Persistence of Memory - Pt. 19

By Paul Seely

Twenty Eight

        Angelia sat in the salmon-pink faux leather chair at Teddy Rinna's bedside, watching CNN on mute and reading the closed caption scroll along the bottom. The big man was still unconscious and would be for a while, all the nurses agreed, so she waited in the quiet room for... somebody. Anybody would do at this point, she was so bored and frustrated.

Hours passed slowly for the stranger in a strange place, with nothing to occupy her thoughts but memories of someone she could never have, dreams of someone she could never be again. She got up and poured herself another glass of ice water from the plastic pitcher, watching the sleeping man's face for any sign of wakefulness. If he was a friend of Diana's, at least they had someone in common they could talk about, and oh, how she wanted to talk.

The heavy, silent door to room 216 opened, and Angelia looked up, expecting another nurse and finding instead a muscular black man in a gray cop uniform. Instantly, her spine stiffened, old paranoia raising its ugly head. He regarded her curiously, then stepped into the room and held open the door.

"The nurse said Rinna's *daughter* was in here with him," Will Franklin said, not to Angelia, but to someone in the hallway. "Is that her?"

Then Charlotte Browning peeked in, her hazel eyes fixing on the stunned Angelia with a most unwelcome recognition.  "Yeah. I'll just sit with her for a minute, Will."

"Okay. You need me, I'm right down the hall at the nurse's station," he told her, easing away and letting the door slip shut with a whispered thump.

"Shit," Angelia said, unconsciously backing up a step. Maybe saying she wanted to talk to anyone was too broad a statement. Her jaw still ached from her last encounter with the peeved woman from her past, and she didn't feel up to taking another punch.

"Ease off, Lia," Charlie told her, holding up her cast-covered mitt. "I can't say I'm happy to see you, but I can't afford another broken hand just yet. Where's Diana?"

Angelia took a relieved breath and tried to relax. "I don't know. She left me here this afternoon, took off after some guy," she explained as best she could. "There were reports of gunfire in the parking lot, but no one was out there when the cops came."

*Oh, God, please let her be okay,* Charlie begged quietly, her face crumbling to a mass of worry over her missing lover. *Just bring her back to me and I swear I'll never hurt her again. Never.*

"She'll be fine," Angelia assured her, calmly sipping ice-water from her disposable cup.

Charlotte looked at her venomously, offended at the display of simple-minded confidence. "And just how do you know that?"

"Diana's always gonna be okay," she replied, confused by Charlie's lack of faith. "She knows what she's doing - haven't you figured that out by now? Jesus, I haven't seen her for ten years and even I know that much."

"You don't know her at all, do you?" Charlotte asked pointedly, eyes narrowed to sharp points. "She's only human. She can be hurt, just like the rest of us."

"Is that what you were trying to prove this morning?" the asian woman queried, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.

Charlie found herself fighting off the impulse to smack her again. "What are you talking about?"

"All I know is that she was perfectly fine until you showed up on that boat, then she just clammed up the rest of the day. You must've done something to get her so busted up."

"I didn't shoot her ten times," Charlie spat, trying to keep her angry voice down.

"Touché," Angelia answered back. "But you were rather ticked-off, you must admit. She should be thankful you didn't have a gun."

"No, you should be thankful I didn't have a gun."

"Fine. Whatever. All I know is we're even now, CB. You win this round."

Charlie's countenance spasmed into an awful sneer. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean, this makes us more than level for what happened at Berkeley," the other clarified. "I put you through some unjust crap, so now you get the only thing I really ever wanted. When this is over, I'm off to God knows where - probably alone - and Diana goes home with you. You win, see?"

Totally caught off-guard by the karmic logic of it all, Charlie hoped silently that things would work out just that way, with Diana going home with her instead of following some other path. As she mused over this, she finally took a look at the self-proclaimed loser of their contest, seeing something familiar for the first time. Something that pissed her off quite badly.

"Why are you wearing Diana's clothes?"

Angelia glanced at her borrowed attire, the long black polo shirt, the cuffed jeans brushing the tops of her flip-flop shod feet. "Pressed for time. Couldn't very well stop at the mall, could we?"

Unsure just what it would accomplish, Charlotte made her odd request anyhow. "Take off that shirt."

"Do what?"

"Take it off," Charlie repeated, already unzipping her thin blue windbreaker and shucking her t-shirt. "You can wear mine instead."

"What is this, some kind of high school thing? You don't want me wearing her letterman sweater?"

"Something like that," Charlie agreed shortly, holding out her own clothes for trade.

Angelia sighed, shrugged her shoulders, and shed the polo shirt. She tossed it to Charlotte and snagged the tee and nylon jacket from her outstretched hand. "This is so dumb. I can't believe she fell for you, of all people," she muttered, pulling on the new duds.

Charlie held the black shirt for a moment, then brought it up to her nose and sniffed. She smiled at the discovery of some secret thing, some trace of woodsy fragrance on the worn garment that brought to mind the owner instead of the former wearer. "Believe it, baby," she said, and shrugged into her lover's shirt with a possessive grin.

"Some things don't change," Angelia observed. "You were goofy at seventeen and you're still goofy now."

"How is Teddy doing?" Charlie asked, choosing to ignore that last weak jibe.

"He's been breathing on his own for a couple of hours," she answered, watching the small blonde carefully as she approached Teddy's bedside. "They said the shots missed nearly everything but his liver, and that was only a nick. The doctor will be in again soon, if you want to ask him."

"Good news, huh Teddy?" Charlie whispered, taking one big paw in her hand with a gentle squeeze. "I'm so sorry, though. This shouldn't have happened to you at all."

Teddy stirred a little at the contact, his fingers contracting around Charlie's thumb. "Sherrie," he whispered groggily.

"Aww, jeez." Charlie drew back suddenly. "Nobody's called his family yet, have they?"

"There were no numbers in his wallet, and I didn't know this guy from Adam," Angelia replied. "The only way they'd let me wait in here is if I told them I was his daughter. I didn't know he had anybody to notify."

"He has a family - an ex-wife and two real daughters. Somebody's gotta let them know what happened." Charlie slipped her hand from Teddy's sleepy grasp and grabbed her purse, heading out in search of a phone with a purposeful stride.

"I'll just wait here," Angelia told the closing door.



Sherrie Rinna was asleep, of course, and Charlotte patiently informed the dazed woman of Teddy's condition. She took the news harder than Charlie expected, tearing up and sobbing into the receiver, vowing to get down to the hospital as soon as she could. Some mild protestations from her current husband were heard in the background, but Sherrie seemed to pay him little heed. Her resurgent devotion inexplicably warmed Charlotte's heart, though she worried that Teddy and Sherrie's marriage had been built on the shifting sands of a similar crisis.

*Maybe she just likes taking care of him,* Charlie thought. *I hope this doesn't confuse things for them. If it's just times of trouble that bring them together, that isn't much to go on.*

Predictably, her analytical mind played connect-the-dots until she found some parallels with her own relationship. She and Diana had bonded during the most difficult of times, but it was after the dust settled that they truly discovered each other, saw each other clearly. And they were both exceptionally happy with what they found.

Charlie recalled the various joys of initiating Diana to "civilian life," as she called it; watching her grow comfortable in the home they made together, introducing her to the companionship of her sister's brood, seeing the self-conscious smiles creep up when she found herself enjoying some banal activity like a barbecue or birthday party, a fishing trip, or planting that herb garden in the back yard.

It was all so new to Diana, re-discovering the gentler aspects of her temperament. Charlie felt like Dian Fossey watching a silverback gorilla touch her hand with a tender curiosity, knowing Diana's acclimation was a sort of self-taming activity. She was so proud of her, felt so honored that she was able to witness this string of beautifully peaceful moments, linked all around her heart like a priceless charm bracelet of experiences.

Standing in the hospital corridor, the eye of their current storm, she prayed the additions to that bracelet would be endless, that years lay ahead of them in which to craft more jeweled hours. Charlie leaned her forehead against the pay phone, tamping down the sentiment with a sniffle and sigh.

"We'll go on," she promised herself. "Just bring her back to me. Please."

The ding of the elevator behind her made Charlie jump slightly, blinking open her eyes as she turned around to go back to Teddy's room. Just as she set her feet in motion, a glimpse between the opening lift doors made her sneakered feet squeak to a halt, and she whirled around to face the three disembarking passengers.

One was a young asian man in shorts and a denim work shirt - he saw her and walked right past with only a brief glance of recognition. The second was a slender blonde woman in a white shirt and faded jeans - she smiled and winked at the gaping lawyer, then followed the youth down the hall.

The third? Well, she didn't even get a chance to walk through the elevator doors because a black-and-yellow cruise missile zoomed in and collided with her chest, driving her back into the car with a yelp and a one-word exclamation.




Will Franklin watched the two people coming down the hall toward room 216, his keen eyes first appreciatively taking inventory of the blonde woman's aesthetic assets, then his attention focused on her companion - an asian male. The only description they had of Teddy Rinna's shooter. He was on them in a heartbeat, hand on the unsnapped guard of his pistol.

"Hold up, folks," he ordered firmly. "No visitors in there except family."

"But - " Gedde started to protest, then Julia's hand fell on his shoulder.

"It's okay, Gedde," she told him. "We only wanted to know how Mr. Rinna is getting on, deputy."

Franklin eyed the nervous young man, watched the calm that seemed to overtake him as the blonde rubbed his shoulder. The kid didn't look dangerous at all... but that woman with him was a different story. She looked dead into Franklin's eyes, simultaneously bidding him to answer her and warning him not to try and hurt the boy.

"Mr. Rinna's condition is stable," Franklin responded, his hand inching away from his holster. "But the doctors still say he's in no shape for a parade of visitors."

"Understood," Julia said, discretely watching the deputy's hand. "Is anyone in with him now?"

"His daughter's keeping him company."

"Well, could you ask her to step out here for a moment, please?" she asked politely.

Franklin backed over to the door, eyes never straying from the pair of strangers, and opened it a crack. "Miss? Could you come out here for a second?" he whispered into the room.

He stepped to the side as the door swung out slowly, admitting a pretty young asian woman - who was now wearing Charlotte Browning's clothes, he noted - into the hall. She looked at Franklin first, nervous and unsteady, then to the newcomers. Her face slackened to a blank at the sight of Julia, then she focused fully on the young man standing less than five feet away, squinting in the harsh fluorescent light to make sure he was real.

"Is that - " she began, choking on her own question. "Who -"

"Angel?" the boy whispered, edging forward a step. "Are you - are you well?"

"Gedde?" she barely uttered the word, so afraid it wouldn't be him.

"Are you all right, miss?" Franklin asked, noting her discomfort. "Do you know this guy?"

Tears slid heavily from the rims of her dark eyes as she nodded her affirmation. "He's my brother."

With halting, cautious steps, Gedde moved toward his lost sibling, struggling to keep his arms at his sides. He wanted so badly to wrap her up in an embrace and never let her go... but he waited. She looked so frightened, so hopeful. Too sudden a move might scare her.

"I've missed you so much," she said quietly, "you little dork."

With that, he let go of his restraint and slipped both arms around her shaking shoulders, drawing Angelia close, close enough to feel his pounding, grateful heart gallop hopefully inside his chest. "I have missed you as well."

"They haven't seen each other in a while," Julia explained to the gaping, puzzled deputy. "Aren't family reunions just the best?"

"Uhh, sure. I guess," Franklin replied. "I'll let you folks get reacquainted, then." He shook his head and stepped clear of the teary-eyed scene fit for Oprah Winfrey, discomfited by another strange turn in an already strange day. He walked back to the nurse's station, keeping one eye on the blonde woman and wondering why she gave him such a fit of the creepies.



Diana felt the dull, lingering ache flare up a bit as her back collided with the protruding metal rail lining the inside of the elevator, but the pain was a mere afterthought as she felt her arms go round the familiar body smashed against her chest. Suddenly, nothing hurt anymore, inside or out.

The elevator doors slid shut and the car jolted softly as it descended one floor. Diana and Charlotte stood together, each wrapped tightly in comforting arms, both feeling a little dizzy with relief.

"You're okay, right?" Charlie asked, her voice muffled as she pressed her face against the firm bosom. "Tell me you're okay."

A kiss pressed down onto gilded hair and strong, circling arms cinched tighter. "I am now."

The short ride was over before it had begun and the doors dinged open, exposing the two to the prying gaze of the reception area nurse. Diana stretched one hand out to the buttons and pressed the one marked "2," mercifully sparing the gaping nurse from any further discomfort as the doors closed and gave them another moment of privacy.

Without doubt or preamble, Diana leaned in and kissed Charlie, just embracing her lips in a smaller echo of their bodies, a wordless confirmation that there was still a vast store of love in her heart and all Charlotte had to do was accept it.

Another soft dinging, and the elevator pulled back its doors again. The kiss lingered a second more before necessity forced them to break off and separate.

"We gotta talk," Diana announced, holding the doors open with one arm as Charlie reluctantly disentangled herself and stepped back. "Somewhere private."

Charlie nodded and stumbled into the hall, still a little weak in the knees from the wholly insufficient kiss. "I'll find an empty room. I have a truckload of questions for you, stretch."

Diana smiled at her, unaccountably charmed by the use of her nickname. "I hope I've got all the answers, counselor."

"First one should be easy enough," Charlie grinned, tugging her lover into the corridor. "You can start by telling me why everybody's wearing your clothes."



Room 212 had recently been vacated in the worst possible way - the occupant died in her sleep of a heart seizure - and the staff had yet to take away the bounty of bouquets sent by well-wishers. The entire space reeked of sweetness, the cloying scent of carnations and roses heavy in the air.

"Smells funny in here, but it'll have to do," Charlie judged, practically dragging the larger woman through the doorway in the effort to get her alone.

"If you say so," Diana agreed, letting herself be yanked around, stomach tied in an anxious bow.

Even before the door was closed, Charlotte had sprung into action, sliding a large chair in front of the egress to discourage intruders of any nature. Diana stood back and watched, curious what her companion had in store that required such a level of security, heartened by the frenetic energy displayed in the activity. Charlie was obviously feeling quite all right physically, but whether her enthusiasm would hold up under the strain of conversation was another thing entirely.

Once she had achieved her goal of assuring them some privacy, Charlie made her intentions perfectly clear. She fixed Diana with a needful stare, lower lip trembling as her nerves finally began to fray.

"Forget what I said. I don't wanna talk to you right now."

Diana was quiet at first, her shaky comfort compromised by the delay. "Okay. What do you want?"

"Just... come here. Would you... hold me for a few minutes?"

The level of relief Diana felt at that moment was unparalleled in the history of man; well, maybe someone else had felt it at some point. Maybe Moses and the Hebrews felt such gratitude when they crossed the parted Red Sea safely. Maybe the crew of Apollo 13 felt an inkling of this profound blessing when their craft splashed down intact. Maybe someone had come close, but Diana didn't think so. Surely no one had ever been so lucky as she felt, simply hearing she was still wanted.

"For the rest of my life, if you want."

"I want."

Diana took Charlie's hand and led her to the stripped hospital bed, sitting down first and drawing the smaller woman onto her, stretching out both their bodies on the narrow mattress. As the warm weight settled on her and she felt her love's golden head burrowing against her chest to press an ear over her heart, one plaster-rough hand behind her neck, gentle fingers blindly tracing the lines of her face from memory, Diana let the walls come down and cried messy, copious tears of joy.

"I have never been so sorry about anything in my life," Charlie whispered, breathing her apology into Diana's shaking breastbone, trying to impart her sense of regret directly into her lover's body. "I hurt you, and I don't blame you for hating me - "

"No," Diana cut her off instantly, tightening both arms around her back, wishing she could just draw Charlie into herself and let her see what was inside - all the hope and trust and will to go on, to keep breathing - every fragile aspect of herself found stuffed in dark corners had been illuminated in the light of their love. "There's nothing in me that could ever hate you."

Charlotte's own tears flowed as freely, but they were bitter and rank, tainted with sorrow. "But I was trying to hurt you... I don't know what's wrong with me. I should have trusted you."

"We're only human, baby. You and me, we screw up, we make mistakes," Diana soothed, pressing kisses against her hair. "I should have called you myself, told you about what was happening."

"I still would have barged in on you and made a fool of myself."

"No, you wouldn't," Diana protested. "You would have barged in, popped Angelia on the mouth, then made a graceful, stylish exit."

Charlie hacked out a doubtful laugh. "No harsh words spoken?"

"If I had been up-front about everything, you might not have felt the need. I ought to know better."

Tilting up her head and resting her chin between Diana's breasts, Charlie assumed a guarded expression. "What do you mean, you ought to know better?"

"Trust is a two-way thing. You don't give, you don't get," Diana explained. "I know it's hard for you sometimes, just like it is for me. We gotta be honest with each other about everything or it stops working, breaks down like it did this morning."

Partially, Charlotte agreed with that, but it didn't stop her from trying to shoulder the blame. "I'm the one who ought to know better. Nearly everyone you've ever trusted has turned around and used that against you. I never wanted to hurt you like that."

"Listen to what you're saying - you could just as well be describing yourself," Diana replied, wiping her soaked eyes to see Charlotte as clearly as she felt her. "Your parents, Richard, Lia, everyone you've let inside - everybody except maybe Emily - has let you down. We've both got mines buried in the field, so we've both got to walk more carefully."

"Diana, it wasn't the same with them, it wasn't like you and me at all. It didn't hurt like this."

"I know, I know," she whispered, laying another kiss on Charlotte's forehead as she struggled to find the right words. "With them, they stung you and you went numb. When you thought - even if it was just for a second - that I cheated on you, you laid me open with a scalpel. I hurt you, you hurt me back and that's the way it should be. I think it was an exceptionally fair trade."

"No, it wasn't fair at all," Charlie argued. "You know I don't think of you that way. That's not who or what you are to me, and I want so much to take it back."

"Have you bothered to think what I would have done if our positions were reversed?" Diana asked suddenly, her cerulean eyes blurry with agony even imagining such a situation. "If I had found you in those incriminating circumstances, with someone I knew you once cared about -"

"But you didn't even do anything with her!"

"That isn't the point. Think about that moment when you walked into the cabin and saw us together, try to remember how that made you feel."

Charlie shut her eyes against the pain, the fearful ache that welled up and staggered out in a choppy sigh. "Felt like my insides caught fire. I never knew I could hurt like that."

"Now put that pain on me. Try to imagine what I would have done in your stead."

She squeezed her eyelids down tighter, willing away images of bridges and black water, of other paths and other people Diana would choose in order to escape her betrayal. It didn't help Charlotte's fear that two of those other people were right down the hall, waiting for this woman (her woman), eager for the squatting lawyer to walk away and relinquish her claim so they could move in.

"I don't want to think about that."

"It's simple really," her dark lover whispered. "I'd be dead now. That would have fuckin' killed me."

Charlotte's eyes snapped open, angry - and irrationally relieved. "How can you say that?"

"Because it's true. You're so much stronger than me - you get angry, you get hurt, yet you move through it so you can go on living. I don't think I could to do that, not just me alone."

Against her will, Charlie's eyes strayed to the door, thinking about what - and who - waited beyond. "You wouldn't be alone for long."

Diana followed both her glance and her line of thought, the meaning all too clear. "Charlie, they don't want me, they want the person I used to be. They don't know me anymore. Besides that, they are totally irrelevant - I don't want them. I need you. I can't even imagine wanting to live without you."

"But... how many more times can I hurt you like that before you get sick of it and leave?" Charlotte wondered, insecure words leaking out like water from a busted faucet. She held up her good hand, waving that last question away as if it were second-hand smoke or an indiscreet belch. "God, why can't I ever just shut up and accept it when you say nice things like that!"

Without hesitation, Diana gave her a lopsided smirk. "You're a lawyer. It's just your nature."

"Uggghh!" Her head fell with a dejected 'thunk!' against Diana's chest, her voice again muffled as she complained weakly. "You let me get away with too much."

"You are also a blonde. Allowances must be made."

"Kiss my ass, Sasquatch," Charlie shot back, chortling and grinning secretly at the slow return of their good humor.

"Charlie, you can hurt me whenever you feel the need - whip me, beat me, make me watch Wheel of Fortune until my brain dissolves, just don't ever doubt that I love every goddamned minute of being with you," Diana said, stroking her back as Charlie giggled. "I mean that. I like who I am when I'm with you, and I can't be that person without you. I'm not gonna give that up."
When she looked up again, there was a sign of confidence returning to her eyes, a resurgent vibrancy that preceded her words. "Neither will I. You can go ahead and give away the rest of your clothes if you want. I don't mind. I'll take you home naked if I gotta."

Diana gave her a little chuckle and a kiss on the nose. "Wish it was that simple. We've got one more big bump to get over before we get clear of this."

"We. You said we - am I to assume that I actually get to be a part of it?"

With a hard sigh, Diana steeled herself before explaining what awaited them. "We don't have much choice at this point. Yoshima hired a hit man to kill you, Charlie."


"It's mostly Julia's fault - "

"What?? She did this?"

"Charlie, just give it a second to sink in."

"Someone's actually been paid to kill me?" she said, not so much a question as a confirmation. "God, I knew she wanted me out of the way, but that's more than a little unfair."

"Julia doesn't play fair. Bringing Angelia here was meant to be a distraction, something to divert me while Chen Kaige came in and got rid of you."

"Chen Kaige - this is the man who's after me?"

"He's a professional from Hong Kong. Yoshima hired him after Julia put me off-limits. He's been looking for you, knocking over whoever got in his way."

"He shot Teddy," Charlie whispered harshly. "The son of a bitch."

"I should tell you now - Dan's dead. Chen killed him today... in our house."

Charlie could hear the sorrow in her lover's voice, saw it burning in her reddened eyes. Although she hadn't had time to get to know the man very well, she was hurt to hear of his passing. The fact that a murder had occurred in their home was a distant second in her hierarchy of concerns. "I'm so sorry, baby. I know he was your friend. We talked all last night - I could tell he really cared about you."
"I did something... " Diana began softly, fearful she had made the wrong decision. "I couldn't call the police, and I didn't want the cleaners to cart him off like garbage, you see, so..."

"Where did you put him?" Charlie asked, trying to make it easier to say.

"Back yard, by the fence," Diana choked out, crying again at the thought of her noble colleague buried ignominiously on their property like some dead pet. "Is that... okay with you?"

Charlotte nodded and blinked out a few tears of her own, reminded of how deeply Diana felt things like loyalty, like guilt. "The land is paid for, so Dan can stay there as long as we do."
Tilting forward to touch her forehead against Charlotte's, the dark woman shut her eyes and made a proposition. "I say we never move."

"That's fine with me," Charlie agreed. "As long as you're there, it's home. I'll gladly grow old with you in that house. We can plant some annuals on his grave in the fall."

Such simple, kindly words, such an easy reference to a future they had both felt might be in jeopardy, but it felt true as ever. For each of them, things fell back into place, certain as before the unfortunate disruption; like it could all happen for them if only they had the strength and faith to make it so.

"I had a dream about you tonight," Charlie revealed quietly, breaking the reverent silence. "They were both after you - Lia and Julia, I mean. They wouldn't let go and I couldn't get to you..."

"Stop that right now. I don't want you to think about that anymore," Diana told her. "I'm gonna count to three, and we're gonna drop the subject once and for all, okay?"

Charlie blinked, eyeing her with wary agreement. "Fine. I'll drop it, but I won't forget."

"Deal. One, two -"

Before Diana got to three, a warm, open mouth descended on her own, kissing her with the singular purpose of blotting out the memory of any other kiss, any possibility of kisses from anyone else who might or might not be waiting outside the door with larcenous intent, making them all pale in comparison to the need, the desire, the acceptance and understanding communicated in one long, slow, deep, wet kiss that could have lasted days without objection from the receiver.

When Charlotte finally pulled away, damning the evolutionary quirk that gave her lungs instead of gills, she found herself faced with that look - the one Emily so querulously criticized her for failing to notice more often, the one that presented Diana's heart to her, all wrapped up with pretty bows like a Christmas gift - and she felt herself crumble and melt like a lump of salt in a boiling pot.

"You really do love me," she said, a feathered wisp of awe in her voice. "Don't you?"

Although it didn't need saying, Diana said it anyway. "You and no one else, now or ever after. You're it for me, Charlotte Agnes Browning."

In response to the usage of her hated middle name - which normally constituted an act of war - the attorney pinched Diana's left nipple hard between finger and thumb, but paired that punishment with another hungry kiss that nearly swallowed the tall woman's yelp of surprise and pain.

"Ow," Diana complained, when her mouth was set loose to speak.

"You deserved it - plus, you said I could hurt you when I felt the need."

"I did, didn't I?" Diana cocked one slim brow in cheeky defiance. "Aaaagnesss."

"Oh-ho! Someone's feeling suicidal," Charlie taunted, straddling Diana's waist and rearing up like a thunderhead loaded with lightning bolts. She tugged her lover's dark blue silk blouse out of her jeans and slipped beneath, tickling along her naked ribs with both hands. "How much time do we have?"

"They'll be looking for us soon," Diana answered, obviously regretting the time-lock imposed on this encounter. "Not enough time. There's still too much I need to expla-OW! - explainnnn..."

Charlie was already unfastening tiny enamel buttons, spreading the shirt open, possessively kneading and stroking bare skin as she went. "So talk. I'm not stopping you."

"Uhh, yeah. In a way, you are," Diana protested meekly, unable to muster much in the way of denial as kisses poured over her abdomen, a tongue and teeth attacking the front closure of her bra.

"I'm listening," Charlie claimed, "and I won't go near your mouth, so you can keep talking."

"I need your full attention... please?"

"Believe me, you have it." Open came the bra, and Charlotte managed a mumble of criticism as she claimed a contracting nipple with her teeth. "You're wasting valuable time, stretch."

"Sweet mother of God, you don't play fair, either," Diana groaned, struggling to keep from losing herself in the tide of sensation her lover instinctively drew forth. "You better be listening. I don't think I can get through this -ohh, yeah, right there - twice."

"Mmm. Mmm-hmm. Go."

Using all the powers of concentration she could access, Diana laid out the plan she and Julia had formed together - along with a few additions the Swede knew nothing about - and Charlotte, to her great credit, did manage to file away every detail without a single objection or complaint... except when she had a bit of trouble with the button fly on Diana's jeans. Then she objected and complained quite strenuously until the pants were off and lying in a heap on the cold tile floor.



"Are you sure we can trust Julia to keep her end of the bargain?" Charlie asked, scanning the room for Diana's missing left shoe.

"I trust her about as far as I can throw Luis," Diana replied, fishing the shoe from under the bed and holding it aloft. "Found it."

"So you trust her about twelve feet?"


"That's roughly how far you tossed the poor man when you were horsing around in Emily's yard."

"Twelve feet, eh?"


"That sounds about right," Diana smirked, checking herself in the mirror over the sink. She counted herself lucky to have escaped with only the one visible hickey hovering right above her collar. "I want to believe that Julia's capable of better things, you know? If not just for our sake, then for the world at-large."

"Maybe if she's occupied playing spy games, she won't have time to pine over you."

Diana faced her one-woman peanut gallery and sneered with great distaste. "She does not pine. Please, whatever you do while you're together, don't bait her."

Charlotte tried very hard to look innocent and offended. "Moi?"

"Oui - vous," Diana confirmed, wagging a finger of warning. "I know your methods, darlin', and I just want you to remember that it's in our best interest not to piss her off."

"I did hear that part, you know," the attorney replied, unable to squelch the current of mischief arcing in her eyes and voice. "Although it was difficult to discern through all your heavy breathing."

"It's a miracle that's all I did," said the woman who had to bite her own tongue in an effort to stanch the flow of loud praise and thanks clogging her throat only minutes before. "I owe you big for this."

"I'll keep that in mind, missy," Charlie replied coolly. "Just know that when I call it in, you better pay me back - no matter where or when, got me?"

"You say the word and I'll do my best to even things up."

"I love you, Sasquatch."

"I love you, too - Agnes."

Charlie rolled her eyes and moved to help Diana relocate the chair barricade from in front of the door, griping playfully as she did so.

"I don't know why I worried about those two losers making off with you. You're such a bitch."

A smile and a low croon of "Aaaagnesss" was Diana's only reply.



Nearly twenty minutes had passed by the time Diana and Charlotte rejoined the group assembled outside Teddy's hospital room. The door was open and they could see Sherrie - his ex-wife - acting very much like a concerned spouse, questioning her husband's doctor about medical matters in the blunt, efficient manner possessed only by good nurses.

"For better or worse," Diana whispered in Charlie's ear.

"Till death do they part," she replied softly, completing the refrain. "At least he won't be alone."

The rest of the group was only marginally interested in Teddy at all - Julia lounged near the nurse's station, apparently flirting with Will Franklin, while Gedde stood behind Angelia with his arms draped protectively around her shoulders, a gesture which seemed to put her more at ease than Diana had seen her since she surfaced.

*Maybe Gedde could have brought her out easier than I did... but nobody was interested in what was best for her. Not even me, really,* Diana confessed to herself.

"We should get a move on, citizens," Julia announced, gliding into the center of the pack. "The Glimmer Twins have a plane to catch."

"We are ready," Gedde told her, his mixed emotions about parting from the strange woman evident in his strained grimace. "You will please make a cursory attempt to keep yourself alive?"

Julia smiled at the boy, pressed an envelope into his hand, and kissed his knuckles. "Wait until you're in the clear, then read that and burn it. Take care of your family, Gedde."

"You two come with me," Diana instructed, motioning for he and Angelia to follow. They walked as a unit toward the elevator without looking back - no one wanted to risk it.

"And you're with me, Ingrid," Charlie said, snapping her fingers at Julia, who regarded her as if she were encrusted with pigeon crud. "Will? Can you drive Ingrid and me back to my sister's place?"

"Charlie!" came the call from down the corridor, where Diana waited by the elevator. "Behave."

The attorney winked at her departing love, then turned to face her new best friend. "I will."

Julia had an idea what lay in store and she narrowed her gray eyes at Charlotte. "I have the feeling large quantities of alcohol will be needed to get me through this without killing you."

"Ditto, Ingrid," Charlie seconded, her voice all sweetness and light. "Now let's get out of here before one of us needs a doctor."



Chen Kaige sat on the floor of Hideo Yoshima's living room, prodding his shoulder to test the level of pain. Aside from a small gash along his torso where the seat belt cut into his skin, the dislocated limb was all the damage his body suffered from the accident. After popping the arm back into joint, he nearly passed out. He needed a place to recover and regroup, and this house was perfectly empty - save the mass of dead bodies piled on the floor in a back bedroom.

Whatever happened here was not his concern, but with Yoshima missing, he had taken the liberty of calling his syndicate's accountant and informing him that the Yakuza boss was missing and that a bonus must be paid upon completion of the job, regardless of Yoshima's condition. A deal had been made, and payment must be assured.

The accountant was predictably alarmed, and vowed to cover his employer's commitment. He also alerted Yoshima's associates that something had gone terribly wrong in California, and they, in turn, agreed to send a larger group of men to investigate the disappearance of their respected associate.

Chen didn't give a damn. He had a job to do, and once his promised bonus was secured, he set about forming a new plan of attack - one that would put him right under Charlotte Browning's nose. All the easier to put a bullet in her brain and go home a considerably richer man.

"Fubar, fubar, fubar," he chanted insanely, twisting his shoulder and ignoring the sickening crunch of bone on bone. "America is a dangerous place."

Part Twenty

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