Persistence of Memory
By Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza
Disclaimers: If you choose to read this story, you will undoubtedly encounter scenes containing violence, sex , and bad language - possibly all at once. Proceed at your own risk. Any guest appearances by certain renowned warriors or bards will be disclaimed when and if they arrive.
Also, if you have not read "Surfacing," a great deal of this may not make sense. Of course, the same may apply if you have read it. Oh, never mind. Buckle up for safety, here we go again.
Prologue - Wednesday morning
On the high slope of a perpetually snowy mountain top dotted with majestic evergreen isles, spreading stains of red melted away patches of fresh powder underneath the bodies of three large men. All were dressed in winter camouflage uniforms and sported radios, knives and guns about their person - items which their killer never allowed them to use. Not one of them fired a shot, hurled a blade or called for help as they were attacked. It simply happened too fast.
Only one of the men still lived, but his remaining time could be measured in minutes. Swallowing the pain like a good soldier, the guard tried to reason out how he came to be in this sorry condition. The last sane thing he remembered was his patrol group turning back for the cabin to get some coffee, then things got a little blurry.
He recalled a slight figure in white leaping from the roof, a shimmer of silver as the morning sun caromed off a sharp blade, then he felt a cold, hard intrusion inside his chest. If such methods and weapons weren't so ridiculously archaic, he would have sworn he'd been run through with a katana. He fell face-down in the chilled powder and knew he wouldn't be getting up again. His two companions also went down quickly, exsanguinating wildly and noisily from slashed throats.
Just as suddenly as it appeared, the figure was gone. Though too stunned to track the attacker's departure, he knew exactly where they were headed and why they were here.
As promised, someone had come for her.
Only three guards now stood in their way. Something about the speed and fury of the sword's motion told him three wouldn't be nearly enough.
Gunfire erupted from the nearby lodge, and he struggled to stay awake and listen. Breath trickled from his lips in foggy plumes as he bled out on the frozen ground, wishing he were able to move, to draw his weapon, to intervene in some way as three more men screamed and died less than thirty feet away. As the residual crack of shots fired drifted away, a blanket of silence fell over the mountain and he heard only the gentle wind playing through the trees.
"Move. Now, please."
The words tumbled out the open door of the stone and wood lodge. He knew the language, spoke English more fluently than most in the organization, but he did not recognize the voice. He knew only that it belonged to a woman other than the one he had guarded here for the past month.
"Why are you doing this? Where do you think you are taking me?"
That was her. The woman's carefully enunciated, London-learned English was unmistakable, even with the strained, panicky screams underlying her words.
"You have something I need," the killer answered simply. "If I could just take your head away with me and drain the contents, believe me, I would."
"I don't know what you want from me! I've already told them everything I remember!"
"Well, in that case, at least you'll be getting away from this wretched cold," the strange woman offered, her voice bright and curiously calm. "Does a California vacation sound good?"
"Absolutely not! I am not going anywhere with you!"
"Perhaps you've failed to notice your guards are stone dead. Now you can walk under your own steam, or I'll knock you out and carry you."
In the quiet, he fancied he could hear her mouth drop open. No one was allowed to talk to her like that, not even his revered boss, Hideo Yoshima. The man was in charge of a veritable army of deadly men, but he always handled this woman with kid gloves, mystifying all in his command.
"You would not dare to lay a finger on me! Hideo will come for you! He will - "
"He's welcome to try."
Then came the crunching of footsteps in the snow as the woman emerged, presumably carrying her silent captive. He listened to her steps as she moved away and stopped to settle the girl somewhere, then the sound resumed at a barely audible volume. Instinct more than hearing told him that she was coming back. Coming toward him.
She stopped short and stood perfectly still for a long moment while he held his breath. A sharp poke in the back alerted him to the presence of a blade, so he tensed and waited for the death strike. Much to his surprise, she spoke to him instead.
"Still alive, are we?"
He felt the toe of her boot dig into his side as she rolled him onto his back, and he gasped as the renewed pain washed over him. Glaring light burned through the gaps in his sunglasses, and he squinted blindly until she moved to block out the sun. He lay quiet and still in her shadow, staring up at her silhouette as she pulled off her white knit mask.
"It's too late for you, I'm afraid," she said, sounding almost sympathetic as she tapped the compact blade of a short sword against his bleeding chest. She knelt beside him in the snow and took the radio from his belt. "Do you want to call your people anyway, let them know what happened? It won't make a difference in the outcome, but it would certainly heighten the drama."
He knew she was right, they were beaten and it was too late now. He shook his head.
"No? Fine. They'll know soon enough."
As she hovered just over him, her features became clear. He saw hair like corn silk, and eyes of smoke set in a face sculpted of dreamstone. He was sure he was hallucinating. Not even in films had he seen such western women, certainly never in life. They weren't real, and they certainly didn't do this kind of work. There had to be some other explanation.
"A- a- angel?" he asked softly, his breathing shallow and wet.
Her pale red mouth curled into a smile. She rubbed snow on her leather gloves to clean off some of the blood, then ran a finger across his exposed bluish lips.
"Angelia? Oh, don't worry about her. She's fine for the moment."
He shook his head as she missed his meaning, then he repeated the word.
"Ahh. You mean am I an angel?" She gave it a second's thought, then whispered, "Maybe once... but I fell from grace."
Carelessly, she dropped the stained katana beside the fallen man, intending to leave it as part of a message. The sword belonged to Yakuza chief Hideo Yoshima himself; it was a custom steel and ivory relic passed down through twenty generations as an emblem of strength and longevity.
The woman had stolen it to prove that her enemy was vulnerable. She used it to kill his men just to rub salt in the wound, to show her scorn and make him lose face. Criminal or no, the man clung to a code she considered old-world bushido bullshit, and she knew he would feel compelled to revenge himself on his enemy. She intended to use his sense of honor to deal a blow to his organization, but that was only part of the plan. His participation would help her realize a greater goal.
To complete the remainder of her statement, she reached into a coat pocket and produced a fat black marker, then snagged the cap in her teeth. Leaning over the guard, she started inscribing something on the unsullied crotch of his white uniform. The dying man managed a gasp as he felt the tickling contact at his groin.
"This is just a little note for your boss. He won't give me his e-mail address, and we have to communicate somehow..." she explained as she finished writing and gave his crotch a little pat. "There we go. Short and sweet."
She capped the marker and dropped it in the snow. "Not that there's anything wrong with being short and sweet," she whispered confidentially, squeezing one last time at his sensitive, improvised notepad. "Quality wins over quantity, you know."
Then she was gone. He barely heard her light steps as she moved away. Soon, a loud motor roared to life. He recognized it as a snowmobile, and heard the high noise of its engine fading into the forest down the slope.
Gone. She simply came, took the girl, and was gone. Six trained men, all killers, all armed, all taken out with an ancient blade. They hadn't even wounded her. This was not supposed to happen. In his professional opinion, he found her very impressive.
Even though he knew he was going to die shortly, the woman had instilled such a strange curiosity in him that he simply had to know what she had written to his superior. Coughing as blood filled his lungs, he pulled himself up enough to glimpse the words written in neat, blocky print across his pants.
TRULY PATHETIC SECURITY.
WHAT SHE KNOWS, WE'LL KNOW.
GRAB YOUR ANKLES -
YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE FUCKED.
ALL MY LOVE, JULIA
He let his head fall back into the snow as the light dimmed and his voice failed. In his head, he found himself repeating her name over and over while his world went dark, and he wished he were going to California instead of dying in the frozen heights of Nagano, Japan. He'd always wanted to see Disneyland.
One - Friday night
Through a maze of thin walls and glowing blue lights, a little girl ran carefully, trying not to trip over the dangling laces from her untied sneakers. In her hand was a pistol, the laser sight beaming a jumpy streak of red on every surface from floor to ceiling as she carelessly pointed it wherever her tired wrist flopped. She was trying to find the exit, but had taken a wrong turn somewhere and now she was definitely lost. Every wall, every light looked the same in here.
She could hear her pursuers chanting her name as they tracked her through the maze, their voices melding into one loud, long summons and call for her surrender.
"Katie! Kaaaatie... Katie-kate! Come on, Kate-bait! You know we're gonna find yoouu!"
She was sure she was the last one left from her group, and the enemy would find her soon. Oddly, the prospect of being caught did not bother her much. A sly smile creased her round face as she ducked around a corner and crouched, covering the tell-tale laser sight as she prepared an ambush. She planned to take a few of them with her.
Without warning, a large hand closed over her mouth, stifling her instinctive scream.
"Shhh," a low voice urged, and she relaxed immediately. "It's just me, Katie."
The child turned to face her friend, and her dark eyes lit with confidence. "Diana!"
Though she hadn't known Diana Starrett very long, she liked her from the first time her aunt brought her over for dinner a few months ago. Katie Avila thought the towering brunette with the bright eyes looked like a super hero, and she told her so instantly. They had been friends ever since, and there was no one she would rather have on her side. "I knew you'd come get me. I tried to find you -"
"It's okay, sweetie. I got lost myself. This Lazer Battle stadium must take up half the building."
"I didn't want to come here, but dummy-butt Danny did. Mom said it's his stupid birthday party."
"Yeah, well... I think you and me are the only ones left on our team. You want to get out of here?"
The girl hesitated long enough to let Diana know that she was open to other options.
"Or do you want to teach those boys a lesson?"
At that, the child lit up like a sparkler, her tiny teeth taking on a strange hue under the blue lights. "Yeah. That sounds good."
"Cool breeze," said the woman with the glowing eyes, her hand extended to seal a pact.
"Cool breeze," the child echoed quietly.
She slid her palm across the larger one of her friend in a now familiar gesture. Diana said she used to do that with her little brother, but he died a long time ago and Katie Avila felt that Diana needed a new sidekick. Very mature for her six years, Katie felt she was well-qualified for the job and was more than happy to take up the accompanying rituals. Plus, she knew that her spending time with the coolest adult in Elceda, California made her big brothers extremely jealous. Not to mention her Aunt Charlie, but that was another story.
"You ready Dyna Girl?" Diana asked her diminutive partner.
Katie giggled and spun her laser pistol on one tiny finger. "Let's kick some butt, Electra Woman!"
As she parked the gleaming Porsche in the lot, beneath a huge blue and green neon sign that read "KidZone," Charlotte Browning rifled through her purse for her compact. She knew that her sister would snap an ungodly number of photos tonight, and she also knew that their parents would see these photographs since they were of their eldest grandson's birthday party.
* And I'll be damned if I'll let my mother see me with a greasy nose, * Charlie thought as she applied a coat of absorbent powder to the appendage in question. She also checked her lipstick and teeth, and found nothing else wanting. Her dress would be commented on, of course, but she was coming here straight from a disastrously unsuccessful business dinner and the somewhat formal attire could not be avoided.
* I can just hear her now... What on God's green earth is your sister wearing, Emily? Did she not know this was a children's party? Hmmmm? How much did she have to drink? *
"Oh shut-up, mother," she said aloud, her anger causing her to clutch her purse extremely tight as she headed for the entrance. She stopped just outside to gather herself with deep breaths and soothing words. "Calm down. They're not here. You can have fun because they're not here to stop you. Don't worry over what they might say or do later."
A teenage boy clad head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger togs stopped beside her near the door. He looked her up and down with an appraising eye, logging the shiny golden hair and greenish eyes, then launched his most winning smile. "Hey, you okay?"
Suddenly aware that she was talking to herself, Charlie blushed and nodded as the gangly blonde youth held open the door for her. "Fine, fine. Just trying to psych myself up to face a battalion of nine year-olds."
"Tell me about it. My kid brother's having his party here, too," the walking billboard confided. "I'm just here for the cake."
"Shrewd policy. Grab the food and run."
They walked into the lobby and checked the LED schedule board in the center of the room for the location of their respective parties. Charlotte's nose started to itch as the boy stood a little too close and she caught a snootfull of his cologne.
"Well, looks like I'm headed for the Martian Adventure," the boy commented, smiling down at Charlotte with as much charm as his pubescent libido could generate. "Maybe I'll see you when I get back to earth? We could get a pizza or something."
Knowing that she looked much younger than she actually was, the attorney gifted the kid with a sweet smile for his bravery. "I'll be way too old for you by then. In fact, I'm too old for you now."
"Aww, don't hand me that! You can't be but two, three years older than me," he protested. "That lawyer suit makes you look older, though."
Looking herself over, Charlotte noted that her habiliments - maroon skirt and jacket, cream silk blouse and dark suede pumps - did give her a decidedly grown-up air which contrasted with her baby face. Which was exactly what she was going for, but the kid didn't know that.
"Lawyer suit, huh?"
"Yeah, very Daria Morgendorffer."
Nearly twenty-six and already chronically unhip, Charlotte didn't even bother to ask who this 'Daria' person was. The boy rambled on, unaware that he was being patiently humored by a woman ten years his senior.
"You oughta try a different look, you know? Maybe hit The Limited over at -"
"Charlotte Browning!" a voice called sharply as the door to Lazer Battle opened behind the two and a plump redhead stepped into the light. "Get your ass in here right now and help me!"
The boy looked puzzled and slightly put out until Charlie explained with a grin and a shrug. "Emily. My older sister. I gotta go."
"Oh. Right. Well, I'll catch you later, then?"
"Uh, w-w-well..." she stammered, wanting to let the kid down easy. After all, he had accidentally done her a favor. A few seconds of harmless flirting with an underage boy, and her mind was right off her hypercritical parents. "You never know, right?"
"Right. You never know," he agreed, stuffing his hands into his baggy pants pockets. "I hang at The Galleria most days after two. Maybe you could -"
"Charlie!" Emily bellowed impatiently, "Get a move on, or I tell Diana you've developed an unsavory craving for jail bait."
The look exchanged between the sisters over that remark could have singed the eyebrows off any normal person, but Emily and Charlotte had long ago grown thick asbestos skins specifically for the purpose of verbal sparring. Charlie stalked toward the entrance, waving a finger in warning.
"Emmy, if you make a big deal out of this, Luis finds out why you really took that aikido class."
Holding the door open for her little sister, Emily Browning Avila scowled with as much menace as she could muster. "You know that was nothing. I was just looking..."
"Right," Charlie agreed facetiously. "Moot threat, anyhow. Diana isn't the jealous one. I am."
"So she just turns a blind eye when you start flirting with nubile young rejects from Hanson?"
"Hey, he was a nice boy!"
"I'm sure he was, honey." Emily led Charlotte into the brightly lit staging area dotted with black tables and benches, all strewn with the colorful remnants of a monster birthday bash. "He's just a nice boy from the 'burbs, looking to have his lolly popped by an experienced older woman."
Picking a paper plate from the festive rubble and heading to the food table for a piece of Danny's enormous birthday cake, the blonde could barely suppress her grin.
"You almost sound jealous, Em."
Emily was rolling up the sleeves on her baggy denim shirt. She stooped over, gathering shredded gift wrap as she responded with a snort. "Me? Jealous? Bite your tongue."
"You know, I could introduce you to that boy if you want," Charlotte teased. "Have him bathed and brought to your tent or what not."
"Why bother? It's you he was interested in. I'm just a frumpy, dowdy, overweight, uneducated baby machine."
"Whoa!" Charlotte turned around to face her sister's unexpected outburst. "Where did that come from?"
"Never mind." Emily continued cleaning up, not looking away from her work. "It's just been a long day, that's all."
"You know none of what you just said is true. It's downright silly for you to think like that."
"HAH!" Emily dropped her bag of trash and wiped both palms on her jeans. "Maybe you're right. Why should I feel inferior?"
"You shouldn't - "
"Just because you're five years younger than me, and have a high-paying, high-profile job, a lovely home, two killer cars, the body of an aerobics instructor, and a gorgeous lover who thinks the sun rises and sets with you? Hmm... tell me, why would anyone be jealous of you?"
The attorney had a ready answer, but knew it would fall on deaf ears. Attractive, smart, clever Emily had more going for her than most. A loving, genuinely happy marriage, three amazing children, a successful boat charter business where she and Luis were their own boss. She had no grounds to be envious of her sister... unless someone convinced her otherwise.
Charlotte frowned as she suddenly recognized the familiar, sullen tone in Emily's voice. Someone had been chipping away at her normally solid self-esteem by using Charlie as a chisel, and they had done a fairly tidy job. She could think of only one person who would gain from instilling bad feelings between the two.
"You talked to mom today, didn't you?"
Emily eyed the floor and stuffed another few pieces of wrapping paper into the trash bag as she calmed down. "It's that obvious, huh?"
Nodding with a flat smile, Charlie ditched her plate and went to stand by her sister. "No one else is able to do this to you; or rather make you do this to yourself. You know that's all bullshit, what you were saying about yourself. That's just her talking, and none of it is true. You know that, don't you?"
Sighing heavily, Emily extended one arm and gave her little sister a half embrace, touching at the forehead. "Yeah, I guess so."
Charlie placed a hand beneath her sister's chin and lifted until they were eye to eye. "You know so. Say it. Repeat after me - I know so."
The older woman closed her dark blue eyes as two choked streams of tears leaked down her face. "I know so."
"Mom's full of crap."
Emily smiled, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter as she repeated the words. "Mom's full of crap."
"A bitter old crone who can stick her criticisms up her ass."
"A bitter old crone who can stick her bullshit criticisms up her old droopy ass."
Charlotte grinned at Emily's creative improvements. Encouraged, she pressed on. "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone-it, people like me!"
Wrapping both arms around her younger sibling, Emily hugged her almost painfully tight as she tried to stifle the twin urges to guffaw and sob. "Stuff it! I'm not saying that!"
"Okaaay, you don't have to," Charlie whispered, "as long as you believe it."
"Jesus." Emily stepped away and wiped her eyes, still gasping out small, nervous giggles. "Why do I let her do that to me? God, I wish I could be like you and just stay away from them both."
"You and Luis would be better off."
"Don't I know it. Wednesday at dinner, I could tell he wanted to slug daddy right in the chops," the elder Browning recalled. "It got pretty ugly before I talked him down. If I knew they wouldn't sue for visitation with the kids, I would love to just... uggghh!" She stopped and rubbed the bridge of her nose as if warding off a headache. "I don't know what I'm saying. Don't listen to me."
"Maybe you shouldn't have stopped him," Charlie suggested, only half joking.
Emily chuckled, then looked on her sibling with a serious expression. "He said afterwards that he wanted to wait until Diana was there to help him bury the body."
"Huh?" Charlotte's mind raced right past the joke to the underlying implication. "Why would Diana ever be at our parent's house? They don't even acknowledge her existence."
"They did Wednesday night. They want you guys to come with us next week."
Charlotte did a double take, certain she had misheard. "Us? As in me and Diana? Are they nuts?"
The redhead threw her hands up. "Maybe so, but dad said they had something to discuss and they wanted all of us there to hear it."
"You and me and Diana and Luis."
"No fucking way, Emily. That would be apocalyptically bad."
"I dunno. It could be... what's the word? Cathartic?"
"I think it would be worth it just to see how Diana reacts if they try to lay into you. Man, they wouldn't know what hit them."
The young attorney was quiet for a long while as she paced around and thought about that. She knew that Emily was unaware of Diana's past, that her sister could not realize what she was asking. Her sister's family knew Diana Starrett only as the former cop who now worked as a private investigator, and as the friendly, easy-going woman who had lived with Charlotte for the past nine months.
They had seen her only at her best, at picnics and barbecues and baseball games. She played with the kids for hours, exhibiting an exuberant energy that would wear out the average adult in minutes, and the three Avila children adored her - especially Katie. But there was so much more to her that they had never seen, so many dark and dangerous currents curling beneath the surface. Charlotte hoped they would never have occasion to see that side of her lover. She knew that putting Diana in the same room with her parents would mean courting disaster.
"I already mentioned it to her, Charlie."
Emily's voice drew her out of herself, and she was instantly incensed. "You did what?"
"Me and her and Luis were talking about it before they went off to play Lazer whatsits with the kids. She said she's willing, but that it's really up to you."
"Diana said that?" Charlotte was genuinely shocked. "My Diana - tall chick, black hair..."
"Believe me, I know the one. She said if you want to do it, she's there."
"I... geez. There goes that excuse."
"Didn't expect her to go for it, huh?"
"I've told her about our parents, Emmy," Charlie explained coolly. "I wouldn't think she'd wanna poke 'em with a ten foot pole, much less dine with them."
"She doesn't have to love them, just you," the redhead reminded. "And me, of course."
"Yes, but to a much lesser degree."
"As far as you know, shrimp."
Noting the wicked little gleam in Emily's eyes as she launched that barbed insinuation, Charlotte decided to let it go. If she was confident enough to take her life in her hands by saying such things, her sister was obviously feeling better.
"Score one for the horny housewife," Charlie said, her finger painting a strike in the air.
"Thank you very little."
Scratching her nose absently, Charlie reflected on the possibilities of Diana finally meeting her folks. On a few previous occasions, she had tried to imagine how it would go, but none of the initial scenarios were good. "She actually told you guys she'd do it? Invade Xanadu with us?"
"Yeah, and she also said..." Emily trailed off as the whoops and hollers of the returning Lazer Battlers reached her ears. "Well, here she comes. Ask her yourself."
Charlotte watched the stream of children pouring into the room, all of them rubbing their eyes as they adjusted to the bright light. Most of them were laughing and talking in that strange, malleable kid-speak that sounded like jabberwocky to adult ears, but she could make out enough to know that they were all talking about Diana. Her brother-in-law came in then, wrangling his two boys, and even they were grinning and re-hashing her exploits.
As unsettled and confused as she was from talking with her sister, Charlie could not keep from smiling as she realized how totally awed they were by the woman she had brought into their lives.
* She's got them all eating out of her hand. Maybe I'm worried over nothing, * Charlotte thought guiltily, admitting about how drastically Diana had mellowed. * She could probably handle my parents a lot better than I ever did. But... oh, God. If they got her angry... *
Such cautionary thoughts were immediately tossed aside as she watched the volatile woman in question parade into the room with a beaming little girl riding high on her broad shoulders. Her niece's face was flush with the pride of victory, and Katie's little hands were tightly clutching Diana's own.
"We won, mom!" the child shouted to Emily, who pumped her fist and hissed out a proud "Yesss!"
"They killed us all, baby," Luis chimed in, wrapping one beefy arm around his wife's shoulders and pointing at his daughter with the other. "We gotta keep an eye on our little girl. She's a tricky one. Got her henchman there to play possum so she could jump out and ambush us."
"Don't feel bad, daddy," Katie said as she slid from Diana's shoulders. "You did your best."
"Yeah, Luis. Your warriors fought valiantly, and we bow in deference to your organizational skills," Diana added, bending gracefully at the waist.
Katie mimicked the gesture while offering an exaggerated wink to her mother. "Uh huh. He was very nice to me when I shot him, momma. Not grouchy like Grampa Charles."
"That's why I married him, sweetie. Your daddy isn't ashamed to admit when he's whipped."
Luis caught a light elbow in the ribs before he could object to Emily's phrasing. Diana laughed, and Katie just shook her head, knowing that adults sometimes laughed at things which didn't sound all that funny. The Avila family clustered together and joined the throng of children picking through Danny's presents. Emily was ready to start calling parents to pick up the guests, who were mostly partied out and starting to get sleepy.
Charlie watched as Diana gave her final birthday wishes to Danny, then hugged his younger siblings James and Katie in turn. The little girl hung on a bit longer than her brothers and gave the tall woman a kiss on the cheek, then deposited a few secret words in her ear. Charlotte was still smiling when her lover finally broke away from her fans and turned her way.
Dressed in a beautifully drapey black silk habutai shirt and tight faded blue jeans, her dark hair neatly braided and hanging down her back, eyes shining with residual joy, Diana Starrett simply took her breath away.
* I wonder if it will always feel like this, looking at you and wondering why you're looking back at me, of all people, * Charlie asked silently, her smile growing wider by the second. * Probably so. *
"What?" Diana asked innocently, looking over one shoulder to see what Charlotte was staring at. "What did I do now?"
Charlie just shook her head and opened her arms for a hug, which was immediately granted. "Hail the conquering hero," she whispered as long arms wrapped around her and pulled her in close.
"Aww, not you too."
"I'm just one of your many admirers these days. What did Katie whisper to you?"
Diana drew back and twisted her fingers across her lips, symbolically locking her mouth. "Can't tell ya. It's a secret."
"I thought we didn't have any secrets," Charlotte pointed out, raising one pale brow.
"We don't. Katie and I do."
"Ooh, neat dodge."
"Thanks, I learned it from you, slick. You get any cake yet? There's some ice cream left, too."
"Naah, I don't want any now. Did Danny like our present?"
"You betcha. Two of his compadres tried to nick it already. We forgot the batteries, though."
Charlie frowned, knowing whose fault that was. "I thought you wrapped them up with the figure."
"Well, yeah. I was supposed to," Diana confessed, "but I blamed it on you, anyway."
"You want to tell him the truth, ruin all the good PR I've done tonight?"
"I'm too tired to destroy your public image right now. I think I just want to go home."
Diana rubbed a convenient shoulder, finding the compact muscle unusually tense. "Rough day?"
"And evening - my night went straight to hell after I dropped you off here. Dinner with Quentin and the Rowland attorneys was a total bust. They won't settle, so we're going back to court."
"Damn. This makes, what? Three times in the past month?"
Charlotte barely nodded, not wanting to fall back into shop talk. She was depressed enough already. "Can we sneak out?"
"Sneak out? Without saying goodbye? You must be in a bad way to take such a risk."
"I don't want to get into why right now, but I feel like shit." Charlie nestled into the long body, resting her cheek against a warm, silken chest.
Diana poked out her lips in a comical frown. "I'm sorry. How can I make it better?"
"Well, if you really want to help..."
"You could drive me home, get me drunk and make love to me all night."
Charlotte could feel her lover smile against her hair, then a tiny kiss landed on top of her head before Diana backed out of her arms and looked her over carefully.
"You think that'll fix it?"
"Not completely," Charlie allowed, "but it's a great starting point."
Blue eyes flared brightly, and the lawyer knew the verdict was in before Diana even spoke.
"Right. Give me the car keys."
The warm July night air blew softly against her face as she ushered Charlie out the front exit, both of them giggling at the notion of two grown women sneaking away from a pack of children and one grouchy sister. Luis didn't count, because he understood Emily's moods and reactions like no one else could. He alone would not object to their stealthy retreat.
In the parking lot, Diana located the Porsche and used the remote to kill the alarm and unlock the doors as they approached. As always, her eyes scanned the dark spaces between shafts of light, looking for things she hadn't seen in several months - stealthy figures with menacing postures, the dull glint of a weapon, anything at all that could be perceived as a threat. She did this covertly because it made Charlotte uncomfortable, but she could not help looking. Or listening.
As she opened the passenger door for her companion, she heard something on the far side of the lot, beyond the lights. A cold bolt of energy glanced along her spine at the sound, but she couldn't say why.
* Just footsteps. Someone walking. It's a free country. People can walk at night if they want to. *
When Charlie dropped herself noisily into the leather seat, Diana heard it again, then once more when she closed the door. Someone was using the sounds of these actions to cover their movement, but she surveyed the lot again and still saw nothing. The scuffling noise of shoes on asphalt returned while she made her way around the car, and her head snapped around toward the noise.
* Nothing. There's nothing there... so why do I feel like someone's walking on my grave? *
Shaking if off, Diana got in and started the engine, watching Charlotte's hazel eyes flutter shut as she reclined her seat and stretched out for the ride home. She tried telling herself she was being typically paranoid, or that her instincts were revved up from playing war-games with the kids. Still, as she drove the Porsche along dark streets, some small part of her was screaming that this was no game.
* Someone was watching me back there... watching us. *
Checking the rear-view mirror, she found the street behind them empty. It appeared that no one was following, but Diana continued to check every few seconds, all the way home.
After two days in the San Diego safe house with the abducted young woman, Julia's patience had nearly reached its end. Authorized by Director Mars to use any means necessary to get answers, her more humane psychological tactics had been exhausted. At nearly midnight on Friday evening, she decided to take a break and left the prisoner sleeping fitfully in a secured bedroom.
Now leaning against the rail of the second floor deck overlooking a small, man-made lake, Julia parleyed with her lone associate, smoking and debating the merits of physical torture. She took a deliberately strong stance against, leaving him with his much-preferred pro position.
"Dan, she isn't going to tell us anything because she doesn't know that she knows anything. Harming her would be pointless."
The tall, thin man with the flat face and straw-like hair unrolled a pack of multi-flavored Tums and promptly crunched down four tablets. "How can you know that for certain? There's no record of her undergoing treatments from Mangano or his staff, so how can you say that she's been washed?"
"Because we've both seen this before. This is exactly the response we received from agents who have undergone extensive treatments. Her memories are buried so deep, we can't get at them."
"We haven't tried everything yet. Give me an hour with her."
Taking a deep draw off her cigarette, the platinum-haired woman sighed a cloud of smoke. "I know you want to get your hands on her for what she did, but that was over nine years ago. She doesn't even remember -"
"That's her story," Dan said bitterly. "I don't think Riggins washed her. I think she's lying, trying to save her ass."
"We can't afford to take that chance. If she was treated by Mangano, the stress of physical torture could surface her accidentally, then everything she knows would be lost. She's not strong enough emotionally to endure the process."
"I'm not buying it. This is a woman who nearly killed our best agent in cold blood. She's capable of far more than you give her credit for."
"I know you have good reason to hate her. Still, this can't be used as an opportunity to settle personal grievances, no matter how deep-seated."
"You weren't there, Julia." Dan turned away from his supervisor and lowered his voice. "You didn't see her body, you didn't sit with her all night waiting for her to die - and she could have. That little bitch shot her ten times at close range. She doesn't deserve to be soft-pedaled."
The cold-eyed woman tossed the butt of her smoke over the rail and into the lake, watching the orange light arc through the air and die as it hit the water. Part of her agreed with his argument, but experience told her that their prisoner was not deliberately hiding anything. They would have to find another way to bring her memories up and out.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I had kept Mangano alive."
"From what I heard, Harry wanted him dead. You had no choice."
Julia laughed ruefully and smiled at her associate. "Mars would never have known. He's too swamped to keep tabs on me these days. I could have moved him somewhere, just in case a situation arose where we needed to pick his brain again - like now."
"Why didn't you, then?"
"Harry wanted the good doctor terminated for the same reason you want to kill the girl," she said, gesturing loosely with one slim hand. "Personal reasons overruled his good judgment. I suppose I let those same feelings influence me, although I am loathe to admit it."
Dan snorted softly. "Didn't know you had that problem."
"Normally, I don't. Neither do you... nor does Harry, for that matter."
"I'm seeing a definite pattern here."
Juila shrugged, resigned to be lumped with the majority on this issue. "Perhaps she shouldn't have retired. Diana had more friends in the agency than she knew."
"She saved my life twice. I'll never get to ask Harry this, but what's your excuse?"
Her gray eyes flashed a warning, but her voice betrayed amusement. "Watch your step, Daniel. That's none of your business. "
The thin man shifted his weight from foot to foot, hesitating before asking his next question. "She's why we're here, right? In San Diego, I mean. She still lives nearby."
"As far as I know, she's still in Elceda, yes."
"But we're not supposed to have any contact with her. Mars said she's out."
Nodding, Julia debated the wisdom of revealing too much, then spoke very judiciously. "We must assume that Yoshima has tracked the girl to California. He knows of her connection to Diana, therefore she might be in danger if he decides to go on the offensive."
"Even though she's no longer an active agent?"
"Don't be naive. You know that wouldn't matter to him."
"Shouldn't we go to her? Warn her?"
Taking a deep breath, the pale woman told herself to be patient with him. "If Yoshima does decide to go after Diana Starrett, she'll likely be the one coming to us."
Finally spying one gossamer thread of her web, Dan didn't know whether to be impressed or frightened. He was certainly regretting the luck of the draw that sent him to California to assist her.
"Julia, if you're saying what I think you're saying..." He trailed away and stared out at the dark waters of the lake, finding them less opaque than his present company. "You're playing with fire."
She lit another cigarette and dropped her lean frame into a chaise lounge. "I know that, Danny. But this job is infinitely more fun that canning fish."
Dan looked suitably confused by her remark, but she waved him off with a thin smile.
"Private joke. Check on our guest, would you?"
Without another word, he slipped through the sliding glass door and left Julia alone with her tangled thoughts. Strewn like minuscule silk cords in a secret pattern, they spread out from the center of her mind to reach all the way from across the Pacific. Whether the web was strong enough to bring in all of her prey remained to be seen.
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