Persistence of Memory - Pt. 14
By Paul Seely
Teddy drove. Dan sat in back again. Charlotte slumped in the passenger seat, mumbling and staring out the window. She had remained deathly quiet at the hospital, not sharing anything with Dan or Teddy except a bag of Doritos as they waited nearly two hours to see a doctor.
Now, her plaster-coated hand lay heavily in her lap, fractured in three places, but she wasn't complaining about the uncomfortable cast. In fact, she wasn't feeling much of anything. A nice PA in the emergency room at Our Lady had given her something with codeine in it, and she hadn't bothered to tell the helpful woman that codeine made her loopy. And talkative.
"I lied to her," Charlie said, exhibiting a sudden burst of clarity amid the mumbling. "I told her she'd never regret coming to stay with me." She turned in her seat and cast a hateful glance at Dan. "She'd have been better off with you assholes."
Teddy snorted and tried to keep his eyes on the road, but he could see Dan's uncomfortable expression in the rear view mirror. The thin man leaned forward and touched Charlotte's shoulder, and she promptly jerked away from him. She looked quite angry as she cut loose again.
"Don't try to pet me quiet, pal. I'm serious, goddammit! At least she knew that you all lied to her, that you didn't care about her or trust her or want her to be safe or... or... shit."
Dan was starting to worry about how loose Charlotte's lips had become in Teddy's presence. Diana had said that her business partner was unaware of her past with the agency, and he owed it to her to keep it that way. He tried to keep his tone of voice steady and non-confrontational. "Charlie, I think you should talk to Diana about this. Whatever happened, it oughta stay between you two."
"Why? You know everything already, Danny-boyo-boy. Boy." She drifted for a second, losing her train of thought as she became fascinated by the fuzzy pink dice hanging from the mirror. "Oh! I know what you knew. You knew she was with the snow queen of SoCal, and you knew that they used to do... do... it. Butcha don't think she did her, do ya? Not now."
With a deep sigh, Dan shook his head. "No. I honestly don't think she laid a finger on that bitch. Diana's not stupid."
"She shot her," Charlie spat. "All those little white marks on her legs, her tummy, her shoulder. Holes. They were closed up, healed and everything."
Teddy's ears pricked up, but he kept his curiosity hidden, eyes on the road as they approached Vega Avenue and the entrance to The Meadows. Dan leaned up again, whispering his reassurance like a priest in a confessional.
"Yeah, Diana was hurt, but that was years ago. She's okay now."
"No, she's not. I ripped 'em all open." Charlotte leaned her head against the window, staring off into space. "She's bleeding again. And it's my fault this time."
The agent didn't know what to say to that. As much as he wanted to help, to figure out what happened on the boat, he couldn't pry into the matter in front of Teddy Rinna. In Charlotte's addled condition, there was no telling what she'd say. The three were quiet as Roger waved them through the gated entrance and they cruised up to Charlie's driveway. Dan's eyes were instantly combing the front of the house, looking for anything suspicious or out of place.
"Hey," he whispered to Teddy, "park the car nose-out and keep it running. Stay here with her and I'll check the place out before you bring her in, okay?"
Teddy nodded and backed the car up the drive, then leaned his seat forward and opened the door to let Dan climb out. The slim fellow drew his gun from his belt and palmed it discretely as Teddy drew the house keys out of Charlotte's purse. The attorney was oblivious to the fact that she was in her own driveway; she seemed content to sit quietly and brood in limbo.
"Count sixty. If I'm not back by then, you get her the hell out of here."
"Wait a sec," Teddy objected, "I ain't just runnin' off. Marines don't leave a man behind."
Against his will, Dan grinned. He was growing to respect Diana's choice in friends more with each passing minute. "I respect that, but I can't agree with you this time. We're supposed to keep Dreamboat Annie over there out of trouble. So far we've done a pretty shitty job."
The burly shamus glanced at Charlotte, who was idly picking at her cast with a thumbnail, and he was forced to agree. "She's got a sister, Emily Avila, lives across town. You get stuck and want to catch up with us, check there first. You got sixty seconds."
Dan nodded once, turned away and jogged up the walk. He unlocked each of the deadbolts, then eased himself inside. The alarm was not activated, but he hadn't actually seen whether Charlotte armed it or not when they left so hurriedly this morning. He didn't like it, but it wasn't enough to make him abandon hope that the house was secure.
Speedily, he checked the living room closet, scanned the kitchen, checked all the back windows and found nothing unusual. Next, he slipped down the hall and examined the guest bedroom and bath - empty. He had thirty seconds left as he got to the end of the hall and entered the master bedroom. The adjoining bath was clear, so he dropped to his knees and checked under the bed.
"Not even a dust bunny. Jesus, Di. Anal all the way."
Getting up, he placed one hand on the rumpled bed and immediately drew it back as something bit into his palm. Dan winced and drew the hand up to check it. A tiny shard of glass protruded from his skin and he looked around nervously, scanning the sheets for more fragments. In his upper peripheral vision, he saw a patch of blue above the bed and looked up. The skylight was broken in, and a two-foot square of mid-day California beamed through unimpeded.
He brought his pistol up and swept an arc around the room. The only thing he hadn't checked yet was the bedroom closet. Without sound, he crossed the carpet and jerked open the doors, poking his Glock inside, finger firmly depressing the trigger in preparation to fire. Except for neatly organized rows of jeans, blouses, business suits - and an awful lot of shoes - the closet was empty.
Dan blinked once in confusion. Twice. His palms were sweating, mixing with the trickle of blood from the glass cut. He withdrew from the empty closet and half-turned to his left... and found himself face to face with one of the most wanted men in the world. It took Dan less than a second to place the face, but that moment of recognition was one moment too much.
He raised his gun and tried to squeeze the trigger, only to find that his hand didn't work. Somewhere in that infinite space between seconds, the man had placed two fingers on the webbing between Dan's thumb and forefinger and jabbed sharply, numbing the extremity from the wrist down. The agent felt a sick weight in his stomach as he heard the Glock fall to the floor. His eyes stayed locked on the man who would soon end his life.
"You know who I am," the asian man stated calmly, his obsidian eyes frigid as arctic coal.
He took his time, making a show of swallowing nervously, giving Chen Kaige what he most desired - the fear of his victims. Dan knew of the killer's proficiency, second only to his legendary sadism.
"Yes. I know who you are."
Dan answered slowly, his mind counting down the last ten seconds and praying, praying so hard that Teddy was counting, too. That he and Charlie would be long gone by the time this was over.
"Where is Charlotte Browning?" Chen asked. He stood statue-still, hands lifted and open, ready to react if this reed of a man decided to fight.
"I just gotta ask you - where were you hiding? I checked everywhere -"
Dan's stalling was cut off by a vice-like hand shooting up and closing off his throat. He heard a nauseating crack as his trachea was compressed like a twinkie, then nearly released as Chen allowed him to breathe again. He saw spots before his eyes as the air rushed to his lungs in an agonized, grinding wheeze, then he screamed it right back out as two swift kicks dislocated his kneecaps and he dropped to the carpet.
"Tell me where she is, and I can make the pain end quickly."
There was blood in his throat, trickling down into his lungs, choking him. Dan leaned down on his one functioning hand and coughed a red spray onto the pale carpet. As his vision cleared and he saw the crimson stain, he couldn't hold back a chuckle.
"Great. I ruined her rug," he gurgled perversely. "Now she's gonna kill us both."
Chen was growing impatient, and he launched a vicious kick at the thin man's ribs which lifted him up a few inches into the air. Dan reacted like a pillow, absorbing the pain and settling back down on the floor with his new indentation. Three broken ribs, he guessed. He heard the sound of metal clicking against metal as Chen opened a black matte finish butterfly knife.
"Charlotte Browning is an attorney," Chen said contemptuously, "I doubt she poses a threat to my personal safety."
Unable to support his own weight on the one arm any longer, Dan collapsed to the floor. He rolled onto his back and faced the assassin with a grimace that could pass for a smirk.
"It isn't Charlie you'll have to worry about, Fubar. You go near her and you will be sorry."
Chen Kaige cocked his head to the side, somewhat amused, then leapt into the air and landed with both knees on Dan's chest, driving the air from his flooding lungs and shattering nearly every remaining rib. He raised the knife and drove it through the meatiest part of Dan's shoulder, effectively pinning him to the floor. For his part, Dan was through playing scared. The ten seconds were long since up, and Teddy had taken Charlotte to safety. He gave Chen only a weak mewling sound to validate his efforts, then pried his eyes open to face the asian once more.
"I was in the laundry hamper," Chen told him dryly. "Tell me where she is. This can still get worse."
"Piss off, Fubar."
Chen frowned and twisted the knife, tearing away muscle and skin as he ripped it out sideways and left a gaping wound between collarbone and neck. The killer sharply dug his knees into Dan's decimated torso, grinding the broken ribs against each other and further lacerating a variety of damaged internal organs. This time, Dan did manage to scream, albeit weakly.
"What is this 'Fubar' you call me? You know my name."
He could feel a chill creeping into his bones. Soon, the hemorrhaging would kill him and the pain would stop, once and for all. Taking a series of halting breaths, Dan managed to put the agony aside for just a few seconds, just enough to finish.
"Think back, asshole. Bangkok, ninety-four. The brunette who snapped your left femur like a popsicle stick. You keep after Charlotte Browning, and she'll explain it to you. Personally."
Chen's countenance clouded over instantly as he recalled the only time he had nearly been caught - a hit on a political dissident jailed in Thailand. The thwarted attempt was best forgotten, but he could not forget the tall woman with cerulean eyes, chasing him as he leaped to the top of a prison wall spiked with glass. The tug of restraining hands on his ankle, and the rush of pain as the leg was repeatedly slammed against the concrete wall until bone broke through skin.
Dan saw the realization dawn on the killer, saw his brutal composure dissolve; if only for a moment, Chen Kaige was in doubt about continuing this job. Mission accomplished.
"F-U-B-A-R. It's an acronym," Dan clarified. "Ask Diana, if you decide to stick around."
Chen twiddled with his knife, then raised it to deliver the deathstrike. "You are a foolish man to suffer so unnecessarily."
"That's a matter of opinion," the Scarecrow muttered as his vision went dark. "See you on the flipside. Fubar."
Chen left the house the way he came in, pausing briefly to squat on the roof and survey the grounds for any sign that his target was on the premises. There was only the white Audi parked in the drive, and that was there when he arrived. He frowned hard and glanced down through the skylight at the mutilated body on the floor of the bedroom.
He resolved to check his American slang dictionary before heading to his next stop - the law offices of Carver and Berkhoff.
The cycle of emotions began with nothing; a vacuum in which no pain could exist. It was a relatively comfortable state of being, but one in which Diana Starrett was reluctant to linger. She knew the lure of oblivion, heard the siren's call drifting across the warm black water, and she stubbornly refused to wade in above her ankles. From there, Diana slowly found her way to profound hurt, then bitter, resentful anger, then guilt. Guilt was a favorite layover spot, so she stayed there for a good, long while. She knew the feeling well enough to welcome it like a distant relative, in town for a visit and imposing on you for shelter. After the visit ended, she relaxed into a state of fatalistic acceptance.
*She loves me, she loves me not...*
Her own feelings were hurt (wounded to the bone, actually), but they were unchanged in nature and quality. In the past few hours, Diana had come to doubt nearly every truth in the cosmos, to dismiss every reality... except the one where she loved Charlie. Her fear was that this love, which she held inviolate and sacrosanct, above laws both judicial and thermodynamic, had become too great a weight for her beloved to support. Maybe providing Charlie with a moment of doubt had awakened her from her romantic stupor and opened her eyes to the reality of who she had chosen to love.
The logical conclusion for Diana was that she herself was to blame, by simple virtue of what she once was. In the attorney's favored view, the operative word in their related exchanges had always been was, as in done and done. But in anger, Charlotte saw fit to upgrade her lover's past to present tense and poke at it like Achilles' heel, to hurt her by insinuating that she was still the rampaging monster who roamed the halls of Marco Falcon's house nine months before.
*But I have changed. Charlie claims I've changed her, but it's so much less than she's changed me - can't she see that? Doesn't she believe it works both ways? I'm different now. I am different.*
It came down to this: either Charlotte was momentarily distrustful and spoke the word to inflict pain, or she was revealing her own secret loathing of Diana's veiled nature. If the former, then things were not past reparation; trust can be built and rebuilt as long as there is forgiveness and willingness to work. If the latter, she would simply leave. Take what she came in with - some clothes, a suitcase and a Porsche full of artillery - and get out of the attorney's life for good. It would be Charlotte's decision and Diana would abide by it, even if it killed her. She was certain that walking away from their life together would do just that, but if she had to leave, dying didn't sound so bad.
*She told me she wanted me to come home. Maybe she actually meant it. Maybe.*
After resuming her unconscious state for another couple of hours, Angelia finally woke up - and she was instantly sick. Diana was prepared this time, having conveniently placed a lined pail beside the bed. She sat alongside in a straight-back chair, helpless and silent as the young woman heaved up what little liquid remained inside her, holding her hair, watching her suffer through it.
"Oh, Jesus," Angelia muttered as she sank back on the mattress, totally depleted. "Water. Please."
Diana handed her the bottle of lukewarm H20 and watched as she rinsed out her mouth and sipped shakily. She waited until the shudders passed and Angelia relaxed somewhat before speaking.
"Do you remember the woman who hit you?"
"Yeah. Charlie Brown."
"Browning. If you recognize her, I don't need to tell you why she did it."
Eyes closed, she nodded. She remembered what she did at Berkeley, as well as what she tried to do to get herself out of the soup. "I deserved worse." Faintly smiling through the stiffness in her jaw, she went on. "Man, when they say 'Be sure your sins will find you out,' they mean it. Why was she here?"
"She was here looking for me. You being here was fate's idea of a joke at her expense," Diana explained flatly. "I've been living with Charlotte for several months now."
Angelia fixed her with a gaze of pure disbelief. "There's no way you're with her! No way."
"It's the truth. I love her, Angel."
"The girl I remember was a doormat, Diana! Of all the people in the world, how the hell did you wind up with her?"
"Grace of God, maybe. And may I remind you, that doormat knocked you on your ass. She's changed a lot since you knew her. Charlie is the strongest, kindest, most amazingly understanding person imaginable. I told her everything I'd done and she still wanted me, still believed in me. I left the agency to be with her, and I'd walk barefoot through hell if she crooked her little finger at me."
Speechless, the young woman just let the new information sink in and settle. Her expression went from defiant and incredulous to resigned and disappointed in seconds. Diana's tone was utterly serious and left no doubt regarding her sincerity... or her availability.
Though unexpected, the appearance of Charlotte Browning was no more than a Foo Fighter on her radar screen, a momentary blip in a sky full of phantom enemies. That was until she realized that little mousy blonde who once had 'scapegoat' written across her forehead had become the bloody Red Baron, flying in with guns blazing to shoot down her hopes of reunion. At that moment, Angelia understood a bit of the creative justice the universe can deal out to habitual offenders like herself. She let her head fall onto the pillow and forced back the tears that threatened to fall. Angelia did not let them pass because she recalled with perfect clarity the futility and wastefulness of self-pity.
"That Julia person - the cowboy who took me from Hideo's men - she's agency, right?"
"She is, or was last time I spoke with her. I'm not with them anymore."
"Well, shouldn't I be officially in custody or something?" Angelia continued, "If you quit, why are you here with me?"
"I'm not here because I want to be, I'm here because Julia sees me as a means to an end," Diana said sharply. "I need to wrap up some loose ends for her so she'll leave me alone."
A hesitation, then the question in a small, pained voice. "I'm a 'loose end' to you?"
Diana bit her lip and considered that it was wrong to lash out at Angelia with a conveniently quick, hurtful lie, so she took a moment to formulate a careful reply.
"I want you to be safe. I want you to be happy. I want you to have the same chance I've been given - the chance to live a life that doesn't require you to hurt anyone, including yourself. Neither of us is gonna have that kind of life again as long as people like Julia or your father need things from us, so we just gotta give them what they want and hope they back the fuck off."
Angelia sighed and nodded her understanding and acceptance of Diana's diplomatic answer; at least she hadn't said 'yes, you are.' The words were both more and less than she expected.
"I know what Hideous wants, but what does Julia need from me?"
"The virus sample you hid in Nagano."
"Oh." Angelia was visibly relieved. "Is that all?"
"So she says. Your step-father's been trying to develop a bioagent on his own, but he doesn't have the original sample. Replicating it has proven difficult, if not impossible."
"You know," Angelia interrupted, "when I was puking earlier, I was praying he was dead."
"No such luck, I'm afraid."
"Why is it that assholes like him seem to live forever?"
"He won't. It just feels like that," Diana assured her. She went no further because she wanted to keep the secret of Hideo's disease until Harry could confirm that Angelia was not a carrier herself. That sort of revelation was far too heavy to spring on her this soon. "Julia's trying to gather up every related morsel so the virus doesn't fall into the wrong hands."
"That implies that hers are the right hands," Angelia observed. "That broad totally gave me the creeps. I remember little snippets of her talking to me, saying strange things. She hit me, too - harder than your other girlfriend - before she hauled me out here. We are still in California, right?"
Diana decided to let the chafing 'girlfriend' remark slide. "Right. San Diego."
"At least she told me the truth about where I am," Angelia said, sounding almost bitter. "She fed me an utter load of crap for a while, trying to confuse me I think. She also gave me a bacon sandwich... and some really wicked drugs. That chick is weird. You shouldn't deal with her."
"Point taken," Diana agreed , "but that weird chick is the one causing me grief right now. For the moment, I don't have much choice. Do you remember where you put the sample case?"
"Yeah, but I thought that old man - Riggs, I think - got it. When he took me to Germany, he told me he would take care of it."
Diana blanched a bit at the mention of Riggins, at the reminder of his contact with Angelia and the damage he caused both of them. "There's no evidence that he ever retrieved anything from the Nagano op, so we are assuming that he left it right where it was. His own little ace in the hole. As long as he knew the location and kept it to himself, there was little danger of discovery."
"I suppose. I know I sure as hell couldn't have told anyone."
"So where is it?"
"A permanent safety deposit box at Mitsugari Securities, in the city. The box was my mother's, but she kept it under a false name so Hideous wouldn't know. She told me about it when I was little, and I never forgot the confidence. She kept a good bit of money stashed there, and some personal items she wanted me and the boys to get if she... passed."
"Sounds benign enough. Riggins probably left it there."
"Shit, I hope so. If he didn't - "
"Don't go there," Diana cut her off with a stern glance. "We have to think positive. The sample case is there, safe and sound and hermetically sealed. We're about due for an easy break."
"Right." Angelia agreed facetiously, not believing that they would get that lucky. "You and I have so much good karma built up, after all."
"That might be truer than you think," Diana shot back, perhaps a little enviously. "You're the one who's been living clean for nearly a decade. That's worth more than what I've done."
Angelia raised herself onto her elbows and lifted an eyebrow. "You were a bad girl, weren't you?"
Diana pursed her lips and lowered her eyes. "The worst."
"Don't tell me about it."
"Wasn't planning to."
"Good. I'm not Saint Charlotte - I might run screaming," the young woman teased, although she was sharp enough to note the discomfort her off-hand comment caused Diana. The tall woman's admirable posture deflated to a near slump, and her gaze trailed along the carpet. "Where is she, anyhow? Did she leave after she poleaxed me?"
"Mmm hmm. She sort of... misconstrued the situation at first. She left a while ago."
"Misconstrued?" Angelia was a little slow on the uptake this time. "Oh! She thought we'd been..." She whirled one hand in the air, letting the thought finish itself silently.
"I corrected that impression," Diana stated grimly before racing away from the subject. "This safety deposit box, do you recall the name your mother used? Or maybe the box number?"
"4809. The name was Ralph Roe."
Diana's eyes widened as she recognized the name. "As in the guy who supposedly escaped from Alcatraz in 1937?"
"She was socking away money in case she ever needed to bust out and run away with us. Mother always had a nifty sense of humor."
"Huh." Diana didn't know what to say. She wondered for a moment how things would have been different for everyone involved if Mrs. Yoshima had discretely packed up her children and left the next day instead of trying to stab Hideo the night she caught him abusing her daughter. Then again, the stabbing thing sounded like the more appropriate response. Too bad she hadn't succeeded.
"Do you know if my mother and brother are still alive?" Angelia asked suddenly.
"I don't know for certain. I could find out, if you want."
Angelia smiled at her, a glimmer of hope in her dark eyes. "Please. You have a home to go to when this is done, someone to be with. I need to know if I'm alone in the world."
A twinge of guilt bit at Diana's gut, followed by a pinching doubt regarding her own future. "I'm sorry. I know when you came to earlier, you were saying -"
"Shhh," the young woman urged gently. "Forget about it. How ridiculous is it to expect the woman I tried to murder to wait until I came to my senses, forgive me, and take me back. Laughable."
"It's not ridiculous in the least. I... cared about you very much. We both made mistakes, but I always I wanted you to be all right. That hasn't changed," Diana said softly. "I don't think it ever will."
"But that's as far as it's gonna go?" she asked bleakly, dreading the impending rejection.
"That's as far as I can let it go. No matter what my intent was, I ultimately helped the agency rob you of your freedom. I owe you the chance to determine how the rest of your life will go. My life belongs to Charlie. She helped me find myself. Everything in me that's worth a damn is wrapped up in her."
"So you're with her because you feel that you owe her something?"
"I owe her everything," Diana clarified. "Angel, as much as I care about you, as much as I may want to put my arms around you and prove it... I can't do it. I won't. I gave myself, body and soul, to Charlotte. I made you promises and I broke them, but I won't steal from her to pay you back."
The tears Angelia had been holding at bay crept up again, and in spite of her willful refusal to let them fall, one crept past her defenses and rolled heavily down her cheek. In her spotty memories of nearly a decade's worth of existence, she had always known there was something wrong. Some absence made her heartbeat slow and her breathing shallow as she sat up late at night, barely awake, barely living, wondering what she was missing. Now that she had been allowed to remember just what that precious thing was, she found that it was beyond her reach... and it hurt.
She saw Diana reaching out tentatively to touch her face, perhaps to whisk away that guilty trickle of evidence, and she shrank away from her former lover's touch. "Don't," she whispered. "It wouldn't be enough. One thing I know, it's easier to live with nothing at all than not enough."
Diana folded her hand into a tight fist and let it fall to her lap. She picked at a loose thread on her shorts and wished she had brought a change of clothes. "Okay." She stood abruptly and moved her chair away from the bed, returning it to the corner beside the couch. "I have to make a call. I will try to find out about your mother and Gedde. Is there anything you need before I go up on deck?"
"Nothing you're free to give me." Angelia wiped a hand across her cheek and sniffled, vaguely disgusted with her own weakness. "Go ahead. I'll wash up and get ready in case we need to move."
"I..." Diana stopped just short of apologizing again, knowing it was pointless. As hard as saying the word may be, 'sorry' never really makes things better, never eases the pain of a deep hurt or cures the disease of regret. It's a topical balm, not a vaccine. Diana pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed away a sliver of headache, then turned and left the cabin. She had to call Harry Mars. All she could hope for was that Harry had good news, because she sure as hell needed to hear some.
Lunchtime sunlight filled the Avila kitchen, giving a cheery atmosphere to a room that needed no outside assistance. Emily's culinary domain was filled with fresh flowers, clean surfaces, and crayon pictures that even a quack psychologist would have to admit were the work of well-adjusted, happy children. Those three children whooped and screamed as they ran past the window to take another turn dancing under the lawn sprinkler in the back yard, oblivious to the troubles of the adults inside.
"Charlie, honey, if you're not gonna eat that..." Emily began, shifting around in her chair at the dining table. Her sister had been here for nearly twenty minutes and had spoken less than twenty words - most unusual and very unsatisfying, in the loquacious redhead's opinion.
"I'm eating," the lawyer replied shortly. In fact, she was not eating - she was moving the rice on her plate into five separate piles around the perimeter, then molding all the bits of chicken and peppers into a lovely green, red and tan centerpiece. This was a habit of hers since childhood, and it got on Emily's nerves. When Charlie wouldn't eat, it meant she was either terribly sad or terribly nauseous.
"Are you gonna talk to me now or what?" the elder Browning queried. "Teddy and Luis are in the living room, so they can't hear us. The kids are playing outside, so they can't hear us. I found the bug mom installed in my can opener, so now even she can't hear us. Now spill it. What's eating you?"
Charlie was listening just enough to hear the joke, but she didn't feel like laughing. "I'm a bitch, Em."
Emily rolled her dark blue eyes and snorted. "News flash! Tell me something I don't know."
"I'm serious. I did a really bad thing today."
Curious, her sister leaned forward and baited her out. "If you hired a hit man to take out mom and didn't let me in on it, I'm gonna have to hurt you."
Closing her eyes, Charlotte wished silently that she had been alert enough to suggest another place to wait for Dan. Her sister's house was fine - it was her actual sister she was worried about. "Can't you - just once - let me have a problem and keep it to myself?"
"No. It's my biological right to push you around and get in your business," the plump woman bragged. "Honey, you know it goes no further than this room. Talk to me."
Deciding to go sparse on the inflammatory details, Charlotte tried to lay out her case. "This morning, I was looking for Diana. I found her... with another woman."
Emily raised both brows, but said nothing.
"A woman she was involved with several years ago. She's in trouble and Diana's trying to help her."
A nod of comprehension and more silence.
"I got really upset and accused her of screwing around. Diana denied it, but I wasn't ready to listen, and then I hit the other woman. Hence my broken hand."
Emily looked at the cast as Charlie waved it around, and nodded again. Inside, she was screaming out questions like a cub reporter in the White House press room, but she had to wait for her cue from the president. Speak too soon and Charlie would clam up again for sure.
"I said something to Diana, a bad, bad thing. Probably the worst thing I could say to her. I did it just to hurt her, I know... and it worked."
Emily frowned. Hard.
"Then I left. Went to the emergency room and got my bones set. After a while, I started to realize that I was probably wrong, that Diana wouldn't do that."
"You're goddamned right, she wouldn't," Emily hissed. She was done with that quiet crap, and the passion of her denial took Charlie by surprise. "Little sister, for such a brainiac, you can be a total shithead sometimes. You actually thought she cheated on you?"
Blinking through the shock, Charlotte gave a tiny nod. Wasn't Emily supposed to be on her side?
"Jesus, shrimp! Have you not been paying attention for the last nine months? Are you blind? Have you never watched what happens to Diana's face when you walk in a room?"
Still blinking defensively, she could only stand on the tracks as her sister's lecture rolled over her like a runaway freight train.
"Charlie, her eyes brighten up from candlelight to neon. Her face gets all glowy, especially across her cheekbones, and then she breaks out a smile so wide it oughta hurt her damned jaw!" Emily exclaimed. "The woman gets positively fucking ecstatic, turdbrain! Over YOU! Anybody paying half a lick of attention can see - it's like God kissed her on the cheek and gave her a free pass to all the rollercoasters in heaven. She looks blessed, excited... and maybe a little scared."
Sinking into her chair, Charlotte suddenly felt about two inches tall. If even Emily could see it, could trust in and defend Diana's love for her, why hadn't she done so herself?
"She does not," the attorney mumbled. "You exaggerate everything."
"This needs no embellishment. I never saw anything like it until you brought her over to the house that first time. I remember thinking how goofy she looked when you crossed her line of sight, thinking it was for my benefit, that she was trying to get on my good side or something."
"Huh. Right." Charlie couldn't imagine Diana courting favor with anyone, even the fearsome Emily.
"Well, the more she came around, the more I realized that she wasn't putting on - you actually have a physical effect on her. Diana is so full of love for you, it just leaks out around the edges when she's not paying attention. She can't help it, because you've got her right in the palm of your hand," Emily explained, her voice dropping to a confidential volume.
"Now, I'll tell you this - I love Luis and I know he loves me, but I
have never, ever seen him look at me with anything approaching that
expression. God help me 'cuz I know it's wrong, but I do envy you sometimes.
Charlie, that look is a benediction straight from the heart, and if I find you
taking it for granted again or ever calling it false, I'll smack you down
myself for sacrilege."
That was about all Charlotte could take. She scooted her chair back from the table, stood up and walked around to where Emily sat, and just looked down at her sister with a blank expression that could have been perceived as anything from a threat to gratitude.
"I love you, Emmy."
With that, Charlie leaned over and pulled her sister into a rough hug, her cast scraping against the back of Emily's neck. The older woman was momentarily surprised, but as always, she rolled with it and returned the hug in full force.
"You'd better," Emily spoke into her shoulder. "There aren't
many of us who can put up with your insecure bullshit, you know."
"I know," Charlie agreed, and kissed the crown of the red hair. "Thank you."
Emily pushed her away gently and looked up. "For what?"
"Kicking me when I'm down. Sometimes it's the only way to make me stand up."
"Damn straight. So what are you gonna do now?"
Charlotte sat on the edge of the table and sighed, wondering the same thing herself. "If it's okay with you guys, I'd like to hang out here for a while. Teddy and I need to catch up with the third member of our cadre, and this is the only place Teddy told him to look for us."
"That's this 'Dan' guy Teddy mentioned?"
"Mmm hmm. He's a friend of Diana's."
Emily sat on that for a bit, recalling Teddy's harried manner when they arrived, as well as the two guns the big man had tucked under his jacket. "Are you in trouble or something, shrimp?"
Charlie was worried that was coming, and she had a cover story ready. "One of my former clients made a few threats, and Diana overreacted. She insisted that I not be left alone while she's helping that... woman. Dan and Teddy have been stuck to me ever since."
"Uh-huh. I can see that," Emily murmured, a distinct tightness her voice. "You don't think this client would look for you here, do you?"
"I doubt it. Your address and phone number are unlisted," Charlotte began, then caught on to Emily's apprehension. "But if you're worried about someone coming here, if you'd rather we left - "
"No! That's not it at all," her sister objected. "I'm just thinking this might be a good day to go for a long trip. Like, out in the middle of the fricking ocean, you know? Make you harder to find."
At the thought of returning to the scene of her crime, Charlotte felt her heart drop into the heel of her left foot. "I don't think that's such a great idea, Em."
"Look, if Diana needs the Sunseeker as a place to lay low while she's helping that woman, that's cool with me. She deserves to use the thing whenever she wants - if she hadn't taken Luis to that secret auction, we wouldn't have the damned thing in the first place."
"If not the cruiser, then what are you suggesting?"
"See, Poppy Avila's in town, and he's got a sixty-foot sailboat. He's been ragging on Luis about forgetting how to sail a real boat, and I know he'd love to take us out and show off."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Charlotte almost agreed instantly. Luis' father, affectionately called 'Poppy,' lived in Mexico since his divorce from Mama Avila twelve years back. He was retired Navy, like the Browning's own father, and had a profound, infectious love for the sea, as did his son. Spending some time cutting thorough water with the terribly yar Avilas sounded like just the ticket to get herself out of harm's (and Diana's) way and get her mind clear. She had a lot of thinking to do, and she could think of no better place than the open sea to do it.
"What about Dan? Teddy told him we'd wait for him here."
"Teddy can wait for him here," Emily suggested pointedly. "Luis can play bodyguard just as well as him, if not better. He was a Navy SEAL, after all. I'll explain your situation to him and tell him to keep watch over you; it'll make him feel all macho and shit."
That just about covered it for Charlie. This was much closer to Diana's own first suggestion for her safety than waiting at home like a sitting duck. She agreed about two seconds later, and Emily jumped up and rushed off to make the arrangements.
*This should piss Teddy off pretty good,* she thought, knowing how seriously he took Diana's charge to keep her safe. *God, why didn't I just listen to her yesterday and go with Emily then? I'm slow, that's why. Slow and thick and dumb as a brick. She tries to make things simple, and I go running around behind her and complicate them again. Just like today. Fuck yesterday, why didn't I listen to her today?*
A voice she had come to think of as her 'inner defense attorney' spoke up then. As always, it tried to rationalize her behavior into acceptability.
*It isn't your fault. You didn't conjure up Lia Imada. You didn't know she was going to be there. Extenuating circumstances! Temporary insanity! Mistrial, dammit, mistrial!*
*Lia Imada is irrelevant,* she shot back, determined to prosecute herself with maximum prejudice. *If it had been anyone else on that boat, you would have talked yourself into the same conclusion. Diana couldn't possibly love you, couldn't be faithful to you, because who the fuck are you to think you deserve someone like her?*
*Objection! Your honor, the prosecutor is badgering herself!*
*Overruled. That's what it comes down to, isn't it? She's with you because you were in the right place at the right time, and she latched onto you like a lifeline. Diana needed to love someone in order to free herself. It's not you, specifically, that she loves. It could have been anyone. She's gonna figure that out eventually, and she'll leave you. Isn't that what you're really afraid of?*
*OBJECTION! Your honor, permission to approach the bench and whip the prosecutor's sorry, pathetic little ass!*
Just as she was getting somewhere, just as she was about to make a ruling, Emily came back and told her things were set. They would leave this afternoon and get back sometime tomorrow morning. Her sister was a blur of motion and noise as she called the kids in, cleared the table, and set off to pack a change of clothes for everyone, including her underdressed little sibling.
*Recess called until such time as the court is relocated to the high seas.*
*Great. This keeps up, I'm gonna tie up the prosecutor and keelhaul the self-pitying wretch.*
*Counselor, any more of this and I'll hold you in contempt.*
"Join the crowd," Charlie muttered. She stepped over to the window
and watched the kids taking one more lap under the sprinkler before coming in,
and wished with all her might that she could trade places with Katie Avila. At
least the little girl was absolutely certain of the people who loved her. At
least Luis and Emily made certain she knew she was worthy.
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