Searching (Part 2)
At 7:30 am, Miss Parker was already pressed, dressed, made up, and ready to face Jarod's latest maneuver. Her breakfast companions weren't quite as alert. Sydney looked like he wanted another hour's worth of sleep, or possibly a carafe of coffee to himself; just the slightest bit frayed around the edges. Broots, already working at his laptop, compiling information about the downloads that Jarod had initiated, looked like he'd slept in his clothes and mainlined No-Doz. Not exactly up to the standards of the Chateau Marmont... Although, maybe he *had* slept in his clothes. The amount of data he had to sort through for their next lead was staggering. At least half of it had to be false leads camouflaging Jarod's real objective. But which half?
Pushing her poached egg away, Miss Parker stared at her cell phone, then at Sydney's right next to it on the table. "He hasn't called you," she stated, signaling to the waiter that she wanted a refill on her coffee.
"No." Sydney looked uncomfortable with the admission, mirroring her own feelings of unease. "He's quite probably in transit to his next location."
"Like that would stop him if he wanted to reach out and torture either of us." She picked up a piece of melon and bit into it, chewing without enthusiasm. "He came up with half the systems for cellular phones, Sydney. If he wanted to call, even if he was on Machu Piccu, he'd be able to get a connection."
Sydney remained silent, confirming her assessment without saying a word. More uncharacteristic behavior for Jarod. More divergence from pattern... Pattern was all they had to work with; Jarod's modus operandi, and the clues he left for them. If he stopped doing either, they'd be at the same place they were the first week they started looking for him. And if that happens, we're screwed.
No. She refused to accept that. There had to be something in the downloads, either a deliberate clue, or information Jarod needed for his next impersonation.
Strangely, she found she resented the lack of contact, the utter absence of a phone call teasing her with his escape. What could be so important that he wouldn't even take the time to call and taunt her? He *lived* for that sort of thing, to prove how damn smart he was, how unjustified the Centre had been in locking him up all those years, how stupid and misguided *she* was in staying with the Centre. He had to know how close she'd gotten--- he had to be aware that Lyle knew of the break-in by now. Maybe he called Lyle?
She dismissed the thought as soon as it occurred. Jarod only called people he had an interest in, or wanted something from. He hated Lyle, but Lyle didn't interest him, and Lyle no longer had something he wanted. But he should have at least called Sydney by now, and asked for all the gory details, wanting to know how much trouble he'd gotten her dear brother into with that stunt.
It was so out of character that she was almost worried about him, the monster. He was probably fine and halfway across the country, dressed up in someone else's clothes already, coming up with some new asinine joke name that only he would find funny. Smartass... He was deliberately not calling, knowing what it would do to her ulcer. He'd call at 3 a.m. when she couldn't avoid sleep any longer, sounding cheerful and wide-awake and inspiring her homicidal urges just so he could laugh. He was on the Space Shuttle, and was having trouble reversing the charges on the call....
Miss Parker finally gave up speculating on why Jarod hadn't called to gloat yet when Lyle walked through the entrance to the lounge courtyard.
"Good morning," he said cheerfully, much more cheerfully than Miss Parker felt was warranted. "I have great news. The analysis of my staff has yielded several possible leads to Jarod's next location."
"Has it?" She rolled her eyes and took a sip of her coffee, not bothering to hide her reaction to this announcement.
"Aren't you going to ask me what they are?"
"No." She put the coffee cup down and smiled lightly. "I'm sure that if your staff thought of them, they're wrong."
Lyle's smile faded, a spark of resentment taking its place. "Well, what has your pet geeklet come up with instead?"
"Well, there's a couple possibilities...." Broots' nervousness around Lyle never bothered Miss Parker. It indicated a working brain; animal instinct of a predator in the area. "The data he downloaded seems to be in four really diifferent areas. There's Centre records on former personnel, especially consultants and former project members... projects with info about genetic manipulation of intelligence... some records that lead back to old sims of his.... and information that looks like Centre data searches for his parents." Broots shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"The genetic manipulation projects. Read me off the project titles," Lyle demanded, beginning to pace.
"Project Callisto... Project Gemini.... Project Thermopylae... Project Legacy...."
"Legacy," Miss Parker murmured, shifting her gaze to Sydney. The psychiatrist didn't look up from stirring cream into his coffee, even though he had to remember the project name from Jarod's last attack on the Centre in January.
"Gemini. That's it. That's what he'll go for next." Lyle stopped pacing, looking decisive. "That's at the Donaterase facility in Maryland, isn't it?"
"Uhh... I don't know, that information was erased."
Miss Parker's gaze sharpened on her brother. "Why are you so sure it's that one, Lyle?"
"I have my reasons." He smiled smugly, and Parker resisted the urge to stand up and slap him. "And my sources. Let's just say that the project in question is one *very* close to Jarod's heart."
She cocked her head, thinking, then turned to Broots. "List the titles of the other files."
"The ones about his family."
"Okay.... Ring of Fire. Major Charles. Incarceration of Kyle, 1983-1994. Emily---"
"Emily?" Miss Parker frowned. "That name has never come up before. Who's Emily?"
"Who cares?" Lyle retorted. "I'm telling you, it's Gemini and Donaterase. My people found data trails that all lead back there---"
"Actually, with the worm Jarod's using, the data trails loop back on themselves and go everywhere," Broots observed, not even noticing the look Lyle gave him. "I mean, it could be *any* of this stuff that he'll want to look at next...." He blinked, then stopped to hit a few keys. "Wait, we're getting e-mail updates from some of the Sweeper teams."
"I'm going to Maryland this afternoon, as soon as the data annex is up and running again. I suggest that the three of you go back to Blue Cove and wait for me to bring Jarod in from Donaterase."
"Why should *you* be the one---"
"Because I have contacts on the security team there, and I can retrieve Jarod most easily that way."
"No one would know it by the last 48 hours," Miss Parker pointed out, seething. She wasn't sure that Lyle was right about Maryland --- in fact, she was fairly certain he was off-base. He'd never been very good about predicting Jarod's movements. But she'd be damned if she was going to let him dictate her movements. "I think we need a few more teams looking in the more likely areas..."
"I don't know yet."
"The Sweeper teams are reporting separate sightings of Jarod in Baltimore, Miami, San Francisco, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Boise," Broots piped up. "They're awaiting instructions."
"Baltimore. I told you," Lyle said with satisfaction. "You go right ahead and chase your tail, sis. Just stay out of my way. I owe him for the latest mess he's created, and this time he's outsmarted himself and drawn a great big arrow in the direction he went." He turned back to Broots. "Inform the Sweeper teams that I want everyone available in Baltimore as soon as possible. They're to report in to me as soon as I arrive."
"Yes, sir," Broots muttered under his breath, typing in his instructions.
"See you in Blue Cove, Parker." Lyle walked off, whistling merrily, and Miss Parker watched him go, frowning to herself.
"Should I call the company plane and let them know we're going back to the Centre?" Broots asked.
"No." She tapped her fingernails along the edge of the pink tablecloth, lost in thought. "Sydney? When have we ever gotten a clue to where Jarod was going? Before he showed up, I mean?"
"Never," Sydney admitted. "You know that as well as I do."
"Right. Broots, those other locations --- cross-check and tell me which ones match up to some file that he stole yesterday."
"Okay.... um, all of them except Miami and Boise . The rest all have ties or connections to at least one file."
"So that isn't it... It has to be...." She frowned again. Emily. The one name so far that was utterly unfamiliar.
Jarod would never warn them, would never give them a chance to find out more about his next move, not with the way he'd been avoiding them for three months straight. He'd go for the one thing they didn't know about yet, to take the advantage of time while he had it.
The one thing most important to Jarod was his family.
It was a long shot. A complete and total hunch. If it didn't pan out, she'd look like an idiot. She didn't even know what she was looking for, yet. But if she were Jarod, she'd be looking for traces of her family.
Something in the back of her brain was screaming Miami to her. Something she couldn't quite remember, not yet. The same feeling she'd had the day before, when she'd remembered the limousine company. He'd been to Miami before; maybe, just maybe....
"Contact the plane, tell them to file a flight plan to Miami. And not to inform Lyle." She smiled grimly. "If he wants us out of his way, we'll stay out of his way. And we'll stay out of his. We'll see who's got the better instincts."
"You're sure?.... Yes, I understand. Well, keep Donoterase on alert. I don't want to lose him because we got too confident.... Yes, yes. Thank you. Good-bye, doctor." Lyle disconnected his cell phone, then stared out the window of the jet with an expression of discontent. After a few moments, he dialed in another number. "Lyle here. I want to know Miss Parker's current location... "
Heat rippled up from the pavement, and the sun beat down like it had actual weight, sending glares of light bouncing off the hood of the car into her eyes as Miss Parker stared at the office of the "family finder." The last time she'd been to Miami, it had been a dead-end, something forced on her by Raines --- with Sydney's tacit cooperation. They'd both had their reasons to keep her from finding Jarod that time. Now, though, they were here at her insistence, not that of anyone within the Centre. The name of the woman had come to her on the plane: Millie Reynolds. The one whose office she'd burst through two years ago. After hiring her, Jarod had obtained a FedEx envelope with information about his parents in it--- for a little while.
Miss Parker had shot it out of his hands, then burned it unopened. One of the few times she'd won at their little game. There had been occasions since then that she'd wished she'd read the damn thing; it would have given her some leverage with Jarod that she could have used. Or maybe helped her find Major Charles before his son did -- and find out if he'd murdered her mother, without Jarod there to save him.
"It's been two hours, he may not be coming here...." Broots's voice trailed off as he caught her glare in the rearview mirror.
"He's coming here. I know it." She frowned, realizing that she *did* know it, with no doubt at all. She knew Jarod, she could see the path toward his goal as clearly as if it were hers. Which was *not* a happy realization. I've been following him too damn long. I don't want to be inside his head like this.... Her restlessness was increasing every minute they stayed outside the office. He *was* going to be here. So what was keeping him? Unless--- She got out of the car and slammed the door.
"I'm just making sure," she threw over her shoulder. "You two stay here. Sam, you're with me."
The big Sweeper got out of the car, hurrying to catch up with her as she cut across the street with an impatient wave at the beeping traffic. He opened the door for her when they reached the office-front, the blast of cool air doing nothing to calm her.
"Where is he?"
The receptionist looked at her blankly, but the thin blonde behind one of the desks looked up with an expression of wary dislike. "Are you going to cause a scene like you did last time?" Millie Reynolds asked, leaning back in her chair and playing with a pen.
"He *has* been here." Reynolds' expression grew more surprised, but Miss Parker had sensed it as soon as the woman opened her mouth. No denials, no questions: Jarod had already warned her. "Damnit...." Parker paced in front of the woman's desk, furious and seething, fighting the same feeling of frustration that had hit her in Los Angeles. Using people who knew him already, people who trusted him, was giving Jarod an edge that he hadn't had before, even if it was making it easier to track him--- to a point. Beyond that, she was going to keep hitting this stone wall of his accomplices' resistance and the Centre's dislike of publicity. "Damnit! What did he have you researching for him? His parents again?"
"I don't have to tell you anything," Millie Reynolds retorted, getting up from her desk and pointing her pen at the door. "And you can leave now, before I call the police---"
The screeching of the fax machine on her desk startled Reynolds, cutting off the rest of her threats, and her eyes darted toward the machine before she could cover her reaction. Miss Parker stopped pacing, glanced at the fax, noticing that it was a confirmation page that was being printed out, not an incoming document. Before the people finder could stop her, she snatched it out of the machine.
* * * COMMUNICATION RESULT REPORT (MAY 5, 1999 2:52pm) * * *
179 MEMORY TX (305)555-1111 OK p.10/10
TO: Jarod Co./Agency: Hotel Palmero
MESSAGE TO RECIPIENT:
Records found. Transmission follows.
305. "Hotel Palmero. Miami area code---" Reynolds was reaching for the phone, and Parker grabbed it off the desk and handed it to Sam before turning and running for the door. "Don't let her call anyone! And don't let her or the receptionist leave until you hear from me!"
"You can't *do* this---"
She didn't hang around to point out to Reynolds that actually, yes she could, because Sam's stoic lack of response would make the point better than anything she could say. She ran through a break in the traffic and threw herself into the car, the keys in the ignition before she'd even slammed the door shut. "Which part of town is in the 305 area code?" she demanded of Broots, pulling into traffic with a squealing of tires that had horns honking behind her.
"Uhh, I'm not sure. South side, I think---"
"Get me an address for Hotel Palmero *now*. We've got maybe fifteen minutes before he's gone again."
"On it." Broots began typing madly, while Sydney's frown deepened.
"You know where he is."
"Yes. And there isn't a thing you can do or say to throw me off, Sydney. So just sit there and imitate a statue, because until I have the cuffs on his wrists, *nothing* else is interesting to me. Got it?"
"Understood." Sydney crossed his arms and stared out the window, withdrawing from her, expressing his disapproval with his silence.
Miss Parker disregarded it. Finally. Finally he's made a mistake... Don't look now, Jarod. You're about to lose.
It took twenty-four minutes exactly to make it across town to the Hotel Palmero, in Miami's South Beach district. Miss Parker had called the front desk on the way over, and managed to get the clerk to admit that they had a "Jarod DeLeon" still registered. She couldn't get any more information out of the desk clerk over the phone, but it was enough. Enough to make her hope that this time, maybe, there'd be no last-minute escape. No Houdini tricks. Just a pair of handcuffs and Jarod being dragged back to the Centre by his hair.
The Palmero was a pink-stucco vision out of the twenties, complete with an open lobby full of burgundy leather furniture, palm trees scattered around a gurgling fountain, and a wrought-iron old-fashioned elevator that rose upward through the courtyard to the lounge on the roof of the hotel. The image was somewhat spoiled by the freckled and squinting teenager minding registration. He looked like he belonged at a hot-dog stand at the beach, instead of handling the reception duties of an impressive hotel.
"Jarod DeLeon. What room is he in?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I can't tell you that." The kid looked nervous enough to puke; it was probably his first day on duty. Miss Parker had just begun considering whether to offer him a bribe or threaten his job when Mr. Lyle walked in.
"What's *he* doing here?" Broots whispered, looking hunted.
"Begging for scraps, what else?" she snarled back. She plastered a false and feral smile on her face and crossed her arms, waiting for Lyle to get within arm's reach before she hissed, "This *is* a surprise. What's the matter, Lyle? Maryland a bust?"
"Maybe." Lyle smiled perfunctorily, his eyes darting around the lobby. Looking for Jarod. Ambulance chaser, Miss Parker thought contemptuously. "You really should have checked in once you were this close, sis. Lucky I called ahead while we were over Kansas City, and got your flight destination."
Miss Parker had the urge to say "bite me" but strangled it back. If she wanted *any* credit for catching Jarod, she couldn't afford to waste time on petty squabbles. Sydney and Broots would back her account of how he was caught, and so would Sam. "Whatever. We were just about to ask this gentleman where Jarod was," she said coldly, jerking her head at the now even-more-nervous desk clerk.
"I can't---" The clerk protested, then gulped as Lyle held out a $50 bill.
"His room number. That's all we need."
"It would be a shame if any of the lovely furniture in this lobby were to be accidentally damaged during a fight," Lyle said, smiling pleasantly, his voice calm and non-threatening. He still managed to look as if he should be behind bars. The three goons with him stared coldly at the kid behind the desk until he cracked, grabbing the money as Miss Parker turned away in disgust.
"602. You should take the stairs or the lobby elevator, the other ones are being serviced---" His voice trailed off as he reached for the ringing phone. "Hotel Palmero."
"*We'll* take the elevator. Parker, cover the stairs," Lyle ordered, hurrying over to the iron cage, his men on his heels, a pack of dogs following a rabid wolf.
"Lyle!" He had a headstart on her, but she almost made it into the elevator in spite of that. Her dear brother nearly ruined a hundred-dollar manicure slamming the grate shut before she could make it on. "Damnit, I'm the one that found him! At least have one of those goons help me cover the exits---"
"The stairs, sister dear. Have to make sure he doesn't get away," Lyle said cheerfully as the lift began to rise.
Was he really so stupid that he thought a frontal assault would automatically work? Or could he not resist making an entrance, guns blazing, outnumbering Jarod four to one? Damnit, if we lose him because of Lyle's incompetence again--- Parker spun around and sprinted for the stairwell, grimly hoping that Jarod would make it past Lyle to the staircase, giving her the chance to capture him herself.
Her hand was on the doorknob when she heard the screeching of overstressed metal and grinding of gears behind her. She stopped, sudden intuition filling her with dread, then turned around.
The elevator holding Lyle and three Sweepers was suspended between the second and third floors. She could hear Lyle's screaming and the rattling of the cage door, and knew, with absolute certainty, who was responsible. She walked back toward the front desk where Sydney and Broots waited, shaking her head in wonder.
"We're stuck! Somebody get a goddamn electrician!"
"Mr. Lyle apparently has a fear of enclosed spaces," Sydney said with a perfectly straight face as she came within earshot.
"Wow. Sucks to be him." Broots tilted his head sideways, studying the elevator mechanism. "It looks like the brakes just seized up for no reason---"
The kid behind the counter was still talking on the phone, and as she approached, she caught part of his conversation. "Uhh, yeah. Yeah... No. No, this other guy? In a suit? Yeah, he's the one... Well, she's still here---"
Insight could be literally blinding. It was like the glare of light in her eyes, taking her balance for second when she realized who had called the front desk right before Lyle got on the elevator.
"JAROD!" She lunged for the phone, and the kid dropped it, startled speechless, sending it skittering off the front desk. "That was him, wasn't it? Wasn't it?" The clerk nodded, his eyes huge, and she pushed off from counter, spinning around, looking in every direction.
"He's still here! He'd never do something like this if he couldn't watch, and he'd have to be close enough to set it off---" She was babbling, she knew it, but who cared, he was still here, still within reach--- he'd have to have his exit planned, a way to escape if they didn't all get stuck on the elevator---
She turned on her heel and ran for the door, knowing he had to be out there, gloating. Waiting to see if it worked. Squinting into the afternoon sun, she scanned the parking lot--- and saw him. A blue 4x4 with the motor running was parked in the middle of the exit lane from the parking lot, and when the driver turned his head to look at her, it was Jared's eyes that widened with surprise. Their eyes locked for a second, and then he gunned the motor and zoomed out into the street.
Miss Parker didn't wait for Sydney, didn't bother telling Broots to hurry up. She raced to the car and started it as soon as she had the seatbelt on, then peeled out of her parking space and followed, swerving around other cars with a determination sharpened by the knowledge that she was on her own. No *way* is Lyle going to get out of that elevator in time to be any help...
Palm trees flickered by at regular intervals as she darted in and out of traffic, keeping the blue 4X4 in sight, running through the possible destinations that Jarod could be heading for. Airport, wrong direction; docks, highway --- possible. She withdrew her cell phone from her jacket and hit the speed dial. "Get me the satellite office, *now.*" She waited impatiently for the connection, gunning the motor to catch up to Jarod as his truck passed two smaller cars. "I need people to cover Miami International and the city docks. Have them report back to me directly, I've got Jarod going north on Main--" She hit the brakes as the car in front of her stopped at a red light. Damnit damnit, DAMNIT ---
She could see Jarod being forced to stop at the intersection beyond hers, and she groaned through her teeth, beeping her horn and shooting nasty looks at the vehicle in front of hers. "Good. Parker out." She hung up and threw the phone on the seat next to her as the light in front of Jarod turned green. He took a right, and the light at her intersection finally changed. She pulled in front of the cars next to her moments later, then switched back into the far right lane and swerved to follow him. He's getting away, he's losing me--- no, damnit, you're not ditching me this time, Jarod--- Miss Parker hit the accelerator, passing three other cars, then slammed on the brakes as the cars in front of her stopped. A traffic cop stood at the next stop sign, holding up both hands--- and Jarod's 4X4 was past him, on the other side of the street.
"Noooooo!" She was three cars back from the intersection, but she couldn't see why the policeman had halted traffic. Killing the engine, she grabbed her phone and got out of the car, stalking down the lines between the lanes, the wish to kill something growing with every second.
"What the hell's the hold-up?" she demanded, walking up to the cop. "I need to get to the other side of this intersection!"
"I'm sorry ma'am, this street is blocked off. Someone forgot to put up the detour signs in time, but we can't let anyone else go through ---"
"Why *not*? What's the problem, I don't see any accident---"
"It's not an accident, ma'am. It's the Cinco de Mayo parade."
Miss Parker stared at him disbelievingly, and he shrugged at her in apology. "The *what*?"
"Cinco de Mayo. It's very big here in Miami, you must be from out of town---"
"You can't be serious!" It was obvious that he was, though; she could hear a marching band in the distance, and crowds were gathering on either side of the boulevard behind traffic barricades. Two city workers came by and put a roadblock in place between her and the traffic cop. Jarod's truck was nowhere in sight, now. "This isn't happening. This is *not* happening!"
"I'm sorry, ma'am. We're going to have to ask you to move your car, along with the rest of these people---"
She screamed, causing several drivers of the cars that were now turning around to stare at her. It was a scream of pure frustration at being thwarted again, of being so close and yet so far, at having done an end-run around Lyle only to lose Jarod at the finish line. He'd known. He had to have known about this, he'd known when they were going to block off the streets, he'd gotten there just in time.... "I'm going to wring his neck!"
The phone in her hand trilled, and she closed her eyes, then thumbed the switch, snarling, "What?"
"Welcome to Miami, Miss Parker."
"You--- !" She scanned her surroundings wildly. Still here, I can still get him--- where ---
On the other side of the boulevard, parked about two sidestreets away, she finally saw the blue 4X4 in a lot in front of a restaurant. She could just make out his face through the windshield where the crowds hadn't blocked her view yet. Her lip curled, and she drew a breath to threaten him, taking several steps forward to cross the street, then stopped in shock.
Sitting next to him in the truck was a little girl. The little girl he had rescued from the Centre, probably. She was still with him, four months after his escape.
"What do you think you're *doing* with that kid?"
"Watching the parade." Jarod sounded amused, probably at her expense, but for once she was too shocked to care. "I'm sorry you're going to be stuck in traffic for a while, but try to enjoy Cinco de Mayo in spite of it."
"Jarod..." She growled warningly, still staring at the pony-tailed figure next to him. It was too far away to see her face, or any more detail than sunglasses perched on a face too small for the frames, and a bobbing top-knot of hair. But there was no other reason for him to have a child with him, it had to be the same girl who'd gone missing in January. "You *know* what I meant. Why is she still with you? Are you out of your *mind*?" What was he thinking of, taking a kid along with him on his flight around the country? Raines would still be looking for her. She should've been back with her family, or somewhere safe....
One of the beat cops had moved forward and was pushing her back toward the curb. She shot him a dirty look, but grudgingly took a few steps back, trying to get her bearings, and waiting for him to move on so she could cross the street. The floats weren't there yet, but they'd be coming down the boulevard any second. "And what did Millie Reynolds tell you? Something about your parents?" Another idea occurred to her, an explanation for his companion's presence. "Or something about the girl's?"
"Oh, I know all I need to about Kristin's mom and dad." She could hear a small voice in the background after he said this; it sounded like the girl was asking about her mommy, something about Jarod having promised to tell her about her mommy. "And I wasn't researching my parents, either."
Miss Parker made a dash across the street when the cop wasn't looking, then started shoving through the crowd at the edge of the barricade. Two blocks. Two blocks away from him. He was too cocky, she was *going* to catch him--- she was brought to a standstill by another barricade and another traffic cop, and she searched the area around her desperately for a way to get past the barriers without attracting notice. "Who's Emily? Some relative of the girl's?"
"Sorry, Miss Parker. That's top secret. And her name is Kristin," Jarod said firmly. What does it matter what her name is? Miss Parker wanted to scream. She belongs to the Centre, at least they'd see it that way, *why* didn't you hide her when it was safe--- "Did you know that Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of the Mexicans over French invaders in 1862? Now, it's more of a celebration of the Chicano community. It's going to be a quite a party." A squeak of "party!" came through the phone, and Jarod laughed. Dumbstruck for a moment, Miss Parker stood next to the barriers, listening to him almost giggling with his new friend. He's lost it. He's completely lost it! "We'd love to stay for it, but we have to be flying---"
"Jarod, you are the *last* person who should be taking care of a child." Reckless. Careless. Impulsive. God, any kid in his care would end up getting killed when he pulled some stunt ---
"No." All the laughter was gone from his voice, and she finally cut through the crowd, raced across the street and began shoving her way toward the 4X4 as his voice chilled, sounding grim. "That would be those at the Centre who were ready to make her life hell. People like Raines and his men. By comparison, I'm Ward Cleaver."
She had a short moment of extreme disorientation, shuddering as she contemplated the thought of Jarod watching "Leave It to Beaver." Then she was clear of the crowd, less than a hundred feet away from him, running, reaching for her gun. "But you can't keep dragging her around the country on some whim! Jarod, I swear, if you turn yourself in, I'll make sure that what you're afraid of doesn't happen---"
"How do you think you'd stop it? The way your mother did?" he asked. She almost fumbled her gun when he said that. He could be so cruel, sometimes. It might be the truth but it still cut, both with its unexpectedness and the pain she'd never stopped feeling since she was ten. Fifty feet. Jarod started the truck's engine, and she could see him, still smiling enigmantically as he pulled the car out of the parking space. "I don't think so. As I said, Kristin and I have plans, and they don't include you right now. But you enjoy the parade anyway, Miss Parker."
He drove right by her as she brought her gun up, and he grinned. She couldn't do it, not with the little girl in the car. He *knew* that, the bastard. God *damn* him! He actually had the nerve to wave at her; and the little girl on the other side of him-- maybe four, maybe five, but little, innocent, not to blame for any of this--- waved along with him, completely oblivious to how much danger surrounded them both. Then they were gone, down the street away from the parade, and Miss Parker let her gun drop to the ground in defeat.
Lost. Again. Jarod won. Jarod always won. But now the stakes were so much higher. Miss Parker thought of the little girl sitting next to him, and an icy dread of what might happen now froze her in place, with no idea what to do next.
Sydney relaxed in his chair in the lobby, his legs stretched in front of him as he enjoyed the show. The hotel's mechanic, along with two other repairmen, were banging on, poking at and otherwise playing with the elevator. Lyle was swearing down at them with a steady stream of obscenities -- it was impossible to tell whether it was motivating the repairs, or simply annoying the workers.
Broots had set himself up behind the front desk, taking over one of the phone lines with all the unstoppability of Miss Parker at her worst; Sydney made a mental note to have a word with Broots about that. It was all very well for Broots' confidence to grow -- that was a necessary trait for survival at the Centre. But there was no need to become rude....
His cell phone rang quietly and Sydney tensed, hesitating before he pulled it out and flipped it open. "This is Sydney."
"Hello, Sydney. Is Lyle out of the elevator yet?"
Jarod. Sydney let out a long breath he hadn't been aware of holding -- Miss Parker had been entirely too close this time. He forced his voice to stay calm. "Actually, no. They're having some trouble with the mechanism... something about magnets?"
"I'm sorry to hear that." Sydney could hear Jarod's smug grin even across the phone line. "Hope he's not claustrophobic."
"Jarod, you *know* his father locked him in a shed as punishment when he was a teenager. What do you think?"
"Oh, dear. I forgot about that. Well, I'm sure they'll get the doors open in... oh, another few hours."
Sydney chuckled, shaking his head at his most incorrigible child, as he got up and casually walked out of the lobby, and out of Broots' earshot. "I assume that Miss Parker didn't manage to intercept you?"
"She ran into an unexpected parade. Funny, she didn't seem to be enjoying it."
"I do think she needs to relax more," Sydney's voice was bland, even as he winced at the mental picture Jarod presented. Miss Parker was not going to be happy when she returned.
"Maybe a trip to Disneyworld while you're down here," Jarod suggested cheerfully.
"I'll be sure to recommend that," Sydney said dryly. Then, soberly, "Did you find what you needed at the detective agency?"
Silence from Jarod for a long moment. "I found... part of what I need. I hope. I'm going to have to find out the rest myself."
"I understand that your young friend is still with you. You're taking quite a risk, keeping her with you while you search. Are you certain it's wise?
Jarod sighed. "No, but leaving her anywhere would be even worse. And she's having fun. Want to talk to her?"
Sydney blinked, then smiled in delighted anticipation. "Of course!"
Jarod chuckled. "Okay, just a second." His voice faded as he took the phone away from his face to ask his passenger, "Do you want to talk to... to your Uncle Sydney?"
Sydney blinked again, as his smile grew sad. 'Uncle Sydney', indeed. What he had done to deserve the title, he had no idea.
"Uncle Sydney? I have an Uncle Sydney?" a little girl's voice piped.
"Sort of," Jarod agreed. "Here you go."
There was the scuffle of a phone being transferred and a child's hands getting a good grip, before that same tiny voice said with what she probably thought was great maturity, "Hello? This is Kristin speaking."
Sydney leaned against a warm brick wall and smiled up at the sun. "Hello, Kristin. It's very nice to talk to you again."
"Again?" The child's voice grew suspicious. "You sound like I know you."
"Well, we met once before, the night you met your father."
"Ohhh! I remember! Daddy hit you. But he was real sorry."
Sydney chuckled, rubbing his jaw ruefully. The bruise had taken two weeks to fade. "Yes, I know he was. How are you, Kristin?"
"I'm good! We just came from a parade! They had floats, with big people on them, and people singing, and a band!"
"It sounds very exciting." All that enthusiasm, all that innocence... Had Jarod ever been that young, Sydney wondered. But no, he knew that answer to that.
"It was! And we drove all over, and we got some Icee's on the way here, and Daddy bought me sunglasses!"
He smiled. No, Jarod hadn't been allowed to enjoy his childhood, but he certainly seemed to be seeing that Kristin did. "And what color are your sunglasses?"
"They're pink! Pink is my favorite! Do you have sunglasses?"
"Yes, I do, but I'm sure they're not as nice as yours. It sounds like you and your daddy are having a wonderful time."
"Uh-hunh. Oh! And there was a lady who was playing tag with us. We won! She missed us, she missed us!"
"Playing tag?" Oh, dear. It was as he'd suspected. "Was the lady in a car?"
"Uh-hunh! Mostly, and then when we got to the parade, she got out of her car. She got stuck on the other side. We win! She was *maaaad*..."
Sydney was torn between horror and hilarity, and hilarity was winning. He struggled not to laugh, not sure if Kristin would understand the joke. Miss Parker most certainly would not. "I... I'm certain she was quite upset."
"She stamped her feet! *I* know better than that! And I don't do it now. Very much. She should be careful, or somebody will put her in Time-Out. Time-Out is *no* fun!"
Sydney could hear Jarod snickering in the background; it was all he could do to keep his own voice contained. He was well aware that his amused smile was about to split his face, as he remembered more than a few confrontations with the young Miss Parker when her considerable will had been thwarted. Not to mention the older version. The concept of a Time-Out was... intriguing. He restrained himself to commenting, "I'll, ah, be sure to tell her that."
"Oh, you know her too? That's good. You tell her that. Maybe we can play again, and she'll win next time."
Sydney chuckled, then paused, hating himself for asking the next question, but unable not to. "Kristin, where are you going now?"
"It's a secret!" Kristin burbled back instantly. "I can't tell you, but it's someplace else, and I get to be the co-pilot 'cause Daddy promised, but it's a secret! You'll never ever guess, Daddy says."
Thwarted by a five-year-old sense of honor. Sydney accepted the justice of that and let the question go. "If your daddy says so, I'm sure he's correct. Why don't you let me talk to your daddy again?"
"My daddy is always cor-rect. He knows everything. It was very nice talking with you, Uncle Sydney! 'Bye!"
Jarod's voice returned, sounding smug again. "Hello, Sydney? Have a good talk?"
"Your... friend seems to be enjoying her visit to Florida. She said something about a parade?"
"Oh, yes, that's the one I took Miss Parker to. Kristin had more fun."
"She mentioned that Miss Parker seemed to be headed for a 'time-out'."
"I think that's going to be your department, not mine."
Sydney shuddered at the very thought. No matter how much he was sometimes tempted.... "Ah, well. We all have our responsibilities --- and yours and mine are *very* similar."
"Well, I never got the chance to baby-sit as a child -- you learn something new every day."
"Kristin mentioned a trip, but as you heard, she was very careful to tell me that it was a secret."
"Well, she's had a lot of secrets in her life." Jarod's voice suddenly became very serious, as lowered as if to keep the child from hearing him. "I don't want her to have too many more, Sydney. I don't want her to live like this forever."
Sydney's own amusement dimmed. "Understandable. And commendable." There was a sudden and triumphant burst of profanity from the lobby; Sydney stuck his head back in the door and watched as, jerkily, the car began to descend. "You know that if you need me to help---"
"I know. Thank you, Sydney."
"It's good to finally hear from you. We've been worried, all of us --- though I doubt Miss Parker is even aware of it."
"Worried about me?" Jarod asked with more than a trace of bitterness. "Or worried about facing the Tower without me?"
Sydney half-laughed. "Strange to say, I believe that the two states of mind are not incompatible. At least not where Miss Parker is concerned." Something suddenly struck him and he caught his breath in sudden anxiety. "Kristin saw her. Did she see Kristin?"
"No," Jarod replied instantly. "She knows Kristin's still with me, but we were too far away. She doesn't know the rest."
Sydney sighed in relief, then reminded the other man, "She has to know soon, Jarod. Now that she knows that the girl is with you, it won't be long before others do. This secret can only be kept for so long."
"I know. I know." Jarod sighed in frustration. "I think... I think she's going to know very soon now. And God help us all."
"I'll say a prayer," Sydney promised wryly. "Godspeed to you, Jarod --- wherever you're going,."
"Thank you, Sydney. I'll get in touch with you when I can."
"Be certain to hug Kristin for me --- oh. I must go; Mr. Lyle is looking very angry --- and he's out of the elevator." And heading for the door with blood in his eye.
"Uh-oh. I bet he's in a bad mood. Bye, Sydney."
"Good-bye, Jarod." He added, more softly, "Take care...."
Kristin piped up from the background, "Bye, Uncle Sydney!" and Sydney laughed again as the connection was broken, then straightened himself to face Mr. Lyle, as Miss Parker's car raced into the parking lot in a squeal of brakes and temper.
"Are you sure this is the place?" Miss Parker scanned the street in front of the beauty shop critically, unimpressed. Nothing special about it; nothing to make it stand out from its neighbors. Just like hundreds of other places where Jarod had visited and decided to commit a good deed. The shop was middle-class, simple, boring. The kind of place that would give you a $12 haircut or an updo for the Prom, but nothing better. Nothing she'd ever pay money for.
"Yes. Jarod represented Mrs. Welsh's husband in a workman's compensation negotiation about two years ago. This is the permanent address given on the paperwork that Broots found." Sydney handed her the file with a long-suffering expression. The beauty parlor was the third place that day that they were checking out; Miss Parker was determined to find a trail to follow to Jarod, something that Raines would miss. Lyle and his little buddies had taken the hotel clerk's confirmation that Jarod was still traveling with a little girl in his custody straight to Mr. Raines. She had to find Jarod first. It wasn't just about winning, now.
This place, like the previous two, and the others that she had Sweeper teams checking, was within a day's driving distance of the Centre, and contained people Jarod might have helped earlier in his crusading career. They were places he *could* have gone to after he left the Centre in January, on his way west. Like Reynolds' agency in Miami and Isaac Dexter's limo service in L.A., these people would have asked few questions and might have been willing to help him and the child he had stolen. Too bad the first two they'd visited had yielded nothing.
She still couldn't figure out why he was keeping the child with him. By all rights, he should have hidden her somewhere secure months ago... unless he was searching for her parents. That had to be it, but it was still an incredible risk to take. It disturbed Miss Parker in the same way this backtracking of his trail disturbed her. Jarod was incredibly unpredictable in the directions he'd run or the personas he would take on, but until now, he'd always traveled alone. Never gone back to places he'd visited. Never taken stupid chances.
Unless he had some other agenda, and those chances weren't so stupid. Which meant she didn't have all the facts. Which meant he'd become even more unpredictable....
She pushed her thoughts to the side and grimaced at the shop's facade. "What a dump."
"I think it's rather charming."
"It's right out of the fifties, Sydney. Of course you'd think it's charming." Miss Parker rolled her eyes and waved Sam back to stay with the car, Sydney trailing after her as she pushed open the door to the beauty parlor. The sound of a dozen women chattering, hairdryers blowing, soft-rock music piped into the shop through speakers in the ceiling, and phones ringing temporarily deafened her. Ugh. How Scarsdale South. When she got her bearings back, she approached the young woman answering phones behind the counter. "Christine Welsh?"
"Hello, Christine's Beauty Emporium. I'm sorry, we don't have anyone free today..." The receptionist covered the mouth of the receiver and jerked her head toward the shop's interior. "She's working at the far left chair --- yes, actually we do have an opening tomorrow morning...." Miss Parker stepped around the counter and into the main area of the salon, passing a bank of screaming hairdryers drying the curlers of the middle-aged women trying to talk over the sound. She then stalked past three other beauticians' chairs before stopping before a dark-haired, round-faced woman who looked to be in her early thirties. She was laughing at something her customer was saying, silver shears flashing as she made the last few adjustments to her client's hair, fluffing it with her fingers.
"Mrs. Welsh?" Miss Parker asked, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the ambient sound, and catching the woman's eye in the mirror.
"Uh-hunh?" Christine Welsh smiled back warmly, cocking her head as she sized up Miss Parker. "That's me, but you can call me Christine, everybody does. If you're lookin' for an appointment---"
"No." She swallowed a smile, fast, before it could insult the woman. "I'm here on a business matter. A confidential one. If I could have a moment of your time?"
The beauty shop owner looked around, assessing how her workers were doing, then nodded as she took the smock off her last customer. "All right. I don't see why not. Why don't you come into my office?"
Christine led them into a tiny office behind the reception desk that held only a desk and two chairs. Sydney lounged in the doorway as Miss Parker seated herself, then pulled out a picture of Jarod, handing it to Christine Welsh with the familiar words, "Have you ever met this man?"
Unlike the previous two interviews of the day, Christine barely looked at the photo. And unlike the other two, she didn't immediately burst into praise of Jarod, telling what he'd done for her and her husband, her family, her life.... Instead she looked away, her body tense, her eyes avoiding Miss Parker's, her gaze shifting to Sydney standing in the doorway, then dropping down to her lap. "No."
Bingo. He warned her to expect us. She knows at least a few facts about the Centre. "Take another look. A *good* look."
She glanced at it again, tilted her head in supposed consideration, then shrugged elaborately, still not looking Miss Parker in the eye. "Nope. Doesn't look familiar to me." She squared her shoulders, finally dragging her gaze up to Parker's face, and setting her jaw pugnaciously. "Say, what's this all about?"
"He used to be employed by our research firm. Unfortunately, he's had a nervous breakdown..." The smooth, practiced lies fell from her lips without Miss Parker even having to think about them; they were so well-known by now, that they didn't require thought. The real part of the investigation was here, in watching Christine Welsh's face, trying to gauge how much Jarod had told her; how much she might know about where he was now. "He compromised some projects, stole some research... of course, no charges will be pressed. We just want to help him."
Christine's lips had grown thin, her eyes sparking angrily, but she shook her head again in denial. "Uh-hunh. Well, I'm sorry I can't help you. I don't know that man."
Miss Parker opened her eyes wide, let her smile sharpen, and then went for the throat. "That's very interesting, considering that he's the one that straightened out your husband's compensation payments."
Christine blinked, once, the edges of fear showing around her hard-lipped anger. "Are you calling me a liar?"
"Jarod Holmes was not an attorney licensed by the state of West Virginia, Mrs. Welsh. Any documents he filed for your husband---"
"Hey now, you just wait a minute! He never said he was, he didn't do *anything* that would get Axe in trouble, he was that careful about it---" Christine's accent got thicker as she blustered out a denial, then her voice trailed off as she realized that she'd been tricked, her face falling in dismay. "Damn!"
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. And I wouldn't tell you if I did," the other woman snapped.
Miss Parker kept her voice calm, non-threatening, matter-of-fact; waiting for the beautician to make a mistake, keeping her own temper firmly in check, not pushing Christine. Sydney usually jumped in by now during these interviews, either soothing the interviewee or asking for more information, but this time he was staying still and silent, his eyes thoughtful but concealing whatever was going on in his mind. Not much help now when we've got a real lead, Syd, are you? This is *not* the time for your scruples. Focus, damnit. "When was the last time you saw him?"
Christine's smile was almost nasty, but she didn't have enough practice to intimidate anyone who'd grown up in the Centre. "Wouldn't you like to know."
"Mrs. Welsh, there is reason for genuine concern over Jarod's whereabouts. The young girl he has traveling with him---"
"Can't you people leave him alone!" Christine Welsh exploded, rocketing out of her seat and onto her feet in one movement to loom over Miss Parker, as if Parker weren't a good six inches taller than she when standing. "He's a decent man, a kind man! He deserves some peace and quiet to take care of his little girl, and you all have to keep chasin' him and houndin' him---"
"His little girl?" She should have been surprised, but she wasn't. It had to have been more convenient in explaining for Jarod to claim the girl was his than to get into all the facts. Which would go far to explaining part of Christine Welsh's attitude, too. Miss Parker shook her head slowly, sympathetically. "She's not his daughter, Ms. Welsh. That's not possible. He may feel some responsibility to her, and I know he may have claimed that---"
"Oh, who the hell do you think you're kiddin'? She's got his eyes. She talks just *like* him. She's just as smart as he is. That little girl's a star. Of *course* she's his, who the hell else's would she be?"
Shock. Like a slap of ice-cold water in the face, it hit her, all of the little strange things falling into place like a puzzle box. Oh. My. God. His daughter...? Christine continued to rant, her hands on her hips, glaring at Sydney as well as herself. Miss Parker noticed this in some isolated part of her mind, the part that wasn't adding up facts --- Dexter's attitude, Jarod's long disappearance, the risks he'd taken --- and slowly becoming enraged.
"It's a crime and a cryin' shame what your super-secret old-money creeps can get away with, that's what I think! Hell, I should go to the papers, let 'em know what y'all have done to Jarod over the last thirty years, and what you're doin' to him an' Kristin now---"
"Kristin," she repeated numbly. I don't believe they did this. I can't... Who am I kidding? Of course I can believe it. It's NuGenesis all over again...
"Yeah. Kristin. Or don't you people let little girls have names any more?" Christine asked defiantly.
"Sydney---" She was still in shock, trying to process the implications. For once in her life, she was truly surprised beyond knowing what to do in the next moment. Someone else would have to cope with reality, because she was still stuck back on the word "daughter." She turned to Sydney, knowing he could handle Mrs. Welsh easily, even though part of her knew he was at least partially responsible for keeping this from her. He had to be; his reactions in Miami... his worry over Jarod's disappearance.... all of it, all of it made sense now.
"We're sorry to have taken up so much of your time, Mrs. Welsh. We'll be going now." Sydney took her by the arm and pulled her to her feet, then began escorting her to the exit. Mechanically, Miss Parker went along with him, ignoring the woman they'd been interviewing, lost in her own thoughts until Christine's next words penetrated the fog in her brain.
"You're damn right you will. And if you ever come back here, I'll be callin' the sheriff so fast---"
She stopped, bringing Sydney to a halt, and turned back to Christine. Miss Parker could hear her own voice, knew what it sounded like: detached, colorless, clear as ice. "I wouldn't advise that, Mrs. Welsh. As you've said, the old-money power types we work for have ways of getting what they want."
She caught Christine's gaze and held it, the overpowering importance of what she had to say overriding her previous shock. "If you breathe a *word* of this to *anyone*, you will have five times more the legal trouble than the workman's comp ever caused. I'm telling you this..." She stammered suddenly, memories of her mother hitting her like blows. Mom tried to help. And failed. I can't fail. I have to do this now, I have to finish what she started... "As someone who knows. Do you understand?"
Christine was looking scared again. Worried and scared. Which was much, much better than the alternative any of Raines' Sweepers would implement. "Yes. I... I guess I do."
"Good." Miss Parker took her card out her purse and gave it to her. "If anyone else from the Centre tries to contact you, you can reach me here. Have them call me before you answer any questions. "
"Okay." Most of the woman's anger had dissolved into puzzlement, but Miss Parker didn't have time for her questions. Better that she never knew the answers, anyway.
"Have a nice day, Mrs. Welsh." She pushed her way out the door, having trouble breathing. Rage at the Centre was choking her, along with horror. Sydney joined her, and Miss Parker studied him for a long moment before turning to her Sweeper. "Have the car pick us up at the end of the pier, Sam. You stay here and keep an eye on the shop. Sydney, you and I are going for a walk."
"You knew. You knew she was his." Seagulls flew by as she paced up and down the very edge of the pier. No one could hear them out here. No one would have been able to read their lips, if they'd been watching them. No one could see her hands shaking with anger as she fiddled with the rings on her fingers, turning the facts over and over like she turned the rings.
Sydney didn't deny her statement. He never did, when he got caught in a half-truth. "I knew he believed she was his."
"Which makes it true, damnit. You know that. He doesn't make mistakes about this kind of thing! Why the hell didn't you tell me?" She spun on him, feeling the urge to strike out at him, to unleash the anger that was boiling inside her at him for lying to her and choosing Jarod's side again. He always, always did that. She was the one he was supposed to be helping, damnit. Not Jarod.
At least, that was what she was trying to be angry about --- instead of being angry for that little girl's sake. And maybe, strangely, bizarrely, horribly, for Jarod's sake as well. He might be a world-class pain in the ass, but this... this was obscene. Even for the Centre, this was low. They'd taken his family. Which was maybe something he should have gotten over a long time ago. But to take a child... to *create* a child, and keep her from him....
Sydney slanted a sideways glance at her. Gauging her temper, probably. Calculating the risks in confessing, then going for broke. "Because he asked me not to."
That hurt. "What, did he think I'd turn her back over to Raines? Christ...." He couldn't think that, could he? He knew her, he knew her better than anyone, damn him, he had to know she wouldn't do that... He'd let Sydney know about his daughter, but not her. So much for trust, hunh, Jarod? Looks like you're not any more into it than *I* am.
"No. But he didn't want to place you in the position you are now in. And he believed secrecy was the safest course." Sydney sighed, for once looking his age, the lines around his eyes making her wonder how much sleep he'd been getting lately. "And you know how precious his family is to him. Any interference, any at all, would feel like too much to Jarod. I wasn't even sure she was still with him until Miami."
"This is why he's been so out of touch." A little girl. A daughter. There was something so fundamentally... weird, about the idea of Jarod as a daddy. She couldn't get her mind around the concept. Jarod, singing lullabyes. Fixing peanut butter sandwiches, maybe. Giving presents to his little girl. It was all more normal than she could imagine him being. "How did this happen?"
"How do you think?"
"Raines? And NuGenesis, I'm guessing." Sydney shrugged tiredly and nodded in answer. Probably as disgusted by the subject as she was. "Damn. He and Dr. Mengele are soul brothers." She put her sunglasses back on, and glared into the afternoon sun. "I'm going to kill him this time, Sydney. This is the upper limit. That bastard should have died thirty years ago."
"I'm inclined to agree. However... killing him will not necessarily keep Jarod safe."
"Since when do I care about Jarod's safety?" She turned away, still seething. "He's a grown-up, he can take his chances. All I care about is the girl."
It jarred her again, hearing the name, like it had in the beauty shop. "Kristin." She tried to remember what the little girl looked like, but all she could remember were outsize sunglasses and a bobbing topknot of hair. She still didn't seem real, not even after seeing her in Miami. An abstraction, a what-could-be-someday, but not real. Jarod wasn't supposed to have kids. Jarod was supposed to run. Run, hunt, hide, seek... capture.
He'd be doubly dangerous, now. She'd be lucky to catch another glimpse of him in the next year if he'd gotten what he needed out of the Centre satellite office. He could be capable of anything. Absolutely anything. He had a child to think of, to take care of...
No little girl deserved to be raised in the Centre.
"What about her mother?"
"What about her?"
"You tell me, Sydney." Her patience was wearing thin. "Is there someone else we have to rescue from Raines? Or was Kristin made up of spare parts Raines just had lying around?"
Sydney's expression became opaque, a sure sign he was hiding *something*. "The latter, I think. There's been no indication of any one else being held at the Centre facilities of late..."
"That doesn't mean anything." She turned and began walking back down the pier toward the car, her mind ticking over the necessary courses of action. Whatever else, the child had to be protected. Everything else was secondary. "I'll have Broots do a check for anything to do with Raines' projects---" Her steps slowed. "Emily. Could that be her mother?"
"I don't know who she is; Jarod never mentioned her before."
"Well, he's trying to find her. She could be the mother... Great." Parker shook her head in disgust. "Just great. Raines is *still* five steps ahead of us, Syd! You've got to tell me everything you know!"
"I have told you everything I can."
"That's not the same thing."
"No. But I won't lie." He stopped walking with her, and when she turned back it was to find his eyes studying her intently. "Don't ask me any more, Miss Parker. In all the time I've known you, have I ever lied by more than omission?"
She opened her mouth, then swallowed her immediate acid response. Because the answer was no. He hadn't. He'd let her draw her own mistaken conclusions far too often, but he'd never directly lied to her. Not the way her fa--- some people at the Centre had. And still did. Concealing the truth was not as great a crime as creating the lies. And he had always had the best of intentions... which would probably lead him to his own Hell, someday. If he wasn't already there....
"No. You haven't."
"Then please don't ask me to do so now." He smiled at her, but not in reassurance, or amusement, as he usually did. With real affection; something she wanted to trust even as it made her suspicious. "When the time is right, I believe Jarod will trust you with the complete truth. But if I divulge anything prematurely--- I can't speak to the consequences."
And that was the best she was going to get out of him, she could tell. Grimly she turned and began stalking back to the car. "Fine. Let's get back to Blue Cove. There's got to be a way to trace Emily. If Jarod found it, I can find it."
"Unless it's no longer there to find," Sydney pointed out, ambling along beside her unworriedly. She only wished she had his confidence. Because if she couldn't find it, the Raines couldn't find it. Or Jarod. Or... Kristin.
"Thanks, Syd. You are a *ray* of sunshine."
Late that night, Miss Parker lay awake listening to the crickets outside her house as the wind gently blew through the trees, trying to empty her mind. Sleep wasn't coming, though, no matter how hard she tried to summon it. Her thoughts kept winding around each other, edged with hot, stinging fear.
Five months ago, Jarod would have called on a night like this. He would have known, somehow, that she was awake and angry, trying to put together the pieces of her past into an image that made sense. Maybe he would have been the deliberate cause; there might have been some clue that day, some pointer to the deceptions of the Centre that wouldn't let her sleep. And then he'd call, in the darkest part of the night, to challenge her with riddles and tease her with clues, leaving her even more churned up than before.
Except those times when he called to soothe, not to tease. When he reminded her of things she'd half-forgotten; memories of her mother, and how much Catherine Parker had loved her. Assurances that he was still out there, trying to get at Raines too. Or maybe, maybe... just to whisper a memory that they both shared into her ear, right before she went to sleep. A piece of the past to dream about, a dream that wouldn't hurt. She was never sure why he did that. It happened so rarely. But still....
Jarod wasn't going to call tonight.
She slipped out from between the sheets and picked up her robe, draping it over her shoulders as she half sleep-walked into the living room. The moonlight was flowing in through the gauze curtains, through the leaves of the trees, spangling the room with soft light. Miss Parker curled up on the couch, tucking her feet under her, wishing for a cigarette and a drink. She would have been drinking, if she weren't so scared. No room for failure. Mistakes. Mis-steps. Misjudgements....
Her mother had died of those. She felt as if she were on the final part of the same path her mother had tread, right before she was murdered. They had ended up in the same place: wanting to save the children, to defy the Centre --- to give up working within the system, knowing you couldn't change it. Miss Parker still had enough fear left, enough warning of consequences to remember that she didn't want to go there.
If only Jarod had hidden the girl. Kristin. If only he'd kept her safe... but the question would have been: how? Who could take better care of her? Hide her more carefully?
And even if there had been someone --- he couldn't have borne being separated from her. His daughter.
One more thing he's beaten me to, she thought, with only a trace of bitterness. He has his little girl now... and I'm still alone. Her own fault, really. And she didn't regret it. She'd made her choices a long time ago. She'd known the price of waiting, of devoting her life to her career, and she'd decided it was worth it. That she didn't want the hassle, the stress, the mess....
Miss Parker closed her eyes, memories seeping into the edges of her mind... memories of Jarod, and a bright day, and earrings dangling like silver promises....
"Look what my mother let me have!" Miss Parker crouched down on her knees in the air conditioning vent, and pushed her hair behind her ears so Jarod could admire the delicate silver pendants swinging from her earlobes. The vent was Jarod's favorite place; the cameras couldn't see him here, like they could everywhere else. She'd crawled through from a room down the hall, since she wasn't supposed to visit today. The earrings were too wonderful to keep to herself. "Only for today, though. I wanted to come show you when she said I could wear them this afternoon."
"They're beautiful," Jarod said, fascinated. "What are they for?"
"For decoration, silly. Mama wore them last night at the New Year's Eve party she and Daddy went to."
"What keeps them on?" Jarod started to reach for one, then jerked his hand back, his eyes going shy, like they did sometimes when she surprised him. Like when she kissed him, before Christmas.
Miss Parker laughed, feeling superior, and reached up to unscrew one of the earrings. Jarod was smarter than she was --- everyone said so. Mama said it wasn't important, and that it was hard to tell, sometimes, which people were *really* smart when it counted. But it didn't matter too much; there were so many things he didn't know about that they were even most of the time. "These little posts, see? They screw on, and they catch on my earlobe."
"It doesn't hurt?"
She shook her head, smiling at his face as he held the one she'd given him up to the light, studying it with just the expression of delight she'd known he'd have. "You should have seen my mother. She was so beautiful! She had her hair piled up like this---" She twirled her hands over her head in a spiral like the waterfall of hair that had flowed from the crown of her mother's head. "---and the most *gorgeous* green dress. Evergreen, with silver designs on it. Someday, when I grow up, I'm going to have a dress like that. And I'm going to wear silver shoes with it, like Mama did."
"Real silver shoes?"
Jarod could be so funny. Everyone knew that no one had real silver shoes, not even Dorothy. "No! Just the *color* silver. And shiny."
"How do they make them shiny?"
She shrugged, wondering about it for the first time. "I don't know. Something they do to the shoe material, I guess." She took the earring back from him and fastened it back on her ear, turning her head from side to side so the dangles lightly slapped against her jaw.
"They look pretty on you."
Sometimes Jarod could very nice. Not polite-nice, but real-nice. Almost grown-up-nice. "Thank you."
"Your mom must really like you, to let you have her earrings to wear."
Miss Parker smiled proudly, angling her head like she'd seen a model on a magazine cover do. "My mama loves me better than anything. Well, except maybe my daddy."
"It must be neat, to have parents." Jarod scuffed his shoe against the edge of the vent, resting his chin on his upraised knee. "What's it like?"
"To have parents who love you."
Jarod's parents had died in a plane crash, her mother had said. That's why he only had Sydney to take care of him. Because he was an orphan, and he was really smart, so the Centre was letting Sydney be his teacher. When he grew up, he would still work for the Centre.
She hadn't really thought about what it would be like to not have parents before.
"I don't know," she said uncertainly. "I mean... it's not *like* anything." Jarod was still staring at her, his eyes big and sad. A stab of guilt went through her, that she had a mom and a dad, and he didn't have anybody. It had to be lonely; like Tom Sawyer not having a mom and dad, just an aunt. "It's nice." That wasn't enough. "My mom reads with me, sometimes. And we go on picnics in the park. She lets me brush her hair, and helps me do my homework...."
"Sort of like me and Sydney," Jarod said hopefully. "He helps me with my simulations."
She frowned, not sure that was exactly the same. "Kind of."
Jarod could see that she didn't agree, though. He always knew when she was trying to lie. He turned his head away, folding his arms across his chest and leaning back against the side of the pipe. "It's not important. I don't have a family now, but I'll have one someday. When I grow up."
"How many kids will you have?" she asked, curious.
"Ten," he said with determination. "And they won't have to stay inside all of the time, and we'll go on trips all over the world. And I'll read to them and help them with their homework, and teach them things, and we'll stay up all night if we want to."
Miss Parker shook her head doubtfully. "Ten's too many. Your wife might not want ten."
Jarod looked unsure for a second, then he shrugged, his jaw setting. "Well, maybe not ten. But a lot. My wife will want lots of kids, and we'll be a family, and we'll never leave each other."
"That sounds nice." She tilted her head again, looking at one earring out of the corner of her eye, watching the light sparkle on it. "I won't have that many. Not ever."
"How many do you want?" Jarod asked cautiously.
"One. Well, maybe two," she answered, fiddling with the catch of the earring. "I want a little girl, so I can brush her hair and tell her stories, and take her on walks by the Bay. And maybe take her to Paris. My mother has been to Paris, and she says it's the most beautiful city in the whole wide world. That would be fun. And maybe a brother for her. Or a sister." She stopped playing with the earring, biting her lip. "I'd like to have a brother."
"Maybe your mom and dad will have another kid," Jarod suggested.
"No. I asked once, and they said they had enough with me." Her mama had been really sad when she asked that, so she'd never asked again. She hated seeing her mother sad, even when she didn't cry. It made her hurt inside.
"Well, you can have as many as you want when you grow up. Just like me."
"That's true." She whipped her head back and forth, so the earrings jangled and whizzed by, and her hair flew in her face, and Jarod laughed. She grinned at him through the tangles, getting an idea. "You can be their Uncle Jarod, when I have kids. And I can be their Aunt---"
"Shhhh!" He put his finger to his lips, and smiled at her, real big. It was their game that her name was a secret, because no one else at the Centre (except her mother) ever called her anything except Miss Parker. He knew her name, though. She wouldn't tell Dr. Raines or some of the other people who worked with her father, but she'd told Jarod. The adults maybe already knew, but they'd never use it. Jarod thought it was funny to hear them call her Miss Parker, like she was a grown-up already.
He'd stopped smiling now, though. "But you're not my sister, so you can't be an aunt. You have to be the sister of one of the parents."
"I'd be their pretend-aunt, silly. I have lots of those. Like fairy godmothers."
He really *didn't* know anything, sometimes. "Like with Cinderella! They give presents and they take care of the little kids if their parents have to go away."
"I wish I had one." Jarod's eyes were so sad when he tried to smile when he wasn't happy. She wanted to hug him, but he was a boy, and she couldn't hug a boy. Not one her own age, anyway.
"Sydney's like your godfather, even if he's not magic," she said impatiently. "And I can still be your kids' aunt if I want to! So there."
Jarod smiled again, stretching out his legs and then standing up as much as he could in the pipe. "Just because you say so?"
"Of course." She stood up too, leaning over so her head was near his. He looked like he wanted to back away, but didn't want her to know. "And you'll be my kids' uncle. And they'll play together, like we do."
"That'll be fun."
"Lots of fun. Like we have. Race you to the exit door!" She took off giggling, halfway down the pipe before he knew to run.
"No fair!" Jarod was giggling too, though. "I'm still going to win!"
"Only if you catch me...."
*Only if you catch me....*
The remembered words seemed to float through the night alongside the car, along with the sound of childish giggles, so clear and so real that Jarod involuntarily looked over at Kristin. She was still asleep but, for a moment, he could see the girl her mother had been sleeping there instead.
Miss Parker was probably curled up in her own bed and still awake, he knew; on a different night, in a different situation, he would have called her. Usually to challenge her or, more rarely, to offer what comfort he could to someone still caught in the maze he had mostly escaped. Comfort for himself, too -- he had few happy memories of his childhood and most of them were wrapped inextricably around her.
He wondered if she remembered those days, or if she deliberately chose to forget. He wondered how difficult it was going to be to tell her that she had that one daughter she'd always wanted.
The headlights illuminated the sign to his destination, picking out the driveway to the old B&B a second later. He pulled the battered pickup truck to a stop close to the entrance and got out, carefully cradling his daughter's sleeping form in his arms. He knew how to balance her weight now, how to open and close doors without waking her, how to walk so smoothly she never stirred.
His arms tightened around her, denying what he knew he was going to have to do. But there was no choice.
The owner of the lodge must have heard the truck pull in, because the door opened only a few moments after Jarod's soft knock. A man in a well-worn bathrobe, his greying hair rumpled from sleep, tried to contain his yawn as he started to ask, "Can I help...?"
His voice trailed off as he took in the sight before him, and Jarod smiled broadly. "Hello, Ben. Sorry we didn't call ahead for reservations."
Ben Miller looked from Jarod to the child in his arms; he stared for a moment, then, slowly and wordlessly, stood aside to let them in.
Searching (Part 1) | Breaking Point | Main