Persistence of Memory - Pt. 24
by Paul Seely
On the cross-town drive to Vega Avenue, Julia tried several times to initiate conversation, to strike up another debate on the futility of maintaining a civilian life, but her raven haired compatriot threw up a wall of silence she could not openly breech. She'd think of a way in, but it would take some time and a bit of stealth. Their time together was running short, and she did not want to spend it arguing.
Halfway to The Meadows, Julia sighed loudly and signaled surrender by turning on the CD player. The boisterous, slinky music of Garbage poured from ten hi-fi speakers, and the Swede hummed along with Shirley Manson.
Diana stared out the window, solemn and quiet as a Carmelite nun while cars and houses and scenes of Monday night banality whizzed past, all looking to her like sanctuary. But she was not Hugo's renegade Esmeralda; she was not the sort to run inside and find safe harbor in the bell tower with just any old besotted hunchback.
The only safe place for her was with Charlotte... who had chosen not to be with her.
* Charlie didn't come because she isn't done with her folks, * she rationalized, aching for some excuse. * She's too tired to deal with me. She didn't want to be around Julia. She didn't want to leave Emily and Luis there alone. Yeah. Right. *
Each explanation could have been true. Maybe all of them were true. It didn't matter. The end result was the same, and though it was only a temporary parting, it still hurt to be away from her. She felt lost and alone again, and now was the worst time imaginable to show her weakness. Julia could smell it like a hungry shark scents blood in the water. Another dip in the pity pool and Diana would be a chumsicle in seconds. Hence the wall o' silence routine.
Another stony hour, maybe less, and this would be done and she could go home and they would be together again and that was all that did matter. Everything else was irrelevant, worthless as confetti.
* If this swap goes off right, I'm home by eleven... but that's a big if. How am I going to explain about Chen? Will she balk? Walk? Shoot at me? Shoot at Julia? Jesus, too many variables. Makes me wish I was still unconscious. No, bad idea. I like being alone in my head. *
"Boooowww down to meeeee," Julia sang, grinning through the harmonies of "Supervixen."
The cool blonde was distracted just enough to concentrate on the lyrics. She found herself identifying with the singer, which was a rare thing. Very few modern songs meshed so neatly with her egomaniacal passion. Insecurity, vindictiveness and defeatism were so prevalent in popular music that she found herself unable to listen to radio anywhere except Latin nations, where the soundtrack was hot enough to melt the average bourgeois complaint-rocker into a puddle.
"Do you like this music?" she asked Diana.
The queried party slowly turned to face her, blinking herself out of deep thought. "Hmm?"
"The music. I find it rather cathartic," Julia went on. "Hearing someone express such nakedly confident anger can serve to purge the bile tanks of the mass consciousness."
Diana listened for a few seconds, then nodded her agreement. "Jungian rock and roll therapy."
"With very Freudian production values - all those pointy guitar riffs and deep, thrumming bass lines. It gives one naughty ideas."
A little smirk nibbled at the corners of Diana's mouth. "Still horny, I take it."
"With no relief in sight," Julia sighed, frowning pitifully. "Unless you - "
Diana's response was definite and intractable, like cold water on the eardrums. Julia frowned and took a second shot, ever the gamer.
"Oh, come on! I wouldn't tell anyone!" she swore, hiding crossed fingers by her thigh.
"No. If you get any tonight, it won't be from me."
The disc player segued into the next track, sending the sulky moans of "Queer" into the cabin. Julia lifted one slim brow as an immediate - if lesser - alternative entered her mind.
"Perhaps you could put in a good word for me with the tall blonde," she offered. "She's a dish."
"Don't go there, Jules," Diana said sternly. "Not a good way to start things off. Out of that crew, she's far and away your best operative."
"If she is so skilled, why is she being traded away like a swap meet leftover?"
Diana pursed her lips and regurgitated a few sketchy details from the abeyance report she received via encoded fax that afternoon. "They say discipline problems. Very strong willed, high personal morality factor. In other words, she's no puppet. You'll need her good judgment down the line."
"Oh, you dear thing!" Julia praised, her voice thick with sarcasm. "You've arranged for an external conscience to keep tabs on me?"
"Someone has to give me an honest appraisal of what you're up to," Diana explained. "I promised to act as your fail-safe and that's a moot position if I don't know when you've... failed."
"Hmm. I suppose you're right. Well, if I must have a spy peering over my shoulder, I'm glad it will be someone so criminally attractive," the blonde lecher observed, glancing in the rear-view at the tailing blue van. "Do you think she'll like me?"
"Play fair with her and she won't let you down. As for anything more, she's straight."
Julia shot Diana a look of challenge, as if she had just been triple-dog-dared to accomplish some impossible task. In her mind's eye, the Swede saw Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield bleachers, calling his legendary home run shot.
"For now," she said.
As the Callaway slowed on approach to Vega Avenue, Diana had a new worry - that she'd arranged to have the marked woman tossed from frying pan to fire.
* I knew this would happen. Any beautiful person within ten miles of Julia is fair game. The question is did I ask for her on purpose, hoping that she'd provide a distraction to keep Jules away from me? That's tantamount to pimping. Am I that selfish? Ugh. Disturbing thought. *
Her own memories of Julia as a suitor and lover were tainted by their current flirtation with enmity, but she consoled herself that it was a fate preferable to certain death - which the young agent faced if she remained with her current group.
* Gedde Yoshima came away unscathed, as far as I know. Maybe Julia's calmed down these past few years... or maybe she was only into the rough stuff with me. Maybe she did those things because that was what she thought I wanted. Needed. Ugh. An even more disturbing thought. *
"Just don't ask her to tie you up on the first date," Diana suggested, rubbing her weary eyes.
Julia laughed in a singularly evil way as she replied, "Good idea. No bondage 'til the third date."
LeRoy Parks awoke from his nap just in time to see the slinky silver car pull up to the gate, followed closely by a dark blue van with no rear windows. He dragged an ashy hand across perpetually baggy eyelids and plodded out of the glass booth with the languor of a drugged tortoise.
"Got to find me a better job where I can get some sleep," he complained, blindly pressing the red button to open the gates, permitting the vehicles to pass without so much as a second glance.
"So much for the security of life in a gated community," Julia observed. "I hope Charlotte doesn't have to pay extra for his protective presence."
"I'm gonna get that guy fired," Diana swore as her hands convulsed into fists. "This is ridiculous. I mean, we could be serial killers! That lazy shit would let Richard Ramirez stroll right in without even asking him why he's carrying that big fucking knife!"
"Need I remind you that we are here conducting rather nefarious business ourselves?" Julia pointed out. "Not that I'm judging you, darling. Hypocrisy helps many people sleep better at night."
Diana rolled her eyes, trying to keep the hooked comment from sinking in too deep. "Shut up."
"Fine. If you enjoy living in denial, far be it from me to break your lease."
Diana fell silent again, and Julia gloated quietly, certain she'd found the perfect chink to exploit. In a laboriously ideal world like The Meadows, this nitro-blooded woman stood out like Courtney Love at a Promise Keepers rally. Julia saw it clearly; the trick was forcing open Diana's own eyes, prying away the rose-colored shades and making her confront the paradox. Once that happened, Diana would do the rest of the work for her.
"Can you open the garage for the van?" she asked. "It might arouse suspicion should your neighbors see us shuttling four drugged bodies to and fro."
"Yeah. I'll do that," Diana groaned, keeping her eyes on the passing, peaceful domiciles.
The neighborhood houses were quietly alive with the soft yellow of late evening light and the flickering blue of television sets. Sprinklers watered lush lawns down for the night, tossed chemically treated moisture over colorful beds of flowers and unblemished sidewalks, wooden mailboxes bearing homey carvings, painted birds and family names. Pricey, well-maintained cars were tucked into garages, their owners nestled in bed with spouses, children, or lovers. Reading. Watching Leno.
Few people lived alone in The Meadows. This was a community populated almost exclusively by young professionals sowing the seeds of their lives, growing families, relationships and businesses inside a safe, walled garden. At least, they thought it was safe.
* I have brought danger into your lives, * Diana reflected, steadily resenting Julia for shoving her into a quiet room populated by such thoughts. * The three people inside this car have caused more death and destruction than any of you could imagine. One of us is dead, another is leaving soon, but I live among you. I pretend that I belong here. *
As the unmarked Callaway slithered along the asphalt path, Diana couldn't help feeling like a snake, an intruder looking to sneak in, hunt, and get out before being discovered and decapitated with a sharp red hoe.
* I see you all nearly every day, taking out the trash and recycling bins, tending flowers, checking mail. I see your kids skateboarding without helmets and I tell them how stupid it is not to wear protective gear. If I really cared about any of you, I wouldn't stay here. *
When she looked up, she saw the white split-level looming ahead, and her eye twitched in strange, nervous reaction. The automatic night lamp on the front walk was on, casting a cheery brightness over the front of the sweet little house. The moon provided a lovely backdrop, visible just over the dark gray roof. Stars peeked out between hazy clouds shifting in high atmospheric winds.
"Home, sweet home," Julia chirped. "Such a pretty night to commit multiple felonies."
The chipper driver dropped the car out of gear and coasted to a halt into the driveway, then cut the headlights and engine. The blue van cut a neat three-point turn, backing in so the rear cargo doors faced the garage.
Diana stared at the house - her house, her home - and her heart was seized in a tight vice of guilt. What right did she have to be here, to put anyone else at risk? Her past had caught up to her once and could do so again. Maybe next time, the casualties would be higher, hit closer to home.
* Charlie knows what she got into with me, but no one else does. Emily and Luis, their parents, the kids, our friends and neighbors... none of them asked for my baggage, yet I make them carry it every day while I walk around in their lives, feeding on their peace. I am that selfish. *
"I'll do it if you give me the key," Julia said, again jarring Diana out of contemplative mode.
She realized the car was parked and that the Callaway's doors were up. Three of the four operatives waited by their van, hands tucked discreetly into jackets. Joseph was behind the wheel, waiting to back into the garage.
"No, I got it," she responded, easing herself forward and out of the bucket seat. The soft leather clung to her back and peeled away like moist paper tape. She wasn't actively sweating anymore, but she still felt as if something filthy and hot had crawled under her skin and fallen asleep.
Once the house was open and the garage door released, Diana became a superfluous spectator. Julia and her crew loaded the sleeping bodies of Hideo Yoshima and the three viral scientists into the van in under a minute.
As they hustled about, she stood in the foyer, leaning against the scratched wooden table where Charlie always noisily tossed her keys, and tried to remind herself that this was no bell tower refuge, no temporary haven. This was her home. She belonged here... didn't she?
* God, Charlie, why didn't you come with me? If you were here, I wouldn't be freaking out like this. Maybe I've got Alzheimer's or something. If you aren't here to reassure me every ten fucking minutes, I forget everything you've spent the last year teaching me. About how I belong here, how I've changed for the better. *
Changed. Behavior is the best measure of change, and killing Chen Kaige didn't feel like a change for the better. Surrendering to the voice of her own anger and fear felt more like resumption than change, a needle falling into a well-worn groove. Her undeniable ebullience after tossing the bomb into the pit didn't fill her with confidence, either - the happy rush had the stigma of deja vu attached.
* Maybe I haven't really changed that much at all. Maybe I just believed it because Charlie told me to. I'd believe anything if it came from her... especially something I want to be true. *
She could have stayed there for hours, running the memory footage of her mistakes again and again, analyzing it like the Zapruder film, but Julia tapped the wall by her head and waggled a crooked finger, telling her it was time to go.
"Ten to ten. Don't want to be tardy, do we?" she said, already skipping out the door.
Diana took a last look around the house, noticing small footprints in the carpet, indentations in sofa cushions, sundry papers on the coffee table, all reminders of the person who did belong here, the only person who could convince her that she belonged, too.
"Please, God... let her be here when I get back."
She set the alarm, locked the door, and walked away, feeling cold for the first time in hours.
Charlie slept until ten o'clock, a short but heavy nap that only served to make her more tired. She could have snoozed on, but Emily interrupted her by sitting on the end of the long suede sofa and jostling her legs.
"Honey, you in there?" her sister whispered, taking Charlie's feet into her lap. "Wakey, wakey."
"No. Go 'way." She drew the scratchy wool blanket up over her head, barely aware enough to wonder where it came from. "I'm hiding."
Emily tugged on the blankie, drawing it off Charlie's face. "I wanna hide, too."
"No room," the lawyer protested, grabbing tight to her cover. "Hide somewhere else."
The redhead sighed and slumped back into the cushions. Someone had to let Charlotte know what was going on, and she was the obvious choice. Everyone else was either afraid or unwilling.
"You're gonna have to talk to daddy and Richard eventually. He wants to make you the executor."
Charlie blinked open her eyes, wiping away a bit of sleep. "Me? You must be joking."
"Believe me, you're not half as shocked as mom was," Emily said, a hint of pleasure winking in her voice. "Pop's already setting up trusts for the kids, divvying up some of the cash to avoid probate. He's giving me and Luis the golf villa in Palm Springs and a trust account of our own."
"Wow. That's gotta be a surprise."
"Luis is just about catatonic. He doesn't know what to make of it. To be honest, neither do I."
"Join the club. What about mom?"
"She gets the house, the cars, his Navy pension, the insurance - eight million bucks worth - and all the art stuff, including that butt-ugly Bosch carving."
"Nice haul," Charlie commented, propping herself up on a pillow. The demand for attentive listening had a bracing effect, served to wake her up more rapidly than coffee. "Is that set in stone?"
"Richie's drawing it up right now. Momma's not talking, but I can tell she ain't happy."
"Geez, I bet not. Did daddy say what he wants from me?"
Emily grinned as she rubbed aimlessly at the tops of her baby sister's stockinged tootsies. She knew she was about to drop a bomb, and she was enjoying the anticipation for all it was worth.
"Short version - you take thirty percent of the cash accounts as a fee, dole out the rest to cancer and AIDS charities in his name, manage the stocks and bonds, take the boffo dividends and establish a couple of scholarships in his name at the learning institutions of your choice."
Charlotte's eyebrows were arched high into her hairline, her mouth hanging slightly open. This was all too much to take in over the short course of one night. The political structure of her family was now officially standing on its head, and the rapid changes made Diana's clandestine clan of spies, killers and weirdoes look relatively normal.
"You must have misheard him, Emmy. He'd never trust me with anything like that."
"Mom looked at him like he'd gone nuts, but he said it clear as a bell," Emily pronounced, giving a little tickle to Charlie's instep. "You da man, shortcake."
"But I don't know anything about stocks or... thirty percent?"
"That's after all the trust funds are deducted. Richard estimates it'll be around four million."
"Four million would be all the accounts total, right?"
Emily's grin spread even wider. "Nope. Four would be your cut."
Charlie stopped breathing. Her chest felt heavy, as if the money had been dropped directly onto her sternum from a great height. There had to be some mistake.
"There must be some mistake," she wheezed, feeling a full-fledged anxiety attack building inside.
"No mistake, baby doll. You're destined to be a millionaire."
She was dizzy again; not sick, just reeling. Rocked. Shaking. "I don't... I don't want... "
Emily noted her distress and leapt up from the couch. She poured a glass of water from the crystal carafe on her father's desk and hustled it over to Charlie's flapping lips.
"I don't want... what am I supposed to... why would he... "
"Shhh. Drink this," Emily urged, easing a sip of water into her panicked sibling. She knelt by the couch and held Charlie's clammy hand "Calm down. This is a good thing."
Charlotte turned her mouth away from the water glass and and shook her head. "But I don't want his money! It just feels wrong!"
"Like he's paying us off for being an absentee parent?"
Emily paused thoughtfully, nodding. "You may be right. I say we let him."
"He wants forgiveness, Charlie. He feels bad now and wants to set things right," Emily began. "The money is just an excuse to get his foot in the door. It's an opening gesture, not the end goal. If we snub him now, he's gonna draw back and that'll be the end of it. If we take it, it's like we accept his apology, and he'll feel like it's okay to be around us again."
"But what if he chickens out, changes his mind?" Charlie protested. "It wouldn't be the first time we opened up to him only to have daddy back away from us."
"I think he deserves one more chance. Don't you?"
"I don't... I just don't know. If it's guilt money, it's dirty money. I don't want dirty money."
"Huh." Emily edged away, walked over and leaned against their father's desk. "So says the former mouthpiece of Saint Marco Falcon."
Charlie scowled harshly, hurt by the pointed remark. "Fuck you."
"That's right. To hell with me and daddy and everybody else," Emily sighed, weary and scorn-stung herself. "You've got every right to be angry with him."
"So do you."
"Yeah, but we gotta grow up. We need to let some things go. All the people we've spent our lives hating, resenting... there's only one way they can whip us. That's if we don't forgive them."
Charlotte sat up and put both feet on the floor to steady her. It seemed her dizziness had spawned some sort of aural hallucination; she could scarcely believe this was really her sister talking, speaking soft words about the empowering nature of forgiveness. Still, she was making sense. In a wussy, peacenik sort of way.
"Do you mean that, Em? Do you honestly believe that?"
"I don't want my kids to grow up hating anybody. That's not what I teach them, and it's past time for me to follow my own advice," Emily stated. "That thing in his head is a stage four tumor, which means this is the last chance we'll ever get to find out who Charles Browning really is, or who he wants to be. I want to go looking for our father... and I want you to come with me."
At this last entreaty, Emily extended her hand in invitation, and Charlie rose to take it. They held fast and watched each other for a moment, aware that the pact they just sealed might put them both through the wringer and never pay off the kind of intangible benefits they sought.
"What if we find out he's an even bigger jerk than we thought?" Charlotte questioned.
"In that case, you may smack me about the face and shoulders and gloat over what a world-class sucker I am," Emily conceded, smiling broadly. "Then we'll race our gold-plated Bentleys to Palm Springs and play the back nine."
"HA! And you call me the greedy brat!"
"Hey, pass or fail, we're gonna be heiresses. Might as well get used to the idea."
Charlie squeezed her eyes shut and leaned against her sister, the very idea of being responsible for all that money making her queasy. "I think I'm gonna be sick again."
"Back to the toilet?"
"No, no. I just need to go home. I need to see Diana."
Emily scrunched her brows and tipped her sister's chin up, forcing eye contact. "Are you sure it's okay to go back there, what with the stalker and all?"
Biting her bottom lip as she revealed the bare minimum of truth, Charlotte dismissed Emily's fears with a simple phrase. "Diana took care of that."
"So that's why she wasn't here tonight," Emily said, nodding. "I was getting worried."
"You were worried about her?" Charlie asked softly, touched by the vicarious concern.
"And you. Kissing 'Sociopath Spice' was a tad out of character for my monogamous sister."
"Ecch." Charlie absently wiped her mouth, anxious to be rid of any trace of Julia. "I really spooked mom, though, didn't I?"
"Hey, she already knows you're a perverted heathen. Now she thinks you're a slut, too."
Charlotte pumped her cast in a mock cheer. "Yay!"
"Richard was more disturbed by your harlotry than mom was," Emily offered. "I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he tells his darling Valerie about tonight. As if she didn't hate you enough already."
"Valerie hates me? I've never even met her," Charlie responded, mildly confused.
"This is gonna kill ya. Luis has this gossipy friend in the L.A. district attorney's office, and she says that the chatty, catty Ms. Valerie Velasquez absolutely loathes you."
"Why have I not heard this before?"
"We didn't think you'd ever see Richard again."
"Neither did I. Still, what does she have against me?"
"Remember that pale circle on Richie's left ring finger?"
"Well, it seems Richard tells his bosses at the firm that you two are still married. It keeps them off his back about starting a family and alleviates any pressure to wed Val the Vile. Plus, it keeps the door open for a happy reunion with you... once this lesbian phase is over."
"That sneaky little bastard!" Charlie jerked her hand away and made for the door, fire leaping around in her eyes. "I'm gonna kill him!"
"NOnonono!" Emily cried, latching on to her fleeing sister's shoulder. "Don't bust him just yet!"
"Why the hell not?" Charlie demanded, shaking loose from the tight grasp.
"Because it wasn't his idea!" Emily revealed, looking even more mischievous than usual. "With all this will stuff going down in such a controversial way, we need to protect ourselves by keeping a few wild cards in our hand, baby sister. This is a sure-fire Joker."
Charlie drew in a quick breath as it dawned on her just who would have suggested to Richard that he perpetrate such a deception. "She told him to say that?"
Emily laughed a little and nodded. "Anne Browning strikes again."
The bitter knowledge caught in Charlie's throat and she swallowed it like a jagged little vitamin, knowing it tasted horrible but was reputedly good for her. Emily was right - if their mother tried to use Richard to get herself power of attorney, tried to claim Charles Browning was impaired or incompetent in order to nullify his wishes, they would need to fight back.
"Emily, about this new policy of tolerance you're advocating..."
"That doesn't include mom, does it?"
"Not at the moment," Emily confessed. "But I continue to believe in miracles."
"Speaking of which, I really need to see Diana. Will you drop me home?"
"I think that can be arranged."
Charlie wrapped an arm around her sister's waist and tugged her into a hug. "I love you, Em."
"Me, too, shrimp. Me, too." Emily rubbed Charlie's back vigorously, gave her butt a pat, and slipped out of the embrace. "Get your shoes and stuff. I'll make your excuses and you can slip out the back. Just promise me you'll call daddy tomorrow and give him an answer about the executor business."
"I will. Pinkie swear?"
The sisters hooked pinkie fingers together and shook on it.
"Pinkie swear," Emily echoed. "Five minutes, in the alley."
"I'll be there."
Emily left the den and Charlotte gathered her purse and shoes. As she sat on the couch to wedge her feet into the cruel pumps, she noticed that the wool blanket someone had lain over her bore a United Stated Navy insignia. She reached down and touched the design, tracing the blue wings and anchor with a single, slow finger.
* Nearly twenty-six years old, and that's the first time dad ever tucked me in, * she thought, trying to fend off a fit of maudlin tears. * Diana, honey, you're not gonna believe this. *
Charlie crept out of the study and down the hall, through the kitchen and out the back door without encountering a soul, blessed or otherwise. They were all gone now, riding around in sleek silver cars or bulky blue vans, carrying guns and cloaks and daggers, doing whatever they did to make it to another day. Same as the rest of us, only more so. Truthfully, none of that mattered to Charlotte.
She was only concerned about one among their number, the one she called her own.
"Please, God... let her be there when I get home."
With that whispered prayer, Charlie climbed over the back wall and dropped
into the alley, rubbing her bare arms as a sudden chill pebbled her skin with
Late on a weekday evening - especially a blandly misbegotten July Monday- the most deserted place in downtown Elceda was the ritzy, closed-by-five-oh-one p.m. shopping complex called Lansing Center. The only place in the area still open for business at ten was a lone Starbucks coffee house, selling chilled frapaccinos to caffeine junkies seeking to score a hit of America's last legal drug.
Across the street and five floors up, the brightly lit rooftop level of the public parking garage was deserted, save one silver car and one dark blue van, parked tail to tail by the back wall. Both vehicles were angled toward the exit ramp - a precaution to facilitate a hasty exit.
A well turned-out, soignée blonde perched on the warm hood of the silver ride, fiddling with a shiny Walther P99. She watched as the woman beside her - a powerfully built dark beauty in faded jeans, white tank top and a borrowed black Armani blazer - cleaned blood from her hands with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alcohol.
"Try not to get any blood on the jacket, darling. It's off the rack, but it still cost an obscene amount of money," Julia requested, rooting through her ballistic nylon supply bag. She withdrew a pair of gloves and tossed them onto Diana's lap. "Please put these on when you're done."
Diana hissed as the alcohol seeped into a deep cut on her pronounced knuckles. She looked at the black kidskin gloves and raised a questioning brow. "Gloves? Is the jacket that important to you?"
"And people say I'm fussy about cleanliness," Diana griped.
She finished tending her wounds and slipped the gloves on carefully, assuring no further blood leakage. Julia lent her a brush and a scrunchie, and Diana groomed her tangled hair into a neat pony tail and a soft fringe of bangs. Her complexion glowed like newly cast bronze, thanks to a vigorous scrub with the cool alcohol towels, which she also employed to give herself a partial sponge bath. Back of the neck, shoulders, pits... everything else would have to wait.
"Much better," Julia said, finally deeming her presentable.
Looking at her own reflection in the windshield, Diana noted that she now looked considerably less like a nutcase. The slick jacket and gloves covered all the tiny, tell-tale red spatters on clothes and flesh, leaving her with the appearance of a casually dressed, coolly composed no-goodnik.
"I look like a gangster," she grumbled.
With a flutter of pale lashes and a dreamy sigh, Julia asked, "Can I be your moll?"
In better spirits due to her relative upgrade in hygiene, Diana merely stuck out her tongue.
"Ooh, don't tease me, Bugsy!" Julia giggled, flickering her own tongue lasciviously.
"Cool it, sister," Diana replied, nodding toward the van. Joseph and Sonya sat in the front, eyes fixed on the two women who ostensibly controlled their future. "The kids are watching."
Julia gave the two observers a wink, then returned her attention to Diana. "Audiences never bothered you before. When did you become such a prude?"
"What time is it?" Diana asked, totally ignoring the question.
"Twelve after," Julia replied, checking her absolutely accurate platinum watch. "They're quite late."
"Is this unusual for her?"
"Highly, darling, but the tardiness could be a cheap ploy to put me in my place," the blonde theorized. "Yet it's not as if we have anything better to do than await her exalted majesty."
Diana scowled, adjusting the .38 resting in the small of her back. She looked up at the night sky, recalling the last time she viewed the Elceda stars from this particular spot - through an open moon roof in the back seat of a stretch limousine, Charlotte naked and giggling, tasting of champagne, her lover's softly gilded hair draped over Diana's shoulders like a shawl.
"Speak for yourself," she corrected.
As Julia readied her rejoinder, she heard the smooth purr of an engine approaching from below, an advance warning echoing up through the concrete tower.
"Ooh, here they come!" she trilled, slipping off the hood. She moved beside Diana and dropped the heavy black bag at their feet, whispering a low reference. "Just in case."
Diana looked askance at the bag, well aware of what was inside. Both women were hoping they wouldn't need to pull out the heavy artillery, preferring a simple trade to a gargantuan mess. They each nodded in understanding and took a casual, defensive stance behind the Callaway, ready to duck and cover if it became necessary.
The passenger door of the blue van opened and Sonya stepped out, preparing to join them.
"Stay put," Diana called to the young woman. She didn't want any of the four caught in the middle, forced to make decisions about loyalty so early in their acquaintance. "If it goes bad, just bolt. We'll catch up to you later."
Sonya hesitated, then nodded and hopped back into the van. She left her door partially open.
A black Jaguar XK8 crept up the ramp onto the roof level, followed by a typically non-descript black van. The windows on both vehicles were tinted to total opacity, hiding the number of passengers. The van parked several yards away, tail facing its blue twin, while the Jag circled the entire lot, obviously taking a survey of the terrain and scene. It then pulled alongside the Callaway and parked, the V-8 engine idling smooth.
Diana held her breath and flexed her gloved fingers. Julia yawned, feigning boredom as her senses slipped into a trance-like state of high alert.
Three of the Jag's doors opened at once. Three people stepped out into the bleached night, leaving the driver alone inside the vehicle's shadowy, safe interior.
Julia and Diana checked out the newcomers - two modestly attractive men with empty blue gazes and monochrome clothing, and one slim, fiftyish woman in a fetching lavender business suit. She wore her dark hair very short and sported tired purple rings around storied black eyes. Her focus skipped quickly from the blue van to the silver car to the two women standing side by side... and her pale mouth twisted into a chilling simile of a smile.
"Good evening, Julia," her low voice greeted, the tonal equivalent of dry gin. "Diana. How interesting to see you... together again."
Diana stiffened slightly and started to correct the woman's erroneous impression, to clarify the extent of their togetherness, but Julia's fingers brushed against her arm as the Swede spoke up first.
"We are lucky to have each other," she agreed, edging closer to Diana. "It's so hard to find a trustworthy partner these days. They're all too ambitious, don't you find?"
Julia's well-chosen words had their desired effect. The woman's jaw tensed visibly and her eyes hardened. She dispensed with the pleasantries and got right to the point.
"You have the merchandise?"
Diana jerked her thumb toward the van. "Two virologists, one biochemist, one Yakuza boss."
The woman gestured for her two companions to check the van and they immediately moved away to carry out her unspoken order. "And what of Chen Kaige?"
Again Diana started to speak, to accept responsibility for her screw-up, only to hear Julia edging her out and answering first.
"Chen Kaige is dead. We found his body this evening at Yoshima's beach house."
Only through extreme self-control did Diana manage to stifle a gasp. She confined her reaction to a brief, composed glance at Julia, then turned her eyes back to the disappointed woman.
"Yoshima?" she asked, black eyes turning blacker. "He killed Chen?"
"Apparently so. Hideo tells us that Chen declared his target unreachable and broke their deal. He refused to return his initial payment, claiming that the damage Diana inflicted on his person demanded recompense. Yoshima was most irate, and promptly ordered his death," the blonde lied, sounding utterly disinterested. "Chen killed all of Yoshima's guards in the struggle, but his internal injuries were too severe to allow escape. He was dead by the time we arrived."
Everyone was quiet then, thinking whatever they were thinking. The two monochrome men were busy loading the scientists and Yoshima into the black van. The black-eyed woman stared at Julia, who picked at a hangnail and stared right back.
Diana was figuring the odds of anyone buying Julia's story - she was not particularly hopeful, and she gave them five to one. Her foot brushed against the black bag, and she mentally reviewed the rules of proper Gabler usage.
"Where is his body?" the woman suddenly asked, her face tight and immobile, a death mask.
"In my car," Julia answered. "Would you like to see him?"
Diana stepped back as Julia rounded the rear of the Callaway, keys in hand. She pushed a button on the silver key fob and the trunk sprang open. Diana remembered too late that the white Akita was still in there, cuddled under Chen's corpse like a macabre pillow.
Julia watched her one-time counterpart survey the damaged body, saw her keen eyes logging obviously broken bones, torn flesh, smeared face, one eye drooping nearly out of its socket.
"They beat him quite badly," the woman noted. "Almost as if it were... personal."
"It was personal. This entire episode began with Yoshima's vendetta against a business competitor," Julia explained. "His vanity demanded discreet vengeance, so he hired a vindicator from outside his usual circle."
"Who was Chen's target?" she asked, still staring at the body.
"An attorney who represented Marco Falcon - the man who stole Yoshima's drug routes in South America. Yoshima failed to inform Chen that this attorney was Diana's lover. Hence the impossibility of completing the assignment. Hence his ill-advised attempt at resignation."
"Hence his death," the woman said, completing the refrain. "And this dead dog figures in... how?"
"The dog was mine," Diana answered, stepping forward. "Killed this afternoon, defending us against Chen's second attempt."
"Tragic," she responded, shaking her head. "Loyal animals are rare."
"Yes," Julia chimed in. "All too often, they turn on their masters."
Again, Diana noticed a slight tension erupt around the black eyes, the firm jaw. She wondered just what Julia was doing, why her lies seemed to go unquestioned even as her innocent words pricked this woman like needles. And what to make of those lies? Why was Julia bothering to cover for her? Diana didn't even want to think about that just yet.
"I want his body," the woman announced, summoning her helpers to take Chen away.
"Of course. Help yourself to what remains," Julia drolly consented. She stepped aside, allowing the men to transfer Chen Kaige's corpse to the black van. "Will there be anything else?"
The woman straightened and looked dead into the Swede's gray eyes, her expression arid and empty as desert air. "Is Yoshima fit for questioning?"
"Oh my, yes. When he wakes, he'll be mad as a hornet," Julia informed her. "He's quite insane now, you know. Brain tumors can affect people in such strange ways."
"As long as he's... physically aware. That will be enough," the woman said ominously. "I must be going now. I have a security council briefing tomorrow morning, as you both know."
"Best of luck with that, dear," Julia said, smiling. "You'll have your work cut out for you, convincing the old bastards to let me roam the earth unfettered - after the eight month probation, of course."
The woman's gaze softened slightly as she backed toward the Jaguar. "It's been a boys club for too long. I find that women are much better at keeping secrets, don't you?"
"As long as it serves our interests to do so," Julia agreed, placing one slim finger over her lips in a gesture that promised quiet. She waved goodbye to the woman, then closed the Callaway's trunk.
Diana watched that final exchange with heightened interest, feeling for the first time that she understood what was passing unspoken between the two women. She breathed a sigh of unqualified relief as the dark eyed woman slipped into the Jaguar with her envoys and rolled away, the black van following close behind.
Julia returned to her side and retrieved the black bag, tossing the Gablers into the back seat. She caught Diana's eye and raised a brow, prompting the dark woman to speak her thoughts.
"She's the one who hired Chen Kaige to kill Operations," Diana whispered, stating rather than questioning. "You knew it all along. That's why she wanted Chen so badly - not for revenge, but to make sure he was silenced."
With a joyful laugh, Julia edged onto her toes and kissed Diana's forehead. "You are, without question, the quickest study I have ever known."
Diana took that to mean she was correct in her assumptions. "She knocked off her own boss and got away with it. God damn. Does anyone else know?"
"No one but you and me and the lamp post, darling." Julia was already in the car, obviously ready to blow this piddly town and get on with her next venture. "Kicky, isn't it? Now let's go!"
Diana stood there for a moment, leaning heavily against the raised silver door. She slowly began to realize that she was not going to be killed, was not expected to bear the official responsibility for Chen's death, and that she was about to go home to Charlie.
All thanks to Julia's twisty little tongue.
* What the hell just happened here? * she wondered, knowing it was probably better not to ask.
The two vehicle convoy was only five blocks down Main Street when Diana's resolve crumbled.
"Why did you do that?" she asked, edgy and exasperated.
Julia was smoking another cigarette, and she smiled around the filter. "Narrow your inquiry, please."
"You lied to her about Chen, and I don't think that was necessary or prudent," Diana declared. "I was ready to take the rap for what I did. I'd have let her know you weren't at fault there."
"Self-preservation was not a factor in my decision."
"Then why?" Diana persisted. "It's not like you to fudge something on the spot like that, especially when the truth is so much more expedient."
"You're always so willing to take responsibility for your mistakes, perhaps too willing," Julia observed. "This was a case where your conscience would have gotten you in serious trouble."
"Oh, yes. Chen was hired blind, through a contact in Hong Kong. While receiving completion payment, he was ambushed. The wily devil escaped and subsequently discovered his true employer's identity. After that, he was a marked man. She wanted to kill him in the worst way - and I mean that literally. Yoshima will suffer the torments of hell for robbing her of the satisfaction."
"I assume you have reason for pinning a bullseye to Hideo's chest."
"I promised Gedde that his father would pay the piper. My word will be kept... by proxy."
Diana took a moment, letting that sink in, getting used to the notion of Julia keeping promises to someone who was of no use to her professionally. Gedde Yoshima may have gotten under her skin a little, with his gentle manner and wounded eyes. It gave her pause, made her wonder about whether Julia had it in her to change, to grow...
"Was that your only reason, Jules?"
The Swede drew on her Winston again, then tossed it out the window. She didn't answer for a while, and Diana began to wonder if she would at all. Maybe she'd touched a nerve.
"You have a need to crucify yourself, Diana," she whispered at long last. "You think that if you punish yourself enough, you might save your soul. You might deserve the love of an innocent, earn the peaceful life you want so badly to resume. But you are not wired to maintain the facade, you are wired to destroy it. You are doomed to fight against yourself forever. Eventually, you'll lose."
"That's not an answer," Diana sighed. "That's more of the same bull you've been spewing since you waltzed - uninvited - back into my life. Starting to sound like propaganda."
"My answer is this - your intent to sacrifice yourself tonight was unnecessary. I will never require or accept such acts from you. I wanted to show you as much."
"That wasn't what I meant to... " Diana began, then trailed away as she recognized the lie. That was what she intended to do; throwing her own guilty bones to the lioness, hoping that Julia and the others wouldn't be made to pay for her mistake... be allowed to pay for her mistake.
"You struggle with the lure of it even now," Julia stated, reading Diana perfectly.
The Callaway cut a sharp left turn and they were on Vega Avenue, so very close to home. Diana didn't even notice, for her blue eyes were shut tight, looking inward.
"It's just, like... instinct," she admitted quietly. "I didn't even know that's what I was doing."
"More's the pity. Come with me and I promise you, that self-eroding instinct will die away," Julia solemnly vowed. "You will never need to put yourself up on a cross for me, never need to lie, never need to hide who you are, never need to apologize for anything."
"Julia, don't - "
"I already know your black moods, your fevered rages, your lapses and your strengths. You know that I would never make you feel dirty and small and insufficient. You know that, with me, you could simply be. As you truly are. For me, that is good enough. You are good enough."
"No," Diana denied. "I am not good enough."
"For me. And I'm not giving up until I get there."
They were through the gates of The Meadows, and still Diana had not opened her eyes.
"You must realize by now that such a goal is folly," Julia said sharply. "It's like chasing the sun. It will always recede away from your grasp, always elude you. You have dark, shifting shadows in your mind, and they will never allow you to stay in the light long enough to adapt."
"I have to try. If I went with you, it would be the worst kind of surrender. I'd have no pride, no love, no reason to live. There would be nothing of worth left in me."
"Given enough time, you will have nothing left here. You will destroy yourself and everyone you love in a pointless crusade, one which you will never allow yourself to win. I offer you the chance to let yourself off the hook - "
"Julia, I belong on the hook," Diana interrupted, eyes flashing open, alive with a swirl of white indignation. "So do you! That's why you'd never put me up on a cross - because you'd have to do the same damned thing and you're not ready for that. Not now, maybe not ever."
"Because the conscience is a bodiless enemy! It can't be beaten, only ignored, silenced!"
" I don't want to beat it! I want to make it a part of me! I want to let it run me instead of the other way around!" Diana argued. "If I get up on the cross, it's because I remember, because I own the foul shit I've done, and because I want to do better. That's the only way I'll ever get down."
Diana pushed the green button and her door rose up, offering egress and escape, showing her the way home. She turned back to Julia and dropped her voice to a sincere whisper.
"Thank you for tonight, everything you did to help me and Charlie."
"Think nothing of it," Julia said mildly, not meeting her eyes.
"I wish you luck." Diana meant that. "Don't ever call on me again unless you intend to activate the kill-switch. Goodbye." She meant that even more.
With a heavy whoosh, the Callaway was closed up tight and Julia was alone, watching Diana Starrett walk into Charlotte Browning's house... watching her shut the door. She waited there in the driveway for nearly a minute, then lit another cigarette and drove away.
"Ninety-five percent success rate," Julia said to herself. "And that's only if I get laid."
She glanced in the rear view mirror at the blue van and wondered if tonight would be too soon to break in one or two of her new operatives.
Julia was never one to wallow in self-pity.
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