Surfacing - Part Ten
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
As Marco almost shouted his questions, Charlotte's spine stiffened, and she discretely moved one hand from Diana's hip to slip it around her waist in a more sisterly manner. She launched a false, innocent grin at the scowling man, and Diana followed her lead, knowing the attorney would not make a false move in front of her volatile former client. Just as Charlotte started to answer him, Marco piped up again.
"I'm walking around to check the house, and I find the goddamned back door unlocked! Somebody gonna talk to me? Charlotte? Mami?" He looked rapidly from one to the other, not waiting for a response before turning on Diana. "And who the fuck are you, standing in my kitchen -"
He got no farther, because Maribel Falcon popped him hard across the butt with a spatula. He yelped and grabbed his hind-cheeks as she started to read him like a cheap paperback novel.
"Villano idiota! Shut your filthy mouth right now and show some respect! Charlotte brings a guest into our home, and this is how you treat her? I taught you better manners than that," she chastised, brandishing the spatula like a lethal weapon. "And this is my kitchen, Marco. You and your friends can play your chollo games in the rest of the house, but this kitchen is off-limits unless you can behave yourself, comprende?"
A stunned silence followed for several seconds as Marco Falcon, heinous international criminal, pouted after being shamed like a schoolboy by his mother.
"Yes, mama," he said quietly, staring at his four-hundred dollar shoes. "Sorry."
"Don't apologize to me, mjio. Tell our guest." She pointed her wicked kitchen implement toward the dark-haired woman whose arm was still casually draped across Charlotte's bare shoulders. Marco looked on her with undisguised jealousy, and repeated the word with as little sincerity as possible. Charlie took the opportunity to defuse the situation before Mrs. Falcon whacked him again for his insolent tone.
"No, I'm sorry, Marco. I should have told you I was bringing a guest, but I thought it would be okay," she explained, throwing him a bone. "This is a girlfriend of mine from way, way back. Diana, meet the infamous Marco Falcon - an important client and dear friend," Charlotte lied smoothly. She patted Diana on the back, encouraging her to play along, so the tall beauty took the ball and ran.
"Mr. Falcon, Charlotte has told me so many wonderful things about you. It's truly a unique pleasure to make your acquaintance," she said, stepping forward and delicately presenting one hand in greeting. This gesture was accompanied by a demure, overtly flirtatious smile and a general softening of her features. Then came the coup de gras: in a piece of acting worthy of Meryl Streep, Diana widened her alarmingly blue eyes and assumed the look of a woman dazzled by masculine power. She trailed her focus along the trim lines of his hunter green suit, effectively feigning intense interest in whatever lurked beneath the fabric. By the time she dragged her eyes up to meet his, the hook was firmly embedded in his jaw - the line and sinker would soon follow.
Falcon seemed comforted and appeased by the gestures of both women, and flashed his pearly whites in a wolfish smile. He took Diana's hand and deposited an inappropriately hard kiss on her fingers. "Diana, again I apologize for my outburst. Any friend of Charlotte's is more than welcome here, but I have certain security precautions which must be observed by all of my guests - even beautiful women." Marco leered at her openly now, loosing his eyes on her body like hungry dogs.
"What security precautions?" Charlotte inquired, anxious to rein in his attention and divert it to less prurient matters. "Are you expecting some trouble tonight?"
"Hmm? Oh, no. Not really, just can't be too careful these days." He managed to tear his gaze away and choke out a tiny laugh. "You know as well as I do that the cops are sniffing around me 24/7, trying to set me up for something, so I'm watching my back a little more carefully now. Making sure no rats sneak into the house."
Maribel, who had turned back to her stove, snorted and muttered, "Too late."
"What, mami?" he asked absently.
She did not respond, so Falcon resumed talking to the two younger women about the need for precautions. He asked to see their purses, and though they looked dubious, they complied without protest. Marco gave the contents of Charlotte's small bag the once-over, then emptied out and closely inspected the contents of Diana's loaded black purse.
Charlotte wrinkled her brows at the sight of three unexpected items: a pair of reading glasses, a tampon, and a diaphragm case. She knew that each was completely unnecessary, but kept her questions to herself for the moment. Once Marco's check was complete, he was at a loss for words. He had even looked a little ashamed for having invaded her privacy, most notably when he saw the tampon and birth-control device. Falcon then snapped his fingers twice, and two burly men dressed in lovely sorbet-colored suits entered the kitchen, each of them holding a scanning wand.
"This is the last thing, I promise," Marco told the women, as his henchmen swept the detectors close to their bodies. After a thorough inspection, Orangeman declared them "insect free," and Limeman proclaimed them untainted by "lead poisoning." The guards were dismissed and silently shuffled out the door, resisting the stupid urge to ask when dinner would be ready. The last time they had done so, Mrs. Falcon accused them of rushing her, and fed their supper to the garbage disposal. Once the security hurdles had been cleared, none of the three seemed to know what to say next.
"Mijo, now that you know there are no spies among us, why don't you take our guests into the library and fix them a drink," Mrs. Falcon suggested helpfully. "I think they could both use it."
Marco enthusiastically agreed, but offered to give Diana a quick tour of the house first as a sort of peace offering. He explained that Charlotte already knew her way around and could wait for them in the library. Although it was the last thing she really wanted to do, Diana politely accepted the generous invitation, even took his arm as they departed the kitchen. She would use the opportunity to lay some groundwork for this evening, confirming the layout of the house, and erasing any lingering suspicions by driving Marco Falcon crazy with distracting thoughts.
Left alone with Mrs. Falcon, Charlotte turned to the old woman with urgent questions already forming on her lips.
"What on earth happened to me? What happened to us, I should say. When you put me under, where did I go? Where did Diana go? And how did I find her?" Charlotte asked, rushing one word after another in a flood of anxious curiosity.
"Calm down, child. One thing at a time. Now, you say that you found her - what do you mean?"
Sighing and leaning against the counter, Charlotte began an abridged account of the events which occurred during the countdown between ninety-eight and five.
"We have twelve bedrooms, you know. Most of them are here on the second floor," Marco was saying as he steered Diana by her elbow, wrapping up the tour of his home. Diana had marched dutifully up and down the winding stairs, oohing and aahing at the gaudy decor in countless rooms. She had been shown every piece of expensive art he owned, including collections of paintings, erotic sculpture, and walls hung with antique weapons. She had paused to inspect and fondle several of the mounted swords in the first floor hall, oddly oblivious to the effect this sensual act had on her host.
"The room at the end of the hall is mine," he continued. "The largest of my paintings hangs on the far wall, so it's the first thing I see each day, illuminated by the morning sun. Would you like to see it?"
"Which? Your bedroom, your huge painting, or the morning sun?" Diana remarked, even though the words were like bile in her mouth. Still, she played the game to the best of her ability, and smoke-screening horny jerks was second nature by now. Since they left the kitchen, she had been softening the paranoid man's caution and sending that rigidity stampeding to other parts of his anatomy.
Flustered only a moment by the innuendo, Marco slid fingers along her forearm and gently encircled her wrist. "We could combine the three activities, if you like."
His dark eyes shone with an almost puppyish ardor, clean-shaven jaw clenching tight. Under other circumstances, Diana might have actually noticed that he was very handsome. Wavy black hair curling near the nape of his neck, smooth features unlined by either excessive age or worry, naturally red, full lips - all these things slipped past her radar because she simply did not care to see them. Currently, she was too besotted with another to process such judgements, and her evaluations of this man were kept cold, logical, and entirely accurate.
*Gotcha now, stud-puppet.* "But, what about Charlotte? I thought that you and she might be... "
"No, no. Charlotte is just as she said - a dear friend and an able legal advocate. She's almost like a sister to me," he claimed, not at all convincingly.
*Sister? In the Ozarks, maybe. Twisted little weasel. Let's see just how distracted we can make you tonight.* "That wasn't the impression that she gave me, Mr. Falcon."
His adam's apple bobbed slightly as he swallowed hard. "Please Diana, call me Marco - and tell me what you mean by that."
"Well, Marco, my friend seems to harbor ideas of a different nature," she teased. "Charlotte confided to me that she finds you very intriguing."
Falcon couldn't have looked more surprised if Diana had said Charlotte was from another planet. "Really? She's never given me that impression."
"She was probably concerned about a breach of professional ethics, since you were her client and all. But now that the case is over, her interest in you has changed. She's more... open-minded."
"Charlotte told you this?" Marco shook his head and released her wrist, confused and a little offended that he was being given such welcome news by a stranger. "I can't believe she would reveal such feelings to someone other than me."
"Oh, Charlie and I are verrry close. We share everything." Diana's emphasis on those key words did not escape him, and his entire body seemed to shake in anticipation of the subtly suggested event - which she neglected to mention would never occur, even if he lived for a million years.
*Some men are soooo easily side-tracked. If all goes well, you should be in prison this time tomorrow, getting all the love you can handle from a psycho gorilla,* the agent reflected, smiling to herself. She recalled the words of one of her early trainers, a stunningly beautiful Swede named Julia, who had bluntly summarized the theory Diana was currently putting into practice.
"The more blood you send to the little head, the less there is flowing to the big head. If they see you as an object - especially a sex object - you're not a threat. You all but disappear."
A wicked synthetic flame in her eye, she pressed her advantage. "I take it this is an idea you would be interested in exploring with us, Marco?"
Falcon wiped damp palms on his pants. "Absolutely. Are you sure about this?"
"Don't worry about anything. Just play it cool tonight and let me flesh out the details with Charlie," Diana proposed. "She'd kill me if she thought I embarrassed you somehow, telling you like this."
"I understand completely," he said, trying to sound unfazed. "She's a very classy lady, and I would not want to embarrass her, either."
"Good. So, you'll keep us in mind?" He nodded mutely in response. "And don't mention this to her, just leave the arrangements to me." Another nod, accompanied by a sharp gleam of teeth. "Thank you for your discretion, Marco. I'm starting to realize that Charlie was right about you." *... when she called you a creep.*
"And thank you for coming to me with this proposition," he said at last. "I look forward to hearing more, Diana." At that, Falcon linked arms with the lanky beauty and descended the stairs, a spring in his step.
On the landing waited Falcon's lieutenant, Virgilio Marquez. The squat, swarthy man was virtually salivating as he waited for an introduction to his boss's new adornment. Diana put on her charm hat again and swept Senor Marquez right off his stubby little feet, then she asked to be excused for a trip to the nearby rest room. The gents stepped into the library next door, where all the punctual guests were congregating.
Once the men were out of sight, Diana doubled back and headed down the dimly lit passage to the kitchen, hoping that Maribel Falcon was still in there. The agent's mind was faintly reeling from her experience while under hypnosis, but she needed to talk about going deeper.
*That ordeal in the warehouse seemed so real - like I was living it all over again - but it's already fading away. The pain barely lasted past waking up, and the rest of it is just receding so damned fast I can't hang on to it. That memory is mine, and however much it hurts, I should be able to keep it. It's my duty to keep it, to bear it. I killed all those people! I killed my brother... dammit, what was his name!?! There has to be some way to get around these blocks, some way to get my memory back for good without going through Mangano.*
As she approached the door, she could hear Charlotte's bright voice drifting from the room, so she pulled back and waited outside.
*Sounds like someone else had the same idea,* Diana thought. *Well, what did you expect? She's probably confused as hell about what might have happened to you in that warehouse, and you sure weren't in any shape to give her answers. Charlie deserves to know whatever you know - everything you know. She has a stake in this, too. You're gonna have to talk to her. Soon.*
Pressing an ear to the knotty pine door, she caught stray snippets of Charlotte's words: memories, secrets, dreams, Gabrielle, help, trust, forgive. Diana heard just enough to make her worry about the rest. Maribel's voice was too low to be heard clearly, so her responses were a mystery, and that only made things worse. Diana could feel the muscles tightening in her lower back - a symptom of the chronic tension she had all but forgotten in recent days.
The sound of Charlotte's sudden laughter broke the ominous silence, and the eavesdropping agent stepped away from the door as she heard clicking heels approaching. As Charlie barreled through the door, Diana took a step forward, contriving an accidental collision.
"Aaack!" the blonde cried, after ramming her head full speed into the taller woman's chest.
"Whoa there, hoss! Where's the fire?" the 'victim' of the crash inquired innocently, wrapping a steadying arm around Charlotte's waist. She soon noticed that her lover made no move to retract her face, wedged in tight against the front of that low-cut little black dress. Diana cleared her throat, hoping to get her attention.
Now looking not the least bit hurried, the younger woman tilted up her smiling visage and kissed Diana squarely on the mouth, surprising the hell out of her. That was not what she expected, and she was delightfully shocked. In the darkened hallway outside the kitchen, there was little chance of being observed, so one little kiss wouldn't hurt. But one begat two and two begat three, and three lingered on like Methuselah. Someone was backed against the cool plaster wall as hands and arms and legs meshed and locked tight, creating a bright space in the company of shadows.
Both knew that it was neither the time nor the place for this - they had other things to do, important questions to ask and answer - but it was just so damned easy to fall against each other, to hold and be held, to get lost and be found all at the same time in this one simple act. Everything else could wait, if only for a minute. In less than that span of time, Charlotte had nearly forgotten why she was rushing out of the kitchen, and Diana had ceased to care. She did, however, want to know what brought on the sudden burst of affection.
"Please tell me what I did to deserve this, so that I may do it again - repeatedly," she requested as Charlotte swept aside loose, dark locks and latched her mouth onto a diamond-studded earlobe. The attorney answered in spurts of words, alternating each with a lick, kiss or tug.
"It's not something you did, really... I just feel like I did when I was a kid, reading a mystery... and Nancy Drew started to put things together... she didn't have all the answers yet... but at least she knew what to look for... that's why I'm happy... that's why I'm feeling frisky... okay?" She finished by slipping her tongue into Diana's ear, and it was all the woman could do not to scream her surprise out for the whole house to hear.
"Shit! That tickles, Charlie," she managed to say, without the slightest air of protest. Enduring the wet probing for barely another moment, she slipped her hands into cascading blonde hair and brought that mischievous mouth back to meet her own in a kiss that burned up most of the oxygen in the hall.
"You hungry?" Charlotte inquired finally, after being forced to come up for air. She quietly damned her pathetic lung capacity and swore never to smoke again.
"Not really, but I'll fake it." A shy smile as Diana removed a small, straying hand from beneath the hem of her dress - a hand which grazed dangerously close to the sheathed ceramic blade clipped on her garter belt.
"Good girl. Wouldn't want to offend the chef - I hear she's one tough old broad."
"I guess dinner's ready, then."
"Yup. Maribel dispatched me to round up the rowdies and get them into the dining room. Wanna help?"
"Certainly. Wait a minute, though. You've got some lipstick on your teeth."
"Mine or yours?"
"I don't think there's a difference anymore. Here, let me get it. Smile bright, Lil' magic."
A handkerchief produced from the magical black bag reminded Charlie to ask about the three mystery items, so she did just that while Diana neatened up her mouth.
"Are you expecting your monthly visitor?" she asked first while the hankie squeaked against enamel.
"No," Diana answered, smiling already since she knew what would come next. "And I don't need the glasses or the sperm trampoline, either, but I had to bring them along. I promise, I'll -"
"Explain later, I know," Charlie interrupted. "I swear, if you say that one more time..."
"I mean it, though. Let's just see if we can make it through dinner peacefully, huh? You can give me the third degree when we get home."
Though she liked the sound of that idea, Charlotte Browning could not help speaking her mind. "This is really starting to piss me off, Diana. I don't like this 'later, later' rap you keep pushing on me."
A deep sigh as Diana put away her hankie. "You really want to know about that junk in my purse?"
"YES! Of course I want to know, or I wouldn't have asked!"
"Okay, I'll tell you," Diana said quietly, her face impassive and serious. "The glasses are actually high-tech, ultra-violet light detectors. The tampon contains long-range listening equipment, and the diaphragm case is a digital recorder. Clever packaging, huh?"
Dead silence in the hallway for at least a five count as the two women stared at each other, Diana not believing what she had just said, and Charlie not believing what she had just heard. The lawyer then scowled harshly and stepped back, turning on her heel and muttering as she walked away.
"I wish you'd stop making fun of me and just tell me the truth."
She hurried down the hall and disappeared into the library before Diana could even try to catch her.
"I was," Diana whispered to no one.
Soon, the madding crowd from the library had perambulated into the dining room, settling into their places with drinks firmly in hand. Marco sat at the head of the table, with a fuming Charlotte on his right and a half-lit Quentin Carver on his left. Falcon seemed nervous when Charlotte refused to tell him what was wrong, but noticed her frowning intensified when her tall, dark friend entered the room on the arm of Virgilio Marquez.
"Is there some problem with you and Diana? Anything I can help with?" he asked sincerely, not wanting his budding fantasy encounter nipped in its youth.
"Not unless you've got some sodium pentethol lying around, Marco," she replied, dead serious.
Falcon quickly changed the subject to the safer topic of his beloved pet cockatoos, singing their praises until his mother and her drafted helpers - two of Marco's cadre of musclebound guards - finally brought in the heavily laden trays, each plate bearing portions large enough for three adults.
Once everyone had been seated and served, Falcon stood and asked, "Is everyone here?" The raspberry-suited silent hulk lurking by the door shook his head no, and a shiver ran up Diana Starrett's spine.
*They're not here? Jesus Christ, please let them show...*
"Well lock it down anyway, Paz. Let me know when the stragglers arrive," Marco ordered. Suddenly, Diana could breathe again. The representatives were expected to arrive later.
The giant stepped into the hallway and lingered for a few moments. Several men and one woman in the dining room knew exactly where he went and what he was doing. In fact, the woman could have activated the alarms and security for him, if she had been asked to do so. A brief series of blipping sounds as the house was electronically secured, and Paz the Humongous was back at his post.
For a while, all was blissful conviviality as nearly everyone present lost themselves in the pleasures of excellent wine and delectable food. The two notable exceptions were Diana Starrett, who lost what little appetite she had during the guilt trip which followed her cavalier confession, and Charlotte Browning, who was just plain mad. The attorney would get over herself soon enough, but Diana was determined to use this fleeting remission from her terminal lovesickness to get some work done.
She took inventory of the guests, counting eight bodyguards with sidearms among them. Two more were external employees of Falcon's, one an accountant, the other a banker. Then there was Quentin Carver, his dewy little anonymous companion, and Virgilio Marquez. She had yet to hear a complete sentence the man uttered, even though he had talked constantly since escorting her into the room. Diana just didn't care about his speedboat, his stock portfolio, or Pamela Lee's tits - and those seemed to be the limits of his discourse.
For the umpteenth time, she mentally pored over the blueprints of the house, matching them with the rooms Falcon had shown her. She knew the likely spot for the meet was the heavily secured conference room here on the first floor, and she had observed several of Marco's men scanning the room and the adjoining library for bugs - bugs which had not been planted yet. Diana had her plan now. She was in the house, equipped like mad, and ready to get this damned thing over with. Now all she had to do was pick her moment to slip away and go to work.
As Marco Falcon prattled on about his precious birds, Charlotte's eyes glazed over from boredom. She cast surreptitious glances down the table at the tall, placid beauty sitting much too far away, watching as Diana cut her eyes across the table. She wondered what her companion was thinking, since she was obviously not listening to the boastful chatter of Virgilio Marquez. All the little toadstool ever talked about was money, women, and money - Charlotte knew this from experience.
The attorney felt in her bones that something bad was going to happen here tonight, and she was certain that it would revolve around Diana Starrett. Therefore, she was determined to be a part of it. No matter how mad she was over the woman's incessant teasing and infuriating evasiveness, she knew without question that she loved her more than life itself, and would defend and aid her unto her last breath. Gabrielle's parting words circled inside her head, buzzing like a low-flying plane.
*She will need you. Don't judge her, just listen - and follow your heart. You're stronger than you know, and you might have to be strong enough for the both of you. Trust her... or lose her.*
Poking idly at the remnants of her chicken, Charlotte nodded and smiled alternately at Marco Falcon and Quentin Carver, all the while keeping part of her focus at the other end of the table. The two men began to argue the merits of legalized drugs, with Quentin vehemently pro and Falcon just as passionately opposed. He didn't come right out and say that such measures would cut into his profit margin, but all present knew what he meant, and some were not amused. Charlotte wasn't the only one here tonight who worked legitimately with Marco while secretly despising him.
She continued observing Diana covertly, noting her coiled, tense posture, her slowly shifting smile and hooded, omniscient eyes. While she looked to everyone else like just another stunning trophy on Virgilio's arm, Charlotte saw these things about her when others could not.
*She's waiting for something. Watching the room like a hawk, while appearing about as lively and interesting as the furniture. Neat trick, that. Guess I'll just wait along with her.*
As Marco paused to offer her more wine, Charlotte politely declined, opting instead for water. "I'm the designated driver," she lied sincerely, glancing toward the wine-sipping woman who held the keys, while idly wondering if she could drive the Porsche if push came to shove. Diana tried earlier that day to explain how to switch the tiptronic transmission over to automatic to nullify her fears of driving in manual mode, but Charlotte had only half-listened and mumbled affirmatives around the earlobe in her mouth. Now she worried that her inattention might come back to haunt her.
*No more intoxicants for me - I'll be ready. Whatever you do, whatever you need, I'll be ready. Even if it means driving stick.* She sipped her water and nibbled at her dinner, watching and waiting.
Falcon soon picked up the thread of his discarded argument and baited Quentin
until he gleefully re-entered the fray, this time singing the praises of hemp.
Midway through the entree, Diana watched the conversation between Falcon and Carver grow heated again, and she saw her opportunity to slip away unnoticed. She excused herself and made her way past the politely nodding Paz, and back to the first-floor rest room. Once inside, her first impulse was to press one fingertip against the wide mirror over the sink. Seeing a gap between her nail and its reflection, she sighed in relief.
*Not a two-way - no spying in the potty. Falcon might be scum, but he's one up on Chuck Berry.*
Diana cleared her mind of all distractions - memories new and old were banished in favor of laser-like focus on the job at hand. She turned on the exhaust fan for some cover noise and dumped the contents of her purse onto the vanity to take inventory. A tampon was selected from the pile of innocuous objects, then quickly unwrapped and the cardboard cylinder unwound, revealing a sealed plastic packet. It held what appeared to be a pill and two coin slugs.
*Earpiece...* A small flesh-colored plastic capsule was retrieved and slipped into the left Eustachian tube.
*Mike one, mike two...* No larger than dimes and just as flat, the two ultra-sensitive listening devices were activated and tested for the final time.
*Perfect working order. Thank you, tech lab.* She tucked the two discs into her bra.
Next, she removed the reading glasses from their case, twisted lightly on the arms to activate the U.V. sensors, and slipped them on.
*Super-duper spy goggles, good to go.*
Two slim metal tools were plucked from the lining of the purse, and Diana smiled as the familiar, heady rush started to build.
*God, I love lock picks. Skeleton keys to the world.*
Unlike her mounting distaste for violence, she actually still enjoyed this part of the job. She suspected that she would have made an excellent burglar.
*R.T.G. mode, baby. Get ready to go.*
She refilled her purse, flushed the tampon, and set about picking the lock on the side door, the one which led into the library. After ten seconds, the deadbolt gave up the fight and slid open, freeing the door to swing quietly ajar. Diana crept into the room and eased the door closed behind her. While surveying the mildly challenging security, she slipped off her heels, dropped her purse and picks, and laid out her plan for the last time.
*Twenty-six feet across to the conference room. The air vent is shared between that room and the library. One bug under the door, one in the vent, both transmitting on the same encoded frequency. Live monitor in your ear. One digital, voice-activated recording device in the diaphragm case in your purse, and one in the Porsche. It's not rocket science, so just do it and get back before your dinner gets cold - or someone comes looking for you.*
Eight ultra-violet beams criss-crossed the room, rising from the floor at various inconvenient angles. An average intruder would not have been equipped to see them, and even if they had the proper equipment, they would likely have lacked the skill to negotiate passage. This particular intruder was untroubled by either of these worries.
Diana ducked, leaped, and rolled under and over the beams, carefully weaving through the bright blue maze until she reached the other side of the room. Allowing herself a moment to gloat, she reflected that she could make a lot of money around here setting up real security systems.
*That was too easy - and this beam array is considered the good stuff. Hell, this whole town might as well be Mayberry.*
She removed the first mike from her brassiere and licked the tiny disc to trigger the adhesive backing, then knelt and secured the bug underneath the conference room door. The air vent would prove a bit more difficult to reach, being ten feet up.
Diana edged around the bookcase by the door and stepped onto the second shelf, boosting herself up to eye-level with the vent. Through the dusty louvers, she could see across the air shaft into the dimly lit conference room. The long table in the center was surrounded by several high-backed chairs and bedecked with crystal liquor decanters and marble ashtrays. A cherry-finish humidor sat at the near end, a glinting gold lighter at its side.
*Looks like somebody's expecting high-brow company. Goody goody gumdrops.*
She planted the second bug just inside the vent, steadying herself on the top row of books - which she was amused to discover were not books at all, merely cardboard facades cleverly printed to look like the collected works of Thomas Jefferson - then dropped to the floor softly as a cat. A sudden flood of light from the opening of the bathroom door froze her in her tracks, and she ducked down into the shadows by the bookshelf.
Diana cursed herself to hell for the obvious mistake. *Idiot! How could you have left the fucking door UNLOCKED!?!?!?*
"Hello? Diana?" Charlotte called softly as she peered into the darkened room. Presently, she noticed the purse and shoes discarded by the door.
*Go away. Goawaygoawaygoaway.* the agent chanted silently.
Charlotte flinched as a shiver ran along her neck, fine hairs standing on end.
*I knew it! I knew something was up when she left the table. She's in here somewhere. But where? And why?* the lawyer wondered. Then she decided to find out for herself.
Diana's mind screamed while Charlotte hesitated by the door. *Dammit! No, Charlie! Stay back!*
Charlotte was about to step into the room when Diana - left with no other option - jumped up from her hiding place waving her hands frantically.
"Stay right there! Don't move," she whispered harshly, seeing that Charlotte was only inches away from tripping the first of the low U.V. beams. "Just close the door and I'll come to you."
Looking stunned at her lover's sudden appearance, and more than a little confused by her harried manner, Charlotte complied. The young woman turned and shut the door, plunging the room into darkness and making it much easier for Diana to discern the beams. She acrobatically wove her way back through the lines, vaulting over two hurdles at a time until she reached Charlotte's side. Through the wired lenses of her glasses, Diana's blue eyes flashed the full spectrum of anger - from the red gleam of humiliation to the violet of cold fury at Charlotte's unbelievably bad timing.
If Charlotte noticed this look, she chose to ignore it. "What the hell are you doing in here?" the attorney immediately inquired, "What's with the specs? And why were you jumping across the room like an epileptic kangaroo?"
Heaving a weary sigh, the agent chose to answer the latter queries first. Diana removed her glasses and offered them to Charlie. Placing them over her eyes, the young woman immediately gasped, seeing for the first time the web of blue light strung across the library.
"Holy shit. You... you weren't kidding me earlier, were you?"
"Ultra-violet sensors. Security system," Diana said, by way of an explanation.
"Okaaay," Charlie drawled, trying to keep cool, "that's two down. Now tell me why you're in here dodging Marco's security."
"Let's get out of here first."
"Are you gonna talk to me or not?"
"Move. Now," Diana insisted as she opened the door, gathering her things and hustling the two of them into the restroom. She knelt and re-locked the door with her picks, then turned to face Charlotte Browning with no clue where to begin.
*You can't lie to her anymore. You trust her, and you know she would never betray you. So tell her the whole truth. Just tell her the truth.*
Taking a seat on the toilet, Diana motioned for Charlotte to get comfortable. The blonde seemed a little put out by this latest delaying tactic, but hopped up onto the vanity within seconds, hoping to get a more forthcoming response through cooperation.
"I'm sitting. You're sitting. Start talking," she instructed, eyes and voice metrically level.
A few deep breaths for courage, and Diana finally managed to form a word.
Granted, it was only the one word.
*Well, that was brilliant. Where do I start?* the agent pondered, vigorously running both hands through her long black tresses. That didn't shake loose an answer.
"Look, I know something's up. But Diana, you're not on trial. I only want you to clue me in as to what's really going on here tonight," Charlotte prompted. "I know there are a lot of things you can't tell me yet, but I think I deserve to know something. Let's just try to cover the pertinent stuff right now, and we'll fill in the rest later."
The dark woman's face fell from composed anxiety to sheer disbelief in under half a second.
"Oh. Generous of you."
"I thought so. Do you trust me?"
"Yes, I do. More than reason would dictate as possible," she answered, no hesitation.
Eyes glinting pale blue, the young blonde smiled. "It works both ways. So talk to me. Is the sheriff's office investigating Marco?"
"It's not that simple. I don't really work for the sheriff's office, Charlie."
*She's gonna tell me! Oh God, please don't let it be too bad,* the lawyer prayed. Pursed lips and a raised eyebrow preceded her spoken response. "Well, then you'd better give back that snazzy gray uniform. Can you tell me who you do work for?"
A thoughtful pause as Diana Starrett worked on that one. "No. We really don't have a name, just a mandate and directive issued by the United Nations."
Somehow, Charlotte kept her jaw from dropping too far into her lap. *Great, so my girlfriend is Jane-fucking-Bond! Not quite what I expected, but it could have been worse.*
"So you're what, a spy? Is that the right word for it?" she asked, still completely ingenuous.
"Ummm. Gee." The tall woman was momentarily at a loss, and she fidgeted with the fuzzy toilet lid cover while her mind reeled in utter shock at the things coming out of her own mouth. *Shut up. Shut up right this second.* "I guess that's as good a word as any."
"Okay. You're a spy, then. At least you work for the good guys, right?" Charlotte's inquiry was tinged with hope.
Diana answered as carefully as she could. "Good guys. Hmmm. There are some who would argue that point, but I've always thought that we were the 'not-quite-as-bad-as-them' guys. My hat would be gray rather than white, I suppose. There are black hats and white hats scattered through our group, just like they're scattered among the U.N. membership."
"I can accept that," Charlotte allowed. "So why does the U.N. care about Marco Falcon? He's got his hands in a lot of dirty stuff, but most of it would be in the investigative realm of the feds, right?"
*This is too easy...* "You're taking all this incredibly well, Charlie."
"Thank you. I'm trying my best to be supportive and understanding - but I reserve the right to kick your ass at some point in the future for not telling me about this until you were caught in the act," she threatened, waving a finger. "Answer my question, please."
The tall woman nodded slowly, a bit frightened by how calm Charlotte was.
*No sense in stopping now. You're completely screwed already, might as well be honest about everything. If she kicks your ass for being a lying dog, it's the very least you deserve.*
"Yes, normally a little crook like him would be their problem. He came to our attention due to his association with a couple of old school villains. Do you recognize the names Radovan Bartok and Halle Jamal?"
"Of course. Bartok was the general who slaughtered all those unarmed civilians in Bosnian war camps. He buried them in mass graves. Jamal orchestrated the mass murder of Hutus in Rwanda a few years back. Nearly one-hundred thousand bodies left rotting in their villages," Charlotte recalled with a shiver. "I do watch the news, you know."
"Then you also know that both of these men vanished without a trace shortly before they were to be taken into custody by U.N. peace-keeping forces."
"I remember seeing video showing a lot of men in blue berets looking very pissed off, yes," Charlotte confirmed. "What does that have to do with Marco?"
"He knows where they are. He's hiding them - for money."
"Scumbag," Charlotte spat, disgusted. *And I defended him. I'm going to hell now, for sure.*
Diana smiled at hearing the highly appropriate epithet. "My thoughts exactly. We were supposed to find where his safehouses are located and get out, but things got complicated. I lost my partner, and the op was canceled. We were supposed to pack up and leave last night."
"But you're still here. Why?" Charlotte asked, although she knew the answer already.
"Three guesses," the agent wryly challenged.
"Bingo. You win the grand prize, such as it is," Diana said, shrugging meekly. "I just... I couldn't leave you. So they went on without me."
Charlotte smiled at the ceiling, offering a little prayer of gratitude for the spirit who tried to tell her as much as she could, about the superficial lies and the deeper truths. Stifling the urge to hug Diana and tell her to shut up now, Charlotte stayed focused. There was more to learn, and not much time before they were missed at dinner.
"You're obviously still working, though," the lawyer observed, gesturing toward the violated library. "You're still trying to bust him."
"I don't have a choice," Diana answered, exhaling heavily and wishing that the next part would go as smoothly as the previous batch of revelations.
"There's a rift between factions at my agency, and I'm trying to use it to my advantage. The only way I could stay with you was by promising to finish this job and turn over the spoils to one of the two warring parties - the one in the white hat," she added. "And I wasn't lying about quitting. If I deliver Falcon's playmates, I'm out of the job for good. I've been promised... a chance, at least."
Charlotte looked more dismayed than surprised as she recalled more of her conversation with that helpful spirit. *Manipulated and used by evil men, Gabrielle said. They wouldn't want to just let her go - white hat or not, there must be a price to pay.*
"So you have to bargain your way out of this job. What happens when you give them what they want? You just sign a non-disclosure agreement and walk away?"
Diana smirked as Charlie said 'when' and not 'if ' - she took that as a sign of confidence. "I wish it was that easy. There's a process set up for agents who want to leave, and I'll have to go that route."
"What will you have to do?" Charlotte asked first, then re-phrased
her query in an eerily appropriate manner. "Or maybe I should ask, what
will be done to you?"
Steeling herself to press on and explain the most difficult part, the part which could separate them forever, Diana reached out for Charlotte's hand. Moving from the vanity to kneel on the floor, Charlotte did her one better and took both hands in her warm grasp, her eyes showing fear for the first time tonight.
"It's bad, isn't it? A trial of some sort, a danger you have to face..."
The dark woman tried to hide her surprise and wonder at her lover's perceptiveness. "Something like that."
"Tell me. I know I can help somehow. It's what I'm supposed to do,"
"Huh? Supposed to do?"
"I'll explain later. It's your turn to talk now. How do you get out of this job?"
Now it was Diana's turn to be puzzled over vague allusions, and she didn't like it at all. She did not get the chance to press the issue, though, as a sudden, insistent knocking shook the door and jarred both women into action. Diana slipped on her shoes and flushed the commode again, and Charlotte grabbed their purses and shut off the noisy fan. When they had made themselves presentable, Charlotte opened the door and came face to stomach with Paz.
"You can't be in here now. Everybody's in the dining room having coffee and dessert. You should join them," he rumbled, and it was not a suggestion.
Though Paz stood blocking her view, Charlotte could see activity behind him. A group of five men, some very black, some very white, were filing into the conference room two doors down, escorted by Marco and four of his guards. The accountant and banker were also in tow, as was one lone gray haired man in an Italian suit. He walked slowly, apart from the group, smiling like a hyaena about to pick off weak members of a pack of zebras. The gray-haired man took a final draw from his brown cigarette and dropped it on the oriental rug lining the wide hallway, grinding it out under his shoe. Marco Falcon saw this, but said nothing about it.
"Ladies?" Paz prompted, shifting position and stretching out one enormous limb to guide them away.
Charlotte thanked him and took the lead, but they had barely stepped into the hall when Diana suddenly grabbed at her shoulder and spun her back into the rest room.
"Do you have my purse?" she asked quietly. Charlotte looked confused, but held up the bag to show Diana. The tall woman took it from her and smiled at Paz. "I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached."
Down the hall, Mr. Italian Suit paused and looked toward the waiting guard, then resumed his placid smile and entered the conference room.
As soon as Diana heard the conference room door close, she took Charlotte by the arm and walked calmly into the hallway. Once they were out of earshot, the attorney leaned in and asked, "What was that business with the purse?"
They paused outside the now-unattended dining room door. "You saw that man - gray hair, expensive suit, cigarette on the carpet."
"Yeah. What a jerk-off," Charlie agreed at first, then realized that there was more to it. "You didn't want him to see you. Who is he, Diana?"
"The big black hat, that's who he is," the agent explained, opening the double doors and re-entering the dining room as several disembodied voices began to appear in her left ear.
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