Persistence of Memory - Pt. 6
 

By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza

 


Nine

In the walk-in closet which took up nearly one wall of Charlotte and Diana's bedroom, the former agent had made a few modifications for convenience and security's sake, not the least of which was the installation of a hidden compartment in the floor. Diana knelt on the carpet and pushed aside a pile of Charlie's shoes, then slid her hands over the rug, patiently plucking at the fibers until she found the camouflaged seam. With a quick rip, she lifted up the Velcroed carpet piece to reveal the large,  impassively ugly face of a combination safe.

Classified as a TXTL-60, the monstrosity was guaranteed tool, torch and explosive resistant for at least sixty minutes. It wasn't agency standard, but it was the best she could afford as a civilian. Diana installed it herself shortly after moving in, having convinced Charlotte that keeping the classified equipment secure was well worth tearing up the floor for a weekend.

* Oh, man. Hope I haven't forgotten how to use this stuff, * she worried unnecessarily. * Forget which button detonates the exploding whatsits... no, that wouldn't do at all. *

Although it had been several months since she last saw the safe's contents, Diana was already clicking off a mental inventory list and reviewing what she would need. Inside was every agency-issue item removed from the Porsche Harry Mars had let her keep, including more edged weapons, guns, and covert surveillance and communications equipment than most international militias could ever afford, even if they could find suppliers. In giving Diana that car, Mars had made her into a virtual one-woman army. Somehow, she felt sure that was his intent.

* And as a farewell gift to our departing contestant - your own mobile private arsenal! Use it in good health! * she had imagined him announcing, in a nauseatingly cheery, game show host voice. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Diana didn't waste time attempting to glean ulterior motives or trying to return either the sports car or the weaponry. She chose instead to drive the pure hell out of the automobile and - after a lengthy internal debate - stashed the martial stockpile for a rainy day.

On several occasions, she had to resist the urge to employ certain pieces of equipment in her current trade. Long range laser microphones, night-vision video cameras and microdisc recorders would make the mundane work of busting adulterers ever so much easier. Then she imagined Teddy asking where she got such a stellar array of costly toys and dismissed the idea.

Even though Harry had let her keep the squeaky clean background she used while working as an Elceda County sheriff's deputy, Diana knew the less she had to explain to her business partner about her past, the better. She also knew she was taking a huge risk by asking Teddy Rinna to watch over Charlotte today, but there was no one else to turn to. Besides, the grizzled veteran was usually very good at minding his own business and keeping his opinions to himself. The man had a past of his own, after all.

Taking a deep breath, Diana brought her mind back to the task at hand, and spun the combination knob in smooth circles, feeling soft clicks under her fingertips until the lock was clear and ready to open. Twisting the steel handle and pulling up the weighty door, she drew in another sharp breath and released it in a long, sad sigh.

Watching Diana in silence, Charlotte was laden with questions, but unsure if speaking was wise in her current state. She could feel herself slipping into an unfamiliar funk - almost a depression, but not quite - as the sweet taste still lingering on her lips slowly soured, revealing the latent bitterness of her own fear and desperation. She hadn't meant to feel that way, hadn't meant to fall to her knees and veritably beg for some final, tangible reminder of love before parting. Despite her best intentions, that's what happened, and she was mortified at the memory of her own neediness.

Charlie's arms were crossed over her chest and wrapped around herself in a tight circle, her expression a pained blank as she tried to mask the feeling that her insides were now held together by faith and duct tape.

* Toughen up, * the lawyer told herself. * Self-pity is the last thing you need to deal with. *

"I hoped you'd never need to open that thing," she said quietly from her observation post, leaning against the bedroom door.

Diana glanced up from the safe, her face a tapestry of regret and resignation. "Me, too. I wish I could have thrown it all away, but something told me not to. One of my stupid dreams, I think."

"One of those dreams, you mean? Where... she talks to you?"

The dark woman looked embarrassed, but nodded her head. "Happened back when I was thinking about getting rid of it all. She said that you can't just ditch the tools of your trade and expect that to be the end of it. Someday, if you need them again, you'll have to exhume them, so don't bury them too deep or too far away."

Charlotte dropped her gaze and stuffed her hands in her pockets, still unsure how to discuss Diana's didactic visions without sounding like a doubting Thomas. After their one shared experience in Maribel Falcon's kitchen, her own vivid dreams of beaches and bards had tapered off as she relaxed rather easily into the life she wanted to build with Diana.

The former agent, on the other hand, continued to entertain nocturnal visits from an ancient counselor as she struggled to adjust to life among people who weren't out to kill her. Charlie didn't truly question whether the dreams were real, but she was guilty of trying to rationalize them as Diana's own subconscious aiding her through a period of assimilation. The truth was, even though Diana told her of the occasional discussions with the warrior, she felt kind of left out.

"Sound advice, I suppose. Wherever it came from," the attorney said, mumbling the last bit.

Diana was already rooting through the contents of the safe, neatly setting aside leather cases and black metal boxes, but she was present enough to reply. "I got the feeling she was speaking from experience."

"Mmm hmm. Sure." Not sarcastic, but not enthusiastic, either. "So, what are you planning to do?"

"Today?"

"Yeah."

Diana unzipped one shiny leather pouch and peeked inside, poking at a mess of black wires and nodding to herself. "You need two points of reference to establish your position, right?"

Charlie quirked her mouth, puzzled at first. "Yeah. So?"

"First, I need to find out what Yoshima wants from me. Next, I'll check into what role the agency is playing. Then I can figure out where I stand."

"I see," Charlie replied, not at all impressed with this strategy, which smelled more of high school geometry than Sun Tzu. "That note with the package was from who, Uncle Harry or Aunt Julia?"

"Neither. Someone I actually used to trust, back in the dark ages. He didn't say much, just enough to raise my hackles and get me to ask questions. Whatever they're doing is probably not above board, not authorized by Mars or the U.N. committee."

"And what about Yoshima? Is he supposed to just talk to you? He could be luring you into a trap."

"I don't think so. If he wanted me dead, he could have taken me out last night in the parking lot."

Dropping her arms to her sides, Charlotte involuntarily clenched both hands into fists. "He was - he was watching us? At Danny's birthday party!! And you didn't think you should say anything to me about it?"

Diana continued checking each case carefully, not even looking up as she heard the anger seep into her lover's voice. "I heard someone sneaking around when we were getting in the car, but I didn't know it meant anything until this morning. Would have been pointless to worry you if it had been some wino taking a piss."

"Jesus H. Christ!"

"You know, I didn't think to tell Him, either."

Charlie took a few steps forward until she stood over Diana's shoulder. "Stop that."

"I have to get this stuff ready. Teddy's on his way."

"I mean stop with the cavalier attitude. Don't joke - I can't take that right now."
 
Turning her head slowly to peer over her shoulder, Diana's face showed no trace of levity. "It's just how I deal with it, Charlie. If I let myself worry too much, I'd be paralyzed. I can't afford that."

Their eyes locked for an interminable span - cool blue asking for understanding, greening hazel struggling to offer it - until Charlotte opened one hand and rested a warm palm on Diana's back.

"Well, what can I do? To help?" she whispered. "There must be something..."

The dark woman managed a thin smile. "Just lock the house down and sit tight until I get back. Knowing you're safe will help me more than anything."
 
Charlotte mirrored that smile as best she could and rubbed her fingers over a length of spine. "I think I can manage that."

"Thank you. Really."

"Yeah, yeah," Charlie muttered, stepping back to sit on the edge of their bed. "Just don't expect me to watch baseball with Teddy. I don't think I could stand seeing the Padres lose, on top of everything else."

Diana chuckled as she gathered up her selection of packages and shut the safe. "Now who's joking?" she teased, carefully replacing the carpet piece and pile of shoes.

"I'm not kidding. Baby, I'm about half a Prozac away from Sylvia Plath-dom."

Blue eyes narrowed as Diana scanned her slumped companion for any sign that she meant those words, and found none. Charlie was upset, scared, and maybe a little threatened, but she was far from defeated. She was just working the kinks out of her umbrella.

"Good thing we don't have a gas oven, then," Diana teased in return. "Bad place to take a nap."

"How did Dotty's poem go? Guns aren't lawful, nooses give. Gas smells awful, might as well live?"

"Might as well live - that's my preference, too." Diana tossed the array of several pouches and cases onto the other side of the bed to wait with the new black box from Dan, and she dropped to one knee in front of Charlie. "I promise, I won't take any longer than is absolutely necessary. I'll call if there's any delay."

"Is it too late to consider packing off to Tanzania?" the younger woman pleaded, her shoulders hunched and curved in a defeated posture. "We could raise goats, live in a mud hut..."

"I wish running was an option, but it isn't," Diana explained brusquely, heading off those thoughts before they started to become appealing. "If I don't handle this right now, it'll just get worse. Everyone left behind, everyone we love will be put at risk."

Charlotte straightened immediately, meeting Diana's intense stare with one of her own. "You mean... he would go after -"

"Yes," the former agent confirmed, not needing names to know the truth of their jeopardy. "Hurting family and friends of his enemies is as de rigeur to Yoshima as writing in blood. It's the way he does business. Now you see why I have to go to him?"

Understanding dawned on the attorney then, and its rays were chilling cold. Her notions regarding Diana's motivation were way off base. "This isn't about revenge at all, is it?"

"No, Charlie," she admitted sincerely, hands coming up to fold around the blonde's knees. "That's the last thing on my mind. I wouldn't put you, your family, or even myself at risk for that. Not anymore."

Closing her eyes and sighing deeply, Charlotte suddenly felt inordinately guilty for not seeing it sooner. She was ready to explain away Diana's past behavior and defense of Angelia as being protective, but her envy of the dead woman had temporarily blinded Charlie to the fact that she was now the one being treasured, safeguarded, defended. It was still an unusual role for the young attorney who was so used to taking care of herself. She didn't like it, but she had to accept it.

* She only wants to protect me. And Emily. And Luis, Danny, James. And Katie. God, it's getting crowded in here. *

Charlie was so used to living alone in Diana's heart that she had barely adjusted to her sister's family moving in, but there they were. The Avilas were settled in for good, even if they didn't know it yet. Charlotte Browning knew without question that when Diana admitted new tenants, the lease was for life - at the very least - and the only cost was letting the landlord act as a bodyguard. In terms of a risk-benefit ratio, it was a very small price to pay.

"Diana... I'm sorry."

Sculpted black brows lifted at what she felt was an unnecessary apology. "For what?"

* For what happened in the hall, for needing you so much I can hardly breathe sometimes, for making you feel guilty because you once loved somebody else... and I've never loved anyone but you and never will. Shit, just pick one, Charlie. *

"For doubting," she said at last. "Even if it's only for a second, it's a waste of time."
 
Diana smiled and lowered her head, kissing each bare knee in turn before looking up with shining eyes. "There are two things that you should never doubt. One is that I love you. Truly. Madly. Deeply. Eternally."

"And the other?" Charlie inquired, feeling a bit of her lingering fear dissipate like fog in sunlight.

"No matter what happens, no matter where I may have to take this, if I know you're here... I will always, always find a way back to you."
 
A quaking smile jittered open Charlotte's lips, and she found her hands lifting, grasping, pulling on Diana's neck until the tall woman rose and let her body be drawn onto the bed, fending off the final charge of fears with hard promises and soft kisses.

"You better get back here soon..."

"I swear."

"Because if you don't..."

"I promise."

"I'll have to come after you."

"You won't even have the chance to miss me."

Limbs tangled and kisses deepened as seconds ticked by, each one merciful and eternal and precious beyond price. The doorbell rang, causing spines to stiffen, eyes to shut tight, mouths to close and part as both wondered how thirty minutes could pass so quickly. Diana shifted onto her elbows and gazed down into moist eyes which showed not a trace of green, only the quiet strength and faith she had come to count on more than gravity.

"That was a stupid thing to say," Charlie whispered harshly.

"What?" Diana's concern was instant and naively sincere.

"About not missing you. You're lying on top of me, and I miss you already, idiot."

The doorbell chimed again, but no one seemed desperate to answer it. Diana moved one leg toward the side of the bed, but Charlie looped a foot under and over the calf, corralling it again. Blue eyes turned slitty and chiding, but the lawyer just smiled and whined "Not yeeet!" as she tightened her limbs around her captive like a love-starved anaconda.

"Counselor, I have to let Teddy in soon, or he'll think something's wrong and break his shoulder ramming the door."

"Shoot!" Charlotte pouted weakly, knowing Diana was right. "Before you do, may I make one last plea, your honor?"

"Be quick."

"Luis has relatives in Argentina, he and Emmy could -"

"No! Now lemme up."

Reluctantly uncoiling herself from around the long solidity of her lover's body, Charlotte watched as Diana sprinted down the hall. Soon, the low murmur of voices came from the living room as Diana fed some fable to Teddy Rinna about busting members of the Asian Boys gang when she worked in Los Angeles, and how they must have held a grudge. She outright lied about the "red paint" on the window, claiming it was a gang sign about which she needed to confer with former colleagues to interpret and investigate.

* I wonder if he's buying that one, * Charlie wondered. * Probably so. *

She knew that Teddy had pulled some hard time in Vietnam and held a deep-seated grudge against Asian-Americans in general. Maybe that distasteful prejudice could work in their favor, causing him not to ask too many questions. Shortly, Diana came back into the bedroom and started packing the scattered equipment into a canvas beach bag.

"He's in," the dark woman explained as she worked. "He'll just hang out here with you until I get back. You two try to play nice."

"Okay." Charlie sat up, straightening her rumpled clothes and mussed hair. Reluctant to get out of bed, she lingered there and waited, smoothing one hand over warm sheets that still smelled like crushed green aspen leaves. She wondered how long that smell would last before it faded, if Diana's scent would linger here all day to keep her company. A brief, awkward imagining of Teddy finding her face-down on the bed, sniffing like an insecure hound dog wiped that query away P.D.Q.
 
Scant moments later, Diana stood before her, still wearing the same khaki shorts and white tee-shirt, accessorized now by flip-flops, mirrored oval sunglasses, and a baseball cap Charlotte bought her in Mexico that read "Tourista Loca" in bright turquoise stitching. The hat was spun backwards, letting little shoots of dark bangs peek out, the long brim obscuring the ponytail hanging down Diana's back. The attorney was rather surprised at the casual outfit - she had assumed a change into some sinister, sleek spy suit would be in order. Emma Peel would not be caught dead in this outfit.

"This is how you dress to confront a mortal enemy?" Charlie asked, lifting a speculative brow.

Diana smiled broadly, for she was secretly, almost shamefully excited in some buried, dormant corner of her psyche. The old rush was already building, tempered this time by a healthy amount of guilt and fear. She didn't know how she should feel about what she had to do, though she was certain that being so perversely giddy was wrong, wrong, wrong.

"I'm not confronting anybody, Charlie. I'm just going to the beach."

"Uh-hunh. Sure. Try selling me the Golden Gate Bridge while you're at it."

"I would, if I owned it," Diana replied, hauling the smaller woman up and into a crushing hug.

"Who does?" Charlie asked absently, her face burrowing against a warm length of throat.

"Ezra C.V. Mildew Desire, Junior."

Recognizing the name from one of Diana's favorite dopey movies, "The Cheap Detective," Charlotte found herself chuckling totally against her will. Soft lips touched her forehead, and the embrace dissolved until they stood facing each other, smiling to fend off pointless tears.

"It's time."

"Be careful."

"I will."

"Don't rush... but hurry back."

"I love you."

"Same here, stretch."

A turning away, a few strides down the hall, final words to Teddy... and Diana Starrett was gone.

Charlotte Browning closed the bedroom door, flopped onto their bed and wrapped herself in the sheets, lying face-down on a pillow littered with a few strands of long, black hair, and screamed.

 

 

Ten
 
The drive into San Diego was quick, with Diana pushing the turbocharged engine to its limit most of the way. Mounted on the dash was a Christmas gift from Charlie - a Whistler laser/radar detector with 360 degree scanning radius and invisibility to VG-2 radar detection devices. Diana hadn't received a single traffic ticket since she was eighteen, but with her fondness for lead-footed driving, her personal attorney decided it was best to take proactive measures.

Once within the city limits, she made a b-line for the shore and found herself creeping in second gear past 1414 Sepulveda Drive, rubbernecking the opulent home with an assessing eye. The gray wood house stood two full stories, plus an attic and a sturdy looking crow's nest on top. Graceful, sweeping eaves and cerulean blue accents drew the eyes along shutters and edges, the mix of colors leading one to assume maritime attitudes before even seeing the ocean.

A high wooden privacy fence bordered the home on both sides, and stretched across three-quarters of the front and rear. The remaining front quarter was barred by a spiked iron gate that said "look, but don't dare try to enter, ye foolish trespasser." Diana Starrett only smiled behind her mirror shades. Getting in would not be a problem, but the four black Cadillacs parked in the circular cement drive did give her pause. Four large cars meant a lot of passengers.

* Must have brought lots of friends to keep him company. I'm flattered. *

She cruised along the clean street, scouring nearby houses for a vacant rental. Nearly a block down, she discovered a neglected looking driftwood stilt-house; a brown and rust vacation palace which looked very, very empty. Papers piled in the mailbox, weeds sprouting willy-nilly from the slim, dry front lawn, thick swirls of white salt water stains on windows, and piles of blown sand littering the cement walkway and carport.

* Oh, this should do nicely. *

Diana pulled the Porsche under the cover of the carport and sat for a moment, staring between the wooden beams under the house at the bright glory of the Pacific. Sunshine and sand and warm water took her back to a happy afternoon spent in Mazatlan, accompanied by the smartest, sexiest beach bunny she could ever imagine. If she closed her eyes, she could still hear Charlie screaming comically as she was tossed into the breakwater, could still feel the sand on her back as they rolled in the tide.

A more recent memory warmed her heart next, recollections of bobbing in the deep waters as Luis dropped anchor for a day of fishing. Charlotte and Emily playing rock, paper, scissors to decide who would draw bait detail, the blonde bitching piteously and crying foul as she lost. James and Katie jumping ship when they swore they saw a dolphin playing off the stern, and the tall woman diving in after them half a second later to stand watch. She'd never swum in water that deep before, and the three wound up playing like frisky otters until Emily demanded that they get back on board.

Diana hadn't caught anything that day, (unless you count the annoyed little tiger shark she pulled in and promptly cut loose) except a deep, new infection in her heart that she could only interpret as love for these new blessings in her life, her new family. Until that day, Charlie had been the only person she was willing to kill or die for, but her vulnerability grew dramatically, far beyond her control with these new additions. If she factored in her growing affection for Teddy Rinna, Diana would have to admit that her Achilles heel now covered most of one leg.

* I can't let this touch them. None of them. *

With that thought in mind, she set the locks and alarm and left the Porsche to take a stroll on the beach, ready to get sand in her shoes or blood on her hands. Whatever it took.

She set up less than one hundred feet from Yoshima's back door, laying out a long red and orange beach towel emblazoned with a setting sun and the ubiquitous Baywatch logo, and unpacking what appeared to be a walkman and an 8mm video camera from the canvas bag. She sat facing the ocean, but the camera lens was aimed at the home behind her.

One lead from the camera was attached to her mirror shades, plugging into a socket on the graphite arm resting above her left ear, turning the two darkened glass ovals into small projection screens inside which blurry red forms of humans and pets passing behind were visible.

* Infrared camera still in working order. One down. *

The walkman's padded ear pieces settled into place as she donned the headset, but the Tracy Bonham tape inside was just for show. The audio input came from the camera, which she blindly angled up until it trained a thin red laser beam through the rear gates of Yoshima's stronghold and onto the sliding glass door. Any vibration from within the room could be heard through the sensitive microphone, and she immediately identified the rapid, tense chatter of many male voices.

* Laser mike's perfect, too. Luck be a lady. *

On Diana's shades were the projected heat outlines of twelve bodies clustered in the living room, and a pan to the right revealed ten more waiting in a side room. She moved the camera back to the main area and watched ten standing men loiter near one seated figure and one kneeling. She listened closely for anything at all that might be of interest, glad that her Japanese was not rusty as the voices spoke in their native tongue. Diana didn't have to wait long for things to get interesting.

"We have the list of safe houses. Four possible locations in this vicinity."

"Only four? This will be simple enough for you. You have your instructions."

The second voice was weak and roughened by age, but Diana knew it instantly as Hideo Yoshima. Something in her chest contracted, and her heartbeat accelerated to be so close to him again, after all these years. He still sounded as cruel and cold as in her memories.

"Yes."

"Then go, and do not disappoint me. I want the head of that murderous blonde bitch."

* Who... oh. Julia. Has to be. *

"You will have it."

"And I want what is mine returned to me."

"She will be back where she belongs by nightfall. I swear it."

* Huh? Julia took something - no, someone - from him. Probably kidnapped one of his concubines. But why bring her to the states? How stupid is that? Yoshima must have someone inside the agency to get a safe house list... but that is not my worry. Let Julia deal with them. *

Then eleven men moved as one from the room, leaving the house through the front door. She heard the faint crank as two purring engines started up, and the boys left on their mission. Yoshima's red outline was still slumped in a chair, and a cool blue cylinder sat by his side.

* Oxygen tank? Is he sick? God, I hope so. *

The heat quotient in the room rose rapidly as the ten remaining guards filed in and scattered through the room, some sitting near Yoshima, some standing by entry points. One moved to the glass door and peered outside, but Diana cut the mike beam before he could take notice. She was fairly certain that nothing more would be said among these men; they were too far beneath Yoshima for him to discuss anything crucial.

* Ten men, and one ill son of a bitch on oxygen. I'll take those odds. Time to make an entrance. Showy or demure? Maybe I should take the direct approach. Not like he isn't expecting me. *

Quickly, she dismantled the camera and mike set and packed them back in her bag, then took off at a slow jog up the beach until she was one house down from Yoshima's place. Taking a shortcut through the neighbor's yard, she went about halfway down the length of eight-foot high privacy fence until she reached a spot she deemed as good as any. One quick vertical leap later, she had one hand and one foot on top of the fence, enough to boost herself over and onto Yoshima's property.

* No one posted outside. Either he's incredibly arrogant, or he isn't looking for a fight. *

Diana hoped for the latter as she walked, pretty as you please, around the house and right up to the front door. Stuffing the canvas bag behind a large, squatting cement lion just to the left of the door, she reached up with a steady hand and rang the bell.

A small metal panel in the thick door slid open, and angular black eyes peered through slim bars at the smiling woman, standing empty handed on the front steps. The panel slid closed after only a brief moment, and Diana waited for word on whether the great and terrible Oz was taking visitors. Time stretched on with no return appearance by the guard, and she wondered if this unscheduled tete-a-tete was really what Yoshima had in mind.

* I don't remember the note saying to RSVP. Gee, maybe they're just fixing him up to look pretty for me. Lord knows, he hated appearing weak to his foes. *

Before Diana had the chance to move into the foot-shuffling stage of impatience, the door was unlocked and a large, wide man in a black suit stood in her path. In his hand was a Tec-9 machine pistol, and the barrel was pointed directly at her chest. She lifted both eyebrows above the mirrored lenses of her shades, clearly amused by something.

"He outfits you guys with Tec-9s? That's a toy gang bangers use for drive-by shootings. He can afford better than that. You should protest. Do you fellas have a union rep or something?"

The guard was less responsive than one of those comatose Beefeaters posted outside Buckingham Palace, his features frozen into a cheap Halloween mask, which he probably intended to be intimidating. After fixing the offensive woman with his best glare, he shifted his bulk aside just enough for Diana to squeeze past.

"Come. You are expected," he rumbled, in a voice he must have practiced after seeing too many Sonny Chiba movies.

"Thanks, Odd-Job."

Diana slipped between his broad shoulder and the door frame and waited for him to lock the door and escort her from the foyer into the house. Just inside, she was greeted by three men almost identical to the doorman, all bearing the same cheesy armaments. They stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking her view of the living room. What she could see were high ceilings with exposed beams, all hard wood. She was reminded of Yoshima's home in Nagano, and wondered the masculine architecture was a pre-requisite for his tenancy.

"Arms up," Odd-Job said from behind her, poking the barrel of his gun into her spine. Diana raised her arms and sighed as he patted her down, running a hot, meaty hand over her bare legs, arms, and under her shirt until he was satisfied that she was not carrying.

"Clean," he announced loudly, his voice reaching someone beyond the three onlookers.

"Admit her," an answering voice ordered from inside the house.

Odd-Job moved to stand beside Diana, and she lowered her shades and winked at the latest man to chart a thorough map of her anatomy. "Call me," she whispered.

He frowned even harder as he took her arm and guided her between the parting wall of guards, bringing her into a large living room furnished in plush dark blue and even more wood. Yoshima sat bolt upright in a gigantic chair studded with brass upholsery tacks and perched on clawed mahogany feet. He was much thinner than she remembered - even his billowing black silk robe could not mask the obvious emaciation - and his eyes were circled in tired deep purple.

No oxygen tank in sight, she noted, as Yoshima struck a pose of quiet strength designed to inspire respect. Diana barely noticed, for her eyes were drawn to the faint, dark underscorings dotting his pale face. They were covered in make-up, but her unforgiving eyes had seen lesions of this type before. Terms clinical and hearbreaking swam up from her soul as she remembered where she saw them first, on the sweet countenance of her younger brother, Ethan.

* Kaposi's sarcoma. KS. Linked to a herpesvirus, KSHV or HHV 8. Lesions can be pink, brown, blue. Most common victims are men who have... AIDS. Jesus Christ, he's dying. He's dying.*

The realization must have shown on her face, because Yoshima's reaction to her silent observation was to dismiss his guards, rudely and loudly, leaving no room for defiance or doubt.

"Get out, all of you! Leave us alone!"

The posse of armed men scuttled from the room, congregating around the corner in the den to wait until they were summoned again, ready to act at the slightest breath of a threat.

Diana could feel Odd-Job's theatrical glare as he brushed by her, but she was lost to the pitiful fury evident on the sick man's face. Yoshima knew he was being picked apart by those blue eyes, even if they were hidden behind mirrored lenses. It nearly killed his soul that she knew of his weakness... but if there was a way out, a way back to strength, it would come through her.

"Diana Starrett," he announced, choking down humiliation and rage and chasing that bitter pill with a dose of formality. "Welcome. Please, take a seat. We have much to discuss."

"Hideo - may I call you Hideo?" Diana asked lightly, trying to regain her equilibrium as she sat on the plump, hard couch opposite the frail man. "Mister Yoshima seems so formal, and we know each other far too intimately to need such polite buffers."

"I agree... Diana." Almost choking again on the name. "I am pleased that you chose to acknowledge my message in person. Actually, I expected a phone call. The boy was instructed to leave a number."

"He did, but telephones are so impersonal. Some poor creature shed its blood to get my attention, and I wanted you to know that you have it in full."

Yoshima waved one pale hand dismissively. "Save your sympathy. It was but the blood of a rat. Vermin are too plentiful to mourn."

She removed her shades and hung them from her collar, fixing him with an inquisitive gaze. "Is there a message for me in the selection of sacrifice?"

"Only if you feel a kinship with the rat."

Silence blanketed the room, and they both knew what he meant. He still saw her as a traitor, someone he took into his household, someone he entrusted with his children's lives. Someone who took his daughter and son, poisoning their minds against him. For a man who dealt daily in death, he had awfully strict standards about loyalty. To Hideo Yoshima, this woman had the soul of a rat.

"I know what you think of me, personally. I was doing a job-"

"Your job did not include seducing my child! You would have exhibited more honor had you simply murdered me in my bed!"

Yoshima's angry voice rang in the rafters, drifting around the wood beams and fading slow. His men shuffled around nervously in the hallway, but did not come in.

Diana's reply to the accusations was voiced softly, but with a hard core. "I wish I had."

A deep sigh welled from his tortured lungs as Yoshima sat back in his chair, eyes fluttering closed. His composure soon returned, his head cooled, and he resumed speaking in a civilized way.

"The time for regrets is not in this life, but the next. If those of our kind wallowed in past errors, we would swim in the slime of our misdeeds until the end of time. Punishment will come for us, Diana. Let us not seek it out from each other."

Irked mightily at being lumped in as one of his "kind," Diana found her patience skipping out the door. "How about you just cut to the chase. What do you want from me?"

"I want... I want... recompense. I want you to take away what you gave to me, this slow death your tainted blood passed from flesh to flesh."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" she demanded, truly vexed.

"Your sin begat my fall," he insisted, eyes wide and wild. "Your disease reached out for me through the body of one I loved, my angel, my beautiful child. Your armies have been striking me down with glancing cuts every day for nearly a decade."

"Look, if you're as sick as I think you are, your mind might be playing tricks on you, and-"

"Don't you see - on my face - the evidence of your attack? I can hear the invaders riding inside my own body, battering the walls down to rubble! Don't you hear their noise in your own blood anymore? Or did your Doctor Mangano silence them forever?"

Diana was lost, crazily confused at these absurd rantings, but she shrunk away at the mention of Mangano's name. The things he was implying were impossible... weren't they?

"What do you know about Salvatore Mangano?" she asked, her voice dipping lower.

"He performed a miracle, an incredible and wondrous feat," Yoshima claimed, nodding his head and almost smiling as he looked on the living evidence of Mangano's genius. "You live! And you will make it possible for me to live on as well. You will lift this curse from me, and then from my angel. Your demon's blood is the grail, Diana, the holy grail from which we will drink."

"I am not - I don't have what you have! My brother did, but-"

"So he was the one who cursed you! The genesis arc of our circle - from him, to you, to my angel, to me! All the world runs round and round, you see. Does he live as well? Perhaps he can partake of our miracle -"

"NO! Shut-up, goddammit! I am not sick! And Angelia is dead, you crazy old fuck!"

These last words seemed to snap Yoshima out of his trance, for he blinked rapidly as if adjusting to a bright light. He folded his hands in his lap and drew in a pained, wheezing breath. He needed his oxygen tank, but would not grant this woman the satisfaction of seeing him that vulnerable. After calming himself, he began again with the resolve to remain reasonable.

"My angel will be home soon, and you will help us. If you refuse, I will call on every man in my employ to bear arms and soak the soil of this country with the blood of your lover and her family," he said, sounding more like the ruthlessly sane man she had once known. "I will call on you tomorrow. You will be prepared to offer up your very life to my quest, or you will suffer the consequences."

Rooted to her seat and numb inside, Diana could only mutter, "I am not sick. I've been tested."

"I know. That is the only reason I did not have you killed last night. Your health is very important to me, Diana. Try to stay alive until we meet again," Yoshima instructed coldly. "Tanaka!"

The broad man Diana thought of as Odd-Job hustled into the room and stood by Yoshima's chair, waiting for instructions. Diana was still a little dazed, but she knew it was time to go and stood up, although her eyes refused to move from Hideo Yoshima's pale, spotty face.

"Show my guest the door. Good day, Diana Starrett."

Next thing she knew, Diana was standing on the front steps. She wasn't sure how she got there.

* It can't be true. He's fucking with my head, that's all. *

She retrieved her canvas bag from behind the lion statue and looked up to find that the front gates were now open. Walking between the two remaining Cadillacs, Diana vaguely remembered that there were four here earlier.

* No. Two left before I came in. They were going somewhere. Julia. Going to kill Julia and bring back something. Someone... no. No. Nononono. Dead. She's dead. *

"My angel will be home soon," Yoshima had said.

An internal dialogue began as Diana walked through the gates and onto the sidewalk, slow steps mechanically carrying her back toward the Porsche.

* She's dead. Angelia is dead. *

* Did you see the body? *

* No, but Riggins said - *

* And you took him at his word? *

* I - I... yes. I did. *

* Fool! That man's tongue was twisted enough to open a wine bottle! *

* But, why? Why would he tell me that? *

* The same reason he lied about anything. It served his purposes somehow. *

"It can't be true," she said aloud.

* But what if it is? *

That thought echoed around inside her head, bouncing off every surface of her brain until she was running, fast and hard, back to the car. The keys were in her hand and the alarm and locks were disabled from ten feet away as Diana skidded to a stop and jumped inside. The engine fired up strong, and she was peeling out of the driveway and swerving onto the street while her mind sifted through a new problem. She was past believing anything except her own eyes, and she had to see for herself whether Yoshima was lying, crazy, or both. She had to see for herself.

* Where would Julia take her? Come on, Julia! Where would you go? Wherewouldyougo, wherewouldyougowhere - shit! *

"The lake house!"

Three minutes later, Diana was on the highway doing 110 mph, a dark blue blur in the carpool lane as she raced toward a collision with a future memory.
 

Part Seven
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