"Go go go go go go awwwww--- No!"
Jarod grinned, shifting the groceries in his arms so he could push the door to the apartment open, and Christine adjusted her own bag and rolled her eyes at him. "I told you. I told you he was gonna make her watch hockey."
"Noooo!" Kristin's voice rose above Ax's, disappointment shrilling loudly as Jarod and Christine entered the small loft. "They're making him go in the time-out corner!"
"Penalty box, sweetheart."
"Penalty box. It's not fair! He almost had the goal, and the other man hit him with the stick first!" Kristin folded her arms, setting her chin and leaning back against Ax on the couch in front of the TV.
The big man patted her on the shoulder and grimaced at the game, giving a distracted, "Hi, honey. Hey, Jarod," to his wife and their boarder as they walked in.
"Hey, sports fans. Who's winning?" Jarod put the groceries down on the kitchen table and smiled at his daughter, grateful again that Ax was so good with kids, and willing to babysit while he and Christine picked up some supplies. Kristin gave him a big smile back, then scowled at television set, pointing at the screen.
"They made the forward go in the penalty box, when the other hockey player started it!"
"But did you see how he hit him up high on the arm? That's worse than just hitting him in the leg. Besides, the first guy could've hit him accidentally," Ax said seriously.
"I don't think so. *I* think he did it on purpose." Kristin glared at the referee on the TV, clearly believing that settled the issue.
Jarod shed his jacket and suppressed a smile at the decisiveness in his daughter's voice, and Christine shook her head as she started to take groceries out of the bags. "Four year olds. They might be wrong, but they're *never* wishy-washy about it."
"So I'm finding out," Jarod commented, taking the breakfast cereal out of one of the bags.
"Did you remember the Cocoa Puffs?" Kristin asked, leaning over Ax's arm to get a look at what they were unpacking on the table.
"Yes, I remembered the Cocoa Puffs. Do you remember our deal?"
"Yup. I remember." She got distracted by the game again, chanting, "Go go go go go," with Ax as their team made another advance on the ice.
"What deal?" Christine asked, putting the milk and butter in the small refrigerator, raising an eyebrow at Jarod.
Jarod shrugged a little guiltily, shelving the macaroni and cheese that Kristin liked so much, as well as the cereal and some Twinkies. "She gets to have Cocoa Puffs for breakfast one morning, but she has to eat Wheaties the next. They're better for her."
"You couldn't convince her to have Wheaties every day, could you?"
Christine chuckled. "Don't feel too bad about givin' in. The Cocoa Puffs won't hurt her none."
Jarod sighed, and he felt his forehead wrinkle in frustration and concern again. "It's just that I can't be sure what's best for her. The Wheaties are much more nutritious than the Cocoa Puffs, but she wanted them so badly---"
"You're doin' fine, Jarod," Christine said gently, turning to pat his arm in reassurance. "You have to stop worrying about every little thing. Anybody can see that you're tryin' to be a good father."
Jarod nodded, silently watching his daughter bounce up and down as her hockey team began another play. Trying, definitely. But was he succeeding? There were so many pitfalls, so many decisions he had to make for Kristin--- including when to let her make her own decisions. Like about her bedtime --- Kristin always claimed that she wasn't sleepy, even when she was clearly getting drowsier and drowsier. So far, he'd never insisted that she get ready for bed earlier than she wanted to, but he *was* sticking to his resolution to send her to bed if she fell asleep on the couch. Not that it was easy. Kristin needed three bedtime stories and a song before she'd even pretend to close her eyes. And then there were usually two requests for glasses of water, and another song.
All of which was just one battle they'd had over the last three weeks. There had been the one about the Cocoa Puffs, the one about tying her shoes (she'd won that one... no matter how knotted her shoelaces got, she was the one who tied them), the Twinkies (another tie, with Jarod rationing them out very carefully even as he stole a few for himself), and the decision about not letting her cross the street alone (which he had won, and was *not* willing to let her renegotiate).
He didn't care what Sydney said, fatherhood definitely didn't come naturally. It had been difficult from the first day, from the moment he'd told her he was her father.
"Kristin, what do you know about your parents?" They'd been in McDonald's, indulging in shakes and french fries, which Kristin was clearly familiar with. Having already blown the wrapper off her straw and across the room, she was now explaining how much better fries were with ketchup.
"They died when I was a baby, and the social workers sent me to live with the Abbots," Kristin answered, munching on a fry. "They didn't have any family to take care of me. That's why I'm a foster child."
"Do you know why those men took you to the Centre?"
"The bad place," Jarod clarified, watching her carefully for signs of distress. She frowned, and shook her head violently, stuffing more fries in her mouth. "Okay. I have some things to tell you, and they're going to be a surprise, but they're still true." He took a deep breath, then let it out, too nervous to know where to start. "Do you want some more fries?"
"Nuh-unh. Can I have a drink of your shake?"
"Sure." Jarod handed her the cup and watched her slurp for a second, then decided to just come out with it. "Kristin, the computer files that Angelo gave me say that I'm your daddy." He swallowed hard, still not quite able to believe it himself. A daddy... I've never even considered this, and here she is. My daughter. My child....
She blinked at him, then shook her head. "You can't be my daddy. My daddy's dead. Mrs. Abbot said so. She wouldn't lie to me."
"She probably wouldn't. But somebody lied to her, I think. So she thought what she told you was true, but it wasn't."
"Oh." Kristin stared at him, her dark eyes wary and confused again. "If you're my daddy, why did the social workers give me to the Abbots?"
"Because they didn't know I was your daddy. *I* didn't even know it until last night." Jarod took a fry and swirled it in the ketchup, his gaze riveted to Kristin's face, terrified that she wouldn't believe him. That she wouldn't trust him, or accept him as her father. He never would have believed how important her approval would have been to him 24 hours before. She seemed to be taking it okay so far, though. "Do you know where babies come from?"
"They grow in the mommy's tummy," Kristin answered, twirling a fry between her fingers. "From part of the mommy and part of the daddy."
"That's right." He smiled at her, and she smiled back, just a little bit, but it encouraged him to go on. "Well, sometimes, when someone can't have a baby by themselves, a doctor will... fix it, so that the parts of the mommy and the daddy are put together outside the mommy's tummy, before they're put in there to grow. That's what happened with you. Only the parts they used came from me, and a lady who wasn't the same as the one who carried you in her tummy." He stopped to evaluate her expression, to see if she was following his explanation. "Do you understand?"
"Kind of." She wrinkled her nose, and took another slurp of her shake, then played with her straw. "How come you didn't know about me before? Why didn't you know?" Kristin stopped playing with her drink, and looked at him again, her small face very serious and her voice plaintive. "How come you didn't come get me?"
"Because the doctors didn't tell me that they took part of me to grow you," Jarod said steadily, keeping his voice completely even despite how much that fact still enraged him. "And they didn't tell your mommy, either. So we couldn't come get you before this. It was a big surprise." The biggest surprise of my life. Even including all the others ones I've had. "I wish I had known before. If I had, I never would have let anyone take you to the bad place."
"Oh." She took another slurp of her drink, and then tilted her head in thought before she spoke. "Are you going to be my daddy from now on?"
"Yes." Never mind how much the idea terrified him, or how unprepared he was. She was his, and that meant he had to take care of her. Her face was still screwed up in thought and he hastily added, "But you don't have to call me daddy if you don't want to. Jarod's fine."
"But I want to." She put the drink down and scowled at him, narrowing her eyes. For one frightening moment, she looked more like him than she looked like her mother. "You're my daddy, so I should get to call you Daddy. I didn't have one before, but now I do. You're Daddy."
Something in the vicinity of Jarod's heart seemed to seize up painfully, robbing him of breath. "Okay," he said softly. "Okay. I'm Daddy."
"Good." That settled, Kristin focused on her other worry. "Are the bad men looking for us?" she whispered, looking around like she expected them to jump out of one of the corners.
He wished he could lie to her. She deserved to feel safe, to not need to be constantly alert to the threat of the Centre. But she was too smart, and the danger was too high to risk making mistakes with her. "Yes, they are. But we're not going to let them catch us. We're going to hide. And I'm going to figure out a way to stop them."
"Jar-od," Christine sang into his ear, and he started, brought back out of his distraction. "Where'd you go, darlin'?"
"Just remembering how I found out about her." He smiled, lowering his voice so as not to draw Kristin's attention as he moved to unpack the last of the purchases. "I really appreciate how much help you and Ax have been. I don't know how I would have managed that first week without you."
"Aw, it wasn't anything. Like we would have turned you away, after all you'd done?" Christine smiled at him affectionately, and leaned back against the counter. "Although it's a lucky thing Jeanette and Michael moved out of here when she got married last year. I don't think you would've like livin' in our guest room so much."
"I don't think it would have been too bad-- although Kristin would probably have gone stir-crazy. She's got so much energy...."
"I hear that."
"But I wouldn't have asked, then. A hotel would have been fine, if it had been necessary."
"Hunh. And you think we would've let you?" Christine shook her head at him sternly, and Jarod hid a small grin. "You know you're welcome to stay here as long as you like, Jarod. I just feel bad takin' rent money from you. We do still owe you one, especially after that way you got Ax's compensation money for him."
"You can't afford to let us stay here for free, so don't feel guilty. The money isn't important."
"Do you know how much longer you're goin' to be here in Charleston?"
Jarod's hands slowed as he folded up the grocery bags. "Not much longer." He turned to look at his daughter again, feeling his mood darken. "We'll have to move on fairly soon. I just wish...." He shook his head.
"What? What're you wishin'?"
He exhaled slowly. "I wish it was going to be safer to take Kristin along. But I don't have any choice. She doesn't have anyone else."
Christine's expression was conflicted for a moment, then it cleared into decision. "You could leave her here with us."
"Christine?" Jarod was sure his face reflected his shock. "Are you serious?"
"Well, she's a takin' little thing, and... and I wouldn't mind." Christine tossed her head, sticking out her chin defiantly. "It's not like she's a baby, or like it'd be forever. Besides, you know I like kids. I'm just not ready to be havin' any, yet."
He was tempted, truly tempted, to leave Kristin with Christine and Ax. They could give her a stable place to live, two people to look out for her, everything he couldn't give Kristin now. But they couldn't deal with the Sweeper teams that would be on their trail, or perform the sleights-of-hand he could to protect Kristin. They were good people, the best, and they'd take good care of her, but it wasn't possible. Besides, he admitted to himself, he'd be a basketcase within a day, just from worrying about her.
"That's the nicest offer you could have made, Christine, and I'm very grateful, especially since I know how hard it was for you to say that. But I can't put you or Ax, or Kristin, in that kind of danger. In spite of the risks, she's safer with me than anywhere else." He put his arm around Christine and gave her a one-armed hug. "But you are a *great* friend to offer."
"You're right about *that*," Christine growled at him, hugging him back, and they both laughed a little. Christine sobered, watching his daughter and Ax do the wave on the other side of the room, then she lowered her voice and turned back to him. "I still can't believe those people would take your daughter away from you just for the sake of some dumb experiment. What kinda monsters are they?"
"The powerful, rich, determined kind."
His friend shook her head. "What about her momma? Could you leave Kristin with her?"
"My mommy?" They both looked down, startled, to see Kristin staring up at them with wide eyes. "What about my mommy?"
Jarod shut his eyes with a sigh. "Now you've done it."
"Where is my mommy? Are we going to see her?" He'd managed to get out of discussing Kristin's mommy on two other occasions by distracting her with some other new thought or toy, but she'd had a thwarted look on her face both times that had promised reckoning later. There was no way he was going to get out of it this time.
Christine winced, then put the last box away. "I'll just go wait in the living room with Ax. With the volume turned up." She gave Jarod an apologetic look, then made herself discreetly scarce.
Kristin just stared up at her father, her gaze expectant. Jarod caught himself looking anywhere but back at those persistent eyes and made himself kneel to look her in the face. "Your mommy... We can't go to see her just now."
"Why not? When can we go see her?" She tilted her head and started twirling a curl around her fingers.
"Not... not for a little while yet." Or maybe never, he carefully didn't add.
"Can she come see us?"
"No, she can't." Jarod rubbed his eyes and suppressed a grimace. "Kristin, you know how I didn't know about you for a long time?"
"Yesss...." Kristin started to frown.
"Well, your mommy still doesn't know." And if she did, she'd probably burn down the Centre. I think.
"Oh." She stopped fiddling with her hair, and blinked at him. "We should tell her, then. We can call her on the phone and tell her."
Jarod blinked back at her. "It wouldn't be safe, honey." Surely he hadn't given Sydney this much trouble. Had he?
Kristin's eyes widened, and her mouth trembled. "Why? 'Cause of the bad people?"
He wanted to lie, but she deserved the truth. What he knew of it, anyway. "Yes, sweetheart. Because of the bad people."
"Would they find us if we told my mommy?"
"I don't know. They might. And if they didn't..." If they didn't, they might take it out on Miss Parker. Jarod flinched away from that thought, but it was too late; something on his face gave him away.
"Would they hurt my mommy?" Kristin's voice had dropped to a whisper. "Do the bad people know where she is?"
Jarod sighed. Definitely his child -- she saw everything he didn't want her to see. "She's with the bad people, Kristin."
She swallowed hard, then blurted out, "Then you have to rescue her! Before they hurt her! We have to go get her!" She grabbed his arm and tugged on it, her expression frightened, her voice rising in panic.
"No, Kristin!" Jarod caught her arms, resisting the urge to hug her to him. Instead, he held her in front of him, smoothing her hair back from her face and looking at her very seriously.
"We can't rescue her, sweetheart."
"But *why*? You rescued me!"
Jarod sighed again -- something he found himself doing a lot around Kristin. How could he explain something like the Centre to a four-year-old? Especially when he wasn't entirely sure he understood it himself.
Or maybe he understood it too well.
"Kristin, you know how you like to tie your own shoes?"
"Yes. They're *my* shoes."
"Right. And if anyone else tied them, you'd be unhappy, because they're your shoes and you wouldn't have done it yourself."
"Right." Kristin frowned, obviously confused about why he was bringing up shoes when they'd been discussing her mother two seconds before.
"So it wouldn't count."
"No, it wouldn't."
"Well, the way you feel about tying your own shoes is the way your mommy feels about being rescued."
"Mommy wants to rescue herself?" Kristin seemed a little calmer, but doubtful.
Jarod nodded, relieved that she grasped the concept, even if it didn't satisfy her completely. "She *has* to rescue herself, or it won't count."
"But what if they hurt her! She has to be rescued before they hurt her!"
Jarod grinned crookedly at his daughter, as an image of Miss Parker handcuffed in the Florida Keys and *still* escaping to almost catch him flashed in front of his eyes. "Your mommy can take of herself, sweetheart. Trust me on that."
Kristin pouted, looking unhappy. "Promise? No one's going to hurt my mommy?"
Jarod shook his head. "I can't promise you that, sweetheart. But no one's going to hurt her anytime soon, I'm sure about that. And I can promise they won't hurt her without a fight. From your mommy and from me."
She looked considering, and he could nearly see the little wheels turning in her brain. "Well.... if you promise we'll go rescue her if she really needs us to save her.... then I guess I can wait." She stuck her lower lip out, her mouth turning down again. "But it's not fair. I want to meet my mommy now."
Jarod sighed again and hugged her. "I know, sweetheart." He thought of a blonde woman hanging laundry and singing a lullaby to her son. "I know."
Miss Parker stood at something close to attention while her father went over the latest reports on the pursuit of Jarod. It wasn't difficult to see he was displeased, and trying to control it; his mouth tightened and his eyes narrowed every few seconds as he came across another fact that displeased him. In the three weeks since the last breach of security, the Centre had neither determined Jarod's whereabouts nor what information he had been seeking during his last foray. Facts which she was determined not to apologize for or defend, although the look on her father's face didn't make it easy.
"So. Nothing!" Mr. Parker barked suddenly, slapping the papers down on his desk. "We still don't know what the bastard thought he was doing here. Or how he got in. Or where he is now!"
"Well, why not? What the hell do we pay those computer geniuses for, if they can't collectively give us a *single* clue to Jarod's motives? And what's your explanation, young lady? Did he just evaporate through the heating system?"
Keeping her eyes and voice steady despite her inner flinching, Miss Parker folded her hands in front of her, putting on an expression of judicious consideration to hide her nerves. "The tapeworm Jarod used effectively erased all the records of what he downloaded and all the records of what had been stored at those locations, as soon as it was completed. Broots says it actually seems to have been an amalgation of three viruses working from a single source code. So there's no record in the databanks. Which wouldn't be a problem for the techs to recreate, if Mr. Raines," she heard her voice rise and quickly pulled it back to one of emotionless evaluation, "were cooperating with our investigation."
Her father squinted at her, his eyes assessing her expression for signs of defensiveness. "You're not blaming Raines for this, are you?"
"No," she said, shaking her head in calm denial, although her ulcer was starting to gnaw at her insides again. "I understand the Tower's directive that Mr. Raines' 'Legacy' project be kept on a need-to-know basis. I'm not disputing their decision."
"Good." Mr. Parker snorted. "Whatever it is, or was, yelling at Raines for keeping secrets won't do you any good. He's always done what he wanted. It's probably something of no interest to you anyway, angel."
"Probably." Which means that it *would* be of interest me, but you or Raines think I would hate it if I knew about it. I wish you would trust me, Daddy. "My problem with Raines stems from his refusal to even give us a hint as to its general area of application. We can't possibly predict Jarod's next move unless we know what was so important to him that he had to break into the Centre to get it." She leaned both hands against the desk, lowering her voice to plead with her father. "*You* could talk to the Tower, or Raines again, and get him to give me *something* to work with. You know that. I'm flying blind here. The length of time we've gone now without any sign of Jarod makes me think he's up to something big. Very big. And if it has anything to do with the Centre, I'd like to be able to prevent it."
Mr. Parker studied her shrewdly from under his eyelids, rubbing his mustache thoughtfully. "Mmmm... well, I'll talk to him. Can't promise anything. Meanwhile," he said, getting to his feet and glaring at her, "I want you to concentrate on doing your job. None of this will matter if Jarod's found before he makes use of what he stole! So you forget about Raines, and just get Jarod! Got it?"
"Good. Good." He tilted his head, his expression changing to one of indulgence. "Is that a new pin, sweetheart?"
She looked down at her lapel, then back at her father, concealing her reaction to the question. "It was one of Mom's."
"Hunh. Haven't seen you wear it before. It's lovely."
"I thought so." She smiled at him, and he grinned boyishly back.
"Well, get along. I've got a mountain of work to do here, and Jarod's still out there for you to catch. Can't waste any time. I don't want to hold you up." He sat back down, and she gathered the papers together and turned toward the door. "Oh, and I can't have lunch with you on Thursday, the way I meant to. Sorry, sweetheart."
"That's okay, Daddy. I'll see you for dinner, this weekend?"
"Sure, sure." He was already absorbed in his paperwork, and Miss Parker closed the door behind her quietly as she left.
Damn Raines. Damn Jarod. Damn those useless computers and the second-rate so-called computer and security experts, damn those incompetent imbeciles we hired as Sweepers and damn Jarod. Again. By the time she reached her office, Miss Parker was in a mood to take no prisoners. Slamming the folder onto her desk, she hit a button on her phone. "Broots, Sydney, my office, *now*!" She released the button without waiting for a response and began to pace, quietly seething with repressed fury, most of it directed at Raines.
Theoretically, she had clearance for all Centre projects. In actuality, Raines and the Tower seemed to delight in doing things that ultimately thwarted her attempts to capture Jarod through constantly concealing useful information. If he'd told us that he had something here that Jarod wanted, we could have set a trap. Or at least increased security to an effective level. And if he were sharing information now, I *might* have the chance to know where to start looking for him! She reached into her desk for a cigarette, remembered that she gave up smoking, and slammed the drawer shut with a snarl.
"Feeling frustrated, Miss Parker?" Sydney held the door open for Broots, who scurried in and sat down on her couch with a laptop he quickly opened and began typing on. "They say that it's good to take up a new habit when trying to get rid of an old one. Displacement of energy, you know."
"I'll displace *you* if you don't quit trying to read my mind, Syd."
His eyebrows rose in mild remonstrance. "I take it that your interview with your father was unsuccessful."
"You take it correctly." She began to pace in front of Broots, whose typing sped up in response to her hovering. "Either he doesn't know what the Legacy project is, or it's so secret he and the Tower don't want *me* to know about it. Evidently, it outranks even finding Jarod." She stopped pacing and skewered Sydney with a Look. "And you still say you have *no* idea what the boy wonder might have come back for? No insights into the mind of your favorite unhinged performing seal?"
"No idea at all," Sydney said tranquilly. And unconvincingly. He knew something, she was sure of it. Sydney was a lousy liar, but the really annoying thing about him was how well he managed to keep secrets in spite of it. There was just too damn much he could be hiding from her for Miss Parker to even begin to know where to start questioning him. At least so far.
"It's done," Broots whispered, shooting them each an uncertain glance, looking unhappy to be interrupting them. "We can do it now."
"For how long?" Miss Parker asked, not taking her eyes off Sydney.
"Fifteen minutes minimum, twenty-five max. I put an alarm on it, it'll activate my beeper if anyone goes near it, and it'll give us a three-minute warning."
"Let's go then." She pulled her gun out of her drawer and tucked it in the waistband of her slacks. "Time to see what Raines was hiding in SL-27 again."
Most of SubLevel 27 was still a mess, burned and collapsed from the bomb Sydney had set less than a year before. But one corridor was in perfect condition, with functional lights, air conditioning, and security; and information about its existence was one of the few things that Broots and Miss Parker had been able to pull out of the fiasco left after Jarod's last invasion. Only that area had been deliberately targeted on the night of the break-in, with the other shutdowns merely side-effects. Whatever Jarod had been after, whether it had been data or something else, centered around the setting of some of Mr. Raines's most extreme experiments. A fact that did not reassure Miss Parker at all.
"I can't believe my father doesn't know about this," she growled as they made their way down the metal staircase leading to the corridor. "What the hell does Raines think he's doing, anyway? This whole area of the Centre has never caused anything but problems. He should have left it alone after last time."
"Perhaps your father does know about it," Sydney pointed out, sweeping the beam from his flashlight across the stairwell. "Although, it would have to be a fairly new project, according to the files you and Broots salvaged from the maintenance records. It's possible that he simply hadn't been informed of it yet."
"Whatever he was doing, he can't do it now. Jarod got all his files when he planted that tapeworm in the system." Broots shook his head in what Miss Parker was irritated to recognize was admiration. Broots had been burbling about the new virus ever since he and the techs had realized the extent of the damaged it had caused. You'd think he'd remember which side he was supposed to be on... "I wouldn't put it past him to have planted stuff we missed in the system too, maybe some sleeping programs or alarms if Mr. Raines inputs data like that again. I sure wish I knew how he did that."
"So do *I*," Miss Parker said, gritting her teeth. Broots subsided, looking sheepish, and the three of them quickly and quietly walked down the hallway to the room where the main security breach had been aimed. "Is this it?"
"Uh-hunh. Give me a second." Broots started fiddling with the electronic locks, and Miss Parker hugged her elbows, feeling a chill even though the temperature here was the same as it was everywhere in the Centre. Too many ghosts...
"Are you all right, Miss Parker?" Sydney cocked his head to the side, studying her, and she grimaced at him, hating the way he analyzed every single unguarded reaction she had. "Does being down here distress you?"
"Why the hell shouldn't it?" she snapped, then forced herself to stand up straighter, dropping her hands from her arms. "If you recall, the *last* time we were here we nearly died! Or doesn't that bother *you*?"
"Yes, it bothers me." Sydney's gaze dropped away from hers, and she could see more shadows in his eyes. Garr, one of Raines's Sweepers, had died down here; her father, Broots, and Raines had been injured. She and Jarod had escaped unscathed. And Sydney had been blinded temporarily. How much of that had been hysterical blindness, guilt and pain eating away at him for several weeks before he had come to some sort of acceptance of what he'd done, she still wasn't sure. "I don't suppose it will ever stop bothering me," he added softly.
"Syd..." She almost touched him, then folded her arms across her chest, not knowing what to say. Stupid as his attempt to destroy SL-27 had been, she wanted to comfort him. Sydney could be horribly irritating with his constant pushing at her to examine things about herself that she knew were better left buried, but he had still given her support at times in her life when she had needed it terribly. When her father had been too twisted up in his own pain to help her. Occasionally she'd remember that, and then have to squash the impulses toward kindness it generated. Because one moment of kindness always led to demands from Sydney for more: more honesty, less concealment of her feelings, more trust. Ultimately, it all led back to Jarod, and the Centre, and questions about what she was still doing there. Things she simply couldn't let go of yet.
"Never mind, Miss Parker." Sydney's expression was serene again, although there was more tension around his eyes than there had been before. "I sympathize with your dislike of this place."
"Got it." The bolts slid back with a thud, and Broots pushed the door open. "Hunh. Nothing."
"What do you mean, *nothing*?" She pushed Broots aside and strode into the room, shining her flashlight everywhere. "Hell. I should've known."
"It appears Mr. Raines did a most thorough housecleaning after Jarod was here," Sydney commented, pacing out one side of the room. His flashlight played over the empty corners and up to the air conditioning vent. "Electrical outlets. And a surveillance camera. But this room could have been used for anything."
"There *has* to be something left." She stood in the center of the empty room and turned in a circle, moving her flashlight beam over every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling. "He can't have gotten everything...." She stopped, frowning at the air conditioning vent, then stalked forward to pull on it. The grate held, and she banged her fist against it in frustration.
Something fell off the vent and onto the floor. Miss Parker bent to pick it up, then slowly rose to her feet. She raised her eyes to Sydney's, and held the object out with too-steady fingers so he could see it , her eyebrows climbing her forehead. "What's *this*?"
It was a small plastic barrette, less than an inch long, set with a pink rose in the middle. Broots leaned over her shoulder to look at it, then backed away when she made an irritated noise, her eyes still on Sydney's carefully blank ones. "Hey, that's cute. Debbie used to have one like that."
"Yeah, not any more though. She says the plastic ones are for babies. Wonder what it's doing here?"
Miss Parker smiled, and it wasn't a nice smile. "Any guesses, Sydney?"
Sydney's eyebrows rose to match hers. "I would assume that a little girl left it here," he answered, his voice placid and undisturbed.
"So would I," she whispered, nodding slowly. "So would I."
One of the very few reasons why Jarod had ever risked returning to the Centre before had been for the sake of another Pretender. It was why he'd taken the chances he had a year before, in getting the Simpkins kid away from Raines. The possibility had been festering in the back of her mind ever since Broots pulled up the security logs for SL-27; and here was her proof that Raines had been trying to start up the Pretender project again.
And by the far-too-calm look on his face, Sydney had to have known.
"Let's go," she hissed. She stalked out of the room, Sydney right behind her, Broots bringing up in the rear making confused sounds, still not putting the pieces together. Raines, when I get my hands on you.... He'd deny it. And there was no way her father or the Tower would consider one barrette enough proof of her suspicions. The Tower probably knew anyway. And it still didn't answer the questions of how he got in, how he found out, or what he'd done with the little girl once they escaped. She'd probably been relocated by Jarod to some hick town on the edge of nowhere by now, and they'd never see a trace of her again.
Finding out what Jarod had been after didn't help her one bit.
The Teacher the Computer Geek and the Daughter had been in the Little Girl's room, and the Daughter found something, something the Little Girl had left behind. That was okay, she should have something of the Little Girl. Because the Little Girl was her little girl and she couldn't be with her right Now. Right Now the Little Girl was with Jarod and she was safe and they were happy and Angelo was happy too. Except that he couldn't mustn't shouldn't tell the Daughter about her little girl, it was a secret, and it was a secret for a long time already and would a be a secret for a long time more. Jarod would say when it was okay to tell. It would be a surprise for Later.
So he would wait, wait until he could tell. When it was safe.
A very long time.
Bright sunshine streamed into the loft as Jarod continued typing the last of the documents necessary for his and Kristin's new identities. It was early for them to be leaving, but they had a long way to go; and if the paperwork was waiting for them when they got there, it would make their arrival seem that much more legitimate. They couldn't afford any slips, or the chance that bad luck might trip them up where the Centre's skill ran out.
Kristin and Axe came into the living room, Kristin riding the big man's shoulders and giggling. "The car's packed," Axe said, swinging Kristin off his shoulders to stand on the chair next to Jarod. "Even the munchkin's stuff is all in there. Although I guess we could've missed one of her toys---"
"Like in the Oz movie, Daddy. The one you haven't ever seen." Kristin slid down to sit on the chair, banging her heels against the chair legs while reading what Jarod was typing. "And we got all my toys. They're all in my red suitcase." She grinned brightly and started kicking the chair harder. "'Cept for Henry. He's in the front seat with my book and my Etch-a-Sketch. He likes the new Jeep."
"I'm glad to hear it." Jarod spared her a smile in the midst of his typing, then frowned judiciously. "What do you want your middle name to be?"
"I don't know." Kristin blinked at him, then answered, "Pink. I like pink."
"I don't think that's a very common name, honey."
"But I like it."
"How about Rose? It means pink."
"Are you still sure you want to do this?" Axe questioned, his eyes shrewd but concerned as he leaned against the table. "You don't want to think it over? You know you can stay longer, if you want to."
"Positive. We don't have any other choice, the Centre's bound to find us if we don't leave now." Jarod hit one of the function keys and crossed his arms to await the response to his query, tilting back in his chair. "But thanks again, Axe. For everything you and Christine have done. Especially considering the risks---"
"Ah, forget it. We knew what we were risking, and it was good having you here. We don't get to see as much of Mikey as we used to, and it was fun having a kid around again." He tousled Kristin's hair and grinned at her. "You gotta remember to root for who?"
Christine came in with a cooler over her arm, and set it down next to the laptop with an embarrassed smile. "I packed y'all some lunch and snacks in here. Sandwiches and fruit, and some of those peanut butter cookies. And fruit juice boxes. Oh, and some of Axe's trail mix...."
"You didn't have to do that." Jarod's smile widened at the thought of the peanut butter cookies. "But it was very thoughtful of you."
"Shoot. It's the least we could do." Christine shrugged uncomfortably, and stuffed her hands in her jeans pockets. "We're really gonna miss you. You're sure you can't stay?"
"Yes. I wish we could, but if we did... " he shook his head regretfully.
"I know, I know." Christine sighed. "We understand. I just hate it." She bent down to give Kristin a hug. "Now you remind your daddy to write us on the computer as soon as y'all get there, hear? If I don't get one of those email postcards from you, I'm gonna be very disappointed."
"No *way* I'd forget. 'Cause you're my only Aunt Christine." Kristin hugged Christine back hard, as Jarod watched them sadly. No phone calls, no real postcards, and no chance of seeing Christine and Axe again until he and Kristin were permanently safe. He was incredibly grateful to them for their support and help when he'd first come to them in a total panic. They'd done more than he could have ever expected when he first showed up on their doorstep toting his new-found daughter.
It had never been quite this difficult to leave a place before, although there were some he missed. But before he had able to look forward to someday coming back to places and people he'd known. But the unfairness of not being able to stay cut deeper when he saw it through Kristin's eyes. How old would she be before they could come back?
The plan for now was to get to an isolated, calm community, somewhere he could give Kristin some stability and himself enough time to come up with some more extensive plans. Plans for dealing with the Centre, plans for continuing his search for his parents, plans for taking care of Kristin in case anything happened to him. They needed time, and a good hiding place, before he could do any of that.
And after that? He had no idea. But he'd think of something.
He couldn't operate on instinct any more, not with Kristin depending on him. It wasn't quite so terrifying now, to be acting as her father. To *be* her father. He was beginning to feel connected to Kristin -- not just a sense of responsibility, but an amazed recognition of part of himself in her. Her intelligence, her curiosity, and her giggly playfulness were all his. There was so much wonder and amusement and joy in being around her.
He could hate how Raines had made her, hate that he'd had no part of it, that he wasn't there the first moment she drew breath, but he couldn't truly be sorry that she'd appeared in his life. His worst nightmares were of what would have become of her if he'd been too late. Now, more than ever, he owed Angelo his life back. That was something else he'd be working on, as a break from the Centre invasion plans. It would take longer than two months to come up with another treatment for Angelo, but at least he could get started.
The one thing he absolutely couldn't do yet was tell Miss Parker about Kristin. She'd never believe him; and who knew what she'd decide to do with the information if she did. But he wanted to. He wanted to tell the other person who was part of Kristin about their daughter. To show her what a terrific kid she was. It was... very odd, to be connected to Miss Parker this way. They shared a common past, and a hatred of the Centre, but whatever more they shared was all tangled up with his father and her mother and the decades-old murder that hung over both of them. He owed it to to all three of them to get that knot straightened out before introducing them, if he could.
"Gimme a biiiiig hug, Munchkin." Axe picked up Kristin and she wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Squeeeeeeeze you tight!"
The computer chirped, and Jarod scanned the reply, then nodded in satisfaction. "That's got it. We're set." He shut down the computer and closed it up, then stood and picked up the cooler in his other hand, turning for the door. "Time to hit the road, Kristin. Let's go down to the Jeep."
Christine leaned in the window as he buckled Kristin into the front seat. "Y'all be careful, right?"
She smiled at his answer and squeezed his hand as Axe stuck his head in too. "Hey, Jarod, let her listen to the game once you get past Virginia, it should be on by then. I'll watch here, and you'll listen there, okay Kristin? That way, it'll be like we're watching it together."
"Cooool," Kristin chirped, bouncing in her seat. "Daddy, can we?"
"Sure." Jarod smiled at her, then looked back at Axe and Christine. "Thanks again. For everything."
"Any time, darlin'. You drive safe now. No race car stuff with the little'un in the car."
"Definitely not. We won't be doing that until she's at least sixteen."
"Wave good-bye, Kristin!"
Rescue | Searching (Part 1) | Main