“Delaware?” Madeline stared incredulously at Paul, dark eyes glinting with amusement.
Paul shrugged, stopping in front of one of the many tall stands of plants that encircled her office. “Specifically, Blue Cove.” His attention was drawn to the tall, blood-red orchid that was the centrepiece of the display. Several moments passed in silence, then he turned, an expression of happy shock on his face. “That’s…?”
“I never noticed it in here before.”
“It wasn’t thriving in my apartment.” She smiled, and watched his face light up. In the last year or so, he’d been working to get back what they’d had all those years ago. She wasn’t sure it was possible, but, nonetheless, it pleased her to make him happy, even if it was only in a small way. “It needed attention.”
He glanced back at the flower and his smile broadened a moment, then he was all business once more. “Blue Cove, Delaware. They call themselves The Centre.”
“The Centre?” She raised her eyebrow at the title, and he shrugged again, this time with an amused grin on his face.
“Unconnected to our colleagues, that’s for certain. Our research indicates they fund, and are involved in, several unique projects. The projects themselves aren’t a global threat, so the group itself has remained unimportant up until now.”
“They have developed an interest in Red Dawn.”
Turning towards her computer, Madeline scanned the screen. Red Dawn’s most recent activities were in the central United States – Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska. The incidents were small, mostly threats of violence, with little follow-through. “What am I missing?”
“Red Dawn is a small group, harmless in and of itself – so far. But it has a powerful leader in Jim Tyler, and even more powerful connections outside the country.”
“And this Centre has taken an interest. Why?”
“We don’t know, not yet anyway. But given their resources, and the nature of some of the projects, we need to look into it – closely.”
“So we send someone to Delaware?”
Madeline’s eyes narrowed. Crossing her arms on her chest, she leaned back in her chair, looking up at him. He smiled, or tried to. “Centre – our Centre – has decided this project requires a special touch. They need to know The Centre’s intentions, but they also want to create an understanding between our two groups.”
“And?” She braced herself for what she knew was coming.
“You leave in twenty-four hours.”
Madeline winced, and Paul smiled sympathetically, coming to sit on the edge of her desk. She hated playing ambassador, and worse, she hated flying overseas. Every trip she’d ever made had gone badly, not for Section, but for her personally. Istanbul, London, Tokyo, even Vienna, would have been preferable. But no, instead of Europe, or the Far East, she had Delaware.
“It won’t be that bad,” he said, attempting to appease her. “A couple of weeks at most.”
Schooling her features, she tried to smile. “Promise?”
“I’ll do my best.”
The plane’s lights flickered as it powered up, the noise of the engines momentarily drowning out Paul’s words. With a glance of exasperation towards the cockpit, he continued. “You’ll arrive at Dover Air Force Base at 10 am, local time,” he began, leaning across the aisle to pass her a PDA. “Any additional intel we’ve gathered since our last meeting is on here, along with in-depth files on the people you’ll be meeting with. As much as we could uncover on such short notice, at any rate.”
“The first name,” he continued, gesturing for her to view the info he’d called up, “a woman by the name of Parker – is the most important. She’s the one who’s been poking around; and she, it appears, will be your liaison while you’re at The Centre.”
Madeline glanced down to scan through the information, her eyes falling immediately on the small thumbnail image of her liaison. The woman looked familiar somehow. As the image increased to fill the screen, Madeline’s breath caught, her finger frozen over the zoom button. Parker.
London – 2 Years Earlier
“This is crazy - ”
Parker’s voice wavered slightly over the last word, the final syllable barely a whisper in the darkness. Despite her protests, her hips kept Madeline pinned against the wall, her tongue forcing its way into her mouth.
“Does it matter?” Madeline replied, breath coming in gasps. She sought out Parker’s mouth again, seeking the tang of the scotch that was heavy on her tongue.
“No,” she sighed, pulling her mouth away. Tracing her lower lip with her tongue, she shifted her body across Madeline’s, forcing her skirt up over her hips. Her next words a breathy moan, her blue eyes were glazed with passion. “God, no.”
Madeline shivered as the cool air touched her skin; gasped as Parker pulled her forward, forcing a leg between her thighs. Fighting the urge to cry out as the woman rocked her against her leg, Madeline gripped Parker’s hips, turning her so their positions were reversed.
Caught by surprise, Parker’s eyes flashed, then her mouth took Madeline’s fiercely, a hand tangling in her hair. Madeline’s hands moved smoothly along the outside of Parker’s thighs, drawing her tight skirt up over her hips as well.
For a moment, they parted, chests heaving. Then, with a small smile, Madeline brought a hand up to Parker’s cheek, feeling the soft skin and the moist sweat beneath her fingers. As Parker returned the smile, Madeline brought a hand down between them, shifting her leg to allow herself access. Her companion’s reaction was immediate – she moaned softly, bending her knees to bring herself closer to the source of the pressure.
Closing her eyes, Madeline leaned her forehead against Parker’s shoulder, feeling the woman’s soft hair against her cheek. She let her fingers play along the fabric of her panties, varying pressure, merely glazing over her clit. After a moment, Parker’s breath hitched and Madeline paused, lifting her forehead in time to feel Parker’s hand find her own centre, driving her to her toes, winded, unable to breathe. When she began to breathe again, the woman intensified the force, her thumb placed precisely where it would cause the most pleasure.
“God.” Madeline moaned, surprised and pleased by the ease with which Parker was playing her. She closed her eyes once more, dropping back down onto the soles of her feet, rocking against her companion’s fingers.
Eyes still closed, knees trembling, she slid her hand past her Parker’s panties, gently inserting two fingers. Her breath caught, but she didn’t let up. Madeline slowly withdrew her fingers, only to push them in again, and this time, Parker moaned.
“Absolutely insane,” she gasped, hand clenching on Madeline’s shoulder, body tensing.
Opening her eyes, Madeline touched the nape of Parker’s neck. The woman’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked at Madeline, almost desperate in her uncertainty. “Shhhh,” Madeline whispered, feeling her own body tense. “Let it happen…”
Madeline started, looking up from the data-pad. She could feel her face flushed red, her body unnaturally warm in her suit jacket and skirt. Crossing her legs, she leaned back against her seat, trying to pull herself together. “I – I’m sorry.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes.” She paused, unbuttoning her suit jacket, and slipping it off. Shrinking the picture on the PDA, she scrolled several pages further, but the image of Parker remained secondary to the rest of the text - haunting the background and her memory. She closed her eyes, willing the image, the feelings, out of her mind. “I’m just tired.”
“No. That’s not it.” He rose, crossing the aisle to sit next to her. As he reached for the PDA, his hand brushed her thigh, sending a shiver up her spine. Holding it between them, he increased the picture once more. “You know her?”
Looking up, she met his eyes, and knew she couldn’t lie to him, that it was too late to even try. “Yes.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“London, about two years back.”
“Your holiday, after Charles –” He paused uncomfortably, that particular topic still a sore spot between them.
The silence between them was tense, and long.
“What is she to you?”
Her head spun towards him, surprised by the intuitiveness of the question, and by the note of accusation in his tone. Taking the PDA, she shut it off, adding it to the pile on her briefcase. “An acquaintance. A friend.”
He frowned, perhaps sensing she was leaving something out. “Will this relationship interfere?”
“No.” She paused, choosing to ignore his tone. “Parker can be difficult. Our previous acquaintance will smooth that over.” I hope, she added silently.
In truth, their encounter had taken them both by surprise - its intensity, and its intimacy. And while they’d parted amicably, Madeline couldn’t help but remember the uncomfortable silence that had fallen; the desperate confusion in Parker’s gaze, and the strange hollowness that she herself had felt, as though she’d been laid open, vulnerable.
Turning back towards Paul, she saw him nod in acknowledgement, though he clearly was not satisfied with her reply. After a brief pause, he opened his mouth to speak, but stopped himself, looking away.
With a small sigh, she leaned back in her chair, brushing a piece of lint from her skirt, and waited. She knew Paul sensed something was missing from her tale, and that that frustrated him. As her superior, he had questioned her, and her answers were satisfactory, if not enlightening. But as her ex-lover, he wanted more – answers he wasn’t entitled to, questions he couldn’t ask.
“You have a room at a small inn in Blue Cove, along the water,” he said suddenly, glancing at his watch. “A car will meet you at the airport and transport you there. You’re scheduled to meet with Parker in the late afternoon. That should give you time to settle in and check in with us.”
Rising, he returned to his previous seat, retrieving something from the inside of his jacket. It was a small box, rectangular, roughly the size of a jewellery presentation case. He moved to stand in front of her, holding the box out to her. It was a presentation box. “Paul.” she frowned, disappointment and anger almost overwhelming her calm. She’d thought they were beyond this – that he was willing to be patient.
Opening the case to reveal a delicate gold bracelet, he shook his head. “It’s equipped with a small tracking device,” he said, sitting next to her and removing the bracelet from the box. When she didn’t put her arm out immediately, his hands dropped to his lap. “It wasn’t my idea.” He sighed angrily, looking pained. “Our implanted trackers were removed years ago – you know that.” He paused, looking at her hopefully. She kept her face unreadable, but put out her arm. He smiled weakly. “Thank you.”
“It’s beautiful.” She smiled, tracing the delicate curve of the gold as it went around her wrist. Three small sapphires glittered back at her, equidistant from each other along the setting. A subtle touch, and definitely Paul’s. “Someone at the Agency has good taste.”
“I had some input,” he admitted, reluctantly, possibly afraid of angering her again. “This mission isn’t expected to turn hostile, but they wanted to ensure your safely. Short of re-implanting your tracker –”
“This is fine.” She placed a hand over his where it sat on the armrest. “ I won’t take it off,” she said, hoping he caught the implication in her words.
He smile told her he did. “Time for you to go.” He rose, grabbing his jacket off the seat. “I’ll speak to you at 1700.”
Blue Cove, Delaware
Seated on the edge of the bed, Madeline towel-dried her hair, cursing silently at the Fates, or God, or whatever it was that had damned her to heinous overseas excursions, not to mention whatever-the-hell determined the weather patterns of the eastern United States.
After an extended layover in Washington D.C., she finally arrived at the inn in Blue Cove at almost 4 pm, six hours later than planned, and thirty minutes before her scheduled appointment with Parker. Worse still, the inn had given away her room, claiming they had never received Section’s call advising them to hold it.
The bed she sat on now, in a tiny motel off the interstate, was far too reminiscent of previous trips for her taste, and far too dingy for her to stay in long. Her luggage remained in the limo that had picked her up, her laptop the only thing in the room other than herself and the dust bunnies.
The laptop beeped, and she crossed to the desk, tossing the towel down onto the bed as she sat. Paul’s image appeared before her, slightly fuzzy from the long distance connection. He seemed to study her a second, then frowned. “I’m sorry.”
She chuckled, running a hand through her damp hair. “I’m getting used to it.”
“I wish I had better news,” he continued, and the picture wavered slightly, his face elongating, his words choppy. “…Damn weather – did you get that?”
“No,” she sighed, dreading what she’d missed. “Just tell me you found me a decent hotel? And cancelled my meeting?”
“Nothing on the hotel. There’s a convention in town; everything’s booked. Short of killing someone...”
“Is that an option?”
“Madeline,” he scolded.
She grimaced, but gave i. “And Parker?”
“Postponed, not cancelled. You’re meeting tonight, over drinks. Around seven.”
“Paul,” she began.
“I know,” he said. “But the Centre, ours that is, wants to get moving on this. It seems Red Dawn has made some large scale threats.”
“And we’re discussing it over drinks? There has to be some place more appropriate.”
“For this first meeting, we want equal footing – or as close to it as we can get. Meeting at the Centre puts you at a disadvantage, and, if you’re wrong about Parker, puts you in danger.”
“I’m in no danger from Parker.”
“Not directly. But The Centre isn’t her agency. Our intel suggests a power base that includes her brother, and a man named Raines – but some of the others are shadowy. Right now though, our chief concern is Red Dawn, and to get to them, you need Parker.”
“There’s something I don’t understand,” Madeline sighed, looking once again at her dingy surroundings. “If we’re not meeting with the Raines, why am I here? Anyone above Level 4 could take care of Red Dawn.”
“Agency is hoping that once the issue with Red Dawn is solved, we can negotiate with the higher ups. For that, we need you.”
“Upload the meeting information to me. I need to get moving.”
“Sure.” He pressed a couple of buttons, and the upload started. “And Madeline?”
She smiled. “Always.”
Lit only by candles and dimmed track lighting over the bar, Silhouette was an ideal place for a rendezvous – business or otherwise. Booths spanned its length on both sides, with tables scattered over the rest of the floor at intervals that allowed for private conversation. The music was surprisingly soft: faint background noise to hide, but not overwhelm, any discussion.
Madeline stood at one end of the bar, her glass of wine untouched in front of her, watching Parker. The woman sat in a booth on the far side of the room, a glass of scotch before her on the table. Since Madeline had begun watching, Parker hadn’t actually brought the drink to her lips, but merely cradled it, occasionally putting it down on the table; staring at it, but never drinking. It was a nervous action, and familiar.
Parker knew who was coming to meet her.
London – 2 years earlier
Hair falling across her shoulders, Parker sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on her knees, a glass cupped between her hands. Her blouse hung loosely across her shoulder, pulled carelessly over bra and panties. Leaning forward, she placed the glass at her feet on the floor, running a shaking hand through her hair. “This is crazy,” she growled.
“So you said last night,” Madeline replied, sliding to the edge of the bed to seat herself next to her companion. Her own blouse was in a rumpled heap on the floor, out of reach.
“Yeah.” Parker paused, rising to retrieve her purse from the nightstand. She took out a bottle of pills, then tossed the purse to the floor, dropping back onto the bed. “It was true then too.”
Hands still shaking, she fumbled with the cap, swearing under her breath.
“Let me help.” Madeline put out her hand for the bottle and Parker handed it over, reaching down to retrieve her glass from the floor. “Ulcer?” Madeline asked, glancing at the bottle as she twisted it open.
“Preventative,” Parker muttered. Madeline nodded, placing a pill in Parker’s outstretched hand. “Missed my dose last night,” she continued, a small grin crossing her face.
“You were distracted.” Madeline grinned back and Parker chuckled softly.
The tension between them faded into companionable silence as Parker drank her water, finally placing the glass back between her feet on the floor. She stared at it for a long moment, then raised her head. “God, this is awkward.”
Madeline nodded. “This sort of thing usually is.”
“I suppose so. I’m usually long gone at this point.”
“So why are you here now?”
“I don’t know. This is different somehow. I feel…”
“Empty?” Madeline ventured, knowing only what she herself felt. She’d had dozens of one night stands, at least a hundred Valentine missions under her belt, but no one had ever made her feel this way. It was an intimacy she’d only experienced once before – with Paul.
“Hollow,” Parker concurred. “Like everything I am is laid out before you.” She rose then, crossing the room to pick up Madeline’s blouse off the floor. Turning towards the window, she parted the curtains just enough to look out, staring at something in the distance. “It scares me.”
Moving to join her, Madeline touched her arm gently, taking the blouse from Parker’s clenched hand. “Me too.”
Parker raised her head as Madeline approached the table startled but not surprised by her sudden appearance. Gesturing to the other side of the booth, she leaned back against the cushioned bench, raising her glass to drink.
Madeline was silent for a moment, studying Parker as she sipped her drink. Although her clothing leaned more towards the conservative now than it had then, she hadn’t changed all that much. Her long dark hair still hung loosely around her shoulders, her clothing clinging to her body like a second skin.
It was with an effort that Madeline met Parker’s eyes, and as the woman looked at her over her glass, Madeline saw the same determination in hers.
“It’s good to see you,” Parker said finally. Lifting a hand, she gestured to the waiter, signalling him to bring another glass. “I’ve often wondered what would have happened.”
“If we hadn’t run away?”
“It wasn’t running,” Parker smiled, pausing as the waiter put the glass of scotch down on the table. “It was a strategic retreat,” she finished, then pushed the tumbler across the table.
Madeline chuckled, lifting the glass. She considered it for a moment, then caught Parker’s eyes. “Are you sure we should do this?” she asked, tilting the glass towards her companion. “This is how it started last time.”
“I’m sure.” Parker’s voice caught, giving away her trepidation, but she raised her glass, clinking it against Madeline’s. They drank in silence, each lost in her own thoughts, then Parker rose, coming around the table to sit next to Madeline. “We need to get past this,” she said quietly. “We won’t be able to function, not as colleagues. And among my coworkers any weakness is exploited. If there appears to be tension between us…”
“So we need to talk,” Madeline replied, drinking deeply. Looking out into the lounge, she avoided Parker’s eyes. She felt herself shutting down, wanting to walk away, avoid all that had happened that night – all that had been said and done.
A touch on her arm startled her and she turned, locking eyes with Parker. The intensity of the woman’s stare shocked her, the same feelings reflected back at her in Parker’s gaze. Then Parker dropped her hand to the table, turning away as though shocked by her own behaviour. “Freud would know,” she said quietly.
Madeline raised an eyebrow. “Freud?” she prompted, uncertain about the sudden change in direction, but willing to lead, if Parker wanted to talk.
Parker turned back towards her, a small smile on her face. “Sydney.”
“You mentioned him,” Madeline nodded. “I remember.”
“He would know why it’s so hard to open up.” She paused, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they were filled with frustrated tears. “Why simple intimacy – physical, emotional – is impossible for us to get past.”
“Trust.” The word crossed her lips without thought, catching Madeline by surprise. Swallowing nervously, she continued. “Fear of being hurt. Fear of judgement. Probably ingrained in us due to the environments we grew up in, and have lived in since.”
“Syd’s gonna love you.” Parker grinned, shaking her head in awe. “You didn’t tell me you were a shrink.”
“I’m not. Not officially. You could call me a profiler.”
“Well then, where do we go from here?”
“I’m not sure it’s that easy,” Madeline said, swirling the remains of her drink. The amber liquid caught the light from the candle, sending a shimmering reflection against the wall. “We can’t repair years of damage in a single night.” She paused, looking up from her drink. Parker’s brow was furrowed, her own glass clenched in her hand. “We just have to trust – to go on faith. But we need to decide now. We do this, or we move on, and I speak to Paul about assigning someone else.”
“He would do that?”
“He’ll question me, but he’ll do it – and find some excuse The Agency will accept. I can handle Paul.” Parker grinned. “So I recall,” she said, and Madeline couldn’t resist smiling back. Putting her glass down on the table, Parker placed a hand over hers, her expression turning serious. “But, no. Stay. We’ll figure this out.”
Clasping Parker’s hand where it lay over hers, Madeline smiled. “All right, we’ll do it.”
“So things went well?”
“They’re proceeding as anticipated.” Madeline paused, trying to keep her face serene. Her head was fuzzy - too much liquor, and too much time in close contact with Parker. Clenching a fist at her side, out of Paul’s line of vision, she continued. “Parker seemed edgy, but meeting with potential partners is always difficult.”
Paul nodded, clearly not noticing anything strange. “And Red Dawn?”
“Didn’t come up.” At Paul’s raised eyebrow, she smiled. “I thought it best to keep it casual, at first. I didn’t want her to feel threatened.”
“She’s not.” At least not by my position with Section One, Madeline added silently. “We established a comfortable rapport. Things should go well.”
Madeline smiled, hoping to broadcast more confidence than she felt. Comfortable rapport was a definite exaggeration, if not an outright lie. There had been nervous energy. There had been uncomfortable silences. There had been sexual tension. And there had been far too much scotch. And even that hadn’t created a sense of ease that would justify the words comfortable rapport. If anything the scotch had worked against them, but there was no need for Paul to know that. “I should let you sleep.” His voice startled her, and she turned back towards the monitor, uncertain how long she’d allowed her mind to drift.
“It’s been a long day.”
“I know.” He smiled softly, his eyes catching hers. “I won’t keep you much longer.”
Madeline nodded, leaning back in her chair now that her fatigue, if not its cause, was obvious. “We’re scheduled to meet at 10 A.M. tomorrow.”
“Should I arrange transportation?”
“No. Parker is sending a car.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Yes. It’s her arrangement, not The Centre’s.” She paused, taking a moment to kick off her shoes. “It seems she trusts them as much as we do.”
Paul nodded, his brow crinkling in worry. “You’re sure you can trust this woman?”
“Positive. Our meeting tonight only confirmed it.”
She could tell he was still unconvinced, but she wasn’t willing to enlighten him further – some things were just better kept undercover. “Any more information on why The Centre is so interested in Red Dawn?”
“We’re still not certain. Parker’s research seems to focus on one man in the organisation – Tyler’s second in command, a man named Jarod Wilmington.”
“Jarod?” Madeline sat up straighter. The name flittered around her mind for several minutes, dim recollection finally settling on the name – and its connection to Parker.
If this was about Jarod, things were about to get a lot more complicated.
London – 2 years earlier
Parker’s laugh was deep and throaty, a self-deprecating chuckle that sent a shiver down Madeline’s spine. “Not interested,” she said into her cell phone. “Not tonight. Go play with someone else, Jarod.”
She closed the connection, shutting down the phone completely and sliding it across the table out of reach. As it came to a halt at the edge of the table, she looked up at Madeline with a wry grin. “Business,” she said, but her tone suggested otherwise. It gave away far more than she realised – at least in her current state of intoxication.
“I see.” Madeline raised an eyebrow, and Parker grimaced.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I have reason to believe you may be being influenced by an outside source.”
Madeline glanced at her own half-empty tumbler, then at the bottle between them. Parker snorted, raising her glass. “Touché.” They clinked glasses in a mock toast, then drank. In the silence that followed, Madeline raised her eyebrow once more, indicating that she expected Parker to elaborate.
“Jarod,” Parker began, her expression, for the moment, unreadable, “is the bane of my existence.” She paused, swigging the last of her scotch. She looked down at the empty glass, a small frown crossing her face. “He is…a friendly enemy or an enemical friend, or …something. He is an escapee. It is my job, such as it is, to hunt for him. And yet,” she reached for the bottle, pouring herself another drink. “And yet,” she repeated, “we were friends. For a long time.”
Madeline didn’t speak, struck once again by Parker’s tone. Given the amount of scotch she’d consumed, she wasn’t entirely sure she could trust her intuition, but she was willing to take the chance. “Just friends?”
Parker looked startled and her glass slipped, sloshing her drink onto the table. “Yeah,” she muttered, eyeing the spilled liquid, rather than meeting Madeline’s eye. “Nothing more.”
“There is no but,” Parker said defensively, glaring across the table. Madeline met her gaze steadily and Parker faltered, clasping her glass between her hands. “Maybe once,” she admitted, her voice catching. “But I loved Thomas.”
“I shouldn’t have pushed.” Madeline placed a hand over Parker’s, surprised to see tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Parker shook her head, refilling both their glasses with an unsteady hand. “No,” she whispered, more to herself than Madeline. “I am.”
“Madeline?” Paul’s exasperation was clear, his voice clipped. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Madeline shook herself mentally, suddenly very sober, the fuzzy feeling in her head replaced by rapid thought. “The name is familiar,” she covered. “I was trying to place it. Does this Wilmington have any other connections?”
He sighed, reaching forward to begin an upload to her laptop. “Everything we know is on its way to you. He seems to have come out of nowhere although all his credentials check out. A little too well, actually. We’re still gathering intel.”
“I’ll read it over before bed.” She watched the download progress steadily, using the column of colour to focus her thoughts. It could be a coincidence, mere chance that Tyler’s Second had the same name as Parker’s quarry. But somehow, Madeline doubted it. It seemed her streak of bad luck was continuing.
“I’m sorry, Paul,” Madeline sighed. “I’m just exhausted.”
He frowned, leaning forward in his chair as if he could get closer to her. After a brief moment, he pressed a sequence on his keypad, and Madeline heard a distinct buzz.
He’d secured their connection.
As the buzz cleared, Madeline braced herself for a barrage of questions. They were in personal territory now – that was made clear by the crease of worry across his forehead; the one that he reserved especially for her.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
She didn’t reply, so he pressed on.
“You’re tense, distracted. I want to chalk it up to the flight, being overseas but it’s more than that.”
She was silent for a moment, considering. Even if she told him the truth about her and Parker, it had gone far beyond that now – and Jarod was Parker’s personal territory. All hope of honesty, at least until she had a chance to speak to Parker, was lost. She needed to steer him away.
Schooling her features, she asked the question that she knew would provoke him, and hopefully turn his concern to frustration. “Is this a personal concern, or do you believe the mission is in danger?”
True to form, he sighed. “You know the answer to that.”
“Then why ask the question?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
A moment passed, their eyes locked, then he sighed again. “You win. Just keep that bracelet on, and if you need anything…”
Standing at the top of the long concrete stairway, Madeline gazed at the building before her. Dark and foreboding, it gave the impression of great power. Its towering walls overlooked the ocean as if it reigned there, a king over his country – or a warden over his prison. She wondered, idly, how close the latter was to true.
Turning, she squinted towards the water. The rising sun, even through her glasses, pierced her eyes, her head pounding in retribution. At any other time, the sight of the sun rising over the ocean would have made her smile, but too little sleep, and far too much scotch, made the sight a painful reminder of everything that could, and had already, gone wrong on this mission.
“You’re looking far too pensive for someone who should be as hung over as I am.”
Madeline smiled, keeping her gaze focused east as Parker came up beside her. “I’m fairly certain that the sun is just as bright in Paris – and yet, the sky over Delaware seems more painful somehow.”
Parker chuckled, but kept her own gaze forward. “Thank you for waiting.”
Madeline nodded. “Nothing is amiss, I hope?”
“No,” Parker said, too quickly. She glanced behind her and Madeline followed her gaze, noting the dark-suited man in the doorway.
“Should I be concerned?”
“No.” Less quickly this time, but with the same tightness in her voice. Their eyes met, suppressed anger and fear darkening Parker’s.
“Can I help?”
Taken aback, Parker said nothing for a moment. “I’m not sure,” she replied finally.
The movement of their companion silenced them both, but Madeline recovered first, turning and walking purposefully towards the door. “The ocean is lovely this time of year,” she began, feeling Parker fall in beside her. “Thank you for indulging me.”
They proceeded into the building, their tail keeping an adequate, if not subtle, distance behind. The came to a halt in front of a bank of elevators, and the man stopped several feet away.
“What’s this about?”
Parker shook her head, indicating it wasn’t safe to talk. Then, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the man behind them, she started to speak. “Sam was astounded by your accommodations. We assumed your organisation would make better arrangements.”
Madeline scowled, unsure where Parker was heading. “There were extenuating circumstances.”
“Of course,” Parker smiled coyly, pressing the button to call the elevator. “Actually, it works to our advantage,” she continued, her expression becoming serious. Madeline raised a questioning eyebrow, but Parker pushed ahead, almost rushing through her next words. “We can work together far more efficiently if you’re staying with me.”
Madeline’s breath caught, her eyes widening in surprise. She couldn’t possibly be serious. “I wouldn’t want to intrude,” she said tentatively. “I’m sure the hotels will clear out after the weekend.”
“Nonsense,” Parker insisted, with a vehemence that surprised Madeline. “It’s not an inconvenience. Quite the opposite, actually. Leads break at odd hours around here,” she explained, as the elevator slid open in front of them. “We can move quicker if we don’t have to hunt you down.”
The elevator emptied and they stepped inside, Parker sparing one final glance for the man waiting across the hall. “You coming, MacGyver?”
The man straightened, frowning, but made no move to join them. Smirking, Parker let the elevator door close before he could change his mind. “Asshole,” she muttered. She turned, giving Madeline a small smile. “Welcome to The Centre.” Parker waved towards the camera in the upper corner of the elevator. “Where everyone listens, including the walls.”
“Just like home,” Madeline replied.
“You do seem oddly comfortable here.”
Suddenly, it all made sense, and Madeline cursed herself for not figuring it out sooner. Parker wanted her help, or at least a sympathetic ear, and this place, like Section, didn’t lend itself to private conversations. Parker’s home would be safe from prying eyes – and lurking shadows.
The elevator came to a halt with a shudder, the doors groaning slightly as they slid open to reveal a drab corridor – and the scowling face of their shadow.
“Colombo!” Parker called. “You found us, I’m so proud.” The man’s scowl deepened, but Parker ignored it, slipping past him and down the corridor without a second glance.
“I think I’ll take you up on your offer,” Madeline said, falling in beside Parker as they rounded a corner. “A comfortable bed would be a welcome change.”
“Good.” Parker’s smile, meant for Madeline alone, was at odds with her harsh tone. “Maybe now we can finally bring Ratboy home.”
London – 2 years earlier
“Lemme see if I got this straight.” Madeline paused, running the previous sentence over in her mind. She was slurring, definitely not a good sign. Glancing across at Parker, she saw the woman’s eyes flutter closed, her drink coming to rest on the tabletop. She wasn’t the only one drunk. “Le… let me see if I’ve got this straight,” she tried again, and smiled when Parker’s eyes opened again, revealing their brilliant blue. “You chase this man, and try and him bring home?”
“If he’s so dangerous, why don’t you just kill him?”
“Not dangerous – important,” Parker said, punctuating the last word with a sip of her scotch. “Jarod… is a genius.”
Madeline reached across the table and placed a hand on top of Parker’s. The woman’s eyes widened for a moment, then she lifted her hand, turning it so her nails scratched Madeline’s palm.
“I hate to tell you this,” Madeline began, her gaze shifting to where their hands had suddenly become joined. “But that’s silly.”
“If he’s not dangerous, why waste resources?”
Parker’s gaze shifted to Madeline. “They want him back,” she said quietly – a conspiratorial whisper. “He was theirs.”
Madeline nodded, as if everything made perfect sense. Then Parker’s hand slid out of hers, nails biting into her palm, and none of it seemed important. The woman rose unsteadily, coming around the table to seat herself next to Madeline and place a hand on her thigh.
“They want me to bring him home,” Parker said, her tone sad. Her hand tightened on Madeline’s thigh, as if seeking strength. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea, anymore…”
“Assume I don’t know anything,” Madeline instructed, looking up at Parker. The other woman paced the room, glancing every once in a while towards the clock in the corner.
“Sydney should be here.” She stopped pacing, eyeing the doorway.
“Miss Parker,” Her use of her title brought Parker back to herself. They were strictly business now, and needed to act that way.
“Okay,” she sighed, staring at Madeline forlornly. “The Pretender Project started years ago – long before I was born. Details and reasons are sketchy, at least to me. They – my father, Raines – arranged for the recruitment of child geniuses, like Jarod. They harnessed their talents, used them for simulations….”
“Simulations?” Madeline raised an eyebrow, sitting forward with interest. “Explain.”
Parker ran a hand through her hair in frustration. “To track murderers, solve cold cases, even aid the FBI…ostensibly at least. There were more sinister uses as well.”
Parker shrugged. “I suppose.”
“Jarod escaped…” Madeline prompted.
“Yes. A little over six years ago.”
Madeline nodded – this much she knew from her conversation with Parker two years back. The needed to get to the heart of the matter, get to what had brought her here.
“And now he’s gotten himself involved with Red Dawn?”
“Jarod takes on projects,” she said, her tone a mixture of irritation and affection. “He uses his skills, ingrown and Centre-trained, to help those that need it. Ensuring that justice is served, and those that deserve it are punished.”
“You track him through these projects?”
Parker snorted. “No. He taunts us; leaves us hints. Enough for us to find him, but only after he’s long gone. Syd worked with him, while he was here, he’s almost a father figure – Jarod feels a connection, can’t break it.”
“So Jarod let you know he was with Red Dawn.”
“Actually, no. This time has been different. He was careless. I found him first, and I’ve been trying to find a way to get him out, before he knows I’m on to him.” She paused, looking at Madeline. “I suppose that’s what brought us to your attention – my research into this militia group.”
“It’s not a militia group. It’s a terrorist organisation.” Parker’s face dropped, disbelief and worry clouding her features. “That is why your interest concerns us.”
“Who…exactly, do you work for?”
“A global anti-terrorist organisation. Your Triumvirate has the details you need to know – which is, in fact, very little.”
“ I see.”
“What we need to determine is why Jarod is so interested in this particular group, and whether he poses a threat to national, or international, security.”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
“From what you’ve told me, you’re probably right. However, he’s in a very powerful position within the organisation, and it’s only recently, perhaps since Jarod’s entry into it, that they’ve taken an interest in global politics.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m afraid I am, Miss Parker.” Madeline said gently, seeing Parker’s shock, and knowing how hard she must be working to keep her fear for Jarod out of her voice. “After we determine the nature of Jarod’s involvement, we’ll decide how to deal with him, and Red Dawn.”
“An innocent? Are you sure?” Paul asked incredulously.
“Innocent might be stretching things,” Madeline replied, returning to her seat in front of the monitor. “But I don’t think he’s aware of Red Dawn’s true nature. If what Parker tells me is true, he sees his actions as some kind of atonement. He would never become involved with a group set out to harm others – unless he was planning to bring that group, or someone in it, to justice.”
“You’re telling me he’s a vigilante of some kind?”
“At a very basic level, yes, although he doesn’t see himself that way.”
“And his interest in Red Dawn?”
“It seems that Tyler has an unhealthy interest in young girls. He was charged with the statutory rape of a 14 year old – a girl who later killed herself when the case got thrown out of court.”
“On what grounds?”
“Parker wasn’t clear on that, but she’s fairly sure that Jarod’s involvement with Red Dawn is connected to the case, and his need to get justice for the family – and the other girls. By the time Jarod is done, Tyler will be in jail.”
“And Parker’s interest?”
“Jarod. Nothing more. She should be able to pick him up after Tyler is jailed.”
Paul sighed, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. “I can have you on a plane home tomorrow morning.”
Madeline smiled at the thought, but shook her head. Her business with Section might be complete, but Parker still needed her. “No. We should ensure Jarod’s personal vendetta comes to fruition, and that Red Dawn collapses.”
She paused, waiting for Paul to interrupt with some reason to bring her home. When he didn’t, she continued. “Besides, I’d like to find out how we missed this. Our intel should have led directly to Jarod – and yet we were circumvented. It would be prudent to investigate The Centre a little more, see what else they’re hiding.”
“I’ll inform the Agency.”
“Good,” she said aloud, but her mind raced. He should have argued. Personal feelings aside, years of experience told her he would argue for her return. She could hear the arguments in her head, down to his intonation. And yet, he’d given in. “I’m uploading the information I received from Parker,” she began, preparing her next bombshell, “as well as her home address – she’s invited me to stay with her.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea,” he said and for the first time, she noticed how his eyes wandered. Someone, or something, was distracting his attention. “And it should give you a unique opportunity to study The Centre’s dynamics after the fact.”
“I would imagine so, yes.”
“Good. Contact me after you’ve settled in.”
“Of course.” His eyes shifted again, apparently towards another monitor. “Paul?”
“Yes?” It was a subtle movement, but that time she caught it – his hand on the keypad, adjusting the view.
“Is everything all right?”
His full attention was on her now, a slight frown the only indication of guilt. “I’m sorry. I’m monitoring some communications on the Bali mission.”
“Bali? What for?”
A pause, unwilling to meet her eyes. “There’s been an anomaly.”
Bali had been flawless, simple even. A raw recruit could have planned and executed it. Of all his choices, he’d picked the wrong one. He was careless when he was nervous. “You need me to look over the intel?” she asked.
“No.” He shook his head, looking directly at her for the first time in several minutes. “Focus on Jarod. I can handle this.”
Damnit. She knew that look, that tone of voice – he was hiding something. The question was, what? And what could she do about it from across the ocean? “All right,’ she said, trying to keep her voice level. “Good night, Paul.”
He smiled. “Good night, Madeline.”
London – 2 years earlier
Madeline slid back into the booth, dropping her cell phone onto her coat. Taking a sip of her drink, she eyed Parker, frowning slightly.
“Trouble in paradise?” Parker said.
“You could say that.”
Parker reached across the table, taking Madeline’s tumbler and refilling it. “Let me guess,” she began, holding the glass out for Madeline to take. “He needs you. It must be business, something important, or you wouldn’t have taken the call.”
Madeline didn’t respond. Instead, she took the drink from her companion’s hand - emptying it. “And yet,” Parker continued, eyes widening in awe, “while work, at times, has made me drink myself into a stupor, I’m fairly certain there’s something else involved here. There’s something in your eyes – an urge to maim perhaps, that usually means something deeply personal – at least in my case.”
She paused, this time refilling both their glasses. “So? Talk. At the rate we’re drinking, I’m not going to remember anything in the morning anyways.”
“It was business,” Madeline muttered.
“Of course it was,” Parker said patiently. A parent consoling a small child, convinced there are monsters under the bed.
It should have been irritating, it should have angered her, but instead, Madeline smiled. “It’s a long story, Parker, and I’d have to be very drunk to tell it.”
“I’ll buy the next bottle.” Parker smirked. “You give me the short version?”
“Mmm…” she sipped her drink, eyeing Parker over the rim. “Perhaps.”
“Let me start for you. His name is….”
“Paul.” The second glass went down quicker than the first, burning her throat slightly on the way down.
“Colleague?” She paused, emptying her own glass. “Or lover…”
Madeline raised an eyebrow, unsure how to answer, or even whether she should. And yet. “Both….Sort of.”
“No longer lovers?”
“Barely even friends.”
Madeline nodded, lifting the bottle off the table and pouring for herself and Parker. “The truly sad part...” Looking up, she saw her companion staring at her, a look of sympathy in her eyes. “We were getting back what we had – ” “Until?”
Madeline lowered her eyes, forcing the words out. “Until my husband was killed.”
Parker blinked, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Madeline smiled sardonically, only succeeding in baffling Parker more. “He lied to me – after 16 years, and all we’d been though, he lied. And tonight, while attempting to appease me – he lied to me again.”
Madeline leaned back against the couch cushions, feeling the smooth coolness of the leather against her neck, and the warmth of the fire on her legs. The combination was oddly relaxing, dispelling the dull ache in her head that had accompanied her throughout the day. Closing her eyes, she sighed deeply, allowing the tension to ebb and her mind to clear.
Through the crackle of the fire, she heard Parker enter from the other room, then pause in the doorway. For a moment, there was silence, then she moved across the room, stopping once more before the couch.
“Thank you,” Madeline said softly, her eyes opening to stare directly at Parker. “I needed this.”
“That,” Parker began, seating herself next to Madeline, “creeps me out.”
“Sorry,” Madeline returned her smile, closing her eyes again. “Habit.”
Parker sank down into the cushions next to her, her body sliding sideways until their shoulders touched. Madeline held her breath, feeling heat radiate from Parker’s body to hers, outdoing the fire in its intensity. Opening her eyes, she turned her head, their eyes meeting as Parker’s hand came to rest on her thigh. Madeline released her breath, surprised to find it shuddering.
“It’s strange,” Parker began, her hand applying steady pressure. A wave of heat washed over Madeline once again, and a flush crossed Parker’s cheeks. “Two years, and nothing has changed…”
Madeline placed her one hand over Parker’s, reaching up with the other to stroke her face. The intensity was still there: the nervous energy, the raw need that had brought them together two years before. Yet it was tempered. It would be simple to slip back into – so very easy. “And yet so much has.”
Parker nodded, laying her head back against the couch, her hand not straying from its position. Madeline squeezed it, watching the play of emotions on the woman’s face. “Tell me.”
Parker was silent, her eyes focused on the ceiling above her head. After a moment, she sat up, head in her hands. “It’s Jarod,” she began. “I can’t bring him back to The Centre.”
Parker chuckled ironically, her voice catching on her next words. “You want the short version, or the long one?”
“Whichever you’re willing to give.” Madeline leaned forward, her torso even with Parker’s. Reaching across her, she touched her chin, turning her face until their eyes met. “But I need to know everything, if you want me to help you.”
She started slowly, her words coming with difficulty. “At one time, I believed in The Centre; in what they did, what they said. I never questioned. Never asked for the truth. Things were black and white – good and evil, and my father – he was good. I would have done anything for him – and did.”
She stopped, looking out into the room as if the answers she wanted were there, hovering above her mantelpiece. “As soon as Jarod left, he started chipping away at what I believed. Bit by bit. Piece by piece. Everything I knew about my father, the Centre …myself, started to crumble. I started seeing things for what they really were…And I wanted my freedom.”
“But that wasn’t possible…” Madeline said softly.
“No,” Parker said tersely, suddenly tense. “They took Thomas when I tried.”
Dear lord. “I didn’t realise…” Madeline stopped, unsure what to say. It seemed The Centre was worthy of its namesake, using violence and uncertainly to keep its people in line. Placing a hand in the small of Parker’s back, she stroked gently, letting her touch do what her words couldn’t.
“We avoided the details, if I recall – on a lot of things.” Parker relaxed slightly, touching Madeline’s knee by way of thanks. “Thomas was a rude awakening,” she continued, her voice sad. “After that, whether consciously or not, I knew I could never bring Jarod back. It wasn’t right. It never had been.”
“That was two years ago…”
“It was easy.” She smiled, the affection and awe Madeline had heard in her voice before coming through again. “He’d already avoided us for so long, I was able to convince myself, and others, that he was simple that good. We’d get close, and suddenly he’d be gone. Business as usual, until…”
Madeline let the silence stretch, allowing Parker time to form the words. Conflicting emotions were clear on her face, an internal debate raging that Madeline was intimately familiar with - the desire to share her pain with someone, the knowledge that that very act made her vulnerable.
A log fell, the crackle of the fire weakening in intensity. Parker rose, crossing to the fireplace and sitting on the hearth, a faint smile on her face. “Our search for the truth,” she began suddenly, glancing down into the fire, “the one he started me on – led us to Carthis.”
She reached for another log, sliding open the grate and placing it carefully on the top of the pile. When it caught, she continued. “Deserted island, in the middle of the storm of the century…” She rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “Like something out of a romance novel – complete with mysterious stranger.”
“You were intimate?”
She shook her head again. “No,” she said. “Not physically.”
She looked up, seeking understanding, and Madeline smiled. “I understand.”
“I thought you might.” She returned to the couch, squeezing Madeline’s shoulder as she sat back down. “In hindsight, it was there all along. But we were too blind – or too stubborn – to see it.”
Madeline nodded, knowing all to well what stubbornness could do.
“I can’t bring him back,” Parker continued, lying back against the cushions. “But I’m not sure how long I can protect him.”
“You’re not the only one searching anymore, are you?”
“No.” Parker shook her head, turning it towards Madeline. “Lyle – my prodigal brother – is hunting too. And you,” she paused, meeting Madeline’s eyes with a smirk, “have made my job even more difficult. With your resources…they expect results – if I don’t bring him in, Lyle will.”
She shook her head again, more forcefully. “It would have happened eventually. It’s been getting harder to say ahead of Lyle.”
“Have you spoken to Jarod, since the island…”
“Once or twice – I’ve warned him of the danger, told him to lay low.”
“He continues to play games,” Parker growled, then rolled her eyes. “He says he’s worried about me.” “Does he have reason to be?”
“No.” Her tone was fierce. Obviously she’d had this argument before, several times.
“So that man following us at the Centre was a jealous lover?”
Parker glared, rising to pace before the fire. “I’ve been dodging bullets at Centre for years – Jarod doesn’t know who he’s dealing with when it comes to Lyle.”
“So,” Madeline began, looking up at Parker though the shadow of the fire. “You’re left with a choice: bring Jarod home yourself – something for which he will never forgive you; or let Lyle have him, and watch the struggle play out from the sidelines. Either way, Jarod ends up back at The Centre.”
Parker grunted, running a hand through her hair. “Love the easy choices.”
Madeline frowned, watching Parker struggle with her dilemma. She had no doubt that, given time, her friend could have come up with a solution to her problem with Lyle, and kept Jarod free indefinitely. But with Section’s resources at work, she didn’t have time. All she had was regrets.
“I think I can give you a third choice,” she said, gesturing for Parker to return to her seat on the couch. The woman froze in the act of walking, stopping just short of the couch. The light from the fire caught her eyes, and Madeline saw her surprise, and beneath it, a glimmer of hope.
Instead of returning to the couch, Parker sat on the coffee table in front of it, never tearing her gaze away from Madeline. “I’ll take anything.”
The fire was dying to embers when Madeline finally opened her laptop to contact Section. As the computer hummed to life, she thought about what she’d promised Parker. There were so many ifs involved, so many possibilities for error. It wasn’t like her to even consider such an idea, but the look of relief and joy in Parker’s eyes as the plan came together made her determined to see it through.
Keying in the appropriate sequence, Madeline waited for the satellite to transmit her signal to Section, tapping at the keyboard impatiently. After a long moment, a face appeared before her, grainy at first, then gradually clearing.
The young man looked as shocked as she felt, his eyes widening behind his glasses. “Uh, Madeline…” He looked down at this keyboard, punching keys that Madeline was fairly certain weren’t necessary. “Sorry for the delay, we weren’t expecting your signal until later this evening.”
“Understood.” She paused, waiting for some explanation as to why he had answered her call, instead of Paul. When he wasn’t forthcoming, she decided it was time to push. “Where is Operations?”
“He’s… not on site.” He’d faltered only slightly, but it was enough. Clearly, he’d been left to cover – for what, she wasn’t sure, but apparently he hadn’t been provided with a story to hide Paul’s absence from her.
“That’s fairly obvious.” She raised an eyebrow, allowing a trace of disappointment to creep into her voice. She continued to stare at him, until a red tint started to crawl up to the tips of his ears. “Where is Operations?” she repeated.
“He’s in Washington. He’ll be back tonight.”
“I see.” The young man nodded. With a small frown, he lowered his head to stare at the keyboard. Madeline’s voice brought his eyes back to hers. “Make your life easier, Mr. Birkoff, and tell me why.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Can’t?” Madeline suppressed a grin, a small amount of pride welling up in her chest. He was a bright young man, and, after years of grooming, finally growing into his own. However, he did pick the most inopportune times to show his backbone. “Or won’t?”
“Aw, hell,” he groaned, rubbing his short-cropped hair. She leaned forward in her chair, ensuring Birkoff saw her expression as clearly as possible. He ducked his eyes again, but straightened in his seat. “He just said…” he began, then raised his eyes, swallowing nervously. “He said it was personal business.”
It took only a moment for Madeline to connect the dots. In the years she’d known him, Paul had left the country only a handful of times on personal business, choosing to allow intermediaries to conduct his less pressing matters. He was careful with his time away from Section, and in her experience, only two issues, perhaps three, including herself, would take him away from it for extended periods of time – his family, and Willie Kane. With the death of Corinne and his son last year, the answer shone like a beacon.
“Now that wasn’t so hard, Mr. Birkoff, was it?” She smiled, and was pleased to see Birkoff shift in his seat. He didn’t answer her, but that was to be expected. “When he arrives, let him know I checked in.”
As Birkoff severed their connection, Madeline punched in another sequence, creating a secure link to another area of the Section. The computer loaded, then a face appeared on her screen once more – this one a dramatic contrast to Birkoff’s young visage.
“You nearly gave the kid the heart attack,” Walter said, shaking his head. “I could see him squirming from here.”
“Why didn’t you tell me what Paul was up to?”
“I don’t owe you anything.” He grunted, crossing his arms on this chest.
She frowned, well aware of what the years, and her position, had done to their friendship. But some things went far beyond what their friendship had once been – and she hoped Walter agreed. “No,” she replied, her voice soft. “You don’t.”
He seemed to soften a little, even smiling slightly as he looked around his workstation. “He took Michael and Nikita with him. Willie’s in deep this time.”
“Is there any chance he’ll make contact?”
“I dunno. I’m keeping an eye on it though.”
She nodded, an ache deep in her chest reminding her how much she owed to Walter – and how much she, and Paul, had once meant to him. “You know what needs to be done, if he gets too close?”
“Yeah.” He nodded solemnly, then his eyes shifted suddenly towards Comm. “Birkoff’s coming – I gotta run.”
He moved to cut their connection, his hand reaching towards the keypad.
“Walter… He hand stopped in mid-air, the tone of her voice catching him off guard. “Thank you.”
He nodded again, and this time the screen went black.
Powering down the computer, Madeline placed it on the coffee table, closing the cover with a bang. This wasn’t the first time that Paul had made the journey to Washington to see Willie, but never before had he brought other operatives into the equation. This was bigger than usual, far more dangerous. And Madeline doubted it wouldn’t end well. “That sounded serious.” Madeline looked up, startled, to find Parker standing in the doorway, a steaming mug in each hand. “I didn’t mean to listen in.” She took a few steps into the room, gesturing with one of the mugs. “I made some tea.”
Madeline remained silent, happy for the company, but unwilling to say it. She disliked hurting Paul, but in this case, the alternative would be far more painful. He couldn’t discover the truth – it would kill him, and that was unacceptable.
Seeming to sense her mood, Parker sat down next to her, sinking into the cushions as she had earlier, her leg against Madeline’s. “If you want to talk.”
She shook her head, taking the mug from Parker’s hand. “Thanks.”
London – 2 years earlier
“They never really grow up,” Madeline said, drinking deeply from the tumbler before her. A strange calm had settled over her, but the ever-increasing amount of alcohol in her system dulled her pain only slightly. “It’s the only answer.”
Parker looked at her strangely, tilting her head. “Who?”
Parker nodded solemnly, placing her glass on the table top and cupping it between her hands. She seemed to be dealing with her own pain. “I’ve heard that.”
“As children,” Madeline continued, “they torment the girls they like. Teasing. Prodding. Pushing them to the edge of tears.”
“Or over it.” Her tone was bitter, her hand clenching more tightly on her glass.
It was Madeline’s turn to nod. They’d both been there, every young girl had. “And as adults, they find new and more painful ways to do the same thing.”
Parker grunted, finishing the scotch that remained in her glass, then refilling it from the bottle between them on the table. “The ever glorious, and much lauded, mind-fuck.”
“Among other things.”
“The difference is,” Parker said, her bitterness enveloping her words, “now, we can fuck them right back.”
“So to speak.” Madeline grinned.
“Maybe.” Parker returned her smile, her eyes glinting in the dim light. “Or maybe not.”
The day dawned grey and foreboding, matching Madeline’s mood. After contacting Parker’s colleagues to advise them they would be pursuing leads off site, Parker and Madeline set to work, attempting to iron out the details of Jarod’s rescue.
Parker paced the kitchen, her cup of coffee forgotten on the counter. Last night’s excitement had faded, leaving behind a pessimism that was causing Madeline’s own vague confidence to fade.
“Can you convince him to meet with me?” she said for the second time.
“I don’t know.” Parker shook her head, pausing in her pacing long enough to meet Madeline’s eyes. “Is that necessary?”
“It might be. I can convey a greater degree of trust – and need – in person.”
Parker nodded, a small frown on her face. “If he doesn’t agree to this…”
“We’ll convince him.”
“He’s spent six years struggling against The Centre, Madeline. He won’t give that up – not without a struggle.”
“Then we’ll struggle.” Rising, she crossed the kitchen to stand before Parker, placing a hand on her arm. “We’ll make him see reason.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
So do I. Madeline thought, guiding Parker towards the table. Her cordless phone sat on the edge, and Madeline picked it up, holding it out to Parker. “Make the call.”
Parker took the phone, resuming her pacing as she dialled. “Syd?” She paused, listening, then frowned. “Yeah, sort of. Listen – I need your help.”
She paused at the counter, tapping a finger against her coffee mug. “No. I need you to contact Jarod for me.”
She was quiet for a long moment, eyes turned towards the floor, her hand clenched on the receiver. “You know me better than that…No…Just get him to contact me – It’s important.”
She turned away, facing the cabinets. Her voice dropped, barely above a whisper. “Syd – Please. Just get him to call…Thanks.”
Placing the phone on the counter, she didn’t turn immediately, instead placing her hands palm down on the counter. “Now we wait, I guess,” she said, quietly. “Syd’ll come through.”
“He gave you trouble.” It was a statement, not a question, but Parker nodded anyways. When she turned to face Madeline, her face was bleak, her eyes cloudy.
“He sees what’s going on at The Centre. He’s assuming I’m working to bring Jarod back. He has no reason to believe otherwise.”
“He’ll still do it?”
“Yeah. And I think Jarod will respond. He knows the truth – I think.”
“So we wait.” Madeline rose, crossing the kitchen once more to retrieve Parker’s coffee mug from the counter. Gesturing for Parker to sit, she refilled the mug from the pot warming on the stove.
By late evening of the following day both women were certain their request had been ignored. After all, neither Sydney nor Jarod had any reason to believe that Parker was sincere. She’d worked too hard over the past few months to convince The Centre – and by extension, Sydney and Jarod – that everything was as it had been; that all she wanted was to see Jarod returned. And unfortunately, it seemed she’d been extremely successful.
“I’m sorry.” Parker frowned, eyeing the phone as though it was it that had betrayed her. She sat forward on the couch, elbows on her knees, head in her hands. “I really thought he would call.”
“We’ll talk to Sydney – or we’ll find another way.”
“We’re running out of time.”
The sound of the phone startled them both, and Parker’s eyes widened as she reached for the handset. Madeline gave her a supportive smile, placing a hand on her knee, and nodding towards the phone. “Now or never.”
Parker picked up the phone, bringing the receiver to her ear. “Hello?”
Parker released a ragged breath, sitting back heavily on the couch. “Jarod,” she said, relief making her voice heavy. She paused then, smiling slightly. “I wouldn’t have, but it’s important.” Another pause, longer this time. “He did? I’m not surprised. A little disappointed, not surprised.” She frowned. “I know…I know.”
Running a hand through her hair, Parker sat up once more, glancing in Madeline’s direction. “Listen, Jarod – I need you to meet with someone.” Parker bit her lip, clearly suppressing the urge to snap. As it was, her tone was caustic. “No, no sweepers. I don’t set traps, Jarod.”
Parker took a deep breath. “Jarod. This woman can help us…She’s a friend.” Her hand clenched on the handset, knuckles going white. “Meet with her, listen to what she has to say.” She shook her head, closing her eyes in frustration. “Damnit, Jarod. You can make the arrangements with her. I won’t be party to them. Trust me this once, please.” Her last plea was desperate, her voice breaking slightly as she spoke. “Thank you.”
Taking the phone from her ear, she passed it to Madeline, rising to cross the room. She watched anxiously as Madeline placed the receiver to her ear.
“Who are you?”
“Madeline. I’m a friend of Parker’s.”
“So she said – she doesn’t have many friends. She must trust you a great deal.”
“Tell me what this is about.”
“The Centre. Your future.”
“I see.” There was a pause, as if he was considering her words. “You understand my concern, with meeting you?”
“Yes. You choose the location. I will arrive first, so you can see I’m alone.”
“Won’t be attending. We thought it best.”
“Yes.” Another pause.
Madeline looked towards Parker. She’d taken a seat on the bench by the window, her gaze shifting between Madeline and the darkness outside. Despite her apparent distraction, however, Madeline was certain she was listening to everything that was said.
“Washington, DC.” Jarod continued, as though completing a thought. “Far enough away from The Centre, and easy for me to access.”
“Understood. Where, specifically?”
“National Cathedral. Saturday. After the evening prayer service. I’ll find you.”
Washington DC – National Cathedral, Interior
Madeline entered the chapel quietly, slipping in through the back as the prayer service continued up front. Despite her attempts, however, her entrance was noticed, several patrons turning to glare up at her from their places in the back pews. Their eyes burned as she walked her final few steps and sat down, making the sign of the cross as she did so.
Her hand at her right shoulder, Madeline stopped. Slowly, she brought her hand to her lap, as though uncertain that it would obey the command. She felt lost suddenly, betrayed by her own unconscious. Or perhaps, she had betrayed it.
It seemed sacrilege, after all these years, to be setting foot in a church, let alone performing acts that implied some sort of devotion. Yet, here she was, behaving as though the intervening years hadn’t happened.
Even after all her time in Section, the unconscious mind never ceased to amaze her, how a sight or a sound could trigger an ingrained response, even after years had passed. How an adult, confronted with a childhood fear, would react with the same fervour they had then – even when they purported to be over it.
Or how a women, who had long ago given up on God, found herself awed in his sanctuary.
“You seem upset.”
The pew creaked as the man took a seat; his body close to hers. She could feel the heat of him, smell the leather of his jacket. Looking up, Madeline was surprised to find the crowd dispersing, the drone of conversation replacing the murmured prayers of the attendees. It echoed in the vast hall, surprisingly loud against the previous quiet – how had she missed the change.
“Merely distracted,” she replied, turning towards the man next to her. His dark hair was cropped short, army style; his bomber jacket opened just enough to reveal a finely toned chest beneath a white tee. He hadn’t dropped his pretend, even for their meeting. “Everyone has their demons.”
He smiled at that, turning towards the departing crowd. “Some kill.”
“The living ones,” Madeline agreed. “Most of mine of long dead.”
He turned back towards her, his head tilted slightly as though to see her from a different angle. His eyes were dark, the hollowness so familiar to her in Parker’s eyes even deeper in his. “Are you sure?’
Turning away from Jarod, Madeline looked around the chapel once more, feeling the same wonder she’d felt on first entering: the silence reverence that spoke of grief and the beginnings of pain. “The last time I was in a church like this,” she began, surprised that she was doing so, “was my sister’s funeral. I was seven.”
She paused, not sure she was willing to go on. As she turned back to him, something in his eyes compelled her. “The sorrow was overpowering. The feeling that something heavy hung there, pushing down on me. Beyond my understanding.”
“Grief is a difficult concept for children to grasp,” he said. He didn’t speak for a moment, leaving her to her own thoughts. “You know,” he said, the childish lilt to his voice almost dispelling the previous seriousness. “If you were to go out to the northwest parking lot, and look up at the nave from the outside, you’d see a carving of Darth Vader’s mask.”
"Darth Vader?" she repeated his words, disbelief lacing her voice. His change of topic seemed random, unsettling. She wondered suddenly if he was teasing her.
"Yes,” he continued, his tone evening out into something more grave. “Apparently it was a contest won by a child. When he thought of demons, Darth Vader – a fictional character – was all he could come up with.”
He stopped, meeting her eyes. Unknowingly, she’d succeeded in gaining his trust. And perhaps, his friendship.
“All childhoods should be so innocent,” he finished, looking up towards the cross positioned above the nave, “and all evils so easily dispelled.”
The crowd emptied out around them, leaving them alone in the back of the chapel, the silence almost as overpowering as the previous din. “Parker believes you’re in danger,” Madeline said finally, pitching her voice low.
Jarod chuckled, the smile that spread across his face stopping short of his eyes. “For six years she’s been the cause.”
“I think you know that’s changed.” He turned, studying her again as he had before. She smiled, then turned to meet his eyes. “The Centre has redoubled its efforts since Carthis. Lyle is also tracking you.”
“I know.” Jarod nodded. “A couple of times, I’ve barely slipped away”
“If you know about the danger…”
“I’ve thought about disappearing completely,” he said, glancing towards the nave. The clergy were finishing up, speaking to a few remaining patrons, before they ushered them out as well. “Of walking into a pretend, and never coming out again.”
“Then why not?”
“Parker, Sydney and Broots.” He smiled gently, his eyes, for the first time since he’d sat down, softening. “Lyle’s involvement is incidental. If I vanish, blame will be placed squarely on their shoulders. Particularly hers. I won’t risk her life.”
“What if I told you I could change that. Help you vanish, without any risk to Parker.”
“You have that power?”
“I have the resources.”
Madeline froze, uncertain quite how to respond. The truth was, she’d never considered the reasons why. The answer to Parker’s dilemma had seemed obvious, necessary even. Why? had never crossed her mind.
“I don’t have many friends,” she said, smiling as she realized she was mimicking his earlier words. “I have to take care of the ones I have.”
London – 2 years earlier
“I’ve been told,” Parker slurred, leaning back and closing her eyes, “that I don’t play well with others.”
Madeline smiled, not particularly surprised by the declaration and far too drunk to fake it. “I can’t imagine why,” she replied instead.
Parker’s eyes fluttered open and she glared across the table. “Now – listen here. I’m very easy to get along with.” She paused, suddenly looking unconvinced of her own words. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Ah, yes,” Madeline said, patting Parker’s hand where it lay on the table. “But I am also difficult. And…”
Parker raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“And, I’m far too drunk to leave.”
Parker was silent, her forehead wrinkled in thought. “But,” she began, lifting her glass. She swirled the scotch in it, staring into the dark liquid. “We weren’t always drunk.”
“No.” There was a point coming, Madeline was sure of it.
“And we both stayed then.”
“So everyone must be wrong!” Parker declared, placing her glass down on the table with a bang. “We are not the problem here. It’s the world.”
“Yes. The world is wrong.”
Washington – National Cathedral, Grounds
“You think you can pull this off?” Jarod stopped walking, glancing back towards the cathedral. He pointed upwards, in between two arches. “Up there.”
“I know I can.” Madeline looked where he pointed, not able to make out the sculpture from this distance, but amused by the thought of its presence. “It’s almost second nature to me.”
“Faking people’s deaths?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You’re probably right.” He smiled, his face shadowed in the dimming light of the setting sun. They walked on in silence, Jarod carefully keeping a careful eye on there surroundings. “Madeline,” he began, and she could tell he was choosing his words carefully. “I appreciate all you’ve done.”
Raising a hand to stop her, he continued. “You need to understand something. This game of Parker’s and mine, it goes far deeper than run and chase. In spite of the last six years, in some ways, because of them, I can’t leave her behind. I know too much, about The Centre, about us. I’m not the only one who needs to escape.” He paused, the look of desperation on his face highlighting his next words. “Help Parker too – and you have a deal.”
Madeline nodded sadly, closing her eyes a moment. “I wish it hadn’t come to this.”
The moment passed in silence, then she opened her eyes again, intent. “Do they know?”
The answer was clear in Walter’s expression, he looked at the floor, scratching at his bandana. “Yeah.”
“I’ll take care of them when I return.” Walter flinched, raising his eyes. There was fire in them, his loyalties divided. She would need to deal with that as well. Suppressing a sigh, she continued. “Where is he now?”
“Still in Washington. Funeral is at Arlington, tomorrow morning.”
Walter nodded, glancing away, towards Comm. “Listen, I gotta run. Mission prepping.”
“Walter.” He paused, turning back to her, almost fearful.. “I owe you one,” she said, fully intending to deliver – somehow, and wishing the years hadn’t changed them quite so much. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “S’alright. It needed doing. And I owe him.”
Washington – Arlington National Cemetery
An icy wind blew across the cemetery, carrying the scent of flowers and dried leaves. The leaves eddied along the concrete, swirling around Madeline’s feet as she made her way along the path. Despite the brisk air, the sun shone brightly, white clouds casting the occasional shadow across the gravestones.
As she came near the place she’d been directed to, she stopped, feeling her chest tighten at the sight before her . The area was set up for a funeral, folding chairs and elaborate flower arrangements framing the open grave. A small altar stood at one end, a folded flag on top of it, a mound of dirt at its base. Paul sat alone among the chairs, the only patron left at a funeral that had ended over an hour before. He was stiff-backed, his head bowed, staring into the hole that now held his friend.
She knew then that she shouldn’t have come. Vietnam and Willie were a part of Paul’s life he rarely shared with her, choosing to keep his pain well hidden, separate from their day to day life. In truth, he failed miserably, but she didn’t let on – didn’t offer comfort - even though, at times like these, she wished she could. And now, seeing him alone in his grief - and her as its cause – only made the situation more difficult to take.
Deep down, she knew what she’d done had been right – Willie’s secret would have destroyed Paul; left everything he knew in the dust. But, she also knew that if he ever discovered what she’d done, it would add yet another wedge between them. It seemed that, intentionally or unintentionally, they always found ways to hurt each other. And she wished like hell that wasn’t the case.
She was pulled out of her reverie by movement. Slowly, as though it pained him, Paul rose from his seat, pulling his coat tight around him. Skirting the altar, he moved towards the pile of dirt, bending to lift a handful into his palm. Then, crouching at the edge of the grave, he allowed it to sift through his fingers, some blowing away into the air. For a moment, he closed his eyes, and Madeline swallowed the lump the grew up in her throat. I’m so sorry, she thought, willing him to hear her thoughts.
Wiping his hand on his coat, he rose, turning towards the altar and the folded flag. Taking it into his arms, he clasped it tightly to his chest – a talisman, or a security blanket, that he was loath to part with. With one final glance towards the open grave, he began to walk, skirting through the gravestones, avoiding the main path out of the cemetery.
Madeline watched him go, then turned in the opposite direction, wondering what had driven her here. She’d never intended to approach him, had known that it would be suspicious for her to be in Washington at this, of all times. And yet she’d come, to observe, and to be part of his grief. It was selfish, she supposed; a desire to be a part of his life, to recreate, on some level, what they’d had years ago.
What Parker and Jarod could have, if they were given the chance – if Madeline gave them that chance.
She paused, glancing back towards the grave site. Jarod’s request shouldn’t have taken her by surprise. After all she’d observed, all that Parker had told her about her life, and Jarod’s part in it, she should have been expecting the ultimatum. Nevertheless, she had been surprised, astounded actually, that Jarod would risk his own life to ensure Parker’s safety. That her life held more importance for him than his own.
How cynical she’d become.
She knew she could do it. A slight modification of her plan, a few more favours called in, and she could release them from their trap, allow them a freedom they’d never known. She’d be giving them but she couldn’t provide for herself, or for Paul. The chance to go back – the chance to be friends, or lovers, unfettered by their past or fears for their future.
It was a redemption – and Madeline knew it had to be done.
Pulling out her cell phone, she dialled the number Jarod had given her, resuming her walk to her car. He picked up after a single ring, startling her. “Yes?”
“Consider it done,” she said. “I’ll speak to Parker and make the arrangements. I can contact you here?”
“Yes.” His voice was breathy, as though the reality had just hit him. “You can really do this?”
“By the end of next week, Centre will believe you both dead – no questions asked.”
“No.” Parker said firmly, sitting forward on the window seat. “Absolutely not.”
“Parker.” Madeline sighed, looking across at the other woman. “Don’t be naïve.”
“I’m naïve? You think you can get two of us out of The Centre with no one noticing.”
“People will notice; that’s the point.” She paused, letting her words sink in. “Jarod won’t go without you, Parker. Think about what that means.”
Parker looked down, shaking her head. “I know what it means.”
“Do you? It’s a chance at a real life, like you wanted with Thomas.”
“But we know how that turned out.”
“Because of The Centre.” Madeline rose, crossing the room to sit next to Parker, placing a hand on her thigh. “You have a chance to escape that - and you have a chance to be with Jarod.” Parker looked up, and Madeline saw the fear in her eyes. “Don’t throw this away because you’re afraid. You have a chance at freedom – do you know what I would give for that same chance?”
London – Two years earlier
“When I was young, it was an opportunity,” Madeline began, happy that she managed not to slur her words. She was aware that she was skirting a difficult slope; the line between what was, and wasn’t, acceptable intel fading with her sobriety. So far, however, she wasn’t in any danger. “It saved my life.”
“You said was,” Parker replied. She signalled the waiter, gesturing for him to bring them another bottle of scotch. “S’not an opportunity now?”
Madeline leaned across the table, wiggling her finger for Parker to do the same. Their faces were only inches apart. “It’s a trap,” she whispered. “It always was.”
“Ah ha…” Parker said, resting her chin on her hands. Madeline’s fingers twitched; the desire to touch the woman’s face overwhelming. “I am infin – very familiar with traps,” she continued. “They always seem…so innocent in the beginning. Then - BAM! – the metal teeth close over your ankle…”
Madeline nodded, pulling herself back and leaning against the seat. “It kills you slowly, one piece at a time…” Parker’s scent had followed her back – scotch and cigarettes, with the lingering scent of ginger. “There’s no escape.”
Parker sighed, leaning back, eyes closed. “So we find what comfort we can,” she said softly. “Until that’s taken too.”
Madeline reached across the table, touching Parker’s hand where it rested on her glass. “One day at a time, Parker. What other choice do we have?”
Wa Keeney, Kansas
Madeline made her away along the dim corridor, gun drawn. A sweeper team followed behind her, four men who were less than thrilled about being where they were. The glory attached to bringing in Jarod was foremost in their minds, and there was no such recognition involved in helping a strange women kill a man who meant nothing to The Centre.
But they helped, if grudgingly.
“You two, break off that way. It should bring you to a second entrance to the room.” And take you out of the line of fire. “Shoot to kill.”
Separating into two groups they continued on, Madeline’s group following the sound of laughter at the end of the corridor. It was then that things started to go awry – or so it appeared.
The laughter ended abruptly, the door at the end of the hall opening to reveal several men, heavily armed. Her companions reacted well, firing before the other group had the chance. Two men went down, a third getting off a shot before he too fell.
Pinned in a doorway, Madeline fired into the approaching men, taking down two of her own in quick succession. As the last man exited the room, she rose, stepping out into the corridor to meet her target head on.
Jim Tyler was a broad, bulky man, his reddish hair cropped short in military style, his features harsh, yet friendly at the same time. It was part of his intrigue, why people flocked to join him – and why he was incredibly dangerous.
The man before her now was lighter, his features lacking the friendly camaraderie of Tyler, his reddish hair a shade too dark. But he was close, close enough to fool the men at The Centre, and in a moment, as dead as the man he was impersonating.
Madeline fired, her shot striking home in Tyler’s chest. As he collapsed to the ground, he fired, and the bullet drove Madeline back against the wall, her thigh awash with pain. The shot had been too good, entering her leg mid-thigh, instead of grazing the exterior. “Damnit,” she moaned, as she sunk to the floor. The pain was intense, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Still, it would make her journey back to the entrance that much more difficult.
Tyler’s men were all down, as well as one of hers. The other came across the hallway towards her, reaching out to lift her off the ground. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” he said, breathless. “Two of them made a run for it – I heard ‘em talking. They’ve booby-trapped the building. We’re gonna be sitting on a pile of rubble in about five minutes.”
“You need to find the others,” Madeline began, rising unsteadily. “I can make it out. Find them, warn them.”
“Are you …”
“Don’t question me,” she snapped, pushing him in the direction the others had gone. “Do it!”
He ran off, and Madeline watched him go, hoping he didn’t try anything stupid. She needed him and his companions to make it out of the building; counted on them to let Parker know she was still inside.
Using her hand to steady herself on the wall, she began her journey back to the entrance. Five minutes had been a convenient exaggeration, but it was far too close to the truth.
She was resting against a wall when Parker found her. “What happened?”
“Lucky shot.” Madeline cringed, feeling Parker’s arm slide around her waist, steadying her. “You got Jarod?”
“Gunshot wound to the chest,” she began, as the two of them started once again for the entrance. “Close, but not too close – Syd’s with him now, Centre is sending a chopper.”
“Good.” She glanced at Parker’s face, noticing the worry etched there. “He’ll be fine.”
“I know.” She paused, looking sideways at Madeline, and tightening her arm across her waist. “Talk to Syd for me, please. Let him know, somehow, that we’re all right?”
They walked the rest of the way in silence, moving quickly through the corridors and stairwells until they came to the entrance. They stopped about ten feet from the door, Parker leaving Madeline balanced against a wall. “How long do we have?” she asked.
“A minute or two.”
“I should get moving then.” She didn’t move, glancing down instead at Madeline’s bleeding leg, concern clouding her features. “Are you sure you can make it?”
Madeline nodded, gesturing for Parker to go. “I’ll be fine. Get going.”
She waited until Parker was on her way, then turned back towards the door, ten feet suddenly seeming like several miles. Stumbling along the wall, she made it to within a foot of the door before she heard the first explosion coming from deep within the compound. The second explosion came quickly after that, then a third; the final two bringing down the building behind her just as she exited, two of the sweepers catching her as she fell.
“Parker?! Where is she??!” one of them yelled.
Madeline gasped, blackness invading her eyesight. “Right behind me…”
The two men pulled her clear of the building, staring at the rubble with dismay. There was no way anyone could have survived the explosion. She knew it, and so did they.
The Centre’s medical lab looked very much like Section’s – dull greys and bright whites, with the over-sanitized smell of a place that dealt far too frequently with death. And soon, there would be another.
Lying back in the bed, Madeline removed the IV from her hand, unwilling to sleep through the next event. So far, her plan had gone off without a glitch. Parker’s death had been deemed a horrific accident, and her remains – what little had been found – given over to her only living relative, Mr. Lyle, for burial. No questions asked. No tests performed. Ever the loving family.
Jarod’s return, as expected, had attracted far more attention. Attention that, soon enough, would be the perfect cover for his death. The more people that witnessed it, the fewer questions would be asked.
Glancing at the bedside clock, Madeline fought her drowsiness. A few more minutes, and the second part of the plan would go into effect. Once that happened, events would progress on their own – but until then…
The frantic beeping of a heart monitor interrupted her thoughts, the sound of running footsteps accompanying the shouts of the medical staff attending Jarod. Rising from her bed, Madeline moved into the doorway, watching the futile efforts of those on the floor.
The monitor continued to beep, its tone now a solid pulse that echoed through the halls. She could hear the doctors struggling in the other room, Lyle angrily urging them to use every means necessary to revive his prized catch.
In the hallway, it seemed time stood still. Nurses watched and waited. Sydney hovered anxiously, unable to leave. As she watched him, tears in his eyes, her promise to Parker came back to her. Perhaps this wasn’t the most appropriate time, but she wasn’t sure there would be a better one.
Grabbing a robe out of the closet by the bed, Madeline crossed the hall, seating herself in the chairs across from Jarod’s room. After a moment, Sydney joined her.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently.
He smiled faintly, amused. “It wasn’t your doing.”
“Not directly. But things would certainly have gone differently had I not been here.”
“Perhaps. But they’ve both skirted this line for a long time.” He paused, glancing towards Jarod’s room. The monitors had stopped, silence descending on the busy corridor. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes. “So young.”
“And so much life ahead of them,” Madeline said softly, touching Sydney’s knee. Opening his eyes, he turned towards her. “They’re free, Sydney,” she continued, making eye contact. “Parker is gone, and soon Jarod will be too.”
Sydney frowned, clearly not understanding the implication of her words. His attention shifted back down the hallway, to where Lyle was emerging from Jarod’s room. Staff ran in all directions, avoiding the young man’s wrath.
“Sydney,” she began again, drawing his attention away from the room and back towards her. “They’re safe, or will be shortly.”
This time, her remarks struck home; his sadness replaced with confusion. He wanted to believe her, wanted to hope. “But we watched him die.”
“Drugs,” she said simply. “His death is merely illusion. Everything in his body has slowed to a crawl.” She paused, finding the technicalities difficult to condense. “He’ll recover, Sydney. It will be slow, but he’ll be himself again.”
He seemed at a loss for words, tears clouding his eyes. “Thank you.”
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the last of the people leave Jarod’s room. Then, finally, Sydney rose. “Can I help you back to your room?” he asked, offering an arm.
“No.” She smiled, and was pleased when he returned it. “Say your goodbyes. It’s what he would want.”
London – Two years earlier
Parker’s gasp came out as a whimper, her breath catching. Moaning low in her throat, she clenched her fists on the headboard, the muscles in her neck and abdomen becoming taut as she raised her hips. Shifting slightly on her haunches, Madeline clasped Parker’s writhing hips, feeling the flesh tremble as she came.
Madeline sat back, stroking Parker’s thighs, letting her fingers stray to the still-sensitive flesh between them. Parker shuddered at each touch, breathing deeply, her body slowly relaxing from its high.
Loosening her grip on the headboard, Parker brought her hands forward, making contact with Madeline’s thighs as she sat up. Her hands shook slightly as they slid upwards, the remnants of her orgasm, and her nervousness, showing through. With her legs curved around Madeline, she moved forwards, hands stroking the skin along Madeline’s stomach and hips.
“It’s strange,” Parker said, her voice hoarse. Her hands roamed further upwards, coming up beneath Madeline’s breasts. They hovered for a moment, tickling at her nipples and Madeline shivered, clenching a fist among the sheets. Parker had her already, and she’d barely begun. “I’d never considered…”
Bringing her own hand up, Madeline lifted Parker’s chin, needing to see her eyes. Her eyes shone; fear, awe and passion rivalling for dominance. She was terrified, a feeling that Madeline understood all too well. Unclenching her fist, Madeline touched Parker’s face.. “We can end this here,” she said softly, and on some level, she hoped Parker would say yes.
But, the other woman dropped her hands, her nails trailing gently along Madeline’s skin, sending shots of fire through her. Then, Parker uncurled her legs, pushing her back against the bedclothes.
When her hands returned again, there was less shaking, more determination. Madeline felt the change, as much as saw it in her eyes. Each touch deepened in intensity, fervently exploring each curve, each section of skin.
Madeline’s body throbbed in response, skin heating as Parker’s mouth left wet trails along her abdomen. She fought the desire to squirm beneath her, steadying herself with hands clenched on the covers. But as Parker’s exploration delved lower, Madeline’s control slipped – a moan escaping softly, her hips arching upwards.
Her body quivered, eyes closed as Parker’s attention became more focussed. All control lost, she moaned again, this one accompanied by a cry of pleasure.
The sun hung heavy on the horizon, piercing the clouds and burning off the morning fog.
Balancing her cane on a cross-beam, Madeline leaned against the wooden railing, taking weight off her injured thigh. It throbbed in response, the dull pain that had accompanied her movements in the last ten days intensifying momentarily before fading.
Down by the water, a lone figure dallied barefoot by the tide line, pants rolled up to avoid the incoming waves. Her long dark hair hung loose to her shoulders, a light breeze blowing it back from her face. As she caught sight of Madeline, she smiled, turning up the beach towards her.
She climbed the stairs in silence, coming to stand next to Madeline. They were silent for several moments before Parker finally spoke. “We’re back to this again?”
Madeline turned towards her, chuckling. “Some things never change, I suppose.”
“I didn’t bring any scotch.” Parker smiled, placing a hand over Madeline’s on the railing. Despite the chill in the air, her hand was warm. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“There’s no need.”
“But there is.” Parker paused, the silence between them awkward. “You’re in trouble at home.”
Madeline grinned; it sounded so simple, when said like that. “It will blow over. Raines needed a scapegoat. I was convenient.”
“I’m sorry.” Her hand tightened over Madeline’s, nails catching the inside of her palm.
Madeline closed her eyes, a shiver running up her arm. “Don’t be.” She shook her head, attempting to clear her mind. “I’ve dealt with worse.”
“I don’t want to know, do I?”
They faded into silence again, the gurgle of the waves on the shore the only sound.
“If you ever need anything,” Madeline began, keeping her gaze fixed on the shoreline.
Parker’s grip tightened on her hand, their fingers entwining. “Jarod knows how to contact me.”
“Once he’s well enough, we’ll move on. He’s worried, being so close to The Centre.”
Something in Parker’s voice made Madeline turn towards her. She stood with her eyes closed, face tilted slightly into the breeze, her lashes were moist. “I didn’t think this would be so difficult,”
But it is, Madeline thought to herself. “Two years ago we ran away – this time, we’re saying goodbye.” And this time, you’re free…
Parker turned then as well, meeting her gaze. “I guess we are. We don’t have to.”
Swallowing the lump welling up in her throat, Madeline reached up, kissing Parker gently on the lips. “Goodbye, Parker.”
Parker closed her eyes, not opening them even after Madeline pulled away. “Goodbye.”