Stolen Moments

 

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The Centre, Miss Parker's office
Monday morning, 7 am

Miss Parker sat at her desk, not a hair out of place. Nobody could have guessed from looking at her that she was operating on less than five hours of sleep. The tap on the door told her it was Broots, in answer to her summons. Only Broots could sound both tentative and determined at the same time.

“Come in.” The door opened and Broots entered. “Have a seat.” It was a measure of the confidence he’d gained that Broots actually did just that.

Miss Parker reached across the table and handed him a file folder. “Take this and find these people for me. Don’t disclose their locations to anyone.” She handed him a note. Broots read it, and nodded. The instructions said simply, “Call me at my place and say Debbie wants to see me when you have some answers.” Broots left and Miss Parker turned her gaze to the clock on the wall. It was time for her to make another move. And it was too important to chance that a Centre observer might accidentally discover what she was up to.

* * * * * * * * *

Simmons and Hart, Booksellers
Kingston, NY
Monday morning

Jarod inhaled the smell of old books. Logically, he knew that he was likely inhaling all sorts of mold spores and dust, yet the smell was somehow relaxing. The dark, quiet peace of the antiquarian bookstore appealed to him. There were dozens of shelves, with a two-foot width between the shelves. In the rear, the space widened and there was a wooden rocking chair in front of a window. Apparently, the owner figured that if you got back that far, you deserved to be able to sit quietly and read. Working here gave Jarod quiet in which to plan his next move, and it gave him lots of time to surf the net. Just because he sold old books, the owner said, that was no reason not to have the latest conveniences, including a high speed Internet connection. Part of Jarod’s duties required keeping track of the latest auctions and then shipping the books out to the highest bidder.

Surfing the net meant that he could keep in contact with people he cared about. In particular, Jarod was sharing his discoveries with Jordan. He’d never read John Carter of Mars or the Tarzan books, and neither had Jordan. They were reading them together via Project Gutenberg, delighting in the tales of a more innocent time. Jarod thought about it, then sent another e-mail. He was going to add someone else to his book club.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre, Miss Parker's office
9 am

Sydney entered the office first, precisely at nine o’clock. He had a small pad of paper with him, but no file folders. He carried everything he knew about Jarod in his head now.

Eve was only a few minutes behind Sydney. In many ways, she reminded Miss Parker of her father, confident and impersonal. Eve was dressed in the most elegant of business suits, and she wore an air of assurance that told both Parker and Sydney that she hadn’t lost much face since Jarod’s escape. She had a small DSA viewer, which she placed on Parker’s immaculate desktop.

“So,” Miss Parker said, “have you any idea, Sydney, how Aurora might be affecting Jarod at this point?”

“I can’t begin to imagine. He hasn’t contacted us. The usual addict/supplier scenario doesn’t apply here.” Sydney sat calmly in the chair next to Miss Parker, directly facing her desk.

“I have some examples here of how Aurora worked on the test subjects,” Eve answered. Eve placed a DSA in the viewer and switched it on. The sight before their eyes was astonishing. One of the test subjects, a slight man who reminded Miss Parker vaguely of Broots, had killed a sweeper well over six feet tall in order to get the drug. It was as though he’d been so consumed with need for the drug that he was willing to risk anything, injury or death, in order to get Aurora. Over 20 test subjects had been given the drug and none of them were able to fight the addiction. None of them had even shown signs over the test period of wanting to try.

Eve stopped the DSA with a particularly gruesome suicide on the screen, as though she wanted to provoke a reaction from Sydney.

“If they couldn’t get Aurora, the test subjects didn’t want to live. It seems hard to believe that Jarod could break that kind of addiction,” Eve remarked.

“He has been forcibly addicted to drugs before. And he survived a pretend in a drug rehabilitation center without becoming addicted a year and a half ago,” Sydney answered. “Possibly he developed skills during that period which he’s using now.”

Eve looked surprised. “No one mentioned that to me. That could certainly be playing a part in his recovery. Why isn’t that information in his files?”

“Thank Mr. Raines, “ Miss Parker answered, but did not elaborate. “It’s also possible our little genius has synthesized the drug on his own. After all, he did have full access to the formula.”

“It’s even possible that he was able to make some modifications in the formula which preclude the need for him to contact us,” Sydney suggested.

“We saw that he tried to go through detoxification, yet there was nothing in that warehouse to indicate how successful the detoxification was, ” Eve said. “If Jarod had already gone through the process, he may have built up an immunity to some of the cravings of addiction.”

“Jarod’s ability to anticipate the thoughts and feelings of others, and to think several steps ahead, is one of the reasons the Centre finds him so valuable,” stated Sydney.

“Of course,” Eve answered. It still frustrated her that so little of the research that Jarod left behind had been able to be used. Many of his notes were in a unique shorthand which Jarod had not used before while in the Centre. ”But to keep him going, there must be something else motivating him. We need to use that.”

“Jarod is motivated by two things: his need to help other people, which we instilled in him in order to get him to complete his sims as a child, and his need to find his family. If you add an addiction into the picture, there’s no telling what you’ll come up with,” Sydney replied.

Eve snorted delicately. “Nonetheless, this gives us a starting place.”

“Indeed. Why don’t you drop some breadcrumbs and we’ll see where the trail leads us?” Miss Parker answered with only a hint of her usual sarcasm. She didn’t want Eve to go away angrily, just to go away.

Eve left, taking the DSAs with her. The door shut firmly behind her.

“I don’t like her attitude,” Sydney said. “It’s possible she’ll be looking for Jarod on her own and not be willing to share all her information.”

“And this would be a new way for a Centre employee to act?” Miss Parker answered, raising her eyebrows.

“Miss Parker, I don’t know what your agenda is, but I’d like to get Jarod back in one piece. I can’t believe that inestimable harm hasn’t been done by enslaving him to this drug. The DSAs of the other addicts were hardly reassuring, nor was the one of Jarod I was allowed to see,” Sydney replied.

“I’m here to do a job. Jarod must be returned to the Centre. There’s no way we can let him go roaming around on his own. Nor am I terribly comfortable with the idea that he might still be so addicted that he’d sell his soul for another dose. I’d much rather have Jarod loyal to my interests when he's back at the Centre, than to whomever can keep him supplied with a drug.” That much, Miss Parker felt, was safe to say, even in the Centre. She doubted very much that her office had been re-bugged, but she couldn’t take any chances. Gabriel’s future, as well as hers and Jarod’s, was at stake. This was not the place to confide in Sydney.

“Do you have a plan?” Sydney asked.

“Several. You don’t need to concern yourself with them, Syd. And don’t worry about Eve. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on her, just in case she’s tempted to get into mischief.”

Sydney knew that was all he was going to get out of Miss Parker at the moment. He left, with two words on the pad of paper he’d brought along: Catherine’s plan. When Catherine had made up her mind, she could be incredibly stubborn. That stubbornness was a trait shared by her daughter. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead Miss Parker into the same sort of danger that had killed her mother.

* * * * * * * * *

St. Catherine's School
Pennsylvania

The dark-haired teenager wore a bracelet with her adopted name, Merritt on her left wrist. She glanced at the watch on her other hand, noting the time. She turned on her computer and accessed her chat software, typing rapidly.

Merritt: I haven’t got long, but I wanted to say hi.
Threepio: Hi. Glad we’re on at the same time.
Merritt: Can we meet later?
Threepio: Sure. I’m going to be visiting friends in PA and might be able to meet up with you if you are near there.
Merritt: Wow! I thought you meant meet online. But I’d like to meet in person.
Threepio: OK. We can meet at the Liberty Bell in Philly at noon on Wednesday. Would that work?
Merritt: I’ll make it work. See you there.

Her face got the grim, determined look that meant she was coming up with a plan. If anyone had been in the plain, white-walled bedroom with her, they would have known it meant trouble. The last time, the trouble had been as simple as candy where it was strictly forbidden. This time things were going to be just a little more complicated. She needed to meet her friend.

She and Threepio had been chatting online for about six months now. Jarod had introduced them in a chat session. Merritt hadn’t told Threepio her real name, and he hadn’t told her his. Merritt knew Jarod would never lie to her about her safety and that it was OK to have Threepio as a friend if Jarod said so. Threepio was someone who Jarod thought it was safe for her to know, and who knew about the Centre. Jarod had been very particular in mentioning that point. It was important, because while Merritt had friends in school, she always felt like she was holding something back. Threepio seemed like he might be a cute guy, but what appealed to her the most was that she wouldn’t have to pretend with him. She and Jarod had exchanged e-mail regarding how much he thought she could tell Threepio and she’d been kind of surprised when Jarod had said “everything.” Jarod was the only person whose instincts she trusted more than her own.

Lately, she’d had the feeling that something important was coming. She wasn’t sure if it connected to Threepio or not. Her feelings were never quite that clear beforehand. At the moment, meeting with Threepio felt so right that she didn’t question that this was what she should do.

* * * * * * * * *

Merritt dialed the phone.

“Hi, Aunt Harriet. Can I come and visit this weekend?” she asked.

“Sure, honey.” Harriet Tashman had developed a great interest in the young girl who looked so much like her friend Catherine. They’d met at a church-sponsored bazaar. Harriet had been astonished by the resemblance and had been delighted to befriend the lonely young girl. She hadn’t liked to push her, though, which was why the overture from Merritt meant so much. A young girl didn’t always want to confide in an older woman, especially an ex-nun.

* * * * * * * * *

Simmons and Hart, Booksellers, Kingston, NY
Monday afternoon

Jarod booted up his computer. There was a message from Jordan; he wanted to go to Philadelphia and meet up with Merritt. Jarod had known that would happen from the moment he introduced Merritt to Jordan online. As Threepio, Jordan’s quick mind had given Merritt a companion who could keep up with her. Their online games and conversations had quickly developed into a strong friendship.

It was risky for Jordan and Merritt to meet face to face. But, they were both adrift and alone and could use the friendship. He’d take them to a secure place.

The second message however, was clearly not from anyone in his family. Nobody he knew would send him an anonymous picture of an Asian doll. It was dressed in an ornate kimono, its pale face painted after the fashion of Kabuki masks. A quick attempt at tracking its origin showed that the file wasn’t easily traceable. He had used a similar strategy when he first left the Centre. That wasn’t a guarantee that the Centre was behind the picture, but it was enough to send a shiver down his spine.

Jarod was keeping the bookstore open and running the ebay auction in order to raise funds for a family in desperate need of the money. Victims of a rare blood disorder, they needed specialized treatment, which would be paid for with the proceeds of the auction.

But it also meant that, in the present, Jarod had to lay low and keep away from anything that might put anyone else into danger.

Jarod picked up his cell phone and dialed a familiar number.

“Hello?”

“Emily, I’ve got a favor to ask you. Jordan wants to meet a young friend of his in Philadelphia. I’ve arranged the meeting and wanted to be there, but it just isn’t going to work out. Could you take him for me?” Jarod asked.

“Are you in trouble?” Emily replied.

“No more than usual. It’s possible the Centre is closer to finding me than I’d like, and I’m not willing to risk Jordan being anywhere near them. So it looks like my best option is to lay low for a few days and then move on.”

“OK, big brother, no problem. Just be sure you stay in one piece. If I had a dime for every time I've been worried about you, I’d be rich,” Emily replied.

“You be careful, too. This should be safe, but there’s no guarantee,” Jarod answered.

“I don’t need guarantees.” Emily’s sigh was barely audible, but it conveyed a lot of meaning to Jarod. “And I suppose you want me to be the one to sweet-talk Dad into letting Jordan do this, too.”

“He’ll listen to you. I think there's a part of Dad that’s still trying to compensate for my kidnapping. I understand how protective family can make someone feel, but Jordan has to have more opportunities to interact with others. You’re good for him, Em,” Jarod stated. His conversations with Jordan had confirmed that the younger man always relaxed more around Emily. And Jordan would have more fun with Merritt if he was relaxed.

“Emily, the tonic,” she said with a smile in her voice.

“Something like that,” Jarod answered with a similar smile in his tone. “We should try and get together in person sometime soon. I really miss you all.”

“I miss you, too. After I bring Jordan home I’ll try and spend some time with him and Dad,” Emily promised. She carefully avoided prompting Jarod for promises of a meeting she wasn’t sure she’d be able to attend. Margaret was slowly improving, but she needed Emily’s support in order to do it. Juggling all the members of her family was getting a little complicated.

You will be careful, though,” Jarod said. He had been hoping Emily would spend time with his father and Jordan. Em had sounded like she was under stress, and being with her family always seemed to help.

“Very. And you watch your back, too, big brother,” Emily retorted.

“Always,” Jarod replied, hanging up the phone. He trusted Emily to get Jordan to the rendezvous without making a production out of it. And Jordan was more likely to respond positively to any encouragement to be careful from Emily. Although Jordan got along well enough with the older man, it sometimes seemed as though the generation gap between his father and Jordan interfered with communication. Their father would let Jordan go off with Emily or Jarod without comment, but he wouldn’t approve of anything which might bring Jordan to the Centre’s attention. He didn’t tolerate the idea of risk to his family well. While Jarod certainly had some of the same feelings, he also had a strong motivation to make Jordan’s life as normal as possible. One place to start was to make sure he had friends he could talk to about what his life was really like.

He then sent Jordan an e-mail telling him about the change in plans. Jordan’s reply indicated that he was disappointed but not surprised. Since his return from Australia, Jarod had been reluctant to stay too close to his family in case the Centre caught up to him. His caution had kept him free for a long time, and he intended to stay that way.

On to Act II

 
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