Jarod was naturally curious, intrigued by nonsequiturs, inaccuracies, subterfuge, largely unnoticed minute details. He often seized a single unsuspecting thread, tugged, and, regardless of how intricately woven or seemingly impregnable, unraveled an entire fabric of deceit.
Occasionally, however, threads tangled, knotted. Upon learning of the affair, the husband of Greg's paramour, Dan Zuckerman, showered his adulterous and preeminently capricious wife with gaudy bedroom apparel, sexual accouterments, clip-in extensions, bald caps. While Faye Zuckerman euphemistically "worked overtime", her husband logged onto the internet from a burner phone and, under the pretense of being a jealous wife, contacted via message board a fellow called Duke Hitter.
Dan snapped photographs of Greg in flagrante delicto, intentionally concealing Faye's identity, depicting Greg's partner instead as a prostitute—or rather prostitutes, no gender excluded—believing law enforcement officials would suspect Parker, the embittered wife, when Greg's body was hoisted out of Luna Harbor.
The photographs had been intercepted, Greg had confessed his extramarital exploits to Jarod, positively identifying his lover. Dan Zuckerman was in jail, and Hitter, preferring death to life in prison, had hanged himself. Two children had been spared a lifetime of sorrow, mourning their father's death and mother's imprisonment, although Jarod was certain that Parker would have been exonerated eventually.
Rather than bask in contentment, however, Jarod writhed in unease. He was, inexplicably, stricken by remorse, plagued with doubt. Jarod endeavored to disregard rather than investigate the origins of discomfit. The past couldn't be undone. The present, however, could be amended. I can give Parker back her brother.
Avery and Eli deserved to know their uncle; they were, after all, entirely innocent.
"Even if their mother is not," Jarod concluded and observed as anger chased away the ephemeral smile on Ethan's face.
"Do you believe you're entirely innocent," challenged Ethan. "Jarod, I know something happened in Carthis that-"
"You're wrong," interrupted Jarod hotly. "Nothing happened."
"Hmm," repeated Ethan thinly. "Is that what you're angry about?"
Jarod averted his eyes; he had, at times, been as contradictory as Parker had been distrustful, both demanding she leave him alone and requesting affirmation, assurance that she hadn't relinquished his fate to others, who, unlike Parker, fully intended to return him to the Centre, perhaps even sexually assault him.
Parker would have never straddled him while he was seemingly unconscious. Or conscious. She had never attempted to seduce and entrap him, murder him, attack his family. Parker had been a consummate professional to the end, the most conscientious adversary. On the whole, she'd played and fought by the rules.
Whereas Jarod had routinely broken the rules, changed them, changed the game mid-play, as he'd done in Glasgow while they were surrounded by the Triumvirate's men as well as sweepers and clearly outgunned, and just after learning the truth about her past. She could have easily believed he was taking advantage of her vulnerability, playing with her, preying on her emotions to gain his freedom.
By no means was she Mother Theresa. In retrospect, however, it seemed Parker had been, more than anything else, terribly guilty of being confused, perhaps brainwashed, torn between her father's lies and her mother's truth, forbidden feelings. In fact, her most damning offense, the most salient infraction—the one that cut Jarod the deepest—transpired in Glasgow.
Jarod had never pressed Parker for a reason, considered he was punishing Parker for simply being human, being afraid. It never occurred to him that, while watching her drink herself to sleep after placing roses on his grave, he was cruel and she'd been wise to distrust him.
He was my only family.
Parker's macho posturing was a coping skill ordinarily employed to camouflage authentic emotions. The latter, however, revealed themselves when she spoke about Ethan.
Believing Parker was amendable to reconnecting with her brother, Jarod passed her contact information along to Ethan and was puzzled to learn the numbers were disconnected and Ethan's emails had bounced. Confronted with a roadblock, incapable of forging new paths, Jarod examined the obstacles themselves, turned them inside out.
The single inconsistency was ambiguous, diminutive, so trivial, in fact, Jarod almost hadn't pursued it and did so with a guilty conscience.
Apart from reconciling siblings, Jarod was committed to respecting Parker's evident desire for him to, for all intents and purposes, remain dead. The more he searched, however, the more he discovered, the angrier he became. Jarod had not foreseen his benevolent impulses, ultimately, occasioning a return to Parker's home, spawning emotional imbroglio, dramatically altering her life.
Jarod provided Parker no warning. He simply let himself into her home, was lounging comfortably at the kitchen table when she arrived clutching a jute tote with the words RESPECT MOTHER stamped upon a cartoon rendering of Earth.
High on her shoulder dangled another, much larger, bag from which protruded beet stalks and leafy greens and bore the word IMAGINE in cursive font, embroidered ribbonesque around a peace symbol. She wore a sapphire blouse, black slacks, and a scowl that paired well with fatigue and unmitigated disillusionment.
So much for peace.
Jarod was painfully aware that whatever meager tranquility Parker clung to following his first visit would be depleted by this second one. He dismissed the pang of sympathy in his chest, observed Parker retrieve the key from the door, and deposit it on a small console table. She swung around in surprise when Jarod spoke.
"Tell me about Sphere."
"Please, Jarod," returned Parker with chilly remoteness, "make yourself at home."
"Sphere," demanded Jarod.
"Was shut down."
"Why," queried Jarod rather impatiently, "didn't you tell me about Sphere?"
Parker set the groceries on the, otherwise, bare counter, and returned impassively, "Via Ouija?" Jarod recoiled, was stunned into silence by her deadpan delivery. "I believed everyone was lying about your death. Broots tearfully suggested voluntarily inpatient admission to a psychiatric hospital. Alternatively, I embraced the truth, refrained from engendering further concern, precluding me from communing with the dead. I didn't want to disrupt your peace. Who would believe that, between the two of us, I'm the considerate one?"
"When I was here last week?"
"You didn't ask," answered Parker loftily.
"I see," said Jarod, thickly.
"Marvelous," she sang. "I'm leaving in half an hour. When I return with my children you cannot be here." Parker widened her eyes in determination and demanded brutally, peremptorily, "Let yourself out."
Having concluded her business with Jarod, Parker swiveled on three-inch heels and retrieved a tin of gunpowder tea from the bag.
"Your children," repeated Jarod. "Eli is my son, too."
Parker clutched the counter, heedless of the tin plunging to the floor, its thud punctuating Jarod's words. She inhaled a sharp breath, clamped her lips closed, perhaps to forbid a sob from escaping her mouth. Stupefaction and disapprobation were, nonetheless, sufficiently conveyed by a guttural whimper, a disconsolate resignation to pain, and Jarod realized there'd be no sobs, only the weary respirations that accompanied exhaustion, perhaps a paltry tear or two.
Parker's pain was as fresh as it had been when Thomas was murdered, when Faith died, when Jarod's fifty-five foot Beneteau exploded off the coast of North Carolina, killing Sydney and Levi. Jarod watched her shoulders rise and fall rapidly with increasing concern and suggested softly, "Please, sit."
Perplexed by Parker's continued silence, her unwillingness to cooperate, to at least turn and look at him, Jarod rose and asked solicitously, "Are you all right?"
Parker promptly jerked her homicidal gaze at Jarod, measured him with a brief, oblique glance. His jaw had slackened, his eyes were large and filled with awe—not to mention an unforgivable degree of sympathy—and his hands were in a defensive gesture of surrender.
Cautiously, Jarod retreated, relapsed into the chair, stared dolefully at his steepled fingers.
Jarod had deliberately walked into Parker's life and torn open her scars; he should have anticipated blood.
Somehow, he hadn't. And he continued to confuse his huntress with her contrived identity, with the Chief Executive Officer of the only accounting firm in Lavender Gardens. Her lies were constructed upon half-truths exquisitely interwoven with harmless fabrications. She had buried the past, built a new life over the previous one and had grown complacent. It had never occurred to Parker that Jarod would one day materialize with an excavator.
"Did you know he was my son?" Jarod asked. "Miss Parker? Look," he addressed her evident disinclination to communicate, "all I'm asking from you is a conversation. Take all the time you need," he added generously. "I don't have anywhere else to be."
When Parker finally spoke, her voice was strained, nearly inaudible and her words extravagant. "Do you have proof?"
"You know I wouldn't be here if I didn't. You suspected he was my son, didn't you?"
"I've suspected," answered Parker forthrightly, her words slamming together haphazardly, quavering, "all sorts of horrible things in the previous sixteen years."
Maintaining a pretense of ignorance, Jarod said, "Talk about the horrible things. Tell me everything."
Instead, Parker explained in an unusually guarded voice that she'd tried to find Levi, shed light on paternity. "I enlisted Broots' help again; he was close once, but predictably, never close enough. He pleaded with me to focus on the children, to let the rest of it go. He feared I was becoming emotionally unstable. Probably," she added with a snort of derision, her words uncoiling tensely, forcefully, "because I was."
Jarod grimaced, pushed a hand over his face. "My father was alerted by a trustworthy source several years ago," he explained pensively. "Someone was searching for us. We interpreted it as a threat, went into deep hiding. It never occurred to me that you'd try to make contact— not after Carthis, and I wouldn't have allowed you to find me, no matter how badly you might have wanted to. The way we left things-"
"We?" interrupted Parker, twisting around with an indignant glare. "No, you, Jarod. The way you left things."
"You know why I had to leave."
Parker drew back from Jarod's vehement rejoinder and austere stare.
"You," she argued sharply, "know why I couldn't."
Jarod lowered his watery eyes, studied the table for several moments. "No," he rebutted softly and had the audacity to say her name. "I don't; I know what you wanted me to believe," he intoned sullenly and swung his expectant gaze at her. For a brief moment, he even believed he'd finally hear the truth.
"That's not my name," Parker informed him tartly.
"No, but it's who you are and you can neither outrun nor bury it."
She turned her back to him again, resumed putting away groceries. "You didn't ask to be saddled with responsibilities and apprehensions, to forfeit freedom, conform begrudgingly to the passé and insipid. No one will blame you for walking away," exhorted Parker. "No one will know."
"That's rather generous of you, Miss Parker, however, Eli is my son, he's blood."
"Don't do this," Parker said to the cabinets, suddenly enraged, yearning to shatter beveled glass, smash intersecting gothic arches. "Please, Jarod, don't do this. Just---"
"Forget," Jarod supplied when her voice dissolved into silence. Just forget what happened on that Island. Forget that moment of weakness. Forget.
Parker closed her eyes, felt the anger and her remaining energy drain away.
"I know this is stirring up memories you'd rather forget. It wasn't my intention to pry into your life, cause you pain. You misspoke last Tuesday, told me the truth. Eight years of marriage didn't jibe with other information I've obtained and, as you can well imagine, raised questions. Traces of the Centre still exist on the dark web- suspected contract murders, code names of confidential informants, likely compiled by conspiracy theorists. Sphere was more than a theory, wasn't it? Our son is clairaudient, like you. Does Eli know what his fate might have been?"
"No," she answered curtly. "He's a normal young man."
"A young man in perfect health with a special gift and a genius IQ. He could have graduated university by now. Why isn't he, at least, enrolled in a school?"
"Boredom. Eli's an aesthete. His interests are music and art and he's passionate about pursuing them."
"To what end?"
"One that satisfies him," returned Parker crossly. Narrowing her eyes, she turned, said, "Perfect health? Did you hack into his medical records, into my medical records?"
"Yes, " answered Jarod with unflinching candor, "and I broke into your home, filched garbage, discarded chewing gum, toothbrushes, a teacup. I know you are his mother in every way that matters. I had to know if you were his biological mother."
"Why? So you wouldn't have to feel remorseful about petitioning the court for full custody if I wasn't?"
"I'd never take Eli away from the only life he's ever known. You're afraid I'm going to fight you for custody. That's why you didn't tell me, isn't it?"
Parker answered with a mirthless laugh. "Not everyone is like you, Jarod, cruel for cruelty's sake. If I'd known Eli was your son I would have told you."
"And Avery? Tell me about her. She isn't my daughter or Greg's or even yours."
"Avery was discovered the evening I fled the states with Eli."
"Why was Avery in the infirmary and not with the other three hundred fifty-six children who were transferred into foster care?"
Parker reeled back in surprise and asked in a low, throaty voice, "What else did Angelo tell you?"
"A hell of lot more than you're telling me," returned Jarod fiercely. "Answer the question."
"I only knew that I couldn't leave her alone. And I couldn't miss my flight."
"Would that be commercial or chartered?" Asked Jarod.
"That would be none of your business."
Jarod acknowledged Parker's indignant assertion with a nod. "My son was on that flight, however, I'm amenable to tabling that particular conversation. There is, after all, a more pressing and painful issue that, admittedly, I intentionally delayed broaching until you were more comfortable and perhaps sitting."
"I'm comfortable," she assured him and reminded brusquely, "The clock's ticking."
"Sphere stipulated three hundred fifty-nine children," Jarod said.
"Eli and Avery bring the number of children accounted for to three hundred sixty-eight. Simple mathematics," explained Jarod. "There's another child out there somewhere and according to the documents I discovered, the child is Sphere's youngest unwitting recruit."
"Documents," stammered Parker hastily, aghast, her brow knitted. "What documents?"
"A child," continued Jarod, intently watching Parker's horrified face, "with our combined genes and gifts, a child like Eli, who, in addition, also possesses Avery's gifts of claurcognizance, telepathy, psychokinesis, our child, and Miss Parker, I know the child was growing inside of you."
Parker stared vacantly at Jarod, prompting him to continue, answer questions she refused to ask. "Lyle kept detailed records, notes, dates," he said, omitting for her benefit the more grievous, photographs, video. "I know this painful," offered Jarod with some delicacy, again whispering the name she'd once whispered in his ear.
Parker winced; her face twisted in revulsion. "That's not my name," she snarled at him and added lamely, "Avery is a normal child."
Jarod continued as if she hadn't spoken. "I've searched adoption-"
"I had an abortion," Parker interrupted rather candidly and observed Jarod's blank expression.
"I uh- I'm sorry," he said weakly with a brief headshake. "It makes sense. Eli would have been just a toddler and Avery an infant. You were a single mother of two fleeing the country. Alone. Under that amount of stress-"
"I don't need you to justify my actions. I know how you feel about-"
Jarod thrust out a forestalling hand. "It doesn't matter how I feel," he said emphatically. "It wasn't my decision to make. Or Lyle's. He had no right to do that to you- to us. He used me to hurt you, control you." Jarod pushed a hand over his face, snarled, "The bastard used me to rape and impregnate you."
"Jesus Christ, Jarod" murmured Parker gravely, flinching as if she'd instead been struck and then pushing a hand over her brow.
"What," he said, mildly alarmed by Parker's violent reaction and evident propensity to sanitize the truth. "That is what happened," Jarod asserted. "You realize that, don't you?"
"I have to leave now." Parker turned her expectant gaze to Jarod.
"Mhm," hummed Jarod cynically. "Uh, according to Lyle's notes you were almost captured in Île Sainte-Marie. You were rather ill. Debilitating morning sickness? Is that when you decided to terminate?"
"This conversation is over."
Jarod offered her a sympathetic smile. "I know you want it to be over. I know you do," he said softly, his brow creasing. "Don't," implored Jarod when Parker's lips parted, shaking his head. "Don't beg me to leave. I don't want to be the villain, compared or conflated with Lyle. I don't want to coerce you to do anything."
"Get something straight right now, Jarod," hissed Parker. "No one forced me to love Avery and Eli. Forced gestation-" she shook her head, swallowed hard. "I couldn't allow Lyle to do to me what they did to my mother. I don't regret my decision." She studied the watch on her wrist, expelled a breath of exasperation. "You know that I lied about having to leave."
Jarod nodded his affirmation. "And I know why. It's the same reason you changed your telephone number. Fear."
"No, I changed my number because Greg's contesting the divorce, threatening to sue for custody, and-" she waved dismissively, fell silent.
"You seem to be experiencing an enormous amount of stress," Remarked Jarod compassionately. "This isn't complicated."
Parker's eyes widened. "It isn't?"
"Invite me to dinner," suggested Jarod blithely with a shrug.
"Yes," he answered sweetly. "Invite an old friend to dinner."