Persistence of Memory - Pt. 15
By Paul Seely
Diana took her time unpacking the phone unit, and continued to dawdle as she slowly pressed the buttons that would connect her to Harry Mars and make her privy to whatever he had to say. She needed to know what to do next, whether the information she had would be sufficient to end her involvement in this fiasco, whether she would be responsible for settling Angelia somewhere, whether the young woman would be needing medical care... it was all up in the air, dangling like the proverbial other shoe. Diana was ready for the enormous wingtip of fate to drop, even if it came crashing down on her head. The not knowing was harder than facing any certainty, even a grim one.
The agency screening service was playing a long-forgotten song - "Have You Never Been Mellow" by Olivia Newton-John - and Diana rolled her eyes as the saccharine voice seeped into her ear and candy-coated her brain. After a near eternity, the call was connected and Harry answered.
She was a little surprised and took a moment to reply. "How'd you know it was me?"
"Wishful thinking, I suppose." Harry groaned, taking a sharp breath. His voice was slightly tinny and distant, suggesting an open space instead of a clutched receiver. "The shit is flying, Di."
"Mars, are you okay? You sound awful."
"I should sound dead." He paused, grunting softly. "Julia shot me this morning. Twice."
Diana's mouth fell open slightly. "Oh, good grief." Her hand jumped to her nose, rubbing over a knifing pain which had suddenly appeared at the news that the most unpredictable person she had ever known was now a free agent - a rogue. "She tried to kill you?"
"That's the funny part. She had me in her sights and just opted to maim me instead. Severe brachial cluster damage in each shoulder, lots of torn muscle. That's why I'm talking to you on the speaker phone right now - I can't even pick up the receiver."
"I'm sorry, Harry," she said sincerely, worried that his injury was a direct result of him trying to play the hero on her behalf. "Maybe I shouldn't have called you in on this."
"No, you did the right thing. She's my problem as much as yours," he deflected. "I handled it badly, went in unprepared to deal with all the potentials - which increase exponentially when Julia is involved. I should know better by now."
"You and me both," Diana concurred, dreading the next step in this conversation. "Did you get the bloodwork results yet?"
"As is 'no, I didn't get them yet' or as in 'Angelia tested negative'?"
"She's clean. No HIV antibodies present in the samples you gave me."
Diana breathed a sigh of relief, glad to hear at least one smidgen of positive news among the horrid developments. "Thank you. Not to resume the subject too abruptly, but where does this Julia situation leave me? Angelia's okay for the moment, but I don't know what to do with her now that she's surfaced intact."
"I suppose that's up to her, isn't it?"
"For the first time in her life, yeah, I guess it is," she agreed, understanding from his dismissive tone that Harry had no real interest in Angelia's future - as long as it didn't include Diana. "Do you know if her mother and brother are still around? I think she'd like to hook up with them."
"I know her surviving brother, Gedde, is still hanging with Hideo. I can try to dig up a status report on their mother, but it'll take a few hours. You say the girl's surfaced intact - does that mean she told you what you needed to hear?"
"And then some. Her memory is coming back in chunks, same way mine did. I already have the information I agreed to procure, the location of the Utah/Marburg sample... but I guess you can't do anything with that right now."
"Oh, perfect. Just perfect." Mars sighed heavily, and she could almost see him shaking his head and closing his eyes in frustration. "You know the procedure when an agent goes rogue."
"Forty-eight hour lockdown on HQ and support operations," she recalled, her voice dull and defeated. "All field agents go to ground until the rogue is eliminated and covers are confirmed secure. In other words, you can't send anyone to pick up the sample for two days. You're handcuffed."
Harry muttered a string of profane curses under his breath, angered by his inability to act on this information, and perhaps by his inability to help Diana's ordeal come to an expedient end. "I hate to admit it, but I may actually need that sample now. Julia's actions have set the council to talking again. She had supporters in her efforts to branch out into more focused activity, and two of their aides have been by to see me since I got back, sniffing around to see if there's blood in the water."
"You don't think they'd make a move to oust you, do you?"
"Not immediately, but she knew the effect she'd cause by leaving me alive and crippled. Makes me look impotent and ineffectual in comparison to both her and Riggins. She knows I need that sample to whet the council's appetite and secure their confidence, and she also knows that I can't make a move to retrieve it because she herself put us in a goddamned lockdown."
Diana looked out across the Pacific, imagining just how far away Nagano was from the current center of activity. She took a deep, deep breath, filling her lungs with as much sunshiny fresh air as they could hold. Maybe it was the excess amount of oxygen rushing to her brain that allowed her to make the leap in logic, but suddenly she felt she understood at least a small part of what the Swede wanted. It sent a shiver dancing down her spine and raised the fine hairs on the nape of her neck.
"She wants me to go get it."
"We're being herded like a flock of sheep, Harry. She wants me to volunteer to go to Japan and pick up the sample for you."
"I wouldn't ask you to do that, Diana."
"I know that, but don't you see? Julia's counting on me to raise my hand and ask for the assignment like a good and grateful little soldier. She wants me sidelined, out of the play for... something."
"We had a brief talk before things went bang, and I know she intended for you to end up back in service, but I couldn't get her to say how. Any idea what that something might be?"
"Christ, if only," she complained, her headache intensifying with the effort of divining some clear motive from the mess. "First, she sets that mad dog Yoshima onto me with his AIDS bullshit, then saddles me with Angelia and the task of recovering the sample. It's like she's trying to keep me occupied, giving me a bunch of absorbing obstacles to overcome before I can get back to... Jesus."
"You want to get back to Jesus?" Harry asked, clearly puzzled and a bit dazed from his recent dose of Demerol.
"No! Charlie! The only thing all this shit has in common is that it's keeping me away from Charlie," Diana exclaimed, jumping up to pace the teakwood deck as she reasoned it out. "She knew I couldn't back down when Yoshima threatened me, and she knew damned well that I couldn't refuse to help Angelia. It follows that I'd need to call on you for help, and she was counting on me to want to make it up to you by going to Japan myself. This definitely has something to do with Charlie."
"Di, I know she wants you back in, but this is all pretty far-fetched. She couldn't know how all this would go down."
"Why the hell not? She knows both of us too well not to predict our
actions accurately. Julia is setting up shop, with or without the U.N.'s
backing, and we - every fucking one of us - are helping her do it!" Diana
smacked her hand against the railing, angry with herself for not seeing it
before. "God, and I thought Riggins was the puppeteer. The bitch managed to
get this far without pulling on Mangano's cheat strings like Josh used to. She
leaves the old man eating her dust, Harry."
Mars mulled over his conversation with the manipulator in question and recalled his assumption that Julia intended for Diana to dump the attorney in favor of her resurrected lover... and then he made a disturbing logic leap of his own. "Where is Charlotte Browning now?"
"I saw her early this morning. She should be home with my partner, Teddy. Dan's there, too."
"I think I see where you're headed. Get to her as soon as you can," Harry suggested tersely.
Diana stopped pacing and gripped the phone tight enough to make the metal casing squeak. "Why?"
"You wouldn't just leave her for someone else, not even Angelia. The only way you'd come back in, the only reason you'd turn to us again... is if Ms. Browning was dead."
His assertion was met with silence. Not even the sound of breathing came through the phone.
The silence of the tomb, then a click and a sharp line of static as the call was disconnected. Harry knew that Diana had likely hung up the second she aligned herself with his theory, and that she was already on the move. He surprised himself by actually hoping that she would arrive in time to intervene, to save the larcenous lawyer who had snitched his future when he wasn't looking.
Julia had been right on target when she confronted him about his jealousy -
he had maintained a hooded hope that Diana would turn to him someday for advice,
for support. For whatever semblance of stability he could offer. Harry Mars was
quietly ashamed of himself for being petty enough to begrudge her happiness with
someone else... and he almost understood the ruthless lengths Julia was
apparently going to in order to ruin that happiness. Almost.
"Godspeed, my girl," he whispered into the dead line. Harry then hung up and started to do the only thing he could to help - looking up admissions to a plethora of psychiatric institutes... and praying.
Chen Kaige was starting to become agitated. First, he ran into a dead end with that stubborn piece of chum at Charlotte Browning's home, then he was confronted with an empty office at her place of employment. He spent a few minutes browsing her Rolodex and confirming addresses from the list provided by Yoshima, and he took an additional moment to study a silver-framed color photograph on the attorney's cluttered desk. He had nearly decided to smash the photo, just from sheer disgust over the scene it conveyed.
The picture showed a happy young family - presumably that of Browning's sister - clustered on the deck of a boat. They were dressed in swimsuits and smiling like only the innocent or the stupid can; wide, toothy grins which betrayed a complete ignorance of the company they kept. Amid this group, standing with one long arm draped across the lawyer's shoulders and one hand on the tousled head of a child, was a killer.
Fundamentally, her face had not changed, although her expression nearly matched the idiotic grins plastered on her companions. Her eyes were lit with joy instead of the rage he remembered. The same hands which had efficiently broken the solid bone of his body were touching a woman with love and a beaming little girl with protective affection.
Yoshima had not warned him of this woman's role in his target's life. This both angered and excited him. The prospect of meeting her again and avenging himself occupied his thoughts as he pulled his rented Lincoln into the driveway of the Avila home - a typically neat suburban dwelling with white siding, light green trim, and a fenced-in rear yard.
He checked his hair in the mirror and adjusted the knives in his jacket sleeves and the holster snuggled under his shoulder. Chen grabbed his prop clipboard from the passenger seat then stepped out onto the polished cement driveway, looking like nothing more than a door-to-door salesman. At the front door, he rang the bell once and waited for an answer.
"Whadda you want?" came a loud, male voice from behind the heavy door.
"I am trying to locate the home of Luis and Emily Avila," he replied smoothly. "I have the paperwork for their refinancing agreement from Garden Equity."
A sliding sound as the view panel in the door was opened and a pair of piggish eyes peeked out from behind slim metal bars. "They ain't here. Leave it on the step and I'll give it to 'em."
Chen blinked and shuffled his feet innocently. "I'm afraid I cannot do that. The only other person authorized to sign for delivery is..." Chen leafed through the papers on the clipboard. "A... Charlotte Browning? Is she here, by any chance?"
"No," the rude man answered, scratching his messy mustache. "She don't live here."
"Could you tell me where I might find her, please?"
Teddy Rinna hesitated, his eyes hard and suspicious. He was supposed to be on the lookout for any threat to Charlie - especially anyone of Asian extraction. "If you ain't the Prize Patrol with her check for ten million, she can't be bothered."
"I'm afraid I have no such remuneration to dispense, but I do need to find her."
"Why you wanna know where she is, anyhow?"
"This paperwork must be completed this weekend in order to be submitted Monday morning," Chen responded impatiently. "Therefore, it is imperative that I speak with either the Avilas or Ms. Browning as soon as possible."
"I already told you, they ain't here."
"Perhaps you could allow me to wait inside until they return."
"Perhaps you could blow me," Teddy suggested helpfully. "I think you should get lost, pal."
The assassin fondled one of the knives strapped to his forearm through the fabric of his blazer. He already wanted to kill this man just for being a pain in the ass. "Maybe you should rethink your inhospitable attitude, sir."
"In case you don't know it, you are now officially trespassing. If you don't get your narrow ass off these premises in ten flat, I'm calling the cops."
Chen stiffened and scowled at the latest obstacle in his path, vowing to make short work of this man. He stepped back and raised his clipboard to conceal the hand straying under his jacket, reaching for his pistol. "That will not be necessary. I will speak to the Avilas another time."
"Good idea," Teddy agreed. "Now scat."
"One brief question before I go - do you know the definition of the word foo-bar?"
Teddy squinted in confusion, wondering if this little dipshit could possibly be threatening him. "Get the fuck outta here before I show you what it means."
"You are a most crude individual, sir," the vexed killed responded primly.
Chen turned away from the door, drew his gun and spun around in a tight, fast circle. Before Teddy could react and slide the panel closed again, the barrel of the silencer had been jammed between the bars and the first shot was fired, grazing Teddy's ear.
"Motherfucker!" Teddy yelled, dropping to his knees and scrambling to free his own firearm from his belt. He felt a wet trickle of blood oozing down his neck as he looked up... and saw the gun barrel angling down to fire again.
Chen pulled the trigger three times more and listened to the heavy sound of a large body collapsing to the floor, then the labored exhale he had come to associate with a human's dying breath. He smiled, nearly satisfied. He would work on the body some more once inside the house, strictly to amuse himself and pass the time waiting for his target's sister. After enjoying the silence for a moment, he discretely tucked his gun back into his holster and removed a set of lock picks from his pocket.
He was stooping to one knee to work on the deadbolt when a soft, square plastic flap in the lower quarter of the door jumped open - a 'doggie door,' he believed it was called - and something poked its black nose through the opening. It took hardly a second for him to realize it wasn't a dog, but it certainly had a loud bark. More like a boom, actually, as the muzzle flashed and a hot lead projectile leapt from the snout and bit into Chen's calf with fiery sharp teeth.
"Mmmphh," was as close as he would come to screaming or crying out, but for Chen Kaige, that little groan was an epic roar of agony. He clamped a hand over his wounded calf, rose to his feet and scampered unevenly back to his car, managing to climb inside and drive away before any significant amount of blood hit the cement.
Even through his fury, pain, and humiliation, he was lucid enough to be concerned about leaving traces of his DNA for the authorities to add to their files. He would mend his wound and return to finish this later, and next time, he would not bother being clever with some peripheral fool.
"Next time, everybody dies," he swore.
Through the door, Teddy Rinna heard the man's soft exclamation, the sounds of his retreat, and the shamus grinned. He was having a hard time getting his breath as he rolled onto his stomach and crawled across the tile floor of the foyer, leaving a wide swath of blood on Emily's floor.
"Where's the goddamned phone?" he muttered, scanning the low tables of the living room until he located what he needed. Teddy couldn't get to his knees, so he grabbed the leg of the coffee table and tugged hard until it tipped over and dumped the phone onto the floor. He hovered over the receiver, listening to the dial tone, trying to remember the number for 911.
"Di," he called out to his absent partner, "you got some fucked up friends, baby."
Teddy's fingers moved across the lighted pad, carefully pressed the three digits... and then he passed out. The emergency operator came on the line and read his standard opening line.
"Nine-one-one, what is your emergency? Hello? Nine-one-one, please state
the nature of your emergency. Hello? Hello?"
"I hate this part," Julia said, rolling onto her stomach and scanning the empty driveway of Yoshima's beach house. From their perch on the crow's nest, she and her companion could see everything... and confirm that there was still nothing worth seeing. It was mid-afternoon already, and the viral research scientists allegedly summoned by Yoshima had not yet arrived.
"Which part is this?" Gedde inquired gently, curious but not wanting to annoy her further.
"The waiting," she explained pointedly. "I am primarily a person of action, and lying here in the lovely sunshine - as pleasant as it my be - is causing my enthusiasm to wither like a salted slug."
Gedde nodded and followed her line of sight down to the circular drive, now wishing for something to happen to break the monotony. Not that Julia wasn't interesting company, but he could sense the tension building in her. She was not built for long periods of inactivity. "They will arrive soon."
Gray eyes cut toward him, edged with suspicion. "You sound awfully certain of that."
"Everything else you have planned has come to pass," he reasoned innocently. "Why should this phase prove any different?"
His answer seemed to please her, for Julia smiled and hoisted herself to her knees, then leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You are absolutely right. Why should this be different."
The young man touched his fingers to the freshly kissed spot on his jaw, surprised by the casual show of affection. Did it mean anything? Was she actually comfortable around him now? He watched with increased interest as she took a small hand towel, wet it from a bottle of water and rubbed herself down, easing away minute traces of perspiration and sunscreen from her nude body. She was completely without modesty, so at ease in her own skin... she reminded him of thoughtlessly graceful cats, of birds gliding on tall breezes, of snakes climbing trees.
Gedde wondered if she was this way with everyone, if his cooperation and compliance had won him the right to be here with her, to see her like this. Unaccountably, he felt privileged. Distinguished.
"You have managed to achieve your tertiary objective as well," he noted. "You are now a pleasant shade of pink instead of thoroughly white."
Julia chuckled as she slipped smooth legs dappled with color into her tailored gray slacks. "I suppose this will be noted by the medical examiner during my forthcoming autopsy. I hope they are duly impressed - my people do not tan easily. We tend to freckle, fry and melt in the sun. Perhaps they'll take a post-mortem photograph to document my achievement."
Gedde felt a bit confused by her bleak words, thinking they would have been anathema to the woman he met yesterday - the invincible, arrogant, magnetic creature brimming with bravada. "I find your humor in poor taste. You are so cavalier regarding your own death."
"Sorry if that troubles you, dear boy, but my attitude is unlikely to change again so late in the game."
"As long as there is life, there is the possibility of alteration. The twin tailors of sentience and entropy preclude the absolute stagnation of any living creature. Change is the natural way of things. You have the power to change any facet of your character that displeases or harms you, right up to the minute your body breaks down and you begin to rot."
"Oh, please shut up," Julia begged, not liking the turn this conversation was taking. "You sound like Dr. Laura with a philosophy degree."
"I am speaking the truth. Now why do you feel that the end of your life is a matter for jest?"
She sat cross-legged and slipped on her pristine turquoise silk blouse, wondering why she cared at all what this kid thought. Realizing his patience, concern, and blindly faithful fortitude merited at least some explanation, she gave it a go.
"Gedde, I have confronted my own mortality a number of times, so often in fact that I have become rather jaded regarding the prospect of death. When it's time, it's time. No sense wasting precious energy on fear. The gallows humor is a coping mechanism I picked up several years back, and it is sometimes very effective."
"This attempt at humor is an acquired trait, not innate?" Gedde asked earnestly.
"No, not innate at all. For a number of years, I was disgustingly stoic when going about my work, took myself and the agency very seriously..."
She hesitated, wondering if it was appropriate to continue making such indiscreet confidences to this virtual stranger. Then her reckless nature chimed in and told her, 'Oh, what the hell. Who's he gonna tell, anyway?'
"...until I was captured and detained for questioning by a corrupt colonel in Nicaragua. I spent sixteen hours enduring his neanderthal methods of interrogation and torture, waiting for my backup to arrive and attempt a rescue."
"Sixteen hours? That must have felt like an eternity."
"Time would have passed more slowly had the colonel known what he was doing. His ineptitude kept my mind occupied for the first few sessions, but after sixteen hours, even I was having trouble concentrating on his errors," Julia recalled bitterly, still offended by the memory of his stupidity.
"The idiot applied maggots to fresh wounds on my otherwise healthy feet, apparently unaware that the little buggers only eat necrotized tissue. He was watching them crawl around harmlessly, looking quite confused, when a horrendous commotion began outside the compound. The colonel jumped up and ran out to supervise the defense, vowing to kill me the instant he returned."
"Since you are here now, this colonel obviously failed to back up his boast," the young man noted, grinning. "I assume the 'horrendous commotion' heralded the arrival of your backup."
"Precisely. From the frequency of the staggered explosions and gunfire I heard, I was expecting an entire brigade to storm in and whisk me away, but the noise suddenly stopped. All was quiet for several minutes, then my cell door opened and one single solitary agent stepped inside."
Gedde was disappointed by the meager turnout, but remained intrigued by her story. He raised up on his elbows and fixed her with an inquisitive stare. "Were you worried about dying then?"
"I was weary, in pain, and a little miffed over the size of my rescue party, but I wasn't thinking that far ahead. My first concern was the efficiency of the backup unit; I was unable to pass up the opportunity to criticize. I shouted at the top of my voice, 'Get me out of these fucking chains! You're late!' And do you know what happened then?"
"My rescuer blew a raspberry at me and replied 'Well, that's gratitude for you,' then casually turned around and left the cell."
"He abandoned you??"
"She was pulling my leg," Julia corrected. "Left me there for a minute to ponder my own rudeness, then popped back in with the keys to my shackles. I was totally incensed, but she smiled at me and laughed, said not another word to me while I seethed quietly. She freed me, picked me up like a drowsy child and carried me nearly half a mile to a tiny little boat waiting at the river, then we buzzed away. It took me a while to see the humor inherent in the situation, but once I did, I was hooked."
"This experience changed your attitude? It seems insufficient to alter you so drastically."
"It wasn't merely the joke, it was more the woman who played it - who played me - that made me reconsider my somber outlook on life. The agency can alter many things about a person, but they couldn't permanently change the fundamentals of her character. At times, she was just as lost as I was, searching for something to grab hold of that the work couldn't sap out of her. For a time afterwards, we thought we had found that something in each other... but it didn't last."
Julia closed her eyes, wondering that herself for the millionth time. She shook her head slightly and reached for her shoes.
Gedde instantly hated himself for sounding so childish, but he did feel as if she wanted to discuss it with someone. Maybe that someone was not him. "I am sorry. Perhaps that is not my business."
"It takes time to find out if something is real, if it is strong enough to withstand the strain of time," she whispered, willing herself to finish what she had begun. "We were separated often, and without the luxury of someone's presence, all you have are memories. They occupy your thoughts so often that you tend to change them, warp them to fit your needs. Memory is not fact, it is perception of fact. I came to perceive her differently than she did me."
"She became the foreground for you, and you receded into her background."
"Essentially, yes. We became friends, comrades in arms, but things were never as they could have been. That train had sailed, so to speak."
"Yet you still hold out some hope of re-routing that train into your port?" Gedde asked slyly.
"Anything's possible if you plan it carefully enough," she retorted sharply. "Even if the tracks don't guide her in the way I want, at least I'll have an express train in my fleet. That's quite a consolation prize for my trouble - if I survive this current storm."
"If we are speaking of the same train, I must remind you of the possibility of derailment. Humans are not so predictable as locomotives," he asserted, sticking with her odd mixed metaphor. "Once free, some people would rather perish than resume a life of consolation and compromise. I, for example, will never again see my father as a man worth serving. That part of my life is over, and I will never go back. No tracks are laid carefully enough to guide someone where their hearts refuse to go. If you would destroy her - or yourself - in the attempt to reclaim her, perhaps the risk is too great."
The blonde winced at Gedde's precise summation, her chin dropping nearly to her chest as she stared at the bleached wood of the deck. At that moment, just for a fraction of a sliver of time, the woman known only by her given name slipped out of her shell and looked nearly vulnerable.
The young man did not move, did not utter a word or breathe as he took in the sight, committing the lines of her perfect face, the drape of her pale hair, the willowy, solid curve of her body to memory. Memory may not be fact, but the artist in him trusted his own powers of recollection to hold the sight of her eternally, to recall her instant of revealed self for the only reason worth remembering anything - it was true... and it was fleeting. She pursed her lips and sighed, resuming her ubiquitous smile.
"This type of discourse is infrequent for me, but when I do talk, I always say too much," she told him. "I apologize for boring you with the most banal facet of my varied motivations."
"Bored? That is not how I would describe my level of interest," Gedde argued gently. "I would never try to interpret what you may feel for this woman, but - if I may - I will say one thing and leave it to you to decide what is best."
"Go ahead," Julia replied weakly, realizing that it was too late to shut it off now. "You've listened to me prattle on all day. I suppose you've earned the right to an opinion."
"Diana will not feel anything but what she feels. People cannot be
manipulated into lasting loyalty, heartfelt affection, or real love. The murder
of Charlotte Browning will not bring to you what was never truly yours."
The Swede stared at him for a long moment, her lips pressed into a thin, defiant line. Whatever reply she might have been forming died in gestation as she heard tires crunching on gravel as the missing Cadillac entered the gates and swept into the circular driveway. Her quarry had arrived. Julia's movements were sure and quick as she reached into her bag and came out with the Walther P99 in one hand, fully loaded and ready to go. In the other hand, the ivory katana.
"Stay up here until I call for you," she instructed sternly. "Stand or sit on my towel, just in case any shots come through the ceiling."
"Lined with Kevlar," Julia explained, already starting down the steps. "Offers moderate protection from stray rounds. This shouldn't take too long."
Gedde was nearly ready to argue for the right to accompany her into the house, to provide whatever backup he could offer - then he remembered who he was dealing with. That brief instant of human weakness she displayed was over; this was the cool-eyed woman who had twice decimated his father's brute squads without mussing her hair.
"If you should need me..." he called after her as she crossed the roof nimbly, headed toward the hanging eaves above the beachfront entrance.
"I won't," she casually replied over her shoulder. For some reason,
Julia then turned and gave him a sincere grin. "But thanks anyway."
She dropped soundlessly off the roof onto the sand below. Gedde looked out at the ocean, trying to phase out the noisy tides, birds and crowds so that he could at least hear some of what went on below... then he simply sat on Julia's towel and waited.
"She was right - this is the worst part."
Angelia was waiting for Diana to say something, to say anything, but the tall woman had remained speechless since she emerged from the neat white house and returned to the Porsche. She had tossed a heavy plastic bag onto the floorboard behind the seat, and not spoken a word of it since. Her eyes were alive with something distant and cold; it was nothing Angelia could identify.
"You have blood on you," the young woman observed nervously. "Are you hurt?"
Diana stared straight ahead, her eyes focused on the obstacles of slow cars as she weaved through cross-town traffic, headed toward the north end of Elceda. She ran stop signs and red lights, speeding like a laser toward her next destination without thought of what she had left behind in her home... on the floor of her bedroom. One of the few persons she would have called an ally, a friend. Dead.
"It isn't mine," Diana muttered, answering her passenger's nearly forgotten question.
"Oh," Angelia whispered in relief. She wanted to know what happened, but was afraid to ask.
Diana could feel Dan's blood on her fingers, sticking her hands to the wheel. She could feel it drying and tightening the skin on her knees where she knelt beside his body. She could feel it soaking through her t-shirt in the spot where she cradled his face against her chest. Unbidden, a sob rose in her throat and her eyes blurred with tears she didn't have time to release. The sob caught midway up and turned into a cough. It wasn't enough. He deserved more from her than a cough.
*This makes us more than even, Scarecrow,* she thought, soulfully penitent for costing him his life. *If Charlie's okay right now, it's because of you. I'll owe you on that score longer than forever.*
"Where are we going?" Angelia asked, unable to remain quiet in the thick, confusing tension.
"To find Charlie."
"That's what you said when we left the boat."
"Well, I haven't found her yet," Diana said harshly. "We keep going until I do."
At least that made one thing clear - the blood was not that of Charlotte Browning. Angelia felt a flash of guilty disappointment and wanted to smack herself for it.
"Is Hideous after her now, too?" she asked boldly, assuming the worst.
Diana seemed to think on that for a long stretch. She and Harry had assumed that Julia intended to kill Charlie... but what if it wasn't that simple? Now that she thought about it, the brutal evidence of Dan's wrecked corpse clashed with everything she knew about the Swede's clean, precise methods.
"Somebody is," the dark woman replied, cautious not to assign a name to the threat just yet. "I left Charlie with two friends for protection. One of them is dead now because I was too busy to take care of her myself."
"Because of me," Angelia concluded. "She's in trouble because you were stuck with me."
"No. It's my fault. I got so caught up trying to rewrite history that I forgot about the now, forgot that the present is where things get fucked up," Diana told her firmly. "What happened with us hurt us both, but we can't blame the past for every screw-up we make, every bad judgment."
"Oh, come on. If it had been anyone but me, would you have left her alone for an instant? How can this not be my fault?"
"Goddammit, Angel!" Diana exploded angrily, "If you want to take the blame for this, you're more than welcome to it, but it doesn't change anything! There are other people involved here, people who don't give half a shit about you, Dan, Teddy, or Charlie. People who don't care much about anyone as long as they get what they want."
"People like Hideous," Angelia added. "He hates you. He wants to hurt you. I didn't see him when I was in Nagano, before Julia came for me, but I heard things. Things that I'm still remembering. Hideo Yoshima is like a vindictive elephant, Diana - he never forgets or forgives. How better could he hurt you than by taking away what you love?"
Though she still held Julia as the front-runner in her suspicions, she had to admit that Angelia's theory was valid. Yoshima's sadism was etched in her memory, and it made him a strong candidate as well. As she cut off a white Corvette making an illegal left onto Emily's street, Diana was assembling an alternate plan, just in case she was convicting Julia prematurely.
"Shit," Diana cursed, stopping a block away from the Avila home.
"What now?" Angelia looked around, then spotted the flashing blue lights of police cars in the drive of a white and green house.
"Time to change clothes. They'd arrest me on the spot looking like this."
Diana reached behind the seat and hauled up the plastic bag, then tossed a pair of Charlotte's faded jeans, a long, black polo shirt and sandals to the young woman.
"Thanks. I was beginning to think this nightgown was part of my skin."
For herself, she had grabbed a reasonably formal outfit of tan slacks, a burgundy sleeveless mock t-neck, and a tan linen blazer. As rapidly as possible, they dressed in the cramped confines of the sportscar - a trick Diana had mastered on long nights of stakeouts with Teddy. She wiped the blood from her hands with a moist towellette from the dash compartment, filling the car with the scent of chemical lemons.
"Stay put for a minute while I talk to these guys," Diana told her passenger as she opened the door and slipped on her loafers.
"What makes you think they'll tell you anything?" Angelia prodded, still smarting from her own memories of run-ins with American law enforcement.
"They're Elceda County Deputies - I used to work with them," she explained, then slammed the door and trotted over to the mass of cop cars.
"Jesus," the girl muttered, pitching the despised gown into the backseat. "That just takes the cake."
Diana recognized two of the deputies immediately and made a beeline for the familiar faces as they leaned over the hood of their prowler, filling out paperwork.
"Hey, Franklin! Gomer!" she addressed them, once within shouting distance. "What's up here?"
The slender, goofy-looking one she called Gomer looked up with barely concealed contempt, while the brawny, Denzel Washington doppelganger at his side gave her a dazzling grin.
"Diana, hey girl! Where you been hidin'?" Franklin asked, reaching out to shake her hand.
"Probably under a rock, same as most PIs," his partner - actually named David Pyle, but generally called Gomer by his many detractors - added bitterly.
Diana grasped Will Franklin's hand warmly, but made no effort to connect with Pyle. "I know the people who live here, Will. What's going on?"
"911 got a no response from this address and sent us to check it out. One guy was inside, and he'd got himself shot a few times, nearly bought it on the living room floor. EMTs took him to County General a few minutes ago. He was unconscious, but still kickin'."
"Did he have ID on him?"
"Driver's license said Theodore Rinna, 104 Piscada Terrace. You know him?"
Diana felt her chest constrict, her breath trapped at the rear of her throat. "Yeah, I know him. There's no sign of anyone else inside?"
"Not a living soul. We're trying to track down the..." He paused and consulted his notepad. "Yeah, the Avilas right now, but the neighbors don't know where they took off to this afternoon, only that they bugged out before this shit went down."
"Was there any sign of forced entry?"
"Nope, nobody got in until we used the battering ram. Looks like the guy had a gunfight with someone through the front door," Franklin theorized. "There's residue around the peep panel, and there's powder burns on the inside of the puppy hatch, too. Rinna must've gone down and got at least one shot off, cuz there's negligible traces of blood on the front step and the driveway."
"Did the neighbors see anything?"
"One old lady cross the way says there was a dude in a fancy car and a suit, came up just before she heard a gunshot. She didn't get a good look at him, though she thought he might've been a Chinaman. Says his car was some big, black, shiny thing. Maybe a Caddy or a Lincoln. Didn't see the plates."
"She only heard one shot?" Diana asked pointedly, filing away each provided clue.
"Mmm hmm. Dude might've had a silencer on his piece when he shot Rinna," Franklin answered.
"Did this Rinna have any enemies that you know of?" Pyle interjected petulantly, angered that he was again being ignored by the woman the entire department vainly lusted after during her brief tenure.
"No. He doesn't have any enemies - present tense, Gomer," Diana replied, already too ticked to be polite to the deputy. "Don't write him off. You say they took him to County, Will?"
"Not more than ten minutes ago. Should be in trauma by now."
"I'm gonna go check on him," she told them, not waiting for any objections from her confused former colleagues as she rushed off toward the Porsche. For Franklin's sake, she spun around and ran backwards, addressing her parting comments and friendly wave to him alone. "If you need to get in touch with me, you know my number."
Will Franklin grinned and returned the wave, watching her jump into her car and tear past as if she were on some sort of secret mission. That was one of the many things he always liked about Diana Starrett - she did nearly everything with purpose and intensity. He sighed and shut his eyes, imagining what a woman like that would be like on a daily - or nightly - basis. Maybe he'd call her and ask about the possibility of her returning to the department.
"You're wasting your testosterone thinking about that one," Pyle taunted, disgusted by his partner's dreamy expression. "Word around the courthouse is she's a dyke. Shacked up with some snotty little lawyer over at The Meadows."
"So?" Franklin replied, undaunted and still smiling. "I like her. Diana's all right."
Pyle snorted, his overbite jutting out like the teeth of a sulking beaver. "Makes me sick. She acts like her shit doesn't stink, and all the while, she's living a life of perversion. Breaking God's rules."
"Shut up, bitch," Franklin said testily. "You keep on and I'll pop out my Gerber and turn your monkey ass into a lesbian. See how your wife likes that action for a change."
David Pyle was speechless. He looked into the level gaze of his large,
dark-skinned partner and wondered if he was serious. He'd never known Will
Franklin to make idle threats, so he decided that perhaps it was time to renew
his interest in their incomplete paperwork and formulate a plan for finding the
folks who resided at this particular crime scene.
"Stupid ass mouth of yours ain't good for talkin' sense," Franklin grumbled, "Might save your marriage if she gave you a few pointers on how to use it for somethin' else. Dumb ass cracker."
Chen Kaige had tried every trick he knew to stop the bleeding, but his first aid kit contained nothing more than bandages and antiseptic. He never counted on being more than slightly injured - it was a great source of pride for him that he usually encountered nothing more that scrapes and minor cuts on the job. Half an hour after the lucky shot fired by that ignorant corpse at the Avila house, the assassin's leg was still bleeding. There was no way in hell he would go to a doctor and risk police involvement, so he had no choice but to seek out proper equipment and suture the wound himself.
He drove into the busy Emergency lot at the nearest hospital and parked in a visitor space, then climbed into the back seat and wrapped his calf tightly with fresh bandages. His dark pants concealed the blood stains adequately, so he carefully exited the Lincoln and ambled with practiced nonchalance toward the bustling area at the rear of Elceda County General.
Following the yellow line on the floor which led to the treatment rooms, Chen found an empty one, grabbed a chart from a desk in the hallway, hung it on a peg outside the door, and went inside. He closed the door behind him and braced it with a chair, then proceeded to snatch Betadine swabs and two suture kits from the wall-mounted wire rack. This wouldn't take more than ten minutes, and he would once again get away clean. Sometimes, Chen loved America. Where else could a wanted man enter a medical facility and be totally ignored by nearly everyone, simply by walking with purpose and not asking questions? Certainly not in Hong Kong.
"Perhaps the United States is foo-bar," he mused, stoically crooking the needle through his screaming flesh without even noticing the nearby stash of Lidocaine.
The brakes squealed as Diana tore into the parking lot and spun the Porsche into an empty space. She was now even more focused than when she emerged from the white house in The Meadows, and Angelia was beginning to feel sorry for anyone who stood between her and Charlotte Browning. The young woman wondered if this was how Diana behaved when Gedde saw her in action that final night in Nagano - intent on one thing, unwilling to feel any fear or remorse, driven madly forward.
"Come inside with me," Diana ordered. "I don't know how long this will take."
Angelia obeyed, throwing open her door and trying to keep up with Diana as she charged across the parking lot and through the Emergency entrance. Once inside, she immediately assailed the duty nurse with hasty questions about the admission of a gunshot victim named Teddy Rinna.
"He's in surgery right now, up on three. You can wait in the lounge until the doctors send word on his condition," the nurse answered just as hastily, bristling from Diana's curt inquiries.
Diana had already turned away and headed for the hall, searching for an elevator that would take her to the third floor. Angelia hastened after her, sandals flopping against the colored lines on the floor.
"Where are we going now?" she asked, noting the blue stripe that
led to the visitor's lounge ran in the opposite direction.
"Recovery, second floor. That's where they'll take him next."
"Either there or the morgue," Angelia noted somberly. She kept her eyes downcast to avoid the glare she knew Diana would give her... and that's when she spotted something that changed everything. "Jesus, you'd think that they'd clean up the blood, wouldn't you? That's disgusting."
"What are you talking about?" Diana asked as she pressed the 'up' button for the lift.
"Look down there." She pointed toward the yellow stripe, which
clearly showed the faint outline of a footprint - a red footprint.
"Somebody was walking around bleeding, and they didn't even mop."
Diana's hackles jumped up, her eyes narrowed as she scanned the hallway for more prints, but they faded to nothing after only a few strides, as if the blood were residual and had worn off after several steps. She forgot all about the elevator as she followed the yellow line down the main hall and made a left turn toward the treatment rooms... just where someone like herself would go if they needed supplies but didn't want to bother being admitted.
A soft ding announced the arrival of the elevator, and Angelia seemed torn between holding the doors and following the oblivious Diana. "Guess there's been a change of plan," she said to herself, then let the doors slip shut as she scuttled off behind the sleuthing brunette.
Diana checked each of the first three treatment rooms and found them empty, but the door was closed on the fourth. She glanced at the chart on the door, which indicated that someone named Winnie Benzinger was undergoing a mammogram at 6:45 pm. She knew there were no such facilities is these rudimentary rooms, that they were for minor outpatient procedures only. According to her watch, the time was only 6:13 pm - doctors are many things, but they are never early.
"Go to the lounge," she whispered to Angelia, making a gun sign with her fingers and aiming at the closed door to the treatmen room.
She may have been a little slow earlier in the day, but Angelia knew that staying here could bring trouble she wasn't ready to handle. She nodded and quickly traipsed off down the hall, following the blue line to the relative safety of the waiting area - where the greatest danger one would encounter was the Pauly Shore movie showing on the big screen television.
Diana shut her eyes and took a deep breath, then tightened her throat to lift her voice to a higher pitch as she knocked on the door and called to whoever was inside.
"Mrs. Benzinger? You can go ahead and get undressed. The doctor will be down in about five minutes or so, okay hon?"
There was no reply from inside. Diana slunk around the corner and ducked low, peering into the hall at knee-level. She waited nearly a minute before she heard a light scraping sound, like a chair being dragged across the floor, then she heard a faint squeak as the door of the treatment room cracked open. She hushed her breathing, willed all noise to a perfect hush... then she heard the door swing wide and footsteps echoed on tile as someone hastily walked away.
Unfolding her body to stand, Diana Starrett stepped into the hall and saw the retreating back of a mid-sized man clad in a black suit. The left pant leg of his trousers hung a little heavier than the right, and though he tried to hide it, he favored his right leg just a bit... as if he had nearly been kneecapped by someone shooting through a doggie door. As he turned the corner, she caught just enough of his profile to summon up his name from her formidable memory banks.
*Chen Kaige, Hong Kong's A-list hired hand. Yoshima just got bumped up a notch on my shit list.*
Diana recalled the near-miss in Bangkok with bitter clarity, still certain that she could have caught him if she had clearance to go over that glass-topped wall, to pursue the fleeing man off prison grounds. This would not be easy, but it would be... oh, so very good.
*Gotcha now, you son of a bitch. This time, you don't get away.*
She let him clear the front desk and emerge into the parking lot, let him walk across to his shiny black Lincoln Town Car with rental plates, even let him open the door before she made herself known, calling out to him in a hard, clear voice.
"You running from me again, you lo-mein eatin' motherfucker?"
Chen's left hand was on the door, his right holding the butt of his pistol as he half turned to face whoever had called out (presumably) to him. He saw her... and one instant later, his gun was up, finger pumping the trigger double-time. He emptied the magazine toward the spot where she stood, silenced shots whipping through the air like copper-jacketed dragonflies, swarming to tear her body apart. Only she was gone. A phantom - he hadn't even seen her drop and vanish. He dropped the empty magazine and popped in full clip, eyes and ears begging for her to reappear.
Diana crab-walked between parked cars, scuffing the heels of her hands as she stayed out of his line of sight, easing closer to the Lincoln. Her own gun was out and ready as she rounded the front of a Dodge Caravan and aimed at the Town Car's left front tire. She fired twice, loud booms from the .38 echoing across the lot and inciting nervous screams from people entering the hospital, but the staunch tire didn't pop or even begin to leak noticeably.
The advances of modern safety technology are sometimes an utter bitch.
"Dammit! Goddamned high-tech rubber motherfucker asshole!" Diana complained, intent on taking aim at the Lincoln's radiator on her next volley.
Chen slammed his door and started the engine, aware that she had somehow gotten the drop on him and was positioned out of his firing line. He threw the car into reverse and the Lincoln jumped backward and cut to the side, then lurched forward as he jetted out of the lot and away from the damnable woman whose spirit and ancestry he was even then cursing.
Diana rolled out from her safe spot by the minivan and emptied the .38's cylinder into the hood of the Lincoln, but the car zoomed away from her even as she got to her feet and ran for the Porsche. She unlocked the doors by remote and barely got her ass in the seat before the engine was thrumming and itching for a fight. She was about to give it one - she sped out of the parking lot after the fleeing Lincoln, ready to chase Chen Kaige all the way to hell if it meant keeping him away from Charlie.
*You're going down, baby. Just accept it - you're the goddamned Titanic and
I'm the motherfuckin' iceberg. You are going down.*
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