Persistence of Memory - Pt. 20

By Paul Seely


Twenty Nine
 

        In the hospital parking lot, once they reached the Cadillac, Angelia had a moment of indecision. Diana was driving them to the airport, that much was certain. Time was short and she had to make the best of what remained. For the first time since latching onto him in the hallway, she broke contact with her brother, letting go of his hand and moving to take the passenger seat beside Diana.

Gedde gave her a look - mouth set in a firm line, eyes equally disapproving and sympathetic. "Do not fool yourself," he whispered. "We are going home. She is already home."

"I know that," his sister answered as they entered the car. She was quite aware of the hopelessness of hoping, but it didn't make the actual parting any easier. The notion of losing the same love twice in a lifetime due to her own selfish folly made her want to scream and rip clumps of hair from her head, to wear sackcloth and ashes and swear off ever trying again.

Love stinks (yeah, yeah), but it surely reeks more when you had it in your hand and wadded it up like junk mail only to find that you've tossed out that fabled check for ten million happy days and nights. Angelia's only solace was an odd surety that Charlotte Browning was a frugal spender - she probably wouldn't waste a single one. Sometimes life could be fair to the point of being unfair, and that tiny granule of just injustice gave her enough gall to make one last run, take one final shot.

Diana graciously ignored the words and looks exchanged between the siblings, preferring to get them out of danger and on the way to Nagano as soon as possible. To that end, she drove with typical, aggressive Úlan toward the airport, keeping her mind focused on -

"She left a hickey," Angelia said, interrupting her barreling train of thought.

Diana glanced at the woman beside her, the one wearing Charlie's shirt and jacket. "It happens."

"She thinks she owns you, you know."

*Marvelous. This is just what we don't need right now,* Diana thought, unable to keep the snap out of her voice as she responded to the allegation.

"It's more like a lease with an option to buy. We're still haggling on price."

"Is bidding open to the public?" Angelia asked, turning halfway in her seat to face Diana. In the back seat, she saw her brother cover his face with both hands, not eager to witness what was sure to be an ugly, embarrassing scene.

"No," came the simple answer.

"Julia seems to think differently."

"Julia lives to cause trouble. Don't take your cues from her," Diana warned, seemingly addressing both of her passengers.

"I can believe that," Angelia agreed. "That black cop asked what you all were doing down the hall, right after she dragged you into that room? Julia told him CB was marking her territory."

"She did, huh?" Diana couldn't help smirking as she imagined Will Franklin's reaction.

"Coffee came out of his nose," the young woman recalled. "He was a mess, nearly choked himself to death. Somehow, I got the idea he fancied putting in a bid himself - until that happened, anyway."

"Will's a quick study. Five minutes with Charlie and he'll understand it's hopeless," Diana ventured, knowing how easily one could be charmed by her mate.

"I suppose that puts me and Ms. Frosty-Freeze in remedial learning classes," Angelia surmised. "She doesn't see the appeal any better than I do."

"Only because you're both too busy looking backwards. You're expecting to find someone who doesn't exist anymore. I've changed. You both need to accept that."

"Well, I think I have a better excuse than she does - I've been fucking sleepwalking for the past ten years, Diana. I woke up just in time to be too late."

"And I am so sorry that happened to you," Diana added gently, "but it's not like your life is over, Angel. You're just getting started again - "

"But, can't you see? I don't know how!" she protested, voice rising to a high, frantic pitch. "We pick up the sample, deliver it to your pals... then what? Where are we supposed to go? What do we do for money? How do we take care of someone who's been institutionalized for nearly two decades?"

"I'll make sure Harry takes care of whatever you need."

"No, dammit! I need you! I need you... more."

Squinting against the glare of headlights on the highway, Diana shuddered out a small breath. "More than what?"

"More than she does," Angelia explained. She slid as close as her seat belt would allow, placing one shaking hand on Diana's thigh. "I'm sorry for what I did to you. Let me make it right. I know I could if you'd just give me the chance. Please, don't turn your back on me now."

Guilt is a funny thing. Potent and brutal as strychnine, it works like slow poison - the longer it's in the system, the more damage is done. Diana knew the taste of it well, felt it sit bitter on her tongue, fought the urge to swallow this new morsel and add it to the deadly lump in her gut that could never be digested or purged. She knew she simply couldn't take this on, couldn't handle any more of it, not without surrendering to the deleterious effects and going weak when she had to be strong.

"We went through this already, Angel," she said, drawing from a deepened well within herself, one dug with two sets of hands. "It's past, all of it is past. For your own sake, let it go. Let me go."

"If you gave a damn about my sake, you'd come with me and help me."

"The best thing for you is to work through what's happened with a professional, a therapist -"

"Fuck that!" Angelia spat, her hand clamping tighter on the tall woman's leg. "Did you have to go to a shrink? Did you debase yourself in front of a stranger to work through your pain?"

"No, but -"

"You're goddamned right, you didn't!" On a roll with her own performance, the young woman let fly all the rotten tomato-type thoughts packed away in her bag of tricks. "She probably rocked you to sleep every night, telling you she loved you, that everything was gonna be all candles and flowers as long as you stayed with her..."

"I think you should stop right there," Diana said, her voice a dangerous hum.

Angelia assumed a sickly smile and mimicked Charlotte's voice with canny accuracy. "'Oh, honey, it doesn't matter if you did bad things! I know you're not a bad person! I love you to pieces and that makes everything just fucking PERFECT - so long as you don't examine it too closely!'"

Gedde leaned up and spoke to his raving sister, trying to calm her down. "Please, do not do this. You cannot change the mind or heart of another by twisting your own."

His sibling turned on him with hard, calm eyes that betrayed her ruse of hysteria. "Gedde, you're my brother and I love you, so I'll say this once kindly - please butt out."

"He's right," Diana interjected. "You can say whatever you want - cuss me out, hit me if it'll make you feel better - but it won't change how I feel now."
 
"And why the hell not? You changed your mind about me once already - dammit, you changed your heart!" she declared. Suddenly her face fell slack, the self-generated anger fading to something milder, something like sorrow as she felt the reality of her words for the first time. "I know you loved me... I know that much. How could you just let go of that, go on like it didn't mean anything?"

"I didn't want to let go," Diana told her, quiet and calm. She felt sure that the split-awareness required to keep the car moving ever forward was the only thing saving her from breaking down, letting it all fly out in a fit of tears and fists and curses. "I was helped along with that... problem."

"By Charlotte?" Angelia asked, all ready to place blame on the most convenient scapegoat.

"By the same people who helped you. They washed it right out of me," Diana recalled, hating the sick, hopeless feelings which always accompanied thoughts of the procedures. "Angel, I didn't remember who you were or... what I did to you, until nine months ago. Riggins told me he choked you to death with his own hands, so I tried to..."

White-knuckled, Diana gripped the Caddy's steering wheel. Twice, she had his neck in her hands.

*If only I had finished him that first time, right after he told me. If only.*

"Christ, I just never expected to see you again," she finished shakily.

"I knew that I killed you, that old man said it and I knew it was true." Angelia lifted her hand from Diana's leg slowly, as if it were filled with heavy lead shot, then clenched it into a fist. "It was true, in a way. I killed us. If only I had trusted you -"

"Don't do that!" Diana interrupted angrily. "Don't if yourself to death. I have so many goddamned ifs running around in my head, it's like the fucking Boston Marathon in there, and there's more every single day. You don't deserve to live like that, Angel."

"Then tell me how I am supposed to live with it. I fucked away the best thing that ever happened to me - how does one get over that alone?"

With cautious strength, a hand gripped Angelia's shoulder. She turned her head and met her brother's eyes - not yet crying for her, but reddened with sadness for her pain.

"You will never be alone again," he told her. "We do not know each other yet, I realize that. One thing you must understand now and know forever is that neither you nor our mother will be alone - unless you wish to be."

Angelia placed her hand over his and squeezed tight, wishing it was enough. "Gedde, I believe you, but... it's not the same thing."

"I know this. What I can offer you is companionship, trust, acceptance and understanding - all of which are far better than being alone."

"You're just a kid," she protested gently. "How can you understand any of this?"

"I believe I now know what it is to care for someone who will never be with you," Gedde explained, a distant look in his dark eyes. "If nothing else, we will be able to commiserate like mad."

After a second's uneasy hesitation, Angelia laughed. Not loudly or with much verve, but she did feel a palpable sense of ease come over her at the thought of sharing the load with her brother. With the obviously decent, kind man the sensitive child had become. It wasn't the same, but maybe it would be enough to get them through the strange, hard days ahead.

"Okay," she whispered, leaning her head down to kiss his hand. "Okay."

Diana remained quiet, relieved and grateful in her silence, which lasted until they pulled into the white zone at the county airport. Julia had chartered a jet to take them to LAX, where they would board a flight for Japan. If all went smoothly, Harry Mars would have a live sample of Marburg/Utah in his possession by Monday night, and the deliverers would be on their way to retrieve their mother and begin a new life somewhere in the great, wide world.

"This should be simple enough," Gedde announced once they were all gathered on the sidewalk outside the terminal. "We have no luggage to check, so we travel unencumbered."

"Here, take this." Diana held out a small roll of bills for Angelia. "It's just a few hundred, but you'll probably need some things once you're in Nagano."

"I believe it is unnecessary," Gedde told them both, brandishing the envelope Julia had given him. "There are bills inside - yen, I think. No exchange would be required."

"I thought that was just a mash note," Angelia needled, grinning as he blushed.

"There is a note of some nature inside, but I have yet to read it. I will wait until we are safely away, as she requested."

"Oh, he's whipped!" his sister declared, punching his arm.

Gedde simply shrugged it off, knowing she was only teasing, glad she felt comfortable enough to do so. He turned to Diana and bowed slightly, then offered his hand, which she took and held as he spoke. "I wish you strength for the trouble which lies ahead - though I know you have more than enough to carry you through. I also wish you a measure of peace. Your road is one few could travel without losing their souls. May whatever god you pray to keep yours safe."

Diana was moved by his sincerity and shook her head in awe. "Thank you, Gedde. You're an exceptional young man, and how someone like Hideo Yoshima could have fathered you is beyond my comprehension."

Gedde smiled a bit, recalling something Julia said to him. "I believe I am my mother's son."

"That would explain it. Good luck to you."

"And to you." He looked to his sister then, placing a hand on her arm. "I will wait for you inside."

Angelia gave him a nod and watched as he walked away, leaving her alone with Diana to say what only one of them wanted to say. They stood a few feet apart, each simply looking at the other, trying to situate the fragile past in the hard current of present reality.

"I don't know how to do this," Angelia began. "I don't think I can."

Diana let out a long breath and stepped closer, easing both hands onto the young woman's shoulders. "Would it make it any easier if I told you I never cared about you? That I can't forgive your using me for target practice?"

"No," Angelia said, frowning with embarrassed amusement. "I know you'd be lying."

"Yeah, I would." Diana's voice trembled, lowered into a register of compressed emotion. "I do care about you and I always will. No amount of time or distance - or bullets - can change that. But I've moved on. Now it's time for you to do the same."

"God, I don't think I can..."

"You have to. You have to." Diana cupped her jaw with a palm, urging eye contact. "I want you to do something for me. I want you to swear you'll do it."

"Anything," she agreed, tears forming and rolling free.

"Stop hurting yourself," Diana commanded, struggling to keep her own tears from drenching them both. "Stop living in the past. I want you to grab hold of every day you're given. Wring the fucking life out of every minute because each one is fresh and new and pliant and you can make of it whatever you want."

"Diana, I don't know how to do that. I want to, but it hurts... so much..."

In one fast, hard motion, Diana drew her in and wrapped her up, arms tight all around her, voice low and soft in her ear as she cried and cried.

"We know what pain is, you and me, and it's too easy to let it creep in and remake every new moment into one that's already over, one that can't be changed. We can't change what happened, Angel, and the time for forgetting is over."

"I wish it wasn't. I wish I still didn't remember anything."

"That's the bitch about getting the memories back - it always seems like the bad stuff happened only yesterday. We live in it, give in to it, and before you know what's happened, years have passed and you're still living inside a dusty old mistake. All we can do now is make new memories, and pray and fight and gamble like hell to increase the good ones until the bad are hopelessly outnumbered."

"I still love you," Angelia whispered, so quietly it was almost a thought. "I know I could do it if you were with me."

Diana's breath lodged in her throat, blocking the words she couldn't say to anyone else but Charlotte without it being an unforgivable lie. She edged back and faced the woman she could have loved, if fate had not held a greater plan for her heart, and told her the truth.

"I can't breathe without her, Angel. I'd die for sure."

Angelia shut her eyes tight, growling out a frustrated bark of pain. "I keep telling myself this is fair, this is how things work, but I don't believe it. I didn't hurt her bad enough to deserve this."

"This isn't about hurt. It's about love," Diana said, certain of her words for the first time. "It's in you, just like it is in me. It's not a memory or some dead thing or a one-time shot, it's an ability, a capacity. Use it. Use it to love your brother, your mother, most importantly yourself. It'll come back to you, Angel, I swear it will, a thousand times over. It just won't be me. It can't be."

"Never?" There was no hope left in her eyes, no defiance, only remorse and resignation.

"Never," Diana confirmed. "You are remarkable, don't ever doubt that. You just weren't meant for me. I would have found my way to her somehow. This is where I'm supposed to be."

Angelia sniffled, unhinged one hand from Diana's waist and wiped her eyes. "This sucks."

A small sniff of agreeable laughter from the taller woman. "Yeah, it does."

"No, I mean this really sucks, like on a mythical level. This sucks like fucking Charybdis."

Diana laughed more fully then, leaning their foreheads together and giving Angelia a final squeeze. She thought about it for a moment, debating the wisdom of sending a mixed message, then touched her lips to her former lover's eyebrow, then her nose, finally easing down to her mouth.

They kissed softly at first, a gentle press of lips that opened and drew them into a deeper, hungrier joining. It lasted only a few seconds, with sliding tongues and shared breaths and mingled tears, but it was bitter and sweet, full of longing and regret. It was enough.

Enough for goodbye.

"Promise me," Diana urged, sliding her damp cheek against Angelia's own. "Swear you'll try."

"I'll try," she answered wearily. "I promise you that much."

"I believe in you, Angel." Diana inched back from the embrace, loosening the bonds until they both let go and stood apart. "You're gonna be fine, better than fine. Happy. You do deserve it."

Angelia nodded dismissively, not fully buying it, wishing she could. "Yeah. Yeah, okay."

"I'll call Harry and let him know what's up. He'll make sure you're all taken care of, set you up wherever you want to go."

"You know something?" Angelia looked serious, contemplative. "I think you're a better kisser than you were ten years ago."

Diana widened her eyes, shuffled her feet. "Uhh... well -"

"If you say anything about CB being responsible for that, I'm gonna scream bloody murder."

"Okay," Diana grinned guiltily. "I won't say it."

Angelia began walking backward, slow steps, edging away in fits and starts. "Will there be food on the plane?"

"If I know Julia, there'll be a spread fit for ten people."

"Good. Feels like I haven't eaten in years."

And with that, she turned her back and started walking away. Fast. Like she was trying to achieve escape velocity, to get free of the strong pull emanating from Diana and launch herself into a safe space where no one could hurt her again, intentionally or not. Watching the young woman propel herself forward, Diana said what she needed to say.

"Goodbye, Angel."

 

Technically Monday
 
At around a quarter past midnight, while her sister's family slumbered uneasily inside the locked house, Charlotte sat side-by-side with Julia on the Avila children's backyard swing set, drinking a bottle of chilled white zinfandel and playing a game - nothing so organized and boring as checkers or Scrabble, but a game nonetheless. Kind of a negative version of "The Liar's Club," it required that they tell the unvarnished truth about one subject... a very personal subject.

"Are you certain you wish to continue?"

"Go ahead. Unless you're afraid you'll have to resort to fabrication soon."

"I assure you, that won't be necessary. I could regale you with similar accounts all night."

"Go for it, Ingrid."

"You really must stop calling me that."

"Fine, whatever, Julia. It's still your turn."

"Fine, indeed. Now, where was I?"

"Dusk, Africa... blah, blah, blah."

"Right. Dusk, in a church basement in northern Eritrea, on a bed of wrapped C-4 explosive, two detachments of armed soldiers tromping the streets above looking for us," Julia recounted.

She remained rather disappointed that no more details were required than where, when, and a brief, dry recap of circumstances. The attorney set the rules for this odd game and she complied fully - though she had to wonder what motivated Charlotte to begin this at all, other than abject masochism. That idea fascinated her, and Julia sniffed her companion surreptitiously, trying to smell her reasons. Anyone who could willfully torment herself like this had to be just slightly twisted, perhaps even (GASP!) interesting.

"Your turn, darling."

"You really must stop calling me that."

"Certainly, Charlotte. It is now - "

"My turn, I know. Near dawn, in a rented limousine, top floor of a downtown parking garage, open moonroof. Four times," Charlotte enunciated, bearing down on the last words to bolster her confidence. That whole C-4 thing was pretty tough to ignore. "I'd just won a big case that day."

"Congratulations."

"Not necessary. I was congratulated until I couldn't see straight, thanks very much. You're up."

As they talked, Charlie watched Julia's eyes  - cool gray like tired snow - sliding carelessly across the yard as if her awareness alone could keep out any intruders. The funny thing was, she got the feeling that Julia wasn't really worried about that possibility at all. In fact, she looked almost sleepy.

"In a stolen Bradley fighting vehicle, while waiting on a backroad in St. Petersburg for a terrorist caravan headed to kidnap Yeltsin. They didn't show, so we spent the whole night there."

"I thought the Bradley was a bust."

"Pardon?"

"They didn't pass safety testing, too small for efficient troop transport, nobody could afford to make them or buy them. Something like that." An arched brow and a smirk clued her in that Julia was impressed by her rudimentary knowledge. "I watch the news occasionally," she explained.

"Bradleys are misbegotten monstrosities, unworthy to bear General Omar's august name. Imagine a Chevrolet Suburban with big guns and armor plating," the Swede detailed, "one that only Bill Gates could purchase without going broke. Ours was stolen. I didn't like it, but it was actually quite roomy for two people - even two as active as we were that night."

Charlie didn't take the bait. "You're not worried about this Chen guy coming back here?"

Julia sighed, seeing her hook bob fruitlessly on the water, and answered wearily. "He isn't entirely stupid. He will take a short breather to recover from his close encounter with Diana's car, then search out a way to surprise you, popping up like some nursery rhyme weasel."

"Great. So we just sit under the mulberry bush and wait?"

"Yep. Should I take your lack of retort as a surrender?"

"No. I'm far from tapped."

"Ms. Browning, you are out-gunned. I knew her for ten years. You can't possibly win."

"I already have. I'm just trying to prove something to myself."

"And what might that be?"

"That you're not worth worrying about anymore."

Julia peered through the wan mix of moonlight and white spill from distant floodlights on the Avila's deck. She saw just the right spot - about midway up the young woman's throat - where one quick punch could cave her trachea like a mine shaft in an earthquake. If only she could convince Diana it was an accident...

"A very premature judgment. You don't have all the facts about me yet."

"I know enough. She was only with you so often because of the agency's assignment protocols."

"And I suppose you learned this by reading the agency employment manual."

"A superfluous document, if it even exists. This is common sense... and an educated guess," Charlie continued. "Riggins placed her with you to stabilize you both. You were her mentor, and evidently, you were a barrel of monkeys in bed, but it didn't go any farther than that for Diana."

"In a pillowed and curtained canvas hammock strung between olive trees, less than six hundred meters from Colonel Muammar Al Gadhafi's personal tent," Julia said suddenly, sheerly to shock the other woman into silence. "Broad desert daylight."

"It's not your turn, Julia."

"A jet full of dead coke smugglers, over the jungles of Cartagena," she pressed on, determined to at least annoy the woman once more. "The jet was on autopilot - Diana was decidedly not."

"It will never be your turn again."

"Keep telling yourself that, dear. She will grow weary of domestic bliss, if not today or tomorrow, then someday quite soon. Diana can't drive in low-gear forever. She'll burn up."

"That won't happen."

"When she does burn up, she might take you with her. I suggest you quit now, for your own safety."

"I'm touched by your concern, but it's wasted on me. I won't be losing her by default or apathy or mistrust. Nothing short of death will do the trick, Jules."

"That could still be arranged."

"You wouldn't risk it. You're a lot of things, but even I couldn't call you foolish. All this trouble to get your own business off the ground, to get yourself a killswitch - "

"Ahh. She told you about that."

"Of course she told me," Charlie said, certainty shining in her eyes. "Diana trusts me."

A long moment of silence followed as they studied each other from opposite ends of the telescope; one clearly visible, bursting with the detailed blue, green and gold of the Earth, the other too cloaked and hidden to define beneath a densely luminous atmosphere, the planet Venus personified.

Julia shut her eyes and looked away first, trying hard not to resent the clarity of emotion love had afforded this young woman, the privilege of knowing another's heart as well as her own. The inescapable sting came from knowing that particular, branded heart was the only one which stood a chance of pairing with her own.

"Don't blow it," she advised, her voice void of emotional turmoil. "Once that trust is gone, you might find you have to shift a mountain to get her to speak to you again."

"You're lucky to even get that much. If it were up to me, Diana and I would be in Argentina by now, miles away from you and all the unfathomable crap you brought down on her. On us."

Julia rolled her eyes, apparently exasperated. "It wasn't all done to ruin your weekend, you know. The Angelia situation needed closure for everyone involved. A family has been reunited, a despot mobster dethroned, a deadly virus taken from criminals and placed in the responsible hands of world security groups, and I get my start in the wonderful field of independent contracting."

"At what expense? Dan is dead. Teddy is in the hospital, lucky to be alive. Diana is out hunting some mad weasel you brought here - directly or not - and you'll likely have the Yakuza on your ass until the day you die," Charlotte summarized angrily. "There must have been more convenient routes to get what you wanted."

"Convenience is for apathetic bores and armchair quarterbacks. Any game worth playing is worth overplaying," Julia proclaimed proudly.

Charlie took a long sip of wine, then broke one of the cardinal rules of courtroom procedure, one that judicial cossack Roger Van Susteren had drummed into her in law school - she asked a question to which she didn't already know the answer.

"Why didn't you just kill me yourself?"

Julia did not hesitate, did not lie. "I needed a beard, darling, as do we all from time to time. Had Chen succeeded in killing you, Diana would have chopped him into mincemeat with a rusty razor blade. I take his body for trading purposes, and our girl becomes my girl again. See the logic?"

"The inside of your mind must look like a stereogram," Charlie dazedly observed, stunned by such brutally clean honesty. "It's there, but it's so masked... did you ever really intend for me to die?"

"Only is the most half-hearted, half-assed sense. It would be a lie to say I gave much thought to your fate, other than identifying the possibilities and planning for each," Julia said, watching the flickering of Charlotte's face, reading each twitch like a telegram. "I wouldn't hurt you myself, even now."

"Huh." Charlie felt disconcerted by her own reaction - she believed her. And she knew the exact reason why. "That would blow whatever chance you think you still have with Diana. From what little I know of you, that seems to be the only thing you won't risk."

Julia shrugged, unwilling to deny it. She drained her own perspiring wine glass, the kicky potable no longer cold enough to properly enjoy. "Were our positions transposed, would you kill me?"

Recalling Diana's challenge earlier in the evening, Charlie tried once again to imagine the impossible. She could not begin to guess how these women reasoned things out. They were more alike than she felt comfortable admitting, and so different from regular people, so different from her own withdrawn, relatively small self. Still, she gave it her best effort, though even briefly trying to empathize with a living, breathing trigonometry problem like Julia gave her a pisser of a headache.

"No. If I had even the slightest bit of hope for a future with her, I wouldn't gamble it away."

The Swede granted her a genuine smile. "And Diana was worried we'd have nothing in common."

Charlie almost grinned back, lightened by the surprising warmth of her smile and words. "I think she was more worried that we'd attack each other with Emmy's croquet mallets."

Julia scanned the flat, grassy yard, quickly locating the wire stand loaded with colorful wooden clubs and balls. "Would you like to play? I promise not to hit you - unless you cheat."

Spinning a half-turn in her swing, Charlotte curved her mouth into a funky little smirk. "We've already established that I don't need to cheat to win."

One hand swept down and deftly corked the dented white zin bottle, gray eyes never leaving Charlie's amused face. "So you actually think you won our little bout of prurient one-upsmanship?"

"That was one game I won before it even started. Like I said earlier, I was just trying to test my newfound confidence, and you were most accommodating. Thank you."

"I must apologize for underestimating you," Julia said, giving her a soft golf-clap of applause. "It seemed you were merely seeking salacious stories for the purpose of flagellating yourself. I'm not accustomed to being used as an unwitting therapist."

"You're not accustomed to being used at all," Charlotte ventured. "You pull the strings, push pieces around on the board - you don't get played unless you want to, unless you're willing. You shift mountains to get your exes to talk to you, for crying out loud."

"Just one particular ex, actually."

"Still, one has to marvel at the lengths you went to in order to make it happen... even if one finds you morally reprehensible, well-beyond egomaniacal, and in need of extensive psychotherapy."

"Marvel away," Julia chuckled, striking a ridiculous, triumphant pose.

"Ooh. Ahh," Charlie hummed blandly. "Where's a camera when you need one."

"I wouldn't want you to think that I did all this out of malice or boredom," Julia said, once she stopped preening. "The main objective was gaining my unconditional freedom and assuring myself a place at the world's most exclusive dinner table. Everything else, including Diana's agreement with me, is gravy - though you, sweet Charlotte, are a lump in said gravy."

"Oh. Goody." Charlie appeared mildly offended. "I'm a lump."

"Lumps are inevitable. No matter how well executed a plan may be, there is always a snag, something that goes ass-backward because it's meant to be that way."

"An ass-backward lump. Stop, please. My swollen ego can't take this flattery."

"I still may come away with a ninety-nine percent success rate, even though you stubbornly refused to sit home and wait to die. Terribly uncooperative of you, ruining my perfect score."

"A stubborn, ass-backward lump," Charlotte summed up harshly, irritated by the fact that she wasn't irritated more. Staying mad in the face of such unrepentant, sociopathic charm was an effort, one she regrettably lacked the energy to maintain. It was easier to just go with it instead of grappling for the sustained fury which eluded her grasp like mercury. "Do you sweet talk everyone like this?"

"Only those of whom I am indescribably, malevolently jealous," Julia revealed, sounding very near serious. "Months of planning, countless deals, compromises and alliances went into making this happen... and I'd trade it all away if I thought there was any chance she'd leave with me."

It almost sounded like a concession speech, with that one tagalong addendum admitting her situation was nearly hopeless. After all the maddening machinations set in motion by this one, absolutely singular person, Charlotte found her almost sympathetic in acknowledging her singular defeat. The attorney knew in her marrow that she would do the same, fling away everything she had worked for if it meant she could be with Diana. To her, it was perfectly understandable.

"You might change your mind about killing me if I say this - "

"So don't say it," Julia interrupted, getting a bad feeling from the softly spoken preamble.

Charlie tried to strip the pity from her voice and said it anyway. "I feel sorry for you."

"Well, that did it. Now I have to shoot you on principle."

"I don't really understand you and I don't think I want to," Charlotte continued, unfazed by the mock-threat, "but Diana wants to believe you're better than the sum of your schemes. She thinks there's a person of some value underneath all that ice and bullshit."

"Eww." Julia shuddered, frowning sourly. "How utterly unappealing you make me sound."

"Diana got out of your world because she wasn't meant to be there in the first place. She wasn't happy there and she never could be... but you, on the other hand, you probably couldn't find happiness doing anything else. I feel sorry for you because you have to do it alone."

The frown creasing her mildly pinked face deepened and a hand absently riffled her silvery hair. "Are you really a lawyer? You're beginning to sound incredibly like a psychiatrist."

"I'm right, aren't I?"

"Even if you were, I wouldn't give you the satisfaction of hearing an affirmation."

"Afraid of losing your mystery?" Charlotte prodded gently.

Her inflated frown sputtered flat as Julia realized she was being teased. "They'd boot me out of the Enigmatic Blonde Spy Guild for certain."

"Ahh. We don't want that to happen. Not when you're so close to getting your pension."

"Bite me," Julia suggested, chuckling just a tad. "I am not that old. Besides, I'm their best hope for dissembling the notion that all fair-haired women are harmless, brainless bimbos."

Unable to stop herself now, Charlie poked at her once more. "I can now attest that you are neither harmless nor brainless. The bimbo issue is still on the table."

"Again, I urge you to bite me," the Swede muttered, moderately peeved. "It's simply not proper to address a woman with interests in arms dealing, gambling, drugs, money laundering - especially one who currently has a loaded gun in her pants - as a bimbo."

Charlotte could only blink at first, dizzied by the concise listing of criminal enterprises in which this person was involved. She wondered how many countries would gas her for just sitting here with Julia, then shivered at the thought. Maybe it was best to stop teasing her.

"How can you not go crazy juggling all that shit?" she asked, eyeing her sneakers as they brushed a straight, predictable line in the dirt beneath the swing.

"Only God knows," the cagey blonde answered, "and she's not telling."
 
Charlotte raised her head and looked dead at Julia, unable to stifle her curiosity. "She? Why she?"

"You are so irrevocably Catholic. Have you never questioned that old assumption?"

"Not really, no. And I am not irrevocably Catholic," Charlie protested, "I've just never given that possibility much thought."

"Neither did I... until the first time I nearly died," Julia revealed soberly. "Scads of shrapnel lodged in my back, lots of internal bleeding, miles from help. I was a mess, and I honestly thought it was over. Twenty-six years old, and I realized I was totally unprepared for the end of my ride."

Charlotte slipped a hand into her hair, felt the slight ridge of scar tissue along her scalp - a trail blazed by a whizzing lead slug that missed killing her by perhaps an inch. "I don't think any of us are ever truly ready for it to be over, no matter what we say."

"When you feel time running out, it sets you to thinking. I realized I had no belief system, no concept of a life after this one is over. If eternity exists, our notions of it - of what we want or need or think we deserve - will likely play a large role in the formation of where we end up."

"And you'd prefer to end up being judged by a woman?"

"I'd prefer not to be judged at all, thanks very much. My notion of the perfect afterlife contains not one single courtroom and no judges of either gender."

"HA!" Charlotte barked, rather taken with that idea. "What a concept. Wouldn't that be nice."

"Heavenly," Julia agreed. "My trouble is that I simply cannot envision a male God without thinking of all those blissfully simple paintings of a benevolent, bearded Christ, and I know the creator of the universe would not choose to look like one of the Grateful Dead."
 
"Unless that was what we wanted to see." Charlie was beginning to catch on, and she tried to picture her ideal notion of a creator, some visage she would respect enough to plaster on GOD itself. "I'm having the same problem. All I can think of are faces from paintings. Michelangelo, Dali..."

"Try imagining a fifty-foot Liv Ullmann."

Charlie did a double take, then tried to place the name. "Fifty-foot who?"
 
The Swede slumped her shoulders in exaggerated disappointment. "Have you never watched a Bergman film?"

"Not many," Charlie confessed, having tried to sit through a few of his works in a film appreciation class at Berkeley. "They don't make sense, all those pale women dressed in black turtlenecks, looking for some damned missing caribou..."

"Good night, Ingmar!" Julia slapped both hands to her cheeks, her mouth a disgusted twist. "Possibly the greatest director of modern film, certainly the most acclaimed genius of my country's entertainment industry, and all you know of him is from some comedy skit about a caribou?"

Charlotte remembered then; that was a skit from "Saturday Night Live," not an actual Bergman movie. She felt strangely embarrassed and sought to make amends for her cultural ignorance of all the varied artistic jewels Sweden had offered to the world.

"Well... I like ABBA."

Gray eyes went wide as pie plates, and Julia bit her own lip to keep from screaming. Or laughing - she wasn't sure which, only that it would be loud enough to wake the neighborhood and possibly summon one of the cruising police cars weaving through the subdivision.
 
Having agreed to keep the night watch and sleep tomorrow when Luis and his 12 gauge pump shotgun took over, they stayed up talking until dawn.

It wasn't all friendly, but Charlie couldn't manage to hate herself for the recurrent lapses, for trying to make the best of a terribly awkward situation. Maybe it was some incurable weakness of character that made her search for something worth knowing in the unknowably dangerous woman... maybe it was a genetic defect inherited from that damned amazon bard. She certainly seemed the type to pass down some hidden sucker gene in all that tangled DNA.

By around three a.m., it no longer mattered. Charlie was past placing blame for all the hardship, intent on getting through the weirdness with her sanity and her newly strengthened heart intact.

Diana's words came back to her time and again as she and Julia discussed baseball, the validity of a unified European currency, hair conditioners, insurance payoffs for totaled Porsches, and the uncanny resemblance between one's notion of God and some actress named Liv Ullmann.

"When she isn't trying to kill you, fuck you, or fold your brain into origami, Julia can actually be a lot of fun. If - heaven forbid - I don't find Chen by Monday night, she'll stay with you through dinner at Xanadu. Your folks will love her."

*Find him, stretch,* Charlotte prayed more than once over the course of their discourse. *I got a bad feeling she'll kill my father before the salad plates are cleared.*
 
 
Part Twenty One

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