Persistence of Memory - Pt. 18
by Paul Seely
As Julia backed into the darkened living room, her eyes were focused on Diana's, reading the unspoken words she found etched in lapis blue. The message was echoed by the martial set of broad shoulders, the jumping tension vibrating through bared arms. Julia had seen the physical missive directed at others many times, at herself on fewer occasions, but she saw it as clearly as a flickering neon sign of warning - resist me and die.
She waited as the dark woman slid open the door with a whispered grind and stepped across the threshold of her enemy's lair, unafraid, determined. Invincible.
"Don't make me shoot you just yet, Jules," she instructed softly, the .38 leveled at her target's heart.
Her own gun pressed close to her thigh, index finger stroking the trigger guard, Julia shook her head. "Wouldn't dream of it, Di. Come on in."
*Infrared showed three bound in the bedroom, one on the couch, one in the kitchen, and Julia here. Yoshima's on the sofa. Chen wouldn't be trussed up so soon, so I'm betting that ain't him in bed. If he's here at all, he's with Julia,* Diana reviewed silently. *This is not good news.*
Reaching behind her, Diana slid the door shut and stepped close enough for the blonde to smell the evidence of her desperate exertions. Her normally flawless posture was slightly askew, leaning onto the balls of her feet in concession to her throbbing lower spine. A mild wince glanced across her features as she tried to straighten.
"You're hurt," Julia observed with clinical detachment. "And exhausted."
"I'm fine," Diana snapped, scanning the living room. "Where is he?"
Pale brows lifted curiously. "Where is who?"
"Don't fuck with me," she whispered, eyes dancing around to intercept any movement. "I know he's here. Bring him out and let's get this over with right now."
Julia knew exactly whom Diana meant, but she shrugged her shoulders and summoned the only conscious guest she harbored in the beach house. "Darling, would you come out of the kitchen very slowly - hands raised and empty - please?"
Diana's face twisted in disgust. "Darling?"
"Don't leap to judgment just yet," Julia said, tilting her head toward the young man who shuffled toward them, hands obediently raised and empty.
For an instant, Diana's attention strayed to the newcomer, and she was torn between relief and disappointment. This was not Chen Kaige, but he was someone she needed to locate. His face had predictably changed over the course of nearly a decade, but he retained enough of his childhood features to be recognized by his former governess.
His glazed dark eyes took on a sheen of hardness, a long-preserved mixture of fear and loathing coating his vision. The true accounting of her actions in Nagano had come to him so recently, it wasn't enough to blunt the sharpness of his immediate reaction to seeing her again. Still, he edged close to Julia and looked this monster in the eye, trying to reconcile his fears with her reality.
"Diana. It has been a long time."
*Chen isn't here,* she realized, a little too late.
By the time Diana's focus returned, Julia's Walther was up, the silencer pressed against her cotton-covered clavicle. She raised her .38 to push against the corresponding spot on the blonde's silk-clad anatomy and they faced each other at a standoff, each with the other's life in her hands.
"We never seem to talk anymore unless it's at gunpoint," Julia opened, her face preternaturally still, gray eyes lit with excitement. "This saddens me."
"Whose fault is that?" Diana retorted hotly. "You dragged me into this. You had to know I wouldn't be happy about it."
"Happy? No, but I was hoping you'd be civil. Tell you what - you tuck that piece away, I'll do the same, then we can sit down and talk like normal people."
Julia paused, flicked a glance at Gedde, and nodded. "Step away from me, Gedde. Just in case."
He hesitated, clearly understanding her meaning, her intent for him to be clear of danger if a shot were fired, but still he hesitated. That piqued Diana's interest - she had seen peripheral players sucked into Julia's orbit before, beneficiaries of her tender mercies and powdered sugar smiles. Usually, they remained hypnotized until they became a nuisance. Most never got out alive.
"Did she do that to your face, Gedde?" Diana asked, eyes raking over the bruises and cuts and black eyes marking the boy.
"It was necessary," he replied stonily, defensively.
*Shit. He's gone. Totally gone,* Diana thought. *Wonder if he'll be willing to leave with Angel.*
Julia's gun suddenly dropped away, disappearing behind her back. "Your turn," she prompted.
Watching the blonde's empty claws perch on hipbones, Diana swung her revolver to the right, then down to tuck in the rear of her waistband. Julia nodded her approval, assuring them both that a gunfight would not break out - in the next few minutes, anyhow. Diana's attention shifted to Gedde, and she was confounded to find him staring at Julia as if her safety were of paramount importance to him. She decided to test his loyalty the best way she knew how.
"Angelia wants to see you," she told him. "You and your mother."
He couldn't hide the spring of relief and hope welling up at her words, although he made an admirable effort to appear detached. "Where is my sister? Is she well?"
"She's okay, getting to be more herself every minute." Diana saw a flicker of a smile work over Julia's mouth. She decided to wipe it off. "You were right about her, Jules. Angelia only needed a push in the right direction and she came right out of it, mostly intact. The drugs you gave her had some nasty side-effects, though."
Julia's lips poked out sourly; she nearly stuck out her tongue at Diana to convey her displeasure at the underhanded, divide-and-conquer tactic.
The young man turned on his confederate, immediately indignant. "You drugged my sister?"
"Only to help her regain her memories, Gedde," Julia assured him smoothly.
"Was that necessary, too?" he asked, a hand gingerly rubbing at his broken nose.
"For pity's sake... she had been brainwashed. When she was with me, your sister was a bitchy computer motherboard designer with a creepy German accent. Belligerent, cross, with no knowledge of who she was. She couldn't be of any help to me like that, so I conditioned her a bit, then handed her over to Diana's tender, loving care. In light of Angelia's alleged recovery, I feel certain my methods were appropriate."
"She spent most of the time violently ill, Julia," Diana interrupted. "When she did regain her faculties, she asked about you, Gedde. She wants to see you. Do you want to see her?"
"Of course I want to see her!" he exclaimed, stepping further away from Julia's side to stand at an angle to both women. "Will you bring her here?"
Diana hardened her eyes to diamond points of immutable resolution.
"Why?" His voice pleading, childlike.
"The only person Angelia fears more than your new pal Julia is that guy laid out on the couch," Diana tilted her chin toward the prone form of Hideo Yoshima, "and as long as he's here, she won't be making a house call. You know why."
Gedde sucked in a slow breath and nodded. That was a bad idea. "Will you take me to her?" he persisted, reckless in his search for a reunion.
"I will... if you answer a couple of questions for me," Diana offered, her voice blandly determined.
"How long have you been keeping company with Julia?"
"Since yesterday - about a day and a half, I suppose."
Diana looked first toward Yoshima, then back to Julia, then finally to Gedde.
"Okay. Now tell me which of these charmers invited Chen Kaige to the
His eyes darted first to Julia, then to his father. "I have not been with Yoshima, and so I cannot account for his actions. I can tell you that Julia made no contact with Chen while in my presence."
*He called him Yoshima? He won't even say 'daddy' anymore. She's completely turned this kid in the space of thirty-six hours. He didn't want to rat her out... but he just did.*
"Thank you, Gedde," Diana said. "I understand. I want you to know I don't hold it against you."
Julia stood perfectly still, arms akimbo, waiting for the dance to begin in earnest.
Gedde swallowed hard and asked, "What do you mean?"
Diana turned her eyes to Julia. "I've lied for her myself a time or ten."
It happened so fast.
Gedde had never personally seen anything like it. In nature films, maybe - like a battle between a mongoose and a cobra, all lightning movements slowed down so that the viewing audience could see every feint, every flash of teeth, every blow. In real time, he could not differentiate between Diana's strikes and Julia's; they simply came too quickly.
A palm thrust to the chest, another to the jaw, a boxed ear, a spin to launch a fist against ribs, a wedge of fingers driving at a throat, a kick to the spine, then someone grunted and went down.
When the flurry of motion ceased, Diana was on one knee, her body bent back like a hunter's bow. Julia stood behind her with the .38 revolver in one hand. The dark woman's face was a contorted mask of agony, probably because the blonde had her foot planted at the base of Diana's spine, shoving against the injured region as she tugged on a fistful of black hair for leverage.
"Your back is out again," Julia said, pushing her foot in again for emphasis. "I can fix it for you, if you promise not to jump at me."
"Fuck you. You did this. You brought Chen here."
"I'm not denying that I bear some of the responsibility. Just give me the chance to explain."
"You can go to hell," Diana hissed, her breath shallow, eyes welling with tears of pain.
Julia pulled her foot back and kicked at the pinned woman's spine, making her cry out. "I hate doing this, Di. You know I never enjoyed hurting you."
Diana felt like her spine was on the verge of snapping, the muscles of her back too weak to protect her vulnerability. "I prefer it... the other way around... too," she proclaimed, her words tripping over spurts of pain.
"Then tell me you'll listen. Give me the opportunity to lay it out for you."
"Let me up."
Julia yanked on the captive mass of hair. "Tell me."
"Goddammit!" Diana exclaimed, cursing herself for being so helpless. "I'll listen. Now let me up."
With a little hop step, Julia jumped back and released Diana, letting the injured woman fall to the floor. Diana rolled slowly onto her back, breath grinding, swallowing over and over as she tried not to vomit. She couldn't recall the pain being so intense - except for once. Nineteen years old, on the floor of a holding cell in the Bronx police station, after being beaten down by enraged cops who knew she had killed four of their own. Back then, the pain had taken hours to get this bad.
*I must be getting old,* she thought sadly, eyes shut tight in an effort to stanch her tears. She heard Julia ask Gedde to take both of the guns out of the room, and to boil some water and fetch clean towels. After a moment, she heard the young man's slow steps retreating to the kitchen.
"Why did you make me do that?" Julia asked, pacing nervously and rubbing her left ear to quiet the ringing incurred by Diana's vicious slap. "You can never admit when you're hurt. Always think you can rise to the occasion, even when your vertebrae are shuffled around like a jigsaw puzzle."
"You caught me on a bad day," Diana complained, twisting slightly to one side in a desperate search for relief. "Chen rammed into my car. Wrapped the Porsche around a telephone pole."
Julia worked her jaw around until her ear popped, then ran a hand across her bruised ribs. "The collision occurred nearby, I take it."
"Right down the street. He was coming to see you, I was following him."
"I assure you, he was not coming to see me," Julia objected. "I did not commission his services."
"So you say," Diana retorted doubtfully. "You can start explaining that any time now."
"Can you stand up yet?"
Diana glared at her in reply, and Julia took that as a 'no.'
"Turn over," the Swede instructed. "First thing is to get you re-aligned."
"Julia, I'm a captive audience right now, so lay off the Florence Nightingale routine and commence with the bullshit exposition."
"As long as you're hurting, your focus is split. I only intend to go through this once, so I need your full attention. Roll onto your stomach, please, and let me get started."
Diana lay still on the floor, looking up at her fair nemesis and weighing her options. She wasn't dead, so Julia obviously wanted something from her, something more than her help with Angelia's memory. Harry wasn't dead, so Julia obviously had not lost all sense of decency. She claimed that she had a part in bringing Chen here, but that she did not hire him to kill Charlotte.
"Why can't anything ever be easy with you?" Diana grumbled, carefully turning her body over and giving the blonde her back.
"I wish I could be like you," Julia answered. "Everything above-board and straight on. I'm just not built that way, darling. This is going to hurt."
With those brief words of warning, she took Diana's right ankle in gentle hands, lifted her leg up until her hips raised off the floor, and twisted hard to the left. Three loud pops and two soft ones later, she lowered the long limb and released the ankle.
"Jesus Christ," Diana moaned, her pinched nerves released, relief flooding her body.
Julia smiled in satisfaction and moved to stand over Diana's rear, then seated herself carefully on the prone woman's buttocks. She placed her hands over the tender, throbbing area on either side of her spine and pressed her palms into tense muscles, massaging with practiced movements.
"Very tight back here, Di," she noted. "Bet you ran all the way from the car wreck."
"I thought Chen was here."
"And you were going to kill him... or try to kill him."
"I would have."
"You are in no condition to face that man, my dear. Had he been here, you would be dead now."
"Did Yoshima hire him?"
"He despises you, partly because of what you did, partly because of my various exhortations. I told him he wasn't allowed to touch you. The old man took it from there."
"You provoked him into calling Chen."
"Yes, I did."
"Charlie's gone, you know. Chen can't get to her."
"He killed Dan while searching for her. Shot another friend of mine, too."
"That's a pity. Daniel was a decent sort. Will your friend live?"
"I don't know."
"Chen will keep trying until he gets a clear shot at Charlotte Browning. He has a strong work ethic."
"I won't let him hurt her."
"You may have missed your chance at him. He'll wait until you're not around, then make his move."
"Then I'll be sure not to leave her alone."
"He will wait. Weeks, months if necessary. She will die. Unless... "
Julia's hands stilled, resting on Diana's back. "Unless he is led into a trap and apprehended."
Diana pressed her forehead against the cool tile floor. She understood. "You were expecting me to go after him, to kill him. You want him."
"Yes, I do," she confirmed. Julia slid her hands up to Diana's shoulders, kneading in a deep, familiar rhythm as she explained. "I need him - Chen is like a pricey rack of chips. His body, dead or alive, will buy me into the big game."
"You are setting up shop."
"I have well-placed contacts, sufficient financial resources, and a slowly cultivated network of allies - most of that courtesy of Hideo Yoshima's neglect. Now I need out-of-the-box personnel."
"So who wants Chen badly enough to trade trained operatives for his lousy carcass?"
"I think you already know that."
Diana turned her head slightly to see if Julia was serious. "Tell me you're not dealing with her."
"She wants him alive, but she'll take him dead. Vengeance is a strong motivator."
"She'll turn on you."
"I don't think so. She's just getting settled in herself. Can't take such wild swings right off the bat."
"She will turn on you," Diana repeated dully, "but I can't pretend to care."
"You wound me with talk like that. I was hoping we could still be friends."
"Julia, I love Charlie. I'm not gonna leave her."
"If Chen succeeds..."
"He won't. I need to be with her, no matter what."
"I should remind you that necrophilia is against the law."
"That didn't stop me from sleeping with you."
"Ouch! That's a low blow!" Julia jabbed a thumb at Diana's neck, genuinely offended.
Diana barely flinched before easing back into the subject. "Even if something happened to her, I couldn't go back to the way I used to be. I've changed."
"Tell me this - when you were pursuing Chen, was your heart racing? Were your palms wet? Didn't you feel absolutely, completely alive?"
"No more than I do watching Charlie step out of the shower, no."
Diana felt Julia's hands still, then slip off her shoulders. They waited in silence until Gedde came back with a tray of hot towels. He handed the steaming platter to Julia, then walked quickly away.
"He's very discrete," Diana observed. "Can't tell if he was eavesdropping or not."
"Gedde's a good fellow," Julia agreed. "He wants to go away with Angelia and his mother. I promised him it would happen."
"Did you mean it?"
Julia pushed up Diana's shirt, watching with hooded gray eyes as a span of tan skin slipped into view. She slid a hand underneath the tall woman's hip and unbuttoned the linen trousers, then slid them down a few inches to reveal the whole of her lower back.
"Ready for the towels?"
"Sure. Go ahead."
Without further preamble, three steaming hand towels were layered over Diana's back. She could not suppress the moan of pleasure that crept past her clenched teeth. She positively hated the fact that Julia knew exactly what to do for her, resented it beyond reason... because now, her familiar ministrations felt like a violation. Diana never wanted to accept comfort from the enemy, yet was unable to prevent the annoying sense of gratitude for the Swede's help.
"I fucking hate you, Jules."
"I know, sweetie. It's not quite what I wanted, but I'll take it."
That was another part of what made Diana so uncomfortable - the fact that Julia could haphazardly turn her life upside down, put Charlie in harm's way, perpetrate a mind fuck on nearly everyone within striking distance, and still seem to care about Diana's opinion of her. It was too mystifying to contemplate just then without incurring a dreadful headache, so she let it drop.
"Why did you shoot Harry?"
"I needed to break with him permanently. The only thing he cares about more than agency rules is you, so I gave him reason to confront me. He'll be fine. Eventually."
"Provided the powers that be don't boot him out before the lock down is over."
"If he gets that virus sample in time, they'll be off his back for a while."
"I can't go get it for him. I won't leave until Charlie's out of danger."
"Well, I certainly can't go fetch it - wherever it may be. Rogue agent, low profile and all that."
"Maybe we can work something out."
"Gedde and Angelia pick up the virus sample and get it to a field office, that way Harry can claim possession and get the brass off his case until he's recovered."
"I'll help you get Chen Kaige - but you have to promise me something in return."
"If I can."
"No 'ifs.' Promise me this or I'll do it alone... then I'll come after you."
Julia laid both hands on the hot towels and pressed down solidly. "Feel me quake with fear."
"I mean it."
"I don't doubt that you would try, but that's irrelevant for now. What do you want?"
"I want all the files related to my alleged HIV infection, Mangano's treatment protocols, all the case studies and any remaining data you may have uncovered."
"Is that all?"
"And then I want you to disappear forever. Forget you ever knew me. No more contact - ever."
Julia sighed heavily and pushed herself up off of Diana's body. She paced a few steps, back and forth like a caged panther, then dropped to her knees directly in front of Diana's face.
"I can't do that."
Diana shut her eyes and spat an angry curse at the floor. "Dammit, Julia! Why the hell not?"
"I need one thing from you, one promise that only you could keep."
"Whatever it is, the answer is no. As it stands, I don't owe you one goddamned thing, and I don't want to start running up a tab now."
They fell into another canyon of quiet, each knowing the fall wasn't over, each wanting the trip to come to a peaceful resolution so that no more lives were lost or ruined. Julia's voice was almost funereal when she finally spoke again. "I need you to be my kill switch, Diana."
Her reaction was instantaneous, pushing herself up to her knees and facing the glacial blonde with an expression of complete and utter disbelief. The towels fell from her back and swaddled in a heap of moist heat around her ankles, the lingering aches of her body totally forgotten. Diana Starrett was now virtually mute with shock.
"Say something," Julia urged. "Please."
"Don't... don't put that on me. I don't want that on me."
"We both know what could happen. I might be fine for a few years, maybe longer, but it could happen to me - just like it did to Riggins."
"Julia, you are a cruel, selfish, sociopathic bitch, but you are not Joshua Riggins."
She almost found the will to smile at that, but the Swede remained somber. "For now. At the moment, I merely display a wanton disregard for the safety of others while pursuing my own goals," she allowed. "It could get worse over time, and if it does, I will need you to take me out. I don't want to end up like him. I'd rather die."
Diana cupped both hands over her eyes and rubbed hard, trying to reason her way out of Julia's trap. She was right - it could happen. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Despite her self-confessed faults and dangerously unpredictable nature, Julia had never shown signs of becoming like their deceased despot of a director, a man who needed no reason to kill hundreds.
She always had a reason. Always. Maybe being out on her own, the master of her own fate, Julia would change, surrender that last little shred of humanity that had attracted Diana years ago, that still made her want to believe in the possibility that she was telling the truth about Chen, about Yoshima, about Harry. About leaving her and Charlie alone for good.
"If there were anyone else I could ask, I would," Julia whispered. "You know no one else could get close enough to do it. If you came to me, I would let you in. That won't change."
"All I want is to be left alone," Diana complained weakly. "Can't you understand that?"
"I do understand, and I pray the day never comes when I would need you to act on this. Until then, I will stay a world away from you and yours. I swear that... on my father's grave."
Diana's shoulders slumped as she heard the blonde invoke the old vow, the same one she had made when she tried to get Diana to leave the agency with her, when she swore to get her to safety after an explosion on the streets of San Salvador. It wasn't to be taken lightly. Diana wondered absently if anyone but her knew Julia's last name, the name of her late, beloved father. Maybe Harry Mars did, but she doubted even that. It was a trust she had not sought, and now would gladly be rid of.
"If we do get Chen - and this is a big if - and you give me those files, AND promise to get out of my life... I'll do it."
Julia felt the weight of the world lift off her shoulders, her eyes nearly red with unshed relief. "Thank you, Diana."
"That may be the first time anyone has ever thanked me for promising to kill them."
"I feel so special," Julia replied acidly.
"You'd better not ever take me up on it."
"I'll do my best. Now, we have work to do!" she declared brightly, jumping to her feet like a puppy getting ready for walkies. "There's a deadly virus to retrieve, commodities to exchange with deadly shadow women, an assassin to capture, and an empire to create!"
As Diana watched the lithe blonde skip into the living room to speak with Gedde, she felt a sick twist of fear turning her intestines to a tangle.
*My God... what have I done now?*
A hot summer night lay thick and quiet on Elceda when the Avilas finally arrived at their house. The kids rambled out of the Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan and charged up the front walk, determined to reach the television in time to catch the last few minutes of an X-Files repeat, and they were only mildly put-out to find a barrier of yellow crime scene tape stretched across the door.
Their Aunt Charlotte was only a few steps behind them, and her blood chilled at the sight of the tape, knowing that the bright strips of plastic always indicated something rotten. She hustled the kids down the front walk and back to the van, ostensibly to help their parents unpack the vehicle; really, she just didn't want them to see what might be waiting behind the busted door of their home.
*Teddy's car is still here, but the lights are all out. This could be bad,* she realized, gently pushing the grumbling children along the sidewalk.
Emily and Luis hadn't noticed yet, being busy unloading coolers and overnight bags they hadn't even unzipped on the shortened outing, but Charlie discretely nodded toward the door and brought their attention to the yellow tape.
"Oh, shit," Emily whispered, glancing from her husband to her sister. "This is a bad thing."
Luis dropped his duffel bag into the passenger seat and scanned the neighborhood for a cop car. Parked just down the block was a beige Ford Crown Victoria, a vehicle that virtually screamed "unmarked car." The door of the Crown Vic opened and a uniformed officer stepped out, a black man with an eerie resemblance to the actor from that angel movie Emily liked - the name escaped Luis for the moment, but he stepped forward to meet the deputy.
"Ms. Browning?" the man called, apparently addressing Charlie as he walked up to the cluster of confused, edgy people. "That you?"
Charlie stepped away from the group and moved near the familiar face, someone she and Diana both knew from the sheriff's department. "Will? What happened here?"
"I'm afraid I have some bad news," Will Franklin opened ominously. He lowered his voice so that the children couldn't hear as he explained the situation to the adults. "Somebody tried to break in the house earlier today, and a man was shot."
Charlie placed a shaking hand over her open mouth. "Oh, no. Teddy - is he..."
"Theodore Rinna? He's alive," the deputy assured her, touching her shoulder in a kindly gesture. "He made it through surgery all right and he's in recovery right now down at County General. Doctors say he's one tough sumbitch."
"Thank heaven," Emily muttered, grabbing hold of Luis' arm to steady herself. She believed Charlie when she said that she was in trouble, but she hadn't even considered how bad the trouble might be, that someone out there wanted her little sister badly enough to shoot someone to get to her. "You got some explaining to do, shrimp."
"Emily, I'm sorry this happened at all, let alone in your home, but you're gonna have to wait for an explanation right along with the rest of us," Charlie half-snapped, her mood darkening by the second.
"As soon as we know something, you'll all be informed," Franklin assured the group.
"Oh, swell," Emily groused weakly.
"Diana Starrett came by here earlier today," Franklin mentioned casually. "When I told her who the victim was, she took off like a bat outta hell. Went to the hospital to check on him, I assume."
The little blonde lawyer instantly turned into a pit bull at the mention of their mutual acquaintance, lunging forward to latch onto the deputy's arm with both hands. "When was she here?"
Momentarily stunned by the pincer-grip on his forearm, Franklin answered haltingly. "Uhh... I guess it was about... twenty minutes or so after we got here. Maybe five-thirty or so."
"Was she okay? Did she look all right?" Charlie persisted, her voice a taut wire of agitated concern.
"She looked fine to me," he replied carefully, flashing back to Starrett's alleged relationship with a 'snotty little lawyer' as his partner put it, wondering if Charlotte Browning qualified as snotty or little. "Maybe a little frazzled, but mostly cool - as usual."
"Was she alone? Did you see anyone with her? A blonde, maybe, or an asian woman."
Franklin remembered seeing a blur of blue sportscar speed past, Diana at the wheel... "Yeah, come to think of it. There was a woman in the car with her - long black hair. Might be asian."
"Fuck!" Charlie drew her hands back and rubbed both fists against her temples, images of three women and a bridge pounding behind her eyes. "Could be worse," she told herself, "could have been Ingrid Bergman's evil twin."
"Say what?" Franklin queried, bemused but lost.
To say that Charlotte was in no mood to explain was a gross understatement. "They went to County General, you said?"
"Uhh... yeah. Room 216, I think."
She glanced quickly toward her sister's violated home. "Has the house been cleaned up yet?"
"Everything but the tape on the floor," Franklin confirmed. "Crime scene crew already came and went. We got two squad cars patrolling the area tonight, just to keep an eye on the place."
"How come you hung around? They could've told us," Luis piped in, curious why one cop would work late just to break the bad news .
"Diana said she knew the people who lived here," Will Franklin answered honestly. "Just trying to score some brownie points, I guess."
Charlotte gave the dark, handsome man a very hard look, one which he read as a warning. A great, glaring 'do not even think about trying anything with her' look.
"Points for the department, I mean," he added hastily. "Not me, personally."
"Uh-huh," Charlie mumbled, feeling like the reluctant president of the motley-but-growing Diana Starrett fan club. "Thanks anyhow, Will. I know she'd appreciate your efforts."
"You want to go see this Rinna guy?" Franklin offered, trying to make peace before Charlotte got the wrong -or the right- idea. "I could drive you over to County."
"Thanks, but I'd like to check out the house first," she replied shortly, "just to make sure it's okay."
"Good idea," Emily agreed. "If it's too creepy, we might all be bunking with mom and dad tonight."
"It won't be that bad," Luis told her. "Ain't nothing gonna scare me bad enough to make us sleep at your daddy's house."
Franklin led the group up the front walk, apologizing most of the way for busting the door down. Charlie and Luis followed and Emily waited with the kids by the van, all of them hoping that they wouldn't wind up at the front door of Xanadu, begging for sanctuary.
Diana was tired of thinking, tired of wondering where Charlie was hiding, tired of trying to reason where Chen would pop up next, and most especially tired of trying to figure out anything about Julia. She laid back on her bed and stared up at the plywood square covering the broken skylight, wanting to empty her mind, to rest her aching back, to soak in the comforting sensation of being home.
*This is not working,* she admitted, covering her head with Charlotte's pillow. *If I had just died in my sleep Saturday morning, I would've had it made. Gone out happy. Now, I don't know... what if she decides I'm not worth the trouble? They're never gonna let me go, not completely. I should never have agreed to stay here... but I would've missed all this time with her. So many good days. And it was good, wasn't it? Being with her. So good, so easy.*
In this bed, she felt almost safe, swaddled in memories of love. The sheets still smelled of their last union, traces of sex and tequila and lime clinging to the smooth cotton. The sound of water running in the bathroom was so familiar and soothing, she could nearly forget the large dhurrie rug hiding the bloodstains on their carpet, could almost pretend that things were normal... that Charlie was here.
Diana could picture her lover stepping through the doorway with a towel turban around her wet hair, a sleepy grin on her face as she collapsed on the bed, worn to a nub after her battles in court.
"Long day, counselor?" she would ask, offering her hand.
"Jury came back deadlocked. Sledgehammer declared a mistrial, so we gotta do all this shit over again next month," Charlotte would say, crawling close beside her, their fingers weaving together in a loose embrace.
"Judge Gabriel just wants an excuse to see you again, that's all."
"Sledgehammer? He hates my guts! Threatens me with disbarrment nearly every time I go before him."
"It's sublimated passion, hon," Diana would insist, sliding behind the exhausted woman, gently removing the towel and massaging her scalp. "He's always summoning you to his chambers, right?"
"Hmm?" Charlie would murmur, her head lolling, body melting under the sure, easy touches as she fights to focus on Diana's question instead of her magical hands. "Yeah, but that's only so he can cuss at me. Can't do that in court."
"Right. You just keep telling yourself that."
"It's true! All he ever does is yell."
Diana would tuck a few strands of damp blonde hair behind a delicate ear and lean in close, whispering in a sing-song voice, "Charlie and Sledgehammer, sitting in a tree..."
Charlie would chomp down on her lower lip, fighting off a smile. "I'm too tired to kick your ass right now..."
"First comes love, then comes -"
That would be about as far as Diana got before Charlie rolled onto her and pinned her to the bed, amused as much as ticked. Maybe a little turned-on, maybe not... yet.
"I hate him, he hates me, and we both like it that way!" she would insist.
"Sure, sure," Diana would tease. "I think you're secretly drawn to him because of his six chins."
"In some cultures, a man's virility is measured by the number of chins he has."
"Starrett, you better quit while I'm ahead."
"You're ahead? I got a squeaky-clean, naked, gorgeous woman laid out on top of me, and you think you're the one who's ahead?"
"I could go watch television," Charlotte would threaten dispassionately.
"Don't even think about it."
"There's a 'Bionic Woman' marathon on Sci-Fi -"
Then, then Diana would kiss her. Just hard enough to make her try to retreat, to squirm a little as she wrapped both arms around Charlie's bare back and waited for reciprocation, for escalation. Some unmistakable sign that it was time to make love.
A clenching of teeth around her sensitive top lip, an intentional strafing of hardened nipples across her ribs, and Diana would have her answer, her invitation to slide both hands down to caress Charlotte's hips, squeezing lightly as she crossed silk-smooth buttocks, one hand slowly drifting between...
"Diana, there are no clean towels in here," Julia called out from the adjoining bathroom.
The fantasy skidded to an abrupt halt as Diana opened her eyes and found herself alone. It was nearly enough to make her cry - not the unwilling tears of pain over her injuries, but real tears of soul-bruised longing. The kind that make the eyes red and puffy and sore for hours afterwards, no matter how few tears are actually shed. She fancied that was how she'd look forever if she couldn't get her life back together, if Charlotte was harmed... or didn't want her here anymore.
"Check the cabinet under the sink," Diana answered back, steadying her voice as she sat up.
"Got one. Thank you very kindly for the use of the facilities, darling," the Swede sang, annoyingly chipper after her turn in the shower. She was virtually gliding as she slipped into the bedroom, the towel wrapped modestly around her torso. "I still can't believe you made me do that. I was filthy!"
"It's partly your fault Dan died," the dark woman informed her, pointing out a set of clean clothes laid out on a chair. "It was only right that you help me bury him."
Julia examined the too-long jeans and white broadcloth shirt, still finding the will to gripe. "There's a blister on my palm which looks rather nasty, and I haven't had that much dirt under my fingernails since I made mud pies as a child."
"He deserves a better resting place than my backyard," Diana said softly.
The pale blonde pulled on the shirt and let her towel drop, then moved to Diana's side. "Dan cared about you. I think it would please him to be buried so close to your home, actually."
Diana snorted out a bitter laugh. "Yeah, it's quite an honor. Did you actually look at his body? Did you see what that bastard did to him?"
"Chen enjoys cutting. If you gauge the damage done, it's pretty clear Dan pissed him off."
"He wouldn't have talked, wouldn't have given her up."
"No, he wouldn't, which is why I suggested he try to keep watch over your precious Charlotte."
Diana looked up at Julia, observing how calm she appeared, how her hands did not shake at all as she buttoned the blouse and pulled on the pressed Levi's - no jitters at all. She couldn't remember a time when she herself was so coolly unreachable, sure-footedly stepping around the messier emotions like slippery rocks in a streambed. Diana no longer considered this a shortcoming on her part.
This highlighted a key divergence between the two women; Julia was able to declare a man like Dan a pawn and sacrifice him in order to capture pieces of a higher order, while Diana found herself so riddled with remorse that she buried the man in the shadow of her home, with a vague plan to plant annuals on his grave at some point in the near future.
"I hope you and Charlotte weren't planning on sinking a swimming pool back there," Julia quipped. "The workmen would be apoplectic to find a corpse on the site, and I'm pretty sure using it as a graveyard violates city zoning ordinances."
Diana figured that was a good cue for a subject change, halting this offensive line before another skirmish broke out. "How could you know that I'd be onto Chen before he got to Charlie?"
Julia met her eyes and gave a typically confident reply. "I didn't."
"If this had worked out differently, if something had happened to her -"
"You would have blamed Hideo Yoshima," Julia finished for her. "Don't forget, there is nothing linking me to Chen's hire except my own admission to you."
"Her possible death was nothing but another opportunity for you, wasn't it?"
Sighing as she plopped down on the bed - too close for Diana not to tense up - Julia leaned down and cuffed the lengthy pantlegs, then gave her full attention to her unwilling companion. "I believe everyone needs one person in their lives with whom they are totally honest. For me, that has always been you. I never willfully lied to you, and I don't intend to start now."
"So answer me."
"I planned for a variety of outcomes, and one of them did involve you flying solo again," Julia told her. "I would not have cried for the loss of your lover, but I would have done everything short of tilting the earth on a lever to make you forget her."
*Impossible. Never.* Diana curled her lips into her mouth, biting back the urge to attack her with both fists. Sometimes, honesty can be the most cruel trait in a human's character, and she found herself wishing that Julia had lied to her, told her some easy tale about how she never meant to hurt Charlie. The truth was much harder to swallow that her saccharine-sweet fibs.
"Harry seemed to think you wanted me back in service, but it's more than that. Isn't it?"
"Why me?" Diana had to ask, for she truly did not see herself as being so precious. "What did I ever do to any of you - or for any of you - that made me such a goddamned prize?"
Julia fell silent as she pondered not only her own reasons, but those of the others who had sought to keep this magnificent dark angel in a cage, to clip her wings until she died of despair.
"Well, Joshua Riggins had a rather Wagnerian temperament. He cast you as his valkyrie, an instrument to deliver divine retribution to enemies as he moved closer to world domination."
"He failed," Diana muttered, flexing her hands. She could almost feel his throat collapse under her fingers as she pushed him under the black surface of Marco Falcon's pool.
"Obviously," Julia agreed. "Now, Harry Mars is a much simpler man, one with untold burdens of guilt, mostly from his inability to save his platoon from the horrors of a North Vietnamese prison camp. Harry wants to save you, to protect you, to make everything okay for you the way he never could for all those boys placed in his care, the ones who came home zipped inside body bags."
"I guess he failed, too. Harry couldn't protect me from myself," she allowed, recalling how Mars had exhorted her not to surface, worried for her safety and sanity.
"I can answer for myself with much greater brevity." Julia turned to her, waiting until Diana met her halfway, held her eyes in pools of questioning blue.
"You made me laugh."
Diana waited, waited. She was sure there must be more to it than that. "And?"
"When I met you, I had become consigned to the absence of feeling," she explained, her voice warming as she came close to admitting a weakness, baring something too-long hidden. "Being with you altered the way I saw myself, gave me hope that I might be able to feel something again."
"For anyone other than myself," Julia clarified. "I taught you methods, tactics, all sorts of practical nonsense to keep you alive in the field. In turn, you taught me something more esoteric, namely how to temper the work with humor and - on occasion - compassion."
Black laughter welled up in Diana's throat, choking her retort to a single, incredulous word.
"Gedde Yoshima is alive mainly due to your influence on me," she dryly pointed out. "If not for the benefit of your company during years past, I would have killed him when his usefulness ended and avoided this dreadful mess of affection for the boy. I would have taken a different path, one more parallel to Riggins' highway to hell."
"That's bullshit, Julia," Diana stated, standing suddenly with a need to escape the blonde's nearness, her radiating regard. "I'm not responsible for who you are - you chose to be you - and I don't want to be the one policing you if you take a turn for the worse."
"You're not backing out on our agreement so soon, are you?"
"No. No." Diana forced back a shiver of disgust at the prospect of maintaining a tie between them, keeping her tone measured, her gaze down into implacable gray eyes level and hard. "I have enough weight on me already, things I'll never be able to change or get rid of. I don't need you telling me that your actions have anything to do with me. I can't carry that, Julia."
"Diana, this is not a bad thing," the Swede claimed, her own voice rising to meet the challenge. "In fact, the world at large might actually wind up owing you a debt."
"Yeah, right." She huffed a little, gathered their spent towels
from the floor. "I'll wait a while before submitting my name for the Nobel
Peace Prize, if you don't mind."
Julia grinned and leaned back into the twist of pillows and sheets. "I'd vote for you."
"We've gotta get moving," Diana ordered, killing any further attempt at polite conversation. "Chen might head back to the hospital for the late shift change, try to slip in and finish Teddy."
"Oh, my!" Julia covered her mouth in mock panic. "Heaven forbid he should leave any living witnesses. That goes on one's permanent record with the assassin's guild."
Diana turned on her with angry, hard eyes. "Get up."
"But I'm exhausted!" the blonde claimed, flopping back down. "Give me five minutes."
A hand latched onto her wrist and hauled her carelessly to her feet, and she found herself facing a most perturbed woman, one whose tight voice brooked no argument.
"That is my bed and I don't want you in it, understand?"
"With perfect clarity," Julia replied calmly. "But if things change, if you find yourself sleeping alone..."
"Shut-up. Just shut-up."
Diana stood at a rear window, the glass now clean of the vile rat's blood message which started this whole debacle, and gazed out at the dark mound of dirt marking her friend's grave. She listened to Julia's activity behind her, the Swede situating her "commodities" for later pick-up and transfer, and she did not offer to help.
After Julia finished administering another dose of Morpheus to the
knocked-out scientists - and allowed Gedde the singular honor of doping up his
belligerent father - Diana locked down the house as best she could, and the
silent trio piled into a stolen Cadillac. They hit the road fast, heading for
the next stop on the Magical Mystery tour; namely, room 216 at Elceda County
General, a quiet, sanitary place that was most unready for the influx of
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