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This is all for Jacci, who without her, MP would be eternally searching for her crossroads. Now you need new material for which to torment me with.. HA! Then again (or is it that), with the way I write, I’m sure something will come along in the very near future.
THE CENTRE – MISS PARKER’s OFFICE
He was toying with her.
He had left annoying clues, led her on fruitless searches before, but this one took the cake.
He had turned her whole damn life into a crossword.
The gigantic board had been left in Tulsa. The cleaner team had dissembled it and shipped back to the easy coast. It had been left down in the SIM lab until the sixth clue had come. Now it resided in her office.
1 down – take me out to the ballgame and buy me ___.”
The answer had been cracker jacks. After all she had been the one to introduce them to Angelo.
The second had been found in Portland.
6 across – world’s fourth most popular tourist destination.
What else but Italy, where she had spent her teenage years in boarding school. The clues weren’t difficult, usually Broots had them solved after a quick web search if she was unable to do so herself. Sydney was amused, eager to find out the end message that the shrink was convinced he was leading them to. Parker wasn’t convinced. Jarod was tormenting her, nothing more, nothing less.
It had taken months but slowly the pieces to the puzzle had been filled in.
22- across. Good for Nothing in Japanese.
Yakuza meaning organized crime in Japan; a word that originated from a popular card game where it actually meant good for nothing. It was Jarod’s homage to Tommy Tanaka.
33 down. The Economist says 65th out of 111.
Morocco had rated 65th out of 111 in the Ecnonomist’s Worldwide Quality of Life Index. Coincidentally it was where her daddy had jumped out of their lives – literally speaking.
4 down. First day of Thai new year.
Thirteen, as in April 13th, the day her mother had left her life.
Clue by clue, Jarod had painfully reminded her of every single significant event in her life, except for one apparently. All that was left was 42 across. Whatever it was, it was important enough for the lab rat to withhold to the very end of his twisted game.
There had been three cities since the clues had stopped. Billings, Savannah and Mobile. No crossword, just the notebook and usual jungle maze to follow.
He was trying to torment her.
Sydney was convinced that Jarod’s message lay in the last clue. Of course it did, it’s why the answer still eluded her. She wanted to destroy the board. She knew it wouldn’t lead them to the elusive pretender’s location. Rather the greater meaning of the game was meant for her; another unpleasant blast from the past. If they weren’t chasing Jarod, they were chasing some Center historical factoid. It was Jarod’s speciality. But she had to play the game. It was her role.
I run. You chase.
They were her own damn words. They were destined to be Huntress and Prey until it ended one way or the other.
42 across was the anomaly in the puzzle, only connected to 33 down, Morocco. They shared the same last letter. It sat separate from the rest, drawing her eyes to it every time she looked at the damn puzzle.
42 across. Nine letters. Ends in O.
Broots had ran a search through the dictionary. Hundreds of possible words in the English language fit into the mould. Nothing had jumped out, not that she had read every word on the stupid list in the first place. After words beginning with D, her head had been spinning so badly only scotch had been able to help her.
She had enough, of Sydney’s prying questions. What was Jarod trying to tell her? If she knew, the board would be long gone, and she wouldn’t spend hours staring at it, trying to decipher its meaning. Jarod had really outdone himself this time.
It wouldn’t stop torturing her. The one piece she needed to complete the damn puzzle and stop seeing her life summarized in horizontal and vertical words.
The phone interrupted her thoughts. It had to be Jarod. Every fibre in her body screamed at that fact.
“How’s the number forty two treating you these days Miss Parker?” He asked with his most annoying tone.
She rolled her eyes.
“What’s your point Jarod? You’ve outsmarted us once again? That we need you around to hold our hands as we make the most important discoveries about our twisted lives?” She growled back. She was not in the mood for his games. It was moments like this that made her regret quitting smoking. Nicotine was the solution to all of her problems, especially those concerning Jarod.
“Awww, a bit frustrated are we Miss Parker? I’ll tell you what, I’ll play nice.” Jarod replied slyly.
“Playing nice involves me dragging you back to the Centre in handcuffs Jarod. Don’t pretend like your doing me any favours. You’re tormenting me, just because you can.” She replied spitefully.
“I don’t torment.” He retorted, annoyance starting to creep into his voice.
“What is it than that you do Jarod?” Parker asked sarcastically. “Need I remind you that I slept a whole lot better before you resurfaced in my life. I was happy in Corporate. I was successful. Here I am, reduced to schlepping across the country chasing your sorry ass. You’ve made it apparent that I won’t be allowed to rest until you are shoved back under that rock you crawled out from.”
“Which brings us back to 42 across.” Jarod replied, his tone icy.
“Why the game Jarod? And don’t give me anymore of that journey is more important than the destination crap. You have Sydney to wax philosophical with. Spare me.” Parker growled.
Jarod chuckled. “Seems I’ve caught you on a rather bad day. Did you not enjoy yourself in Mobile, Miss Parker?” He asked with a little too much empathy in his tone. “I would have thought the southern sun would have done you wonders at this time of year.”
Of she hadn’t enjoyed herself, the break for the cold February temperatures aside. He had led them on an Alabaman goose-chase, for nothing. A damn red notebook about how he had uncovered some hillbilly scam against local seniors. Warm fuzzies all around.
She huffed. “Gallivanting around the Bible Belt is always enlightening. What’s next? Slumming with the frozen rift raft in Fargo?”
“Perhaps. Although between you and me I much prefer sticking closer to the south this time of year. Snow is great, but nothing beats the Californian Sun.” She could feel his over exaggerated smile through the phone. What she wouldn’t give to be able to wipe that smirk off his face.
“Is that a clue?” Parker asked with disinterest.
“Maybe.” Jarod responded without expression.
And then he was gone.
You think a man with a brain as big as his would have picked up on such social normalities as good-bye.
One month later.
Two taunting phone calls later, Parker was no closer to figuring out 42 across than she had been at the beginning of Jarod’s crossword of torment.
It’s a turning point Miss Parker.
It’s equally significant in our lives.
That was all Jarod had disclosed in their last two conversations.
Nine letters, end in O.
It was a riddle not meant to be solved.
Broots burst into her office, a fed-ex package under his arm.
“Jarod?” She asked uncaringly. The tech nodded and stepped back.
With concise motions, she stabbed the letter open into the package, ripping it over. A DSA fell out, no note.
Parker grabbed the package.
It was postmarked in Fargo.
She looked up at the tech. “Out.” She ordered nastily. Whatever was on this DSA was going likely going to lead her to 42 across. It was meant for her. Broots did not need to be here.
The tech just nodded, stepping out of her office in silence.
With a large sigh she brought out her DSA player and shoved the disk in.
What flashed on the screen was the last thing she expected.
It was of a young teen-aged Jarod in the infirmary. He was intubated with an IV inserted in his arm.
But what did if have to do with her?
Parker zoomed in on the IV bag. It was a steroid.
With a sudden gasp realization hit her.
Intubation, intravenous steroids were treatment for anaphylactic shock.
Nine letter word, ends in O.
She couldn’t stop the flashback as it hit her face on.
“Come on Jarod! Don’t tell me you are afraid?” Young Miss Parker antagonized the young pretender.
Jarod looked around nervously. “I’m supposed to have this done by the time Sydney gets back. He’s been gone for nearly two hours, he could be here any minute. He’s leaving for a conference tomorrow, I have to have this finished Miss Parker.”
“We won’t be gone long Jarod! I overheard my dad talking about another boy, Eddie. I just want to try and find where they are hiding him. If we can sneak into the security terminal on the next level, we can find out where they are keeping him from the logs! Find out what lab he is working in, what room he sleeps in.”
Jarod smiled. Miss Parker always won. Her enthusiasm was highly contagious.
It had been years since he had interacted with another boy, besides Angelo. It would be nice to have a new friend. He still missed the companionship of Kyle, although he had disappeared from Jarod’s life years ago.
“Ten minutes – nothing more.” The teenaged boy agreed, looking down the hallway nervously.
Miss Parker nodded enthusiastically. Her summer vacation was quickly coming to an end. She would be starting high school at an exclusive private boarding school outside of Dover in the fall. Daddy had tried to convince her to attend a top school in Europe, but she had been adamant about staying close to home. Either way her time at the Centre would be greatly reduced, and she was feeling guilty about leaving Jarod behind. She knew her friend was terribly lonely, that she was his only companion besides Sydney. When she had overhead Daddy talking about Eddie, her heart had leapt to the obvious conclusion, a new friend for Jarod.
Together the two snuck out of the lab, grateful there were no sweepers in sight. They seemed to be keeping a much closer watch over Jarod lately.
Hoping into the vents as they had done numerous times, the two scrambled up one floor. Jarod hoped down from the vent, and gave Miss Parker the signal to proceed quietly.
Hand in hand, the two snuck down the hallway, peering into the security bay. Miss Parker knew that records of the children were kept her. Unbeknownst to Jarod, she had used this very bay over a year ago to figure out where Jarod’s room was. She had been able to surprise the pretender through his vent a handful of times.
“It’s empty.” She whispered to Jarod.
The pretender nervously looked around, before following his friend into the room.
Jarod stood watch as Miss Parker rifled through the files.
“Got it!” She said with a smile. “From the sweeper’s records they seem to escort him to SL-24 to SL-19. Look at this Jarod! His room is in the same block as yours!”
Jarod smiled enthusiastically, Miss Parker feeling her spirits lifted. It would make leaving for school so much easier if she knew she wasn’t leaving Jarod completely alone.
The two scrambled back into the vents, stopped to rest when they were in a large junction, halfway between SL-18 and SL-19.
“Do you think you can disable the camera in your room tonight Jarod?” Miss Parker asked. “We can go surprise Eddie together.”
Jarod smiled. “Of course Miss Parker!! I’ll be waiting for you in my room, but I really have to get back. Sydney will be returning to the lab any minute now, if he hasn’t already.” He finished nervously.
Together the two crawled the remaining distance. Just before exiting the vent, Parker called out to Jarod. The pretender stopped in his tracks and awkwardly turned himself around to face her. The two were quickly growing, and the vents didn’t offer the same spacious comfort that they once had.
“Jarod, one more moment.” Parker requested. She hadn’t told Jarod that she would be going away to boarding school, although within a few hours of Blue Cove, her visits to the Centre would likely only be on school holidays or the odd weekend when Daddy would bring her in.
“I need to tell you something important, but first I have a surprise for you!”
The pretender’s eyes lit up. Miss Parker had been making a habit lately of bringing him small treats. Jarod was so deprived, forced to follow the strict and bland diet of what she could only quantify as green mush. Chocolate, candy, Cola, the pretender loved it all!
“What are these?” Jarod asked as she handed him a small handful of white nuts.
“Pistachios!” She responded excitedly, the pretender’s enthusiasm was hard not to absorb.
She showed Jarod how to crack open the already split shell, and smiled as he curiously popped the small nut into his mouth.
“Mmmm, it’s sort of sweet!! Jarod grinned.
Miss Parker frowned as Jarod grabbed his throat a few seconds later.
“Can’t.. breathe…..” He whispered hoarsely, struggling to find his breath.
“Jarod!!” She cried frantically as the pretender gasped for air.
Fighting panic, Miss Parker crawled over Jarod, pushing her way out of the vent, and pulled Jarod out behind her, wincing as he landed with a loud thud.
“Jarod. Wake up!” She screamed. “JAROD.”
She heard footsteps approaching from down the hallway.
“Sydney.” She cried in relief as the middle aged psychiatrist appeared before her.
“Oh my god. Jarod!. What happened Miss Parker?” Sydney asked frantically.
“I don’t know!! I gave him one of these, and he just stopped breathing. I’m so sorry Sydney. I was just trying to…” Parker stuttered as Sydney grabbed the pistachio nut she held out.
“He must be allergic.” The psychiatrist stated factually.
He turned to the sweeper behind him. “Get the medic team down here now. Tell them to bring a gurney and a shot of epinephrine, and hurry! It’s a matter of life and death.” Sydney ordered harshly as the sweeper took off in a mad sprint.
Miss Parker could do nothing but stand back in horror and watch as Sydney started CPR. Jarod was unconscious and had stopped breathing entirely.
The medic team arrived in less than two minutes. Sydney quickly gave Jarod the injection of epinephrine before the pretender was wheeled out of sight. She followed the group up to the infirmary, until Sydney had stopped her from entering the room.
“He’ll be okay Miss Parker. I promise you.” The shrink had said, before ordering her away.
Parker shook herself out of the flashback. Her father had been absolutely furious when he found out her involvement in Jarod’s collapse. Absentmindedly she brought her hand up to her cheek. She had sported a large bruise from his wicked backhand for a few weeks after that terrible day.
Parker returned her gaze to the frozen DSA player. She fast forwarded through hours of Jarod lying unconscious on the hospital cot, the only movement being that of the random puttering of an infirmary nurse. She was surprised to see Sydney absent after the first twelve or so hours, until remembering Jarod’s words about Sydney attending a conference. No doubt the Centre would have forced him to attend, whether he had been concerned enough about Jarod to warrant cancelling his trip or not. Her stomach clenched involuntarily as she realized that meant that Jarod would have been under Raines’ supervision at that time. Jarod’s fear of Old Wheezy had been easily apparent from a young age. She couldn’t imagine that Raines would have reacted well to what had transpired down on SL-19 that day.
She continued fast-forwarding until arriving at the scene she didn’t know whether she truly wanted to see or not. Jarod had been awake for several hours at this stage, visited by only the infirmary nurse and doctor. His IV had been removed, and he lay huddled in his thin hospital robe. She could easily read the fear and confusion in his eyes.
Parker watched impassively as Raines walked in, approaching Jarod’s beside.
“Get up.” The man ordered.
Jarod swallowed painfully, but obeyed. His eyes turned to the doorway, and Parker gasped in surprise as she saw her father come into view, two sweepers following in behind with him.
Parker could see that Jarod was shaky on his feet as he looked nervously between the two powerful men in his room.
“Do you remember what happened Jarod?” Raines asked evilly.
Jarod nodded hesitantly.
Parker knew that he damn well did. Jarod had sneaked a look at his chart after the doctor and nurse had left.
“What is your involvement with my daughter?” Mr Parker growled, stepping up to the frightening pretender.
“She’s my- ” Jarod started, but caught himself. He looked up at the man, and with a soft sigh continued on.
“She comes down to the lab sometimes, to see Sydney.”
Raines snorted. “And somehow a visit with Sydney ended up with you being pulled out of a vent unconscious with an allergic reaction to food you aren’t supposed to have access to. Don’t lie to me Jarod. You know what the consequences are of doing so.”
Parker watched as Jarod shuddered. She didn’t want to imagine what cruelties Raines had subjected him to. She had seen enough DSA archives to know Raines would throw around a wicked backhand to prove the most minor of points. God only knows what he was capable of when he was seriously defied.
Jarod looked nervously at Mr. Parker.
“It was my fault. I saw an unfamiliar boy. I talked her into helping me find out where they keep him. She’s nice like Mrs. Parker used to be. I told her how lonely I am, and she agreed to help me.”
Miss Parker cringed as Mr. Parker unleashed a wicked backhand, striking Jarod hard across the face. Jarod fell into his bed, before being pulled upright by Raines. Parker could see the blood running down from a cut on his lip. He had lied to try and protect her, and why?
“You will never speak to my daughter again, understood? You contaminate her world, make her believe in things that will only leave her weak. The lie you just told us only confirms my worst suspicions, you actually think of my daughter as a friend. Pretenders don’t have friends Jarod. Emotions cloud your work, affect your judgement. We keep you isolated for a reason.”
Jarod shrank backwards, his eyes cast downwards as a sweeper tossed a pile of dark clothing on the bed.
“Get dressed.” Raines ordered.
Jarod picked up the clothing.
“These aren’t my clothes.” The pretender stated.
“They are now.” Raines replied evilly. “Don’t make me ask again.”
Parker watched as Jarod sighed and removed his infirmary gown, pulling the loose clothing over his frame. She instantly recognized the dark grey scrubs Jarod had donned in his adult life. It made sense now, as a child the pretender had always worn normal ‘street’ clothes so to speak. It had never occurred to Miss Parker when the switch had been made to the inmate uniform worn by the Centre’s finest.
Raines turned away from the pretender. “Take him to his new space on SL-21.”
“New space?” Jarod questioned his nervousness easily apparent.
“We are growing tired of your disobedience Jarod. Consider this latest move a warning.” Raines informed in. “I’ll be down in a few minutes to discuss this further.”
Parker scoffed. Raines didn’t discuss anything. He threatened, he hit, but he not discuss. She shook away any thoughts of what Jarod would have gone through that night. She continued watching as Jarod was escorted out of the room by the two sweepers. Her father moved towards Raines as the group left the two men alone.
“I knew it was a mistake to let those two meet in the first place.” Her father growled. “I warned you about the ramifications of the sexuality simulation.”
“It has been remedied. Jarod will never again have contact with her, provided you can do your part and keep her away.” Raines countered.
Mr. Parker clenched his jaw in anger. “I’ve enrolled her in a boarding school in Italy. Between that and future summer activities, it is unlikely she’ll step foot in this building until well after graduation.”
“Jarod won’t forget her.” Raines warned. “Look how long it took us to get him over mommy and daddy.”
Mr. Parker shrugged uncaring. “But she will. I’ll be sure to see to that.”
Seeing enough, Parker slammed the DSA closed, the ring of her office phone cutting into the silence.
“What” She answered, unable to put the normal venom in her tone.
“Did you figure it out?” Jarod’s gentle voice prodded.
“Pistachios Jarod, cute. But tell me, what was the point of your little home movie.” She growled, willing her façade of strength to reappear. She heard Jarod take a deep sigh.
“Do you ever wonder how things might have been different? What if I had said no to you that day? Or if you had brought anything else but pistachios.” Jarod asked genuinely. “I lost my only soul mate that day.” He added quietly.
“I’m not your soul mate Jarod.” Parker replied with a dead tone.
“No, but that little girl was. I never saw her again.” Jarod continued seriously.
“And I got sent away from home, for good.” Parker retorted, unable to keep her facade up any longer.
“It was a turning point, for both of us.” Jarod agreed. “Just not the kind I would have dreamed up for myself.”
“Things got a lot tougher for you after that, didn’t they?” Parker asked knowingly.
“As they did for you.” Jarod countered. For all his bitching and moaning about how much he had been deprived in his upbringing, Jarod seldom spoke of actual abuse, at least to her. He had been the same way as a child, always hiding his bruises, avoiding her questions.
“It was inevitable.” Parker said evenly. “They would have found out eventually.”
“Maybe.” Jarod replied. “Who knew that it would have been pistachios that changed our lives forever. I can’t help but to imagine the ‘what if’.”
“There never was one. Our lives were scripted long before we met Jarod. I’m the chairman’s daughter, you’re their precious science experiment. How they filled in the blanks isn’t important. It would have ended up the same.” Parker countered dully.
“It’s important to me.” Jarod informed her, anguish in his voice.
“Then go call your head shrink. It’s why he’s there.”
Jarod huffed. “I rather talk to my old best friend; the one that used to bring sunshine into my dark existence.”
“She doesn’t exist anymore.” Parker replied softly. “No more than that naïve little boy does.”
“He’s still there, searching for answers about what happened to his mom and dad, reaching out to the sad little girl who brightened up his life.” Jarod countered.
“Then he is alone.” Parker said with a sigh. She knew what Jarod was trying to do. Save her soul. He was about twenty years too late. Her father had seen to that.
“She’s there. I only hope that one day her keeper will have the courage to realize that, and release her.” Jarod argued heavily.
Hearing enough, Parker changed the subject. She was tired of Jarod trying to pull her back to her past, back to the days when she and him were the best of friends. “You had me chasing clues around the country for months, just to remind me of this one small event in our lives? You could have just said something.”
The pretender was silent for several seconds. “I was hoping you would remember on your own Miss Parker. I have never forgotten that day. After I ate that pistachio, everything around me changed. My room was changed, my clothes were changed, my rules and restrictions changed. But most important of all I never again saw my best friend. Next to being taken from my family, it has to be one of the biggest what-ifs in my life. I needed to know if you felt the same.”
“Four years of boarding school followed by four more at college Jarod. It’s a hell of long time. Never mind the decade I spent in Corporate.” Parker retorted, knowing she couldn’t say the words Jarod wanted to hear.
Jarod let out a sad laugh. “I never forgot, all of those years. My nights were long and empty, and I never stopped wondering what happened to that little girl who gave me my first kiss. But I can see that she grew up, experienced life and made her daddy proud.”
Parker winced at the pain in his voice. She wasn’t good at this stuff, she didn’t do emotional confessions. Feelings were for suppressing. They were nothing but a weakness, at least at the Centre.
”I didn’t forget Jarod. I just grew up and accepted what was unavoidable. What point is there to dwelling on the past? I learned that the hard way with my mom. If it didn’t happen that day, it would have happened another. Why can’t you understand that?” Parker asked with exasperation.
“Where we came from makes us who we are today. Maybe you have me at a slight disadvantage given I don’t remember most of what I experienced and with whom for the first five years of my life. I would give anything to have those missing pieces back. Sometimes we have to look backwards to move forward. If we ignore our past, how can we even begin to wish for a brighter future?” Jarod asked heavily, terminating the call.
He’d finally given up, this time. Parker didn’t doubt that he would try again. He always did. If the way she had shot him down at the airport in Scotland had not lessened his determination, nothing would. Placing down the receiver Parker stared at the completed crossword before her.
5 down – Faith, the poor little orphan whose life had been cut short from cancer.
4 down – Thirteen, as in April 13th, the day her mother had left.
14 across – Thomas, the potential love of her life, murdered.
33 down – Morocco. Where Daddy had left her.
42 across; pistachios. The day she had lost her last true best friend.
“How can I look back when it hurts so much?” Miss Parker whispered, almost wishing Jarod had stuck around for another round.
He tried and tried again, endeavouring to make her a better person, the person her mother would have dreamed her to be.
But it just wasn’t meant to be. She’s negotiated too many turning points, pointing away from a life filled with warmth and happiness. Even if she chose to pass one more, pointed in the right direction, it wasn’t enough.
But Jarod would keep trying, and she would keep chasing.
Eventually one of them would win.
It was nice to think that maybe for once it wouldn’t be the Centre.