Persistence of Memory - Pt. 3
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
The summer sun was full in the sky when, at half-past eleven a.m., someone complained of a backache and the other proclaimed herself near-starvation. Charlotte and Diana managed to drag themselves from bed and stagger unsteadily to the loo for relief and a quick, hot shower. Dressed in Saturday gear of shorts and tees, they ambled slowly down the hall and debated whether they should bother with breakfast or shoot straight ahead to lunch.
"I don't want anything breakfasty," Charlie said, tucking the tag into the back of Diana's khaki shorts as she followed close behind. "A fatburger and some chili fries from KayJay's would hit the spot."
The tall woman on point turned and scowled as her stomach did a tuck and roll at the thought of ingesting such deadly food after last night's abuse. Ice cream, cake, soda and hot dogs were not meant to be topped off with large doses of alcohol. "You never get hangovers anymore, do you?"
"My head aches a little, but that doesn't affect my appetite," the attorney replied with a grin. "If you have any other, less gluttonous ideas - ow!"
Charlotte was stopped cold by a long, muscled arm which suddenly shot across her chest and barred her from walking any further. Looking up at Diana's frozen face and darting eyes, she felt a sudden chill racing up her neck and lifting the fine nape hairs in alarm. Diana turned around and pressed a finger to her lips, then motioned for her to return to the bedroom. When Charlie scowled and shook her head, Diana cocked her fingers into the shape of a gun and motioned her away again.
"GO!" Diana mouthed, and this time she did not argue. Charlotte ran on the balls of her feet back to the bedroom and knelt by Diana's side of the bed, slipping one hand between the mattresses and retrieving a stainless steel Colt Python revolver.
* Burgled. We got burgled, that's all. They took the VCR and the television and the cappuccino machine and left. It's nothing more than that. Nothing, nothing, nothing else, * Charlie lied to herself. * Oh, sweet Christ, please let that be all it is. I'm not ready for them yet. *
Holding the Python by its molded rubber grip like a snake that might rear up and strike at her, she raced back down the hall and handed the gun to Diana, who stood perfectly still, ears pricked up as she searched for any unfamiliar sounds.
"I think we're okay right now," the dark woman whispered at last, lowering the pistol to her side and stepping around the corner into the main room. "We're alone in the house."
"Then what's going on? What set you off like that?" Charlotte queried anxiously. "Jesus! You scared me half to death!"
"Someone was here last night."
"But the alarm didn't go off?"
"They didn't come in, just left a calling card." Diana's eyes were locked on some point in the living room, and Charlotte stepped carefully around her to see what it was. Immediately, she spied the streaks and swirls of red staining the glass of a back window. It wasn't what she was expecting at all, and she found herself more curious than frightened.
"What the hell is that? Chinese or something?"
Diana grunted a vaguely negative response and covered the length of the room in four long, determined strides. She stood quietly before the glass, studying the characters and absently playing with the hammer on the Colt. Her face remained stiff and unreadable, not betraying the roiling shift of emotions she experienced as the meaning became clear. A light touch on her shoulder caused her to start and jerk away.
"Whoa. Just me, just little ole me," Charlotte whispered, coming around to stand at her side. She let a few moments pass in silence before trying again. "Do you know what it means?"
"Could you maybe... tell me?"
Prying her fluxing blue eyes away from the message to stare at the floor, Diana kept her voice level and calm. "It's kanji. Japanese. It says 'Poisoned blood fells both demons and angels. Remember and atone.' Then it's just numbers along the bottom."
"And this means something to you."
"Mmm hmm. Means I'm in for trouble from some old... acquaintances."
"But you don't even do that stuff anymore. Couldn't you just tell them - "
"Doesn't matter." Diana eased her head up to find Charlotte staring at her with a mix of concern and panic. She took one of her lover's hands and squeezed it reassuringly. "I've told you I did a lot of things, bad things, for the agency. These people... what I did to them was strictly for myself. I wanted something they had, and I tried to take it. They don't forget, and they don't forgive."
"What people? Who is this from?"
"A man, a very important man in the Yakuza." She paused and averted
her gaze, hardening her jaw unconsciously. "One I should have killed when I
had the chance."
Taken aback by the declaration, Charlotte spoke hesitantly and softly. "You don't mean that."
"Oh, but I do," the dark woman whispered with deep conviction. "All this time, I've been worried that Harry would show up here and fuck things up for us. But this..." she waved the pistol at the window, "this is my fault. All my fault."
Diana's head drooped suddenly and her hand loosened around the Colt, dangling it by one finger looped through the trigger guard. She rocked back and forth on her heels, her lips moving as they formed silent words. Not willing to let herself be shut out of even the darkest corner of her lover's soul, Charlotte wrapped an arm around the tall woman's waist and pulled her close. Diana did not resist, but made no move to reciprocate.
"Hey," Charlie said suddenly, then snapped her fingers a scant inch from Diana's face. "HEY!"
Blue eyes flicked open, colored with flecks of white - something Charlotte had come to know as a symptom of worry. "I'm just thinking," Diana explained. "I need to think this through, sort it out."
"Any rule against doing that out loud?"
"Come here." Charlotte tightened her arm around the high waist and tugged toward the couch, then eased them both down into the plump cushions. "Now, continue thinking, just do it out loud so I know what's going on. Okay?"
"Charlie, I don't think that's such a good idea."
"Well, I think it is. You've told me some pretty rough stories, ya know." She lifted a brow and gave a half-smile as Diana nodded in agreement. "So tell me this one."
"This isn't just another past-tense thing. This is now. I have to figure out what to do."
"All the more reason for you to tell me about it. Since this is a now kind of thing, we're in it together. I need to know what we are in for, Diana. Not just you - we... us. Whatever. Go."
"Wha- go what?"
"God, you are so bad at this. This is where you start talking."
Open-mouthed and a little annoyed, Diana started to come back to herself as she realized Charlotte was right, that whatever Yoshima's plans held would affect them both. It was just easier to keep silent as the fear swept over her and she adjusted to its return. The months of peace, happiness and safety were ebbing away as life's tides turned coldly, suddenly dangerous. She was only just acclimating herself to the shift when she was reminded that Charlotte stood with her, felt that same fear. She wondered how it was that the young woman could handle the abrupt changes so well.
"How do you do that?" Diana asked, sliding her hand around to cover the smaller one at her waist.
"It's just like that night at Marco's, when I first told you about what I did. Shit starts raining from the sky, and you just pop out an umbrella and skip right into the storm."
Smiling at the backhanded compliment, Charlotte laced her fingers through her lover's and squeezed tight. "I only do that because you never bring an umbrella with you. Somebody's gotta cover your ass, make sure you don't get drenched."
"It's a lousy job, that. You could do so much better."
"It ain't the job, stretch, it's the company it allows me to keep. You're worth the trouble."
Sliding the pistol away, Diana freed both hands and placed them gently on Charlie's face, drawing her into a kiss that rose and fell with the restless waves of relief and anxiety buffeting her heart. She slipped her tongue inside the welcoming mouth and just held it there, reveling in the total, trusting acceptance Charlotte never failed to offer. Diana almost wanted to cry when she realized that telling the young woman the unvarnished truth might injure that trust. When she felt two small hands twine in her hair, and a formerly submissive tongue stir to wrap around her own, she pulled away and pressed their foreheads together. Charlotte's hazel eyes blinked open to find Diana staring softly into them.
"I like it when we see eye to eye on something," the attorney breathed, drawing a wide smile from her taciturn lover.
"God help me, I do love you so."
The tone in Diana's smoky voice was beyond sincere, causing Charlie to giggle nervously. "Well, that goes without saying. But hearing it is always welcome."
"I need you to remember that, Charlie. That I love you. That I would never... hurt you."
"I do know that," she said, her words solid and sure. "I know who you are now, and I love you something awful. Nothing you did back then will change that."
"I wish I were as sure as you."
Planting a seedling kiss on Diana's lips, Charlotte took one of her hands - just for something to hang on to - and drew back to lay against the pillowed couch arm. She threw her legs across Diana's lap and gave her a final nudge of verbal encouragement.
"We have no secrets, right? Just things we haven't gotten around to discussing yet. Don't keep this from me. Trust me. Tell me."
At this gentle urging, Diana could feel the large, tight node of doubt blocking her throat start to shrink, allowing passage for whatever she was strong enough to bring up and out. Telling Charlotte about Ethan and her rape had been difficult, but recounting her own terrifying, murderous rage after the fact was the trial by fire. She felt a similar panic that night as she told the tale, leaving nothing in shadow.
Looking at the calm young woman reclining across her body, Diana recalled the wash of relief which swept over her when Charlotte told her that she loved her still and was neither afraid nor repulsed. She held her close and wept for her lost brother, for her pain and guilt, but assured her throughout that none of these revelations could change the content of her heart.
"I'm not your judge," she had said, "I love you. I just want to help you carry the load. You're not alone anymore, and you never will be again."
Diana uttered a silent prayer for the continuing truth of that promise and tightened her grip on Charlotte's hand. "Okay. I guess I should start at the bottom, work up from there. It'll save time if I skip some details - irrelevant stuff."
"Take as long as you want," Charlotte said. "I'm not going anywhere."
"I'm gonna have to move on this soon, Charlie. He won't wait for me very long."
"Fine. Give me the Cliff's Notes version if you have to, but don't leave out anything on my account."
Drawing a deep breath, Diana steadied herself and began the tale with a sober solemnity.
"It was my first assignment as a lead agent. Riggins hadn't messed with my head yet, so I still knew who I was and how I came to the agency. After my training was completed and I had a few smaller missions under my belt, I was starting to get a grip on what they wanted from me. Although I was constantly in and out of Mangano's clinic for something, I was able to manage the pain and the memories pretty well. I honestly thought I was ready."
October, Nine years ago
Stepping off the helicopter, Diana Starrett took a quick moment to absorb her surroundings, aware that the awe she personally felt was unprofessional and could find no outward expression. Her eyes took in the towering peaks of the Japanese Alps without a flash of appreciation, her lungs drew full and tight with thin, clean air and she could not smile. Ninety-nine percent of her was here to work, but the remaining fraction wanted to flop down on the white ground and make snow angels.
Growing up poor in a borough of the world's premier cement playground, she had dreamed of going on exotic vacations to a tropical paradise or a mountain top ski resort, but those dreams were for the future. After she finished med school and completed her residency, she would have the time and the money to make them come true... but all those dreams died with her brother. That life was over, and she had to find a way to exist in this new one Harry Mars had offered her.
The chopper pilot cut the engine and the deafening din faded away to a faint echo as he came up beside her and picked up her suitcases. A black Mercedes limousine waited at the edge of the clearing and he pointed her toward the car. As they approached, the doors all opened at once and a small flood of business-suited men stepped out into the cold, most keeping one hand inside their jackets as they scanned the area. The oldest man approached her with his hand extended in greeting. She took his hand gently and bowed.
"Miss Starrett, I am Hideo Yoshima. Allow me to welcome you to my country."
"I am honored to be here, sir, and I am grateful for the chance to see Japan. I have long dreamed of visiting, and I am very thankful for the opportunity you have given me."
Yoshima bowed in return and offered his arm in escort. Diana looped her gloved hand around his elbow and let him lead her into the warm, dark interior of the limo. After her bags were packed in the trunk and all the men had settled in the car, they began the long drive back up the mountain to Yoshima's vacation home - where Diana would ostensibly spend the next few months.
"Your agency has extended you their highest recommendation, Miss Starrett. I hope they are accurate in their accounting of your abilities. Working for me will be challenging."
"I feel confident that I can provide you with the help you requested, Mr. Yoshima. I specialize in difficult cases," Diana replied, trying not to watch the breathtaking scenery whizzing through the windows as they ascended.
"Pardon me for my frankness, but you look very young to have so much experience."
She smiled and mustered a controlled blush, which softened his stern expression. "I am twenty-eight years old," the twenty-one year old lied. "I have worked in this field for six years, sir."
"As your records indicate," Yoshima confirmed. "We are nearing my estate. Soon, we will know if you are as good in person as on paper."
Diana only nodded and turned to the window, still aware of Yoshima's dark eyes dissecting her features and demeanor, taking stock and accounting with deft precision. Unless he felt comfortable with her, this wasn't going to last very long at all.
At last, the car came to a stop in front of an enormous stone, wood and glass home, built in a strange, stylized mix of Swiss chalet and traditional Japanese architecture. As Yoshima again offered his arm, she took it and let him guide her up stone steps and through massive oak double doors.
In the cool stone foyer, he took her coat and indicated that she should leave her shoes on the wire drying rack. She complied as he did the same, then barked out orders for his men to place her things in an upstairs guest suite. He led her into the dimly lit main room, a large, lavishly furnished affair of woven rugs, carved tables and plump suede furniture, all in tones of brown and rust. A collection of ancient swords hung on one wall, suspended by silk ropes. Tapestries and paintings covered most every other vertical surface, giving the room a smaller feel once she stood within its warm confines.
A popping fire burned hot in the hearth, casting flickers of orange light onto the face of young woman sitting quietly before its glow. Diana could barely make out her features in the weak light, but saw a drift of cigarette smoke curling around the girl's hand as she lazed on a large, reddish chair with her legs curled under like a jack knife. The girl did not spare them a glance as Yoshima turned on the overhead lights and destroyed the cozy atmosphere, merely grunted and muttered a string of curses as she rubbed her eyes. Diana tried to take a better look then, but was interrupted by her host.
"Banana!" the man called sharply, and a petite old woman dressed in a traditional maid's outfit scurried into the room, wiping wet hands on her apron. "Where are the boys?"
"In kitchen. I bring them to you?"
"Yes. They must meet their lovely new governess," Yoshima said, smiling at Diana, who smiled sweetly in return. Banana took but a moment to come back with her arms around two slender young boys with matching sullen pouts and shiny black, bowl-cut hair. Their white shirts and dark slacks appeared starched, with razor-sharp creases jutting out and exaggerating the roundness of their faces. The boys were conspicuously displeased when Banana removed her protective arms and urged them toward their father and his towering, blue-eyed guest.
"Miss Starrett, these are my sons - Yukio, who is now 12, and Gedde, age 9."
Stooping to their level, Diana held out one hand to the elder boy and greeted him warmly. "Yukio, I am honored to be selected as your teacher. I understand you already speak near-fluent English."
"Yes, miss." He took her hand and shook it once, hard, and released it hurriedly.
"And Gedde, your father has written that you are quite an artist. You enjoy painting?"
The smaller boy repeated the perfunctory shake Yukio had given and smiled shyly. "Yes, miss."
"I am sure it will be a great pleasure working with you both," Diana said, "I look forward to it."
"Thank you, miss," the boys said in unison, backing away until they stood nearly behind Banana.
"That is all, boys. Your lessons will begin tomorrow, and I expect to hear of no problems. Do you understand?" Yoshima asked, regarding them with a stern affection.
"Yes, father," the children answered seriously.
He nodded to the maid, and she hustled the stumbling boys back to the kitchen. Yoshima turned his full attention then to the young woman still smoking by the fire. Dressed in faded jeans and a Berkley sweatshirt, she displayed a loose-limbed flexibility as she unfolded her legs and ran a hand through long black hair. Her eyes were still closed against the bright light, but Diana noticed her posture stiffen as the man moved closer.
Taking her first clean look at the girl's face, Diana found herself tempted to stare at the high, wide cheekbones and poreless skin. She blinked the urge away as Yoshima spoke to her once more.
"This one is not your charge, but she will be staying here for a while as an unscheduled guest. You may as well meet now," he said as Diana joined him to stand in front of the girl's chair. "Miss Starrett, this is my daughter, Angelia."
At that, the girl's eyes flashed open with ready anger. She glared at Hideo Yoshima with bold impertinence as she hissed in a low voice, "I am not your daughter."
Yoshima's countenance darkened instantly, his mouth set in a hard line. "You are under my care and protection. You will show me respect, and you will respect my guest."
"Or what?" the girl spat, still not shifting her deep black eyes from their target.
"Do not test me again. You have shamed me once already, and you will not be granted leniency."
The two stared at each other, and Diana wanted nothing more than to remove herself from this contest of wills. This had nothing to do with her, and she wanted no part of it.
"Fine," the girl said at last, turning her attention to the woman at Yoshima's side. She looked Diana up and down several times before speaking to her with barely concealed scorn. "As for you - don't get in my way, and we won't have any trouble."
Unable to stop herself, Diana actually laughed - a snorting, derisive laugh that shot out though her nose and caused her broad shoulders to shake. Her first instinct was to bite it back, try to pass it off as a cough, but she spied Yoshima's smirk from the corner of her eye and played out the hand.
"Well, Angelia, was it?" she began, "I know I'm a pretty big girl, but this is a pretty big house. If I'm ever in your way, just ask me nicely and I might step aside."
Narrowing her eyes, Angelia looked from the tall woman to the smug man and found she had nothing more to say to either of them. She tossed her cigarette into the fire and vaulted over the chair arm, unwilling to ask either of them to move, and stormed up the stairs in a major huff.
Yoshima's eyes held a new respect for the young governess as he regarded her then, and he actually smiled. "I believe your presence here will benefit this house in many ways, Miss Starrett. The girl is troubled, and needs discipline and guidance. She will accept neither from me. Perhaps you will have better luck."
"There was no mention of a third child in your letters."
"Ahh, as I mentioned, her presence is an unforeseen complication. She was attending school in California until some... problems arose," Yoshima explained as he and Diana sat on the plush suede sofa. "The same business difficulties which force me to bring my sons here necessitate Angelia's presence as well. Her university studies can be postponed, but the education of my sons must continue. The boys are in formative years. Any slacking now will have serious repercussions later."
Diana knew all too well the "business difficulties" which forced him to hide his children. A schism in leadership of the Yakuza had formed over Yoshima's conquest of Matsuda Group and their international holdings, including lucrative pharmaceutical industries in the west. His pursuit of such high-profile, legitimate business interests concerned his partners, and their anger had put his family in danger. Instead of abandoning his ambitious plans, he decided to step up the extortion and pressure on Matsuda, and moved his family from the line of fire.
Her agency intended to stop him, and that was what brought Diana here in the first place. She was still concerned over Harry's lack of involvement in this op - her cover came directly from Mr. Riggins himself, and he told her that additional instructions would be forthcoming. Until that time, she was merely to ingratiate herself into the household and keep track of Yoshima's activities, reporting daily via an encoded satellite hookup. Another operative was already in place somewhere else in the organization, though she had no guarantee that they would ever meet. For now, she had to play her least favorite game - the one where she smiled at a brutal criminal and sat on her hands.
That afternoon, Yoshima explained her duties in detail and took his leave. He
was in and out at all hours during the following week, and Diana dutifully made
her reports each day, still blind as to what she was really supposed to
be doing there. The boys were easy students, both bright and quick, but Yukio
always seemed a little distracted and tense in his father's presence, as if he
knew he was being judged more harshly than his younger brother. Gedde showed her
his paintings and was thrilled to the point of giddiness each time she lavished
him with praise or asked to watch him work.
Angelia, on the other hand, was a total enigma. She moved through the house like a ghost, avoiding contact with everyone. She took her meals alone in her room, and spent much of her time skiing under the watchful eye of a cadre of guards. The one instance where she and Diana met in a narrow hallway, she pressed her back flat against the wall and extended one hand to grant right-of-way, then waited for the tall woman to move past. Like Yukio, she was on edge when Yoshima was home.
The cycle continued much the same way for the next several days, until one night when Diana woke from a dead sleep to the pitiful sound of her own stomach growling. Banana was an excellent cook, but her dinner that night - some Cantonese concoction with monkey brains - had proven impossible to ingest. Donning an ice blue silk robe over her matching nightgown, Diana crept down the stairs to the kitchen, only to find that someone else had the same idea.
"I couldn't eat that shit, either," Angelia said, spying Diana lurking in the doorway to the dark kitchen. "I made BLTs. There's some left on the counter if you want."
Slightly stunned by the offer to share, Diana hesitated. "Real bacon?"
"From real pigs, yes," the girl confirmed, flicking on the small light over the stove. She was wearing her normal attire of jeans and a sweatshirt, even though it was three a.m. "Iceberg lettuce, fat tomatoes, and whole-egg, yankee mayonnaise. Wheat toast in the toaster. Help yourself."
Diana watched her sit back down at the small kitchen table and noticed that she also had a half-empty bottle of beer, flouting Yoshima's insistence on his home being a dry zone. "Tsing-Tao. That any good?"
"So-so. Coors is better. Wanna try one?"
Finally moving to the counter to assemble her own sandwich, Diana nodded and smiled her thanks. Angelia went to the back door, and Diana saw that she still wore her shoes - a direct violation of house rules. Somehow, she knew it wasn't an isolated incident. The girl opened the door, reached down into a small drift of snow, and came up with two frosty, green glass bottles.
Once she returned, Diana was already tucking into her sandwich, almost moaning as the taste flooded her mouth with sensations of home. Angelia perched the cap of one beer on the table edge and rammed the heel of her hand against the top, and the cap popped off. She slid the open bottle across to Diana and sat back down to resume her illicit feast.
"God, I love America," she said, her mouth brimming with huge bites of sandwich.
"Where did you get all this stuff, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Shhh. You wouldn't rat me out to 'ol Hideous, would you?"
Diana laughed softly at the mutilation of Yoshima's name, then shook her head.
"I didn't think so. Gedde says you're cool, and I trust the little twerp. Sorry we got off to such a bitchy start, but I thought you were another one of his tools, come to babysit and tattle on us."
"That's not why I'm here at all," Diana confirmed honestly.
"Well... I sneak out sometimes. For supplies, or for a little night skiing, just to keep me sane."
"You ski at night? The slope isn't even lighted."
Angelia grinned and popped open her second beer, taking a few pulls before explaining herself. "You don't need lights when you know this place like I do. I could go up and down this mountain ten times, blindfolded, without even stumbling over a root. I know where all the good spots are, too."
"I wish I could get out of here for a little while, myself," Diana admitted. "Think I'm getting cabin fever or something."
"The walls closing in on you?"
"More every day."
The girl finished off her sandwich, her face serious as she lost herself in thought for a bit. When at last she swallowed the final bite and washed it down with the dregs of her Tsing-Tao, she looked up and smiled impishly at her clandestine dining companion. "Can you ski, Missy Starrett?"
"Diana. And yes, I can ski."
"Well, I happen to know that Hideous bought you some gear and stashed it in the garage - just in case young master Yukio wanted to swoosh around after his lessons, which he doesn't. The boy's a stick in the mud. Might as well put the stuff to good use."
"Is that an invitation?"
"Maybe," Angelia said, smiling brightly as she rose from the table. "We'll see."
Without another word, the girl exited the kitchen and went up to her room. Food scraps and beer bottles littered the table and counter, and Diana knew that she was being tested. If she left the stuff for Banana to clean up, Yoshima would know the girl had been out unescorted, and had purchased alcohol. She'd be in big trouble. On the other hand, if she took care of the mess herself and kept Angelia's secrets... what? What would that possibly profit her?
Still pondering the possibilities, Diana finished her sandwich and beer, then cleaned up everything and stuffed it into innocuous black garbage bags. After setting them gently on the stone floor in the rear foyer, she crept off to bed wondering if the boredom and monotony was making her stupid.
"Did you sleep with her?"
So engrossed in the recollection was Diana that she didn't immediately register that Charlotte had spoken. She felt the smaller hand grip hers more firmly, and she turned her head to find the lawyer staring at her with an odd expression.
"I asked you if you slept with her," Charlie repeated. "She was obviously interested in you."
Nonplused, Diana debated the wisdom of a straight answer. "I... well..."
"Nevermind," the blonde said shortly, taking back her hand and folding both arms across her chest. "Go on. Sorry I interrupted."
Familiar by now with the symptoms of Charlotte's deep-rooted jealousy, Diana could almost see her lover turning green at the thought of her being with someone else.
"It was a long time ago," Diana said softly.
"I know. I'm just getting a bad feeling about her."
Impressed by the empathic sense that gave Charlotte warning through simple words, Diana wished she had felt such misgivings back then.
* Would have saved me a world of trouble... and hurt. *
"Could you do me a favor?" Charlie asked suddenly.
"Skip ahead some and tell me where this Angelia is now? Just to ease my mind."
Diana swallowed a lump of bitter emotions as they rose in her throat, and
answered in a firm, clear voice. "She's dead now, Charlie. Riggins killed
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