Surfacing - Part Thirteen
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
"And the waaaallls... came tumbling down! Joshuaaaaaa... marched seven times around..."
If asked, Diana Starrett would have never thought she'd have occasion to sing a song from Sunday school, but special circumstances had arisen, and the anthem about the destruction of Jericho seemed an appropriate selection as she pummelled away at the barrier blocking her path. Each blow rang out loud and long, the sound flying up those steep red stairs as a harbinger of her imminent, angry arrival. The memories were flowing like cheap table wine now, sour and numbing, pouring relentlessly from a dark, seemingly bottomless carafe.
*Mother told me that I deserved to die for what I had done. I had no choice but to turn myself in to the police - had I not, she would have done it for me. I tried to tell them about the assault, but they weren't interested in what happened to me first, only in what I had done. I didn't blame them. Four of their own were dead because of my blind rage, and I deserved what they gave me.*
Flashes of those hours in custody blasted into focus, blindingly clear. Seven hours with the enraged men of her local precinct before she was given medical attention, seven hours with her hands and feet cuffed behind her back - hogtied and tossed on the floor of a dark holding cell. The shock of a Tazer, a lightning rush of pain. Kicks to her legs, stomach and arms, stomping on her back where the bruises would blend with the damage that had already been done. Curses, both muttered and screamed, all sounding like truth and justice to her guilty ears.
A split - no more than a hairline fracture - appeared before her eyes. This barrier was much stronger than the first, but she was certain that it was no match for her determination. She kept going, pounding harder and harder, savoring the ache building in her heart. The more it hurt, the closer she was to freedom, to control, to herself. Closer to loving the woman who made her want it all back, and killing the man who took it all away from her.
"Man, you are a smooth smoothy, aincha?" Marco commented after hearing three gunshots from the hall, and seeing no reaction whatsoever from Joshua Riggins. "Your bitch is probably laying out there full of holes, and you don't even flinch!"
A smug look as Riggins lit another cigarette. "She'll be back in a minute or two. You don't know that young lady like I do. She's been through more than either of us could ever dream of enduring sanely, and I have complete confidence in her ability to cope with whatever arises. That is why I didn't flinch. I built her to last, my boy."
"The fuck does that mean? You built her?" Falcon followed Riggins' lead and lit another Havana, retrieving a leaded crystal ashtray while he was up.
"I mean just that - I built her, like the perfect beast. You start with quality materials, like physical abilities, mental toughness, capacity for extreme violence. Then you cultivate those assets, apply a stamp of ownership, and reap the rewards of your investment," he explained, smiling with pride. "I have a bit of a Pygmalion complex, so Diana is my own highly lethal Galatea."
Marco puffed on his cigar, fingering the beveled edges of the heavy, round ashtray. "And you expect her to kill me and my mother, just because you tell her to."
"Unless you reconsider my offer, that is exactly what will happen to you."
"What about Charlotte?"
Riggins seemed lost for a second, then placed the name. "Oh, you mean the cute little lawyer. The one who's been keeping her warm these past few evenings."
Scowling amid a swirl of sweet smoke, Marco muttered, "Yeah."
"She'll have to go, too. Pity - she's quite fetching." A harsh
little laugh. "But then, I don't have to tell you that - you've been sweet
on her for a while now. Maybe if you ask nicely, Diana will tell you if getting
her in bed would have been worth the trouble."
Although Marco knew that the man was trying to push his buttons, that awareness didn't stop them from being pushed. He hissed and bowed up, preparing to launch another round of expletive missiles, but was interrupted by panicked screams from the hall. Riggins turned his gun toward the sound and Falcon made his move, picking up the weighty crystal ashtray and flinging it with all his might at the older man's head.
"NOOOO!! NOOOO!! STOP!!"
Charlotte rushed past Maribel in an aquamarine streak, hands flailing and hair flying as she positioned herself between her armed friend and her lover.
"NO GUN!! DON'T HURT HER!!"
Mrs. Falcon kept the pistol down at her side, finger on the trigger, as she reached out one meaty arm and shoved Charlotte behind her in a protective gesture. She could see that, in her worry, the young woman had jumped to conclusions about why she had the gun. Maribel was also certain that she was not the one who presented a danger here - a flash of wild, chaotic blue eyes peering over the guard's shoulder told her that much.
"I'm not going to hurt anyone unless I have to," she whispered firmly. "Look, Charlie." She jerked her head at the two forms backing down the hall, and Charlotte finally took in the scene. She cried out once in a strangled, peeping voice when she saw the dead bodies lying near the conference room door, then again when she took in the desperate retreat playing out fifteen feet ahead of them.
"Oh, Jesus... Diana?" she said, staring into eyes vacant of recognition, full of pain and confusion.
*She's not in there. She's not in there...*
The warrior's right arm was wedged beneath the chin of the unconscious guard, choking him even as she supported his weight. Three blood-stained knife blades jutted up from her knuckles, sharp edges pressed against the man's neck as she slowly dragged him backward, using his body as a shield. The pounding in her head was almost unbearable now, making her nauseous with hideous, skull-splitting agony. Her body was weakened to the point that she struggled with the guard's weight, losing her grip on the back of his belt twice already. She was also losing blood, though the wound was not serious yet. Each tug on the guard's body tore her skin open a little more.
She could not concentrate, could not seem to focus on anything but covering those last twenty feet to the conference room. Then he would tell her what to do, how to make the pounding stop. Just a little further. Just a little further, now. Just a little...
*Harry told me that I couldn't say goodbye to her, that it was better if I just forgot about my mother altogether. I wanted to say that I was sorry! I wanted to tell her that I loved her, and that I loved Ethan, and that I was so, so goddamned sorry for hurting them! But he wouldn't let me, and I could see all those men looking at me from behind the glass, and one of them was smoking. He said something to Harry, then they took me out of the jail in a big, black van and I never saw her again. That was the day I killed my brother. That was the day I died.*
She stepped back, exhausted, spent, weeping and afraid. That was all she knew, her memories dried up after that, and it looked like it wasn't enough. The barrier held firm, exept for that one pathetic crack, mocking her hopefulness. She knelt by Ethan's slumped body and reached for his cold hand, pulling it to one wet cheek as she sobbed.
*I am so sorry. I love you... I love you. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you, but I've only recently figured out how it's done... and now I've failed you again... and Charlie... and myself. This is all my fault.*
Eons passed as she cried out her frustration, her moans drifting through the barrier and into the hollow space beyond - a lonesome echo claiming responsibility for guilt and pain long buried, begging for a response, a verdict to guide her fate.
Finally, an answer came.
A low rumble rolled down the stairs like thunder from furious heavens, colliding with the barrier and shaking the tile floor beneath the penitent woman's knees. She saw that single crack which hovered like spider's silk strung in midair widen and spread, multiplying threads across the clear expanse until it was a webwork of fractures, achingly vulnerable, waiting for one final blow to shatter it completely.
The ashtray smashed against his exposed forehead, knocking Riggins senseless for the time it took his young hostage to lunge across the table. Hands grappled for the Glock as the chair toppled backward, dumping both men on the floor in a heap of twisting legs and jabbing elbows. Riggins' arm was forced back and beaten against the floor, loosening his grip as the arm jerked forward - and sent the gun sailing across the room, clattering into an unseen corner.
Marco Falcon smiled as the odds fell in his favor. He instantly flew into a rage, pounding the older man with fists and knees and elbows, landing blows to his face and throat and groin in a flurry of pain, screaming away his fears and frustrations all the while.
"MOTHERFUCKER!! HOW DOES THAT FEEL, HUH?!?! HOW DOES THAT FEEL!?!? YOU NOT SO TOUGH WITHOUT A FUCKIN' GUN, EH CABRON!?!?! WHERE'S YOUR SUPERBITCH NOW?!?!"
All Riggins could do was lie there and pray and bleed - until he got his breath back, until he could call for her. Marco intended to make sure that never happened. He leaned in and wrapped strong hands around the old man's throat, alternating hard squeezes with bangs of his skull against the floor until Riggins' eyes fluttered shut and his chest stilled. Marco smiled at the prone form beneath him, rolled off and went to look for the gun.
"It went over here somewhere," he mumbled, crouching to peer beneath his desk. He saw something wedged under the far corner, a dark shape which looked vaguely gun-like. "Gotcha!" Falling to his belly, Marco shimmied halfway under the desk, stretching one battered hand out until the gun touched his fingertips - then he caught movement in his peripheral vision. Riggins was not dead, not even unconscious, but crawling toward the library door. Falcon smiled at the tough old bastard, obviously trying to escape.
"IT'S LOCKED UP TIGHT, REMEMBER? YOU DID IT YOURSELF, STUPIDO!!"
He watched as Riggins appeared to give up, dragging himself to the base of the door, moving his swollen mouth as if he were speaking.
"PRAYING AIN'T GONNA HELP YOU NOW, OLD MAN!"
Turning his attention back to the pistol, he stretched out a little farther, scratching the cold barrel with his nails, summoning it closer with his will.
"Almost there. Come on, baby. Come to papa."
A thin, weak voice in her left ear, almost lost against the sudden peal of angry noise inside her head. A sound like stone crunching on glass followed the rumble, and she swore her brain was being ground to dust in some cosmic mortar and pestle. She lost her grip on the guard's body and they went down in a heap. The women advanced on her - one of them had a gun. Instinct took over as she loosened two knives from her fist and cocked her arm back, preparing to throw.
"Diana?!?" Charlotte cried, pushing past Maribel and moving toward her fallen lover.
"Charlie, no! Stay back," Mrs. Falcon ordered, pacing her young friend. She cocked the hammer on her revolver and again blocked the path with her arm.
"But she's hurt!" The attorney struggled to get by, but the larger woman held her at bay.
"That makes her dangerous." Maribel saw the dull glint of sharp blades and raised her gun.
"Diana... come to me... now... now. I need... I need you, dammit! Stop what you're doing... and get in here right now!"
She heard his words and was helpless to disobey. The pain could take a back seat, and she felt no sincere threat from the woman - the gun was a defensive measure, or she would have fired it already. She took a deep breath and bunched her legs up beneath the guard's body, shoving him up and away like a catapult. He flew toward the women in a limp spray of arms and legs, and they spun away to avoid direct impact. The warrior bolted up to her feet and turned toward the conference room, not able yet to run, but eating up the distance with long strides. She barely noticed the eerie calm settling inside her head as the pain ebbed away to a dull crackle.
"I want you to kill Marco Falcon."
*Okay, so what do I do now?*
That was the obvious question as Diana Starrett gazed at the deceptively fragile barrier. Two swift punches to the cracked wall had done nothing but painfully jam her wrists, kicking was even less effective, and she could find no more memories to use as bludgeons. She knelt again by her brother's side, brushing her fingers through his matted hair.
*I bet you'd have plenty of ideas, Eth. How'm I gonna get out of here?*
A glance back at the closed door which seperated their foyer from the main hall of the apartment building revealed that the black tide continued to rise, chasing her with its Lethe-like temptations. The water invaded the hall and now lapped at the lowest pane of glass on the door, leaking through the cracks like oozing bile.
*Wonderful. I can't go back, so now this is the only way out.*
She looked up those stairs, so steep, so dangerously slick, and wondered where they led. Where was that steady flow of blood coming from? A refracted flicker of dull torchlight from high above fell across the stone steps, illuminating the crimson wash.
*It's leaking down from somewhere. Some source at the top of those stairs... shit, that's a long way up. I wonder if hell is up from here. Why didn't Mangano install an elevator? Make it easier for a body to get around.*
Sighing at the floor, Diana wished that she could remember just one more thing, just one more thing that would break that barrier down and send her on her way, up and up and out.
*I have everything from kindergarten up to that last day, and then it just... I draw a blank. It's like nothing at all happened between the time they took me away, and the time I came to Elceda. The memories I still have are those I had all along - small stuff about work, Harry, Eladio - but it's not enough to cover all the time that's passed. There are all these gaps... where did they put it all? Ten years can't be that easy to hide.*
Settling alongside her little brother, Diana started reasoning things out by testing the limits of the knowledge she had reclaimed, by recalling their life together.
*I can remember how you got sick from eating a whole bag of those orange circus peanuts. You vomited on a transit cop in the subway on the way home from Coney Island, and he chased us through four cars! We vaulted the turnstile at the station and ran all the way home. And that time you stole ten bucks from mama's purse and bought She-Hulk comics. I covered for you, said I took the money for milk and bread. Paid for the stuff myself, then made you work off the debt by washing dishes for a week at my after-school job.*
Stroking the back of her hand against Ethan's cold cheek, she wondered aloud how all these small, precious and distant memories could have come back to her, but none of the intervening years were accessible.
*Maybe it's because nothing good happened to me during that time. We had some good times, me and you. These past few days, I've remembered what it's like to be happy. I met somebody, Eth. She's out there now. She said she loves me... loved me. There's no way she could still... when she finds out what I've done, it's over.*
Round tears rolled from eyes full of regret, certain they would never see her smile again.
*But it was great while it lasted. Being in love, being loved in return - it's like going to heaven without dying. I should have known I didn't deserve that.*
Alone with her guilt and abandoned by fragile hope, the dark woman felt that those fates were more justified. She had earned this trap, this tiny facet of hell where she was faced with choices she could not choose - the path forward, which she apparently lacked the strength to follow, and the path of retreat, which she would never be weak enough to take again.
*We came so close, though. So close. I almost made it, Charlie. *
Unsure what would happen next, and left with nothing else to do, Diana decided to tell her dead brother all about Charlotte Browning. She figured that might be the only thing to keep her sane as the warm black water licked at the door.
"Let Me GO!!" Charlotte squirmed away from Maribel Falcon's grasp, spinning out of her reach and heading for the conference room, into which Diana had just disappeared.
"WAIT! WAIT!!! You can't go after her!" Maribel stepped over the fallen guard's body and pursued her friend.
Turning to face her, but still walking slowly backward, Charlie spoke in a voice desperately sincere. "I have to! This is all wrong! She's in trouble, and she needs help!"
"Mija, she is not herself! That is not the same woman who was in my kitchen. Didn't you see her eyes?"
"That's my point! She's not herself, and I'd bet my life it's that man's fault!"
The older woman looked confused. "What man?"
"She told me that one of those men Marco was meeting with was a very bad guy," Charlotte explained, gesturing with a sickened expression at the dead men. "This is not what she came here for. Something must have gone wrong. He's making her do this.."
"How can you know all that? You only just met her! Did you even know that she came here for Marco?"
"NO! She didn't come here to hurt anyone, Maribel! And I know that she's being manipulated by him somehow, and that she needs my help because... " Charlie stopped dead still, unable to believe what she was about to say. "Because a dead Amazon bard told me so."
Mrs. Falcon was silent then, thinking hard. "Your spirit guide told you these things."
"Yes. She also told me that I have to trust her, that Diana would not hurt me."
"But, you can't be certain of that!"
"Yes, I can! Didn't you say that spirits don't lie? I know she won't hurt me, but you'd better keep that gun away from her."
"You admit that she might hurt me?"
"I'm saying that if you point that gun at Diana again, I might hurt you."
With that steely glint of determination still in her eyes, Charlotte turned around and stepped to the shattered frame of the doorway, peering around the edge to assess the situation in the conference room. She barely noticed when Maribel crept up behind her, whispering.
"You're right - spirits don't lie."
"There... he's under the... desk," Riggins managed to wheeze through his bruised, swollen throat. He pointed toward Falcon's last known location, directing his weapon toward her target, and she took it from there. Crossing the room in five long strides, she leaned down and grabbed the two hunter green-clad legs sticking out from under the desk and jerked up hard.
"OWWW!!" Marco Falcon screamed as his body made sudden, violent contact with the underside of the desk. The Glock was within an inch of his grasp, and he made one last, desperate lunge toward the weapon before he was yanked unceremoniously clear of his protective cover.
The warrior twisted her captive's ankles, spinning him onto his back. He grinned at her and raised the pistol - too slowly
One lightning swipe of her left hand sent the gun flying again, and his smile disappeared. She dropped to her knees, landing her full weight on his chest and feeling the whuff of breath leave his body. A stunned horror leapt into Falcon's eyes as he realized that Riggins was not going to stop her this time. She closed one hand around his throat to hold him down and drew back a half-fist, right hand formed into a tight sharp wedge studded with stained gray blades.
"DIANA, NO!! PLEASE STOP!!"
Although it wasn't his voice and shouldn't have mattered - it shouldn't have given her the briefest pause as her fist descended on the terrified man's face - that voice stopped her cold, and she turned her head to find the source.
A small blonde woman dressed in blue-green that neared the color of her eyes. Barefoot. Hands raised, palms out, walking toward her with halting steps and a beautiful, pleading face. The older woman followed a few feet behind, pistol still clutched in one hand.
"Don't do it," the blonde whispered, coming nearer.
The room seemed to still and quiet as the two focused on each other, both confused and scared, both desperate to understand what was going on.
"Please don't hurt him. He's not armed. He can't hurt you," the young woman told her.
The warrior turned back to Marco Falcon, still pinned under her hand,
struggling for his next breath.
It occurred to her that the blonde woman was right. Why was she supposed to kill this man?
"What are you... waiting for?"
That choked whisper in her left ear. It itched, annoying her, and she ducked her head and scratched that ear against her shoulder.
"I have to do what he says," the warrior murmured, looking down on her victim, twitching the blades.
"No, you don't," the young woman insisted. "You can just get up and come with me."
"Diana! Kill him!"
The voice was louder this time, and she heard it with both ears. So did the other women. The blonde jeked her thumb toward the sound, and her older friend reacted.
Maribel Falcon scuttled around the table and found Joshua Riggins laid out against the library door, wheezing and bloodied. She pointed the cocked .38 at him and stooped to his side. She squeezed his swollen mouth open with one strong, fleshy hand and slipped the barrel between his lips.
"I think you should shut up now."
If he had been the type of man who was ever less than supremely confident, Joshua Riggins might have actually experienced fear at that moment. As he was not that type of man, he viewed the gun in his mouth as merely a temporary setback.
"Diana. Look at me," Charlotte pleaded. "Look at me."
The bladed fist drooped a little, and the ear once again dipped down to rub against her shoulder. She turned to face the one who addressed her.
"What am I... why am I..." Her voice trailed away into a breath, a frustrated sigh.
Charlotte stepped closer. "It's okay. It's okay, just put down the knives and let him up. He'll tell you what you need to know." She directed this last comment at Marco, who was staring at her with wide, begging eyes.
Thoughts clouded with confusion, the warrior tried to shake off the unsettling urge to listen to this woman, to believe her. She wasn't supposed to hear anybody else but him.
"What I need to know. What I need to know."
The attorney moved a step closer. "That's right. Marco will tell you all about those safe houses if you just let him up. Just stand up and come over here to me." She held out her hand, beckoning.
"Safe houses. Safe houses." A glimmer of a memory made its way through the fog. "He'll tell me?"
"Yes he will," she stated firmly. "If he wants to live, he'll sing like a goddamned bird. Now just toss those knives away and let him up. Just take my hand and come over here to me, Diana."
"To you?" Blue eyes squinted at the young woman, wanting to know her, knowing they should.
"Yes. Just come over here to me. Come back to me."
Charlotte didn't expect that question, and her pale brows knit for a long second. "Why what?"
"Why come to you... tell me why."
Lower lip quivering as tears streaked down her face, Charlotte Browning heard only a deafening silence in the room as everyone waited for her answer. Summoning every last drop of courage from the bottom of a very deep well, she spoke the truth of her heart.
"Because I know there's a reason for what you're doing, and because I won't be the one to judge you. Because I trust you with my life, my heart, my soul... and because I love you so much that if you don't come back to me, you might as well kill me too."
The hand around Marco's neck finally loosened enough for him to take a shallow, pained breath. The other hand shook slightly, one blade falling free onto the floor.
"You love me?" A tremulous, vulnerable question.
"God, yes." A solid, granite-sure answer. "More than life itself. I love you, Diana. Come back to me."
Hesitant movements brought the left hand away from it's murderous task, lifting in a slow, graceful arc toward the outstretched hand of the woman the warrior now recognized.
Though she was merely a sliver of consciousness, a violent shard of persona, she was part of a greater whole, a whole unified by one irrefutable, irresistable fact - down to the last fraction of ancient stardust hurtling through her veins, down to the last sub-atomic particle - Diana Starrett loved Charlotte Browning. In sharing this truth, the warrior was part of the greater being, and she was ready to let go, to rejoin.
This was going to hurt like ten-thousand hells, but it had to be done.
In the moment she realized as much, the awareness shook the very pillars of her being, and she wanted to scream from the sudden fractious pain rumbling thorugh her head, but the only word that left her lips was the name which struck her tongue like lightning crashing through a hailstorm of emotion.
The shaking shifted the ground like an earthquake, the kind which would finally send California sliding into the Pacific. Deafening waves of noise crashed into her ears, and all Diana could do was try and get ready for whatever was coming. She stooped and picked Ethan up again, settling his body across her shoulder as she tried to get to her feet, leaning against the swaying walls for support.
Then she saw the flood.
Rushing down the stairs in a fevered roll of energy, smashing against the wall like a deep crimson storm surge, rushing through the crevices of the lucid barrier in rich, red rivulets... it was awesome. Frightening. Powerful.
*Maybe powerful enough to bust this wall right down to nothing. Here we go, baby. Here we go. Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you strong enough to face this?*
It kept coming, stronger and stronger, faster and faster, until the wall could take the strain no more. One large piece flew away, propelled like a razor-sharp cannon shot across the foyer, smashing into the wall and digging deep into the plaster. A fountain of red blasted into the room, the pressure of the flow enough to shatter the glass of the rear door. Pooling around her feet, the first touch of the blood was agony, burning fast and hot like acid as new images and sensations flashed into focus, becoming real as life.
Because they were real. Because they were a part of her life. And they were coming back. Now.
A ship in brown water, the deck swabbed with red as you gut another small black sailor and toss his body over the rail to the crocodiles.
Swirling a blaze of steel, whipping a sword through the stomach of an old Asian man.
Fearlessly jumping from a prop jet without a parachute, cutting through the air like a bullet. Snagging the harness of a dead chutist, and cutting her loose to plummet alone to the earth.
Crossing a crowded street in an arid desert town, dropping a paper sack into a trash can and walking away. An explosion at your back. Screaming. The smell of burned flesh.
A breathtakingly beautiful young girl with dark Eastern eyes. Writhing under your hands, crying, begging. Nails scratching down your back, drawing blood as she curses your soul.
*I'm sorry... I'm sorry...*
The blood flowed ceaselessly, rising above Diana Starrett's waist, burning slower now. Glowing coals. Sizzling grease. A trail of lit gunpowder along the skin. And still, she remembered more.
Soft footsteps along a carpeted hall hung with tapestries. A nursery door breached, a whimpering child kidnapped by moonlight and handed over to a crying man. He kisses your hand before you turn away.
Snow, red snow warmed by your life's blood as you lay dying by a hot spring. Monkeys laugh at you as you stare at a cold sky raining white, praying to hear the thrum of prop blades.
Breaking both hands as you beat in the face of a dead man, a man with no face. A naked man whose filthy room is papered with pictures of children. You don't even feel the bones snap.
Chasing a tall, fleeing figure. He carries a satchel dripping thick plops of red on the pavement of an alley. You run him down in a station wagon, crushing him under the wheels. You take his bag containing the head and toss it in the backseat like a bowling ball.
A battered woman cringes behind you as you lock her husband's genitals to a chain-link fence with finger cuffs. A Rottweiler bitch is unchained, and you hear the woman hiss, "Kill, Hecate!"
*My God... what am I? What am I?*
The stinging lessened, but the flow was unabated. Up to her shoulders now, Diana had to make a move or drown where she stood. The pain lurked near the level of alcohol on a large, open wound, and she decided that it was bearable enough to overlook while she escaped.
*It's now or never. I can do this. I can do this.*
Diana stepped to the side of the deteriorating barrier. She stuck one leg around the corner and kicked at the lower portion, finding it weak enough to break through. Three, four, five kicks and there was a hole large enough to accomodate both she and Ethan. She took a deep breath and ducked under, propelling herself and her cargo through the hole and swimming hard against the current, toward those submerged stairs, with one direction in mind.
*Up. Up. Up! Up! UP! UP!*
Still, the memories burned, singing through her mind like wildfire. And she
welcomed the burn, welcomed the pain. Because with each face, each name, each
event, she was buoyed higher and higher. Coming closer and closer to the
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