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Starting with this one, today I'll be posting all the remaining stories in this series. The first one is “W for Wandering”, unplanned sequel to “B for Blues”.
I have spent most of my life hiding. Not as much as my brother Jarod, but close enough to have gain practice. I'm used to cover my tracks, maintain a low profile and all the other necessary arrangements to keep The Centre away. Being a pretender like my brother assured me that I could be anything I wanted to be; having an inner sense like my sister guaranteed I would never be without guidance.
Or so I thought.
The truth is that I feel lost like I had never felt before.
Two weeks after I met Tish and people from The Institute came to take her away, I still haven't found any useful information about her or the people that had taken her. I'd never imagined such a thing to be possible, but it appeared as if The Institute is even more under the radar than The Centre. There is no information online whatsoever, no private mainframe to hack into, no public facade, nothing. It looks almost as if they don't exist.
But they do. I have a bump in my head to prove it. (Aside from memories, that is all I had to remember her by.)
For a while I considered asking Jarod for help, but he probably already had a lot to worry about. Besides, I'm old enough to deal with my problems on my own. Contacting Miss Parker is also out of the question. Even though she's my sister and I love her, she is still part of The Centre. If I want to find The Institute I can't be worrying about The Centre finding me. I believe my sister would not do anything to jeopardize me, but the same cannot be said about Lyle. I know he's my brother, yet I can't see him as such, anymore than I can trust him.
I've quit my job at the computer store, but I've returned there a couple of times to examine the scene. I had to hope the men from The Institute left behind some sort of trail. So far, I found several prints; haven't been able to go through them all yet. It will probably be another dead end, but I can't give up on her.
I canvased the streets nearby every day as well since I began to look for her. I found nothing. No evidence, no witnesses. There used to be an ATM with a camera on the other side of the street. I was hoping that by getting to those recordings I could get an image of the man who came into the store to ask about Tish. Instead, by the time I got there, I found out that someone had destroyed the camera. It took some work, but I managed to locate the place where the security company in charge of the bank stored all the recordings, only to discover that the disk belonging to that period of that day had disappeared.
I really don't know which way to go now. And the thing that bothers me the most is that the Voices are not helping me either. I ask for their guidance and they tell me to stop, to give up. But I will never stop. I will never give up!
Good luck finally came my way when I managed to find the beginnings of a clue. A tourist bus passed by one of the cars from The Institute at the exact same time one of the tourists snapped a picture. Despite my lack of social interactions, I am not without acquaintances. It's true that I only know them online and that I use an alias in every conversation, but what matters is that one of those acquaintances was friends with the person who shot the picture.
I wasn't lucky enough to catch any of their faces, but I managed to get a full shot of the license plate on the car they were driving.
I printed the picture immediately after saving it before initiating a search on the DMV mainframe. The vehicle was a Lincoln Town Car, built in the late 90s, but the license plates had been issued in March 1988 by the DMV office in Cranston, Rhode Island. The slight discrepancy between the dates left me wondering if I should persist with the search.
As I expected, the search came back null. Checking back the database more thoroughly, I realized that all the records previous to 1995 were only in physical storage.
It was at that time that my mother's voice came to me, crystal clear: Ethan... You are in danger.
“Mom... Help me.”
And just like that she was gone, leaving me to guess what her words meant. Assuming she was just telling me to be careful when on the look-out for Tish, I decided to go to the DMV Central Offices in Rhode Island and search for that old license plate there. Perhaps by finding the car it used to belong to and the registered owner, I could find a lead on the people who had it now.
Cranston's DMV offices was nearly a three hour drive from where I was. I decided to take the opportunity and pack my stuff. Something told me that The Centre wasn't far from discovering my current hiding place. Besides, I could use the stimulation of the change. Part of the reason I was used to be so affected by the Voices was thinking they were only in my mind. Well, they are, but not in a crazy way. At least, not entirely.
After what Dr. Raines did to me, after everything that has happened, some level of craziness is to be expected, even accepted. Despite all that, I believe that staying in the same place for long, while to others it may seem soothing, to me it only leaves me restless. The six moths I spent in New York were an inexplicable exception since I intended to leave practically two months before I met Tish.
It was as if I was waiting for her to show up. Perhaps it had been fate, perhaps coincidence. Whatever it was, I knew I had to find her.
I arrived at Cranston at 7pm, two hours after the DMV offices had closed. I needed to check the scene first, preferably during the daytime, so I decided to find a room to spend the night.
After taking a shower, I left the motel where I was staying to get something to eat from the dinner across the street. I bought two sandwiches and a bottle of orange juice – I was in the mood for a cool beer, but I needed to keep my wits intact – and returned to my room.
While I ate, I started to up my laptop and performed a quick search on The Centre mainframe. Perhaps THEY knew something about that seemingly non-existent organization called The Institute. The Centre's online archive only went as far as 1980 and even that was incomplete. Due to the massive data they possessed, most of their files, including DSA records, project proposals, reports, drafts and other documents, were physically stored on some sub-level deep inside The Centre.
“Damn!” I said, frustrated by the lack of results.
I put the wrappers from the sandwiches on the trash can and finished what was left of the juice before cracking my knuckles and dive once again on the sea of data where the single piece of information I needed was nowhere to be found.
Sleep won over my determination a few hours later. By then, my head was resting on the keyboard and the Voices were yelling so chaotically that I could not understand a single word of what they were saying.
...anger... wake up.... Ethan!
I woke up startled by the Voices. Outside, it was still dark. The clock on the desktop of my laptop marked 4:19 am. Everything was silent, except for the Voices inside my head. In fact, they were even worse than they were the night before.
“Shut up!” I cried out, angry and frustrated. “Leave me alone!”
It had been ages since I had a crisis like this. Ever since I found out about my family, as a matter of fact. Over the years, I managed to learn how to control this gift. I couldn't shut the Voices up, but I could choose which ones to listen to. But now, they were all coming together at once and I couldn't understand them. Any of them.
“Mom...” I called out, hoping that her voice could overcome the others. “Help me...”
All of a sudden, the Voices inside my head became quiet. Like it happened before, her voice came to me crystal clear, only this time there could be no doubt to what she meant..
I went to the door, pried it open and saw two sweepers at the end of the hallway knocking on doors. I closed the door quietly and rushed to pack all the things I couldn't leave behind. I could buy new clothes later, but I needed money, documents, my car keys – assuming they hadn't found it yet – and my laptop. Everything else was replaceable. I shoved all the items inside a backpack reserved for unexpected occurrences such as the one that was currently taking place, turned the light off and opened the window.
Every sweeper team had four members, which meant that one of them was probably waiting for me outside, while the other covered the exits. As I looked down, a sweeper standing by the corner on the other side of the street confirmed my suspicions.
There was small ledge around the building on each floor. I stepped on it, pressing myself against the wall and began sidling to the farthest room. Assuming the sweepers had already cleared it and that no one was there, it would be the perfect spot to lay low and wait until they were gone. Avoiding looking down, but also hoping they wouldn't notice me, I reached the intended room and tried to open the window – only to discover that it was locked. I tried not to panic, although being on a ledge on a third floor, with nowhere to go, could be considered as justifiable panic.
I moved to the immediate window, tried to open it and smiled as I realized that luck was on my side. I stepped inside the dark room and did my best to be as quiet as I could.
The moon was mostly hidden, but what little light it shone was enough to see that the room was empty.
I sat on the floor, so as not to leave any evidence of my presence there. Sleep was unadvised, but maybe I could get some rest. That was when I realized something and retrieved my laptop from the backpack, in hopes of being wrong. With all the commotion caused by Voices and the sweepers, I didn't remember to exit the mainframe.
Cursing myself for my stupidity, I quickly exited the mainframe and turned off the laptop. That explained how The Centre had found me: I had stayed inside the mainframe too long and they were able to trace me. We were far from Blue Cove, but that didn't mean anything, for The Centre had eyes and ears everywhere. I had almost been caught and I had only my stupidity to thank for it.
With the laptop finally turned off, they couldn't keep tracking me, but that did not really helped as long as they thought I was still at the motel. After they clear all the rooms, they would perform an even more thorough search, possibly calling in for reinforcements. I had to get out before that happened, otherwise I'd be trapped.
Expecting to find the hallway free of sweepers, I opened the door and took a peek. No one in sight. Perfect. I made my way to the stairwell and, as I pushed the door open, I came face to face with a sweeper who was coming up from the lower floor. Instinct kicked in and I ran up the stairwell.
“Ethan! Wait!”, he called quietly, as if not to draw too much attention, which surprised me somewhat, but not enough to convince me to stop. “Your sister sent me!” he said, and I felt it to be true.
I stopped and looked at him confused. “Who are you? What d'you want?”
“My name is Sam,” he answered, “and like I said, your sister sent me.”
“Why isn't she here?”
“She's looking for Jarod.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say.
“Look, I'm here to help you escape. That's it.”
I nodded. “In that case, I need a diversion,” I said. “Can you think of something?”
“I was under the impression you were the smart one, not me.”
Just as I expected, after finding no sign of me, the sweepers were checking the floors one by one. While the regular occupants of that sort of establishment preferred to keep a low profile, the manager wouldn't say no to a few hundreds of dollars of incentive by allowing a band of sweepers to swarm the place. Most of the time, people saw them as federal agents – some of them had had a very close relationship with the law, not necessarily on the right side of it – but for the most part they were nothing but an act. They didn't pretend to be anything they weren't; that was one of crucial aspect of sweeper training: never contradict people's expectations, especially if it serves your purpose.
We made our way to the lower floor. Sam had been the one to check it, which meant that the sweeper checking the rooms above wouldn't take too long before crossing paths with him. He stopped by a room door near a corner.
“These two,” he said, pointing to the door at the corner and another one right in front. “They're both empty. I can pick the locks, if you don't know how to.”
“No need,” I said, and showed him a skeleton key I took from my pocket.
“That's quite handy.”
“You have no idea.”
“So, what now?”
“I knock you out.”
“There is no other way. I'm sorry.”
I opened the door to the first room and went in, searching for something that could be used to knock out Sam. My previous room had a small jar with dried flowers in it – an attempt to pretty up a slump – and this one was no exception. I grabbed the jar and left the room. At the end of the corner there was a white door that led to the stairwell.
“I need you to go back to the other corridor and run this way.”
Sam nodded, went back as told and then started to run my way, adding a few yelling to let others know he was chasing me. Nice touch, I thought to myself. I raised the jar and crashed it on Sam's head as soon as his hulk-like figure came into hitting distance. I quickly checked his pulse to make sure my blow hadn't been too strong.
Satisfied that it wasn't, I quickly returned to the door from where I had the taken the jar, went to the window and opened it with a thud. Leaving everything as it were, I left the room and went to the room right in front. I closed the door and waited.
It wouldn't take long for a group of sweepers to arrive from the upper and lower floors. Finding Sam unconscious and a nearby room with a door and window opened, they would quickly assume that I had managed to slip through the cracks and follow that breadcrumb.
I waited for a long time until the silence coming from the other side told me I was no longer in danger. I reached for the doorknob and, just as I was about to turn it, a rush of frantic Voices went up inside my head. Before I could gather my thoughts, the door was kicked in and the three sweeper-equivalents from The Institute stepped inside. But what really shocked me was the person who followed them in.
The three men trained their guns on me. She made a simple gesture and the three men lowered their guns.
“Tish? What is...?” I asked, unable to make sense of anything. The Voices inside my head kept shouting and it was hard to just keep my eyes open, much less maintain some coherent reasoning.
“I told you I'm a pretender, didn't I?” She answered, without saying much. “Congratulations! You passed our test.”
“I don't understand.”
“You will soon enough.”
Nodding to the the men, she said: “Grab him.” And, without so much as a glance in my direction, she left the room. I felt the urge to plead for her help, but I knew that it would never come. I didn't believe the person that had come to me for help didn't exist, that it had all been a pretend – the Voices would have warned me sooner –, but I knew she was gone. At least for now.
As they dragged me across the corridor, I noticed that Sam's sprawled body was no longer in sight, as well for the glass shards from the jar. All the traces of The Centre's men were gone, as if they'd never existed. I shivered with the thought of such a thing being possible.
They lead me down the stairwell, down to the lobby. The manager stood behind the counter, feigning to read some thing from the guest-book. We went past him, without him saying anything, and left the motel. The car I'd been searching for was parked right in front.
One of the men opened the back door and another one pushed me inside. I sat in the middle, sided by two of the men, while the third one took the driver's seat, with Tish seating right next to him. Her eyes met mine briefly via the rear-view mirror, but I couldn't tell anything from that quick glance. She nodded once, before turning her attention somewhere else. I felt a small prick on my neck.
“Small sedative,” said the man to my left. “You'll be fine.”
My eyelids became suddenly heavy. I heard the driver starting the car but, by the time he was driving it into the night, I was already surrounded by its shroud.