Three Months Later . . .

The Centre. Louisiana.

“Are you kidding, Broots?” Miss Parker asked as she stooped over and looked at the computer. “This can’t be right.”

“Oh, it’s right,” Broots said. “I’m telling you, starting in Hutchinson, Kansas, Jarod started to do some really weird things. His MO just fell apart. He only had a few pretends since then, and he had someone with him. No, several with him. I’m trying to identify them, but uh, even this hotel where they were supposed to be tracked at?” Broots scoffed. “It’s like Jarod took his usual quick wipe and scrubbed the tile floors in the process. Any camera feed is completely gone. All we have are obvious fake names.”

“What kind of names?” Miss Parker looked. “Who is he traveling with?”

“I don’t know. It was a lot of names. And get this.” Broots added. “Twin babies. Jarod’s traveling with twins that are babies. Why would he do that?”

“Twin babies?” Jarod traveling with a bunch of people and babies? Miss Parker pinched her nose. What in the hell was Boy Genius doing now? “How many and when, Broots, I want details.”

“Most details are gone. Like I said, usually Jarod has something left behind. There’s nothing. Like I said about scrubbing the floors? It’s probably closer to removing the tiles themselves and laying down new tile with fresh carpet over that new tile.” Broots sighed and gestured toward the computer. “Maybe it’s family related? Maybe his sister had twins and he’s trying to help her somehow? Wherever or whatever Jarod is doing, he doesn’t want The Centre involved at all.”

“Well, it depends on which one you are talking about.”

Miss Parker raised her head and grabbed her gun, aiming it straight at Jarod.

“Really? Are you really going to assume the Jarod you are hunting is just going to waltz on into the office?” Jarod Hades complained.

“I’ve seen Jarod walk into The Centre to cut a deal before,” Miss Parker said before holstering her gun.

“Yeah, but he doesn’t have the right kind of fashion taste. Me on the other hand?” Hades adjusted his tie. “I look good in red.”

“Yeah, um?” Broots looked to Miss Parker. “Hades . . . also has red hair, Miss Parker?”

Miss Parker knew that. She just liked to keep Hades on his toes. She had been forced to work with him on finding Jarod because he’d been one of the Triumvirate’s watch dogs. Apparently a clone watch dog. He definitely had Jarod’s smarts, but fashion sense he was right about.

He had none, while at least Jarod tried. Hades wore a red leather jacket, a black shirt, red leather pants, black shoes, a red tie, a red pair of shades, and to top it all off a goofy red dyed hair. She couldn’t confuse those two even on her worst days.

“Anything important?” Hades asked them.

“Nothing concrete yet,” Broots said. He watched him walk off.

“Anything important?” Miss Parker re-asked him.

“Nothing concrete,” Broots said again.

“Broots.” Miss Parker sighed. “It’s been two months since we’ve been able to even catch up to see a hair on his head. Maybe . . .” She didn’t want to bring it up, but it was clear it was weighing down on him. “Maybe you should take more time off.”

“I-I don’t need any more time off,” Broots insisted. “I don’t need it.” He gulped and cleared his throat. “Really, it’s not me. Jarod’s covering his tracks extra well, I am not to blame for this.”

“No, you’re not to blame for anything,” Miss Parker corrected herself. “I didn’t mean that, Broots.” She touched his hand delicately. “Things don’t get easier.”

“She was absolutely fine,” Broots finally broke. “Debbie. Th-there were no signs of anything wrong. Whether I used the Centre Medical or an actual hospital, no one could find out what was wrong.” Broots touched his forehead. “She just . . . my Debbie just slipped away.” He sniffed and took a big breath. “But I’m fine, Miss Parker. Work makes me feel better, and I, I’m really putting everything I can into finding Jarod. I promise. It’s just this, and Sydney?”

“I know. I miss both of them too,” Miss Parker confessed. “All we can do is keep on rolling . . .”

“Mm.” Broots handed her some mail. “There is this though. Unmarked address. Looks like Jarod’s writing. Maybe it’ll have something.”

Something talking about the death of her mother, or something that was just going to annoy and make her hate Jarod even more. That’s what she expected. Miss Parker opened it.

Instead, she got something else.

“What is it?” Broots asked.

“A little card, like one tucked into a bouquet of flowers.” Her first thought was to trace the company, but she was trying to put the words together. What did it mean?

“What’s it say?” Broots asked. “Miss Parker?”

Miss Parker laid it down by Broots.

“It says ‘More than a LITTLE is how much we MISS you’?” Broots looked back toward where she placed a box with some tiny knick knacks inside of it. Broots opened the box and picked them up and looked at them all. “What are these?”

“Not what, from where,” Miss Parker said. “They are all from Africa, from the same little place written at the bottom. Jarod is in Africa.”

Broots picked up the little doodads. “Their hearts. Colorful hearts.”

“Yes. The Heart of Africa.” That was an easy one, she didn’t need Broots help on that one. “Come on, let’s go. Maybe Boy Genius will slip up finally.”

“Because he misses Sydney?” Broots asked her. “I. I-I don’t want to use grief . . . sorry, I know.” He stood up. “Yeah, we should go.”

“Are you okay?” Miss Parker asked him again. “Losing Sydney and Debbie close together was hard, and you might need a little more time before going to South Africa again.”

“No, I’m fine. We should pursue. It’s what we do.” Broots looked toward Miss Parker. “Besides, what do I have to lose? Nothing, that’s what.”

That didn’t make much sense. Why wouldn’t she care? “Ready a chopper.” She picked up one of the knick knacks and looked at it. She had no idea what the card message meant, but she knew exactly where they were going to.

———————

Malawi

Africa. She hadn’t been there in years. What a beautiful country. And the little shop. Miss Parker felt the nostalgia return. Her mother loved that little shop. Why? It was essentially a small grocery outlet that also sold knick knacks. Jarod was obviously leading her into something else about her mother.

But now what? She knew that her mother was dead, executed for good. Was it something about Ethan? “Hello,” she said as she walked into the small shop. “I was wondering if you’ve seen-“

“Oh, Miss,” the man interrupted her, “I have your order.” Of course, Jarod had set her up with something else.

She watched as he gave her a bag of small groceries. “That’s for me?” she questioned him. Why would Jarod give her milk, bread, pineapple, chips and sugar?

“The clues are really random,” Broots noticed as he grabbed a bag of chips. “Basic groceries. What’s he trying to say?”

“What’s who trying to say, Miss?” the man who gave her the bag said. “That is what you wanted for groceries, isn’t it? Is something missing?”

“What I wanted for groceries?” Miss Parker asked. “Did I come here for groceries before?”

“Several times? You and your sisters?” he said, about as confused as her and Broots it seemed. “Are you okay?”

“My sisters.” Hm. Well, that was interesting. “No, I just messed up my shops. Do you have any salt to add to it?” She watched him put salt in it. “That’s better, but I forgot my money. I think I need to go home and get it,” she said. She smiled. “Would you like to walk me home?”

“Oh. I would, but I don’t get off at a decent enough time, Miss,” he said a little shy.

“Oh, come on. A little rebelling? Not many opportunities you know,” she tried to say slyly.

“Well, who is he?” The man pointed at Broots.

“An option. I like options. Of course, if you don’t come, then he’ll just have to be the only one.”

“What?” Broots looked at her confused, and she tried to give him a warning look to silence him. No wedding ring, the gawky eyes, she could probably get him to get her to the address where he thought she was from. If Broots could manage to play along. “I mean, no man, you don’t have to come with us.”

“I’ll come.” He quickly closed up his register. “I don’t feel very good and the eldest Miss could fix me up. Obviously, that is why I am going.”

“Obviously.”

. . .

Not very far away, a couple of blocks equivalent, Miss Parker saw . . .

“It’s you. It’s two you’s?” Broots asked, like he couldn’t quite believe it.

Miss Parker watched the two walking look alikes come toward her.

“Oh, look,” One of the women said. “Little Miss. You’ve grown up.”

Jarod watched from the other corner at Miss Parker’s discovery. She alone would be able to get into that fold. He had discovered them eventually, as brutally explorative as he had become after she and Broots were taken. For two months, he wiped every shred of a ‘clue’ he could as to what happened to them.

With Hades running the show at the new Centre, he was also running the show outside of it. He could easily use any old identity to hurt someone. So, as much as he warned people about him, he could still not warn everyone. Several out there didn’t know about The Centre too. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t guarantee everyone would be safe. Too many people. Too many acquaintances. Too many years.

So as much as he wanted to get Miss Parker and Mister Broots out of there, he couldn’t. Until a few days ago, he hadn’t even left so much as a clue to get them there. But, as soon as he found the women who looked like Parker, they clammed up to him. They refused to talk to him at all.

He needed her to break the silence. And in the process, at least he could do something he really wanted to do. See how Broots was coping. The Centre made him believe that Debbie had died. The clone had not been, unfortunately, as healthy as Gemini had been. Apparently, it was more disposable, and once released from where it was raised, regular exposure to the environment was just too strong on it.

Gemini’s clone had been the same way, having died over five weeks ago himself. Poor kids. Used for only one crummy purpose. Terrible. At least everyone else was still okay. Even Debbie and Gemini, the pregnancy hadn’t taken. She could continue to live a carefree life, as soon as Jarod figured out how to get her back to Broots, without upsetting the situation.

At the very least, he did get some pictures of her dad which she really wanted. However, it wasn’t going to cheer her up. Even two months later, he didn’t look well. He had nothing going for him anymore except his work at The Centre. Just hang on, Broots. I promise. Somehow, I’ll get her back to you.

Sydney’s disappearance was also excused in their mind by making them believe he was missing in action for months, and probably dead. Jarod didn’t know everything they did to their brain. Both of them seemed quite sane, and a lot like their old selves. Just certain aspects were different. Somehow, the words Blue Cove, Delaware was erased on them. He even sent them a clue with it at the bottom, with a small recorder nearby that he retrieved later. Not an ounce of recognition of where The Centre used to be. They each thought they were always in Louisiana. Even their homes, somehow, they didn’t even recognize their homes were not their homes.

Mister Parker was also back around too. A clone of Mister Parker was pretending to run everything. Why, he didn’t know yet. Maybe they didn’t want her investigating with as much power.

And, of course, she wasn’t allowed to remember any experiences with the kids. She never even knew she had them. The Centre took her children from her.

Onyssius and Little Miss were both safe and sound with people who loved and cared for them. But . . . they couldn’t have their momma. Even just watching her investigate, watching the way she moved, the way she looked at everything, spoke and . . . and was just herself. Just being the Miss Parker he knew. It was breaking his heart. But, there was a reason he needed that silence to break.

Catherine’s Recipe Books were supposed to lead to more than one secret, and he wanted the memory restore now more than ever. If there was one that existed out there, just even one, he’d give it to her.

Inside the Look-a-likes home.

Miss Parker looked around. Five. There were five women that came from several rooms. They all looked like her. “Clones?”

“No,” one of them said. She gestured toward herself. “I am Amahle. We are all sisters, cousins, mothers, and daughters. Not clones.” She reached toward Miss Parker’s hand. “Welcome back. Do you remember us at all yet?”

Miss Parker shook her head. “Should I?” She watched as some children came into the room. They looked just like her at younger ages. “How the . . .”

“We know what you are thinking,” Amahle said again to her. “Truth is, we don’t know either. Everyone in the family has always grown up and looked the same. We are all even destined to have little girls that look like us.”

“It’s tradition,” another one said.

“But? What about little boys?” Broots interrupted.

“The boys are all unique in how they look,” Amahle spoke again. “If their father was dark skinned, they too were. Only the girls receive this strange gift.” She gestured toward her family. “We exist here, and a small town in France, an out of the way place in Italy, and a charming village in Germany. We also exist away from family, as your mother Catherine did.”

“Hang, hang on.” Wow. “Not clones. This is naturally happening? For how many years?”

“A very long time,” Amahle admitted. “Before The Centre ever existed. Offspring after offspring after offspring.” She smiled. “At least we know our daughters always grow up to be lookers,” she joked.

Miss Parker covered his face, and then her nose as she blinked her eyes. “Raggedy Andy, tell me I’m in a huge doll shop, hallucinating this whole thing.”

“Uh. I don’t think so,” Broots said to her.

“Did my father know about all of you?” Miss Parker asked them. “Mister Parker? Did he know about this strange occurrence?”

“I don’t know.” Amahle shrugged. “Considering his Centre involvement, I would not put it past the Triumvirate, at the least, Little Miss Parker.”

Jarod waited for some time, checking his watch. Miss Parker had no idea how close he’d been. While she conversed a little longer, classic Miss Parker left with Broots. She was on the case to check out the history and find out how it all happened, and if her father knew.

Which really didn’t matter. He’d snuck in easily, everyone too distracted with the new girl, but it was time to reveal himself again. “Hello.”

“Not you!” Amahle spoke for the others again. “For the last time, begone.”

“Wait.” Now that Miss Parker got them to open up about the simple fact that they all looked alike with no cloning or technology helping? He opened his wallet and pulled out a picture. The first one was of Miss Parker in the garden. “I know her. I know Miss Parker. My name is Jarod, if you’d just listen to me for a few more seconds? Please?”

“Amahle, let him speak,” another woman said. “Perhaps he needs some kind of help. If he knows her-“

“That picture could have been taken without her knowledge, Cebile. By her reaction in the photo, I would say it was,” Amahle answered.

“Okay, but what about this?” Jarod dug into his wallet for another picture. A picture only he looked at when he traveled away. “I know to anyone else, they wouldn’t know. If every single one of you are the same though?” He held up his picture of Little Miss A. “This is my daughter. She’s young but have a look. She is just like you.” He handed his picture over. He hated to do it, but he needed their cooperation. “I came here through Catherine Parker’s recipe book, like I said before.”

“She is one of the family,” Amahle said as she handed the picture back. “Fine. What is it you want?”

“Miss Parker.” Jarod put the picture back safely in his wallet. “She is her mother, but she doesn’t remember it. We have twins together. The Centre has done something to her mind. It’s made her forget about them. About times with me. It’s made her believe so many lies.”

Amahle watched him carefully, looking at him up and down cautiously. “By the recipe book? You aren’t here for a chit chat. Catherine’s daughter forgetting about you and her family. You must say what you want.”

“I want the potion the book talks about,” Jarod said. “I want her to remember us again. Please. She’s with an evil man, a clone of me, and I can’t pull her from him or The Centre without dire consequences. Please!” He tried harder. “For her?” He held another picture of his children back up to Amahle. “For them?”

“This isn’t a free range potion,” Amahle warned him. “It is limited. The family only has it because of Catherine. There are only three of what you want when all is said and done.”

“I need them.”

“If there is a devil, then there will be an angel too,” Amahle said again, more clearly. “If you give her the memories back and she is taken again, you should know that.”

Yes. Good point. “I need one myself, but . . . I’ll save the extra for her, if I lose her again.” Which he had no intentions of doing. She had already been gone for three months. Their children were three months older, with her having spent no time with them. Even knowing of their existence.

Every time he lost her, he was always able to retrieve her before. This time, he had lost her for good. How hard was it to say ‘daddy can’t feed you like mommy did’, or ‘Do you think mommy would like these clothes for you?’ or even ‘That person was rude. If mommy were here, he wouldn’t be walking straight.’ Whether what he said was humorous or sad, it was all upsetting in the fact that he had to say it. “Please.”

“I would say no. Amahle admitted. “However, not only do you have pictures of Little Miss Parker and children that are hers, it is clear from your expression that you are genuinely upset. Not to mention . . . your name is Jarod.”

Of course they knew. “Yeah, it is,” Jarod said. “You know what that means don’t you?”

Amahle moved toward Cebile. “Cebile. Go in the back to the lockbox. Get out one of them.”

Jarod watched as Cebile came back over toward him after leaving the room. She held a syringe with something inside of it.

“Use it now,” Amahle insisted.

Jarod stared at the syringe, then back toward Amahle. A matter of trust. They didn’t want it out in the open being tested on. “I don’t get the others unless I do this?”

“When all is said and done, there will be three left, as well as some . . . others,” Amahle said to him. “Prove to us that you can be trusted.”

To see how honest he had been. To see how he’d fair. It could kill him. Anything in that syringe right now that he injected into himself could kill him. It could change him. I promised myself I would do anything it took to save her. The fact that Hades had not hurt her up to that point was a miracle in itself, thanks only to Bhekumbuso’s replacement, Kagiso.

A small child with no business taking the dangerous drugs that caused the intense focus. Yet, had to. He was holding Hades back. Hades thought he had all the time in the world though with Miss Parker.

Because he didn’t know what Jarod held in his hands. I have to trust in them. If he was wrong, then he was wrong. His children would be safely taken care of by Sydney, his mother, or his brother.

He rolled the dice on the decision, injecting himself with it.

“Come back tomorrow morning,” she said. “We will have discussed this and made a decision about what to say.”

“Yes, I will. I promise, your secrets are safe with me.” Jarod hoped they believed him.

They were the only ones to the key to restoring his family.

Old and new.