A ROAD LESS TRAVELED

Miss Parker's footsteps echoed on the tiled floor as she walked along at her usual brisk pace. The noise was loud, too loud for her liking. There was a time when she would have relished the sound as she walked, enjoying the attention that it drew. There was a time when the attention the sound garnered would have had most people cringing in fear.

Now, she preferred subtle. Subtle afforded her the ability to slip through unnoticed. Subtle was what kept her alive.

She glanced around with a grimace of distaste as she walked along a long corridor towards her destination. This place was not made for subtle. This garish monument to a past that should have stayed dead and buried... And yet, she was not surprised that it had been rebuilt. Too many people with far too much power had too much invested in the continuation of the nightmare that was known as The Centre. What did surprise her was that they'd had the nerve to rebuild the nerve centre of the organisation on its original location, in Blue Cove.

Like a ghost, the new building had appeared almost out of nowhere – or at least, that was what the locals of Blue Cove whispered, so the gossip went. The truth was that it had been under construction over the course of the last six months, and in planning for a good eighteen months prior to that.

What really surprised her, above and beyond all else, was that Jarod had not, at any point in time, tried to put a stop to the project. Indeed, in the approximate two years since the events that had resulted in the near crippling of the Centre, and the deaths of her crazy uncle and even crazier brother, she'd not heard so much as a whisper from Jarod. She wondered whether maybe he thought the Centre was finally done and dusted, and was no longer a threat to anyone, but dismissed that idea quickly enough. It was inconceivable that Jarod, of all people, would ever cease to be on-guard against any possible resurrection of the place that most likely still caused him nightmares.

Still, he'd not been heard of nor seen since the dramatic rescue of Bobby Goren from the Centre's clutches, that much was certain. To say that he'd dropped off the radar was an understatement of the biggest kind imaginable. In fact, his absence was so noticeable that the question was starting to be asked whether he was, perhaps, dead.

She shook her head to herself, and a small, tight smile quirked her lips.

Jarod wasn't dead. She was sure of that, and she knew Sydney believed otherwise as well, even though he hadn't heard from his pet project either. The smile faded from her lips as quickly as it had appeared. Despite Jarod's ongoing battle against the Centre over the years, he had always remained close to Sydney. That had changed when the Centre set its sights once more on Bobby.

To start with, she knew that Jarod had expected Sydney to do what he could to protect Bobby. Though she hadn't really seen the fall-out with her own eyes, she guessed it must have been a shock to Jarod to learn just how little regard Sydney had really had for Bobby – to the point where Sydney himself had nearly cost Bobby his life.

She knew she would never forget that day that she had walked in to discover Sydney had locked Bobby inside the focus chamber, despite him having just come from days of abuse at the hands of Raines. She'd opened the chamber to find Bobby in a dead man's float, and it had only been sheer luck that she'd been able to revive him. Miss Parker knew that Bobby must have told that story to Jarod, and probably shown him the sim disc of the incident, because she'd been within hearing distance when Sydney had taken an extremely hostile call from Jarod.

Standing in the doorway of Sydney's office, she had been able to hear Jarod's angry voice almost as clearly as thought Jarod had been right there in room.

"... I trusted you to do everything you could to protect Bobby, and instead, you nearly killed him!"

She'd seen Jarod angry before, but she could hear the sheer rage in the other man's voice, and it had sent a chill down her spine. Sydney had tried to feign nonchalance, especially after confessing that Jarod had warned him off ever trying to contact Bobby again. She knew he'd been shaken, though. For so long, Sydney had coasted along, basking in the borderline hero worship that Jarod had a tendency to heap on him, despite Jarod's own acknowledgement that Sydney had had a hand in his imprisonment. All of a sudden, though, along came Bobby Goren, who had no delusions about Sydney's participation in what had happened to him – either when he was a child, or when he was an adult. It was Bobby who had finally, truly opened Jarod's eyes to the fact that Sydney, whilst caring for his charges in his own way, was still in many ways as much of a monster as Raines was.

That, Miss Parker, thought, was what had really shaken Sydney; that Jarod had lost faith in him and, by all accounts, had severed all contact completely.

She had to concede, she was sorry about that. She missed the regular conversations and arguments that she'd had with Jarod. He'd been more of a brother to her than Lyle had ever been, gently guiding her over the years to learning some hard truths about the Centre, and the people she worked with and for. She hoped that, sooner or later, Jarod might relent and contact her again, especially now that he was no longer actively sought after by the Centre.

Miss Parker rounded the corner at the end of that seemingly endlessly long corridor, and thoughts of Jarod and Bobby faded from her mind as she approached the door of the new office that her father now occupied. In the wake of Raines' death at the hands of the New York police, Mr Parker had been reinstated as Director, and had spent most of the time that followed that shocking event overseeing the rebuilding of the Blue Cove headquarters.

If nothing else, it had been something for him to focus on, and kept him from driving her and everyone else up the proverbial wall.

Resisting a powerful urge to roll her eyes, Miss Parker pushed the door open and walked into the spacious outer office where some overly pretty thing whose name escaped her sat behind a too-fancy desk in a too-lavish chair. Striding over to the desk, Miss Parker deliberately stood over the young woman, watching with guiltless pleasure as she squirmed uncomfortably.

"I'm sorry, Miss Parker, but he's in the middle of a phone conference, and he's asked not to be disturbed..."

"Save it," Miss Parker snapped, and barely hid a smirk when the girl flinched. "He paged me himself and asked me to come straight away. You can announce me or not, I don't give a damn. Either way, I am going in there, and I'm going now."

Without waiting for an answer, Miss Parker turned and walked purposefully to the inner doors, and pushed them open with a flourish.


Seated behind a lush-looking desk that was far fancier than it needed to be, Mr Parker was, indeed, on the phone. However, he waved her forward as soon as he saw her, and the wink he gave her reassured her that there couldn't be anything too wrong. At least, she fervently hoped that was the case.

Truth be told, she was not happy about being back within these walls. For approximately two years, she'd been away from the clawing reach of the Centre, living a relatively normal life, and it had been an amazing experience. Angelo, the savant whose personality Raines had effectively destroyed, had stayed with her, in her care – a role that she had never expected to find herself in but found herself cherishing. Though Sydney had not been able to replicate the formula to give Angelo back his life and potential independence, he had nonetheless been able to provide a regime of drugs that helped the man-child's maturity to improve, and to help him regain a small degree of independence and quality of life.

The recall by the Centre had been a harsh blow and, whilst shaking the foundation of her own world considerably, it had set Angelo back severely. As a consequence, she'd had no qualms in telling The Powers That Be that Angelo was not going back. She'd been surprised, relieved, and perhaps more than a little suspicious when the hierarchy had conceded without argument.

It was partially why she was here in her father's office now, and back in the Centre in general. While she reluctantly acknowledged that her life would never been truly independent of the Centre, she also wanted to know what the hell was going on. Not that her father was necessarily the best person to ask, of course. She'd long since accepted that he was as much prone to keeping deadly secrets as anyone in the place, some of which had decidedly come back to bite him on the ass.

Miss Parker came out of the whirl of her thoughts as her father hung up his phone and sat back in his chair to look at her with a proud smile.

"Look at you, angel. You get more beautiful every time I see you."

"Give it a rest, Daddy," she sighed. Mr Parker raised his eyebrows at her weary dismissal of the compliment.

"What's the matter?"

"You mean, aside from being back in this hellhole?"

The faintest hints of disapproval appeared on his face, just as she'd known it would.

"I hardly think that's appropriate, Angel. This place is our bread and butter. It's in our blood..."

"Spills our blood, more like it," she retorted. "Save the sentimentality, Daddy. This place should never have been rebuilt. Now, what did you want?"

He sighed audibly, and the pleasant look on his face vanished.

"Fine. It's about the Pretender program."

Miss Parker felt icy chills race down her spine as her mind leapt to the first, most logical conclusion.

"I am not bringing Angelo back to the Centre. I don't care what they threaten, I will not do that."

"Relax, pumpkin," he reassured her. "They don't want Angelo anymore. They recognize that he's damaged beyond recovery because of Raines' experiments, and that bringing him back wouldn't benefit the Centre at all."

"They... As in, the Triumvirate?" Miss Parker wondered. Parker Senior smiled indulgently, like a father might with a simple child.

"Well, of course. They still run the organization as a whole. Despite what Jarod did after he managed to take Bobby from us, the Centre was never destroyed. Not even close to it. The building they destroyed was, after all, just a building. The Centre is a lot more than just bricks and mortar."

"Right," she muttered. "It's blood and flesh as well."

"Exactly!" he exclaimed, his expression brightening at what he perceived to be her understanding. "People have put their blood, sweat and tears into this place, to make it what it is."

Miss Parker grimaced.

"That wasn't exactly what I meant, she muttered under her breath. If her father heard the snark, he gave no indication of it, and went on with an enthusiasm that turned her stomach.

"The first thing I need you to do is to track down Sydney. I want him to oversee the project. We don't want to make the same mistakes as in the past."

Miss Parker spoke again, and this time she made no effort to hide how she felt.

"No, you're making all new ones."

"Angel..."

"No, Daddy. Listen to me! Restarting the Pretender project is a bad idea! So far we've skated through under the radar with the rebuilding of this place. Jarod has stayed right away from us. But what do you think he'll do if he gets wind that we're starting that particular project again? I'll tell you what he'll do. He will shut us down. An you know something? I don't think I'd be able to blame him."

"Jarod hasn't been seen or heard from in over two years," Parker growled, his good humour rapidly deteriorating. "He stopped siphoning money from us two years ago. For all we know, he could be dead. He is not a concern for us anymore."

Miss Parker's breath quickened a little in her throat.

"You're not planning to go after Bobby Goren again, are you? Daddy, please tell me that's not what you're planning..."

"No, it's not," he promised sincerely, and she didn't even try to hide the sigh of relief that escaped her lips. Parker continued speaking ruefully. "No, I think it's safe to say we all learnt a valuable lesson there. The Triumvirate decided it wasn't worth risking any other operatives to bring Bobby back to the Centre, and I happen to agree with them. We'll be leaving him alone."

"Then, who...?" Miss Parker wondered in confusion. Parker shrugged.

"Orphans, children in care. Kids without families who won't be missed by anyone."

It chilled Miss Parker all over again that her father chose that turn of phrase, rather than saying kids who otherwise wouldn't have much of a chance to better their lives. But then, the Centre had never been about bettering lives - only lining pockets. She kept the thought to herself, but couldn't keep from traitorously wondering how she might be able to put a stop to it. The one thing she never wanted to see again was children being tormented in the way that Jarod, Angelo, Bobby... and even Kyle had been. Even orphans who had no family to miss them.

"I don't know where Sydney is," she said, after taking a moment to regain her composure. Right then, she had no comeback for her father's proposal, and knew the best course was to just play along, at least for the time being.

"We do," Parker said. "We've been keeping an eye on him. I want you to go and get him, and bring him back, because you're probably the one person he trusts the most. I want to do things right this time, Angel. The Pretender program was our most successful and most lucrative program. It can be again, if we go about it the right way, but we need Sydney back on board. Will you bring him in?"

She really did not like the way he said 'bring him in'.

"And if he doesn't want to come?"

Mr Parker smiled, then, and it was all too reminiscent of the look he used to get on his face when he got a particularly unsavoury idea.

"He'll come back. Sydney knows that you don't walk away from the Centre. Not permanently."


Leaving her father's office a short while later, Miss Parker found herself experiencing a powerful sensation of déjà vu. She couldn't help but recall when Raines had pushed for Bobby to be reacquired, and the events that had snowballed and eventually resulted in the destruction of the Blue Cove base, and the deaths of Brigitte, Lyle and Raines.

The latter of those consequences was nothing that bothered Miss Parker too greatly. She had always loathed Raines, especially after coming to believe he had killed her beloved mother. She'd despised Lyle, even more so after learning that he was her brother. As for Brigitte... Well, the less said about her, the better.

She wondered just how Bobby might react to finding out that not only was the Centre still in operation, that it was seeking to restart its heinous Pretender program. Somehow, she doubted he would be very happy about it, but whether he would be inclined to take action to stop it? That was something that Miss Parker simply couldn't second-guess. Now, if Jarod got wind of it, she had no doubt that he would want to put a stop to it. The trick was getting a message to him.

She paused in the doorway of her own new office - not as resplendent as her father's, but more than respectable nonetheless. It occurred to her right then that she was starting to look at real, viable ways to scuttle the Centre's new program, and it wasn't giving her anxiety attacks.

A grimace touched her lips. Give it time...

She sat at her desk, a frown etched onto her features. It bothered her, what her father had said about only taking children who were only orphans. If she wasn't mistaken, she remembered reading in an old file that Jarod had unearthed that they had tried that when the Pretender first started. There had been a couple of especially smart children found, but most were either average or so adept at hiding their true intelligence that the Centre ad eventually given up and instead started trolling through the masses of reports of school children from around the country.

Some children had been acquired in the same way that Bobby had been e courtesy of a parent too lost in their own personal issues and unable to cope with the demands of a child; and easily manipulated into believing that they were doing what was best for the child. In those instances, it had simply been a matter of working out how much money made the parting more bearable for the child.

Then, there were parents like Jarod's, who had been horrified at the prospect of surrendering their child to the Centre, and had tried escaping to keep their little boy safe.

Miss Parker shut her eyes against the threat of another blistering headache. That was the point when the Centre had turned to means less savoury to acquire their targets.

There was video footage that she had finally seen as an adult, of Jarod's arrival at the Centre. He had been delivered with a hood over his head, like a proverbial hostage. The difference was that Jarod was never meant to see his family ever again. He was supposed to have remained in the Centre until he died.

Miss Parker often wondered what the trigger had been that had caused Jarod to run. If Sydney knew, he'd never divulged the knowledge to anyone. Sometimes, she wondered whether Sydney had had any part in it. She knew from her initial investigations that Jarod had been increasingly distressed in the month leading up to his escape, and she just wondered whether Sydney had been slyly poking and prodding at Jarod, to see how far he could be provoked before he snapped.

She wondered whether Sydney regretted it once it became clear that Jarod would not be easily recaptured.

Movement in the corner of her eye momentarily startled her, and she might have drawn her gun if she didn't already know who it was.

"Broots. What the hell do you want?"

"The truth," he said quietly, and the tension and anger in his voice gave her pause. Broots - long-time and loyal Centre employee - had easily been enticed back to work after two years of struggling from one short term job to the next. He'd changed, though. He was still as quiet as ever, but the timidity that had once so irritated her was gone.

"The truth about what?" she asked, now suddenly weary of word games. After all, truth inside the Centre was a highly subjective thing.

"Is it true that they're planning to go after Bobby again? That they want to restart the Pretender program?"

She looked at him squarely, taking in the way that he returned her stare without flinching. A little more hair on top, and he might almost have been attractive.

"No, they aren't planning to go after Bobby. Yes, they want to restart the Pretender program." She paused briefly, then added in a low voice, "Yes, we are going to try and stop it from happening."

Broots' eyes widened in shock at the blunt statement but, to his credit he didn't argue or say anything inordinately stupid.

"How?" he asked softly, with just a hint of incredulity.

Miss Parker looked around speculatively. She knew for a fact that the building's security cameras were working, but they had yet to get the audio feed sorted out. It was safe to talk for now, as long as they faced away from the cameras.

"We need to find Sydney, and we need to find Jarod."

Broots let out his breath in a rush.

"Well, I have no idea where Jarod is, but Sydney is in New York. He's been there for four months now."

Miss Parker's eyebrows shot up. The implications of that were not lost on her for a second.

"New York?"

"Yeah," Broots confirmed. "And yes, he's been watching Bobby. I guess he just can't help himself."

"Silly son of a bitch," she muttered. "If Bobby sees him, he'll shoot him."

"I don't think he'll let himself be seen," Broots murmured. "At least, I hope he won't. He's just curious, Miss Parker."

"Well, we all know what curiosity did to the cat," she retorted. "Where in New York is he?"

"I'll get you the address. You've been told to bring him back, haven't you?"

She nodded.

"I have. They want him to run the new program. I'm sorry to say that he might just agree to it, too."

"Give him a little credit, Miss Parker. After what happened with Bobby, I'm not so sure that he'd been willing to let them get away with it again."

"We can't be sure of that, Broots. He might, knowing that Raines isn't around any longer to treat the kids badly. You know what Sydney is like. It's way too easy for him to develop a barrier around his conscience and convince himself that it's all for the greater good. That, and his scientific curiosity will always win out. He can't help himself."

"So what are you going to do? If we can't contact Jarod..."

"I'm sure I can get word to Jarod," Miss Parker murmured. "I just don't know how long it might take for it to reach him, and then for him to respond. Too long, maybe. But I'm betting there's someone who could get a message to Jarod straight away."

"Bobby?" Broots asked.

"Right. Bobby. Broots, I need you to keep an eye on things here. I'm going to New York."


to be continued...

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