By Paul Seely & Jennifer Garza
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal. No
copyright infringement is intended. Everything else in here is the product of
two warped individuals, both rank amateurs, who choose to read and write fan
fiction on their lunch hour.
Warnings: This story contains scads of same-gender sexual subtext scattered liberally all over the surface and woven deeply into the plot - so it isn't really subtext, then, is it? If you are not mature enough to continue reading, then don't. Aside from various potentially offensive expletives, there is also a heaping spoonful of violence on the way, so lookout. Finally, this is the first time either of us has attempted to record the random weirdness of our imaginations. Caveat emptor, people. Oh, and LONG LIVE UBER-XENA!
One - Friday
Surveying the decor of Edmund Salmon's darkened abode, the masked intruder couldn’t help being impressed by the man's taste in home furnishings. Oriental rugs on hardwood floors. Chippendale and Stickley chairs. Numerous oil paintings by promising artists, mostly neo-impressionist innovators and pop-art upstarts, with one genuine Matisse and one Andrew Wyeth conspicuous among them. A gleaming black grande piano stood by the bay window. No doubt about it, Salmon was a man with expensive tastes. He was also a criminal with a rap sheet of white-collar crimes as long as the Persian runner lining the hallway. Salmon had bargained with the feds, exchanging his continued freedom for his testimony in a very complicated, very fragile case against an alleged gun-running drug dealer. The intruder was here to make sure that deal never bore fruit for the prosecution.
After exploring the first-floor rooms, the intruder moved up the stairs, peering into each bedroom to check for surprises. The child's bedroom provided a mild shock -- it was occupied. No one else was supposed to be here. Salmon's wife had left him and taken their son to her mother’s in Sonoma nearly a month ago, and had not allowed him to see the boy since. Evidently, she had a change of heart when she discovered that he may not be going off to the pokey after all. Or maybe he told her that the freeze on his assets had been removed, and that thawed her attitude toward him. In any case, the child was sleeping soundly and was therefore of no interest.
Unerring steps in the darkness brought the intruder to the door of the master bedroom, and the dark-clad figure paused to adjust the newly issued night-vision glasses over the ski-mask. As light as Wayfarers, the glasses were more company-required than field-necessary, but they came in handy in situations like this one. Turning up the sensitivity, the darkened hallway now appeared as if it were lit by the sun.
The door opened without a noise and revealed Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Salmon sound asleep, as far apart as possible on their king-size bed. Mrs. Salmon wore a black silk sleep mask, and the table by her side sported a couple of prescription drug bottles, leading the stranger to hope that the woman was sleeping with ‘Prince Valium’ tonight, and would not wake up at an inconvenient moment. The intruder adjusted thin black leather gloves while approaching the slumbering couple, rounding the bed to stand over Edmund Salmon. A quick inventory was necessary for verification. *Fifty-two years old. Five-foot-ten in his bare feet. Two-hundred and forty pounds. Gray hair, mustache. Scar above his left eyebrow from a childhood bicycle accident. That's you all right. Sorry about this, Eddie.*
His breathing ragged and noisy, the sleeping man inhaled and held his breath for an interminable period of time, causing the intruder to wonder if sleep apnea wouldn't kill this man soon, anyway. At last, Salmon inhaled again. It was to be his last breath. The intruder's hands flashed expertly at Salmon's neck like twin striking asps, pressing fingers hard into his flaccid flesh. He woke immediately and struggled against the inexplicable pain, flopping around helplessly on the enormous bed. Lying four feet away, his snoozing wife was not disturbed in the least. The intruder smiled crookedly and, on some strange impulse, stooped to check the paper tag dangling near one booted foot. *Good mattress, too, huh Ed? Top of the line, individual spring coils. You might be a crook, but you're no cheapskate.* A moment later, Edmund Salmon lay dead in his own bed, a trickle of blood from his nostril the only sign of distress. The intruder leaned forward again and gently eased Salmon's eyelids closed, then turned to leave. Only then was the small witness noticed.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, Salmon's four year-old son stood in his Hercules footy-pajamas, clutching an empty plastic cup with "Wally's Wa-Wa" scrawled across it in blue crayon. Without missing a beat, the intruder soundlessly crossed the room and took the cup from the groggy little boy. The soft sound of treated water running from gold-plated fixtures was audible from the adjoining master bath, and then the stranger returned and handed the cup to the child, turning him back toward his own room. At the door, he turned to ask a question, a small whimper threatening to sound the alarm and make this evening very messy. The intruder smoothly crouched in front of the boy and gently laid a leathered finger against his thin lips, and whispered, "Shhh. Go back to bed, now, and keep dreaming. Hercules needs your help to fight a dragon, so don't keep him waiting." The child nodded his fair head and ambled sleepily toward his race-car shaped bed as the stranger closed the door behind him.
The intruder left the Salmon home through the sliding glass door on the patio, making sure to reset the alarm and re-lock the door. Vaulting over short fences, clearing low shrubs, and dodging sprinklers were the only remaining challenges of this mission. None of the pampered, middle-class dogs barked at the stranger - but then, no dog ever did. With the lightweight high-tech glasses turning night into day, the interloper made quick time through the suburban neighborhood, turning once in a while to appreciate a flower bed or a tiled roof. This was definitely a nice place to live. Beautiful, quiet, safe. *Well, as safe as anywhere, I guess.*
Less than a minute after leaving Salmon's house, the figure reached the end of the cul-de-sac and continued running into the woods, eventually reaching a black Jeep Cherokee 4x4 parked in a well-concealed pocket. Once inside, the dark leather gloves were shucked, followed by the enhanced glasses and the ski-mask, revealing first the tapered fingers and narrow hands, then the gleaming blue of azure eyes, and finally a cascade of ebony hair - a beautiful woman lurking beneath the accouterments of a killer. She ran a hand through her hair and wiped her eyes, adjusting to the darkness a moment before retrieving a cellular phone and a small black box from the glove compartment. Activating the box, she entered a ten-digit code and waited for clearance before placing her call. Once the lighted keypad changed from red to green, she called in to report.
"Enter access code," answered a smooth, synthesized voice. The woman punched in another ten-digit code. "Thank you. Your call is important to us, so please stay on the line, and our next available representative will be with you in a moment." The woman settled back against the car seat's lumbar support, wiggling her tight lower back against the padding. It didn't ease the pain much, but at least she felt like she was doing something to help. *I gotta find a good chiropractor.* The seconds ticked by while her call was traced and verified, and she began softly singing along to the canned music played by the screening service. "I'm 'enery the eighth, I am. 'enery the eighth I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door, she's been married seven times before..."
A series of clicks and beeps sounded to let her know that her call was accepted and was being forwarded to her supervisor. After barely one ring, a gruff male voice came on the line, barking his own name in greeting "Mars."
"...needs women," she responded, negating the need for him to ask who was calling.
Harry Mars gave a short, raspy chuckle and willed his sphincter muscles to relax. "You get it done, Di?"
"Jesus, Mars. You actually think I'd fuck this up?"
"Well, we didn't get a chance to contact you about the new arrivals before you went silent. Sorry about that, by the way. Any problems?" The nervous undercurrent in his voice would have been imperceptible to anyone else.
"No," she lied, voice low and steady.
Mars sighed deeply. "You sure about that? Nothing to expose us?"
"Not a thing. In and out, quick as pie and twice as sweet." She knew what would happen to the boy and his one surviving parent if her employers knew of his untimely need for a drink of water. What she didn't fully understand was why it mattered to her what happened to these people.
"Well, what are you waiting for, Diana? Get your ass home and go to sleep. Today we see how the feds case holds up without their keystone. Stinkin' drug running bastard's gonna walk thanks to you, kid. How does that make you feel?"
"Like a tool. I wish we didn't need this guy out to get this done."
"I know. Makes me queasy, too. But we can get on with the job once this trial shit is over. You'll be there in the flesh, right?" he asked with a sneer in his voice.
"You know I will, Harry. I'm working the early shift every freakin' day thanks to you. Couldn't you have gotten me a better cover? At least as a Marshal, I could wear some decent clothes."
Mars laughed again, then offered a curt but affectionate goodbye and disconnected, leaving Diana listening again to Herman's Hermits. She pressed 'end' and powered down the cell phone and scrambler, locking them in their custom case and replacing it in the glove compartment. Starting the engine, she drove the Jeep toward her latest temporary home, trying to think about anything but the face of Ed Salmon as he felt his life slipping away, just when things started to come back together for him. She willed away the image of a small boy in soft flannel pajamas with rubber-soled feet, erasing the sight of his tiny, half-aware face as he watched her kill his daddy. *I can't do this anymore. I'm losing my stomach,* she thought. And for the first time in her ten year career, she considered asking Harry about 'surfacing.' *Maybe I could survive it... there's a first time for everything.*
Driving the deserted streets of the southern California suburb, she repeated those thoughts until the words ran together and she could no longer stand their hopeful ring. *God, I need a distraction! I'm gonna drive myself crazy if I start dreaming about getting out.* She shook her head forcefully, slinging the congealing plan back into the dark corners of her mind. Diana then sang out loud, on key, complete with silly accent, "... she's been married seven times before, and every one was an 'enery. She wouldn't have a Willie or a Sam, I'm her eighth old man I'm 'enery. 'enery the eighth I am..."
That night, Diana dreamed that she was swimming through thick, warm liquid. Her eyes were closed and she did not worry that she was underwater. She could breathe the liquid, drawing it into her lungs like air. She swam effortlessly, frolicking and spinning, loving the freedom and the silence of the world below. No one called to her, no one tried to bind her, yet she knew that she was trapped underwater, that she had changed so much that she was no longer suited to life above. Still, the curiosity nagged at her until she gave in and decided to just take a peek above the surface. She swam for what seemed an eternity without breaking through, and she realized that she no longer knew which way was up. It occurred to her that she could follow bubbles of air to the top, so she opened her eyes and exhaled... and screamed soundlessly as she realized that her lungs contained no air to push to the surface, and that the liquid she swam in was blood.
She woke alone in her narrow bed, clammy and cold with the sweat of nightmares. Certain techniques taught by the psych department at work had allowed her to block out memories of her dreams, both good and bad, so she never really remembered the exact events, only the sensations. The cold sweat was also a good indicator that her dream was not one she'd want to recall. Rising to stand on melting legs, Diana gave up on sleep and went in search of a cigarette to calm her nerves. She sat quietly on the bed and smoked as the crimson sun rose in her window.
In the wake of the defense's motion for dismissal, the Federal Courtroom of Elceda County, California was awash in murmurs and whispered speculations. Judge Rena Perez banged her gavel just once, sharply, and asked for silence while she conferred with the attorneys. The prosecutor, Roger Van Susterin, a dignified man with caramel skin and salt-and-pepper hair, eased his ample girth from his creaking chair and sidled up to his opponent. The young defense attorney already stood before the judge, almost rocking back and forth on her heels in anticipation. The look in her hazel eyes as she fixed him with a triumphant gaze said, "I finally got you, old man. Been waiting for this day since law school, and I'm gonna enjoy every minute." Aloud, she said nothing, letting her body language speak to all those who would listen.
"Ms. Browning, you realize that the prosecution could still pursue a case against your client, even without Edmund Salmon's testimony?" Judge Perez asked evenly.
"Yes, your honor, but I feel that it is my duty as an officer of the court to spare both my client and the esteemed federal prosecutor the embarrassment of a long, public trial which would inevitably lead to a full acquittal, anyway," declared the young woman, her tone clipped and professional. She casually ran a hand through her burnished blonde hair and fired a killer grin at her opponent.
The prosecutor stiffened and prepared to argue against his former student. "Inevitably, Charlotte? You're awfully cocky for your first appearance in federal court," he said, choking down the more venomous reproach rumbling in his throat.
"Yes, Roger, I said ‘inevitably’ and I meant it. Without Salmon, you have no case against Marco Falcon, and you know it. Why humiliate yourself and your office by chasing after an innocent man? Just let this one go. No hard feelings," she offered generously, savoring the withering glance the prosecutor fired her way, deflecting it with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
"That's enough - from both of you." Judge Perez had thought it over and was prepared to rule. She sent the tendentious attorneys back to their corners and called the room to order again. At the defense table, the accused - a handsome Hispanic man - gripped the hand of his attractive lawyer a little too hard. She jerked her hand away, then shook it out with an exaggerated grin when she saw that her client was offended. "Not so hard, Marco," she whispered. He seemed appeased for the moment, but Charlotte Browning would be glad when this case was over and done with. Falcon was a little too... affectionate for comfort.
"In light of the tragic passing of the prosecution's key witness, I must agree with the defense," Judge Perez began. "Due to insufficient evidence, I hereby order that the charges against Marco Falcon be dropped, and that he be released from custody immediately. Court is adjourned." SMACK! One pound of the gavel, and it was over. Marco Falcon was a free man again, for now, and Charlotte Browning had scored the first big victory of her promising career as a criminal defense attorney. She was so happy that she even hugged Falcon, trying to ignore the way he pressed his hips against her stomach, silently cursing her less-than-imposing stature which had often made for such inconvenient geometry.
She was then swept up in a hug by Marco's grateful mother - a large, Mexican woman with twinkling dark eyes and a smile as warm and easy as a noon siesta. After returning the embrace as best she could (because she actually liked Falcon’s mami), Charlotte disengaged herself and squeezed between the appreciative members of Falcon's family and his various and sundry employees, desperately trying to reach the door before Marco noticed that she was gone. All she wanted right now was a quiet room, a drink, and a cigarette - then she remembered that she didn't have any, and cursed herself for ever thinking that she could quit smoking permanently. She would do her celebrating later tonight with her co-workers, none of whom would try to cop a feel.
As the courtroom slowly emptied, no one noticed the old man sitting alone in the back row, weeping quietly. He waited for the puta attorney to exit the room, and he saw her "client" trying to follow her. Knowing that this would be his best and only chance to get them both together, he reached into the back of his pants and removed the old .22 pistol he had smuggled into the building. The old man was familiar to the security team at the courthouse - he had been here every day since Falcon was arraigned - and they knew that the old man had a long, steel reinforcement rod in his spine, necessitated by a farming accident years ago. The metal detector sounded its usual alert when waved across his lower back, and he had been waved through without question. Now hiding the pistol under his soiled denim jacket, he stood and pursued his targets into the hallway. He would have his vengeance.
Just as Charlotte reached the door to the lounge, Falcon’s hand lit on her shoulder, spinning her around and into another profane embrace. This time, she could feel just how excited he was. He voiced a steady stream of thanks and praise, swearing that he would never hire another attorney, and that she would never want for anything again as long as he drew breath. "As long as you stay in trouble, you mean," Charlotte corrected, pulling away and purposefully avoiding his hungry eyes. Falcon kept an arm draped across her shoulders, unwilling to let go so soon.
"No, my sweet Charlotte, I say what I mean. Besides, as long as I’m breathing, I’ll probably be in trouble, right? So you’ll always have work. In fact, I have an employee who needs an upgrade in representation, and I..."
"You murdering bandit! You killed my son!" The old man interrupted Falcon by screaming and running towards the embraced pair with surprising speed, moving so fast that Falcon could barely release Charlotte before he was slammed against the marble wall with a gun pressed to his nose. Charlotte tried to move away, but the man grabbed her arm and swung her against the wall to stand by Falcon. "And you fix it so he goes free!" He glared furiously at both of them. "You gonna die like my boy died. You gonna see it coming, just like my Pablo did," the old man declared in a shaky voice. His hand was trembling as he moved his weapon back and forth from the man who executed his son to the woman who kept him out of prison. He couldn’t decide who to kill first. Falcon looked to his men, none of whom were armed today, and actually found himself praying for the intervention of a cop. "On your knees," said the old man, "Both of you."
As they knelt, Charlotte scanned the panicked crowd for help, seeing several court officers with their guns drawn. *What the hell are they waiting for?* she wondered. Then she saw someone in black shoes and gray pants step from the crowd and approach the old man from behind. Only visible to the knees, obscured by the old man’s body, the figure moved closer. *Sheriff’s deputy, I’ll bet. Gonna get us all killed.*
Then a man’s voice called from the right, causing the old man to spin toward the sound, and one of Falcon’s crew stepped forward with his hands raised. Younger than Marco's other associates, this man was slim and well-dressed, with a mildly pock-marked face which gave him the look of an eternal teenager. His demeanor, however, was that of an older, confident man.
"Hey, mister. He didn’t kill nobody. Why you hassling with Marco? He helps people, old timer, he don’t kill nobody," the young man spoke in an even, calming voice intended to draw the old man into debate, and it worked. Charlotte noticed that the black shoes had drawn closer, yet not a sound was heard except the old man’s shouting as the deputy crept up behind the gunman - just when the old man lost his patience and drew back the hammer, preparing to fire at Falcon’s man.
A hand blurred across the old man’s field of vision in a flash of gray and yellow, and he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. A dull, muted click sounded, then the gun was snatched from his trembling hand and he was jerked into the waiting arms of two U.S. Marshals who spirited him away without a word. Falcon jumped up and ran to embrace his mother and thank his quick-thinking employee. He then faded into the throng of press waiting to hear from the exonerated man. Charlotte, meanwhile, remained kneeling by the cool stone wall, still a little stunned at the quick turn of events, still unsure exactly what happened.
"Hello, down there," called a friendly voice, "You all right?" A woman’s hand appeared before her and she took it, surprised at the warmth and strength of the grip as she was hauled to her feet. In the woman’s other hand was the .22 pistol, which now sported an unsharpened Berol No.2 pencil trapped beneath the hammer. Charlotte put it together fairly quick, still staring at the weapon which could have ended her life, and asked for confirmation, "You... you wedged a pencil in his gun?"
"Yeah. The way he was shaking, someone could have gotten hurt if I’d just grabbed at it, so I used my chew toy to jam him up," the woman answered. She then handed the gun over to another officer, and Charlotte’s attention was finally drawn away from the pistol. "You sure you’re okay?" the deputy asked again, and this time the attorney looked at her as she spoke - and swooned. Her knees buckled and she was headed for the floor again when the deputy caught her by the shoulders and held her up, easily supporting the smaller woman’s weight as she guided her to a bench. People were swarming all around them, but somehow the noisy hallway became eerily quiet for Charlotte Browning as she tried to focus again on the deputy’s face, the sound of her voice.
"Stay here. I’ll get you some water," the deputy offered, but Charlotte grabbed her by the forearm and refused to let go. She didn’t understand why, but she didn’t want to be left alone, couldn’t stand the sight of this woman’s retreating back. "No. No, I’m fine, honest. Just... just sit with me for a minute while I get my bearings," Charlotte requested.
The deputy nodded and sat quietly as the young woman looked her over, seeming to find some reassurance in her presence. Her arm was still firmly locked in the attorney’s grasp, and was starting to get a little numb, but she did not try to withdraw. There was something oddly familiar and easy about silently comforting this woman, something she could not put her finger on.
The lawyer’s drawn face and sea-green eyes still held a trace of fear, but her breathing had steadied. She continued to stare at the deputy as if she were trying to convince herself she was real, that she was here, now. *She's fine, she's okay, she's here,* Charlotte thought, then blinked rapidly at the unbidden sentiment. *That’s strange. I’m the one who had a gun stuck in my face, and I’m relieved that some stranger is okay? I’m cracking up.*
The deputy finally spoke up. "You, ah, you keep staring at me. Do I have something stuck in my teeth, or what?" she asked with a bright smile. Charlotte flushed instantly and looked away. "No. You just seem... familiar, that’s all. Like I recognize you, only I know we’ve never met. I would have remembered," Charlotte explained, "You look very... distinctive," she paused to look at her name tag, "Deputy Starrett." *Her eyes, I know those eyes from somewhere...*
Those eyes flashed and widened as Starrett asked, "Distinctive - should I take that as a compliment?"
Charlotte’s face relaxed a little. "As you like, Deputy Starrett. Right now, though, I think the most beautiful sight in the world would be a lit cigarette," she sighed. As if on cue, the deputy produced a pack of Marlboros and a sleek silver lighter. She withdrew two, placed them both in her mouth, and ignited the tips with the crimson jet from the lighter. She handed one to Charlotte and took a deep drag off the other. Charlotte accepted with a smile and a nod of understanding, not even glancing at the ‘NO SMOKING’ plaque mounted over their bench. *Let ‘em arrest us,* she thought, once again caught up in the bizarre sense of ease and permissiveness she now felt. Maybe it was due to staring death in the face only minutes before, but somehow she felt it had more to do with her present company, like everything would be all right as long as she was around.
"I'm lucky to have been rescued by someone who smokes, I guess," Charlotte mumbled, her lips firmly wrapped around the filter.
"Actually, I don't usually carry cigarettes with me. I only allow myself two a day, and this makes two."
"You must have amazing will-power. It's all or nothing with me. I'll probably go out and buy a carton now that I've had a taste." Charlotte shook her head and the deputy smiled in sympathy.
The young attorney then cringed visibly as she saw Falcon break away from the pack of reporters and head back toward her, relaxing only when he passed without spotting her through the throng of people surrounding him. As his posse made its way to the exit, she thought she saw one of Falcon’s men - the young one who had stepped forward to talk to the old man - wink in her direction. A glance at Deputy Starrett revealed a return wink, and she realized that they must know each other somehow, but were not going to speak to each other. "You know him?" she asked, surprising herself with her sudden question.
"Not really. He flirts with all the women every time he comes in here, though. Ladies man, I guess," answered Starrett with a non-committal shrug. Charlotte could not remember that particular guy flirting with anybody in all the weeks she had worked around Falcon- and his crew was a veritable testosterone factory. Before she could comment further, a U.S. Marshal and a very fat man whose badge read ‘Chief Deputy’ walked up to Starrett and asked her to come along and give them her version of events. Charlotte grudgingly released her arm, frowning as Starrett got up to leave. *She's leaving. SHE'S LEAVING! SAY SOMETHING, IDIOT!*
"Hey, Deputy Starrett!" she called. Starrett turned and motioned for her supervisor to give her a minute. She walked back toward the smiling Charlotte Browning, suddenly realizing that her own face mirrored the young attorney’s expression. *What the hell is going on with me?* she wondered, shaking her dark head and loosening a thick strand from the tight bun which held it aloft. "Yes?" She tried not to sound too hopeful, aware now that she was actually hoping for something.
"My firm had planned kind of a victory dinner thing tonight..." her courage waned slightly and her voice trailed off. "I don't know if you'd be interested... Have you ever been to Treus?"
"Yeah. A couple times," she lied, tucking away the errant strand of hair.
"Oh, good. It's my boss's favorite place." Charlotte looked lost again.
"And?" Starrett prompted, smiling encouragingly.
"And... I was wondering if you might drop by for a drink. It’s the least I can offer you, seeing as you... saved my life and all that," Charlotte said, relieved that she had at least given it a shot, ready to be assured that it was all in a day’s work, that no thanks were required.
"When?" Starrett asked bluntly.
"Umm... it’s tonight at nine. Treus on tenth street."
"I have a few things to do tonight, so I won’t promise anything, but I’ll try to make it."
"Oh. That’s... that’s great, deputy. I look forward to seeing you there." Charlotte was virtually beaming, then she remembered that somewhere along the line, formal introductions had been overlooked. They had seemed almost unnecessary. "Geez, where is my head? My name is..."
"Charlotte Browning. I know," the blue-eyed woman said. "And please, call me Diana."
"Okay, Diana," Charlotte extended her hand, "I hope you can make it." *Diana Starrett. Nice name. But it wasn't what I expected, somehow.*
Diana took Charlotte’s hand and held it more that shook it, hanging on for a few ticks longer than conventionality dictated was appropriate. She looked back at her supervisor and released the attorney’s small hand, smiling. "It’s time," she said simply, and walked away, leaving Charlotte to work her way through the throng of reporters which descended on her scant seconds later.
Marco Falcon’s estate lay just outside of Elceda proper, about halfway between San Diego and Chula Vista. Isolated but accessible, the property was dotted with pine trees and a stray palm or ten, plenty of live oaks filling in the empty spaces. Iron gates down on Parsonage Drive (an irony Diana still giggled over) opened onto a long, winding gravel road which led past cracked tennis courts, a rotting picnic area, and a slimy green fountain complete with an eternally upchucking, buck-naked Cupid. The house itself was a massive three-story affair of dusky-colored stucco and Spanish-style tile roofing. Diana had never been inside, but she had studied the blueprints and memorized the layout shortly after being assigned to Falcon. She could probably find her way around the rambling house in the dark - without the night-vision glasses - but for now, she had to make-do with listening.
Parked on Parsonage, a few blocks down from Falcon’s gate, Diana sat in her black Jeep and watched the sun slide behind a bougainvillea-covered hill. She tucked in the tiny ear-piece as Falcon returned to the conference room and resumed talking. His voice was only slightly tinny, and Diana checked the recording unit again, making sure his levels were adequate for a clear master. Falcon’s volume level suddenly jumped sky high as he started yelling at one of his associates.
"You stupid fuck! You think I’d be talking if I hadn’t had this whole place swept for bugs? You think I’M stupid, cabron?" There was no answer. Diana assumed the doubter had been properly cowed. "My man Eladio checked this place himself!" She could hear Falcon cross the room, then fabric rustling as Eladio was pulled into an embrace. "This man saved my life today. He distracted that crazy old fuck while that puta police snuck up on him! Brave man, Eladio. You got promise." As she listened to Falcon walk away, Diana mouthed the word ‘puta,’ aware of the negative connotations the term held, wondering what she had done (other than saving the rat bastard’s life) that merited such an epithet. "Sorry, Di," a low voice whispered in her ear. Eladio. "If it matters, I still love you – even if you’re a puta."
She laughed first, muttering "Bite me, junior," then wished again that the young agent didn’t play so fast and loose with his life. But sometimes, his timing was impeccable. This morning at the courthouse, he stepped up to the gunman only a beat after she cleared the crowd, as if they were on the same wavelength. She knew that he had done it to protect Marco Falcon - because until they were done with him, keeping him alive was priority number one - but Diana was now inordinately relieved that no harm had come to Falcon’s attorney.
*Charlotte Browning,* she mused silently, *Nice name, it just doesn’t seem to fit her somehow.* As Falcon rambled on, complaining now about the neglect of his pet birds while he was held in prison without bond, Diana continued to reflect on those few moments spent in the young woman’s company. A stray memory of her eyes, which changed from a misty blue to a deep green, depending on how the light hit them. *What's that called? Hazel. Nice eyes.* Her blond hair glinting with red highlights, the way she seemed so instantly friendly. *The way she kept smiling at you, moron. The way she grabbed onto your arm like you were pulling her from a riptide. Think about that if you want a distraction - which you don’t,* her inner voice reprimanded. *You have a job to do. Do it and get the hell out of town before it’s too late.*
"Now, about our guests," Falcon said, finally kicking it into gear, "I want to speak with their representatives this weekend, maybe Sunday evening, and we’ll decide whether to continue providing accommodations for such... demanding tenants."
"But Marco, we had agreed that after six months, we would be done with the hotel business!" objected one of Falcon’s lieutenants. Diana pegged the speaker as the stumpy, sweaty one named Virgilio. "You said yourself that our guests were more trouble than they are worth!"
"That was then, Virgilio. This is now, and I have good reason to believe that it could be worth our while to abide their presence a while longer," Falcon said reasonably. Then his tone changed suddenly and he was all menace. "And Virgilio? If you ever throw my own words at me again, I’ll cut your tongue out myself and feed it to you. Comprende?"
"Yes, Marco. I apologize," the man answered soberly.
"Good. Now call up our contacts and tell them that the lease is up Monday morning, so either they pay up for another term, or we evict the tenants. We can meet here Sunday evening and discuss it. Hell, I’ll make it a party to celebrate my release! Mami would like that," Falcon declared, storming out of the room to check on his beloved pets.
Diana had what she needed, so she shut off the surveillance equipment and started the Jeep, deciding to make her report from further down the road. She retrieved the encoding transmitter and the cell phone and started the procedure as she parked along Branch Street. As she entered her codes and bided her time humming along to the wretched strains of Melanie's "Brand New Key," Diana realized that she was two streets over from the home of the late Edmund Salmon. She closed her eyes against a brief flash of the tiny boy standing silhouetted in the bedroom doorway. Sounds closed in from all around her - suburban kids playing late pick-up games in driveways, chasing dogs across manicured lawns, and making the most of the remaining dusk. Then she thought of a small boy whose life she had irrevocably altered less than eighteen hours before. Clicks and beeps jolted her back to life as the line cleared and Harry Mars demanded a report.
"Sunday night, he’s having a party, the reps will be there. He’ll make his decision then, and we should have their locations by Monday morning," Diana droned.
"Good news. So our boy’s still in the greaseball’s good graces?" Harry inquired.
"Oh, yeah, just call him 'golden boy.' He's a hero and I'm a puta. You see the news?"
"Yesss. You look good in gray, Di. Maybe I’ll petition the committee to issue uniforms next quarter."
"Do it and you’re dead, Mars. Stupid outfit itches like a sonofabitch. Is that all you need for now?" she sighed.
"If that’s all you got. Pull out your Merc unit and transmit the verbatim. I wanna read it tonight."
"Right after I hang up, Harry. Then I gotta get moving."
"Why? You got a date or something?" Mars laughed.
"As a matter of fact, I think I do. So either wish me luck or kiss my ass."
"Bend ov..." Diana clicked off before Mars could finish. She used the same secure connection to send the recorded version of events to his eager terminal via the small encoding box/transmitter which was affectionately known as a Mercury unit - because it was currently the fastest messenger in existence. A few minutes later, she was cruising slowly by the Salmon home. Why, she didn't really know. Just some strange compulsion to return to the scene of the crime, she guessed.
*No wreath on the door. No car in the drive. No lights burning inside. Maybe they went back to her mother's place. Guess she left the arrangements to someone else.* she concluded, not wanting to entertain any theories of a more sinister bent. Turning around in the asphalt bulb at the end of the cul-de-sac, Diana flipped on her headlights and headed back to town, anticipating the rest of the evening and softly singing a favorite song from her childhood to ward off any more bad thoughts.
"Miss Lu Lu had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, the steamboat went to heaven and Miss Lu Lu went to helllll-o operator, give me number nine..."
"So Quentin saunters right up to Madame Justice Pamela Rundberg, runs a manicured finger down her starched lapel and says, 'Pammy, sex is only dirty when it's done right,'" Charlotte finished, her latest account of the adventures of their beloved senior partner lighting up the faces of her co-workers. The young woman gave them a dazzling smile, basking in the laughter and smiles being rained on her by associates and partners alike. Tonight, she was not merely the premier raconteur among her peers, she was a hero who had obtained vindication for her entire cohort by slaying the prosecutorial dragon named Roger Van Susterin. While she was secretly bursting with pride, she bore their congratulations with characteristic good grace while draining her third vodka gimlet.
One thing about the law firm of Quentin & Berkhoff which caused it to differ drastically from other august legal establishments was the way victory equalized everyone in a kind of narcissistic solidarity, a collective 'Hooray for us!' kind of fervor. Every time one of their attorneys won a big case, the entire office celebrated as one, transforming the victory dinners into a shark Utopia where they joyfully feasted on the humiliation of their opponents while sharing food, wine, and tall tales. Charlotte was totally in her element, and grateful to be there. The firm cultivated not only her innate competitive instincts, but her talent and affinity for holding court no matter where she went. She could disassemble a hackneyed old anecdote and re-weave it into a vibrant, picturesque event which made all who heard it feel as if they'd been there.
In the crowded dining room at Treus, the swanky restaurant favored by Quentin Carver and his gang of miscreants, Charlotte stood out like a bleeding ray of sunlight. Her russet silk suit, accented with small bright flashes of gold jewelry, set off the prominent red highlights in her fair hair, and lent additional color to her full crimson mouth. White, even teeth gleamed in a pained smile as she absorbed the ribbing of her colleagues over her brush with danger this morning. The comments ranged from a candid appraisal of her TVQ rating following the crush of interviews she granted, to a somewhat off-color remark about the nature of her relationship with Falcon. Far from being a wilting flower, Charlotte turned up the heat until her tormentor begged for mercy and another glass of wine to balm his bruised ego.
Even in the midst of all the noise generated by her table and the multitude of other diners, the room suddenly went silent as Charlotte caught sight of Diana Starrett picking her way through the restaurant, headed for the bar. She moved with a grace which belied her stature, like she was walking through warm salt water. Watching her, the young attorney had to remind herself to breathe. "Excuse me, everyone. I think I see someone I recognize," Charlotte said as she hastily departed, making a beeline to the refreshment counter. A flurry of questioning glances followed her until she rounded the corner and was out of sight. Charlotte was usually firmly entrenched at the table until Quentin Carver arrived, but tonight of all nights, she abandons her post? It didn't make sense.
Upon entering the restaurant, Diana did a quick survey of the layout, marking exits, vulnerable positions, and most importantly, restrooms. The truth was that she had never set foot in Treus before, but she had lied to Charlotte on reflex, making it easier for the young woman to ask what she needed to ask without additional worry. Treus was rather decadent for a middling southern California suburb, but the small population was more than made up for by the per-capita income of Elceda residents. Such folks would need a haven like this place, brimming with leather, oak, brass, and tasteful art.
While leaning her tall frame against the end of the bar, Diana's sharp peripheral vision spied Charlotte approaching, and unconsciously, she found herself striking a pose. She wore a slate blue skirt, very short, and a matching suit jacket with a satin and lace camisole underneath. While dressing earlier, she had not even considered going demure. Something within her wanted to impress this woman, not just with her strength or timely intervention in times of crisis, but with her more aesthetic qualities, which were numerous. Sensing that she was being watched, she flexed onto the balls of her feet, throwing her toned calves into high relief. She smiled as the movement behind her stopped, and turned her head just in time to catch a glimpse of Charlotte Browning staring at her legs.
"Hope I'm not too late for that drink, Ms. Browning," she said evenly, letting her voice jolt the younger woman back into motion.
"No, your timing is perfect. Conversation among my colleagues is approaching the 'obnoxious to unbearable' level about now, so you have unwittingly rescued me again, deputy," Charlotte replied, effectively masking her concern that she had been caught leering at those unbelievably long legs. *What the hell is wrong with me? This is a woman, for God's sake! Keep your head, Charlie.*
"So, what's your poison, counselor?" the barkeep queried in a gravelly voice, as the two women settled into tall chairs discretely bolted to the brass railing.
"Whiskey sour, Jeeves," Charlotte responded with a teasing grin.
He tapped his enamel name tag, which clearly read 'Harvey,' and turned to Diana."And you, miss?"
"Glenlivet, neat." Harvey set off to fill their orders, and Diana laughed softly over some private joke.
"What's so funny, deputy?" Charlotte asked, her light brows furrowed in question.
"Nothing. Just that if someone had pointed you out and asked what you drink, I would never have guessed what you just ordered."
"And why not? I don't look like I can handle it?" Her voice was thick with sarcasm and mounting indignation. "What would you have guessed, oh skilled investigator?"
"Don't get upset, but I wouldn't have thought you were old enough to drink, period. But, if pressed, I would have said something quick and deadly. Maybe a vodka-based molotov... something like that."
A sheepish grin broke across Charlotte Browning's face as she realized she had been pegged. "How old do you think I am, deputy?"
"Diana. Call me Diana. And you look like you're on the green side of your twenties, so I'll say twenty-five," she ventured, blue eyes twinkling with mischief. She had read the file on this woman as soon as she signed on to represent Marco Falcon, so unless the attorney saw fit to lie, there would be few surprises here tonight.
"Bingo! How did you guess that? Most folks overshoot by at least two years, trying to compensate for my diminutive stature, I think," the blonde offered amiably.
*They probably don't know that you skipped a year in high school, and graduated from Berkeley at twenty, though, do they?* "I'll grant that you look young enough to crash a student council meeting," Diana explained, "but I've heard enough about you to know that looks can be deceiving in your case, Ms. Browning."
"Hey, if I'm gonna call you Diana, you gotta call me something other than Mizz Browning - makes me sound like a math teacher," Charlotte insisted. Harvey arrived with their drinks, and she downed half of hers as Diana watched in amazement. "So. My friends call me Charlie, and I'd feel better if you did, too. Now, just what have you heard about me, anyway?"
*Charlie BROWNing? Nonono, that's too silly. Don't mention it.* "I have heard that you are an up and coming attorney with Quentin & Berkhoff, that you can rip apart an unworthy civil suit with your bare teeth, and that you got your first taste of blood in the criminal waters this morning. You're a dangerous woman, Charlie," she said, her voice dropping an octave to accentuate implied menace at those last words.
Charlotte lifted her drink and toasted herself. "Damn right. I can wield a tort like a baseball bat, baby, and don't you forget it! SMACK! Cheers to me!"
"Cheers to you." Diana grinned and clinked her heavy crystal glass -still containing most of her scotch- against Charlotte's nearly empty one. *Baseball bat, huh? Not a MAC-10, or even a sword. Blunt instrument for pummeling. Seems appropriate. You're willing to fight, but you're not a killer. And I don't even want to know why I'm so sure of that.*
Conversation meandered between the two like a stream running though a meadow, nourishing growth on both sides. Somewhere during her second drink, Diana let herself sink into deep focus on Charlotte, laughing at all of her stories and jokes, musing over her perceptive comments. The relatively puny amount of alcohol consumed allowed her to overcome the need to distance herself from her feelings, and she let herself be charmed by the chatty young woman. Charlotte needed no such chemical enhancement to let herself open up -although she was two-and-a-half sheets to the wind already- she had known that she could trust Diana since first laying eyes on her this morning. So engrossed in the minutiae of each other's life stories (both genuine and fabricated) were they, that Diana only noticed the distinguished gray-haired gentleman approaching them after he cleared his throat to garner attention. Diana recognized the dapper, handsome fellow immediately and pointed him out to her companion.
"Quentin!" Charlotte cried happily, nearly leaping out of her chair, "You made it! I won today, ya know." Her words were just now beginning to soften and slur.
"So I've been told, Charlie, so I've been told," Quentin said, embracing the young woman. His eyes twinkled and he was obviously very proud of his protégé. "Now tell me the truth. You actually enjoyed sticking it to old Van Susterin, didn't you?"
"Abso-freakin-lutely! You were so right about that; there is nothing quite like whipping up on your teachers to make you feel invincible." Charlotte's face lost a little of it's glow then, as she recalled what happened afterwards. "No matter how temporary those feelings may be. I guess you know about the other part too, huh?"
Renewing his hold on her, Quentin whispered, "Yes, I saw your performance on the evening news. I'm just glad you're alright, child."
Squeezing him a final time and stepping back, Charlotte waved her hand to direct her boss's attention to the tall woman still seated at the bar, watching with interest. "Thanks to Deputy Starrett, here. She's more skilled with a pencil than our entire accounting department. Diana, this is Quentin Carver, my boss and default father-figure."
Diana met Carver halfway, and took his hand in greeting. "Pleasure."
Carver lifted an eyebrow appraisingly, and smiled. Although not a full-time lover of women, he still liked what he saw and made no secret of it. "A woman of few words, I take it. No matter. Such beauteous acts of heroism speak volumes about your character. You have my eternal gratitude for assisting this young lady in her hour of need. If you should ever need an attorney..."
"She'll call me, sir," Charlotte interjected, stepping between the two and steering Carver away. "Don't you have a party to host, old man?" she whispered when she thought they were out of earshot.
"As a matter of fact, I do. And since the guest of honor is occupied with other pursuits," he nodded toward Diana, " I shall essay to divert attention from her absence by making an absolute ass of myself."
"Thanks, Quent, I appreciate the tremendous effort that will require. I just felt like I owed her something, even if it's just a drink or two. Or seven. She saved my life, you know," Charlotte said happily, weaving a little as she walked Carver toward the dining room.
"So you've told me. And everyone else with a television set. Too bad she wouldn't do an interview; that glimpse of her the cameras managed to catch hardly did her justice. She's quite lovely. Great gams, too" he declared with a comical leer. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Charlie."
"You lecherous old goat! We're having a friendly drink, that's all. I just like her, okay? I'm not ready to start chasing around after anybody yet."
"Honey, you've been divorced for over a year, now! You've gotta climb back on the horse sometime, and she looks like just the filly to give you a good run," Carver suggested. "Besides, it's almost midnight. One of you might turn into a pumpkin or some such nonsense if you don't get a move on."
"I think you should let me worry about that and get out of here - before I forget how much I like you," she deflected, gently shoving at his back.
Carver allowed Charlotte to push him into the dining room, an act witnessed by all at their table. He turned and wagged a finger at her, then blew her a kiss as he turned away. Charlotte's glare lost a little wattage at the gesture, and she returned to the bar on unsteady legs. Seeing Diana Starrett standing at the bar made her wonder if maybe Quentin was right about trying again. *But it's more than that, Charlie, don't kid yourself. And whatever you do, don't jump the gun and blow this.*
"I should be going," Diana began, "I've kept you away from your victory celebration, and I know your boss probably resents that."
"No, no, no. You couldn't be more wrong. In fact, he told me I should..." *IDIOT! Shut-up right this instant!*
"He told you that you should what?"
Charlotte thought quickly, no mean feat with the alcohol fog shrouding her good sense. "Quent said I should go home and get some rest. I've been working non-stop on Falcon's case for weeks." *That was good. Stick with the truth, kind of.* "Weird how all that work went into a hopeless case that turned around overnight because Salmon had an aneurysm. Huh. Just shows that you never can tell."
Diana grimaced slightly at the mention of Salmon's name. "Yeah. You never can tell. So, you gonna get a ride home with one of your work pals?"
"Naahh. I have my car. I can drive myself," Charlotte said, having forgotten what Diana did for a living.
"I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Charlie."
Charlotte looked hopeful. "And why not?"
"You, Miss Browning are quite drunk. I'd have to arrest you," Diana explained in a firm, official tone.
"Oh. Well, my friends in there are all at least as inebriated as I am, so I guess I'll call a cab." She tried not to sound crestfallen.
The taller woman frowned as if contemplating something dangerous. "I suppose I could drive you home. Where do you live?"
Charlotte blinked a couple of times before answering. "The Meadows, off Vega Avenue."
Diana gathered her things and went to retrieve Charlotte's coat while the attorney hastily paid the check. Harvey noticed her hands were shaking, and reached out to calm her.
"Don't sweat it, kid. She likes you. Couldn't keep her eyes off you all night."
Blushing furiously, the words were out of Charlotte's mouth before she knew
what they meant. "That can be misunderstood. I can't push her this
time." Then she turned and left the restaurant with careful steps, not
wanting to stumble when she was this close to going home.
Five - Saturday
"This is a nice car, Diana. It suits you." Charlotte had her window open, trying to inhale every molecule of the cool night air, hoping the fresh air would ease her building nausea.
"Thanks. You sure you feel alright? You look kinda green around the gills there, counselor."
"I'll be okay. I think that calimari I had for dinner is trying to swim ashore, though," she explained. Smirking, Diana reasoned that with all the liquor the small woman had chased the creature down with, he should be too pickled to put up a fight. Charlotte tried to laugh, but that only made her stomach rumble ominously. She fidgeted a little, unsure of what to say, and not wanting the evening to end so soon. Diana drove through the streets of Elceda like she was racing against the clock, cutting through gas stations, taking shortcuts and speeding the entire time. Charlotte started to get the feeling that the deputy couldn't wait to be rid of her company. "Do you always drive like this?"
Diana stifled a laugh. "No, I'm calm tonight. Sometimes I actually go kinda fast."
Charlotte lifted both brows and shook her head. Diana careened around another corner and they found themselves at the gate of The Meadows - A Planned Community For Young Professionals. A guard stepped up to Diana's window and eyed her warily as she lowered the glass.
"Hi, Teddy," Charlotte called, "It's just me."
"Good evening, Miss Browning. I'll buzz you in." He squared his shoulders and looked Diana over, then turned a proprietary eye to Charlie. "Will your friend be returning?"
Charlotte started to say yes, but Diana surprised her by leaning toward the burly security guard and saying in a low voice, "Just open the gate, Teddy. Now."
Looking not a little surprised, the guard backed away and hit his little red button, and Diana left rubber on the asphalt as she tore through the gate. Charlotte had already told her which house was hers, so she wasted no time getting there. Just as she pulled into the driveway of Charlotte's white split-level home, the attorney started breathing erratically and looking panicked. Diana got out and raced around to the passenger side, flinging open the door and easing Charlotte out of the Jeep mere seconds before the young woman lost her struggle with the nausea - and spewed her squid friends all over the front of Diana's suit before passing out cold.
The tall woman sighed resignedly, removed her jacket and folded it before tossing it into the Jeep, and scooped the little blonde up in her arms. She had known this was coming. "At least we got here in time to spare the upholstery." She took Charlotte's keys from her purse and shifted her body around to get to the locks. Once inside, the shrill beeping of a burglar alarm prompted a stream of curses from Diana. She settled the unconscious woman on the foyer carpet and set out to disable the cheap, consumer grade sentry. Popping open the control panel, she pulled out two wires, stripped them with her teeth, and twisted them together. The alarm stopped beeping. A glance to the foyer revealed that Charlotte Browning was dead to the world, curled up on the carpet and snoozing away.
"Shit. Wish I could sleep like that." Diana returned to Charlotte's side and lifted her again, surprised at how trustingly the young woman curled into her arms. She took her to the bedroom and gently deposited her on the coverlet. Charlotte's lovely, expensive suit had suffered no damage in the squid attack, but her face was speckled with remnants of the accident. After removing Charlotte's pricey suede pumps, Diana eased off her suit jacket and skirt, and after a small internal debate, her stockings and slip. Allowing herself only a moment to look, she absorbed the pleasant sight of the lithe form with its small, sculpted muscles and soft curves. Charlotte Browning was a beautiful woman. She then took the afghan from the foot of the bed and covered the sleeping young woman.
Diana found the bathroom and soaked a washcloth in warm water, then returned to the bed and settled alongside the sleeping woman. She eased the soft cloth over her cheeks, chin, and mouth, cleaning her skin with a gentleness of which she would not have believed she was capable. Diana was not known as an affectionate or gentle woman. Her personality was usually described as "aloof" or "high-strung," but here, with this trusting young woman who was virtually a stranger, she felt ferociously tender, protective. She put the washcloth on the night stand and lay on her side, facing Charlotte, and watched her sleep.
*You should go home now. She's gonna have a massive hangover tomorrow, but she'll live. You, on the other hand, have to concentrate on your job. Find out where Falcon has his safe houses, bust the tenants and hand them over to the U.N., and go on your merry way. You can't afford to get attached to this girl. What if she knows more than the reports indicate? What if she's involved with Falcon's business? What if she's involved with Falcon?*
Diana then reminded herself that her mind spun paranoid theories like spiders spin webs - this was nothing new. She looked at the cherubic face of the woman next to her, and she dismissed that possibility out of hand. *You saw the way she reacted to him. She can't fucking stand him - and she only took the case because Quentin Carver handed it to her on a silver platter. Something to cut her teeth on. She's not one of them, Di. She's an innocent lawyer.* Diana snorted out a laugh at that oxymoron, then covered her mouth as Charlie stirred a little, her hair falling across her face.
Unable to stop herself, Diana reached out and brushed the golden strands back
into place. She did, however resist the mounting urge to place a small kiss on
her smooth forehead, concerned where that might lead. The last thing she wanted
to do was abuse this woman's trust. She felt a sudden, powerful surge of guilt
which constricted her throat at the very thought of hurting this woman. Diana
swallowed hard and rose from the bed, then padded into the bathroom and drank
from the faucet until the lump in her throat washed away. She then sighed in
surrender, unable to leave Charlotte alone just yet, and slipped off her skirt
and climbed onto the bed. She did concede to her conscience that she should stay
above the covers. Minutes later, Diana was asleep.
In the dream, she was drowning. No longer able to breathe the thick, crimson liquid she was immersed in, she choked and gagged in painful spasms as her lungs filled nearly to bursting. She couldn't find the surface, didn't know which way was up anymore. She struggled and twisted, throwing her body this way and that, to no avail. Diana resigned herself to drowning in the red sea, into which she dove all those years ago. Her last thoughts were of that difficult choice made by a nineteen year-old girl, whether to face a trial for her crimes or sell her soul to Harry Mars and the shadowy figures watching from above. She remembered begging to see her mother again, wanting to apologize for causing that woman such pain and heartache, only to have Harry shake his head somberly. If she accepted, Mars would clear her record and arrange for her "death." Her mother would be bereft of children then, but would not have to live with the shame of her daughter's crimes, would believe that Diana was innocent. Maybe she would even forgive her...
Diana's body began to shut down, and she lost consciousness. She couldn't tell how much time had passed when she woke up, lying on a beach with the sun warming her skin. Her clothing was unlike anything she had ever seen, strange and archaic. A calfskin battle dress with ornate brass armor girded her body, her feet booted in soft leather. Diana then realized that she was not alone, that her head rested in the lap of someone obscured by the sun, only visible in silhouette. The person leaned down and pressed soft lips against Diana's own, and salty tears dropped onto her face. Small hands stroked her hair, her cheek, her throat.
"You're here, you're okay! Oh, thank the gods! Please say something... please talk to me," the person - a young woman - pleaded. Her voice was familiar, as was her scent - and her touch. She leaned in for another kiss, but Diana pulled away. She rolled aside and got to her feet, then reeled from a sudden head rush. The woman moved to her and wrapped her arms around Diana's waist, pulling her close.
"I thought I'd lost you again. But you came back to me... you came back," she breathed the words more than spoke them, warm tones against Diana's chest. Pushing the girl away again, Diana found herself looking into familiar eyes, green now against the backdrop of the sea. Bright hair shining with more red than before. A name was forming on her lips... then she noticed the blood.
The woman wore a small green halter and a brown skirt, both of which were covered in blood. Abdomen, arms, chest and face... all smeared with red. Diana looked at herself again and saw that she was completely soaked in viscera; it was caked in her hair, dripping from her limbs and pooling in her boots. She felt sick, and tried to scream, but the younger woman again launched herself forward and embraced her with strong arms. Diana had to squirm and fight to get free, then she pushed the girl down onto the sand and spoke to her in a pained voice that was not her own.
"No, Gabrielle. Stay away from me... you should have let me drown."
With those words, she turned away from the crumpled figure and ran toward the
sea, only to be tackled as soon as she reached the surf. She felt herself being
turned onto her back by the surprising strength of the young redhead, then the
girl straddled her hips... and began to scoop up handfuls of clean sea water and
wash away the blood. Diana felt the resistance fade from her body and mind as
gentle, patient hands ministered to her stained garments, flesh, and soul. She
arched back into the tide, ducking below the water to cleanse her head, and she
surfaced to see the face of love.
Charlotte woke with a bitter, acrid taste in her mouth and a dizzy pounding in her head. She blindly rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, gulping down two aspirin with a glass of water. She fumbled with her toothbrush and paste until the awful taste was gone, then rinsed her mouth and looked in the mirror. Only then did she notice that she was clad in just her brassiere and panties, only then did she turn her bleary eyes back to her bed. *She's still here. She stayed with me...* Charlie thought. *Might be nothing but pity for a sick woman - but I'll take it.*
Moving quietly, Charlotte returned to her bedroom and stood looking at the long, lean form stretched out on her bed. Wearing only her slip, Diana lay still and silent above the covers. Visible by the moonbeams streaming through the skylight, her limbs seemed to glow as if lit from within, her face incandescent. Charlotte trailed her eyes from curled toes to sinewy thighs, from the swell of a hip to the fine delineation of a shoulder, resting briefly on various parts in between. Diana Starrett was a beautiful woman.
Carefully climbing back into bed, Charlotte pulled the afghan over the both of them and impulsively draped her arm across Diana's waist. A few minutes passed, and she was nearly asleep again when Diana suddenly jerked away from her grasp and started thrashing about wildly. Charlotte saw that the woman was still asleep, and realized that she was having a doozy of a nightmare. She reached out once, then twice, only to have Diana twist away from her. She started murmuring soothing words, hoping to calm her down. Diana seemed to react to the sound of her voice and stopped fighting, allowing Charlotte to hold her. Then the tall woman inhaled deeply and suddenly, releasing the long breath in a word repeated over and over as she settled down.
Charlotte knitted her pale brows, wondering vaguely who this 'Gabrielle' person could be, then she moved a little closer and renewed her hold on Diana's waist. She leaned close and whispered, "Shhh. It's okay, everything's okay... just a bad dream." Diana shifted position, rolling onto her side and easing a long arm around Charlotte's body, pulling her in tight. Charlie found her face now firmly wedged between the pillow and a sheaf of silky black hair, which smelled so good she could hardly summon the will to move. When she did try to ease herself back, Diana moved again as well - this time sliding one leg over the young attorney's thigh and pressing their hips together. Charlotte nearly passed out again.
*Jesus H. Christ! I'm trying to be good, here! Someone up there must really have it in for me,* she thought. Charlotte gently tried to extricate herself from the sleeping woman's embrace, only to have Diana draw her even closer, pressing against her chest, breasts separated then only by thin layers of satin and lace. Charlotte felt a warmth blossom in her loins as her breathing became a bit labored. A low vibration began to resonate in her body, like the soft thump and strum of distant bass, and a voice in her head advised *This is right, so right. Don't be scared, just go with it.*
Still sleeping, Diana moved her hand to Charlotte's face, caressing her cheek. She brought her mouth to the young woman's trembling lips and whispered, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle, so sorry..." Then with infinite tenderness, she kissed her, moving across her lips with slow, practiced movements. The strong leg draped over her body tightened and again her pelvis was tucked against Diana's. She had no time to adjust to the rush of heat coursing through her before her lips were nudged apart and Diana deepened the kiss, filling her mouth with a sweet, wild, darting tongue. Charlotte was floating down a river of lava on a rubber raft, and she knew she didn't have long before it burned away and dumped her into the fire. Her vaunted ethics made one last play for control...
*This isn't right! She's asleep, and dreaming about someone else on top of that! Think, Charlie; when she put you to bed, she could have done something then if she'd wanted to, which she obviously doesn't - not with you. She didn't even get under the goddamned blanket with you! It's this 'Gabrielle' she thinks she's with.* As her tongue continued to dance and tease inside the paralyzed young woman's mouth, Diana's hand slid away from Charlotte's face and moved to her back, caressing in slow circles, then down her spine, tickling along the bones, and finally came to rest with a firm squeeze of her ass. That did it. Charlotte moaned out loud. Diana woke up. Her eyes flew open and she roughly pulled away from Charlotte as if shocked with a cattle prod, rolling off the bed and standing at a safe distance.
"Oh, shit! I'm sorry, Charlie. I didn't mean to..." Diana looked like she wanted to curl up and die.
Charlotte held up a hand to dissuade the apology. "I know - you thought I was someone else. But what I did was worse."
Diana ran a hand through her dark hair, a puzzled expression on her flushed face. "You didn't do anything, you were asleep. This was my fault. I don't know what got into me."
"Well I know what got into me," Charlie said bluntly. "You thought you were with someone else, and I let you. I was wide awake, Diana. I could have stopped you, but I chose not to."
Out of a million possible questions, Diana asked the hardest one of all. "Why?"
Still glowing from the heat stoked inside her, the attorney gathered her considerable wits and answered with candor borne of passion. "Because I want you. Because when you touched me, it didn't just feel good, it felt right. It didn't even matter to me that you were calling me Gabrielle, I just didn't want you to stop touching me."
Diana's mouth fell open as she took in those words, that invitation she knew she needed to hear in order to move forward. Her placid blue eyes warmed as she let them roam freely over Charlotte Browning, kneeling on the bed, wearing only her white satin unmentionables, a smear of lipstick, and a wanton smile. Letting her gaze linger on that strained brassiere, then drift down across firm abdominals to those sheer white panties, Diana realized that she may have figured out Victoria's secret.
In spite of the joyous little flame now dancing in her eyes at the prospect of making love to this woman, regardless of the relief she felt knowing that she had not acted against Charlotte's will, Diana's suspicious mind picked out the one false note in the lawyer's argument. "Charlie, I don't know anyone named Gabrielle."
Narrowing her eyes, the shrewd mind which lurked beneath the crown of golden hair shifted into gear. "So this woman that you were making love to was a figment of your imagination?"
"I guess. I don't really remember my dreams. I can tell you for certain that I have never met anyone named Gabrielle, though," Diana assured her, taking a step toward the bed. "All I remember is waking up wrapped around the most lovely woman I have ever seen, and being terrified that I was doing something that she didn't want."
Green eyes brightened anew, and Charlotte held out a beckoning hand. "You needn't have worried about that. I think my hopes were aimed somewhere in this vicinity since I first saw you."
Diana reached out to grasp the small hand and moved to the edge of the bed. "Are you telling me that you knew this could happen? With all the stuff that happened this morning, you had time to think about this even then?"
Pulling the object of her affection closer, Charlotte whispered cryptically, "No. It was long before then..." She tilted her face up to capture those full lips in a kiss, both women now fully aware of who they were with, and what they were doing. Inch by inch, savoring the anticipation of first contact, Diana lowered her mouth onto Charlotte's, and though it may have been the first of a million kisses, it felt like coming home.
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