Persistence of Memory - Pt. 16
By Paul Seely
Sounds of the sea can be very soothing to a chafed soul; the rushing wind, the slapping crash of water against a gleaming hull, the taut flap of a high sail fighting to ride the air. Charlotte gripped the rope along the starboard railing and shut her eyes, listening to all these things, and still found herself unable to turn her focus away from the imagery her mind assigned to her troubles. A dented, mangled wreck called trust lay smoldering at the roadside of her conscience, begging for her to administer aid, to not simply turn a blind eye and walk away numb.
*I don't know what to do,* she admitted. *I don't know how to fix it... for either of us. I never had need to repair anything before.*
When her husband had decided that their marriage wasn't making him happy, she let him go without a fight; Charlie virtually opened the front door and escorted him to his car, in fact. She knew Richard was unfaithful, knew his ambition for money and respect would lead him away from her, but it didn't matter. To Charlie, it wasn't worth the effort to try and fix things, to make herself over into what he wanted in a partner, a lover, a wife. She didn't even slow down as she drove past the twisted metal of their vows, didn't think to call for help from anyone else. As a couple, they were broken, and she didn't care enough to take out the tools and get her hands dirty.
It was over... and that was just fine with her.
*This is different. Diana trusted me because I asked her to, because I told her over and over that I knew who she was, and that it didn't change what I felt... what I feel for her.*
*The woman is a murderer. You called a spade a spade. What's wrong with that?* her own devil's advocate broke in, haughty and confrontational as ever.
*I only said that to hurt her! Because I was so certain - in that one moment on the boat, looking at a mile-high pile of circumstantial evidence - that she had been lying to me. About loving me, about staying with me. Actually lied about needing me at all.*
*You thought she was only waiting for something better to come along? Waiting for someone who actually meant all those pretty promises you fed her?*
*Maybe, yeah. At least someone who wouldn't throw that shit in her face after swearing not to.*
*And just who would that person be, hmm? Lia - the coke-dealing witch who tried to kill her? Or maybe Julia - that blonde kissing bandit who nearly crawled all over her right in front of you? Mental cases, both of 'em. What a fine array of choices she has.*
*They are not the point here - I am. I asked Diana for trust and she gave it to me. ME, not them! Charlotte Browning of Elceda, California - a divorced attorney with a fragmented, intrusive, judgmental family, a head full of screaming insecurities, an exhausting job that keeps me buried in paperwork for days on end, a claustrophobic little house in a snooty neighborhood - that's me in all my glorified mediocrity. Still, Diana gave full custody of her only weakness to me.*
*Are you doubting her judgment?*
*I think I proved this morning that I'm an unfit guardian. The damage is done.*
*Well, are you willing to fix it? Is she worth the effort? Worth humiliating yourself and admitting that you were - oh, God! I can't bring myself say it! That you were... WRONG??*
*For starters, yes. And that I was hasty, selfish, ignorant, hurt, pissed, malicious and cruel. But I can start by saying that I'm sorry, by putting my arms around her - *
*If she'll let you.*
*...if she'll let me, and giving her exactly what she gave me. Maybe the only thing I haven't completely signed over to her yet.*
*And what might this precious panacea be?*
*Full disclosure. Complete and unadulterated trust. I'll tell her all the excuses, all the causes for my being an ass, right on back to the cradle if I have to, and I'll trust her not to use them to hurt me.*
*And what if she does use them to hurt you?*
*Then we'll be even, won't we? I owe her this much, to drop my guard totally and let her take a shot if she wants. We'll have matching bruises to show for the experience.*
*Oh, you should have been a shrink. That's just brilliant. Let her beat you up the same way you did her, leaving both of you in shambles. Brilliant.*
*Hey, bruises fade. They hurt, they heal, and you move on. I have to try something, and this is the only thing I can think of that might put us on level ground again. If we're to walk out of this together, we have to be equally willing to take the risks, willing to be hurt and get back up again.*
*And if Diana chooses to walk off with someone else - or alone?*
*She better not. I just recently realized I have serious abandonment issues when it comes to her.*
"Charlie!" Emily called out, trying to catch her daydreaming sister's attention.
Blinking her way out of the mental in camera hearing, Charlotte managed to ask what was so urgent that Emily intruded on her solitude.
"Come help me find Katie!" The redhead barreled along the slick deck, nimbly skirting coils of rope as she slipped into Charlie's orbit. "She's playing hide and seek, and I lost her. Lost my only daughter on a freakin' boat."
"I know! One minute she was right under my nose, and then POOF! She's vanished below deck, hiding in one of the cabins. I don't know how I could have lost track of her so fast."
Charlie let those words ring around her ears and drain into her clogged consciousness like Liquid Plumber. "It can happen in the blink of an eye, Emmy. Turn loose for a minute, and they're gone."
Emily narrowed her dark blue eyes at her sister, aware that Charlie was likely referring to renegades of a different sort. A tall, dark, brooding sort. "Let's check the cabins. I think she may have hopped into Poppy's foot locker, thinking I wouldn't invade his privacy by looking there."
"She doesn't know her mommy very well, does she?" Charlie teased, cracking a little smile.
"Evidently not. Let's go show her how far the Browning irreverence goes. Up for a little snooping, Agatha Christie?"
"Lead on, Miss Marple."
Emily raised an offended eyebrow. "At least let me be someone a bit younger, please. I was always Sabrina when we played 'Charlie's Angels' and I've never gotten over the slight."
"Okay, okay," Charlie said, nearly giggling at the memory of her own undeniably embarrassing childhood desire to be Jill Munroe. "How 'bout DCI Jane Tennison?"
"Better. Helen Mirren's cool enough. Let's do some detecting."
Luis and his father were at the bow, arguing over how far out to take the sleek sixty-footer before dropping anchor for the evening, and they waved at the sailors as they passed nearby. The warmth evident in her husband's returned smile made Emily blush and gave Charlotte cause to remember her sister's admonition regarding the love beamed her way by her own heart's captain.
*If Diana looks at me with more regard than that, then I am the world's biggest fool for doubting.*
Charlie and Emily moved to the stairs, determined to root out the hiding child, but Charlotte paused before making her descent. She looked over the widening stretch of sea between them and the invisible coast, wondering just how far away from her Diana was at that moment. She hoped it was a distance she could still bridge. The sun would slide into the horizon soon, ending what had to be one of the most regrettable days of her young life. It would wrap around another sector of the planet, then come back again to renew its mission to light her way home.
*After all,* Charlie thought, recalling the wisdom of Scarlett O'Hara, *tomorrow is another day.*
Julia stalked around Hideo Yoshima's chair, eyeing the man with ravenous bloodlust. Her P99 was cocked and ready, but there was no one expendable left to shoot and she was still brimming with adrenaline. Nine of Yoshima's remaining guards were dead (stacked neatly in a guest bedroom), and the trio of scientists lay drugged and unconscious on the carpeted floor of the master suite. Now, the inevitable crush of boredom was setting in, and Julia was restless.
"Ever hear that potato chip jingle?" she asked, not waiting for an answer from the sullen man. "The one that claimed 'no one can eat just one?' Well, the bag is virtually empty now and I'm still hungry. 'Once you pop, you can't stop,' another one goes. Funny, the things one remembers."
"You watch too much television," Yoshima murmured, greedily desiring the katana which dangled carelessly in her left hand. He still wanted her head, worse than he wanted his next breath.
"You know, they say one gets hungry an hour after eating Chinese food," Julia went on, ignoring his criticism. "It must be the same for Japanese. I am absolutely starving! You sure you don't have any more men for me to chew up? Nine is such an odd number for a compulsive cretin like yourself. Is there a rounding tenth skulking about, waiting for me to drop my guard?"
"There is no one else," the slight man lied tiredly, hoping he sounded casual and disinterested. In truth, the tenth guard was out on an errand and should have returned hours ago. Yoshima had dispatched the mountainous man named Tanaka on a quest for therapeutic Kombucha tea... and marijuana.
The pain and dizziness inflicted on him by his rapidly progressing tumors was robbing him of his logic, making him lose his head more frequently. Yoshima had assumed that on the crime-riddled streets of America, the search for a drug dealer - even on a Sunday morning - would yield a quick, easy score. Now, he was glad that the enormous, vicious guard was not on the premises when the demoness made her entrance. Tanaka would return soon, and she would be the one to lose her head.
Julia turned away from him and stooped over the coffee table, picking at the remains of Yoshima's lunch. She lifted a forkfull and sniffed. "What is this leafy green stuff? Wilted Romaine lettuce?"
"Sea kelp," he spat rapidly, his words running together.
"Seek help, did you say? You're one to talk," Julia quipped,
still trying to annoy the powerless, dethroned demigod of the underworld.
"Hideo Yoshima, upper-echelon muckity-muck for the fabled Yakuza, the
Poison Fist of the Pacific Rim... eats seaweed. Most disappointing."
"Where are my children?"
"In good hands," the blonde told him, chewing lightly on a mouthfull of tasty greens. "They'll be walking off into the sunset with their mother once this is done, so don't worry about them."
Yoshima's color deepened to a furious red at this tidbit of news. "Their mother is dead! I am their family! You will return them to my care!"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don't pop a blood vessel, now. Lying to me isn't worth the effort," Julia instructed coldly. "I know where your beloved wife is and I know her condition. She could recover within a few months - if someone were to stop ordering doctors to give her horse-sized doses of Thorazine."
"They belong to me! They belong with me!" he insisted, frothing at the mouth as he shot psychic daggers through both black eyes.
"I think that's for Angelia and Gedde to decide. Now, I'm not sure about Angelia's plans, but I know Gedde still wants to take care of his mommy. He's such a good, good little boy, isn't he?"
"My son would not betray me!" Yoshima growled, launching himself into a painful coughing fit - which Julia observed with a total lack of sympathy. She stepped close to the struggling man and touched the barrel of her Walther to his heaving chest, leaning in near enough to speak in his ear.
"We'll see about that," she whispered, then evaporated from his presence and remateralized by the sliding glass doors. She slid the door open, leaned out and gave a loud, sharp whistle. Seconds later, a young man in a cartoony t-shirt and shorts appeared on the wooden deck, standing at her side.
"Gedde?" Yoshima whispered, not believing his own deceitful eyes, yet unable to blink away the hateful sight.
"Is everything all right?" the young man asked quietly, seemingly concerned over the she-devil's safety. "You are unharmed?"
"I'm super, thanks for asking," she replied, smiling. Smiling! "Didn't catch any strays through the roof, did you?"
"No. I heard no shots, actually."
"They were playing poker in the bedroom. No one got off a round - except me. Sad, really. Boring."
"You have taken receipt of what you came here for?"
"Yes, I have."
"Now, I make a call and survey the board for my next move. We'll have to wait here a little longer."
"But, my father is here. Is he... alive?"
"Yes, he is. Would you prefer to wait outside?"
"No. I have to face him. I do not wish to, but it must be done."
"You're a brave fellow, Gedde," she told him softly.
As Hideo Yoshima watched, palpitating with hatred and disbelief, Julia placed a hand on his son's shoulder, drew him to her, and... kissed him?
"NO! NO!" he bellowed, rising on shaking legs to intercept the treacherous pair, feeling enough anger surging through him that he was sure he could choke them to death with his bare hands. He made it across the living room, took a step into the sunny patch before the door, and blacked out.
"Wonderful," Julia muttered, crouching beside Yoshima and checking his thready pulse. "He's just passed out, probably from shock. Put him on the couch if you would, please."
Gedde stood rooted to the spot on the deck, gazing down at his father with something akin to pity. He shook off the soft feelings and stepped inside, scooping up the old man's feather-light body and settling him on the couch as Julia locked the door behind them.
"Put his oxygen tank by his side and keep an eye on him," she suggested, "I need to make a call."
Julia disappeared into the study, and several minutes later, Hideo began to stir as consciousness returned. Sitting by his father's side, Gedde placed the oxygen mask over the old man's face, listening as he took shallow breaths. The young man summoned his courage, leaned close and whispered to the man he regrettably called his father.
"I will no longer live with you, with the roseate image of you I created to survive your distance, your cruelty. My memories are false, deceptive illusions. I will see you for what you are, for who you are, and I will not live the rest of my days in your poisonous shadow. My sister, my mother and I will be free of you - this I promise you, father. You are dead to me."
Yoshima's black eyes opened slowly and he fixed his son with a hateful glare. "You are not my son."
"You said those words to my brother, and the shame of your rejection killed him. To me, your curse is a blessing. I am free, and I thank you."
"You are... not... my son," Yoshima repeated weakly, voice muffled by the oxygen mask.
Gedde sat back in his chair, his heart pounding with fear, pride, and excitement. His eyes closed for a moment and he could see himself walking away, walking into a bright spill of light... and he was not alone. Angelia held one hand, their mother held the other, and they were all free.
His shoulders shook as the tears of relief came up, rimming his eyes, cleansing away the last trace of misplaced devotion, making a path for future memories. Memories of truth, of love. Of a life he was free to create with his own hand. If alliance with a gray creature like Julia could bring that to him, he would hold a solid, gilded image of that vaporous woman securely in his heart, keeping that corner reserved for her until the day he died.
In the study, Julia was busy securing a connection on Yoshima's computer. Once certain of the signal path, of the numerous bounces and twists her contact had procured for their conversations, she linked up and waited for a response. She sat in the squeaky leather chair, twiddling her thumbs until the static cleared and the screen snapped into sharp focus. In shadow, the silhouette of her contact appeared ghostly, as if she were dealing with a specter.
"Julia. You look well. How are you today?" asked a deeply draggy, distorted voice - one altered by indecipherable security encryption.
"I'm good. Been getting a little sun. Does it show?" she replied, grinning into the tiny camera mounted on the enormous color monitor.
"Yes, actually. Are you progressing as expected?" the shadow queried calmly.
"Ahead of schedule. A few key components remain missing, but the viral research is in my possession, as are the three scientists. Hideo Yoshima is alive as well, and they are all ready for delivery - upon completion of our deal."
"Good. We received an outsourcing assignment from the agency early this morning. I thought it might be of interest to you."
Julia rolled her eyes and yawned, not so much sleepy as disinterested. "Let me guess - Harry Mars wants you to track me down and kill me?"
"Well, you are rogue, are you not?" the shadow retorted, sounding dreadfully sober. "This is standard procedure during lockdown."
"You know I'm not a security risk to placed operatives, so what's the verdict? Am I more valuable to you dead or alive?"
"Alive - for now. We have an agreement. As long as it remains mutually beneficial, our efforts toward your elimination will be half-hearted at best. After the forty-eight hour lockdown period, Mars will send his own hunters out on your trail."
"How beautifully comforting," Julia sighed, stretching her arms over her head and groaning with pleasure as her muscles loosened. "Did you pick up the helicopters I sent through Ilya Kurzin?"
"We did, along with seventeen members of the cartel, and nearly five-hundred keys of Peruvian flake. The mission was completed without complications, so Kurzin is still clean and ready for business."
"He's very useful," Julia noted. "Glad you decided to play him as I suggested."
"Kurzin is your contact. It would hardly be fair to undercut you just when you're starting out."
"Unfair, but historically typical of your people," the Swede retorted quickly. "Since the power structure alterations in your group, I am willing to give you a bit of play. Still, it wouldn't surprise me if I were to wake up dead some morning and owe it to you."
Although it was impossible to define even a single facial feature on her contact, Julia could envision lightly painted lips twisting into a perverse grin. She had met this shadow in the flesh years before, and been offered placement within another operative group - a smaller, more efficient group, but one which would demand more of her time and devotion than she was willing to give... at least that was what she told the shadow. In truth, she had been unwilling to leave the agency without taking Diana Starrett along. Riggins refused to let his prized possession go, and so Julia stayed as well.
"You should have come to me when you had the chance," the shadow observed. "With your service record, your performance ratios, you would never have needed to worry. We will always have a place for people of your ability."
"Until I countermand a convoluted order and get a bullet in the head? No thanks. I want to run my own show, and as long as you are willing to help me, I'll have a place for you, my dear."
The shadowy figure leaned away from the camera, causing a brief distortion in the image, ripples passing through black water. "Julia, your arrogance will be the death of you."
"My arrogance has been the death of many. Why should I be different?"
"True," the shadow agreed in a deep, electronic voice devoid of emotion. "The commodities you requested are being prepared for transfer. Contact me when you are ready to make the exchange."
"I will," Julia replied, her voice tired and dry. "Good-bye."
After the call was disconnected, Julia went into Yoshima's security program and burned off the binary traces of data recorded on the hard disk. She cracked open the CPU and checked for alternate drives, any place even trace data could be stored. Finding nothing more than factory-installed hardware, she replaced the cover and unplugged the system.
"Too much trouble for one conversation, if you ask me," she mumbled, walking out of the den to wait in the living room with Gedde and the barely conscious Yoshima.
"How long must we remain here?" Gedde asked her as she dropped into a cushy chair opposite him, looking tired and twitchy.
Julia ignored his question, preferring not to reply when she didn't know the answer. She did notice how red his eyes had become, the small puffy places below the lids. "Have you been crying?"
"Yes," he told her readily, oddly unashamed.
"Relief. Gratitude. Hope."
"Put the celebration on hold, would you? We're not out of the oven yet, Hansel."
Gedde smiled a bit, recalling the fable from his childhood. "What horrors await us now, Gretel?"
"Let me see... we have The Morally Vague Witch Who Could Change Her Mind Then Screw Me Over and Kill Me, The Vertically-Challenged Sadistic Wolf Who Does Not Wish To Be Captured, and worst of all, The Vengeance-Seeking Woodswoman Who Was Hopelessly In Love With Little Red Riding Hood, Attorney-at-Law," Julia mirthfully concluded. "I think that about covers it."
"Goodness," Gedde declared, eyes wide with exaggerated alarm. "I think I'm safer in the oven."
"I'll get you out of this as soon as I can," she promised. "Some of us are accustomed to the heat."
Diana downshifted into fourth and hit the gas, instantly propelling the Porsche through a narrow gap between a taxi and an eighteen wheeler with naked lady mudflaps.
*Why are those sooo popular?* she wondered as she zipped past the truck, her eyes scanning the road ahead for any sign of the black Lincoln.
Reviewing everything she could remember about Chen Kaige, she tried to construct a pattern of assault, hoping to devine where he would go next. The man was usually very single-minded when on a job, so Teddy's lucky shot to Chen's leg had thrown him off his rhythm. Going to the hospital was a mistake, but if the bleeding was bad enough, he would have had little choice in the matter. Now, he was hurt, wary and on the defensive, looking for someplace to regroup and plan his next move.
*Guess coincidence works both ways. Angelia = Lia is a horrible trick to play on Charlie, but Chen going to Teddy's hospital is a stroke of ungodly luck. I can't just lose him now. That would be a waste of the only positive happenstance I might get. I won't lose him. Not now, not after what he's done... and what he still intends to do.*
Barely waiting until she passed a vehicle to dart in front and move ahead in her quest, Diana was obsessed with rooting out every black speck in the distance until it could be confirmed that it was not Chen. Her .38 was reloaded and resting on her lap, the hot barrel burning against the thin linen of her pants. She had removed her blazer and tossed it into the passenger seat, baring her long arms as muscles worked to shift gears and spin the leather steering wheel with hard precision.
*Who would have more to gain by hurting Charlotte? Yoshima hates me, that much is obvious, and his custom is to strike at the heart of his enemy. Julia... I don't know what - if anything - she wants from me. She could have taken that virus sample for herself, so why give it to Mars? And why use me as a wedge to split herself off from the agency? She could have done that without involving me.*
*What if involving you is the whole point?* came a jaded voice, bubbling up from her subconscious like poison from the bottom of a kettle. *Admit it - you're more alive when you do this, when there's blood in your eyes and someone in your crosshairs. Charlotte was right.*
*Shut it off. Don't listen...*
*Julia knows it. Angelia knows it. Have they passed judgment on you the way she did? They see this part of you, and they don't lie when they look at you. They know, and it doesn't send them into fits of fearful malice. She hates you.*
*Charlie doesn't hate me, she hates doubting me. Part of that was my fault, but part of it was something else. Something in her that doesn't believe in forever. Yet.*
*And you think you're the one to make her see that it exists? How is she gonna see forever when she can't get past the blood on your hands, in your heart?*
*Time is the only test that counts, the only way to prove anything. Today, tomorrow, and on down the line, I love her. I won't stop believing we can work, I won't stop trying to make that happen. And I will not let anyone take that away from us, not even me, so shut-the-fuck-up, already.*
*Geez, you're grouchy when you're in a murderous rage. I'll see you later.*
*Not if I see you first.*
In the zone of unconscious perfection, she drove on. Diana re-routed her mind back to the problem at hand - the missing Lincoln and its deadly driver. A decision had to be made, a course plotted.
*If he's working for Julia, he'd go to her - wherever she is now. When I find him, he could lead me right to her. But why would she go to an outsider for help? Chen is very pricey, and Julia doesn't have that kind of capital... does she? Shit if I know. If he's working for Yoshima, which is much more likely based on Hideo's track record, Chen may go to him - and I know where he lives.*
Diana glanced at a blurred road sign telling traffic that the first exits to San Diego were less than a mile away. She weaved between more unmotivated motorists, working her way to the right. If she was wrong about Chen's destination, she would lose precious time, possibly lose the slight advantage she had gained by identifying him as the eminent threat to Charlotte.
*Exit or stay on? Exit or stay on?* she asked herself, praying for an answer.
*Follow your instincts,* came the certain reply, a mixture of counselor and coach, with a voice she had heard only in dreams. *Playing a hunch isn't so bad when hunches are all you have.*
With that, Diana whipped the car onto the exit ramp and burned rubber coming out of a hard turn. She merged - or bullied - her way into traffic headed toward the beach, plotting out the quickest route to 1414 Sepulveda, where she hoped to take a more active role in bringing this human chess match into check. Checkmate in this skewed match would have to wait until she found her way between the red-herring rooks, over the king's corpse, all the way to the Queen's doorstep.
"No one else is playing by the rules, so why should I?"
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