Persistence of Memory - Pt. 22

By Paul Seely

Thirty Two

* Why the fuck did she drag him down here? * Charlotte screamed silently. * Richard lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, making scads of money and doing just fucking fine without us! What can mother hope to accomplish? Reconciliation? That's a laugh! *

Her mother simply didn't buy her relationship with Diana as anything more than a phase. Emily and mother superior had discussed "the lesbian thing" enough - with each conversation always coming to that same stand-off on the credibility issue - that Charlie felt certain those were her mom's true feelings. Richard and marriage were meant to be permanent, some fling with an amazon cop wasn't.

* It's been nearly a year now! What do I have to do? Get a pink triangle tattooed on my forehead? Wear a sandwich board that says 'I'm not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is?? Jesus, this is not looking good for me. Where the fuck is Diana? I need some help here, baby. *

"We nearly thought Richard wouldn't be able to come," Mrs. Browning announced, an artificial warmth wafting from her eyes, "and that would have been such a tragedy. This evening is a family affair, and you're still a part of this family in my eyes, Richard. So like a son to me."

* I am going to vomit now. Seriously. Shut her up, someone, please... *

A thought, evil through and through, all poison claws and snapping jaws, slithered into Charlotte Browning's forebrain, planting a seed of cold resentment in her normally peaceful nature.

* Maybe the Menendez boys had the right idea. *

She looked across the airless space separating her from her ex-husband and her soon-to-be ex- mother, and the wicked thought took root and blossomed.

* I'd reload twice, just to make sure. *

"Charlotte," her mother crooned as she gave Richard a pat on the back, "come over here and give your husband a proper greeting."

No one else spoke. The Avilas sat silent, radiating a unified field of electric loathing. Charles Browning seemed to shove his hands even deeper into his pockets, his eyes focused on some distant point around the front door. Richard still smiled winningly at Charlie, apparently unaware that his presence was quite unexpected and a major source of potential friction.

Anne Browning bobbed her head and made a little clucking noise, summoning her daughter through clenched teeth and thin smile.

* Okay. If that's your game tonight, mom, okay, * Charlotte hissed silently. * Let's play. *

Charlie renewed her smile, angled her shoulders back, and marched across the room with brisk, determined steps. She extended one arm and drew Richard into a half-hug, planting a polite peck on his meticulously shaven cheek. He still wore the same after-shave lotion - some citrusy scent that always made her sneeze. Her nose started to twitch and she caught her breath just in time to avoid a serious fit of tickly, wet sneezes.

"It is nice to see you again, Richie," she said, selling the greeting with a whispery sincerity. "How are things in the city of angels?"

"Oh, Valerie's great. We're just getting moved into the new house in Brentwood. It's going real well with the new firm, too. I'm up for junior partner at the next meeting," Richard answered with a vague hint of righteous pride. His focus dropped suddenly to her broken hand sheathed in plaster and bandages. "Nothing as exciting as what you've been up to, though."

Charlotte had a panicked moment, wondering if Emily had told them about her injury. "Really. And just what have you heard?"

Richard regarded her admiringly. "Em here says you busted some evildoer in the mouth."

A biting glare to her sister, who shrugged with a guilty smile. "She did, huh?"

"Yeah!" Richard seemed altogether too jovial, too impressed. "You always did have a problem with that type, but I never figured you'd do anything so... direct."

Her confusion growing larger by the second, Charlie scrambled to stay ahead of the curving line of revelation. "Well... it, uhh, it was bound to happen sooner or later... wasn't it?"

"I suppose, knowing your temper," Richard agreed. "I can't believe the jerk hit his kid right in front of you. I think I would have just called the police."

"Rrrriiight," Charlie drawled, feeling herself catching up to the cover story Emily handily supplied before her arrival.

"But not you, huh, bruiser? Em says he was twice your size!"

Her eyes widened and she nodded in mute agreement. No wonder her parents hadn't said boo about her busted hand. Heroic as it might seem to Richard, the Brownings would find it distasteful to think of their little girl punching some abusive dad in the kisser. Emily puffed up a bit on the sofa, waggling her eyebrows as she saw her subversive PR job reap a little reward.

"He wasn't that big," Charlotte demurred, stroking her cast, which had become her first prop in the evening's play. "Anyway, you know I can't stand people who mistreat children."

On the last line, she fixed a hard eye on her mother. Anne stood with crossed arms and a blank face. She didn't like this development; her daughter adjusting so quickly to Richard's presence was not the plan. It was meant to throw Charlotte off-kilter, and it didn't seem to be working. Yet.

"Let's everyone go to the dining room," Anne suggested suddenly. "Dinner will be served soon."

Without waiting for anyone to precede her, Anne looped an arm around Richard's elbow and hustled him down the hall. Charles retrieved his cigar from the coffee table and gave his youngest a brief nod of acknowledgment as he followed. Luis herded the kids along behind in a solemn processional.

Emily slowly stood and walked over to her sister, looking every bit like a gloating spin doctor after successfully defusing a Presidential scandal.

"So I decked a child molester," Charlotte mused aloud, her voice low and serious.

"Mad at me, champ?" Emily asked gently.

"No, but... couldn't you have told them I had a traffic accident? Or that I fell in the shower?"

Emily wrapped an arm around her little sister's shoulders and tugged her into a slow walk toward the dining room. "Now, how much fun could we have had with a boring story like that?"

"When did you decide that tonight's supposed to be fun?"

"As soon as I saw the witch dragged out your old Ken doll. Can you believe that shit?"

"Yes, I can. Mom's up to something," Charlotte whispered, "and I don't think it'll be fun."

"We'll just have to fix that," Emily countered, hugging Charlie tighter. "Where's blondie?"



"I haven't the faintest idea."

"Lemme ask you something. Is she the type who likes to poke sharp sticks at hungry bears?"

Charlie rolled her eyes and sighed. "I think that's kinda what she does for a living, Emmy."

"Cool! This is gonna be great."

"You are so twisted."

Emily stopped just outside the double doors leading to the dining area. She posed with a hand on her hip and the ugliest grin this side of sanity. "And just who do you think made me this way?"

"Point taken," Charlotte conceded. "Let's party."

With a backward glance and a silent hope that Diana was covertly prowling the halls, she ushered her sister into the lion's den with a sense of certainty that someone would bear bite marks before dessert.



Julia's scan of the parked black Plymouth revealed nothing stirring, not even a mouse. Still, the odd presence of a domestic sedan in this snooty milieu irked her, felt incongruous. She traded the microwave for a compact infrared model, tuned up the sensitivity and swept the barrel in a slow arc from the quiet street to the Browning's vacant front lawn.

"Hello. What have we here?"

A stone walk split the manicured grass and led up to dark marble steps at the front door. Squared hedges rose up to window level on the ground floor, providing around five feet of dense cover around the perimeter of the house. As Julia aimed the scanner on the cluster of bushes at the west corner, something glowed red on the cool LED screen.

Something crouching and silent and man-shaped. Julia bared her teeth, unable to contain her glee.

"Why, Mistah Chen! Whatevah ah yew doin' henh?" she giggled, fluttering her eyelashes like a coquettish Scarlett O'Hara on speed. "We didn't receive your R.S.V.P.!"

She watched as the red blob scuttled around the corner and vanished, presumably scouting the house for a point of entry.

"Please, please, please let him get inside. The welcoming committee awaits."

Her mind churned out a number of grisly potential scenarios, the lightest of which featured Diana ambushing the assassin, dragging him into a bathroom, dipping his head in the flushing toilet and giving him a swirly. With a coy titter, she checked her hair and make-up in the visor vanity mirror and mentally keyed herself down for a meeting with Charlotte's loving family. Brimming with anticipation, she secured her small stash of concealed weapons and left the car, softly singing a happy tune.

"And she'll have fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird awaaaay..."


Diana, a.k.a. Mrs. Fong, led her staff of caterers into the dining room on schedule and immediately felt a thorny tension scrape her senses. Seated at the rectangular table of gleaming cherry wood were nine obviously unhappy diners, most trying hard to make small talk, all on the verge of failure. The parents sat at opposing ends, with Luis, Emily and the kids on one side and Charlie, some chatty fellow in a gray suit, and one vacant seat on the other.

* No Julia? Where the hell is she? * Diana wondered angrily as she situated steaming dishes on a maroon linen cloth centered on the table.

The gray suit guy was a surprise, too - a sandy-haired young man she didn't recognize. He spoke exclusively to Charlotte, regaling her with some fascinating anecdote about the difficulty of obtaining concert tickets for a client's teenage daughter.

"You know how kids get about these things," he was saying. Droning. Whatever. "She wanted to see the Spice Girls and she wasn't taking 'no' for an answer, so I called up Judge Pentland and..."

Charlie looked as if he were speaking in tongues; her attention bore a sheen of polite interest, but Diana could tell she wasn't really hearing him at all.

She tried not to stare at Charlie's pinched face, finding that her lover's look of barely controlled dismay posed a serious threat to her cover. She tamped down her protective instincts, aware that it simply wouldn't do to have a superannuated asian caterer dropping to her knees beside the Browning's daughter, kissing her hand and asking if she wanted to talk about what was bothering her.

* Soon, sweetie. * Diana projected the words with her mind, her heart. * We'll be out of here soon and you can rail away, scream it out until my ears fall off. *

As soon as the thought had formed and flown, Charlotte looked up at her. They locked eyes and for a brief instant, Diana saw a fleeting glimmer of recognition. She placed the tray of dumplings in front of Charlie and waited for some clue that she was known, spotted beneath the disguise.

Charlotte took a dumpling and popped it in her mouth, instantly making a yummy sound.

"Mmmm. Thethe are wunnerful!" she praised while chewing, savoring. She smiled at Diana, and her pleasure was genuine if oblivious. "I think I've had these before. Do you work at Liu Chu's restaurant, the one on Cretts Boulevard?"

* Good grief, * Diana sighed to herself, comforted that her identity was still concealed. Not even the sharp-eyed Avila kids gave her a second glance, though Katie did appear to find the entire catering staff worthy of a lengthy eyeballing. * I must be better at this make-up thing than I thought. 'Do you work at Liu Chu's?' Oh, honey, you're gonna hate me... *

"No, missy. I free agent," Diana replied, almost laughing at her own dumb private joke. "Just cook for fun and profit. No boss-man tell me what do."

"That will be all, Mrs. Wong. You may leave us now," Anne Browning interrupted, waving the presumptuous old woman away.

"Fongfongfongfongfong," Diana corrected merrily, noting a sharp glance passing between mother and child as she retreated back into the kitchen.

"God, mother. Rude much?" Charlie tartly chastened, but by the time affronted Anne was ready to reply, her daughters were already digging into the spray of scrumptious dishes and noisily encouraging the kids and men-folk to do the same.

As plates were filled and wine (along with non-fermented fruit juice for the kiddies) poured from Baccarat crystal carafes, the doorbell rang; a low set of three tones echoing through the house.

Charlie, Emily, and Luis exchanged glances, each aware of the possibility that this was an unwanted guest. With a serious air that told Charlotte he knew the full complement of dangerous consequences his action would spawn, Luis got up and patted a slight bulge under the left arm of his jacket.

"I'll get that," he offered, motioning for Charles and Anne to remain seated. He leaned down and kissed Emily's hair, lightly stroked her cheek with a bulky knuckle. "Be right back, babe."

"You better," she warned him, knowing her husband had a secret urge to play hero. Emily silently prayed that he wouldn't be following Teddy Rinna's path straight to the intensive care unit.



Chen Kaige crept through the obscuring border of bushes, gradually reaching the back of the house, determined to find a quiet way inside. All the side windows were double-paned, locked and curtained, same for the first portal encountered on the rear. A repeat effort at front-door entry was too chancy. Even if Diana Starrett wasn't around, there could be another armed, piggy-eyed watchman waiting within. If Charlotte Browning was to be here this evening, the risk of another protector cropping up was worth consideration.

* If the odds are poor, there is always plan B, * he thought, carefully adjusting the light nylon bag hanging from his shoulder.

Still, before destroying the entire house, he wanted to take a shot at keeping things quiet, getting some personal contact with the ignorant sheep huddled together inside these walls. Much cutting would be required to transform this job into a satisfying memory, and Chen had brought enough knives to shear the entire flock.


The bark caused Chen to jump, then freeze for a second, more due to the dog's close proximity than any burgeoning threat. Roth, the hump-happy Akita, was less than a yard away, hiding between two bushes with his belly resting in a cool pit of freshly-dug earth. Chen slipped a double-edged dagger from a sheath at his waist, the serrated teeth of a steel blade glinting in dim light.

"Hello, puppy," he whispered, edging closer to the dog.

Roth panted and smiled at the assassin - or came as close as a dog gets to smiling, anyhow. As far as he was concerned, new people were great. New smells, new tastes, new legs to love. He wagged his tail and rose from his dirt hammock, sniffing at this new hand which held what he felt certain was a  shiny new toy for him to play with.

"That's a good puppy. Come here. I won't hurt you."



Luis drew his .45 automatic from the shoulder holster, chambered a hollow-point round, and crossed himself. Though he was prepared to commit a mortal sin in defense of his family, he prayed that the visitor would not force him into such a situation. Navy SEALS are highly trained and able to kill. Luis Avila was fully prepared to do so as he unlocked the front door.

"It's just me, darlings," came the sing-song greeting from outside. "Sorry I'm late."

"Ohhh, thank you sweet Mary, Mother of God," Luis breathed, fastening the safety on his pistol. He opened the door and let Julia in, then closed and locked the entrance behind her. "I thought it might'a been... you know. The guy. Whoever."

"Obviously," Julia said, eyeing the weighty blue steel pistol with appreciation. "I could hear that monster gat loading up through the door. Made me feel most unwelcome."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare ya."

"Of course you didn't, darling. It's quite all right," she cooed, giving him a conciliatory pat on the arm. "Now, on to more important matters - how do I look?"

Emily's old black silk halter dress was a few inches too short for Julia, but the extra length of toned leg revealed beneath the hem turned the shortcoming to an unintended blessing. The neckline swum dangerously low, and the fitted waist clung to her gentle curves like a second skin. Her platinum hair was piled loosely atop her head, poking out in a fashionable mess, and the barely-there hints of cosmetics only accentuated high cheekbones and mirthful gray eyes.

Though his wife was unparalelled in beauty, Luis thought this woman came in a close third, just behind his sister in-law's godawfully gorgeous girlfriend. Charlie herself didn't rate that way; lusting after her felt too much like incest.

"You look mahvelous," he replied, offering his arm and escorting her down the darkened hall to the dining room. "We just got the grub, so you ain't missed much. Except that Charlie's ex-husband is here, and that can't mean nothin' good."

"Oooh. I smell trouble brewing, sir."

"Could be, could be. Let's hope that's as bad as it gets."

"It might get a lot worse if you return to dinner bearing arms against the clan," Julia wagered, jutting her chin at the .45 still in Luis's hand.

"Oh! Shit." He quickly holstered the piece and buttoned his suit jacket. "Thanks, man."

"Anytime, handsome."

Luis opened the double doors and let Julia enter first. She smiled at Charlotte, who surprised her by smiling back. Big-time. A charmingly sweet smile that called up those little crinkles around mouth and eyes which Julia found so appealing.

"Hi, Jules! I'm so happy you decided to join us!"

Another surprise - the loud greeting, the excessively affectionate delivery, the persistent smile. Julia got a funny, fluttery feeling in her stomach. She widened her eyes and tried for a similar tone, recalling Charlie's admonition to follow her cues.

"I apologize for my tardiness, but I was waylayed when I spotted an old friend in the area."

Charlie swallowed a dry lump of fear and maintained her cool. "Anyone I know?"

"Oh, no, darling. You haven't met him yet, but I could introduce you. Maybe even tonight."

As Charlotte processed the subtextual warning and made the connections, Anne Browning chose to chime in with her typical $.02.

"Charlotte, you're so thoughtless sometimes. Aren't you going to introduce your guest?"

"Yes, mother," she growled. "This is Julia Wainwright, a client of Carver and Berkhoff, and my very, very good friend. Julia, this is my family."

Charlie went on to point out each member as if it were the first time Julia had seen any of them, which mildly confused James, Danny, and Katie, who had met her this morning in their own kitchen. The kids looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders as Emily and Luis greeted the blonde woman like a stranger, but wrote it off as another dumb thing adults have to do at times.

"Well, it's certainly an uncommon pleasure to meet you all," Julia noted, withdrawing her hand from a fast brush with the warm mitt of Rear Admiral Charles Foster Browning, U.S. Navy, retired. "And it was so kind of you to invite me, Charlotte."

Screwing up her courage to pull the rug out from under her mother's evil plans - and follow through on Emily's 'let's have some fun with 'em' policy - Charlie scooted her chair back and walked over to Julia with her hands extended. Julia took them in a firm, cool grip and felt a little tingle of anticipation for whatever Charlotte had in mind. The young attorney looked caught between horror and mischief as she fired up a sultry glare and lowered her voice.

"Well, I certainly wasn't going to leave you alone at the hotel tonight," she purred.

Purred. Yes, indeed. It was a damned good thing Julia could improv with the best of them, because what Charlotte Browning did next was among the most unexpected things she'd ever experienced.

With a gently urging tug, Julia felt herself pulled forward and in... and down onto a pair of moist, slightly parted lips. Charlotte kissed her smack on the mouth, lingering there long enough to send a clear signal to any and everyone in the room. No tongue, though. That would just be too tacky.

Before Charlie could pull away, Julia angled in next to her ear and whispered words that made the lawyer doubt the wisdom of her provocative ploy.

"Here comes trouble, darling."



Diana Starrett stood in the kitchen, her ear pressed to the door separating her from Charlotte and the rest, but she was listening only enough to pick up what she needed to hear. She knew Julia had arrived and, implausibly, that set her more at ease. The Swede was minding their pact, as Diana knew she would. Julia's overpowering self-interest was the only thing that made her reliable.

The dining room sounded safe and secure as chairs scraped the floor and settled, dishes and glasses clinked, voices murmured. All the cues of normalcy allowed Diana to slip away from the present for a moment and slide back into the past, to ponder yet another mistake come back to haunt her.

She was in prison. In her mind's eye, she could see wet cement walls crawling with roaches, iron bars covering a foot-wide window four yards up, the rusted steel cell door, the frail, gray-skinned man sitting on the splintery wooden bunk, waiting for his executioner. He searched the dark and found his protector standing perfectly still, hidden in the corner, barely visible and utterly silent.

* Bangkok all over again. Waiting for Chen. *

The gray man gasps and trembles as footsteps sound in the hall outside, keys jangle. The cell door locks turn and the door opens. A man enters, dressed as a guard. His cool shadow falls over the sweating prisoner. He holds a knife, shiny and toothy, raises it to bite into the prisoner's flesh...

And she is on him. Hands flashing, twisting the knife away, wedged knuckles pounding into the guard's throat, his eyes. He is stunned, stumbling through the door and running. Running through the halls, out the door, across the dewy weeds of the prison yard, he comes to the wall. He leaps, scrambles for a hold atop the glass-studded barricade, feels her hands close on his leg, beating the limb brutally against stones, snapping the bone before he pulls free and disappears. A voice in her ear gives the order to let him go. She bites down on her jaw, quelling the urge to pursue, to stop him now and forever.

* I shouldn't have listened, * Diana told herself. * Should have taken him out that night, stopped this before it started. It's the only way to be sure they don't come back. *

"Mrs. Fong?"

Joseph was whispering close behind her, easing her out of the reverie and sparing her the ensuing fit of regretful damnation which was sure to follow. Diana noticed that Brian and Sonya hung back, surreptitiously peeking through curtains and checking the back door peephole.

"Yeah?" she prompted, secretly grateful that her guilt trip was cut short.

"We were wondering... "

"You were wondering what to do next."

"Well, yes."

Diana leaned her forehead against the kitchen door. She squeezed her eyes shut tight (the contact lenses made her eyeballs itch) and worked her jaw until it popped, releasing a little of the lingering tension. "You're all packing?"

"Yes, of course."

* Silly question, * Diana realized, thinking of Julia's dangerous liaison with the woman who had sent these people. * Rotten choice for a supply line, Jules. Still, I heard she makes her agents sleep, eat, shower, and go potty with loaded guns in their hands. At least they come prepared. *

"Check your equipment. If he isn't here already, he will be soon."

"We've done that. Three times."

"So do it again."

"Is there an... I mean, do you have a plan?" Joseph sounded a touch nervous, but only a touch.

"Oh, I definitely have a plan."

* Liar, liar, pants on fire... * sang an annoying voice in her head.

"Ummm. Could you perhaps tell us?"

She turned to face her de facto sous chef, addressed him in her most chipper voice.

"Okay. My plan is this: company comes and I take care of 'em while the three of you hang out and watch the dinner party. Check mate, clear the board, everybody gets on with their lives."

Joseph's face hardened as he clenched his teeth. Sonya bit her bottom lip and blinked furiously. Brian leaned his head against the back door and sighed. Their reactions made Diana slightly ashamed for being so direct about her preference for spontaneous action. These folks were not used to taking the field without detailed instructions, but that would have to change if they were to survive.

"Don't pout. I never claimed to be a master strategist, kids," she told them, her tone unrepentantly dry. "And now that I've thoroughly demoralized you all... is anyone hungry? I made way too much Kung Pao and egg roll."

Brian perked up, raised his hand as if asking the teacher to call on him.

"Yes, Master Brian?" Diana pointed a synthetically wrinkled and spotty finger, bidding him to speak.

"I'm not hungry or anything, but could I feed a bit to that dog outside?"

"You want to give that spicy Kung Pao to a dog? It'll make him queasy and gassy."

"Just some chicken, then?" Brian pleaded kindly. "I heard him whining a minute ago, sounded so sad. I think he's hungry."

"Oh, get a grip," Sonya complained. "What is it with you and animals?"

"I like dogs," Brian stated without shame. "I'm a dog-guy."

"That you are, boy. You know, Brian here once ran back into a burning warehouse to fetch some rabid mutt," Sonya told Diana, her disgust over the folly clearly displayed, "and the damn cur nearly bit his hand off. Had to get shots to keep him from frothing at the mouth."

"Well, excuse me for caring! My people don't eat our pets!" Brian shot back.

"I never said you did," Sonya corrected. "Why would you bother when there are millions of perfectly good rats running around?"

"Hey! That's - "

"That's quite enough out of both of you," Diana interrupted. She was beginning to see how these two could be considered liabilities; soft hearts and foul tempers did not make for good operatives. Most of her own mistakes on the job could be traced to those two factors. Mainly the latter. "We all gotta get focused. Arguing like that takes you off your game."

"I agree," Joseph added. "You two don't seem to realize that this is our last chance. If we screw this up, we're gone. I don't know about you, but personally, I'd rather remain employed. So shut up."
Both younger agents had the wisdom to look shamed, even if they weren't, and they did shut up. That was the important thing. Diana gave Joseph a nod of gratitude for his intervention and his veiled language. The threat of death hung over them like a brewing storm, but it did no good to point and scream at the gathering clouds.

"It's gonna be okay," Diana assured them, trying to instill some confidence in the jittery crew. "We're all gonna come out the other side. You don't believe that, you end up stalled and screwed."

* How's that for a motivational speech? Anthony Robbins, look out. Christ, I suck at this. *

Diana kept this critique to herself as she waddled over to the range and scooped several plump bits of chicken onto a saucer, then took the dish to where Brian stood. He looked at her quizzically, as if he'd already forgotten his request. "I like dogs, too," she explained while unlocking the back door.

"Cool," he replied, grinning at Sonya with vindicated pleasure.

Diana gripped the stoneware plate hard, her knuckles white with tension. "Thing is, I fed Roth before you guys got here, so I'm pretty sure it's not hunger making him whine. I'll go check on him, see if he's okay. Brian, would you cover me, please?"

The youth's eyes widened in alarm, but he drew his weapon - a silenced Heckler-Koch 9mm - and gave a quick nod. He stepped beside the door frame and lifted the gun, positioning himself to fire. Diana exhaled softly and turned the brass knob. She eased the back door ajar and shuffled out onto the steps, into the bright spill of light falling from an overhead fixture.

From the rear stoop one could see the majority of the back yard, which covered over half an acre. Most of the grounds consisted of a flat, broad plane covered in clipped green grass - Charles Browning's own private putting green, where he allegedly spent entire nights chipping golf balls in pursuit of the perfect short game. A border of black iron lamp posts circled the green, a testament to his practice of whiling away the evening hours alone with his graphite and titanium friends.

* Wish those lamps were on, * Diana griped, her strained eyes scouring the dark landscape, * I bet he installed the switch is out there to keep mother from cutting his power off. Shoot. *

A line of shrubs, some flowering, some plain, ran along the back fence and provided some meager cover, but they were too short and dense for a practical hiding spot. Roth's sad brown doghouse stood in the lonely western corner, apparently empty.

"Puppy, come! Got food for you!" she called, using her full Fong-ness as she altered her voice and stooped to an arthritic crouch. "Chicken good! No MSG!"

Nothing. No whining, no barking. No Roth.

* Right. Who thinks it's too quiet back here? Ooh! Me, me, me! *

"Come! Puppy! Come!" she called again, eyes scanning left and right, picking through the hedges along the rear of the house. Nothing. Her vision lingered a moment on the basement hatch, two heavy wooden doors that opened at ground level and led down to steep concrete stairs. The doors lay in a  closed position, but were not locked.

* There was a lock there. A big ol' Master padlock. The game is afoot. *

Diana turned back to the kitchen entrance and spoke through the small opening, her voice electric with sudden excitement. "He's here. Lock this door. All of you, stay ready. Watch over Charlie."

"Wait - aren't we here to help you catch him?" Brian asked nervously, itching to join her search.

"No. You're here to protect my family," she hissed, "Chen is mine. Now lock it."

Before Brian could argue, Diana slammed the door shut, nearly catching his nose in the jamb. She waited on the stoop until she heard the locks turn, then set her sights on the basement doors. Ambling slowly down the steps, she edged into the narrow alley between bushes and house. After only a few short steps, her foot dragged across something soft and still.

* Oh, God. *

She saw, yet gave no impression of having seen. Eyes darted down quickly for confirmation, then straight ahead, outwardly oblivious. Hidden between two bushes was a small body covered in white fur, a crimson blotch staining throat and muzzle. The dog's chest was still, his eyes closed.

* Motherfucker! Low-life little shit! The dog wouldn't have hurt you, Chen. But I will. *

Diana smacked her palm against the stone wall. She felt like screaming, roaring out a challenge to summon the coward into a direct confrontation. Her anger was swelling again, a high, chilling wave of memories: Teddy lying in the hospital bed, clinging to life, Dan's limp body, cool in her arms, narrow misses in a Bangkok prison yard and the Elceda hospital parking lot, the smash of metal and glass as their cars collided.

* Damn you, Chen. God damn you straight to hell. *

She remembered her own deal with Julia's devil woman, struck earlier in the day during a hasty conversation. In addition to other things, Diana promised to deliver the assassin alive in exchange for certain concessions, certain promises of intervention. She knew that Chen deserved the agony of torments planned for him by that vindictive party, but still... she needed to hurt him. Badly. Soon.

With a twitch of her head, she tried to clear her mind of worries past and present, to focus on the task at hand. "Chicken," she called softly, walking toward the basement doors. "Chicken? Got chicken for good little boy."

Not a sound was heard in the yard as Diana leaned down and grasped the steel handle. She pulled it slowly, and the heavy door lifted up and open with a slight squeak of strained hinges. The basement stairs were dark, and the fetid smell of mildew and damp earth rose up and rolled over her. Diana stood at the opening, her stooped body silhouetted in dim light. She grasped the plate tighter and called down into the dark, her summons now sounding more like a threat.

"Chicken? Chicken! Come get some."



"This chicken is so tender," Charlie praised as she took another bite of the spicy meat. She feigned a smile, though her stomach was tight and ached with immoderate tension. She tried to write it off as a side-effect of the malicious game she anticipated from her mother, for that seemed a reasonable explanation. Still, it felt like something else, something bigger and closer and even more wrong.

Charlie took another drink of wine, then another. The sick feeling did not go away, so she fought it off with an oft-used therapy - talking. "You should hire that Fong woman to cook for you full time, mom. She seems awfully fun, and you could use a little spice in your diet."

"I would sooner starve than abide her company for another minute," Anne sniped, poking a fork at her dinner. "This food is horrid, and that wretched old woman is a nightmare. I've a good mind to lodge a complaint with the Chamber of Commerce, look into revoking her catering license."

"Anne, really," Charles mumbled, though he did not meet his wife's eye. "Food's fine. Just fine."

"I don't see what's so bad about it, either" Emily contributed between bites. "It's a little hot, but I think it's supposed to taste that way. The rice is perfect. Dumplings are pretty tasty, too."

"Mmm," agreed Luis, noting that his children had nearly cleaned their plates already, while the blonde seated opposite him had barely touched her petite serving. "You like chinese food, Julia?"

"Adore it. I'm just not terribly hungry at the moment - though I plan to eat later," she answered, casting a sidelong leer at Charlotte.

Charlie's stomach clenched violently at the implication, though she painted another smile across her flirty facade. She wondered how long she'd have to stay in this game before her mother snapped and revealed her hand. The little kiss just made Anne uncomfortable and perhaps a tad confused, and the double entendres Julia lobbed like hand grenades simply irritated her.

* Time to up the stakes, maybe? Who's wondering about that ring line on Richie's left hand? *

"So, Richard," Charlotte trilled happily, "when are you and Valerie getting married?"

Her ex looked up from his plate, where he had kept his eyes during most of the meal, and laughed nervously. "Gee. Uhh, we haven't really talked about it."

"Oh, come on!" she teased, keeping her tone light and easy. "You've had an appropriate period of time to mourn our busted union. What's the hold up?"

"Yeah, Richie," Emily chimed in. "Nice-looking guy like you, bright future, good hygiene - she's gotta be hearing wedding bells."

"Uhh... "

"It's good for a career-minded person to be wed. Gives the appearance of stability," Charlie added, smiling knowingly at her former husband.

"Stop pressuring the boy," Anne ordered tersely. "Some people prefer to keep their private lives private instead of parading them around in some perverse pageant."

* Finally! * Charlotte crowed inside. * She took a shot at me! 'Bout time, mom. *

"And some people prefer to be open and honest about themselves," she replied mildly. "Some people don't lie their way through life."

"Some people should," Anne grumbled.

Charlotte's eyes widened in mock horror, feigning offense. "Why, mother! Was that remark aimed at someone in particular?"

Anne took a long gulp of wine. Charles stopped chewing and watched his wife as if she were ticking, set to explode. Richard squirmed noticeably, but resumed eating his dinner. Emily, Luis and the kids were silent as death, their patience growing taxed. It felt like someone was about to start fighting, and no one was anticipating the melee with more glee than Julia.

"Unless I'm dreadfully mistaken, I feel certain that taunt was directed at us, dearest," she hummed, weirdly happy that she had drawn dinner duty rather than Chen patrol. "Mrs. Browning, if my presence here is unwelcome, I apologize."

"You have nothing to apologize for," said Charlotte, gulping down her bile as she patted Julia's cool hand. She was eager to draw all fire toward the unspoken problem, to flush the covey of mutual contempt between mother and child out in the open. "Mom disapproves of nearly every choice I've ever made, and I think tonight she's pointing out what she considers my biggest screw-up ever."

"So many from which to choose." Anne's voice scalded Charlie's ears, her disdain boiling right out of her mouth like foam. Staunchly, the young woman pressed on with her inquiry.

"She and daddy didn't want us to divorce. You knew that, didn't you Richie?"

Though embarrassed, he had the grace to answer truthfully. "We both knew, but that's not why I - "

"Richard," boomed the man at the head of the table, utilizing his solid command voice.

Charles Browning's singular utterance froze the fellow's explanation, silenced him instantly. All eyes went to the family patriarch, saw him glower at wife and daughter in a silent bid for the floor. He obviously had something more to say, but he was mired down in the moment, his watery eyes angry and sad.

Charlotte's stomach cramped suddenly and she grimaced, but the spasm was easily attributed to the fear of an oncoming argument. She licked her parched lips and tried to ease her father out, get him talking. After all, his admonishment couldn't be any worse than what her mother had to offer.

"Dad? You're in this, too. If you have something to say, I need to hear it."

"I want... I want this to stop," he said, more plea than demand. "All of it. Right now."



During his brief stop in the basement to set up the fail-safe plan B, Chen shed the small nylon bag, leaving both hands free to break into the Browning house. Unlike the newer windows on the ground floor, the second level windows were wood-framed and single-paned. Since they provided the least troublesome shot at access, he went straight to work.

From his perch on the second story window ledge, concealed behind the jutting center stones which swelled out from the rear of house like a scoliotic backbone, Chen Kaige heard the old woman calling to the dog. He wanted to wait until she gave up and went back inside, but she insisted on finding the stupid beast and kept looking. When she opened the basement door and called again, something in her shrill voice changed, became hard and sharp as razors... and he knew.

In his mind's eye, the aged disguise fell away. He smelled the predator beneath, recognized his enemy cleverly cloaked in raiment of age and innocence.

* She's come. Again, she's come for me. *

Abandoning his efforts at forcing the window open, the killer prepared to end this nagging pursuit here and now. He held fast to the ledge with his right hand and drew a dagger with the left - the same dual-edged instrument he used to dispatch that worthless, defective dog. Leaning out to see around the barrier, he watched her posture change, her body lengthening, uncoiling.

* This will be the last time you come for me, blue eyes. *

Chen flipped the knife around and held the blade in gloved fingers, cocked his arm, and threw the deadly weapon in a beautiful, spinning arc. Straight for Diana Starrett's exposed throat.



Diana didn't hear the skilled, liquid throw or see the knife blade glint in moonlight. In fact, she couldn't explain how she knew it was coming, only that she knew. A normally dormant sense, one beyond the five standard issue, picked up an incoming threat and sounded a claxon in her head, flooding the halls of her body with adrenaline soldiers responding to a call to arms.

* Incoming! Evasive maneuvers! *

Her head tilted back, her spine arching hard, knees bent... and the blade whizzed by her neck in a tight spin, burying itself to the hilt in firm soil not five feet away.

She barely let herself feel relief before snapping her gaze to the side and up, spotting an arm retreating behind the centered row of dark stone blocks. Diana ducked low and scurried along the wall, bracing herself against the other side of the divider. Close enough now to hear him moving, she picked up sounds of effort, low strained grunts as he again attacked the window. A popping noise issued from the wood frame, and she understood he had pried the lock free.

* Can't let him inside. Move! Now! *

Three steps around and she saw him fully, nimbly positioned on the narrow ledge, both hands forcing the window up and open. One leg inside, he moved to swing in the other, to enter the house.

* No! *

With all the furious strength she could summon, Diana curled the stoneware saucer into her body and flung it toward Chen's head. Pieces of chicken pelted her face as they spun off the plate, but her eyes remained focused on the retreating man, the speeding piece of dinnerware turned weapon.

*Please... *

The saucer zipped through the night air, cutting a path toward its target as if it were made for the mission. Ballistic crockery. Something inside Diana wanted to laugh at the improvisation. Later.

*Please... *

The plate found the mark, collided violently with Chen's skull and shattered into sharp, falling shards.

Chen made not a sound as he felt the impact rush pain through his head, though he did make a startled "Ooaaa!" noise as he lost his balance on the ledge and tumbled backward and down, landing with a rustle and a thud as his body ripped through the cushioning hedges to the hard earth below. A wave of dizziness washed over him as he struggled to regain his breath, to overcome the shock and mount a defense for the attack sure to come.

Knowing he wouldn't be stunned for long, Diana lunged across the distance and grabbed at Chen's black-booted feet. She dragged him from the bushes and dropped onto his back with both knees, driving a labored gasp from his lungs. His hands scrabbled for purchase in the dirt as he tried to push himself up and lever her body off, but a fast punch to the back of his neck drove that idea - along with his face - right into the ground.

"You're bleeding," Diana announced, cruelly driving her palm against the stoneware cut on Chen's scalp, sending thick streams of red trickling down his neck. "Oops. Looks like I just made it worse."

"I'm going to kill you," the pinned assassin promised, "and then I'm going to kill her."

"Sorry. 'Fraid not." She grabbed his hair and slammed his face into the earth again, then repeated the procedure just for fun. "You've got a hot date with a naughty lady. Can't keep you here for long."

Chen spat out a mouthful of bloody dirt and swung his stronger right arm back in a desperate attempt to make contact, to inflict damage, but Diana's dominant position afforded her a tremendous defensive advantage as well as amazing leverage. She caught his arm and yanked hard, pushing it across Chen's back, not stopping until the shoulder popped free of the joint, thoroughly dislocated.



She let the right arm fall to the ground, then grabbed the flailing left and levered it twice as hard. Little did she know that her extra effort was unnecessary, for that shoulder was the one injured in their unfortunate auto collision the previous day. The supreme torque applied to Chen's weakened limb not only popped the bone loose, but tore the surrounding tendons and cartilage all to hell.


"Shut-up, you sissy," Diana whispered, though a dark part of her welcomed his screams.

She felt so good at that moment, nearly jubilant. For the first time in days, she knew she had the upper hand on everyone. She could control the situation, make it back to her life, back to Charlie. Everything would be all right. Everyone would be safe now, just like she planned.

* Safe again. Normal again. So close now. So close... you could finish it all tonight. *

At the realization, a rush of euphoria rolled over her like a sustained orgasm, made her limbs feel loose and hot, burning fuses of bone and muscle growing shorter by the second, racing to detonate the tight ball of rage nestled inside her.

* Stop it. You can't snuff him. Rein it in, baby, rein it in. *

"I'm going to kill you, bitch!" Chen roared, furious with frustration and pain.

"That's the spirit," Diana cheered, cocking her legs back and delivering a knee strike to each of Chen's kidneys - no mean feat with thick lumps of foam padding on her rear end. "Never give up."

"Rrrgghh! Ahh!"

With each blow, the heat grew more intense inside her body, filling her with a need for definitive, permanent action. This man was a threat to all she held dear and he should die. Now. At her hand. Vengeance for all he had done, prevention against all he would do in the future. That heat, that fear-fueled fire, demanded closure, surety.

* No. No. No. Stop it. You can't - * Diana argued, trembling, burning.

* Oh, yes you can, * countered the heat, a ghastly voice echoing from the bottom of a deep, black pit. The pit sunk straight into her subconscious. The pit she fought each day to fill with better things.

* No. I promised Chen alive. A corpse is a deal breaker. Fucks everything up. *

* So? Can you risk turning him over to someone else? You can't trust anyone else to do this for you. End it now. One less enemy to worry about, one less person who'll cut Charlie's throat because of who you were. Who you always will be. *

Chen Kaige twisted and struggled beneath her. Without sustained punishment, he would recover enough strength to pose a threat. Diana absently drove her elbow into the back of his neck, satisfied when she heard vertebrae crack and shift, smiling as she heard his muffled cry. Under the make-up and latex, she was sweating rivers. She had a vague fear that her organs were becoming tough and shrunken, like they were roasting in an oven turned up too high.

"Too hot," she grumbled, peeling off the wig and tossing it aside. The stomach pads followed, then the artificial fanny. As she anticipated, it wasn't enough to cool her body, but she wasn't ready to concede the obvious answer - that the problem was more mental than physical.

* Kill him. The rest of them are for another day, but Chen is here, in your hands. Tonight. *

"I will flay the flesh from your bones and spit inside your womb!" the killer boasted, bucking again.

"Quiet!" she ordered, banging a fist on his demolished left shoulder.

* He's begging for it. Give it to him. Take him out now... or he'll be baaaack. *

* I know there's a chance of that, but... God. So hot out tonight. *

* You can fix that. Kill him and ditch the body. Go back inside and say 'false alarm.' Tell them all Chen never showed. That'll cool you right off. *

"It's so hot," she said, standing up and stripping off the billowing house dress. Underneath, her tank top and jeans were soaked with perspiration, evidence of her building distress.

"You're all going to burn," Chen told her ominously, though his meaning did not touch Diana's ears.

Diana leaned down and took one of his ankles firmly between both hands, well aware that his lower extremities were lethal as well. He kicked back with his free leg, and she nimbly jumped over the sweep intended to trip her. With a nakedly evil grin, she powered her upper body into a turn that swiveled Chen Kaige's ankle nearly 180 degrees, loudly snapping the bone.

* Hurting him won't be enough. He will heal and then he'll come back. They all do. *

She let the mangled leg drop, causing him to whimper as it hit the ground. Her smile only grew larger as he cursed into the dirt, an unending litany of impotent threats and character assaults. The proud murderer lay before her, twisting about like a worm trapped underfoot... and it pleased her.

* They all come back, don't they? Bad pennies keep turning up. *

The heat blossomed inside, warmth flooding every crevice of her mind as the pit bubbled and spewed smothering, pitch-dark hate over the dim light of reason.

* Time to toss this one down the well. Make a wish and throw him right in. *

Her breathing slowed, heart rate eased from gallop to trot. Diana became calm, as if a decision had been made, as if she accepted the veracity of her fears and allowed them to set her course.

"You killed a friend of mine," she told Chen Kaige, watching from on high as he writhed on the ground. "In my home."

"... mmmph... die... kill you... "

"And you nearly took away another friend, a man I trust, a man I count on."

"... pigs... all of you will die... "

"Then you wrecked my car - with me in it. After all that, you have the gall, the outright temerity to come her tonight, thinking that I'd let you harm the woman I love more than life itself?"

"... burn you all... pieces in the trees... "

"If you do think that, you're cracked. Just like that senile old coot, Yoshima. Birds of a feather."

"... kill him, too... liar... fool... "

"Get. Up."

Chen stilled his struggles as she said the words. Were it not for the sporadic trembles of searing pain, he wouldn't have moved at all.

"I told you to get up," Diana repeated. "You want a shot at me, you gotta face me."

"I will kill you," he gasped, rearing up and angling his body sideways. Chen slammed his right shoulder into the ground, trying to pop the bone back into the socket. "I swear it." Again, he raised up and pounded his body against the earth. Again, he was unsuccessful.

"Is this going to take long? Some of us have other engagements."

"This is my last engagement," Chen muttered, rolling onto his back with great effort. "You will get no satisfaction from me, foo-bar."

Diana blinked at him, her smile wider and colder than ever. "What did you call me?"

"F-U-B-A-R! Are you deaf, satanic cow? It is an acronym!"

His hands had a limited range of motion due to his ruined shoulders, but they scampered onto his stomach and under his jacket, prompting Diana to kick him in the balls. Not for any other reason than they were the most convenient route to stopping him, mind you.


"That's for calling me a satanic cow," she claimed, pleased to note that Chen's hands had ceased their meandering for the moment. "By-the-by, where did you hear that particular expression?"

Chen groaned through a fading impulse to vomit, though he reserved the right to do so in the near future. He needed something from his jacket, and stalling Diana seemed like a good idea. Perhaps cooperation would distract her. "My mother said it often. When a heifer will not give milk or mate without violent reactions, it was said that the cow was possessed by satan and - "

"Not that expression, moron!" Diana cried, fighting down the urge to kick him some more. "Jesus, I didn't hit you that hard."

"Ahh, you mean foo-bar. Your skinny friend introduced me to that one, and I assumed it was a pejorative term, an insult," Chen clarified, sneaking one hand under his jacket, more stealthily this time. "He suggested that you should explain it to me. And then I cut out his liver."

A growl issued from deep inside Diana's chest, a black sound that promised more pain than even Chen's disciplined body could handle. His fingers found what they sought in an inner pocket-  a small device with a small button that issued a small beep as he depressed it. Despite the rage he sensed building inside the deadly woman, and perhaps because he knew that death and relief and Pyrrhic victory were now only ten short minutes away, that beep assured him the last laugh.

"Heh. Heh. Heh."

"His name, laughing corpse, was Dan," Diana rumbled, waiting for Chen to draw a weapon from under his jacket, waiting for an excuse to fall on him and begin the end. "Daniel Winston Holheiser, late of Milwaukee, Wisconsin."

"I could not possibly care less."

"FUBAR was one of his favorite expressions. It stands for your fate, your future, short as it may be."

"Blah, blah, blah. They're all going to die. You can't save them now, you arrogant cunt."

She rolled her shoulders, cracked her neck, flexed her knuckles. Preparing. "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. That's you, meat. Now get up."

"Make me."

Diana lost it. The thin veneer of remaining restraint stripped away, leaving only a molten, naked rage. She fell on the assassin with both fists, pummeling his face with a monsoon of blows, each one falling harder than the last. Here, she was in control. Here, she had the power to dictate outcomes. No one could manipulate her, bend her will, control her, exploit her weaknesses.

* That's it. That's the way. *

No Riggins, no Harry, no Julia, no Yoshima, no Angelia. No one but a bad man and a worse woman set on his destruction. Black and white and blood simple.

* It's the only way to be sure. The only way. *

Skin split open, bones cracked and crumbled, and still she went on. Hitting him, bartering for vengeance and satisfaction with pieces of her humanity. Chen lost consciousness, no more laughs or smiles or quips to give her fuel. The heat inside grew stronger, burned hotter, burningburningburning with no sign of slowing, no relief in sight.

* You were made for this. Like it or not. This is the only way to make it better. *

She saw herself as if disembodied, floating above the scene. The fire in her eyes, the flurry of fists forming a tornado of violence, herself as an animal feeding some sickening bloodlust conceived in fear, incubated in that black pit she could never fill. In that moment of clarity, Diana was cruelly disabused of all notions that she was a civilized being worthy of anything but revulsion.

Rushing headlong into the inferno of her black, burning soul, Diana felt it was too late to stop.

* It's too late, baby, now it's too late, * sang the voice from the pit. *Gotcha now. This is what you were born to do. This is the only way to make it better. *

All she could do was cry... because part of her would always, always know that to be true.



"Joseph, you've gotta go out there!" Brian repeated. His attention was riveted to the spectacle barely visible in the bushes, several yards to the left of his window. "She's gonna kill him!"

"I"m not going to interfere with her. If she kills him, fine. I'm sure he deserves worse."

Sonya looked at the eldest agent, wondering at his cold detachment. "Not that I give a damn about the bastard, but isn't she supposed to turn him in alive? I thought that was the deal she cut for us."

"I will not interfere," Joseph repeated. "The man killed Ops and left us all subject to the whim of that dead-eyed harpy. Let him die."

"Aww, man. I can't watch this," Brian claimed, still not leaving the window, still watching.

"Shit! Somebody's gotta do something!" Sonya asserted. "Which one of the women in there is Julia? Didn't Diana say she was blonde, real pretty?"

"Don't disturb them," Joseph ordered, his expression stern.

"Fuck you, Joe. I want to get out from under the harpy, too, and I don't want Diana fucking up our deal because she went crazy and couldn't close her own can of whoop ass!"

Sonya shoved past Joseph and opened the dining room door, finding a crowd of nervous, silent people, all of them staring at Charles Browning. She located a striking blonde woman in a black dress and made a jiggling motion with thumb and index finger - the universal sign for 'telephone'.

Julia excused herself and silently pouted, knowing she was going to miss the juicy bits of the Browning family soap opera, which was turning out to be better than "Dynasty."

Once in the kitchen, Sonya hurriedly explained the sitch and Julia was out the back door like lightning, running though the bushes toward Diana Starrett and the bloody hunk of meat formerly known as Chen Kaige. She drew the Walther from her purse and discarded the bag in transit.

"Diana!" the Swede shouted, pulling up a few feet behind her friend. "Stop it! Get hold of yourself!"

"This is the only way," Diana gasped, nearly choked by her flowing tears, unable to shut it off.

Somewhere under the spatters of blood, the strange, wrinkled face and dark contacts, the woman Julia knew was hidden, lost. If she wasn't stopped and soon, Diana might not come back.

"Sorry for this, darling," she whispered, then clonked Diana over the head with her pistol butt.

The frenzied fists ceased punching and fell to her sides; limp, torn and tired. A black pool opened inside Diana's mind and swallowed her whole. Only then did her fearful fever break, her body cooling as she slipped like a glowing hearth stone into the glossy pond of unconsciousness. Her last thought was one of gratitude, whispered through a cloud of steam.

* Thank you... *



After Julia's sudden departure, there was a long stretch of quiet, a calm before the resumption of the unscheduled storm. Charlotte watched her go and felt the cramps in her stomach intensify, nearly causing her to double over. Something was very, very wrong, and it had nothing to do with this dinner party from hell. She wanted to follow Julia, find Diana and see that she was fine... but with each passing moment, she grew less sure that was true.

* Please, honey, please be okay. Please. *

"She started this," Anne groused to her husband while pointing a bony finger at Charlie. "Bringing that strange woman here, as if living with the other one weren't bad enough. Rubbing it in our faces - "

"Annie, please," Charles cut her off, annoying her tremendously, aware that there would be trouble for it later and somehow not caring. He eyed his youngest with more tolerance than she'd ever seen or expected, and spoke to her with about as much affection as he could generate.

"I tell you Chick, if that Julie's good enough to bring home to dinner, I got no problem with her. I just thought you were bringing that Dana person, that's all. I was all set to meet her. Wanted to for a while now."

Charlotte's mouth opened and closed several times, but no words would come. She felt dizzy, nauseous with fear and hope. She simply couldn't form the words to express the feelings.

"Grampa?" Katie said quietly, breaking the stiffening silence.

"What is it, Katherine?" he inquired gently.

"Her name's Diana, not Dana. You'd like her."

"Do you like her?"

"She's my friend. I like her an awful lot."

"Then I'd probably like her, too." He nodded and smiled at his grandchild, finding her dark eyes honest beyond measure. On impulse, he asked Katie another question. "Do you like your Grammy?"

"Which one?" Katie asked warily, hoping he was referring to Grammy Avila.

"Grammy Anne, the one right over there, looking like she needs to eat a few pounds of prunes."

His remark drew a few stifled snorts of laughter from an abashed Luis and stunned stares from nearly everyone else. Katie looked at her mother first, then her grandmother, then back to Charles.

"I love her," she answered, her careful omission of the word 'like' noted by all present.

"Me, too. Just kinda hard to like her sometimes," he agreed. "Kinda hard to like me most days. Had cause to think about it lately. Know what?"

His query seemed addressed specifically to Katie, so she answered him. "What?"

"I'm gonna try to fix that."

"Pop?" Emily said softly, finding Luis's hand under the table, clenching it tightly. "Wanna tell us what's going on? This isn't turning out like the usual torture sessions."

"My fault. This set-up wasn't all your mother's doing, Em," he admitted. "I wanted Richard to come talk to me. Just didn't plan on having him to dinner with you all here. That was Anne's idea."

"Why, daddy?" Charlotte asked, finding her voice had become smaller and softer since last use. "If you really want to turn down the hostility, why would you let her invite my ex-husband?"

"I need somebody who does estate planning, somebody from outside this talky little town," Charles explained calmly. "Anne says that's his thing, planning and such. Richard is a good man and I trust him, so I asked him to help me out."

"If you needed legal help, you could have asked me," Charlie claimed, though she knew that would never happen and probably shouldn't - it just felt like the right thing to say to keep him talking.

"Not on this. Gotta re-do the will, fix a few things I broke myself." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, surrendered his fork and abandoned his forgotten meal. "Mistakes. Lot of mistakes in my head got put down on paper. Richard's here to help me set it right, that's all."

"Why now? Why all this tonight - importing Richard, wanting to meet Diana, playing referee for the first time in my memory, all the 'like' stuff - what's with the urgency, dad?"

"Hoo. That's the thing, huh? Urgency," he said to Charlie, gray brows lifted in a plea for patience. "Always think we've got time to make it right. Tomorrow. Shit your life away thinking like that."


Anne spoke, but he didn't seem to hear. His eyes never left Charlotte as he laid it all out, let it all go, and she did not waver. Charlotte had waited her entire life to hear something from this man, and no one was going to stop her from giving him her attention. Her stomach still felt like she'd eaten a plate full of glowing coals, but she fought down the painful anxiety, determined to listen.

"Say 'once I retire, get that money, build that house, buy that car, get that woman, spend some time with so-and-so bigwig, get to know my kids' - then one day, you get a headache," Charles paused here and cleared his throat, took a deep breath. "Go to the doctor, get all the tests. Turns out there's a big, nasty knot right behind your eye. They use the word 'malignant' more than enough to get the message across."

A soft moan fell over Charlie's lips, dropped into her lap. Something hot and thick closed off her throat. Her nausea climbed and she felt a fever coming on; her hands grew clammy with sweat. This wasn't at all what she wanted to hear.

"They can't take it out. Doesn't respond to treatment, they tell you. Six months at the outside, they tell you. And all of a sudden, you realize that it's gonna end. All those times you said 'tomorrow' come back and bite you in the ass. You got your money, your house and all that shit, but you didn't do the important stuff. You thought it would wait for you until you were ready, 'til you were old enough and wise enough to make sense out of what you didn't understand."

James and Danny started to fidget, while Katie sat transfixed by her mother's expression. Her mommy looked like she was going to cry. She took her dinner napkin and handed it across Luis's lap to Emily, who did start crying as she accepted it.


"Shh, honey," Emily soothed her, mustering a shaky smile. "Let Grampa finish."

"I don't mean to prattle on," Charles said contritely. "Gist of it is this; I'm dying. Now, I'm a selfish old man and I don't want to die with my children hating me. Whatever I gotta do to make that change, that's what I'm gonna do. I just hope... I hope there's enough time to put it right."

He looked at Charlotte, then Emily. The girls saw tears well up in his eyes; those cold blue eyes they thought were incapable of such a human function.

"I messed up," he said, his voice shaking. "I messed up and I'm sorry and I love you. That's all I got to say for now."

On that note, he stood up and left the room, leaving the group shell-shocked and wondering what the evil alien pod people did with the real Charles Foster Browning.

Part Twenty-Three
Return to Main Page