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Chapter or Story Chapter or Story
by Victoria Rivers ©1997
Jarod didn't know how long he had been traveling, wasn't sure where his latest sojourn had taken him. He stood in line at the bus stop, glancing around him wearily for some sign that would tell him where he was. Not that it mattered much. One place was much the same as any other, and Athena no longer waited for him to come home to her. She was gone. Dead. Murdered right before his eyes. For weeks he had been buying tickets to wherever the person in line before him had gone, not caring where he ended up, even if it took him back to Delaware.
Flagstaff, the sign read. He sighed heavily, setting the Halliburton down between his feet while he waited for a bus that would take him to anywhere. Fatigue was a constant companion now, but he refused to take time to sleep. If he laid down and closed his eyes, the demons would come for him, and he would be lost in the red rain that reminded him vividly of what he had done. Exhaustion stole up on him now and then as he rode in the back of a taxi while the driver ran up his fare, or when he sat in the cushioned seat of an airplane, train or bus, and he would succumb to the siren song of sleep, only to wake when the blood of Damon Winterbourne and his victims began to shower down on him from above. Jarod's guilt knew no bounds, and even though he tried to convince himself that he was justified in killing the psychopath, it was the first time he had ever taken a life with his own hands. He shoved those hands into the pockets of his black trousers, feeling the ever-present stickiness of blood that would not quite wash off.
He wanted to get away, to end his pain, but nowhere that he had traveled held the key to that equation. The December chill made him draw his jacket more closely about him, and he wondered idly what the date was. A glance at the newspaper stand on the corner told him, twisting an invisible knife in his chest, and he shut his eyes tightly, fighting back the tears he had not been able to allow free.
December 10. Athena's due date. The birthday his children would never have.
He remembered a simulation he had done when he was 20, concerning a scientist who had died mysteriously while working on a government project. Arthur Kragen had been in his prime, brilliant, wealthy, deeply involved in his work, but his wife had left him for another man almost a year earlier. Kragen had seen his ex-wife the week before his death, and she was happier than she had ever been with him. All of Kragen's dreams of winning her back once his project was finished died a sudden, violent death, and shortly afterward Kragen came to the realization that life without love was a pointless exercise.
Arthur Kragen had committed suicide by wrapping his ankles in heavy steel chains and pushing himself off the end of a pier near his country home, and the simulation had bothered Jarod for months afterward. He couldn't understand the depths of such despair over loneliness; solitude was so much a part of his world it was normalcy to him. There wasn't a day that he didn't rise wondering what it would be like to be surrounded by people living normal lives, nor a night he didn't retire to his bed in the depths of the Centre to dream of the relationships he explored for others, yet could never have for himself.
Jarod stood with his head down in line, concentrating on increasing his body temperature to combat the cold, relaxing into the warmth. He glanced up at his reflection in the window of a nearby bakery, his stomach rumbling from hunger, reminding him that it had been days since he'd eaten. The ghostly image in the glass was a stranger to him now, and he turned away from it.
Someone behind him tapped him on the shoulder and asked the time. After checking his watch, Jarod gave a brief reply without looking at the man.
"Wrong," the stranger replied. "It's time to kill!"
Jarod glanced over his shoulder quickly at the familiar voice, gooseflesh rising on his back and shoulders as his brown eyes met the cold, soulless blue ones of Damon Winterbourne.
"You're dead," Jarod whispered hollowly, wondering if Miss Parker had managed to get Damon to a hospital before his last breath was expelled, if the doctors there might have managed to save him and patch him up. If they had, the Centre would certainly have sent him back out on the hunt once again.
But Jarod knew better. He had felt the knife in his hand puncture tough heart muscle, felt the fountain of hot blood spray up onto his hand, his face, his shirt, painting him in gore. He had twisted the knife, intending to do more damage internally, before yanking it free of Damon's body. He had seen the light go out in Damon's eyes before stepping away from the corpse to bolt as Miss Parker fired her gun at him. He was absolutely certain Damon was dead.
He blinked, massaged his weary eyes, and tried to focus on the stranger's face again, but there was no one there. Jarod glanced around, looking for him, and spied the familiar, boyish face a few feet away, smiling back at him in the glass. Dressed in black, and standing with a silver Halliburton between his feet in the queue.
"No," he breathed. Damon's reflection laughed back at him in place of his own.
"This is what you become, handsome," said the ghostly image. "This is what the Centre makes of you."
Jarod shook his head, trying to clear it, refusing to believe.
"This is what you are, Jarod," said Damon. "You're just like me. You take pleasure in the pain of others. You need it, need the rush it gives you to watch them suffer the way you suffered. Admit it, and be free."
"No!" cried Jarod, bringing his hands up to his head, holding his ears to keep from hearing any more. But the voice rang inside his head, and the face loomed closer as he stepped toward the glass. "I'll never be like you!"
He planted his feet and drew back his fist to smash the glass, but it was too late. In the window he watched Damon pull a knife from inside his jacket and turn to the person nearest him. Jarod saw the blade streak across the throat of a woman holding her little girl's hand, and heard Damon's mad laughter echoing all around him. He saw the other Pretender slash and stab recklessly, darting in and out of the holiday pedestrians, leaving a bloody trail behind him. Jarod put his hands to his face, unable to look any more, but they were sticky and when he looked at them, they were dripping with blood.
Clouds gathered above him, angry black vapors that hovered low above his head, and he raised his face to the heavens to plead for mercy when the first few warm drops began to pelt against his face. They were salty and viscous, and filled his eyes so that he couldn't see. He wiped them on his sleeve and blinked at the sidewalk beneath his feet to clear his vision. The drops were rich, vibrant crimson, and they splattered against the cement, against the brick wall of the store, against the glass, against his clothes and skin. In a moment he saw that he was standing in a puddle of the thick red stuff, and surrounding him were bodies of women, children, old people, young adults. Everyone who had been standing near him at the bus stop was dead, mutilated, and Damon slithered up beside him and placed the slippery knife in his hand.
"Your turn, baby," he whispered. "Let's have some fun!"
Jarod wanted to drop the knife, but it wouldn't fall out of his hand. He turned the blade toward himself, aimed the point toward his own heart, but Damon's hand closed over his fist.
"I won't let you do that," he cooed. "Too much to do yet. Too many people to kill. Just try it once, and I promise you'll give up the Dudley Do-Right gig. You want to dispense some real justice? I can show you how."
The shower continued to fall around them, painting the landscape a vivid crimson.
"Bathe in it, Jarod. Drink it in. It's sweet, you know? Taste the justice in it. Justice for what was done to you. They deserve it. All of them do."
Jarod's head came up with a jerk and he gasped as his eyes flew open. The nightmare was only that, and he trembled with relief as he saw people standing patiently in the queue with him, walking to and fro on their personal journeys, unaware of the horror of his recurring nightmare.
The line shuffled forward a few steps as a bus pulled up to the stop, and Jarod reached down to lift the heavy Halliburton as he prepared to board. With a strangled cry of surprise he saw that the case was gone and glanced around for the thief who had taken it. The expensive silver briefcase was nowhere in sight. He ran to the corner, glancing around for the gleam of flashing metal and caught a glimpse of reflected light just as a taxi door closed. It could have been anything, but instinct told Jarod that it was his case, and he ran down the street after the departing car. The vehicle pulled away into traffic at a steady speed, leaving him far behind in seconds.
"No!" Jarod cried, the last of his world crumbling around him as he lost sight of the car. Panic set in, and he dashed back to the curb at the insistence of an irritated driver's horn. He glanced around quickly for a car he could appropriate to catch up to the taxi, but all of the vehicles he spied were either moving or parked and locked, keys in their owners' pockets. It was too late. He had lost everything. The DSAs were his only concrete reference to his past, proving to him on more than one occasion that the memories he retained were somehow corrupted or missing completely. Those disks and photos were the only proof that he had lived, and without them he did not know who he was.
The emptiness of Arthur Kragen's loss filled him once again, and this time he was powerless against it. He understood it at last, and there was nothing left to make him want to hold on any longer. He could feel the comforting weight of steel chains around his ankles, the heaviness that would anchor him to the bottom, making his feet adhere to the sidewalk beneath him. He stared at the smooth concrete and saw planks of wood, giving way to gently lapping, cool water below. Closing his eyes, he stepped forward and felt the sudden downward plummet, chilly water soaking his clothes and closing quickly over his head. His arms were buoyant, floating upward, and he held his last breath a moment longer before expelling it. In his mind's eye he saw Athena waiting for him at the trailer, ready to welcome him home. Jarod inhaled, water burning its way into his lungs.
Only it wasn't real. He felt a sudden peace with the decision he had made, and scanned about for a means to the end. It was time. He was ready for relief from the constant agony of life, and stood ready to welcome whatever came afterward.
A moving van was approaching the intersection to his left, and the light was green. The truck was heavily loaded and moving at a good clip toward the intersection. Jarod calculated its mass and speed, potential impact and damage capabilities, and prepared to move. His whole body vibrated with agony beyond his capability to bear. He had to make it stop.
He stepped out into the street and faced Death, welcoming it with open arms.
"Refuge," he sobbed softly, his eyes fixed on the swiftly approaching chromed grill.
Somebody grabbed his coat sleeve and hauled him back to the curb just before the truck made contact, and he fell onto his rescuer, knocking her backward onto the sidewalk.
"Well, that was a bloody inconsiderate way to go!" she admonished him angrily. Her British-flavored speech softened along with her gaze as he got off her and sat down beside her on the curb. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to snap. I'm sure you're in a lot of pain right now or you wouldn't have tried to off yourself."
Jarod said nothing. He couldn't look at her, couldn't reply. He was sure his whole body would break into pieces at any moment, and waited for oblivion to bring him the peace he so desperately needed. The woman touched him, began to rub his back and shoulders comfortingly, ending with a one-armed embrace. She urged him to his feet and into the back of a limousine parked at the curb just as a crowd began to gather after witnessing the save.
"It's all right, love," she murmured, her arm still around his shoulders as she sat beside him on the wide seat. "I know you think you can't make it, but that will change. If you check out now, you'll never know what wonders are waiting for you down the road a bit." She pulled him close, laid his head down on her shoulder and began rocking him like a mother does a wounded child.
A shudder shook him as her warmth enveloped his body, seeping slowly into his heart, and he began to cry the tears he had refused to shed when Athena died. He had tried to convince himself that his soul died with her, that he could no longer feel, and the residual pain was simply a reflex action that would pass in time. But as he wept in the arms of a compassionate stranger he knew that he had been trying to fool himself, denying his grief in favor of guilt and self-loathing. He had been ready to give up everything, and had it not been for a stranger's concern, he would have succeeded. Great sobs shook him as grief took control, and when his tears were spent he lay back against the seat wearily and looked into the eyes of the woman who had rescued him.
"My name's Grace St. James," she said softly, offering him a warm smile. "What's yours, son?"
"Jarod," he said hoarsely, his voice shaking along with the rest of him. He tried to remember the name he was currently using, the one he had chosen to wear when he wasn't being anyone in particular. "Jarod Black."
"You look like you could use a little something, dear," observed Grace. "There's a cafe just down the street here that makes a mean plate of fajitas. My treat. How about it?"
Not knowing what else to say, he agreed and his stomach rumbled its hearty approval of the idea. The driver took Grace's destination through the intercom and pulled away from the curb into traffic, delivering them to the restaurant moments later. The woman was quiet while Jarod wolfed down a plate of chicken fajitas and a bowl of tortilla soup. She studied his clothing, which looked new yet smelled as if he had worn the outfit for several days. He was unshaven and his hair needed a trim, but he didn't have the air of homelessness about him that she expected from her first sight of him in the street. He simply looked as if he had been through an emotional wringer and stopped taking care of himself some time back. And she wasn't at all surprised when he pulled out a huge roll of bills to pay for lunch in spite of her protest, and left an outrageously large tip without a second thought.
"What did you mean, that was inconsiderate of me?" Jarod asked as he pushed his empty plate away, picking up a blue corn tortilla chip and dipping it into the bowl of spicy salsa between them on the table.
Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then she remembered her earlier comment. "I know that when people want to off themselves, it's an innately selfish act. They don't usually consider the feelings of those their act will affect. Like that truck driver. Imagine what smashing you into the pavement would have done to him."
Jarod stopped chewing for a moment and did just that. He swallowed the chip audibly. "I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't thinking clearly."
"You've been through a lot," Grace said, stroking his forearm as it lay on the table. "That's evident in your face, son. But things can't be so bad that waiting another day won't help. That's the trick to surviving. Just take it one moment at a time. Get through the next hour, and then the next one after that. Pretty soon, it's one day at a time, and it gets easier from there. But the pain never quite goes away. That's something we just have to learn to live with."
He met her eyes again. "Sounds like the voice of experience," he mused thoughtfully.
She nodded and pulled back the sleeves of her sweater to show him a pair of deep scars along her wrists. For a moment she said nothing. "I lost the man I loved years ago, in the first blush of newlywed bliss," she told him quietly. "I thought I had lost everything. But after this..." She stroked the scars familiarly, and pulled the sleeves down to cover them again. "...after I woke up in hospital, the doctors told me I was pregnant with John's child. Turned out I had something to live for after all." Her smile glowed with pride. "Jonathan's a Navy pilot now. I don't get to see him much these days."
Jarod took in her neatly styled, graying auburn hair, her intuitive brown eyes, and thought of his mother. Suddenly he was ashamed of giving up, realizing there was still a very important mission for him to accomplish with his life. Someone was waiting for him, and hoping.
"Thank you, Grace," he said softly. "You kept me from making a permanent mistake."
"I'm glad you think so, Jarod." She smiled again. "But I hope you'll pardon me if I don't believe you for a few days, at least until I know a bit more about you."
"I understand," he returned. "Listen, do you know where the newspaper office is? I'd like to post a reward for my briefcase that was stolen just before we met. It has my whole life in it."
"Don't you want to call the police first?" she asked, but the guilty, closed look on his face was answer enough. "Well, I don't live in Flagstaff, but I'm sure if we take a taxi, they'll know."
"You here on business or visiting someone?" he asked casually.
"Business, actually. I'm the director of the St. James Stewardship Foundation, up near Marble Canyon, and every year I come to Flagstaff to report to our investors on the progress of our long term cases. I can stay in Flagstaff a little longer, if I like. Until I'm sure you're all right."
"What, exactly, does the Foundation do?" He was getting interested, and attaching himself to a worthwhile project might be just what he needed to get back on his feet emotionally. He hadn't read a newspaper in months, hadn't considered helping anyone else since Athena died.
Grace laughed a little nervously. "That's rather hard to explain. We just, sort of... help people who need help. Mostly children, but there are a few adults in some of our programs as well." She frowned and glanced away, shifted in her chair, then suddenly brightened. "An idea has me, Jarod! Why don't you come with me? I'd like to show you Galleons Lap."
Jarod's brows twitched together. "Who is Galleon and why would I want to see his lap?"
She laughed brightly. "Galleons Lap is the name of my estate. From the Winnie-the-Pooh stories."
"Winnie the Who?"
"Pooh. As in Bear," she explained patiently. "Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet? The children's stories?"
Jarod still looked puzzled but Grace decided to explain later. She could see by the shift in his expression that he was considering something else, something more serious. "What's the matter, Christopher Robin?"
"My name's Jarod." Frowning at her apparently short memory and deciding to forgive her for it, he pondered aloud about his briefcase, trying to figure the best way to retrieve it. He decided not to mention the fact that he was on the run, or why he didn't want to get the police involved, but Grace seemed to understand his need for avoiding the authorities without asking obvious questions. He still had his cellular phone, and decided to put an ad in the newspaper requesting the finder call with information regarding the briefcase, and take it from there.
"So you'll come to visit me?" Grace asked hopefully.
"In a day or two. I want to see what my ad turns up here first."
"Then I'm staying as well," she insisted, and hauled him out to the curb to hail a taxi.
Sydney waited for the door to be unlocked and strolled casually into a bright, simply furnished room. He smiled at the thirty-something woman seated at an easel beneath a false skylight, and she greeted him, smiling, without looking up from her painting.
"Hi, Sydney. It's been too long."
"Visiting you is a pleasure I should indulge in more often, Samantha," he said softly, wandering closer. "I don't often take time to do things for myself, but I should. You need to know that you have friends here, too, rather than just being used for your talents."
She chuckled softly, lifting a lock of her long brown hair back from her face with the shaft of her paintbrush. "It's okay, Sydney," she assured him. "I know who really likes me and who doesn't. And I know you're busy. Besides, I stay occupied and live pretty stress free in between assignments." Her smile faded away. "Which is why you've come. You have some work for me to do. I'm surprised they didn't send Theda to lead me through the exercise."
Sydney didn't need to acknowledge her prediction. That was part of her unique abilities, and as he watched her clean her brush and put away her paints, he noticed the grace of her movements, slow and dance-like, as though she was walking in a dream. He loved her after a fashion, and that brought an element of trust between them that helped them work well together. But it also skewed the results at times, which was why the Centre had matched her up with Theda, a woman psychologist, as her usual guide.
"I'm ready now," Samantha announced, and stepped away from the easel to take a seat on the off-white sofa hugging the wall. "You're looking for someone," she stated certainly, and closed her eyes. After a moment she opened them again. "I can't see him, but he's someone you care for deeply. Your son?"
He shook his head. "No. One of the other residents of the Centre. He's on assignment, and he hasn't contacted us for a while. We're concerned about him." Sydney hoped she wouldn't feel the lie he had told her, and remembered Jarod stretched out on his belly on the floor of his quarters, books of all sorts strewn around him as he studied for a simulation. That was the sort of image he wanted her to find in his mind. "I have no children, Samantha. But Jarod's the closest thing I have to one. He's my protege."
Samantha closed her eyes and was quiet for a long time. "I can't see him, Sydney. Do you have something of his that I can touch?"
From a manila envelope held beneath his arm, Sydney retrieved the origami figure of Onysius, god of retribution, laid it on the envelope like a serving tray and held it out to her. She took it gingerly, careful not to bend any of the precise folds, and laid the paper angel in her lap. While she was busy with the exploration of that, Sydney walked around the room, looking at the little drawings she had scattered about here and there on tables, and eventually made his way to the easel. He stepped around and glanced at the painting, and froze. On the left half of the canvas was a black background supporting half of a child's face, round and innocent, with a big brown eye and a shock of close-cropped dark hair. On the right side of the painting, against a painfully bright sky filled with white clouds was the half-face of a grown man, matched perfectly in size to the boy's, so that the viewer could see that they were the same person, young and grown-up. Sydney recognized the person immediately, but held his comment until Samantha spoke again.
"Sorry, Sydney. I'm sure it will come to me in time. You know these things are never precise."
"Who is this you're painting?" he asked casually.
Samantha smiled warmly. "I've been dreaming about him for a while," she answered with a trace of wistful affection in her eyes and voice. "He comes to me as an angel, wings and all, but sometimes he's dressed in black and sometimes in white. So I'm never sure if he's one of the good guys or not. He's always so sad when he's in black."
"Does he talk to you in your dreams?"
Color filled her face and she turned away. "No. Not verbally, anyway."
"Ah," said Sydney knowingly. "He's your dream lover."
"C'mon, Syd," Samantha returned quickly. "You know I can't have sex. But no, what I share with my angel is a different kind of communication, one I can't describe."
"I know it's hard for you to let people touch you," Sydney rephrased. "But it's not impossible..."
She hugged herself, her shoulders rising up in revulsion as she remembered some of the things she had felt in the past when someone made physical contact with her. "I can't Sydney. I see too much. I feel too much. It... it overloads me with things I can't handle."
"Yes," he agreed with a nod, sliding his hands into his pants pockets and strolled closer to the couch. "I know how difficult it is for you. And I'm sorry."
Her eyes grew large and frightened, but her expression was filled with regret. "You know I'd like to be held once in a while," she said softly. "I remember my mother holding me to comfort me. And sometimes my brother would, too. It didn't bother me with them."
Man and woman stared at each other, wishing to cross the great chasm between them, yet neither willing to take the first step.
"Perhaps, if you loved enough," Sydney suggested, "and were loved enough in return..."
"I know you care for me," she whispered tightly. "But I can't. I just can't. I have enough darkness inside me, Sydney." She stood and moved toward him, almost touching his face, but withdrew her hand before she made contact. "I couldn't handle all of yours, too."
He nodded, closing his hands into fists inside his pockets to keep from reaching out to her. "I have loved you from the first moment I saw you last year, Samantha--"
"Sydney," she cut in quickly, turning away. "The Centre won't allow it, even if I could. Please, don't do this."
He backed down immediately, turning off his desire for her and stepping back into his role. "I'm sorry, Samantha. It won't happen again." He paused, meeting her eyes steadily, warmly, with a touch of sadness. "I want you to look forward to my visits, not be defensive."
She smiled, regret sparkling in her bright gaze. "Then what would you like to talk about, my old friend?" she asked him warmly, and sat down again on one end of the sofa, gesturing him to be seated on the other.
At four a.m. Jarod's phone rang. He was sitting at the desk in a hotel room that Grace insisted he rent so he could clean up and rest, browsing the Web on his new laptop computer instead of sleeping after his bath, trying to keep his demons at bay, when the warble of the ringer on his cellular phone caught his attention. He lunged for his new jacket hanging on the back of the chair and answered before the third ring.
"I have your briefcase."
It was a woman's voice, unfamiliar, yet with a foreign cadence to her speech. Her accent was an unusual mixture of British and American, but he knew that English was her second language, though he couldn't identify her origins just yet.
"Have you looked inside it?" He clutched the edge of the desk and held on, hoping this would be the right caller and not a hoax to try to collect the reward.
"Interesting little machine in there," said the thief. "Even more interesting life, Jarod."
Something inside him wilted, knowing that his secrets had been bared to a stranger. "I'm willing to pay handsomely for the return of my property. All of it, intact."
"I don't want your money," said the woman. "But I will give it back to you. In about a week. After I've seen all these little memories of yours. They are yours, aren't they? The man on the disks looks like the man at the bus stop, and the voice is the same, so I'm assuming this is Jarod."
"It is." He didn't know what to say. He felt suddenly naked, more vulnerable than at any time before in his life. "Please. Don't do this. Just give it back to me. I'll pay you everything I have."
"Don't beg," she snapped back. "It doesn't become a man of your stature and brilliance." There was a slight pause, and then her voice deepened with reluctant emotion. "I promise to give it back to you, Jarod. I was supposed to take someone else's Halliburton at the stop today, but I think this was an omen. Only before I can figure out what I'm supposed to do, I have to know more about you."
"Why? You know my whole life is in that case. I almost died today when I realized it was gone."
"I know. I saw that woman pull you out from in front of the truck." She sighed. "I know it's impossible for you to trust me, but I must ask you to for now. No one else will see any of this, I swear. Your secrets are safe with me. I'll call you again in a week to arrange its return."
The connection died in his ear and he slammed the phone shut, shoving it deeply into the pocket of his jacket again. One week, he told himself, could be far too late, and he would need to be out of the immediate vicinity by the time the Centre's sweeper team arrived in response to the newspaper ad. He would call the paper and cancel the ad first thing in the morning, then go with Grace to her estate up north, where he would still be in range to receive the thief's next phone call, and close enough to meet to pick up his briefcase.
That is, if she meant to return it to him at all.
Jarod admired the rugged scenery flying by his window as he rode in the limousine with Grace. He stared at her curiously when she began to applaud softly and give a little cheer to God for the beautiful sunset, but he said nothing. She hummed softly to herself, a nonsense little tune that he rather enjoyed. He felt comfortable with her, even in long stretches of silence during the drive, as if they had been friends for a long time and didn't need to fill up the empty spaces between them with unnecessary words.
After they left Flagstaff she asked him what kind of music he liked, and he spent the next hour browsing through the limo's CD library and playing with the stereo. He adjusted volume and balance, re-set the levels incessantly, wandered from classical to rock to country at random points, and rather than growl at him for his irritating behavior, Grace joined in, handing him CDs with her comments on particular tracks and then digging through the stack for more. They were like a pair of ten-year-olds, happily playing together in perfect harmony.
The car turned off the main road and drove for another half hour as dusk fell, but Jarod could clearly see tall adobe walls ringing Grace's home, rising up out of the rocky terrain. Once past the automated front gate and inside the perimeter, Jarod noticed large plots of neatly cultivated gardens, an athletic field, an archery range, sheep pens, and a large water tower dominating the landscape. The house itself was huge, more like a university campus surrounded by smaller outbuildings, all connected with covered walkways or arbors clouded by dormant vines.
Grace led the way into the main house, where the staff greeted them with warm smiles and questions about her trip. She introduced Jarod only by his first name, and he noticed that the staff was dressed in the same uniform: long-sleeved white tunics and loose-fitting white pants with soft suede moccasins on their feet to set them apart from the residents and visitors. Many Navajos moved purposefully about, and Grace explained that the house was built on the fringes of the reservation, bordering the Kaibab National Forest and overlooking the Colorado River. She provided jobs for a large number of the natives, and the tribal council was involved in the operation of the Foundation.
"But as much as I would love to show you the whole place tonight, Jarod, I can see that you're exhausted," Grace added to her lecture. "I'll take you upstairs to one of the guest rooms, and you can soak in a hot tub, put on some fresh clothes -- I hope you don't mind white -- have a quiet meal in your room and get some sleep. We can talk in the morning, after you've rested. All right?"
He followed her to the third floor and sat down experimentally on the bed. He did need a bath and a shave, and wanted another meal, but he did not want to lie down and intended to go exploring after freshening up.
The hot water made him drowsy and he nodded off in the tub, only to jerk awake when the sky clouded over and the red rain began to fall. He was pleased that the bathroom came equipped with a brand new razor and toothbrush, and after polishing off a large salad and vegetable stew that had been brought to his room, he brushed his teeth and went downstairs to check out the rest of the place.
An old man sat alone in the library, reading beneath a Tiffany lamp, and Jarod wandered in to see what books the huge room held. There were technical sections with everything from quantum physics to medical anatomy, sections of philosophy and the classics, and a large number of children's books, all located on the lower shelves where small hands could reach them easily. He found A.A. Milne's The World of Pooh and sat down to read through it, hoping to find a clue to the reason why Grace named her estate so oddly. He smiled as he recognized familiar characterizations of Sydney the owl, Broots as Piglet, and Miss Parker playing a rather nasty version of Eeyore.
"There are no doors to my soul," the old man said after a long pause. "There are no doors, because there are no walls on which to hang them." He sighed. "I love that one. Don't you?"
Jarod glanced up from the book in his lap, realizing the question was for him. "Excuse me?"
The grizzled old fellow rose from his cushioned seat and hobbled over to Jarod, sitting down again on the ottoman by his chair. "The poem," he said casually, and repeated it for his audience. "Beautiful sentiment, don't you think? Though I expect most of us have all too many walls around our souls."
"Who's the poet?" asked Jarod, studying the book in the old man's hands for a title and author.
He chuckled, watching the younger man's eyes go fishing. "Why, this is Pooh's journal," said the elder bemusedly. "She keeps her old ones here in the library for all of us to read, if we like. And of all people, I expect it would be most true of her. No walls. She lets people walk right in and make themselves at home in her soul. You're new here, aren't you?"
"Just got in today. I'm Jarod. Isn't Pooh a bear?"
"I'm Byron. Byron Hastings. We call Grace Pooh because she's... well, because she is. Why did you come to Galleons Lap?"
Not sure exactly what he was asking, Jarod replied, "I was invited."
"We all were," said Byron. "Sometimes by Grace, sometimes by the wind. We come here because we need to be here for a while. I take it you don't want to get the shut-eye Pooh offered?"
Jarod frowned, wondering how Byron knew about that, but when he arrived there were people everywhere, moving about performing their duties. This old fellow could have been among all the others dressed in white, and Jarod might not have noticed. "I like to read before bed," he told the man, trying to throw him off the scent.
"I like to drink before bed," Byron admitted enthusiastically. "Want some? It helps keep the demons at bay."
The Pretender's wary smile vanished. Had he become so easy to read?
"Sorry, I don't drink alcohol."
Byron shrugged. "Suit yourself. But if you want a deep sleep without dreams, this is the stuff to get you there." He rose and unlocked the liquor cabinet, poured himself a large glass of Scotch and a spare, then set the extra glass on the table beside Jarod.
The old man was on his third glass when Jarod lifted the tumbler to his lips. He sniffed gently, and the fumes burned his nose, making his eyes water. Experimentally, he took a sip and grimaced as the liquid scorched its way down his throat.
"Good stuff, eh?" asked Byron delightedly. "Pooh has some Greek ouzo -- or something like that -- that'll set your socks on fire from the inside. But she keeps that in her private rooms."
Jarod tried to form an answer, but his mouth wouldn't work. He took another swig of whisky, and a moment later finished the glass. The warmth seeped through his whole body, and he decided he'd had enough.
Byron poured him another. After the fifth glass, the old man helped the young one stagger up the stairs and laid him out on his bed, turned off the lights and closed the door with a smile. He stopped by Grace's room long enough to congratulate her on her plan, then toddled off to find his own bed further down the hall.
"I'm impressed," said Jarod thoughtfully, his eyes gleaming after his tour of the grounds next morning. "This is a completely self-sufficient community, with everyone fulfilling a necessary and appreciated role. It's perfectly balanced, and everyone seems so... happy."
"Most of us are," Grace agreed. "But it takes a while for some. There's usually a trauma or tragedy that brings people here, and we give them a place to recover. Some of them never leave."
"Like Byron," Jarod assumed. The old man seemed to know the people and Galleons Lap intimately.
Grace smiled. "Like Byron," she agreed. "He came here as an architect 30 years ago, and has continued to find some project or other that keeps him here. He won't admit this is his home now. Still keeps his suitcases in his closet in plain sight, though I don't expect he'll ever use them again."
Jarod rubbed his forehead and wondered if it had shrunk to normal size yet. His sunglasses helped keep the bright day from becoming unbearable, and indoors they dulled the ambient lighting to a tolerable level. So much for his initiation to demon alcohol, he promised himself. One night of drunkenness was more than enough.
"You're doing good things here," he complimented the older woman at his side. "I was surprised to see all the different types of trauma recovery you're dealing with. And the programs are designed to aid whole families in adjusting to their new circumstances, rather than just the victims. That's a very compassionate way of doing things."
"You can't cure a disease by treating only the symptoms," she returned wisely. "You have to treat the whole person. Or the whole family. And that's what I shoot for with this place. Curing the children of abuse, or the victims of physical trauma. Those we can't cure, like the wonderful fey people trapped in autism, or the children who are seen as 'different,' we try to help in other ways. There's room for everyone on this beautiful Earth of ours. We just have to learn to live in it together. That's what the Foundation is for." She shrugged. "Well, part of it, anyway."
They strolled from one of the dormitories toward the main house, shadowed by an arbor covered in wysteria vines. Though still dormant for winter, he could easily imagine how beautiful the clusters of pink, white and purple flowers would be in the spring. "Do you have any positions open? Any staff you're particularly short on at the moment?"
Grace glanced up at him curiously. "Well, we could use a doctor," she admitted. "We've got a medic on premises and a hospital in Marble Canyon, plus the helicopter for emergency lifts, but it would be nice to have one here for dire emergencies. Aside from that, we need teachers, both for trades and for the school, another psychologist... The list goes on. Any of those up your alley, my friend?"
He shrugged. "I've had a pretty extensive education," he answered vaguely. "If I can get a schedule working, I could fill in several of those slots till you find replacements. How about that?"
The woman stopped walking and touched his sleeve. "You really are a doctor?"
"Wanna see my diploma?" he teased. "Come on. Let's get back to the Infirmary and see what kind of equipment you need. And I'll check the stock of meds, too. Are you set up for any emergency surgical procedures? I practiced as a thoracic surgeon a while back."
"Well... no. But if you're capable, I mean, we do occasionally have accidents here and--"
"Then we should be prepared. Just like the Boy Scouts." He took her arm and led her back through the maze of hallways and corridors to the Infirmary, did a quick visual check of supplies and started reeling off a list of things he thought should be added, then politely inquired if the Foundation's budget could handle the expenses. If not, he offered to purchase some of the more expensive items himself.
Grace sat down heavily on a nearby chair and put both hands to her head to hold it steady. "You're moving way too fast for a Bear of Very Little Brain," she told him dazedly.
"Oh, Pooh!" he grinned, getting the reference from the book he had scanned through the previous evening. "You know, it's odd that a woman as obviously intelligent as yourself would identify with such a simple-minded creature as that."
"Bother," said Grace with a slow smile. "Winnie the Pooh is a Bear of much greater wisdom than most people initially grasp. Ever hear of a book called, The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff?"
He raised his eyebrows in question, waiting for her to go on.
"Rather intuitive of Mr. Hoff to see that Pooh is actually a Taoist master," said Grace with a wink. "And at the moment, you make a perfect Christopher Robin, Jarod. There's such an air of innocence and caring about you. But I can see you as a potential Pooh yourself."
"So that's why everyone calls you Pooh," mused Jarod thoughtfully. "Because you're masquerading as a Bear of Very Little Brain, but you actually know exactly what you're doing. Hmmmm." His brow creased. The woman was perplexing, to say the least. He liked that about her.
"By Jove, I think he's got it!" teased Grace. "Now, come on and let's get your list done up proper on one of the computers. And no need spending your money on us. The Foundation's got quite enough support from me and mine to be able to handle the purchases."
Jarod keyed in his list for Grace on her office computer and went back to the Infirmary, setting up shop and arranging everything to suit himself. He gave the place a thorough cleaning, too, and was just finishing up when a woman walked in with a small boy about five years old. They were so dissimilar in appearance that he thought she might be his teacher or sitter, and waited for confirmation.
"Can I help you?" asked Jarod.
The woman had very short brown hair and brown eyes, and there were several areas on the left side of her face that were swollen and red, obviously from some fairly recent trauma. Her wide eyes were wary as she clutched the little boy's hand, and when she got her first good look at the new doctor, she seemed suddenly nervous and agitated. Jarod took note of the fact that she was heavily pregnant, due any day, and wondered what it was about himself that so obviously frightened her. The little boy was brown-skinned and raven-haired, probably Navajo, and he stood sucking his thumb while Jarod looked them over and waited for a reply.
"Um, Nathan wanted to see you," she said softly. She kept near the door as if she might bolt through it at any moment.
Jarod's eyes went back up to the woman's face when she spoke. The timbre of her voice was so familiar it reached right into his soul, but the face was nothing like what he expected to be attached to the sound. A lump formed in his throat, and he tried desperately to swallow it down.
"Is he sick?" asked Jarod huskily. He turned away to set the bottle of cleaning solution down and strip off his latex gloves. He glanced over his shoulder at the pair in the doorway and watched the woman squat down beside the boy so he could whisper in her ear.
"He says he just wanted to look at you," the woman answered with a helpless shrug. "Sorry. We didn't mean to disturb you."
"It's okay. I'm the new doctor here." He came forward and held out his hand to the boy, who backed away and hid behind his companion.
"My name's Jarod," he said softly, withdrawing his hand and squatting down to be less threatening with his height. "What did you want to see me about, Nathan?"
He waited patiently, making eye contact with the hesitant child, and smiling back with an honesty he knew the boy would recognize and understand.
Abruptly Nathan stepped forward, yanked his thumb out of his mouth and scribed a circle in the air around Jarod's head.
"Many faces," the boy said. Then he stepped back behind the woman and plugged his thumb back in.
Jarod glanced up at the woman for translation of that cryptic remark.
She was smiling fondly at the child, and gave another little shrug. "I guess that's going to be your tribal name, doc," she said slowly. "I'm Faith. Faith Wise." She stroked the boy's head affectionately. "Nathan doesn't talk to many people, doctor. You should feel privileged that he addressed you directly."
Jarod's eyes went back to the boy's face, and he made eye contact again. "I hope we'll become good friends," he said earnestly. Glancing at the woman's protruding belly, he stood and met her eyes. "And I'll bet I'll be seeing you soon, too. When are you due?"
Faith sighed heavily. "Any time now, I suppose. We didn't have a conception date to work from, so the doctors in El Paso were just guessing." Shifting nervously from one foot to the other, she began to stroke Nathan's hand anxiously as she explained. "I have amnesia. I don't know anything about who I was before the accident."
"When was your last exam?" he asked, heading for the file cabinet to pull her information to read.
"About a week and a half ago," she told him. "Just before I left to come here. Dr. Rafael Garcia recommended me to the Foundation. They're very nice people here."
Jarod smiled and glanced down at the boy. "Is Nathan your son?"
"Nah," Faith grinned, ruffling his hair and then stroking it back into place. "I'd like to claim him, but he was already here when I arrived. His family lives on the reservation. Nathan was waiting for me in my room when I arrived. It was like he was expecting me, though only Grace knew I was coming."
"You have a wonderful name," Jarod observed warmly, his eyes moving back to Faith's damaged face. "Did you pick it out yourself?"
"Yeah. 'Faith', because that was all I had left when I came to in the hospital, and 'Wise' in the hope that my decisions about my babies' future would be so."
He smiled warmly, appreciating the meaning.
"What does 'Jarod' mean?" the woman asked innocently.
Jarod couldn't see her frown, or the guilt creeping into her downcast gaze. His hands were trembling, so he crossed his arms over his chest to keep them still. "It's a Hebrew name. Means 'descendant or inheritor.' "
"Are you Jewish?"
Out of habit he threw an embarrassed glance at the floor. "I wouldn't know."
A tense silence stretched between them, and he suggested that she come back later in the day for an exam, once Nathan was in his kindergarten classes. She agreed reluctantly, and escorted the boy out, while Jarod opened up Faith's medical records and began to read.