Jarod tried to remain level as he looked at Miss Parker in the getaway car. “So? Anything you want to tell us?”
She just closed her eyes. “You just ruined everything you ass.”
“Those are mine.” Jarod wasn’t going to dance around the subject.
“Jarod.” Her voice was softer. Gentler. “I . . .” She wanted to say something. “I have to tell you something. One, there’s no way to confirm that, two, thanks for getting me out of the cell because I was handling it from there, and three, I hate you with every fiber of my being right now.”
Broots tried to comfort her. He lightly patted her shoulder but she didn’t accept it and shrugged it off.
“I see being imprisoned for six months didn’t change you for the better at all,” Jarod accused her. “Maybe if you tried years. Like The Centre did to me.”
“Like The Centre will do to you,” she corrected him. She looked toward Broots. “I can see you and Sydney helping him, Broots. I can. I can even see Sydney wussing out on dealing with Jarod now.” Her expression turned deadly. “Why isn’t your gun cocked?”
“I-I.” Broots didn’t know how to respond to her.
“You had access to security, I know you did, and I know that’s why you’re here,” she said, coming down on him. “You knew I was going to the Delegates, so why? Why didn’t you at least try something?!”
“Well, uh.” Broots stammered. “Th-they’re his kids too, Miss Parker. And, The Centre, isn’t something you should be trusting right now. You know?”
“Why do I even bother arming you with a gun,” Miss Parker complained.
“I’m going to chalk this all up to pent up anger from being locked up and your hormones changing,” Jarod said, “but get it out of your system.” He leaned closer to her. “They told me everything. Even the name of the boy, who they were sending to The Centre.”
“Well, at least we’re here now,” Broots said to her, grabbing her hand. “Debbie’s safe too. We’re all safe.”
“I was fine,” she said grittily to him. “I was at the Delegates office, trying to call Raines.”
“Well we might as well cancel that plan,” Jarod said. “There’s no way you’re taking them back to The Centre. They’re mine, Miss Parker.”
Miss Parker didn’t say anything right away. “You’re right. I’ll set up visitation hours for you each day at The Centre.”
“Parker. That’s not an option,” Jarod warned her.
“It’s always an option. It’s the only option,” she warned him just as hard back. “You want your family so bad? Then go where it is.”
Damn. Jarod thought that her being prisoner would be the hardest thing to deal with tonight. Any psychological trauma, she would get help from Sydney for. Maybe a word or two to him, hopefully a kind word. Then he would leave and go on with his own life again. Like always.
But that wasn’t going to happen this time. There was so much more to this now. Twice as much. He watched as she caressed her own stomach unconsciously.
“Well. Anyhow. I’m sorry we took so long, Miss Parker,” Broots said to her. “I really thought Debbie was in trouble.”
“I know, Broots. I know,” she said. “I need a phone.”
A phone? “For what?” Jarod asked.
“Raines,” she groaned. “Phone. Someone.”
Raines? “No way,” Jarod said once again.
“What are you wetting yourself for? The Centre’s not here to catch you yet,” she said. “There was a test for control of The Centre brought on by Lyle. Raines didn’t know about it. Once he knows, Lyle is out of my hair for good.”
Out of?- “No!” It was a strong declaration. “This has gone too far. This isn’t some game. You’re carrying my future kids, Parker.”
“As soon as Lyle is gone, Jarod, I just have to wait until Raines is dead and The Centre is mine,” she hissed back. “And then, I can make sure nobody chases you anymore and you’ll be out of the picture forever. Just like you always wanted.”
“Uh huh, and the new little lives growing in your tummy?” He kept his eyes focused on hers.
She looked face forward. “The Centre will be off of you forever, Jarod. Your mom, your dad, you can be with any of them. Any secrets about them in there, it’s yours. I don’t care. It’s a dream come true. Have a paper and DSA parade. So, someone, give me a phone.”
“I’d be free,” Jarod said through gritted teeth. “My whole family would be free, except the two imprisoned into The Centre.”
No way. “Parker.”
“They are my children, Jarod, I’m the one having them, don’t you dare try and . . .” She forced her gaze to match his, as if she was trying to read him “Steal them.”
“It’s not stealing.” Jarod couldn’t deny she was wrong. “When they are part of my family.”
Broots shot a desperate looked toward Sydney, like he would be able to diffuse the situation.
“Cool heads work things out,” Sydney said. “These twins, they are both of yours, together. Figuring out the solution should be together. Miss Parker, they are inside you for another four months, so you don’t need to worry about losing them. And Jarod, this isn’t like rescuing your father from a Centre prison. Miss Parker is their mother, and she has every right to remain with them too.”
Okay. Sydney was right. Stealing children from a mother was definitely something Jarod despised. He even stopped pretending for his own sims, just to pretend to get into positions to help out mothers who were separated from their kids. He couldn’t stand the thought. Being separated.
But, he refused to just leave them to be raised in The Centre. “Everyone was taken from me. I don’t even get to have memories of my family when I had them. I’m not losing them.”
“Well, I’m not losing them,” Miss Parker said, her vicious bite in her voice still very much alive.
“Calm,” Sydney said from the front again.
“You can’t anyhow, Jarod,” Miss Parker added. “You’re out gallivanting in the world, saving all the little guys from harm by being some justice vigilante. Where in that equation can raising twins safely fit?”
“The only harm comes from The Centre when they chase me down,” Jarod said.
“Sure, says the guy who apparently forgot hurricane season.”
Jarod knew she was referencing when Jarod and her got tied up together because the man he sought revenge on chewed through rope. “A small oversight. It doesn’t happen much.”
“It only takes once, Jarod.”
“Well, she is a little right,” Mister Broots interrupted. “You’re not exactly in the right place in life where you can take care of two innocent little babies. You know, you holding a gun on someone is kind of hard with two baby carriers. Only you watching out for them, just one mishap and-“
“Their chances are better with me than being kept at The Centre.” Jarod eyed Miss Parker again. “Secrets and lies are all over in there. How is it that daddy ran The Centre so well, yet he almost lost his life in a helicopter crash? And how did you find out? Not through The Centre.”
Miss Parker looked away. “I could eventually get it closed down.”
“Not when there’s the long arm of the Triumvirate involved too. If they don’t like what you are doing, they’ll just get rid of you. They already have new Parker blood obviously. Then they’ll raise them and mold them into what they want. Which was supposed to happen in the first place, before I got you out.” Jarod wasn’t lightening his earful of common sense on her. The Centre was no place for them.
Broots leaned back in the car more. “Wow. These kids are leading dangerous lives either way. Running from the Centre, or destined to get involved in it. And geez. They’re not even born yet.”
Miss Parker grabbed her neck and started to massage it.
Sydney looked back toward them through the front view mirror once more. “Miss Parker. You know the Centre is dangerous.”
“Which is why you don’t mess around with it,” she said to Sydney. “Stay the course.”
“Staying the course didn’t save your mom,” Jarod pointed out. “Before she even did anything, they were already stealing away her second child.”
“Well then, what, Genius?!” Miss Parker yelled at him. “You either stay on the good side of the Centre and live a life, or you go out and rebel, get nowhere and get killed or re-educated! No one makes it far.”
“Except me,” Jarod added.
“Miss Parker, please.” Broots tried to touch her hand. “This stress, it’s not good for you.”
Broots was right. Jarod knew that. Stress wasn’t good for Miss Parker during pregnancy considering her history. It was why the number one thing out there was to stress her as little as possible. He could not just . . . leave family in The Centre’s grip though.
“Jarod. Miss Parker.” Sydney looked back into the front view mirror again. “You both agree that The Centre is dangerous. For goodness sakes, the Triumvirate already know what they want to do with the children! There is no telling what will happen, even if you do ‘stay the course’. But, Jarod’s life is not exactly . . . childsafe. Being on his own has left him open a time or two.” Sydney sighed. “The Centre cannot be changed, but the way Jarod handles himself can.”
Jarod looked toward Sydney. Sydney was doing something he used to do in the past. Trying to share information with him. Can. The way I handle myself can. Then he looked toward Miss Parker. A new thought. A strange thought popped into his head.
Atoning for his sims was dangerous, but Miss Parker wasn’t unused to danger either. During the hurricane when he got caught, he was working out his own way to get out, but Miss Parker had made a move before him.
She was. Backup. He couldn’t hold a gun with two baby carriers. But they could both hold guns and carry one a piece.
If she came. Willingly. He looked back at Sydney who was smiling at him in the mirror.
“You got it, Jarod.”
“Got what?” Miss Parked asked Sydney. “What did you two just bond your brains and decide?”
“You’re coming with me, Miss Parker,” Jarod said to her.
“I told you, Jarod, you can’t have them.”
“Nope. I need you too,” Jarod said. “With you as backup, we’ll be fine.”
“Backup?” she asked confused. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to chase me anymore. You are going to run with me. Willingly. And the little ones in you right now?” He looked toward her stomach then back up. “When they get older, they’ll learn the family trade until its safe, or my work is done.”
“Family trade?” Miss Parker groaned. “What?”
“Oh. A family of little pretenders?” Broots said, getting the picture himself. “Huh. Cute.”
“Cute?” Miss Parker covered her face as she picked up what he was saying. “ . . . gotta be kidding me.”
“Running is better than being there. By a longshot.” Jarod smiled, pulling her hands from her face. “Nothing to worry about. On my own, you know I was hard to catch. But now?” He leaned closer. “I got myself a Mrs. Or should I say . . . Miss.”
Miss Parker blinked at Jarod. She looked toward Sydney, then back at him. “You seriously think I will go willingly?”
“There is no choice,” Jarod warned her. “This ends one of two ways. Either you come with me, and we learn how to become a happy family. Or.”
“Or?” She asked.
“I will eventually find my way back to The Centre, steal them after they are born, and take them with me instead,” Jarod challenged her. “While you will hunt to get them back, experience shows it won’t be that easy. Getting me will be harder, I’ll make it tougher, and no one’s going to open fire with the possibility of hitting one of the twins. And then, after all that, if you get them back? I’ll just get them out again.”
Stop being a horrible friend. That inner sense again. They aren’t safe at the Centre. Even if I could run it, nothing’s a hundred percent safe. But. To live her life, always looking behind her. Never being herself, but someone else. Not the hunter, but the hunted. But. Their lives. Her mother wanted to get all the kids out of the Centre. Even her own. Miss Parker couldn’t . . . bring her own into that place. But outrunning it wasn’t an option, no one outran it forever.
The Centre wasn’t involved in what the Triumvirate did. She was sure of that. Lyle wanted The Centre from Raines. Then again, who knew what Raines would do if he found out they were Jarod’s. More like when he found out. Then, night after night. The high security, wanting to watch them constantly, and knowing that Jarod always got what he wanted in the end.
Uncertainties. “For now,” she settled on.
“What?” Jarod asked clearer.
“For now.” She raised her eyebrow at him. “That’s the best you’re getting from me. And that’s only if you call Raines. Lyle deserves to pay for what he did. And.” She pointed at him rudely. “Raines isn’t going to think I’m going willingly. You trap me and sound like I’m off with you of free will and you’ll regret it. After the phone call, then I want to know what you think. Not what you want to think, but what you think. If The Centre is involved with what happened, or not.”
“Drive a hard bargain,” Jarod said. “I won’t be perfect at reading if Raines is honest just through a phone call.”
“Well, try, Boy Wonder. What else are your skills good for?”
Raines was resting in his bed comfortably when he kept having his phone ring. He woke up quickly when a Delegate said Miss Parker was just with them in South Africa, saying she was prisoner, and then just taken away. Now he was at The Centre, trying to put things together, when his personal phone rang.
No one would have this number, and if they did it was someone’s number the Centre would recognize. It didn’t recognize it. He answered it. “Raines.”
“Mister Raines, how are you today?”
Ooh. He knew that voice. It was the voice that the Centre had been chasing for over six years. “Jarod.”
“Nice to see you remember, but that’s not going to help you. You have got a lot of explaining to do to me.”
Raines wheezed. “For what?”
“Miss Parker? Getting her pregnant with my kids? I can’t believe The Centre would stoop so low. And for what? Just a little blood to run in the family again. A little below the belt, isn’t it?”
“Miss Parker?” He tried to breath. “Is pregnant with your kid? That’s impossible.” He started to move slowly around the room. “Everything was burned and destroyed when the Pretender Program was pulled.”
“Don’t lie to me, Mister Raines. You, Lyle, and the whole Triumvirate down here in South Africa? You think you can trick me? I destroyed every single sample I found, of mine, of my brothers, and all of the others too!”
“There’s no such thing. We even had to prove to the Triumvirate . . .” Mmm. The Triumvirate. Maybe they had different plans. “Did you say Mister Lyle was involved?” Was he working with the Triumvirate to boot him out? “Miss Parker. Where is she?”
“Not able to come to the phone. She’s a little tied up at the moment.”
The Triumvirate. The Triumvirate was daring to use the Parker blood with a pretender project? True Parker blood?! “I want her back. Now.”
“No amount of please is going to make me give her back. She’s carrying my kids.”
“I don’t care!” He felt himself start to overdo it as he paced the floor. “We should be able . . . to work something out.”
Damn. Jarod had been looking for her for years, but so had they. “We don’t know right now.”
“Well, when you do, maybe we can talk more.”
“She isn’t often in America. I can send you more surveillance photos of her.” That probably wouldn’t be enough. Damn it, he had nothing else to add. Heirs. He had the only one he wanted to run The Centre after he left, now out there and trapped by The Centre’s most brilliant Pretender. Without an of age Parker to run the Centre . . .
But there’s no way he’d let Lyle have it now.
“That’s not nearly enough and you know it.”
Jarod wasn’t budging. Raines needed to get his answer before the pretender hung up. “Miss Parker,” Raines wheezed again. “Did she say anything about a test?”
“Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, but you can forget about seeing her again for a while. If I have to keep her bound in chains and rope to keep her from leaving, you can bet I’ll do it. I’ll never let my family be a part of The Centre again.”
Damn. He heard the dial tone. He redialed another number. “Escort Mister Lyle out of bed, and to the Centre, now. Daddy needs to have a word with him.”
Miss Parker was watching him, waiting for him. “Well?”
Well. Jarod didn’t get the results he wanted, but he did promise her he’d be honest. And, he did get a ‘for now’ to do that. “It sounds like Raines isn’t happy with the Triumvirate.”
“He wants his new heirs, I knew it,” Miss Parker said. “He’s crossing Lyle off his list, he’s going to need me. It’d be safe.”
“It’d be stupid,” Jarod said. “You can’t trust it. Even a temporary ‘safe’ may not be for long. And the Triumvirate is still out there.”
“I know. It’s not completely safe yet,” Miss Parker said. “Like I said, Jarod, I’ll go with you, for now.”
“Then, ‘for now’, will work,” Jarod said. ”For now.”
“Then what about Sydney and Broots?” Miss Parker asked Jarod. “They’re all messed up in this too.”
“I’ll get it fixed,” Jarod said. He smiled at Mister Broots and then Sydney, relaxing his body backward. “They’ll be back to the Centre and hunting us in no time flat.”
“Hunting you?” Broots looked toward Miss Parker. “We’re going to keep hunting you? And your little babies too? Oh.” He shook his head. “Why? Why didn’t I just stick to a central computer company? When opportunity knocked I should have bolted the door.”
“Relax. I’m sure they’ll bring in someone to replace Miss Parker in the little chase,” Jarod said, his tempo much more upbeat again.
“We’re going to be chasing you down,” Broots said, not understanding it. “It was bad enough chasing you. Well, I mean it was fun, but it was bad.”
Jarod smiled. He knew what he meant. Broots’ mind wasn’t the same as his, but it still needed extra stimulation. Trying to catch him? Gave it a lot of stimulation.
“But catching Miss Parker?” Broots continued to whine. “And-and-and well, babies? Innocent kids?”
“Broots,” Sydney warned him. “It is our job.”
“If you are ready to pull out of the Centre, I can do it,” Jarod said. “I can free you and your daughter. But you’ll have to lose all your possessions, everyone you know and love, and never speak or look at any of your friends and family again. Except your daughter. Plus, it would be the same with her. For the rest of her life.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Broots got quiet. “I know that.” He looked toward Miss Parker. “I don’t know.”
“Fine, I’ll keep it in mind.” There was a good chance when the babies were born, Broots would be ready to move. He’d have to keep his eye on that.
He looked back toward Parker. ‘For now’ wasn’t a definite yes. He would have to move with her, but he’d have to make sure she didn’t see anything about his future destinations. If she did, then she could get him caught if her ‘for now’ changed. If it did, knowing her, she would make sure he would be staying at The Centre. Permanently. He would have to read her actions clearly, to make sure she stayed loyal.
But he had to risk it. It was better than taking a mother from her own children. Whether it was better for them or not, it wouldn’t hurt any less.
“She isn’t in Africa on a wild goose chase for her mother,” Raines told Lyle. “You told me you set her up to keep her out of your way.” He wheezed. “I applaud the tenacity for getting rid of your enemy.” He took a deep breath. “I do not applaud the tenacity to create children from Jarod underneath my own nose, with my own family blood.”
Lyle was trapped, on the T-Board, in blue flannel pajamas. “Okay. This looks bad,” he said, “but let me explain, dad.”
“Don’t give me that dad crap,” Raines warned him. “I’m not as easy to fool. If we had Jarod’s frozen sperm, they should have gone to an easier candidate. Any one of the women we used in our attempts of cloning. Not a Parker.”
“Well, my mother was treated the same way,” Lyle said. “By you. What’s the difference?”
“She was married into the Parker blood. Miss Parker is true Parker blood.”
“Which is why it was so perfect,” Lyle insisted. “She’ll have wonderful little potential pretenders, and with that kind of skill, the Centre will only thrive because it’ll be in the Parker blood.”
“You don’t turn one of your best hunters into a pretender factory!” Raines still criticized him. “I didn’t make her what she is, just to have someone undo it all.”
“Make her what she is?” Lyle questioned. “What do you mean, is she like a clone?”
“No. I ‘raised’ my daughter to be a certain way.”
“But you didn’t raise . . .” Lyle was confused. Of course he was.
“And I know you went behind my back with Mutumbo because I didn’t even know we had that,” Raines continued. “You are allying with them, completely, aren’t you?” Several people approached and pushed their guns straight at Lyle, with the three closest actually touching his head. “Give me one good reason not to kill you.”
“If you do, Miss Parker wins,” Lyle said quickly. “After you’re gone, everything that was perfect about The Centre will be gone. She’ll dismantle it piece by piece.”
“And I should what? Leave it to the one who already screwed everything up?” Raines wheezed. “I am out not only Jarod, but my best Centre hunter, and more heirs. Goodbye, Mister-“
“I messed with Miss Parker’s memories!” Lyle shouted, hoping that would stop the barrage of bullets coming his way.
It did. For now. “Miss Parker’s memories?”
“Because I got so close to the Triumvirate,” Lyle said, “I know they’ve gone farther in mind manipulation than us and didn’t share it. The truth is, I injected Broots’ daughter with an experimental drug. It could potentially kill her. Miss Parker loves that little girl. She tries to hide it, but she loves children, just like Catherine Parker did.”
“Keep talking,” Raines said granting a little more permission.
“She knows the babies are Jarod’s. That’s a fact. She knows that I did something to the little girl. That’s a fact. What she doesn’t know is that Broots’ little girl dies in about six more months, if she doesn’t give up Jarod. See, there’s no way he can leave his kids behind, he’ll have to take her with him. So, while they start running together and trusting each other? Right toward the end of the pregnancy, it’ll go off in her head like a bomb. She’ll remember seeing Broots’ daughter in South Africa with the shot, but it’ll be too late to do anything.” Lyle smiled. “You’ll have Jarod practically at the front Centre door for the only cure available. From me. And Miss Parker and the tikes, they won’t last out there long without Jarod’s skill.”
“Mmm.” Raines seemed to be thinking. “And Mister Broots?”
“Oh no doubt that’s how Jarod knew,” Lyle said. “It was planned that way. A giant hoax that doesn’t look like a hoax at all because it took six months to accomplish. Best genius minds had to put it together. He’ll never know. Even if Broots runs away, he’ll come crawling back when she gets sick.”
“What does he remember?” Raines said.
“Broots? He doesn’t remember seeing his daughter in South Africa. He believed his daughter would die, but only because we told him that. Not how or why. We were even giving his daughter vitamin pills each week to lure in Sydney,” Lyle said. “Sydney no doubt called Jarod, Jarod no doubt figured it out. Her still dying is probably far off of everyone’s minds now since it seemed like it was just a little ‘scare’ to keep daddy quiet. Role over. Problem solved. Jarod’s got bigger things to worry about.”
Raines stroked his chin, back and forth, contemplating. “Jarod said there was more than just his frozen sperm, Mister Lyle. You were planning on making more. A whole new generation of pretenders.”
“Potential,” Lyle said. “Potential.”
“You were setting up house, ready to take over and kill me soon. You made a deal with Mutumbo, it’s written all over your face.” He wheeled his oxygen tank toward him even closer. “I may appear homely and sick, but I have proven to everyone that I have what it takes to run The Centre. Give me one good reason to let you live.”
“Is your memory going bad?” Lyle asked. “I just gave you it. Miss Parker is bringing Jarod and the rest in. Freedom for a life. Six months. Just a call.”
“Yes, and I can take that call,” Raines said. “Give me one good reason to let you live.”
“Uh.” Lyle looked all around him. “Look, you tried to assassinate your own brother once. Sort of a family thing, right?”
“I am not my brother,” Raines said.
“But, dad, I mean come on. Everyone makes mistakes?” Lyle said.
“You depended on geniuses to make your plan. Smart,” Raines wheezed, “but not smart enough. Geniuses still don’t know me, they don’t know our blood history, and they don’t know Miss Parker.” He took a deep breath. “Miss Parker grew up here. She knows which edge to stand on to not fall in. She would never run off with Jarod, even after six months of prison.” He groaned. “And if somehow I still found out, you were going to give me all the information and plead for your life.” He took a deep breath. “That would have worked with my brother. I’m not my brother,” he wheezed. “And now? I only have a daughter and some grandchildren to send Christmas cards to this year.”
“What? Wait, but you won’t even have the cure if you off me! Dad?”
“I just need them. I don’t need a cure.”
“Come on? Come on, come on, come on, there’s always something.”
“Does the Triumvirate know where Jarod’s mother is located at?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe. I could find out, if you let me live? They trust me.”
Raines moved away slowly with his oxygen tank, letting the rest of the sweepers take care of the mess. Lyle wasn’t trustworthy. He would do something to blow that chance, and he wasn’t going to let him do it. His brother was forgiving. He forgave Lyle for his crimes. He forgave him too.
But he was not his brother. Good information didn’t mean you got to live.
It just meant good information.
“Going bad. Going bad,” Angelo said as he moved down the tunnels as far away as possible. He witnessed everything. “Girl die. Family caught.” Broots’ daughter was in trouble. Raines didn’t even have the cure. And Jarod had family now with Miss Parker. “Going bad. Jarod. Trouble.”
“Find Angelo,” he heard Raines from his tunnel. “Check the tunnels. We need to keep him put away. I don’t want Sydney or Broots messing with him. Put 24 hour surveillance on him, just in case they do.”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Raines.” He heard one of the sweepers. “Is there anything else?”
“Prepare Jarod’s work, in a new part in The Centre. Get him new things that look like his old things. We can’t be too cautious.”
“And your daughter?”
“Miss Parker will be going away to be made ready to accept The Centre again.” The familiar wheezing was heard. “It will only be a few months, but the future will be brighter for it. The children will too, when they turn 8. Just to ensure The Centre stays intact.”
“Eight years old, Sir? Isn’t it usually older?”
“Yes, but we waited too long for Miss Parker. The teenage years don’t work as well.” Raines wheezed. “There’s no way Mutumbo is getting its claws on anymore true Parker blood. Not a word to the Triumvirate.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Start searching for someone with Mister Broots’ level of skill for computer programs. When his daughter dies, I’m certain he will no longer be a good fit for a Centre paycheck. Offer him a bonus for any programs he’s in the middle of now to be finished ahead of schedule.”
“One last thing. Make the relocation of Jarod’s mom higher. Higher than even Jarod. If the thought of a little girl dying isn’t enticing enough to come back, we can end this with Jarod getting his family and freedom, and my family safely back in the saddle still.”
“Give the pretender back his family?”
“Last resort. He stays away from mine, I’ll stay away from his. Fair trade.”
“But isn’t he top priority over everything, sir?”
“He is, but I’ve never even seen the scrolls, and I barely know rumors. Until we find the scrolls, we wouldn’t even know his purpose. And without at least Miss Parker back, if something happens to me . . .”
“There you are. He’s been located Mister Raines!”
Angelo knew he was caught.
Not good. Not good.