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Old Friends

Author:   Laurie Braithwaite


Courteous Disclaimer: It is recognized and appreciated that the characters in this story are the protected property of NBC's the Pretender.  No infringement of copyright is intended.
My sincerest gratitudes for the the characters, and the writing and the acting and the inspiration.

"We're old friends, Miss Parker.  So for now, trust me."  Jarod gazed into her dull blue eyes.   "You used to."


    The tall brunette glared at her opponent.  The fact that this sweeper was slyly brought in to undermine Miss Parker's abilities and efforts to secure Jarod irritated her to no end.  The fact that this blonde bootlicker even dared to try and stare down the more experienced Miss Parker caused her ulcer to boil.

    "Can I help you, fish eyes?" Miss Parker sneered.

    "Don't know, Luv," Brigitte answered, with a condescending smile.   "I am befuddled about one thing."

    Miss Parker raised an eyebrow.  "Really?"  She drew on her cigarette.

    Brigitte removed the sucker from her mouth, and pointed it at Miss Parker.  "How is it, that you're purported to be matchless in your cunning, and yet the capture of Jarod still eludes you?"

    The three gentlemen in the room stood back and remained silent.  Broots glanced at Sydney, who only shrugged.

    Miss Parker blew smoke at Brigitte.  "How is it you get away with wearing those painted on leopard skin pants?" she shot back.

    Brigitte winked at the insult.  "Brilliant."  She stuck the candy back in her mouth.  "You've had your chance, or shall I say, chances, with Jarod.  It's time to concede to the up and coming," she suggested.

    Miss Parker took deliberate slow steps forward, until she was breathing smoke directly into the blonde's face.  "Why don't you take that pacifier you've been sucking on ever since you landed here, and stick it where the Delaware sun doesn't shine!"

    "Ladies, ladies, please!" Mr. Lyle interjected.  "Let's behave ourselves."  He pushed his way between the two, and headed out of the office.   "Brigitte and I are late for a meeting.  But we are anxious to hear about your new leads on Jarod."

    "I'll bet you are," Miss Parker deadpanned.

    Brigitte stepped away.  "Come along, Mr. Broots."

    Broots' heart skipped a beat.  He did not know he was invited to the meeting.  "I uh-why?" he asked.

    "Why not?" was Brigitte's reply.

    "He's busy," Miss Parker asserted, through her teeth.

    "Is that right, Mr. Broots?" the blonde challenged.

    The man in the middle looked to Sydney for some kind of moral support.

    "Well answer her, you cretin!" Miss Parker snapped.

    Broots shrugged.

    Brigitte approached Broots, and walked her fingers over his chest.  "You really shouldn't let her speak to you that way, Mr. Broots.  Unlike others in this room," she glanced at Miss Parker; "you are not a cretin."

    Broots looked down. "I am busy," he sighed.  "Very busy.  Thank-you, anyway."

    "Pity," Brigitte sighed.  She patted Broots on the chest.  "Another time then, Luv."  She sashayed to the door, turned around and waved her fingers.  "Ta."

    Miss Parker nodded, and gave a pseudo-smile.    When the door closed, she let out a groan of frustration.    "What the hell was that?" she demanded.

    "What?" Broots asked, nervously.

    "Don't let her get to you, Broots," she warned.

    The highly intelligent computer technician was completely confused.  "What do you mean by that?" he asked.

    "Just be careful."   She patted Broots on the shoulder.  "Come along Mr. Broots," she sang, imitating the Brit.   She was more resolute now than ever to be the one to bring Jarod back, dead or alive.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    The determined driver wove the car in and out of the down town traffic, resolved to reach her target, come hell or high water; come ticket or collision.

    Broots in the back seat scrambled in desperation to secure his seat belt.  "I'm gonna die," he mumbled, just loud enough to irritate the driver.

    "Shut-up Broots," Miss Parker hissed.

    "Well, you don't have to worry," Broots continued.  "You've got...you've got air bags in the front."

    "You don't have to worry, either.  There's a bigger air bag in the back seat," Miss Parker insulted.

    "Mr. Broots has a point," the older gentleman in the front passenger seat interjected.  "You are driving at excessive speeds through the City Centre, Miss Parker."

    "Relax Syd," Miss Parker ordered.  She stepped heavier on the gas pedal.

    "Here we go," Broots moaned.

    "We can't catch Jarod if we're dead, Miss Parker," Sydney stated, gripping the dashboard with his large hands.

    "Death is preferable to seeing that British bimbo's smug, contemptuous leer." she justified.  "Don't tell me you're not willing to die for this cause, Syd?"

    Sydney smiled.  "She's not worth it, Miss Parker."

    "She's not that bad," Broots said, sheepishly.  His voiced affinity for the enemy instantly ignited Miss Parker's rage.

    She slammed both feet on the brake, sending the car into a ten-foot skid.  The car stopped mid-intersection.
"Get out!"

    Broots was stunned.  "What?  Here?  Now?"

    "GET OUT!" she bellowed.  Were it not for the seat belt restricting her, she would have pulled Broots through the side window, and kicked his blonde loving butt across the city block.

    "Fine, I'm going," Broots pouted.  He fumbled with his seatbelt and opened the door.  "Where do you want me to meet you?" he asked, climbing out into the cold.

    "In hell!"  She put the car in motion with a squealing of the tires, leaving Broots standing dumbfounded in the middle of the intersection.

    "Mr. Broots is harmless," Sydney stated.  "Albeit, simple."

    "He's an idiot.  And he's dangerous."  She set her mind back on the job at hand.  "Keep your eyes open."

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Broots mumbled to himself as he plodded along Jasper Avenue.  "Brigitte would never kick me out in the cold."  He wrapped his arms around himself to keep warm.  "What am I supposed to do until Miss Parker cools off?" he snorted.  "Grow old and die," he answered himself.  He spotted a heated bus shelter across the Avenue and ran for it.

    Just as he reached the other side, a teal sports car pulled up beside him.  Broots backed away in trepidation, as the passenger side window rolled down automatically.

    "Care for a lift, Mate?" a voice called from inside the car.

    Broots strained to see who offered the ride.  "Brigitte?  Is that you?"

    The blonde motioned with her finger for Broots to step closer.

    The fidgety man took two small steps forward.

    Brigitte removed the lollipop from her mouth.  "Don't be alarmed, Mr. Broots.  We're on the same team," she said, with a wink.  She leant over and opened the passenger door.  "In we go."

    "I-ah-I..."

    "You're wasting precious time, Luv," Brigitte warned.

    An overwhelming sense of dread numbed Broots.  "I'm a dead man," he sighed, climbing into the small car.  "Um...where are we going?"

    Brigitte removed an orange lollipop from its wrapper, and pointed it at Broots.  "That's what you're going to tell me," she informed, sticking the candy into Broots open mouth.

    "Uh..."

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Miss Parker sped the car into the deserted parkade, and brought it to a screeching stop.  Another car of sweepers pulled up behind.

    "Sydney, you're with me," she ordered.  "I want two teams.  Sam, you take levels p1 and p2.  Daryl, you've got levels p5 and p6.  Syd and I will sweep the middle."  She reached behind, and drew the gun that was nestled between her slacks and the small of her back.  "And remember boys, if you so much as think you see the shadow of an eyelash of boy wonder flutter, I want to know.   This time, he's mine" she professed, evilly.   "Now move!"

    The teams split and began their sweep of the parkade.

    Jarod heard the squeal of the tires.  Miss Parker rarely made an unassuming entrance.  And that's what made the game exciting.  Could he outrun Dear Miss Parker yet again?
He relished hearing the clicking of her heels as she charged to nab him...The exasperation in her voice as she commanded him to stand still ...The pissed off glare she gave when he slipped away.  It all pleased the scoffer.  "Catch me if you can."

    Today, he was fully prepared.  He took comfort in his extensive knowledge of the parkade layout.  There was always a means to evade the huntress.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Jarod left his signature greetings and gifts for Miss Parker in the parking attendant booth.   He packed his cases, and stole carefully towards his freedom.  On the other side of a hidden locked door waited his vehicle.  As he neared his exit, a familiar voice screamed his name.

    "Jarod!"

    Jarod turned, and saw the long-legged Miss Parker sprinting towards him, gun in hand.   He fumbled with his keys, but dropped them in his haste to open the door.  They slid under a vehicle.

    "Damn!"  As he bent to retrieve the keys, a bullet rushed overhead, and shattered the driver's window.

    "What the hell!"  Miss Parker spun around.  "Hold your fire!" she yelled to the anonymous marksman.  "He's mine!"  She stole her way towards Jarod.  "Give it up, Jarod!"

    Jarod groped for the keys under the truck.  "Come on," he whispered.  "Come on."  As his hand hit the ring of keys, he breathed a sigh of relief.  It was a brief reprieve.  Just as he was about to rise, a six-inch stiletto stepped on his hand.  Jarod's eyesight followed the long leg up to a focused gun and a contented smile.

    "It's over Jarod," Miss Parker sang.

    Jarod tilted his head, and smirked.  "Not necessarily, Miss Parker," he started.  "You see, I've heard...that it's not officially 'over' until the fat lady sings."  Jarod sized Miss Parker up and estimated her to be a lean size 5.   "Unless you and your leggy blonde girlfriend become one and croon a tune...It's not over."

    "She is NOT my..." Miss Parker emphasized, and deliberately transferred her weight.

    Jarod's hand stung under the sharpness of Miss Parker's heel.  "Maybe you are the fat lady in disguise."

    Miss Parker smiled at the intended insult.  "Get up!"

    Jarod didn't move.

    "Listen bellboy, if I have to, I'll put a bullet through that pretty head of yours," she threatened.  "Now, get up!"

    Jarod remained motionless.

    "Damn it, Jarod."  Miss Parker released the safety.

    Jarod looked up into those unwavering blue eyes.  "Let me go," he almost pleaded.  "Please."

    "No can do."

    "Are you prepared to kill me, Miss Parker?  Because that's what you'll have to do."

    "If I have to," she answered.  Her heart raced as she reestablished a firm hold on her pistol.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    "What the bloody hell is she doing?" Brigitte snapped.

    "Maybe she's trying to convince Jarod to give himself up," Broots suggested.

    Brigitte stared at Broots, and then flashed a smile.  "Nice try, mate," she said with a wink.  "But it's quite obvious our dear Miss Parker is the Centre's leak."  She aimed her gun down a level at the motionless couple.

    Broots was horrified.  "What are you doing?"

    Brigitte closed one eye, and lined Miss Parker in her sights.  "First, I'll plug the leak."  She lowered her gun to spy Jarod.  "Then I'll waste the rubbish."

*          *          *          *          *          *

    "I'm going to give you, until the count of two," Miss Parker warned.

    Jarod clutched the keys in his fist.   "I'm not returning to the Centre with you, alive.  If you're going to shoot me, you'd better do it now, while I'm down."

    "One!" she counted.

    Jarod continued to stare into her fixed eyes.

    Miss Parker could not believe he would make her shoot him.  How did her life come to such a wretched state?  How did she become so merciless?  She had no time to meditate on the disturbing causes and effects.  Once she returned Jarod to the Centre, she would turn her own life around.  Miss Parker pushed away remorse, as she resolved to finish her job.
"Two!"

    A shot rang out and echoed throughout the empty parkade.  The eerie silence quickly gave way to shouts and hurried steps.

    Jarod lay motionless in shock.  He opened his eyes to a creeping pool of blood.   He felt no pain, but examined his body for wounds, just in case.  As he sat up, he saw Miss Parker lying unconscious.  The blood was hers.

    Jarod stepped over the injured woman, and quickly made his way to his exit.  He jumped into his waiting vehicle.   As he turned the ignition, his thoughts flashed back to Miss Parker.   He struggled with abandoning her, even though he did not doubt she would have shot him.  Her freedom from the Centre was just as important to her as his freedom was to him.  The only difference between them; she would kill to receive emancipation.   She was, after all, another dysfunctional offspring begotten by the Centre's malignancy, though she would never admit to being manipulated.

    Before Jarod could stop himself, he was out of the vehicle, and at Miss Parker's side.  He was able to carry her back to the vehicle before Sydney and the others reached them.  He jumped into the vehicle, and waved at Sydney as the older man ran through the exit and after them.  He watched in the rearview mirror as Sydney gave up the chase, and stood helpless.   He drove the vehicle toward the mountains.

    Just outside the city limits, he pulled the vehicle over to the side, and tended to Miss Parker's wounds.  A bullet entered her right upper arm from an overhead angle.  He had nothing with which to remove the bullet.  But he did stop the bleeding.  The wound did not account for the patient's state of being unconscious.   There was a large lesion on her forehead.  Perhaps the result of falling hard on the pavement.

    Jarod debated whether he should drop her off at the hospital in Jasper.  There would be questions to answer, reports to fill out, medical records to supply, etceteras.  He would figure out something.

    The dark Ford Explorer was steered down a lonely driveway.  The sign on the front lawn informed a doctor resided on the acreage.   Jarod carried the wounded Miss Parker to the door, and rang the doorbell several times.

    "Hold your horses!" the Doctor of the house, yelled.  He moved as fast as his old legs could carry him.  He opened the door, and saw Jarod standing there with the limp Miss Parker in his arms.

    "Can you please help?" Jarod pleaded.

    "Come on in, Son."  He opened the door wide.  "Follow me."  He led Jarod to a makeshift examining room.  "What happened?"

    "My friend...she's been shot," Jarod informed.

    "Shot?" the Doctor repeated.  "Now how do you reckon that happened?"

    "It was a hunting accident," Jarod explained.

    "Hunting?"  The doctor repeated, incredulously.   "You don't expect me to buy that, now, do you Son?"    He leant in close to Jarod.  "You shot her, didn't you Son?"

    "Why would you assume such a horrible thing about people you don't know?" Jarod asked, perturbed.

    The doctor shrugged.  "Call it 'gut instinct'."

    Jarod scowled.   "Well, your gut is wrong.  Just help.  Please?" he pleaded.  "I was able to stop the bleeding.  But her head..."

    "Well, I don't know what I can do."

    "But your sign...said Doctor Brown," Jarod stated, confused.

    "I'm an animal doctor, Son," the Doctor explained.  "Shoot, I ain't even had a woman in my house in over 15 years."  He snapped a pair of latex gloves on his farmer hands.  "But I suppose I can have a look-see.  A gunshot wound on any female is about the same."  The doctor examined Miss Parker's arm.  "We'll have to remove that bullet.  A few stitches and some antibiotics, and she'll be fine."  He looked at the wound on her forehead.  "What do you suppose happened here?"

    "I'm guessing...she fell and hit her head when she got shot," Jarod explained.

    "And you didn't shoot her, right Son?"

    "I am not the hunter," he exclaimed, innocently.

    The doctor looked at Jarod, looked down at Miss Parker, and then back at Jarod.   "You're not gonna tell me this little lady is a hunter, now are you, Son?" he asked, with a disbelieving smirk.   "She don't look big enough to handle a gun."

    "Well, you know what they say, Doctor."

    "Uh huh," the Doctor answered.  "Looks can be deceiving...but so can people."  The doctor shook his head.  "I won't ask anymore questions until we get this little lady fixed up.   Have you ever been a nurse, son?"

    "No.  But I was once a doctor," Jarod answered.

    The doctor rolled his eyes.  "Uh huh," he said, under his breath.   "Well today, you're going to be my nurse."

    "Sounds like fun," Jarod said.

    "Uh huh," the doctor deadpanned.  "Go wash your hands, Florence."

    "Florence?"

    "Nightingale," the doctor added.

    "And she would be?"

    The Doctor shook his head.  "City folk and their humor."

    The slug was removed from Miss Parker's arm, and the wounded limb was stitched and bandaged.   The abrasion on her forehead was tended to, and the bleeding was stopped.

    Jarod stood over Miss Parker.  "Why won't she wake up?"

    "She'll be fine, son," the doctor promised. "Though, she's going to have a doozie of a headache when she comes around."  He patted Jarod on the arm.  "Come, let's have a drink.  And then you can tell me all about this 'hunting accident'."

    "If you don't mind, Doctor Brown, I'd rather stay here," Jarod spoke.  He pulled up a chair, and sat down next to Miss Parker.

    "All right, Son," the well-meaning good doctor said.  "You just call me, if you need anything."

    "Thank-you Doctor."  Jarod would stay long enough to ascertain Miss Parker's safety and well being.  Then he would slip away, and the leave his pursuer in the capable hands of the good doctor.

    He reached into his pocket, and retrieved a cellular phone.  He pushed in a number he had ringed an infinite number of times previously.  The calls were always made at Jarod's convenience and need, and never at the receiver's time of preference.

    "Hello." It was obvious the greeter had been roused from sleep.

    "What the hell is going on, Sydney?" Jarod demanded.  "Was that bullet meant for me, or Miss Parker?  And who is the incompetent hit man?"

    It took a moment for Jarod's identity to register on Sydney's drowsy brain.  "I don't know, Jarod," he answered, now fully awake.

    "Well, find out.  Please."  The call was ended.

    Jarod looked upon Miss Parker's pale face.  His eyes were drawn to her full lips, and he fondly recalled his first kiss.  How soft the young Miss Parker's lips were.  He closed his eyes, and drifted off.

    Miss Parker strained to open her heavy eyelids.  When her blurred vision finally came into focus, she made out a figure in the dark, slumped over in the chair.  She tried to speak, but her throat was dry and raw.  "Hey," she inaudibly whispered.  Her visitor did not stir.  She cleared her throat.  "Hey," she whispered again.

    The visitor remained silent and still.

    Miss Parker tried to sit up, but was overcome with pain.  She closed her eyes and waited for the nausea to subside.  Determined, she again focused her gaze on the dark figure in the chair.  And the more she gazed at the stranger, unable to rouse him, the more frustrated she grew.

    All of a sudden, Jarod jerked awake.  "I must have dozed off," he mumbled to himself.  He rubbed his eyes, and looked at the patient.  She had an intent stare fixed solidly on him.

    "Oh, you're awake," he said, pleased.  He sprung to his feet to be at her side.  "How are you feeling?"

    "I've felt better," she whispered, hoarsely.  "Where am I?"

    "You are in the good Doctor Brown's guest room," Jarod answered.  "Now I know, it's not as fancy a place as you're used to, but the stable was full," he said with a smug grin.  "You know, for a veterinarian, he's a very apt people doctor."

    Miss Parker continued to stare at the good-natured man.  "What's going on?  What happened to me?"

    "Looks like the tables have turned," Jarod informed.  "How does it feel to be at the other end of the chase, Miss Parker?"

    "What are you talking about?"

    "You were shot," Jarod answered, solemnly.   "Of which I must confess, I am grateful, for it probably saved my life," he concluded.

    Miss Parker scowled.  "What?"  She examined her upper right arm.  The wound explained the searing pain she felt.

    "I'm guessing...it's the blonde.  I am only one man, after all, Miss Parker," Jarod teased.   "Two she wolves hunting the same game...one of them is bound to get hurt."

    Miss Parker glared at the man.  "Who in the hell are you?" she asked, with a blank look.

    "You tell me," Jarod challenged.  But when Miss Parker continued to gaze at him with confusion, his smile disappeared.

    She strained to place him, but her memory was void of any recognition.  She couldn't recall anything.   Her eyes widened in sickening fright.

    "I'll be right back."  Jarod rushed out of the room, and returned with the animal doctor in tow.

    Dr. Brown greeted Miss Parker with a bright smile.  "So, you've decided to return to the land of the conscious."   He leant over Miss Parker, and flashed a light in her eyes.   "How are we feeling?"

    "I don't know," she said.

    "Do you remember what happened to you?" the doctor asked.

    Miss Parker slowly shook her head.  "My head hurts," she whispered.

    "Do you remember anything?"

    Miss Parker stared at the older stranger.   She couldn't place her life; her name, her age, where she was, and what was she doing there.

    "Now, don't you worry, Honey."  Dr. Brown pulled Jarod by the arm out of the room.   "Looks like the little lady has amnesia," he remarked.  "What do you reckon?"

    Jarod nodded.  "I reckon you're right, Doctor," he agreed.

    The doctor scratched his balding head.  "I haven't seen a case of amnesia since old Murphy punched Clyde."

    "Why did old Murphy resort to violence against Clyde?" Jarod asked.

    The doctor giggled at the recollection.  "Cause that sly Clyde was stealing honey from Murphy's honey bee."  He nudged Jarod with an elbow.  "If you get my drift."

    Jarod pondered.  "Well, why didn't Clyde just share the honey?" he asked innocently.  "Surely a bee makes enough honey for more than one man," he concluded.

    Dr. Brown blinked his eyes wildly.   Then he burst out laughing.  "You nearly had me, Jarod."  He slapped Jarod on the back.    "Share the honey," he giggled.  He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his eyes.  "Now, what are we going to do about your lady friend?"

    Jarod scowled.   "Well, we can't leave her by herself in there.  She's afraid, and she feels alone."  He went back to Miss Parker's bedside.

    She studied him carefully.  "Who are you?"

    "My name is Jarod," he answered.  "I'm going to help you."

    "Jarod," she repeated, dryly.  "What in the hell's wrong with me, Jarod?"

    "You have selected amnesia," he told her, gingerly.   "Possibly resulting from banging your head on the pavement.  Possibly from some other traumatic occurrence."

    Miss Parker felt the bandage on her forehead.  Now she knew why she had a splitting headache.

    She watched Jarod closely.   "And I was shot?"

    Jarod nodded.  "But I don't want you to worry, " he continued.  "Right now, you need to get some rest, so you can recover."

    She stared at him.  "You've just informed me I've been shot," she said.  "How do I know it wasn't you?"

    "If it was me, do you think I'd be here with you, now?"

    She didn't answer.

    Jarod sat down in the chair next to the bed.   "I would never hurt you," he promised.  "You've got to trust someone."

    "I trust myself," she said.

    "You don't even know yourself," Jarod stated.

    "I don't know you either," she reasoned.

    "We're old friends, Miss Parker.  So for now, trust me."  He gazed into her dull blue eyes.   "You used to."

    Miss Parker examined Jarod's countenance.   If she could depend upon her intuition, she would use it to discern his intentions.   However, she had nothing to work with but an abundance of fear.   "When I get my memory back, and if I find out you've lied to me..." She closed her eyes.  "I'll kill you."

    "Now that sounds like the Miss Parker I know," Jarod remarked.   He planned to be long gone before her memory returned.

    Jarod tapped away on his keyboard.  He already had enough incriminating information on the diabolical brass at the Centre to convict them all.  What judge and jury would fail to pass the guilty sentence on these kidnapping, murdering, extortionists?

    However, to implicate the Centre could also harm Sydney, Miss Parker, and any other beguiled, or blackmailed staff.   He saved the document he was working on, and turned his attention to the silver case used for viewing SIM discs.

    He removed a small disc from his case of many, and slid it into the appropriate slot.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    The young Jarod watched secretly from behind a pillar as the unaware ballerina performed her routine.  Her long limbs moved gracefully, like ribbons in the breeze.  Her hands, her fingers, deliberately poised to elongate the developing frame of the pre-teen.

    Miss Parker spun five perfect pirouettes, and then attempted a brise. She lost her balance, and fell onto her backside.

    Jarod's first reaction was to laugh, but he didn't.  He ran from behind the pillar to help Miss Parker to he feet.

    "Don't laugh," the embarrassed girl ordered.

    "I won't."  He offered her a hand, which she refused.

    "I'm not very good."

    "Oh, but you are," Jarod gushed.  "What do you call that?"

    She glared up at the naïve boy.  "What do I call 'what'?"

    "What you were doing?" Jarod answered, sitting down beside her.

    "I was trying to do a brisé," she answered.

    "A what?"

    "It's called a brise," she repeated.  She rose, assumed the neutral ballet stance, and then jumped, and beat one leg against the other in mid air.

    "Wow!" Jarod gasped.

    Miss Parker sat back down.  "I'll never get the routine," she said, dejected.  "And I wanted to perform for my mother before she left for Maine."

    "Well, maybe I can help," Jarod offered.

    Miss Parker grinned.  "You're a boy."

    "So?"

    "What do you know about ballet?"

    He jumped to his feet.  "I've been watching you."  He duplicated the few ballet moves he saw Miss Parker perform, perfectly.

    Much to her surprise, she was impressed.

    "And now, the brise," he announced.  His attempt had the same outcome as Miss Parker's, he fell on his behind.

    Miss Parker bit the insides of her cheeks so as not to laugh, but was overcome by the giggles.

    Young Jarod joined in the laughter.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Jarod popped out the disc.  He looked over at the sleeping Miss Parker.  Her laughter once filled his concrete world with rainbows and fragrance and cheer.   She rarely laughed as an adult.   Jarod wondered if she found anything amusing.  Though it did seem she took evil pleasure in pinning him under her thumb.

    He turned his attention back to his laptop.    The Centre had answers he needed.   He hacked his way through the firewall and into the corporate encrypted archives.  He scrolled through the files of personnel data, and stopped on Delaware's new recruit.   "Well, hello there, Miss Britain."

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Brigitte strolled down the long echoing hallway, towards the office to which she was summoned.  She stopped just outside of the chairman's office, and examined her reflection in the glass doors.  She straightened her leather jacket, and pulled the collar up, to which she was accustomed.  Drawing a breath of courage, she rapped twice on the large double doors.

    "You can come in," a powerful voice barked from inside.

    Brigitte pushed the doors open, and entered the office.   She removed the lollipop from her mouth, and discarded it in a planter.  Her large green eyes wandered around the spacious room, taking in its conservative decor.  She didn't see the occupant of the office, but she knew he was present.   Why else would the aura be so cold?

    The overstuffed swivel chair behind the large ebony desk was turned away from Brigitte.  That's where he was.

    "You wanted to see me?" she asked.

    He didn't 'want' to see her at all.  However, even a man of his importance had to concede to needs over wants, at certain times.   He resented that she was brought in behind his back.  Her presence was a slap in the face.  His only consolation, the young woman was a subordinate, another tool he could use to retrieve Jarod.

    He didn't even display common courtesy to greet Brigitte when she entered.  How utterly American of him, she thought.  But she would keep her disgust to herself.

    "What happened down there?" he demanded, in his booming voice.

    Everything about the man was grandiose.   His office boasted more space than many of his peers' put together.   His tailor made suits reeked of wasted wealth.   His voice was bombastic, and used frequently to air his opinion of his self-importance.

    The berated blonde searched for an answer that might appease the angry ogre.   But she came up short.

    "I asked you a question!" Mr. Parker snapped, as he swiveled his chair around to face Brigitte.  "Who shot my daughter?"

    "I'm sure I don't know, Sir," Brigitte replied, bravely.  She loathed this man.  And as much as she loathed him, she feared him.  For a very brief moment, she felt a twinge of empathy for Miss Parker.   What would childhood be like under this dictator's molding hand of discipline?

    Mr. Parker narrowed his eyes.  "You were aiming at Jarod, and hit Miss Parker in error," he offered as a suggestion.   "That's forgivable."

    Brigitte bristled at his implying she was incompetent.  "With all due respect, Sir, if I were aiming at Jarod, his head would be on your mantle piece."

    Mr. Parker waved off her words with an angry hand.  "I want Jarod!" he demanded, pounding the desk.

    Brigitte's eyes widened.  "What about Miss Parker?" she dared to ask.

    The older man sat back in chair.  "My daughter's a big girl now," he stated, unsentimentally.  "She can take care of herself."  He then leaned forward and pierced the blonde with his glare.  "You-just make certain you meet expectations!"

    Brigitte smiled.  "No need to fret, Sir."

    Mr. Parker spun his chair around, giving Brigitte her cue to leave.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Miss Parker spent the next few days slipping in and out of wakefulness.  Always, she awoke in a strange room, with unfamiliar odors, an odd decor, and eerie noises.  And so she'd close her eyes, and hope the next time she opened them, she would be home, in her own bed, greeted with familiar surroundings.  Sometimes she'd open her eyes, and her 'old friend' was there.   She took comfort in his silent presence, and his gentle smile.

    Jarod spent few hours slumbering.  He returned to the parkade where the shooting occurred, and scoured the concrete levels for uncovered tracks, overlooked clues, anything that would supply a hint as to the identity of the would-be assassin.  After hours on his hands and knees, Jarod found a shell casing.   He secured it, and took it back to Dr. Brown's acreage, three hours away.

    "Find what you were looking for?" Dr. Brown asked, as Jarod returned.

    "Nothing substantial yet, Dr. Brown," Jarod sighed.  "But maybe a clue."

    "Well Son, when putting a puzzle together, you gotta take it one piece at a time," he encouraged.

    Jarod nodded.  "The only trouble is, Dr. Brown, I have no idea what the picture is supposed to look like when I'm done fitting the pieces together."

    The older man searched through his archives of life's experiences for more words of wisdom.  "When I'm stuck, I give myself a little break.  Maybe have a shot of whisky.  Maybe visit with the animals.  Maybe go to town and get a haircut."

    Jarod stared at the older man.  He only had but a few hairs on his head to cut.  "A haircut?" he questioned.

    Dr. Brown grinned.  "Just seeing if you were paying attention, Son," he giggled.  "Come on.  Let me introduce you to one of my favorite pastimes."  He led Jarod into the kitchen where he kept his stock of hard liquor.

    "That's Faron," Dr. Brown informed, as he happened upon Jarod playing with a cub bear.  "He's about ready to hit the great outdoors, once more."

    "He's cute," Jarod remarked.  "And very playful."

    "Yep. Like humans, in a way," Dr. Brown suggested.

    "How do you figure that, Doctor?"

    "Bear cubs like Faron here are cute and playful as children.  But they get mean and ornery as adults."

    Jarod nodded.  He agreed with the comparison.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Jarod pushed open the door, and peered in.  Miss Parker was awake, staring off.  Perhaps searching for pieces to the puzzle of her life.

    "Well, hello Miss Parker," he greeted.

    She turned her eyes to him and smiled.  "Why do you do that?"

    Jarod tilted his head.  "Do what?"

    "Why do you call me 'Miss Parker'?"

    "Because that's your name," Jarod answered, quite honestly.

    "I must have a first name.  I assume...hope...it isn't 'Miss'."

    Jarod looked blankly at her, while he absorbed her words.  "Oh, I get!"  He grinned.  "'Miss' as in 'Jarod'...Miss Parker."

    Miss Parker raised her eyebrows, impatiently.  "Well?"

    "Well what?"

    She shot him a familiar look of irritation.  Amnesia did not hinder her mannerisms.  "Never mind," she said, dejected.

    "Oh, your first name.  It's our secret," he said with a wink.

    "I don't remember," she confessed, sadly.  "Hell, I don't even remember my own name."

    Jarod crept over to Miss Parker, and whispered the given name in her ear.

    She smiled when she heard the name, though she didn't recognize it.

    "Now, don't tell a soul," Jarod said.  "It's our secret."

    She agreed.   "Do we share a lot of secrets, Jarod?"

    Jarod didn't answer.  Their entire lives comprised of cover-ups and untruths.  Theirs was the world of nefarious guardians, and weakened heroes.   And wherever virtue tried to flourish, it was quickly murdered, or incorporated into the routine.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    "Right then, Gentlemen, lend us an ear," Brigitte ordered, as she barged into Broots' office.  "With Miss Parker's..." She searched for words.  "...Ill-fated...mishap and subsequent absence, the powers that be have given me the reins on retrieving Jarod," she announced, quite pleased.  "You may demonstrate your total co-operation by supplying me with answers."
 
    "What kind of answers?" Broots asked, nervously.

    "What kind of answers do you think, Mr. Broots?"

    He shrugged.  "I don't know...maybe truthful ones."

    She grinned at Broots.  "Brilliant!"

    Broots looked to Sydney, whose composure was the exact opposite of his uneasy counterpart.

    Sydney leant back against the desk, and folded his arms.

    "Has Jarod contacted either of you?"  She looked at Broots.

    "N-no," he stuttered.  "Uh uh.  Not me."  He glanced at Sydney.  "You Sydney?"

    Sydney shrugged his shoulders.  "Not really."

    "'Not really'?" Brigitte repeated.  "Clarification please."

    "We didn't exactly converse."

    "What 'exactly' did our man say to you?"  She squared off with Sydney, and leant forward in his space.  "Word for word."

    "He asked me to find out who shot Miss Parker," Sydney paraphrased.  He studied Brigitte's countenance.  If she felt anything other than smugness, he had yet to see it in her face.

    "Right, well, that will be Miss Parker's problem, if and when, she returns, now, won't it?" the blonde said.

    Broots and Sydney looked at each other.  With employees such as Brigitte, it was clear the Centre was becoming more and more an unacceptable place to work incident by daily incident.

    "Don't look so glum, chums," Brigitte ordered.  "We're going to reel Jarod in.  I'm quite certain we'll catch ourselves a certain blood-sucker, as well."  She clasped hands behind her back, and paced the floor.  "Question.  Why would Jarod retreat with Miss Parker?"

    Sydney supplied no answer.

    "Maybe, maybe he's holding her for ransom," Broots brainstormed.

    "Mr. Broots, I can see your cleverness is wasted on artificial intelligence," Brigitte praised, with a wink and a smile.

    "What would Jarod demand in return for our dear Miss Parker?  He doesn't want for money."

    "Information!" Broots exclaimed, excitedly.  "Information on his family."  He even impressed himself.

    Brigitte held up a hand to silence Broots.  "Your hypothesis, Doctor?"

    Sydney smiled politely.  "I cannot theorize Jarod's intentions.  His behavior is completely out of character."

    Brigitte stopped pacing, and stared at the older man.  In her opinion, his position at the Centre was obsolete.   But for some reason obscured beyond her understanding, the Centre retained Sydney on the payroll.  "I want to be kept apprised of Jarod's every contact with you," she ordered.  "Perhaps together, we can...theorize his intentions."

    "If...he contacts me," Sydney emphasized.

    "Right."  Brigitte turned on her heels and headed out of the room.  "Cheers."

    Broots tiptoed after her, to make certain she was gone.  Then he walked quickly back to Sydney.  "What's going on here?" he whispered.

    "That's what I'd like to know."

    "And where are Miss Parker and Jarod?"

    "I don't know."  Jarod's communication with Sydney was too abrupt to decipher.  And he hadn't divulged any information on Miss Parker's condition.

    "That Brigitte," Broots shook his head.  "She's maniacal."   He again went to the door to ascertain secrecy.  "She had Miss Parker in her sights, Sydney."

    "Did she fire the shot?"

    "I don't know.  I don't know," he rushed.  "Maybe.  Everything happened so fast.  One minute we were sucking on lollipops, and the next...bullets were flying."  He scratched his balding head.  "What do you think, Sydney?"

    Sydney rubbed his chin.  "I do not think it's beyond her...if...she were following orders."

    "Whose?"

    Sydney raised his eyebrows, and shrugged.  "That's what we have got to find out, Broots."

    Broots felt sick to his stomach.  "Sydney, I'm the one who led Brigitte to the parkade," he confessed.  "She made me."

    Sydney patted Broots on the back in an attempt to console him.  "Brigitte no doubt was on her way, Broots.  You revealed nothing to her she didn't already know."

    "Do you think?"

    "I know," he sighed.  "Now, we've got work to do."

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Jarod followed the cries of pain he heard into the kitchen.  "Are you all right, Doctor?" he asked, concerned.

    "I'm fine, Son.  What's got you so disturbed?"

    "I heard you yelling, and I thought..."

    The Doctor pointed to the radio.  "I was singing, my boy, singing!  But now that you've gone and hurt my feelings..."

    "I'm very sorry, Doctor," Jarod apologized, sincerely.  "I've never heard singing quite like that before."

    "I'll take that as a compliment!"  The Doctor winked.  "You a fan of western music, Son?"

    "Actually, I prefer the blues."  He sat down at the table.

    "Same thing," the Doctor argued.  "Just sung in a different key."

    Jarod listened to the lyrics of the song.  "Doctor Brown, why is it entertaining to listen to songs about broken hearts and dead pets and alcoholic beverages?"
 
    "Well, I'll tell you.  These boys give us something to relate to.  Everybody's got a hard luck story in his background, Son."  He slapped Jarod on the back.  "You must have a few to tell...Lovely lady friend like that."  He pointed upwards to indicate Miss Parker.  "I'm sure she's broken your heart more than once."

    Jarod's smile revealed nothing.  "This western music, it's annoying ...yet captivating."

    "Now you're getting it, Son."  Dr. Brown slapped Jarod on the back.    Now you're getting it.  Do you know what you get if you play a county song backwards, Son?"

    Jarod shook his head.  "No Dr. Brown.  What do you get?"

    The doctor started giggling.  "You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your job back."  He slapped his thigh, as he guffawed.  "Now that's a good one."

    Jarod remained emotionless.  "I don't understand."

    "Oh you will, Son."

    For the remainder of the morning, Jarod sat silent and still as he listened to the radio.

    "I'm going into town," Jarod informed.  "Please be wary of strangers."

    Dr. Brown was horrified.  "What about your lady friend?  You're not gonna leave her behind are you?" he whispered, loudly.

    "Oh don't worry about Miss Parker...she's a bear," Jarod said, with a wink.

    Dr. Brown swallowed.  "A teddy...bear?"

    Jarod grinned.  "I'll be back."

    Dr. Brown tried not to think about the young woman sleeping in his guestroom.  But truth was, it unnerved him to have a female of the human species in his house.  A four-legged female he was accustomed to, but a two-legged warm-blooded mammal with amnesia was way beyond his expertise.   He put on a Willie Nelson record, and had some whiskey to calm his nerves.  He serenaded to a captive beaver as he tended to its paw.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    "Get up, Sweetheart!" Mama called.  "It's time for school."

    "But I don't want to go to school today," the young girl bewailed.

    "If you don't get up, you'll miss the sunshine, Sunshine."  Mama drew open the curtains and welcomed in the warm rays of morning sunlight.

*          *          *          *          *          *
 
    The sunlight seeped into Miss Parker's dream, and roused her from sleep.  She opened her eyes and looked around the lonely room.   For the first time since the accident, she felt ready to get out of bed.  It took all of her physical strength to lift her heavy spinning head from the pillow.  She sat up slowly, and rested a moment, before dressing in the clothes left at her bedside.

    Miss Parker waited patiently for Jarod to pop his head in through the doorway.  But when he failed to show, she decided to search him out.  She followed the music that haunted throughout her stay, and ended up in a large den, where Dr. Brown fussed with a flightless owl.

    "Where's Jarod?" Miss Parker asked, looking around the large room.  There were animals of all sizes and all kinds on the floor, on the sofa, on the coffee table, on the television, but no sign of a young man.

    "Oh, hello dear," Dr. Brown exclaimed, startled.  "I didn't hear you come in."  He rose to his feet.  "Did you have a good hibernation?"

    She nodded, and stretched her neck.  "How long have I been out?"

    The Doctor scratched his chin.  "Well I'd say about a good three days."

    "Days?" she repeated, staggered.  "You must mean hours."

    The old man giggled.  "Oh no, girl.  I mean just what I said, days.  You've been slipping in and out of consciousness for a good three days."

    Three days in bed...little wonder she felt hollow, contemptible and weak.   "Why didn't anyone wake me?" she asked, irritated.

    "Doctor's orders," he said, with a wink.  "A body needs rest to heal."  He bent down and rubbed the back of a sleeping dog.  "Just ask my friend Waylon, here."

    She glanced down at the lazy dog.  He looked healthy enough to her, but then she was no veterinarian.  She continued to scan the room for signs of Jarod.

    "Looking for your young man friend?"

    "Where is he?" she asked.

    Dr. Brown clapped his hands together.  "Oh Jarod, he's gone into town to do something or other," he muttered.  "How about joining me in a cup of tea?"

    Miss Parker felt panic creeping over her.  What if her friend never returned?  As far as she knew, Jarod was her only link to the woman she was, before the amnesia.

    Dr. Brown gently took the young woman's hand.  "He'll be back.  He promised."

    He led Miss Parker into his large kitchen.  "Have yourself a seat, dear."  He pointed to a chair, as he fetched teacups.  "That friend of yours is one curious cat."

    Miss Parker smiled, politely.

    "How long have you two been friends?"  As soon as the words rolled off his tongue Mr. Brown tried to recoil them.  "Damn," he cursed.

    "I don't know," she answered.

    "I'm sorry, dear," the old man apologized, sincerely.  "I forgot.  Got me that old timer's amnesia."

    "It's all right."  Maybe she and Jarod had been friends for many years.  She experienced a calming familiarity whenever he was around.   She hoped her feelings were not deceiving her.  Maybe she was so desperate for anything common, that she attached all hope on Jarod and his words, 'we're old friends'.

    The whistle of the kettle broke into her line of thought.
 
    "Water's ready."  Dr. Brown poured her a cup.   "Would you like a scone to go with that?" he asked, as he rummaged through his cupboards.  "I baked a fresh batch this morning.  Bet you didn't know I could bake, did you?"

    Miss Parker shrugged.  She couldn't care less if the old man could bake.

    "Mind you, I'm not as good a baker as Mrs. Brown."

    "You have a wife?" she asked.

    "Don't look so surprised, Honey," Dr. Brown exclaimed.  "In my day I was a good looking young buck," he laughed.

    "I'm sure," she agreed, thoughtfully.

    "Mrs. Brown lives in town.  You see, she and I separated, oh about, fifteen years, ago now."  He placed the morning's freshly baked scones before Miss Parker, and joined her at the table.  "You better take one of these, before I dog them all down.  Unlike my wife, I am a fan of my cooking," he boasted.

    Before Miss Parker could refuse the offer, a biscuit was placed on her plate.

    "Eat up now," Dr. Brown ordered.  He spread generous amounts of butter on a scone for himself, and continued his story.   "The Misses didn't quite understand my love for the wild life."

    Miss Parker nodded, as her attention drifted from Dr. Brown's narrative.  She wondered if she was ever someone's wife.  Were she and the husband still married?  And if they were not, why did they break up?

    "Now, I ain't talking about the partying whooping it up kind of wild life you young kids care for," Dr. Brown explained.  "I'm talking about the wild life in the front room, there."

    "Of course," she whispered, cheating the conversation.  Was it because she wasn't a good cook?

     "Anyway, one day Mrs. Brown gives me an ultimatum."  Dr. Brown took a bite of his scone, and continued talking, spitting crumbs all over the place.   "She comes to me, hands on her hips, and she says 'them' meaning the critters in the den there, or 'me'."

    Maybe she left him.  Maybe he wasn't a faithful husband.  The possible scenarios were endless.

    Dr. Brown's deep voice cut into Miss Parker's pondering.  She quickly guided her distracted courtesy back to her host's tragic love story.   She stared at Dr. Brown, hoping to recall what the old man was prattling on about.  Her mind drew yet another damned blank.

    The old man nodded his head.  "It's the God-honest truth," he pledged, taking her wide-eyed gaze as a display of disbelief, rather than distraction.  "I'm up to my armpits in a heifer's rectum, and Mrs. Brown comes to me, hands on her hips, and says 'them', or 'me'!"

    The mention of the cow's anatomy dissuaded Miss Parker's appetite.  She pushed the untouched scone aside.  Nonetheless, her interest in the self-account was now tweaked.  "And you chose 'them'?" she asked.

    "Heck no, child," the old man refuted.  "Mrs. Brown just left before I could make up my mind," he said with a wink.

    "That's too bad," Miss Parker said.

    "Ah, it's all right," Dr. Brown assured.  "We bump into each other in town, every once in awhile.  And on our anniversary we go to a special restaurant for dinner."  He gulped down his tea.   "In fact, in our 47 years of marriage, the last 15 have been the most blissful."

    Miss Parker became melancholy.  "Dr. Brown, when can I expect my memory will return to me?" she asked.

    Dr. Brown shifted under the blue gaze.   This was precisely why he chose the company of females of the animal kingdom.  Never did they ask him questions for which he couldn't supply answers.  "I'm afraid I don't know, Dear," he replied, with a weary sigh.  "The human mind is...well it's beyond human understanding."

    "Do you think I'll ever remember my life?"

    "I'm sure you will.   Of course you will."  Dr. Brown placed his weathered hand on Miss Parker's.  "And you're welcome to stay here as long as it takes."

    "Thank-you."

    He nodded.  "You pretty up the place," he praised.  "Don't tell the Misses this, but even on a good day, she could scare down off of a duck."  He rose, and motioned for Miss Parker to follow.

    She held the cup and saucer in the palm of her hands, and followed Dr. Brown into the den.  "Where did you find all of these animals?" she asked, as she roamed and inspected the creatures.

    "Well, some were abandoned in my driveway, you see, like little Willie, there."  He pointed to a scrawny tabby lounging on the television.  "Some of these poor fellows are the victims of bad-shot hunters."  He glanced sideways at Miss Parker.  "You recall ever hunting, Miss Parker?"

    She shook her head.  "I can't imagine shooting an innocent creature."  She closed her eyes as a memory blind-sided her.   She was running with a gun in her hand.  As quickly as it appeared, it faded.

    A large white rabbit in one of the cages captured Miss Parker's attention.  She placed down her tea, and quickly went to the animal.  "What happened to this one?" she asked, as she bent down.

    "Wild dog got a hold of it.  Almost bit its leg off."  Mr. Brown knelt down, and gently removed the rabbit from its cage.  "She's healing, nicely, though.  Aren't you, Dolly?"
Miss Parker ran her hand over the soft fur.  "May I hold her?"

    The doctor transferred the heavy animal to Miss Parker.

    As she cuddled the soft animal under her chin, another memory looked in on her.   "He gave me a bunny," she whispered.  "It was a bunny."

    Dr. Brown leant closer.  "What did you say, Dear?"

    It was gone.  "Nothing."  She clung tightly to the rabbit as if it were the memory lost.  "What happened to him?" she asked of the cub bear.

    "Little Faron had to be rescued from his Daddy," he said of the bear cub.  "His Mama was killed.  And Daddy was hungry."

    Miss Parker's eyes widened in horror.  "There are fathers who will eat their young?"

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Mr. Parker entered Sydney's office.  "Any word from Jarod, yet?"

    Sydney turned off the monitor, and spun around to face the intruder.  He had nothing to share with the offensive man.

    Mr. Parker remained rigid.  "If he so much as bruises her...!"

    "Jarod will not harm Miss Parker," Sydney defended, indignantly.  "He's protecting her."

    "From who?  From what?" Mr. Parker snarled.

    Sydney shook his head.  "That, I do not know."  He watched the chairman's countenance for signs of guilt or relief or distress, any manifestation other than the lack thereof.

*          *          *          *          *          *

    Jarod sat at the train depot and watched as vehicles of travelers visited the mountain escape.  There were many visitors from out of province, out of country, for that matter.  But it was a dark sedan with Delaware plates that caught Jarod's attention.  He lifted the pair of binoculars from around his neck and examined the vehicle.  The windows were tinted, concealing the driver's identity.  There was no doubt it was a Centre sent operative.

    He kept a watchful eye on the vehicle, until an elk meandered from behind a building and into the street.  Soon, a few more elk accompanied the lone one.  They casually disrupted the traffic, to lick the salt off of the road, or simply to stand there and gaze dauntlessly at their human admirers.

    Jarod watched the animals in amazement. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out his cellular phone.  He pushed the number and waited for an answer.

    "This is Sydney," the receiver greeted.

    "The elk roam the streets freely here," he informed.

    "Jarod!"  Sydney smiled, glad to hear Jarod's voice.  "Are you well?  How's Miss Parker?"

    "Miss Parker?  Well, she's a real pussycat," he answered.  "In fact, she's having so much fun, that she's forgotten all about her Centre responsibilities."

    "What have you done with her?" the older man demanded.   "This isn't like you."

    "I haven't done anything with her, Sydney.  Not yet, anyway," Jarod answered.  "And this is as much like me as anything I've ever done," he defended, angrily.  "You don't even know who I am.  So how can you say this isn't like me?"

    "Kidnapping, Jarod!  It's a serious offense."

    "We both know Miss Parker is no kid, Sydney," Jarod reminded, with a smirk. "Though at times, she does behave like a spoilt little girl."

    "This game you're playing, Jarod, it will have serious ramifications," Sydney warned.

    "Of course it will, Sydney," Jarod agreed.   "That's why it's keen competition.  The hunter and the hunted; who's chasing who?"

    Sydney ran a hand over his face.  "Jarod, please come back.  We can protect you."

    "You can't even protect yourself, Sydney," he scoffed.   He espied the dark sedan as it made another pass on the main street of Jasper.  "Well, gotta go.  Company's coming."
 
    Jarod ran back to his vehicle, and made haste to Dr. Brown's acreage.   "Where's Miss Parker?" he asked, as he barged into the house.

    "Where's the fire, Son?"

    "No fire, just trouble," Jarod answered.  He ran up the stairs.  "Miss Parker?"

    His distressed voice roused her from sleep.

    She stumbled into the hallway.  "What?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

    He took her by the hand.  "We've got to go."

    She resisted him.  "Go where?  Why?"

    "I'll explain when there's time."

    Miss Parker backed away.  "I want to know now, Jarod."

    Jarod clenched his teeth.  "Guests are on the way, Miss Parker.  And we don't want to be here to greet them."
 
    He ran past her into the room, and grabbed their belongings.  "Come on," he ordered.

    She followed, reluctantly.

    They extended their sincerest gratification to Dr. Brown.

    "They're ruthless, Dr. Brown," Jarod cautioned, of the Centre personnel.

    "Don't you kids worry about me.  I'll make sure Faron is good and hungry, and then sic him on the buggers."

    They got into the Explorer, and drove away.

    Miss Parker glared at Jarod as he drove.

    "Don't look at me like that," he said.  "Please."

    "Where are we going?" she demanded.

    "I don't know, yet."  He glanced at her.  "Don't worry."

    "I want you to take me home," she ordered.

    Jarod eased up on the gas, and pulled the truck to the side of the highway.  He looked into her eyes.  "You don't have to be afraid.  I won't let anyone harm you."

    "I'm not afraid," she said.

    "You are," Jarod countered.  "You wake up one day completely disoriented, removed from your safe surroundings, with no idea of your identity. That's a frightening experience," he related.  "Everyone around you is a stranger.  And you have nothing to hold on to but the promises and assured good intentions of those strangers.  I do know what it's like Miss Parker.  So, believe me when I say, it's going to be okay."

    Miss Parker's brow furrowed.  "Why would someone shoot me, Jarod?  Am I such a horrible person?"

    Jarod shook his head.  "No," he sighed.  "You do tend to go to the extremes in your pursuits.  And sometimes you are very stubborn.  And, on occasion you..." He noticed she was getting angrier at each revelation.  "Persistence can be a very admirable quality, at times, Miss Parker," he added, hoping to soften her face.

    The scowl persisted.

    "No, you are not a horrible person," he stated.  "But unfortunately, you are employed by a very corrupt organization."

    She stared right through him.  He may as well have been speaking Cantonese to her.

    "I don't know who's firing at you, or why.  But I do not doubt it could be someone from the Centre."

    "The what?"  She shook her head, thoroughly disgusted at her lack of knowledge.  "Just drive."

    Jarod's heart ached for her.  "It will be all right, Miss Parker," he tried to comfort.

    "Drive, damn it!" she yelled.

    He put the vehicle into gear, and headed south.

    Miss Parker stared out the side window until the scenery became a blur.

    She awoke to the sound of radio static, whiny music and the driver trying to sing along.   "Heaven help me," she groaned.  Her head throbbed with each heartbeat.  Her arm ached.  And a fire was sparking in her stomach.  "I am in hell."

    Jarod looked over at the pale woman.  "Are you feeling all right, Miss Parker?"

    "It's hot in here."  She rolled down the window, hoping the frigid mountain air would cool her soul.  "What are you listening to?"
 
    "Western music," Jarod answered.

    "You spent way too much time with Old MacDonald," she mumbled.

    "I'm developing an appreciation for the way in which western music philosophizes on life, while at the same time, relates those interpretations in complete grammatical error."  He tapped the steering wheel to the beat of the drum.  "For instance, only in western music, do they use phrases such as 'achy breaky' and 'doggoned done it'."

    "Intellectually stimulating," Miss Parker grunted.

    "And did you know...you can take the boy out of the country, but, you can't take the country...out of the boy?"

    "I did not know that," she deadpanned.

    "Don't you like western music, Miss Parker?"

    "I'd rather have a spinal tap."

    Jarod was taken aback by her answer.  "That's a very painful procedure to endure."

    "So is this music."  She rolled up the window, now chilled.

    "Doctor Brown says we've all got hard luck stories in us."

    Miss Parker looked at Jarod and raised a curious eyebrow.  "And what's your hard luck story, Cowboy?"

    He glanced at her, and answered.  "Well, I was abducted from my family as child, had my genius exploited, made to suffer through horrible experimentation, and when I finally escaped, an Operative was sent to retrieve me.   Rules were 'bring him back alive'.  Now I believe, it's just 'bring him back'."

    Miss Parker was dumbfounded at his openness in recounting the trials of his life.

    "I think somewhere in there are the ingredients for a western song, don't you?" he asked.

    She nodded.  "Certainly."  And the more she learnt about Jarod and herself, the less she wanted to know.   But she couldn't stop the questions from coming.   "This person sent after you, could it be the same one who shot me?"

    Jarod looked over at Miss Parker.  If only the Operative knew she was that close to her target, she surely would kill him.   He shook his head.  "Definitely not."

    "How do you know?"

    "Gut instinct."

    She glanced at him, and then gazed out the window.  The burning inside demanded her attention, consumed every virtuous resource she had.  She tried to smother the fire by pressing hard on her abdomen, but to no avail.

    "It's your ulcer," Jarod informed.  "We'll get some medication at our next stop."

    She turned her head slowly, and stared at him.  "How do you know I...?"

    "Oh, you'd be surprised at what I know about you."  She'd also be surprised to know it was her pursuit of him that contributed to the ulcer.  But he wouldn't share that information with her.

    She resented his candor, and his insight.  He had answers within his mental grasp.  She had nothing.  She didn't even know what questions to ask.

    "It's not fair, is it?" he asked.

    "What's not fair, Jarod?" she snarled.  "That I have an ulcer?  Or that you know about it and I don't?"

    Jarod certainly could relate to Miss Parker's anger and frustration.  But at least she had memories of life to reclaim.  He only had forged memories recorded in black in white on discs.  And the few real precious memories he created as a child before his abduction were so rare and faint; that they tormented him whenever they visited.

    "Miss Parker, do you know what you get...when you play a western song backwards?" Jarod asked to lighten the mood.

    "Do I care?"

    "You get your spouse back, your employer rehires you, and your family pet returns."

    She looked at him, not even slightly amused.

    "I don't get it either."  He shrugged.  "Maybe I told it wrong."

    She rolled her eyes, and returned to staring out of the window.

*          *           *          *          *

    Sydney meditated on Jarod's words as he headed for Broots office.  There had to be an end to this vicious existence.   Surely, life had more to offer.

    "Anything yet?" he asked, as he entered Broots office.

    "Nothing on Jarod," Broots answered.  "But I did find out one of the Centre's vehicles headed west of Edmonton this morning."  He brought up a map of Western Canada.  "There's a national park, Jasper."

    "Good Broots," Sydney praised.  "Good work.  Do we know who was sent?"

    "I'm working on it."

    "Where's Brigitte?"

    Just at that moment, she skulked into the office.  "She's right behind you, mate," Brigitte answered cheerfully.

    Broots tried to make the image on his monitor disappear before Brigitte espied it, but was too late.

    "And what have we here, Mr. Broots?"  She leant against Broots' chair as she examined the map.  "Ah yes, Canada; lovely spot.  But not this time of the year, gents.  It's dreadfully cold."   She crossed her arms, and looked from Broots to Sydney, back to Broots. "Planning a trip, are we?"

    Neither of the men responded.

    "Of course you're not," Brigitte answered, delighted.  "I highly doubt either of you have enough fortitude to visit the loo without the indulgence of your highness, let alone leave the country in her truancy."

    Sydney was distressed.  "That's enough!" he yelled, startling both Brigitte and Broots.  "Did you shoot Miss Parker?"

    Brigitte stared at him, and smiled.  "Sydney, it stabs me to the heart that you think me wicked enough to harm a colleague."

    "I asked you a question!  Did you shoot Miss Parker!" he demanded, as he grabbed her by the shoulders.

    "Sydney, calm down!" Broots exclaimed.  He pried the older man's grip from Brigitte's small shoulders.  "Sydney...please!"

    Brigitte stared at both men.  "You need a holiday, old man," she said to Sydney.  "May I suggest...Canada?"

    Sydney glared at the young woman.  "I swear to God, if you're involved..."

    "Involved in what, Sydney?"  She stared at him.  "Surely, you've been employed by the Centre long enough to comprehend, that whatever deeds are done, we've all got our thumbs in the pie."  She tore the wrapper off of a sucker and licked on the candy.  "A word of warning, Mr. Broots..."

    Broots' mouth fell open, and his heart nearly leapt out.  "W-w-what?"

    "Keep your shrink on a short leash.  We wouldn't want the same eventuality happening to him as did our dear Miss Parker."  She winked, and was gone.

    "What does she mean by that?" Broots asked Sydney.  "What do you think she meant by that?"

    Sydney shook his head and sighed.

*        *          *          *          *          *
 

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