Surfacing - Part Six
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
See Disclaimers in Part
Eyes burning red with soap and ire, Charlotte Browning charged from the bathroom into the hall, slamming the door behind her to cut off the enormous urge to turn back and kiss Diana one more time. Her sister bellowed her name again, and Charlie rounded the corner and came face to face with the evil hellspawn who interrupted her bath. Still struggling with the sash on her robe, she stopped short and glared as her hair popped and crackled, bubbles drifting down to the smoke colored carpet.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Charlotte demanded as she ran a hand across her forehead, clearing away a few errant colonies of suds.
Emily Browning-Avila, dressed in her Sunday best, looked her sopping sister over curiously before responding. "What the hell do you mean, what the hell am I doing here? It's FIELD DAY! You said you'd come to the church and help me set up the goddamned booth!"
"Oh." *I completely forgot... jeez. She's gonna make me pay for this one.* Charlotte attempted to assume a contrite expression before speaking again. "I'm afraid I'm gonna have to cancel."
Emily did a double take, shaking her gamine-cut magenta hair. "I must not have heard you right. I thought I heard you say that you were backing out on me." Slightly taller and rounder than Charlotte, Emily moved closer as she spoke, falling back on a lifelong habit of using her size to intimidate her younger sibling. That along with the loud voice and command presence inherited from their father usually did the trick when she wanted something from Charlie. This morning, it didn't quite cut it.
"No. I'm sorry, I can't do it today." *Can't, or won't... oh, what's the difference! I ain't going.*
Emily's blue gimlet eyes narrowed to slits. "You're just gonna leave me at the mercy of all those wicked little nuns! Alone!"
"And I am so sorry about that - I just can't go," Charlotte insisted. "Luis will run interference for you. He always does - your husband is a very a diplomatic man."
Huffing and shifting her weight rapidly from foot to foot, Emily performed her patented 'disappointed shuffle,' but her little sister remained unmoved. "So just what is so damned important that you bail on me at the last second? Paperwork? Spending the day with your nose stuck in some dusty old law book?"
Charlotte considered (for a split-second) telling Emily just where her nose had been stuck recently, but backed off when she realized that this would not shock the blustery woman, only make her obnoxiously curious. "No, Emmy. I'm just taking the day off to recover. I didn't think I'd be so tired, but this Falcon case really wore me out." The younger woman played the pity card, yawning theatrically, and the move had it's desired effect. Emily's stern visage melted into a familiar expression of consternation and concern.
"Charlie, honey, I've been telling you for years that you work way too hard. You keep up this pace, you'll be old before your time." She placed her hands on Charlotte's shoulders and gave her a little squeeze for emphasis. "Well, did you at least win the case?"
"Oh, you didn't hear what happened?" Charlotte was quite surprised, now that she thought of it, that her sister had not called after the incident Friday.
"No. Remember, I told you that we'd be out on the fishing boat through Saturday night," explained Emily. "So what happened? Spill it."
"I won, alright," Charlotte began, holding up a hand to forestall congratulations. "But then this old guy with a pistol shoved Marco and me against a wall and threatened to shoot us. A deputy took his gun away and he was arrested." She shrugged, past the shock, convinced now that it was no big deal.
Aghast, the red-haired woman opened and closed her mouth several times before speaking. "Well, shit! I go away for two freakin' days, and you nearly get killed! Are you okay?" Emily drew her into a quick hug, then bounced her away again, looking her over more carefully.
Nodding serenely, Charlotte held her sister's hands tight to reassure her. "I am perfectly fine. The deputy helped me get my head together, calm down. I've hardly even thought about it since Friday."
"Do mom and dad know? Did you talk to them?"
"They haven't called. And before you ask, no, I'm not calling them," Charlotte declared. "If they want to talk to me, they've got my number. Not that they ever use it."
"Sorry, sorry. I had to ask," Emily said, still apologizing for their parents estrangement. "You'd think they'd be over this whole Richard-divorce thing by now."
Snorting in derision, Charlotte released her sister's hands and stepped back. "They won't let anything go, Em. Dad's still not over... you know. That whole thing in college." A tiny flicker of pain crossed the younger woman's features, and Emily's eyes hardened in response.
"Lia. You can say her name, you know," Emily informed. "She doesn't deserve your reverence or your fear, Charlie. That little bitch wasn't worth the salt in your tears. And daddy had no right to treat you the way he did. It wasn't your fault."
A somber nod in response. "I know that now. But then..."
"You were seventeen! What the hell did you know about anything? That girl used you, and I for one was damned glad when her parents yanked her back home to Japan. I hope they caned her ass."
"They do that in Singapore, not Japan," Charlotte corrected, but she couldn't suppress a smile over her sister's typical righteous, protective anger. *After eight years, she's still mad. Not at me, like Dad, but for me. She got angry because I wouldn't... I wouldn't risk it. Going numb was safer. That was when things changed for me, I guess - and Emily knows it. I wonder how she's gonna react to Diana, and how things are gonna change again because of her...*
Emily was still talking when Charlotte regained radio contact, and she tried to look like she'd been listening. "...or maybe you ought to look into switching specialties. Try something safe and dull, like corporate law or lobbying. If working for Quentin Carver is gonna put you in the line of fire, the money just ain't worth it. Even if you are buying new cars every other month."
The attorney was momentarily confused, then she remembered that Diana's Jeep would be in the drive, so she played along and switched the apparent subject from her career to her car. "Well, I've wanted one of those forever. With my cut of that fat settlement from Rowland Pharmaceuticals, I figured I could afford it."
Almost smiling, the larger woman wrapped an arm around Charlotte's shoulders and drew her close. "Well if anyone deserves to spoil themselves a little, you do, kiddo. Though Luis is turning absolutely green with envy. He's probably still out there drooling on the hood." Emily steered them toward the front door, and Charlotte started to feel the enormous relief of being let off the hook.
"I hope the nuns aren't too rough on you, Emmy. Just don't pick any fights... some of them still pack rulers under their habits."
"And they'd whack me in a skinny minute, I know," Emily continued, chuckling. "Guess we'll go pick up the kids from Mama Avila's and head out. We'll manage without you, somehow. You just take it easy, shortcake - watch some football, do the crossword... rest, okay?"
"Yes, Miss Emily," Charlotte cooed, opening the door and gently poking her sister in the back. She caught sight of her brother-in-law, Luis, waving at her from the driveway and pointing appreciatively at a strange vehicle parked beside his mini van. Charlie tried, unsuccessfully, to keep her jaw from dropping in surprise as she realized that in place of Diana's Jeep sat a sleek, deep blue Porsche. The car resembled a crouched jungle cat, all coiled muscle and potential power.
*Jesus H. Christ. Where did that come from?* She tried to regain her composure, but Emily noticed and poked her in the arm, ready to tease her.
"I never knew you had a thing for sports cars. You sure you can handle all that, shrimp?"
Charlotte took in the sleek, dangerous lines of the vehicle, then turned her head toward the last known location of Diana Starrett, drawing a vague parallel. "I thought so, but I'm beginning to wonder."
Good-byes were exchanged, and Emily and Luis bravely set off to deal with Field Day at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Charlotte snatched up the Sunday paper from the front step and made a bee-line for the bathroom. She found Diana reclining languidly in the tub, a folded towel pillowing her head on the porcelain edge. More than a little curious about the car perched on her drive, Charlotte ditched her robe and stood by the tub, watching Diana watch her.
"Everything okay?" asked Diana. "Your sister gone?"
"Yeah, it's okay, she's gone. But you..." Charlotte began, then shook her head and assumed her best Ricky Ricardo voice, "you got some 'splainin to do."
Diana lifted one hand from the bubbles and made a 'Well? Go on.' gesture.
Charlotte stepped into the bath and immediately set about washing her matted hair. "What's with that muscle car? Where's your Jeep?"
Sticking with her new policy of lying as little as possible, Diana hastily explained that her Uncle Harry needed the Jeep for utility purposes, so she borrowed his car. "Made the exchange last night. I hope he never asks for that car back. The thing can fly, Charlie."
"Yeah, that's just what you need - a faster car." A quick smile, and she ducked under the faucet to rinse her hair.
"That's not just any car, missy. That happens to be a Porsche 911 Carrera Turbo. Driving it is so much fun, I think the Moral Majority once tried to have that model outlawed," Diana claimed.
"Yeah, pull the other one while you're at it," Charlotte said, nudging Diana with her leg while squeezing the excess water from her hair. "Would you be interested in going shopping with me today? I need to pick up something to wear tonight... and we really should get my car out of the Treus parking lot before they decide to have it towed away."
"I guess we should do that. As for shopping, I'm not really that into it - but I'll go if you want me to. I should find something to wear to this soiree myself..."
"Oh yay!" Charlie interrupted, "You've gotta let me get you a
dress, something really killer... maybe a little black number with spaghetti
straps, something to show off that tan... oh, hell. Like it matters what you
wear. You'd look great in a burlap sack. But, just between you and me," she
whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "I'd rather you wear something really
sexy. Let's pick up some silk stockings, garters... no underwear, though. I
wanna be ogling you while Marco's ogling me."
Though she had the good grace to blush at the notion, Diana soon relented to the young attorney's powers of persuasion. She only hoped that she could keep some small part of her mind on work tonight. *Well, you wanted a distraction. Guess falling ass-over-teakettle in love wasn't quite what you had in mind... but it's too late now. Enjoy it, use it. She's the best motivation you could ask for.*
After the bath, the two fell into a series of impossibly familiar and comforting activities. The morning hours passed pleasantly with the completion of the crossword puzzle (although there was a brief, negligible conflict over the use of the word epee instead of foil on 23 down), and the viewing of CNN and numerous Warner Brothers cartoons. There were several instances of spontaneous lovemaking, and by lunch, every room in the house had been christened - including the laundry room.
While removing a dryer sheet from the back of her brassiere, Charlotte noted that she would never think of the 'spin cycle' quite the same way again.
Just past one o'clock, they settled down long enough to have a light lunch of sandwiches on the sofa, sitting close enough to feed each other, acutely aware that they were now loathe to be out of physical contact for more than a few moments at a time.
"This is just getting disgusting now, you know," one of them observed. The other agreed and smiled, reveling in the feeling even as they acknowledged how sickeningly sweet their behavior would appear to any who witnessed them - giggling and groping like teenagers whose parents are out for the evening. Eventually, another shower became necessary before embarking into the outside world for their shopping expedition. Being environmentally conscious, they chose to conserve water by taking only one.
Charlotte managed to find a presentable shirt among Richard's belongings, one
that would look decent enough to stroll around in, and Diana finally
relinquished the Chargers sweatshirt to the hamper.
Although she didn't want to give Diana the satisfaction of hearing her say it aloud, Charlotte loved the car. Windows down, stereo blasting, and Diana actually driving like a responsible citizen - what more could she ask for? She was moved enough by the experience to croon along with "Love Is A Battlefield" in a remarkably bad Pat Benatar impression, causing Diana to sing even louder trying to drown her out.
"Are you trying to tell me something?" Charlie yelled over the din. Diana just grinned and shook her head. "Good! Just wait 'til you hear my Sheryl Crow!"
Diana groaned quietly and drove a wee bit faster.
Snug in the heart of town, Lansing Center was well known as the home of the best clothiers in Elceda, but just as well known for its woefully insufficient parking. The three story structure of old stone, translucent glass and gleaming chrome had been erected with style as the foremost concern. Convenience and functionality could be found at the mall off the highway.
Diana and Charlotte had opted to use the multi-level parking garage across
the street, cheerfully coughing up five dollars for the sleepy eyed attendant
rather than wasting time scouting for an all too rare free space in the street.
As Diana lagged slightly behind, Charlotte trotted over to enter the consumer
wonderland, brimming with an ebullience and generosity she only felt when
preparing to buy a gift. They disappeared through a set of smoked glass double
doors and did what came naturally. For Charlie, that was shopping like there was
no tomorrow; for Diana, that was complaining about having to try on the endless
supply of outfits the attorney suggested, and unconsciously intimidating the
hell out of a few snooty salespeople.
Approximately forty-five minutes had passed when a black sedan carrying two men wheeled into the parking garage. They did not know which car belonged to the target, only that she was in the shopping complex less than ten minutes ago, and chances were high that she would use this garage. They parked, checked their weapons and equipment and took their positions - one near the entrance, the other by the elevator. Both men knew that it could be a while before their target returned, so while the older one waited silently and tried to maintain the focus necessary to carry out what he knew would be a difficult assignment, the younger retrieved a packet of pistachio nuts from his coat pocket and had a light snack. He had not worked with her, and felt sure that his partner exaggerated, that the woman was overrated.
"I think you're too civic-minded for your own good, Charlie," Diana teased as they struggled through the exit, hauling nine shopping bags stuffed to capacity. "You're single-handedly trying to hold off a recession among retail merchants, aren't you?"
"Leave me be, woman!" Charlotte shot back, "What's the good in
working like a dog if I can't enjoy spending my exorbitant salary?" She
turned to stick out her tongue, and nearly toppled over with the
weight of her parcels. "WHOA, NELLIE!"
Diana grabbed her arm and righted her, then settled her share of the packages on the sidewalk. "You might not even make it across the street at this rate. Wait here, I'll go get the car and bring it down. "
"And they say chivalry is dead," Charlotte deadpanned.
The tall woman curtsied gracefully and gave her a wink, checking her watch before darting across the road, weaving carefully through the light traffic. As she approached the entrance to the garage, she slowed her steps almost unconsciously, passing the attendant and offering a friendly wave. Once inside, Diana noted how utterly silent the place was - like a car mausoleum. Her heels made a sharp, rhythmic click against the concrete, and she fell into an easy gait as she headed for the stairs. Almost there, she picked up a faint sound, like the scuffling and crunching of soft-shoe dancing - or nut shells being crushed underfoot. The sound ceased almost instantly, and was replaced by a light rustling of fabric and quick, airy footsteps. All her warning bells began to ring at maximum volume as adrenaline flooded her system. Someone was following her, and trying not to be heard.
*Behind me, maybe twenty feet, closing fast.*
With no time to think, Diana let her instincts take over, and her first instinct was to run. Her shoes fell away and she broke into a dead run for the stairs, throwing open the door and taking the first flight three steps at a time. She could hear her pursuer's footfalls as they reached the door and came up after her. Once she had reached the second floor exit, she flung the door open loud enough to make a racket, and headed up to the third level. She stopped just behind the rail and peered over the edge, watching as a young man in a dark suit rushed through the second floor door. He had a small-caliber pistol with a silencer in one hand, and what appeared to be a syringe in the other. Tucking the capped needle into his coat pocket, he scanned frantically for her, and completely forgot to watch his back.
She dropped over the rail, landing softly and slipping through the door just before it closed. Ten long strides and she stood behind him, matching his movements and staying out of his line of sight.
*God, where does Riggins get these guys? Mercenary magazines?*
Diana drew back a fist and punched a wedge of knuckles into the base of his skull even as her foot rocketed out to strike the back of his knee. The man cried out sharply and fell to the concrete, but did not drop his gun. She then grabbed the gun hand and twisted his arm at an ungodly angle, opening up his armpit to a quick uppercut from her knee. The sharp, searingly painful contact of speeding bone with the vulnerable ganglia of nerves made him relinquish his hold on the gun. It also dislocated his shoulder and ripped the hell out of his rotator cuff, but that was beside the point. The gun clattered to the floor, and Diana knelt and retrieved it just as the man's partner cleared the doorway, gun in hand. Diana grabbed the younger agent roughly and held his squirming body in front of her as a human shield, aiming the agent's confiscated weapon over his own mangled shoulder at his partner.
"Drop it or die where you stand," she ordered, her voice even, hard, and not remotely reasonable.
He hesitated less than a second, then pulled the gun up, pointing the barrel at the ceiling as he slowly lowered it to the ground. He kept his palms raised and in clear view at all times, taking no chances.
"Thank you. Now make like Pele and kick it as far away as you can. Keep your hands up."
Again, he complied almost instantly. His partner moaned a little and struggled, prompting Diana to speed things up a little. She pressed the barrel to his temple and reached inside the coat pocket for the syringe, then held it up for inspection. The pale green liquid within was a familiar sight - a powerful, custom synthetic used to induce up to eighteen hours of unconsciousness.
"This was for me, I assume." She addressed the question to the older, obviously smarter agent.
"So Riggins wants me alive?"
She regarded the syringe curiously, then clamped it between her teeth and tugged the young man up by his hair, keeping the gun firmly against his head. She uncapped the needle and pressed the point to his neck, whispering in his ear, "Try not to stumble. I don't want to have to carry you."
Diana addressed the senior again. "Is your vehicle downstairs?"
"Yes. First floor."
"Good. Let's take a walk. You lead the way, slowly. Hands behind your head now."
The older agent did as instructed, and Diana followed along, pushing the limping young man in front of her. Soon, they had descended the stairs and stood behind the standard issue black sedan, fortuitously parked in a far corner. She was aware of and thankful for the lightness of the traffic in the garage, easily dodged and causing no real distress.
*Chargers play today, maybe all the sane people are watching football.*
"Open the trunk and pull up the carpet. Take out the tire tools and slide them under the vehicle," she instructed again, still in a commanding tone, but low enough not to carry to other ears. The agent did as she asked, and as soon as she ascertained that there were no other goodies in the trunk, she shoved the younger agent against the bumper and held the gun on the two men.
"One quick question before you go in, gentlemen. How did you find me here?"
The younger man snorted in derision, and the older agent smacked his injured shoulder.
"Shut-the-fuck-up, Martin," he hissed. He knew that there was a small, smoldering chance that they might get out of this alive, and he was determined to keep that ember lit. "Cellular phone. A call was placed, we triangulated the signal to the building across the street."
*Oh, great. Left it in my purse. Charlie must have used the phone for something. My bad. At least this one won't cost me.*
Diana smiled at the man, appreciative of his cautious nature and vaguely aware that he seemed familiar. She couldn't place his face, though - and there was no reason that she should recognize one of Riggins' men... was there?
"Thanks. Now, Prince Charming, it's time for a little nap," she said, and approached the younger agent with the syringe. He lunged forward, as expected, and she struck his nose hard with the butt of his pistol. That took the fight right out of him, and he slumped into the trunk, unconscious.
"Well, that's one way to do it, Di." The older man spoke to her in a friendly voice, even offered a wan smile. His pale, flat features, and straw-colored hair combined with his lanky, thin physique to give him the look of a scarecrow.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
"You used to." He shook his head, marveling at the things Mangano could make people forget. She was important enough to merit the full wash, but he himself had been subjected to minimal action and had, therefore, received minimal treatments. He still remembered Diana Starrett quite well - well enough to make him very cooperative. "Could you inject me first, please? I don't know where this little shit has been," he requested, gesturing at his partner with a jerk of his thumb.
"Sure. Turn around." Diana placed the barrel against his head, though she knew somehow that she wouldn't have to use it, and injected half of the syringe's contents into the man's neck. "Step forward, but don't turn around yet." She repeated the procedure on the younger agent, then crammed him into the trunk, leaving the lion's share of room for the taller man. "Okay. Get in."
He folded himself into the trunk with as much dignity as possible, even giving her a smile before she closed the lid. "Good luck, Diana. I hope Harry pulls it off," he said as the darkness enveloped him.
Tucking the gun into the waistband of her skirt, Diana retrieved her shoes and headed for the Porsche, aware now that Harry Mars was not exaggerating about having supporters within the agency. *Hell, he even has supporters on Riggins' own staff.* She unlocked the car and got in, shoving the gun under the seat as she cranked the engine. The dash clock read 5:48 - less than five minutes had passed since she left Charlie on the street, but her first thought was *Damn! She's gonna kill me...*
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