Persistence of Memory - Pt. 11
by Paul Seely
Gedde Yoshima couldn't quiet his mind. Tired beyond exhaustion, sweat cooling on his body, muscles trembling from hours of exertion - an overload of physical sensation that should have baked his mental circuitry to a crispy, golden brown - and still he could not rid himself of the burden of thought and worry. Feet dangling off the bed, arms spread wide as his breathing returned to normal, he was unable to resist the urge to question his... captor? Benefactor? Lover? Whatever. All of the above. Perhaps none.
"What happens now?" he asked, turning his head sideways to lay on Julia's bare stomach, ear over navel, facing where he imagined her eyes to be.
Somewhere in the darkness above him, she was amused, for her lean torso shook with light laughter. "I'd recommend a shower. Neither of us smells like dewy flowers about now."
The young man rolled onto his side and aimed his voice through the bedroom's black air toward the glowing orange beacon of Julia's cigarette. "I feel that I am entitled to a more genuine response."
"You are indeed," she agreed. Her hand crept down her ribs, found his damp hair and brushed through it, absently grooming him as she smoked. "But you must admit, we smell horrid."
"I can't smell anything, and I only taste you. I am able to stand this condition indefinitely. Now, please answer me - what will happen to Diana Starrett and her companion? You are aware that my father will take the lawyer's life as retribution."
"I am aware."
"He has likely contracted the services of someone to complete the job -"
"Chen Kaige, out of Hong Kong," the smoking blonde finished. "The best money can buy."
A fast learner, Gedde did not ask how she knew this with such certainty. He was beginning to sense when it was better just to accept that Julia knew everything and let it go at that. "And you approve of her murder? I understood that Diana was your friend, your colleague."
"She is... was."
"And yet you extend tacit approval of her lover's assassination? For what purpose?"
*Assassination is the quickest route to change,* she thought, with the brevity of a long-dead philosopher. Julia thought it best to explain - or not - by changing the subject a bit. "What do you really remember about the events in Nagano nine years ago? Specifically, your memories regarding Diana."
"Conversations about art. Men cut open and left to die," he recalled, announcing the random impressions as they occurred to him. "Finding her in my sister's bed. A snowball fight just before dawn. Her eyes... while she fought, they were almost white. Just little bits of blue, like an endless winter storm. Being afraid that she would find me and kill me as well."
"Before that day, had you ever seen anyone die?"
"No." Gedde sighed and nestled a cheek against Julia's side. "I always knew my father was... powerful, that he could end lives, but that was fantasy to me. She brought death into my reality."
"Hmm. I wouldn't be so quick to blame her, if I were in your tabi socks."
"But you are not me, and you did not see what she actually did there."
"Neither did you."
Stirred from physical complacency by sudden, indignant anger, Gedde managed to lift his head and sharpen his voice to a point. "What do you mean by that?"
"You saw things I didn't see, I saw things you didn't see. She's gotten a bum rap for years about what happened there."
"That's not possible. You couldn't know, you were not present - "
"Detailed debriefings are standard after any mission. Also, this was only nine years ago, not the Stone Age. Diana was sent in with a great deal of modern surveillance and transmission equipment. Think video tapes, audio recordings, satellite transmissions..."
"So you were a witness from a safe distance, after the fact."
"That's part of my job function. I reviewed the operation thoroughly, trying to find out where things went wrong. My opinion is that the failure of the Nagano mission stemmed partly from Diana, partly from your sister, and partly from your father. It was truly a group effort."
"Tell me," he ordered... almost. "Please."
"Well, since you asked so nicely," Julia teased, ruffling his hair. Stubbing out her smoke, she wondered how much time she had before Harry Mars showed up and read her the riot act, then decided to chance the telling anyway.
"I have a feeling that this is a very popular story around these parts tonight. Let's see if we can't shed a little light on the shadowy tale of the much-maligned Ms. Starrett."
Nearly midnight on that last Saturday, the moon was so big and bright that the sky mimicked dawn. A light snow fell, coating the hard-packed ground with fine, frail down. Westerly breezes chilled the air further, blowing steam from the secret spring up the hill through the aspen trees. The snow monkeys were wide awake and very noisy, but they had no visitors that evening. The two female humans who sometimes invaded their grove had chosen to stay inside for the night - inside that odd-shaped house that was neither European nor Asian - and make noises of their own.
During intermission from one of their now nightly sessions of seamless lovemaking, games were played, stories were shared in whispers, and physical contact was rarely broken. Lying side by side on the futon mattress, they faced each other, smiling and sated, breathing each other's air. Diana raised herself up on one elbow and reached for the supplies they had requisitioned for this evening's half-time break.
"Don't spill the ink!" the younger woman urged. "If it gets on the floor..."
"I won't spill a drop. Now hand me the brush."
Angelia gave over the sable paint brush, running the exquisite bristles over Diana's wrist, dusting the fine hairs. The tall woman smiled, not tickled, but charmed by the beautiful youth's persistent flirting. The girl was getting under her skin, more with each passing minute, hour, day. Angelia was nearly all she thought about. Especially since the job was so remarkably boring.
Every day, the same routine - Yoshima wakes early and leaves for the city, then returns home late at night, accompanied only by his guards. His mood was mercurial, sometimes edgy and anxious, sometimes nearly human, but always aware of her presence and proximity to his children. Since the morning after their near confrontation, he had steered mostly clear of Diana Starrett, barely speaking to her and only then when it was absolutely necessary. 'Don't ask, don't tell' seemed to be his policy regarding Angelia's new friendship. That was just fine with both of them.
"Where shall I start?" Diana asked playfully, dipping the brush into the dark inkwell. As if in response, her young companion drew in a deep breath and poked up her bare chest, presenting two small, brown nipples for inspection and attention. "Excellent idea. Now close your eyes."
Without hesitation, the girl eased her dark eyes shut, trusting for the first time in memory that she would not be harmed in surrender. The first touch of wet sable against her skin caused Angelia to squirm a little, then hum low in the back of her throat as the brush moved in quick, light strokes just below her left breast. All too soon, the brush moved away. Her mind began ticking off possibilities, guessing what symbol her lover had emblazoned on her flesh.
"Guess," Diana whispered, lips brushing her young companion's ear, kissing her temple.
"Heart... something," she smiled, obviously guessing blind. "You lost me on the last few strokes."
"Heart-something," the painter repeated. "Hmm. Close enough." She leaned down and pressed her mouth to each closed eye, then moved to the girl's lips for a long, easy kiss.
When they parted, Angelia opened her eyes to find Diana grinning warmly and offering the brush. She forgot to ask what was written. It didn't seem important, and it didn't occur to her to check her chest - she accepted the charity and smiled in return.
"Score one for you," Diana said. "Now it's your turn, Matisse."
Rolling onto her back, the tall woman stretched her arms over her head and pointed her toes sharply, getting a kink out of her calves. Blue eyes drifted shut to wait patiently for a sensory challenge.
Angelia watched her silently, unable to believe that this magnificent length of heaven was hers to do with what she pleased. The power of it made her a little light headed; no one had ever just given themselves over to her like that, trusted her.
"Well?" Diana prompted, waiting for reciprocal action.
"Don't rush me. I'm thinking of a tough one."
Eventually, she inked the brush and touched the tip to a lean abdominal canvas, using a softened square of muscle as a frame for her work. A few graceful lines later, she stopped, pleased with her selection. "Okay. Guess, smarty pants."
"Strength," Diana replied immediately, trying not to smirk.
"Dammit! This isn't a fair game!" Angelia cried, sulking already. "You know Japanese better that I do, and I was fucking BORN here!"
"Don't hate me because I'm brilliant."
"Fuck you, mutant."
"Give me another minute and I'll take you up on that," came the
predictable, half-jested retort.
"It isn't fair," the girl persisted, sliding away the brush and ink and nestling against her lover's side. "Eggheads shouldn't be built like you. It's almost like false advertising."
"Would you rather I were short and round?"
"Yeah, with glasses and a plastic pocket protector full of leaky pens."
"Nice look. I think I could pull it off."
"The awful truth is, I think you really could," Angelia said softly, kissing a convenient shoulder. "I am glad that there aren't many like you, though. Makes you special, more of a mutant."
"You have a fondness for mutants?"
"One in particular."
They were quiet then, both letting the vague profession settle over them. Before any tension or fear of rejection could build, Diana slipped one arm over the young girl's body and drew her in tight. It was as close as they had come to talking about their sudden attachment or admitting to any deeper affection, and it was a close as they would get.
Hands moved down backs and over buttocks, spurring heat and need, and lips soon met to take up where they had left off. Legs entwined and flesh met flesh, grinding slowly and subtly until passion demanded more definite action, keying up the inevitable intensity of touch and feeling.
Angelia's room was warmer than the rest of the house, two vents pumping in heated air, electronics emitting radiation and upping the temperature further. In minutes, they were again coated in a thin sheen of sweat, pushing against each other as they raced toward another tiny, glittering death.
"Ohhh... damn you... fuck... hate you..." the younger murmured, denying and cursing as always, raking her nails down her lover's long back as if trying to rend the skin like rice paper, to plunge pointed fingers inside and grab her very bones in a violent deathgrip.
It troubled Diana at the start, until she figured out that it was just her lover's way, just how Angelia's mind distanced her wounded heart from the ferocity of the act and the unsettling feelings it provoked. Maybe it was a release of all the hatred and anger she felt toward Yoshima. It didn't matter to Diana. She gladly let her body be damaged, let her soul be damned to the scorching center of hell in exchange for a few moments in this oasis, to be able to offer the girl a drink of the ephemeral waters they found only here, only together.
Hours passed. Somewhere between satiation and exhaustion, the women fell into a light sleep.
Diana heard it first, of course - the sound of cars pulling into the driveway. Doors slamming. Footsteps. People moving across the pea gravel drive in a hurry.
"Angel," she whispered, nudging the body laid out atop her own, "wake up. Wake up."
"Why on earth would I want to do that?" came the drowsy protest.
"Because someone's here. Several someones."
"So it's..." Diana checked the glowing green clock bouncing around on a nearby computer monitor. "three-forty in the morning. Not exactly the time for polite company to visit."
The girl rolled to the side and scrambled to her feet just as a soft knock sounded at her bedroom door. Diana sat up straight and the women looked at each other, puzzled. Angelia walked to the door and asked quietly, "Who goes there?"
"It's me," answered a tiny, familiar voice. "Let me in, please. There are men downstairs with father."
Not thinking, just reacting to the fear in her little brother's voice, Angelia threw the locks and opened the door to admit Gedde to the relative safety of her room. The small boy, clad in neat white pajamas, immediately rushed inside and closed the door behind him. He seemed a bit startled to find his sister naked, and one hell of a lot more so to see his governess, unclothed as well, sitting on her rumpled bed and looking like a Delacroix painting of adult female perfection. His blush was so hot and red, it was nearly visible in the darkness.
"I am sorry! So terribly - "
"Gedde, hush. It's okay," Angelia told him, patting his head as he stared at the floor. She grabbed a robe from the back of a chair and slipped it on, then tossed Diana Starrett her neatly folded clothes. "Now calm down and tell us what's got you so upset that you're roaming around at this hour."
"I was in the kitchen getting some water when they came into the house. The men with father, they brought someone with them. I think they are going to kill him."
"Do you recognize the man they brought in?" Diana asked as she slid into her black slacks and sweater. She didn't like the sound of this already.
"No, but I think he is like you," Gedde answered nervously, still unable to face either of them. "He is an American, I believe. They are hurting him, and I didn't know what to do, so I came here."
"Both of you stay put," Diana ordered, making for the door. "I mean that, too. Stay right here."
"Where do you think you're going?" Angelia asked, holding her position in front of the only egress.
"To my room. I'll be right back."
Diana moved her aside with one arm and a minimum of effort, then slid silently into the hallway. Quick steps took her inside her room and to her bed, under which she kept a deceptively simple briefcase stuffed with nonsense papers relating to her household position.
Combination locks were opened, revealing a small, black metal box. Inside was a global paging message unit, hooked into a network of communication satellites that could zip an encoded message from the peak of Everest to the center of the earth in less than five seconds, if need be. The black case was unlocked, revealing a row of ten highly-annoyed flashing red bulbs.
"Holy fucking Christ," Diana swore, her heart hammering at the sight of the top-level alarm. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. She entered her access codes and opened the first of three messages, its date stamped at 1:21 am.
DCA 2 exposed - capture imminent. Mission security compromised. Exercise extreme caution. Further instuctions forthcoming.
*Good night, nurse. They got the other agent, the one Riggins wouldn't tell me about. Jesus, I hope our ignorance was mutual. If he told anyone about me...*
She opened the second message, dated less than one hour ago at 2:50 am.
DCA 2 captured, presumed dead. YK carrier coming directly to Nagano with HOT package. Crucial that you assume custody of package at all costs. Ready A/V record and transmission of mission solution. Further instuctions forthcoming.
*Hot package - that means biohazardous materials. They've brought the virus sample here! A/V record? Riggins wants me to roll tape on this?* Growing even more agitated and anxious, Diana opened the third and final message, received at 3:32 am.
Hostiles incoming with HOT package. Retrieve package and record final mission solution. Silence the entire household. No witnesses. This means EVERYONE.
Slash and burn.
Diana held her breath as she read the message over and over, wishing the words would change into something less horrifying.
*Slash and burn.*
"No... he can't mean that."
But she knew that was exactly what he meant. The director's terse missive was remarkably clear and not at all open to interpretation. He wanted her to murder every single occupant of the Nagano house and record the slaughter for posterity.
Not just Yoshima and his men, not just the jovial old cook called Banana...
he wanted her to murder children. Little boys. Kids she had played with just
this morning, flinging snowballs across the yard, laughing innocently like she
used to with her own lost brother.
Riggins wanted her to murder, in cold blood, the woman whose transferred sweat was cooling on her own skin. The woman whose bed she had just left, whose taste was as sharp and bittersweet in her mouth as a dying dream. She had been ordered to kill Angelia.
And for Diana Starrett, it was as simple as that. She refused. There was a faint line drawn across her heart which even self-preservation would not allow her to cross, and Joshua Riggins had just run a highlighter pen across it, made it perfectly clear. She would find another way.
"That's your plan?" Angelia said, completely incredulous. "That's all there is to it?"
"Yes," Diana told her bluntly, "and that's what we're going to do."
The girl, angry over the lack of details revealed, jammed her foot into her fleece-lined boot to complete her warm outfit of ski sweater and insulated pants. She sat on the futon and looked up at Diana with doubtful eyes. "Well, I think it's fucked."
"It may well be, but that's what we're going to do. You take the boys down to the hot springs and wait for me. I'll be along shortly and we'll get out of here for good."
"I still don't see how you're going to convince Hideous - "
"Leave that to me," the dark woman interrupted. "Gedde, is your brother still in your room?"
"He was sleeping when I went to the kitchen," the boy told her.
"Good. You and Yukio are to stay with your sister, understand? Do what she tells you."
"But, my father will be angry with us if we leave the house."
"No, he won't. He'll have other things on his mind." *Like a 9mm
slug,* she added silently.
"Don't be stupid, Diana! You don't know what he's like!" Angelia nearly yelled. She had a terrible feeling that this was going to end badly for everyone involved, especially this cocky governess.
Diana's eyes turned slitty and pale, her voice dropping to it's lowest register. "No. He doesn't know what I'm like. He's about to find out."
Angelia drew back, alarmed at some primal level by the sudden reappearance of menace, a cruel face she had only seen on Diana once before. "And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"He won't be hurting you anymore," she whipered, glancing from Angelia to Gedde and back. "None of you. Go now. Take them out of here and wait for me."
"No! Not until you - "
Angelia's protests were silenced by two strong hands clasping her shoulders and jerking her to her feet, completely without her assistance. Suddenly standing, she felt something hard press against her chest just as Diana's soft, warm mouth covered her own in a kiss. For a few seconds, she forgot about that uncomfortable foreign object jutting into her sternum, forgot her blushing, gaping little brother, forgot about the trouble brewing downstairs. For those few seconds, everything was fine.
"Everything will be fine," Diana swore, confident she could make the promise into truth.
"You'd better be right behind us," Angelia told her, "or I'm coming back to get you."
Diana held something out to her - a large, black L-shape. "I want you to take this with you."
"You know how to shoot." A statement, not a question as the heavy gun was placed in her hands. "You might need to use it on a bad guy," Diana teased, nearly grinning. "It'll be okay, Angel."
Then she was forcibly turned around, felt hands pushing at her back, shoving her toward the door and out into the hall. Before Angelia could question her any further, Diana was gone, vanished into the shadows and down the stairs to do heaven only knew what. Angelia had her assignment - get the boys to safety and wait. It seemed like such a simple thing to ask, and it should have worked. In a logical and fair universe, it very well may have worked.
Sometimes, ours is neither a logical nor a fair universe.
Downstairs, the living room was dim with firelight, the sounds of muffled cries and whispers drifting around the high, exposed beams. The noise was coming from the nearby den. The heavy door to that room was closed - as always. It was Yoshima's inner sanctum, an inviolable zone to which even Banana was denied access. Inside now, men spoke in hushed, harsh tones, presumably to the western man Gedde saw them bring in earlier.
Praying she wasn't too late already, Diana crept to the den door and adjusted her chic, librarian-look video glasses, quietly praying the little trick she set up for the camera relay unit was ready. The ruse was her only hope of saving anyone in this house, including herself. She had only one more thing to do before taping began, and it was crucial.
*If this doesn't work, we are all fucked. Every last one of us. Fatally.*
With the additional weight of that responsibility on her shoulders, the young agent went to work. She took an antique sword from the wall display and sliently shucked the scabbard. A glass bottle of pale green liquid emerged from her pocket, a medicine dropper attached to the cap.
She squeezed the bulb full of liquid, then coated the blade of the short sword with the synthetic drug called 'Morpheus,' which could induce up to eighteen hours of unconsciousness when taken orally, but worked much faster when introduced directly into the bloodstream via injection... or laceration. Blowing on the blade, the drug dried into a clingy gel that she estimated would last through a number of vigorous introductions. Enough to make it look good.
Once armed, she donned her glasses and activated the video sensors mounted inside the bulky plastic arms. She checked her watch and counted down the seconds, waiting for her cue to begin, waiting for the tape unit to begin saving footage of Riggins' command performance.
*Three, two one. Roll tape. It's showtime. Remember, twelve minutes to curtain.*
The katana hidden behind her back, Diana knocked timidly on the den door and waited for someone to answer. She counted only a few seconds before Yoshima partially unlocked the door and peered out through a narrow crack, his obviously peeved eyes level with a thick length of security chain anchored to the door frame.
"Return to bed, Miss Starrett. There is nothing occurring which should concern you."
"Sir, there is something occurring which should concern you," she countered, knowing exactly how to get that door flung open wide.
"What do you want?" he hissed. "This is not a time for interruptions."
"It's Angelia. She's disappeared."
The reaction was instantaneous and utterly predictable. He slammed the door shut, unhitched the chain lock, and reopened it enough for Diana to glimpse the situation inside the den.
A slim, pale man tied to a chair, grimacing stoically as blood flowed from his nose and mouth. Straw-like hair, kinda funny looking - like Ray Bolger in Wizard of Oz, only younger.
*DCA2. He's still alive, which means he hasn't talked yet. Hold on, Scarecrow, just hold on.*
Seven Yakuza were visible inside the room, presumably all armed. One was a notably large man rubbing his abraded knuckles, taking a breather from the rigors of the interrogation. Diana saw nothing she couldn't handle, in due time.
Yoshima stepped clear of the door, closed it and addressed her impatiently. "Explain yourself."
Feigning nervousness and/or shame, the tall woman shifted her weight from foot to foot and stared at the floor. One hand tightly gripped the ivory-handled sword, itching to use it. "We... we had an argument. She took off about an hour ago, and she hasn't come back yet. I'm getting worried about her. She was acting very strangely."
"Angelia has been acting strangely since you arrived, Miss Starrett," he said coldly. "I have been tolerant and understanding thus far, but know this - if anything has happened to her, I promise that you will be held accountable for your damaging influence."
"I - I... I'm sorry," Diana replied, trying to sound contrite but unable to keep the steel of disgust and hatred out of her voice in his condescending presence. "I don't ever want to see her hurt again. In any way. By me or anyone else."
Hideo Yoshima regarded her through distant eyes as he realized exactly what she meant. She knew. This woman - this stranger - had not only defiled his angel's bed, but knew their secret. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to slap Diana Starrett, unaware what a huge mistake that would have been. Instead, he gathered himself and responded with commendable civility and restraint.
"I will send a group to search for her. Return to your room,
"I want to accompany the searchers," she insisted, "I think I know where she's gone."
"No. Return to your room. This is the last time I will request your cooperation."
"But, if they don't know where to look-"
That finally did it. Yoshima spun away from her and opened the den door. He snapped his fingers twice, summoning two black-suited young men into the living room. Barking orders at them in clipped Japanese, he turned away from Diana and moved back into the den, completely ignoring her. An instant after the door clicked shut, Diana Starrett made her move.
The guards didn't expect any trouble from the governess; usually, she was the soul of cooperation, no arguments, no objections. She understood that they were around to ensure her safety, and normally, she did her best to make their job easy.
Diana looked each of them in the eye as they moved to escort her back to her room. "I'm sorry about this," she said, her voice barely above a breath. The guards did not hear her apology.
The katana whipped around from her back, held in an underhand grip. The blade was a blur of spotless, ancient steel, ground to a razor's edge. It arced up and across both their throats in less than a second. Their faces were barely able to register surprise as they clutched torn flesh, gagged, fell to the floor and bled to death. Diana held her fear and disgust in check as she stood and watched, making certain they were gone, making certain she got good footage of their gory passing.
*Two. Smile for the camera, boys. We gotta make it a good show for the boss.*
Thirty seconds later, they were stone dead. Ever efficient, Diana used even those thirty seconds. She knelt beside each man and removed the large frame pistols from their holsters, arming herself with firepower for the first time since her arrival in Japan.
It felt oddly comforting, tucking one gun into her belt, palming the other and chambering a round. For the first time since coming here, Diana knew exactly what she was doing. She grabbed a foot on each corpse and dragged them clear of the den doorway, just out of sight of any incidental traffic.
By that time, Yoshima had assembled his search team and dispatched them to find Angelia. When the den entrance opened again, Diana was in position and ready. She watched from above as they filed out - three men in bulky coats and boots, ready to trudge around in the snow looking for a snotty teenager. Since this was not a state of high alert, they held only flashlights in their hands. Guns were still holstered securely inside jackets inside coats, far out of reach. They were not happy about this assignment in the least... but the really bad news was yet to come.
The last man out had just closed the den door when he heard a hissing sound coming from overhead. He turned around and looked into the beamwork of the high ceiling, expecting nothing even close to what he received.
A sharp poke in the eye. Through the eye. Into the forebrain. Then darkness.
*Three. Ten minutes to curtain.*
The other two men spun around when they heard their companion squeak, then fall to the floor with a limp thud. One hand covered his left eye; red gushed around his black leather glove in slowing gouts. Both men instantly reacted and began to unbutton their coats, trying to reach their guns. Scanning the darkened room, they perceived no immediate threat. No one else was there. They could not see the blackish blood trails concealed in shadow by the den door.
They did not think to look up.
Turing to each other with fearful eyes, they were unsure what was going on, only certain that it couldn't possibly be good. Their shallow breathing was the only sound, aside from the random crackling of the fireplace and the frantic brush of leather against wool as thick gloves, slow fingers, and tiny buttons all entered into a conspiracy to keep them unarmed.
A soft, foreign noise came again from above.
Then - only then - did they look up.
*Five. Nine minutes to curtain.*
From the upstairs landing, Gedde Yoshima saw nearly everything.
Angelia told him to hide in the hall closet while she looked for Yukio, who was not in his room. She left the small boy in the closet and began searching the maze of upstairs rooms to find their missing brother. After only a few minutes, Gedde could no longer stand the stifling, enclosed space. He crept out of the closet and down the hall, taking small steps so the floorboards would not creak and give him away to the strange villains conjured by his imagination.
At the landing, he peeked through the narrow slats below the bannister and saw Diana Starrett talking to his father. Concerned that she might be in danger from the faceless invaders, he stayed and watched, just in case she needed a hand. Then two of his father's guards came out.
And everything changed.
Gedde watched as she cut them, as she killed them. His mouth hung open, frozen in a horrified 'O,' a silent scream of horror ripped from the canvas of Edward Munch and plastered on his small face.
Diana killed his father's men with his father's sword, then dragged them away like sacks of garbage.
Soundlessly, she climbed into the rafters and settled on a beam, balanced perfectly, waiting. Then she killed three more men. All without touching the ground. Hanging upside down by her crossed feet, pulling her body up like a coiling python, then dropping down to strike again. The child was terrified and amazed, awed and sickened all at once. He could not tear his eyes from her.
Silent and swift, economized movement. A predator of the highest order. A being of different stock.
He dared not make a sound - not even to draw a breath - lest he draw her attention. Gedde feared that she would turn on him, forget that he was her friend, and she would gobble him up like some surreal fairy tale monster, a walking fiction. She was the Golem, the Wolf; Grendel come to life.
Despite his fear, he was unable to cry out, to move. So he watched from the shadows, hidden, praying that he would survive to greet the dawn.
*Five men in a four by four tomb. You deserved better, fellas,* Diana thought, folding the cooling leg of the last guard into the hall closet. She leaned against the closed door and took a few moments to gather her head, to convince herself to get back to work.
The nausea that hit her after each killing had abated, leaving her feeling only slightly dizzy, but extremely dirty. There were only negligable traces of blood on her dark clothes, but she fancied she could feel it soaking her skin, creeping through the tiny passages of her pores to leave a permanent stain inside. In her mind's eye, she saw herself floating in a salty, red sea. Screaming. Drowning.
"Stop it," she whispered, coaxing herself out of the unbidden fantasy. "Stop that right now."
*No time for guilt, only action. Five down, that leaves two in the den with
Yoshima - big ape with the knuckles included. Take them down, see to DCA2, and
call it in. Send the tape with him, then get Angelia and the boys out of here
before the cleaners show.*
"I can do this. I will do this." She kept her camera-vision facing forward, and cut her eyes down under the glasses. Discretely, Diana turned her wrist and checked the digital stopwatch silently ticking down to zero. "Seven minutes to curtain."
"I don't believe you," Angelia said sharply, shaking Gedde by his frail shoulders. "You're making this shit up because you're scared."
"It's true! She put them in the closet! They are dead! All of them!" the boy claimed again, frantic to have someone else know the truth of what he witnessed.
His sister bit her lip and watched his eyes, searching for some sign that his claims were generated by hysteria. Gedde was not prone to violent fantasy; that was Yukio's stock and trade. The older boy read and watched everything he could find about crime, criminals and the lifestyle he was certain to assume as an adult. Gedde scrupulously avoided such things.
"If you're lying..."
"I swear, it is true!"
Angelia loosened her grip on her brother and gave his back a little shove. "Go back to your room and lock the door. Don't open it unless it's me or Yukio, understand?"
"You didn't find him?"
"No," she answered, frowning hard. "I don't know where the little bastard has run off to, but he's in a world of trouble when I find him. Go on, now. Lock that door."
Frightened to the point of blind obedience, Gedde quickly returned to his room and bolted the door shut. He waited a moment, staring at the weak lock, then crawled under his bed and began to cry.
In the back waistband of her ski pants, Angelia found the gun Diana had given her. She reached back and laid her fingers against the stock, suddenly reminded of the weapon's presence... and purpose.
"I don't believe it," she whispered to herself, "but I have to know. He doesn't lie. Maybe it's a mistake, a misunderstanding. But... five dead men would be an awfully big misunderstanding."
All that was left for Diana was going through the door. If she could just survive that, everything else would be a cakewalk. With six dwindling minutes left on her stopwatch, she had to move. Soon.
The thing that kept her immobile, kept her standing outside the den for an immeasurable length of precious time was a realization, one which excited and sickened her.
She was really, really good at this.
Killing the first guards had felt like child's play, so easy, so natural. As if her body and mind were unraveling a mystery sewn inextricably into her DNA, decrypting her soul's code. For twenty-one years, Diana hadn't a clue what she was in the world for, but maybe this was it.
Maybe she was here to bring death to some and freedom to others, making morality entirely subjective in pursuit of the end goal. Did power play a role? Perhaps. The thrill of imposing one's will, the god-like authority of deciding who lives or dies... there was no time for such ponderings. After this was over, when she and Angelia were safely away from here, she would search her heart for the answer to that question. Diana promised herself as much.
*Two more and Hideous, two more and Hideous,* she chanted silently, wringing her hands and trying to concentrate. *Knock 'em down, pile 'em up, take care of Banana, then the curtain falls and away we go, go, go! Someplace warm and peaceful. Aruba, maybe. Tahiti? Isn't that where Marlon Brando lives these days? Hell, there might not be room for anyone else...*
One, two, three deep breaths. A slow exhale. Wipe both palms on pants and check the pistols, one in each hand. Bullets chambered, silencers screwed in tight. Take off the safety and...
Two hollow-point slugs ripped through the wooden door and weakened the jamb. A swift, hard kick sent it flying open, revealing the den and it's surprised occupants. Yoshima was seated on the far side of the room, perched on a golden suede settee. A strange, fleeting glee was visible in his eyes as he saw the intruder's face, her arrogant posture as she stood in his doorway.
As stunned as Hideo Yoshima may have been over the young woman's revelation as a volatile component, and despite his curiosity regarding her motivation for the unforgivable intrusion, he very much wanted to see her die. Right now.
Both guards were standing near the bound agent, the larger evidently drawing back an enormous fist to hit his captive again. The smaller man stood nearer the door, grinning like a demented cheerleader, eyes begging for more violence from the behemoth. They recovered quickly from the shock and instantly went for their guns.
The men were just a little slow. Milliseconds. Tiny increments of time that seperate winners from losers, survivors from the dead. Temporal fractions that were Diana Starrett's stock and trade.
Her first shot hit the smaller guard flush in the chest, ripping through skin and muscle, shattering at least one rib on its slightly inclined journey into his left aorta. Once inside, the slug flattened, slowed, and proceeded to make scrambled eggs of his heart. He fell to the floor with a stunned look to his partner and a pitiful whimper of pain. His face revealed disappointment, as if he had expected his sizable cohort to aid him somehow.
The larger man was busy with pain of his own.
Diana took no chances with the juggernaut, who must have stood a full six-foot-eight and weighed in at over three-hundred pounds. She fired both guns in tandem, two bullets flying at a time, until his chest and neck were peppered with eight small, black entry wounds that should have ground his innards to hamburger.
Then came the hard part. She waited as he stood still, his hand tucked inside his open jacket, his eyes bulging with agony. She waited for him to give up, to admit that Hobbes was right, that life was indeed nasty, brutish and short, and that it was time to call it a day.
*Fall, you son of a bitch. Fall. Fall.*
He weaved to the left, then to the right, taking a total of three small steps before his eyes rolled back and closed. And he fell forward onto the carpet, with a great thud that caused the captive agent to wince and blink. He looked from the fallen giant to the doorway, expecting John Wayne and the entire U.S. Cavalry.
He saw Diana Starrett instead; and she smiled at him. One eyebrow cocked, she fucking grinned like death's own jester, making the Scarecrow nearly giggle at the grisly implausability of it all. For a moment, the pain of his beating ebbed away and he felt almost euphoric. He flashed back on Riggins' sketchy description of the other undercover agent working this op.
"A young operative with immeasurable potential and untapped martial skill. A creature powered by lethal instinct. You should never have cause to come in contact, but if you do, you will thank whatever god you pray to that this agent is on your side."
Blue eyes, long black hair, and a smile brighter than the north star. He knew that this could be none other than DCA1 - his savior.
"Thank you, Lord," he whispered through torn lips.
Diana heard him, and she walked into the den with an almost regal bearing. Yoshima was alone now, and he knew it. His face showed nothing but a controlled tension, a sub-surface anger that Diana prayed would force him to do something stupid.
"Give me a reason to kill you," she told him. "Please."
"I have no intention of dying here today. I am sorry to dash your hopes," Yoshima said, holding up his hands in a slow gesture of surrender. "If you would please, satisfy my curiosity. Who sent the two of you here? You're not FBI. Was it the Company? MI8? Section?"
"None of your beeswax, you foul old sack of shit," she answered politely.
"I suppose it does not truly make a difference. You will fail, as all the others have failed." Yoshima's eyes flickered from Diana for barely a tick, focusing on something behind her. A tiny smile creased his face, as if his hope for turning the tables was renewed.
"Oh, give it up, Hideous!" Diana cried, exasperated by the coy ploy. "I know there's no one left but you and me and the punching bag over there. I'm not falling for it."
The Scarecrow blinked several times, trying to clear his eyes. He knew there was something he should tell the woman, but he couldn't remember what it was, couldn't get his eyes to refocus fast enough to warn her of the impending danger.
"Boy..." was all he managed to get out.
Then Diana heard a soft whoosh from behind, and a sharp pain lashed across the back of her left thigh. She knew she was cut, and she spun to face her attacker with both pistols cocked, smoking, and ready to deal death to whoever had ruined her flawless victory.
She wasn't ready for what she saw. Her brain started spinning inside her skull, confused and panicky, even as she gathered the wherewithal to voice a name.
*Fuck! He's not with Angelia and Gedde... so where are they? Please let them be at the springs... and please let me find a way to avoid hurting this boy.*
The twelve year-old stood just beside the door, nearly hidden behind it. He still wore his crisp white pajamas, just baggy enough to make him look even smaller. In his shaking hands was a sword; long and sharp and wet with her blood. His bottom lip quivered. The child appeared ready to cry.
"Yukio! Finish it!" Yoshima exhorted his son on to murder, bloodlust swirling in his dark eyes. "She cannot kill a child, or she would have done so already! Isn't that right, Ms. Starrett?"
"You bastard!" Diana kept one pistol impotently trained on the boy, and turned the other to his despicable tyrant of a father. "Why don't you get up off that fucking couch and try it yourself! He's a little boy, goddammit!"
"This is a test for one who wishes to be a warrior," the older man explained. "If he is worthy, he will succeed. If not, he will die in the effort. Yukio! Kill her!"
"Father..." he whispered, tears beginning to roll down his round cheeks. He lifted the long sword once - as if he were trying to comply - then let it droop to the floor along with his shamed gaze.
"I... I cannot."
Yoshima was still, the picture of frozen rage as he regarded the small boy. "Worthless. My children are worthless to me. Yukio, you are not my son." He looked to Diana and said, in all seriousness, "You may kill him now. I have no need of a coward."
"Father," came the anguished plea of the boy, now kneeling on the carpet, penitent beyond belief.
"One son wishes to waste his life painting pictures, a daughter welcomes harlots into her bed and shows no respect for her father's love, and now this -"
"Shut your mouth," Diana warned.
"This spineless, simpering bastard reveals himself! A worm masquerading as a member of the noble YOSHIMA clan?? Unacceptable. It is too much disappointment for one man to bear with grace."
"I think that's about enough outta you," Diana said, turning both guns on Yoshima, fully intending to empty the clips into his twisted face. Then maybe cut him into pieces. And burn him. Just as she was ready to pull the trigger, she heard a sound that no one should ever have to hear.
The sound of steel sliding into the soft body of a child, and the babyish whine of youth's final breath.
She turned halfway around. Saw Yukio slumped over, mortally wounded, an ornate ceremonial sword piercing his heart.
The boy, filled with shame and despair, had killed himself.
Diana couldn't breathe. She wanted nothing more than to scream, but no air would come to power out the anguish of watching another unloved, unwanted child rush into the embrace of the grave - like Ethan had done when he surrendered to the deadly bliss of heroin. Like she herself had tried to do when she staggered into the police station, begging for her own execution.
The only words spoken in the room, a whisper of - "Oh, Christ no." - came from the Scarecrow, who leaned forward against his bindings, wanting to get to the dying boy, to hold him as he passed over. He couldn't have explained why he wanted to do this, didn't know the answer himself.
Seconds dragged by eternally, no one knowing quite what to do next. Yoshima gathered himself first, sighed deeply, and sat erect on the settee.
"Perhaps the weakling had some honor after all."
The Scarecrow just gaped at Yoshima, aghast and speechless. Diana was still staring at the dead boy, overcome with rage and regret. This was not supposed to happen. The plan was over.
He looked up to see that Diana had dropped both her guns. He smiled, sensing that she was weak, traumatized by the horror of what they had just witnessed. Hideo Yoshima was right... and wrong.
Freeing the lengthy ivory handle from its snug position under her belt, Diana produced the drug-laced katana. She took four steps across the room, stood before the most foul creature she had ever beheld, and rammed the sword into his stomach, stopping only when the blade punched through his back and embedded itself in the couch cushions.
Blue eyes bore into dark as she hissed cryptically at her victim. "Fuck the curtain."
She twisted the blade in a half-circle and jerked it to the side, cutting diagonally across his torso. A gentle gout of small feathers puffed out from the torn suede pillows and settled in a growing puddle of blood on the wounded man's narrow chest.
Yoshima's horrendous scream echoed down the cold mountainside, a fearful sound that caused the snow monkeys to take to the trees for safety. Something wicked was loose tonight.
Diana lifted a foot, braced it against Yoshima's chest, and shoved him back onto the couch. She left the katana buried in his rent guts, pinning him to the stained suede settee.
"You should linger for a while - in incredible pain, of course. Your systems will begin to shut down, one by one, until at last, your body will no longer function."
He gasped out a pitiful denial, as if he simply couldn't accept this as his fate. "Nooooooo...."
"Don't bitch. It's better than you deserve."
Without a backward glance at the shocked, gasping man, she went to the bound agent and untied his restraints. He tipped forward, nearly losing his balance and heading for the floor. Diana didn't notice until he was in her arms that he was weeping, silently and steadily, for the lost boy.
"That son of a bitch," he choked out, enraged and sorrowful.
"Do you know where the virus is now?" Diana asked, her forced voice cool and businesslike.
"Uh...yeah." He took a moment to adjust to her wintry professionalism as she carefully set him on his feet. "It's locked in the safe, under Yoshima's desk, but I didn't get the combination."
"Don't worry. I'll take care of it." She moved behind the desk immediately, leaving him to stand on his own unsteady legs. Ducking down, she opened the hinged cabinet which covered the desk's small, generic safe. Diana figured she could crack it in under three minutes, even though a major part of her painstakingly timed plan had just gone out the window and time was nearly irrelevant. Still, if Angelia and Gedde were safe, it was worth trying to finish it out. First, she had to send DCA2 on his way.
"There's a com unit hidden under the stairs in the main room. I want you to call for cleaners and an extraction team. Get yourself out of here, pronto. You need medical attention."
"Well, so do you. Your leg, I mean. The kid cut you -"
"I'm fine," she declared. "Get out of here. Tell Riggins I'll be along with his hot package."
The battered secondary agent didn't move, just stood there and stared at her pleadingly. "I don't think we should split up now. There's more safety if we stay together - at least for me."
"Listen to me carefully," Diana said, leaning over the wide oak desk, eyeing the Scarecrow with malevolent intent. "Everything I ever wanted this op to be has just gone straight to hell. Right now, the only chance you have to stay alive is to let me finish this monumental cockup alone. If you insist on being a thorn in my side, I'll have to pluck you. Got me?"
He ran a hand through his bristly hair, feeling chill bumps rise on his scalp. "Loud and clear." No more objections left in him, he turned and walked slowly out of the den.
Diana again knelt by the safe and pressed an ear against the cool metal, turning the dial and listening for the soft click of tumblers falling into place. The first of the three numbers came fast, the sound of modest success soothing her jangled nerves.
Careful, quiet footsteps on the carpet alerted her to the presence of another
person in the den. Although she was certain she hadn't miscounted the number of
guards inside, it was possible that more had arrived. Diana remembered dropping
both her guns on the floor and prayed that she would not be discovered, unarmed
"Ahhhh... oh no. No. Please..."
She heard the familiar voice, soft and mournful, and her heart instantly froze solid.
*She's not supposed to be here! Christ-fucking-almighty, she wasn't supposed to see this!*
For a moment, she couldn't move, didn't want to get up and face the girl who had just lost not only her stepfather, but her little brother. But she had to do it.
"Angel," she whispered, rising to her feet and facing the stricken young woman.
"DON'T MOVE!!" Angelia shouted, leveling her pistol at Diana. Her eyes were already wet, and she tried to keep from looking at her brother's body. A glance to the settee where Hideo Yoshima lay near unconscious from blood loss didn't help. She felt nauseous and hollow and utterly alone.
Diana wanted to go to her, to comfort her. She held up her hands and took a step around the desk.
"I can explain."
Angelia shook her head, not wanting to hear. "You know I don't give a damn about Hideous, but Yukio? Diana, you killed a boy. A helpless little kid..."
"No, I -"
"SHUT-UP! Just... just stop lying, Diana. Stop it," she instructed, almost calmly. The gun wavered a little as she tried to look her lover in the eye. "Gedde saw you kill the guards with a sword. I found the bodies in the closet. You did this."
"I didn't hurt Yukio. He killed himself! I swear, I would never... never."
The girl raised one hand to halt her denials. Almost broken, she felt that hearing another lie would shatter her completely. "Just tell me the truth for once - who are you? Why did you come here?"
"I - I... shit." Diana was nearly to the point of tears herself, hearing the pain in Angelia's voice, seeing her fight the urge to lay down and die, too. "I work for a world government agency. My superior has ordered me to clear the house and take the virus sample."
"That's what this was about? All this is over the goddamned virus? The one I wanted... so that we could leave here together?"
"I wasn't going to give it to him! I was going to take it for us! To get you and me and the boys out of harm's way!" Diana waved one bloody hand, then let it drop to her side, ashamed at the evidence of her own nature. "I swear, Angel, that's the truth. I just want to be with you. I swear..."
"Stop it. That's enough." Angelia lowered her gun. "Enough."
"You believe me, don't you?" Almost a plea, almost begging.
"Your people, are they coming here?"
A quick nod, mouth agape at the practical question. "Soon, yeah. We have to get the virus out of the desk safe and get moving. Fast."
"I don't know the combination."
"I've almost got it open. Give me a minute."
Diana was nearly shaking with relief as she dropped to her knees and finished opening the safe. Things were going to work out after all. Everything would be fine. Everything would be fine.
"Got it." She swung open the safe door and gently removed a small, silver case with a biohazard sticker on the lid. She moved quickly around the desk and stood before her lover, asking forgiveness with her eyes. "It's gonna be alright now. We've got this. We can still make it work."
Angelia nodded slowly. "Gedde is down at the spring. We should go get him now, before he gets scared and comes looking for us."
"Okay, just let me get my stuff." Diana reached down to the floor, intending to pick up her guns. A hand on her shoulder stopped her, and the question that followed made her weak.
"Are you going to kill me, too?"
She stood up straight, shaking her head in vehement denial. "No. I would never hurt you."
"Then leave the guns. There are no more guards left. You don't need a weapon."
A pause, then caution was defeated by genuine concern for the girl's jeopardized trust. "Sure."
They left the house together, Diana walking just ahead. She ignored the warnings screaming inside her head and went down to the springs quietly, ready for whatever might happen next.
California - Early Sunday Morning
"Then the tape machine stopped. The delay she set up caused an interruption in the transmission, and the recovered footage ends there. Yoshima's allies - the ones who were going to buy the virus - they arrived before the cleaners and got him to a hospital. He survived. You already know that."
"But what happened to the two of them after they left the house?"
"Diana and Angelia walked to the hot springs. Then, Angelia shot her ten times and left her for dead at the water's edge."
"Oh, God. Oh, God. I didn't know that. I didn't -"
"There's no reason you should have known. It's a hard truth to tell."
"How did she survive?"
"Medivac chopper to a hospital in Nagano City. Fake name, lots of luck. I don't really know how she did it. She just refused to die, that's all. One of the reasons I admire her so much."
"I feel like such a fool."
"Don't. It's a waste of energy, and it can't help anyone now. She survived that morning, and everything that came after. Diana is not weak, in body or spirit."
"What do you mean by everything that came after? What happened next?"
"Riggins happened. He found Diana and brought her back to the agency...and the care of Dr. Salvatore Mangano."
"Mangano... the one who could take memories away."
"Yes. But before he did his magic on her, Diana had a go at Riggins. He told her Angelia was dead by his own hand. I think she tried to choke him to death."
"You didn't see it happen yourself?"
"No, but I wish I had. It became legend around the agency. Followed Diana throughout her career."
"I wish she had killed him."
"So did I. So did we all."
"I think I'm beginning to understand now."
"Not yet. There's still something I haven't told you. It might be hard to hear."
Julia rolled over in bed and turned on the bedside lamp, wating for her visitor to come through the bedroom door. She made no effort to cover her nudity, or to warn Gedde Yoshima, who was still patiently waiting for the end of the story, for the final revelation.
A twist of the knob and a firm push to the flimsy particle board door sent it flying open with a BANG against the wall, and Harry Mars stepped into view.
"Hi, boss. Long time, no see," Julia greeted, grinning at the glowering, dark man.
Gedde scrambled to his feet, gallantly standing between the intruder and Julia, his hands raised in a defensive position. His instinct -as silly as it may sound - was actually to protect her.
Harry smiled at the thin, naked youth, impressed by the chivalry inherent in the gesture, if not with the reality of any genuine threat to his person. "Get rid of the boy-toy, Jules. We gotta talk."
The Swede yawned and stretched, getting ready for battle. "I must say, it's about damned time."
Charlotte shifted in her chair and looked Dan straight on, daring him to surprise her now. There wasn't anything she couldn't handle, not a thing she didn't half expect. "Go for it, sport."
"Riggins didn't kill Angelia. She's still alive."
"That's not all. She's... Diana has her. Since this afternoon."
The attorney was instantly on her feet. "Where are they?"
"I don't know."
"I'm telling you, I do not know! Diana wouldn't tell me."
"Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Crap His Holy Pants!" Charlotte spun around and picked up her shoes, slipping them on as she hopped toward the office door. "This sucks. This is not good at all."
"Where do you think you're going?"
"You think you know what's going on, but you don't. You don't know Diana like I do. She was feeling lower that a mudfish about that witch just this morning, and she's gonna try to set everything right for little princess Angelia, you just wait and see!"
"That isn't an answer."
Charlie faced him with eyes alight, a fire burning in her heart that was fueled mostly by concern, but partly by something else. Something green. "Diana is gonna get herself in even more trouble if she's alone. I'm going out to find her, Einstein. You wanna come, you better shake a leg."
Before he could give voice to prudence and reason, or even grab her arm, she was out the door and down the hall, only pausing to grab Teddy's keys off the foyer table.
"TEDDY!" she screamed, near the top of her formidable lungs, "Wake up and get out here! We're going on a snipe hunt!"
Frouzled and half-asleep, Teddy Rinna rose slowly off the sofa and picked up his gun and his shoes, grumbling something about it being too early and the wisdom of not leaving the house.
"Things change, big guy. Adapt or be left behind. I'm driving."
Barely thirty seconds later, the three were piled into Teddy's vehicle - a customized jet black1978 Chevrolet Camaro, complete with hood vents, t-tops, and a cool ground effects package - and speeding through the manicured lanes of The Meadows. Charlotte honked the obnoxiously loud horn eight times to warn night guard LeRoy Parks that a vehicle was approaching, and he actually woke up in time to open the gate and keep the crazed attorney from smashing up Teddy's grill.
"I'm coming, baby. Ready or not, I'm coming."
Dan and Teddy exchanged a glance which could have passed between two men on death row.
"We are so fucked," it said.
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