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She had played this game too many times before. She was running; her feet pounding the soft ground, her hair flying behind her like a death mast. As she surged through the oppressive darkness she occasionally caught a glimpse of a dark clad figure. No matter how fast or long she ran the elusive shadow seemed to always lie just beyond her fingertips, or be lost to all but her peripheral vision.
Just when she thought she could run no longer, when her muscles burned and her lungs labored to keep her body oxygenated, the figure came to a halt; its back facing her. As always, she approached cautiously, with one hand outstretched to turn her quarry around. But the shadow seemed to spin before she could reach the dark folds of its jacket, and she found herself looking into a countenance identical to her own. "Stop it!" the identical being ordered, and motioned after the real prey which was disappearing around the next corner.
Once again, she found herself on the endless pursuit, and once again she was mirrored in the face of the supposed prey, only to discover the shadow had slipped away.
The ending was always the same. After an endless chase, she found herself standing alone in the darkness; her hands covered in sticky goo, and from behind her came a blinding light. The light caught on an object, illuminating the smooth surface, but this mystery too lay beyond her reach. She knew that the medal held a secret; if she could only lay hold of it.
All around she could make out the faint outlines of her doubles, chanting words she could not make out. The scene reeked of death, decay, and despair. She wanted to run, to escape, but her feet would not obey her orders. She knew what she had to do, that she had to stop this unending game, but the idea was repulsive. "Please!" she called. "Let me go from here."
The figures gave no audible reply. Then one stepped forward, and seemed to take substance. Recognition dawned on the distraught woman's face: "Mama?" she queried. The apparition's response could not be made out, but her mouth moved with a grave importance.
"Mama?!" the woman called. "I'm scared mama, and I can't hear you. What are you trying to tell me?" The apparition's eyes darkened and her mouth opened to speak-
--Miss Parker sat up in bed. Her eyes rapidly scanned the dark surroundings, and she let out a small cry of disappointment: her mother was not there. She felt inexplicably hot, and her sheets were drenched in sweat.
She untangled her imposing figure from the bedding, and her feet met up with the refreshingly cool floor. She needed a drink.
The liquor burned, and her ulcerous stomach seemed to disintegrate at its fiery touch. Her doctor had told her these midnight tete-a-tetes were going to be the end of her, but she barely cared. Parker sighed and leaned against the counter. These sureal dreams night after night were going to kill her long before the ulcer took hold. She hadn't slept well in over a month, and the dreams only seemed to be getting worse. She glanced at the clock: 4 a.m.. Time to start a new day.
"Good day, Miss Parker." Gary the security guard said as he straightened his uniform and stood up at attention.
The impeccably groomed woman nodded in response, and continued on her way. The ritualistic routine was her life, her religion. Every morning she arrived at the sterile facilities at an unbelievably early hour, and every morning the security guard marveled at her dedication, while she silently screamed at the forces that drove her there. Every morning, neither man nor woman gave voice to his or her thoughts.
"Miss Parker?" a timid voice inquired.
The tall woman pivoted with the grace of a ballet dancer. "Broots?" she said with surprise.
"Miss Parker, what are you doing here at this hour? Shouldn't you be at-". He paused as she arched her eyebrows. "I-I m--mean," he continued. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
She smiled viscously, "If I need you Broots, I know where your space is located."
The technician nodded, and slunk away. She waited until he disappeared around the corner, before allowing a small sigh to escape, as she turned and headed towards her office. A twinge of guilt caught up with her. She shouldn't have treated Broots like that, but she disliked his questioning of her early arrival to the confines of the Centre. Besides, what time she came to and left work was none of his business. After all, he didn't have much room to talk, since he was already there-but there was a reason for his early start. Her computer assistant left early, since he needed to be home when his daughter arrived. At times the girl had stayed alone in the sim lab while her father worked, but Sydney had pointed out that this was highly unhealthy. Since than, the single father had begun to work while his daughter slept. Miss Parker lacked such a normal excuse.
She sunk down into her soft chair. The quantity of leather and wood served as the one luxury in the Spartan-inspired Centre décor. She surveyed the paperwork on her desk, and idly flipped through it. Cold lead on Jarod, cold lead on Jarod, warm lead on Jarod-luke warm lead, and possible lead on Jarod. She slapped the folder down with frustration, and an envelope slipped out. She must have missed the paper the first time. The letter was addressed to "Little Bo Peep: care of Miss Parker. She moaned at the familiar handwriting, and grudgingly slit opened the envelope. A single piece of paper fell into her waiting hand. She set it on her desk and scanned the printed lines:
A little cock-sparrow sat on a green tree,
And he chirruped, he chirruped, so merry was he;
A naughty boy came with his wee bow and arrow,
Determined to shoot this little cock sparrow.
"This little cock sparrow shall make me a stew.
And his giblets shall make me a little pie, too."
"Oh no." says the sparrow. "I won't make a stew."
So he flapped his wings and away he flew.
'Another game, Jarod?' she thought, resting her aching head on three manicured fingers. Actually, it had been a long time since they had played, even longer since they had had a clue that shed any significant light on the pretender's whereabouts. She read the message again. Maybe Sydney would understand it.
The door to her office opened unexpectedly. She glanced up, ready to offer a tongue lashing to the rude intruder. "Broots?" she asked in surprise, seeing the man's terror stricken face. "What's wrong?"
"There's been an accident," he breathed. "It's Debbie."
Little Bo Peep's Inn (Several Weeks before)
"I got one for you. Now we can match."
Jarod glanced up form his computer as the attractive woman walked into the room, and barely managed to catch the red object tossed in his direction. He smiled in delight as he read the caption embroidered onto the baseball cap, "I'm one of the sheep," he read allowed. He glanced up as his companion fitted the cap snugly on his head.
"It's a perfect fit," he noted.
"Just like us." The woman responded, as she leaned down and gave him a lingering kiss. He smiled at her.
"Are you still reading those nursery rhymes?" she asked nodding towards the books scattered at his feet.
The dark-haired man smiled. "I'm very confused. The term "nursery" implies that the poem and riddles are designed for small children. In fact, according to my research, nursery rhymes are read, sung, and taught to young children today?"
The woman nodded in affirmation. She loved the way he became excited over something that to her seemed as common as breathing.
"Well if that's true," he continued. "I don't understand why parents would want to tell their children such horrible stories. I mean, babies falling out of trees, children falling down hills, and a man who locks his wife in a pumpkin? Don't children have nightmares?"
"Sometimes, Jarod." She answered patiently, "children learn words without meaning. They hear the song, but they don't think about the baby falling." She smiled, "Besides it had a catchy tune."
"Catchy?" he repeated darkly. "Like catching a cold." He sighed again, and shook his head.
"If you're so concerned, Jarod, than we don't have to teach them to our...your children. You don't have to teach them to your children," she corrected herself firmly. The pretender failed to catch the slip, as he was already engrossed in his work, red cap firmly affixed to his head.
The woman sighed, and moved over to the window. "That's strange," she murmured to herself. Outside a dark town car screeched to a halt and several well-dressed businessmen jumped out. She saw the glint of a gun. "Jarod!?" she called excitedly. "I think they're here!"
The pretender was by her side in a flash, and expertly pushed the curtain aside and peered into the parking lot without making the curtain flutter. "We have to go, now!" He grabbed her elbow urgently, threw his computer in its case and pulled out the silver brief case that seemed, at times, to be chained to his arm.
Jarod paused only to leave his trademark taunt. He pulled out a piece of paper and rapidly scribbled a message. As the two hurried from the room, the red cap slipped off the woman's head, sliding along the slick floor and next to the bed. She didn't notice.
Seconds later, the doors blew inward under the force of Sam and Willie's carefully aimed kicks. Miss Parker stormed in like a tornado descending on the Gail's residence in Kansas. The sweepers slid in behind her and fanned out.
"Empty," one sweeper called from the bathroom.
"There's no one here," said another.
"The story of my life." Miss Parker murmured sardonically. She moved over to the closet. "Fan out!" she ordered sharply, seeing that the pretender's clothing was still neatly hung. "I think this bird may have just flown the nest."
"You mean chic," one of the sweepers corrected.
She glared at his correction, and then her eyes widened as she moved over to peer into the dresser drawer he had opened. It was filled with woman's clothing. "So labrat's found a friend?" she stated nonchalantly, but inside her thoughts raced. 'Who was she? Where did she come from? What did she look like? And what made her good enough for her pretender?'
Alarmed by her own possessiveness, se paced the room quickly, purging the unwanted feelings out of her system. In a moment, she was back to her old, cold, calculating self. She circled the room like a hawk, and her keen eyes lit on the note lying on the bed. She read it quickly, since the words had first been taught to her in her childhood; the Centre had no qualms about the darker side of mother goose. She silently repeated the words in her mind.
'Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, And doesn't know where to find them.'
'You forgot the rest of the rhyme, Jarod.' She thought. Miss Parker turned to move, and her foot kicked something soft. She bent down and picked up the red cap. "I'm one of the sheep." She said dryly. She tossed the offensive hat back on the bed. "Pack it up, Sam, and bring it back to the Centre. And if you happen to see any sheep, grab his wagging tail and drag his ass back to the Centre!"
"Yes, Miss Parker." The loyal sweeper replied.
The imposing woman moved out of the room. "I've had enough 'duck, duck, goose' for the day," she growled.