Persistence of Memory - Pt. 23

by Paul Seely

Thirty Three

Somehow, Diana found herself home, in the bedroom of a little white house at The Meadows.

She heard running water and the sound of music from the stereo. In the bathroom, Charlie sang along with Donna Summer, carelessly happy and off key. Diana breathed in the sound of her love's artless warbling and smiled from the inside out as the lawyer missed another high note on "Heaven Knows."

She felt safe for a fleeting instant, but she knew all was not well. In fact, she was in deep shit.

"I'll only be a few minutes, hon," called a sweet voice, bouncing loudly off bathroom tiles.

Charlie was dawdling in the shower, probably in the second stage of lather-rinse-repeat. Diana still had time to hide everything, to clean up the mess and make it all just go away. First, she had to move Chen Kaige's corpse from their bed...

* How did he get there? *

... then take the sheets and toss them into the washer with two cups of bleach...

* Blood all over the bed. God, I've really screwed up this time. *

... then bury the gore-covered weapons and clothes in the back yard.

* Charlie can't see this! She'd freak! *

She could still fix it. Cover it up. Wash it away. Keep Charlotte clear of the mess. Clean.

The phone rang just as Diana bundled Chen in the soiled sheets and yanked him down onto the carpet. She picked up the cordless handset and cradled it on her shoulder, then resumed tugging the body out of their room. To where, she didn't yet know.

* He's too big for the freezer. *


No answer.

* The hall closet? Just for tonight... no, no, no. *

Chen's boot slipped out from the sheets and caught the dhurrie rug at the foot of the bed. Dislodged, the rug revealed an irregular brown stain beneath. Old blood. Dan's blood. Hidden, but not gone. Diana struggled with the dead weight, jerking Chen free of the rug and finally out of the room.

"Hello? Is anyone there?"

Still, she received no answer.

* The garage! I can wheel him out in the garbage cart. *

"Diana?" Charlie called from the shower, leaving Diva Donna to sing solo. "Who's on the phone?"

"Ahh... it's nobody!" she replied, pulling the body into the hallway. "Wrong number."

"I've got your number," the caller finally spoke, in a sibilant mimic of Diana's own voice. "You can't hide from her, and you can't hide from me. I know what you are."

Diana stopped dragging the body. She paused halfway down the hall, frozen by fear and shame.

"She knows what you are. Charlotte used the right word to describe you."

The CD player skipped to the next track just as the water stopped running. Behind the provocative beats of "Hot Stuff," Diana heard the sliding steel rings of the shower curtain. Her hands opened and Chen's limp arms fell to the floor. She knew Charlie was coming, but she couldn't move.


"I didn't want to," she hissed into the phone, a weak, wavering denial. "I mean... I don't want to be."

"But you are. And you always will be. You'll always be afraid, and you will always deal with your fear through violence."

"Chen would have hurt Charlie. I stopped him. I did it to protect her," Diana said, though she couldn't even make herself believe it was that simple.

"She wouldn't want you to kill for her, but you will. You just did, and you'll do it again."

"Diana?" Charlie called from the bedroom. "Hey, hot stuff! Where'd you go?"

"She's coming. She'll see what you've done and that, killer, will be it for you."

"No. She loves me. She'll listen, she'll understand why I had to - "

The phone disconnected, sending an unnervingly loud dial tone into Diana's ear. She dropped the handset and reached for Chen's arms, determined to get rid of the evidence of her crime before...

"Oh, my God."

Charlie stood naked in the bedroom doorway, a towel wrapped around her wet hair, one hand covering her mouth, eyes wide with horror.

"What have you done?" she gasped. Her glance slipped from Diana to the corpse at her feet, making connections that shook her soul loose from its moorings, spun it asea in an instant.

Diana took a step forward - over the body of a dead man - her own eyes begging in advance for an opportunity to explain. "Charlie, I know this looks bad, but - "

"NO!" Charlotte roared, backing away as her lover advanced. An unfamiliar gleam shone in her hazel eyes, and Diana knew what it meant.

Charlie was afraid. Afraid of her.

"Please, just listen to me!" Diana kept coming, forcing Charlotte to retreat into their bedroom.

"Stay away from me!" Charlie stumbled in her panic and landed beside the bed. Her hands trembled as they slipped between the mattresses, trembled as she drew out the .38 kept hidden there, trembled as she pointed the gun and shouted. "Leave me alone!"

Diana gasped softly, shaken by the sight of her own heart preparing to shoot her down. Angelia looked just that way at the springs; her face stricken and tight with terrible fear, palpable loathing, and unshakable determination that she was acting in self-defense against one who posed a threat.

"I would never hurt you," Diana whispered. "Never."

Charlotte's eyes went cold as she spoke. "This is the only way to be sure."

As Donna chanteused on about the debilitating need for love, Charlotte Browning pulled the trigger.



Charlie grabbed tight to the rim of the toilet as her stomach convulsed again, sending up the last of her dinner, along with four glasses of wine. She had left the dining room hot on her father's heels - the only one who had the guts to pursue Charles Browning after he dropped his bombshell - but she broke off the pursuit and stumbled to the rest room when her nausea suddenly escalated.

She'd been sick for two solid minutes, and it was only getting worse. Admittedly, she was confused and upset over her father's revelation, but this reaction struck her as extreme.

* He's the one who's ill... so why does it feel like I'm dying? Oh, no... *

Her mind blanked as the sickness swept over her again, buckling her knees and sending her to the floor. Lying in a ball on the cold tiles, Charlie clutched her empty stomach and began to cry.

"Charlie?" Emily called softly, knocking at the door. "You okay in there?"

She summoned the strength to reply, "I'm fine. Fine. Just need a minute," though her voice quavered and dipped as it traced along the obvious lie. She just wanted Emily to go away, wanted them all to leave her alone until she figured out what was wrong. They couldn't help her anyway. There was only one person who could. Charlie wanted to call for her, to search the house and find her, to hold her tight and partake of her endless strength until she felt whole again.

* Diana promised to be here, so she is here. Somewhere. She doesn't lie. Not to me. *

"Let me know if you need something," Emily whispered through the door.

Charlie heard her walk away and breathed a sigh of relief.

* I do need something, Em. She's just busy right now. Otherwise, she'd already be with me. *

Of that, Charlie was certain. Whenever she had a truly rotten day, came home frazzled and angry, worn to the bone, Diana seemed to know it ahead of time. Sometimes she would greet Charlotte at the door with a glass of wine and a philanthropic hug, then lend both broad shoulders for the purposes of crying, bitching, or whatever her lover needed. Occasionally, she found the house empty when Diana was working late, but those evenings did not pass without a phone call to check on her condition, to tell her she was loved and that everything would be all right.

* Weird how she always knows when something's wrong with me. She says it's like a premonition, just a feeling she gets... but it works both ways, doesn't it? *

Charlotte's tears ceased immediately. She braced her shaking arms against the floor and boosted herself up to a sitting position. As her thoughts on the matter gelled, her priorities re-shuffled like a deck of cards and dealt her a hand she couldn't fold, one on which she would bet her life.

* This sick thing isn't just me. It's her. She's in trouble. Christ, I'm half-blind and all stupid! *

As soon as her legs solidified, she would stand. Then she would leave the bathroom and find Diana.

* Oh, baby hold on. Please, wait for me. I get it now, I get it. I'm coming. *



* NOOOO!! *

The impact Diana was expecting never came, as if the bullets all magically strayed off-course or the shots were never fired at all.

* Not real. I'm dreaming, hallucinating. Not sure which, but I know that was not real. Not real. *

Diana's addled mind grasped that it didn't really happen, that she was not, in fact, dead again. She didn't feel bad or good, cold or hot, wet or dry - it was as if her psyche hung suspended in mid-air, hovering. Waiting.

* In the plus column, I'm not brain dead. Hallucinations are a form of synaptic activity, therefore I must be alive. Charlie didn't shoot me. Chen didn't jump up and kill me. Julia... hit me with something very, very hard. Oh. Okay. I can live with that. *

Her heart raced around inside her chest nonetheless, frightened into a sympathetic response by the horrible vision of history repeating itself with new players starring in old roles.

* Dirty trick, miscasting Charlie like that. But it seemed so real at the time. She was so scared of me, just like Angel. They both thought that I'd actually... no. Wasn't real. Don't go there again. *

Masochist that she was, Diana could scarcely stop herself from remembering their faces, real and imagined, at the moment they decided to kill her. In her mind, the two women morphed together, their expressions matching perfectly - a look of love turning to fear turning to hatred. Somewhere in her brain's jukebox was a broken record by the group 'Bad Karma,' and it was stuck on the lyric "your love is dangerous."

* Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to hear that fucking song for eternity. *

You certainly will. It's your theme song. All the great killers have a theme song - James Bond, Shaft, Darth Vader...

The voice again, speaking inside her mind, that same high-pitched, mocking voice heard on the phone and in the backyard during her fevered rage. Diana began to fear that it was not her own subconscious at all, merely some dormant program loaded like a computer virus into her brain, accidentally activated when she confronted Chen Kaige.

* Shut-up. You're nothing but flotsam, litter left behind by Riggins and Mangano. You don't control me, I control you. I put you down when I surfaced. *

Are you sure about that? Willing to bet your life?

* Yes, I am. Any day of the week. *

Easy answer, what with your self-esteem deficit and that silly old death wish. Let me rephrase the query -  are you willing to wager Charlie's life? Are you that sure of yourself?

* I would never hurt her! That's bullshit! *

You thought you could stop that scene with Chen Kaige, and we saw your iron will in action there, didn't we? That could just as easily be Charlotte. You could lose control with her.

* Never happen. Never. *

Never say never. What if she turned on you, like that morning on the boat? She can hurt you, kid. Leave you bleeding. You might decide to fight back next time. Bossy little bitch would be up the creek then, wouldn't she?

* You're trying to manipulate me. I will not listen to your lies. You are irrelevant. *

Ooh, listen to Diana of Nine! Me? Irrelevant? Hardly. I'm the best part of you, killer, the only honest part of you. All this 'normal life' shit? All that 'love heals' tripe? That's the lie.

* Go away, go away, go away, go away... *

Gee, that didn't work. Maybe you should try a catchier chant - Go back! Go Back! Go back to the woods! Your team ain't got no spirit and your coach is no good! - try that one.

* You're trying to scare me. The dream of Charlie, her shooting me, that fever - that was all you. This is some kind of trick. *

No, baby, that dream was your future. Call it a divine vision. Moses got the burning bush, you get me. I'm letting you in on the joke you've made of yourself.
* My life is not a joke! I found what I need, I have everything I've ever wanted - *

And you don't know what the hell to do next. You think it'll go on forever, just like it has been? An endless series of picnics and birthday parties with someone else's kids? Motel stakeouts with that slob Teddy? Screwing the same woman, night after night -

* STOP IT! That's not the way I feel! You do NOT speak for me! *

Come on! How many times can you do all that shit before it gets old?

* Every day until I die. It's all I need. Every day, every night. *

Now who's lying? How many times have you been cut off in traffic and forced yourself not to chase down the fuckhead driver and beat them senseless? How many times have you sparred with Luis and had to hold yourself back so you wouldn't snap his neck? You have the ability to run roughshod over these peons, to make them quake with fear, to make them die...

* You say that like it's something to be proud of. It isn't. *

It's part of you. I'm part of you. Just because you choose to ignore me does not mean I'm gone. You'll have to fight me down every time you get angry, every time you're afraid, every time you get keyed up too tight. I'll be there, Pollyanna, every goddamned time.

* I can beat you. *

Wishful thinking. The genie's out of the bottle now. You got scared and you let me out. I will not go back, and I will not be ignored.

* I can beat you. I did it before, I can do it again. *

Resistance is futile, babe. I own your ass now. You're just too stubborn to admit it.

* You're wrong. I'll find a way. I have to. *

Diana expected another rebuttal, but it never came. Evidently, the debate was over.

She was left with the distinct impression that she had lost.


Charlotte filled her lungs, threw back her shoulders, and flung open the bathroom door. She marched into the hall, past the living room where her father sat talking to Richard. She barely noticed Emily, Luis, and the kids milling about at the edge of the room, all appearing lost as toddlers set loose in a shopping mall. She was too focused, blindly determined to reach her destination.

There was a price for her tunnel vision - while wheeling around the corner on a sharp left to the kitchen, she ran right smack into her mother.

"Ohh! Where do you think you're going?" Anne crowed, rocking back on her heels.

Charlie bounced off the slim matron, then spun to the side like Barry Sanders shaking a weak tackler. "I'm looking for my date," she replied, proceeding down the hall to the kitchen.

Anne Browning braced her hand on the mahogany wood paneling, trusting the wall to hold her up as her daughter breezed past. "Well, I hope the two of you are very happy! This dinner was a fiasco, and between her vanishing and your vomiting, you totally upstaged your poor, dying father!"

Stopping dead in her tracks, Charlotte turned and cast an evil glare upon her mother.

"Mom, if daddy is dying, I feel very sorry for him and I will do my best to make amends for every rotten, stinking bad thing that's ever passed between us," she vowed in a most serious tone, meaning every word. "However, on the upside of the whole imminent death thing, he won't have to wake up next to you for much longer."

She could see her mother turn red, virtually glowing in the dim hallway, but she had no interest in pursuing the conversation any further. Charlie gave the woman nothing but her back as she walked away. Four long strides later, she pushed open the kitchen doors and found three of the catering staff standing around with large guns in their hands. They tried to hide the weapons. Too late.

It took less than a second for her to put it together.

"Where is Diana?"

No one spoke. The three looked at each other as if weighing the risk of running out the back door and catching the next flight to Sri Lanka.

"Dammit, somebody better talk to me!" Charlotte roared, losing what little patience she had left.

"She's gone."

The young man standing by the door had cracked first, drawing glares of disapproval from his companions. Charlie noted that the kid had his finger on the trigger of a mean-looking nine mil, but she was well past the point where that would scare her.

"Gone? That's not good enough! Tell me where!"

Charlie advanced on him with such purpose, such intensity, that Brian thought she was going to march right up and whack him with her cast.

"That blonde woman, that Julia... see, there was some trouble out back and we told her and she went back there and she just sort of... took over."

Getting right up in the tall lad's face, Charlotte barked a one word command. "More."

Brian's tongue could scarcely keep pace with his desire to spill the whole story. "She went back there and then she came back in and took this scanner and got this stuff out of the basement and made us put everything and everybody in that weird-ass silver hot rod and then she just took off!"

"Julia took Diana?"

"Yeah! Her and that Chen guy and the dog and the basement stuff and everything! Poof!"

Charlie was getting dizzy again. "Julia took the dog?"

"Yeah! And Diana and the Chen guy and - "

"I get it! She took everybody and everything but the fucking kitchen sink!" Charlie yelled, pushing down the urge to introduce her cast to Mr. Helpful's nose. "But where did she take them?"

"She didn't say."


"No," Brian whispered, suddenly struck by the desire for a larger gun. "I'm sorry."

"Move away from the door," Charlotte calmly requested.

Brian got out of her way as if he were dodging a bullet train.

She unlocked and opened the door, stepped outside and closed it behind her. Charlotte then walked out onto her father's pristine putting green, cleared her throat, and let out a scream of frustration that could be heard all the way to the Elceda county line.


On Highway 280, a silver flash zoomed in and out of traffic, abusing the carpool lane and scaring the bejeesus out of numerous commuters, some of whom whipped out cell phones and alerted the highway patrol to the presence of a reckless driver. Not surprisingly, none of the helpful tattlers were able to identify the make of the vehicle.

The exotic sportscar roared on, blurring past a large yellow and blue sign. The gray-eyed driver read the speed-smeared words - "Thank You For Visiting Elceda County! Come Back Again Soon!" - and she felt her heart sink.

"Only now passing the county line," Julia said to herself. "Five miles to the access road, then down to the pit. We're not going to make it."

According to the digital speedometer, Julia's car was whizzing along at one hundred twenty-two miles per hour. She was growing afraid even the twelve cylinder engine wouldn't be able to move them fast enough, get them far enough to make safety. At their current speed, the gravel pit was at least three minutes away. Her watch, synchronized with the digital timer on Chen's detonator, told her she had two minutes left before the package in the car's reinforced steel trunk went boom.

"Knolla!" she cursed, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. She pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the engine promptly jacked up their speed to one-sixty and beyond.

The Swede was upset over being forced to run the explosives clear. She would have attempted to simply defuse the bomb if she'd had the appropriate tools in her possession. Unfortunately, Julia left her precision voltage meter, needle-nose wire snips, and high frequency oscillator in her other bag - along with a tin of Altoids and some apricot lip balm. She was ashamed to be caught so unprepared.

"I'm down to reacting now. Reacting is not my game, Diana," she said, addressing the zoned-out woman to her right. "You've put us in quite a pickle."

After knocking Diana cold, Julia heard beeping sounds coming from Chen Kaige's jacket, and instinct told her he was not being paged. She rooted out the trigger switch, saw the open basement doors, and executed a quick, fruitless search. Chen had hidden the twenty-odd pounds of SEMTEX quite well, making the plastic explosive detector Diana wisely brought along a serendipitous find. Her well-equipped foresight probably saved the lives of everyone in the Browning house.

Still, the timer was too complex to tackle with a knife and bare eyesight, so her only choice was to pack up all the incriminating evidence and make a run for a safe dump sight, namely the abandoned excavation site where Diana had once met Eladio.

"Chen and his stupid triple switch timers," Julia griped aloud. "Why couldn't he make a simple, straight-forward bomb out of a big load of crap, like all those naughty little redneck terrorists?"

In the passenger seat, Diana stirred again, moaning and twitching as she fought something wicked in her sleep. Julia hoped she would awaken soon, for she did not relish the prospect of jettisoning Diana from the car on her own. The woman weighed around 150 pounds, much more than the slim blonde could manage comfortably on her best day. To speed the process along, she steered with one hand and slapped Diana's cheek with the other.

"Wake up, kronjon!"




Diana heard the word yelled across a somnambular chasm. She wondered why her hateful alter ego had decided to berate her in Swedish.

* I know I'm an idiot, but please do me the courtesy of insulting me in my mother tongue. *

Dit javla dajmkryss!

* Wait, I don't even know what that one means... Julia? *



Another sharp slap later, Diana's wild blue eyes snapped open.

She blinked dazedly and tried to orient herself to her surroundings, but the bits of awareness fell random as raindrops. There was pain, of course. She winced while trying to flex bloodied, swelling fingers, but her hands were mercifully unbroken.

* Just cuts. Iodine and bandages. Might need a stitch or two on the right knuckles. *

Furthermore, she was wicked dizzy and sleepy and her head ached like a drunken Clydesdale had danced the Tarantella on her skull.

* Another concussion. Peachy. *

Julia sat beside her, both hands gripping a tan leather steering wheel. She smiled sideways at Diana, keeping both eyes on the road ahead.

"We now rejoin our regularly scheduled program," Julia said, jerking the wheel to the left as they bolted past a parked BMW Z-3... only it wasn't parked. It was cruising along in the passing lane.

* Ooookay, * Diana thought, * We're in a car, going ridiculously fast - one-seventy? - and we're not wearing seatbelts. I wonder if I should even ask... *

"What happened?"

Julia's first response was laughter, and her second was another stream of curses Diana could barely make out. Her own command of the Swedish vernacular was rusty from disuse, but Julia's was apparently in fine form.

"You screwed us over, darling," she said, finally getting herself under control. "I found you out back, beating Chen like a redheaded stepchild. I konked your noggin, found twenty pounds of SEMTEX in the basement, loaded all the booty into me magic wagon, and now we're headed for the old quarry on Thiel Road to dump the bomb - which will detonate in, ohhh, ninety seconds."
"There's twenty pounds of high explosive material in this car," Diana stated, trying to get a grip on the gravity of their predicament. "Where is Chen's body?"

"You mean the pile of raw hamburger meat formerly known as Chen Kaige?" Julia snorted out a tiny, rueful laugh. "He's in the trunk. The poor doggie is back there as well."


"Thoroughly," the blonde confirmed. "Rarely have I seen a man so dead. Vengeance is thine."

"Jules, I didn't... shit."

"May I ask you a question?"

Dreading her own answer like a vampire fears sunrise, Diana gave her the go-ahead. "Shoot."

"What the hell were you thinking?"

After a long pause, Diana sighed out the truth. "Simple answer - I wasn't. Something went wrong."

"I believe Mr. Chen would agree."

"I mean something in my head went wrong," Diana clarified. "I couldn't stop myself. If you hadn't come out when you did - "

"Boom," Julia finished, "Big ba-da-boom. Here's our turn-off."

Diana braced her right hand on the dash as Julia swung the speeding car across four lanes of traffic and squealed onto the exit for Thiel Road. Horns honked, brakes screeched and tires smoked as the innocent drivers on Thiel were forced to yield to a growling silver machine with no regard for right of way. The engine revved high as Julia downshifted to fourth gear and threaded the rocket through a maze of light traffic, drawing ever nearer to the quarry road entrance.

More people took it upon themselves to alert the police... once their own heart-attacks were over.

"How long now?" Diana asked, now fully alert and appropriately scared.

Julia ran straight through a four-way stop and pulled into another hard right, swinging the car onto the bumpy access road at seventy-two miles per hour. The car fishtailed wildly, tires spinning up titanic sprays of dirt and gravel as she fought the road for control of the vehicle and just barely won. After the considerable jostle was over, Julia sped up to eighty and checked her watch again.

"Forty-one seconds, by my count. How far to the pit?"

"Bit under half a mile, but the road is rough all the way," Diana recalled, struggling to maintain her blank game face. "You can't keep up this speed. We'll wind up in the woods."

Staunch oaks and pines blurred into a solid tapestry on both sides, and deep, water-filled drainage ditches separated the forest from the dirt road. With the slightest provocation, the blazing vehicle could jump the ditch and smash into the wall of trees. However, the driver was averse to a smash-up with mother nature, so she slowed her machine to a near-crawl of just over sixty.

"Skit!" Julia swore again as they bounced violently across an uneven patch, nearly swerving into the right side ditch. "We're closing in, time to get ready. See the green button on your door?"

Diana spotted three buttons - one red, one blue, and (thank God!) one green. "Got it."

"That's your exit key. When I say go, you push it and jump out. We'll be doing around fifty, so remember to roll through the impact."

"You're gonna ditch the whole car in the pit?"

"That's the plan."

"What about Chen? Without his body, you get nothing!"

"I get noth - " Julia started to question the phrasing, but her mind skipped right over it when she realized what the other woman was thinking. "Diana, there's not enough time to stop the car, chuck the bomb and get to a safe distance!"

"Well, no, not if you do it! You throw like a girl!"

Julia's eyes widened as the dark road ahead opened into a clearing - the pit was in sight. She slowed to fifty and keyed both the exits open. The hydraulic cylinders lifted the doors up like wings and the car shook as dusty wind roared inside the cabin.

The countdown on her watch gave them twenty-three seconds.


"No! We can still do this!" Diana insisted. "I need to do this! Pull to the edge and pop the trunk!"

Though she knew it was a bad idea and would likely get both of them blown into raccoon food, there was simply no time left to argue. Julia reached down and released the trunk latch as she hit the brakes, spinning the car to a stop less than ten feet from the rim of the yawning pit. She slipped the car into first and kept one foot on the gas, ready to rock as soon as the deed was done.

"You're a fucking lunatic, you know that?" she screamed at Diana, who was already out the door.

"Look who's talking!" the dark woman replied, smiling in spite of her fear or perhaps because of it.

She knew she was afraid... and yet she was still in control, mastering it through action.

Diana rounded the rear of the car and jerked the trunk lid open wide. Inside, Chen's battered corpse lay on the stiff beige mat, his arms curled around the body of a furry white dog. She saw his ruined face and cringed, knowing that she was responsible for the demolished man.

* Don't look. Don't think. No time. Where bomb? There bomb! Come, bomb, come! *

Lodged securely in the black nylon cargo netting on the driver's side was a large brick of gray putty bound tightly in black electric tape. The red digital counter on the device's face read :12.

She yanked the device from the net, clutching it tightly in her right hand.


Three long strides to the edge of the quarry, barely gazing into the dark gulf far below.


A twist on the last step, turning her upper body nearly perpendicular to her hips.


"RRRRAAAGGGHHH!!!" A scream of effort as she pivoted into the throw and sent it sailing.


Running back to the car even as the bomb arced downward into the deep, black water.


Inside. Clutch released, fuel flowing, tires spinning up pinwheels of stone and earth. Moving fast.


Feet turn to yards as the car doors slide smoothly shut, leaving the noisy wind outside.


In third gear, at forty-five MPH. Safe. Julia begins to laugh. Diana is helpless against her own joy.


She feels light and electrified, aerated with thrill. There are no voices. No guilt. No shame. No fear.


"God damn, I feel good!"


"I still say you're a fucking lunatic."


"You may be right."




At the bottom of the quarry, in a deep pool of pitch-black stagnant water, it explodes.

The solid rock basin cracks under the sudden, immense force.

The ground shakes. Dark geysers of water and stone spout high into the air, crashing against the sky and falling to pepper across dry ground on every side of the pit.

The instant impact is violent and visible, but the water soon settles. The waves become ripples and die away, leaving the surface of the pool looking unchanged, untouched.

Underneath, the damage is greater. What was solid and strong now bears a wound, a fissure.

It will go unnoticed until some foolhardy explorer takes a swim in the still pool and finds their foot caught in the crevice. They will drown and only then will the danger become known. A warning sign will be placed at the site, too late to help that first casualty.

Until then, the calm black water waits, concealing a trap to be sprung.



Thirty Four

Back on the highway, Julia drove the speed limit, used her turn signal to change lanes, minded all the niggling rules of polite driving... and it was killing her. She was so wound-up, so jubilant that she felt she might explode even without the aid of SEMTEX.

"I need to get laid," she brazenly stated. "Well and soon."

Diana stared straight ahead, left the bait bobbing in the water. The need was there, and it almost hurt to tamp it down, but she'd be damned before giving Julia the satisfaction of hearing about it. She could wait - would wait - until she got home. Charlie was going to be repaid with heavy interest. Right now, she'd have to find something safer than adulterous rutting to occupy her energies.

"Got any cigarettes, Speed Racer?"

"In the glove compartment. Get me one while you're at it."

She found a box of Winston Ultra Lights 100s and slipped two between her lips. "Lighter?"

"Check under the owner's instruction manual."

"Huh. Since when do you need instructions for anything?" Diana quipped, rooting out the simple red plastic Bic from beneath a thick brown leather book that looked like a Day-Timer.

"This car is custom built," Julia deflected. "Many cutesy extras. I just had it delivered this afternoon and we haven't had time to get acquainted yet."

"Would've been a shame to chuck this baby out with the bath water." Diana lit both smokes and handed one to the blonde. "It's a Callaway V-12, right?"

"Nice guess, motorhead. I asked for no insignias - how could you tell?"

The dark woman shrugged and took a sinfully long drag, filling her lungs with poison and not caring in the least. "Teddy's car magazines. Your body style is sleeker, but it looks near enough to call."

Julia grinned and flashed narrowed eyes at her companion. "I didn't think you noticed my body style anymore, darling."

Diana returned the smile at half-power, eyes glinting through a cloud of smoke. "You never quit."

"Neither do you. Not really."

Julia paused as she gathered up her thoughts and assembled them into an order Diana would not find immediately objectionable. The woman's steely will was hotter and more malleable now than it had been in ages, and Julia could not pass up the opportunity to strike. With a little subtlety and a lot of luck, she might be able to hammer these events into a circle and roll Diana right out of town.

"You really did enjoy that last bit, didn't you?"

"Yeah," came the grudging reply. "You know I did."

"But you feel this evening should never have come to that point."

"It shouldn't have gone past the back-fucking-yard," Diana agreed nastily. "I had Chen down - I had him - and everything would have gone down so easy if I hadn't... "

She trailed off and stared out the window, watching the road signs whiz by as they drew nearer to Elceda. It hurt to think about what happened, how she lost control, how hard she fought to regain it only to fall so terribly short. And that voice in her head, like the disembodied spirit of her own dark half, taunting and threatening, playing on her greatest fears.

"I don't believe it was all your fault," Julia said, drawing her back from dangerous rumination.

"How can you say that? You don't know what happened to me."

"Tell me this - did you plan to kill Chen Kaige?"

"No! I needed him alive for... no. I didn't intend for that to happen. I just snapped."

"Has it happened before, this snapping business?"

"Not since Riggins died," Diana revealed solemnly. "Not a peep since I surfaced."

Julia cracked the window and let out some of the thickening smoke as she plotted her next move.

"Mangano and Riggins never monkeyed with me. You know that."

* They never needed to, * Diana thought with an inner smirk. * You're monkey enough already. *

"I guessed as much," she said aloud.

"So you're right, in a way. I don't know what you're going through. No one does." Here, the Swede exhaled noisily, as if the matter weighed heavy on her soul. "You are the lone survivor of their experiments to create the perfect killer. You were Dr. Mangano's greatest success. His legacy lives on in you, in so many ways."

Diana watched the blonde with the wary curiosity of a snake charmer. Julia had a certain sway to her neck and head when she worked an interrogation - a nifty body-language device to distract and disarm a subject - and she knew instantly that she was being played. But...

* Here we go again. *

"What are you getting at?

"I believe your snap with Chen was a manifestation of latent instructional programming," Julia rattled off, spinning the unwieldy technobabble like a pro. "Mangano's key trick involved a transmutation of suppressed pain - usually a buried memory - into fear and anger, which sets off a tsunami of adrenaline and allows one to exert superior strength. With you, the old impetus was the memory of your rape and the ensuing death of your brother."

"But I dealt with that already," Diana argued. "That fuel was spent when I surfaced, and I own that part of me now. I don't see how those things could cause what happened tonight."

They were passing the Elceda city limit sign. Winking lights from town peeked over concrete rails along the highway, reminding Diana of familiar locales in the town she'd chosen to call home. She didn't feel at home, though. Some part of her was still adrift in the sky, tethered to her like a balloon.

"You say you weren't thinking when you attacked Chen, but there must have been something going through your head," Julia asserted. "The fury behind that beating didn't just fly out your ass, Diana. Did he say anything to set you off, make you afraid?"

"Just the usual claptrap about killing me brutally, yadda, yadda, yadda," she recounted. "He made reference to hurting Dan, mentioned Charlie a couple of times."

Julia straightened in her seat and cleared her throat. "Well, there you have it," she announced while tossing her cigarette out the window.

Diana watched in the rear-view mirror as it tumbled and sparked along the pavement. "What?"

"The program Mangano utilized doesn't just die off once you overcome the initial trigger sequence, it evolves right along with your conscious mind, like a virus overcoming an innoculant. It finds a new way to infect you. You've got yourself a shiny new activation mechanism."

"I didn't order one," Diana groaned, gently banging her forehead against the window as she damned Salvatore Mangano's genius soul to the depths of hell, right along with all the other demons who saw themselves as gods. "Is it too late to send it back?"

"That depends," Julia replied silkily. "Did Ms. Browning give you a receipt for her heart?"

Diana dropped her voice to a low hiss and gave Julia a withering glare. "What the hell are you trying to say?"

"Isn't it obvious? If you want to adapt to your new strain of psychosis, you must dispense with the underlying cause. That cause, my dear love-struck softy, is the fear of your old life, your old self, steamrolling over your current set of attachments. Lose the attachments and you lose the fear, rendering the threat of further snappage as limp as an old rubber band."

Her initial reaction was vehement denial. A shouted, resounding 'NO!' should have passed her lips... but it didn't happen. Her second, more canny reaction was doubt, and it clamped down on her tongue and depressed all thoughts that didn't involve the words 'liar' or 'manipulative' or 'canard' in reference to Julia's hypothesis.

The third reaction simultaneously flying around in her head, for all were stacked atop each other like circling planes, was the one that scared her the most. It gave credence to both Julia's cold approximation of her plight and made sense of her own hopeless battle with the fevered voice, her own private doomsayer, preaching jeremiads only she could hear.

* It makes sense. I don't want it to, but it does make an awful sort of sense. *

"Diana?" Julia said quietly, gentling her tone. "Sorry to be so blunt, but you really should - "

"Don't talk about that anymore," the dark woman rumbled, her voice laden with warning. "We have work to do tonight and I don't think I can handle anymore distractions."

"What work remains for 'we?' I thought your participation ended when the threat was removed."

"Just drive back to the Browning's place. It's quarter past nine now, and we need to meet your contact for the official trade at ten sharp. I'll come along 'cause I've got some explaining to do about why Chen's not breathing," Diana explained dryly. "Wouldn't want you to get credit for that."

"Blame is a more appropriate term than credit," Julia corrected. "But why return to the house of horrors? We have what's left of Chen, and the rest of the material is still sleeping at your place."

"I thought you might want to meet your new crew."

Julia's pale brows lifted anxiously, an unspoken question stuck in her throat.

"Yes, I do mean the three asian caterers, along with whoever's working control tonight."

"No, no, no," the Swede objected. "I arranged for twelve operatives, not four. If that miserly bitch is trying to cheat me, I'll be quite put-out."

"That bitch has promised to address the security council tomorrow morning, to intervene on your behalf in exchange for fewer personnel... and a promise that you'll keep your activities confined to the Pacific rim for eight months."


Julia was plainly shocked, unnerved to the point that she nearly missed the exit for the Windham Hill subdivision, home of Drury Lane.

"How could you!?!"

She jerked the wheel right and swerved into a narrow spot between a Little Debbie delivery truck and, oh boy, an Elceda County Sheriff's Department patrol car. The deputy sighted the silver animal prowling dead ahead and immediately flipped on the blue light.

"Goddammit, Di! You tell me she can't be trusted, then you go to her behind my back!" Julia cried, genuinely upset. "And now I'm going to get a fucking traffic ticket!"

"Her vouching for you will officially get Harry off your case," Diana explained, hurriedly fastening her seat belt as Julia pulled onto the road's grassy shoulder. "It's the best thing for you both."

The deputy waited for them to park and eased in a few yards behind - a show of proper procedure which oddly heartened Diana. "Put on your friggin' seat belt! Here he comes!"

Julia threw up her hands and yelled, "To hell with the seat belt!"

"It's more money on the fine if you're not wearing it."

"This is how out of touch you are! You actually think I'm going to pay the ticket?"

Diana scowled and shut her mouth, not wanting to recall how good it felt when she didn't have to play by all the rules of the responsible citizenry.

"You think you're so tame, don't you?" Julia spat, searching the glove box for her dummied-up license and registration. "Pay your fines and taxes, sit quietly in the corner and they'll leave you alone so you can be a good girl. Well, it doesn't work that way, darling. Not for you."

"Shut up, Jules."

"The next time someone elbows in front of Charlie at the DMV, you're going to track them down and break both their arms. Just wait and see."

"Shut up!"

"The cops will come to arrest you, they'll try to cuff you and you're gonna fuckin' freak out and wipe the floor with their heads," Julia insisted. "Then you will see that I'm right. Then you'll understand what I mean. You don't belong here and you never will."

Diana turned to the blonde with the full intent of punching her lights out. The only thing that stopped her was a light tap on the driver's side window and the presence of a large man in a tan uniform.

Julia rolled down the window and the deputy stooped to look inside the vehicle. Both women saw his face and let out a collective groan of disbelief.

"Well, well, well! Good evening, ladies!" Will Franklin said, clearly amused as he realized who was driving the 'terror of Thiel Road,' as one frantic citizen informant had put it.

He looked first at Julia, clad in formal, attractive evening wear, to the embarrassed jeans-clad woman in the passenger seat. "Out for a little joyride, Diana?"

"Will, I think you know what I'm going to say," she muttered, hiding her blood-stained hands under her legs to prevent this stop from growing infinitely more complicated.

"Can I let this one slide? Something like that?"

"Yup. Please?"

The deputy cupped his chin in a large hand, deep in thought. "At least six reports of reckless driving on this car tonight. That's pretty serious."

"I was not reckless," Julia objected. "They were merely going too slow."

"What will it take, Franklin?" Diana asked pointedly.

"Weeelll, lessee here. Nobody got hurt, just scared is all," he drawled, enjoying the upper hand for all it was worth. "I guess I can let you go - on one condition."

"Name it."

"I set up a time for you to talk to Sheriff Broward and you give some serious thought to coming back and working with me again," Will proposed. "I can't take much more of Gomer's mouth. Somebody gonna get popped 'fore long, and it ain't gone be me."

Julia looked at Diana with her gray eyes crossed in a goofy expression of inbred awe. "Gee, that sounds swell! They'll probably let you have a gun and everything!"

Diana crunched down on her tongue, holding back an extremely un-ladylike retort. She looked past Julia to Franklin and gave him a tight nod.


"Shit, yeah!" he crowed, slapping his hands together. "Tomorrow be too soon?"

"Make it Wednesday or later," Diana suggested. "I'm not promising anything, but I'll talk to him."

"Hey, it's a start. Now, as for you," he said, addressing Julia, "you try to keep your speed down and quit scaring these poor 'burb babies. I know D.C. cops don't let you get away with that mess."

Julia gave him her most innocent smile, which was still enough to unsettle Franklin's nerves. "I'll take that under advisement, deputy. Thank you for your understanding."

"Uh-huh, no prob. Diana, I'll see you later," he said, giving a friendly wave. "And if I don't see you again before you leave for Washington, you take care, Agent Scully."

"I will, deputy. Have a safe night," Julia replied, biting back a giggle.

Will Franklin walked away singing "It's Alright, Baby's Coming Back," and smiling like he'd just won the Trifecta. Diana was quiet as Julia started the car and pulled onto the road, but the question begged so loudly she had to ask it.

"Agent Scully, is it?"

"Small town cops are so gullible. I showed him some FBI creds at the hospital," Julia explained. "I don't think he got the joke."

Diana did not laugh, though she really, really wanted to. It was one of Julia's most infuriating weapons, this ability to make people set aside her treacheries and view the actual woman as separate from her actions.

* She isn't, though. We are what we do, not what we say or how we look. Julia is what she does. *

She was in it to win at all costs, that was beyond question, but she was always having such a damned good time that her wicked in-jokes and above the law attitude tended to magnetize anyone standing too close. Knowing this, Diana edged away to lean against the soft leather door and savored venomous bits of their earlier confrontation, trying to build up a sandbag wall of cautionary dislike.

* I can't afford to go easy now. She's not exactly the enemy, but she is not my friend. *

"So you restructured my deal in order to save me from Harry," Julia said, picking up pretty much where they had left off. "And to save Harry from me."

"Pretty much," Diana agreed.

Julia snorted a little, a wistful expression hidden as she kept her face turned away.

"And you wonder why everybody wants you so badly."

Diana closed her eyes, trying to stay angry.

* She is not my friend. *



After checking on the yelling attorney and finding her wildly unpleasant but physically intact, Emily, Anne, and Richard all went back inside and counted their noses, just to make sure Charlotte hadn't actually bitten them off. Once they realized she was safe, none of the "catering staff" saw fit to intrude on her moment of cathartic noise. They knew where she was coming from.

Charlie stayed outside for nearly half an hour before someone else disturbed her. She spent her time breathing, shoring up her strength, and praying that Julia would get hit by a bus.

* Don't listen to her, baby, * she said to Diana, pushing the message out with all her might, knowing that if she tried hard enough, the thought would get through. * I know what she's about, and I know what she wants. She'll say anything to get you back, so don't you believe her. *

"She's the devil. Devil with a black dress on," she murmured. "Devil with my sister's black dress on."

"Excuse me?" someone said from too close behind. A stranger's voice.

Charlie jumped to her feet and spun around to face the interloper, her plaster-and-bandage hammer raised and ready to whack away. The stranger was female, five-eleven, long blonde hair hanging loose on her shoulders, cautiously kind blue eyes... and a big fucking gun.

"Wait! Wait! Hold up!" she pleaded, turning the machine pistol aside in the interest of calming a clearly frantic Charlotte. "I'm not going to hurt you. Here, let me put this down."

Charlotte squinted and remained extremely nervous as the woman laid the gun on the clipped grass, but felt her mania lessening as the stranger displayed her empty, gloved hands and smiled.

"Damn it, do you people ever do anything without guns??" she hissed, keeping her voice low. The low voice was partly due to discretion, partly due to the persistent, croaking ache her primal scream had left behind in her throat. "Probably wipe your asses with shotgun shells."

The woman frowned at the insult, though it was very near true. "I'm sorry to bother you, Ms. Browning, but - "

"Does everybody know my name??" Charlie cringed at being the odd-man-in, knowing about half the story while everyone else knew either nothing or way more than her. "Who are you people? Did Diana bring all of you here to watch me? Or do you work for Ingrid, bride of satan?"

Confused and a little amused, the woman chuckled and stepped closer. "At this point, I'm not really certain who I work for anymore. I was hoping Diana could clear that up."

"You know Diana?"

"Not well. Our employers put us together on a joint op two years ago. Amazing skill with a long bow, that woman. I was really surprised to hear she'd left the agency."

"You and everybody else on the planet."

The woman shrugged carelessly, though a tinge of envy colored her voice as she said, "Rumor held that she earned her way out. Guess she deserves the shot. She due back anytime soon?"

Charlie tried to place the woman's funny trace accent and decided that she was either a transplanted Australian or doing a very bad job of faking it. Something about the woman's easy, lax posture and exultant physical confidence reminded her of Diana. Because of that minor similarity, she was noticeably kinder in her reply.

"Ingrid kidnapped Diana and flew the coop, but I have all ideas that they'll return," she said, hoping it was true. "The other three cowboys are in the kitchen, in case you need to parley."

"No thanks. I'd rather wait until she gets back."

"Me, too." Charlotte plopped down on the green again, folding her legs under her dress hem to minimize grass stains on the borrowed garment. "You can hang out here with me, if you don't mind the company of a grouchy litigator."

"Okay," the woman agreed, scooping up her gun and settling onto the grass after a quick sweep of the yard. "As long as you promise not to - "

"Sue you," Charlie finished for her. "Since that's clearly the only threat I pose to anyone, you'd be surprised how often I hear that."

"Actually, I was going to ask you not to hit me with that cast," the woman corrected.

Abashed, Charlie hid her broken hand beside her leg. "Oh. Sorry. I'm a little on edge tonight."

"You have every right. From what I could pick up on the remote dish, the worst is over."

"Remote what? Were you eavesdropping?"

"Just a little, just enough to know Diana had everything well in hand. I shut it down a few minutes after she found Chen - "

"She found him? Alone?"

"Beat the stuffing out of him, too."

"That's my girl," Charlie said proudly. "You didn't happen to pick up anything on Julia, did ya?"

"No. I pulled back once it became clear I wasn't needed," the woman explained. "Julia - is she otherwise known as Ingrid, bride of satan?"

"Yesss. Your buds in the kitchen say she ran back there and took Diana away, along with Chen Kaige and my mother's pet Akita. Why the hell would she take the dog?"

The tall blonde fudged up her mouth, as if she were holding something in, something Charlie would not like hearing. "Dunno. Seems strange, though."

"Amen," Charlotte agreed. "Look, I know you guys have all these secret code names and stuff, but I'd appreciate it if you'd introduce yourself. I think it might make this feel a little less weird. I'm Charlotte Browning - but seeing as how you know Diana and all, you can call me Charlie."

The attorney extended her hand to the spy and waited as the woman came up with a disposable moniker for courtesy's sake.

"Josie," she finally announced, taking Charlie's hand in a strong, slow shake.

"Josie. It's cute. Short for anything?"

The spy seemed pensive and cautious as she retracted her hand. "Someone used to call me Josephine. I guess it's as good a name as any."

Charlie didn't pry into it, for the woman's past was not nearly as interesting unless it contained tales of a black-haired, blue-eyed woman who could wield a long bow and make Kung Pao chicken.

"Tell me everything you remember about Diana."

Josie smiled and humored her. She kept watching the yard, listening for anything untoward, her finger resting on the trigger guard of the machine pistol.

"Two years ago, a very wealthy little boy was kidnapped from his father's home in Turin and taken to an old castle outside of Brussels. Diana and I were on the silent entry team, taking out guards with the bow... among other things."

Charlotte soon realized that Diana had never told her this story, and she thought she knew why.

* She never tells me any story where she did something good, where she's the hero instead of the villain. She rescued a kidnapped child and I hear about it from a stranger? We're gonna have to have another long talk about her poor self-image. *

"When she handed that baby back to his father, the man started crying, trying to hug her. Diana wouldn't let him. She just backed off, boarded the chopper and left with her crew. I haven't seen her since," Josie said, suddenly turning eyes and gun back toward the house as she heard soft footsteps on the grass. "But she still looks the same."

Charlie spotted Diana approaching and placed her hand on the raised machine pistol, gently pushing it down. "Don't point that at her," she instructed firmly. Josie put the gun down.

The lawyer stood up, walking with mildly shaky legs toward her lover. She saw her hands, saw the cuts and bruises and swelling, saw the dazed, tired look in those familiar blue eyes, and she wanted nothing more that to take her into an embrace and hold her, certain that enough love could heal whatever hurts she had endured in the quest to protect them both.

"Hi," Diana said, opening her arms wide as she came near.

"Hi," Charlotte echoed, falling against her and wrapping her up tight, tighter.

Diana nearly stumbled as all of Charlie's weight became her responsibility, but she squelched the dizziness in her head and let her heart do all the work. At moments like that, all doubts were gone, all voices silenced, and she honestly believed she was strong enough to make it last forever. She felt the small body in her arms shudder and quake, and she knew Charlie was crying.

"It's okay," she crooned, kissing her hair, her temple, her ear. "He's gone now. He's gone."

Charlie rubbed her back through the thin tank top, alarmed to find it felt almost damp, the skin beneath abnormally warm. "Are you okay?" She looked up at Diana and found her eyes distant, unfocused. "What happened? Tell me what's wrong."

"Had a spot of trouble, but I'm cool now. It's just... miles to go before I sleep, you know?" Diana murmured by way of an explanation. "How about you? Did you talk to your family?"

"Yeah, we talked. Not good news by any stretch, but it can wait until we get a quiet moment."

"You enjoy Kung Pao, missy?" Diana asked, in full-Fong mode.

"It's better the first time through, lemme tell ya," Charlie sniffed, wiping her wet eyes.

"You got sick?"

"I got worried. Then I got sick. Then you weren't here and I got pissy."

"Natural progression." Diana leaned in and kissed her mouth, just barely brushing her lips. She noticed that Charlotte was no longer crying. "Better now?"

"Only just. When will you be finished?"

"One more errand to run, then I'm out. You want to wait here, or can we drop you at home?"

"Who is we?"

"Me and Julia and the motley crew from the kitchen," Diana answered. She looked over Charlie's shoulder to the tall blonde woman waiting silently on the lit putting green. "And you, Rapunzel. Gather up the heroic trio and meet us around front. I'll lead you to the house."

Josie nodded her thanks for the invitation and trotted off to corral the motleys, leaving Diana and Charlie alone. Making the most of the privacy, Diana lowered her mouth again and kissed her love properly, easing lips apart and gentling the last tremors of fear from Charlie's mind. The lawyer stirred enough to kiss back, but pulled away after too few seconds.

"What?" Diana touched her face in concern.

"Vomit breath," Charlie explained, frowning sourly. "Sorry."

"You vomited the night I fell in love with you, remember? It's gonna take more than that to keep me off you." Diana stole another quick kiss, grinning with boundless regard.

In that moment, she looked the way Charlie always envisioned her - lit from inside with a halogen heart, as if her love would shoot out from her nose and ears and mouth like beams of light, should she choose to let it. Still fussy over her foul breath, Charlie kissed the woman's long, perfect throat, nibbling her neck with teeth and tongue just enough to get the message across.

"Love you, stretch" she said quietly.

Diana squeezed her eyes shut tight, trying to keep those words in her ears, wanting to hear them forever. "Love you, too."

"That is simply too precious," Julia pronounced, stalking into view over Diana's shoulder. "However do you stand each other?"

Charlotte slipped one arm away, allowing Diana to turn around, but one arm remained tightly wound about her lover's waist, a thumb snagged inside a belt loop. "Beat it, Ingrid."

"Fickle, fickle. Not ninety minutes ago, you gave me smoochie-lips, now you tell me to go away. A girl gets confused with all these mixed signals."

"Smoochie-lips?" Diana questioned, and felt Charlie tense against her side.

"I was trying to piss on mom's corn flakes," she explained. "It didn't work."

"Good thing, too," Julia added, twisting the knife even more, "otherwise, she might have tossed me on the table and gobbled me up right in front of her ex-husband."

"Ex-husband?" Diana repeated, and felt Charlie turn to granite.

"Mom invited Richard. I didn't know he'd be here."

"The guy with the stupid tie was Richard?"

"Yes," Charlotte confirmed, her voice small and cold. "I'll tell you all about it later."

"Later is better than now," Julia said, tapping her watch. "We have an appointment to keep."

"Jesus, we do have a lot to talk about," Diana surmised, giving the statue in her arm a comforting squeeze. "You coming with?"

"Naahh. Now I see you're okay, I think I'll leave with Emmy and Luis," Charlie decided.

She didn't want to be in Julia's company for another second. She didn't trust the woman alone with Diana, but they would be with Josie and those other gun-type people from the kitchen. That made her feel a bit better; that and the fact that Diana seemed to be perfectly fine. A little tired, but fine.

Upon hearing Charlie's answer, Diana felt a measure of her strength ebb away, knowing they were about to separate again. But she was better for having seen her, having held her and kissed her and been with her for those few minutes, so she sucked it up and gave her a final squeeze before moving away to follow Julia around the house.

"See you at home later," she called back to Charlotte.

"Yeah, I'll see you... at home... later," Charlie parroted unevenly.

Standing alone in her parent's yard, she picked at her cast and suddenly felt she had made a grievous mistake. She wondered if it was too late to change her mind and accompany them. She wondered why Diana pulled away from her so suddenly. She wondered why she was standing there wondering so much instead of doing something about it.

"Wait!" she called out, as loudly as her damaged throat could handle.

She couldn't get through the bushes and around the house in heels and a tight dress, so she took the steps two at a time up to the rear stoop.

"Wait!" She flung open the back door and rushed into the empty kitchen.

"Wait!" She burst through the swinging doors and sped down the hall, through the living room, past her clustered, conversing family.

"Wait!" She unlocked the front door and slammed it open... just in time to see a silver car and a blue van vanish around the corner.

"Wait." Her voice was worn down to a sad, hoarse whisper.

"Don't go." She sat on the front steps and smacked herself in the forehead with her bare palm.

"Shit." <smack> "Shit." <smack> "Shit." <smack>

This ritual was repeated until Emily came out and bodily dragged her inside the house. She would not tell anyone what was bothering her, despite Anne's badgering and Emily's gentle solicitation. She was not at all interested in joining the group's discussion of her father's amended will.

After a good tooth-brushing and two glasses of Glen Ord whiskey, she finally stopped cursing herself and took a nap on the long suede couch in her father's study.

Under the pretext of going to the restroom, Charles Browning left the group and slipped into his den. He silently rooted something out of the closet and walked over to Charlie.

He laid his old Navy blanket over his sleeping, troubled daughter. He wished they had the kind of relationship where she could talk to him without fear of disapproval, but that was his own fault. He wondered if they would have enough time to pave over the rough spots and construct that strong a trust before it was too late.

Facing the end of his life, Charles Browning found that was all he wanted.

"Love you, Chick," he whispered, hoping that would be enough to build on.

Part Twenty Four
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