Persistence of Memory - Pt. 7
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
Charlotte stayed in bed for about an hour and moped, alternately worrying about Diana and worrying about what Diana must think of her now; specifically whether she had screwed up big-time by playing the clinging vine and giving voice to her resentment of someone who was obviously not a threat to their relationship.
* She didn't seem to hold it against me. She was very understanding, very patient, said all the right things... So why do I still feel like this? At least I waited until she was gone before I gave in to it. But, why am I doing this at all? *
* Piggy wants to wallow, * her mind answered in a taunting parental voice, one that matched exactly the mocking cadence of her mother. * She doesn't want to feel better. Let her wallow until she gets tired of the mud. *
"I do so want to feel better," Charlie announced into the pillow covering her face.
* And the first step is figuring out why I feel so shitty about this. Am I really that petty, to have a hissy fit over hearing about someone she cared for? Where the hell did that trait come from, anyway? My parents are certainly not concerned about each other's current infidelities, much less any past imbroglios. Maybe it's a recessive character flaw, some screwy sort of romantic solipsism - I am your world and thou shalt put no other before me. Thus spake Charlotte. *
Four quiet knocks on the bedroom door drew her away from such pondersome matters, and she managed to croak out the word "WHA??" in response.
Teddy Rinna took that as a heartening sign of life and cleared his throat before making his pitch through the closed door. "Hrrrummmph! Uh, hey? You hungry or somethin'? I, uh... I could fix us up some food, if you want."
Charlie sat up in bed and mulled it over. * Hmmm. Sulk or eat, sulk or eat. Maybe I could sulk and eat simultaneously. *
"Great," Teddy said, finding himself smiling already over his accomplishment of getting the young woman out of bed. He was afraid she was going to stay shut up in there all day. "You like enchiladas? I saw a bunch of junk in the fridge, and I could make a decent batch."
"Sounds good, Teddy. I'll be right out... and thanks."
"Taste first, then see if you still feel grateful. Hope you got Pepcid AC in this place."
Feeling that she should at least try to get out of the mud, Charlotte stood up and straightened her clothes again, smoothing a hand over her hair as she opened the bedroom door. "The way Diana cooks, it's a necessity," she said to Teddy, who was obviously pleased to see her, even in her rumpled state.
"I don't doubt it. Lady'd eat peppers on her friggin' ice cream if they'd let her have 'em."
"Grody, but true," the lawyer said, grimacing at the notion. "Everyone has something like that, though. Some gastronomic peccadillo that everyone else finds freaksome."
"Oh yeah? What's yours, then?" Teddy asked, setting a slow pace as they walked to the kitchen.
Charlie noticed that the baseball game was on television - and the Padres were indeed losing again. "Me? Too dull to discuss. My taste buds are very sheltered."
"Well, I used to like that," Charlie jumped in, "but I forgot to remove the little red ring from the outer rim of a slice once. Choked on it until I turned blue. That put me off circular lunch meats for good."
Teddy took a second to shake off the image of Charlotte turning Smurfette blue, then agreed that bologna was indeed dangerous. "We'll just do chicken and veggies today, seeing as I'm supposed to make sure you stay healthy and all, you know?"
That was a reminder she didn't need. Following a few steps behind, she trailed him into the kitchen with her good humor clinging by a thread. She didn't want to mistakenly let anything slip about what Diana was really doing today. Teddy had a way of asking leading questions that reminded her of the scores of perpetually suspicious cops she had deposed over the past few years - their methods were smooth, but hardly subtle. As soon as she could, Charlie turned on the countertop radio beside the microwave and let the music substitute for conversation as they cooked.
During the meal and after, Charlie found herself doing more listening that talking. Teddy seemed eager to keep up the patter just to prevent the young woman from getting nervous as another hour passed with no word from Diana. Charlie found the gruff man to be most forthcoming when plied by understanding smiles and genuine curiosity.
He talked very little about his time in the service, but was more comfortable discussing his two teen daughters and his work. Eventually, the attorney finagled the topic around to his defunct marriage - a subject change he hadn't discussed much with anyone. They each had a bottle of beer - their second and last - and were trying to avoid watching the nerve-wracking conclusion of the Braves/Padres contest as Kerry Ligtenberg came in to close it out for Atlanta.
"If you don't mind me being nosy, why did you get divorced?" Charlotte asked, propping herself up on the couch as Teddy settled in the recliner.
"Psheww. Sad story." Teddy sipped his Coors and shook his head. "Depress the hell outta ya to hear it."
"Actually, I'm already... nevermind. You guys were together for how long?"
"Twenty-two years, three months, eleven days - give or take a couple hours. Met at the VA hospital where she was a nurse. My back stayed all messed up for a few years after the chopper crash in 'Nam, and she decided I needed taking care of. We got married a week later."
Charlie nodded, vaguely able to identify. "Whirlwind courtship."
"I thought so at first, but later... I dunno. It started to feel like we'd settled for each other 'cause we were scared of bein' alone. We stayed together for the kids, mostly. Then, she got a better offer from some doctor she used to see."
"An old beau?"
"Yeah. Friggin' proctologist, if you can grasp that shit." Teddy rubbed a hand over his chin, covered in itchy dark stubble and breathed a heavy sigh. "She says he's the love of her life - a guy who spends all day tickling prostates. Unbelievable."
"And she hadn't seen him in over twenty years? At all?" Charlotte probed nervously, trying hard not to hit any sensitive nerves as her morbid curiosity took over.
"Nope. Guy was working at a clinic in Boston all during our marriage. No contact between 'em as far as I could tell - and yes, I did check."
"But she still had feelings for him - the time passing didn't matter."
"Not to Sherrie. She packed up and took the kids while I was working third shift one night. Moved in with him and his little boy up on Windham Hill. Just like that, my family was gone."
"Teddy, I'm sorry," Charlie offered sadly. "You still see your girls, right?"
"Oh yeah, I screamed and yelled for visitation rights. Alternate weekends and two weeks in summer. I'm taking 'em to Hawaii for ten days in August," he explained, smiling from ear to ear.
"Isn't that expensive?"
"Yup. But what's money for if you can't waste it on those you love?"
Charlotte grinned at that sentiment and took a long pull from her chilled bottle. Diana was always on her case about her frivalous spending habits, even though she had an excellent excuse. Charlie simply weighed the potential gain from leaving the money in the bank to draw interest against the immeasurable benefit of seeing winsome blue eyes turn shy and demure as some surprise or another was discovered hidden in her jacket pocket or shining up from the bottom of her wine glass.
The clever attorney even made a game of it a few times, just to see if Diana would discover the gifts without prompting. A Movado watch was slipped into the dash pocket of the Porsche, a pair of sapphire earrings hidden among rattling bottles in the medicine cabinet, two Lilith Fair tickets (in plastic sleeves) smuggled inside a packed lunch turkey hoagie. Each time, an accompanying note would explain the presence of the present with eloquent brevity.
"I love you
That was usually the extent of it. Charlie felt that was explanation enough. On several occasions, Diana tried to make her take the pricey gifts back. Each time, the formerly irresistable agent failed to achieve her objective.
"Does your wife mind you spoiling the girls?" Charlie asked.
"Who cares if she minds?" Teddy answered coolly. "Coldfinger spoils 'em rotten, so she can't say squat to me for making the most of my time with my kids."
Nearly spitting out her beer, Charlie choked out something between a gasp and a cough as she latched onto the throwaway insult. "Coldfinger??"
"Heh. Just a nickname for Doctor Tickle. Gina, my youngest, told me that one. Sings that James Bond 'Goldfinger' song sometimes, with different words. She don't like him so much. Says he's tryin' to to buy them off and turn her mother into June Cleaver."
"I can't see that happening to anyone who was married to you. She's got to have more on the ball than most women to have put up with a hardcase like you for two decades."
"Ah, shit. Guess that's as close to a compliment as I've gotten in ages," Teddy rumbled, shifting in the recliner to ease his back. "Sherrie's tryin' hard to fit in up there on the hill, but she never will."
"Windham's a snooty neighborhood, alright," Charlotte agreed, wizened by personal experience. Windham Hill was the hoity-toity area where her father had chosen to build his obscenely expensive manse twelve years ago, the house she and Emily pejoritively referred to as "Xanadu - stately home of Charles Foster Browning."
Inherited money from a wealthy uncle had financed the construction, and the sisters watched with horrfied eyes as their father squandered piles of cash to build his dream house - which looked to the girls like some gothic temple from the fevered imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft. The new Browning house fit in the general scheme of Windham Hill about as well as a scaly pewter dragon in a curio cabinet full of dewy-eyed Dreamsicle figurines.
"Snooty don't quite cover it," the swarthy man agreed, "but Sherrie's done two things that keep her from ever being too much like those robot ladies up there."
Charlie sat up and fixed him with an inquisitive smirk. "Do tell."
Theodore Rinna grinned broadly and counted off on thick fingers. "One - she's held a job. Two - she's had an orgasm."
After a brief, uncomfortable pause during which Charlotte reflected on the miniscule likelihood that her mother had or ever would know either of those experiences, she found herself doing something that was unthinkable only minutes before. She laughed. Hard enough and long enough that Teddy Rinna jumped from the recliner and pounded her on the back until she regained both her breath and her self-control.
"Oh, oh... Jesus!" she gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. "I'm going straight to hell!"
Teddy was a scoche confused as he backed away and watched for a relapse. "Whatdja do?"
"Just thinking... heh. My... my mother is one of those... robot women," Charlie explained haltingly. "She and Sherrie would have nothing to talk about."
Dark eyes widened beneath bushy brows as the man choked down his embarrassment. "Shit. Sorry 'bout that. I didn't know you came from money or nothin'. You just... you don't act like it."
"Thank you very much," she said, completely sincere. "I don't really come from that place, or anywhere like Windham. I was raised on military bases. Daddy was a career Navy man. He got a lump of cash when his uncle passed away, and he moved on up to the east side, so to speak."
Teddy nodded as he sunk back into his chair, idly wondering how his attempt to divert Charlotte from worry had turned into some kind of sensitive chat. Diana had warned him that she had a way of pulling you into saying more than you wanted, but this was the first time he had experienced it first hand. This little lawyer would have made a pretty smooth cop - but now it was his turn to be nosy.
"Still, your folks had enough dough to educate you, right? Law school ain't cheap."
"Nope, it certainly isn't. I thought law was a nice, respectable field to explore, one that would make my folks happy - a safe option. But my father didn't shell out more than the price of a bus ticket to send me to school," Charlie recalled gravely. "I lucked into some generous scholarships and wrote other people's term papers to get spending money. Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Browning don't own one share of stock in me, not that they ever wanted to."
"You don't get along?"
"Is the shit fresh or petrified?"
A tiny smile for that colorful metaphor. "Mixed bag, I guess. They're not thrilled about how I live my life today, but it goes back a long way. I don't think their children lived up to their expectations. From birth right on, we provided a steady series of disappointments for them. Emily was blessed with Luis in high school, and he helped her to learn a better way of dealing with them."
"They started their own business so they would never need to ask for anything, then they started a family. The kids give them a kind of edge, so they can bargain from a position of power. If mom and dad want to see their grandchildren, they have to try and behave like human beings."
"I guess they gave your sister a fit when she trumped 'em."
"Lord, yes! Especially over Luis. They went nuts when she announced she was moving out and marrying... as my father put it, "some goddamned wetback bean farmer." It really burns daddy up that Luis and Emmy are doing so well. They have three boats now, you know. One of them is really, really nice. A cruiser they bought at a government auction last fall."
"One of them seized property things, where they sell off stuff from drug dealers and such?"
"That's it. Well, the boat used to belong to a client of mine. You remember Marco Falcon?"
"Shit, yeah! He's doing life in Leavenworth!"
"Uh-huh. Marco's prized boat. Worth over one million dollars retail, sold to my sister for just over ninety-thousand bucks. Ironic, eh?"
"Damn. I can see why they resent her. She don't need them for nothin' at all, really," Teddy observed, still smiling about that sweet boat deal. "So they lost out on her when loverboy came along, but what turned it around for you? Had to come to a head somewhere, as sour as you are now."
Charlotte closed her eyes and rubbed the lids. She did not want to dredge up that sordid tale of her own ignorance and naivety, but part of her promised that the memory was too old and toothless to hurt her now. She wasn't that same teenage dupe, the girl left wondering what she did wrong.
* I did nothing wrong. It wasn't my fault. Just remember that and it'll be okay. *
"I got into some trouble my freshman year of college, and my parents never got past it."
"You got in trouble?" Teddy was incredulous. "Betcha got caught selling those bogus term papers."
Charlie's hazel eyes dimmed a little as the memories crept up slow. "It was more serious than that, I'm afraid. There was a lot of drug activity at Berkley that year, and the cops had warrants to do room searches with canine units."
"They hauled out the drug dogs? Shit. Must have been bad news all around."
"I'll say. I got busted with half a kilo of cocaine in my dorm room."
Surprise didn't cover Teddy Rinna's reaction as his color paled and his mouth dropped open. Even his mustache curled a little from the shock. "No fuckin' way!! You?? Nahhh. Had to be planted by some skell, right? Right?"
"Well... yes and no." Charlie's voice dropped to a shamed whisper as she tried to put a better spin on the dumbest mistake she ever made. "Of course the cocaine wasn't mine, but I knew who put it there. It wasn't just some skell, either."
"Whoever it was, I hope to hell you turned 'em in!"
"I didn't say anything at first, actually. I wanted to give her a chance to come forward on her own, to do the right thing. She never did. I thought she'd help me... I thought she was my friend."
The shamus was pissed well beyond his rights that anyone would do such a thing to Charlotte, but he was determined to keep a lid on it, not to overstep his bounds. "Anybody who'd stick you with a felony bust ain't no friend," Teddy noted acidly, rubbing his mustache back into shape.
"Yeah, that's what my sister told me. She finally convinced me to go to the police and work with them until we got a deal out of it. Turned out my "friend" had a nice little side business going, selling coke to grad students on weekends. They found was enough white powder in her car to choke Tony Montana, so they let me off pretty light."
"You don't actually still have a record, do you?"
"No, that was taken care of by my terribly embarrassed father One black mark on my juvenile record, expunged when daddy twisted a few arms among his friends on the bench. That was that, he said, but I don't think he ever honestly believed me. He never forgave me for humiliating him, for causing his neigbors to gossip about his junkie daughter."
"What a shitbird," Teddy sighed angrily. "How 'bout the bitch who planted the coke? She do time for her little monkeyshines?"
"No, her family just pulled her out of school and flew her back to Japan. I think her father paid off a lot of the people involved. He was some big shot businessman or something."
"Man, the rich get away with everything. That girl could have totally screwed up the rest of your life, and she gets away clean? It ain't right."
"Nobody gets away clean," Charlotte said as she slipped quietly away into a freefall of memories. She knew in her heart that even that girl paid for her offenses somehow.
* The universe has a way of taking everything you put out and returning it to you three-fold. *
If that was true, the beautiful young Asian woman who held her hand, who kissed her more softly than she had ever imagined possible, who looked deeply into the eyes of a trusting seventeen year-old girl and lied with deft precision... well, she had the furies of hell waiting for her back in Japan. Maybe she knew it.
* She certainly didn't seem to want to go home. *
"I would sooner rot in prison," she had said, angry tears flowing as two massive men in black suits shoved her into a waiting limousine. "I can't go back to him again! I'd rather die!"
The men did not speak, to Lia or anyone else. They behaved like soldiers who were under strict orders, not allowed to use discretion. They simply came, took her, and left. Just like that.
Now that Charlotte thought about it, that was really kind of creepy, the way those men acted. A little shiver ran up her spine as she recalled their stiff faces, dark glasses, threatening bulges under the shoulders of those black jackets...
"Charlie?" Teddy called softly. "Hey, you in there?"
Blinking her way back to the present, she mumbled an affirmative.
"The girl - she have a name?"
"Why do you want to know, Ted?"
He grumped a little, finishing his beer as he tried to explain in dispassionate terms. "In case I ever run across her on the street, I want to be sure I run across her on the street, okay?"
Against her will, Charlotte Browning chuckled dryly. "You sound just like Emily. There's no point in being angry, though. What's past is past, and I'll probably never see her again."
"I wouldn't say that. It's an awfully small world we live in. You can't say for sure that she won't pop into town and give you the chance to pop her flush on the jaw."
"That could be interesting," the attorney reflected, indulging in an Ally McBeal-esque ass kicking fantasy. Her smile turned sinister as she envisioned landing a gorgeous right hook to one of those unrealistically high cheek bones, and following up with a stream of invective she was too hurt and timid to loose back when she had the chance. "Really very interesting."
Charlie's wicked expression did not go unnoticed by her sharp-eyed chaperone. "So, you gonna tell old Teddy the name of this walking corpse?"
"Her name was Lia Imada. Still is, I would think - if she's still alive. With her penchant for getting into trouble, she probably should have died years ago."
"I'm assuming from your lack of tears that she's still alive," the man asked, no real concern in his voice. He popped three Tums tablets into his mouth and crunched them into fruit-flavored dust, habitually swallowing the antacids without any real expectation of relief.
"Sorry to disappoint you, but yes, she is still among the living," answered the woman, keys jangling in her slim hand. "On the other hand, you look half-dead, Daniel."
Dan's tan trousers and white sport shirt were wrinkled and smelled stale, his eyes ringed with the faint purple of exhaustion. "Did you give her the injection?" he inquired lazily, his shoulders slumped as he held up a wall in the hallway, just outside the bedroom door Julia was locking.
"Yes, I gave her the injection. Now perhaps I should prep a dose of vitamin B for you," the immaculate blonde suggested, slipping her keys into a pocket of her pressed, pearl gray slacks. The matching silk noile blouse showed no signs of having been worn before, even though it was a favorite. Julia's outfits usually looked new enough to clothe a display mannequin at Nordstrom's.
"Don't need a shot. I'm fine."
"You look very tired. Have you slept at all recently?"
"Not since Thursday night, no. I don't feel like sleeping on this job."
"That's foolish. You can be of no help if you are worn down. I am ordering you to lie on the couch for a rest, whether you sleep or not."
"I want to know about this drug therapy you're trying on the girl," he insisted, not budging from his spot against the wall.
"Go to the couch and we'll discuss it."
Seeing no point in causing trouble when Julia was trying to seem reasonable, he nodded his assent and moved into the living room to sit on the sofa. She did not join him.
"Lie down," her voice commanded softly.
"Yes, master." Dan stretched out awkwardly, his legs dangling over one end.
Pacing around behind the sofa, just out of his sight, Julia began to break down her latest attempt to crack open their prisoner's psyche.
"She was too weak to try this earlier, but now that she's eating... well, we can move forward with certain approaches. This morning, I lit on the idea of combining the traditional sodium pentethol therapy with one of Dr. Mangano's own synthetic creations - the forebrain stimulant."
Dan covered his eyes and sighed. "Forebrain stimulant? Mother Mary...."
"Mangano sounds more like Victor Frankenstein every day, no?"
"Whatever. I'm with you so far. Is the combo safe?"
"Well, his research indicated that spikes of fever and dizziness were common as side-effects, but the combination was overall judged stable. The point is to increase neural activity in the forebrain - the storehouse of long-term memory - and to combine that enhanced access with the inhibition dampening effects of sodium pentethol."
"So you stir up the memory pot and wait for the truth syrum to make what's buried rise to the top."
Julia smiled and stopped pacing. "Succinctly put, Danny."
She checked her watch, finding that less than five minutes had passed since the injection. Mangano's records indicated a waiting period of at least twenty minutes while the drugs took effect, followed by up to twelve hours of viable interrogation time - providing the subject stayed conscious.
"Sorry, but this sleep thing just isn't happening for me," Dan announced suddenly, sitting up and smoothing a hand over his hair. "How long until we can speak with her?"
"Not long now," Julia answered shortly. "I'll be questioning her alone. Why don't you -"
"Go out on the deck and get some air?" he interrupted, finishing her routine recommendation. "I swear, you're like a broken record sometimes. That's all you ever tell me to do."
Platinum brows jumped in amusement. "Sorry if you're finding this assignment monotonous."
"I just don't see the point of my being here. You do ninety-nine percent of the interrogations, and you certainly don't need anyone's help for security. I'm not a general services op, Julia - I work numbers and linguistics. Over twelve years, I've been in the field less than twenty times."
"And your point is?"
"Why me? Why the hell am I here?"
Julia braced her hands on the back of the couch and looked down into Dan's face. "I think you know. You've not disappointed me yet."
"But I haven't done anything!"
"Oh, yes. Yes, you have."
Dan said nothing, didn't even breathe. He knew he was busted.
"Actually, I found it curious that you waited until this morning," Julia continued. "You left when I was in the shower, yes? To rendezvous with some handsome devil in brown shortpants."
His countenance drained of what little color it held, the tall man managed to clear his throat and choke down the hard little ball of fear rising in his gorge. "You've lost me," he lied. "Maybe you'd better draw me a picture."
"Happily. UPS tracking software indicates that your package - addressed to Deborah Carson at 313 Meadows Drive in Elceda, California - was delivered today at 12:13 PM." Julia leaned closer to the frightened man and smiled, the devil dancing in the glowing ashpiles of her eyes. "Thank you very, very much, Daniel. You have been a great help."
"You - you knew that I would contact Diana?"
"Oh, yes. Men are sometimes very sentimental when it comes to women, be they lovers or friends. I was certain that - if you felt she were in danger - you would try to put her in contact with help. In our world, help equals Harry Mars. You sent her a coded phone unit and updated numbers, I assume."
Dan nodded mutely, certain that he had somehow betrayed Diana Starrett by offering her aid, certain that Julia would make sure he did not live out the day. "Why me?" he croaked again. "Why not just send her a unit yourself?"
"Our relationship... suffered some damage when we parted last. Diana would not trust anything coming from me. If I extended an olive branch, she would likely use it to beat me to death. The only people with credibility were you and Eladio. He's dead."
"Precisely. This situation with Yoshima will raise two mysteries for our girl to solve, and Diana will need answers. Even if it suited my goals to be honest and provide her with blunt truth, I couldn't be the one to tell her. For one answer, Harry's resources and trustworthiness are required, so she needed a way to contact him. She may talk to him first, or she may come here. It depends on whether she still puts others before herself."
"If Mars can help her with one answer, what about the second?"
"Well, for the second answer, she will have to come here. The second answer is locked in the first bedroom on the left, and she's probably running an elevated temperature by now. Diana will be most anxious to see her, once Yoshima spills the beans on that count. Also, I have changed my opinion on the issue of who will get here first. She'll beat the Yaks here, hands down."
"Don't stammer, Danny. It's a good thing."
To say that Dan was confused was a wholly insufficient characterization of his mental state. He knew that Julia had some plan involving Diana Starrett, Yoshima, and the girl, but his general ideas did not match up at all with these... tactics - although he felt that term should be applied loosely.
"Why would you want Diana on the offensive? I don't get it."
"You're not supposed to get it. It's my evil master plan, and only I should get it," Julia explained, then sighed in exaggerated impatience as she stood straight and slipped both hands into her pants pockets. "You should probably go out on the deck and stare at the mudhole for a while. What happens to you from here on out will be based on your ability to mind your own business and cover your own ass. Now go on."
Dismissed and dazed, but mercifully still alive, Dan made his way through the sliding glass doors and onto the wooden deck. A blaze of white sunlight burned over his pale face, spawning swarms of yellow dots to swim beneath his closed eyelids. He suddenly felt sick.
Stumbling to his left, he headed to the far side of the deck, to a place where Julia couldn't see him if he had to vomit. He felt dizzy - make that dizzy and furious and ashamed - as his hands groped around in the inner dark between the hyperactive yellow specks, trying to find the wooden hand rail before it was too late to spare his shoes from an awful fate.
"Used me," he whispered hoarsely, swallowing hard to keep his stomach level. "She just used me like a... like a -"
"Tampon?" offered a low voice, a soft boom from near his left elbow.
His eyes flew open, and he was momentarily blind as he tried to find the outline, the form to fit the voice. Dan slowly regained his focus and found himself looking at a tourist - a crazy tourist, if the turquoise embroidery on her hat was telling the truth. She was leaning into the corner where the rail met the house, silent and invisible unless she wanted to be heard or seen.
"Toughen up, Dan," she said simply, her mouth barely moving beneath the shadow of her cap bill. "You get used to being used after a while. I think I've played guinea pig about as much as I've played spy games. Sheer luck I didn't wind up in Richard Gere's ass, I guess."
Swallowing hard again, he tried to match her tone; not quite joking, not quite psychotic. "I heard it was a hamster. Anyway, that's just an urban legend, Di."
"I know. I'm sure Richard is as square as they come. Is she here?"
"Uhhh..." Dan was at a loss. "Julia's inside."
A sharp glint off her mirrorshades as she lifted her head. "Not who I mean. Is Angelia here?"
Dan did not speak. Diana's shoulders seemed to square, and she angled herself toward the entrance. He felt compelled to try and stop her, or at least warn her somehow.
"I know you think this is something you have to do, but -"
"You shouldn't. Diana, just leave her alone, leave this alone. Julia is up to no good, and she wants you in the middle of it for some reason. Don't let her use you."
The tall woman didn't seem to be listening, her attention focused on the glass doors. He wasn't saying anything she hadn't thought herself a thousand times on the drive over. She spoke dryly to him, as if issuing a news bulletin.
"Yoshima sent some goons to bring back Angelia and kill both of you. You should get in that little dingy on the landing and row around the lake until this is over. Let Julia handle them."
"How do you know they're coming?"
"Passed them on the way here. Two cars, maybe seven minutes behind me. Get in the water, Ahab. And Dan," she said, glancing back over a shoulder at the scarecrow-like man, "thanks for trying."
Not waiting for a reply, Diana turned and moved to the glass doors, slipping inside with less than a whisper of noise. Dan watched her go and said a quick prayer for both of their lives. He walked calmly to the steps and trotted down to the landing, intent on taking a leisurely tour of the suddenly scenic and immensely appealing mudhole.
Inside the lake house, Diana crept barefoot across the mustard yellow carpet, watching and listening for anything, everything. Old furnishings scattered through the room provided a virtual obstacle course as she weaved between a yellow and orange couch, loveseat, and recliner set in a tight conversational grouping near the glass double doors. The dark creme walls were hung with cheap paintings of bucolic lake scenes, all of which were infinitely preferable to this shithole.
Against a far wall closer to the kitchen, she saw computer equipment set up on a dark wooden desk, and recognized the setup as one intended for satellite conferences. A slim, black component she knew to be a high-powered receiver flashed a disconnect signal across the green strip of LED panel. It also indicated that Satcom J8 - an encryption-capable relay three times larger than any floating Ma Bell the major networks used - had been tapped for the last connection.
* Julia's been busy conducting international fireside chats... so whatever she wants with Angelia isn't her primary objective. She's playing on a bigger field. *
Diana moved on, checking the adjoining kitchen - where some lingering smell caught her attention.
* Is that bacon? *
Moving on to the hallway, she found three doors, all closed. Diana moved to the first door and put her hand on the knob. Twisting in a slow circle, she was surprised to find it unlocked. Once the bolt was clear from the frame, she pushed the door open a crack, careful to make no sound. Through the crack, she could see the foot of a large bed, covered in a white and blue striped comforter. Someone was in the bed. A slight swelling under the covers shifted restlessly.
* My God... after all this time. Could that be- *
"Don't wake baby," a playful warning interrupted from the far end of the hall, where Julia stood watching. "I just got her down for a nap."
Diana spun like a dervish, both hands raised and ready for a fight, even though she didn't relish the idea. She had fought Julia before, and it was not a cakewalk; in head to head sparring, the two were fairly evenly matched, despite differences in age, height, and weight. If Julia wanted to make an issue of something, things could get very messy. Diana vowed to herself that if there was any other way to get the girl and get out, she would find that alternate route and run it.
"Now, now. There's no need to get defensive," Julia said calmly. "I mean you no harm, Diana."
The dark woman was not interested, her blue eyes dull and hard behind the reflective glasses. She had only one question on her mind at that moment, and it had nothing to do with Julia's intentions.
"Is that her?"
"Is what who?"
Diana advanced a step, pushing her glasses up onto her head and fixing the blonde with an arctic stare. "That lump in the bed. Is that Angelia Kamura?"
"Hideo Yoshima's step-daughter, wasn't she?" Julia stalled maddeningly, smirking. "I thought Ms. Kamura was dead."
"Don't fuck with me," Diana hissed, coming closer, snarling.
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Is... that... her?" Diana repeated, punctuating each word with a step, until she stood less than a yard from the slim, gray-clad blonde.
"Are you in such a rush that you can't offer me a proper hello?" the Swede persisted. "When last we met, you were not alone. We were unable to spend any time together."
"Answer me, Julia. Answer me, or I will take you d- "
"Diana, we both know you were only able to take me when I wanted to be taken."
The words hung in the air between them, laden with too much history to stay there for long.
* I'm threatening her and she's flirting?? Christ All-fucking-mighty!! * Diana thought, growing more agitated every second.
"Goddammit! Stop messing with me and answer my goddamned question!!"
"Heavens. I knew Yoshima would get you worked up, darling, but really. Calm yourse-"
That did it. In Diana's unstable state, the mere mention of that bastard's name was more than enough to answer her question and blow her stack. Diana instantly had one hand around Julia's throat as another darted to a pressure point in her right thigh. The sudden numbness in her leg dropped Julia to her knees and then she was shoved down onto her back. The reason she didn't try to stop Diana was simple; she wanted it to happen.
"You want to play with me?" her attacker asked, dripping violent menace. Diana straddled Julia's waist and pinned both of her arms beneath her knees. She applied steady pressure to that slender throat with five strong fingers - not enough to choke, but more than adequate to indicate that genuine throttling might soon commence. The other hand remained cocked in a half-fist, ready to rain down like Zeus' own thunderbolt.
"Okay, let's play a game, Jules," Diana proposed, easing her grip enough to let her captive speak.
"Oh, goody," the Swede smiled, her face flush with a perverse excitement.
"I'm gonna ask you one simple question and you're gonna answer it. You tell me the truth and I won't crush your larynx."
"What do I get if I lie?"
"You get unconscious, then you get dead."
"Now, Diana! You wouldn't kill me, would you?"
"Not me. Eleven Yakuza toughs are gonna storm in here in about five minutes - ten with guns, one with a sword."
"A sword," Julia mused, not looking worried in the least. "Oh, my."
"He wants to cut off your head."
"How absolutely cliche."
"Yoshima also seems to think that you have Angelia Kamura, alive and well, as your prisoner."
"Well is such a relative term, don't you think?"
"Obviously, you're reaming Yoshima's wallet out pretty good to get him this pissed off..."
"I'm doing my best."
"And it's obvious that - somehow - Angelia is still living. You have her, and that is her in that bed."
"That didn't sound like a question."
"It wasn't. My question is... what the hell do you want with me?"
"Yes, me! You snatched the girl from Hideous and brought her here, of all places! I think you did it so that Yoshima's shit would land - literally - in my back yard!"
"That's trespassing and public defecation. You should phone the authorities."
"Why did you bring her here and lead him to me??"
"Is that a separate question from the first one?"
Diana's hand came down and landed a sharp, stinging slap to Julia's cheek. By the time the blonde registered the blow, that hand was raised and ready to deliver another. She ran her tongue inside her cheek, lighting on a small cut bleeding slowly over her right molars.
"Nice one, Di," she said, flashing a grin. "Have you been practicing on the lawyer?"
The choking hand tightened and the striking hand curled instantly into a fist and dropped like lightning. Julia closed her eyes and eagerly anticipated the pain... but it never came. Gray eyes flashed open to find that full fist hovering just over her nose. She was pinned still by a pair of infuriated blue orbs, awash in hatred, restrained from dealing death by the thinnest of threads.
"Mention her again and I will kill you," Diana promised.
Julia ran her tongue around and through the pooling blood inside her mouth, then licked her lips, painting them a bright, livid red. "Guess you don't engage in... roughhousing anymore."
Shaking her head, Diana sneered, "No, that was always your thing, Jules. Now answer me, or you won't be able to defend yourself when sword boy gets here. Four minutes."
"Release the pinch on my leg and I'll give you the condensed version."
Diana leaned forward carefully, keeping one hand on Julia's throat while the other hand crept behind her back. Fingers skimmed over the top of one silk-clad thigh, finally slipping down between the pinned woman's legs and applying hard pressure until the blood flow resumed to the limb.
"Well, didn't that feel like old times," Julia observed, wincing as a feeling like one million pinpricks wounded her leg from inside as the starved tissues came back to life.
"What part do I play in your current drama?" the dark woman asked, unmoved.
"Why, you're the heroine, of course. You get to save the girl and make the world a safer place for capitalist governments, all by doing two simple little things."
Julia stopped and smiled. Diana, if it was possible, got even angrier.
"And? Spit it out! WHAT!?"
"I want you to take the girl with you," Julia announced evenly. "You said that surfacing would likely have killed you if you didn't know love?"
"So wha- waitaminute. Riggins washed her?"
"At this point, that is my strong suspicion. If she's faking, she might drop the act if confronted by the woman she murdered. If she is under... well, you are probably the only person Angelia Kamura would come back for, either to kill you again or to reunite with the lover she grievously wronged."
"No," Diana protested weakly, "she didn't wrong me. I wronged her."
"You sap!" Julia interjected. "You didn't actually kill him! That wasn't your fault, Diana!"
"She didn't know that! I couldn't convince her -"
"Well, now's your chance. Take her with you. Help her to regain herself and set things right, then move on to the second part of your charge - tell Harry where she hid the stolen files."
"Three minutes. What files are you referring to?"
"Oh, you remember! The data she pirated from Yoshima, the stuff she was planning to bargain with so that you two could run away together," Julia explained, barely able to keep from laughing at that last part. "Surely you recall viewing the research she stole. You told former director Riggins all about it, after all."
"Yes," Diana admitted, her heart contracting in guilty spasms. * Big mistake. *
"Take Angelia someplace safe and talk to her. She'll remain in a drugged state for the next twelve hours, so try to make something happen before she comes back around. She's a tough nut to crack when she has full possession of her faculties. Not the girl you knew at all."
"Where?" Diana let go of Julia's throat, which was red and raw, with signs of severe bruising already showing. "Where can I take her? Yoshima has all the safe house addresses."
"Figure that out on the road, but don't tell anyone where you are. Except Harry."
"Yoshima... he knows where we live. I can't leave Charlie unprotected. No way."
"Her protection comes from the edges we hold over Yoshima, and those are increasing all the time. Just to ease your mind, I'll dispatch Dan to keep watch for a couple of days. Hideo Yoshima will be dead by mid-week. If Ms. Browning can last that long, she and her family are free and clear."
"No! This is too dangerous, too complicated, there are too many loose ends! I don't know how to tie them all off!" Diana raved, finally getting to her feet. She glared down at the prone woman who was likely the instigator of this entire debacle. "God damn you, Julia. Straight to the tenth level of hell."
The platinum-haired woman slowly rose to her feet, her expression almost sad. Almost.
"It's entirely appropriate to hate me, Diana. Just take care of the girl, talk to Mars, and you'll come out alright. We all will."
Suspicion lifted both brows high over cold blue twin seas. "Are you lying right now?"
"Maybe just a little. Yoshima and his boys will not come out alright. I will see to that personally."
"He said some things to me today. He's very sick and he thinks that I-"
"Talk to Harry," she reiterated, stepping gingerly to the bedroom door and swinging it wide. "For now, he has more answers than I. Get the girl and go now. I must prepare the house for visitors." Julia then turned from Diana Starrett and walked away, down the hall and out of sight.
Diana moved quickly into the small bedroom, carpeted and draped in soothing blues, and her eyes immediately found what she was looking for. Tears wanted to flow out and fall, but she had no time for regrets or fears just then. All that would come soon enough.
* Plenty of time to cry later, dummy. First priority is to stay alive. *
In the center of the queen bed, curled into the fetal position and sweating from fever, was a slim figure dressed in a white cotton nightgown. A tangled length of straight black hair clung to her back as she drove her face further into a pillow, seeking some cool comfort from the smooth fabric.
"Not me..." she whispered, "not me, not me..."
"It's okay," Diana found herself saying, totally without volition. "You're gonna be okay."
She put one knee on the coverlet and slipped both arms under the hot, damp body, scooping her up and cradling her as carefully as a newborn babe. The young woman's face was covered by a sheet of matted hair glued in place by sweat, but Diana knew the peaks of her lips, the angle of her cheekbones as these features peeked through the veil.
"Angelia," she said, letting her heart and mind float for an instant in the truth of it, privately confirming something to herself as she carried her living body away.
She moved down the hall and into the harsh sunlight streaming into the living room, observing Julia from the corner of her eye as she dropped two large black suitcases on the couch. One was cracked open just enough for her to glimpse the contents as she slid the glass door aside.
* Jesus! She brought two Gablers? * Diana realized with wonder. She recalled asking Harry about the curious name of the intercooled, autoloading, no-jam, 20mm monster rifle that kicked less than a three month-old fetus. She expected to hear that Gabler was a manufacturer name, only to hear:
"Julia calls it a Gabler because it'll blow your Hedda clean off. She likes reading Ibsen."
"Those boys don't stand a chance," she whispered to the moaning Angelia as they descended the deck stairs. "Kill 'em all, Jules."
Diana broke into a dead run as soon as her feet touched the ground, and she aimed herself toward the right side of the yard - or, more accurately, toward the neighbor's yard just beyond the battered old privacy fence. The Porsche was just over that fence, parked behind a stripped 78' Camaro set up on cement blocks, and probably itching to ditch this whole depressing scene and devour some more highway.
Littered with patches of dried weeds and pokey little grass spurs, the dumpy yard didn't seem an ideal place for a picnic table, but it served Diana's purposes quite nicely as she raced toward it, jumped onto one bench, up onto the table, and leapt in a perfect hurdler's pose over the eight foot graying wood fence.
A lightfooted landing eased the jolt to her passenger, but nearly caused Diana to weave into a staunch-looking Weber grill covered in rust. She shifted Angelia's weight and tilted her legs higher, sweeping the hem of her nightgown over the top of the grill in a very near miss, but kept running until she stood at the passenger door of the Porsche.
"Not me... not me... not me..." the feverish young woman mumbled.
Diana fished her keys from a pocket and opened the door, shushing and soothing with as much patience as she could muster. She darted to the driver's side and got in, and nearly fired up the engine when an ominous noise reached her ears.
* Cars coming this way - two large engines. Wait until they pass. *
She reached across Angelia's lap and pulled the lever to lower her seat back, and then ducked her own head below the window as the Cadillacs rolled by. The vehicles turned into the drive of the safe house. Car doors opened and closed. Engines were cut. Troops marched toward their fate.
* Seven, eight, nine... *
Then the shooting started. Diana cranked the Porsche and roared out onto the shoddily paved access road, secretly smiling as the pop of the Yakuza Tec 9s was drowned out by the boom of the Gablers. The sounds doppled behind her and faded to nothing once she reached the main road, the one which led up to the highway... and down to the marina district.
* Emily said they wouldn't take the cruiser out today if we didn't go with them. Wonder if she meant that? The boat would be safe. Perfect to hide her in - just for a little while. *
"Hope you don't still get sea sick," Diana said, reaching out with one hand to brush the hair away from her passenger's fevered brow. She could see the exhaustion and strain on Angelia's face, but her watering eyes found no signs of aging.
"You still look the same to me. Still so... so beautiful."
The woman, half-conscious, tilted her face into the gently stroking hand until Diana's palm lay open against her cheek. She nuzzled the hand until her lips grazed its center, and breathed one soft word against the skin.
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