarod was contemplating a move like this. Aurora was working perfectly, keeping him in line without damaging his genius in any way." She brushed a stray bit of hair back from her face and added defiantly, "It could still bring him back. No one has ever successfully managed a withdrawal from this drug."
"So what you're telling me is, he might end up lying dead in a ditch somewhere if he decides that's a better option than working for us," Parker thundered.
"What I'm telling you, Mr. Chairman, is that Jarod doesn't have the option of deciding what's best. Aurora is all he needs, and all he wants. It's simply not possible that he would decide to leave on his own, without a plan, without backup."
Her words hung in the air for a moment, until Cox put his elbows on the table, steepling his hands and voicing the thought forming in all of their minds. "Jarod had help."
"I can't think of a way anyone could have persuaded him to leave," Eve insisted.
Lyle sorted carefully through the suspects in his mind, until the answer popped out at him. It had been staring them in the face right along. "I know who did it."
His father turned to look at him. "Who?"
He answered the question with a question. "Who's been trained to 'mirror' other peoples' emotions? Who could dig around in Junkie Boy's psyche until she found what she wanted, then make leaving the Centre sound like the best thing since sliced bread?"
Mr. Parker's expression closed off. "Faith," he announced grimly.
Lyle nodded. "Faith." Even the woman's name bothered him, when he said it out loud. "She knows what's going on in Jarod's head. Always has, ever since Eclipse. She must have come back to the Centre specifically to get him." And not me, thankfully.
"We let her pull it off, right under our noses," the Chairman growled. Well, she's not going to get away with it. Go after her, and put our best man on it. What about your new sweeper, what's his name, Valentine?"
Lyle smiled to himself. Valentine would love that. And when he was finished with the little troublemaker, there'd be nothing left of her. At least, nothing that anyone would find. Too bad I didn't think of it sooner. "Actually, I already have someone on the job; Mr. White's been tailing her. Now that she's got a drug addict in tow, I'm betting that job just got a whole lot easier."
Are you sure Whites up to the job? Parker demanded. Faith is no walk in the park.
I warned him, and gave specific instructions on how to handle her, Lyle assured him. No need to tell anyone I ordered her death. After this incident, they'll be glad enough to see her gone.
The phone on the table rang. With a look of terminal impatience that made his face flush red, Parker lifted the receiver. What? he shouted angrily. He listened. His shoulders drooped. His eyes rolled. Yes, yes, Ill be there as soon as I can.
He replaced the phone on its cradle and turned bloodshot eyes on the group. I want all of you to shake down everyone in your departments who had anything to do with Jarod or Faith. I want to know exactly what happened here tonight. He cleared his throat. Ill be back in my office shortly, and Ill expect a full report from each of you. If Im not here, wait for me in the conference room. Now, get out and do your jobs.
The group split up on their various missions, and Lyle watched as his father headed straight for the elevator, grumbling under his breath. The old man's blood pressure was probably sky high, and he looked tired, in no mood for this kind of crisis. No doubt someone was going to pay for this fiasco; the only question was who would make the most appropriate scapegoat.
* * * * * * * * *
Somewhere in Delaware
They flew down the highway in the predawn darkness, nearly alone with only the occasional car passing them. "Well, I see you learned to drive," Jarod observed. "Although I never expected you to be practicing for the Indy 500 on Delaware's back roads.
She flashed him a tiny grin. I like to get where I'm going." After a moment, she added, Besides, the more distance we put between us and the Centre, the better.
It was tiring, keeping up the pressure on him, and she felt that control starting to slip. He was agitated now, and she knew it was because his last dose of Aurora was starting to wear off. Soon he would be twitching, possibly violent, maybe impossible to contain. The haunted look in his eyes was enough to convince her to act.
I understand what you did to get me out, Faith, he said, fidgeting with his hands in his lap, as if he didnt know what to do with them. But I don't like it. You took unfair advantage--
I couldn't have convinced you unless some part of you already wanted to leave, Jarod. You know that. I cant plant emotions into peoples' minds, I can only emphasize whats already there.
I want to go back," he said abruptly. "Turn the car around, or just stop and let me out. Ill walk, take a bus, run, whatever I have to do. Please
Her face set, and her mouth firmed up in a thin, angry line. Damn them for doing this to you. She reached into her pocket and withdrew one of the vials Angelo had given her. This will take care of you for the moment. The syringes and tubing are in the glove compartment.
He snatched the bottle from her hand and dove into the compartment. Clutching the items to his chest like a life preserver, the relief in his expression was obvious. In the semi-darkness of the car, he prepared the injection and sent it home, followed by a sigh of relief. With meticulous precision, he packed the materials away and set them in his lap. He wasnt going to let them out of his sight.
He turned to her as he waited for the drug to take effect, studying her profile in the glow of the dashboard lights. Why couldnt you have just left me alone? Because of Aurora, I can finally relax. I can sleep without the demons haunting me. Im happy.
And how relaxed and happy were you a few moments ago? She shot him a frustrated glance. No, Jarod, you only think you are. Its nothing but a drug-induced haze, a lie you want desperately to believe. It isnt you."
How would you know? he snapped, before turning his face away from her and closing his eyes. Youve never been happy in your life.
That wasn't strictly true, although she knew what he was trying to say. She had worked fiercely to maintain a middle ground, surrounded as she was by the emotional maelstrom that was the Centre. All her life, true heartbreak and true joy had eluded her. They simply couldn't be afforded. She knew sadness as an old friend, but hadn't allowed herself to cry for many years. And now that she was free, that rigid control was proving difficult to shake.
Faith sighed. Now wasnt the time to start thinking about that. She had an agenda, a life to save -- and she would pursue it, whether Jarod wanted to be saved or not.
* * * * * * * * *
Mr. Lyle's office
Lyle punched in the phone number from memory. The response was immediate, in spite of the early hour. Dont you ever sleep? he queried, without bothering to identify himself.
A soft chuckle sounded in his ear. Im not paid to sleep, Mr. White reminded him.
Mind telling me where you are right now?
In a little town nobody ever heard of in upstate New York. Im still on her trail, Mr. Lyle. She gave me the slip last night, but Ill find her again. And when I do, Ill be ready to make my move.
Lyles lips pursed. Disappointment burned in his chest. Remember what I told you about her. Dont get too close. Dont let her know youre there. Just find her and get rid of her. He sighed. It may already be too late. Seems Jarod has escaped from the Centre again and guess who probably helped him?
Another low chuckle. Im not surprised. It fits with the abrupt way she left her last job.
Weeks have gone by since I gave you this assignment. I told you to take care of her.
And I will. But I have to know my target if Im going to anticipate their actions. Ive studied her. Very interesting woman. And besides, now that shes gotten your Pretender out, theyll have to deal with his addiction. They wont be able to make it far before his need becomes too strong to ignore.
Thats what the powers that be are hoping for, Lyle assured him. But dont underestimate our Looking Glass. Shes resourceful. Check with the hospitals and clinics first.
I know how to do my job, White responded coolly. Jarods friends arent likely to move in such an obvious fashion, but I know a great deal about how Faith operates. Ill find her.
While youre at it, why dont you just put us all out of our collective misery and kill them both? No one has to know, and youll like the bonus Im offering.
That will depend on opportunity. Ill let you know when I have more information.
Lyle hung up the phone and stared at the masks on his wall for a moment. He'd always been able to find his way around rocks and hard places. If he got into trouble for killing their precious pretender, he could always remind them that the clone was still out there somewhere, and could take his predecessors place in a heartbeat. No doubt the boy would be more malleable and less trouble, once they got him away from Major Charles.
And with Mr. White in his pocket, he had no doubt the man could find Gemini. That would be a feather in his cap that might well earn him a seat on the Triumvirate. From there, it would be one small step to the Chairmanship. Once he had that, they'd never be able to take him down.
He smiled, winking at the African death mask grinning back at him, and opened up one of the files waiting for his attention.
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker's house
The ringing woke her out of a sound sleep. Parker reached blindly for the nightstand, grabbing her cordless phone and preparing to blast whomever was calling at this ungodly hour. "What?!"
"I need you to get to the Centre as quickly as possible," came the deep voice on the other end.
She frowned, the words slowly penetrating as the fog around her brain began to lift. "Daddy? What's wrong?"
"Jarod has escaped."
Those three words acted like a jolt of electricity to her system. She all but leaped out of bed, instantly awake, and started for the bathroom. "I'll be there as soon as I can," she promised before ending the call and tossing the phone back on onto the mattress.
There wasn't time for her usual morning routine, so she threw something on as quickly as she could, and flew out of the house. Part of her wanted to rejoice that Jarod had gotten away from the Centre, but she was also worried. What would happen when he needed another dose of the drug that kept him leashed? She had read the protocols. She knew what cold turkey withdrawal would do to him, and the picture was horrifying indeed.
She tore out of her driveway, slinging gravel in every direction as she turned onto the highway. In minutes she was pulling past the front gate, flashing her ID, and parking as close to the front door as possible. She tried to breeze past the checkpoint at the entry, but her own procedures, recently enacted, forced her to walk through a metal detector, sign in electronically and while that signature was being checked, place her left palm on the glass to have it scanned and verify her identity.
All this, and still Jarod had managed to get out.
Sam was waiting for her in the lobby, looking equally haggard and unkempt. "They need you down on SL-17," he told her tensely. "The whole place is in an uproar. I don't know what the hell's going on, but it's big."
She pushed him out of her way without a word, stepped into the elevator and punched the button. Sam stepped in before the doors closed, and she caught him staring. Wisely, he turned his eyes back toward the doors, cleared his throat nervously, and waited for them to open.
Slippers flapping angrily down the smooth corridor floor, Parker rushed toward the nursery. There were several people standing outside Gabriel's new rooms, including Cox and the Chairman himself. Cox was wrapping a length of white gauze around the older man's right hand.
"What the hell happened?" she demanded.
The Chairman's face was flushed beet red. "The little... Gabriel bit me," he announced. "I went in there to talk to him, and he bit me!"
She fought the urge to laugh out loud at the man's discomfiture. "What's the matter with him? What did you do?"
When he didn't answer immediately, she moved resolutely through the door into Penfield's personal quarters. The toddler's strident wailing could be heard through the door into the nursery, while Penfield herself was pacing slow, measured steps across the small room.
A look of relief passed over the older woman's face, although it quickly dissolved back into the blank mask she usually wore. "Gabriel is inconsolable. He's trashing his room, won't let anyone come near. I don't know what's gotten into him."
"I do," the Chairman grumbled angrily, coming in the door. "Every one of the children on this floor knows what happened. Jarod's gone, and they can feel it. They want him back."
Miss Parker whirled around to face him. So, Jarod was working with the children. Her eyes narrowed, and she slipped seamlessly into the role of outraged sister. "What do you mean, they want him back? You allowed that junkie to associate with the children? With my brother?"
Now comes the double-talk and lies.
The Chairman straightened up, gazing at her down his nose. "We didn't want to waste Jarod's brilliance. He has a gift, and I wanted Gabriel to make use of it. The boy's smart." He glanced down at his bandaged hand. "Maybe too smart. But we were always very careful to watch every interaction. Jarod was never left alone with the children."
"Why wasn't I told?" Miss Parker demanded. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
Something in the next room crashed and broke against the door.
"Right now," the old man advised, "I think you need to see if you can calm the boy down. None of the rest of us have had any luck." He sighed. "I had no idea a two-year-old could be so damned destructive. You were never like that."
Without a word, she went to the door, pausing long enough to compose herself before she went inside.
Gabriel's room was a disaster area. Sheets and blankets had been dragged off the bed. A small bookcase was overturned, books scattered everywhere, and a lamp beside the rocking chair was smashed into tiny pieces, the chair itself lying on its side.
As temper tantrums went, this was a doozy.
Standing in the middle of the room, a Golden book in each hand, was Gabriel. His face was reddened, and tears filled his eyes and streamed down his chubby cheeks. His voice was hoarse, almost gone. Spotting a grown-up shape through the tears, he let fly with one of the books, and it went whizzing past her to impact against the wall. Not bad for a toddler.
But when he saw her, recognized her through his grief, he dropped the other book he had been about to throw and ran to her, arms up, calling, "Mine! Mine!"
"Yes, baby, I'm here now. It's okay," she cooed, grabbing him up in a fierce embrace. "What happened? What made you so mad?"
"Jawid gone," the boy cried, bringing on fresh tears. He buried his face against her throat and sobbed.
She soothed and kissed him in her arms, holding him close, making her way across the room toward the rocker. Balancing carefully, she hooked her right foot under one of the arms and struggled to right it without falling down. With surprisingly little effort, she managed to get it done and then sat down to have a talk with her son.
"What happened to Jarod?" she asked the child.
"Bunny take Jawid 'way," he said, sniffling.
"Who is Bunny?"
He looked at her helplessly, unable to explain the name he had chosen for his Friend. "Jawid go 'way," he repeated. "I want Jawid." With a wail, he began crying again.
Miss Parker cuddled him close and began to rock, crooning softly to him. "It's all right, honey. You'll see Jarod again."
He looked up at her, a ray of hope on his little tear-stained face. "Jawid come back?"
She reminded herself that she was being watched. Good as it sounded, she couldn't tell Gabriel that Jarod would return. God willing, their next encounter would be when he and all of the other children were away from this house of horrors. "You'll see Jarod again," she repeated, stroking his back gently. "I promise."
* * * * * * * * *
The two men looked through the one-way glass at the homey scene.
"How far can you trust her?" Cox asked pensively. "She's much too close to the boy. The connection they share could be dangerous."
"Don't you worry about my little girl," the chairman assured him. "I've got her right where I want her."
Cox nodded, but did not look convinced. He turned and left the observation room, mumbling about finishing his night's sleep down the hall.
Parker watched his daughter soothe the toddler back to sleep, just about the time Penfield stole in and set up his bed again. The young woman tucked the child into his bed, placed a kiss on his hair, and shot a frigid glare at the nurse on her way out of the nursery.
The Chairman met her in the hallway outside.
She was livid. "What happened to Jarod?" she demanded. "Why could his absence possibly stir Gabriel up so much? And how could Aurora fail so miserably to keep your prize in jail?"
The older man looked suddenly ancient. The lines in his face deepened. He ran a hand over his shiny dome and sighed. "The breakout occurred a couple of hours ago. The children--"
"Two hours ago?" She felt as if she was about to explode. "And you're just telling me about it now? Did it not occur to you that I'm the freaking head of SIS? I should have been the first person notified!"
He held up his hands to hold off her fury. "Now, now, angel, I--"
She jabbed a finger at him, punctuating her words with additional angry thrusts. "Don't you 'angel' me, Daddy! This is my territory, and you've cut me out of it. Why wasn't I informed first?"
"Because I had issued orders that all incidents relating to Jarod go to Eve first, and me second."
She took a deep breath and let it out noisily, as if trying to gain control of her rising temper. "Look, Daddy, we've had this discussion before. I can't do my job unless I know what's going on. I have to know everything, every detail. If you keep cutting me out--"
"I want you to catch him for me again."
Parker fell silent. The ramifications of that request echoed inside her head. If she was demoted, if she lost her seat in SIS, she would lose any hope of implementing her mother's plan. She couldn't let that happen.
"As long as I stay on as director of SIS, I can do that. After five years of chasing Jarod, I've earned this job, and I intend to keep it. And in SIS, I'll be sure to have access to all the information I need to do the job right this time."
The Chairman winced and glanced down at his hand. "We'll talk about that later. I've set up a meeting for this afternoon. For now, you've got work to do. I suggest you get on it before the trail goes cold."
He headed for the elevator, leaving her standing in the nursery corridor, head spinning with the events of the night.
Jarod couldn't have -- wouldn't have -- done this alone. That was the first thing that jumped into her mind. Gabriel said "Bunny" had taken him away. But who -- or what -- was Bunny?
* * * * * * * * *
The elevator deposited her on the third floor, and she headed straight for her office. Broots came rushing up -- she could smell the Funyuns on his breath before she caught sight of him -- and escorted her into her base of operations. There were already department heads clustered in the staging area downstairs, and in a few moments they would be called up to report to her directly.
"Miss Parker, did you hear the news? Jarod's escaped!"
"No kidding, Sherlock. And what are you doing here at this hour of the morning? You didn't leave Debbie at home alone, did you?"
"Uh, no, a neighbor is staying with her. I got the call about an hour ago."
She could only stare in disbelief. They had called Eve, Cox, even her own underling before calling her. Heads were going to roll.
"You're going to help me figure this out," she told him. "I want to talk to everyone who had anything to do with Jarod, the floor he was on, the projects he was working on, and especially the Aurora project. We're going to recreate the circumstances, and we're going to find out what happened. I'm not losing my job over this." She strode out to the balcony, snapped her fingers over it at the people down below and shouted for coffee. Half a dozen people scurried away in different directions to do her bidding.
Broots sighed. "It's going to be a long day."
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