Persistence of Memory - Pt. 17
by Paul Seely
The sun burned holes in the clouds as it stealthily slipped into the ocean, casting miles-long streaks of orange across the water, tossing missiles of diffused red light onto the rocky shore. San Diego at sunset was far from being paradise, but it wasn't half-bad.
Standing at the glass double doors in the rear of Yoshima's house, Julia blinked in the scene, opening and closing her huge gray eyes like camera shutters, letting the light burn onto film. She knew it might well be the last sunset she ever witnessed. So many things could go wrong...
"Are you hungry?" Gedde asked, suddenly at her elbow.
"Very. What gastronomical delights await us in the icebox?"
He shrugged his shoulders, unsure what was left since his departure yesterday. "The guards descend on abandoned food like a swarm of locusts, so most of my things are probably gone. I will check."
"You're a dear, dear."
"I am aware of this."
Grinning, he turned to walk into the kitchen, made it about halfway before he heard it - before they heard it and spun to face each other - a loud, firm knocking at the front door.
"We have company," Julia announced, buzzing into the living room. She shook Yoshima awake and knelt at his side. "Are you expecting guests, Hideo?"
"No," he said, biting off the urge to say more. He wanted her to be surprised at Tanaka's arrival, first surprised then dead. "No one."
"I will answer," Gedde volunteered. "If I recognize them - "
"Do it," Julia agreed, giving him a nod. She placed Yoshima's oxygen mask over his face and cranked up the output, then whispered a warning. "You give me trouble and I'll shoot this tank." She softly clinked her silencer against the metal cylinder. "The resulting fire will broil you like a sea bass."
Hideo Yoshima was speechless beneath the mask, but his lips curled into a sneer.
Another series of knocks from the door, and Gedde took a deep breath and assumed a calm face. He slid aside the security panel and gazed out from behind the bars, presenting himself.
"Gedde?" a deep voice questioned, its owner out of view.
"Tanaka?" Gedde replied, hoping he did not sound alarmed. "What - what took you so long?" he gambled, assuming there was a reason the giant had been sent away and was not among the dead.
"I could not find a dealer in this area," the big man grumbled, staring at a brown paper bag rolled up in one meaty hand. "I drove south for many miles before finding what he wanted."
By the couch, behind the barrel of a silenced Walther, Julia grinned. "Let him in," she mouthed to Gedde, and he gave her a quick nod before sliding aside the bolts.
Drunk on oxygen, Yoshima was too woozy to yell out a warning to his last hope, but he did manage to rise up on the sofa before Julia's arm knocked him prone again.
"Sea bass," she whispered to him, reminiscent of her warning.
For his own safety, Gedde stayed behind the door as he swung it wide, revealing the room to the unsuspecting Tanaka, and revealing a rather large target to Julia. Tanaka's eyes widened in surprise when he spotted her, then narrowed in recognition and obvious hatred.
"You!" he growled at the blonde woman, the Nagano butcher of last Wednesday.
"Me!" Julia agreed, leveling the gun at his melon-sized head. "Don't be stupid and I won't harm you."
She had the drop on the big bodyguard, there was no doubt, but whether from arrogance, shock or plain old stupidity, Tanaka reached for his gun.
"Aww, hell," Julia cursed, wondering why some people couldn't admit when they were licked.
Chen Kaige sat behind the wheel of his wounded Lincoln, one foot on the brake, the other on the gas, keeping the big car ready to pounce, to spring the trap. The radiator was leaking, a noxious steam oozing from beneath the hood, and the puncture-resistant front tire was slowly flattening from the shots fired into the sidewall. Still, the car was functional enough to serve a final purpose.
"Come to me," the assassin urged, beckoning his pursuer to arrive, knowing she couldn't be far behind. Perhaps forty-five seconds, a minute at most.
Parked in an empty driveway near the entrance to Sepulveda Drive, he set his trap by hiding his vehicle behind a high wall of bushes which obscured him from street view. Once hidden, he kicked off the passenger side mirror and positioned it by the curb, allowing him to view incoming traffic without being seen himself. His eyes focused on the small reflector, seeking the sleek blue sportscar driven by his hunter - the hunter who would soon become the prey.
"I know you followed me. Show yourself," he hissed, the words wet and hateful against parched lips. "This time I am prepared for you, Diana Starrett. Show yourself. Show yourself."
By the time Diana made it to the beach, the sun was going down. Traffic was
not dense, but she could not bob and weave her way safely through it, and she
lost time. Precious time. Pulling onto Sepulveda Drive, she kept the Porsche in
third and slipped along the road slow and smooth, observing carefully for any
sign of Chen's presence.
Everything was soothingly normal, with residents mowing lawns and watering plants, children playing in squealing packs, a heavy-set black labrador loping along the sidewalk, tongue dangling...
At the first hint of noise, the first high-pitched scream of tires burning on concrete, Diana knew what was happening. She grabbed up the .38 from her lap and turned her head to the right, toward the charging black sheet-metal rhino bearing down on her. She hit the gas, jammed her foot onto the pedal and mashed it to the floorboard. The Porsche lurched forward obediently, chewing up several feet of pavement before the impact came, but it was not enough.
The Lincoln rammed her car hard, crushing the passenger side door, bending the front wheel in and snapping the axle, and it kept coming at a dizzyingly persistent pace, driving both Diana and the German roadster across the left lane, jumping over the sidewalk, and to her great dismay, shoving the whole ruined package into a telephone pole.
For Diana, the whole world went black. Black as night on Pluto, black as
despair and defeat and fear, black as the warm waters that still lapped hungrily
at the base of her consciousness, urging her to quit, to give up, to surrender.
She saw Charlotte first, walking along a flagstone path lined with blood-red annuals in full bloom. She wore a simple royal blue sheath dress that Diana had never seen before - new or borrowed from Emily, who walked a few paces behind. Luis and the kids brought up the rear of the processional, and none of them moved quickly.
They mounted granite steps and gathered in front of an ornate mahogany door set with brass fixtures and a gaudy lion's head knocker. They huddled like a football team, their heads together as they spoke in a hushed circle, then piled their hands atop each other's and broke the ring. Charlotte grasped the lion's lower jaw and rapped on the door three times.
When it opened, an asian man in a butler's suit admitted them with a gracious wave of his arm. They walked past him, not giving the servant a second look. He waited in the open doorway, watching them pass, then he looked directly toward Diana's ghostly perspective and smiled at her. The butler was Kaige, and he ran a finger across his throat.
"NO! Charlie, no! Get out of the house!"
He laughed at her. Laughed and closed the door with an echoing boom.
The perspective shifted, pulled back to see the house, and she knew at last where they were. The house, ugly and imposing and intimidating in an Addams Family sort of way, was the home of Charles Browning. A gigantic mausoleum, a tomb. There, they would all die.
Unless someone was there to stop it.
Diana woke up screaming, shaking off the chilling grip of her unconscious vision. Eyes wide, she located her position and assessed her situation. The passenger and driver's side airbags had deployed on impact, as had the billowing puff from the steering wheel. She was trapped between the three, her body the fragile center in a pastry of protective woven cable fiber and twisted metal. Wiggling to test her extremities, she gave a sigh of relief at the absence of serious pain.
* Dizzy, but nothing broken. How long was I out? *
She glanced at the dashboard clock and estimated less than a minute was lost. If Chen was conscious as well, he would be coming to finish her off. Resting was not an option. All windows but the slim rear panel were smashed into an intact spider web of safety glass, killing her visibility.
* First thing is to get out. Gotta get these bags deflated. *
With one arm, she reached behind her seat and fumbled for the plastic bag which held Dan's belongings. Before she moved his body into the bath tub, she had cleaned out his pockets for anything which would identify him - an old habit from the days of disavowing dead operatives. She found a fully-loaded automatic pistol (he didn't even get off a shot, goddammit), a wallet holding false IDs and a badge, and a serrated Gil Hibben knife that had obviously never been used.
All these were covered in blood. The blood of a man who died trying to help her.
Diana found the knife and brought it up in a fast punch, piercing the driver's side bag, then the primary bag pressed into her chest. Once free, she pushed out the weakened panel of safety glass and pointed her .38 at the first person she saw - a fiftyish man, shirtless and sunburned, who let out a girly scream worthy of Homer Simpson.
"Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!" he begged, hands up and covering his bald head.
"Where is he?" Diana asked calmly, crawling through the escape hatch, bare arms scraping against the splintery wood of the telephone pole.
The man, still alive and pathetically grateful for it, gaped at the tall woman as she stood before him. Too tall, too fit - Jesus, look at those arms - black hair mussed, cold-eyed, GUN. He really, really wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to go numb and thick when he tried. Diana waited less than a beat before she spun toward the Lincoln - and saw nothing where the other car should be.
* Gone. He's gone. I lost him again. *
She tucked her pistol into her waistband and turned back to the lobster-red man, eyes wild with furious fear. "There was another vehicle, a black Lincoln Town Car. Did you see the collision?"
His lower lip trembled, then started flapping as a flood of words rushed out. "Isawhimhityou, buthetookoffwhenIgothere! Droveoffdowntheroad! Icalledthepolice! Areyou...okay?"
"Was the Lincoln badly damaged?"
He took a breath and tried to speak more slowly. "Shit, yeah! The front end was a mess, and it made a terrible squalling noise - he won't get far!"
"I don't think he'll have to."
Diana looked down the block, estimated she was perhaps a quarter-mile from Yoshima's place. She leaned back into the Porsche and pried loose her beach bag of equpiment, then took off at a dead run. She went less than forty yards before the pain flared up, white-hot lightning caroming around her lower back, and she knew the crash had re-aggravated her body's only weak spot. Tears of agony welled up as she kept running, motivated by the knowledge that she carried her little brother's body eighteen blocks once, and Yoshima's house wasn't nearly that far away.
Behind her, the Good Samaritan who had come to check on her, perhaps unwittingly saving her from Chen's gun, was yelling out questions - where was she going, shouldn't she wait for the police, what about the car...
Diana didn't hear him because it didn't matter. Chen Kaige was still out there, still planning to kill Charlotte Browning. If she couldn't stop him, nothing would ever matter to her again.
Gedde Yoshima had never been high before, and he couldn't help wondering what all the big fuss was about. He wasn't hallucinating, he wasn't feeling particularly bad or good, but he did notice one peculiar side-effect from his six deep hits on the joint he and Julia had just shared.
"I am hungry enough to eat monkey's brains now, Banana," he announced, in a deep, Moses-on-the-mountain voice.
Sitting indian-style on the woven rug across from him, Julia couldn't stop herself from laughing, rolling onto her back and guffawing until her sides ached. She wasn't feeling too bad herself. Neither, for that matter, was Hideo Yoshima. In an act of unprecedented humanitarianism, she had consented to prep a 'dose of medicinal marijuana' for him... if he would share the doobage.
Now the old despot lay wasted and pain-free on his sofa, staring glassy-eyed at the ceiling. He still wanted Julia decapitated, still wanted to slaughter his traiterous son, still hated Diana Starrett with every fiber of his being, still wanted Angelia... but that could all wait until later.
"Banana was a good cook," he muttered, reminiscing about the old woman who had served him for many years, who died peacefully in her sleep last spring. He never understood why she hadn't been murdered like the rest in Nagano, but Diana had chosen to spare her. It showed a serious lack of awareness on his part that he was puzzled this omission. He didn't get his enemy at all.
Past caring about anything his father said, Gedde braced himself on Julia's knee and slowly rose to his feet. He ambled toward the kitchen, finally ready to search out sustenance for himself and the willowy blonde who, as far as he could tell, had many appetites and no real needs.
"I will bring you food," he called back over a sloped shoulder. "We will eat now."
"Cool," Julia agreed. In her memory, she could not recall using that word before in the singular, vernacular sense. Then again, she had never smoked pot before, either. Another item checked off on her to-do list, one she had never felt impelled to complete... but free dope was free dope, man.
Beside her on the rug lay her pistol, still slightly warm to the touch from the three quiet shots fired into Tanaka's chest, and the storied ivory katana. She picked it up and examined the etchings on the grip and scabbard, able to make out some of the history engraved in bone.
"Your ancestors were total bastards, you know," she told Yoshima. "According to this, a Yoshima general backed his own army up against a raging river - facing their enemies - so they could not retreat without being killed."
"Feudal Japan was a place of honor," he replied blearily. "Retreat was unacceptable. Die with honor or die like a dog."
Julia smiled at him, her teeth bared. "Woof."
"You will die like a dog," he declared.
"Dead is dead, papa," she said, eyes drifting shut. "As long as we die pursuing what we want, it doesn't matter how the game ends."
They sat in silence, each aware of their own mortailty, each clinging to the hope that the chase would go on eternally. There is never enough time for some people. Most die before they even know what it is they want from life, few figure it out while there is still time to seek it out, and an infintessimally small number actually get there before all goes dark.
Perhaps that was the one thing Julia and Yoshima had in common - they reached the beach just as the sun was setting, and were now trying to push the burning sphere back into the sky by sheer force of will, begging and fighting with all their might for one more day, one more chance to see it all happen before the light died away.
Riggins never saw it happen. Harry Mars wanted that which he could never have. Among those Julia knew personally, only Diana Starrett had stood on the shore with her dream in hand, sunlight on her shoulders, facing an unknown stretch of days beyond the event horizon. Fearless. Content.
"Why couldn't that make me happy?" Julia wondered aloud. "I want more. So much more."
As she opened her eyes again, a fragment of shadow crossed the pool of faint sunset light by the glass doors. She set her shoulders, picked up her gun, and stood ready to face her fate.
"If this is it, at least I'll go with a buzz on."
Striding as steadily as ever, she went to the glass door and waited. Waited for the shadow to return, or to shoot from the beach, or to walk up the steps and knock politely. It could be a contract player, an employee 'outsourced' from her computer contact's group, Chen Kaige... anyone. Even her.
A deep breath later, the wait was over - a long, bare arm, sligtly tanned and corded with sinew swept into view. It was tipped with a .38 revolver, pointed directly at Julia's face.
At the other end of the arm was Diana Starrett, scratched and bedraggled, looking as if nothing would please her more than to shatter both glass door and Swedish beauty with a bullet.
"Let me in."
Behind the blue-eyed woman, sun finally vanished into sea, casting darkness over them both as Julia unlocked the door.
Everyone else was on deck as the sun went down, laughing and listening to
some Gypsy Kings tape on Poppy's boom box, but Charlotte Browning had to excuse
herself from the group. She only meant to lie down for a minute, to rest up and
get her thoughts in order, but the day had pummelled Charlie with so many
psychic kidney-punches that she just couldn't keep her feet any longer.
Exhausted and woozy as the pain medication for her broken hand stroked her into
submissive sleep, she dropped onto the slim, hard bed in Emily's cabin and found
She stood on a road pocked with deep holes and smaller, tarred-over patches of wear.
Impossibly, behind her was a stretch of Mazatlan sand and the home of Maribel Falcon, the closest thing to a safe-haven she could imagine. Ahead was a bridge of rusted iron, stained red with age, streching over a body of black water. Across the bridge was a mountain capped with snow, cold and distant and other-worldly.
It puzzled Charlotte that two such disparate environs could be seperated only by a length of crimson metal, so close to each other and so very different. Then her attention snapped away, focusing on a point in between.
Diana sat on the railing of the high bridge, gazing down at the water far below. Standing with her were two women, one holding her right arm, the other tightly gripping her left. Though she had seen her only once, Charlie recognized the left-side blonde, with her cool, fluttery manner and ashen eyes - Julia. On the right was Lia Imada, or 'Angelia,' as Diana knew her.
They were alternately pushing and pulling at Diana, one urging her to jump into the water, the other to walk away toward the mountain. Charlie tried to move in closer, to hear what they were saying, but her steps would not carry her forward.
Like running on a treadmill cranked to Carl Lewis standards, she could gain no ground whoatsoever, and even had difficulty keeping pace once she began to run. If she stopped, she would careen backwards; if she kept running, she would become exhausted and fall down.
She started to panic, a sick lump of fear rising in her gorge, and she cried out to her lover.
The dark woman turned her head, seeing Charlotte in the distance. She fought to get away from the restraining hands, but they held her fast. She could not move. She needed help.
"I'll help you!" Charlie vowed, "Just hold on!"
Charlie pumped her legs faster, trying desperately to reach her, to get their hands off her, to save her from going over the edge or being dragged away to that cold place.
Futile. It was too hard to keep up, the demands of being a rescuer too great for her to succeed. She couldn't keep up the pace, couldn't keep her promise. She was weak and she hated herself for it. She wanted to cry out. She wanted to cry. All she could do was watch.
Suddenly, Diana tore her arm away from Lia's grasp, the younger woman's hold on her being weaker than Charlotte had thought. With both hands, Diana grabbed hold of the blonde's shoulders, shaking her like a rag doll, screaming words Charlotte couldn't understand.
Diana looked once in Charlie's direction, her baleful blue eyes drowning in pain, in disappointment... and she pushed away from the edge, taking Julia over the side with her.
Charlotte woke up screaming, her throat cluttered with fragments of residual horror. Dizzy and clammy with cold sweat, she rolled off the bed onto her knees, crawled across stiff carpet to the bathroom and promptly threw up her dinner of grilled sea bass.
Shoulders shaking, weakened by convulsive fear, she nonetheless pushed herself to stand, to mount the tiny stairs and lean against the wall as she ascended to the deck. Before she took her first gulp of fresh air, Emily was at her side, arm around her waist, supporting most of her weight.
"Take me back," Charlie whispered hoarsely.
"God almighty, are you all right? I heard you yelling just now -"
"Emily, listen to me. I need to go home. Now."
Though her first impulse was to soothe, to gently deny, to probe for the cause of her little sister's apparent anxiety attack, Emily knew Charlie well enough to shove the maternal crap aside and accede to the intuitive part of her nature.
"Charlie, she's a big girl. Diana can look out for herself for one night."
Hazel eyes squinted at the redhead as Charlotte wondered when she'd become so transparent. "How do you know that's why I wanna go back?"
"Honey, except for the people on this boat, she's practically the only thing you worry about," Emily replied honestly. "You're not still stressing over that little misunderstanding this morning, are you?"
"There's more to it than that. I can't explain it, Emmy, but I know she's in trouble. If I don't get back in time to - "
"In time to what? Stop her from running off with somebody else? I already told you, that ain't gonna happen in this lifetime."
"Dammit, would you just give me some credit here! I know that. That's not what I'm afraid of."
Charlie pushed away from her sister and braced her good hand against the rail. She looked over the side and watched as the sea danced all around her, dark and pulsing with hidden energy. An unbidden urge welled up in her, an urge to jump in and sink into the quiet bottom, a place where the pressure was so great that no pain could exist.
"It was so warm, Charlie. Peaceful. As long as I stayed down, nothing could hurt me."
In that instant of temptation, Charlotte finally understood those words, spoken to her in the folds of a confessional winter night as Diana lay in her arms. That was what her lover faced every day, that sea of beckoning oblivion that still pooled somewhere behind her eyes, waiting for the fires of life or memory to burn her so badly that she would wade in to extinguish the flames.
* She gave that up to be with me. She trusted me to put out the fires, not start them. *
With renewed determination, the attorney faced her elder sibling and addressed her in a voice she reserved for declarations of war or possible Supreme Court appearances.
"Emily, please listen to me and know this to be true - if someone doesn't turn this boat around and get me back immediately, I will jump into the Pacific and swim to shore."
Both eyebrows arched in salute and surprise, Emily started to get worried. "You'd never make it."
"Maybe not, but goddammit, don't you doubt for a second that I will try."
They faced off, staring at each other as they had for years, each waiting for the other to break. Keeping up the trend that seemed to start around nine months ago, Emily realized that her baby sister's resolve was galvanized... and she backed down. With a swish of her hand and a rueful laugh, she flounced off to inform the skipper of the change in plans.
"And I though I got all the bossy genes," she muttered.
Alone and feeling it deeply, Charlie shut her eyes tight and prayed for favorable winds. She prayed with fervent passion for some universal munificence to intervene, to let Diana know that she was not forsaken, that she had another choice beyond the frozen past and the murky deep.
"Choose me," she whispered, blowing her prayers toward the shore.
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