Persistence of Memory - Pt. 5
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
On a peaceful Saturday in July, as sun worshipers and sweaty citizens played volleyball in the sand and encouraged the onset of melanoma, the occupants of the beach house at 1414 Sepulveda Drive in San Diego were crammed together in two back bedrooms, busily loading clips of armor-piercing ammunition into automatic pistols and sub machine guns in preparation for a raid.
The men were a score in number, all decked out in brazenly conspicuous black suits, all prepared to kill or die on this summer day at the command of Hideo Yoshima - who, at that moment, was in the living room clasping an oxygen mask over his mouth in an effort to cease hyperventilating.
He had lost his breath as soon as he was informed of the shipments seized at Nagoya, and had not fully regained himself since. In an impressive display of will, he gasped out commands to his son to prepare the men for retaliation, and continued spewing invective between labored breaths.
"Bitch... <wheeze, inhale> dies... <wheeze, inhale> today! "
Yoshima's son stood by his right hand, leaning over the chair and checking the oxygen gauge on the small green metal tank. He was concerned over the ill man's unhealthy penchant for anger, but knew that it was unavoidable under the circumstances. His father had every right to be furious.
"Kill her... <wheeze, inhale> bring me her head. I want her head! <wheeze, wheeze, inhale>"
The young man nodded gravely. "I will take it myself, when we find where she is hiding."
"When will we know? <wheeze, inhale>"
"Before sundown. Our source in her agency has confirmed that she only has one man assigned to her. They have promised to deliver the list of area safe houses within a few hours," he explained. "Father, I feel we should keep most of the men here with you, in case Diana Starrett should arrive early."
"But you will be in danger-"
"NO!" Yoshima raised his voice only slightly, but it was enough to make his son cower and lower his eyes. The older man was finally regaining his breath. He dropped the plastic mask into his lap and sat up straight in his chair. "She will not come here to harm me, only to question my purposes. We will talk and she will learn the consequences of refusal."
"Still, you must have protection."
"Take ten with you, leave ten here. That will be enough. Do the men understand their orders?"
"If Angelia is present, bring her back. Everyone else in the house dies."
"And you will bring me the head of the whore."
Yoshima closed his eyes and sighed. Waiting for vengeance was not his strong suit, but he could manage to last a few more hours if he knew that his mantle would sport Julia's skull as a trophy. The woman had defiled his family's ceremonial weapon, abducted Angelia, and set in motion the ruination of his business. It was no longer enough that she die, she must die badly. And soon.
"Take my sword. Use it on her. The weapon must be reminded of its true master."
Hesitating, the young man reflected on the unexpected request. He had not been allowed to touch the katana as a child. Now, as a man, he would use it to vindicate his father and slay his enemy. He put aside his fearful memories of that sword in the hands of a blue-eyed madwoman, and bowed.
"As you wish."
Yoshima watched with a detached interest as his son crossed the room and reverently took the ivory and steel weapon from its display case, knowing on some level what it meant to the boy to be trusted with the heirloom. His emotions were not stirred, he remained cold and unmoved. He felt only that it would provide some additional motivation for success, and his son would need that in order to have any chance of taking the blonde bitch in combat.
This Julia was as cruelly efficient a killer as he had ever known, if her recent butchery of his men in Nagano was any example. As effective as any... save perhaps one. The one he would meet again in this house. The one who cost him his dream of a legitimate empire, the one who poisoned two of his children against him and left him with only one son. The one who now unknowingly held his precious life in her bloody hands.
"She will remember," Yoshima whispered to the ghosts he felt swirling like an icy mist around his feet, those who wished to pull him down to hell before he was ready, "and she will atone."
Charlotte Browning was tense and white-knuckled, waiting for the proverbial ass to be kicked as Diana recounted her threatening words to the abusive Yakuza boss. In spite of herself, she felt sorry for this Angelia, sorry enough to put aside her resentment and hope that some retribution was taken for the pain she suffered at the hands of her step-father. As if sensing her eagerness, Diana chose precisely that moment to stop and ask,
"Do you still want me to go on?"
The attorney scrunched up her face in disbelief and drawled out, "Yeeeess, III doooo. What did you do to him?!? I assume that's when the trouble started."
"After my macho intervention and Eastwood-style threat, you mean?"
Diana said this without humor, as if she were looking on herself in the third person and mocking a foolish act. Charlotte didn't quite see it that way and took umbrage.
"I don't think you were being macho at all. You have a strong instinct to protect people you care about. You identified with what she'd been through and wanted to keep her from being hurt again. That makes perfect sense to me, Clint."
A fragment of a smile crossed Diana's face as Charlie patted her hand and stroked a thumb along the top of her wrist. She still felt like a world class idiot, but that was due to the unerring clarity of hindsight. Nine years ago, she was just as sure as Charlie that she was doing the right thing.
"I could have blown the whole mission right there, you know. Whatever Riggins had planned for me would have gone out the window. Totally fucked up everything."
"But you didn't?"
"No, I didn't actually fuck everything up until later."
"Jesus, Diana! If you don't hurry up and tell me what you did to that creep, I'm gonna have to hurt you myself," she threatened, balling up a small fist backed by a half-smile. "You obviously didn't kill him, judging by the red paint on our window."
The blonde gestured toward the smeared pane, and Diana sighed raggedly upon seeing the ghoulish calligraphy. "That isn't paint, Charlie. That's blood."
Charlotte's mouth fell open, then twisted in disgust. "Ewwww."
"It's the way Yoshima sends messages to him enemies - writes notes in fresh blood. Stylish, eh?"
"This is a habit with him?"
"Mmm hmm. One of many twisted peccadillos."
"And?" One hand waved in circles, urging further explanation.
"And..." Diana began just as the phone rang, startling both women with its sharp bleating.
"Don't answer-" Charlotte jumped a little and shifted her legs as the tall woman sprang from the couch, nullifying her worried protest. "Shit."
Diana was already standing at the table in the hall, staring down at the phone and answering machine as the second ring sounded. She drew in a deep breath and lifted the receiver, ready to hear almost anything. Her greeting was a firm, steady "Hello," and she waited for trouble to answer back.
"Hey, hot stuff," a woman's low voice purred in her ear. "Whattaya say we ditch the shrimp and the bohunk and take a little sea cruise? Just moi et vous?"
Releasing a breath she didn't know she was holding, Diana relaxed her shoulders and unclenched her fist. "Good afternoon to you, too, Emily."
On the couch, Charlie pressed a hand to her chest and formed a relieved little 'oh' with her mouth.
"Seriously, Di, we don't have anyone scheduled for the cruiser this weekend," Emily continued, dispensing with the faux-flirting. "Grab Perry Mason and get down to the marina. We'll tie her to a deck chair, strap one of those double beer hats with straws on her head, make her relax for once."
Diana had to close her eyes and smile at that image, wondering if she would ever have the chance to see it come true. Upon reflection, it didn't seem like a bad idea.
"Beg if you have to," Emily insisted. "Luis doesn't wanna go unless you guys come."
"Hold on and lemme ask her."
"Ask me what?" Charlotte inquired, getting off the couch and belatedly realizing that her left foot was asleep.
"They want to take the big boat out today. I think you should go with them, stay the night."
Hobbling over to Diana's side, the young woman seemed offended at the notion. "Without you? No way. I'm not going anywhere until this deal here is worked out," she said, waving again at the reddened window.
"Charlie, you'd be a hell of a lot safer out in the middle of the ocean than sitting here with Teddy. No one would know where to find you."
Charlotte's shoulders slumped and her face flattened in exasperation. "Gimme that." She snatched the receiver from Diana's hand and set about ending the argument herself. "Emily?"
"Love to. Can't. Feel bad today. Staying home. 'Kay?"
"Aww, come on shortcake! I won't make you cut bait or anything!"
"No. Have fun. Try to keep James and Katie from jumping overboard this time."
"But we won't even-"
Charlotte hung up the phone and that was that. She put both hands on her hips and looked up at Diana, shaking her head as if scolding an obstinate child. "Will you never learn?"
"Trying to maroon me at sea while some asshole is back here doing God knows what to you. You are about as dense as a quasar sometimes."
"Highest density matter concentration in the universe, next to your hard head."
"Hey," Diana complained, feeling mildly insulted, "this sounds like a double standard to me."
"Yeah. When I was ready to thrash Yoshima, you said I was doing the right thing by being protective. I try to look out for you and keep you safe, and you get pissed at me."
"This is sooo not the same thing!"
One dark brow arched skeptically. "Enlighten me to the difference."
"Well, first I think I should point out - since you may have failed to notice - that I am not some victimized teenager in need of a guardian. I am a grown woman who makes her own choices and takes her own risks."
"Believe me, I know that."
"You should also know that I don't need you to be a hero or soldier for me, Diana. All I need from you is for you to love me and trust me," Charlotte said, emphasizing these points by counting them off on slim fingers. "That morning at the airport, when I asked you to stay with me, I knew there was a chance that something bad would come up eventually. You made full disclosure when I signed on for this detail, and it isn't fair of you to try and transfer me out when things get hot."
Diana understood the attorney's argument, but that didn't mean she was willing to concede the point. "Something you have to understand is that... I can't not try. I can't ignore the danger to you and I will never agree to let you follow me into a situation where you might get hurt. Again." One hand drifted of its own accord to the side of Charlotte's head, fingers threading through the golden hair to touch the ribbon of scar tissue along her scalp. "He nearly took you away from me, t-"
Though the last word was pulled up short, Charlotte knew what was coming... and it hurt. Diana's hand fell away and she closed her eyes, ashamed and confused at the slip.
"Say it," Charlotte urged in a pained whisper. "Riggins nearly took me away, too. Like Angelia."
"No, that's not..."
"Diana, please. The only way this is going to hurt any less is if we tell the truth and deal with it, right here and now. Together," Charlie explained reasonably, even though she felt like she'd been kicked in the gut. "Tell me the truth. Did you love her?"
Her mouth opened, and she tried to summon another denial, but it wouldn't come. Lying to Charlie had become damned near impossible, even when her soul was screaming that the truth would only hurt her. "I don't know. Didn't get the chance to find out," came the blunt admission.
Hazel eyes shifted to full green as the attorney tried to blink away the hard bite of jealousy and possessiveness clamped around her heart. It didn't work. Her gaze fell to the floor as harsh thoughts berated her own folly. * You asked for that, you know. Pushed her until she said it out loud. Do you feel better now? Masochistic little thing, aren't you? *
Next thing Charlotte heard was Diana picking up the phone and dialing someone. She knew who, and didn't have the presence of mind to object to the advancing of events anymore. Things were going to happen with Diana that were not under Charlotte's control or even in her presence, as they had in the past... and she hated being left out with every fiber of her being. * You keep telling her to trust you. That has to work both ways - trust her. Can you do that? Or does hypocrisy run in the Browning family? *
While her love was lost in thought, Diana tried as hard as she could to regain a forgotten skill - stoicism. Her face exhibited only a small trace of the resurgent anger she felt over old wounds, and a dull burn of the searing pain from unwillingly hurting the only person she would ever truly love. The phone in her hand was cooing an electronic call as it connected with the office and Teddy finally picked up.
"Starrett/Rinna Investigations. How can we help you?" he asked mechanistically.
"Teddy, I need a favor."
"Diana? Thought you were taking the day off."
"I was. Something came up. I need you to look up this number in the reverse directory for San Diego." She glanced at the message on the window and read off the numbers along the bottom and waited as he ran it through the computer.
"It comes up 1414 Sepulveda Drive," Teddy said, taking pains to pronounce the address clearly. "What's going on there?"
"That's what I intend to find out. Some old friends who wish me ill are in town. I need to go talk to them, but I don't want Charlie to stay here alone. Can you come over for a while?"
The gruff man silenced himself for a stretch as he assessed the tone of his partner's voice. Over the past couple of months, they had worked closely to get the new agency started, spending long hours in each other's company. Theodore Rinna had a sharp ear and a suspicious mind, both of which helped him survive six years in Vietnam. Against his nature, he had come to take Diana at her word, however vague. If she was asking for help, she actually needed it.
"Should I pack light or heavy?" he inquired.
"Right. Can do." He was already composing a mental list which included two Ruger .45s and a Mossberg pistol grip shotgun. "When do you want me there?"
"Half an hour," Diana answered curtly, then added a softer, "Thanks, Teddy."
He grunted in response, and she could hear him scratching his bristly chin. "Yeah. See ya."
Diana hung up the phone and turned her focus back to Charlotte, who was staring holes in the cream carpet. "Charlie?"
The blonde snapped her head up, jolted back to the present. "Yeah, I'm here."
"Teddy's coming. I'm gonna get dressed now."
Waiting for a response soon lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, and Diana turned slowly and headed for the bedroom, feeling only slightly lower than pond scum.
"You were right," Charlie said firmly.
The tall woman stopped and looked over her shoulder, confused. "What?"
"When you said this doesn't change anything. Between us." Charlie took a few steps forward and grasped one muscled shoulder, turning Diana until they faced each other again. "I can't say that I'm pleased, learning you cared about her that much... but I understand. What's past is past. Thank you for telling me the truth."
A warm current of relief swept through the cold waters numbing her inside, and Diana reached out with trembling arms to pull her lover close, hoping to leech some of Charlotte's understanding and learn how to extend it to herself. She had learned many lessons from the younger woman about how to tolerate others, to excuse their treacheries and trespasses, but Diana Starrett wondered if she would ever be so at peace, so enlightened by love that she could, at long last, forgive herself.
With her face nuzzled close in golden hair, strong arms wrapped around her waist, and a crest of faith rising in her spirit, for a moment, Diana believed she might get there someday.
"Charlie, if I have ever said one true thing in my life it's this: I love you. More than I have ever or will ever love anyone or anything. I was born to be right here," she swore, tightening the circle of her arms and feeling a corresponding squeeze as her lover conveyed her understanding of just where "right here" was. "The world doesn't turn backwards, but even if it did, I know that this is where I belong. Nowhere else on earth but right here, with you."
Quiet moments passed, a new truth shared among the two, but not coming between them. At that moment, they were certain that nothing could. Charlotte's hands drifted naturally along Diana's long back and under her shirt, stroking her sides as she lifted her mouth for a kiss. Lips met and parted, spreading warmth through bodies on contact, easing tensions and assuring each that some things were certain in life, as long as there was trust and love.
"When's Teddy supposed to be here?" Charlie mumbled, trailing her mouth down a length of throat.
"Too soon for this," Diana responded, disappointment threading through husky tones.
"Mmm." Charlotte nimbly unfastened the button on Diana's shorts and whisked open the zipper, slipping one hand inside and down. "I won't waste any time, then."
"Uhh... Charlie, I don't think-" came the prophetic protest, for then she suddenly couldn't think. The shorts slid down her long legs and Charlie was kneeling, pulling the trapping garment from around her feet, then lifting one thigh to drape over her shoulder to accommodate a most intimate, hungry kiss.
Diana braced her shoulders against the wall as tremors and chills raced through her body and she felt herself turned inside out by the younger woman's need. Charlotte seemed intent on marking her again before sending her back into the wild, tagging this particular animal as her own so that she would certainly come back as soon as possible.
Her lover's tongue probed and stroked, lips teased and pulled and led to gentle bites and harder sucking until the tall beauty screamed out a violent release and pounded the back of her head against the wall, over and over - not even noticing that the pounding noise continued after she had stilled and come back to herself. When she did hear it, Diana was puzzled, but not enough to truly give a damn.
"Someone's at the door," Charlie announced, kissing the swollen folds a final time before getting to her feet. Long, shaking arms drew her in, and she opened her mouth to share the taste of passion in a lengthy, heated exchange of gratitude and promise. The knocking continued at the front door, this time accompanied by the chiming doorbell.
Reluctantly breaking off the grounding kiss, Diana bent to retrieve her shorts and put them on. "Too soon to be Teddy. Stay here. I'll see who it is." She left Charlie standing in the hall, smiling, and jogged gingerly to the couch to grab the Colt, then on to greet the unexpected visitor. Through the peephole, she saw a man in a familiar brown uniform, holding a package.
"Yes?" she called out loudly.
"Delivery for Deborah Carson," came the answer.
Diana was just about to tell him he had the wrong address when a memory seized the words in her mouth. The name was neatly typed on a plastic bracelet fastened to her own wrist as she lay in a hospital bed, a thin man seated beside her, holding her fevered hand.
"We couldn't get to the airport. You were losing too much blood. I had the chopper drop us here. We'll get you out of the country tomorrow morning," he said.
In a flash, she was punching in alarm codes and struggling to open the many locks on the heavy door, anxious and terrified at what might be inside that package. Diana lunged out onto the front step, gun still in hand, and grabbed the startled delivery man's clipboard.
"Sign right - okay. Th-thanks." Before he knew it, he had his clipboard, complete with scribbled signature, and was relieved of the weighty parcel. The door slammed shut and he nearly ran back to his truck, ready to get the hell away from "The Meadows" and apply for a new route, one where suburban women didn't answer the door brandishing pistols.
Inside the foyer, Diana set the heavy cardboard box on a table and reset the alarm and locks. She studied the box for a bit, then took it into the kitchen. A magnifying glass was produced from a loaded junk drawer, and she stood in the bright sunlight of a window to peer at the clear packing tape, searching for wires or magnetic leads. Finding nothing suspicious, she grabbed a thin-bladed fish knife from the butcher block and carefully slit the tape. Inside the box was another container, this one all too familiar.
A small, black metal case with combination locks and no visible hinges. Waterproof, fireproof, and resistant to X-ray and electromagnetic interference. It could also take a high-caliber bullet at close range without so much as a dent, although she had never tested that for herself. Taking the cool handle, she lifted the case from the box and found a plain white envelope taped to the underside, which she pulled off and examined closely as well. Slitting the paper with the knife, she removed a note written in an angular, terse hand.
Something's going on and it smells black to me. The numbers have all changed, so I have enclosed updates inside the case. Use code C-91 to interpret, just in case you need him. I don't think he knows any more than me, but maybe he should. Keep one eye on the past - nothing is ever really over. Maybe you know that already.
After reading the note twice more, Diana could only curse in angry confusion and slam her fist against the nigh-invulnerable black case. "Motherfuck!"
"What is it?" Charlotte asked as she entered the kitchen.
"This shit with Yoshima is only the tip of something. The agency is involved somehow."
* Motherfuck! * The attorney found herself mentally echoing Diana's sentiment. "How? What do they have to do with Yoshima?"
Snatching up the case and barreling through the door, the former agent made another eerily prescient statement as she charged for the bedroom with renewed vigor.
"They won't tell me outright, but somebody sure as hell will
before this goddamned day is over."
Return to The Bard's Corner
"When the fit hits the shan, somebody's gonna have to stay after school."
William H. Macy in "Wag the Dog"