Persistence of Memory - Pt. 13
by Paul Seely
Diana looked at the small hand resting atop her own, heard the words replay in her mind, and finally brought her eyes back up to see Angelia's face. The expression of sadness and longing she found etched on the fine-boned countenance nearly broke her heart, but she couldn't let it show. Giving in to that kind of thinking would only cause them both more undue stress, raise false hopes in someone who was obviously in a very fragile state of mind. She had to play this carefully.
"You're lucky just to be alive, Angel," she noted, trying to edge away without being obvious. "You've been through a lot recently. Try to take it easy."
The hand tightened around her fingers and a thumb rubbed against her palm, and she found herself being pulled in closer to the young woman kneeling on the thrashed bed.
"I missed you," her lost lover told her, tears staining her voice. "My head feels like mush, and I don't know how I know that, but I do. Nine years..."
Thinking that it was the perfect time to change the subject and dissolve the building tension, Diana asked her a serious question. "Speaking of which, where have you been staying? How did you live?"
Angelia paused, reflecting on the newness, the sharpness of her current reality. In relation, the intervening span seemed like a fog-shrouded dream, and she was having trouble picking out relevant details. "I remember being in Germany, living in a small flat in Bonn. I drove a white Fiat to work, five days a week at a company that makes computers." She smiled and gripped Diana's hand tighter. "Appropriate work for me, don't you think?"
"Yeah," came the quiet, neutral reply. "You were always a whiz with that stuff."
"We tested semiconductors!" she cried, latching onto something defined and clear. "Brundig Copper and Silicon, that was the name of the business. Wow, that just popped out! I didn't know that until just now!"
Diana was slightly worried over the delayed blocks of memory, recalling how hard it was for her to come to terms with so many large chunks of her life suddenly bobbing up to consciousness. "Please, try to take it slow," she advised, "the details come back in bunches, and they can give you a killer headache sometimes. Even make you dizzy sick, if you're not used to it."
Feeling the truth of that warning throbbing behind her eyes, Angelia raised a palm to her forehead and nearly crushed Diana's fingers in a painful grip. "Oh, good. Now you tell me."
"What the hell is wrong with me, anyway? I remember... all that other stuff, but the rest is so choppy."
"All the bad things come back first, probably because they were foremost in your mind when you went under. Everything will get straightened out, but it takes time."
"So five minutes from now, I might be reliving my hot affair with a chip designer named Gunnar?"
Diana couldn't hold back a relieved smile, sensing for the first time that Angelia's personality had survived intact. "Yeah, maybe. But don't feel like you have to share all the details."
"Why not? Afraid you might get jealous?" she prodded, forcing a little grin.
Flustered for a moment by the leading question, Diana fumbled for another neutral answer. "No, it's just that these things will come up at their own pace. Don't force it."
"Okay, okay." Angelia was quiet then, holding onto Diana and pushing against her aching head as the pain sharpened. A wave of nausea hit her, and she rocked forward onto the tall woman's shoulder, nearly toppling off the narrow bed as her equilibrium went out with the tide.
"Ooohh... shit. I think I'm gonna be sick."
"Can you hold it? I'll get you to the bathroom." Looping her arms under Angelia's shoulders, Diana lifted her to her feet and half-carried her across the cabin's thick carpet. She could see the steam coming from the doorway, and remembered too late that the shower had been left running. "Hang on, we're almost there."
"I don't think I'm gonna make it," the girl said, just as she convulsed and upchucked a tiny trickle of liquid onto her gown. "Ugghh. I think I just ruined my entire wardrobe."
Again, the former agent found herself fighting back a smile as they entered the steamy confines of the loo. She eased Angelia down and left her kneeling by the potty as she shut off the shower. "Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor."
The young woman placed both hands on the rim of the commode and quipped into the bowl. "Well, humor and pain go hand in hand, and right now, they're pulling a daisy chain inside my skull."
Unable to fight it any longer, Diana let out a gale of grateful laughter. She turned and placed a gentle hand on the bowed, dark head, then brushed the sweat-matted hair back and away from her face. Her hand stayed there, holding the hair at the base of her slender neck as the convulsions racked Angelia's body. It was a strangely intimate gesture to offer, in light of her concern over misleading the young woman, and she was disturbed by how naturally it came to her.
"I'll go get you some water," Diana said suddenly, trying not to jerk her hand away and show her discomfort as she left the bathroom. She headed up to the tidy kitchenette and leaned against the sink, then closed her eyes and tried to figure out what she was feeling.
*Stop acting like such a schmuck! She's okay, she's just getting her bearings. Time has passed, enough time that she'll realize things have changed for both of us. Tell her you're not alone now, that you're with someone. She'll understand. Won't she?*
"She has to," Diana whispered aloud, waking herself from the downward spiral of her worries. She opened the fridge and snagged a bottle of Evian, opened it and chugged the entire thing in seven gulps, then marveled at how dry her throat had become. "Nerves. Just nerves."
*Now, you have to ask about the virus sample. Get the sample's location, tell Harry... and then what? Send her on her way with a thanks a lot for your help and a get lost? What happens to her from here? Jesus, Julia - you didn't bother to tell me what to do with her after this is over!*
Then a chill worked its way up her spine as she realized what the crafty Swede may have intended.
*She couldn't possibly expect me to... no. Julia's not stupid. She knows I'd never leave Charlie. As long as she wants me, I'm not going anywhere.*
Letting that thought replay over and over in her mind until it soothed her into a more relaxed state, Diana trashed the empty bottle and took another out for Angelia. She was crossing the threshold into the main cabin when she first heard it - the sound of footsteps overhead. Someone was on board the Sunseeker. Her solid figure mutated into a blur as she darted across the small distance to the couch and picked up her gun, turning to defend the space against whatever came through cabin door.
A rasping click sounded as a key was inserted in the lock, then the knob turned. She cocked the gun and leveled it at the widening gap of morning light as the teakwood door swung silently open.
And Charlotte Browning stepped into view.
"Whoa! It's me!" the attorney squeaked, waving her hands frantically as she caught sight of the gun. "Don't shoot!"
Diana sighed and closed her eyes briefly as she lowered the gun. It occurred to her how futile was her hope that 'Calamity Jane' would listen to her and stay home, keep out of harm's way. Another, more selfish part of her was irrationally glad to see the snoopy lawyer, to know that she was all right and that she cared enough to track her down. That part kept her from getting angry, kept her tone more exasperated than irked.
"Charlie, what on earth are you doing here? Are you alone?"
"I'm looking for you, dummy! I was worried about you. My armed escort - Teddy and your friend Dan - are topside waiting for me," Charlie explained as she hungrily took in the sight of Diana's face, the tilted smile, the bright eyes. Satisfied in seconds that her errant love was safe, her straying attention seemed to spread across the cabin, soaking up all there was to see.
The dim (some might say romantic) light of a single lamp.
The unmade bed, with its abused sheets and jumbled pillows.
Diana; her face aglow, dark hair wet, dressed in only a robe.
An unopened bottle of refreshing water in one hand.
Charlotte didn't want to think it, tried not to think it... but she thought it anyway.
"So, what's going on here? Dan said you had that Angelia person with you."
Diana's smile faded at Charlie's caustic tone, and she started to reply, but didn't get the chance. As if responding to a cue from a sadistic playwright, a call came from the bathroom.
"I need that water, Di. I think I'm dehydrated or something."
Charlotte suspiciously narrowed her eyes and moved fully into the cabin, closer to Diana, closer to the voice from the bathroom. Unfortunately, she was also closer to the bed, and her nose twitched as she smelled a heavy, lingering scent that was completely unmistakable. Her hazel eyes fell like stones across the rumpled linens reeking of sex.
Her stomach lurched and fluttered until she felt like she had swallowed a live, claustrophobic hummingbird. Her fists clenched and unclenched in rhythm with its imaginary wings, and a strange sound fluttered up her throat and flew out her mouth - she laughed. Laughed at herself, at the realization of her worst fear, at her own greatest insecurity come true.
"I am so stupid," she said, biting back the hysterical cackling. "Such a fucking fool..."
"Charlie, I don't understand," Diana complained, utterly confused by the humorless display.
"No, no, no! This is the part where you're supposed to tell me you couldn't help yourself, that these are extreme circumstances, beyond your control!" the attorney raved, arms spread wide to convey her atomic rage in grandiose body language. "At least offer me a plausible excuse, Diana! Goddammit, I think I deserve that much!"
"Whoa, now! I think you lost me on that last curve, hon. Maybe you should spell it out for me - just what am I being charged with, counselor?"
Charlotte froze for an instant, contemplating Diana's innocent face, wanting so badly to ignore the circumstantial evidence and acquit her on the spot. Unfortunately for them both, her ego's supreme court was currently composed mostly of hanging judges like jealousy, wounded pride, low self-worth and fear. They voted down trust and love without so much as a blink.
"Oh, that's good," she hissed, lips curled into a snarl. "You almost had me for a second, stretch."
"Charlotte, get a fucking grip." Diana was losing patience herself. "To my knowledge, I haven't done anything to merit such a tirade, so you better explain yourself."
"Are you telling me that you didn't bring the helpless little geisha down here - to my sister's boat - and FUCK her to the point of dehydration?"
Diana's mouth fell open, shocked to the point that her toes curled like claws into the plush carpet. "No! God, no! I would never-"
"Hey," came a soft call from behind, grabbing the attention of both women. Angelia emerged from the bathroom, clad in a short, white guest robe identical to Diana's, her own hair wet from a quick rinse in the sink. "I didn't know we were expecting company."
The tall woman wheeled around as Angelia entered the room, and she felt her own stomach drop sickeningly fast as finally grasped the conclusion Charlotte Browning had already reached.
"Aww, Christ," she muttered, disgusted with her own naiveté.
This looked bad. This looked really, really bad. She jerked her head around to gauge Charlie's reaction and was dismayed to find the lawyer growing more pale by the second, struggling to form words adequate to impart her immeasurable disbelief at the cruelty life was inflicting on her.
"No way," she sputtered, her face bright red, her arms crossed over her shaking middle. "The world isn't this small. The world just isn't this goddamned small!"
"Charlie, I know what you must be thinking -" Diana offered lamely.
"Oh, honey, no you don't! If you did, you'd be laughing your ass off, too!" she managed to choke out between burbling gouts of maniacal giggles.
She kept looking at Angelia, who seemed confused if not embarrassed, and back at Diana again. Something in Charlie's mind just refused to accept the connection, as if it were too freakishly coincidental to happen in an ordered universe.
"This rotten, lying, treacherous, traitorous bitch is THE Angelia? The one you were trying to save? The one who tried to fucking kill you?? I'm sorry, but the world simply isn't this small!"
Diana was totally tossed by the storm of unexpected anger, and therefore rendered speechless, but the woman in question boldly stepped up to Charlotte and answered for herself.
"I'm afraid I match that description, but you have me at a disadvantage," Angelia opened, staring at the pretty blonde with the uneasy curiosity of one trying to recall the face of a high school enemy encountered in mid-life. "You seem to know a lot about me, and I'm not able to place you - yet."
"Awww, place this, Lia."
The fingers of Charlie's right hand curled into a perfect fist (knuckles first, thumb tucked flat outside) and she slugged the woman she once knew as Lia Imada right across the chops, packing her latent fury from a youthful betrayal right into the same potent punch with her raging, irrational jealousy.
The frail-looking easterner dropped to the floor like a sack of wet flour, unconscious yet again.
Instantly, the attorney felt a shooting pain run up her wrist and into her forearm, letting her know that her hand was likely broken. She didn't care. All that mattered at that moment was that someone else was hurting - not as much as she was, but hurting nonetheless.
"Charlie, what the fuck!" Diana cried, sinking stunned to the floor beside Angelia. She checked her pulse and pupils, afraid that the sudden blow would trigger some sort of seizure. "Why the hell did you hit her? If you think I cheated on you, then hit me!!"
"Oh, believe me, I would, but I think my goddamned hand's broken!" the stricken lawyer screamed, cradling her right fist gingerly. She looked down at Diana with a mixture of pain and horror that spoke volumes regarding her sense of betrayal, then glanced at Lia and felt nothing but sick.
"Paybacks are a bitch," she muttered numbly, then turned her back and walked out the door, desperate to leave the rancid feelings behind and find some clean air.
Diana wanted to call out to her, but she knew that wouldn't stop Charlotte's exit. She had to go after her, so she picked Angelia up and settled her once again on the bed, then shot through the cabin door and up the stairs like a guided missile. The first thing she saw was the imposing form of Teddy Rinna, arms crossed as he glared at her with something close to contempt. Dan stood beside him at the stern rail, his flat face typically neutral despite what he might be feeling toward his former colleague. Whatever it was, she didn't have time to care right now.
"Give us a minute, guys," Diana said, and it was not even close to a request. "Wait on the dock."
The two men exchanged a look, and Dan jerked his head to indicate that Teddy should come with him. They left the boat without a word, though Diana could hear Teddy mumbling something as he followed Dan up the walk.
"... looks to me like she got caught screwing around..."
Dan's reply was a toneless "... can't be that simple. Nothing ever is with her."
Diana shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Dan was right - nothing was ever simple, and she knew there was more to her lover's violent outburst than simple jealousy. Charlie wasn't the type to go around punching strangers, no matter what she suspected them of doing. She turned away from the stern and found Charlie standing by the port railing with her arms wrapped around her body, shaking from the inside out. With slow, silent steps, Diana went to her and stood an arm's length behind.
"I love you," she whispered, and was wounded by the snort of laughter which came from Charlie in answer. She swallowed a lump of pain and pressed on with her delayed rebuttal. "I'm telling you now that I do love you, more than I ever thought was possible, because that's my reason."
The blonde's head ducked low against her chest, tucking in tight as she choked out a reply between tears. "Your reason. For sleeping with somebody else."
"For not sleeping with anybody else," Diana corrected gently. "I did not go to bed with her."
"Diana, please." Charlotte drew further into herself, fighting to harden the sobs out of her voice. "I saw the bed. I know that smell. Unless Glade is putting out a new Roman Orgy-scented air freshener, I'd be hard-pressed to draw any other conclusion."
"That was not my fault. Angelia just surfaced, for crying out loud! She's been through what I went through, and I can tell you that messes your head up pretty good. Julia drugged her yesterday to help things along, and she was dreaming, remembering... I don't know what. But what she did in that bed, she did alone," Diana insisted. "I did not assist her in any way. In fact, I was up on deck a good deal of the time while she was -"
"Masturbating? Jesus, that has to be the worst excuse I have ever heard."
"It's the truth. Don't you think I could make up something better?"
"No, darling, I'd like to think you would just own up to it," Charlie said bitterly, finally composed enough to turn around and face the accused. "Maybe I don't know you as well as I thought."
"Charlotte, no. Don't say that. You're the only one who does know me."
"Then explain to me how the smart, confident, savvy woman I believed you to be could have been taken in by a deceitful, cokehead con-artist like Lia Imada - or should I call her Angelia?"
Dark brows rose and knit in confusion. "Who is Lia Imada?"
Charlie rolled her eyes and jerked her left thumb towards the cabin below. "Your long lost could-have-been. The Yakuza princess spent a little time at Berkeley several years back, dealt blow on the side. What, is this starting to sound familiar?"
"Oh, God." Diana had gone ghostly pale as she connected the dots from Charlotte's tale of college trouble and Angelia's own misadventures at an American university. Charlie was right. The world wasn't supposed to be so small.
"Well, after unsuccessfully trying to pin the blame for a load of powder on little ol' me, she got in trouble with the cops. She didn't do time, though. Her big-deal daddy sent a goon squad to take her home to Japan - just in time to meet and seduce her family's new governess. I didn't know that last part until yesterday," the blonde acidly concluded. "Huh. How do you like them apples."
"It's a mistake," the dark woman protested, though she could not even buy that possibility herself. "Couldn't it be somebody else? Someone who looks a lot like her, but..."
"Diana, I never forget somebody who fucks me over." Charlotte's hazel eyes were flashing with hatred long-denied. "I wasn't able to clean her clock back then, but I'm more accepting of my anger these days. An unexpected side-effect of loving a murderer."
The whole world went quiet as those last words settled between them. Blue eyes squeezed shut tight, and Diana Starrett felt a cold chasm open up beneath her feet and swallow her whole. One hand absently strayed to her chest, as if searching for the heart that had just been ripped out.
Charlotte Browning seemed to realize too late that she had crossed a line, said something that couldn't be taken back. In all their time together, the one consistent thing regarding Diana's black past was Charlie's refusal to judge her for it. Her unconditional acceptance was offered repeatedly and proven time and again, supportively listening to lengthy confessions, holding fast in the night when hideous dreams attacked. One moment of angry indiscretion, and she belittled all those efforts, all those sincere promises became insignificant boasts.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that," Charlie whispered, suddenly contrite and reaching out a tentative hand to touch her wounded lover.
Diana shrank away blindly, not seeing the offered hand, but running from the words that came too late. She could feel her soul shrinking, balling up into a fetal position and screaming silently that she was a fool to have ever counted on anyone but herself. It was only a matter of time before this happened, before Charlie realized that there was a monster in her bed and cried out in horror.
"I'm so sorry," Charlotte told her again. "I'm just... it hurts right now. Too much. I didn't mean it."
"It's okay." Diana still had not opened her eyes. The darkness inside her head was her only comfort. "I understand. Don't worry about it."
"No! No, don't do that. Don't shut down on me," the attorney begged, weeping hard tears of regret. "Get mad at me, tell me I'm stupid! Tell me I'm wrong!"
At last, Diana opened her eyes, and the emptiness that showed through cut Charlie like a blade.
"Believe whatever you want. I can't decide for you."
"I want to believe you!"
"So do that, then," Diana advised coldly. "Tell yourself that everything's okay because I didn't fuck someone else. Then go home."
Charlie felt like they were standing at the edge of a high cliff and Diana was pushing at her back, urging her to jump. Then she remembered that it was she who had led them to the precipice in the first place. Her only choice was to turn around and fight to regain some ground.
"I don't want to go home. I want to stay with you."
"There's a lot left undone, and I have to get moving. Yoshima could be looking for me - or you - right now. Plus, Julia's mixed up in this, and I can't tell from one minute to the next what she might want. I have to finish this soon or it's gonna get really messy. You can't be here when that happens."
"Oh, but you can haul what's-her-ass around with you?"
"That's not by choice," Diana explained, still icy-calm on the outside. "I still need to keep track of her for a while. If things get rough, at least I know she can handle a gun. First-hand experience."
Charlotte felt things slipping away from her again, knew that once Diana started making those gallows humor comments that she was moving out of range emotionally. "We can't just let this sit. I know I hurt you, with what I said and not trusting... that was wrong. We need to talk about this."
"We will, but this is neither the time nor the place."
"Diana, I don't want to leave things like this! This isn't what I wanted..."
"But this is what we have," the former agent said bluntly. "Go home. Take Teddy and Dan and sit tight until things cool off again."
Out of reach, Charlie's radar told her. Arguing was now officially hopeless. "When?"
"When will things cool off. When will I see you again."
"A couple of days, maximum. With the people involved, things will move fast from here on out. As for when you'll see me again, I can't say. Could be sooner than that." Diana paused here and cast her eyes out to sea, willing herself to end this conversation on a definitive note.
"If I'm the last murderer left standing, that is."
Charlie stood there dumbly and let herself be pushed over the edge. She wanted to cry out, to scramble for a limb or vine, something to hang on to... but it was useless. Despite her hurtful words to the contrary, she knew Diana Starrett pretty damned well, well enough to know that the more she tried to grab hold of her, the more Diana would fight. The damage was done.
"You will be," Charlotte stated firmly. "And when this is over, don't you even think of going anywhere but home. To me."
"I have nowhere else to go," Diana whispered bleakly. "Go to Our Lady on your way home. You need to have that hand x-rayed."
The blonde's face crumpled, and it took all the strength she had left not to shed more tears. She straightened up and started walking toward the stern ladder, then stopped just as she began her descent. In a cracking voice, Charlotte said the words that used to make everything all right.
"I love you."
And she found she was repulsed by the sound of her own voice.
Diana found her lover's eyes, puffy and gleaming red in the early morning light. With a pain-twisted little smile, she gave as good as she got.
"I love you, too."
Morning sunlight fell into white blonde hair, tinting it a mild orange and lending a false aura of warmth. Clothes joined in the deception, flapping silkily in the breeze and making the hardest woman he'd ever met look soft. As Gedde Yoshima watched Julia's swift, floating steps carry her over the uneven terrain of the shoreline, he wanted to believe that warmth was more than an illusion.
He wanted to trust her, wanted to believe that she was not simply using him,
and this obviously misplaced faith bothered him. It was foolish. Stockholm
Syndrome or not, he knew it was wrong to count on her for anything. Still, he
couldn't help staring at the lissome beauty as she approached, couldn't help
hoping. He eyed the lavender suede duffel looped over one shoulder and wondered
what was hidden inside, then accepted that maybe it was better he didn't know.
"Beautiful morning, isn't it?" she asked, pulling up beside him and taking his elbow in a courtly gesture.
Gedde nodded and they began to walk down the beach together, looking for all the world like a happily mismatched couple. Julia still wore her semi-professional silk attire, but had provided him with more inconspicuous garb of shorts, sneakers, and a t-shirt with cartoon children on the front.
The oddly-drawn children were huddled over the bloody corpse of another child - evidently named 'Kenny' - and cursing those responsible for his death. Gedde did not see the humor inherent in such tragedy, but it made Julia giggle. He knew he should say something now, just to keep his nerves from fraying as they approached his father's house.
"The beach is eroding very quickly here," he noted absently.
Julia looked up then and glanced around, noticing the sparseness of sand in some areas, the plentitude of stones and shells. The beach made crunchy, inhospitable noises beneath their feet.
"You're right. They should bring in sand to renourish it sometime soon, before too much damage occurs."
"I cannot see letting it be destroyed. Perhaps they will prevent it."
Silence then, just the roll and retreat of the ocean, the obnoxious cries of hungry gulls. Morning joggers and hapless, wishful surfers. The pair were close to Yoshima's house, and Gedde still didn't know why Julia insisted on going there in the first place. He was afraid to ask. Only the tense set of his shoulders as the gray and blue beach house came into view tipped Julia off to his anxiety.
"They won't look for me here," she explained quietly, drawing his arm tighter against her side. "All the safe houses are no longer safe, and I have to wait somewhere."
"If you don't want to come with me -"
"No, I do. I understand the logic of your choice, but I am troubled at the thought of being near my father after... after you confirmed what I feared most about him."
"You afraid you might ring his neck?"
"Aha." Julia grinned and squeezed his elbow with something approaching affection. "Don't worry, we won't actually be going inside."
Gedde was clearly puzzled... and maybe a little disappointed. "Why not?"
"Hideo needs to feel he is safe in order for him to comply with my demands. I want to keep a close watch on his activities so that I can end this portion of the game post-haste."
"You are speaking of the research - and researchers - you requested."
"Mmm hmm. I want to know the moment they arrive."
They came to an abrupt halt less than fifty yards from the beach house, mostly because Gedde's feet stopped moving. Julia touched his cheek and looked into his eyes; she recognized the twin sharks of anger and hurt swimming in their dark depths. Long ago, those creature were her familiars.
"Listen to me," she urged, and her voice brimmed with uncharacteristic passion. "I know you want to hurt him, but you should let that go."
"He imprisoned my mother, raped my sister, and exhorted my brother to suicide. You are saying I should let that go?"
"I am saying that we all eventually get what we deserve. Your father is dying, and no one and nothing can save him. Though it would certainly be satisfying to walk into his house and throttle the remaining life from his pathetic body, it would cause you more harm than such therapy is worth."
"You kill so many, and yet you would deny me this one satisfaction."
"One is all it takes to become a murderer." Julia's gray eyes darkened, her jaw set firm. "You are not like me, and you never could be. Once that hollow moment is over, you would live with it forever."
"It does not appear that you are plagued with guilt."
"As I said, you are not like me. Hideo and I are long past such innocence," she admitted. Her hands found his, and she martialed a slanted smile. "Listen, I'll make you a promise. One that I can keep."
Gedde took a deep breath and waited to hear something that would ease his mind, some sweet beatitude to calm his vengeful heart.
"When I am dead and roaming the flaming depths of hell, I will find your father... and I will administer to him the worst ass-kicking in the history of the afterlife."
That wasn't quite what he expected, but somehow he found it more soothing than some superficial balm. Despite his suspicions, at that moment, it actually seemed that she cared about him. It was hard for Gedde to recall the last time he felt that from anyone. Mother, sister... it had been years. He shut his eyes and smiled, then gave her a curt nod.
"Good. Any particular torments you would like inflicted? Eye gouging, emasculation, toenail removal... I take requests, you know."
He chuckled softly and squeezed her slim hands. "I will think on that."
"Well, tell me as soon as you decide. Hideo and I are likely to meet down below sometime soon, and I will have other business to attend to, I'm sure. No rest for the wicked."
"I thought the saying was 'no rest for the weary.'"
"Darling, how do you think we all became so weary?" Julia teased. "Being wicked is hard work."
This time, as she pulled him forward, he did not resist. They walked up to the back gate and around the side to the narrow alley between Hideo's high fence and his neighbor's house. Julia scouted the side of the gray house for a viable means of ascension, then faced Gedde with a playful grin.
"How are you at shimmying up drainpipes?"
The young man looked up the side of the house, following the line of solid pipe to the roof... then just beyond to the crow's nest. The ten-foot square deck set atop the highest part of the house would make a perfect vantage point from which to observe the comings and goings of the household. It was also settled far enough back on the roof as to be nearly invisible from the front courtyard. The only danger of discovery would come from someone far down on the beach, and he couldn't see his father leaving the house again in his agitated, frail condition.
"Shall I go first?" he asked cautiously.
"Be my guest," Julia answered cordially. "Take this up, please." She handed over the suede bag, which was surprisingly heavy as he strapped it across his back.
Gedde moved fast, leaping up to the top of the wooden privacy fence and dropping quietly on the other side. He grabbed onto the wide length of metal pipe and crawled up the outer wall like a spider, his movements sure from years of physical training. He reached the top in seconds and rolled himself over onto the rough shingles, careful not to jostle the suede bag's mysterious contents.
Once he got his footing on the sharply slanted roof, he turned and looked down. He expected to see the blonde woman climbing the privacy fence - but she was already nearly up the drain pipe herself. He shook off his surprise and offered her a hand up, which she accepted.
"Thanks." Julia stood up, instantly balanced like a cat, and took the bag from Gedde's shoulder. "Nice climbing."
"I would say the same of you, had I seen you climb at all," he said wonderingly.
She just leaped an eight-foot fence and scaled a two-story house - at twice his speed - and there was no outward sign that she had done anything remotely difficult. Not a hair out of place, not a smudge on her slacks or blouse, not even a broken nail. He looked at his own dirty hands, the scrapes on his knees, felt the sweat of effort beading on his brow... it didn't seem fair.
"Come on," Julia called softly. She was crab-crawling up the steepest part of the roof, then around to the stairs on the far side of the crow's nest. Gedde carefully followed her lead and finally made it around to the stairs, but when he looked up to find her, he nearly toppled backward off the roof in shock. Julia was kneeling on the sanded plank floor of the structure, spreading out two towels from her bag... stark naked.
"Please," she sighed dismissively as she rubbed on a light layer of sunblock, "it's nothing you haven't seen before."
He managed to get his feet to work again, and climbed the stairs almost as fast as a dead slug. "B-b-but, here? Now?"
"Don't get your hopes - or anything else - up, junior," she taunted, reclining her pale, perfect length on one plush towel. "I only want to sunbathe a bit. This is something I've always wanted to do."
"Display your nudity in a public setting?"
"No, you prudish boy. I've done that before. I mean I want to get a tan." She raised up slightly on her elbows and addressed the flustered youth. "Do you know that sometime this year, my fortieth birthday will occur, and I have never sunbathed. Not once in thirty-nine years."
Gedde settled on the towel beside her ran an appraising eye along her cream-pale flesh, unmarred by even a lone freckle, and knew her claim might be true. "Why start now? The sun can damage - "
"You're missing the point. It's quite likely that I won't be alive on my fortieth birthday, and I don't want to die without having worn normal, flesh-colored skin, even briefly."
"It's silly, I know, but there it is."
"I... I think I understand."
Julia regarded him curiously, tilting her head, then leaned over and gave him a brief kiss on the cheek. She lay back down and let her tired gray eyes flutter shut. "Maybe you do."
So there they were; a naked rogue spy and her boyishly wise companion, lying atop the house of a Yakuza chief. Sunbathing under the bright California sky. Listening to the rhythm of the ocean and the playful people and noisy creatures drawn to it. Waiting for the arrival of scientists bearing information and knowledge that could conceivably wipe out the human race.
It might not have felt as awkward or uncomfortable as it sounds. They were alive, they were as safe as they would be anywhere, and they were not alone.
Maybe the warmth they both felt wasn't completely an illusion after all.
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