Persistence of Memory - Pt. 21

By Paul Seely


*Nearly dawn,* Diana noted, watching orange fingers of light peel back the gray duvet of evening blanketing her adopted hometown, swaddling the little white house in the Meadows. *If he hasn't come back here by now, he's probably bunked down in his hidy-hole until tonight.*

Chen Kaige would need a rest after his trying Sunday adventures, then he would be on the move again, pecking up the clues Diana scattered like bread crumbs during the night. He would know exactly where and when to find his target, and he would come for her.

*And I'll be waiting. This time, you won't get away from me. This time, I'm gonna be sure of it... if I can manage to stay awake. Jesus, how long has it been since I really slept? Forty-one, forty-two hours? I need a fucking nap something awful. It's getting harder to stay alert with these yahoos snoozing like babies all around me.*

The three abducted viral scientists and the captive Yakuza boss certainly looked peaceful as they lay quietly in a neat row on the living room carpet. Diana watched them all sleeping and wondered if they dreamed while the potent synthetic drug trapped them in slumber. Some ancient Greeks worshipped Morpheus, the god of sleep and dreams who was the drug's namesake, and Diana felt certain the agency's home-brewed pale green liquid did at least as good a job as that mythical deity.

*Maybe I should keep a vial of the stuff handy, just in case either of us ever has insomnia again,* she considered, only a scoche from serious. *Charlie can't sleep when she's too worried, and Unisom doesn't cut it when she's that keyed-up - though that can be a good thing sometimes. When she's really revved, neither of us gets any sleep... heh. On second thought, we don't need it.*

Swallowing a goofy smile at the remembrance of several all-nighters during the last legal tangle with Rowland Pharmaceuticals - which culminated in a Browning victory and a particularly interesting celebratory limo ride - Diana put the thought of mooching Morpheus out of her mind.

She rested on the couch in a half-doze, feet inclined on a pile of throw pillows, a cocked .38 revolver balanced on the flat expanse of her stomach. Reaching into her trusty canvas beach bag of goodies, she drew out the phone unit Dan sent her and dialed up the man who never slept. Diana had put off this necessary call long enough and it was time to face the music, both literally and figuratively.

Donny Osmond's "Soldier of Love" played while her call was connected, and Diana was mortified to find herself humming along when Harry Mars finally answered with caffeinated clarity.

"I was wondering when you'd get back to me," he tinnily groused, still on the dread speakerphone.

"Didn't want to bother you until I had something good," Diana effused, pleased she had decent news to impart for once. "Looks like you might be off the hook with the bigwigs while you recover."

"Don't tease me. They're sharpening the guillotine as we speak."

"Would a live sample of Marburg/Utah make your life any easier?"

"Tell me it isn't you bringing it in."

"It isn't me. I'm way too sleepy right now."

"Martin, gimme a smoke. Now. Then get out," Mars ordered, addressing someone else, perhaps a nurse or an assistant aiding him through his unfortunate disablement. Three beats and a lighter flick later... "When and who?"

Waiting until she heard a door close in Harry's office, a sign that they were speaking privately, Diana spat out the details. "Sixteen hours, maybe less if we don't hit any snags. Notify the field office in Japan that two civilians are bringing a hot delivery. They'll need a full relocation, and some special help from you as recompense."

Mars drew heavily on his cigarette and exhaled a smoky sigh. "Yoshima's kids, right?"

Diana, miffed by his accurate intuition, answered without sounding too surprised. "Right. Angelia and Gedde are in transit right now. They'll pick it up and bring it in for you, then you gotta spring their mom from wherever she's been held and get them all settled somewhere safe."

"I gotta?"

"Yes, Harry, you gotta. They don't have to do this for you. The agency has caused them a lot of grief over the years - they're owed a fair shake."

"The girl, maybe, but not that boy," Mars amended. "I ran a check on Angelia's family, pulled up all the stuff on her mother and brother like you asked."

Diana swallowed an unchewed gumball of anxiety, gulping hard as it ricocheted painfully down her gullet. *Uh-oh. Monkey wrench time.*

"Gedde Yoshima looked pretty goddamned familiar, Di. Right before Julia shot me, he was running around her bedroom, flapping in the breeze and making like he wanted a piece of me."

"He's a good kid, Harry, he just fell in with some bad company. You know how Julia works, what she must have... done to him," Diana said mildly, tamping down her angst. "Angelia needs family around her, and he's practically all there is. The mother can't be in good shape."

"She isn't, but once she's off the elephant-sized doses of meds they've forced down her throat, she might have a chance. What I wanna know is how you got Don Juan away from Julia in one piece."

"I'd rather not get into that," she squirmed, her stomach turning spastically acrobatic, doing clumsy somersaults inside her torso.

"If you want me to help, you'd damn well better get into it," Harry persisted. "Have you had contact with Julia since the shooting?"

*Aww, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!* she thought.

"Yes," she answered.

Mars sucked hard on his cig, vainly tried to slow his racing heart. "Tell me she's dead."

"Oh, she's dead all right," Diana lied, too quickly.

"Are you lying to me?"

*Noooo!* she thought.

"Yes," she answered, silently cursing her inconvenient honesty.

Harry Mars promptly exploded, spewing loud verbal shrapnel through the speakerphone like an expletive bomb designed by Sam Kinison, late genius of cuss-munitions. Some words Diana had never even heard before, spontaneously composed composites of extant curses melded with Harry's own inventions, and she was actually quite impressed with his creativity. She deserved worse, she felt certain, and so remained silent as Mars vented his spleen at maximum volume.

"How could you let her go?" he asked once his venom sac emptied, his voice hoarse and hollow.

"I don't work for the agency anymore, so I'm under no obligation to dispatch rogue agents," Diana told him, calm as a mill pond. "I have to look out for my own interests now."

"Getting rid of Julia would help you as much as me."

Diana wanted to agree with him, but couldn't risk a detailed an explanation of her plan for making that happen. "She won't be bothering me anymore, Harry. If you stay after her until termination, that's your business. Don't expect me to get more blood on my hands for you."

Harry cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the implication that he was asking her to kill strictly for his benefit. "You're right. Steer clear of her once the lockdown is over. Julia's an agency target now."

"How many agents can you afford to lose in the pursuit?" she asked, her meaning clear.

He sighed in resigned understanding. "As many as it takes. The field is too crowded, too unstable to support players like her. I gotta make sure she's taken down - soon."

"You'll have competition. Yoshima's people will be on the same trail."

"More power to the bastards. Maybe they'll save me the trouble."

Against her better judgment, Diana mounted a weak defense of her former colleague. "How bad could it be to let her try her hand at this? Aren't there enough assholes out there to keep everyone busy, even Jules?"

"Diana, she could turn," he rebutted mildly. "She could be worse than Riggins ever was."

"I don't wanna believe that."

"Neither do I, but I can't allow her actions to go unanswered. If she gets set up, she'll drop out of sight and it could be months - years - before she comes up again," Harry explained. "I remember years back when the old man was first feeling his way around, spreading his tentacles to see how tight he could squeeze. If I had intervened then, before he hooked up with Mangano... "

"Stop," Diana urged, cringing nervously on the sofa. "Please, just... don't go there."

Mars had no deep need to recount his failures to Diana, so he complied by cutting short his backward attempt to apologize by taking responsibility for the horrors that resulted from his inaction. He knew it was partly his fault. She knew it, too. Maybe the fact that she was still talking to him, offering him honest, hard answers, was proof that he was forgiven for his earlier cowardice.

"I just don't want that to happen to you - or anyone else - again," he continued. "Riggins is dead and gone and I can't make that right for you, but if I can spare you anything else - "

"Harry, I'm not your responsibility," Diana reminded gently, "and you're not mine. We help each other because we're... friends. You were always decent to me and I want you to be okay, but this is strictly a trade arrangement. I get the virus to you, you help Angel and Gedde get their mother to safety."

"Julia's off the table," he concluded stonily.

"I can't play dice with someone else's life anymore, not even hers," she fibbed, knowing that was exactly what she was planning to do. "Are you gonna help Angel and Gedde?"

He waited just long enough to make her nervous before answering, perhaps a passive-aggressive payback for her admitted interaction with the woman who crippled him. "Yeah. I'll put the word out in the field. If they show up with what you promised, I'll look after them."

Diana shut her eyes, tipped her head back on the sofa arm, and breathed a sigh of unqualified relief. "Thank you, Harry. You don't know how much that means to me."

"What I know is that you're up to something," Mars replied, displaying his intuition again. "You don't want to tell me, that's fine. If it involves Julia, just remember this - you're playing with fire."

"So is she," Diana crisply declared, starched again by his perceptiveness. "You do whatever you have to do to keep your life going, Harry. Don't doubt for a second that I'll do the same."

He sat on that for a bit, then spit out his half-smoked cigarette with a silly phtooey sound. "One down, one to go, eh?" he queried strangely.

Diana quirked an eyebrow and frowned into the phone. "Pardon?"

"Well, Angelia's all but taken care of," Mars explained. "Now you just get Jules off your back and things return to normal for you and the lawyer. Betcha can't wait till this excitement's over, get back to the hum-drum stuff. Tend your garden, go to the movies, catch an adulterer or two..."

There was a flippant disrespect in his voice, something Diana did not like at all. It was similar to the casual disapproval she heard in Julia's tone when she critiqued her "boring little life" with Charlotte, as if neither of them truly believed she could swim happily through her days without the agency's morass of troubleweed tugging at her feet.

"Angelia deserves a chance to construct a life of her own," she diplomatically stated, "and so does Julia, but nobody's gonna knock down my life and build in the ruins. Not them, not you. No one. I'm happy, Mars. God help anybody who tries to take that away from me."

A shocked spool of quiet unwound between them as Harry fumbled with his traitorous tongue. "I didn't mean for that to sound so shitty, Diana. You know I don't begrudge you your happiness."

"You just don't understand or accept the source. None of you get it."

"I want to understand, but... I'm sorry. I don't really get it at all," he said contritely.

"What's not to understand?" Diana querulously pressed. "Exactly what do you think I'm missing out on by being with her?"

Analogies were not Harry's specialty, but he grunted softly and took a shot at explaining his confusion. "This is bound to sound stupid, but it's like we were a football team, you know? Everyone down on the field, putting aside personal differences, slugging it out with a common goal in mind... then some spectator comes out of the stands and waltzes off with the star running back."

"I'd make a lousy running back," Diana interjected. "High center of gravity."

"Wide receiver, then," Mars grumpily amended. "You tossed a lateral to get rid of the ball, pulled off all your protective gear and left the game with a stranger. You didn't depart with another player, didn't defect to another team, just turned your back on the whole thing for... a spectator."

Slightly dazed and confused, Diana jostled her head to and fro to make the logic settle. "My leaving doesn't trouble you so much as who I chose to leave with?"

"Uh... yeah. I suppose that's the issue."

"Harry, listen closely because I'm only going through this once. Charlie is not just some idle spectator. From the moment I confided in her about who I really was, she's been right with me, guiding me down the field - through all varieties of hazardously weird shit - like a veteran quarterback," Diana explained, sticking with his admittedly goony pigskin metaphor.

"She accepts, forgives and loves everything in me that I can't accept, forgive or love about myself. Charlotte Browning makes me feel like it's possible to leave behind who I was, and she's made me strong enough to become who I want to be. I might not look any different, but some quantum alterations have occurred inside me. I have changed. Do you... can you see that? Does it show?"

On the other end of the secured phone line, Harry Mars was so quiet she thought he might have nodded off during her didactic mini-lecture. A soft, wet sound like parched lips being licked, then a rasp of breath signaled that he was merely digesting her words rather than snoozing.

"It shows," he admitted finally. "Some of us just don't want to look."

Diana shook her head ruefully, regretting the decision to go down this road. "Why is it so hard?"

"I can't speak for anyone else, but... seeing someone actually accomplish what I considered impossible makes me feel weak in comparison," Harry ventured. "If you can do it, why can't I? Why haven't I ever tried it myself? It's hard to look at what you have and not feel jealous."

"Ah-hah. That's where you and Julia each misjudged the situation so badly - you both seem to think you need me when what you really need is Charlie."

Harry snorted gently; Diana could almost see him smiling. "You willing to part with her for a while?"

"You wish," she growled. "Find your own galvanizing cathartic impetus."

"I won't pretend to understand what you just said."

"She's done my vocabulary a world of good, too," Diana smiled. "I gotta sign off, chief."

"You sound tired, kid," he understated drastically.

"So much so, I think I'm actually dead. My spirit is being channeled through the phone service operator. Ooky spooky, huh?"

"Horrifying. Three things before you go: one - get some sleep, two - watch yourself with the bad guys and gals, three - if you need anything at all from me, just call."

"I wrecked the Porsche," Diana impulsively confessed. "Can I have another one?"

"You cannot be serious," Mars intoned, his voice threaded through with dread.

"How about silver or red this time?" she teased, fully expecting him to cuss her out again.

"Christ, you're more trouble now than when you worked for me," he grumbled. "I'll see what I can come up with."

Diana's eyes went wide and her mouth fell open. "Mars, I was just..."

The line went silent - Harry had hung up on her somehow, even without use of his arms. She pictured his pressing the disconnect key with his nose as she voiced her objection to dead air.

"... kidding. Oh, hell. I hope he was kidding, too."

In the waning minutes before blazing sunrise sent that eventful Monday into full tilt boogie, Diana Starrett drifted into a light doze. She blearily envisioned herself as the bratty Veruca Salt from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," facetiously begging Harry Mars for an Oompa Loompa and waking to find a tiny, orange-faced man in white overalls waiting on her doorstep.

No matter what her misguided, materialistic mother may have told her as a child, Diana knew now that it could be a very dangerous thing to have an indulgent, powerful man willing to fulfill her selfish whims. She wondered how she would explain it to Charlie, how she managed to obtain another extravagant gift from poor, infatuated Uncle Harry.

"It was an accident, honey! I swear!" she cried softly, experimenting with her seldom-used begging voice. *Yeah, she'll believe that... right after the monkeys stop flying out of my butt. Charlie's rubbing off on me - I never talked myself into trouble before.*



*This is pointless,* Charlotte told herself, not for the first time. *I can't sleep. Too revved to idle, as Diana would say. Wonder if she's gotten even a wink the past couple of days... probably not.*

Over three hours into Luis' morning watch, and the attorney still couldn't make her eyes stay shut. Her hazel focus drifted aimlessly around her sister's guest bedroom, wishing the cheery colors of Laura Ashley bedding and Gauguin prints could ease her tense disposition into restful slumber. Julia didn't seem to share her difficulty; the blonde woman sprawled like al dente pasta on the chaise lounge in front of the bedroom door, her pricey pistol warming under one bedenimed thigh.

Checking the bedside clock, Charlie calculated there were less than twelve hours remaining before dinner at her parents macabre manse, and she shuddered at the thought of going into that house with the Swedish stranger instead of her partner.

*Ick. Don't wanna.*

All her thoughts on the matter ran along a similar line, with variations in expression if not in theme. She pulled one floral cased pillow over her head to block out the daylight streaming freely through too-pale blinds, and gave a grunt of dissatisfaction.

"Are you ever going to sleep?" Julia asked, her clipped annoyance rousing Charlie from neath the pillow shield.

"I'm afraid you're gonna sneak over here and smother me," she replied, eyeing the other woman warily. "Thought you were zonked out over there."

"Cat naps are usually all I need." Julia sat up and smoothed a hand over her slightly mussed hair. "Did you know that Thomas Edison rarely slept more than twenty minutes at a time? He considered the whole concept of beds and pajamas and eight-hour deaths to be a foolish waste."

Charlie rolled onto her side and faced her de-facto guardian, wishing she were able to sleep if for no other reason than to avoid more conversation. "Someone certainly has a noggin full of trivia."

Julia shrugged, working out a kink in her shoulder. "Serves me well on occasion. If your parents want to play Trivial Pursuit tonight, I'd advise you to pick me. We'll clean them out."

"My parents will be too busy berating me and wondering where Diana is to play party games."

"Hmm. You could always say that I'm Diana, that I bleached my hair and shrank several inches."

Cocking a brow, Charlotte couldn't tell if the offer was serious, but chose to decline as quickly as possible. "Wouldn't work. My sister's family would give you away."

"How so?"

"They love Diana, think of her as part of the brood. You, they don't know at all. The kids would flub the dub in less than a minute."

Julia looked rather amused as she recalled the less than warm welcome she received from the waking Avila children a few hours ago. The girl child, Katie, asked Charlotte no less than ten times where Diana was, why she hadn't come over to sleep at their house too.

"Auntie Diana. Who'd have thought?" she yawned, wincing as the sore spot Diana planted on her ribs finally began to loosen and fade. "If I do accompany you this evening, how do you plan to explain my presence and her absence?"

"I'll wing it," Charlie answered grumpily. "Just be ready to follow my lead."

"Why must we attend this dinner at all? None of you seems anxious for a visit."

"We've been summoned. Emily and I, along with our significant others. I'm told this is in regards to something important, something my father considers crucial enough to stomach our company for a few hours."

"Stomach your company?" Julia repeated, clearly intrigued by the underlying turmoil her words implied. "Does daddy dislike his daughters?"

Charlotte kicked at the restraining quilt wrapped around her legs, her discomfort growing. "Let's just say the Brownings should have forgone procreation and adopted some Guatemalan kids through the mail. We'd have all been better off not knowing each other."

Sensing a change in the conversational terrain from sand to eggshells, Julia changed the subject. "I did that once. Adopted one of those needy third-world kiddies."

"You did not," the lawyer grumbled, rolling her eyes.

"Did so," Julia insisted. "Siarah Mbusi, a boy of ten from Sudan. Once, while on a little trek through the region, I visited his village to check on his condition, see if the food was getting though. What I found there ended my sponsorship agreement instantly."

"Let me guess - he didn't exist. The charity just stole contributions and shut down overnight."

Julia shrank back a bit, frowning grossly. "My, but you are a jaded little thing."

"It's not a new story," Charlie complained.

"No, it certainly isn't - but it wasn't that simple. When I arrived, a troupe of thugs ran the village, raiding most of the food and supplies sent in by well-meaning but hands-off westerners. The Mbusi family lost their father and two sons in resisting, and the mother had been repeatedly raped by soldiers until she was virtually catatonic. The child I sponsored was essentially orphaned and left to fend for himself and two younger sisters in a hard, barren country."

"I'm getting a very Lifetime Network Movie feeling about this tale. You probably rescued the boy and took him to safety someplace, complete with a tearful goodbye scene, right?"

"Not quite." Julia stood up, stretched a bit more, then produced a pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket. "Will I be crucified for spewing carcinogens in this household?"

Charlie blanched unaccountably at her choice of words, then shook her head. "As long as you don't smoke around the kids, they're pretty tolerant."

"Glorious," the older blonde sighed, lighting up and inhaling deeply. "Now, as for Siarah, he was thirteen when we finally met, and he was unwilling to leave his village in the hands of criminals. Very noble boy, very stubborn as well. Sooo... I gave him the equivalent of five thousand dollars, some explosives, several AK-47s, as well as a few lessons on how to use them in defense of his people."

"You armed a little boy?" Charlotte gasped in startled horror.

"God bless the child that's got his own," Julia sang. "Besides, a thirteen year-old who grew up in those conditions is not a child - he was already a man. His people rallied and ousted the thugs within a week's time, and he no longer needs the support of charitable dilettantes to feed his family."

"I don't get you at all. How could you risk his life like that, send him into danger?"

"Most human beings don't reside in ivory towers. I didn't send him down from some safe, puffy cloud into a pitched battle - he lived inside that horror, and I helped him find his own way out. As a result, there is at least one village in that wasteland where people can live free of victimization by traveling brute squads... also, it's one place I know I'll always be welcomed, protected."

Charlie just shook her head, marveling at the selfish foresight masquerading as generosity. "Some place where no one would ever find you, where the people would cover for you... geez. You're some piece of work."

"I wouldn't say no one could find me there - Diana knows where the village is. That's likely the place she'll find me if things bottom out and I need her to... finish it."

A picture came unbidden to Charlotte's mind; Diana striding into a collection of ramshackle huts built on dusty earth, past dark, nervous men with hidden guns, finding Julia waiting alone in a shadowed doorway, smiling as if her old friend was expected.

"High Noon played out on the African desert," she commented, fighting off a sudden chill.

"Don't fret, darling," Julia urged gently. "It might never happen. I might take a turn for the better, make Mother Teresa look like Pol Pot."
"Oh, do, please," Charlotte begged facetiously, flipping onto her back and staring at the speckled white ceiling. "That would be such a nice surprise."

Julia snickered as she crossed the room, stopping at the windows and peeking through the blinds. The fenced rectangle of grass littered with toys, the swingset where they chatted the night away, a neat, orderly garden of unambitious but pretty flowers, all of it so achingly normal. She tried to imagine Diana here, at some family function, at play. At peace. She sneered briefly, then broke off when she felt the ceramic fillings in her teeth start to throb, overdosed on sweetness.

"This dinner is at eight, yes?" she asked suddenly, turning back to the bedded lawyer.

"Yes," Charlie moaned in reply.

"Formal attire is expected?"

"They're a formal bunch, so I would again answer yes."

"We have nothing to wear," Julia whined, hating the idea of appearing slovenly for any longer than necessary. "Not that I really mind being in Diana's pants..."

"Hush up, Ingrid," Charlie ordered, miffed by the double entendre. "We'll borrow something from my sister. Emmy has a closet full of dresses she never wears, all a few sizes too small."

"Why would she buy clothes that do not fit? Inspiration to shed a few pounds?"

"No, Emily's fine with her weight. The dresses are spiteful little gifts from our mother, non-verbal messages of disapproval, silky little suggestions of what Emily should look like, in her opinion."

"How tritely passive-aggressive," the Swede noted, getting a better idea of why nobody wanted to visit mummy and daddy Browning. "Perhaps she should send your mother a gift with similar intent."

Charlie peeked at the woman with one curious eye. "Like what?"

"Oh, I don't know," Julia sighed, loosing her catty imagination on the dilemma. "Job listings? Advertisements for plastic surgeons? A vibrator?"
Against her will, a wicked giggle conned its way up her throat, and she smiled at the playful evil inherent in such ideas. "How much did Diana tell you about my folks?"

"Very little, but enough," Julia replied honestly. "They make you feel bad and she doesn't like that; therefore, she didn't paint a pretty picture."

"What did she say, exactly?"

"Something like 'intolerant puritans with old-growth timber lodged in their rectums,' I believe."

Charlotte laughed again and mentally gave Diana a pinch to the heinie. "That about covers it."

Julia watched the younger woman laugh, saw the winsome crinkles appear around eyes and mouth, and wondered if these tiny aesthetic details charmed Diana as much as they did her. Probably more, she concluded, finally seeing a fraction of the attorney's appeal in that moment of mirth. Surprising them both, she took a long step and leapt onto the foot of the bed, folding her legs under her like a schoolgirl as the squishy mattress bounced her to a stop.

"How shall I behave before the dread duo?" she asked the discombobulated Charlotte. "We can go a number of routes - polite professional associate, vacant-and-lonely client from out of town, worldly corporate entrepreneur, grabbily lusty new love interest... "

"Hold it right there," Charlie nervously commanded. "There's no way they'd buy that one."

Gray eyes wide, Julia assumed a hurt tone. "I'm too homely, aren't I? You'd be embarrassed to have them think of me as your lover."

Charlie gave an exasperated sigh at the concealed attempt to fish for a compliment. "It's not that. You know what you look like. They'd never buy it because I'm... uncomfortable around you, to say the least. Even now, I feel like there's a rabid pit bull sitting on my feet, pondering whether my calf would taste like chicken."

"Well, we could work on that," Julia proposed, grinning and snapping her teeth around her cigarette butt. "We have several hours to kill... wanna fool around?"

The look on Charlotte's face conveyed that she would rather swallow broken glass, lay in front of the bull chute at the Calgary Stampede, chew asbestos insulation, move back in with her parents...

She was up and out of the bed before five heartbeats had passed.

"I'm gonna get some breakfast," she muttered as she exited the bedroom, disdain swirling in her wake like a surly gout of oil smoke.

"Darling, I was only joking!" Julia called after her, chuckling indolently as she rolled onto her back. "Some people have no sense of humor."


Thirty One

T-minus 1:15:00
Diana paced the length of the strange kitchen, sweating under generously padded clothes and thick, sticky make-up. The dress she wore was too long, and the hem brushed the cold white ceramic tiled floor when she stooped even a few inches, but it concealed everything she needed to hide and kept her body as anonymous and innocuous as her face.

She went over the evening's menu once more in her head - a challenge for a novice chef like herself - and wondered idly if the men and women coming to help her could cook at all. Her "staff" were due to arrive at any moment, and she checked her reflection in the shining steel door of the Sub Zero refrigerator, making certain her disguise was holding up.

*Been a long time since you had to play dress-up, huh? Well, you look fine. Like Nancy Kwan on stilts and steroids.  Just stop messing with the hair,* she scolded herself as she picked at her itchy silvered wig. *Everything's done - except catching Chen. That's all that remains. The trap is set....*

An early morning call to Quentin Carver cleared Charlie's schedule for the day, and the firm's senior partner agreed to personally field all inquiries regarding Ms. Browning's whereabouts. By two in the afternoon, he reported back that a new client phoned in and requested an after-hours consult with Charlotte specifically, and Carver dutifully informed him that Ms. Browning was away from the office due to a family obligation. After a bit of subtle prying from the polite male caller, Quentin revealed a few details, like the wheres and whens of the dinner - things Diana wanted fed to any curious parties.

"I don't understand what you're up to, my girl, but you must promise to divulge the entire sordid mess to me at your earliest opportunity," Carver genially demanded, a small price for his effective compliance with Diana's instructions.

Chen Kaige never retraced his steps, never ever chanced walking over the same ground time and again, so she felt confident that he would not risk another appearance at Emily's house or a return trip to The Meadows, but he would try to intercept his target on fresh ground, even if that meant an ambush outside her office building or a sneak attack at her parent's home.

*You know where she'll be, so this is your only option, son,* Diana called out to him, summoning the killer closer with her will. *You want her, you gotta come here... to me.*

Diana aimed a finger gun at her alien reflection in the Sub Zero and fired a whispered shot. The smile had barely faded from her masked, wrinkled eyes when the kitchen door swung soundlessly open, admitting a thin, matronly woman in a sparkly red dress nearly as crimson as her dyed hair. She smelled strongly of perfume - Elizabeth Arden's Red, if Diana was not mistaken - and wobbled a bit as she walked, as if her shoes were too tight... or as if she herself were too tight.

"Have your people not arrived yet?" she asked, fluttering around the large island in the kitchen's center, wiping bony fingers across floured cutting boards where Diana had begun preparing tiny balls of dough for steamed dumplings.

"No, missy," Diana replied in a voice not her own, in the shrill, cheesy accent this woman would expect to hear from an elderly asian immigrant. She resumed her place before the cutting board and attacked the dough balls with maximum attention. "They come soon. I already making dim sum now. All will be in readiness before you dinner."

"It is six-fifty in the P.M.!" the woman fretted, brushing the flour from her hands as she surveyed the strewn ingredients for a large meal, lying in colorful piles on every kitchen surface. Her lined face tensed hard, as if she were fending off a migraine, and she turned hard little blue eyes on the pudgy, tall old woman who was her last and least favored choice to cater dinner... after all her other preferences proved mysteriously and suddenly unavailable. "Listen to me closely, Mrs. Wong..."

"Name is Fong," Diana corrected, eyes glued to the dough squishing through her fingers.

"Fong, then," she said, spinning the name back with prejudice. "I pray that you are competent enough to comprehend these words - dinner is to begin promptly at eight. If there are any delays or mishaps, your fee will be garnished or perhaps withheld entirely. Do you understand?"

"All will be readiness, missy. Take chill pill or something," Diana advised, killing the woman with a kindly smile, aware that she sounded like some awful stock character from a canceled sitcom. Still, the opportunity was too ripe and juicy to resist. "You worry too hard. Worry make you old and ugly like me. You can no afford much more worry, missy."

Those hard little blue eyes nearly leapt from their sockets like Mexican Jumping Beans, alive with some squirming internal worm of offense and scorn. Her narrow nose tipped upward, allowing her to stare in a vaguely downward direction at the stooped old woman. "Mind your tongue," she hissed. "I know the number for INS, and I'm not averse to calling them to report illegal aliens."

"I got Green Card. You no scare me," Diana shot back, wanting so badly to laugh that resisting the urge made her sides balloon and ache. "You want cook dinner you self?"

"This dinner is to be a catered affair," she said primly, bowing up slim shoulders until the lax flesh of her neck stood out on tense tendons. "Much to my disappointment, my usual provider canceled on me today and all the reputable caterers were booked. You were my last choice, Mrs. Wong..."

"Name is still Fong, no Wong."

"WHATEVER!!" she shouted, nearly blowing herself off her shoes with the force of her bellow. She took a moment to run a hand over the front of her dress and pat down her poofed hair, soothing her flared temper to a dull glow of condesencion. "Tonight must go smoothly. If you cause an incident or if the meal is unsatisfactory, I will see to it that you never work in this town again."

Diana looked up at the woman as she neatly wrapped a dozen dumplings in wax paper for moist keeping. She tried to see something of Charlotte in that harsh, angular face, even a sliver of Emily would do, anything to prove that the girls weren't adopted or found like puppies discarded on the doorstep of Cruella DeVille.

This woman looked tired and strung-out and appeared older than her fifty-something years would prescribe. There was something brittle in her manner and posture, as if all that sustained her was a stiff coating of pancake foundation outside and a porous core of moth-eaten superiority within.

This was not how Diana pictured the mother of the most lovely, loving woman on the planet.

"You not nice lady," she quietly observed, blue eyes burning cool behind dark contacts. "I make good dinner for you, ready before eight, no problem. Ask you one thing?"

Hands on narrow, soft hips, Anne Compton Browning sighed wearily. "What?"

"Try be nice tonight. Everything taste better with no hate in mouth."

Just as Mrs. Browning was preparing to launch into a colorful indictment of the strange old woman's presumptuous nature, a bell sounded from the kitchen entrance. Diana left her dough and quickly scurried over to open the heavy wooden door, one hand inside her dress pocket, grasping the stock of Dan's barely used Glock 13.

Fortunately, she did not need the weapon just yet. Two men and one woman - all variously asian, all dressed in white kitchen smocks - filed into the house. Each of them eyed the lanky old woman curiously as they passed but none spoke until spoken to, per their earlier instructions.

"My people here now," Diana called back to her employer of this evening. "You rest easy, go have stiff toddy or some such. We take care everything for you."

"Oh, what an incredible relief!" Mrs. Browning sarcastically cried, waving her hands at the shifty crew of foreigners invading her home. "That is what I'm paying you good American money for!"

Diana shuffled over and herded the tense woman out the kitchen door by extending both long arms and walking toward her, relying on Anne Browning's reputed aversion to being touched to get her moving. "You go now. Go. Go," she urged, then called out one more thing as she finally cleared the swing of the weighty kitchen door. "And try be nice! Never know - you might like it!"

Once the door settled, Diana turned to the three newcomers and smiled as she spoke to them without accent or pretense. "Glad you guys could make it on such short notice. Names, please?"

The three looked to each other in abject confusion, and the two younger ones seemed ready to defer to the elder of their group. Diana stepped up to him and cordially extended her hand. "My name is Diana, but in the presence of others tonight, I'd appreciate it if you would call me Mrs. Fong."

The oldest man, around forty or so with thinning hair and a distinctly Korean set to his eyes, carefully took her hand and gave it a light shake. He seemed surprised to find it wasn't as frail as it appeared, strong fingers contracting tight around his hand.

"I'm Joseph," he said solidly, the very picture of mature rien and forced confidence.

"Joseph," Diana repeated the name for confirmation, then turned to the woman.

She appeared to be around thirty years-old, and had a peculiarly flat nose that covered nearly a quarter the breadth of her pleasant, fleshy face. Vietnamese descent, Diana guessed.

"Sonia," she announced quietly, sharp almond-shaped eyes mentally peeling away the costume, evidently curious what was under the ingenious, seamless disguise.

"Sonia," Diana parroted, nodding briefly as she found the third member of her crew - a rangy youth in his mid-twenties, with slightly rounded, liquid black eyes that made Diana remember Laos.

"B-buh-Bryan," he gradually admitted. His examination was even more obvious as he craned his head from side to side, fascinated by the old asian woman who was neither old nor asian.

"Bryan," she said finally, indexing the new names and faces. "I'm pleased to meet you. Tell me, are you all tagged?"

"Of course," Joseph answered. "Control's outside, on the move. Mobile unit."

"I need you to bust the tags and tell Control to shut down any signals - no pinging, no sending."

The three looked at Diana as if she were speaking in tongues, so foreign was the idea of working without supervision, without the constant stream of advice and strategy from an outside source.

"Look, Chen has access to good detection equipment. If there's any funky waves beaming around this place, he'll pick up on it and he won't show," Diana explained patiently. "Can you comply?"

Joseph touched a hand to his left ear, listening to the disembodied voice of the team's controller. He frowned and his two partners looked tense as he carried on a one-sided dialogue with someone Diana alone could not hear.

"You'll get static from upstairs. Shouldn't you ask first before... okay. Okay. Will do."

With a shaky sigh, Joseph removed a small, flesh-toned cone from his ear and handed the tiny device to Diana. After a glance to Joseph for approval, Sonia and Bryan did the same. Apparently, Control saw things her way and agreed to go radio/laser/microwave silent for the evening.

"Thanks for the cooperation," Diana whispered carefully into her cluttered palm, certain the controller was still out there somewhere, listening. She walked over to the Cuisinart by the sink and opened the top. "You might want to cover your ears," she advised Control, then dropped the three tags into the food processor and hit 'dice,' instantly turning them into incredibly expensive techno-mulch.

Turning back to her three de-tagged helpers, Diana opened a drawer in the center island and withdrew what appeared to be a curling iron. "This'll only take a second," she told them as she switched on the detection wand and swept it over their bodies, scanning for any additional bugs.

*No beeps, no lights,* she noted, pleased with the results. *Control plays honest, one tag per person. That's actually... refreshing.*

"So what do we do now?" Bryan asked, his eyes darting between Joseph and Diana, begging for someone to answer him, to guide him.

"We cook dinner," Diana jovially replied, replacing the scanner and dumping the tattered tags into the garbage disposal, "we protect several innocent people who will gather here tonight for a family meal, and last but not least, we apprehend a world-famous assassin - hopefully before dessert. I'm making this ice cream and sour cherry rum thing that's on fire... "

"How?" Sonia asked, sounding doubtful in the extreme.

Diana quirked a brow at the woman, as much as she could through her make-up. "Hey, I know it sounds hard, but if Emeril Lagasse made one, so can I. Granted, I might burn down the kitchen..."

Sonia's eyes widened as she glanced at her two companions and gestured to include herself in their number, still making only a lowly foursome. "I mean catching Chen. You implied that we're going to do this alone?"

"Oh, yeah." Diana gave a grin that stretched her painted and taped cheeks, one that nearly conveyed the immense pleasure she was feeling at the prospect of success. "And when we've got him in custody, if the three of you are still alive, you get a nice little surprise as a 'thank you'."

Though they tried to hide it, each of the three faces showed they were thinking the same thing - that this 'thank you' would be something rather small, hot, and made of lead which would collide with their skulls at an extremely rapid rate of speed. They had all been expecting it for weeks now, in light of their poor adaptation rates and slipping mission success factors...

"No, no, no!" Diana waved away their pensive looks with a fluttering hand and a cheery grin. "God, don't be so negative. I'm not going to kill you, but Mrs. Browning might if we don't get dinner ready by eight. Sonia, Bryan - start chopping those peppers and celery over there," she directed, "And Joseph, you slice the chicken into strips while I finish the dumplings."

Joseph nodded to the younger ones, and they slowly commenced with their tasks, if only to take their minds off the hopelessness of the evening's endeavor. Three dead meat, screw-up spies and one loony somebody dressed like an old woman were supposed to catch the world's most elusive contract killer? Their collective attitude could be summed up in two words - as if !

"Try thinking positive, you guys," Diana encouraged, trying hard to sound upbeat. "Your negative vibes are killing my whole 'impending danger' buzz."

Joseph gave her a weak smile and attempted to explain. "You must know why she sent us here tonight instead of first-stringers. We're not exactly the most skilled tradesmen in the field."

"You're here tonight because you deserve a second chance, not because you're condemned," Diana argued. "I can't promise you your freedom, but if things go well and you make it through the night, you'll get a do-over on this whole covert operations career, okay?"

"What do you mean by 'do-over'... Mrs. Fong?" the man asked cautiously, guarding a fragile hope that Diana wasn't lying through her obscenely white teeth.

"Just follow my lead and you'll see," Diana told him, administering a chummy pat to his back as she finished up the dumplings and saw that Joseph was done slicing the chicken. "Great, now we're getting somewhere. Bryan, be a love and fire up the wok, would you?"


T-minus 00:07:00

Darkness gradually slipped up on the scene, draping itself over the city's shoulders like a blanket on a slumbering child. Chen Kaige was glad of the nightfall as he sat in his new ride, a purloined black Plymouth Breeze with an almost opaque screen of 360 degree window tinting and a masque of alternative rock band stickers in the back window.

He wrapped a Kleenex around his gloved index finger pushed a button sticky with a brown cocktail of Pepsi and blood spilled by the Plymouth's recently and violently evicted owner and rolled down the passenger-side window. He then aimed the wide barrel of a microwave scanner toward the massive, indecorous house.

On the rear-mounted four-by-four LED screen, he saw multi-hued representations of three bodies moving in the front room - two men of average build and one woman who nearly vanished when she turned sideways.

*So thin. Women here are either too fat or too thin. It seems no one is happy being healthy,* he reflected, his dislike for America's excesses growing with each passing hour. *Only the predators and the fearful see fit to cultivate strength, and there are no predators here tonight... save myself.*

Having scanned the residence for a variety of communications emissions, he found no signatures of note, nothing suspicious. His comfort level increased with every sign of Diana Starrett's absence, and his hope grew strong that she was either killed or severely injured in their automobile collision. If she was somehow kept from protecting her lover, his chances for a successful kill would rise to the status of certainty, and Chen felt sure he was due a lucky break by now.

*One lawyer should not be so difficult to locate, isolate and kill,* he brooded, visualizing dry wind blowing over Hideo Yoshima's bleached bones, angry for his non-disclosures regarding the attorney's entanglements. *My promised bonus will prove insufficient for enduring such difficulties.*

Chen eavesdropped on the dull conversation of the imbecile catering staff and surmised that the rest of this evening's guests had not yet shown. According to the foolishly helpful old man he spoke with at Browning's law office, his target was destined to be among the imminent arrivals. Punctuality could be a wonderful thing, especially if it positioned him correctly to pick off Charlotte Browning with a single, quiet rifle shot from the street. Clean and fast. Drive to the airport and fly away home.

Just as the stolen Plymouth's dash clock flipped to read 7:56, a dark blue minivan rolled to a stop at the curb, parking right in front of 665 Drury Lane - the home of Charles Foster Browning. Perhaps sixty yards away, the Caravan sat at a convenient diagonal slant which gave him a clear view of the passenger side.

"Blessed are the persistent," Chen muttered, exchanging his microwave lens for a .45 caliber rifle with precision crosshairs and liquid-filled silencer. "Sit on the riverbank long enough, and the head of your enemy will float past."

Braced gingerly against his injured shoulder, the rifle felt right. A perfectly comfortable relationship existed between weapon and hunter. One well-placed shot and this would all be over. Chen eased his eye onto the padded sight and traced the crosshairs along the lines of the boxy family vehicle and waited for his duck to flap into view.

A swarthy, thick man in a dark suit exited the driver's seat and rounded the van.

"Not her."

He opened the passenger door and offered his hand to a redhead wearing a burgundy evening gown.

"Still not her."

The woman opened the sliding door and three children tumbled out of the back seats.

"Not her at all."

The van was now empty. All the passengers filed up the stone walk and gathered at the front door of the hideous house. They knocked and were soon admitted by a graying man who politely smiled at the adults and ruffled the children's hair. Chen felt the tuggings of frustration in his stomach and allowed himself to swear a profane oath.


He drew in the rifle and settled back to wait a little longer. If the easy route of sniping didn't pan out, he would be forced to use more extreme measures, which could prove infinitely more fun. Chen cast a glance at the bag in the Plymouth's back seat and smiled, thinking the neighbors would probably thank him if his fail-safe plan were implemented.

* No one would mourn this house if it were to suddenly... disappear. *



T-minus 00:02:10
It didn't really matter to Charlie where Julia got the car. The thing just seemed to appear at Emily's door when it was time to go, like some pumpkin chariot whipped up by a fairy godmother with an RPM fixation. Silvery, sleek, and fast enough to race at Daytona, the car fit the blonde driver like it was tailored to her personal specs. A suit of snappy clothes, made to order.

"How do you know he'll be there when we - WHOA! - make that if we arrive?" Charlie asked. She was wondering if they'd even get to her parent's house safely, what with Julia zipping through four-way stops and cutting corners in a driving style reminiscent of Diana's skilled recklessness.

"If he's still alive and lurking around somewhere, this is his last opportunity for a clean hit before the set deadline. Like all good little running dogs of the capitalist regime, he wants his bonus. He knows you'll be there tonight, and he will walk into our waiting arms like a good little pawn," Julia promised, spying a worried frown on the lawyer's kisser. "Trust me, darling. Diana and I have pulled off far trickier stings with no collateral damage."

Charlotte nodded, though she couldn't really appreciate the strategy. If Diana hadn't gotten to him already, this loose plan seemed only to delay the inevitable, to force Chen into an illegal entry and assault inside her parent's home. Too little time to worry about that. Two more squealing turns and they were on Drury, a few blocks from the house. Julia cut her headlights.

"The alley starts right up there by the blue Victorian," Charlie pointed, tensing as they slowed to a creep along the softly lit street. "It runs behind the house, then right back around to the street in two more blocks."

Julia made the turn and eased the car down the alley, past immaculate garbage cans, ritzy mountain bikes without anti-theft chains, and at least two golf carts monogrammed with their owner's initials. All the houses she saw were prettily normal, solid and stately houses built in a safe neighborhood by professionals with plenty of money and no architectural daring. Then she saw Xanadu. Even over the high wood fence, lit only by a mocking moon and pale sodium lamps, it was a jarring sight.

"Ohhhh, my."

Three stories of dark stone were crowned by a sharply-slanted roof of mildewed slate, cut at odd angles to cover jaggedly situated upper rooms. Circular parapets like serrated teeth perched on the east and west corners. A stained bronze spire in the center pointed up to pierce heaven. The rear of the house showed numerous darkly curtained windows, gouges in the stone flesh scarred over with glass. It appeared to be nearly alive, a slumbering or comatose monster that could wake if prodded too hard by happy noises.

Julia pictured the house standing on moldy granite legs, stomping the sweet Cape Cods and Victorians to rubble, carelessly crashing through the streets on its way to the sea.

"Ugly, ain't she?" Charlotte whispered. Her guts tightened at the thought of going any closer, twitched as she pondered venturing inside the house she escaped several years earlier. She swallowed a dry lump of fear, fending off an instant of nausea.

"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming," Julia muttered, unable to tear her eyes from the awful sight.

Charlie blinked at the cryptic oddity, wondering if she'd missed something. "Kathie Lee does what?"

"Lovecraft's wet dream, this house is," Julia said, shaking off the willies. She reached behind her seat and produced a small, pistol-like device with a folding LED screen. A quick scan of the back yard showed nothing but a large dog laying on its tummy near the back door. "No bi-pedal guests back here, just a big canine something. You'll be okay getting up there alone?"

"They keep the back gate locked, but I've jumped that fence more times than I care to recall. And mom's Akita is horny but harmless. I'll be fine."

"Get going, then. I'll check out front for our boy - just on the odd chance of providence intervening on my behalf - then I shall come knocking for that free dinner."

Charlie fired off a snarky grimace as she unhitched her safety belt and fumbled with the door handle. After three tries, she got it open and waited as the hatch lifted on a pneumatic cylinder. With a little rock forward, she tipped out of the leather bucket seat and stood by the car, feeling as if her spaceship had touched down to deposit her on some weird little planet.

With a little wave, Julia pushed a button and the door slipped down silently, locking itself. She watched Charlie nimbly step onto a trash can and boost herself over the fence without a hitch, as promised. After waiting a few beats to make certain her assistance was not needed, she put the fierce engine in gear and the car slipped into a slow prowl. Still with the headlamps off, she piloted through the alley and back around to Drury, gray eyes wide in the search for anything (aside from that rotted hulk of a home) that didn't belong.

"Like that black Plymouth papered with cheeky stickers. In an area so filthy with disposable income, even the teenagers drive BMWs," Julia told herself, powering up her microwave scanner as she approached the rear of the parked Breeze. "You're worth a look, aren't you?"



T-minus 00:00:17

Diana stirred the entree again, tossing in a few more bits of pepper and celery, and took a little taste of the finished product.

"No bad," she judged, speaking as Mrs. Fong since the Browning matriarch was looking over her shoulder. "No good, but no bad. Kung-Pao make gassy, but it not kill you, missy."

Anne Browning arched her penciled brows and sighed. "I suppose that's the best one could ask from such as yourself, madam. However, you shouldn't expect a glowing recommendation from me."

"You, neither," Diana retorted, smirking at her helpers, all of whom had done the best they could.

"Everything's ready now, ma'am," Brian announced brightly, brandishing a dish of egg rolls. Sonya arranged the dim sum appetizers on a sterling silver tray with three dishes of dipping sauce while Joseph scooped steamed rice into large ceramic serving bowls.

"I'm still expecting another guest. We'll give her..." Anne checked her jeweled platinum watch. "Five minutes. If she has not arrived by then - "

Her ultimatum to the kitchen staff was cut short by a frantic knock at the back door. She huffed and puffed, grumbling to herself as she unlocked the entrance and found her youngest daughter leaning against the door frame with a furry white suitor humping away at her left leg.

"Mom, get him to stop or I'm gonna kick him right in his little doggy sac!" Charlie demanded, shaking her Akita-covered leg in high annoyance.

"ROTHSCHILD! HEEL!" Mother Browning roared, cocking her bony hand as if to smack the amorous beast between the eyes. "HEEL!"

The Akita, whose full pedigreed name was Christopher Snowden Rothschild, whimpered pitufully and shrank away from his beloved. His ears flattened to his head as he cowered on the back steps, urinating submissively in the hopes of avoiding the wrath of the skinny food lady.

Charlotte hopped through the doorway and hastily brushed at her dress, dusting a mass of white hairs from the deep blue satiny material. The cooks, a coterie of asian men and women, stifled laughter and studiously tried to ignore her embarrassment. Charlie looked twice at the eldest of the crew, a stooped old woman who smiled briefly before returning to her work, and had an odd feeling they'd met somewhere before. Maybe she worked at Liu Chu's place downtown... no matter. No time to wonder about it just then.

She surveyed her mother's thin frame, her coiffed helmet of hair, the tense lines deepening on her face. Too rich, too thin, and too, too unhappy. Same as ever, only more so.

"Mother, you have got to get Roth neutered before he impregnates some poor, unsuspecting poodle. Or a cat. Hell, squirrels probably aren't safe around him."

Wasting no time arguing that pointless issue, Anne Browning slammed the door and locked it, then went directly into attack mode. "You're late."

* First I've seen of her in ages and this is how we get started? * Charlie thought, oddly comforted by the hostility. * It's like the past year didn't happen at all. Let's do the time warp again, mom. *

"I am not late. It's eight on the dot and oh! Would you look at this? Here I am."

"Your sister managed to show up with a little time to spare for conversation."

"Emily is a wonderful girl, isn't she?"

"Hmm. We expected you to arrive with an escort. Of a sort."

"She'll be here shortly."

"So we finally get to meet this Diana person," Anne sniffed, haughtily appraising her daughter's physical appearance - along with every tiny reaction to every little poke.

* Keep a cool head, baby,* Charlie coaxed silently. * She's talking through her nose. That's not a good sign. Cool head. Ice down the temper. Siberia. *

"Diana is busy tonight. My guest is a very important client from work."

A muscle tightened and vibrated in Mother B's jaw. "This is a family gathering, Charlotte, not one of your little business functions. Your father and I have some important things we need to discuss with you. Private matters."

"Mother, I assure you she won't alert the press or anything. She's really not the type to hang out and gossip with your Junior League friends."

"For your sake, I certainly hope not. Honestly, I don't understand your priorities at all. Bowing and scraping in the service of that vile Carver man..."

"Don't start in on him again," Charlotte cut her off, anticipating worse would follow. "Quentin asked me to keep her company while she's in town and I promised him I would. Besides, it's too late to cancel now. She's already on her way over."

With a resigned hrrumphing sound and a sharp wave of her hand, a sort of c'est la vie gesture Charlie recognized as 'Well, what can I expect from such a disappointing child?,' Anne Browning placed a chilly palm on her daughter's back and ushered her toward the kitchen door.

"Begin serving in the dining room in ten minutes," she called to Mrs. Fong, who seemed to be eyeing her with even more impudence than normal.

"Fine, missy," Diana replied, then whispered low, "May you choke on a dumpling."



Charlotte took a deep breath as she and mommy dearest left the kitchen and moved down the hall together, no words exchanged until they reached the living room. She wondered where Diana was. She said she'd be in the house, watching over her... if she couldn't find Chen Kaige alone.

* Please, God. Let it be over already. I don't know how much more I can bear with grace. *

Emerging from the dark hall into the living room, Charlie spied Emily and Luis huddled with their brood on that squeaky, blood-colored leather sofa which occupied most of the far wall. A large mahogany table with clawed feet separated the Avilas from two enormous brown suede chairs which swallowed and shielded the occupants from rear view. One of the chairs was smoking - or the sitter was, at any rate. A plume of bluish cigar smoke rose from the chair and swirled among the high beams of the ceiling.

* Daddy, * Charlie realized. Even her inner voice was quavering. * I so don't want to do this. *

Charlotte stopped at the edge of the room, her heels on the carpeted hall runner, the balls of her feet on the unforgiving hardwood floor of the cavernous, echoing den. For a moment, she considered flight. She was certain she could outrun her mother. The woman had quadriceps like peanut brittle.

"Charles, look who decided to put in an appearance," Mrs. Browning announced to the smoking chair. She gave her offspring a bit of a push to the back to get her moving again.

And suddenly, there he was. Leaving his chair, walking toward her with his hands in his pants pockets, casual as hell. Standing about five-ten, more gray-haired and slimmer than Charlie ever remembered seeing him, wearing a black suit fit for a funeral director, Charles Foster Browning greeted his youngest child, his practically prodigal daughter.

With a handshake.

"Nice of you to show, Chick," he said, his growly, deep voice bereft of affection, even as he called her by a childhood nickname. After a quick, dry grasp, he withdrew his hand and put it back in his pocket. "Where's your girl?"

"Working or something. She didn't want to come," Anne told him, breezing past them into the room.

"It's not that Diana didn't want to come, Daddy," Charlotte hastily corrected, chafed by her mother's favorite game of painting her into a conversational corner. "It's just bad timing. She's really busy lately. So am I. She would come if she could."

"That right?" He chewed his lip thoughfully. "Been telling her war stories, have you?"

Charlie stood erect, looked him in the eye. "I didn't make anything up, daddy."

"Didn't say you had. Just that when a body hears one side of a tale, they take it as gospel."

"Is that why you wanted us here? You want to set the record straight for your ersatz daughter-in-law?"

Charles Browning flinched at the designation she gave Diana. It wasn't much of a reaction, but Charlie read it as a direct hit when he actually removed a hand from his trousers and scratched his chin. When he spoke again, his voice was low, too low to be overheard by anyone else.

"Got a lot of things to set right, Chick. You and me. Can't let it sit forever."

Despite her fear and apprehension, Charlotte felt her heart quicken slightly. Her father had a way of speaking that said more than his words. His eyes could convey his thoughts more easily than his tongue, and right then, they were sending the most hopeful vibes Charlie could ever recall sensing from him. If her mother hadn't altered her attitudes, that was one thing, but her father...

"I'm willing to try if you are," she whispered, keeping her hopes tight and secret.

"Good deal. Glad you came."

He smiled at her and, by heaven, she smiled back. Even with her world turned on its head, even with her life still possibly in danger, Charlotte felt one small knot of tension dissolve in the mass of coiled fear behind her eyes. Maybe this evening wouldn't be such a horror after all.

She moved into the main room and grinned honestly at Emily, who did not reply in kind. Her sister sat ramrod straight on the couch, Katie huddled close at her side. Luis and the boys looked rather dour as well, their dark eyes jumping from Mrs. Browning to the second suede chair, on which the lady of the house had lain a protective hand, as if she were guarding the chair. Or its occupant.

"Charlotte, we invited someone else as well," Anne sweetly informed, clucking her tongue as a cue for her special guest to rise and face the crowd. "Someone we've sorely missed seeing around."

Still by her father, Charlie shot him a curious look, to which he replied with a sour frown that told her 'we' actually meant mother acting solo and using him as cover. She watched with renewed wariness as the guest stood and turned to face her.

A handsome young man with sandy hair and a shy smile. Gray designer suit, green and blue pattened Zegna tie - money clothes, just like he always wanted. A white circle on the middle finger of his left hand that begged questions which Charlotte was ill-equipped to ask at that particular moment, as she was struck functionally dumb by her roaring, revived anger.

"Gee, Charlie... you look incredible," he told her, ingenuous and utterly earnest as ever.

Summoning the last reserve of arctic cool remaining in her seething soul, she didn't scream foul invective at her mother, didn't turn and stalk out of the house. Charlotte took a deep breath and returned the compliment paid by her former husband.

"You look pretty spiffy yourself, Richard."

Part Twenty-Two

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