Persistence of Memory - Pt. 8
 

By Paul Seely (regrettably solo)
 


Twelve

When the Cadillacs arrived at the lake house, Hideo Yoshima's son knew his purpose and his plan and his fate; he would retrieve Angelia by killing the blonde woman, thereby becoming the son his father wanted. It was the artless strategy of someone who had never planned an assault in his life, someone who had never wanted to do so. He was here for one simple reason - it was the only path to his father's respect and love, a goal which now seemed further away and more impossible to attain than ever before.

Gone were the days when his missions consisted of acting as emissary, messenger or companion.  Today, it was his father's wish that he take a life. His desire to rescue his sister was strong, and he was willing to kill to bring her out safely, but he did not truly relish the task. The enthusiasm feigned for his father's benefit was just that - false and hollow.

He feared his father. He respected the man's strength, his will. He felt honor-bound to comply with his wishes, to make the elder Yoshima's mission and quest his own. However, there were times when he sat waiting, thinking, wondering as silence and darkness cloaked him...

What would his father's wishes mean to him if he were not all the young man had left in the world? If he had something - anything - else to care about, to live for, would he be spending this summer day preparing to decapitate a woman to earn the respect of that dying man?

As the cars slowed to a stop in the driveway, he clenched a sweaty hand around the hilt of the ivory katana. In that fleeting moment, he knew doubt. He knew sorrow. He knew a desperate loneliness that made his own death preferable to failure. There was no option but to go forward.

His force was ten men strong, all armed and trained to kill. They parked the cars nose to tail about fifty yards from the front of the house, and all the men disembarked from the passenger side to shield themselves against any shots from the house. Two men would provide cover fire from behind the cars while the rest of the force charged inside and overpowered the two agents.

Only ten seconds after the car doors closed, everything went to hell. Hideo Yoshima's son forgot his fleeting acquaintance with purpose, plan and fate, as well as doubt, sorrow and loneliness, in favor of an intimate knowledge of three entirely different things.

Noise.

Sharp chittering from the Tec9s, and an awful booming in correspondence. Tearing metal and shattering glass as large, double-jacketed ammunition ripped through the Cadillacs like they were made of papier mache. He couldn't hear or think.

Dust.

High, swirling clouds of dry, choking dust as bullets churned up the ground and men scrambled for some elusive safe place. He couldn't breathe or see.

Fear.

Men falling close by, his face and hands peppered with their flying blood. He couldn't scream.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. He could see the sun, burning a white hole in the perfect blue sky. A hot breeze blew clouds of dust away, and the only noise was the ringing in his ears. He felt the heat of the black Cadillac's fender against his shoulder, warm and solid as he leaned against it for support. He did not remember kneeling behind the front wheel for cover, but it was probably the only reason he was still alive.

Everyone else was dead.

Ten men lay in the dirt around him, each shot in the head and chest. Some were missing large portions of their faces and skulls. Glistening shards of red bone and wet, soft matter littered the earth. He saw the barrels of their guns smoking; a testament to their efforts. One nearby man died with his eyes open, an expression of great surprise etched on what remained of his features.

The younger Yoshima wanted to throw up as he waited for the gunfire to resume, for his own oblivion to begin with the boom and crush of a bullet sinking into his body. Something in him was screaming out of resentment and anger that this was not supposed to be his fate. This was not the way he wanted to live his life, or the way he wanted it to end. Surrounded by dead men, soon to join them. Blinded to good sense by obligation, this life was his duty because he was the only son.

"Damn you for leaving me to this alone, brother. Damn you for leaving me to him," he cursed softly, closing his eyes and tightening his fist around the ivory scabbard under his jacket. "Perhaps I was a fool for not following you when I had the chance." He slid the katana from its sheath, the blade gleaming sharp in the sunlight. "Perhaps it is not too late."

Shamed men have died this way for centuries, men who fail their families and themselves. Men whose strength leaves them, for whom life is over. Men who have lost more than face - men without hope of regaining their own souls. He turned the sword on himself, the tip of the blade pressing against his stomach. A hard thrust in and up, and it would all be over...

"Please don't do that. Hara-kiri is so passť."

The soft voice startled him, leaping out from utter silence like a cloaked attacker. He turned his head toward the sound, but saw only a long shadow with both wide arms stretched out like the wings of a condor. The shadow approached and fell across him like a cool, dark sheet, nearing until he could see her more clearly.

Looking close, he saw a vision of gray and pale gold, whose great arms were actually twin sculptures, creatures of violence crafted from gunmetal blue. The large rifles were strapped to her body, one over each shoulder. The left beast stared at him with an evil red laser eye, while the other flashed its attention on the blade of his father's sword. The illogical impulse to attack her with the short blade came and went quickly as he admitted he was totally outgunned. His mission was now a complete loss, as was his life. "I am here to kill you," he whispered.

"That's not my tummy you're poking, junior," she said, not unkindly. "You should try to set more realistic goals."

"I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have taken your head and given it to my father."

"For what purpose? Bowling ball? I have a flat expanse on the roof of my pate that would kill the rotation."

"I don't... I didn't..." He honestly didn't know what purpose it would serve, now that he thought of it, but the fact that she was talking to him instead of killing him had taken him by surprise. This woman was not what he had expected. She just murdered ten men and stood there, holding the eleventh at gunpoint... joking with him? "Perhaps he wishes to display it on the mantle as a warning to enemies, or at the front gate, mounted on a pike."

Translucent brows arched, revealing Julia's capacity to be amused by almost anything. "He wanted to mount my skull on a fish?"

"No, I mean the sharp-ended... you are mocking me," he observed cannily, wishing he had already pushed the katana inside his gut so that he would be closer to death. "Either that or you are simply crazy."

"Being crazy keeps one from going insane. While we're on that subject, what do you hope to accomplish by spilling your intestines on my driveway?"

"This is the only way to die with honor. I have failed my father and myself."

"He sent you all here to get slaughtered. You accomplished that. You didn't fail."

"You... you have my sister. I failed to rescue her."

"Rescue?!? Hah! Is that how Yoshima sees things?" Julia chuckled dryly. "Actually, I don't know where she is at the moment. She caught a ride with an old friend. Flew the coop."

"What? Angelia is... but my father said that you... I do not understand."

"Obviously. Don't trust him. The man is a demented, deluded liar."

Against all logic, he was incensed by the assault on Yoshima's character. The sword dug in a little tighter against his convulsing abdomen as he yelled, "HE IS MY FATHER!!"

"So what? Hideo Yoshima is a monster. He raped your sister, imprisoned your mother in an insane asylum, and caused your brother's death. You know all these things to be true. Don't let him take your life, too," Julia said.

Her finger was ready to squeeze the Gabler's trigger and stop him if necessary, but she wanted him to stop himself.  If the boy was to be of any use, he had to be strong enough to defy his father's programming and choose another path for the remainder of this journey.

"You weren't meant for this death, and I don't want to harm you. Put that sword down, come inside and talk to me. We can work something out."

"No." He pushed the sword again, feeling the bite and trickle of blood, yearning for an end to his pain and anger. "It is too late now for me to right those wrongs. I am ashamed."

"Don't be," she whispered, "you have done nothing to be ashamed of. You were a child when those things happened, and the actions of your father are not your fault. But now you are a man, and your choices should be ones you can live with. You have yet to kill for him, yes?"

"You were to be my first." The young man shook his head, loosening a single, bitter tear. "But I have done other things... terrible things for him..."

"But don't you see? If you're not a murderer, you are not like us yet. You are only a teenager! There is so much of your life to salvage, and your true family still lives," Julia announced, knowing that would capture his attention.

It did. Instantly, he felt dizzy with the unfamiliar sensation of hope. He had to know what she meant by that. "My father is the only family I have left," he whispered, pained by the admission.

"That is patently untrue. Don't throw your life away to favor the bastard who sired you. Live for yourself, and for those who love you. Your sister and mother."

"Father said she was far too ill to recover... that she was dead to us. Angelia doesn't even know who I am anymore. You are lying to me."

"Am not."

"Stop that! Don't mock me! Even if you were telling the truth, father would never allow-"

"For pity's sake, would you quit fretting about your father! I'm going to take that man so far down into hell, he'll have to look up to see Hitler," she promised gravely. "But, when this is over, your family will need you. It's not too late for you at all, Gedde. You have to believe that."

His face turned up to her, eyes shiny with the mingled tears of regret and hope, Gedde Yoshima looked for a moment like the little boy who had wanted a quiet life of beautiful pictures, fingers stained with paints instead of blood. He didn't really remember his mother, as he was told she took ill when he was only a baby, but Angelia had always said she was a woman well-worth knowing.

"It's not too late," Julia promised again, turning aside the rudely staring red laser eyes to let him decide in private. "Life is a difficult choice, but it is the only honorable one. Please, don't give up on yourself yet. Find the strength within you to resist him. That strength to resist is your mother's legacy to you and your sister. Don't give up on yourself. Don't give up on her."

Dark eyes welled with tears of shame as his hand loosened around the katana and let the blade drop.  He found the courage to turn away from death, not from the stranger's words, but from within his own spirit. If there was any chance she was telling the truth, he could not risk letting Angelia and their mother down by running away from difficulty and danger, by letting the fear and shame end him... as his brother had done.

Julia slung aside one of her guns and extended a hand down to him. In her baleful shale eyes, Gedde found as pure a look of sympathy as he could remember. He didn't know whether to believe what he was seeing, but surmised that if her emotions were not real, this woman was a genius forger.

"Take the sword with you," she suggested in a reverent voice, playing a final card. "I'm sure your ancestors forged it more for posterity and the defense of prudent men than to slake a criminal's selfish bloodlust. You should keep it. Restore its honor as you restore your own."

Gedde Yoshima hesitated only a moment before he picked up the ivory scabbard and sheathed the blade, then took Julia's hand and got to his feet. They walked side by side through the field of dead men, ventilated automobiles, and fat, buzzing summer flies. They went first to the edge of the lake, where Julia stopped and called out loudly across the water.

"IT'S SAFE NOW, DANIEL! YOU'VE BEEN REASSIGNED! COME ON BACK!"

The young Asian managed a questioning look. Even through his dazed stupor over the odd turn of events, he found it odd that any organized group would leave a woman to do this work solo. Maybe it was his strict upbringing in the sexist traditions of the Orient, but this was extremely unusual. There were no women in his father's Yakuza, but between what he remembered of Diana Starrett's volcanic violence and this Julia's madcap efficacy, he wondered why the practice of employing women for such jobs was not more prevalent.

"Your partner left you to face a lethal threat alone? Is this normal procedure?"

Julia smiled thinly, still scanning the still waters for any sign of the missing agent. "Mmm, not really. He doesn't like me very much, I'm afraid. Not sure who he was cheering for."

"Oh."

Five minutes ago, he thought he wanted her dead himself. Now, watching her stand there away with utter confidence and repose, he couldn't imagine killing her. She was right; it really didn't seem like a realistic goal. Like when heroic-minded children bury poison in the ground in an effort to kill Satan.

Who killed people like Julia, anyway? Other people like her, he supposed. Gedde Yoshima could think of only one person who might be up to the task, and she was probably busy planning to murder his father just then and couldn't be bothered. Still, it was a clash he would pay to see.

"Do you know Diana Starrett?" Gedde asked, seemingly apropos of nothing.

Julia turned to him, her interest piqued. "Yes. Quite well, actually. Let's go inside and chat," she suggested, "It's clear we have much to discuss."

"That depends on what you want from me. I do not know why you chose to spare my life, but I wish to be of help to my mother and sister and I thank you for offering the chance. Know this, though - I will not tell you anything which will compromise my father, on pain of my life."

"Come on, now. Don't be so negative." Her smile widened as she walked him back to the house, both Gablers hanging loose at her sides like casual accessories, beaded purses that fired 100 rounds per second. "Let's be pals. Would you like some chocolate? I have a bit of this raspberry swirl confection that I picked up in Vienna. It's to die for."

"Chocolate?" was all he could manage to say as he mounted the stairs and climbed up to the deck.

"Yes, yes. It lifts the attitude, initiates a lovely swarm of positive neurotransmitters. Next to sex, there's nothing better after settling a life and death struggle."

"You are a very strange woman."

"And you have a marvelous grasp of the obvious." Julia opened the glass door and waved the young man inside. "Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly..."

 

Thirteen
 
Diana parked in Luis Avila's reserved space, making sure to prominently display her parking permit in the front window to prevent the Porsche from being towed. She popped the trunk and snagged a yellow cotton blanket left inside from a recent picnic, then carefully wrapped the soft cover around the shivering body of Angelia Kamura.

The young woman was experiencing fever and chills in rapidly alternating cycles as the drugs coursed through her system, and she moaned pitifully when Diana lifted her out of the car.

"Shhh," the tall woman whispered, kicking the door closed with her heel as she headed for the slips. "We'll be there in just a minute, then you can lie down again. Just hold on. Shhh. It's okay."

"Don't want to go back... don't make me, please, please, pleeeeaaassse..."

As her voice trailed away, her head lolled against Diana's shoulder and both fidgeting hands went limp. For the third time in twenty minutes, she had passed out cold. Diana kept walking, but marveled at the efficacy of the delirium-inducing cocktail Angelia had been slipped.

"Damn, Julia! What the fuck did you give her anyway??"

Steady steps down the whitewashed dock carried them closer until Diana could see the boat. She breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that they hadn't attracted too much attention from the boaters scattered along the waterfront; which is not to say that they weren't noticed.

Two jauntily attired fishermen setting up the deck of their modest fishing boat gave the two women a few extra glances as they passed by, but Diana Starrett paid them little heed. There was virtually no danger of the two old-timers calling in Harbor Security once they saw she was headed for the former Falcon boat - a Sunseeker 51 Camargue.

Gossip held that the enviably luxurious cruiser occupying slip 383 had played host to Caligulan shenanigans that would make Larry Flynt blush, so one tall, dark woman smuggling aboard some unconscious, barefoot young thing wrapped in a blanket was nearly normal in comparison. All the leathered old men felt inclined to do was look at each other, smile, and clink their cans of Ensure together in salute to those who were still able to dance to that frantic beat.

Diana had a key for nearly everything these days, including a set of three for the Sunseeker. The first key let them into the cabin area, which boasted three twin beds, a full kitchen, a half-bath, and two nineteen inch televisions among its creature comforts. Cream-colored leather and carved teak were the decor staples, with thick bone carpet underfoot and ivory silk wallpaper with a subtle green jacquard design added to please the touch and the eye.

She gently settled Angelia on the bed closest to the door and eased a plump pillow under the young woman's head, trying as best she could not to jar or startle her as the fever spiked again. One hand pressed against the burning forehead told Diana that her temperature was again in excess of 104 degrees. Doffing her own cap and shades, she let down her hair and nervously ran her fingers through the loose locks, shooting glances at the beach bag which held the phone unit.

* What to do now, Clint? Huh? Now that you've got the girl, what comes next? *

She knelt by the low bed, bracing her elbows on the wood frame bordering the mattress as she took a close look at Angelia's face. Beads of perspiration erupted and rolled down her temples and into her hair. The drug was in full effect now, and time to question her was growing shorter every minute. Diana smoothed damp hair away from the girl's sweaty brow, sighing from the pit of her soul.

"Alive. You're alive."

She took a long moment to revel in the simple truth of it, carefully avoiding the complicated issues that fact would inevitably raise. Diana ran her eyes down the girl's frail body like a feather, barely touching the white cotton nightgown as she swept from slender neck to protruding hip bones, all the way down pale legs to her short, skinny little unpainted toes.

"And you need a pedicure. Maybe Julia was truthing on that count, maybe you are different now. The Angelia I knew wouldn't even be buried without a fresh coat of toenail polish."

* If Riggins washed you, he could have started you over someplace else. Made you rich or poor, connected or lonely, given you a whole new set of rules to play by. Who have you been for the past nine years? Who are you now? Damn. I have to call Harry, * she realized, then gasped as another pressing matter occurred to her. * Fuck! I have to call Charlie! She's gonna roast me on a spit if I don't tell her something soon. Later. I'll call them later. I need to talk to you first, don't I? *

"God only knows why Riggins didn't kill you," she whispered, watching closed eyelids twitch and bulge as the girl was gripped by some fever vision. "I wonder, do you know? Did he tell you? Did he want you alive to fulfill some purpose, some plan? Do you know any more about his motives than I do? Once, as I was choking him, he called you 'collateral damage.' So why didn't he kill you?"

"No... stop stop stop..." came a low, pleading moan, accompanied by a sudden lurch and twist of the still body which startled Diana. She moved a bit closer and took one small hand in a slight grip, reassured when the frail fingers tightened around her thumb. Angelia seemed to calm down at the contact, her disturbance ebbing into a soft series of gasps. Diana couldn't help wondering what she was thinking, whether the reaction was prompted by her insistent questions.

"I don't want to wake you, but... putting this off won't make it easier for either of us," she explained gently, mostly to herself. "There are things I need to know, Angelia. I've got two monkeys on my back, and you know something that can shake one of them loose. I need to talk to you."

Diana squeezed the hand she held tighter, and saw a flutter beneath the closed lids. "Wake up."

She moved her other hand to the girl's face, tracing whispery lines across her cheek. "Wake up."

"Nooo..."

Patting her cheek, harder and harder, until it became a tender slap. "Come on. Please. Please."

"Hurt me... go awaaay..."

"I promise I won't hurt you," Diana swore, silently adding the word 'again' to her vow.

"Lies... I lie, you lie..."

"I won't lie to you, Angel. I won't hurt you. Just, please... talk to me. Wake up."

"Nobody left... alone." Her breathing quickened and she rolled onto her side, curling into a ball and crushing Diana's hand to her chest as she screamed, "DON'T LEAVE ME! NO! NO!"

Eyes wide and slightly panicked, Diana wrapped a half embrace around the quivering young woman and drew her close. She leaned half onto the bed as she felt herself pulled in tight by Angelia's free arm looping around her neck, a sudden heat against her throat as the delusional girl burrowed into her skin in a search for safety.

"Shhh. It's okay. I won't leave you alone," Diana said solemnly, her lips grazing a delicate red earlobe as her charge twisted in her arms. "I promise to keep you safe this time. Nobody's gonna hurt you."

The girl's concealed almond eyes peeked open, but refused to focus as she remained caught between consciousness and dream. Angelia opened her mouth to speak, but no words came, only breath; hot breath blowing into a curtain of long, dark hair, then reversing to pull in a flood of molecules emitted from the scalp, neck, from behind the ears - the scent of her protector.

The olfactory nerve is capable of recognizing and cataloging a multitude of scents, and somewhere deep in her mind, she knew that slightly floral, minty odor. Maybe that smell was what triggered it, the process of her mind sweeping up crumbs of experience lying long-forgotten on a dusty floor and organizing them into a meal - or at least a semblance of an appetizer.

"Diana, don't," the lost girl whispered, falling away from the fevered present into the coolness of a snow-covered memory. "He'll hurt you..."

 

 

She steps between you and the man who wants to hurt you, to frighten you until you beg. She isn't afraid of what he'll do, but you are.

"Diana, don't. He'll hurt you," you say, feeling her hand slip from your shoulder.

"No, he won't. Will you, Mr. Yoshima?"

His eyes darken and he sneers. "This is none of your concern, Miss Starrett. Leave us."

She shakes her head, her shoulders squared. You had not realized until that moment how tall she was, how imposing she could look. "Angelia is not to blame. It was my idea to go out for a little air. She came along to make certain I didn't get lost. Please don't be angry with her."

You struggle to keep your jaw from dropping. Her words are carefully chosen to sound apologetic, but her tone of voice is pure threat. Believe me. Accept what I'm saying, or I will make you regret it, she is telling him. To your surprise, he is quiet. He seems to be sizing her up all over again.

"Very well," he says at last, "but do not let this happen again. You are not to leave this house without the company of my employees. They are only here to make certain you remain safe."

"I'll be just fine, thanks," she says in return. "So will Angelia. I'll make sure of that."

They stand there forever, eyes locked, unmoving. You don't breathe. You can't until one of them breaks the silence and surrenders to keep the tenuous peace.

Hideous gives in first. "Both of you should get to bed. It is very late."

Diana walks backward until she stands at your side, then slips her hand around your elbow. It isn't until she touches you with steady hands that you realize you are shaking.

"Goodnight, Mr. Yoshima," she says graciously. "Thank you for your understanding."

"We will discuss this further in the morning, Miss Starrett," he calls after her as she guides you up the stairs and into the darkened hallway.

Once you reach your door at the far end,  you drop like a dying sparrow and weep silently.

"Shhh," she says, wrapping her arms around you, drawing you into a solid warmth that must be what safety feels like. "Nobody's gonna hurt you anymore. I promise."

"He'll make you leave in the morning," you sob against the supple column of her throat, "I'll be alone with him again."

"I won't leave you with him. If I go, you can come with me."

"You don't understand. He isn't just another rich son of a bitch, used to getting his way. Hideo is Yakuza. He's dangerous."

"I know that. I didn't come here with blinders on."

"You... you know? And you still stepped up to him?" You don't know whether to be touched or furious, but decide that furious is easier to deal with. Touched would carry too much baggage. "You must be more fucked in the head than me! He could have shot you on the spot!"

"I suppose he could have tried. He still could. You have to leave this place with me."

"If we try that now, he'll kill you for sure. Maybe me, too."

"No, Angelia. We'll figure something out. We'll get out of this."

"Diana, you thwarted him big-time, and he's not going to take that. He can't stand being made small by anyone. I think it startled him when you stood up to him just now."

"His bruised ego is not my problem. You said you had a plan, some way to get at him so he wouldn't bother you or the boys," Diana reminds, "tell me what you meant. You have to trust me - I can help."

You search her eyes, looking for something to hold on to, something to believe in. Even through the blurry veil of tears, you see it. She means it.

"Come with me."

You take her inside your room. It is the first time she has seen it, and you still have the presence of mind to be self-conscious. The room is large, but feels much smaller due to the proliferation of computer equipment lining the walls, stacked on the floor, teetering on the edges of every flat surface. The electronic hum from six separate CPUs and six monitors is low and steady, soothing your ears with its neo-natal ambiance and artificial warmth.

"You're into this stuff pretty heavy," Diana says neutrally, glancing around, trying not to stare.

"It's a hobby. I'm always looking for new ways to get in trouble, and hacking seems less risky than robbing liquor stores. If I get arrested again... nevermind."

You close the door and lock it. When you turn around, she is sitting on the futon mattress in the corner, carefully folding one of your discarded sweatshirts. She seems so careful with it, such economized movements. Once she finishes, her hands move to the jumbled sheets and start to straighten them out. You don't want to smile, but it gets out before you can stop it.

"Diana, please don't clean up. You'll get lost in my piles of junk and I'll never find you again."

"Okay," she says, sheepishly folding her hands. "Sorry 'bout that."

"Oh, no. After what you just tried to do for me, no apology will ever be in order. Okay?"

She doesn't say anything, just lowers her head and stares at the floor. You decide not to push it. You move to one worn keyboard hooked into a Wang industrial terminal and start typing commands in the cliquish language of UNIX until you have your presentation in order. 

"Come here for a minute. Want you to look at something."

"Whatcha got?"

"Do you know much about biological warfare?" you ask the governess.

"A little," she says, staring at the digital image on the monitor, a color scan of living organisms in the shape of dots and twisted straws. "Is that some kind of bioparticle? It doesn't look like anthrax."

"It isn't, it's a bioagent called Utah," you tell her, surprised that she could tell the difference. "Sharp eye. How did you know?"

"Same way I knew about your stepfather - it's a hobby of mine. I like to learn about things that could kill me. What are those distortions, the little wires?"

"That's not a distortion, it's a scientific breakthrough. Those little wires are actually a filovirus called Marburg."

You think you hear her gasp, then you press on, eager to get it all out before you lose your nerve or she comes to her senses and backs out.

"Hideous is trying to bumfuck this keiretsu called Matsuda Group, and he thinks he can blackmail his way onto the board of directors. Somebody working for Matsuda's pharmaceutical division in the states was doing research for some, let's say less than reputable interests in the middle east, and they happened upon this jolly little combination."

"Jesus."

"You get the worst of two killers - the dispersal properties of anthrax spores and the extra lethal bite of Marburg virus. Drop a few kilos of this shit in Central Park and you could turn New York City into a hot zone over the weekend."

"This stuff is extant? Not just a project under development, or some spooky myth?"

"Hideous is buying a sample sometime soon. I'm gonna find out when and shanghai it."

Her blue eyes widen with shock as she leans forward. "You're gonna what??"

"Snag the sample. Bogart the biocrap. With a live culture of that virus and the research files I've hacked, I'll have a strategic weapon instead of just a tactical one. I can shake him off my back once and for all."

Diana is quiet for a long, long time, rubbing her chin and eyes, looking worried. Maybe you've said too much. You start to reassure her, to tell her that it's not going to be as difficult as it sounds, but she stops you with a gentle exclamation and a snap of finger against thumb.

"Holy fucking Christ. This has to be it."

"Huh?"

"You have to let me help you." She stands and takes your shoulders in a firm grip, looking directly past your mind and into your soul. "If this is gonna happen, you have to let me in."

"Okay, okay," you concede. You don't want her involved, but after tonight, that hardly seems possible. If she wasn't involved when she made love to you, or when you revealed your softest vulnerability by telling her about Hideo's abuse, Diana certainly became involved when she stepped into the breach between you and your stepfather. Her life is already on the line.

"He's probably going to want you to leave in the morning. If you want to help, we're gonna have to be careful. It'll be tough to communicate and get together on details," you tell her, wrapping both hands tightly around her forearms.

"Maybe not. If he didn't kick me out tonight, he might have something else in mind."

"We'll have to wait and see, I suppose."

"I can stay cool. Business as usual until we make a break for it."

"Stay cool?"

"As in not doing anything else stupid unless I'm deliberately provoked."

For some unknowable reason, her choice of words stings you like acid. "Anything else stupid?" you ask, trying to make it sound like a joke. And failing.

"I only meant that I'll try not to butcher the son of a bitch like a Kobe steer," she says, bringing her face level with yours. Her eyes are like windows thrown wide open, the light blue almost transparent as she lets you look inside. "I don't regret anything we did. Thanks to you, I can feel something again." She takes one of your hands and lays it by her left breast. You feel a deep, steady thrumming against your fingers. "In here."

She leans in to kiss you, and you rise up to meet her, mouth open and eager. There is no patience, no timidity, no politeness in this kiss. Only a strange fire, a transcendent heat that blasts away all fears of pain or embarrassment or rejection. She is in your mouth and you are in hers, matching weakness with strength, gift with need. Hands dart beneath clothes to touch swelling flesh, and there are no thoughts of whether the feelings behind the acts are too much or too little, there is only the fire... and you are happy to burn. 

 

 

After the passage of nearly a minute, Diana felt the embrace of security start to change. She felt impossibly soft lips open and press against her throat. A delicate hand slid down her back and under her shirt, then drifted up to stroke between her shoulder blades. Her eyes grew heavy and threatened to fall shut. Her breathing became shallow and quiet. She felt very warm. Almost feverish. Hot.

"Hey. Come on. Stop."

Diana almost failed to recognize her own voice. The interior of the boat seemed to be spinning, making her dizzy. She had to open the portholes, turn on the air conditioning... something. It was way too hot in the cabin. Her arms dropped from around Angelia's steaming body as she tried to ease away. Pushing the girl back onto the bed and jumping headlong into the ocean was starting to sound like a good plan. A safe plan.

"Wake up. Stop that, now."

The younger woman's open mouth produced more heat than a furnace, and when her hidden tongue emerged to lick broadly up sinewy neck tendons stretched more tightly than suspension bridge cables, Diana Starrett's eyes slammed shut. She lost track of where she was. Who she was. What she was supposed to be doing. Both hands were under her tee shirt now, one rubbing the center of her back, the other slipping along her side, down, around... and up to tightly grasp her right breast.

"Angangang! Christ!"

She grabbed Angelia's shoulders and shoved the semi-aware woman away, simultaneously propelling herself across the cabin and onto a narrow sofa. Diana opened her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear away some of the lingering steam that seemed to be clouding her vision.

* What the fuck was that about? What is WRONG with me?? *

Opening one broad palm, she extended her hand and brought it rapidly to her own cheek, slapping herself hard, then repeating the procedure on the other cheek. The stinging breached the veil of distortion that fell over her perceptions, bringing her partially back to herself. She could see Angelia curled on the bed, arms wrapped around her own body, face buried in the pillow as whatever vision/fantasy had hold of her played itself out.

* She's remembering something. That's good, right? Maybe Julia was right. Maybe it won't be as hard for her to come out of the conditioning with me around... but that can't happen again. No way. Don't you fucking go near her, idiot. Not unless you're prepared to defend your chastity. *

Deciding it was best to leave the confined space below deck for a bit, Diana dug the phone case from her bag and unlocked the cabin door. She heard Angelia moan, and turned to look over her shoulder - much the way Lot's wife couldn't help one final glance at Sodom. The beautiful Asian had rolled onto her back, legs splayed wide, one hand moving steadily inside her panties.

Diana opened the heavy teak door, stepped through, and locked it behind her. As she mounted the stairs and headed topside, her own name floated up to her ears in a humid moan. The tall woman ran a hand through her long hair, accidentally grazing the wet patch along her neck and causing a shudder to wrack her body. Once on deck, she took a series of long, deep breaths, calming herself as she came to a decision.

"I'm gonna need help, or at least a chaperone. Maybe not right now, but soon."

A green, all-weather chaise lounge was convenient, so she flopped down and opened the phone unit using the combination Dan had provided. Diana grinned as she noted the design change in the new generation communications device. Uplink buttons were more efficiently grouped, making the connection process a bit easier. Also, the keypad was ergonomically augmented to make speedier entry of long numerical sequences.

* Harry got his improvements put through for the com units. Wonder what else he's changed since he's been in charge. The safe houses still look like crap, but that's by design. He always wanted to obtain more funding for tech research and field testing. Maybe he even approved the travel upgrades... stop it. *

Diana caught herself drifting back into an old mindset as she set up the phone, and it put an awful taste in her mouth. She closed one eye and winced.

* None of my business what he's doing. Not my problem anymore. Just help Angelia remember where the Marburg files are hidden. Find out if Yoshima is crazy or if there's any truth to his rantings. Give Julia what she wants and go home. This - all of this - is past. *

A warm ocean breeze rolled over the deck and cooled the drying moisture her former lover's mouth left on her skin.

"Goddammit!"

She rubbed one hand vigorously over the bothersome trail of wetness, drying it to nothing.

* Dead or alive, she's part of the past. I can help make things right for her now, but that's all I'm gonna do. That's all I owe her. I owe it to myself to try and make good on my failure so that I can move on with my life. Speaking of which... *

Punching in the new code for satellite access, Diana waited until the connection was open and waiting to be directed. She entered a phone number and hummed to herself as the call was put through. She didn't recognize the song immediately, but as soon as she did, she stopped cold.

It was by one of Charlotte's favorite singers, Beth Nielsen Chapman; the song was called "I Keep Coming Back To You."

"Hello?" a voice came on the line, hesitant questions buried within the greeting.

"Hi. It's me. Something's wrong, and I really need to talk to you."

Long silence followed, the quiet growing heavy in Diana's ears until they finally spoke again.

"Whatever you need, you know you've got it."

"I want to do this in person. I need to see you when we talk about this."

"Tell me where you are, and I'll get there as soon as possible."

"Thanks," Diana breathed. She gave out her position and broke the connection without saying goodbye. Her stomach felt a little less queasy already, knowing help was on the way.

* Now, if Angelia's finished, maybe she could answer a few questions. I'll sit on the couch this time, though. Just to be safe. *
 
 

Part Nine

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