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Chapter or Story Chapter or Story
by Victoria Rivers ©1996
Where is she?
Jarod waited interminable seconds for the reply to appear on the screen of his laptop computer. He did not often tap into the Centre's system, only in cases where he needed information, and then only after securing his line by bouncing the signal halfway across the world and leaving false electronic trails, because they would be searching for him, alert to unauthorized taps and monitoring all incoming messages. And every time he made contact he put the person on the other end of the line in jeopardy, taking a chance on getting them caught. But he had to know what had happened to Athena Morgan, the failed Pretender who had helped him escape Miss Parker almost two months earlier. He had hardly slept since he left her behind.
In Maximum, came the reply at last. But she isn't well. They may put her in the Infirmary soon.
Jarod's fingers hovered above the keyboard for a moment, his heart twisting painfully inside his chest.
Can you get her a message? he asked through the connection.
Give her the e-mail address. Please?
After a long pause, the contact queried, Can you trust her after all this?
With my life, Jarod replied quickly. See that she knows how to contact me, in case she gets the chance. And thank you. All of you. Signing off. J. He terminated the connection when he was sure there would be no more transmissions from the other end, and shut the computer down. Blinking away the tears in his eyes, he thought about Athena and wondered what her illness might be, afraid that he already knew.
He couldn't leave her there, couldn't let the Centre keep her. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that she had been part of a plot to capture him, that she had been told to turn him in if she saw him, and for a little while he believed she might have been actively hunting him. But he had done some telephone investigating after leaving Nashville and discovered that she had been working at the hospital for almost two years, just as she had told him. His happening across her had been an accident of fate, one that changed his life forever.
With Athena he had learned to open himself and enjoy the special attention she lavished on him. With her he had learned what it was to be a man, to be loved without reservation or regret. With Athena he came of age and willingly gave up a significant measure of his innocence while he took hers as well. They were lovers, and because of that love, a part of him might even now be growing beneath her heart.
The thought elated him, terrified him, sickened him. He could think of no greater joy than raising a family with Athena, but he couldn't reach her. The responsibilities of fatherhood made him tremble with fear, but he would gladly have embraced them, only he could not. Because Athena was lost in the Centre, held prisoner by the Tower, simply because he loved her. If he wanted her enough, he would return there on his own, clinging to the slender hope that he might be permitted to see her now and then. But if Sydney expected to keep him focused on the tasks they set him, he knew that would never be allowed. And if they ever got him back they would make sure that he never got out again.
He laid his head down on the scarred wooden table in the kitchen of his new apartment in Dallas, closed his eyes and tried desperately to hold on to his heart. There were things to do, useful things that would help people and make payments on the penance he had set for himself, but all he could think about was that he had left her behind. He should have taken her hand and brought her with him, but someone needed to stay behind and stall Parker. Someone needed to make sure her pistol didn't go off in his general direction.
Both of them knew that, and both had accepted the parting of ways long before it came about. There was nothing he could do for Athena. At least, not now. And she wanted him to continue his work. Jarod was certain of that.
A memory blossomed in his thoughts, soft as rose petals, and he could hear the ghost of her laughter in his ears.
"Time to get up," she had said as they lay together in her bed. The memory eased his broken heart, and he sat up again, turning his eyes to the newspaper clippings strewn around the table, preparing them for inclusion in the red notebook he was starting.
"Yes, ma'am," he said to the memory, and felt the warmth of her love envelop him and ease the pain. He studied the photograph on the front page of the newspaper, his fingertips touching the rough surface of the paper as if he might make some connection to the little boy smiling out of the ink.
CHILD ABDUCTED, the huge headline read above the boy's head. Justin Raster had been walking to the neighborhood convenience store half a block from his home when a man had snatched him off the sidewalk and driven away with him. For a week there was nothing, and then the boy's body was found after a heavy rain in a drainage ditch. One year later the whole of north Texas was still stunned by the incident, and by the fact that not a single arrest had been made, even with the presence of a huge task force aided by the FBI. There was evidence enough to make a case if the culprit was ever caught, but not enough to point to a trace of identity, and the frustration of police and the media concerning the case was palpable. But Jarod had a plan to flush the monster out, providing the killer was still in the area. A copy of the FBI's character profile told him chances were good that the man was watching all the media coverage and secretly congratulating himself on getting away with murder, and the Pretender was counting on that heavily.
Jarod stared at the photograph, taking note of the boy's short black hair and brown eyes, so like his own. Justin had dimples in his smile, and a tiny scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. He was only ten years old when he died, not yet old enough for the spaces between his new adult teeth to have closed as new ones grew into place. And someone had grabbed the boy, kicking and screaming for help, and taken him away to darkness, fear and death.
What had Jarod's own parents been told? he wondered. Had they seen the body of some other small child wearing his clothes, the face obliterated to make the corpse unrecognizable, in order to convince them that they would never get him back? Had he simply been snatched after the testing was over? He couldn't remember. There were gaps in his early memories that kept too much of his past inaccsessible, and without the aid of the DSA discs he would not know as much as he did. Sometimes it was as if he was looking in on someone else's life rather than his own when he watched those simulation recordings, and he wondered what sort of brainwashing or programming they had done to him when he was too young to understand what was happening.
The Centre had taken his life away from him, and he guessed it had not been a gentle process, either for him or for his family. He felt a particular empathy for little Justin, and if there was a way to help find his killer, then he would pursue it to the ends of the earth. On the far end of the table a small portable stereo sat waiting, and Jarod switched it on, listening to the pattern of speech and music the radio stations broadcast, learning what mixes were acceptable, hooking into what made people listen and got their attention, and formulating a plan.
Athena sat on the Shaker bench in her room, staring out through the shatterproof glass at the ocean. She did not take notice of the wire filaments woven through the glass that acted both as reinforcement and electronic sensor, but she knew that it was there. The minor obstructions did not obscure her view, for she was not looking at the gray waves lapping at the rocky shore or the leaden sky preparing to weep on the New England countryside. She saw instead a gentle smile, wide shoulders and a soft carpet of dark, crisp hair shadowing a powerfully made chest. She did not hear the bleak wind moaning over the rocks beneath her upstairs room, but listened instead to a baritone voice whispering her name on the heels of a declaration of love. The chill in the room did not touch her through her surgical greens, the uniform of all prisoners in the Centre Maximum Security wing, for she was wrapped in a blanket of leftover passion that would burn in her heart for eons to come. She was smiling, and nothing they had done to her could take her quiet joy away.
In the two months since she arrived at the Centre she had been afraid of settling in, of allowing herself to get too comfortable in her surroundings, such as they were. Maximum Security lay at the bottom of the subterranean rooms comprising the Centre's best kept secrets, though there were a few rooms in the tall, square tower that were reserved for special guests. She had been moved there the week before when she first fell ill, as a measure of isolation to keep her from infecting the other denizens of Maximum when it was suspected that she might have the 'flu. But Centre doctors had taken blood samples for a variety of tests, and the housekeeping staff would also have reported that she had not had her period since she arrived. Athena knew within weeks that she was carrying Jarod's baby, but that wasn't something she could admit to anyone. Not in that place.
A click of gears and a brief whine of an electric buzzer made her turn toward the door to see who was coming to visit her. When Miss Parker entered, the door locked into place behind her and the heavy metal clink that followed assured them both that they would not be interrupted.
"Well, well," Miss Parker smiled in greeting. "Look what we have here. The bird is back in her gilded cage. Are these accommodations more what you expected, Athena?"
The blonde turned her gaze back to the window and leaned against the welded steel window frame. "You can't stand it, can you, Parker?" Athena asked smoothly.
Parker frowned, glaring at the other woman. "Can't stand what?"
"To see someone else being happy." Without looking she knew she had struck a nerve, just from the temperature of the room. "You can't take it away from me, no matter how isolated you keep me. I don't care what you do to me, and that leaves you powerless. I know how it feels not to be in control of your life. So does Jarod. And no matter how much power you wield within these walls, you're every bit as helpless as the rest of us who live here. You just can't admit it."
"Oh, but you're wrong," Parker gushed sweetly. "I think all this between you and Jarod is just... swell! Two little children pretending at being in love. How charming."
Athena's smile did not fade, and a knowing gleam flickered in her bright blue eyes. "We may seem like children to you, Parker, but I've been out in the world for years, and Jarod's growing up fast. We know what we feel is honest and real. Pity you've never tried it."
"How would you know?" demanded Parker. "You don't know anything about me. Except perhaps the unfounded rumors that seem to travel through this place like a disease."
For a moment the former Pretender continued to gaze out the window, but with a light sigh she faced her adversary and delivered a telling blow. "You forget what I am," she said softly. "What your people trained me to be. I can see through you as if you were an aquarium, all sharp edges and steel reinforcements and carnivorous things floating around aimlessly inside. It's a pretty package, but nothing human can live in it." She paused, making sure the redhead's attention was fixed squarely on her. "Jarod knows what you need. I can see it, too, but I'm not as generous as he is. And you keep turning away from the gifts he's trying to give you."
Parker's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Someone has a very big mouth," she declared frostily. "And if I have to keep you in total isolation and put you under 24 hour surveillance to find out who it is, I'll do it. You freaks of nature should learn to keep your minds in a box and do your jobs only when required."
"Like Angelo?" Athena smiled.
The redhead was startled. "How do you know about Angelo?" she demanded. "He's been under wraps from almost everyone except the Tower since he first arrived."
Athena chuckled softly. "The walls have ears, Miss Parker," she said mysteriously. Suddenly her smile vanished and her eyes rolled closed. Stumbling, trembling, she headed for the tiny partitioned corner of the sterile room to the toilet, fell to her knees and began to heave.
"Have fun," Parker snarled, and pivoted on her heel to leave. "Oh, and by the way, I just heard the results of your pregnancy test came back positive. I'm sure Sydney will be looking forward to raising the first offspring of two trained Pretenders. Chances are, with your lineage and Jarod's brilliance, the little monster may be better than either of you." She let that dangle in the air between them.
Athena gripped the cold, clean sides of the toilet bowl, not daring to look away from the watery opening beneath her face. "This isn't Jarod's baby," she gasped. With a handy, damp washcloth, she wiped her face for a little relief from the surging nausea. "You didn't do your homework, Parker. I had a boyfriend in Nashville. An intern at the hospital, Dan Robinson. He can give you dates, places and everything, every time we slept together. Jarod never touched me."
Parker laughed softly, her hand on the door handle, motioning to the guard through the safety glass porthole in the reinforced steel door to open it for her. "I was at the dance studio," she reminded the other woman. "I know what you two were doing when we walked in on you. I have a nose for such things."
Slowly, Athena rose to her feet, a triumphant smile trembling on her lips. "We were about to. But we didn't get a chance to finish."
The redhead shrugged. "That's easy enough to say now, but we have DNA charts and blood samples from Jarod in storage. A paternity test after the baby's born will sort it all out for us." She laughed again, darkly. "Sleep on that little sugarplum, sweetie."
"Choke on it, Parker," murmured the blonde. She sat down on her neatly made twin bed near the window and smiled to herself. Touching her flat, taut belly affectionately, she made a silent vow and began to work on the simulation in her mind. The test results had been verified the day before and someone had contacted her to ask her a most important question, someone who was risking not only employment but life in querying her.
"Yes," she had answered instantly. "I want out. I know what they'll do to my baby if I stay."
Sharon Moody didn't even glance at the resume on the desk before her. She let her eyes devour the tall, dark, handsome man with the Julius Caesar haircut, her ears soothed by the smooth baritone of his voice, delighting in the perfect enunciation of his words. "We've heard your demo tape, Mr. Marconi, and we like your style," she told him when he finished his list of reasons why KARW Radio should hire him for the most recently vacated position of late night DJ. "I'm not sure about your persona name, though. Someone might get a laugh out of Marconi on the radio. I'm thinking about starting you out as the Night Man. What do you think about that?"
"Well, J.R. Marconi, the Night Man would probably be best, actually," he returned easily, steepling his fingers together in a thoughtful pose as he considered the Programming Director's suggestion. "I can use the Night Man more often, but for those listeners who want to call me by name when they call in, they can use J.R." He grinned, realizing from her body language that she was attracted to him. He had seen that look on Athena's face whenever she wanted intimacy, and understood much more about the unspoken signals between the sexes than he had before her.
"It's so 'Dallas', anyway," she agreed with a leer. "I guess you just belong here in the metroplex. So we're agreed, then, J.R. When can you start?"
He rose and stepped forward to shake the woman's hand across her desk. "I'm currently unemployed, so anytime's fine with me," he assured her.
"Well, then, see you at 7 pm. I'd like to get you broken in with the guy on the previous shift before we turn you loose on your own show. You'll be on from 8 to 11 pm, and I'm really looking forward to what you have to offer." She let her eyes drift blatantly downward, then back up to his face. "And if you want someone to show you around town, be sure to give me a call."
"I'm usually pretty good at finding my own way," he assured her, pulling his hand gently out of her clinging grasp. "But I'll keep that in mind."
Ms. Moody frowned. "You're not... um, gay, are you, J.R.?" she asked hesitantly.
His smile melted as he was instantly reminded of other, very painful things. "Not at the moment," he answered solemnly. "But I'm sure that will change eventually."
He took his leave of her then, unaware of the confusion on her face as she tried to decipher that last remark.
At 7:55 pm he sat in the soundproof booth looking out over the city of Las Colinas on the outskirts of Dallas, headphones on his ears and fingers hovering over the multitude of buttons and toggle switches and mixing boards, and leaned into the microphone for his first greeting as a disc jockey.
"Hello, Dallas/Fort Worth. This is J.R. Marconi, the Night Man, on station KARW 99.7 on your FM dial," he intoned. "Home of no-nonsense classic rock. We play the best of the 70's and 80's with a little 60's and 90's stirred in to spice up the mix. First up for your listening pleasure is a musical message for everyone who's ever been in love. See if you can figure out what it is."
Jarod watched his producer start the music selection on the schedule and glanced up at the telephone screener on the far side of the glass partition, outside the booth. He gave a casual salute to the twenty-something man and Jeffrey Adams smiled back, giving him a thumbs-up. Three tracks played without a break between, and when the last one had finished, he took a call that Jeffrey sent in for him.
"Hey, man, didn't Marconi invent the radio?" asked the caller.
"Very good, but that wasn't the answer I was looking for," Jarod smiled. "The underlying message in all three of those songs was not to take love for granted. It's the most precious commodity we have in our lives, and all too often we have to lose it before we realize how important it really is. Remember that, folks. If you love someone, let them know it." He munched a few Pez and bent his new Gumby figurine so the green rubber man held onto the microphone in between tasks. "And now I'd like to introduce a new feature for this station that's been a part of my act for years. I like to call them the Minute Mysteries, and you play the game like this: I read a scenario that is a solvable mystery and you figure it out. The first caller who gets it right wins two tickets to the Peter Gabriel concert next weekend at Starplex. I hope you're all listening, because the answer is in the details."
He recited the short story from memory, then shut off the microphone and made a short trip to the lounge for a bottle of water from the vending machine. An hour later no one had guessed the answer yet, though the phone console stayed lit up the entire time. After giving the answer himself, he offered another, simpler mystery, and gave the tickets away to the third caller. By the time he finished his shift he had taken a call from Sharon Moody congratulating him on an excellent first show and he had also spoken to the mayor, who had a fondness for classic rock and mysteries, and promised to be a regular listener.
Jarod Marconi decided he just might make it in radio for the few weeks he planned to be in the area. The time he had spent researching decades of popular music had paid off handsomely, but there was still a lot to learn. He decided to stick with the music he knew and not talk about anything he hadn't investigated personally.
The next afternoon he discovered The Studios at Las Colinas, a motion picture studio where the television series Walker, Texas Ranger was filmed, and decided to go for a tour. He left the studios smiling, with the business card of one Donna Marlow in the breast pocket of his black T-shirt. The woman would be of great use to him later on, and he would spend as much time as necessary cultivating a relationship with her. After that he visited several of the major hospitals looking for just the right candidate to help him rescue Athena, but did not find what he needed right away. The process was complicated and timing would be critical; it might even require him to drop the Raster project before its completion, but Athena was far more important to him personally than the project that had brought him to Dallas in the first place. Justin Raster deserved justice, and his family deserved peace, but if there was even the most gossamer chance that his other plan could succeed, he would take it as soon as the opportunity arose.
That evening Sharon Moody approached him just prior to his shift with a problem she wanted to discuss with him in the conference room. She laid a computer printout several pages thick on the table in front of Jarod. "This is our play list," she said casually. "Station policy is not to deviate from this list. These songs have been rated as the most popular, most played songs in the last four decades. I want you to stick to the list... unless, of course, you can give me some persuasive reason why you added that 'Undiscovered Song' to the close of your program last night." She leaned forward on her elbows on the table across from Jarod, giving him ample view of her cleavage.
He thought immediately of Miss Parker and smiled, avoiding the glimpse of her body that she offered. "It's all part of the element of mystery," he explained. "I never introduce the artist or give the album or song title. They're all recognized artists and the albums are classics; it's just that no one has heard those tracks played on the radio. I'm trying to get people to think about things they never noticed before. And I only play the Undiscovered Song once."
"Policy is still policy," Sharon stressed, gazing at him from beneath seductively lowered lashes. "Unless you... impress upon me... the importance of having the song on your show."
Jarod studied her for a moment, noting her posture, the way she ran the pencil in her right hand slowly back and forth between the fingers of her left. That reminded him of something else, something painfully beautiful, and realization dawned on him. "Oh, you want sex!" he concluded brightly. "I'm sorry, Ms. Moody. I'm kind of new to that."
Her face flooded with color beneath her makeup and she sat up straight, glancing about for something to save her a modicum of dignity, but nothing came to mind. "Why, no, J.R., I--"
"My last girlfriend dumped me because I wasn't very good at it," he lied merrily. "But I'm sure I'll get better with practice. I'm doing these exercises--"
"Oh, Well... J.R., um, that's nice, but I..." She was looking at the papers she had brought into the meeting, trying to avoid his eyes.
He knew he had her off balance and seized the moment. "So you don't have a problem with my playing unknown album cuts to close my show, then?" he asked innocently.
"No, not at all," the programming director agreed, and stood up with papers and pencil in hand, a harried, desperate grimace sliding across her face. "That'll be just fine, J.R. Break a leg."
"Excuse me?" He raised his eyebrows in surprise at her ill wish.
"Old showbiz tradition," Sharon mumbled. "Never wish a performer good luck before going on. 'Break a leg' is the traditional show of support."
"Oh. Thank you, Ms. Moody," Jarod said brightly, and opened the conference room door for her to end the meeting. She darted away and down the hall, and Jarod headed for the booth with a broad smile on his face, wondering why bad luck was good luck in the entertainment industry. There was still so much to learn about people, and he loved all the little tidbits of information he collected in moments like that.
Two weeks later the Night Man held the number one spot for evening radio in the metroplex, boasting the largest listening audience for any program in the city. Station management was thrilled with his performance and wanted to photograph him for inclusion on the station's website, as well as for an article for the Dallas newspaper that wanted to do a story on his phenomenal success. But J.R. Marconi insisted on keeping his appearance a mystery to enhance the tone of the program, and even started wearing hats and dark glasses when on duty in the studio. His audience loved it, and the games he played with them were the talk of the town.
In another week he began decorating the booth with a series of items that none of the other employees could fathom, but left intact and undisturbed. On a small table beside the console he placed a chess set, one of the cheap plastic kind that only beginning players ever bought. He installed a voice synthesizer onto the incoming telephone lines, and began experimenting with that just to introduce it to his listeners, and how effective it was in making a voice unrecognizable. On a cork board that he kept out of the way in a corner, he tacked a map of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and placed two tiny pin markers in the Bedford area, one of the smaller communities that lay in between the two major cities. One marked the intersection near where Justin Raster was kidnapped, and the other where his body had been found. And when he was ready, he began to carry a black leather briefcase into the booth with him for his shows, which he would always close whenever anyone came in to speak to him when he was off the air for a moment. He began to drop hints to his listeners that he had the biggest mystery of all to play with them, and tantalized them with generalized clues that gave no hint of what was to come, until he had everything in place.
It was raining that muggy May evening when he started his shift, and after a darkly poetic greeting he announced that he would be playing the Undiscovered Song first, rather than last, as an introduction to the new Mystery he offered. He picked up the Sur La Mer CD from the Moody Blues and played Breaking Point, which had been written as a theme for a horror movie and then withdrawn from consideration by the band. It was a chilling tune in a minor key filled with paranoia and nightmares and fear, a perfect introduction to the task he had set for himself. And when the song had finished, he allowed a moment of silence to follow before he spoke again.
"Everyone is born equal," he began, "or so we like to think. There are those who may be endowed with talents that have a genetic source, but in the beginning we're all blank slates, ready for the world to write on. Sometimes the stories of our lives are written in vibrant colors that inspire everyone who reads a page or two. Other times, pages are torn out, crumpled up and thrown away, pages that should have had important instructions written on them, like, 'Thou shalt not kill.' But when you look at the guy who works across the office from you, that isn't always apparent." He picked up one of the black pawns from the chessboard and twirled it slowly between his fingers, thinking as he spoke. "The guy who keeps his yard so beautifully maintained may have a basement full of assault weapons, or the woman so cheerfully running the booster club may be hiring a hit man to murder her daughter's rival on the cheerleading squad. Sometimes it's even more sinister than that... like the respected businessman, the pillar of the community, who molests his beautiful little daughter, knowing she will never tell anyone how he hurts her, because she loves him so much."
He put the pawn down and turned his gaze out the window to the low gray clouds and sheets of rain slowly giving way to the sunset, and darkness. "Somewhere out there, are people who have committed terrible crimes, and for one reason or another, have not been caught. No one even knows who they are. But you do, if you're one of them." He put on another song, an instrumental by Carlos Santana just right to enhance the mood of his words. "You've been watching the police and the newspapers prowl aimlessly around, getting no closer to you, and slowly the fear of being caught ebbs away. Now you feel almost triumphant, like you've accomplished something, only you can't tell anyone. No one knows it's you that did the deed, and they probably never will... You can't talk about it at all... unless you want to talk to me."
This was his ace card, the bait that he hoped would draw one dangerous man into a game that Jarod played to win. He let the song finish and picked right up again.
"Tonight, and for as long as the public wishes, I'd like to issue an invitation to those of you out there who have secrets, really big secrets, to call in and get it off your chest. I promise the lines won't be tapped, the police won't make any traces, and we'll use the voice synthesizer to disguise your call so no one will be able to identify you that way. You'll have complete anonymity. Male callers will be identified as John, and female callers will be Jane. If you want to confess without risk of capture, call in and unload. Even if it's something simple like cheating on your spouse. But remember, folks, you'll probably be put on the air, so try not to be too graphic in your descriptions and don't use those words that will get me in trouble. I like this job, and would like to keep it for a while." He glanced up at Jeffrey Adams, sitting on the far side of the glass in the sound booth. The young man was white-faced and keyed in a short description of the call he had on hold, which relayed to the monitor in the broadcasting booth Jarod nodded.
It wasn't the caller he had hoped for, but if word got around about the show tonight, he might get lucky later on. The profile indicated Justin's killer enjoyed the risk of publicity. That was why he had taken the boy in such a violent, open manner, rather than using a more discreet lure as most pedophiles did. He enjoyed watching his hunters fumble in the darkness, and that was what Jarod would use to draw him close enough to touch. Any other calls he might answer along the way would be practice for the one that had brought him south.
He took the call.