Stolen Moments

by Stephanie

Regular Cast:
Michael T. Weiss as Jarod
Andrea Parker as Miss Parker
Patrick Bauchau as Sydney
Jon Gries as Broots

Guest Stars
Candace Bergen as Eve
Linda Carlson as Harriett Tashman and Elspeth Tashman
Ashley Peldon as Merritt
James Tolan as FBI agent Robert Douglas


Act I

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.


Act II

Simmons and Hart Bookshop
Tuesday

Jarod accessed the shop’s ebay account and made notations on the progress of the auction. Five minutes passed, during which time Jarod had secured a new bolt hole for the Lynfords. That, too, was part of his new mission. He had to do things to keep people safe from the Centre. Before it had just been whatever caught his attention, without thinking about it. Now, it was more like a crusade.

The final bid came through, and Jarod noted the address to send the book just as his laptop announced that he had mail. Jarod opened it on autopilot, and swore under his breath. There on the screen was another stylized Asian doll. Nothing out of the ordinary, except that both dolls wore elaborately painted faces resembling a Kabuki mask, one which symbolized death. The annoyance that flashed through him at any reminder he might be helpless in the face of the Centre’s plans brought him an inspiration.

Lyle.

He remembered the Asian women Lyle liked to keep around. Perhaps it was time he sent Lyle a little surprise in retaliation.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker's car
somewhere near Washington, DC

Morgan Parker had a busy day in front of her and the ride wasn’t made more comfortable by the fact that Broots was with her. He kept glancing at her as though he wanted to ask her something, but didn't really want the answer. Once again, he tugged at his shirt collar, as if struggling to escape those unfamiliar clothes. It was driving her nuts. She wanted him along to provide a distraction and let her explore some things she needed to find out. But she didn’t want to confide in him. She didn’t want to confide in anyone until she had things a lot clearer in her own mind.

“If you’re hot, I’ll turn on the air conditioner,” Parker commented. Both she and Broots were dressed in business suits. Perhaps the new suit was making him uncomfortable. Better that his clothes were bothering him than her actions.

Broots let her remark pass with a simple “no.” He didn’t expect that Miss Parker would believe he knew how to wear a suit, nor did he think it wise at the moment to taunt her. This particular trip had Miss Parker wound a bit tighter than usual, and that meant choosing his remarks carefully.

They drove on for several miles. Broots looked at Miss Parker and sighed. “Are you going to be angry for the whole trip?”

“Probably.”

“At least you could tell me why you’re angry. Then I’d know why I’m ducking.”

“Don’t worry about it. After all this time, you should know that anything to do with finding Jarod brings out the worst in me.”

“Yeah.” Broots turned his attention to the scenery passing in front of his window. Right now Parker wasn’t going to talk, so he might as well continue to make out his grocery list in his head.

Parker found a convenient parking place, and proceeded toward the building. Broots followed her, hearing the beep of the remote car lock without turning around. He didn’t really have to do anything here except provide a distraction if Parker needed one, so he could be as relaxed as possible.

She stopped to show her identification at the registration desk and proceeded in. “I’m expected,” she said as she signed the electronic register. The credentials Parker flashed indicated that she was part of the FBI, ranking slightly higher than the agent she’d come to question. Broots had done a very professional job forging them, and an even better job of not looking guilty. For a man who rarely wore a suit and tie, Broots managed to look at home in them. He handed in his credentials as well with an ease that told Parker he’d been practicing. In one sense, this was a dry run of Broots’ training. Parker almost looked pleased with her colleague. But they weren’t done here yet.

Parker and Broots were escorted into a corner office, and greeted by the senior FBI agent, Robert Douglas, who had helped to track down Kyle.

“I’m not sure why you want to see me, but come on in and have a seat. Your clearance is high enough for you to have read all the records,” Douglas stated matter of factly. “I’m not sure what else I can tell you.”

Parker and Broots sat side by side in comfortable leather chairs. Broots had pulled out a palm pilot and was taking notes. This had been prearranged, since it was important that the FBI agent focus on the conversation, instead of other things.

“Oh, I’ve seen the records, “ Parker replied. “They led me to some anomalies I wanted to ask you about. I realize that the John Doe case wasn’t exactly the highlight of anyone’s life. Nevertheless, developments on a case I’m currently working on seem to indicate that there might be a connection between it and John Doe.”

The older man looked puzzled. “Except that Doe is dead. He died in an explosion. It’s presumed that Agent Jarod Ness, who was following the case closely, also died in the explosion."

“And John Doe had no friends who could be involved in my case?” Miss Parker asked.

“Well, he was arrested for the kidnapping of Harriet Tashman. He never said what he wanted from her, but he was pretty desperate for something. He didn’t get a chance to hurt her, either the first time he kidnapped her or after the second time he escaped."

“Is that a fact?” Parker murmured. “And nobody ever asked Harriet Tashman what she knew that was so important?”

“The guy was a nut case. You can’t predict what they’ll do.”

“I disagree. Even the craziest have some sort of pattern. Some motivation that drives them to do what they do.”

“That seemed to be what Ness thought. And he did catch up to Doe. Guy was sharp, and he went through everything Doe had several times, not to mention the videotapes on the case.”

“Maybe he just wanted a souvenir,” Broots muttered. Parker glared at him.

“Do you know what happened to the Tashman woman?” she said.

“Sure. I kinda followed up on it because I was curious. I mean, you gotta wonder what makes someone as nutty as Doe was. And then that agent, it was like he had a personal stake in finding the guy,” Douglas replied.

“The possibility of promotion will do that to you,” Broots answered. This time Parker didn’t glare at her supposed partner, but she did shoot him a look of surprised approval.

“Anyway, the Tashman woman moved back to her farm and settled down. Guess she figured the worst had already happened to her and nothing worse could.”

“She might be right at that. “ Parker stood. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“I’ve had copies made of the records and tapes in the case, as your associate requested.” Broots had been the first contact here, since it was easier for him to make the necessary calls without arousing suspicion. That was another reason Parker had wanted Broots along.

“That’d be good. Thank you.” Broots picked up the box he was handed, and he and Parker returned to the car. It was weird being with Parker when she was acting so much like Jarod. Pretending to be with the FBI was a new experience for Broots.

“So now we’re going to go bother Harriet Tashman.” Broots made it a statement.

“Yes. It should be almost as creepy as hanging around a government agency.”

“Why would you say that?” Broots asked, more because he kept hoping she’d confide in him what her purpose was.

Morgan Parker just smiled. Jarod’s past would be there, as would Kyle’s. If the Tashman woman really knew anything about Jarod’s family, there would be other secrets as well.


* * * * * * * * *

Later that day

Miss Parker and Broots arrived at the Tashman farm shortly before dinnertime. Miss Parker was pleased to see that Broots was ignoring the rumbling of his stomach. There would be time to eat later, after she had more answers to her questions.

They exited the car and made their way to the white farmhouse. A large collie came to the door and started barking.

Broots looked wistfully at Miss Parker, flinching at the volley of barks on the other side of the door. “I don’t suppose you’d like to be the one to ring the doorbell.”

“I hardly think it’s necessary for either of us to do so. If she’s in there, she’ll show herself, if only to get the dog to stop making all that racket.” Miss Parker stood confidently on the porch. Soon a middle aged blond woman approached the door. She looked through the curtains, then pulled the dog back, keeping one hand on his collar.

“You get the feeling strangers aren’t welcome here?” Broots muttered.

“Whatever you’re selling,” the woman said, “we’re not interested in buying.”

“Are you Harriet Tashman?” Miss Parker asked. There was a vague family resemblance, but she didn’t quite match the photos Broots had found.

“If I were, what’s it to you?” she replied.

“I need to speak to Harriet Tashman regarding John Doe, the man who kidnapped her several years ago.”

“John Doe is dead. The police have assured us of that.”

“His brother isn’t. I need to know where his brother might be. It’s important.”

The curtains rustled. Behind them was another blond middle-aged woman. She moved to the doorway. Her eyes widened in shock. She knew, of course, who Miss Parker was. Jarod had told her what he knew of Catherine’s daughter, but had stopped himself before painting her as either good or bad. It appeared to Harriet that Jarod had wanted her to make up her own mind.

Harriet pushed the other woman gently inside. “Go on in, Elspeth. I’ll deal with this, you deal with dinner.” The other woman turned and left, muttering under her breath.

“You’ll have to excuse Elspeth. She’s a distant cousin who has come to live here and keep me company. She’s not that fond of strangers.” Harriet had been delighted when Jarod had found a distant relative who wanted to get closer to her. Living with Elspeth could be difficult, but it was more welcome than being alone. “I’m Harriet. And I don’t know where his brother is. I do know you, though. You want to take Jarod back to the Centre. That isn’t something I’m going to help you do.” Harriet carefully controlled her face, not letting the others see how hard it was not to embrace Catherine’s daughter. Once upon a time, she would have done just that. But years of laying low had added a layer of caution.

Parker frowned. The only way the Tashman woman was going to trust her was if she told her the truth. That much was obvious.

“I need to speak to you in private. Could we talk?” Miss Parker summoned up a mental image of Gabriel to calm her and put her in the right frame of mind. It must have worked to soften her features, because after a few moments Harriet did leave the house. She led Miss Parker to a nearby bench and they both sat down. Broots nodded in the direction of the car and Miss Parker waved him away. He’d be better off out of the way for now.

“I need to talk to you about Jarod and Kyle. You knew both of them. And you knew my mother.”

“Yes. Catherine was one of my best friends. She was a very special woman.”

“Yes, she was. Lately I’ve found myself wanting to be more like her.” Parker paused. “I don’t know if you knew this, but I was very young when she died. I was raised by my father. He didn’t like me to use my first name, but I’d like you to. Would you call me Morgan?”

Harriet smiled. “Yes. I remember how fond Catherine was her Aunt Morgan. It's very like her to name you for someone she cared so much about.”

“I’d like to hear more about her sometime. Would you tell me?” Parker kept her voice soft and gentle. Harriet didn’t look like someone who would get more helpful if she was frightened or angry.

Harriet looked into Miss Parker’s eyes, and then made her decision. “Yes. But I have my reasons for wanting to avoid the Centre. You’re still working for them, aren’t you?”

“There are reasons why it isn’t safe for me to walk out of the Centre just now. I can be sure I’m not followed, though.” Parker glanced towards the car. “I can assure you that Mr. Broots is totally trustworthy. And a good friend. He’ll keep an eye out for any trouble, just in case.”

“There’s something else I’d like to trust you with, but I…” Harriet broke off in mid-sentence. Merritt was crossing the lawn, walking directly towards them. Miss Parker hadn’t noticed yet. She glanced at the man in the car. Broots was absorbed in a computer game and hadn’t seen the young girl.

Parker couldn’t miss Harriet’s gaze, however, and her eyes turned toward Merritt. Her lips parted as though she wanted to say something, but she was speechless. What do you say when you meet someone who looks so much like you used to? Someone who almost could be you. Parker thought back to her memories of herself at the same age. Merritt’s eyes weren’t as haunted as hers had been, so there was a slight difference between them that was deeper than the up-to-date clothes the teenager wore.

“Hi,” said Merritt. “I knew you’d come.”

“Do you know who I am?” Miss Parker asked. It seemed best to take this slowly. She hadn’t liked being rushed as a child. Probably Merritt didn’t, either.

“Yes. Jarod told me. But I’d know you anyway. You feel like a friend,” Merritt answered, with a shy smile.

Miss Parker remained motionless, frozen with emotion. She’d gone to considerable trouble to arrange this meeting, to prepare herself for it. But she didn’t feel prepared for it now.

Parker forced herself to listen to Merritt’s words. She still hadn’t gotten the hang of her inner sense, at least not all the time. But it appeared that her younger self did. So, she thought, not really her younger self. Someone who looked like her but wasn’t necessarily anything like her. Yet here was someone with whom she could build a family of sorts.

“You should go back in the house,” Harriet said. “We don’t know if we can trust them.”

Merritt tossed her hair in teenage annoyance. But before she could speak, Parker did.

“Yes, for now you should go. I’d like to spend time with you, and with Harriet. In order for me to decide where I’m going from here, I need to get in touch with the part of me you represent. You remind me of who I could have been if I hadn’t always been striving to meet my father’s goals.”

“I know what it’s like to have an ambitious father,” Merritt answered.

“Not like mine. Mine is hard and cold. That’s why Harriet doesn’t trust me,” Miss Parker answered, looking to the older woman for confirmation, and finding it in her eyes.

“I still intend to get to know you better,” Merritt stated firmly.

“I’m not going to be able to convince you to be careful, am I?” Harriet asked.

“I’ll be careful. But I’d like to meet you again and talk longer,” Merritt answered, as she spun and turned towards the house. An observant person would have noted that she was watching the car with Broots in it very carefully. No matter how intrigued Merritt appeared to be by Catherine Parker’s daughter, the lessons in self-preservation Jarod had taught her were ingrained in her habits.

Harriet shrugged. “That was Merritt. She’s an incredibly strong person who reminds me greatly of your mother. Catherine had that kind of self confidence, the certainty that she would always do right.”

“Jarod has told me about Merritt. He thinks we could be friends.” Parker didn’t actually know if Jarod thought that way, but she knew Harriet would believe it.

“Jarod’s always trying to help people. He’s been a very good influence on Merritt, “Harriet answered. “I don’t really have a lot of influence with her, but this seems to be something she really wants to do.”

“It’s important to me, too. Like Jarod, there are parts of my past I don’t know a lot about.
And even though Merritt’s very much a part of the future, I need to spend time with her. I want to watch her grow up and be her friend.” The phraseology wasn’t typical for Miss Parker, but she knew that anything other than gestures of friendship would drive Harriet away.

Harriet looked somewhat uncomfortable. It was as though she hated to refuse Catherine’s daughter anything, but still couldn’t get the spectre of the Centre out of her mind. “Are you going to be staying here long? You could stay for dinner.”

Miss Parker looked at her watch. It was getting late, and she’d need to make an appearance at the Centre early in the morning. It wouldn’t do to vary her routine too much all at once.

“Not tonight. I have to be going. And I think perhaps you’d feel better if we took things slowly. I’ll need a way to get in touch with both of you, though. If it would make you feel better, we could meet in a more public place,” Miss Parker answered as she stood and turned toward the car.

“OK.” Addresses and phone numbers were exchanged, even though both of them knew without saying that it would have to be an emergency for Harriet to risk calling anyone so closely connected with the Centre. Harriet walked Miss Parker to the car, so that it was her that Broots saw when he looked up. Broots put away his game and smiled nervously, as if caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Harriet returned his hesitant greeting and backed up toward the house so that Parker could swing the car around in the dirt driveway.

Broots watched Harriet wave good-bye, and asked, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Oh, yes. She knew my mother and is willing to talk to me about her. Broots, this is important. I don’t want the Centre to have any idea of who I’m meeting or why. My father would go ballistic. But I refuse to live with the lies and secrets anymore. I need to know who my mother was to people other than my father and me. That means talking with Harriet and tracking down any other leads she can give me, without letting anyone in the Centre know.” Parker very carefully didn’t mention Merritt. Had it been necessary, she’d have had Broots use his skills as a father to give her pointers on how to get the girl to trust her. That, after all, was why Broots was along. His open, honest manner made people trust him. When he was with Parker, people trusted her, too.

“Even Sydney?” Broots asked.

“It’s not that I don’t trust Syd,” Miss Parker answered, “but the fewer people who know of my current interest the better. It’ll be safer for him and safer for me.”

Broots groaned. “If I’m going to be in danger, I’d at least like some dinner first.”

“We’ll stop at the first place I see,” Miss Parker promised.


Act III

Simmons and Hart bookstore, Kingston, NY

Jarod had moved a small table up closer to the register in the front of the store. He’d gone through both the contents of this bookstore and the neighboring ones to develop a specialized collection of books on child development. Previously, Jarod had presumed that intelligence guided by experience would be enough for him to know exactly what to do. Yet his experiences in Australia had shown him that he wasn’t aware enough of normal family dynamics to be assured that he could nurture it in every situation. Ordinarily that wasn’t a problem. The people Jarod helped were usually more than capable of helping themselves once Jarod had shown them a solution or gotten them out of danger. When the Seraphim were freed from the Centre, they might still be children when it happened. The more research he could do before he made any decisions about what to do next, the better off they all would be.

There was another stack of books on the table. These books dealt with yoga. In the quiet of the back room of the bookstore Jarod had been practicing the interesting exercises. So far, only one person had walked in while he was curled up like a pretzel, and that had been a tourist from New York whose outburst of laughter had so embarrassed her she walked out after having purchased $100 worth of books. Not that Jarod had minded being laughed at. He had been in a particularly funny position, if looked at strictly objectively. The book was correct, however. That position was very relaxing when done properly.

Jarod reopened his computer. He was almost ready to leave. The treatments the Lynford family was undergoing were almost complete. Jarod had been horrified when he discovered that the blood disorder their children had was a result of their parents’ going for infertility treatment at NuGenesis. It was yet another reason that the Centre had to be shut down carefully, so that all the families whose lives the Centre had harmed could be found and protected.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker's house, Delaware

Miss Parker answered her door, knowing what she’d find. Sydney, with briefcase in hand, entered the house right on time. Dependability was a good thing in a subordinate and an even better thing in a friend.

“Come in, Syd. Have a seat.” Miss Parker moved towards the couch, gesturing for Sydney to take a chair.

“What are you planning, Miss Parker?” Sydney asked.

“A little trip. I need you to cover for me for a couple of days. You go one way, I’ll go another. We’ll meet in between and land at the Centre.”

“Why?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“It concerns me if it has something to do with Jarod.”

“It has to do with me. I need some time alone and I need you to buy me that time. Jarod is not now, and has never been, the beginning and end of my existence. There are other things that are important to me. I need to have this break, but I don’t want Eve following me or reporting on what I do to Daddy. Can you understand that?” Miss Parker asked.

“Yes, Miss Parker. And I’m your friend. I’ll be happy to help,” Sydney replied. He could see that whatever had happened to Miss Parker, she wasn’t about to share those revelations with him.

Parker nodded and left in one smooth motion. As much as she needed to help Jarod, she still intended to keep certain other priorities. She was going to learn how to help Gabriel deal with being a special child by using her own resources. She was going to be a friend to Merritt. And she was going to learn more about her mother’s past. Those were not goals she intended to achieve by relying on Jarod, Broots or Sydney.

* * * * * * * * *

A hotel in Maryland

Sydney had checked into the hotel, and made sure that both rooms looked as though the beds had been slept in. He’d purposely arrived late at night and made sure the night clerk remembered him. She’d also get a call later which would convince her there were two of them in the rooms. But for now it was late enough for Sydney to go to bed.

Sleep, it seemed, wasn’t on the agenda yet. His phone rang.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Sydney, I need more information.” Jarod’s voice sounded stressed. Sydney was concerned. Stress couldn’t be good for Jarod at this point in his recovery.

“What about?”

“The Centre. I need to know what Lyle is up to.”

“Lyle? Not Eve?”

Something in Sydney’s voice told Jarod the answer to his question. “I take it that Lyle is no longer among the big players at the Centre, and Eve is?”

“Lyle’s in the hospital. Apparently the drug therapy isn’t working as well as anticipated. Eve, on the other hand, is determined to get you back in the Centre.”

“I thought Miss Parker was in charge of the hunt for me. Just like old times,” Jarod replied.

“She is. And she has every intention of being the one to bring you in again. But both Miss Parker and I suspect that Eve has some plans of her own for you. Your escape didn’t set well with her and I doubt she’ll give up easily. You need to be careful,” Sydney answered.

“I’m always careful, Sydney. But this time I may just be mistaken.” Jarod hung up the phone and contemplated the stacks of books in front of him. It was time he sent a message to someone at the Centre, preferably in such a way that it got back to Eve. Sydney wasn’t likely to engage in gossip, so he couldn’t be used like that. So it would have to be a message of a more subtle variety.


* * * * * * * * *

The Centre

Mr. Cox entered his office and walked to his desk, the same way he did every morning. This morning, there was something in his chair -- a teddy bear wearing a sweater with the name 'Eve' stitched into the weave. When he picked it up, it began to play a haunting Japanese melody. Cox put it down. There was no reason for anyone to have left him anything quite so bizarre. Frowning for a moment, he picked up his phone and called Eve.

“I’ve just received a most peculiar present. It made me think of you.”

“What is it?

“A teddy bear with your name on it. It plays Japanese music when you pick it up.”

“How… quaint. How did it get there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither do I. It isn’t my property, nor can I imagine anyone here giving me such an item. And certainly nobody could mistake you for me.” Eve paused. “Perhaps you should alert Miss Parker. As the head of SIS, she should be informed.”

“Indeed, I’ll do that. But I also intend to look into this myself.”

“Very well. Keep me informed.”

Cox put down the phone. He probably shouldn’t have told Eve about the bear, but he’d been unable to resist. Whatever plot Jarod had in mind, involving Eve might spread the blame if something later blew up in someone’s face. Figuratively, of course.

The bear stopped playing music. There was a three second pause, then Jarod’s voice. “Catch me if you can.”

Cox growled softly. Jarod was still capable of irritating him. All they had done was slow him down, not stop him. Perhaps alerting Eve had been playing into Jarod’s hands. On the other hand, seeing Eve come back down in the hierarchy would be pleasant. Still, this had gone on long enough. Next time, Jarod would get a taste of retribution.

* * * * * * * * *

The Liberty Bell
Philadelphia

Merritt paced impatiently around the area where the bell was displayed. She wore a black leather jacket and a button with the initials MJ on it. It had been hard to convince Aunt Harriet that this trip was sanctioned by Jarod and was perfectly safe. The encounter with Miss Parker had put Harriet even more on edge than before. In the end, she’d been forced to contact Jarod and have him explain. That wasn’t something she liked doing. Merritt had a teenager’s confidence that her perceptions were correct and she hated having to call in someone else to justify what she’d done.

She turned suddenly, and saw him. He was wearing a black leather jacket like he’d promised, as well as a Star Wars ball cap. He looked at her with the same mixture of innocence and confidence which Jarod always wore.

She walked toward him. “Hi. I’m Merritt.” She shrugged her shoulders and moved closer.

“I’m Jordan. It’s nice to meet you.” Jordan belatedly remembered his lessons in manners and extended his hand for a handshake.

Merritt took his hand with a firm grip. “Can we go get an ice cream or something? I’ve got about an hour before my ride comes and I have to leave.”

“That’d be nice. Could I meet your ride?” Jordan asked. “Jarod didn’t say much about you, except that you knew about the Centre and you could be a good friend if you wanted to be.”

“He didn’t say that much about you either. Just your name and that you don’t have any parents either. The person who brought me here is kind of shy, so maybe not this time. I didn’t grow up in the Centre, but they know about me and would like to find me.” Merritt paused. “Jarod says I look a lot like someone called Miss Parker. Do you know her?” They talked while they walked out into the sunshine and along the sidewalk. Jordan was leading the way. He’d already researched the direction of possible destinations, so he knew where they could go for ice cream.

“I only met Miss Parker once, but I liked her. Jarod says she has her own reasons for wanting him back in the Centre and I shouldn’t blame her for that.”

“I met her a couple days ago. I like her, too. But it’s weird to look so much like someone you hardly know.”

“Not really,” Jordan answered. “If you study human genetics, you’ll note that there are a lot of twins born naturally. And often in families there is a strong resemblance between a child and parent. I’m not exactly like Jarod. You aren’t exactly like Miss Parker. We just look a lot alike. The other problem is, we need to hide from the Centre. That’s the weird part.”

“I guess. Do you go to school?” she asked.

“No. I’m taking correspondence courses. It’s too dangerous for me to go to regular school.” That was a good enough answer for the moment. Jordan didn’t like holding things back, but he knew better than to go into too many details with someone who wasn’t part of his family.

“Oh.” Merritt tried to remember that what felt like a game to her was a lot more serious for Jarod and thus for Jordan. “What kind of courses are you taking?”

They stopped at Ben & Jerry’s and got ice cream in dishes. The ice cream was then divided between the two of them. The conversation stayed with schoolwork and what each of them knew about the Philadelphia area. They drifted back to discussion of books and to the two people they were most concerned with, Jarod and Miss Parker. By the time Jordan was ready to leave, he’d promised to dig up as much background as he could on Miss Parker.

Jordan’s ride had come first. He’d almost bounced getting into the car, eager to tell Emily everything that happened. He’d begun talking almost from the minute his feet slid inside the door, and didn’t stop until they were at the hotel. Emily’d made encouraging noises and reveled in the thought that her littlest brother was coming out of his shell.

Merritt was quiet on the ride home. It had been cool to meet Miss Parker, but this was even better. Jordan was her age, and he was just as fun to talk to in real life as he was in his disguise of Threepio on the computer. This was awesome! She finally had someone her own age to talk to who didn’t need to have everything spelled out for him, and from whom she didn’t need to keep secrets.


Act IV

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