Persistence of Memory - Pt. 12
by Paul Seely
"You didn't think yourself capable of this, did you?" the man asks as he circles you, drawing nearer with every circuit.
You are in a chair, hands bound behind your back, helpless against his examination. Your only recourse is to watch him and wait for his next move, his next word.
His hair is neat and silver, like a grandfather, but his eyes are hard and casually curious, as if he were a cruel child tearing the wings from a fly. "Murder. Cold-blooded, premeditated homicide. It's an ugly thing you've done, Angelia."
"Diana's... dead? Dead."
You can't quite believe it, even as you speak the words. Your eyes were closed as you fired the gun, and you never looked back at her as you left the springs, stumbling up the mountain and weeping until everything was blurry and gray. Running through the snow to the car, recklessly speeding to the train station in Nagano City, running from what you had seen... and done.
"You are in a heap of trouble, my girl." He draws near, so near you can smell the dry-cleaned wool of his tailored gray suit, the smoke and spearmint of his breath. "Why did you do it? Make me see why I shouldn't place the blame for this fiasco on your shuddering shoulders."
You have reasons at the ready - "She lied to me. She killed my brother. Betrayed me."
"The boy killed himself, idiot! I saw the surveillance tape myself. Your father goaded him into it, darling child, and the whimpering little fool impaled himself from shame."
"No." She told you the same lie when you discovered her with the bodies.
"Oh, yes. You can't pin that one on Diana. Now, everyone else... that's a different story. She did gut your stepfather, and she did kill his men, but I would have thought you'd be happy about that. No more midnight visits from the grabby old man."
"No! It's not true."
"I think we both know the truth. You acted hastily and foolishly, giving in to your own fears and insecurities, and you murdered the one person who would have brought down heaven to help you. Poor form, Miss Kamura. Most ungracious."
"She didn't love me. She didn't trust me."
"Now tell the truth - if Diana had confided in you, told you that she was there on a secret mission and all that jazz, would you have believed her?"
You stare at the floor, silent tears your only reply.
"Of course not! You were off in your own little world most of the time, fantasizing about escape and never seeing any of your efforts through to fruition. Trapped under Hideo's thumb. Self-involved, plotting, destroying yourself by inches with drugs..." he trails off, glancing pointedly at your razor-scarred wrists, "or whatever was handy."
He kneels down next to you and places a hand on your shoulder. You shiver as the hand creeps lower, to the buttons of your sweater, loosening one after the other until the garment hangs open, your naked chest bared to his greedy eyes. Surprisingly, he does not touch where you expect, but lays a finger on your drooping chin, tilting your face up to his.
"You say she betrayed you, cared for you not at all?"
You stare at him, mute and defiant.
"This isn't exactly a Hallmark card, but I think it speaks volumes about how wrong you are."
He points to your left breast, then slides the sweater aside until you see the symbol inked over your heart. There, in fine brushstrokes, is one word that cues another rush of tears, makes you bite your lower lip until blood flows, until you whimper and realize that you might have been wrong in your rush to condemn her. As wrong as one person can be about another.
Eternity, it reads.
Black ink, nearly as black as the hellish pit you feel opening up to swallow you.
"Kill me," you whisper, finding his eyes, begging for mercy. "Please."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. She wouldn't want that. Diana was trying to get you out of a bad situation, and I can fulfill her final wish. I can make it all go away... without bloodshed."
The pain in your chest is unlike anything you have ever felt. You assume that this is what guilt must feel like, acid in your veins, hollowing out your insides in a slow, constant burn. You would sell him whatever remains of your soul to stop the ache.
"Make it go away."
He smiles, his Pyrrhic victory now assured. "Tell me where you hid the virus sample."
You tell him what he wants to know. He smoothes your hair back into place and buttons up your sweater. "Thank you. Everything will be alright now, Angelia. Trust me."
You try to hide from him behind your eyelids, but inside your mind, you can see what your eyes never witnessed, the consequences of your paltry vengeance, Diana lying dead in bloody snow, swearing fealty, asking forgiveness.
You do the only thing you can do to release the agony - you scream.
The coolness and silence of the pre-dawn hour was shattered by a tortured scream that ripped through the hull of the Sunseeker and sought to drown its burning form in the soothing sea.
The tall woman standing watch on board the cruiser - she who had been treating her tired body to a much-needed quick shower - nearly slipped and fell in the tiled stall as she jumped through the curtain, forgetting to turn off the hot water. She hastily wrapped a guest robe around herself and set out to find the source of her passenger's distress.
"MAKE IT STOP!!"
Diana Starrett rushed from the bathroom and knelt by Angelia's bed. The young woman was clutching the sheets, nearly tearing them in her panicked fervor, twisting around as if under attack from some dream demon. Checking the clock, Diana saw that only four minutes had passed since she last checked on Angelia, and she also noted that the drugs Julia gave her should be nearly impotent by this hour. If the distressed young woman didn't manage to break through to full consciousness now, it was likely that she never would.
"Shh... everything's gonna be alright now," Diana whispered, instinctively gathering her charge into her arms. "It's okay, Angel. I'm here now. Everything's fine. You're safe with me."
Arms wrapped around her in return, embracing her tight. She could feel the girl's chest heaving with quickened breath, the hammering of her heart, the soft whisper of words against her neck.
"I was wrong... I was wrong... sorry, so sorry..."
Something fell into place for Diana, and she realized that Angelia might be close to waking. Her words were nearly coherent, almost lucid thoughts, and she remembered how jumbled her mind was when she surfaced herself. The only thing that kept her from slipping away and drowning was the thought that Charlie was waiting for her, needed her. Wanted her back.
"I'm here. I'm here, Angel. Come on, wake up. Please wake up."
"Diana, I'm sorry. I should... should have listened. Didn't give you a chance."
For the former agent, laden with nearly a decade's guilt over her own arrogant actions, that simple apology lifted a weight from her soul that would have crushed a person of lesser constitution. She felt her burden begin to dissipate a little as her own voice, as sure and warm as spring sunlight, answered back. "It's alright. I forgive you. The question is, can you ever forgive me?"
A flutter of eyelashes tickled her throat as eyes opened, and Diana was hopeful.
A gripping of hands on her back, slackening into a timid caress, and she became anxious.
A stiffening of spine and a slow pulling away, and she was looking into the face of a waking woman, one who thought she was seeing a ghost. One whose eyes focused on her own, made the connection between dreams, memories, and reality. One who was decidedly surprised to see her.
"AAAAAAHHHHH!! NO! NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!!"
Angelia yelled and jumped back against the wall, folding in on herself from fear and confusion. "You're dead! I killed you myself! Stay away from me!" she cried, grabbing up a pillow and squeezing it to her chest like a shield, praying for protection from the zombie before her.
Diana lifted her hands, reaching out to touch the trembling form, which shrank from her as if she were aflame. She drew her hands back and tried to keep her voice calm and even.
"Angelia, listen to me - you're safe now. I'm going to explain everything to you, but first you have to get hold of yourself. There's no reason to be afraid, nobody's going to hurt you. Now look at me. Just look at me for a minute. Do you know who I am?"
She took in the wet black mane of hair (slightly longer than she remembered), the eyes of unmatched blue (deeper somehow, imbued with untold experiences), the artful symmetry of her face (with fine lines etched on the canvas, denoting the passing of several years), and she knew for certain who this was. Eyes wide as saucers, lips trembling, she managed a nod and a whisper. "Diana."
"And when was the last time you saw me?"
"The... the springs. Nagano. You were..." She couldn't bring herself to say it out loud again.
"Shot. More than a few times, but not dead. I spent a little time in the hospital, got a few things off my chest." Diana opened her white terrycloth robe slightly and vigorously thumped her breastbone - which, without the aid of agency surgeons, would sport at least two nasty entry wound scars. An angry red mark rose and faded on the smooth, bared skin. "See? I'm okay now."
Angelia watched, entranced as the blood hit the surface of Diana's skin, proof that she wasn't a robot or a hologram, but a flesh and bone human. Alive. "But he said that you were - that I had -"
"Riggins made you think you had killed me, didn't he?"
A hesitation, then a murmured "Yes."
Diana nodded, then took a deep breath to snuff out the pointless anger which flamed up in her heart at the idea of Joshua Riggins getting his hooks in the vulnerable, volatile girl of nine years back. "He lied to you. He lied to me as well. Riggins told me that he had killed you, and I believed him."
Fine black brows knit in consideration of this possibility. "Why - why would he do that?"
Sighing as she prepared to reveal a raw spot on her heart, the dark woman lowered her head and closed her eyes. Harry Mars had been correct on at least this one count.
"Because he knew I'd try to find you, try to make things right with you."
Slowly, Angelia could feel her heart rate decelerating to a more normal pace. She couldn't explain just why, but she suddenly stopped being terrified of Diana. The feeling that crept in and took the place of her all-encompassing fear was much worse, one that squeezed her lungs like a bellows until the admission of the truth whooshed out into existence.
"I know you didn't kill him," she breathed, the words singeing her tongue with boiling guilt, tears springing from her eyes as if this had all happened minutes ago instead of years. "Yukio."
"I tried to tell you..." Diana lifted her eyes to meet Angelia's own, and she found herself unable to stem the salty flow of regret running up from her heart and spilling down her cheeks. "I messed everything up so bad."
"No," the younger woman said firmly, edging away from the wall, coming nearer to the penitent beauty needlessly kneeling before her. "No, it was my fault for not trusting you. I didn't even try, Diana! I was so scared that you were just like everybody else... just like me."
"Angel, no. I lied to you. I never gave you a reason to believe in me."
"That's not true," she objected, shaking her head until a teardrop fell from her chin onto the tangled sheets. She inched forward again, closer to the edge of the narrow bed, closer to the only thing she knew existed in the world. "Diana, I did a lot of rotten things before you met me, and I was so used to that life - using people to get what you want and throwing them away when you're done. I couldn't allow that you might be different from us."
"I don't think I was any different."
"Yes, you were! I never admitted it to myself, but I felt it the first time we were together. That's why I told you about what... what he did to me. I knew you were different, that you wouldn't hurt me. I just... when Gedde told me what he saw, then I found Yukio... I got scared. Can you understand?"
"I'm so sorry," Diana muttered, her shoulders slumping as she struggled to maintain eye contact through the veil of mutual regret and self-recrimination.
"I just got scared! Goddammit, I was shaking like a leaf all the way down there, knowing that you were going to kill me, that I meant nothing to you and you were going to kill me unless..."
"Unless you killed me first," Diana finished for her, nodding in agreement with the solid logic.
An uneasy silence settled between the women, inhabiting the narrow physical gap separating their bodies and holding them apart like some magnetic force shield. They could both hear the silence, a low hum audible over the lapping of water against the hull, the soft hiss of steam from the bathroom shower, their own wet breathing...
"It was a long time ago," Diana said, finally summoning the courage to end the standoff. She sniffled softly and wiped the back of one hand across her wet, swollen eyes.
"For me, it was yesterday," the asian beauty confided, her features twisted into a puffy grimace. "Yesterday, I killed you and I wanted to die. Today... today we're both alive."
Diana snorted gently and shook her head. "Funny, ain't it."
Angelia summoned up her courage and slid her hand across the sheets, knowingly touching Diana for the first time in forever. Blue eyes stared into her dark, questioning even as she explained.
"We have another chance."
"Answer the phone, Emmy," Charlie said aloud, willing her sister awake from across the miles. She had checked nearly every haunt, every hotel, every roadside fleabag between Elceda and San Diego, and the frustrated lawyer was down to her last idea as to where Diana might be holed up.
She pressed her cheek down harder, pinning the tiny Star-Tac cellular against her shoulder as she took a sharp turn onto Kettner Boulevard. The Camaro's tires squealed anxiously, and she could feel Teddy cringe beside her as he stoically rode shotgun. In the back seat, Dan covered his eyes and tightened his seat belt for the umpteenth time. Neither man said a word about her driving. After riding all over creation with Charlotte Browning at the wheel, they knew it was pointless to advise caution.
The phone rang again and was finally picked up by a woman who sounded extremely displeased to be awakened before sunrise on a Sunday morning. "What??"
"Emily, it's me. I'm sorry to get you up so early, but this is important."
"Charlie? That you?" she asked blearily, her voice rasping dry and harsh.
"Emmy, did Luis take the boat out yesterday?"
Still groggy and yawning, Emily did not pick up on the urgency in her younger sister's tone. "You won't believe this, but I was dreaming about you and me and Diana. We were at mom and dad's -"
" - and Diana grabbed mom and poled her right in the face! She started pulling at mom's hair like it was a wig, and she said "That's not your mother! It's a man, baby!"
"We rented 'Austin Powers' for the kids last night, and he -"
"DAMMIT, EMILY! Listen to me!"
Charlie heard her sister gasp as she yelled at her, then Emily seemed to grasp that this was not the time for chit-chat. "Honey, what's the matter? You sound pissed."
"I'm not..." she paused and took a deep breath to calm herself. "I'm okay. I just need to know if the boat is still at the marina."
"Yeah, unless somebody stole it. We decided not to go without you guys."
"Same slip? 383?"
"Mmm hmm. What's up, kiddo? You wanna go out today?"
"No, no. I just need to check on something. And Emmy? Don't go down there today, okay?"
"Why not? Charlie, you better tell me -"
"I'll take care of it. Just don't go to the marina today. Diana and I have some things to work out, and I think that... well, it might be best if we know we won't be disturbed."
"Hey, that's cool with me," Emily allowed generously, quelling the powerful urge to snoop for more answers. "You still got your keys?"
"Okay. Call me if you need anything. We'll be around the house all afternoon."
Charlotte sighed, relieved that her nosy sibling was apparently not going to pry. "Thanks, Emily. I owe you one."
"Then come to dinner at Xanadu tomorrow night."
"What? Tomorrow?? I thought they meant later in the week! I can't -"
"Charlie, dad called me last night and laid it on thick. He really wants us all to be there. Eight, sharp."
"I can't do it. There's too much to deal with right now. I can't handle them, on top of... shit."
"Look, you don't have to explain. Just try to get your act together by Monday night and put in an appearance! Stay ten lousy minutes if you want, just to say you showed up!"
Charlie peeled away from a red light and frowned hard. They were passing through Seaport Village, nearing the marina, and she wanted this conversation to be over. She had other things to prepare for at the moment. "I will not promise you anything, except that I'll try. That's all you're getting from me, Emmy. Thank you, I love you, and goodbye."
Not giving the other a chance to argue, Charlie shut the phone off and tossed it back to Dan, who juggled it a little, then dropped it into her open purse on the seat beside him. He could almost see the steam puffing from the blonde's ears as she pushed the car along, far in excess of the conservative speed limits. Though he immediately saw why Diana found her physically attractive, he was beginning to get a sense of why his former colleague had fallen so hard for this young woman.
Her determination to find Diana was astounding, showing both ingenuity in her choices for possible locations and mulish stubbornness not to give up trying when she found she was wrong. She was - judging by the way she tried so hard not to lie to her sister - honest and forthright, a surprising quality for a lawyer, he thought. And while not exactly a Formula One-caliber driver, she was both speedy and careful, aggressive and defensive at once.
"Sister, you're something else," he muttered, grinning tightly.
Teddy heard him and turned to Dan with a similar smile. "No kiddin'."
"Shut-up," Charlotte warned them both, "I'm trying to think, here."
"Yes, ma'am," they answered in unison.
Charlotte was already lost in thought again, calling out with her troubled mind.
*Diana, please be here. I don't know where else to go... and I have to know.
Whatever else happens, I have to know.*
Harry Mars stood just inside the bedroom, hands loose at his sides, half wishing that Julia would pull a gun or knife and give him an excuse to end her right here, half praying it wouldn't come to that. Harry was nearing fifty now, past his prime, and he was not entirely sure he could out-gun the younger, wilier woman. She gave him a sweet smile, bereft of affection, and addressed the problem of their de-facto standoff.
"I won't show you mine unless you show me yours," Julia teased, fully cognizant of the irony since she was still naked as the day she was born. "I'm too tired to test your quick draw right now."
Harry's dark eyes drifted over the form of the naked, nervous young man who stood ineffectually between them, taking in the variety of bruises and cuts on his face. Two black eyes indicated the kid's nose had been broken, although it looked fairly straight. "Sounds reasonable to me. Looks like you've been pretty busy here. Are you this rough with everybody you fuck?"
The Swede waved a graceful, dismissive hand and gave a light chuckle. "Oh, he's fine, aren't you dear? Just cosmetic damage."
Gedde Yoshima lowered his hands slightly and turned half his attention to Julia. "Who is this man?"
"He used to be James Bond and Rambo rolled into one," she said wistfully, "but these days, he's more in-line with Margaret Thatcher."
Harry raised one bushy brow, knowing he'd just been gravely insulted. He was rapidly losing patience as he jerked his head at the boy. "Get out of here. Now."
Gedde looked to Julia for a sign that she wanted him to go, and she gave him a small nod. "Get dressed. I think your underwear is in the refrigerator."
He hesitated for a moment, then looked from Harry to Julia and back, picking up on the razor wire of tension running between them. He decided to leave before it snapped taut and beheaded him.
Gedde mustered as much dignity as possible and shouldered past the big man in the doorway, sparing one more glance back before the bedroom door closed and he was again shut out of the strange happenings which seemed to swirl all around him today, leaving him feeling a bit like Dorothy as she stared out the window of her shack as it was caught up in a Kansas twister.
It occurred to him that he might feel a bit less vulnerable if he were wearing clothes. Soon, he discovered that nothing sobers one up quicker than a frigid pair of jockey shorts.
As soon as the door was shut and they were alone, it didn't take long for Harry to cut to the chase.
"I talked to Diana. I know about your little yank-off with Yoshima, but I still gotta ask - what the hell do you think you're doing, Julia?"
The blonde walked to the closet and removed a pale blue dressing gown from a cedar hanger, slipping it on slowly, in no hurry to cover her body. "My job, Harrison. I am simply doing my job. You should try it sometime. There's a delightful feeling of satisfaction to be had by doing so."
"Aww, cut the shit and give me the rundown before I -"
Harry stopped short of threatening her, but she seemed anxious for him to finish. "Go on. You'll what? Fire me? Kill me? Please, don't leave me hanging."
"Just... just leave her alone," he sighed. "Finish up with Yoshima and get out of her life."
"It's too late for that. Diana is in this up to her eyebrows - by her own volition, might I add. No one forced her to play this time. She saw that girl and whisked her off like the proverbial white knight."
"Only because you dangled the bitch in front of her like bait! God, that's low. Even Riggins never played her against her own conscience like this."
"He would have, eventually." Julia sat on the edge of the bed and rakishly brushed her platinum hair from her smoky eyes, calm and collected in the face of Harry's angry indictment. "Diana was growing out of the work and he knew it; it was only a matter of time before the truth regarding Angelia's demise surfaced... so to speak."
"What do you hope to accomplish here? She's happy now, and she doesn't want or need any part of us anymore," Harry declared, and he almost managed not to sound regretful of that fact.
"Happiness is an unstable compound. You remove the grounding element and it becomes active again, volatile. Diana is the key ingredient of a fascinating chemistry experiment."
Thinking that he'd caught on to some bit of gristle, Mars bit down hard on the assumption. "You can't believe that she'd ditch the lawyer for that trigger-happy little twat?"
"Ouch! Such crude language, Harry. Is it something personal against Angelia Kamura, or do you hate all of Diana's lovers on principle?"
"Julia, don't. Don't start that with me again."
"I really think the issue of your objectivity should be addressed, boss," the blonde persisted peevishly. "You berate Miss Kamura, you still take the occasional potshot at Ms. Browning... and if I remember correctly, during that brief period where Diana was sharing my bed, you sent me on no less that seven 'suicide risk' missions into South America, and always seemed a little dismayed when I came home alive." She paused and flashed him a wicked smile. "Jealous much?"
Harry's right hand crept behind his back, toward his concealed Ruger automatic. "Stop right there."
"I think you're the one who should stop." Julia crossed her legs and leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbows in a pile of pillows. "Stop kidding yourself. You want her back as much as I do."
"No. Not like this. Only if it's her choice to return. I won't force her."
"I'm not forcing her to do anything, either. Merely narrowing her options."
"Doesn't even matter to me what you mean by that. It won't work."
The scene froze for long, long seconds as each player reviewed their options. Escalation or detante seemed to be the only directions available, and they stared at each other, eager to see who would make a proposal first.
"That can't be all you wanted to ask me," Julia stated, bored with the silence.
"The HIV thing. Fabrication?"
She grinned in a tiny, crooked way and snuggled further into the pile of jumbled pillows against the headboard. "Not entirely. Diana tested positive upon recruitment and was placed in a group of experimental subjects for Mangano's treatment. Twenty-six subjects, each in varying stages of the disease, were administered a high-dose drug protocol - something to do with polypeptide MIMs, almost like primitive nanotechnology, I think - and while all subjects exposed to the live treatment showed initial improvement, twenty-four eventually died from miscellaneous organ failure. The twenty-fifth is still alive, although now in the final stages of full-blown AIDS. Diana was the only one whose system adjusted to the drugs."
"She tested clean on every physical we ever gave her. How can that be?"
"Mangano surmised that her success was due to the fact that she was exposed mere days before her admission to the program. Early diagnosis and early treatment equals stopping the virus before it storms the castle. She was strong, exceptionally tolerant of the drug's side-effects, and she got lucky. That was the only explanation he could come up with. Diana's success was never replicated, even though Mangano's experiments were ongoing - up to the day you had me kill him."
"Sure," the director agreed facetiously. "He was a regular Jonas Salk, that guy. You're making this shit up as you go along, aren't you? Your facility with untruths never ceases to amaze me."
"Heh. Flattery will get you nowhere. Check the records in the Vienna office, in Mangano's lab on sub-level six. That's where I found all this stuff. Non-networked computers."
Mars shook off a muscle spasm in his thick neck and absently worried that she would confuse and frustrate him into a spontaneous aneurysm. "And what the fuck were you doing down in the Vienna basement?"
"My job. I thought we covered this already."
"This doesn't make any sense. I know it's our business to keep secrets, but this is ridiculous."
"Are you actually trying to apply conventional logic to Riggins, Mangano, and our own inexplicable Ms. Starrett? Really, Harry, you're going to hurt yourself."
One thing that was perfectly clear to Harry Mars was that his second in command was considerably closer to Riggins than he had ever thought. "Josh must have been laughing at me the whole time. I thought you were on my team, and you were sleazing around with him behind my back."
Julia's expressive face turned grave and solemn. "Ever hear the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer? I despised Riggins as much as you did, but I kept my options open, just in case I was backing the wrong candidate. You looked a bit shaky sometimes."
"You two-faced bitch. I trusted you."
"Oh really? Now who's lying?" she challenged, some of the frost melting from her perfectly iced composure. "Working under you, I never knew a damned thing that I needed to know in order to perform my functions properly. You are so self-indulgent, chasing down your irrelevant MIA leads when you should be minding the UN's business! Psychotics like Yoshima are buying and developing weapons of mass destruction, and you could care less!"
Mars dropped his gaze to the floor and muttered a weak denial. "That isn't true."
"Yes, it is. In your heart, you know I'm right. You need me, Harry. I
keep you in good with the brass by doing all the dirty work, and you get to keep
the shit off your shoes. If it wasn't for operations like the one I'm running
here, you would be out on your firm little derriere within the month."
"I'm following our directive -"
"Only by the barest of definitions. Technically, you are taking care of things, but you don't take the initiative on security threats like Yoshima. That you have left to me, whether you realize it or not."
"Do you want me out? Is this the first stage of some sort of coup?"
Julia quickly regained her humor, choking out a tiny, derisive laugh. "Hardly. You are quite astute at managing the council, getting funding and approval and keeping them off our backs. I couldn't finesse them, even if I wanted to. I find it too difficult to disguise my loathing for compromise. I'm a specialist, and I need freedom from nitpicky supervision in order to perform."
"So you still think you're gonna get your anti-terrorism branch up and running," he surmised, shaking his head wonderingly. "I got news for you, Julia - it ain't gonna happen. You disobeyed a direct order and compromised the security of a former agent, not to mention the blatant way you violated agency statutes on disclosure and procedure. I wouldn't back you for a job at Burger King."
The Swede cocked one eyebrow and smirked. "I'm sorry to hear that. We could have achieved great things together, Harry, had a prosperous partnership."
"Until the day you and I disagree on something and you put a knife in my back," he amended. "I want you to fix whatever it is you've done here. Set things straight for Diana."
"And if I refuse?"
Mars wrapped his hand around the butt of his pistol and slid it from his waistband. "Don't."
Julia could almost see the director's finger curling across the trigger of the hidden gun, waiting to jump out from behind his back and end the civilized portion of the conversation. She knew her own options were shrinking, and an irreversible choice had to be made in a matter of seconds.
"It's too late to stop it now. Even if I wanted to."
As he softly disengaged the safety on his gun, Harry Mars said a silent prayer for quickness and accuracy. He felt certain that he would only get one chance, one shot before things became highly complicated. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Two small holes appeared in the blue pillow by Julia's right hand, and a tiny flutter of goose down wafted up and drifted in the warm, still air.
Harry Mars found himself unable to move his arms, and the heavy Ruger dropped onto the floor behind him with a stunningly loud thud. It took several seconds for him to register that he had been shot, once in each shoulder, right through the brachial nerve. He dropped to one knee and looked at Julia, at her placid, expressionless face, and waited for some goddamned smartass quip.
"I'm sorry, too," she whispered, as sincere as she had ever been.
She slipped her hands from the pillows, the right still holding a smoking Walther P99 equipped with a bright silver silencer, and slithered off the bed to stand over her fallen superior. She looked at his wounds and knew they were not mortal, but frowned hard when she considered the extensive surgery and therapy Mars would have to undergo to rehabilitate the limbs.
"Finish it," he urged, looking up with fatalistic defiance.
Julia said nothing, just shook her head and turned away. She went to the closet and removed a turquoise silk blouse and dark gray slacks, then stooped to root out a sensible pair of flats. Harry did not take his eyes off her as she stripped off the robe and dressed in silence. She didn't look at him, would not meet his furious, challenging gaze for fear that she would weaken and grant his request. Once clothed, she came to him for the last time and finally looked him in the face.
Though his arms were throbbing and useless, Harry willed himself to ignore both the physical pain and the humiliation as he fixed her with a vicious stare. "If you don't finish it now, I'll find you."
"Don't waste your time. Without me, you'll have your hands full trying to keep the council from... replacing you with someone effective."
"Why spare me? It isn't like you to leave loose ends."
"Believe it or not, I respect you. You are a fool, but you're one of a very few honest people living in the world today. Just... please take your head out of the sand, for your own sake."
"Fine. I understand your hostility, but I still intend for you to reclaim that virus sample. It should buy you an adequate amount of time to recover from your wounds and get back on your feet."
Julia moved past Mars and opened the bedroom door, then she stopped and stood perfectly still. In an implacable tone, she delivered the requisite parting line.
"Oh, by the way - I quit."
Gedde Yoshima was sitting on the kitchen counter, chugging bottled water and scarfing down a cup of peach yogurt when Julia suddenly appeared at his elbow with a warm gun in her hand.
"You have a choice to make," she opened, her eyes hard and serious. "I just shot the director of an international covert operations group, and I will probably be dead within a week. Either you can stay here and take your chances with his fair nature, or you can come with me."
His mouth dropped open and the spoon slid from his fingers to clatter in the empty sink. "Never a dull moment around you, is there?"
Julia gave him a thin smile and reached up to wipe a smidge of yogurt from his chin. "Nope."
"Do you still believe you can restore my family? Free my mother and my sister?"
"I'm not finished here yet, but that remains a priority. Once things are settled, I will do everything I can to get the three of you together again."
"Then I choose to stay with you."
"Let's go, then."
Though she couldn't say why, it felt better knowing she wouldn't be completely alone as she walked across the burning bridge she herself had just set alight. Julia took the young man's hand and pulled him off the counter, leading him toward the sliding glass door of the safehouse and out into a world that now held as many possibilities as dangers. She took a breath of morning air, and realized that after eighteen years of servitude, she was completely free.
"Let the world beware," she whispered, unable to stifle a giddy smile.
Flight 309 from Hong Kong touched down at 4:38 am on Sunday morning, and the first class passengers filed through the terminal toward the luggage pick-up. Drifting anonymously among the crowd was a fit older man wearing a stiff navy business suit. His eyes were red and tired, and the pouches of skin underneath were purple with exhaustion. Even the slack skin of his neck seemed to sag so pitifully that the security guards offered to help him carry his luggage; an offer which he politely refused in broken English. He held only a briefcase, and retrieved only one hardshell suitcase from the baggage carousel.
From there, he walked slowly to the rental car agency and signed out a black Lincoln Town Car reserved in the name of Wo Fat, a favorite villain from the American television show 'Hawaii Five-O.' Once settled in the vehicle, his demeanor changed remarkably. He loosened his conservative striped tie and unbuttoned his collar, then reached under the stiff shirt and grasped his own skin - and proceeded to pull it off like... well, like a latex mask.
The false skin stretched and tore into pieces as he tugged it up and stripped it away, revealing the hard face of a much younger man. This was followed by the removal of the uncomfortably hot wig of silvered hair, and the bloodshot contact lenses which darkened his eye color to match the photo on his fake passport.
Chen Kaige was wanted in seventeen countries, and the United States was one of them. He could travel only in disguise, and this proved a minor hindrance to his mobility, costing him a few hours of preparation before embarking on a job. Still, he had roughly a day and a half to track down his target and finish the job before Yoshima's fifty percent bonus incentive expired, and he expected no difficulty in completing the assignment on schedule.
He started the Lincoln and carefully exited the parking lot, meandering along the streets of San Diego and obeying all traffic signs and speed restrictions. Chen knew nothing could bring a job to a screeching halt faster than a run-in with police. There was only one law he intended to break here in California, and he planned to take his time and break it cleanly. A well-done murder was, in his opinion, the only crime worth committing.
Overhead, he spied the first sign announcing an exit to Elceda. Chen
activated his turn signal, checked his blind spot, and changed lanes; the latest
in a series of careful moves bringing him closer to his target, an attorney
named Charlotte Browning.
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