Persistence of Memory - Pt. 10
By Paul Seely
"Hello, Roger. It's Diana Starrett. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine, ma'am. Just getting ready to go home. My shift ends in five minutes."
"And Leroy comes in, I know. I need a favor before you go, please."
"Walk down to the front gate and tell me if there's a car parked on the shoulder."
"Okay, hold on."
Sounds of quick footsteps falling, then quiet. "Yeah, there's a white Audi down the road aways. Don't look like anyone's inside, though."
"Roger, this might sound weird, but I want you to yell something for me."
"Yell, Ms. Starrett?"
"Yes, sir. Just scream out 'Deborah Carson wants to speak to the scarecrow!' as loud as you can."
Quiet again for several seconds, then a shouted message that Diana was sure could be heard all the way to Bakersfield. Roger, the day shift guard, certainly had an excellent set of lungs.
"Somebody peeped up behind the wheel, Ms. Starrett. He's coming this way."
"Tall, skinny blonde guy?"
"Uh-huh," Roger confirmed. "Scarecrow, eh? I can see that."
"Let him through the gate and hand him the phone, please, then give him a little space."
Silence again, squeaking metal, then rustling as the phone was transferred to new hands. "Diana?"
"Dan. Glad to know you survived the battle of the mudhole."
"Uhh, yeah. Right. After the cleaners left, Julia sent me over here to keep watch. No one's come or gone in the last hour, and no disturbances have registered on your home alarm frequencies."
"What - does that mean the agency's wired into my house?"
"No, no! Harry'd have someone's nuts on a plate if he thought that was going on! I'm just monitoring from outside on my own scanners. All's quiet around here, though. No worries."
"I want you to go inside. Stay close by her."
"I'm asking you go to my place, up to the actual house. When the big mean man answers the door, tell him that you and I knew each other in L.A., working gang crime. Tell him you've come to help. If he doesn't shoot you immediately, tell him I said his birthday presents are in my left desk drawer, and that if Charlie says it's okay, he can smoke one in the house. Only one! If the drapes stink when I come home, he's in big trouble."
"Shouldn't you speak to them yourself?"
"I should, but I'm not ready yet."
"Uhh... so what should I tell her?"
"That I'm okay. Confused as hell, but okay, and I'll call as soon as I know more."
"How much do they know about what's going on?"
"Him, nothing. Her, most everything up to this afternoon - and what she doesn't know, she should. If... no, make that when Charlie corners you and wants to talk, don't front. Use your own discretion talking about yourself, but there's nothing off-limits about me. Be honest, okay? I trust her."
After an ample silence... "Sure. Whatever you say. Any closing comments?"
"Tell her I - nevermind. She knows already."
"She's... she's my whole life. Take care of her."
"Count on it."
On that note, the phone beeped and went dead. Diana Starrett waited a moment. listening to the electronic hum, then powered down her phone unit and set it beside her deck chair.
The air cooled suddenly as the sun melted into the sea, a large scoop of orange sorbet with strawberry syrup dissolving across the shimmering surface of the Pacific. A not-so-warm breeze whipped over the water, and Diana rubbed the chill bumps down on her bare forearms, wishing she had thought to bring along another shirt, or at least a windbreaker. More than that, she wished she had a certain warm-blooded blonde attorney wrapped around her. That would work much better.
* I should be home now, stretched out on the couch with Charlie, watching The Philadelphia Story on cable. Wonder if she's watching without me? *
Lost, angry, guilt-riddled and confused already, the last thing she needed was to start feeling crummy about missing what Charlie called a "sofa date," but she couldn't help it. Again, Diana looked at the phone unit by her chair and thought about calling Charlotte. Each time, she talked herself out of it, not wanting to talk to her until she had a clearer idea of her current situation.
* You still have so few answers. Call her now and all you can do is worry her. Teddy's there, and Dan will be soon. Besides, Yoshima's probably so pissed at Julia, he's forgotten all about me and mine. At least, I hope so. Oh, wow. Sweetie, would you ever love this sunset. *
Closing her eyes, she drifted off for a moment, dipping into the coffers of recorded sensation to let a remembered embrace warm her from the inside out. If she concentrated, she could feel splendidly solid arms slipping around her waist from behind, pulling her into a yielding softness that pressed against her shoulder blades, open lips falling wet on the back of her neck...
* Hmm... not cold anymore. Neat. You make me feel better even when you're not here. *
Sighing, Diana resigned herself to being patient until the real thing was available again and returned her attention to the sunset. She watched from the same chair she first took when she came up on deck. She left it a number of times to check on her passenger, only to return in frustration to the safety of topside. Since waiting was proving more maddening than anticipated, Diana whiled away a portion of the time by bringing out her portable med kit and obtaining some samples from the oblivious Ms. Kamura, samples that would answer some lingering questions from this afternoon.
Down in the cabin, Angelia was tightly held within the grip of some waking dream, but it had nothing to do with the location of the information Diana needed. Rather, the girl seemed absorbed in the recollection of more... leisurely activities, and could not yet be bothered to make coherent conversation. Diana's only recourse was to let her burn herself out. The only problem was - if memory served her correctly - it would take Angelia an awfully long time to run out of fuel.
More sweaty cursing and groaning sloshed up the stairs. "Unh...unh... damn you! UNNHHH..."
The former agent cupped her hands over her ears, uncomfortable in the knowledge that she herself was starring in those fevered fantasy/memories; aside from that, she was annoyed as the sounds periodically pricked her keen hearing and drew her mind off course and into dangerous waters. Although she was absolutely certain that nothing would happen between them, regardless of any circumstance, it was still much safer not to let her thoughts go there at all.
* Could you - at least ONCE in your life - come quietly? Hmm? Please? For my sake? *
Standing and stomping over to the railing, Diana scanned the wooden walkways for any sign of her expected guest, but saw only the few people who were still working on their vessels, rigging boats for night cruising, or buttoning them up to head back home. Peering down the walk to the entrance, she saw an obviously drunk man leaning against the guard booth, evidently asking for directions. Security pointed him toward the restrooms, but he staggered off toward the slips instead.
"Coming my way, buddy?" Diana asked, wondering if that could be... no. She dismissed those thoughts upon taking a longer look at the drunk's clothing - white pants and a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt that almost glowed in the gathering dark.
"Nope. Wouldn't be caught dead in that shirt," she muttered, slipping a hand to the back of her shorts to re-adjust the warmed metal of her pistol. The Colt fit snugly against the small of her back, just big enough not to slip past the waistband and down her shorts. Talk about an uncomfortable wedgie.
Diana kept her eyes on the docks and noted that the loudly garbed person was walking her way, clomping along with big, sloppy steps fit for Otis Campbell on a bender. Keeping close watch, she drew her gun and held it behind her back, lightly fingering the trigger.
* That can't be... well, I'll be shit. Yes, it is. *
Only a few yards away now, the unsteady man brought himself to a wavering halt at the Sunseeker's slip, just under a spill of light from the overhead lamps. He ran one large hand through wavy dark hair spotted with silver at the temples, brushing the thick locks back from his eyes. He was clean-shaven, except for a neat little mustache, and his eyes were drifting from his white canvas docksiders up to the sign that marked slip 383.
"Can I help you, pal?" Diana called down, keeping her tone neutral as she stepped into sight.
"Heya, bay-bee!" he answered cheerily, swaying like a palm frond in the evening breeze. "You wooden happn to know where I kin fine a baffroom, woodja?"
"I guess you could use mine. Just promise you'll put the seat down when you're done."
"Thassa deal!" He smiled and made for the ladder, carefully climbing on board the massive cruiser.
Diana backed away as he came on deck, keeping her gun at the ready, just in case this was a mistake. "The head is right down those stairs, first door to the left," she told him, watching as he turned and carefully negotiated the waxed teakwood steps down to the living quarters.
After giving him a few seconds alone, Diana followed and found him standing in the middle of the main room. She closed the door behind them, throwing the cabin into silence. He had turned on the lamp by the far wall, suffusing the space with a dim yellow light which draped his long shadow across the carpet. Steady and sober as the facade of inebriation fell away, he stroked his mustache and watched Angelia twist and turn on the narrow bed.
"I see you let your hair grow some, and you finally lost the beard," Diana said. "Looks good on you, Harry. But you need to kill whoever sold you that shirt."
The tall, dark man turned and faced her, his eyes unreadable. "I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that this has something to do with why you called me. What is she doing here?"
* A minute ago, she was masturbating to beat the band, * Diana's warped mind quipped instantly. She could tell that Harry Mars was in no mood for pleasantries or jokes; fortunately, she had plenty of legitimate questions to pass the time. * Let's start with the obvious. *
"So you recognize her - that means you know about Nagano. You always told me you weren't in on Riggins' black ops."
Mars was keenly aware of the gun in Diana's hand. Even though she had called him, she obviously didn't know who to trust, so he decided to keep his answers quick, short and direct. "For the past several months, I've been reading his private field journals. There are lots of entries involving you, Diana. Angelia Kamura disappeared after the Nagano job. Riggins indicated she was dead."
"Obviously, he was full of shit. Paranoid bastard even lied in his own case files."
"He knew they'd be compromised if he fell from power. Apparently, he wanted to keep her continued existence his own little secret, even beyond the grave."
"Any idea why he'd bother?"
Harry shrugged, his high shoulders shifting under the multi-colored tropical print shirt. It looked to Diana like he had lost a lot of weight, slimming down from his former bulky musculature to reveal a sleeker, more defined body. Maybe some of that had to do with job stress...
"Before you got out of the business, met this lawyer and all, what would you have done if you'd known Angelia was alive?" he asked pointedly. "You would have gone after her, right?"
Quiet and mildly surprised, Diana couldn't disagree. "Maybe."
"I know you. There's no maybe about it, and Riggins knew it, too. He knew that if something should happen to disrupt his control over you, that he could pull a pretty little ace from his sleeve and trump you into submission again. Even Lex Luthor couldn't toss out a big lump of Kryptonite."
"Kryptonite?" Diana started to protest the intimation, then just decided to let it go. Now wasn't the time to flex her humility. "I'm flattered that you think me nigh invulnerable. If that was his reasoning, why didn't he bring her into play that last night at Falcon's place?"
"I wouldn't presume to speak for him, but from the carnage you left scattered around that house, I'd wager Joshua was too distracted or off-kilter to take the shot. Maybe he saw you were love struck over the lawyer, and he wrote it off as being too little, too late."
"She has a name, you know," Diana told him, catching his dark eyes on sharp blue hooks. "The lawyer. Given name, surname, embarrassing and matronly middle name. The whole magilla."
Harry Mars nodded, then found something to study on the floor. "I know. If I can't be angry about you leaving, I can at least be sullen and rude regarding the reason," he explained, speaking in the general direction of the carpet.
A quarter smile peeled up one corner of Diana's mouth. "Suppose I'm getting off light, there."
"You have no idea."
A few seconds rolled past in silence before the two were ready to move beyond whatever just happened. They both knew that Mars had some unresolved feelings for her, and it was an issue they would just as soon never confront directly. Things were strange enough already without adding that to the mix.
Diana sat on one of the narrow leather couches mounted to the wall and motioned for Harry to follow suit. She relaxed her grip on the pistol, holding it loosely against her thigh. After a small hesitation, Mars sat and popped open a silver cigarette case, slipping one between his lips.
"You want?" he asked, offering the case to Diana with a seductive waggle. "Nicoteeene."
"I quit nine months ago. My lungs are all pink and healthy now. You oughtta try it, Joe Camel."
"Spoilsport," Harry muttered, lighting the cig and waiting for the talking to commence. His eyes flickered across the bed to the form of a restless woman, cocooned tightly in a sweaty sheet. With something like relief, he noted that Angelia was still mostly dressed, and that Diana bore no mark or scent of having... indulged herself with the young beauty.
"She's drugged. Julia had her at the lake house," Diana said abruptly, jerking her head to indicate Angelia. "Swede's got something cooking with Hideo Yoshima, and I'm kitty in the middle."
Mars didn't look surprised at all. "What do you mean by 'something cooking?' In a friendly sense?"
"Definitely not. She's fucking him over somehow. He wants her head as a dinner table centerpiece, so he sent a gun crew over to the lake today to take her out. They arrived just as I was leaving."
"Shit. Is she alone?"
"Probably. Dan was there, but she sent him off to watch out for Charlie. I'd wager that her visitors are all long-since dead."
"Julia have a Gabler with her?"
Harry pursed his lips and shook his head. " I knew this was coming, knew she wouldn't wait."
"Wait for what? What the hell is she up to?"
"Proactive threat neutralization. We know Yoshima is developing bioweapons, and that he has contracts with Middle-Eastern powers to buy his product. The U.N. wants that threat quashed yesterday, and Julia said she'd take care of it. I ordered her to leave it alone."
"Why the hands-off routine? Isn't this why the agency exists?"
"It's not our game anymore, not the way I run things. There are other groups after this bio research and material - groups with pull. Politically speaking, it's in our best interest to let them handle it. Trouble is, Julia didn't agree with me."
"Shocking," Diana added tartly, privately disappointed to find herself siding with Julia. "Which other agencies are on the prowl?"
"You name 'em, they're in. Everybody wants to bring this one off. Lots of points to be made."
"So Jules disregarded a direct order because she wants to be prom queen of Spy High."
"More like class president. Shortly after you left, she petitioned the committee for her own division - a counter-terrorism specialty outfit, separate from my general services branch."
"Face-front mutiny? Jesus."
"No, I don't think she wants to run the whole ship, I believe she just wants exclusive use of the artillery. She thinks I'm not focused on the agency's primary directive anymore, that things would work better if we split off into our specialties - me steering and her shooting."
"But the committee didn't bite."
"They said they couldn't afford it. No funding, no expansion. She said she'd take care of that, too."
"That must be what she's up to with Yoshima. She's robbing him blind with one hand, and using me to help get the virus data with the other. Sneaky little -"
"Wait right there - using you how? Tell me how you got involved."
"She knows about my connection with Angelia, and wants me to locate the virus info she stole and stashed years back in Nagano. It's Julia's opinion that Riggins had her washed when he whisked her out of Japan and she doesn't remember anything about the missing Marburg crap."
Mars mulled over that possibility as he stubbed out his cigarette, grinding out each smoldering spark. "If she's under, you of all people know how dangerous it would be to try and surface her."
"I know that. I'm also aware that I'm probably the only chance she's got to come through intact. After everything I promised... and failed to deliver, I owe her at least this much."
"That's undue guilt. You didn't kill them, despite Riggins' orders. She's alive because of you."
Hearing that didn't help Diana at all, even though in a practical sense, it was perfectly true. If anything, it made her feel worse. Things had come so close to working out the way they planned, so close...
"Whatever. I'm supposed to help her surface, then tell you where to find the virus data."
"Julia's idea. I suppose she wants you credited with recovering the first Marburg/Utah files."
"Awfully generous of her. A peace offering to make the brass think I'm still in the loop. Clever."
"She must want your support for this new division."
"Sounds about right, but it would take much more than that to get me off her case now," Harry said bitterly, tipping ash from his cigarette into a carved jade ashtray beside the couch. "Riggins had the girl set up someplace, right? Incognito, blind identity."
"That's standard procedure, but Yoshima couldn't have found her without a tip-off. My guess is Julia arranged a leak within the agency to put him on the scent, get the ball rolling on this little scheme."
"So he finds the girl and takes her away, Julia steals her back and leads him here - to you. How were you initially brought in?"
"That's where she gets really twisty. I think she set me up from both ends, playing on my past with Angelia and giving the old man new interest in me. Yoshima is dying of AIDS, and he believes I was infected at one point... and that Mangano cured me somehow."
Harry Mars, the preeminent prince of gruff cool, nearly swallowed his tongue. "WHAT?? That's insane! I've had tech staff comb through the lab computers a hundred times! There are no records of any HIV experiments, and your medical reports have always been clean as a whistle!"
"I don't know what to make of that myself. It really had me worried for a while there, but after the shock wore off, I came to the same conclusion as you. It's just not possible."
* It isn't possible, after all, * Diana told herself again. * It isn't possible... right? *
"So where would he get such a nutty idea?" Mars asked.
"Julia's disinformation tactics," he said instantly, drawing a nod of agreement from Diana. "Damned woman makes Joe Goebbels look like Liz Smith. I still don't see the point of it, though."
"To divert Yoshima's attention, maybe. In any case, he bought it. He decided he wanted to use me to somehow prolong his own life, so he sent me a bloody summons last night and threatened me in person today at his lovely San Diego beach house. I eavesdropped a little before I went in, and overheard him having a hissy fit and sending a hit crew out to whack off Jules' head. I got to her first, she fed me a nibble of her story, and I lit out with Angelia. That's pretty much everything up to now."
"Christ, that's enough. Take a second to catch your breath, Di. You've had a busy day."
"Not as busy as Julia. She's probably got Yoshima so perplexed and pissed by now, keeping hold of that virus is the last thing on his mind. He'll give it up just to make her leave him alone."
"Leave him alone? That won't happen. If she loots his resources and pries that virus from his hands, she'll have to take him out. Julia wouldn't leave him as a loose end."
"I doubt he understands that. Yoshima is not in his right mind, Harry. After seeing him for a few minutes today, I could tell that much."
"He wouldn't be a match for her even if he was sane. Takes all I can do to hold my own just talking with her most days. Wasn't like this before, but since Riggins kicked off, she's been on a tear and I don't know how to control her. Some days, I'd like to just deck her and be done with it."
Diana shook her head, lips poked out in a sour smile. "Naah. She'd enjoy that too much."
Mars tilted his head like a confused puppy. "Huh?"
"Nevermind," she evaded, staring off into nothing as her mind jumped onto something else. "I keep getting this funny feeling, like there's more to this, something I'm not seeing yet."
"Well, you have your suspect in Julia, your motive is money and power, and you got a partial confession from the guerilla queen herself. What's missing?"
"I can't tell, but it's giving me the willies. Why would Julia want Yoshima so agitated over me? Am I just the accelerant thrown on the fire?"
"You're as good a choice as anyone. Better than most."
"Well, dammit... if that's the case, I wish she'd picked someone else to be scapegoat. I don't need this," Diana told him, gesturing at the occupied bed. "Not in the least. It's too strange."
Nodding to himself, Mars stroked his chin and found himself agreeing with Diana. "Let me check into a few things. I'll see what I can set straight while I'm out here."
"While you're at it, would you order another thorough sweep on the medical records?" she asked, trying to keep the nerves out of her voice. "Just in case something slipped through, I mean."
"Consider it done. Keep your phone unit handy, along with my private numbers - which I will not even ask how you obtained - and call me tomorrow."
"Don't forget your lovely parting gift," Diana added, handing over the med kit. "Angelia's blood and tissue samples need testing. Total tox screen, blood work, AIDS, everything."
"Is there reason to believe she's infected with HIV?"
"Yoshima seemed to think she was. There's no way to know when he was exposed to the virus, and he sexually abused her for years. I guess it's possible."
Mars didn't seem so much surprised as saddened by the incestuous nastiness, his eyes closing for a second and a dejected sigh heaving from his chest. "I'll send them to the lab tonight."
"Thanks. Just one more thing, then you're free."
Diana didn't really want to ask, but she had to try. "You didn't start... I mean, all this wasn't..."
"No. I didn't arrange this, although I can see where you might think that," he said, a note of apology underlying his words. "After we talked that morning at the ranch house, when you hung up, you were so angry at me... I honestly never thought I'd see you again. Protocol prevented me from saying it, but I intended to cut you loose once and for all. No strings."
"Yeah. Can't say I wanted to do it. I'd still take you back in a second if you asked me to, but I know you won't. You had a chance to know something most of us would kill or die for. Best thing I could do for you was to let you try and keep it. So far, so good, right? You seem happy with her."
"Don't get me wrong, now." Mars looked into Diana's eyes, and both felt some ancient fire arc between them, something that even eons of time couldn't entirely extinguish. "Everything in me was - still is - screaming not to let you get away. At one time, I would have listened, but I can't justify it anymore. You don't belong to me or anybody else, unless you choose to give yourself over."
Blue eyes softened, sympathy warming them by a degree. "I have done that. Completely."
"I know," Harry said, looking away. "I know."
"Thanks for coming out here. It's not like you have an obligation to help me or anything."
Somehow, Harry Mars found the way back to her eyes, guided by a need to connect one last time. "You must know by now that isn't true. Anytime you call me, I'll do what I can to help. It really means something to me that you trusted me enough to reach out."
"Heh. Who else was I gonna call?"
"Diana, we are both well aware you have other recourse," Mars protested. "This all hit you today, all at once. Give yourself a chance to breathe, to get your bearings. You'll do what needs to be done. Meanwhile, call me tomorrow, lay low and watch your back."
Without another word or a touch or a glance backward, Harry Mars crossed the cabin and disappeared through the door. Diana heard his light steps hitting the deck and then nothing more as he slipped off into the night, leaving her to face her dilemma alone again.
"Well. Just you and me now, kid," she said to the discomfited Angelia.
The half-sleeping young woman let out a low, aching groan and rolled toward the wall, pressing her body along the cool wood. "Be careful! It'll stain the floor!"
Diana's eyebrows shot up at the sudden exclamation. Unlike the babbling and animalistic grunting issued consistently since they'd been on board, this time Angelia spoke clearly, just like she did a few hours ago before the hormonal flux drove her to incoherency. This time, Diana knew where the remembered conversation was heading, and decided to join in.
"What'll stain the floor, Angel?"
"The ink! Don't turn over the pot, whatever you do. Whatever you do..."
"I won't. I promise I'll be careful," Diana said. She knelt by the bed and lowered her voice to a sultry register. "Hand me the brush."
A frail hand drifted over to her own and pressed a slim, invisible sable paintbrush into her palm.
A loose thread from nine years ago was running through Angelia's mind, and Diana hoped that if she could grab it and hold on, she could unravel the curtain that Mangano threw over the rest of her memories. Diana knew exactly what scene of their play her former lover was remembering, and although the exact lines were lost, she was sure she could fake her way through. She remembered the games they played.
* This could be a way in. Just be careful! That girl you knew? She's in there somewhere, nineteen years old and not ready for the pain you're gonna bring. She trusted you that night... *
That was the last night the two spent together before all hell broke loose, before everything changed for both of them. The next thought that occurred to Diana made her sick to her stomach. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes against the truth of it.
* You can use that. *
Charlotte Browning lay on the sofa, alone, her arms around a body bolster pillow - which was proving a piss-poor substitute for Diana Starrett. The Philadelphia Story was on cable, and they had made a date to watch it together. Instead, Charlie was here taping the movie, and Diana was who-knew-where, doing who-knew-what with heaven-knows-whom.
* You said you'd call, so you'll call. Patience, dear heart, patience is a virtue... one which I do not possess. You'd better call me soon, Diana, or you are sooo gonna get blasted next time I see you. Both barrels, baby. *
Still, as Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart gazed into each other's eyes and made passionate statements fueled by champagne and loneliness, Charlie clung to the pillow tightly and snuggled her nose against the soft blue cover, rooting about for any trace of familiar scent.
Teddy watched her in silence, leaning out of the kitchen doorway. Creeping over his shoulder came a tendril of fragrant smoke from the mystery dinner roasting in the oven. He wore a white apron emblazoned with the cryptic credo: Dinner is served promptly at eight. Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup. He assumed it was Diana's; aside from the fact that the apron's long hem fell below his knees, the odd slogan made absolutely no sense to him - like most of her jokes. Charlie had tried to clear up the mystery, spouting off a stream of tidbits about Mel Brooks and someone called 'Nurse Diesel,' but he lost most of it behind the beautiful music of sizzling pans.
"You want a Kleenex over there?" he teased
Charlotte ceased sniffing immediately and shot him such a look. "Shut-up. I'm not crying."
"Sure, sure. Another minute and you'd a been bawling like a baby."
Charlie sat up tall, seemingly lifted from her prone position by some delectable scent. "What are you up to in there, anyway?"
"I'm dancing the Charleston with the Pillsbury dough boy. What does it smell like I'm doin'?"
"I smell onion, beef, mustard... is that worchestershire? Mmm! Spill it, Chef!"
"It's something Sherrie taught me to make. You said you like beef, so you'll like this."
"Come on! Just tell me before I start to drool like a starving St. Bernard!"
"Suffer, girly," the big man responded, heartless in his cruelty.
Teddy glanced at the entertainment center and furrowed his brow upon seeing the
video machine frozen on 0:00:00.
"You sure that VCR is working? The numbers ain't moving."
"It's working, alright, but it always acts funny when I record something. No matter how I try, I can't get the counter, the clock, or the programming thingies to work."
"You just don't do well with techie stuff, huh?"
"Guess not. Diana calls me a Luddite."
"Whazzat, supposed to be an insult or something?"
Charlie shrugged and rubbed a palm over her eyes. "I think she means that I need to move past my fear of gadgets, make friends with a personal computer or some such rot. They're not my thing."
"If you can work the alarm clock and the coffee maker, you're doing better than most blondes."
"Hey, I resemble that remark! You'd just better - "
Charlotte froze in mid-riposte and looked from Teddy to the front door and back again. The burly man wiped his hands on the apron and reached for the formidable Smith & Wesson holstered on his hip. He motioned for Charlotte to head to the bedroom, but she didn't budge.
"Go!" he mouthed, cocking the blue steel .45 Magnum revolver.
"See who it is first," she whispered sternly.
DING-DONG? the uncertain doorbell queried again.
"What the hell is wrong with that bell?" Teddy asked as he stepped into the foyer and touched the gun barrel to the thick wood door. He kept a firm finger on the trigger as he slid the brass cover away from the peephole and peered through. On the front step was a tall, thin man with straw-colored hair. He wore rumpled tan slacks, white sport shirt, and a linen blazer that needed to spend some quality time with a hot iron. His hands were raised just above his shoulders, open palms displayed, harmless and empty.
"What do you want here?" Theodore Rinna boomed, in his best John Wayne-was-a-pussy voice.
"Diana sent me to help. I'm a friend of hers from on the job," the man answered neutrally.
"I don't know nothin' about that. Maybe you should leave now, pal."
"Seriously, I saw her today, and she asked me to lend a hand. I'm just returning a favor."
"Well, ain't you a good sam. You got to the count of five to back the hell away from that door..."
"Whoa, there! If you're the big mean guy Diana mentioned, she told me to
say that your birthday presents were in her left desk drawer, and that
you could smoke one in the house. Only one though, and only if Charlie
says it's okay. Please, at least check on that before you blow me away."
"I ain't checkin' jack shit! Now you just move your ass - "
"Teddy," Charlotte said, appearing suddenly at his elbow and surprising the hell out of him.
"Jesus! Don't do that!"
"Teddy, it's true. Diana must have sent him. She bought you a box of Cohebas last week and stashed them in her left desk drawer, the one with the lock."
"Well, Christ, that was awful nice of her, but what the fuck difference does it make right now?"
"It means that whoever he is, Diana sent him," she argued, already punching the codes into the alarm pad. "Now let him in, or step aside and I'll do it."
Her tone had zipped right past 'patient explanation' directly to 'closing argument.' Charlie was convinced that the man just beyond her front door could tell her something about Diana, and she wanted to hear it. Right f-ing now.
"Back up," Teddy said, waving her away from the door. He removed the burglar bar and twisted all the double-key deadbolts until the way was clear, watching all the while through the peephole just in case he should be forced to open fire through the thick slab of oak. Slowly, he swung the door open, keeping the .45 aimed at the stranger. "Step in here. Hands high."
"Sure. Whatever you say," Dan replied as Teddy Rinna began to vigorously frisk him for weapons and I.D. Per Diana's cue, Dan had stuffed his wallet with standard LAPD credentials before approaching the house. Although he felt sure the fakes would pass muster, the way this brute was pinching and prodding his body made him a tad nervous. He sighed audibly from relief when Teddy at last yanked the Glock from his shoulder holster and took the wallet from his back pocket.
"Detective Daniel Webster, LAPD. Says here you been with the department since 89'?" Teddy said aloud, fishing for a lie as he purposely misread the date on the ID card.
Dan was not flustered; actually, he was relieved that the rough-looking lug was bright enough to try and trip him up - not that he really expected Diana to partner up with a moron. "Your eyesight okay, pops? Check beside my picture. Big black letters, nineteen eighty-seven, clear as day."
Teddy edged forward, brandishing the gun quite close to Dan's chest. "You wanna test me?"
"I think both of you should calm down," Charlotte interjected from close behind them, startling the pair. Neither man had noticed as she stealthily slipped past to secure the door's intricate lock system. Once all the locks were back in place, she turned on them, a rebuke in her eyes.
"When did you get so good at sneakin' around?" Teddy inquired, secretly annoyed at having her spook him twice inside of a minute.
Charlie smirked at the two men. "You're forgetting who I live with. I've picked up a thing or ten." Her attention fell to Dan, and she already had her first question chambered and ready to fire. "You saw her today?"
Remembering Diana's admonishment to tell her the truth, Dan nodded. "Yeah. She said to tell you she's okay. Confused as hell, but okay. She'll call as soon as she knows something solid."
"You say you worked with her. You've known her for a while?"
"What were you doing nine years ago?"
A pregnant pause later... "Working Asian crime, same as Diana."
Pleased with that answer and aware that she was onto something, Charlie gave him a sweet smile. "Well, Detective Webster - may I call you Dan?"
"Please do, Ms. Browning."
"Dan, call me Charlie," the attorney instructed, edging by a gaping Teddy Rinna to loop her arm around the elbow of this lanky stranger. "You and I have a lot to talk about."
"Can I have my gun back now?" Dan asked, trying to sound casual.
Charlotte waved her hand imperiously; an empress summoning her captain of the guard. "Please return his gun, Teddy."
Grudgingly, the shamus handed over the confiscated Glock. "I'm keeping
my eye on you," he warned, the business end of his own .45 still trained on
the newcomer's body.
"Good." Dan gave him a wink, then turned to Charlotte. "Is he cheaper than a Rottweiler?"
"Don't tease him," she warned. "He bites."
To punctuate this, Teddy Rinna bared his teeth and clicked them together loudly. Dan cowered in mock fear and Charlotte smiled as she whisked the visitor off to the living room. Tonight's after dinner conversation promised to be much more interesting than she had hoped. She could hardly wait to get Dan alone and toss him onto the hot seat. Charlie resolved that by the end of this evening, she would root out everything this man knew about Diana, whether he wanted to say it or not.
Except for small talk about the increase in gang and other criminal activity in the greater San Diego / Los Angeles area, dinner was a quiet affair marked by palpable tension between the two men. Dan answered all of Teddy's questions, even the twisted little tricky ones, with good humor and informed intelligence. Charlotte was conspicuously disinterested in such matters and opted for wolfing down her food like she was late for a court date. She preferred to take her time with good food, that was certain, but the young attorney had other things on her mind.
After generous helpings of caesar salad, Sherrie Rinna's special deviled steak, scalloped potatoes, onion flatbread, and orange sorbet, Charlotte was ready to talk. She belched delicately, thanked Teddy for cooking, loaded her own place setting into the dishwasher, then bodily dragged Dan away from the table before he could even finish his dessert.
"We can talk in the study," she announced, tugging him down the hall like a leashed puppy.
Knowing better than to argue, the tall man merely trotted along obediently and prayed that she wouldn't ask him anything he couldn't answer. As soon as they entered the small, tidy room that served as a home office for both women, Charlotte slammed the door and switched on a gray shaded desk lamp. She plunked herself down in a squishy, navy blue suede chair that was perfect for long sittings (recently, on one of her rare weekends alone, she read the collected works of Flannery O'Connor while ensconced in that chair), and waited for her guest to make himself comfortable.
"We can talk in here without bothering Teddy," she told him. "Thick walls."
"Good to know."
Contrasted with the rest of the house - which was far from messy, but looked well-used - this room was quietly pristine. Dan looked around quickly, taking in the immaculate cream carpet, the tall bookshelves with contents organized by topic, the dormant laptop computer folded neatly inside the hutch of a carved cherry rolltop desk, the neat bundles of wires, tied and hanging tightly beneath...
"I always knew she had a neat streak, but this is too Diana," he attested, finally choosing a seat across from his hostess. "I'm assuming she's responsible for this space."
"You assume correctly." Charlie sat back, sinking down in the chair and propping her bare feet on the matching ottoman. "This room was empty before she moved in. I never used it for anything but storage. Richard, my ex-husband, used it as a game room, but he got the pool table in the divorce. Pinball machine and dart board, too, come to think of it. I like things better this way."
"Mmm. So you don't miss 'em at all?"
"Which do you mean? The pool table, the pinball machine, or Richard?"
Dan almost bit back his grin. "Given your current co-habitation, I'd
answer 'none of the above.'"
Charlotte couldn't help returning his sly smile. "Then you really do know Diana."
"Well enough to know that she's happy here with you. From what I've seen and heard, you seem to be happy right back. I suppose that's what makes this situation stink so bad."
"Oh, good. I like a man who can get to the point, Dan. About this recurrent stench, things must be really rotten if she felt the need to send reinforcements over here, so..."
"Listen, before you put me on a spit and roast me, I wanna clear something up." He leaned forward, gesturing nervously with both hands. "She told me that it's my decision what to say to you, but to give you the unvarnished truth whenever possible, okay?"
Charlie was moderately surprised; 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. "Diana told you to talk to me?"
"Yes, ma'am. She knows you're nervous and she wants to explain herself, but I think she's scared."
Upgrade that to a 6. "Scared? Of what?"
"An awful lot of shit came down on her today, some of it flying in hard from left field. Diana's about as strong a person as I've ever met, but she can't stand the idea of hurting anyone she cares about. Guilt cuts her deeper than most, so maybe that's why she wants me to lay the groundwork with you."
"Like this will be easier for me to hear coming from a stranger? Is that it?"
"Kinda, yeah. Easier on her, too."
"Well, if it's bad news, there's no time like the present. I'm not going anywhere."
"Me, either. I'm your shadow until this mess gets straightened out. I'll explain as best I can, but this situation that's come up... there's a lot more to it than any of us peons know."
Charlie found that tiny bit of self-deprecation oddly funny and familiar. "You're just a peon?"
"In the agency fiefdom, I'm definitely a serf, a toady. I go in, do my bit, then go home. Once in a while, someone cuts me an untraceable check."
"Forgive me for saying this, but you really don't seem -"
"The type? I know," Dan finished for her, having sensed what was coming. "Everyone says that. It's true, though. Usually, my work is confined to numbers, logistics. I'm a computer nerd at heart. I never know the whole story on a mission, even when it's over. Doing this - field work - was never my specialty. This was Diana's niche. She's the best. Was the best, I should say."
The lawyer managed a non-committal "mmm," acknowledging his praise. Diana's deadly occupational proficiency was not a popular topic of conversation between the pair.
"She helped me out of a couple of tight spots over the years." Dan paused and snorted out a soft laugh. "Put me in a tight spot last year, though. A really tight spot."
Hazel eyes flashed, catching on to a bit of memory. "Wait a minute - you're not one of the guys she locked in the car trunk downtown, are you?"
"Yep. Spent thirteen hours in there before the drugs wore off and I summoned an attendant."
"And you don't hold a grudge?"
"You don't understand - had it been anyone but her, I would be dead now. Diana easily could have killed me. She didn't really remember who I was, but she spared my life anyway. She always had a good core, just got bumped off center for a while. By that fateful day, she was finding it again."
Watching the nervous way Dan blinked as he spoke, how rapidly his words came, how he kept his eyes almost glued to her own, she guessed his humility and farmboy sincerity was a big reason Diana chose to trust him. He seemed about as likely as Charlotte to be in this line of work. Although she was curious about Dan, Charlie wasn't about to stray far from the subject at hand.
"Who's responsible for the mess Diana's being dragged into? What's the hierarchy in this fiefdom?"
"Huh. Best to start at the top. Do you know who Harry Mars is?"
"The director," Charlie replied, nodding patiently.
"Yeah, right. Harry's the benevolent dictator... at least, he was this morning. He runs assignments and designates which areas are worth our attention. Julia - do you know her, too?"
"Unfortunately, yes. We met last year."
"Well, she's next in line. She manages field operations, sometimes organizes and executes them first hand, if she has some sort of personal stake or a goal in mind. That's what I think is going on here, with Yoshima and Angelia. She went to -"
Charlotte's face contorted suddenly into an expression of confused annoyance.
Her blood thickened and slowed, her hand leaping out to flag Dan down.
"Stop. Back up."
"The part where you said Yoshima and..."
Dan caught her drift, and he felt his stomach tighten as his ulcers went crazy again. If Diana hadn't known she was alive, Charlotte wouldn't either. Idiot, idiot, idiot. "You mean Angelia?"
"Right there. Zoom in on that. Sharp focus."
Clearing his throat noisily, Dan took the depleted roll of Tums from his coat pocket and tossed three into his mouth. All personal entanglements aside, this was not something he felt comfortable discussing. But Diana did say it was okay.
"Just to avoid covering old ground, what do you already know, Ms. Browning?"
"Charlie," she corrected automatically, even though he could have called her 'Aloisius' and she wouldn't have really cared. Her focus was already elsewhere. "I know that she was Hideo Yoshima's stepchild, that he abused her, and that she and Diana became... well, involved during some sort of mission. Diana wanted to help her get away from a bad situation, but things went sour and Joshua Riggins killed the girl before she could get away."
"Aww, geez!" His reaction came straight from his roiling gut, which was already dreading the rest of this conversation. All the Tums in the world wouldn't help Dan now. "That's it?"
"That's all Diana got a chance to tell me before she left today. I know there's more to the story, so maybe you can clear up the details. You were there, weren't you?"
"In Nagano? Yeah, I was."
"And?" Charlie thrummed her fingers impatiently, beating riffs on the suede chair arms. Soon, she couldn't stop her toes from twitching. The attorney was starting to believe the anticipation would kill her sooner than any of Diana's enemies. "There's plenty of blanks to fill in. Take your pick."
"Well, like I said, I'm a numbers man, not an active field operative like Diana was, so most of the work I did pertained to research and account tampering. I only saw bits and pieces of the op at first, and I didn't even meet Diana until late in the game. Riggins was acting on behalf of a corporate group to clear out an extortion threat from the Yakuza."
"Yoshima wanted a piece of the company."
"He wanted a seat on the board and all the respectability that legitimacy could bring. He was the obvious villian, but no one knew exactly how many of Yoshima's cohorts were involved. There was a rift in the Yakuza over his proposal. Some wanted to go legit, others wanted to kill him. We had to lure out his secret allies in order to neutralize the threat. Accomplishing that was mostly my job."
"And while you did that, Diana went into Yoshima's house as a governess."
"Yeah, she was working there undercover..." Dan said, not hearing the double entendre until it was already out and a hot blush crept up his neck. "Er, so to speak. Sorry."
"Bygones," Charlie said simply, waving it off. "Past tense."
"Umm... right." For a full count of ten, Dan took deep breaths and stared at his shoes, willing himself calm, telling himself that it wouldn't sting Charlie so bad if he could put off telling that bit for a little while longer, until she could put it all in context. It worked just enough to get him talking again.
"So anyway, Riggins set me up with a sensitive accounting job with the company Yoshima wanted to extort. I was in place about two months before Diana arrived. My position with Matsuda Group allowed Yoshima to approach me to buy inside information."
Charlotte's keenly devious mind was already divining their little scheme. "Let me guess - you fed him false info. He turned around and gave the inside tips to his cronies, then you just watched their bank accounts to see who's investing where. Wait for the red flags to pop up and identify them. Sweet."
"Very good. You have some intrinsic understanding of manipulation and deceit?"
"I am a lawyer, you know," she explained, with a not-entirely facetious grin.
Unsure if she was playing, he chose to press on with his exposition. "Well, anyway, that was the simple part of the plan. The theory was this: we get his shadow associates all stirred up, they go to Nagano to confront him when the inside tips turn out to be bogus, Diana rolls tape on their confab, they all get tagged and sent off to prison." Dan took another deep breath. "Unfortunately, that wasn't how it went down. Things got... hot. In more ways than one."
"From the guilt Diana's carrying over this, I'm assuming she was there for the fireworks."
"Charlie, I know you don't know me from Adam - and I hope you don't take
this the wrong way - but believe me when I say this... she was the
fireworks. Toward the end, Riggins gave her some orders she wouldn't or couldn't
carry out, and Diana went off like a goddamned roman candle."
Mouth open slightly, and a growing sense of dread rising in her gorge, Charlie murmured a haphazard guess. "He told her to kill Angelia, didn't he?"
Dan nodded and agreed quietly. "Yeah. Along with every other living thing in the Nagano house."
"But, there were children there. The two little boys..."
"If you think he cared about the lives of a couple of kids, then you don't know anything about Riggins. Yoshima, the Yaks, the maid, the boys... and Angelia. He wanted to see corpses. That was a big moment for Diana early on, and that's where she drew the line, I guess. To this day, I still don't know where that woman found the guts to try what she did."
"Just what did she do, Dan?" Leaning forward in her suddenly uncomfortable chair, Charlotte Browning was the picture of anxiety - eyes wide, knuckles white, cheeks slightly flush.
"She refused to give up her soul," he answered, as honestly as he could. "From my point of view, she defied the devil himself, only to be struck down by the angel."
"Tell me everything you know, and don't stint on the details," Charlie ordered. At Dan's hesitant, unsure expression, she added, "Diana's request, remember? Unvarnished truth?"
"I remember. Believe me, I remember everything."
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