Goodbye, regardless of the numerous times Margaret had participated in sorrowful farewells, was too painful a word for her to speak. With a mother's grace, she smiled bravely, and repressed a violent recoil when Jarod vowed they'd all see each other again soon.
Margaret didn't know the details that had prompted Broots to separate the family so abruptly, and that truth, alone, was reason enough to doubt her son's earnest promises.
Margaret suspected that Catherine's daughter was as perplexed and frightened as everyone else in the family. Those suspicions were confirmed when the family gathered near the car, and Jarod began coaxing Cate into her safety seat.
All gazes, except Sydney's, were riveted on father and daughter when Margaret drew Parker into an embrace. She intended only to discreetly ask Parker to take care of her son and grandchild, but she clamped her lips closed, and refused to issue that request.
Rather than evade, recoil, or stiffen Parker had, with absolutely no resistance, allowed the contact, and, then, to Margaret's astonishment, returned the embrace.
"Catherine would be so proud of you," Margaret whispered in Parker's ear instead, and slackened her grasp. "She is, I'll bet," Margaret added, withdrawing slowly, and meeting Parker's gaze.
Parker, on the verge of some disclosure, parted her lips, but before she could speak, Margaret said, "I know. Now, go-- go on and get in the car," she stammered with a wink and mischievous grin, squeezing Parker's hands, and abruptly releasing them, "before I change my mind, and flatten the tires."
"Did someone say something about the tires?" Emily asked with a frown of concern. "They look fine to me."
"The treads are in excellent condition," Julian agreed.
"They're new," Jarod confirmed, rising to his full height from the back seat, and softly closing the door. "For the moment," he added, turning, with a wistful smile, to the driver's seat. "We'll be in touch," he vowed, climbing inside and closing the door.
"You better be," Emily shouted angrily, prompting soft laughs from her family.
"So, this is what it's like," Parker said softly, staring in the side-view mirror.
"What do you mean?" Jarod asked.
"Being forced to leave the people you love behind," Parker answered. "I'm sorry, Jarod."
"It isn't your fault. It never was, and this time, I know where they are, and that they are safe, and-- I'm not leaving everyone that I love behind."
"But is this absolutely necessary?" Parker asked.
"Don't ask me not to do this," Jarod pleaded. "You know that I have to."
"You could at least tell me why we have to do this."
"I wish I could," Jarod said.
"But you can't, because telling me might jog loose some memory, and Sydney wants me to remember on my own, without any external influences. Right? Is that why we had to leave?"
"I'm sorry. You know that I can't answer those kinds of questions."
"It's because the house is similar to the ones that were in that encampment, isn't it?" Parker asked, swinging her gaze at Jarod. "Broots didn't know, couldn't have known, but he kept digging and he discovered the truth, and that's why we're leaving. Jarod, the house doesn't even bother me that much," Parker said. "Not enough to uproot Cate again, and separate you and her from your family."
The pair instinctively glanced at the backseat where Cate continued to sing along loudly to her favorite tunes and solve the cryptograms in her activity book.
"I can't confirm or deny anything you just said," Jarod said softly, and asked sympathetically, "That much? Why didn't you tell me that you were bothered at all? How long, exactly, has this been bothering you?"
"Day one. Something felt-- off. I didn't have an explanation at the time. I've been trying to make it make sense. Why do you look-- horrified? Is it because I'm right?"
"Horrified is typically my response to the horrific," Jarod answered in a solicitous, grave tone. "And it is horrific, regardless of how you try to minimize. You know you can talk to me. And I do sorta have a knack for seeking and discovering explanations. It's kinda why the Centre abducted me. Helping others is what I've been doing since I escaped the Centre. You're not alone in this."
"It's bad, isn't it, what you're hiding from me? You don't want me to be alone when I remember it, do you?"
"I don't want you to be alone-- ever again."
"Good answer. Smooth, really, Jarod. You're obviously not afraid to piss me off, and neither you nor Sydney objected to this sudden excursion that Broots has arranged for us, so I think it's safe for me to assume that there's no chance that I'm a danger to you or Cate."
"Ah," Jarod rejoined lightly, handily concealing unease, "if you were curious about that you could have simply asked me."
"Mm, yes, because you've been so forthcoming with me this morning," Parker purred sardonically, watching Jarod's face, but detecting no discomfort, nothing in his face to indicate dishonesty.
As adept as Jarod was at pretending, his lies of omission had required a colossal effort. It had been only thirty minutes since Broots had pushed a metal, olive drab ammo can containing pre-filled syringes into his hand, and murmured, "Sedatives. Propofol, too-- in case she nosedives. IV bags, lines, saline, dextrose. I couldn't sleep after our conversation, and I know I told you it wouldn't come to this, and maybe it won't, Jarod, but if she attempts to leave, you have to stop her. Face it, Jarod, for all we know Miss Parker is a human timebomb. This is your only option if you can't talk her down, defuse her," Broots said, tapping the metal with his fist. "Just in case."
Just in case Miss Timebomb becomes violent, and perhaps finds another machete, and maybe decides that a couple of human sacrifices—sorta like the ones she witnessed when she was younger—are appropriate.
Absurd, Jarod had wanted to shout. Nothing in Parker's behavior, thus far, suggested that some clock inside of her was ticking down to inevitable detonation, but bombs could be concealed, appear benign, and, logically, Jarod knew that he couldn't afford to be dismissive. After all, neither he nor Sydney knew, for certain, whether or not Parker posed a danger to others or herself. Only one person alive could answer that question. Parker, alone, knew the full extent of Raines' and Mr. Parker's depravity, and couldn't share it with anyone because her mind was protecting her from it.
Broots had learned from his years inside the Centre what Jarod and Sydney had always believed to be true: the mind rarely ever protected its host from anything pleasant. And he knew, too, that Parker had a history of erratic and unpredictable behavior, hearing voices, hallucinations, homicidal threats. "She went full Haley Joel, saw dead people, and talked to them, and even physically attacked Sydney once. And my shirt made her nauseous? That is-- it's crazy. Nauseous, Jarod? Explain that one."
Jarod had no explanation for the nausea-inducing attire, had few explanations at all for anyone. Tension had gathered in his shoulders, unpacked, and made itself at home. He focused solely on the primary, short-term goal: ensuring that Parker and Cate boarded the jet with him, and he was only marginally relieved when they did, and the jet ascended.
There was an ocean to cross, and months of cohabitation ahead of them in a stone and reinforced steel structure that Broots had affectionately dubbed the panic house, and Jarod feared the name would prove to be appropriate, but for reasons that were entirely unrelated to the house's various panic rooms and hidden exits.
Jarod anticipated Parker's resistance all along, resistance to him, to each twist, safe house, to every single transition, and even to the disguises they presently wore to bypass facial recognition technology, but Parker had been remarkably cooperative.
Sorta like a timebomb, Jarod mused darkly. They detonate all at once without any warning.
But there was no explosion, not when the trio departed the plane, or when they walked hastily to an awaiting car, and not when they arrived at the panic house.
"A McMansion on McMansion Row," Parker said softly when Jarod turned onto a private winding road. "The sign back there said something about a senior living community."
"Yes, intentional misleads," Jarod explained. "Illusion on illusion row would be more accurate. Twenty-three houses, all, supposedly, with different owners."
"Twenty-three aliases for one man."
"You sure about that?" Parker asked. "We've passed two cars parked on the street, six in driveways."
"Props," Jarod said. "They're all props."
"The architect and owner was a misanthrope and recluse, wealthy, paranoid."
"Still is," Jarod answered with a quirk of lips, "according to public record."
"His death is being concealed?"
"Yes, for two years, and no one knows about it, except you, me, Broots, and his contact here. The safe house is concealed, too, within these twenty-three houses."
"This is crazytown," Parker murmured.
"In the best ways," Jarod agreed. "There's a climate controlled container in the garage of the out of scale split level we just passed, and twice a year a truck driver refills it with supplies. We have private, secure access to the opposite side of that container."
"Please tell me that we aren't we going to be living, literally, underground, beneath these houses."
"No, not necessarily. There are underground tunnels to the garage I just mentioned, several long term fallout bunkers, and emergency exits. Most of the houses are connected via secret passages. There are multiple safe rooms. In fact, the entire safe house can go into emergency lockdown mode, but we'll be doing our living above ground. Most of the land, including land on adjacent properties, is shaded beneath canopies of ornamental trees and plants. Even if drones are detected—and we'll receive a warning before they arrive—we'll be mostly concealed from them."
"You said emergency lockdown mode. What kind of emergency?"
"Most every kind. There are a lot of security and privacy features built in to protect us. It's really a zeer goed uitgerust groot huis."
"Jarod, this is insane."
"Yes, perhaps," Jarod agreed guardedly, extending a hand and caressing Parker's arm. "And wise. We'll be safe here," he assured Parker. "I can promise you that."
"Safe and imprisoned?" Parker asked, scrutinizing her surroundings. "If no one can get in it means we can't get out, and you can't possibly want this, to be imprisoned, not after being kept prisoner inside the Centre for decades."
"What I want, more than anything, is for you to be safe, and this is the safest place for you, and we can get out. I'd never take you anywhere without ensuring there was a safe way out."
"I don't know," stammered Parker heedlessly.
"What?" Jarod asked, concealing alarm. "What don't you know?"
Jarod took his eyes off the road long enough to observe Parker's slow head-shake and noncommittal shrug.
"Please," Jarod whispered, moving his hand slowly down the length of her arm, and gently taking her hand into his, "talk to me."
Parker reciprocated immediately, threading her fingers through Jarod's, and said in a quiet, solemn voice, "I'd rather confront whatever or whoever we're running from than-- than you resent me, hate me. You could let me out here, turn around, go back to your life, and give Cate a family. I'd rather you do that than lose your freedom." Parker swung her gaze at Jarod when he didn't stop the car. "I'm talking. Are you listening?"
"I am," Jarod answered, lifting their joined hands to his face, and pressing his lips to her hand. "And now it's your turn to listen," he added, addressing Parker by her name, "You are my life, my family, you and Cate, and we're going to get through this together. All right?"
"I hope it will be," Parker said with an affirming nod.
"It will be," Jarod assured Parker. "This is simply a different kind of freedom."
"Different," Parker repeated with some incredulity. "You got that right."
"Also, there's rarely ever a dull moment," Jarod added cheerfully. "The thrill of danger, the lust for excitement."
"And there it is," Parker murmured. "Confirmation, at last, of your insanity. Why am I not surprised?"
"I can't imagine why you'd be surprised," Jarod said candidly. "I've never made any attempt to conceal it from you."
"No, you haven't," Parker agreed, returning her gaze to the houses they slowly passed. "Who in the hell did Broots climb into bed with to make this happen? How did he even find out about this place?"
"I don't know," Jarod answered with some solemnity, commiserating. "I have questions, too," he explained, turning the car left into a driveway, "but when Broots tugs the strings this hard I don't ask."
"Strings," Parker repeated softly, observing a garage door open. "Let me guess: this house isn't the safe house?"
"Good guess," Jarod answered when the door closed behind them. "The door to our right opens to basement stairs. Inside, there's a hidden door that connects to an outbuilding, and from there-"
"It's a maze." Parker said confidently.
"Yes," Jarod heartily agreed. "Yes, I suppose it is."
"Mm, well," Parker murmured, glancing at a sleeping Cate, "at least one of us is going to enjoy this."