Surfacing - Part Four
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
See Disclaimers in Part One
Ten - Sunday
After burning down 805 for just over half an hour, Diana exited and soon found herself bumping along an ungraded dirt road on private property. The dash clock read 12:27am, and she figured she still had a few minutes to work with before pick-up. Once on the driveway, she peered through the trees at the rambling ranch house utilized as a base of operations by surveillance and management.
The remote locale and adequate space for air transport made it an ideal site for an extended operation HQ. Behind the house, slightly obscured by a ragged border of evergreens, was a flattened area which served as a makeshift helicopter pad. She could just make out the lone familiar figure of her supervisor standing at the edge of the clearing, smoking and pacing. Diana parked alongside the outsized, innocuous equipment van (from which she imagined Harry Mars had watched her performance at Salmon's house), and jogged through the thin line of pines to stand with him.
"Gimme that," she said immediately, gesturing at his cigarette. Mars smirked and handed it over, and was rather surprised when she dropped it and ground it out under her shoe.
"Now, what did you go and do that for?" He was already reaching for another when she grabbed his hands and forced him to look at her. Diana was momentarily struck once again by how much Harry Mars looked like a comic book character. Tall, muscled and sharp featured, with short black hair sporting streaks of gray, he made her think of "Doctor Strange" with a buzz-cut.
"Harry, please. I need your full attention, no distractions," she insisted. "I need to talk. We can't let this one go, we're too close to pulling it off."
Mars shook his head and tried to look sympathetic. "Hey, Diana, I know you're upset about Eladio..."
"YES! Yes I am. He was a good agent and a good guy, but he would not want us to quit when we're so near the end." Diana was certain of this, and it came through in her voice. "He thought he was okay to continue, he said so himself. Eladio would want us to finish this."
"Di, I want us to finish this, but word came down that we were to suspend surveillance and back the hell off of Falcon," Mars related. He let go of her hands and exhaled heavily in frustration. "The directive came from Riggins himself."
Diana backed away and screwed up her face as if she had smelled something terribly foul. "Why would he take an interest in this? No unstable governments to topple this weekend? Or is he bored with de-stabilizing currencies of third-world nations?"
Smiling slightly in agreement, Mars shrugged. "None of my contacts seem to know the deal here. I thought at first that he might want to take over the op himself - that Bartok and Jamal are actually important to him - but that can't be it."
Diana agreed wholeheartedly, wrapping her mind around this new puzzle and spontaneously deciding to use it to her advantage. "He didn't give a damn about them when they were busy with their 'ethnic cleansing.' These men killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, and we didn't move a muscle to stop them. Now we've got them within our reach, and we have to roll over and play dead again? It makes no sense to me, the way Riggins uses his power." *C'mon, Mars. Bite... bite.*
"Men like him are the reason the intelligence community has become a joke," Harry spat, "We are neither ineffectual nor impotent, but with orders for inaction coming down like rain, it feels like we might as well pack it in and let it all go to hell! If men like Jamal and Bartok are not tried for their crimes, then what kind of message does that send to others who would rule by their methods? It's a tacit endorsement of brutality," he concluded, nearly out of breath and flushed with anger.
*Perfect, just perfect.* "I still think you should be in charge. You're not like him, you wouldn't abuse the power," Diana asserted, praying that Mars would hang with her. "Riggins is a corrupt old dinosaur, and the directive of our agency has fallen aside in favor of his personal advancement. It's Mosca's Iron Law, Harry. You'd be more likely to resist that temptation and keep us on track."
Harry Mars seemed flattered for an instant, then his face went stony and his eyes darkened. "You're not the only one who thinks that, Di. There have been rumblings about ousting Riggins for some time now, but no one has ever had the means to lever away his support. From time to time, he hands the U.N. something they want, and they renew funding and let him slink back into the slime, no questions asked."
"They want results, and they don't care how he gets them," Diana prompted. Mars was on a roll, rolling right into her hands, so she kept him talking. The more eager he was to depose his old rival and detractor, the more amenable he would be to her plan.
"It might surprise you to know this, but I have a number of supporters within the agency," Harry said. "The only problem would be persuading those who sit the fence to come down on my side. Then I may have a shot."
*Now! Just jump right in there!* "I may be able to help you with that," Diana began, "but you would have to disobey Riggins... and leave me here to finish this. Alone."
Mars was stunned initially, then disbelieving, then curious. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about sticking around here and finding where Falcon has General Scumbag and President Pisswad stashed. I can find out, Harry - without risk of exposure. Monday morning, you'll know their locations, and you can use them to win over your fence-sitters and bargain with the U.N. I think they want to try the war criminals on an international stage more than they want to keep Riggins," Diana explained. "You'd be running things before lunchtime. A bloodless coup."
He seemed to consider the general idea for a moment, stroking his mustache and pacing some more as he sorted through the possible outcomes. Once settled, Mars nodded and stood facing Diana with an oddly concerned expression. "Extremely dangerous idea... it could work. But, how would you manage to procure the info? His computer systems are unhackable, and he's constantly running security sweeps on the house."
"I'm gonna walk right through the front door," Diana said, smiling widely enough to make the Cheshire Cat seem dour. "You know that party tonight? I'm gonna get myself invited. I'll be there when Falcon meets with their reps. If he spills the beans then, I'll beam you the news immediately. If he doesn't, I'll get it out of him one way or another," she promised. *Whatever it takes.*
"This goes against every protocol, every rule in the book, Di."
"We both know there is no book, Mars - not for us. Maybe you could write one after you take over. Until then, I say we play fast and loose... and cheat."
Again, the concern flared in his dark eyes. "What if you get caught?"
"I won't. But if the impossible should happen, I'll make them put me down. They'll know even less about me than they did about Eladio," she answered. "No exposure. You trust me to do this, Harry?"
A deep sigh deflated his barrel chest, and he nodded. "I believe you could handle Falcon. I believe you'd find a way to get the information, and I believe that you don't give a damn about the possible risk to yourself. Going in there unauthorized, alone... you got a death wish now?"
"No, just the opposite," Diana stated honestly. "I want to live through this, and then I want you to do me a favor as payment."
Sensing that he wasn't going to like this, Mars silently waited for her to continue. When she did, her low voice dropped to a whisper. "If I get you what you need, and you take over the helm, I want out. I want to surface."
The tall man stood rooted to the ground, stock still and blinking in disbelief. "No way, Diana. You don't know what you're asking for. The surfacing process has killed twenty-three of the twenty-six agents who've tried it. Mangano turned the other three into vegetables."
"Then you can chop me up and make soup, Harry," she retorted. "This is what I want, and I think I can survive it. I deserve the chance."
"How much do you know about Mangano's method? Do you realize that any one of the things he'll pull out of your head would drive most people crazy?"
"Tell me what you know about it and we'll compare notes," Diana offered.
Mars started pacing again, then reached for another cigarette. A few puffs later, he flicked it away and started talking. "Surfacing for you would be like reliving every bad memory, every horror you have ever endured or committed, in rapid succession. Mangano claims that for most subjects, it's like trying to breathe while standing under a waterfall - every time you try to catch your breath, another cascade beats down on you, drowning you," Harry related. "He uses hypnosis, regression, drug therapy and a few more nefarious means to break down the psychic blocks keeping these memories at bay. Eventually, either all the memories are purged or they recede back into the mind all at once and overload the circuits, and your brain shorts out. Either you die right then, or you stare at the carpet for the rest of your days. Nobody's come out of it intact."
"Yet," Diana said. "I want out, Mars. I'm aware of the risks, and I know that I have a bad time waiting for me if I try this, but I've dodged that bullet for ten years now. I think it's time for me to own up to the things I've done, even if it's only for a few moments. Then the memories will be gone, and I can start over - fresh. Anyway, how bad could the memories be? It's all been in the line of duty, right?"
"I think you could handle most of the events of the past ten years, Di. It's what happened before that worries me," Harry confided. His angular countenance was drawn and grave, and he didn't seem anxious to elaborate.
"Before? You mean when I was recruited?" she inquired hesitantly. "I thought all that was wiped out just for convenience, to avoid endangering recognition of family and the like."
"It's not just convenience in some cases, especially not yours. Something happened to you that brought you to our attention, that made you seem a viable candidate for our purposes," Harry responded, being intentionally vague. He still got a queasy feeling in his gut whenever he thought about what Diana Starrett experienced only days after her nineteenth birthday, all that pain and guilt laid at the feet of such a sensitive young woman. "Re-living that would be the worst part. It broke you the first time you went through it, and it may do so again. I don't think you should take the chance."
Not having the slightest idea what he was referring to, she remained unswayed in her determination. "I need to do this, Harry. If I can't get out, I might as well be dead," Diana declared. "But I have a good reason to live now, so I'm willing to gamble on this. I just need to know that you'll bet on me."
"You're my horse, kid. Always have been," Mars answered, smiling as best he could manage. "I do worry about you, though. Can't seem to help myself."
*Might as well ask him now...* "Is that why you cleaned up after me Friday morning?"
He nodded and stepped closer, feeling compelled to look in Diana's eyes as he answered. "I only did that because Riggins demanded the tape. He's been all over this Falcon thing lately, and I couldn't stand the thought that he might turn the dogs loose on you, just because you maintained some sliver of humanity and spared the boy. That kid wasn't gonna talk - not in time to make trouble, anyway - but that wouldn't have mattered to Riggins. You violated protocol."
"I know, and that's precisely the reason I can't do this job anymore. I didn't even think of killing that boy; it wasn't until afterwards that I wondered why I spared him." Diana was suddenly aware that she could hardly remember the child's face now, that his image was already fading - another curious quirk of her mnemonic alteration. She could remember song lyrics, poems, philosophies, long numeric sequences, but no clear image would come to her of the dead boy whom she could recall so clearly only yesterday. She shook off her discomfiture and made a final plea. "I'm not running on autopilot anymore, Harry. I'm reacting to things differently, like I'm feeling first and thinking later. I gotta quit while I still have a chance. Please, just tell me that if I help you with Riggins, you'll help me surface."
Though his decision was already made, Mars found he was unable to say it aloud. Instead, he reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a set of keys, tossing them to Diana. "Leave the Jeep here, the clean-up crew will take it - it's wired. There's a clean ride in the garage, no trackers. You'll find a full complement of gear in the trunk, some cash and a few extras up front," he explained, before adding a warning. "You should watch your back, just in case Riggins doesn't buy my excuse for your absence and starts looking for you. I'll get everything straight on my end, start making some moves. I'll be waiting for you to call in, Di, so don't leave me hanging."
Nodding solemnly, Diana and Mars stood facing each other, the weight of their decision settling in and nullifying the need for further discussion. The soft thwack of approaching helicopter blades could be heard in the distance. "Thanks, boss," Diana managed to say softly, as Harry Mars turned away from her and waved over his shoulder.
He waited, pensive and still, as the unmarked black bird touched down. Amid the swirling wind and swaying grass, he stood steadfast for another long moment, then turned to look back at Diana - but she was already loping down the driveway toward the garage. He slipped into the chopper and signaled for the pilot to head out, staring down the whole time as Diana keyed in the door codes and tore out seconds later in her new ride. Harry smiled to himself, hoping she liked the car, hoping she wouldn't wreck it. Buried beneath several layers of anxiety and tension, a small glowing core of hope started to burn inside him. Mars knew that the events of the next thirty-six hours would determine the futures of the only two concerns he carried in his leathered heart : the agency... and Diana Starrett.
On her fifth trip through the gate of The Meadows in roughly twenty-four hours, Diana made a special effort to be nice to Teddy, the late shift security guard. He approached her car and was clearly flabbergasted when the window lowered and revealed her smiling face. She couldn't tell if he was more jealous about her returning to see Charlotte Browning again, or about the inordinately expensive car she now piloted. Either way, she was on her best behavior, for she hadn't been so stunningly optimistic about her future since... well, she couldn't remember when.
"Evening, Ted. All quiet on the western front, I trust?" She noticed then his crooked posture, which suggested a reason for his toiling in private security when his demeanor was so clearly that of a policeman.
The swarthy guard stepped up to the car and whistled, thinking that some people have all the luck. "Yes, deputy. Silent as a tomb - 'cept for you tearing in and out of here at all hours, that is."
Diana chuckled softly and reached into the glove compartment for a peace
offering - or a bribe, as it were. "Duty called, I had to go. Here, pal.
From one cop to another." She handed him one of Harry's hand-rolled Cubans,
and watched amusedly as his jaw dropped in recognition. He ran the cigar across
his mustache, inhaling deeply and smiling with anticipation. Diana tapped her
fingernails on the door to regain his attention, and he opened the gate
promptly, this time forgetting to glare at her as she drove away.
On the third ring of the doorbell, Charlotte managed - with great effort - to open her eyes. She could never recall being so deservedly, deliciously exhausted. She noticed that Diana was no longer in bed, and hoped that the doorbell heralded her immediate return. Awake less than ten seconds without her, she already felt her absence. Moving as quickly as she could manage, given the terminal languor settled in her muscles, she made her way to the front door, stumbling over the carpet border no less than three times before reaching the foyer. After a brief check through the peephole, she flung open the door, either unaware or uncaring that she was stark naked. Diana noticed.
"Counselor, you seem to have forgotten your briefs... and everything else," she observed, in a casually appreciative tone. "What would Teddy say?"
Charlotte, totally artless and beaming, replied "How did you put it this morning? Oh, yeah - Teddy can blow me." She stepped out onto the welcome mat and took Diana's hands, leading her inside the house, closing the door deliberately behind them. Perhaps half a second later, the tall woman found herself sitting on the hall table, being kissed witless.
"Actually," Diana said, when her mouth was freed up, "I said that yesterday morning. It's Sunday."
A groan stifled against her neck told her Charlotte was unaware of this fact. "Time's passing too fast," the lawyer mumbled. "I don't want Monday to come. Can't we petition father time for an extension?" Warm lips settled on a pulse point, and Charlotte decided never to move from that spot. *I'll be like a remora, a barnacle... she'll just have to get used to me.*
With Diana's hands stroking long down her back, her knees squeezing gently on either side of her hips, and those long legs curled in against the backs of her thighs, Charlie's wishes were briefly granted. For a few infinitely precious moments, time took a coffee break and watched the lovers. The rest of the universe was held in suspended animation as their breathing slowed and their heartbeats matched rhythm. Charlotte could feel the synchronicity pulsing through her lips, and she smiled against Diana's throat. "So this is how it feels."
"This is how it feels," Diana confirmed. "I had always wondered... now I know. I can die happy."
Charlotte jerked her head back, and as soon as her lips left Diana's skin, time picked up where it had left off, and the universe was none the wiser. "Die? What a buzzkill! I'm thinking eternal bliss, and you're thinking tombstones? What a romantic you are," the younger woman teased, grinning hard enough to tighten her scalp.
Taking a long look at Charlotte's face in the dim light, Diana could see the imprint of the pillowcase pressed into her cheek. Her eyes were alive, yet slightly droopy from hard sleep, and small crinkles formed along the edges as she smiled. Also, her bangs were poking up like a blond cockscomb. She was, without exception, the most beautiful creature Diana Starrett had ever seen. Just looking at her, Diana could feel her own heart filling like a carnival balloon and soaring up into the sky, doomed to explode. Just when the pressure became unbearable, Charlotte produced a pin and popped it without warning.
"I love you, you know."
The words were out before she had a chance to review them, by-passing her brain and running straight from her heart to her mouth to Diana's ears. Charlotte looked terribly surprised to have said it, but not as surprised as the tall woman was to hear it. Out loud, that is... they had been saying it from the start in a million different ways, but not in a simple, succinct sentence. Unable to stand the look of needless worry marring her lover's countenance, Diana gathered what remained of her wits and tried to level the field.
"Charlie, I'm gonna have to retool my definition of courage, because it's not big enough for you," she said, looking deeply touched and very proud. "I don't think I could have said it first, but I do... love you. And yes, I do know. It may be the only thing in my life I'm sure of, but it's enough."
Although she would have bled to hear those words said back to her over and over, Charlotte was too overjoyed to ask for more - it would be like tasting ambrosia and asking for seconds. While the time for words is fleeting, the opportunity to act is even more so, and the young woman's timing was sharpening rapidly. She eased herself back and tugged Diana from the table, guiding her slowly into the darkened living room, moving by memory and instinct. Once her legs touched the couch, she spun around and pushed the larger woman down onto the sofa, quickly moving to straddle her hips.
Diana moved to take off the sweatshirt again, but Charlotte stopped her with a whisper. "Let me." She could imagine the arching of that arrow-like brow in response, and she giggled knowingly. "I want to undress you. It just feels right somehow, so go with it."
Nodding dumbly in the darkness, Diana lay back against the sofa cushions and turned herself over to Charlie's capable hands. Faster then she would have imagined, the nimble-fingered attorney had entirely dispensed with her mismatched clothing and discarded the garments into the black void surrounding them. As they kissed, gravity was nullified, and they rose and tumbled through the airless night. Blind hands moved to touch and explore, to connect and anchor as they floated in the opacity of space, alone... together. And though sorely tempted to intervene once more, time let them have their privacy for the rest of the night.
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