Surfacing - Part Fourteen

By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza

Twenty Three


Diana's hand hovered shakily in the air between them, inches from brushing Charlotte's fingertips. She leaned back to get closer, shifting her weight from Marco's heaving chest, not noticing as his left hand crept along the floor toward the discarded knife.

The attorney kept her eyes locked on those of her love, willing her return. She was so close, so near she could almost touch her. "Come on, Diana. I promise you, everything will be alright, just... NO!"

Like a jump-cut in the film, shifting focus to an unexpected event, she saw a development evolving that simply wasn't supposed to happen. Charlotte saw that forgotten blade being raised, almost in slow-motion. She saw the hateful gleam of humiliation and anger in Marco Falcon's dark eyes as he swung the bloodied weapon up in a vicious, killing arc, aiming for Diana's exposed throat.

Call it peripheral instinct. Somehow, even through the tumultuous rocking in her head and heart, some part of the warrior within Diana Starrett was always focused on self-preservation, and it watched through a multi-faceted hawk's eye for impending danger. By this provident advantage alone was the dark-haired woman able to feel the shift of air, to see the gray dart racing toward her, and tilt her throat away from its razored path even as she raised her right hand to block the strike.

All Marco Falcon knew at first was that he had cut her - somewhere - and he smiled. A thin spray of blood flew from the blade's end as his swing terminated and his arm wrenched to a sudden stop, the knife sailing out of his grasp. Then he felt the pain, sliding up his forearm like a flaming messenger, a napalm blaze of awareness. Looking for the source, he saw two sharp red points protruding through his wrist, his arm impaled on the woman's fist. He glanced up at her in disbelief, meeting two clouded blue orbs which regarded him without emotion, as if he were an insect pinned to a display board. She seemed totally unaware of what she had just done, or why she had done it.

Marco, for his part, drew in a long breath and let out a deafening caterwaul of a scream.

It all happened so rapidly that Charlotte barely had time to process what she saw before she made her move. She lunged forward, looping both of her arms under Diana's and dragging her back, away from the hysterical Marco. Luckily for the wounded man, the tall woman's fist went limp as soon as Charlotte touched her, and her fingers opened to release the blades, simply leaving them embedded in his arm instead of ripping them free.

Diana looked over her shoulder at the small blonde struggling to transport her weight, and could not find words to say to her. She was an emotional tabula rasa, wiped clean except for that one nagging little word which now contained everything she was missing, wrapped up neatly in seven letters.


"Shh. It's okay, I've got you," the young woman said, wincing as she noticed a long, thin cut on her charge's jawline. Once they were several feet away, the attorney dropped to the floor and drew Diana onto her lap, cradling the stunned woman in her arms and murmuring reassurances in her ear, words to which her lover showed no reaction whatsoever.

Across the room, Maribel Falcon was unable to ignore her son's anguished yelling, and could not stop herself from reacting. She withdrew the .38 from Joshua Riggins' mouth, lowered the hammer, and smashed the barrel hard against his temple - just to discourage him from interfering. Quick steps carried her to her boy's side, and she knelt by him to check his wounded arm. The gun she placed on the floor, out of his reach, before gently taking his wrist in her hands.

"Stop screeching, mijo. It's not as bad as it looks."

"AAAAAAAARRRRRR!! Don't touch it! Don't touch it!"

"I have to stop the bleeding. Now stop squirming, and don't look at me like that!" she warned. "It's not like you didn't deserve it."


"She was gonna leave you alone, idiot! And you try to kill her anyway. I didn't raise you like that."

Maribel loosened a bright scarf from her neck and fashioned a tourniquet to stanch to flow of blood as Marco looked on her with a mixture of outrage and shame, unsure what he should be feeling. She hazarded a brief glance at Charlotte and her mysterious companion, huddled together on the hard wood floor, closer than two sides of a coin. She noticed that the tall woman was bleeding from a cut on her face... and from another, unseen wound. A narrow streak of blood led across the floor, ending under her hip.

"Charlie," Maribel prompted, pointing at the tell-tale smear.

A look of instant panic slipped onto the young woman's face as she gently shifted out from under Diana's limp body and searched for the wound, running her hands gingerly over the woman's form. It didn't take long before her palm came up smeared with red. She found a small rip in the fabric of the  black dress, along her right hip.

"Jesus Christ. She's been shot!"

"Good," muttered Marco, and his mother tightened the tourniquet suddenly, wrenching another raw scream from his throat.

"We have to get them to a doctor," Charlotte declared. "Marco, who do you use in situations like this?"

"The fuck are you talking about, situations like this? I ain't never been in no situation like this!"

"You know exactly what I mean - when you need medical help, but can't involve the police," she explained calmly. "Who do you use?"

"That psycho bitch killed nearly everybody in this house, and you want me to help her? Fuck that!"

"It's not just for Diana! You will need medical attention for that arm, and there's a guard out in the hall who may just survive if he gets help soon! Now answer me, who do you use?"

Marco yanked his wounded arm away from his mother before she could try to encourage him to answer, and got to his feet. A sudden head rush nearly dropped him to his knees, and he realized that he had lost a lot of blood. Maybe a doctor wasn't such a bad idea after all.

"I'll call him, but you keep that... woman away from me, or so help me, I'll finish her off."

"You mean... you'll try."

The unexpected, rasping voice caught everyone by surprise, and all eyes turned to Joshua Riggins as he leaned casually against the library door, holding the elusive Glock - which was now aimed directly at Charlotte Browning. 



The visions and their accompanying emotions were diffuse, disjointed and totally random. Diana was being handed one puzzle piece at a time - one out of thousands. With no idea what image the assembled whole would form, she was forced to guess where each fragment belonged, placing them blindly, trying to keep track of her progress as she struggled onward and upward.

The weight of her brother's body was of little notice, and when she took notice of him, his presence seemed to motivate rather than impede her. She thought little of this fact as she pressed on, assuming that it meant nothing crucial.

Climbing a rusty fire escape, pursued by a mountainous man who doesn't know he's being
lured. Up to the roof, where the streets don't seem so dirty, where the air is not stale with the
smell of urine and vodka. One breath, two, and he is on you, cursing in Russian. Then he is
gone. Flying over the edge, ten stories down, smashing against the sidewalk in a heavy heap.
You hold his pilfered wallet, searching through wadded money and expired condoms until you
find the keycard. You peer at the body and toss his billfold after him.

Skiing down a steep, pristine slope. Laughing as you slow down and allow your opponent to
streak past in red and white, black hair streaming like a silk banner. She raises her arms in victory, and then opens them to embrace you. You move to her with a smile on your lips.

High above the crowd, in a tree, rough bark against your back. Scanning the crowd for a
small woman in blue. Leveling the rifle and focusing the sight, centering her in the crosshairs.
Squeezing the trigger and hearing the muted pop of a perfectly silenced round. Seeing her
head crack and slump. Bracing the rifle among the high branches and rappelling down the
back, cutting loose the harness and walking away as you smooth a wrinkle from your skirt.

In a small, uncomfortable chair in a dusty sitting room. Staring into the eyes of a huge,
drooling Chow as his black tongue lolls toward the floor. You smile, sensing a surrender, and
he turns away first. Your hostess laughs at you both, and offers you a milk bone as a trophy.

A hotel room, lavishly appointed. On your hands and knees on a large bed, a fat man taking
you from behind, his whiskers grating between your shoulder blades as his thrusts become
violent. A thin, pale woman circles you with a video camera, and you listen for the private
signal to kill them both. You pray that it arrives soon, before he comes inside you. It does, and
you wrench yourself free, turning on him with blood in your eyes. Two jabs to his thick neck,
and one twist of hers. You dress and leave quietly, taking the camera with you.

*So I'm a murderer and a whore,* she thought unkindly. Even though she knew the reasons for each of these actions, they seemed inadequate from her current perspective.

*I did it because he told me to. He explained the hows and whys, then wound me up and turned me loose. But how did he manage to make me do these things? How did I get so far gone that I let him use me like this?*

A gloved hand checking your pulse as you lay on a stretcher. Loud whirring as the chopper
lifts into the starless night. A gentle brush of fingers across your forehead as another man whispers that you're going to be alright. Straw-colored hair, pale skin, flat face. Scarecrow. He stays with you, holding your hand as you feel yourself slipping under.

*I know you.*

He tells you that you're going to be alright. That they won't let anything happen to you. That
you did a good job, and they will be pleased. His hand is warm, bordering on hot as he touches your cold skin, brushing away clinging earth and ice. You shiver under the blankets, and he covers you with his coat.

These memories seemed less random, gelling into an almost cohesive narrative, one scene following
the next as Diana made slow, steady progress forward and up, muscles burning with the effort.

You feel the prickling, frigid ache start to thaw, and the pain of your wounds comes to the
foreground. Burning tears in the flesh, throbbing pain. You can almost feel the bullets shifting
inside your body, taking root. Reminders of your punishment. You see her face as she fires at
you, emptying the clip. Her eyes are wet as she beholds the traitor, the thief, the liar. You.

*She loved me, that girl. I remember her...*

In a hot, small room. Dim light, a futon mattress on the floor. Sweating from every pore, slick lean body sliding on yours. A million kisses on your skin, a million curses in your ears. Love and hate trade dominance like a strobing light, darkness and blinding white as you move together.

*But she tried to kill me. Why? What did I do to her?*



"I must ask, what did I ever... do to you to make you... hurt me so, Ms. Browning?"

Riggins massaged his bruised throat with his free hand as he steadied the pistol in the other. A small trickle of blood from his hairline was evidently the only damage from the blow Mrs. Falcon delivered to his incredibly hard skull, and he gave her a quick grin to acknowledge her effort. She scowled hard in return, but he knew that the old woman would not try to retrieve her gun and make a move as long as her little friend was his target. He returned his hateful eyes to the blonde woman, in whose cocooning arms his most lethal weapon lay motionless.

"You've broken my favorite toy, you know. Diana was doing just fine until you came along," he accused, taking careful steps toward the huddled pair. "It's going to take a lot of work to fix her again, and I blame your interference for this... hitch in my plans."

"You made her do all this for you, didn't you? What did you do to her, you son of a bitch!"

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. No need for that kind of language. I think Marco there curses enough for all of us," the older man chided, winking at his angry, bleeding former confederate. "She doesn't just work for me, you see. She belongs to me. That woman is my property, and I will be taking her back. I'll fix whatever damage you've inflicted, and she won't remember you ever lived when I'm done."

Both of the Falcons were keeping one eye on Riggins as he rounded the table, and one eye on the nearby .38. They were each waiting for the right moment, sure that it would come, unaware that they would probably collide with each other on the way to retrieve the weapon.

"She's done this before, you know - rebelled, fought against her true nature. It didn't work that time, either, and she nearly lost her life because some ignorant little strumpet convinced her that she was in love," he continued, painting those last two words a sickening color as his tightly controlled anger started to spill out in waves of bilious green.

Charlotte tensed as he drew closer, and she pulled Diana tight against her chest. The agent was now evidently catatonic, eyes staring ahead blankly, as if she were not even in the room. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse slow, as if all her energies were being directed someplace else, toward some inner effort.

"It took months to set things right again. Months! I can't afford those kinds of delays!" He was raging now, flecks of spittle collecting around thin lips. "It took two years of legitimate rebuilding to get her ready to work in the first place, and that came crashing down in a matter of weeks. She even turned on me! ME!  I had to resort to extreme measures to salvage a return on my investment, but on her, they worked like a charm. She is truly amazing, such an organized, nimble mind. Easily segmented and partitioned."

Charlotte's mind flashed back to something the bard told her, something about how their methods of controlling Diana are hard to understand, but seem to be very effective.

"Now, she's been completely reliable for eight long, glorious years... until you saw fit to try and domesticate her. Have you any idea how incredibly foolish that notion is? You may as well try to keep a lioness in a doghouse!"

He stepped closer to Charlotte, close enough for her to see his finger twitching on the trigger.

"I want you to step away from her, right now."


Riggins smirked at her instant answer, and felt it necessary to explain his request. "Ms. Browning, I am going to shoot you, and I don't want to risk any further damage to my property . Please get up and step away from Diana."

"I'm not leaving her," Charlotte said evenly, keeping her arms tightly wound around the contested being. "She doesn't belong to you anymore. She's mine."

The gray-haired man just shook his head, amazed at her stubbornness. "You think a few trips across the rug entitles you to ownership? What arrogance!"

"It would be, if that's all there was to it," the attorney allowed. "But that's not what it's about. I know you could never understand this, but I love her, and that makes it possible. She loves me, and that makes it true. You won't be able to change that, no matter what you do to her... or me."

Riggins seemed to think about her words for a moment, mulling them over. He smiled coldly.

"I'll risk it, dear."

He stepped closer and pressed the barrel of the Glock against Charlotte's forehead. She didn't move, just stared up at him with a defiant tilt to her chin. There was no way in hell she was going to step aside for this man.

"You want to die in her arms, that's fine with me. You'll soon be nothing more than another one of her bad dreams."

The young lawyer's eyes blazed with a sudden anger, and for the first time in her life, she wished someone dead. She took one last look at her love's face, and closed her eyes, hoping they wouldn't be separated too long.

*Didn't Gabrielle say that she and Xena were still together?* 



She knew what she had done, and why she had deserved yet another death. The burning sensations were now identifiable as the last flow of answers ebbed away, answering Diana's question, leaving a freezing hot trail of sensation in its wake.

Guilt. Shame. Loss. Rage. Emptiness. Fear. All running in an infinite loop, coiling around her heart and squeezing it until it nearly burst in a rain of sorrow.

*Oh, God. Dear sweet Lord, forgive me. I didn't mean to hurt her like that... she wasn't supposed to know. She wasn't supposed to be there. How could I forget something like that?*

 An antiseptic room, strapped to a bed, facing a gray-haired man wearing an Italian suit. Monitors beep and flash your vital signs, betraying a rising heart rate as you speak to him. You don't like the director, and you genuinely feel that killing him would be a service to the world. You are still upset that your attempt to do so yesterday failed miserably.

*Why me? Why are you doing this to me?*

"My dear, you don't seem to understand that I'm doing you a favor. You're quite the ingrate. Trying to terminate your benefactor - not exactly good form."

*I would never have chosen this life, done these things, if you hadn't brought me here in the
first place. What happened is as much your fault as mine, and neither of us should be alive.*

"If I had left you in jail, you would have died. Either those cops would have killed you, the
courts would have executed you, or you would have taken your own life in prison. Are you
saying that death is preferable to the life I have given you?"

*YES!! I hurt so many people, there is so much blood on my hands...*

"And none of it is innocent, Diana. Don't make the mistake of assuming that these were nice,
minding-their-own-business civilians you were dealing with. They made themselves targets,
and you were merely the arrow that pierced the bullseye. Guilt over their deaths is a waste of
time and energy."

*So you'll just take that option away from me.*

"Precisely. When freed from the petty constraints of morality, conscience, and societal mores,
you are... a marvel. A force of nature. A lightning strike of controlled rage. I have yet to meet
your equal, and yet you have the largest achilles heel of any warrior I have ever seen. You
care. You feel. You make yourself vulnerable by exposing your heart - and you jeopardized this operation with a ludicrous display of sentimentality. That, I cannot allow."

*How can you stop that from happening? I don't understand how this will work.*

"Trust me, it will work. When you wake up, you won't remember anything about Nagano.
Your wounds will have healed, and you will not remember how they were inflicted. All the
pain, inside and out, will be gone. Dr. Mangano here will make sure of that."

*Everything I did... will be gone? Erased, or just hidden?*

"Gone. That's all you need to know. Now just inhale deeply, and let us take care of you."

Lying on the stiff hospital bed, you draw long breaths under the mask, filling your lungs with sweet-tasting gas. Drifting into a muzzy limbo, you hear the two men talking in hushed voices.

"What happens if Mars finds out what we're doing?"

"You worry too much, Doc. Harry Mars is not a problem. He's too busy with his little POW
crusade to care about our project. I threw him a bone with that missive from Vietnam. He
actually thinks there are soldiers still alive over there. Fool. He'll be chasing his tail for

"His interest in that situation is most unhealthy. His psychological profile indicates an extreme sense of responsibility for missing soldiers, almost as if he looks for them as penance of some sort - trying to right some age-old wrongs."

"Who cares why he does it? It keeps him off my back, and makes him look ridiculous when he
comes back empty handed. This girl is my only concern right now. If you can accomplish this,
I'll have the weapon I've been looking for. The perfect little toy soldier - wind her up, and turn
her loose. They'll never know what hit them."

"And neither will she. I'll need to be alone with her now, sir."

"Of course, Doctor. Take your time and do this right. If it works on her, we'll talk about
putting your technique to work on a larger scale. This could be your shot at immortality."

"I look forward to the challenge, sir."

The door closes, and you feel a cold hand on your wrist, checking your pulse. Once released, your arm flops bonelessly onto the bed... and you realize that you can no longer move. A quick series of injections prick at your skin. Your eyes are pried open and held wide by small, cushioned wires braced against the lids. Your breathing grows rapid as a sense of fearful panic claws at your gut. A light blazes to life, blinding you, but you cannot turn away or close your watering eyes. Drops of moisture fall onto your eyeballs, and he speaks to you at last.

"Now, I need for you to listen closely, Diana. Listen to everything I say, and I promise you that you will feel much, much better. You want to feel better, don't you?"

The light moves closer, burning hot on your face, and you cannot turn away. His voice drones on and on, and you cannot shut it out. Eventually, you don't want to shut it out, and you stop
trying. Tears flow, mixing with the occasional eyedrops, soaking your cheeks as he talks to you like you imagine your father would have, if he had loved you, if he had wanted you.

His voice is so soothing, so caring, so full of compassion and free of judgment. He talks to you about all of the things you've done, and you remember right along with him, unafraid, unashamed.

He takes your hand and you walk together. Your steps are light and easy, and you match him
stride for stride, trying to stay close to him as he speaks.

He talks to you about how to tie up all the bad pictures and sounds and feelings in tight little bundles, so that nothing can leak out. You bind them all up and jauntily sling them over a shoulder, skipping along after him like a hobo headed for the next train out.

He walks with you along a bridge suspended by clouds, a bridge so high it nearly touches the bright white sun warming your face.

He bids you look over the left side, and you see that the water far below is dark as pitch.

"It's warm and safe in there. Nothing can hurt you."

They walk to your right, and you look over the rail at a sea of roiling red.

"That's the place where all the bad things go. They sink to the bottom and disappear. Throw
them in, sweetheart. Just toss those bad things over the side, and we'll be done with them

He puts his arm around you, and you feel safe. You stand together at the rail, and he smiles as
you toss over the bundles, one by one, until they all disappear beneath the rippling water.

"Good, good. You did just great, Diana. Now, there's just one more thing I need for you to

Guiding you back to the left side of the bridge, he puts his arms around you and embraces you warmly. He points down to the black water and whispers something in your ear.


You don't think you hear him right, and look him in the eye, pleading.

"Don't you trust me, baby?"

You nod. You do trust him. His voice is so kind... he wouldn't hurt you.

"It's for the best. You'll feel so much better if you do. Go ahead. Jump."

You climb onto the rail and gaze down, dizzy from the height. You look back at the face of
this long-lost man, the gentle planes of his cheeks, those watery blue eyes so honest. He looks just like he did in the pictures mother keeps tucked away in her hope chest. Surely, your father would not let you get hurt? No, of course he wouldn't. You smile at him.

*I love you, daddy.*

And you jump. Falling, falling through miles of frigid air, and plunging to the bottom of the deep, wet dark. Alone. Picturing your father's face as warmth creeps into your bones and you fall asleep.

This was a pain she had not expected. The sting of betrayals committed and endured, the sickened hollow feeling of violent acts perpetrated and suffered, the emergence of these sins could be foreseen and accommodated. But the revelation that they had utilized the face of a man she had spent her childhood revering and missing... the notion of them using her need for a father's love against her... this made Diana unbelievably angry. But she had to admit, it made a great deal of sense.

*My father? Of course. Mangano knew I had so many bad feelings toward my mother that she wouldn't be able to comfort me, or make me believe anything. Daddy. I never really knew him, but I always wanted to, wanted to think that he loved me. In their eyes, love is just a weakness to be exploited. All the primary barriers they erected were basically serving to keep me numb, safe from that need, from the pain it can cause. Riggins was telling me that it's love that makes me vulnerable, gets me hurt - and in a way, he's right.*

Your father packing his bags and leaving one Saturday morning, as you watch cartoons on the living room floor. He does not say goodbye.

Your mother slapping your face as you try to explain.

Weeping hot tears, choking out apologies as the dark-haired girl lifts her gun and curses you for the last time.

*But he also couldn't be more wrong.*

Dan sitting with you all night in the hospital, holding your hand as you sweat and bleed and cry, aching inside and out. He listens, quiet and calm as you pour out all the pain. You ask him why he's there, and he smiles. Says he owes you. And you have really beautiful eyes...

Eladio walking on your back in a pink hotel room with a heart-shaped bed. Asking how you got hurt in the first place. You say that you don't know. He walks four blocks to a drugstore and buys you some kind of wonder-creme he saw on television.

Charlotte. Every minute in the grace of her company, a blessing. Every smile, every touch, a gift beyond price. The sense of fate, of destiny that makes you feel as though anything is possible as long as her heart is yours.

*Anything at all. It's worth it... opening your heart to someone, whether they be friends, family, or lovers. There is no bigger risk, but there is no greater reward.*

Suddenly, a light blazed forth, cutting into the darkness, high above and far away, but visible. She followed it, moving forward and up with furious strokes and kicks, pulling herself along on the sturdy thread of hope she had just discovered.

*Love. That's why I went after Ethan - I wanted to bring my brother back home safe because I love him. I did it because I wanted my mother to love us both. I went to the police because she told me I should, and I wanted her to forgive me. Love makes us do stupid things sometimes. But it's worth it.*

The light grew brighter, guiding her up even as her lungs burned and her muscles ached from lack of air. She followed it, pulling and pushing through the thinning pink, now less blood than water.

*Love was what I wanted from that girl... and I very nearly had it. We came close, but I messed it all up. I hurt her because I was trying to protect her, and she hurt me for betraying her. Love makes us do awful things sometimes. But it's worth it.*

The way grew clearer, cleaner, and brighter still shone the light, drawing her up into its presence even as her body rebelled and cramped, craving oxygen. She was so close now, she could see the bright, shimmering play of water and sky rolling above her, waiting for her to break through, waiting for her to make that final push to the surface.

*Love is what I have now, with Charlie. That's the reason I'm here now, doing this, fighting through this agony with a willing heart. It's the reason I want my life back. Maybe it's the only reason I'm alive at all.*

One stroke, two strokes, three strokes, four. Closer and closer, and closer still.

*It's worth living for, it's worth dying for. It can hurt us so bad we want to curl up and die, hide inside ourselves until everyone leaves and it's safe to come out again, but it's worth the pain, it's worth the fear. Every bit of it, over and over, forever.*

Yards became feet became inches, closer and closer. A hair's breadth away...

*It can make you weak, or it can give you the strength to do anything, defy anyone - even yourself. Anything is possible. I can do anything. I can do this. Because she loves me. Because I love her. I can do this. I will do this.*

One finger, one hand, one arm piercing through. Cool air bracing the skin, pebbling gooseflesh.

*I'm coming, Charlie. God, don't let me be too late.*

And with one powerful kick, she propelled herself and her cargo up to the ceiling, crashing through it in a massive shower that rained down all the way to the distant shore.

Diana Starrett had surfaced. 



"HEY!" Marco Falcon yelled, drawing Riggins' attention away from Charlotte.

The gray-haired man sighed, exasperated and ready to get on with the execution. He believed in killing lawyers on principal, but shooting this one would be a distinct pleasure. "What do you want?"

"That deal you offered me, about going to jail. I'll do it."

Another sigh at the obvious ploy. "What prompted this change of heart, sonny boy? The knowledge that you and Senora Falcon are going to die next?"

Reining in his anger, Marco gritted his white teeth and swallowed hard. "You need my money. You want it, you'll listen to what I got to say."

"Talk fast."

Riggins moved the gun slightly away from Charlotte's head, and she exhaled unevenly, grateful for even a few extra seconds of life. Looking down into her love's face, she noticed that Diana's pale complexion was a little rosier, and her breathing had deepened. Her eyes almost seemed focused, although not on her. She was looking up at the ceiling, staring into the light fixture. She even blinked a couple of times as Falcon presented his offer.

"I'll agree to let you take me in, but you gotta put me in minimum security. Someplace with cable and tennis courts. That part where you let my mother go, that still stands. And I want one other thing."

"Don't push me, Marco. You are not in a good bargaining position."

"You want that money for your little daisy chain buddies, you'll give me what I want."

"Well, spit it out!"

"I want Charlotte. You let her go with my mother. That way, I'll have something to look forward to when I get out."

The attorney whipped her head up for a moment, mouth agape, unable to believe what she had just heard. Riggins was nearly as stunned, and had to stifle himself to keep from laughing.

"Marco! Are you deaf and blind, as well as being incredibly dumb? Blondie doesn't swing that way, in case you failed to notice that you're not the one lying on her lap, blankly enduring her professions of undying love" the older man pointed out acidly. "Although you are tall, dark, and ultra-violent. Three out of four, my boy - not quite good enough. Close, but no cute little lawyer for you!"

Falcon took a step forward, as if he were going to charge, and his mother's restraining arm might have been the only thing that kept him from doing so. His lip curled and his nostrils flared, which only made him look more ridiculous to his tormentor. As he spoke, Riggins brought the Glock around to point at the younger man - just as a deterrent, really. His shift of attention caused him to miss a startling development.

Mere seconds after Marco made his last-ditch play for Charlotte's attentions, as Riggins launched into his taunting tirade, the young woman returned her focus to the expressionless face of her lover - only she found that Diana Starrett was no longer staring off into space, but looking right at her with familiar, warm eyes. Eyes that saw her, knew her, and were indescribably glad to see her. An overpowering sense of relief and gratitude nearly made Charlie lose her breath, and her eyes went wide as saucers as she realized that Diana had indeed come back to her.

Perhaps two full seconds passed before Charlie smiled at her, softly mouthing the word 'Hi,' meaning 'Thank God you're back!', 'What took you so long?', and of course, 'I love you.'

The feelings were utterly, completely mutual, and Diana was smiling back as if she hadn't seen her in years. One blue eye even gave her a little wink, for pete's sake, and Charlotte suddenly felt as if everything would be alright after all.  Then the silent woman bowed up her lips and scrunched her forehead in a gesture that meant 'keep it on the down-low,' and although the ecstatic blonde wanted to sing out her thanks to heaven, she kept quiet and maintained a neutral expression.

"No deal," Riggins said at last, ready to kill them all and forget this whole messy evening. He turned back to Charlotte Browning and stepped toward her with the gun raised - then felt at sudden pressure around his ankle, a jabbing of fingers, and his leg folded under like a wet strand of pasta. He instinctively squeezed the trigger, but a hand flashing upward seized his wrist, bending it back hard and fast until it cracked, and the booming round strayed into the ceiling.


Riggins processed the sweep of motion before him, the pain of a broken bone, and he knew he was in trouble. The gun was no longer in his hand - which now hung limply from a misshapen wrist - but pointed directly at his face. His eyes trailed from the empty black eye of the barrel to the red right hand to the long, bare arm to the shoulder to the neck... to her face.

Streak of blood along her jawline. Teeth bared. Eyes lit with a cold, primal fury, lusting for his blood. This was someone he had met only once before, and he had hoped never to see her again. Through a clenched jaw, he spoke as calmly as possible.


She smiled at him. A horrible, feral grin that made his ulcers ache.

"Hi, Josh. Long time, no see." 



Twenty Four

Marco's eyes lit on the .38, and he dropped to his knees in an attempt to scramble past his mother and reach it. The sudden shift of control - away from a man he thought he could deal with to a woman whose motives and purposes were as clear to him as mud - made him extremely nervous. A loaded gun in his hand would make him feel ever so much better.

He sprawled on the floor, reaching with his good hand, and he very nearly made it. Maribel grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled his head up suddenly, shifting his weight onto his wounded arm and causing him to scream again as the blades tore into his flesh with renewed vigor. He rolled onto his side, cradling the injured limb carefully.

"Stay out of this, mijo. It's not your business," Maribel advised as she stooped and picked up the gun, then returned her attention to the unfolding drama. She watched the tall woman carefully, ready to act if Charlotte's instincts about her were in error.

Diana kept both eyes on the director, aware that she could lose control here in a second if she allowed him any opening. She held her left hand back and felt Charlie slip her fingers around it, and she grasped the small hand tightly and pulled the woman to her side, speaking to her in a dry, clear voice.

"Go to the desk and take the cords out of the phone. Bring them to me."

Charlotte nodded and moved quickly, unclipping the long cord running to the wall jack. She paused, biting her bottom lip in thought. "You want the little curly ones too?"

Diana chuckled and her eyes warmed imperceptibly. "Sure. Bring 'em all."

Straightening the cords into unknotted loops, Charlie smiled at Maribel Falcon, trying to dispel the lingering worry on her friend's face. "It's gonna be okay."

A thin smile in return as the older woman decided to withhold judgment until this was really over.

Riggins piped up suddenly. "What do you intend to do -"

"SHUT UP!!" Diana roared, jamming the nose of the Glock against his lips, splitting the top one open on impact. She was instantly almost quaking with rage, and everyone in the room was holding their breath, waiting for the imminent gunfire. Riggins just stood there on his one good leg and bled quietly as she got control of herself.

"I want to take you in alive, but so help me, if you open your mouth one more time... I will kill you without hesitation. I know what your words can do to me, and it ain't gonna happen again. Charlie, the cords please."

She held out her free hand for the bindings while motioning to the floor with the gun. "Kneel down. Hands behind your head."

Riggins looked like he was going to object, but Diana hissed through clenched teeth and cut him off.

"Not a fucking word! Do it!"

He slowly went to his knees and winced as his shattered wrist flopped behind his head, and his numb leg nearly gave way again. Diana stepped behind him, released the pressure point and stood quiet for a moment, then she turned to Charlotte and extended her hand. Charlie offered her the cords, but the agent shook her head and indicated that she wanted her hand again, and it was promptly offered. Long fingers wrapped around her palm, giving it a slow stroke before a heavy, warm lump of metal and resin was deposited in her grip. The attorney looked down at her hand, stunned to find herself holding the gun.

Only slightly less surprised was Maribel Falcon, who was again forced to re-evaluate this woman as she handed over her weapon without hesitation, trusting Charlotte implicitly.

"Aim at his chest. If he moves, shoot him," Diana instructed, taking the cords and unwrapping the loops. A wink and a mock-mean face told the blonde that she wasn't serious, and Charlotte assumed that she was merely to provide a distraction for the dangerous man's attention. She nodded at the dark-haired beauty and tried to mimic that menacing expression she had demonstrated.

'Close enough,' Diana mouthed, and the attorney took her position, hoping that she didn't look too much like one of 'Charlie's Angels.' She felt ridiculous.

Diana took one of Riggins' hands - the injured one - yanked it down to his waist and began to tie him up as tightly and quickly as possible.

The grind and crack of bone against bone nearly made Charlotte sick, but she tried to hold the gun steady. In spite of the obvious pain he was in, the gray-haired man maintained eye contact with the gun-wielding woman, and she found herself hard pressed to look away. Those beady little dark eyes were almost hypnotic.

*Like that snake in 'The Jungle Book,'* she mused, afraid to wonder what was making him smile.

Momentarily, he started wheezing. Coughing convulsively. His face reddened, and the tendons in his neck popped tight as he tipped forward, stopped from a direct collision with the floor only by Diana's grip on his bound wrists. She flipped him onto his back and pried open his mouth, checking to see if he had chomped on some sort of suicide caplet - although the idea of Joshua Riggins offing himself was totally implausible.

"What's happening? What's wrong with him?" Charlotte asked in a tense voice, the gun drooping toward the floor.

"I don't see anything in his throat. No blockages," Diana observed calmly, content to let him choke.

"HIn... hinhallle," Riggins gasped, his eyes darting frantically from Diana's face to his vest and back. "Hin..hallleerr. Vesstst."

"Don't speak. Die slowly and painfully, but don't speak to me," the tall woman warned coldly, her hands hovering near his neck.

"Diana! You can't just let him die! I thought you wanted to turn him in!" the lawyer insisted, uneasy and afraid at the sight of her lover's composed countenance as she watched the man's tortured writhing. "This just... you're here now. You, not the person he was using... so you would be completely responsible for this. You can't just let him die, Diana. It isn't right."

Sighing, the agent looked into Charlotte's eyes, and was frightened a bit by what she saw. Even though this man had done unspeakable things, and forced her to do more of the same, she saw that this young woman felt it was very, very wrong to idly observe as he choked to death. She saw that the only person she loved in the entire world was genuinely upset by that prospect, and that she was in danger of hurting her if she let it continue.

"Dammit," Diana muttered, and started rifling through his pockets until she found the inhaler she felt sure he was asking for. She gave it a quick shake and lowered it to his lips, preparing to squeeze.

From his vantage point on the floor, Marco Falcon watched with undisguised interest. He remembered how Riggins had used that inhaler, and almost giggled at the idea of what that stuff could do to the old bastard's rotten black lungs.

Just as she was about to give him a long, stiff shot of medicine, Riggins coughed again, jerking his head forward and knocking the inhaler from Diana's hand. He rolled on top of it, feigning a ferocious spasm, and grabbed it up behind his back, aiming the spray at his bindings.

"Great. Cough to death then, you black-lunged..."

Pssshhhhtt. Crackle.

Diana's eyes went wide and she held out her hand to Charlotte. "Give me the gun."

Charlie jumped forward, more than ready to be rid of it, and offered it immediately. Riggins swung his foot up and caught her right in the solar-plexus, knocking the wind out of her as she stumbled backward and dropped the gun. Diana turned back to him, and his swinging, loaded fist caught her just below the eye, the metal canister opening a cut on her cheek.

Stunned by the blow, she reeled back slightly and brought up her left hand to block a follow up, giving him a fraction of a second to act. He depressed the trigger on the inhaler and coated her hand with the mist, which hardened almost instantly and numbed her hand. Shocked by the sudden lack of sensation, Diana righted herself and cracked a hard right uppercut under Riggins' jaw, driving him a few inches across the floor - and , unfortunately, closer to Charlotte and the gun.

He scrambled to his knees - slipping once on the brittle fragments of the shattered phone cord - dropped the inhaler, and scooped up the pistol in one swift motion. He didn't bother aiming at Diana, because he knew in his gut that the threat of being shot would not even slow her down. Riggins again chose Charlotte Browning as his target, lunging for her and grabbing her by the hair, dragging her on top of him with the gun pressed to her ear.

"GET BACK! STAY BACK, OR SHE'S DEAD!" he cried, a tinge of desperation finally creeping into his voice. If this didn't work, it was over and he knew it. She would most certainly not be turning him over to that pansy Mars - she would kill him. It was a gamble he was willing to take.

Charlotte had barely gotten her breath back when she was jerked to the floor and once again felt that damnable gun against her head. Fear, anger, and an unexpectedly strong sense of annoyance and deja vu hit her all at the same time as she looked into solid, determined blue eyes, certain they would save her somehow.

"Don't hurt her, and I won't hurt you," Diana proposed, getting to her feet as Riggins and Charlotte did the same. She took slow steps toward him, pacing his retreat.

Maribel kept her gun hidden in the folds of her skirt, watching and waiting.

"I am leaving, and YOU are coming with me! You are mine, do you hear me!?! MINE!"

His dark eyes fluttered as he looked at the advancing agent, the woman who was never meant to stand in opposition to him, the weapon he had grown accustomed to wielding like the sword of an archangel.

"Don't hurt her. Let her go, and I'll come with you."

"NO!" Charlotte cried out suddenly, struggling in his suffocating grasp. "Diana, don't..."

"It's okay, Charlie," Diana said calmly, shaking her head as she gazed into frantic green eyes. "Let her go, and I promise I'll come with you. Just tell me what to do."

Although she was deadly earnest in this offer, Diana couldn't help but wonder how effective Riggins' dreaded commands could be after all she had learned about herself, after she had forcibly wrested control away from her mind's captors. Was she now immune to their suggestions? Was she wrong to still be afraid of losing herself to him at the sound of a few mere words? After a brief debate about the wisdom of revealing herself, she added another oath, quietly and with serious reverence.

"I swear on my brother's grave."

At that promise, the gray-haired man stopped dead in his tracks - and for the first time in his adult life, he broke out in a nervous sweat. That part of their little dance was now over, and he knew it. "I don't believe you. What's to stop you from turning on me as soon as she's loose?"

His reaction did not go unnoticed, and Diana upped the stakes. "You tell me," she shot back. "Got any more aces up your sleeve, or am I a one trick pony?"

"What?!?" Riggins slunk back a few more steps, getting close to the door, and he pushed the gun tighter against his hostage's ear.

"You know what I'm talking about. Tell me what to do," she ordered in a taunting tone, aware now that she was onto the truth. "Chant something. Sing something! Quote some more bastardized Bible verses! If I belong to you, then tell me what to do, goddammit!"

"Diana, please don't do this!" Charlotte pleaded again, "Don't let him take you."

"Well? Whaddaya say, Josh?" Diana persisted, closing in on the pair with every lengthy step. "Do do that voodoo that you do so well..." she sang, waving her encrusted left hand in time with the music.

"I - I..." Riggins stammered, watching her with an odd fascination and pride, and counting the seconds until he would be forced to shoot both the worthless girl and his prized possession.

"What's a matter? Afraid it won't work? 'Course it will!" she cried in a happy voice, wildly flapping her elbows until she looked like a chicken on acid. "Because you the man! The grand potentate! The GOD DAMNED WIZARD OF OZ!! PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE GUTLESS SON OF A BITCH BEHIND THE CURTAIN!! NOW TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!"

Distracted beyond the capacity for rational thought, Riggins let the gun drift an inch from Charlotte's ear, and she again imitated Diana - the elbow cue nearly got past her - and drove that bony point into his ribs as hard as she could. His arm loosened and she wriggled free just as the gun went off, still very close to her ear, and her world went mostly silent as she fell to the floor.

Once he had lost his hostage, Joshua Riggins did the only thing he could think of, the only thing that might get him out of here alive.

He turned and ran.

The tall woman was really not expecting that. "Well, shit."

Diana dropped to one knee and checked on Charlotte, who seemed extremely confused and shaken up, but physically sound. She kissed her on the forehead. "I have to go after him."

Charlotte watched her lips, barely able to make out the muffled, distant words through the ringing in her ears. "No! Your hip... shot?"

"Graze. Nothing to worry about," she lied, then turned to address the lady of the house. "Mrs. Falcon? Watch out for her, please."

Maribel was already on her way over, and she held out her .38 to Diana, offering it silently.

"No. Keep that in case he comes back - or in case Scarface over there gives you any more trouble," Diana said, jerking her head toward Marco as he finally got to his feet. "Don't let him go anywhere. I still need that information." With one more look at the beautiful blonde whose loving expression made all this seem worth it, the agent turned and darted through the door in pursuit of her quarry.

"Be careful," Charlotte whispered after her. Taking Maribel's hand, she pulled herself up and wobbled to the conference table, taking a seat and reaching for the bourbon decanter. Mrs. Falcon joined her and plopped down three glasses, urging her son to join them for a much-needed drink. He hesitated until Charlotte smiled at him and slid him a glass, indicating a temporary truce was in place.

"Now, Marco... we need to talk." 



Because it was highly distasteful to steal from dead men, she ran directly to the only guy who was still breathing - the one she discarded when things first went haywire.

"Sorry, pal. I need this more than you do," she explained as she took his gun, pleased to find an extra magazine in his shoulder rig. Diana checked the chamber and loaded the full clip, hoping she wouldn't need thirteen shots to bring Riggins down. She still intended to bring him back alive, if at all possible.

Diana raced down the main hall, checking each room and coming up empty. She headed for the dining room and snagged her tweezers from the banquette, removing the listening capsule from her ear and tucking it into her bra as she ran back down to the kitchen. She saw no sign of Riggins or any indication that he had come through these rooms, but the exit alarm had not gone off or even chirped from being deactivated, so she knew he was still in the house.

*But where? Place had to have three floors, didn't it?*

With loping steps, she set out for the staircase, certain that he was moving slower than she as a result of that numbing pinch she put on his leg. Her hip was starting to ache, but her recent experiences coping with pain made it seem relatively insignificant, and she mounted the first flight of stairs with purpose. Eyes wide open, she searched for some sign, some clue that would point her in the right direction. She stepped onto the landing and pricked up her ears, ready for action.

*Second floor - gaudy paintings, copulating statues, and ten bloody bedrooms! Fun, fun, fun.*



"No way. No fucking way I'm giving them up to her," Marco was saying, shaking his head and slurping bourbon like there was no tomorrow. It seemed to make the throbbing pain in his wrist lessen somewhat.

"Listen to me. As your attorney, I'm advising you to spill your guts."

"That's your professional legal opinion, Charlotte?"

"Yep. You're going to have to do time, that's definite, but how much and where depends on your cooperation," she continued. "I know that you don't trust Diana, but I do. If you tell her what she wants to know, and help her get that... what's his name again?"

"Riggins. Joshua Motherfuckin' Riggins," he slurred angrily.

"Nice middle name. Appropriate, I'm sure," Charlotte added. "Anyway, if you tell her people all about his dirty dealings, they'd have reason to go easy on you. It's the only way you can help yourself now. Be smart, Marco."

Shaking his head, Falcon looked to his mother with pleading eyes. "Mami, I can't believe you're doing this to me. We could be on a plane to Puerto Rico by now, but no! You'd rather send your son to jail than leave here with me! What kind of mother are you!?!"

"The kind who doesn't give up on her children," Maribel responded honestly, conscious of the irony as she held her son at gunpoint. "I have seen the evil that you can do, mijo, but I can't believe that there's nothing more to you, that you can't be a better man if you try. Realizing that there are consequences for your crimes and paying for some of them would be a good place to start."

"Jail does not make better men! It takes a man and makes him harder inside than he was before! How you think that's gonna help me?" Marco questioned, slamming his glass down against the table. "Jail ain't gonna make me into some Jesus freak or nothin', it's just gonna remind me that you gotta be harder than the next guy to survive. Mami, don't do this... just give me that gun and let's get the hell out of here while we can, before that psycho bitch or Darth fuckin' Vader comes back!"

"No. I'm not leaving here until this is settled, and neither are you. We wait for Diana."

Snorting, Marco drained his glass, wondering how they were so certain that she would be the one returning for them.

Charlotte finished her bourbon and got up to pace. She wiggled a finger in her ear, pleased that the ringing had dulled to a rhythmic throb. After walking the length of the room twice, she sat down, and got right back up again, too nervous to stay still.

*I should stay here. I should stay right here and wait. I'll be in the way. I'll only get in the way again. I'm gonna stay here. I'm just gonna wait right here until she gets back.*

"Like hell I am," she disagreed out loud, turning back for the door and heading out to look for Diana as Maribel called after her in vain.

"Charlie, no! Don't go out...," she trailed off, aware that the young woman was beyond listening to reason. "Damn! Estar enamorado."

"Ha! Ain't love a bitch," Marco observed, pouring himself another drink. 


Having no luck on the second floor, Diana cautiously proceeded to the third level of the Falcon manse, knowing that Riggins had nowhere else to go. Although it was nearly pitch dark in the hall, she could make out faint traces of pink light leaking from beneath the doors, as all six were set along the back side of the house. It gave her a starting point as she scanned each spill of light for tell-tale shadows, hoping that the man was unsettled enough to slip up and stand near the door of whichever room he had chosen. She silently walked the length of the hall, seeing no movement, but certain she was on the right track.

*He's up here, alright. My spider-sense is tingling.*

She shook her left hand to clear out the pinprick sensations of ebbing numbness, forgetting for a moment that it was covered in a tough, thick layer of foam. It brushed against her dress in a whispery rustle, which sounded like a rampaging herd of wildebeasts to her hypersensitive ears.

A corresponding thump and shuffle sounded from a room near the center of the hall, and she spun and aimed at the sound. A slip of darkness edged away from the pink pool at the base of door number three, and she smiled as she picked up the scent.

*Here kitty, kitty.*


Charlotte scoured the first floor without luck, pausing only a moment to check on the one surviving guard. His pulse was thready and faint, but he was breathing, making him a lucky, lucky man in her estimation. She recalled the stranglehold Diana had put on him, his eyes bulging in fear as she pressed those knives to his throat...

*Yeeesh. Stop thinking about that - that wasn't her. That wasn't her.*

She moved to the staircase and headed up, trying to exercise as much stealth as possible. Her mind, however, would not be quiet.

*Diana - my Diana is not like that. She had a chance to kill Marco and didn't. She tried to help that awful man when he was choking... now that, I should have kept my mouth shut about. If he hurts her, it's my fault. He wouldn't have gotten loose if I had just kept my stupid mouth shut and let her handle it! I have to trust her, right? She knows what she's doing.*

On the second floor landing, she peeped around the rail and looked down the hall, eyes floundering in the darkness. Exactly what she was looking for... she didn't know. What she would do if she heard something... well, she didn't know that either.

*Diana knows what she's doing. I sure as hell don't know what I'm doing...* 


Positioning herself beside the door, Diana tried to gauge the damage done to her body, to estimate what she could reasonably expect it to accomplish or endure.

*The scratch on the jaw means nothing. Left hand might as well be in a cast - can't feel it, but it's hard as hell. Might make a good club. The hip - now that stings a little, but I can move well enough. I can do this. I will do this.*

A picture came unbidden to her mind's eye - a crystal image of Charlotte taking her hand, walking at her side down a white sand beach as the mantled sun sank behind them, extinguished in an ocean of cool blues and greens.

*Anything is possible. I've owned up to my past, and I will claim my future. So close, so close...*

She stepped back, tilted her body onto her weak leg and lauched her foot like a missile, kicking the door open in a stunning shatter of wood and brass. The strike plate clattered to the floor as the first shots were fired from inside the room, lighting up the darkness with loud booms and fleeting flares. 


Running up the stairs to the third floor, Charlotte Browning was tabulating lead expenditures in her head, and trying not to trip over her feet again.

*Four shots. Plus one when Diana grabbed him. One more near my ear. He probably shot those three guards, too. That makes nine. Nine bullets. Please let that be all he has - OOOFF!! Dammit!!*

She scraped herself up off the steps and kept going, wishing for a flashlight, unsure how many times she could fall without breaking her neck. Nearing the landing, the attorney thought she could make out a faint voice, and she tried popping her ear to make it come in clearer. Willing herself quiet, she sat and listened, anxious and hungry for more of the voice she had heard. 



"Missed me, missed me, now you've got to kiss me," Diana chanted softly, certain that the director could hear her, hoping that his cease-fire meant he was out of bullets.

"Come on in, and I'll see what I can do for you," he called out from an unseen corner. She could not pinpoint his voice, but her best guess placed him near the windows. Heavy drapes hung from floor to ceiling, smothering the pastel-hued light from the back yard and completely obscuring the windows themselves.

*He might even be hiding behind the curtains. Maybe he's feeling more talkative now.*

"Hey, Josh? You hear the one about the British guy who went to a costume party as an escargot?"

A dry chuckle and a quick "No."

"Well, he stuck some antennae on his head and loaded this blonde chick on his back. When he got to the party, the host said 'What the hell are you supposed to be?' The guy tells him he's come as a snail. The host says 'That's bullshit, you just got some girl on your back!', and the Brit says 'You don't understand mate, that's Michelle!'"

A long silence, followed by a low sigh and a scrape of wood on the floor. "That's the worst joke I have ever heard."

*Far right corner, by the window. Probably leaning on a table or desk for support.*

"Yeah, well. Guess I shouldn't give up my day job for a comedy career, huh?"

"This is the only job you're suited for, Diana. It's not too late, you know. We can just walk out of here, put this behind us."

Lying on the floor, peeking around the doorframe, she thought she could make out a shifting form in the blackness. "I can't do that now. It is too late for me."

"I don't believe that." He was quiet for long seconds, and she waited for him to explain. "You have disappointed me greatly, and at the same time, you have exceeded all my expectations."

"Gee, thanks."

"I mean that. Somehow, you managed to break through the most advanced psychological barriers ever invented. You manipulated painstakingly constructed situations, and beat odds that could only be expressed in scientific notation. That was never supposed to happen, and it never had until tonight."

Another long pause and a faint creaking which could have been from the furniture or from his own joints. "Answer me one question, if you would."

"Sock it to me, Josh."

"What did you do with Ethan's corpse once you surfaced?"

Her lips parted in surprise at hearing him address her brother by name. She had no idea he had such specific knowledge of her internal struggle, and she felt a profound sense of violation. Closing her eyes, Diana rested her forehead against the cool plaster wall and told him what he wanted to know.

"I buried him on the beach, in a white dune covered in sea oats. He can rest there, and I'll always know where he is. I'm never going to lose him again. I'm done letting you take things from me."

"Even things that hurt?"

"Especially things that hurt. They are mine to carry, like Ethan. Like my parents. Every one of those hurts makes me grateful, makes me appreciate life all the more."

"Oh, spare me. Your little playmate gave me the grotesquely sweet luuuv speech earlier. I don't need to hear it again."

"I don't intend to talk to you about Charlotte. You would never understand what she's done for me. I can tell you this, though. She's the main reason I'm not charging in there and wringing your neck until your head pops off."

"Ouch. That does raise a question, though, doesn't it? What are we going to do to end this amiable little standoff?"

"You could toss your gun over here and surrender to me. I like that plan."

"Not gonna happen, toots. I would chew razor blades before I let that sanctimonious prig Mars see me in prison. You could ditch the little femme and blow this place with me. I have a chopper standing by at the ranch house, and a plane waiting at a private airstrip. Take you anywhere you want to go."

"No can do. I'm not leaving her, and I'd rather die than go back to that life. It's not living, what I was doing. I'd rather be dead." Diana got to her feet and wiped her wet right palm on her dress, wanting a steady grip on the Sig-Sauer when she went in for the kill.

"Well. Detante, babe. What now?"

"Now I come in and get you."

Metal scraping as Riggins checked his weapon. "I'm waiting."

Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the doorway and stood perfectly still for a full count of five. Framed by the trace light of the hallway, she was certain he could see her, yet he did nothing. She started walking toward him with long, easy strides, her gun at waist level. The woman was now immersed in the black air of the room, invisible to the unadapted eye.

Still he did nothing, made neither a move nor a sound. Closer still, and Diana could almost make out his shape lurking in the darkness, a living shadow hovering quietly. She raised her weapon and leveled it at that anomaly, that phantasmic presence.

"Drop your gun, director. Or I will shoot you."

Diana heard a sharp intake of breath and sensed motion both in front and behind. Unsure from which direction the threat would come, she dropped to one knee and rolled sideways to remove herself from the middle until the situation clarified.

That happened all too quickly.

A shot came from the corner where Riggins assuredly stood, and a mewling cry sounded from the doorway where Charlotte Browning slid limp against the jamb, curling in a soft pile on the floor.

Blinking hard to will away this hateful sight, to make it disappear like the lie it had to be, Diana Starrett nearly died right then and there. Every muscle in her body seemed to liquify and dribble off her bones like melted ice cream. Her heart stopped beating and she no longer wanted to draw breath. So she stopped.

She simply stopped and waited for it to happen, waited for the snap. The break. That one final crushing moment when she would admit to herself that her life was over and it didn't matter one goddamned bit. She stopped and waited.

"Well, I guess this changes things a bit, doesn't it?"

He laughed. Joshua Riggins stood near the center window, several feet away, laughing.

"Yes, it does."

She stood before him. Dropped her gun. Raised both arms. And charged him, thudding steps bringing her closer in a thunder of movement. Hideous, unearthly screams assaulted his ears, and he actually shook as he raised the Glock and pulled the trigger. Firing the last round into Diana Starrett's body as she crashed into him and bore him up into the air, tossing him over one broad shoulder like a gunny sack, and kept running. Faster and faster, until he realized what she intended to do, until he remembered that they were three stories up.


His hands tore madly at her hair as she left the ground in an inhuman leap that carried them several feet off the floor, through the heavy drapes, through two panes of glass, and out into the warm southern California night.


Part Fifteen (conclusion)
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