What Price Freedom

Chapter 4

Six months later…

Miss Parker sat at her dressing table and slowly brushed her hair. The act was soothing, especially when she could take her time and let her mind wander back to her childhood. Back to those times her mother would brush her hair, and she’d gaze at their reflections in the mirror – mother and daughter – and wonder if she’d ever be as beautiful as the woman standing behind her. Now, if she allowed those memories to take over, and if the light was just right, she could almost see her mother’s face again in the mirror. Almost.

Jarod’s harsh – but completely true – words echoed in her mind, as they had so many times in the six months since he’d uttered them. “It was your mother who tried to rescue me from the Centre. I wonder how she’d feel about what you’re doing. I bet she’d be so proud.”

And her response, equally true, and just as painful: “I’m not my mother. I’ll never be my mother.”

So no matter how much she yearned to see her mother, especially today, she knew the gentle yet strong and incredibly brave woman who’d been Catherine Parker no longer existed, except in memories. Fragmented, twisted memories that kept changing every time another Centre secret was revealed. Would she ever know the whole truth about her mother’s life? Or about her death?

Miss Parker put down the brush. Time to get this day started.

The soaring orchestral strains of the theme song from Star Wars blared from her cell phone. She winced inwardly. A few weeks ago she and Broots had been following a lead on Jarod – another dead end, of course – and they’d had to do a stakeout in the car for hours. With too much time on his hands, Broots had somehow gotten hold of her phone and programmed in different ring tones for different callers. She hated the insipid tunes but had no idea how to change it back to a normal ring. But there was no way in hell she was going to admit that to Broots.

As she went to retrieve the phone from her bedside table, she found herself wondering for the hundredth time which character Broots identified with in this iconic science fiction drama. Certainly not the young light saber-wielding rebel and definitely not the rakish outlaw-turned-hero. She had only a vague memory of the movies, but she would classify Broots as the annoying golden droid. And she imagined he fantasized of her as Princess Leia in that ridiculous bikini.

She answered the call and blessedly cut off the music; the damn tune would probably play in her head the rest of the day anyway. “What?” she snapped.

“Miss Parker? Are you in your office? I- I need to talk to you.” As usual, Broots was speaking in a low, semi-frantic tone.

“Isn’t that what you’re doing right now?”

“No! I mean yes, but no, that’s not – I mean-“

“Broots!”

“I need to see you in person. I think I found something.”

“Well, I’m not at the Centre. I’m not coming in today.”

“Are you sick?” He sounded concerned.

“I’m fine. I just have some personal business to attend to.”

“What personal – well, it’s none of my business, I know, but – oh, today is the 13th. Oh, so that’s what – oh.” He trailed off into an uncomfortable silence.

Miss Parker sank down on the side of the bed and used her free hand to massage her forehead, hoping to soothe away the headache that was starting to throb behind her eyes. “Yes, Broots, I’m going to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. Can this mysterious something you think you found wait until tomorrow?”

“Oh, sure! I mean, I think so, I don’t know if it’s really important, it’s just that you told me to keep you informed about anything to do with– well, with you-know-who.”

“Do you have a lead on Jarod?”

“No, it’s about…” There was a pause. Miss Parker imagined Broots looking around to make sure no one was watching him. Unfortunately, at the Centre, his paranoia was justified. “It’s about your brother,” he whispered finally.

That got her attention. “Lyle? What about him?”

“Hold on a minute.” It sounded like he put the phone down. A few seconds later she heard a loud mechanical whirring noise, and he came back on the line.

“What is that noise?” she demanded.

“The paper shredder. I thought it would be a good way to cover up what I’m saying.” He sounded pleased with himself.

She grudgingly had to admit that it was a good idea. Of course, she wasn’t going to tell him that. “So what’s my brother up to now?”

“Well, I saw Cindy from accounting in the break room this morning. She’s really stressed, what with taxes being due on Monday, and she was venting a little about the heap of paperwork waiting on her desk and explaining that was why she had to get her morning cup of coffee a little earlier than usual… You know, she’s a really nice lady, practically the only person at the Centre who talks to me, except for you and Sydney. Do you think she likes me?” He paused.

“I’ll make sure to pass her a note at recess to find out,” Miss Parker said sarcastically. “Broots! What about Lyle?”

“Oh! Sorry. Anyway, Cindy mentioned that there were a ton of long distance calls to Africa in the last couple of weeks.” He paused again then finished dramatically, “They were from Lyle’s extension.”

Africa meant The Triumverate. Why was her brother suddenly having chats with the Centre’s overlords? More disturbing, why were they taking his calls? What could he be saying that was of such interest to them?

“Miss Parker? Are you there?”

Broots sounded even more agitated, if that was possible. He needed someone to take control. “Get me a copy of those phone records, Broots,” she ordered. “I want to know how many calls, when they were made, and how long they lasted.” She also wanted to know what was said during those conversations, but Lyle was as diligent as she about sweeping for listening devices, and she’d never been able to bug his phone or office.

“Well, I should be able to hack into the Centre’s utility expense accounts, but I can’t do it right now. I’m being sent to a satellite office in New Jersey to fix a computer glitch. It’ll probably take the rest of the day.”

“Right now?”

“Apparently, their normal tech support guy is sick, and the powers-that-be need something off the mainframe ASAP. It must be sensitive material, because they need someone with my clearance level.”

Did he actually sound proud of that? Miss Parker bit back a caustic reply. “Then I’ll get your girlfriend Cindy to print me a hard copy,” she said, resorting to Plan B.

“Oh, please don’t do that, Miss Parker!” Broots sounded like he was working himself into a full-fledged panic. “She already regrets telling me as much as she did; she’ll get in trouble if you ask her for more.”

Miss Parker closed her eyes but the headache persisted. “Fine, Broots. But I want those phone records in my hands first thing tomorrow.”

There was another awkward pause. When he finally spoke, he sounded miserable but determined. “I’m sorry, Miss Parker, but tomorrow is Saturday, and Debbie’s home.”

Geek he may be, but he was also a good father. She wasn’t going to interfere with his family time. “Fine, Broots,” she said again. “We’ll deal with it first thing Monday morning.”

His huge sigh of relief came clearly across the line. “Thanks, Miss Parker. I have to go now, but you have a good day. Oh! No, I mean, don’t have – what I meant to say was-”

She hung up on him then just sat there on the side of the bed, suddenly exhausted. With the only item on the day’s agenda being a trip to the cemetery, she didn’t know if she had the energy to get up.

Her phone rang again, and she answered immediately. “What now, you moron?”

“Angel? What’s wrong?” There was more annoyance than concern in his voice.

“Daddy!” Miss Parker got to her feet, unconsciously standing at attention. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”

“Well, I imagine that someone had it coming.” There was a brief chuckle from her father. “I was just calling to see when you’d be ready to go.”

“Go where?”

“To the cemetery, of course! You haven’t forgotten what today is?”

As if she could ever forget the anniversary of the day her mother was taken away from her. She ignored the quick stab of pain his insensitive remark caused. “No, of course not, Daddy! I was planning to go to the cemetery. I just didn’t realize you… would be able to come along, too.”

“I told you last year that this is something we should do together from now on. I meant that.”

Was that true hurt in his voice? Or just righteous indignation that she’d ever doubt his word? As usual when confronted by her father, Miss Parker felt like a little girl again, being chided for bad behavior. “I know you did,” she said quickly, “I just thought that maybe your schedule wouldn’t allow it.”

“I always have time for my girl,” he said, “especially for something this important.”

“I’ll be glad for your company, Daddy” she said huskily around the sudden lump in her throat.

“Good. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

“I can meet you there-”

“No, we should go together. I have a driver. See you soon.”

“See you-” She realized he’d already hung up. Miss Parker pushed the end call button and sat for a moment, slightly dazed, as she often felt after a conversation with her father. Then the tune that had played when her father called suddenly registered; it had been the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars. She felt a fresh flash of irritation with Broots, and the emotion energized her.

She tossed the phone on the bed and went back to her dressing table. Suddenly feeling the need to look her best, she applied a fresh coat of lip gloss and swiped some more waterproof mascara on her already thickly-coated lashes. Picking up her brush again, she coaxed a few stubborn strands of hair behind her ears.

She had to admit that she was surprised by her father’s offer to accompany her to the cemetery. Last year she had been glad of his company, especially since she’d just thwarted an attempt on his life. She’d been desperate to hold on to the only family she had left.

But if she was truly honest with herself, today she felt slightly disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to visit her mother’s grave alone. She’d become accustomed to making this annual pilgrimage by herself; it was almost soothing to sit by the headstone and let childhood memories – only the best ones - wash over her.

With her father by her side, she’d have to share some of those memories aloud. Would he find them comforting or a painful reminder of better days? Maybe she could get him to share a few of his own, ones he’d never heard. But she knew that would take some doing and feel too much like work, the work she did every day ferreting our secrets at the Centre.

Miss Parker sighed. Her relationship with her father had always been complicated. The fact that he was making the effort to support her on this tragic anniversary was a good thing. And she needed all the help she could get to make it through this terrible day.

She put down the brush and studied the end result. Her reflection showed a beautiful woman, every shining hair in place, make-up expertly applied. But when she thought of the day her mother had been murdered, there was a sadness in her eyes and weariness in the lines around her mouth. In that instant, she truly looked like Catherine Parker, especially in those final, desperate days when the kind-hearted woman had been trying to rescue the children from the Centre.

But she wasn’t her mother. Miss Parker blinked and the ghostly visage vanished. Her own determined face, carefully devoid of emotion, stared back at her. She turned away from the mirror and went to wait for her father.


She was a striking figure dressed in her customary black, but today the somber ensemble perfectly fit the occasion. It was a warm spring day so she wore no coat. Her simple black dress was a little too short and a little too tight, but the strand of pearls around her neck added just the right touch of elegance. She was a stark silhouette in a field of color; most of the graves were still decorated with bright Easter flowers. She weaved gracefully through the tombstones, moving easily across the grass despite the six-inch heels she wore. He knew better than to think those shoes would slow her down in a chase; if she caught sight of him, he’d have a hell of a time getting away.

He didn’t intend to let her see him. Last year Jarod had stood at this very spot, hidden among the trees on the hillside, and watched Miss Parker as she visited her mother’s grave. He wasn’t sure why he felt compelled to come here on this day; perhaps he wanted to pay his respects to the woman who had died trying to save him. Or perhaps he felt he should be near Miss Parker on a day that was pure torment for her just in case …

In case what? What did he think would happen? She’d break down at her mother’s grave, he’d materialize at her side, and she’d sob on his shoulder, seeking comfort in his embrace?

Ridiculous. Impossible. And dangerous.

Jarod quirked an eyebrow as another person stepped up behind Miss Parker – her father. He was surprised that he had accompanied his daughter here for the second year in a row. Despite Miss Parker’s belief that her father loved her, Jarod had never seen much evidence of it. In fact, he sometimes thought Mr. Parker was almost as much a threat to his own daughter as he was to Jarod – in some ways, more so, because her emotions made her vulnerable to his lies.

As Jarod watched, Miss Parker knelt by the headstone and laid a single white rose on the ground. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder.

So intent was he on the scene in front of him, Jarod didn’t hear anything behind him until he sensed movement. He spun around and found himself face to face with Brigitte.

She smiled and aimed a gun at him. “Long time no see, luv,” she said.

He clearly remembered her straddling him as he lay chained (or so he pretended) to a bed in a dingy basement, sold out by the slightly deranged drifter Argyle. His skin crawled with the memory.

Today she was wearing an electric blue blazer with the collar standing up, almost touching her extremely short blonde hair. The matching skin-tight pants were made out of the same shiny material that looked like plastic.

Then he saw Willie approaching from his right, a short distance behind Brigitte, his gun also drawn and trained on Jarod.

His mind whirling with escape scenarios, Jarod carefully kept his voice calm as he said, “Not long enough.”

Brigitte put on a pretty pout. “And I have such fond memories of our time together,” she said in a mock hurt tone.

“Oh, so you enjoy being handcuffed to a bed,” Jarod said, “do you, luv?” He threw out the last bit in a British accent.

Brigitte’s smiled widened, seemingly not at all upset that he had left her trapped while he’d escaped again. “If you’d stayed there with me, we could have had such fun,” she purred. She took a step closer. “Okay, lover boy, keep your hands where I can see them. Let’s make this nice and easy.”

Jarod casually spread his hands out to the side. “Go ahead, frisk me,” he invited with what he hoped was just the right touch of innuendo. A plan was forming in his mind. If Brigitte got close enough, her mind not completely focused on the job at hand, he may be able to surprise her and grab the gun. Then he could use her as a human shield; he knew it was above Willie’s pay grade to make decisions about whether he should shoot at Jarod with Brigitte in the way. Anyway, he didn’t really care if she took a bullet meant for him; Willie wouldn’t be shooting to kill in either case.

Brigitte’s smile turned downright predatory. “Sometimes I love my job,” she murmured and took another step towards him.

Jarod tensed and –

A familiar voice spoke from directly behind him. “Back off, Brigitte. Better wait until the prey is safely in its cage before you play with it.”

Lyle. Something like a small chunk of ice formed in the pit of his stomach. Without turning around, Jarod knew there was a third gun aimed at his back. “You’re not really going to shoot me again, are you, Lyle?” he said, using every ounce of control to keep his tone conversational.

“I’m not aiming at you,” Lyle countered smoothly.

That did make Jarod turn. What he saw sent a chill through his whole body; Lyle had his gun pointed in Miss Parker’s direction.

“She’s your sister,” Jarod rasped, knowing the words would mean nothing to this man. Figuring in distance, trajectory, ability and confidence of the shooter, he frantically tried to calculate the probability of Lyle being able to fatally shoot Miss Parker.

“She’s expendable,” Lyle said dismissively. “Especially once you’re back at the Centre.”

Jarod hoped the panic he was feeling didn’t show on his face. When Willie came up behind him and grabbed his arm, he started to struggle instinctively.

“Hold still, Jarod,” Lyle warned. He glanced down at his sister and father, who still hovered over Catherine Parker’s grave, oblivious to the drama playing out a short distance away. “Such a touching scene. Be a shame if another tragedy would mar this day forever.” His finger tightened on the trigger.

The odds were too great that Lyle would be able to make the shot. After all, he’d been able to hit Jarod six months ago when he was running away; Miss Parker was a much easier, stationary target. Jarod didn’t move as Willie roughly pulled his arms behind his back and snapped a pair of cuffs on him.

“Good boy.” Lyle smiled coldly. “Let’s leave father and daughter to their grief, shall we?” He gestured to the Sweeper, who started pulling Jarod towards the black SUV he now saw parked on the gravel lane higher up the slope.

Jarod concentrated on keeping his breathing steady and his senses on high alert; he needed to take advantage of any opportunity to escape. But propelled by Willie and flanked by Brigitte and Lyle, he doubted one would present itself.

He wasn’t a superstitious man, but he had to admit that on this Friday the Thirteenth, his luck had finally run out.


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