Stolen Moments

 

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A park in Pennsylvania

Morgan Parker walked in the autumn quiet next to the young girl who looked so much like her. She wondered if it had been like this for her mother, unnerving yet indescribably precious.

“Harriet keeps saying I look like you,” Merritt said, breaking the silence. “I never realized what that would feel like.”

“How does it feel?” Miss Parker asked.

“Scary. Like if I meet someone who knows you they’ll automatically expect me to be you,” Merritt answered. “And I don’t know enough about who I am to want to be someone else.”

“I know how that feels. People tell me all the time that I look just like my mother. It’s had a major effect on how I lived a lot of my life. I used to think my mother was weak, but now, it makes me feel good when people say it. That change of heart helped me make an important decision.” Parker paused.

“What decision?” Merritt asked, looking serious.

“Looks aren’t everything.” Miss Parker picked up a chestnut, and held it in her hand. Then she tossed it gently to a small gray squirrel. “What’s important is that this once, I have a chance to be friends with someone I want to get to know better. I know I’m not your mother, not really. But I can be your friend.”

“You’re sort of like my mother.” Merritt smiled. “I like that. I’ve missed having a family a lot. Harriet is nice, but she isn’t quite the same. She’d like to hide me in a cocoon and keep me safe. But I need to get to know people and make my own decisions.”

“You're young to be on your own. But you have a lot of confidence.”

“It’s how I was raised. I don’t get too scared. I just get curious.”

“Curious about what?”

“You, for one thing. Jarod says you have a dad. And a brother.”

“Two brothers, really. I share one with Jarod. You should meet him. He’s called Ethan.”

“Does he live near you?”

“No. He went with Jarod, to be safe.”

“If the Centre isn’t safe, why do you stay there?”

“Right now, because of Gabriel. He's… my baby brother. I need to stay near him and give him someone who loves him just because he’s a little boy and not because of what he is. He's very smart… just like you and Jordan.”

“Why don’t you just take him and run away?” Merritt knew running away wasn’t always the best solution, but it held a lot of appeal.

“Because I don’t want him raised on the run, either. The Centre has always been just one step behind Jarod. If I left, they might be a lot closer than one step away from me.”

Merritt tossed a chestnut of her own towards a squirrel. Parker stayed silent, watching to see what would happen next.

“Am I an experiment? Are you trying to hide me from the Centre?” Merritt was throwing out suppositions, hoping Miss Parker would convince her that it would be safe for them to be friends.

“No. I know you’re your own person. It’s true that if the Centre discovers us it would make it harder for me to protest my innocence and maintain my foothold in the Centre hierarchy. I can’t deny the Centre is dangerous, and that you should avoid coming to their attention at all costs,” Miss Parker paused. “We might both be in danger. You’re worth it, though. And I don’t have a final plan, not yet. I just like indulging myself and talking with you because I think you can understand how I feel. I’ve always liked the idea of a family of my own and you may be as close as I can get to that.”

“You don’t trust your father,” Merritt stated.

“No, I don’t.” Miss Parker was still referring to the man she’d called father for so long out of habit. But it was equally true of her real father, whoever he was. There were very few people she could totally trust and some secrets she was even going to keep from this girl who already meant so much to her.

* * * * * * * *

Later in the day, somewhere near the ocean in Delaware

Miss Parker stopped her car and looked out over the water. It was one of her nightmares that Gabriel would end up like Kyle. Gabriel had enough self-identity to fight any programming which Cox would throw at him. She felt fairly confident that he wouldn’t break totally. And even as young as he was, Gabriel seemed to have an instinct about who to trust that would keep him from believing too many lies. But the Kyle she’d met in the Centre had been shut down, closed off. So far she’d prevented that from happening to Gabriel. But how long did it take for a child to shut down?

What she’d discovered this time had been the extent of the programming which Kyle had received. And the carrot used to motivate him had been the chance to see his parents. He’d been desperate to find them, sure they could fix anything.

That was all very well. If Gabriel needed her, he would know where to find her. That she could control. But if the Centre used any consistency in the methods they used to program these children, some overpowering need would be programmed into Gabriel as well. She’d have to discover what that need was and make sure she could use her knowledge to keep Gabriel safe. That was something she could do which Jarod couldn’t help her with at the moment.

Simmons and Hart, Booksellers, Kingston, NY
Friday morning

Jarod booted up the store computer. Immediately, as he’d come to expect, there was an e-mail with a photo of an Asian doll attached. This one had a scar on her face. Again, each detail of the doll’s dress indicated that the sender had great experience with Asian culture. Whoever was sending these pictures knew what message they wanted to give him, and why.

Today’s message had been anticipated. The receipt of the e-mail triggered a program on Jarod’s computer, which automatically bounced back a little program. The code went into the sender’s hard drive and sent to Jarod the first 10 files it found. Jarod opened the first file.

It read:
Memo regarding the Seraphim Project.
Your request to work with this child has not been granted at this time. It is felt by the Centre management that she will benefit more from working with her current tutors. We will keep your request in mind and notify you should your assistance be deemed necessary.

That was enough. Jarod hit the key which sent the worm into the other computer’s hard drive, destroying the digital footprints that would lead back to his inquiry. He’d have to scrub this e-mail account and try and stay out of the way of his unknown enemy. Perhaps the other files would tell him more about his adversary. Someone blamed him for the children’s isolation. A quick sort through the files and through his memories led him to Sun-Chai and Mason. They were the only living parents of any of the Seraphim who would have the ability to sniff out his electronic address.

The Asian dolls led him to believe Sun-Chai was the culprit, rather than Mason. And Jarod was sure that if he was wrong, Sun-Chai would see that Mason got his fair share of the consequences. Although the records from the Centre’s Asian branch had shown that the pair worked together well and often, Sun-Chai was by far the more deadly. She’d severely injured one partner who had compromised a case, and Jarod felt sure there had been others not included in the records. Mason had gained Sun-Chai’s respect by the simple strategy of not making any major errors. Jarod had the feeling that not doing what she wanted with regards to her child would count as a major error.

Sun-Chai was confident and capable enough to have found out about the Seraphim project through her interest in recapturing Jarod. It was even possible that she had some maternal feelings for the child, and felt that the Centre was best served by Jarod returning to teach the children. Jarod would need more data to accurately assess Sun-Chai’s motivations, and that meant waiting before he made his next move.

So it was to Sun-Chai that he sent his final gift. The box was almost as half as tall as Jarod, and marked “Handle with Care-Personal and Private”. Inside were half-sized models of each of the Seraphim, seated at the feet of their mentor, Jarod. The expressions on the dolls were rapt, as though they were totally entranced. He’d accept responsibility for whatever influence he had over the children. But the protective bubble he’d encased his models in would provide the recipient with a most unpleasant surprise when opened. The scent that would envelope them would be hard to remove, and harder to trace. But if Sun-Chai were determined enough, she might manage to figure it out. In that case, Jarod would meet her again on his ground, in his time. If she really wanted to help her daughter, Jarod would find out. If she was part of a Centre trap, Jarod would be prepared.

By the time it arrived, Jarod intended to be very, very far away. He picked up his duffel bag and got in the car. He’d meet the Lynfords at the airport, brief them on what happened, and head out west for awhile. A change of pace would be a good thing.

* * * * * * * * *

Epilogue

The house was silent, as houses are apt to be at three in the morning. Morgan Parker was startled out of a sound sleep by the ringing of the phone. She picked up the receiver and said “What?” in an annoyed voice. Hearing only the dial tone, she woke up enough to realize her cell phone was still ringing. She got out of bed and padded to her purse. Removing the cell phone, she climbed back into bed. “What!” she said again, even more irritated than before.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you any phone manners?” Jarod said in a mildly amused tone of voice.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it isn’t nice to call in the middle of the night?” she answered.

“I wanted to be sure you were alone,” he answered.

Miss Parker sighed softly. “Is there a problem, or do you just want to visit?”

“I wanted to talk to you, not the Miss Parker who has to hunt for me. I want to know how Gabriel is doing, how you are. Is that so wrong?” Jarod replied.

“Gabriel is fine. He misses you, but I think I’ve helped him enough so that he’ll be OK, for now.” Parker was willing to provide reassurance to Jarod, she just wished he’d called at a slightly more socially acceptable hour.

“And you?”

“I don’t know. I miss having the old certainties. Things are different now.”

“The secrets are still there. It isn’t just about bringing down the Centre and getting the children free. Life -- our lives -- are about finding out the truth. That means knowing and exposing all the secrets that have been used to keep us all prisoners.” The answer was typical of Jarod, the sort of taunt he used to make to drive her nuts. The difference was that this time Parker knew what Jarod meant, and she agreed.

“I know. It seems to be safe enough now for me to try and find some of those answers,” she said. “And I gather you know where I’ve made a beginning.”

“Yes. You look for answers. I’ll look for more questions. We’ll talk later.” Parker heard the click of the phone that told her Jarod had hung up on her. She set the phone on her bedside table and glared at the ceiling as she lay down again.

As usual, Jarod was right. The only way she was going to get answers was to go after them herself. But at least she knew now it wasn’t just answers she needed. Solutions were needed; solutions that would permit a safe method of communicating with the people she cared about, without putting any of their lives in danger. She wasn’t going to be content with stolen moments, either with Gabriel or Merritt. That meant getting control over her life.

End of Episode
Stolen Moments

 
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