Persistence of Memory by Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza (part 2)

Twenty Two

Diana took her time unpacking the phone unit, and continued to dawdle as she slowly pressed the buttons that would connect her to Harry Mars and make her privy to whatever he had to say. She needed to know what to do next, whether the information she had would be sufficient to end her involvement in this fiasco, whether she would be responsible for settling Angelia somewhere, whether the young woman would be needing medical care… it was all up in the air, dangling like the proverbial other shoe. Diana was ready for the enormous wingtip of fate to drop, even if it came crashing down on her head. The not knowing was harder than facing any certainty, even a grim one.

The agency screening service was playing a long-forgotten song – “Have You Never Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton-John – and Diana rolled her eyes as the saccharine voice seeped into her ear and candy-coated her brain. After a near eternity, the call was connected and Harry answered.

“Diana?”

She was a little surprised and took a moment to reply. “How’d you know it was me?”

“Wishful thinking, I suppose.” Harry groaned, taking a sharp breath. His voice was slightly tinny and distant, suggesting an open space instead of a clutched receiver. “The shit is flying, Di.”

“Mars, are you okay? You sound awful.”

“I should sound dead.” He paused, grunting softly. “Julia shot me this morning. Twice.”

Diana’s mouth fell open slightly. “Oh, good grief.” Her hand jumped to her nose, rubbing over a knifing pain which had suddenly appeared at the news that the most unpredictable person she had ever known was now a free agent – a rogue. “She tried to kill you?”

“That’s the funny part. She had me in her sights and just opted to maim me instead. Severe brachial cluster damage in each shoulder, lots of torn muscle. That’s why I’m talking to you on the speaker phone right now – I can’t even pick up the receiver.”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said sincerely, worried that his injury was a direct result of him trying to play the hero on her behalf. “Maybe I shouldn’t have called you in on this.”

“No, you did the right thing. She’s my problem as much as yours,” he deflected. “I handled it badly, went in unprepared to deal with all the potentials – which increase exponentially when Julia is involved. I should know better by now.”

“You and me both,” Diana concurred, dreading the next step in this conversation. “Did you get the bloodwork results yet?”

“Negative.”

“As is ‘no, I didn’t get them yet’ or as in ‘Angelia tested negative’?”

“She’s clean. No HIV antibodies present in the samples you gave me.”

Diana breathed a sigh of relief, glad to hear at least one smidgen of positive news among the horrid developments. “Thank you. Not to resume the subject too abruptly, but where does this Julia situation leave me? Angelia’s okay for the moment, but I don’t know what to do with her now that she’s surfaced intact.”

“I suppose that’s up to her, isn’t it?”

“For the first time in her life, yeah, I guess it is,” she agreed, understanding from his dismissive tone that Harry had no real interest in Angelia’s future – as long as it didn’t include Diana. “Do you know if her mother and brother are still around? I think she’d like to hook up with them.”

“I know her surviving brother, Gedde, is still hanging with Hideo. I can try to dig up a status report on their mother, but it’ll take a few hours. You say the girl’s surfaced intact – does that mean she told you what you needed to hear?”

“And then some. Her memory is coming back in chunks, same way mine did. I already have the information I agreed to procure, the location of the Utah/Marburg sample… but I guess you can’t do anything with that right now.”

“Oh, perfect. Just perfect.” Mars sighed heavily, and she could almost see him shaking his head and closing his eyes in frustration. “You know the procedure when an agent goes rogue.”

“Forty-eight hour lockdown on HQ and support operations,” she recalled, her voice dull and defeated. “All field agents go to ground until the rogue is eliminated and covers are confirmed secure. In other words, you can’t send anyone to pick up the sample for two days. You’re handcuffed.”

Harry muttered a string of profane curses under his breath, angered by his inability to act on this information, and perhaps by his inability to help Diana’s ordeal come to an expedient end. “I hate to admit it, but I may actually need that sample now. Julia’s actions have set the council to talking again. She had supporters in her efforts to branch out into more focused activity, and two of their aides have been by to see me since I got back, sniffing around to see if there’s blood in the water.”

“You don’t think they’d make a move to oust you, do you?”

“Not immediately, but she knew the effect she’d cause by leaving me alive and crippled. Makes me look impotent and ineffectual in comparison to both her and Riggins. She knows I need that sample to whet the council’s appetite and secure their confidence, and she also knows that I can’t make a move to retrieve it because she herself put us in a goddamned lockdown.”

Diana looked out across the Pacific, imagining just how far away Nagano was from the current center of activity. She took a deep, deep breath, filling her lungs with as much sunshiny fresh air as they could hold. Maybe it was the excess amount of oxygen rushing to her brain that allowed her to make the leap in logic, but suddenly she felt she understood at least a small part of what the Swede wanted. It sent a shiver dancing down her spine and raised the fine hairs on the nape of her neck.

“She wants me to go get it.”

“Huh?”

“We’re being herded like a flock of sheep, Harry. She wants me to volunteer to go to Japan and pick up the sample for you.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, Diana.”

“I know that, but don’t you see? Julia’s counting on me to raise my hand and ask for the assignment like a good and grateful little soldier. She wants me sidelined, out of the play for… something.”

“We had a brief talk before things went bang, and I know she intended for you to end up back in service, but I couldn’t get her to say how. Any idea what that something might be?”

“Christ, if only,” she complained, her headache intensifying with the effort of divining some clear motive from the mess. “First, she sets that mad dog Yoshima onto me with his AIDS bullshit, then saddles me with Angelia and the task of recovering the sample. It’s like she’s trying to keep me occupied, giving me a bunch of absorbing obstacles to overcome before I can get back to… Jesus.”

“You want to get back to Jesus?” Harry asked, clearly puzzled and a bit dazed from his recent dose of Demerol.

“No! Charlie! The only thing all this shit has in common is that it’s keeping me away from Charlie,” Diana exclaimed, jumping up to pace the teakwood deck as she reasoned it out. “She knew I couldn’t back down when Yoshima threatened me, and she knew damned well that I couldn’t refuse to help Angelia. It follows that I’d need to call on you for help, and she was counting on me to want to make it up to you by going to Japan myself. This definitely has something to do with Charlie.”

“Di, I know she wants you back in, but this is all pretty far-fetched. She couldn’t know how all this would go down.”

“Why the hell not? She knows both of us too well not to predict our actions accurately. Julia is setting up shop, with or without the U.N.’s backing, and we – every fucking one of us – are helping her do it!” Diana smacked her hand against the railing, angry with herself for not seeing it before. “God, and I thought Riggins was the puppeteer. The bitch managed to get this far without pulling on Mangano’s cheat strings like Josh used to. She leaves the old man eating her dust, Harry.”

Mars mulled over his conversation with the manipulator in question and recalled his assumption that Julia intended for Diana to dump the attorney in favor of her resurrected lover… and then he made a disturbing logic leap of his own. “Where is Charlotte Browning now?”

“I saw her early this morning. She should be home with my partner, Teddy. Dan’s there, too.”

“I think I see where you’re headed. Get to her as soon as you can,” Harry suggested tersely.

Diana stopped pacing and gripped the phone tight enough to make the metal casing squeak. “Why?”

“You wouldn’t just leave her for someone else, not even Angelia. The only way you’d come back in, the only reason you’d turn to us again… is if Ms. Browning was dead.”

His assertion was met with silence. Not even the sound of breathing came through the phone.

“Diana?”

The silence of the tomb, then a click and a sharp line of static as the call was disconnected. Harry knew that Diana had likely hung up the second she aligned herself with his theory, and that she was already on the move. He surprised himself by actually hoping that she would arrive in time to intervene, to save the larcenous lawyer who had snitched his future when he wasn’t looking.

Julia had been right on target when she confronted him about his jealousy – he had maintained a hooded hope that Diana would turn to him someday for advice, for support. For whatever semblance of stability he could offer. Harry Mars was quietly ashamed of himself for being petty enough to begrudge her happiness with someone else… and he almost understood the ruthless lengths Julia was apparently going to in order to ruin that happiness. Almost.

“Godspeed, my girl,” he whispered into the dead line. Harry then hung up and started to do the only thing he could to help – looking up admissions to a plethora of psychiatric institutes… and praying.
——————————————————————————–

Chen Kaige was starting to become agitated. First, he ran into a dead end with that stubborn piece of chum at Charlotte Browning’s home, then he was confronted with an empty office at her place of employment. He spent a few minutes browsing her Rolodex and confirming addresses from the list provided by Yoshima, and he took an additional moment to study a silver-framed color photograph on the attorney’s cluttered desk. He had nearly decided to smash the photo, just from sheer disgust over the scene it conveyed.

The picture showed a happy young family – presumably that of Browning’s sister – clustered on the deck of a boat. They were dressed in swimsuits and smiling like only the innocent or the stupid can; wide, toothy grins which betrayed a complete ignorance of the company they kept. Amid this group, standing with one long arm draped across the lawyer’s shoulders and one hand on the tousled head of a child, was a killer.

Fundamentally, her face had not changed, although her expression nearly matched the idiotic grins plastered on her companions. Her eyes were lit with joy instead of the rage he remembered. The same hands which had efficiently broken the solid bone of his body were touching a woman with love and a beaming little girl with protective affection.

Yoshima had not warned him of this woman’s role in his target’s life. This both angered and excited him. The prospect of meeting her again and avenging himself occupied his thoughts as he pulled his rented Lincoln into the driveway of the Avila home – a typically neat suburban dwelling with white siding, light green trim, and a fenced-in rear yard.

He checked his hair in the mirror and adjusted the knives in his jacket sleeves and the holster snuggled under his shoulder. Chen grabbed his prop clipboard from the passenger seat then stepped out onto the polished cement driveway, looking like nothing more than a door-to-door salesman. At the front door, he rang the bell once and waited for an answer.

“Whadda you want?” came a loud, male voice from behind the heavy door.

“I am trying to locate the home of Luis and Emily Avila,” he replied smoothly. “I have the paperwork for their refinancing agreement from Garden Equity.”

A sliding sound as the view panel in the door was opened and a pair of piggish eyes peeked out from behind slim metal bars. “They ain’t here. Leave it on the step and I’ll give it to ’em.”

Chen blinked and shuffled his feet innocently. “I’m afraid I cannot do that. The only other person authorized to sign for delivery is…” Chen leafed through the papers on the clipboard. “A… Charlotte Browning? Is she here, by any chance?”

“No,” the rude man answered, scratching his messy mustache. “She don’t live here.”

“Could you tell me where I might find her, please?”

Teddy Rinna hesitated, his eyes hard and suspicious. He was supposed to be on the lookout for any threat to Charlie – especially anyone of Asian extraction. “If you ain’t the Prize Patrol with her check for ten million, she can’t be bothered.”

“I’m afraid I have no such remuneration to dispense, but I do need to find her.”

“Why you wanna know where she is, anyhow?”

“This paperwork must be completed this weekend in order to be submitted Monday morning,” Chen responded impatiently. “Therefore, it is imperative that I speak with either the Avilas or Ms. Browning as soon as possible.”

“I already told you, they ain’t here.”

“Perhaps you could allow me to wait inside until they return.”

“Perhaps you could blow me,” Teddy suggested helpfully. “I think you should get lost, pal.”

The assassin fondled one of the knives strapped to his forearm through the fabric of his blazer. He already wanted to kill this man just for being a pain in the ass. “Maybe you should rethink your inhospitable attitude, sir.”

“In case you don’t know it, you are now officially trespassing. If you don’t get your narrow ass off these premises in ten flat, I’m calling the cops.”

Chen stiffened and scowled at the latest obstacle in his path, vowing to make short work of this man. He stepped back and raised his clipboard to conceal the hand straying under his jacket, reaching for his pistol. “That will not be necessary. I will speak to the Avilas another time.”

“Good idea,” Teddy agreed. “Now scat.”

“One brief question before I go – do you know the definition of the word foo-bar?”

Teddy squinted in confusion, wondering if this little dipshit could possibly be threatening him. “Get the fuck outta here before I show you what it means.”

“You are a most crude individual, sir,” the vexed killed responded primly.

Chen turned away from the door, drew his gun and spun around in a tight, fast circle. Before Teddy could react and slide the panel closed again, the barrel of the silencer had been jammed between the bars and the first shot was fired, grazing Teddy’s ear.

“Motherfucker!” Teddy yelled, dropping to his knees and scrambling to free his own firearm from his belt. He felt a wet trickle of blood oozing down his neck as he looked up… and saw the gun barrel angling down to fire again.

Chen pulled the trigger three times more and listened to the heavy sound of a large body collapsing to the floor, then the labored exhale he had come to associate with a human’s dying breath. He smiled, nearly satisfied. He would work on the body some more once inside the house, strictly to amuse himself and pass the time waiting for his target’s sister. After enjoying the silence for a moment, he discretely tucked his gun back into his holster and removed a set of lock picks from his pocket.

He was stooping to one knee to work on the deadbolt when a soft, square plastic flap in the lower quarter of the door jumped open – a ‘doggie door,’ he believed it was called – and something poked its black nose through the opening. It took hardly a second for him to realize it wasn’t a dog, but it certainly had a loud bark. More like a boom, actually, as the muzzle flashed and a hot lead projectile leapt from the snout and bit into Chen’s calf with fiery sharp teeth.

“Mmmphh,” was as close as he would come to screaming or crying out, but for Chen Kaige, that little groan was an epic roar of agony. He clamped a hand over his wounded calf, rose to his feet and scampered unevenly back to his car, managing to climb inside and drive away before any significant amount of blood hit the cement.

Even through his fury, pain, and humiliation, he was lucid enough to be concerned about leaving traces of his DNA for the authorities to add to their files. He would mend his wound and return to finish this later, and next time, he would not bother being clever with some peripheral fool.

“Next time, everybody dies,” he swore.

Through the door, Teddy Rinna heard the man’s soft exclamation, the sounds of his retreat, and the shamus grinned. He was having a hard time getting his breath as he rolled onto his stomach and crawled across the tile floor of the foyer, leaving a wide swath of blood on Emily’s floor.

“Where’s the goddamned phone?” he muttered, scanning the low tables of the living room until he located what he needed. Teddy couldn’t get to his knees, so he grabbed the leg of the coffee table and tugged hard until it tipped over and dumped the phone onto the floor. He hovered over the receiver, listening to the dial tone, trying to remember the number for 911.

“Di,” he called out to his absent partner, “you got some fucked up friends, baby.”

Teddy’s fingers moved across the lighted pad, carefully pressed the three digits… and then he passed out. The emergency operator came on the line and read his standard opening line.

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency? Hello? Nine-one-one, please state the nature of your emergency. Hello? Hello?”
——————————————————————————–

“I hate this part,” Julia said, rolling onto her stomach and scanning the empty driveway of Yoshima’s beach house. From their perch on the crow’s nest, she and her companion could see everything… and confirm that there was still nothing worth seeing. It was mid-afternoon already, and the viral research scientists allegedly summoned by Yoshima had not yet arrived.

“Which part is this?” Gedde inquired gently, curious but not wanting to annoy her further.

“The waiting,” she explained pointedly. “I am primarily a person of action, and lying here in the lovely sunshine – as pleasant as it my be – is causing my enthusiasm to wither like a salted slug.”

Gedde nodded and followed her line of sight down to the circular drive, now wishing for something to happen to break the monotony. Not that Julia wasn’t interesting company, but he could sense the tension building in her. She was not built for long periods of inactivity. “They will arrive soon.”

Gray eyes cut toward him, edged with suspicion. “You sound awfully certain of that.”

“Everything else you have planned has come to pass,” he reasoned innocently. “Why should this phase prove any different?”

His answer seemed to please her, for Julia smiled and hoisted herself to her knees, then leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You are absolutely right. Why should this be different.”

The young man touched his fingers to the freshly kissed spot on his jaw, surprised by the casual show of affection. Did it mean anything? Was she actually comfortable around him now? He watched with increased interest as she took a small hand towel, wet it from a bottle of water and rubbed herself down, easing away minute traces of perspiration and sunscreen from her nude body. She was completely without modesty, so at ease in her own skin… she reminded him of thoughtlessly graceful cats, of birds gliding on tall breezes, of snakes climbing trees.

Gedde wondered if she was this way with everyone, if his cooperation and compliance had won him the right to be here with her, to see her like this. Unaccountably, he felt privileged. Distinguished.

“You have managed to achieve your tertiary objective as well,” he noted. “You are now a pleasant shade of pink instead of thoroughly white.”

Julia chuckled as she slipped smooth legs dappled with color into her tailored gray slacks. “I suppose this will be noted by the medical examiner during my forthcoming autopsy. I hope they are duly impressed – my people do not tan easily. We tend to freckle, fry and melt in the sun. Perhaps they’ll take a post-mortem photograph to document my achievement.”

Gedde felt a bit confused by her bleak words, thinking they would have been anathema to the woman he met yesterday – the invincible, arrogant, magnetic creature brimming with bravada. “I find your humor in poor taste. You are so cavalier regarding your own death.”

“Sorry if that troubles you, dear boy, but my attitude is unlikely to change again so late in the game.”

“As long as there is life, there is the possibility of alteration. The twin tailors of sentience and entropy preclude the absolute stagnation of any living creature. Change is the natural way of things. You have the power to change any facet of your character that displeases or harms you, right up to the minute your body breaks down and you begin to rot.”

“Oh, please shut up,” Julia begged, not liking the turn this conversation was taking. “You sound like Dr. Laura with a philosophy degree.”

“I am speaking the truth. Now why do you feel that the end of your life is a matter for jest?”

She sat cross-legged and slipped on her pristine turquoise silk blouse, wondering why she cared at all what this kid thought. Realizing his patience, concern, and blindly faithful fortitude merited at least some explanation, she gave it a go.

“Gedde, I have confronted my own mortality a number of times, so often in fact that I have become rather jaded regarding the prospect of death. When it’s time, it’s time. No sense wasting precious energy on fear. The gallows humor is a coping mechanism I picked up several years back, and it is sometimes very effective.”

“This attempt at humor is an acquired trait, not innate?” Gedde asked earnestly.

“No, not innate at all. For a number of years, I was disgustingly stoic when going about my work, took myself and the agency very seriously…”

She hesitated, wondering if it was appropriate to continue making such indiscreet confidences to this virtual stranger. Then her reckless nature chimed in and told her, ‘Oh, what the hell. Who’s he gonna tell, anyway?’

“…until I was captured and detained for questioning by a corrupt colonel in Nicaragua. I spent sixteen hours enduring his neanderthal methods of interrogation and torture, waiting for my backup to arrive and attempt a rescue.”

“Sixteen hours? That must have felt like an eternity.”

“Time would have passed more slowly had the colonel known what he was doing. His ineptitude kept my mind occupied for the first few sessions, but after sixteen hours, even I was having trouble concentrating on his errors,” Julia recalled bitterly, still offended by the memory of his stupidity.

“The idiot applied maggots to fresh wounds on my otherwise healthy feet, apparently unaware that the little buggers only eat necrotized tissue. He was watching them crawl around harmlessly, looking quite confused, when a horrendous commotion began outside the compound. The colonel jumped up and ran out to supervise the defense, vowing to kill me the instant he returned.”

“Since you are here now, this colonel obviously failed to back up his boast,” the young man noted, grinning. “I assume the ‘horrendous commotion’ heralded the arrival of your backup.”

“Precisely. From the frequency of the staggered explosions and gunfire I heard, I was expecting an entire brigade to storm in and whisk me away, but the noise suddenly stopped. All was quiet for several minutes, then my cell door opened and one single solitary agent stepped inside.”

Gedde was disappointed by the meager turnout, but remained intrigued by her story. He raised up on his elbows and fixed her with an inquisitive stare. “Were you worried about dying then?”

“I was weary, in pain, and a little miffed over the size of my rescue party, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. My first concern was the efficiency of the backup unit; I was unable to pass up the opportunity to criticize. I shouted at the top of my voice, ‘Get me out of these fucking chains! You’re late!’ And do you know what happened then?”

“Ummm…”

“My rescuer blew a raspberry at me and replied ‘Well, that’s gratitude for you,’ then casually turned around and left the cell.”

“He abandoned you??”

“She was pulling my leg,” Julia corrected. “Left me there for a minute to ponder my own rudeness, then popped back in with the keys to my shackles. I was totally incensed, but she smiled at me and laughed, said not another word to me while I seethed quietly. She freed me, picked me up like a drowsy child and carried me nearly half a mile to a tiny little boat waiting at the river, then we buzzed away. It took me a while to see the humor inherent in the situation, but once I did, I was hooked.”

“This experience changed your attitude? It seems insufficient to alter you so drastically.”

“It wasn’t merely the joke, it was more the woman who played it – who played me – that made me reconsider my somber outlook on life. The agency can alter many things about a person, but they couldn’t permanently change the fundamentals of her character. At times, she was just as lost as I was, searching for something to grab hold of that the work couldn’t sap out of her. For a time afterwards, we thought we had found that something in each other… but it didn’t last.”

“Why?”

Julia closed her eyes, wondering that herself for the millionth time. She shook her head slightly and reached for her shoes.

Gedde instantly hated himself for sounding so childish, but he did feel as if she wanted to discuss it with someone. Maybe that someone was not him. “I am sorry. Perhaps that is not my business.”

“It takes time to find out if something is real, if it is strong enough to withstand the strain of time,” she whispered, willing herself to finish what she had begun. “We were separated often, and without the luxury of someone’s presence, all you have are memories. They occupy your thoughts so often that you tend to change them, warp them to fit your needs. Memory is not fact, it is perception of fact. I came to perceive her differently than she did me.”

“She became the foreground for you, and you receded into her background.”

“Essentially, yes. We became friends, comrades in arms, but things were never as they could have been. That train had sailed, so to speak.”

“Yet you still hold out some hope of re-routing that train into your port?” Gedde asked slyly.

“Anything’s possible if you plan it carefully enough,” she retorted sharply. “Even if the tracks don’t guide her in the way I want, at least I’ll have an express train in my fleet. That’s quite a consolation prize for my trouble – if I survive this current storm.”

“If we are speaking of the same train, I must remind you of the possibility of derailment. Humans are not so predictable as locomotives,” he asserted, sticking with her odd mixed metaphor. “Once free, some people would rather perish than resume a life of consolation and compromise. I, for example, will never again see my father as a man worth serving. That part of my life is over, and I will never go back. No tracks are laid carefully enough to guide someone where their hearts refuse to go. If you would destroy her – or yourself – in the attempt to reclaim her, perhaps the risk is too great.”

The blonde winced at Gedde’s precise summation, her chin dropping nearly to her chest as she stared at the bleached wood of the deck. At that moment, just for a fraction of a sliver of time, the woman known only by her given name slipped out of her shell and looked nearly vulnerable.

The young man did not move, did not utter a word or breathe as he took in the sight, committing the lines of her perfect face, the drape of her pale hair, the willowy, solid curve of her body to memory. Memory may not be fact, but the artist in him trusted his own powers of recollection to hold the sight of her eternally, to recall her instant of revealed self for the only reason worth remembering anything – it was true… and it was fleeting. She pursed her lips and sighed, resuming her ubiquitous smile.

“This type of discourse is infrequent for me, but when I do talk, I always say too much,” she told him. “I apologize for boring you with the most banal facet of my varied motivations.”

“Bored? That is not how I would describe my level of interest,” Gedde argued gently. “I would never try to interpret what you may feel for this woman, but – if I may – I will say one thing and leave it to you to decide what is best.”

“Go ahead,” Julia replied weakly, realizing that it was too late to shut it off now. “You’ve listened to me prattle on all day. I suppose you’ve earned the right to an opinion.”

“Diana will not feel anything but what she feels. People cannot be manipulated into lasting loyalty, heartfelt affection, or real love. The murder of Charlotte Browning will not bring to you what was never truly yours.”

The Swede stared at him for a long moment, her lips pressed into a thin, defiant line. Whatever reply she might have been forming died in gestation as she heard tires crunching on gravel as the missing Cadillac entered the gates and swept into the circular driveway. Her quarry had arrived. Julia’s movements were sure and quick as she reached into her bag and came out with the Walther P99 in one hand, fully loaded and ready to go. In the other hand, the ivory katana.

“Stay up here until I call for you,” she instructed sternly. “Stand or sit on my towel, just in case any shots come through the ceiling.”

“Your towel?”

“Lined with Kevlar,” Julia explained, already starting down the steps. “Offers moderate protection from stray rounds. This shouldn’t take too long.”

Gedde was nearly ready to argue for the right to accompany her into the house, to provide whatever backup he could offer – then he remembered who he was dealing with. That brief instant of human weakness she displayed was over; this was the cool-eyed woman who had twice decimated his father’s brute squads without mussing her hair.

“If you should need me…” he called after her as she crossed the roof nimbly, headed toward the hanging eaves above the beachfront entrance.

“I won’t,” she casually replied over her shoulder. For some reason, Julia then turned and gave him a sincere grin. “But thanks anyway.”

She dropped soundlessly off the roof onto the sand below. Gedde looked out at the ocean, trying to phase out the noisy tides, birds and crowds so that he could at least hear some of what went on below… then he simply sat on Julia’s towel and waited.

“She was right – this is the worst part.”

——————————————————————————–

Twenty Three

Angelia was waiting for Diana to say something, to say anything, but the tall woman had remained speechless since she emerged from the neat white house and returned to the Porsche. She had tossed a heavy plastic bag onto the floorboard behind the seat, and not spoken a word of it since. Her eyes were alive with something distant and cold; it was nothing Angelia could identify.

“You have blood on you,” the young woman observed nervously. “Are you hurt?”

Diana stared straight ahead, her eyes focused on the obstacles of slow cars as she weaved through cross-town traffic, headed toward the north end of Elceda. She ran stop signs and red lights, speeding like a laser toward her next destination without thought of what she had left behind in her home… on the floor of her bedroom. One of the few persons she would have called an ally, a friend. Dead.

“It isn’t mine,” Diana muttered, answering her passenger’s nearly forgotten question.

“Oh,” Angelia whispered in relief. She wanted to know what happened, but was afraid to ask.

Diana could feel Dan’s blood on her fingers, sticking her hands to the wheel. She could feel it drying and tightening the skin on her knees where she knelt beside his body. She could feel it soaking through her t-shirt in the spot where she cradled his face against her chest. Unbidden, a sob rose in her throat and her eyes blurred with tears she didn’t have time to release. The sob caught midway up and turned into a cough. It wasn’t enough. He deserved more from her than a cough.

*This makes us more than even, Scarecrow,* she thought, soulfully penitent for costing him his life. *If Charlie’s okay right now, it’s because of you. I’ll owe you on that score longer than forever.*

“Where are we going?” Angelia asked, unable to remain quiet in the thick, confusing tension.

“To find Charlie.”

“That’s what you said when we left the boat.”

“Well, I haven’t found her yet,” Diana said harshly. “We keep going until I do.”

At least that made one thing clear – the blood was not that of Charlotte Browning. Angelia felt a flash of guilty disappointment and wanted to smack herself for it.

“Is Hideous after her now, too?” she asked boldly, assuming the worst.

Diana seemed to think on that for a long stretch. She and Harry had assumed that Julia intended to kill Charlie… but what if it wasn’t that simple? Now that she thought about it, the brutal evidence of Dan’s wrecked corpse clashed with everything she knew about the Swede’s clean, precise methods.

“Somebody is,” the dark woman replied, cautious not to assign a name to the threat just yet. “I left Charlie with two friends for protection. One of them is dead now because I was too busy to take care of her myself.”

“Because of me,” Angelia concluded. “She’s in trouble because you were stuck with me.”

“No. It’s my fault. I got so caught up trying to rewrite history that I forgot about the now, forgot that the present is where things get fucked up,” Diana told her firmly. “What happened with us hurt us both, but we can’t blame the past for every screw-up we make, every bad judgment.”

“Oh, come on. If it had been anyone but me, would you have left her alone for an instant? How can this not be my fault?”

“Goddammit, Angel!” Diana exploded angrily, “If you want to take the blame for this, you’re more than welcome to it, but it doesn’t change anything! There are other people involved here, people who don’t give half a shit about you, Dan, Teddy, or Charlie. People who don’t care much about anyone as long as they get what they want.”

“People like Hideous,” Angelia added. “He hates you. He wants to hurt you. I didn’t see him when I was in Nagano, before Julia came for me, but I heard things. Things that I’m still remembering. Hideo Yoshima is like a vindictive elephant, Diana – he never forgets or forgives. How better could he hurt you than by taking away what you love?”

Though she still held Julia as the front-runner in her suspicions, she had to admit that Angelia’s theory was valid. Yoshima’s sadism was etched in her memory, and it made him a strong candidate as well. As she cut off a white Corvette making an illegal left onto Emily’s street, Diana was assembling an alternate plan, just in case she was convicting Julia prematurely.

“Shit,” Diana cursed, stopping a block away from the Avila home.

“What now?” Angelia looked around, then spotted the flashing blue lights of police cars in the drive of a white and green house.

“Time to change clothes. They’d arrest me on the spot looking like this.”

Diana reached behind the seat and hauled up the plastic bag, then tossed a pair of Charlotte’s faded jeans, a long, black polo shirt and sandals to the young woman.

“Thanks. I was beginning to think this nightgown was part of my skin.”

For herself, she had grabbed a reasonably formal outfit of tan slacks, a burgundy sleeveless mock t-neck, and a tan linen blazer. As rapidly as possible, they dressed in the cramped confines of the sportscar – a trick Diana had mastered on long nights of stakeouts with Teddy. She wiped the blood from her hands with a moist towellette from the dash compartment, filling the car with the scent of chemical lemons.

“Stay put for a minute while I talk to these guys,” Diana told her passenger as she opened the door and slipped on her loafers.

“What makes you think they’ll tell you anything?” Angelia prodded, still smarting from her own memories of run-ins with American law enforcement.

“They’re Elceda County Deputies – I used to work with them,” she explained, then slammed the door and trotted over to the mass of cop cars.

“Jesus,” the girl muttered, pitching the despised gown into the backseat. “That just takes the cake.”
——————————————————————————–

Diana recognized two of the deputies immediately and made a beeline for the familiar faces as they leaned over the hood of their prowler, filling out paperwork.

“Hey, Franklin! Gomer!” she addressed them, once within shouting distance. “What’s up here?”

The slender, goofy-looking one she called Gomer looked up with barely concealed contempt, while the brawny, Denzel Washington doppelganger at his side gave her a dazzling grin.

“Diana, hey girl! Where you been hidin’?” Franklin asked, reaching out to shake her hand.

“Probably under a rock, same as most PIs,” his partner – actually named David Pyle, but generally called Gomer by his many detractors – added bitterly.

Diana grasped Will Franklin’s hand warmly, but made no effort to connect with Pyle. “I know the people who live here, Will. What’s going on?”

“911 got a no response from this address and sent us to check it out. One guy was inside, and he’d got himself shot a few times, nearly bought it on the living room floor. EMTs took him to County General a few minutes ago. He was unconscious, but still kickin’.”

“Did he have ID on him?”

“Driver’s license said Theodore Rinna, 104 Piscada Terrace. You know him?”

Diana felt her chest constrict, her breath trapped at the rear of her throat. “Yeah, I know him. There’s no sign of anyone else inside?”

“Not a living soul. We’re trying to track down the…” He paused and consulted his notepad. “Yeah, the Avilas right now, but the neighbors don’t know where they took off to this afternoon, only that they bugged out before this shit went down.”

“Was there any sign of forced entry?”

“Nope, nobody got in until we used the battering ram. Looks like the guy had a gunfight with someone through the front door,” Franklin theorized. “There’s residue around the peep panel, and there’s powder burns on the inside of the puppy hatch, too. Rinna must’ve gone down and got at least one shot off, cuz there’s negligible traces of blood on the front step and the driveway.”

“Did the neighbors see anything?”

“One old lady cross the way says there was a dude in a fancy car and a suit, came up just before she heard a gunshot. She didn’t get a good look at him, though she thought he might’ve been a Chinaman. Says his car was some big, black, shiny thing. Maybe a Caddy or a Lincoln. Didn’t see the plates.”

“She only heard one shot?” Diana asked pointedly, filing away each provided clue.

“Mmm hmm. Dude might’ve had a silencer on his piece when he shot Rinna,” Franklin answered.

“Did this Rinna have any enemies that you know of?” Pyle interjected petulantly, angered that he was again being ignored by the woman the entire department vainly lusted after during her brief tenure.

“No. He doesn’t have any enemies – present tense, Gomer,” Diana replied, already too ticked to be polite to the deputy. “Don’t write him off. You say they took him to County, Will?”

“Not more than ten minutes ago. Should be in trauma by now.”

“I’m gonna go check on him,” she told them, not waiting for any objections from her confused former colleagues as she rushed off toward the Porsche. For Franklin’s sake, she spun around and ran backwards, addressing her parting comments and friendly wave to him alone. “If you need to get in touch with me, you know my number.”

Will Franklin grinned and returned the wave, watching her jump into her car and tear past as if she were on some sort of secret mission. That was one of the many things he always liked about Diana Starrett – she did nearly everything with purpose and intensity. He sighed and shut his eyes, imagining what a woman like that would be like on a daily – or nightly – basis. Maybe he’d call her and ask about the possibility of her returning to the department.

“You’re wasting your testosterone thinking about that one,” Pyle taunted, disgusted by his partner’s dreamy expression. “Word around the courthouse is she’s a dyke. Shacked up with some snotty little lawyer over at The Meadows.”

“So?” Franklin replied, undaunted and still smiling. “I like her. Diana’s all right.”

Pyle snorted, his overbite jutting out like the teeth of a sulking beaver. “Makes me sick. She acts like her shit doesn’t stink, and all the while, she’s living a life of perversion. Breaking God’s rules.”

“Shut up, bitch,” Franklin said testily. “You keep on and I’ll pop out my Gerber and turn your monkey ass into a lesbian. See how your wife likes that action for a change.”

David Pyle was speechless. He looked into the level gaze of his large, dark-skinned partner and wondered if he was serious. He’d never known Will Franklin to make idle threats, so he decided that perhaps it was time to renew his interest in their incomplete paperwork and formulate a plan for finding the folks who resided at this particular crime scene.

“Stupid ass mouth of yours ain’t good for talkin’ sense,” Franklin grumbled, “Might save your marriage if she gave you a few pointers on how to use it for somethin’ else. Dumb ass cracker.”
——————————————————————————–

Chen Kaige had tried every trick he knew to stop the bleeding, but his first aid kit contained nothing more than bandages and antiseptic. He never counted on being more than slightly injured – it was a great source of pride for him that he usually encountered nothing more that scrapes and minor cuts on the job. Half an hour after the lucky shot fired by that ignorant corpse at the Avila house, the assassin’s leg was still bleeding. There was no way in hell he would go to a doctor and risk police involvement, so he had no choice but to seek out proper equipment and suture the wound himself.

He drove into the busy Emergency lot at the nearest hospital and parked in a visitor space, then climbed into the back seat and wrapped his calf tightly with fresh bandages. His dark pants concealed the blood stains adequately, so he carefully exited the Lincoln and ambled with practiced nonchalance toward the bustling area at the rear of Elceda County General.

Following the yellow line on the floor which led to the treatment rooms, Chen found an empty one, grabbed a chart from a desk in the hallway, hung it on a peg outside the door, and went inside. He closed the door behind him and braced it with a chair, then proceeded to snatch Betadine swabs and two suture kits from the wall-mounted wire rack. This wouldn’t take more than ten minutes, and he would once again get away clean. Sometimes, Chen loved America. Where else could a wanted man enter a medical facility and be totally ignored by nearly everyone, simply by walking with purpose and not asking questions? Certainly not in Hong Kong.

“Perhaps the United States is foo-bar,” he mused, stoically crooking the needle through his screaming flesh without even noticing the nearby stash of Lidocaine.
——————————————————————————–

The brakes squealed as Diana tore into the parking lot and spun the Porsche into an empty space. She was now even more focused than when she emerged from the white house in The Meadows, and Angelia was beginning to feel sorry for anyone who stood between her and Charlotte Browning. The young woman wondered if this was how Diana behaved when Gedde saw her in action that final night in Nagano – intent on one thing, unwilling to feel any fear or remorse, driven madly forward.

“Come inside with me,” Diana ordered. “I don’t know how long this will take.”

Angelia obeyed, throwing open her door and trying to keep up with Diana as she charged across the parking lot and through the Emergency entrance. Once inside, she immediately assailed the duty nurse with hasty questions about the admission of a gunshot victim named Teddy Rinna.

“He’s in surgery right now, up on three. You can wait in the lounge until the doctors send word on his condition,” the nurse answered just as hastily, bristling from Diana’s curt inquiries.

“Thanks.”

Diana had already turned away and headed for the hall, searching for an elevator that would take her to the third floor. Angelia hastened after her, sandals flopping against the colored lines on the floor.

“Where are we going now?” she asked, noting the blue stripe that led to the visitor’s lounge ran in the opposite direction.

“Recovery, second floor. That’s where they’ll take him next.”

“Either there or the morgue,” Angelia noted somberly. She kept her eyes downcast to avoid the glare she knew Diana would give her… and that’s when she spotted something that changed everything. “Jesus, you’d think that they’d clean up the blood, wouldn’t you? That’s disgusting.”

“What are you talking about?” Diana asked as she pressed the ‘up’ button for the lift.

“Look down there.” She pointed toward the yellow stripe, which clearly showed the faint outline of a footprint – a red footprint. “Somebody was walking around bleeding, and they didn’t even mop.”

Diana’s hackles jumped up, her eyes narrowed as she scanned the hallway for more prints, but they faded to nothing after only a few strides, as if the blood were residual and had worn off after several steps. She forgot all about the elevator as she followed the yellow line down the main hall and made a left turn toward the treatment rooms… just where someone like herself would go if they needed supplies but didn’t want to bother being admitted.

A soft ding announced the arrival of the elevator, and Angelia seemed torn between holding the doors and following the oblivious Diana. “Guess there’s been a change of plan,” she said to herself, then let the doors slip shut as she scuttled off behind the sleuthing brunette.

Diana checked each of the first three treatment rooms and found them empty, but the door was closed on the fourth. She glanced at the chart on the door, which indicated that someone named Winnie Benzinger was undergoing a mammogram at 6:45 pm. She knew there were no such facilities is these rudimentary rooms, that they were for minor outpatient procedures only. According to her watch, the time was only 6:13 pm – doctors are many things, but they are never early.

“Go to the lounge,” she whispered to Angelia, making a gun sign with her fingers and aiming at the closed door to the treatmen room.

She may have been a little slow earlier in the day, but Angelia knew that staying here could bring trouble she wasn’t ready to handle. She nodded and quickly traipsed off down the hall, following the blue line to the relative safety of the waiting area – where the greatest danger one would encounter was the Pauly Shore movie showing on the big screen television.

Diana shut her eyes and took a deep breath, then tightened her throat to lift her voice to a higher pitch as she knocked on the door and called to whoever was inside.

“Mrs. Benzinger? You can go ahead and get undressed. The doctor will be down in about five minutes or so, okay hon?”

There was no reply from inside. Diana slunk around the corner and ducked low, peering into the hall at knee-level. She waited nearly a minute before she heard a light scraping sound, like a chair being dragged across the floor, then she heard a faint squeak as the door of the treatment room cracked open. She hushed her breathing, willed all noise to a perfect hush… then she heard the door swing wide and footsteps echoed on tile as someone hastily walked away.

Unfolding her body to stand, Diana Starrett stepped into the hall and saw the retreating back of a mid-sized man clad in a black suit. The left pant leg of his trousers hung a little heavier than the right, and though he tried to hide it, he favored his right leg just a bit… as if he had nearly been kneecapped by someone shooting through a doggie door. As he turned the corner, she caught just enough of his profile to summon up his name from her formidable memory banks.

*Chen Kaige, Hong Kong’s A-list hired hand. Yoshima just got bumped up a notch on my shit list.*

Diana recalled the near-miss in Bangkok with bitter clarity, still certain that she could have caught him if she had clearance to go over that glass-topped wall, to pursue the fleeing man off prison grounds. This would not be easy, but it would be… oh, so very good.

*Gotcha now, you son of a bitch. This time, you don’t get away.*

She let him clear the front desk and emerge into the parking lot, let him walk across to his shiny black Lincoln Town Car with rental plates, even let him open the door before she made herself known, calling out to him in a hard, clear voice.

“You running from me again, you lo-mein eatin’ motherfucker?”

Chen’s left hand was on the door, his right holding the butt of his pistol as he half turned to face whoever had called out (presumably) to him. He saw her… and one instant later, his gun was up, finger pumping the trigger double-time. He emptied the magazine toward the spot where she stood, silenced shots whipping through the air like copper-jacketed dragonflies, swarming to tear her body apart. Only she was gone. A phantom – he hadn’t even seen her drop and vanish. He dropped the empty magazine and popped in full clip, eyes and ears begging for her to reappear.

Diana crab-walked between parked cars, scuffing the heels of her hands as she stayed out of his line of sight, easing closer to the Lincoln. Her own gun was out and ready as she rounded the front of a Dodge Caravan and aimed at the Town Car’s left front tire. She fired twice, loud booms from the .38 echoing across the lot and inciting nervous screams from people entering the hospital, but the staunch tire didn’t pop or even begin to leak noticeably.

The advances of modern safety technology are sometimes an utter bitch.

“Dammit! Goddamned high-tech rubber motherfucker asshole!” Diana complained, intent on taking aim at the Lincoln’s radiator on her next volley.

Chen slammed his door and started the engine, aware that she had somehow gotten the drop on him and was positioned out of his firing line. He threw the car into reverse and the Lincoln jumped backward and cut to the side, then lurched forward as he jetted out of the lot and away from the damnable woman whose spirit and ancestry he was even then cursing.

Diana rolled out from her safe spot by the minivan and emptied the .38’s cylinder into the hood of the Lincoln, but the car zoomed away from her even as she got to her feet and ran for the Porsche. She unlocked the doors by remote and barely got her ass in the seat before the engine was thrumming and itching for a fight. She was about to give it one – she sped out of the parking lot after the fleeing Lincoln, ready to chase Chen Kaige all the way to hell if it meant keeping him away from Charlie.

*You’re going down, baby. Just accept it – you’re the goddamned Titanic and I’m the motherfuckin’ iceberg. You are going down.*

Twenty Four

Sounds of the sea can be very soothing to a chafed soul; the rushing wind, the slapping crash of water against a gleaming hull, the taut flap of a high sail fighting to ride the air. Charlotte gripped the rope along the starboard railing and shut her eyes, listening to all these things, and still found herself unable to turn her focus away from the imagery her mind assigned to her troubles. A dented, mangled wreck called trust lay smoldering at the roadside of her conscience, begging for her to administer aid, to not simply turn a blind eye and walk away numb.

*I don’t know what to do,* she admitted. *I don’t know how to fix it… for either of us. I never had need to repair anything before.*

When her husband had decided that their marriage wasn’t making him happy, she let him go without a fight; Charlie virtually opened the front door and escorted him to his car, in fact. She knew Richard was unfaithful, knew his ambition for money and respect would lead him away from her, but it didn’t matter. To Charlie, it wasn’t worth the effort to try and fix things, to make herself over into what he wanted in a partner, a lover, a wife. She didn’t even slow down as she drove past the twisted metal of their vows, didn’t think to call for help from anyone else. As a couple, they were broken, and she didn’t care enough to take out the tools and get her hands dirty.

It was over… and that was just fine with her.

*This is different. Diana trusted me because I asked her to, because I told her over and over that I knew who she was, and that it didn’t change what I felt… what I feel for her.*

*The woman is a murderer. You called a spade a spade. What’s wrong with that?* her own devil’s advocate broke in, haughty and confrontational as ever.

*I only said that to hurt her! Because I was so certain – in that one moment on the boat, looking at a mile-high pile of circumstantial evidence – that she had been lying to me. About loving me, about staying with me. Actually lied about needing me at all.*

*You thought she was only waiting for something better to come along? Waiting for someone who actually meant all those pretty promises you fed her?*

*Maybe, yeah. At least someone who wouldn’t throw that shit in her face after swearing not to.*

*And just who would that person be, hmm? Lia – the coke-dealing witch who tried to kill her? Or maybe Julia – that blonde kissing bandit who nearly crawled all over her right in front of you? Mental cases, both of ’em. What a fine array of choices she has.*

*They are not the point here – I am. I asked Diana for trust and she gave it to me. ME, not them! Charlotte Browning of Elceda, California – a divorced attorney with a fragmented, intrusive, judgmental family, a head full of screaming insecurities, an exhausting job that keeps me buried in paperwork for days on end, a claustrophobic little house in a snooty neighborhood – that’s me in all my glorified mediocrity. Still, Diana gave full custody of her only weakness to me.*

*Are you doubting her judgment?*

*I think I proved this morning that I’m an unfit guardian. The damage is done.*

*Well, are you willing to fix it? Is she worth the effort? Worth humiliating yourself and admitting that you were – oh, God! I can’t bring myself say it! That you were… WRONG??*

*For starters, yes. And that I was hasty, selfish, ignorant, hurt, pissed, malicious and cruel. But I can start by saying that I’m sorry, by putting my arms around her – *

*If she’ll let you.*

*…if she’ll let me, and giving her exactly what she gave me. Maybe the only thing I haven’t completely signed over to her yet.*

*And what might this precious panacea be?*

*Full disclosure. Complete and unadulterated trust. I’ll tell her all the excuses, all the causes for my being an ass, right on back to the cradle if I have to, and I’ll trust her not to use them to hurt me.*

*And what if she does use them to hurt you?*

*Then we’ll be even, won’t we? I owe her this much, to drop my guard totally and let her take a shot if she wants. We’ll have matching bruises to show for the experience.*

*Oh, you should have been a shrink. That’s just brilliant. Let her beat you up the same way you did her, leaving both of you in shambles. Brilliant.*

*Hey, bruises fade. They hurt, they heal, and you move on. I have to try something, and this is the only thing I can think of that might put us on level ground again. If we’re to walk out of this together, we have to be equally willing to take the risks, willing to be hurt and get back up again.*

*And if Diana chooses to walk off with someone else – or alone?*

*She better not. I just recently realized I have serious abandonment issues when it comes to her.*

“Charlie!” Emily called out, trying to catch her daydreaming sister’s attention.

Blinking her way out of the mental in camera hearing, Charlotte managed to ask what was so urgent that Emily intruded on her solitude.

“Come help me find Katie!” The redhead barreled along the slick deck, nimbly skirting coils of rope as she slipped into Charlie’s orbit. “She’s playing hide and seek, and I lost her. Lost my only daughter on a freakin’ boat.”

“That’s pathetic.”

“I know! One minute she was right under my nose, and then POOF! She’s vanished below deck, hiding in one of the cabins. I don’t know how I could have lost track of her so fast.”

Charlie let those words ring around her ears and drain into her clogged consciousness like Liquid Plumber. “It can happen in the blink of an eye, Emmy. Turn loose for a minute, and they’re gone.”

Emily narrowed her dark blue eyes at her sister, aware that Charlie was likely referring to renegades of a different sort. A tall, dark, brooding sort. “Let’s check the cabins. I think she may have hopped into Poppy’s foot locker, thinking I wouldn’t invade his privacy by looking there.”

“She doesn’t know her mommy very well, does she?” Charlie teased, cracking a little smile.

“Evidently not. Let’s go show her how far the Browning irreverence goes. Up for a little snooping, Agatha Christie?”

“Lead on, Miss Marple.”

Emily raised an offended eyebrow. “At least let me be someone a bit younger, please. I was always Sabrina when we played ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and I’ve never gotten over the slight.”

“Okay, okay,” Charlie said, nearly giggling at the memory of her own undeniably embarrassing childhood desire to be Jill Munroe. “How ’bout DCI Jane Tennison?”

“Better. Helen Mirren’s cool enough. Let’s do some detecting.”

Luis and his father were at the bow, arguing over how far out to take the sleek sixty-footer before dropping anchor for the evening, and they waved at the sailors as they passed nearby. The warmth evident in her husband’s returned smile made Emily blush and gave Charlotte cause to remember her sister’s admonition regarding the love beamed her way by her own heart’s captain.

*If Diana looks at me with more regard than that, then I am the world’s biggest fool for doubting.*

Charlie and Emily moved to the stairs, determined to root out the hiding child, but Charlotte paused before making her descent. She looked over the widening stretch of sea between them and the invisible coast, wondering just how far away from her Diana was at that moment. She hoped it was a distance she could still bridge. The sun would slide into the horizon soon, ending what had to be one of the most regrettable days of her young life. It would wrap around another sector of the planet, then come back again to renew its mission to light her way home.

*After all,* Charlie thought, recalling the wisdom of Scarlett O’Hara, *tomorrow is another day.*
——————————————————————————–

Julia stalked around Hideo Yoshima’s chair, eyeing the man with ravenous bloodlust. Her P99 was cocked and ready, but there was no one expendable left to shoot and she was still brimming with adrenaline. Nine of Yoshima’s remaining guards were dead (stacked neatly in a guest bedroom), and the trio of scientists lay drugged and unconscious on the carpeted floor of the master suite. Now, the inevitable crush of boredom was setting in, and Julia was restless.

“Ever hear that potato chip jingle?” she asked, not waiting for an answer from the sullen man. “The one that claimed ‘no one can eat just one?’ Well, the bag is virtually empty now and I’m still hungry. ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop,’ another one goes. Funny, the things one remembers.”

“You watch too much television,” Yoshima murmured, greedily desiring the katana which dangled carelessly in her left hand. He still wanted her head, worse than he wanted his next breath.

“You know, they say one gets hungry an hour after eating Chinese food,” Julia went on, ignoring his criticism. “It must be the same for Japanese. I am absolutely starving! You sure you don’t have any more men for me to chew up? Nine is such an odd number for a compulsive cretin like yourself. Is there a rounding tenth skulking about, waiting for me to drop my guard?”

“There is no one else,” the slight man lied tiredly, hoping he sounded casual and disinterested. In truth, the tenth guard was out on an errand and should have returned hours ago. Yoshima had dispatched the mountainous man named Tanaka on a quest for therapeutic Kombucha tea… and marijuana.

The pain and dizziness inflicted on him by his rapidly progressing tumors was robbing him of his logic, making him lose his head more frequently. Yoshima had assumed that on the crime-riddled streets of America, the search for a drug dealer – even on a Sunday morning – would yield a quick, easy score. Now, he was glad that the enormous, vicious guard was not on the premises when the demoness made her entrance. Tanaka would return soon, and she would be the one to lose her head.

Julia turned away from him and stooped over the coffee table, picking at the remains of Yoshima’s lunch. She lifted a forkfull and sniffed. “What is this leafy green stuff? Wilted Romaine lettuce?”

“Sea kelp,” he spat rapidly, his words running together.

“Seek help, did you say? You’re one to talk,” Julia quipped, still trying to annoy the powerless, dethroned demigod of the underworld. “Hideo Yoshima, upper-echelon muckity-muck for the fabled Yakuza, the Poison Fist of the Pacific Rim… eats seaweed. Most disappointing.”

“Where are my children?”

“In good hands,” the blonde told him, chewing lightly on a mouthfull of tasty greens. “They’ll be walking off into the sunset with their mother once this is done, so don’t worry about them.”

Yoshima’s color deepened to a furious red at this tidbit of news. “Their mother is dead! I am their family! You will return them to my care!”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Don’t pop a blood vessel, now. Lying to me isn’t worth the effort,” Julia instructed coldly. “I know where your beloved wife is and I know her condition. She could recover within a few months – if someone were to stop ordering doctors to give her horse-sized doses of Thorazine.”

“They belong to me! They belong with me!” he insisted, frothing at the mouth as he shot psychic daggers through both black eyes.

“I think that’s for Angelia and Gedde to decide. Now, I’m not sure about Angelia’s plans, but I know Gedde still wants to take care of his mommy. He’s such a good, good little boy, isn’t he?”

“My son would not betray me!” Yoshima growled, launching himself into a painful coughing fit – which Julia observed with a total lack of sympathy. She stepped close to the struggling man and touched the barrel of her Walther to his heaving chest, leaning in near enough to speak in his ear.

“We’ll see about that,” she whispered, then evaporated from his presence and remateralized by the sliding glass doors. She slid the door open, leaned out and gave a loud, sharp whistle. Seconds later, a young man in a cartoony t-shirt and shorts appeared on the wooden deck, standing at her side.

“Gedde?” Yoshima whispered, not believing his own deceitful eyes, yet unable to blink away the hateful sight.

“Is everything all right?” the young man asked quietly, seemingly concerned over the she-devil’s safety. “You are unharmed?”

“I’m super, thanks for asking,” she replied, smiling. Smiling! “Didn’t catch any strays through the roof, did you?”

“No. I heard no shots, actually.”

“They were playing poker in the bedroom. No one got off a round – except me. Sad, really. Boring.”

“You have taken receipt of what you came here for?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And now?”

“Now, I make a call and survey the board for my next move. We’ll have to wait here a little longer.”

“But, my father is here. Is he… alive?”

“Yes, he is. Would you prefer to wait outside?”

“No. I have to face him. I do not wish to, but it must be done.”

“You’re a brave fellow, Gedde,” she told him softly.

As Hideo Yoshima watched, palpitating with hatred and disbelief, Julia placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, drew him to her, and… kissed him?

“NO! NO!” he bellowed, rising on shaking legs to intercept the treacherous pair, feeling enough anger surging through him that he was sure he could choke them to death with his bare hands. He made it across the living room, took a step into the sunny patch before the door, and blacked out.

“Wonderful,” Julia muttered, crouching beside Yoshima and checking his thready pulse. “He’s just passed out, probably from shock. Put him on the couch if you would, please.”

Gedde stood rooted to the spot on the deck, gazing down at his father with something akin to pity. He shook off the soft feelings and stepped inside, scooping up the old man’s feather-light body and settling him on the couch as Julia locked the door behind them.

“Put his oxygen tank by his side and keep an eye on him,” she suggested, “I need to make a call.”

Julia disappeared into the study, and several minutes later, Hideo began to stir as consciousness returned. Sitting by his father’s side, Gedde placed the oxygen mask over the old man’s face, listening as he took shallow breaths. The young man summoned his courage, leaned close and whispered to the man he regrettably called his father.

“I will no longer live with you, with the roseate image of you I created to survive your distance, your cruelty. My memories are false, deceptive illusions. I will see you for what you are, for who you are, and I will not live the rest of my days in your poisonous shadow. My sister, my mother and I will be free of you – this I promise you, father. You are dead to me.”

Yoshima’s black eyes opened slowly and he fixed his son with a hateful glare. “You are not my son.”

“You said those words to my brother, and the shame of your rejection killed him. To me, your curse is a blessing. I am free, and I thank you.”

“You are… not… my son,” Yoshima repeated weakly, voice muffled by the oxygen mask.

Gedde sat back in his chair, his heart pounding with fear, pride, and excitement. His eyes closed for a moment and he could see himself walking away, walking into a bright spill of light… and he was not alone. Angelia held one hand, their mother held the other, and they were all free.

His shoulders shook as the tears of relief came up, rimming his eyes, cleansing away the last trace of misplaced devotion, making a path for future memories. Memories of truth, of love. Of a life he was free to create with his own hand. If alliance with a gray creature like Julia could bring that to him, he would hold a solid, gilded image of that vaporous woman securely in his heart, keeping that corner reserved for her until the day he died.

In the study, Julia was busy securing a connection on Yoshima’s computer. Once certain of the signal path, of the numerous bounces and twists her contact had procured for their conversations, she linked up and waited for a response. She sat in the squeaky leather chair, twiddling her thumbs until the static cleared and the screen snapped into sharp focus. In shadow, the silhouette of her contact appeared ghostly, as if she were dealing with a specter.

“Julia. You look well. How are you today?” asked a deeply draggy, distorted voice – one altered by indecipherable security encryption.

“I’m good. Been getting a little sun. Does it show?” she replied, grinning into the tiny camera mounted on the enormous color monitor.

“Yes, actually. Are you progressing as expected?” the shadow queried calmly.

“Ahead of schedule. A few key components remain missing, but the viral research is in my possession, as are the three scientists. Hideo Yoshima is alive as well, and they are all ready for delivery – upon completion of our deal.”

“Good. We received an outsourcing assignment from the agency early this morning. I thought it might be of interest to you.”

Julia rolled her eyes and yawned, not so much sleepy as disinterested. “Let me guess – Harry Mars wants you to track me down and kill me?”

“Well, you are rogue, are you not?” the shadow retorted, sounding dreadfully sober. “This is standard procedure during lockdown.”

“You know I’m not a security risk to placed operatives, so what’s the verdict? Am I more valuable to you dead or alive?”

“Alive – for now. We have an agreement. As long as it remains mutually beneficial, our efforts toward your elimination will be half-hearted at best. After the forty-eight hour lockdown period, Mars will send his own hunters out on your trail.”

“How beautifully comforting,” Julia sighed, stretching her arms over her head and groaning with pleasure as her muscles loosened. “Did you pick up the helicopters I sent through Ilya Kurzin?”

“We did, along with seventeen members of the cartel, and nearly five-hundred keys of Peruvian flake. The mission was completed without complications, so Kurzin is still clean and ready for business.”

“He’s very useful,” Julia noted. “Glad you decided to play him as I suggested.”

“Kurzin is your contact. It would hardly be fair to undercut you just when you’re starting out.”

“Unfair, but historically typical of your people,” the Swede retorted quickly. “Since the power structure alterations in your group, I am willing to give you a bit of play. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if I were to wake up dead some morning and owe it to you.”

Although it was impossible to define even a single facial feature on her contact, Julia could envision lightly painted lips twisting into a perverse grin. She had met this shadow in the flesh years before, and been offered placement within another operative group – a smaller, more efficient group, but one which would demand more of her time and devotion than she was willing to give… at least that was what she told the shadow. In truth, she had been unwilling to leave the agency without taking Diana Starrett along. Riggins refused to let his prized possession go, and so Julia stayed as well.

“You should have come to me when you had the chance,” the shadow observed. “With your service record, your performance ratios, you would never have needed to worry. We will always have a place for people of your ability.”

“Until I countermand a convoluted order and get a bullet in the head? No thanks. I want to run my own show, and as long as you are willing to help me, I’ll have a place for you, my dear.”

The shadowy figure leaned away from the camera, causing a brief distortion in the image, ripples passing through black water. “Julia, your arrogance will be the death of you.”

“My arrogance has been the death of many. Why should I be different?”

“True,” the shadow agreed in a deep, electronic voice devoid of emotion. “The commodities you requested are being prepared for transfer. Contact me when you are ready to make the exchange.”

“I will,” Julia replied, her voice tired and dry. “Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

After the call was disconnected, Julia went into Yoshima’s security program and burned off the binary traces of data recorded on the hard disk. She cracked open the CPU and checked for alternate drives, any place even trace data could be stored. Finding nothing more than factory-installed hardware, she replaced the cover and unplugged the system.

“Too much trouble for one conversation, if you ask me,” she mumbled, walking out of the den to wait in the living room with Gedde and the barely conscious Yoshima.

“How long must we remain here?” Gedde asked her as she dropped into a cushy chair opposite him, looking tired and twitchy.

Julia ignored his question, preferring not to reply when she didn’t know the answer. She did notice how red his eyes had become, the small puffy places below the lids. “Have you been crying?”

“Yes,” he told her readily, oddly unashamed.

“Why?”

“Relief. Gratitude. Hope.”

“Put the celebration on hold, would you? We’re not out of the oven yet, Hansel.”

Gedde smiled a bit, recalling the fable from his childhood. “What horrors await us now, Gretel?”

“Let me see… we have The Morally Vague Witch Who Could Change Her Mind Then Screw Me Over and Kill Me, The Vertically-Challenged Sadistic Wolf Who Does Not Wish To Be Captured, and worst of all, The Vengeance-Seeking Woodswoman Who Was Hopelessly In Love With Little Red Riding Hood, Attorney-at-Law,” Julia mirthfully concluded. “I think that about covers it.”

“Goodness,” Gedde declared, eyes wide with exaggerated alarm. “I think I’m safer in the oven.”

“I’ll get you out of this as soon as I can,” she promised. “Some of us are accustomed to the heat.”
——————————————————————————–

Diana downshifted into fourth and hit the gas, instantly propelling the Porsche through a narrow gap between a taxi and an eighteen wheeler with naked lady mudflaps.

*Why are those sooo popular?* she wondered as she zipped past the truck, her eyes scanning the road ahead for any sign of the black Lincoln.

Reviewing everything she could remember about Chen Kaige, she tried to construct a pattern of assault, hoping to devine where he would go next. The man was usually very single-minded when on a job, so Teddy’s lucky shot to Chen’s leg had thrown him off his rhythm. Going to the hospital was a mistake, but if the bleeding was bad enough, he would have had little choice in the matter. Now, he was hurt, wary and on the defensive, looking for someplace to regroup and plan his next move.

*Guess coincidence works both ways. Angelia = Lia is a horrible trick to play on Charlie, but Chen going to Teddy’s hospital is a stroke of ungodly luck. I can’t just lose him now. That would be a waste of the only positive happenstance I might get. I won’t lose him. Not now, not after what he’s done… and what he still intends to do.*

Barely waiting until she passed a vehicle to dart in front and move ahead in her quest, Diana was obsessed with rooting out every black speck in the distance until it could be confirmed that it was not Chen. Her .38 was reloaded and resting on her lap, the hot barrel burning against the thin linen of her pants. She had removed her blazer and tossed it into the passenger seat, baring her long arms as muscles worked to shift gears and spin the leather steering wheel with hard precision.

*Who would have more to gain by hurting Charlotte? Yoshima hates me, that much is obvious, and his custom is to strike at the heart of his enemy. Julia… I don’t know what – if anything – she wants from me. She could have taken that virus sample for herself, so why give it to Mars? And why use me as a wedge to split herself off from the agency? She could have done that without involving me.*

*What if involving you is the whole point?* came a jaded voice, bubbling up from her subconscious like poison from the bottom of a kettle. *Admit it – you’re more alive when you do this, when there’s blood in your eyes and someone in your crosshairs. Charlotte was right.*

*Shut it off. Don’t listen…*

*Julia knows it. Angelia knows it. Have they passed judgment on you the way she did? They see this part of you, and they don’t lie when they look at you. They know, and it doesn’t send them into fits of fearful malice. She hates you.*

*Charlie doesn’t hate me, she hates doubting me. Part of that was my fault, but part of it was something else. Something in her that doesn’t believe in forever. Yet.*

*And you think you’re the one to make her see that it exists? How is she gonna see forever when she can’t get past the blood on your hands, in your heart?*

*Time is the only test that counts, the only way to prove anything. Today, tomorrow, and on down the line, I love her. I won’t stop believing we can work, I won’t stop trying to make that happen. And I will not let anyone take that away from us, not even me, so shut-the-fuck-up, already.*

*Geez, you’re grouchy when you’re in a murderous rage. I’ll see you later.*

*Not if I see you first.*

In the zone of unconscious perfection, she drove on. Diana re-routed her mind back to the problem at hand – the missing Lincoln and its deadly driver. A decision had to be made, a course plotted.

*If he’s working for Julia, he’d go to her – wherever she is now. When I find him, he could lead me right to her. But why would she go to an outsider for help? Chen is very pricey, and Julia doesn’t have that kind of capital… does she? Shit if I know. If he’s working for Yoshima, which is much more likely based on Hideo’s track record, Chen may go to him – and I know where he lives.*

Diana glanced at a blurred road sign telling traffic that the first exits to San Diego were less than a mile away. She weaved between more unmotivated motorists, working her way to the right. If she was wrong about Chen’s destination, she would lose precious time, possibly lose the slight advantage she had gained by identifying him as the eminent threat to Charlotte.

*Exit or stay on? Exit or stay on?* she asked herself, praying for an answer.

*Follow your instincts,* came the certain reply, a mixture of counselor and coach, with a voice she had heard only in dreams. *Playing a hunch isn’t so bad when hunches are all you have.*

*Exit.*

With that, Diana whipped the car onto the exit ramp and burned rubber coming out of a hard turn. She merged – or bullied – her way into traffic headed toward the beach, plotting out the quickest route to 1414 Sepulveda, where she hoped to take a more active role in bringing this human chess match into check. Checkmate in this skewed match would have to wait until she found her way between the red-herring rooks, over the king’s corpse, all the way to the Queen’s doorstep.

“No one else is playing by the rules, so why should I?”

Twenty Five

The sun burned holes in the clouds as it stealthily slipped into the ocean, casting miles-long streaks of orange across the water, tossing missiles of diffused red light onto the rocky shore. San Diego at sunset was far from being paradise, but it wasn’t half-bad.

Standing at the glass double doors in the rear of Yoshima’s house, Julia blinked in the scene, opening and closing her huge gray eyes like camera shutters, letting the light burn onto film. She knew it might well be the last sunset she ever witnessed. So many things could go wrong…

“Are you hungry?” Gedde asked, suddenly at her elbow.

“Very. What gastronomical delights await us in the icebox?”

He shrugged his shoulders, unsure what was left since his departure yesterday. “The guards descend on abandoned food like a swarm of locusts, so most of my things are probably gone. I will check.”

“You’re a dear, dear.”

“I am aware of this.”

Grinning, he turned to walk into the kitchen, made it about halfway before he heard it – before they heard it and spun to face each other – a loud, firm knocking at the front door.

“We have company,” Julia announced, buzzing into the living room. She shook Yoshima awake and knelt at his side. “Are you expecting guests, Hideo?”

“No,” he said, biting off the urge to say more. He wanted her to be surprised at Tanaka’s arrival, first surprised then dead. “No one.”

“I will answer,” Gedde volunteered. “If I recognize them – ”

“Do it,” Julia agreed, giving him a nod. She placed Yoshima’s oxygen mask over his face and cranked up the output, then whispered a warning. “You give me trouble and I’ll shoot this tank.” She softly clinked her silencer against the metal cylinder. “The resulting fire will broil you like a sea bass.”

Hideo Yoshima was speechless beneath the mask, but his lips curled into a sneer.

Another series of knocks from the door, and Gedde took a deep breath and assumed a calm face. He slid aside the security panel and gazed out from behind the bars, presenting himself.

“Gedde?” a deep voice questioned, its owner out of view.

“Tanaka?” Gedde replied, hoping he did not sound alarmed. “What – what took you so long?” he gambled, assuming there was a reason the giant had been sent away and was not among the dead.

“I could not find a dealer in this area,” the big man grumbled, staring at a brown paper bag rolled up in one meaty hand. “I drove south for many miles before finding what he wanted.”

By the couch, behind the barrel of a silenced Walther, Julia grinned. “Let him in,” she mouthed to Gedde, and he gave her a quick nod before sliding aside the bolts.

Drunk on oxygen, Yoshima was too woozy to yell out a warning to his last hope, but he did manage to rise up on the sofa before Julia’s arm knocked him prone again.

“Sea bass,” she whispered to him, reminiscent of her warning.

For his own safety, Gedde stayed behind the door as he swung it wide, revealing the room to the unsuspecting Tanaka, and revealing a rather large target to Julia. Tanaka’s eyes widened in surprise when he spotted her, then narrowed in recognition and obvious hatred.

“You!” he growled at the blonde woman, the Nagano butcher of last Wednesday.

“Me!” Julia agreed, leveling the gun at his melon-sized head. “Don’t be stupid and I won’t harm you.”

She had the drop on the big bodyguard, there was no doubt, but whether from arrogance, shock or plain old stupidity, Tanaka reached for his gun.

“Aww, hell,” Julia cursed, wondering why some people couldn’t admit when they were licked.
——————————————————————————–

Chen Kaige sat behind the wheel of his wounded Lincoln, one foot on the brake, the other on the gas, keeping the big car ready to pounce, to spring the trap. The radiator was leaking, a noxious steam oozing from beneath the hood, and the puncture-resistant front tire was slowly flattening from the shots fired into the sidewall. Still, the car was functional enough to serve a final purpose.

“Come to me,” the assassin urged, beckoning his pursuer to arrive, knowing she couldn’t be far behind. Perhaps forty-five seconds, a minute at most.

Parked in an empty driveway near the entrance to Sepulveda Drive, he set his trap by hiding his vehicle behind a high wall of bushes which obscured him from street view. Once hidden, he kicked off the passenger side mirror and positioned it by the curb, allowing him to view incoming traffic without being seen himself. His eyes focused on the small reflector, seeking the sleek blue sportscar driven by his hunter – the hunter who would soon become the prey.

“I know you followed me. Show yourself,” he hissed, the words wet and hateful against parched lips. “This time I am prepared for you, Diana Starrett. Show yourself. Show yourself.”
——————————————————————————–

By the time Diana made it to the beach, the sun was going down. Traffic was not dense, but she could not bob and weave her way safely through it, and she lost time. Precious time. Pulling onto Sepulveda Drive, she kept the Porsche in third and slipped along the road slow and smooth, observing carefully for any sign of Chen’s presence.

Everything was soothingly normal, with residents mowing lawns and watering plants, children playing in squealing packs, a heavy-set black labrador loping along the sidewalk, tongue dangling…

At the first hint of noise, the first high-pitched scream of tires burning on concrete, Diana knew what was happening. She grabbed up the .38 from her lap and turned her head to the right, toward the charging black sheet-metal rhino bearing down on her. She hit the gas, jammed her foot onto the pedal and mashed it to the floorboard. The Porsche lurched forward obediently, chewing up several feet of pavement before the impact came, but it was not enough.

The Lincoln rammed her car hard, crushing the passenger side door, bending the front wheel in and snapping the axle, and it kept coming at a dizzyingly persistent pace, driving both Diana and the German roadster across the left lane, jumping over the sidewalk, and to her great dismay, shoving the whole ruined package into a telephone pole.

For Diana, the whole world went black. Black as night on Pluto, black as despair and defeat and fear, black as the warm waters that still lapped hungrily at the base of her consciousness, urging her to quit, to give up, to surrender. Very black.

——————————————————————————–
She saw Charlotte first, walking along a flagstone path lined with blood-red annuals in full bloom. She wore a simple royal blue sheath dress that Diana had never seen before – new or borrowed from Emily, who walked a few paces behind. Luis and the kids brought up the rear of the processional, and none of them moved quickly.

They mounted granite steps and gathered in front of an ornate mahogany door set with brass fixtures and a gaudy lion’s head knocker. They huddled like a football team, their heads together as they spoke in a hushed circle, then piled their hands atop each other’s and broke the ring. Charlotte grasped the lion’s lower jaw and rapped on the door three times.

When it opened, an asian man in a butler’s suit admitted them with a gracious wave of his arm. They walked past him, not giving the servant a second look. He waited in the open doorway, watching them pass, then he looked directly toward Diana’s ghostly perspective and smiled at her. The butler was Kaige, and he ran a finger across his throat.

“NO! Charlie, no! Get out of the house!”

He laughed at her. Laughed and closed the door with an echoing boom.

The perspective shifted, pulled back to see the house, and she knew at last where they were. The house, ugly and imposing and intimidating in an Addams Family sort of way, was the home of Charles Browning. A gigantic mausoleum, a tomb. There, they would all die.

Unless someone was there to stop it.

——————————————————————————–
Diana woke up screaming, shaking off the chilling grip of her unconscious vision. Eyes wide, she located her position and assessed her situation. The passenger and driver’s side airbags had deployed on impact, as had the billowing puff from the steering wheel. She was trapped between the three, her body the fragile center in a pastry of protective woven cable fiber and twisted metal. Wiggling to test her extremities, she gave a sigh of relief at the absence of serious pain.

* Dizzy, but nothing broken. How long was I out? *

She glanced at the dashboard clock and estimated less than a minute was lost. If Chen was conscious as well, he would be coming to finish her off. Resting was not an option. All windows but the slim rear panel were smashed into an intact spider web of safety glass, killing her visibility.

* First thing is to get out. Gotta get these bags deflated. *

With one arm, she reached behind her seat and fumbled for the plastic bag which held Dan’s belongings. Before she moved his body into the bath tub, she had cleaned out his pockets for anything which would identify him – an old habit from the days of disavowing dead operatives. She found a fully-loaded automatic pistol (he didn’t even get off a shot, goddammit), a wallet holding false IDs and a badge, and a serrated Gil Hibben knife that had obviously never been used.

All these were covered in blood. The blood of a man who died trying to help her.

Diana found the knife and brought it up in a fast punch, piercing the driver’s side bag, then the primary bag pressed into her chest. Once free, she pushed out the weakened panel of safety glass and pointed her .38 at the first person she saw – a fiftyish man, shirtless and sunburned, who let out a girly scream worthy of Homer Simpson.

“Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!” he begged, hands up and covering his bald head.

“Where is he?” Diana asked calmly, crawling through the escape hatch, bare arms scraping against the splintery wood of the telephone pole.

The man, still alive and pathetically grateful for it, gaped at the tall woman as she stood before him. Too tall, too fit – Jesus, look at those arms – black hair mussed, cold-eyed, GUN. He really, really wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to go numb and thick when he tried. Diana waited less than a beat before she spun toward the Lincoln – and saw nothing where the other car should be.

* Gone. He’s gone. I lost him again. *

She tucked her pistol into her waistband and turned back to the lobster-red man, eyes wild with furious fear. “There was another vehicle, a black Lincoln Town Car. Did you see the collision?”

His lower lip trembled, then started flapping as a flood of words rushed out. “Isawhimhityou, buthetookoffwhenIgothere! Droveoffdowntheroad! Icalledthepolice! Areyou…okay?”

“Was the Lincoln badly damaged?”

He took a breath and tried to speak more slowly. “Shit, yeah! The front end was a mess, and it made a terrible squalling noise – he won’t get far!”

“I don’t think he’ll have to.”

Diana looked down the block, estimated she was perhaps a quarter-mile from Yoshima’s place. She leaned back into the Porsche and pried loose her beach bag of equpiment, then took off at a dead run. She went less than forty yards before the pain flared up, white-hot lightning caroming around her lower back, and she knew the crash had re-aggravated her body’s only weak spot. Tears of agony welled up as she kept running, motivated by the knowledge that she carried her little brother’s body eighteen blocks once, and Yoshima’s house wasn’t nearly that far away.

Behind her, the Good Samaritan who had come to check on her, perhaps unwittingly saving her from Chen’s gun, was yelling out questions – where was she going, shouldn’t she wait for the police, what about the car…

Diana didn’t hear him because it didn’t matter. Chen Kaige was still out there, still planning to kill Charlotte Browning. If she couldn’t stop him, nothing would ever matter to her again.
——————————————————————————–

Gedde Yoshima had never been high before, and he couldn’t help wondering what all the big fuss was about. He wasn’t hallucinating, he wasn’t feeling particularly bad or good, but he did notice one peculiar side-effect from his six deep hits on the joint he and Julia had just shared.

“I am hungry enough to eat monkey’s brains now, Banana,” he announced, in a deep, Moses-on-the-mountain voice.

Sitting indian-style on the woven rug across from him, Julia couldn’t stop herself from laughing, rolling onto her back and guffawing until her sides ached. She wasn’t feeling too bad herself. Neither, for that matter, was Hideo Yoshima. In an act of unprecedented humanitarianism, she had consented to prep a ‘dose of medicinal marijuana’ for him… if he would share the doobage.

Now the old despot lay wasted and pain-free on his sofa, staring glassy-eyed at the ceiling. He still wanted Julia decapitated, still wanted to slaughter his traiterous son, still hated Diana Starrett with every fiber of his being, still wanted Angelia… but that could all wait until later.

“Banana was a good cook,” he muttered, reminiscing about the old woman who had served him for many years, who died peacefully in her sleep last spring. He never understood why she hadn’t been murdered like the rest in Nagano, but Diana had chosen to spare her. It showed a serious lack of awareness on his part that he was puzzled this omission. He didn’t get his enemy at all.

Past caring about anything his father said, Gedde braced himself on Julia’s knee and slowly rose to his feet. He ambled toward the kitchen, finally ready to search out sustenance for himself and the willowy blonde who, as far as he could tell, had many appetites and no real needs.

“I will bring you food,” he called back over a sloped shoulder. “We will eat now.”

“Cool,” Julia agreed. In her memory, she could not recall using that word before in the singular, vernacular sense. Then again, she had never smoked pot before, either. Another item checked off on her to-do list, one she had never felt impelled to complete… but free dope was free dope, man.

Beside her on the rug lay her pistol, still slightly warm to the touch from the three quiet shots fired into Tanaka’s chest, and the storied ivory katana. She picked it up and examined the etchings on the grip and scabbard, able to make out some of the history engraved in bone.

“Your ancestors were total bastards, you know,” she told Yoshima. “According to this, a Yoshima general backed his own army up against a raging river – facing their enemies – so they could not retreat without being killed.”

“Feudal Japan was a place of honor,” he replied blearily. “Retreat was unacceptable. Die with honor or die like a dog.”

Julia smiled at him, her teeth bared. “Woof.”

“You will die like a dog,” he declared.

“Dead is dead, papa,” she said, eyes drifting shut. “As long as we die pursuing what we want, it doesn’t matter how the game ends.”

They sat in silence, each aware of their own mortailty, each clinging to the hope that the chase would go on eternally. There is never enough time for some people. Most die before they even know what it is they want from life, few figure it out while there is still time to seek it out, and an infintessimally small number actually get there before all goes dark.

Perhaps that was the one thing Julia and Yoshima had in common – they reached the beach just as the sun was setting, and were now trying to push the burning sphere back into the sky by sheer force of will, begging and fighting with all their might for one more day, one more chance to see it all happen before the light died away.

Riggins never saw it happen. Harry Mars wanted that which he could never have. Among those Julia knew personally, only Diana Starrett had stood on the shore with her dream in hand, sunlight on her shoulders, facing an unknown stretch of days beyond the event horizon. Fearless. Content.

“Why couldn’t that make me happy?” Julia wondered aloud. “I want more. So much more.”

As she opened her eyes again, a fragment of shadow crossed the pool of faint sunset light by the glass doors. She set her shoulders, picked up her gun, and stood ready to face her fate.

“If this is it, at least I’ll go with a buzz on.”

Striding as steadily as ever, she went to the glass door and waited. Waited for the shadow to return, or to shoot from the beach, or to walk up the steps and knock politely. It could be a contract player, an employee ‘outsourced’ from her computer contact’s group, Chen Kaige… anyone. Even her.

A deep breath later, the wait was over – a long, bare arm, sligtly tanned and corded with sinew swept into view. It was tipped with a .38 revolver, pointed directly at Julia’s face.

At the other end of the arm was Diana Starrett, scratched and bedraggled, looking as if nothing would please her more than to shatter both glass door and Swedish beauty with a bullet.

“Let me in.”

Behind the blue-eyed woman, sun finally vanished into sea, casting darkness over them both as Julia unlocked the door.
——————————————————————————–

Everyone else was on deck as the sun went down, laughing and listening to some Gypsy Kings tape on Poppy’s boom box, but Charlotte Browning had to excuse herself from the group. She only meant to lie down for a minute, to rest up and get her thoughts in order, but the day had pummelled Charlie with so many psychic kidney-punches that she just couldn’t keep her feet any longer. Exhausted and woozy as the pain medication for her broken hand stroked her into submissive sleep, she dropped onto the slim, hard bed in Emily’s cabin and found herself dreaming.

——————————————————————————–

She stood on a road pocked with deep holes and smaller, tarred-over patches of wear.

Impossibly, behind her was a stretch of Mazatlan sand and the home of Maribel Falcon, the closest thing to a safe-haven she could imagine. Ahead was a bridge of rusted iron, stained red with age, streching over a body of black water. Across the bridge was a mountain capped with snow, cold and distant and other-worldly.

It puzzled Charlotte that two such disparate environs could be seperated only by a length of crimson metal, so close to each other and so very different. Then her attention snapped away, focusing on a point in between.

Diana sat on the railing of the high bridge, gazing down at the water far below. Standing with her were two women, one holding her right arm, the other tightly gripping her left. Though she had seen her only once, Charlie recognized the left-side blonde, with her cool, fluttery manner and ashen eyes – Julia. On the right was Lia Imada, or ‘Angelia,’ as Diana knew her.

They were alternately pushing and pulling at Diana, one urging her to jump into the water, the other to walk away toward the mountain. Charlie tried to move in closer, to hear what they were saying, but her steps would not carry her forward.

Like running on a treadmill cranked to Carl Lewis standards, she could gain no ground whoatsoever, and even had difficulty keeping pace once she began to run. If she stopped, she would careen backwards; if she kept running, she would become exhausted and fall down.

She started to panic, a sick lump of fear rising in her gorge, and she cried out to her lover.

“Diana!”

The dark woman turned her head, seeing Charlotte in the distance. She fought to get away from the restraining hands, but they held her fast. She could not move. She needed help.

“I’ll help you!” Charlie vowed, “Just hold on!”

Charlie pumped her legs faster, trying desperately to reach her, to get their hands off her, to save her from going over the edge or being dragged away to that cold place.

Futile. It was too hard to keep up, the demands of being a rescuer too great for her to succeed. She couldn’t keep up the pace, couldn’t keep her promise. She was weak and she hated herself for it. She wanted to cry out. She wanted to cry. All she could do was watch.

Suddenly, Diana tore her arm away from Lia’s grasp, the younger woman’s hold on her being weaker than Charlotte had thought. With both hands, Diana grabbed hold of the blonde’s shoulders, shaking her like a rag doll, screaming words Charlotte couldn’t understand.

Diana looked once in Charlie’s direction, her baleful blue eyes drowning in pain, in disappointment… and she pushed away from the edge, taking Julia over the side with her.
——————————————————————————–

Charlotte woke up screaming, her throat cluttered with fragments of residual horror. Dizzy and clammy with cold sweat, she rolled off the bed onto her knees, crawled across stiff carpet to the bathroom and promptly threw up her dinner of grilled sea bass.

Shoulders shaking, weakened by convulsive fear, she nonetheless pushed herself to stand, to mount the tiny stairs and lean against the wall as she ascended to the deck. Before she took her first gulp of fresh air, Emily was at her side, arm around her waist, supporting most of her weight.

“Take me back,” Charlie whispered hoarsely.

“God almighty, are you all right? I heard you yelling just now -”

“Emily, listen to me. I need to go home. Now.”

Though her first impulse was to soothe, to gently deny, to probe for the cause of her little sister’s apparent anxiety attack, Emily knew Charlie well enough to shove the maternal crap aside and accede to the intuitive part of her nature.

“Charlie, she’s a big girl. Diana can look out for herself for one night.”

Hazel eyes squinted at the redhead as Charlotte wondered when she’d become so transparent. “How do you know that’s why I wanna go back?”

“Honey, except for the people on this boat, she’s practically the only thing you worry about,” Emily replied honestly. “You’re not still stressing over that little misunderstanding this morning, are you?”

“There’s more to it than that. I can’t explain it, Emmy, but I know she’s in trouble. If I don’t get back in time to – ”

“In time to what? Stop her from running off with somebody else? I already told you, that ain’t gonna happen in this lifetime.”

“Dammit, would you just give me some credit here! I know that. That’s not what I’m afraid of.”

Charlie pushed away from her sister and braced her good hand against the rail. She looked over the side and watched as the sea danced all around her, dark and pulsing with hidden energy. An unbidden urge welled up in her, an urge to jump in and sink into the quiet bottom, a place where the pressure was so great that no pain could exist.

“It was so warm, Charlie. Peaceful. As long as I stayed down, nothing could hurt me.”

In that instant of temptation, Charlotte finally understood those words, spoken to her in the folds of a confessional winter night as Diana lay in her arms. That was what her lover faced every day, that sea of beckoning oblivion that still pooled somewhere behind her eyes, waiting for the fires of life or memory to burn her so badly that she would wade in to extinguish the flames.

* She gave that up to be with me. She trusted me to put out the fires, not start them. *

With renewed determination, the attorney faced her elder sibling and addressed her in a voice she reserved for declarations of war or possible Supreme Court appearances.

“Emily, please listen to me and know this to be true – if someone doesn’t turn this boat around and get me back immediately, I will jump into the Pacific and swim to shore.”

Both eyebrows arched in salute and surprise, Emily started to get worried. “You’d never make it.”

“Maybe not, but goddammit, don’t you doubt for a second that I will try.”

They faced off, staring at each other as they had for years, each waiting for the other to break. Keeping up the trend that seemed to start around nine months ago, Emily realized that her baby sister’s resolve was galvanized… and she backed down. With a swish of her hand and a rueful laugh, she flounced off to inform the skipper of the change in plans.

“And I though I got all the bossy genes,” she muttered.

Alone and feeling it deeply, Charlie shut her eyes tight and prayed for favorable winds. She prayed with fervent passion for some universal munificence to intervene, to let Diana know that she was not forsaken, that she had another choice beyond the frozen past and the murky deep.

“Choose me,” she whispered, blowing her prayers toward the shore.

Twenty Six

As Julia backed into the darkened living room, her eyes were focused on Diana’s, reading the unspoken words she found etched in lapis blue. The message was echoed by the martial set of broad shoulders, the jumping tension vibrating through bared arms. Julia had seen the physical missive directed at others many times, at herself on fewer occasions, but she saw it as clearly as a flickering neon sign of warning – resist me and die.

She waited as the dark woman slid open the door with a whispered grind and stepped across the threshold of her enemy’s lair, unafraid, determined. Invincible.

“Don’t make me shoot you just yet, Jules,” she instructed softly, the .38 leveled at her target’s heart.

Her own gun pressed close to her thigh, index finger stroking the trigger guard, Julia shook her head. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Di. Come on in.”

*Infrared showed three bound in the bedroom, one on the couch, one in the kitchen, and Julia here. Yoshima’s on the sofa. Chen wouldn’t be trussed up so soon, so I’m betting that ain’t him in bed. If he’s here at all, he’s with Julia,* Diana reviewed silently. *This is not good news.*

Reaching behind her, Diana slid the door shut and stepped close enough for the blonde to smell the evidence of her desperate exertions. Her normally flawless posture was slightly askew, leaning onto the balls of her feet in concession to her throbbing lower spine. A mild wince glanced across her features as she tried to straighten.

“You’re hurt,” Julia observed with clinical detachment. “And exhausted.”

“I’m fine,” Diana snapped, scanning the living room. “Where is he?”

Pale brows lifted curiously. “Where is who?”

“Don’t fuck with me,” she whispered, eyes dancing around to intercept any movement. “I know he’s here. Bring him out and let’s get this over with right now.”

Julia knew exactly whom Diana meant, but she shrugged her shoulders and summoned the only conscious guest she harbored in the beach house. “Darling, would you come out of the kitchen very slowly – hands raised and empty – please?”

Diana’s face twisted in disgust. “Darling?”

“Don’t leap to judgment just yet,” Julia said, tilting her head toward the young man who shuffled toward them, hands obediently raised and empty.

For an instant, Diana’s attention strayed to the newcomer, and she was torn between relief and disappointment. This was not Chen Kaige, but he was someone she needed to locate. His face had predictably changed over the course of nearly a decade, but he retained enough of his childhood features to be recognized by his former governess.

“Gedde?”

His glazed dark eyes took on a sheen of hardness, a long-preserved mixture of fear and loathing coating his vision. The true accounting of her actions in Nagano had come to him so recently, it wasn’t enough to blunt the sharpness of his immediate reaction to seeing her again. Still, he edged close to Julia and looked this monster in the eye, trying to reconcile his fears with her reality.

“Diana. It has been a long time.”

*Chen isn’t here,* she realized, a little too late.

By the time Diana’s focus returned, Julia’s Walther was up, the silencer pressed against her cotton-covered clavicle. She raised her .38 to push against the corresponding spot on the blonde’s silk-clad anatomy and they faced each other at a standoff, each with the other’s life in her hands.

“We never seem to talk anymore unless it’s at gunpoint,” Julia opened, her face preternaturally still, gray eyes lit with excitement. “This saddens me.”

“Whose fault is that?” Diana retorted hotly. “You dragged me into this. You had to know I wouldn’t be happy about it.”

“Happy? No, but I was hoping you’d be civil. Tell you what – you tuck that piece away, I’ll do the same, then we can sit down and talk like normal people.”

“You first.”

Julia paused, flicked a glance at Gedde, and nodded. “Step away from me, Gedde. Just in case.”

He hesitated, clearly understanding her meaning, her intent for him to be clear of danger if a shot were fired, but still he hesitated. That piqued Diana’s interest – she had seen peripheral players sucked into Julia’s orbit before, beneficiaries of her tender mercies and powdered sugar smiles. Usually, they remained hypnotized until they became a nuisance. Most never got out alive.

“Did she do that to your face, Gedde?” Diana asked, eyes raking over the bruises and cuts and black eyes marking the boy.

“It was necessary,” he replied stonily, defensively.

*Shit. He’s gone. Totally gone,* Diana thought. *Wonder if he’ll be willing to leave with Angel.*

Julia’s gun suddenly dropped away, disappearing behind her back. “Your turn,” she prompted.

Watching the blonde’s empty claws perch on hipbones, Diana swung her revolver to the right, then down to tuck in the rear of her waistband. Julia nodded her approval, assuring them both that a gunfight would not break out – in the next few minutes, anyhow. Diana’s attention shifted to Gedde, and she was confounded to find him staring at Julia as if her safety were of paramount importance to him. She decided to test his loyalty the best way she knew how.

“Angelia wants to see you,” she told him. “You and your mother.”

He couldn’t hide the spring of relief and hope welling up at her words, although he made an admirable effort to appear detached. “Where is my sister? Is she well?”

“She’s okay, getting to be more herself every minute.” Diana saw a flicker of a smile work over Julia’s mouth. She decided to wipe it off. “You were right about her, Jules. Angelia only needed a push in the right direction and she came right out of it, mostly intact. The drugs you gave her had some nasty side-effects, though.”

Julia’s lips poked out sourly; she nearly stuck out her tongue at Diana to convey her displeasure at the underhanded, divide-and-conquer tactic.

The young man turned on his confederate, immediately indignant. “You drugged my sister?”

“Only to help her regain her memories, Gedde,” Julia assured him smoothly.

“Was that necessary, too?” he asked, a hand gingerly rubbing at his broken nose.

“For pity’s sake… she had been brainwashed. When she was with me, your sister was a bitchy computer motherboard designer with a creepy German accent. Belligerent, cross, with no knowledge of who she was. She couldn’t be of any help to me like that, so I conditioned her a bit, then handed her over to Diana’s tender, loving care. In light of Angelia’s alleged recovery, I feel certain my methods were appropriate.”

“She spent most of the time violently ill, Julia,” Diana interrupted. “When she did regain her faculties, she asked about you, Gedde. She wants to see you. Do you want to see her?”

“Of course I want to see her!” he exclaimed, stepping further away from Julia’s side to stand at an angle to both women. “Will you bring her here?”

Diana hardened her eyes to diamond points of immutable resolution. “Absolutely not.”

“Why?” His voice pleading, childlike.

“The only person Angelia fears more than your new pal Julia is that guy laid out on the couch,” Diana tilted her chin toward the prone form of Hideo Yoshima, “and as long as he’s here, she won’t be making a house call. You know why.”

Gedde sucked in a slow breath and nodded. That was a bad idea. “Will you take me to her?” he persisted, reckless in his search for a reunion.

“I will… if you answer a couple of questions for me,” Diana offered, her voice blandly determined.

“Ask.”

“How long have you been keeping company with Julia?”

“Since yesterday – about a day and a half, I suppose.”

Diana looked first toward Yoshima, then back to Julia, then finally to Gedde. “Okay. Now tell me which of these charmers invited Chen Kaige to the party.”

His eyes darted first to Julia, then to his father. “I have not been with Yoshima, and so I cannot account for his actions. I can tell you that Julia made no contact with Chen while in my presence.”

*He called him Yoshima? He won’t even say ‘daddy’ anymore. She’s completely turned this kid in the space of thirty-six hours. He didn’t want to rat her out… but he just did.*

“Thank you, Gedde,” Diana said. “I understand. I want you to know I don’t hold it against you.”

Julia stood perfectly still, arms akimbo, waiting for the dance to begin in earnest.

Gedde swallowed hard and asked, “What do you mean?”

Diana turned her eyes to Julia. “I’ve lied for her myself a time or ten.”

It happened so fast.

Gedde had never personally seen anything like it. In nature films, maybe – like a battle between a mongoose and a cobra, all lightning movements slowed down so that the viewing audience could see every feint, every flash of teeth, every blow. In real time, he could not differentiate between Diana’s strikes and Julia’s; they simply came too quickly.

A palm thrust to the chest, another to the jaw, a boxed ear, a spin to launch a fist against ribs, a wedge of fingers driving at a throat, a kick to the spine, then someone grunted and went down.

When the flurry of motion ceased, Diana was on one knee, her body bent back like a hunter’s bow. Julia stood behind her with the .38 revolver in one hand. The dark woman’s face was a contorted mask of agony, probably because the blonde had her foot planted at the base of Diana’s spine, shoving against the injured region as she tugged on a fistful of black hair for leverage.

“Your back is out again,” Julia said, pushing her foot in again for emphasis. “I can fix it for you, if you promise not to jump at me.”

“Fuck you. You did this. You brought Chen here.”

“I’m not denying that I bear some of the responsibility. Just give me the chance to explain.”

“You can go to hell,” Diana hissed, her breath shallow, eyes welling with tears of pain.

Julia pulled her foot back and kicked at the pinned woman’s spine, making her cry out. “I hate doing this, Di. You know I never enjoyed hurting you.”

Diana felt like her spine was on the verge of snapping, the muscles of her back too weak to protect her vulnerability. “I prefer it… the other way around… too,” she proclaimed, her words tripping over spurts of pain.

“Then tell me you’ll listen. Give me the opportunity to lay it out for you.”

“Let me up.”

Julia yanked on the captive mass of hair. “Tell me.”

“Goddammit!” Diana exclaimed, cursing herself for being so helpless. “I’ll listen. Now let me up.”

With a little hop step, Julia jumped back and released Diana, letting the injured woman fall to the floor. Diana rolled slowly onto her back, breath grinding, swallowing over and over as she tried not to vomit. She couldn’t recall the pain being so intense – except for once. Nineteen years old, on the floor of a holding cell in the Bronx police station, after being beaten down by enraged cops who knew she had killed four of their own. Back then, the pain had taken hours to get this bad.

*I must be getting old,* she thought sadly, eyes shut tight in an effort to stanch her tears. She heard Julia ask Gedde to take both of the guns out of the room, and to boil some water and fetch clean towels. After a moment, she heard the young man’s slow steps retreating to the kitchen.

“Why did you make me do that?” Julia asked, pacing nervously and rubbing her left ear to quiet the ringing incurred by Diana’s vicious slap. “You can never admit when you’re hurt. Always think you can rise to the occasion, even when your vertebrae are shuffled around like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“You caught me on a bad day,” Diana complained, twisting slightly to one side in a desperate search for relief. “Chen rammed into my car. Wrapped the Porsche around a telephone pole.”

Julia worked her jaw around until her ear popped, then ran a hand across her bruised ribs. “The collision occurred nearby, I take it.”

“Right down the street. He was coming to see you, I was following him.”

“I assure you, he was not coming to see me,” Julia objected. “I did not commission his services.”

“So you say,” Diana retorted doubtfully. “You can start explaining that any time now.”

“Can you stand up yet?”

Diana glared at her in reply, and Julia took that as a ‘no.’

“Turn over,” the Swede instructed. “First thing is to get you re-aligned.”

“Julia, I’m a captive audience right now, so lay off the Florence Nightingale routine and commence with the bullshit exposition.”

“As long as you’re hurting, your focus is split. I only intend to go through this once, so I need your full attention. Roll onto your stomach, please, and let me get started.”

Diana lay still on the floor, looking up at her fair nemesis and weighing her options. She wasn’t dead, so Julia obviously wanted something from her, something more than her help with Angelia’s memory. Harry wasn’t dead, so Julia obviously had not lost all sense of decency. She claimed that she had a part in bringing Chen here, but that she did not hire him to kill Charlotte.

“Why can’t anything ever be easy with you?” Diana grumbled, carefully turning her body over and giving the blonde her back.

“I wish I could be like you,” Julia answered. “Everything above-board and straight on. I’m just not built that way, darling. This is going to hurt.”

With those brief words of warning, she took Diana’s right ankle in gentle hands, lifted her leg up until her hips raised off the floor, and twisted hard to the left. Three loud pops and two soft ones later, she lowered the long limb and released the ankle.

“Jesus Christ,” Diana moaned, her pinched nerves released, relief flooding her body.

Julia smiled in satisfaction and moved to stand over Diana’s rear, then seated herself carefully on the prone woman’s buttocks. She placed her hands over the tender, throbbing area on either side of her spine and pressed her palms into tense muscles, massaging with practiced movements.

“Very tight back here, Di,” she noted. “Bet you ran all the way from the car wreck.”

“I thought Chen was here.”

“And you were going to kill him… or try to kill him.”

“I would have.”

“You are in no condition to face that man, my dear. Had he been here, you would be dead now.”

“Did Yoshima hire him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He despises you, partly because of what you did, partly because of my various exhortations. I told him he wasn’t allowed to touch you. The old man took it from there.”

“You provoked him into calling Chen.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Charlie’s gone, you know. Chen can’t get to her.”

“Good.”

“He killed Dan while searching for her. Shot another friend of mine, too.”

“That’s a pity. Daniel was a decent sort. Will your friend live?”

“I don’t know.”

“Chen will keep trying until he gets a clear shot at Charlotte Browning. He has a strong work ethic.”

“I won’t let him hurt her.”

“You may have missed your chance at him. He’ll wait until you’re not around, then make his move.”

“Then I’ll be sure not to leave her alone.”

“He will wait. Weeks, months if necessary. She will die. Unless… ”

“What?”

Julia’s hands stilled, resting on Diana’s back. “Unless he is led into a trap and apprehended.”

Diana pressed her forehead against the cool tile floor. She understood. “You were expecting me to go after him, to kill him. You want him.”

“Yes, I do,” she confirmed. Julia slid her hands up to Diana’s shoulders, kneading in a deep, familiar rhythm as she explained. “I need him – Chen is like a pricey rack of chips. His body, dead or alive, will buy me into the big game.”

“You are setting up shop.”

“I have well-placed contacts, sufficient financial resources, and a slowly cultivated network of allies – most of that courtesy of Hideo Yoshima’s neglect. Now I need out-of-the-box personnel.”

“So who wants Chen badly enough to trade trained operatives for his lousy carcass?”

“I think you already know that.”

Diana turned her head slightly to see if Julia was serious. “Tell me you’re not dealing with her.”

“She wants him alive, but she’ll take him dead. Vengeance is a strong motivator.”

“She’ll turn on you.”

“I don’t think so. She’s just getting settled in herself. Can’t take such wild swings right off the bat.”

“She will turn on you,” Diana repeated dully, “but I can’t pretend to care.”

“You wound me with talk like that. I was hoping we could still be friends.”

“Julia, I love Charlie. I’m not gonna leave her.”

“If Chen succeeds…”

“He won’t. I need to be with her, no matter what.”

“I should remind you that necrophilia is against the law.”

“That didn’t stop me from sleeping with you.”

“Ouch! That’s a low blow!” Julia jabbed a thumb at Diana’s neck, genuinely offended.

Diana barely flinched before easing back into the subject. “Even if something happened to her, I couldn’t go back to the way I used to be. I’ve changed.”

“Tell me this – when you were pursuing Chen, was your heart racing? Were your palms wet? Didn’t you feel absolutely, completely alive?”

“No more than I do watching Charlie step out of the shower, no.”

Diana felt Julia’s hands still, then slip off her shoulders. They waited in silence until Gedde came back with a tray of hot towels. He handed the steaming platter to Julia, then walked quickly away.

“He’s very discrete,” Diana observed. “Can’t tell if he was eavesdropping or not.”

“Gedde’s a good fellow,” Julia agreed. “He wants to go away with Angelia and his mother. I promised him it would happen.”

“Did you mean it?”

“Yes.”

Julia pushed up Diana’s shirt, watching with hooded gray eyes as a span of tan skin slipped into view. She slid a hand underneath the tall woman’s hip and unbuttoned the linen trousers, then slid them down a few inches to reveal the whole of her lower back.

“Ready for the towels?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Without further preamble, three steaming hand towels were layered over Diana’s back. She could not suppress the moan of pleasure that crept past her clenched teeth. She positively hated the fact that Julia knew exactly what to do for her, resented it beyond reason… because now, her familiar ministrations felt like a violation. Diana never wanted to accept comfort from the enemy, yet was unable to prevent the annoying sense of gratitude for the Swede’s help.

“I fucking hate you, Jules.”

“I know, sweetie. It’s not quite what I wanted, but I’ll take it.”

That was another part of what made Diana so uncomfortable – the fact that Julia could haphazardly turn her life upside down, put Charlie in harm’s way, perpetrate a mind fuck on nearly everyone within striking distance, and still seem to care about Diana’s opinion of her. It was too mystifying to contemplate just then without incurring a dreadful headache, so she let it drop.

“Why did you shoot Harry?”

“I needed to break with him permanently. The only thing he cares about more than agency rules is you, so I gave him reason to confront me. He’ll be fine. Eventually.”

“Provided the powers that be don’t boot him out before the lock down is over.”

“If he gets that virus sample in time, they’ll be off his back for a while.”

“I can’t go get it for him. I won’t leave until Charlie’s out of danger.”

“Well, I certainly can’t go fetch it – wherever it may be. Rogue agent, low profile and all that.”

“Maybe we can work something out.”

“I’m listening.”

“Gedde and Angelia pick up the virus sample and get it to a field office, that way Harry can claim possession and get the brass off his case until he’s recovered.”

“Keep going.”

“I’ll help you get Chen Kaige – but you have to promise me something in return.”

“If I can.”

“No ‘ifs.’ Promise me this or I’ll do it alone… then I’ll come after you.”

Julia laid both hands on the hot towels and pressed down solidly. “Feel me quake with fear.”

“I mean it.”

“I don’t doubt that you would try, but that’s irrelevant for now. What do you want?”

“I want all the files related to my alleged HIV infection, Mangano’s treatment protocols, all the case studies and any remaining data you may have uncovered.”

“Is that all?”

“And then I want you to disappear forever. Forget you ever knew me. No more contact – ever.”

Julia sighed heavily and pushed herself up off of Diana’s body. She paced a few steps, back and forth like a caged panther, then dropped to her knees directly in front of Diana’s face.

“I can’t do that.”

Diana shut her eyes and spat an angry curse at the floor. “Dammit, Julia! Why the hell not?”

“I need one thing from you, one promise that only you could keep.”

“Whatever it is, the answer is no. As it stands, I don’t owe you one goddamned thing, and I don’t want to start running up a tab now.”

They fell into another canyon of quiet, each knowing the fall wasn’t over, each wanting the trip to come to a peaceful resolution so that no more lives were lost or ruined. Julia’s voice was almost funereal when she finally spoke again. “I need you to be my kill switch, Diana.”

Her reaction was instantaneous, pushing herself up to her knees and facing the glacial blonde with an expression of complete and utter disbelief. The towels fell from her back and swaddled in a heap of moist heat around her ankles, the lingering aches of her body totally forgotten. Diana Starrett was now virtually mute with shock.

“Say something,” Julia urged. “Please.”

“Don’t… don’t put that on me. I don’t want that on me.”

“We both know what could happen. I might be fine for a few years, maybe longer, but it could happen to me – just like it did to Riggins.”

“Julia, you are a cruel, selfish, sociopathic bitch, but you are not Joshua Riggins.”

She almost found the will to smile at that, but the Swede remained somber. “For now. At the moment, I merely display a wanton disregard for the safety of others while pursuing my own goals,” she allowed. “It could get worse over time, and if it does, I will need you to take me out. I don’t want to end up like him. I’d rather die.”

Diana cupped both hands over her eyes and rubbed hard, trying to reason her way out of Julia’s trap. She was right – it could happen. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Despite her self-confessed faults and dangerously unpredictable nature, Julia had never shown signs of becoming like their deceased despot of a director, a man who needed no reason to kill hundreds.

She always had a reason. Always. Maybe being out on her own, the master of her own fate, Julia would change, surrender that last little shred of humanity that had attracted Diana years ago, that still made her want to believe in the possibility that she was telling the truth about Chen, about Yoshima, about Harry. About leaving her and Charlie alone for good.

“If there were anyone else I could ask, I would,” Julia whispered. “You know no one else could get close enough to do it. If you came to me, I would let you in. That won’t change.”

“All I want is to be left alone,” Diana complained weakly. “Can’t you understand that?”

“I do understand, and I pray the day never comes when I would need you to act on this. Until then, I will stay a world away from you and yours. I swear that… on my father’s grave.”

Diana’s shoulders slumped as she heard the blonde invoke the old vow, the same one she had made when she tried to get Diana to leave the agency with her, when she swore to get her to safety after an explosion on the streets of San Salvador. It wasn’t to be taken lightly. Diana wondered absently if anyone but her knew Julia’s last name, the name of her late, beloved father. Maybe Harry Mars did, but she doubted even that. It was a trust she had not sought, and now would gladly be rid of.

“If we do get Chen – and this is a big if – and you give me those files, AND promise to get out of my life… I’ll do it.”

Julia felt the weight of the world lift off her shoulders, her eyes nearly red with unshed relief. “Thank you, Diana.”

“That may be the first time anyone has ever thanked me for promising to kill them.”

“I feel so special,” Julia replied acidly.

“You’d better not ever take me up on it.”

“I’ll do my best. Now, we have work to do!” she declared brightly, jumping to her feet like a puppy getting ready for walkies. “There’s a deadly virus to retrieve, commodities to exchange with deadly shadow women, an assassin to capture, and an empire to create!”

As Diana watched the lithe blonde skip into the living room to speak with Gedde, she felt a sick twist of fear turning her intestines to a tangle.

*My God… what have I done now?*
——————————————————————————–
Twenty Seven

A hot summer night lay thick and quiet on Elceda when the Avilas finally arrived at their house. The kids rambled out of the Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan and charged up the front walk, determined to reach the television in time to catch the last few minutes of an X-Files repeat, and they were only mildly put-out to find a barrier of yellow crime scene tape stretched across the door.

Their Aunt Charlotte was only a few steps behind them, and her blood chilled at the sight of the tape, knowing that the bright strips of plastic always indicated something rotten. She hustled the kids down the front walk and back to the van, ostensibly to help their parents unpack the vehicle; really, she just didn’t want them to see what might be waiting behind the busted door of their home.

*Teddy’s car is still here, but the lights are all out. This could be bad,* she realized, gently pushing the grumbling children along the sidewalk.

Emily and Luis hadn’t noticed yet, being busy unloading coolers and overnight bags they hadn’t even unzipped on the shortened outing, but Charlie discretely nodded toward the door and brought their attention to the yellow tape.

“Oh, shit,” Emily whispered, glancing from her husband to her sister. “This is a bad thing.”

Luis dropped his duffel bag into the passenger seat and scanned the neighborhood for a cop car. Parked just down the block was a beige Ford Crown Victoria, a vehicle that virtually screamed “unmarked car.” The door of the Crown Vic opened and a uniformed officer stepped out, a black man with an eerie resemblance to the actor from that angel movie Emily liked – the name escaped Luis for the moment, but he stepped forward to meet the deputy.

“Ms. Browning?” the man called, apparently addressing Charlie as he walked up to the cluster of confused, edgy people. “That you?”

Charlie stepped away from the group and moved near the familiar face, someone she and Diana both knew from the sheriff’s department. “Will? What happened here?”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” Will Franklin opened ominously. He lowered his voice so that the children couldn’t hear as he explained the situation to the adults. “Somebody tried to break in the house earlier today, and a man was shot.”

Charlie placed a shaking hand over her open mouth. “Oh, no. Teddy – is he…”

“Theodore Rinna? He’s alive,” the deputy assured her, touching her shoulder in a kindly gesture. “He made it through surgery all right and he’s in recovery right now down at County General. Doctors say he’s one tough sumbitch.”

“Thank heaven,” Emily muttered, grabbing hold of Luis’ arm to steady herself. She believed Charlie when she said that she was in trouble, but she hadn’t even considered how bad the trouble might be, that someone out there wanted her little sister badly enough to shoot someone to get to her. “You got some explaining to do, shrimp.”

“Emily, I’m sorry this happened at all, let alone in your home, but you’re gonna have to wait for an explanation right along with the rest of us,” Charlie half-snapped, her mood darkening by the second.

“As soon as we know something, you’ll all be informed,” Franklin assured the group.

“Oh, swell,” Emily groused weakly.

“Diana Starrett came by here earlier today,” Franklin mentioned casually. “When I told her who the victim was, she took off like a bat outta hell. Went to the hospital to check on him, I assume.”

The little blonde lawyer instantly turned into a pit bull at the mention of their mutual acquaintance, lunging forward to latch onto the deputy’s arm with both hands. “When was she here?”

Momentarily stunned by the pincer-grip on his forearm, Franklin answered haltingly. “Uhh… I guess it was about… twenty minutes or so after we got here. Maybe five-thirty or so.”

“Was she okay? Did she look all right?” Charlie persisted, her voice a taut wire of agitated concern.

“She looked fine to me,” he replied carefully, flashing back to Starrett’s alleged relationship with a ‘snotty little lawyer’ as his partner put it, wondering if Charlotte Browning qualified as snotty or little. “Maybe a little frazzled, but mostly cool – as usual.”

“Was she alone? Did you see anyone with her? A blonde, maybe, or an asian woman.”

Franklin remembered seeing a blur of blue sportscar speed past, Diana at the wheel… “Yeah, come to think of it. There was a woman in the car with her – long black hair. Might be asian.”

“Fuck!” Charlie drew her hands back and rubbed both fists against her temples, images of three women and a bridge pounding behind her eyes. “Could be worse,” she told herself, “could have been Ingrid Bergman’s evil twin.”

“Say what?” Franklin queried, bemused but lost.

To say that Charlotte was in no mood to explain was a gross understatement. “They went to County General, you said?”

“Uhh… yeah. Room 216, I think.”

She glanced quickly toward her sister’s violated home. “Has the house been cleaned up yet?”

“Everything but the tape on the floor,” Franklin confirmed. “Crime scene crew already came and went. We got two squad cars patrolling the area tonight, just to keep an eye on the place.”

“How come you hung around? They could’ve told us,” Luis piped in, curious why one cop would work late just to break the bad news .

“Diana said she knew the people who lived here,” Will Franklin answered honestly. “Just trying to score some brownie points, I guess.”

Charlotte gave the dark, handsome man a very hard look, one which he read as a warning. A great, glaring ‘do not even think about trying anything with her’ look.

“Points for the department, I mean,” he added hastily. “Not me, personally.”

“Uh-huh,” Charlie mumbled, feeling like the reluctant president of the motley-but-growing Diana Starrett fan club. “Thanks anyhow, Will. I know she’d appreciate your efforts.”

“You want to go see this Rinna guy?” Franklin offered, trying to make peace before Charlotte got the wrong -or the right- idea. “I could drive you over to County.”

“Thanks, but I’d like to check out the house first,” she replied shortly, “just to make sure it’s okay.”

“Good idea,” Emily agreed. “If it’s too creepy, we might all be bunking with mom and dad tonight.”

“It won’t be that bad,” Luis told her. “Ain’t nothing gonna scare me bad enough to make us sleep at your daddy’s house.”

Franklin led the group up the front walk, apologizing most of the way for busting the door down. Charlie and Luis followed and Emily waited with the kids by the van, all of them hoping that they wouldn’t wind up at the front door of Xanadu, begging for sanctuary.
——————————————————————————–

Diana was tired of thinking, tired of wondering where Charlie was hiding, tired of trying to reason where Chen would pop up next, and most especially tired of trying to figure out anything about Julia. She laid back on her bed and stared up at the plywood square covering the broken skylight, wanting to empty her mind, to rest her aching back, to soak in the comforting sensation of being home.

*This is not working,* she admitted, covering her head with Charlotte’s pillow. *If I had just died in my sleep Saturday morning, I would’ve had it made. Gone out happy. Now, I don’t know… what if she decides I’m not worth the trouble? They’re never gonna let me go, not completely. I should never have agreed to stay here… but I would’ve missed all this time with her. So many good days. And it was good, wasn’t it? Being with her. So good, so easy.*

In this bed, she felt almost safe, swaddled in memories of love. The sheets still smelled of their last union, traces of sex and tequila and lime clinging to the smooth cotton. The sound of water running in the bathroom was so familiar and soothing, she could nearly forget the large dhurrie rug hiding the bloodstains on their carpet, could almost pretend that things were normal… that Charlie was here.

Diana could picture her lover stepping through the doorway with a towel turban around her wet hair, a sleepy grin on her face as she collapsed on the bed, worn to a nub after her battles in court.

“Long day, counselor?” she would ask, offering her hand.

“Jury came back deadlocked. Sledgehammer declared a mistrial, so we gotta do all this shit over again next month,” Charlotte would say, crawling close beside her, their fingers weaving together in a loose embrace.

“Judge Gabriel just wants an excuse to see you again, that’s all.”

“Sledgehammer? He hates my guts! Threatens me with disbarrment nearly every time I go before him.”

“It’s sublimated passion, hon,” Diana would insist, sliding behind the exhausted woman, gently removing the towel and massaging her scalp. “He’s always summoning you to his chambers, right?”

“Hmm?” Charlie would murmur, her head lolling, body melting under the sure, easy touches as she fights to focus on Diana’s question instead of her magical hands. “Yeah, but that’s only so he can cuss at me. Can’t do that in court.”

“Right. You just keep telling yourself that.”

“It’s true! All he ever does is yell.”

Diana would tuck a few strands of damp blonde hair behind a delicate ear and lean in close, whispering in a sing-song voice, “Charlie and Sledgehammer, sitting in a tree…”

“Shut-it, stretch.”

“K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

Charlie would chomp down on her lower lip, fighting off a smile. “I’m too tired to kick your ass right now…”

“First comes love, then comes -”

That would be about as far as Diana got before Charlie rolled onto her and pinned her to the bed, amused as much as ticked. Maybe a little turned-on, maybe not… yet.

“I hate him, he hates me, and we both like it that way!” she would insist.

“Sure, sure,” Diana would tease. “I think you’re secretly drawn to him because of his six chins.”

“Ewww!”

“In some cultures, a man’s virility is measured by the number of chins he has.”

“Starrett, you better quit while I’m ahead.”

“You’re ahead? I got a squeaky-clean, naked, gorgeous woman laid out on top of me, and you think you’re the one who’s ahead?”

“I could go watch television,” Charlotte would threaten dispassionately.

“Don’t even think about it.”

“There’s a ‘Bionic Woman’ marathon on Sci-Fi -”

Then, then Diana would kiss her. Just hard enough to make her try to retreat, to squirm a little as she wrapped both arms around Charlie’s bare back and waited for reciprocation, for escalation. Some unmistakable sign that it was time to make love.

A clenching of teeth around her sensitive top lip, an intentional strafing of hardened nipples across her ribs, and Diana would have her answer, her invitation to slide both hands down to caress Charlotte’s hips, squeezing lightly as she crossed silk-smooth buttocks, one hand slowly drifting between…

“Diana, there are no clean towels in here,” Julia called out from the adjoining bathroom.

The fantasy skidded to an abrupt halt as Diana opened her eyes and found herself alone. It was nearly enough to make her cry – not the unwilling tears of pain over her injuries, but real tears of soul-bruised longing. The kind that make the eyes red and puffy and sore for hours afterwards, no matter how few tears are actually shed. She fancied that was how she’d look forever if she couldn’t get her life back together, if Charlotte was harmed… or didn’t want her here anymore.

“Check the cabinet under the sink,” Diana answered back, steadying her voice as she sat up.

“Got one. Thank you very kindly for the use of the facilities, darling,” the Swede sang, annoyingly chipper after her turn in the shower. She was virtually gliding as she slipped into the bedroom, the towel wrapped modestly around her torso. “I still can’t believe you made me do that. I was filthy!”

“It’s partly your fault Dan died,” the dark woman informed her, pointing out a set of clean clothes laid out on a chair. “It was only right that you help me bury him.”

Julia examined the too-long jeans and white broadcloth shirt, still finding the will to gripe. “There’s a blister on my palm which looks rather nasty, and I haven’t had that much dirt under my fingernails since I made mud pies as a child.”

“He deserves a better resting place than my backyard,” Diana said softly.

The pale blonde pulled on the shirt and let her towel drop, then moved to Diana’s side. “Dan cared about you. I think it would please him to be buried so close to your home, actually.”

Diana snorted out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, it’s quite an honor. Did you actually look at his body? Did you see what that bastard did to him?”

“Chen enjoys cutting. If you gauge the damage done, it’s pretty clear Dan pissed him off.”

“He wouldn’t have talked, wouldn’t have given her up.”

“No, he wouldn’t, which is why I suggested he try to keep watch over your precious Charlotte.”

Diana looked up at Julia, observing how calm she appeared, how her hands did not shake at all as she buttoned the blouse and pulled on the pressed Levi’s – no jitters at all. She couldn’t remember a time when she herself was so coolly unreachable, sure-footedly stepping around the messier emotions like slippery rocks in a streambed. Diana no longer considered this a shortcoming on her part.

This highlighted a key divergence between the two women; Julia was able to declare a man like Dan a pawn and sacrifice him in order to capture pieces of a higher order, while Diana found herself so riddled with remorse that she buried the man in the shadow of her home, with a vague plan to plant annuals on his grave at some point in the near future.

“I hope you and Charlotte weren’t planning on sinking a swimming pool back there,” Julia quipped. “The workmen would be apoplectic to find a corpse on the site, and I’m pretty sure using it as a graveyard violates city zoning ordinances.”

Diana figured that was a good cue for a subject change, halting this offensive line before another skirmish broke out. “How could you know that I’d be onto Chen before he got to Charlie?”

Julia met her eyes and gave a typically confident reply. “I didn’t.”

“If this had worked out differently, if something had happened to her -”

“You would have blamed Hideo Yoshima,” Julia finished for her. “Don’t forget, there is nothing linking me to Chen’s hire except my own admission to you.”

“Her possible death was nothing but another opportunity for you, wasn’t it?”

Sighing as she plopped down on the bed – too close for Diana not to tense up – Julia leaned down and cuffed the lengthy pantlegs, then gave her full attention to her unwilling companion. “I believe everyone needs one person in their lives with whom they are totally honest. For me, that has always been you. I never willfully lied to you, and I don’t intend to start now.”

“So answer me.”

“I planned for a variety of outcomes, and one of them did involve you flying solo again,” Julia told her. “I would not have cried for the loss of your lover, but I would have done everything short of tilting the earth on a lever to make you forget her.”

*Impossible. Never.* Diana curled her lips into her mouth, biting back the urge to attack her with both fists. Sometimes, honesty can be the most cruel trait in a human’s character, and she found herself wishing that Julia had lied to her, told her some easy tale about how she never meant to hurt Charlie. The truth was much harder to swallow that her saccharine-sweet fibs.

“Harry seemed to think you wanted me back in service, but it’s more than that. Isn’t it?”

“Much.”

“Why me?” Diana had to ask, for she truly did not see herself as being so precious. “What did I ever do to any of you – or for any of you – that made me such a goddamned prize?”

Julia fell silent as she pondered not only her own reasons, but those of the others who had sought to keep this magnificent dark angel in a cage, to clip her wings until she died of despair.

“Well, Joshua Riggins had a rather Wagnerian temperament. He cast you as his valkyrie, an instrument to deliver divine retribution to enemies as he moved closer to world domination.”

“He failed,” Diana muttered, flexing her hands. She could almost feel his throat collapse under her fingers as she pushed him under the black surface of Marco Falcon’s pool.

“Obviously,” Julia agreed. “Now, Harry Mars is a much simpler man, one with untold burdens of guilt, mostly from his inability to save his platoon from the horrors of a North Vietnamese prison camp. Harry wants to save you, to protect you, to make everything okay for you the way he never could for all those boys placed in his care, the ones who came home zipped inside body bags.”

“I guess he failed, too. Harry couldn’t protect me from myself,” she allowed, recalling how Mars had exhorted her not to surface, worried for her safety and sanity.

“I can answer for myself with much greater brevity.” Julia turned to her, waiting until Diana met her halfway, held her eyes in pools of questioning blue.

“I’m listening.”

“You made me laugh.”

Diana waited, waited. She was sure there must be more to it than that. “And?”

“When I met you, I had become consigned to the absence of feeling,” she explained, her voice warming as she came close to admitting a weakness, baring something too-long hidden. “Being with you altered the way I saw myself, gave me hope that I might be able to feel something again.”

“For me?”

“For anyone other than myself,” Julia clarified. “I taught you methods, tactics, all sorts of practical nonsense to keep you alive in the field. In turn, you taught me something more esoteric, namely how to temper the work with humor and – on occasion – compassion.”

Black laughter welled up in Diana’s throat, choking her retort to a single, incredulous word.

“Compassion?”

“Gedde Yoshima is alive mainly due to your influence on me,” she dryly pointed out. “If not for the benefit of your company during years past, I would have killed him when his usefulness ended and avoided this dreadful mess of affection for the boy. I would have taken a different path, one more parallel to Riggins’ highway to hell.”

“That’s bullshit, Julia,” Diana stated, standing suddenly with a need to escape the blonde’s nearness, her radiating regard. “I’m not responsible for who you are – you chose to be you – and I don’t want to be the one policing you if you take a turn for the worse.”

“You’re not backing out on our agreement so soon, are you?”

“No. No.” Diana forced back a shiver of disgust at the prospect of maintaining a tie between them, keeping her tone measured, her gaze down into implacable gray eyes level and hard. “I have enough weight on me already, things I’ll never be able to change or get rid of. I don’t need you telling me that your actions have anything to do with me. I can’t carry that, Julia.”

“Diana, this is not a bad thing,” the Swede claimed, her own voice rising to meet the challenge. “In fact, the world at large might actually wind up owing you a debt.”

“Yeah, right.” She huffed a little, gathered their spent towels from the floor. “I’ll wait a while before submitting my name for the Nobel Peace Prize, if you don’t mind.”

Julia grinned and leaned back into the twist of pillows and sheets. “I’d vote for you.”

“We’ve gotta get moving,” Diana ordered, killing any further attempt at polite conversation. “Chen might head back to the hospital for the late shift change, try to slip in and finish Teddy.”

“Oh, my!” Julia covered her mouth in mock panic. “Heaven forbid he should leave any living witnesses. That goes on one’s permanent record with the assassin’s guild.”

Diana turned on her with angry, hard eyes. “Get up.”

“But I’m exhausted!” the blonde claimed, flopping back down. “Give me five minutes.”

A hand latched onto her wrist and hauled her carelessly to her feet, and she found herself facing a most perturbed woman, one whose tight voice brooked no argument.

“That is my bed and I don’t want you in it, understand?”

“With perfect clarity,” Julia replied calmly. “But if things change, if you find yourself sleeping alone…”

“Shut-up. Just shut-up.”
——————————————————————————–
Diana stood at a rear window, the glass now clean of the vile rat’s blood message which started this whole debacle, and gazed out at the dark mound of dirt marking her friend’s grave. She listened to Julia’s activity behind her, the Swede situating her “commodities” for later pick-up and transfer, and she did not offer to help.

After Julia finished administering another dose of Morpheus to the knocked-out scientists – and allowed Gedde the singular honor of doping up his belligerent father – Diana locked down the house as best she could, and the silent trio piled into a stolen Cadillac. They hit the road fast, heading for the next stop on the Magical Mystery tour; namely, room 216 at Elceda County General, a quiet, sanitary place that was most unready for the influx of incoming visitors.
Twenty Eight

Angelia sat in the salmon-pink faux leather chair at Teddy Rinna’s bedside, watching CNN on mute and reading the closed caption scroll along the bottom. The big man was still unconscious and would be for a while, all the nurses agreed, so she waited in the quiet room for… somebody. Anybody would do at this point, she was so bored and frustrated.

Hours passed slowly for the stranger in a strange place, with nothing to occupy her thoughts but memories of someone she could never have, dreams of someone she could never be again. She got up and poured herself another glass of ice water from the plastic pitcher, watching the sleeping man’s face for any sign of wakefulness. If he was a friend of Diana’s, at least they had someone in common they could talk about, and oh, how she wanted to talk.

The heavy, silent door to room 216 opened, and Angelia looked up, expecting another nurse and finding instead a muscular black man in a gray cop uniform. Instantly, her spine stiffened, old paranoia raising its ugly head. He regarded her curiously, then stepped into the room and held open the door.

“The nurse said Rinna’s *daughter* was in here with him,” Will Franklin said, not to Angelia, but to someone in the hallway. “Is that her?”

Then Charlotte Browning peeked in, her hazel eyes fixing on the stunned Angelia with a most unwelcome recognition. “Yeah. I’ll just sit with her for a minute, Will.”

“Okay. You need me, I’m right down the hall at the nurse’s station,” he told her, easing away and letting the door slip shut with a whispered thump.

“Shit,” Angelia said, unconsciously backing up a step. Maybe saying she wanted to talk to anyone was too broad a statement. Her jaw still ached from her last encounter with the peeved woman from her past, and she didn’t feel up to taking another punch.

“Ease off, Lia,” Charlie told her, holding up her cast-covered mitt. “I can’t say I’m happy to see you, but I can’t afford another broken hand just yet. Where’s Diana?”

Angelia took a relieved breath and tried to relax. “I don’t know. She left me here this afternoon, took off after some guy,” she explained as best she could. “There were reports of gunfire in the parking lot, but no one was out there when the cops came.”

*Oh, God, please let her be okay,* Charlie begged quietly, her face crumbling to a mass of worry over her missing lover. *Just bring her back to me and I swear I’ll never hurt her again. Never.*

“She’ll be fine,” Angelia assured her, calmly sipping ice-water from her disposable cup.

Charlotte looked at her venomously, offended at the display of simple-minded confidence. “And just how do you know that?”

“Diana’s always gonna be okay,” she replied, confused by Charlie’s lack of faith. “She knows what she’s doing – haven’t you figured that out by now? Jesus, I haven’t seen her for ten years and even I know that much.”

“You don’t know her at all, do you?” Charlotte asked pointedly, eyes narrowed to sharp points. “She’s only human. She can be hurt, just like the rest of us.”

“Is that what you were trying to prove this morning?” the asian woman queried, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.

Charlie found herself fighting off the impulse to smack her again. “What are you talking about?”

“All I know is that she was perfectly fine until you showed up on that boat, then she just clammed up the rest of the day. You must’ve done something to get her so busted up.”

“I didn’t shoot her ten times,” Charlie spat, trying to keep her angry voice down.

“Touché,” Angelia answered back. “But you were rather ticked-off, you must admit. She should be thankful you didn’t have a gun.”

“No, you should be thankful I didn’t have a gun.”

“Fine. Whatever. All I know is we’re even now, CB. You win this round.”

Charlie’s countenance spasmed into an awful sneer. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, this makes us more than level for what happened at Berkeley,” the other clarified. “I put you through some unjust crap, so now you get the only thing I really ever wanted. When this is over, I’m off to God knows where – probably alone – and Diana goes home with you. You win, see?”

Totally caught off-guard by the karmic logic of it all, Charlie hoped silently that things would work out just that way, with Diana going home with her instead of following some other path. As she mused over this, she finally took a look at the self-proclaimed loser of their contest, seeing something familiar for the first time. Something that pissed her off quite badly.

“Why are you wearing Diana’s clothes?”

Angelia glanced at her borrowed attire, the long black polo shirt, the cuffed jeans brushing the tops of her flip-flop shod feet. “Pressed for time. Couldn’t very well stop at the mall, could we?”

Unsure just what it would accomplish, Charlotte made her odd request anyhow. “Take off that shirt.”

“Do what?”

“Take it off,” Charlie repeated, already unzipping her thin blue windbreaker and shucking her t-shirt. “You can wear mine instead.”

“What is this, some kind of high school thing? You don’t want me wearing her letterman sweater?”

“Something like that,” Charlie agreed shortly, holding out her own clothes for trade.

Angelia sighed, shrugged her shoulders, and shed the polo shirt. She tossed it to Charlotte and snagged the tee and nylon jacket from her outstretched hand. “This is so dumb. I can’t believe she fell for you, of all people,” she muttered, pulling on the new duds.

Charlie held the black shirt for a moment, then brought it up to her nose and sniffed. She smiled at the discovery of some secret thing, some trace of woodsy fragrance on the worn garment that brought to mind the owner instead of the former wearer. “Believe it, baby,” she said, and shrugged into her lover’s shirt with a possessive grin.

“Some things don’t change,” Angelia observed. “You were goofy at seventeen and you’re still goofy now.”

“How is Teddy doing?” Charlie asked, choosing to ignore that last weak jibe.

“He’s been breathing on his own for a couple of hours,” she answered, watching the small blonde carefully as she approached Teddy’s bedside. “They said the shots missed nearly everything but his liver, and that was only a nick. The doctor will be in again soon, if you want to ask him.”

“Good news, huh Teddy?” Charlie whispered, taking one big paw in her hand with a gentle squeeze. “I’m so sorry, though. This shouldn’t have happened to you at all.”

Teddy stirred a little at the contact, his fingers contracting around Charlie’s thumb. “Sherrie,” he whispered groggily.

“Aww, jeez.” Charlie drew back suddenly. “Nobody’s called his family yet, have they?”

“There were no numbers in his wallet, and I didn’t know this guy from Adam,” Angelia replied. “The only way they’d let me wait in here is if I told them I was his daughter. I didn’t know he had anybody to notify.”

“He has a family – an ex-wife and two real daughters. Somebody’s gotta let them know what happened.” Charlie slipped her hand from Teddy’s sleepy grasp and grabbed her purse, heading out in search of a phone with a purposeful stride.

“I’ll just wait here,” Angelia told the closing door.
——————————————————————————–

Sherrie Rinna was asleep, of course, and Charlotte patiently informed the dazed woman of Teddy’s condition. She took the news harder than Charlie expected, tearing up and sobbing into the receiver, vowing to get down to the hospital as soon as she could. Some mild protestations from her current husband were heard in the background, but Sherrie seemed to pay him little heed. Her resurgent devotion inexplicably warmed Charlotte’s heart, though she worried that Teddy and Sherrie’s marriage had been built on the shifting sands of a similar crisis.

*Maybe she just likes taking care of him,* Charlie thought. *I hope this doesn’t confuse things for them. If it’s just times of trouble that bring them together, that isn’t much to go on.*

Predictably, her analytical mind played connect-the-dots until she found some parallels with her own relationship. She and Diana had bonded during the most difficult of times, but it was after the dust settled that they truly discovered each other, saw each other clearly. And they were both exceptionally happy with what they found.

Charlie recalled the various joys of initiating Diana to “civilian life,” as she called it; watching her grow comfortable in the home they made together, introducing her to the companionship of her sister’s brood, seeing the self-conscious smiles creep up when she found herself enjoying some banal activity like a barbecue or birthday party, a fishing trip, or planting that herb garden in the back yard.

It was all so new to Diana, re-discovering the gentler aspects of her temperament. Charlie felt like Dian Fossey watching a silverback gorilla touch her hand with a tender curiosity, knowing Diana’s acclimation was a sort of self-taming activity. She was so proud of her, felt so honored that she was able to witness this string of beautifully peaceful moments, linked all around her heart like a priceless charm bracelet of experiences.

Standing in the hospital corridor, the eye of their current storm, she prayed the additions to that bracelet would be endless, that years lay ahead of them in which to craft more jeweled hours. Charlie leaned her forehead against the pay phone, tamping down the sentiment with a sniffle and sigh.

“We’ll go on,” she promised herself. “Just bring her back to me. Please.”

The ding of the elevator behind her made Charlie jump slightly, blinking open her eyes as she turned around to go back to Teddy’s room. Just as she set her feet in motion, a glimpse between the opening lift doors made her sneakered feet squeak to a halt, and she whirled around to face the three disembarking passengers.

One was a young asian man in shorts and a denim work shirt – he saw her and walked right past with only a brief glance of recognition. The second was a slender blonde woman in a white shirt and faded jeans – she smiled and winked at the gaping lawyer, then followed the youth down the hall.

The third? Well, she didn’t even get a chance to walk through the elevator doors because a black-and-yellow cruise missile zoomed in and collided with her chest, driving her back into the car with a yelp and a one-word exclamation.

“THANKYOUGOD!”
——————————————————————————–

Will Franklin watched the two people coming down the hall toward room 216, his keen eyes first appreciatively taking inventory of the blonde woman’s aesthetic assets, then his attention focused on her companion – an asian male. The only description they had of Teddy Rinna’s shooter. He was on them in a heartbeat, hand on the unsnapped guard of his pistol.

“Hold up, folks,” he ordered firmly. “No visitors in there except family.”

“But – ” Gedde started to protest, then Julia’s hand fell on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Gedde,” she told him. “We only wanted to know how Mr. Rinna is getting on, deputy.”

Franklin eyed the nervous young man, watched the calm that seemed to overtake him as the blonde rubbed his shoulder. The kid didn’t look dangerous at all… but that woman with him was a different story. She looked dead into Franklin’s eyes, simultaneously bidding him to answer her and warning him not to try and hurt the boy.

“Mr. Rinna’s condition is stable,” Franklin responded, his hand inching away from his holster. “But the doctors still say he’s in no shape for a parade of visitors.”

“Understood,” Julia said, discretely watching the deputy’s hand. “Is anyone in with him now?”

“His daughter’s keeping him company.”

“Well, could you ask her to step out here for a moment, please?” she asked politely.

Franklin backed over to the door, eyes never straying from the pair of strangers, and opened it a crack. “Miss? Could you come out here for a second?” he whispered into the room.

He stepped to the side as the door swung out slowly, admitting a pretty young asian woman – who was now wearing Charlotte Browning’s clothes, he noted – into the hall. She looked at Franklin first, nervous and unsteady, then to the newcomers. Her face slackened to a blank at the sight of Julia, then she focused fully on the young man standing less than five feet away, squinting in the harsh fluorescent light to make sure he was real.

“Is that – ” she began, choking on her own question. “Who -”

“Angel?” the boy whispered, edging forward a step. “Are you – are you well?”

“Gedde?” she barely uttered the word, so afraid it wouldn’t be him.

“Are you all right, miss?” Franklin asked, noting her discomfort. “Do you know this guy?”

Tears slid heavily from the rims of her dark eyes as she nodded her affirmation. “He’s my brother.”

With halting, cautious steps, Gedde moved toward his lost sibling, struggling to keep his arms at his sides. He wanted so badly to wrap her up in an embrace and never let her go… but he waited. She looked so frightened, so hopeful. Too sudden a move might scare her.

“I’ve missed you so much,” she said quietly, “you little dork.”

With that, he let go of his restraint and slipped both arms around her shaking shoulders, drawing Angelia close, close enough to feel his pounding, grateful heart gallop hopefully inside his chest. “I have missed you as well.”

“They haven’t seen each other in a while,” Julia explained to the gaping, puzzled deputy. “Aren’t family reunions just the best?”

“Uhh, sure. I guess,” Franklin replied. “I’ll let you folks get reacquainted, then.” He shook his head and stepped clear of the teary-eyed scene fit for Oprah Winfrey, discomfited by another strange turn in an already strange day. He walked back to the nurse’s station, keeping one eye on the blonde woman and wondering why she gave him such a fit of the creepies.
——————————————————————————–

Diana felt the dull, lingering ache flare up a bit as her back collided with the protruding metal rail lining the inside of the elevator, but the pain was a mere afterthought as she felt her arms go round the familiar body smashed against her chest. Suddenly, nothing hurt anymore, inside or out.

The elevator doors slid shut and the car jolted softly as it descended one floor. Diana and Charlotte stood together, each wrapped tightly in comforting arms, both feeling a little dizzy with relief.

“You’re okay, right?” Charlie asked, her voice muffled as she pressed her face against the firm bosom. “Tell me you’re okay.”

A kiss pressed down onto gilded hair and strong, circling arms cinched tighter. “I am now.”

The short ride was over before it had begun and the doors dinged open, exposing the two to the prying gaze of the reception area nurse. Diana stretched one hand out to the buttons and pressed the one marked “2,” mercifully sparing the gaping nurse from any further discomfort as the doors closed and gave them another moment of privacy.

Without doubt or preamble, Diana leaned in and kissed Charlie, just embracing her lips in a smaller echo of their bodies, a wordless confirmation that there was still a vast store of love in her heart and all Charlotte had to do was accept it.

Another soft dinging, and the elevator pulled back its doors again. The kiss lingered a second more before necessity forced them to break off and separate.

“We gotta talk,” Diana announced, holding the doors open with one arm as Charlie reluctantly disentangled herself and stepped back. “Somewhere private.”

Charlie nodded and stumbled into the hall, still a little weak in the knees from the wholly insufficient kiss. “I’ll find an empty room. I have a truckload of questions for you, stretch.”

Diana smiled at her, unaccountably charmed by the use of her nickname. “I hope I’ve got all the answers, counselor.”

“First one should be easy enough,” Charlie grinned, tugging her lover into the corridor. “You can start by telling me why everybody’s wearing your clothes.”
——————————————————————————–

Room 212 had recently been vacated in the worst possible way – the occupant died in her sleep of a heart seizure – and the staff had yet to take away the bounty of bouquets sent by well-wishers. The entire space reeked of sweetness, the cloying scent of carnations and roses heavy in the air.

“Smells funny in here, but it’ll have to do,” Charlie judged, practically dragging the larger woman through the doorway in the effort to get her alone.

“If you say so,” Diana agreed, letting herself be yanked around, stomach tied in an anxious bow.

Even before the door was closed, Charlotte had sprung into action, sliding a large chair in front of the egress to discourage intruders of any nature. Diana stood back and watched, curious what her companion had in store that required such a level of security, heartened by the frenetic energy displayed in the activity. Charlie was obviously feeling quite all right physically, but whether her enthusiasm would hold up under the strain of conversation was another thing entirely.

Once she had achieved her goal of assuring them some privacy, Charlie made her intentions perfectly clear. She fixed Diana with a needful stare, lower lip trembling as her nerves finally began to fray.

“Forget what I said. I don’t wanna talk to you right now.”

Diana was quiet at first, her shaky comfort compromised by the delay. “Okay. What do you want?”

“Just… come here. Would you… hold me for a few minutes?”

The level of relief Diana felt at that moment was unparalleled in the history of man; well, maybe someone else had felt it at some point. Maybe Moses and the Hebrews felt such gratitude when they crossed the parted Red Sea safely. Maybe the crew of Apollo 13 felt an inkling of this profound blessing when their craft splashed down intact. Maybe someone had come close, but Diana didn’t think so. Surely no one had ever been so lucky as she felt, simply hearing she was still wanted.

“For the rest of my life, if you want.”

“I want.”

Diana took Charlie’s hand and led her to the stripped hospital bed, sitting down first and drawing the smaller woman onto her, stretching out both their bodies on the narrow mattress. As the warm weight settled on her and she felt her love’s golden head burrowing against her chest to press an ear over her heart, one plaster-rough hand behind her neck, gentle fingers blindly tracing the lines of her face from memory, Diana let the walls come down and cried messy, copious tears of joy.

“I have never been so sorry about anything in my life,” Charlie whispered, breathing her apology into Diana’s shaking breastbone, trying to impart her sense of regret directly into her lover’s body. “I hurt you, and I don’t blame you for hating me – ”

“No,” Diana cut her off instantly, tightening both arms around her back, wishing she could just draw Charlie into herself and let her see what was inside – all the hope and trust and will to go on, to keep breathing – every fragile aspect of herself found stuffed in dark corners had been illuminated in the light of their love. “There’s nothing in me that could ever hate you.”

Charlotte’s own tears flowed as freely, but they were bitter and rank, tainted with sorrow. “But I was trying to hurt you… I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I should have trusted you.”

“We’re only human, baby. You and me, we screw up, we make mistakes,” Diana soothed, pressing kisses against her hair. “I should have called you myself, told you about what was happening.”

“I still would have barged in on you and made a fool of myself.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Diana protested. “You would have barged in, popped Angelia on the mouth, then made a graceful, stylish exit.”

Charlie hacked out a doubtful laugh. “No harsh words spoken?”

“If I had been up-front about everything, you might not have felt the need. I ought to know better.”

Tilting up her head and resting her chin between Diana’s breasts, Charlie assumed a guarded expression. “What do you mean, you ought to know better?”

“Trust is a two-way thing. You don’t give, you don’t get,” Diana explained. “I know it’s hard for you sometimes, just like it is for me. We gotta be honest with each other about everything or it stops working, breaks down like it did this morning.”

Partially, Charlotte agreed with that, but it didn’t stop her from trying to shoulder the blame. “I’m the one who ought to know better. Nearly everyone you’ve ever trusted has turned around and used that against you. I never wanted to hurt you like that.”

“Listen to what you’re saying – you could just as well be describing yourself,” Diana replied, wiping her soaked eyes to see Charlotte as clearly as she felt her. “Your parents, Richard, Lia, everyone you’ve let inside – everybody except maybe Emily – has let you down. We’ve both got mines buried in the field, so we’ve both got to walk more carefully.”

“Diana, it wasn’t the same with them, it wasn’t like you and me at all. It didn’t hurt like this.”

“I know, I know,” she whispered, laying another kiss on Charlotte’s forehead as she struggled to find the right words. “With them, they stung you and you went numb. When you thought – even if it was just for a second – that I cheated on you, you laid me open with a scalpel. I hurt you, you hurt me back and that’s the way it should be. I think it was an exceptionally fair trade.”

“No, it wasn’t fair at all,” Charlie argued. “You know I don’t think of you that way. That’s not who or what you are to me, and I want so much to take it back.”

“Have you bothered to think what I would have done if our positions were reversed?” Diana asked suddenly, her cerulean eyes blurry with agony even imagining such a situation. “If I had found you in those incriminating circumstances, with someone I knew you once cared about -”

“But you didn’t even do anything with her!”

“That isn’t the point. Think about that moment when you walked into the cabin and saw us together, try to remember how that made you feel.”

Charlie shut her eyes against the pain, the fearful ache that welled up and staggered out in a choppy sigh. “Felt like my insides caught fire. I never knew I could hurt like that.”

“Now put that pain on me. Try to imagine what I would have done in your stead.”

She squeezed her eyelids down tighter, willing away images of bridges and black water, of other paths and other people Diana would choose in order to escape her betrayal. It didn’t help Charlotte’s fear that two of those other people were right down the hall, waiting for this woman (her woman), eager for the squatting lawyer to walk away and relinquish her claim so they could move in.

“I don’t want to think about that.”

“It’s simple really,” her dark lover whispered. “I’d be dead now. That would have fuckin’ killed me.”

Charlotte’s eyes snapped open, angry – and irrationally relieved. “How can you say that?”

“Because it’s true. You’re so much stronger than me – you get angry, you get hurt, yet you move through it so you can go on living. I don’t think I could to do that, not just me alone.”

Against her will, Charlie’s eyes strayed to the door, thinking about what – and who – waited beyond. “You wouldn’t be alone for long.”

Diana followed both her glance and her line of thought, the meaning all too clear. “Charlie, they don’t want me, they want the person I used to be. They don’t know me anymore. Besides that, they are totally irrelevant – I don’t want them. I need you. I can’t even imagine wanting to live without you.”

“But… how many more times can I hurt you like that before you get sick of it and leave?” Charlotte wondered, insecure words leaking out like water from a busted faucet. She held up her good hand, waving that last question away as if it were second-hand smoke or an indiscreet belch. “God, why can’t I ever just shut up and accept it when you say nice things like that!”

Without hesitation, Diana gave her a lopsided smirk. “You’re a lawyer. It’s just your nature.”

“Uggghh!” Her head fell with a dejected ‘thunk!’ against Diana’s chest, her voice again muffled as she complained weakly. “You let me get away with too much.”

“You are also a blonde. Allowances must be made.”

“Kiss my ass, Sasquatch,” Charlie shot back, chortling and grinning secretly at the slow return of their good humor.

“Charlie, you can hurt me whenever you feel the need – whip me, beat me, make me watch Wheel of Fortune until my brain dissolves, just don’t ever doubt that I love every goddamned minute of being with you,” Diana said, stroking her back as Charlie giggled. “I mean that. I like who I am when I’m with you, and I can’t be that person without you. I’m not gonna give that up.”

When she looked up again, there was a sign of confidence returning to her eyes, a resurgent vibrancy that preceded her words. “Neither will I. You can go ahead and give away the rest of your clothes if you want. I don’t mind. I’ll take you home naked if I gotta.”

Diana gave her a little chuckle and a kiss on the nose. “Wish it was that simple. We’ve got one more big bump to get over before we get clear of this.”

“We. You said we – am I to assume that I actually get to be a part of it?”

With a hard sigh, Diana steeled herself before explaining what awaited them. “We don’t have much choice at this point. Yoshima hired a hit man to kill you, Charlie.”

“WHAT?”

“It’s mostly Julia’s fault – ”

“What?? She did this?”

“Charlie, just give it a second to sink in.”

“Someone’s actually been paid to kill me?” she said, not so much a question as a confirmation. “God, I knew she wanted me out of the way, but that’s more than a little unfair.”

“Julia doesn’t play fair. Bringing Angelia here was meant to be a distraction, something to divert me while Chen Kaige came in and got rid of you.”

“Chen Kaige – this is the man who’s after me?”

“He’s a professional from Hong Kong. Yoshima hired him after Julia put me off-limits. He’s been looking for you, knocking over whoever got in his way.”

“He shot Teddy,” Charlie whispered harshly. “The son of a bitch.”

“I should tell you now – Dan’s dead. Chen killed him today… in our house.”

Charlie could hear the sorrow in her lover’s voice, saw it burning in her reddened eyes. Although she hadn’t had time to get to know the man very well, she was hurt to hear of his passing. The fact that a murder had occurred in their home was a distant second in her hierarchy of concerns. “I’m so sorry, baby. I know he was your friend. We talked all last night – I could tell he really cared about you.”

“I did something… ” Diana began softly, fearful she had made the wrong decision. “I couldn’t call the police, and I didn’t want the cleaners to cart him off like garbage, you see, so…”

“Where did you put him?” Charlie asked, trying to make it easier to say.

“Back yard, by the fence,” Diana choked out, crying again at the thought of her noble colleague buried ignominiously on their property like some dead pet. “Is that… okay with you?”

Charlotte nodded and blinked out a few tears of her own, reminded of how deeply Diana felt things like loyalty, like guilt. “The land is paid for, so Dan can stay there as long as we do.”

Tilting forward to touch her forehead against Charlotte’s, the dark woman shut her eyes and made a proposition. “I say we never move.”

“That’s fine with me,” Charlie agreed. “As long as you’re there, it’s home. I’ll gladly grow old with you in that house. We can plant some annuals on his grave in the fall.”

Such simple, kindly words, such an easy reference to a future they had both felt might be in jeopardy, but it felt true as ever. For each of them, things fell back into place, certain as before the unfortunate disruption; like it could all happen for them if only they had the strength and faith to make it so.

“I had a dream about you tonight,” Charlie revealed quietly, breaking the reverent silence. “They were both after you – Lia and Julia, I mean. They wouldn’t let go and I couldn’t get to you…”

“Stop that right now. I don’t want you to think about that anymore,” Diana told her. “I’m gonna count to three, and we’re gonna drop the subject once and for all, okay?”

Charlie blinked, eyeing her with wary agreement. “Fine. I’ll drop it, but I won’t forget.”

“Deal. One, two -”

Before Diana got to three, a warm, open mouth descended on her own, kissing her with the singular purpose of blotting out the memory of any other kiss, any possibility of kisses from anyone else who might or might not be waiting outside the door with larcenous intent, making them all pale in comparison to the need, the desire, the acceptance and understanding communicated in one long, slow, deep, wet kiss that could have lasted days without objection from the receiver.

When Charlotte finally pulled away, damning the evolutionary quirk that gave her lungs instead of gills, she found herself faced with that look – the one Emily so querulously criticized her for failing to notice more often, the one that presented Diana’s heart to her, all wrapped up with pretty bows like a Christmas gift – and she felt herself crumble and melt like a lump of salt in a boiling pot.

“You really do love me,” she said, a feathered wisp of awe in her voice. “Don’t you?”

Although it didn’t need saying, Diana said it anyway. “You and no one else, now or ever after. You’re it for me, Charlotte Agnes Browning.”

In response to the usage of her hated middle name – which normally constituted an act of war – the attorney pinched Diana’s left nipple hard between finger and thumb, but paired that punishment with another hungry kiss that nearly swallowed the tall woman’s yelp of surprise and pain.

“Ow,” Diana complained, when her mouth was set loose to speak.

“You deserved it – plus, you said I could hurt you when I felt the need.”

“I did, didn’t I?” Diana cocked one slim brow in cheeky defiance. “Aaaagnesss.”

“Oh-ho! Someone’s feeling suicidal,” Charlie taunted, straddling Diana’s waist and rearing up like a thunderhead loaded with lightning bolts. She tugged her lover’s dark blue silk blouse out of her jeans and slipped beneath, tickling along her naked ribs with both hands. “How much time do we have?”

“They’ll be looking for us soon,” Diana answered, obviously regretting the time-lock imposed on this encounter. “Not enough time. There’s still too much I need to expla-OW! – explainnnn…”

Charlie was already unfastening tiny enamel buttons, spreading the shirt open, possessively kneading and stroking bare skin as she went. “So talk. I’m not stopping you.”

“Uhh, yeah. In a way, you are,” Diana protested meekly, unable to muster much in the way of denial as kisses poured over her abdomen, a tongue and teeth attacking the front closure of her bra.

“I’m listening,” Charlie claimed, “and I won’t go near your mouth, so you can keep talking.”

“I need your full attention… please?”

“Believe me, you have it.” Open came the bra, and Charlotte managed a mumble of criticism as she claimed a contracting nipple with her teeth. “You’re wasting valuable time, stretch.”

“Sweet mother of God, you don’t play fair, either,” Diana groaned, struggling to keep from losing herself in the tide of sensation her lover instinctively drew forth. “You better be listening. I don’t think I can get through this -ohh, yeah, right there – twice.”

“Mmm. Mmm-hmm. Go.”

Using all the powers of concentration she could access, Diana laid out the plan she and Julia had formed together – along with a few additions the Swede knew nothing about – and Charlotte, to her great credit, did manage to file away every detail without a single objection or complaint… except when she had a bit of trouble with the button fly on Diana’s jeans. Then she objected and complained quite strenuously until the pants were off and lying in a heap on the cold tile floor.
——————————————————————————–

“Are you sure we can trust Julia to keep her end of the bargain?” Charlie asked, scanning the room for Diana’s missing left shoe.

“I trust her about as far as I can throw Luis,” Diana replied, fishing the shoe from under the bed and holding it aloft. “Found it.”

“So you trust her about twelve feet?”

“Huh?”

“That’s roughly how far you tossed the poor man when you were horsing around in Emily’s yard.”

“Twelve feet, eh?”

“Roughly.”

“That sounds about right,” Diana smirked, checking herself in the mirror over the sink. She counted herself lucky to have escaped with only the one visible hickey hovering right above her collar. “I want to believe that Julia’s capable of better things, you know? If not just for our sake, then for the world at-large.”

“Maybe if she’s occupied playing spy games, she won’t have time to pine over you.”

Diana faced her one-woman peanut gallery and sneered with great distaste. “She does not pine. Please, whatever you do while you’re together, don’t bait her.”

Charlotte tried very hard to look innocent and offended. “Moi?”

“Oui – vous,” Diana confirmed, wagging a finger of warning. “I know your methods, darlin’, and I just want you to remember that it’s in our best interest not to piss her off.”

“I did hear that part, you know,” the attorney replied, unable to squelch the current of mischief arcing in her eyes and voice. “Although it was difficult to discern through all your heavy breathing.”

“It’s a miracle that’s all I did,” said the woman who had to bite her own tongue in an effort to stanch the flow of loud praise and thanks clogging her throat only minutes before. “I owe you big for this.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, missy,” Charlie replied coolly. “Just know that when I call it in, you better pay me back – no matter where or when, got me?”

“You say the word and I’ll do my best to even things up.”

“I love you, Sasquatch.”

“I love you, too – Agnes.”

Charlie rolled her eyes and moved to help Diana relocate the chair barricade from in front of the door, griping playfully as she did so.

“I don’t know why I worried about those two losers making off with you. You’re such a bitch.”

A smile and a low croon of “Aaaagnesss” was Diana’s only reply.
——————————————————————————–

Nearly twenty minutes had passed by the time Diana and Charlotte rejoined the group assembled outside Teddy’s hospital room. The door was open and they could see Sherrie – his ex-wife – acting very much like a concerned spouse, questioning her husband’s doctor about medical matters in the blunt, efficient manner possessed only by good nurses.

“For better or worse,” Diana whispered in Charlie’s ear.

“Till death do they part,” she replied softly, completing the refrain. “At least he won’t be alone.”

The rest of the group was only marginally interested in Teddy at all – Julia lounged near the nurse’s station, apparently flirting with Will Franklin, while Gedde stood behind Angelia with his arms draped protectively around her shoulders, a gesture which seemed to put her more at ease than Diana had seen her since she surfaced.

*Maybe Gedde could have brought her out easier than I did… but nobody was interested in what was best for her. Not even me, really,* Diana confessed to herself.

“We should get a move on, citizens,” Julia announced, gliding into the center of the pack. “The Glimmer Twins have a plane to catch.”

“We are ready,” Gedde told her, his mixed emotions about parting from the strange woman evident in his strained grimace. “You will please make a cursory attempt to keep yourself alive?”

Julia smiled at the boy, pressed an envelope into his hand, and kissed his knuckles. “Wait until you’re in the clear, then read that and burn it. Take care of your family, Gedde.”

“You two come with me,” Diana instructed, motioning for he and Angelia to follow. They walked as a unit toward the elevator without looking back – no one wanted to risk it.

“And you’re with me, Ingrid,” Charlie said, snapping her fingers at Julia, who regarded her as if she were encrusted with pigeon crud. “Will? Can you drive Ingrid and me back to my sister’s place?”

“Charlie!” came the call from down the corridor, where Diana waited by the elevator. “Behave.”

The attorney winked at her departing love, then turned to face her new best friend. “I will.”

Julia had an idea what lay in store and she narrowed her gray eyes at Charlotte. “I have the feeling large quantities of alcohol will be needed to get me through this without killing you.”

“Ditto, Ingrid,” Charlie seconded, her voice all sweetness and light. “Now let’s get out of here before one of us needs a doctor.”
——————————————————————————–

Chen Kaige sat on the floor of Hideo Yoshima’s living room, prodding his shoulder to test the level of pain. Aside from a small gash along his torso where the seat belt cut into his skin, the dislocated limb was all the damage his body suffered from the accident. After popping the arm back into joint, he nearly passed out. He needed a place to recover and regroup, and this house was perfectly empty – save the mass of dead bodies piled on the floor in a back bedroom.

Whatever happened here was not his concern, but with Yoshima missing, he had taken the liberty of calling his syndicate’s accountant and informing him that the Yakuza boss was missing and that a bonus must be paid upon completion of the job, regardless of Yoshima’s condition. A deal had been made, and payment must be assured.

The accountant was predictably alarmed, and vowed to cover his employer’s commitment. He also alerted Yoshima’s associates that something had gone terribly wrong in California, and they, in turn, agreed to send a larger group of men to investigate the disappearance of their respected associate.

Chen didn’t give a damn. He had a job to do, and once his promised bonus was secured, he set about forming a new plan of attack – one that would put him right under Charlotte Browning’s nose. All the easier to put a bullet in her brain and go home a considerably richer man.

“Fubar, fubar, fubar,” he chanted insanely, twisting his shoulder and ignoring the sickening crunch of bone on bone. “America is a dangerous place.”

Twenty Nine

In the hospital parking lot, once they reached the Cadillac, Angelia had a moment of indecision. Diana was driving them to the airport, that much was certain. Time was short and she had to make the best of what remained. For the first time since latching onto him in the hallway, she broke contact with her brother, letting go of his hand and moving to take the passenger seat beside Diana.

Gedde gave her a look – mouth set in a firm line, eyes equally disapproving and sympathetic. “Do not fool yourself,” he whispered. “We are going home. She is already home.”

“I know that,” his sister answered as they entered the car. She was quite aware of the hopelessness of hoping, but it didn’t make the actual parting any easier. The notion of losing the same love twice in a lifetime due to her own selfish folly made her want to scream and rip clumps of hair from her head, to wear sackcloth and ashes and swear off ever trying again.

Love stinks (yeah, yeah), but it surely reeks more when you had it in your hand and wadded it up like junk mail only to find that you’ve tossed out that fabled check for ten million happy days and nights. Angelia’s only solace was an odd surety that Charlotte Browning was a frugal spender – she probably wouldn’t waste a single one. Sometimes life could be fair to the point of being unfair, and that tiny granule of just injustice gave her enough gall to make one last run, take one final shot.

Diana graciously ignored the words and looks exchanged between the siblings, preferring to get them out of danger and on the way to Nagano as soon as possible. To that end, she drove with typical, aggressive élan toward the airport, keeping her mind focused on –

“She left a hickey,” Angelia said, interrupting her barreling train of thought.

Diana glanced at the woman beside her, the one wearing Charlie’s shirt and jacket. “It happens.”

“She thinks she owns you, you know.”

*Marvelous. This is just what we don’t need right now,* Diana thought, unable to keep the snap out of her voice as she responded to the allegation.

“It’s more like a lease with an option to buy. We’re still haggling on price.”

“Is bidding open to the public?” Angelia asked, turning halfway in her seat to face Diana. In the back seat, she saw her brother cover his face with both hands, not eager to witness what was sure to be an ugly, embarrassing scene.

“No,” came the simple answer.

“Julia seems to think differently.”

“Julia lives to cause trouble. Don’t take your cues from her,” Diana warned, seemingly addressing both of her passengers.

“I can believe that,” Angelia agreed. “That black cop asked what you all were doing down the hall, right after she dragged you into that room? Julia told him CB was marking her territory.”

“She did, huh?” Diana couldn’t help smirking as she imagined Will Franklin’s reaction.

“Coffee came out of his nose,” the young woman recalled. “He was a mess, nearly choked himself to death. Somehow, I got the idea he fancied putting in a bid himself – until that happened, anyway.”

“Will’s a quick study. Five minutes with Charlie and he’ll understand it’s hopeless,” Diana ventured, knowing how easily one could be charmed by her mate.

“I suppose that puts me and Ms. Frosty-Freeze in remedial learning classes,” Angelia surmised. “She doesn’t see the appeal any better than I do.”

“Only because you’re both too busy looking backwards. You’re expecting to find someone who doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve changed. You both need to accept that.”

“Well, I think I have a better excuse than she does – I’ve been fucking sleepwalking for the past ten years, Diana. I woke up just in time to be too late.”

“And I am so sorry that happened to you,” Diana added gently, “but it’s not like your life is over, Angel. You’re just getting started again – ”

“But, can’t you see? I don’t know how!” she protested, voice rising to a high, frantic pitch. “We pick up the sample, deliver it to your pals… then what? Where are we supposed to go? What do we do for money? How do we take care of someone who’s been institutionalized for nearly two decades?”

“I’ll make sure Harry takes care of whatever you need.”

“No, dammit! I need you! I need you… more.”

Squinting against the glare of headlights on the highway, Diana shuddered out a small breath. “More than what?”

“More than she does,” Angelia explained. She slid as close as her seat belt would allow, placing one shaking hand on Diana’s thigh. “I’m sorry for what I did to you. Let me make it right. I know I could if you’d just give me the chance. Please, don’t turn your back on me now.”

Guilt is a funny thing. Potent and brutal as strychnine, it works like slow poison – the longer it’s in the system, the more damage is done. Diana knew the taste of it well, felt it sit bitter on her tongue, fought the urge to swallow this new morsel and add it to the deadly lump in her gut that could never be digested or purged. She knew she simply couldn’t take this on, couldn’t handle any more of it, not without surrendering to the deleterious effects and going weak when she had to be strong.

“We went through this already, Angel,” she said, drawing from a deepened well within herself, one dug with two sets of hands. “It’s past, all of it is past. For your own sake, let it go. Let me go.”

“If you gave a damn about my sake, you’d come with me and help me.”

“The best thing for you is to work through what’s happened with a professional, a therapist -”

“Fuck that!” Angelia spat, her hand clamping tighter on the tall woman’s leg. “Did you have to go to a shrink? Did you debase yourself in front of a stranger to work through your pain?”

“No, but -”

“You’re goddamned right, you didn’t!” On a roll with her own performance, the young woman let fly all the rotten tomato-type thoughts packed away in her bag of tricks. “She probably rocked you to sleep every night, telling you she loved you, that everything was gonna be all candles and flowers as long as you stayed with her…”

“I think you should stop right there,” Diana said, her voice a dangerous hum.

Angelia assumed a sickly smile and mimicked Charlotte’s voice with canny accuracy. “‘Oh, honey, it doesn’t matter if you did bad things! I know you’re not a bad person! I love you to pieces and that makes everything just fucking PERFECT – so long as you don’t examine it too closely!'”

Gedde leaned up and spoke to his raving sister, trying to calm her down. “Please, do not do this. You cannot change the mind or heart of another by twisting your own.”

His sibling turned on him with hard, calm eyes that betrayed her ruse of hysteria. “Gedde, you’re my brother and I love you, so I’ll say this once kindly – please butt out.”

“He’s right,” Diana interjected. “You can say whatever you want – cuss me out, hit me if it’ll make you feel better – but it won’t change how I feel now.”

“And why the hell not? You changed your mind about me once already – dammit, you changed your heart!” she declared. Suddenly her face fell slack, the self-generated anger fading to something milder, something like sorrow as she felt the reality of her words for the first time. “I know you loved me… I know that much. How could you just let go of that, go on like it didn’t mean anything?”

“I didn’t want to let go,” Diana told her, quiet and calm. She felt sure that the split-awareness required to keep the car moving ever forward was the only thing saving her from breaking down, letting it all fly out in a fit of tears and fists and curses. “I was helped along with that… problem.”

“By Charlotte?” Angelia asked, all ready to place blame on the most convenient scapegoat.

“By the same people who helped you. They washed it right out of me,” Diana recalled, hating the sick, hopeless feelings which always accompanied thoughts of the procedures. “Angel, I didn’t remember who you were or… what I did to you, until nine months ago. Riggins told me he choked you to death with his own hands, so I tried to…”

White-knuckled, Diana gripped the Caddy’s steering wheel. Twice, she had his neck in her hands.

*If only I had finished him that first time, right after he told me. If only.*

“Christ, I just never expected to see you again,” she finished shakily.

“I knew that I killed you, that old man said it and I knew it was true.” Angelia lifted her hand from Diana’s leg slowly, as if it were filled with heavy lead shot, then clenched it into a fist. “It was true, in a way. I killed us. If only I had trusted you -”

“Don’t do that!” Diana interrupted angrily. “Don’t if yourself to death. I have so many goddamned ifs running around in my head, it’s like the fucking Boston Marathon in there, and there’s more every single day. You don’t deserve to live like that, Angel.”

“Then tell me how I am supposed to live with it. I fucked away the best thing that ever happened to me – how does one get over that alone?”

With cautious strength, a hand gripped Angelia’s shoulder. She turned her head and met her brother’s eyes – not yet crying for her, but reddened with sadness for her pain.

“You will never be alone again,” he told her. “We do not know each other yet, I realize that. One thing you must understand now and know forever is that neither you nor our mother will be alone – unless you wish to be.”

Angelia placed her hand over his and squeezed tight, wishing it was enough. “Gedde, I believe you, but… it’s not the same thing.”

“I know this. What I can offer you is companionship, trust, acceptance and understanding – all of which are far better than being alone.”

“You’re just a kid,” she protested gently. “How can you understand any of this?”

“I believe I now know what it is to care for someone who will never be with you,” Gedde explained, a distant look in his dark eyes. “If nothing else, we will be able to commiserate like mad.”

After a second’s uneasy hesitation, Angelia laughed. Not loudly or with much verve, but she did feel a palpable sense of ease come over her at the thought of sharing the load with her brother. With the obviously decent, kind man the sensitive child had become. It wasn’t the same, but maybe it would be enough to get them through the strange, hard days ahead.

“Okay,” she whispered, leaning her head down to kiss his hand. “Okay.”

Diana remained quiet, relieved and grateful in her silence, which lasted until they pulled into the white zone at the county airport. Julia had chartered a jet to take them to LAX, where they would board a flight for Japan. If all went smoothly, Harry Mars would have a live sample of Marburg/Utah in his possession by Monday night, and the deliverers would be on their way to retrieve their mother and begin a new life somewhere in the great, wide world.

“This should be simple enough,” Gedde announced once they were all gathered on the sidewalk outside the terminal. “We have no luggage to check, so we travel unencumbered.”

“Here, take this.” Diana held out a small roll of bills for Angelia. “It’s just a few hundred, but you’ll probably need some things once you’re in Nagano.”

“I believe it is unnecessary,” Gedde told them both, brandishing the envelope Julia had given him. “There are bills inside – yen, I think. No exchange would be required.”

“I thought that was just a mash note,” Angelia needled, grinning as he blushed.

“There is a note of some nature inside, but I have yet to read it. I will wait until we are safely away, as she requested.”

“Oh, he’s whipped!” his sister declared, punching his arm.

Gedde simply shrugged it off, knowing she was only teasing, glad she felt comfortable enough to do so. He turned to Diana and bowed slightly, then offered his hand, which she took and held as he spoke. “I wish you strength for the trouble which lies ahead – though I know you have more than enough to carry you through. I also wish you a measure of peace. Your road is one few could travel without losing their souls. May whatever god you pray to keep yours safe.”

Diana was moved by his sincerity and shook her head in awe. “Thank you, Gedde. You’re an exceptional young man, and how someone like Hideo Yoshima could have fathered you is beyond my comprehension.”

Gedde smiled a bit, recalling something Julia said to him. “I believe I am my mother’s son.”

“That would explain it. Good luck to you.”

“And to you.” He looked to his sister then, placing a hand on her arm. “I will wait for you inside.”

Angelia gave him a nod and watched as he walked away, leaving her alone with Diana to say what only one of them wanted to say. They stood a few feet apart, each simply looking at the other, trying to situate the fragile past in the hard current of present reality.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Angelia began. “I don’t think I can.”

Diana let out a long breath and stepped closer, easing both hands onto the young woman’s shoulders. “Would it make it any easier if I told you I never cared about you? That I can’t forgive your using me for target practice?”

“No,” Angelia said, frowning with embarrassed amusement. “I know you’d be lying.”

“Yeah, I would.” Diana’s voice trembled, lowered into a register of compressed emotion. “I do care about you and I always will. No amount of time or distance – or bullets – can change that. But I’ve moved on. Now it’s time for you to do the same.”

“God, I don’t think I can…”

“You have to. You have to.” Diana cupped her jaw with a palm, urging eye contact. “I want you to do something for me. I want you to swear you’ll do it.”

“Anything,” she agreed, tears forming and rolling free.

“Stop hurting yourself,” Diana commanded, struggling to keep her own tears from drenching them both. “Stop living in the past. I want you to grab hold of every day you’re given. Wring the fucking life out of every minute because each one is fresh and new and pliant and you can make of it whatever you want.”

“Diana, I don’t know how to do that. I want to, but it hurts… so much…”

In one fast, hard motion, Diana drew her in and wrapped her up, arms tight all around her, voice low and soft in her ear as she cried and cried.

“We know what pain is, you and me, and it’s too easy to let it creep in and remake every new moment into one that’s already over, one that can’t be changed. We can’t change what happened, Angel, and the time for forgetting is over.”

“I wish it wasn’t. I wish I still didn’t remember anything.”

“That’s the bitch about getting the memories back – it always seems like the bad stuff happened only yesterday. We live in it, give in to it, and before you know what’s happened, years have passed and you’re still living inside a dusty old mistake. All we can do now is make new memories, and pray and fight and gamble like hell to increase the good ones until the bad are hopelessly outnumbered.”

“I still love you,” Angelia whispered, so quietly it was almost a thought. “I know I could do it if you were with me.”

Diana’s breath lodged in her throat, blocking the words she couldn’t say to anyone else but Charlotte without it being an unforgivable lie. She edged back and faced the woman she could have loved, if fate had not held a greater plan for her heart, and told her the truth.

“I can’t breathe without her, Angel. I’d die for sure.”

Angelia shut her eyes tight, growling out a frustrated bark of pain. “I keep telling myself this is fair, this is how things work, but I don’t believe it. I didn’t hurt her bad enough to deserve this.”

“This isn’t about hurt. It’s about love,” Diana said, certain of her words for the first time. “It’s in you, just like it is in me. It’s not a memory or some dead thing or a one-time shot, it’s an ability, a capacity. Use it. Use it to love your brother, your mother, most importantly yourself. It’ll come back to you, Angel, I swear it will, a thousand times over. It just won’t be me. It can’t be.”

“Never?” There was no hope left in her eyes, no defiance, only remorse and resignation.

“Never,” Diana confirmed. “You are remarkable, don’t ever doubt that. You just weren’t meant for me. I would have found my way to her somehow. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Angelia sniffled, unhinged one hand from Diana’s waist and wiped her eyes. “This sucks.”

A small sniff of agreeable laughter from the taller woman. “Yeah, it does.”

“No, I mean this really sucks, like on a mythical level. This sucks like fucking Charybdis.”

Diana laughed more fully then, leaning their foreheads together and giving Angelia a final squeeze. She thought about it for a moment, debating the wisdom of sending a mixed message, then touched her lips to her former lover’s eyebrow, then her nose, finally easing down to her mouth.

They kissed softly at first, a gentle press of lips that opened and drew them into a deeper, hungrier joining. It lasted only a few seconds, with sliding tongues and shared breaths and mingled tears, but it was bitter and sweet, full of longing and regret. It was enough.

Enough for goodbye.

“Promise me,” Diana urged, sliding her damp cheek against Angelia’s own. “Swear you’ll try.”

“I’ll try,” she answered wearily. “I promise you that much.”

“I believe in you, Angel.” Diana inched back from the embrace, loosening the bonds until they both let go and stood apart. “You’re gonna be fine, better than fine. Happy. You do deserve it.”

Angelia nodded dismissively, not fully buying it, wishing she could. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”

“I’ll call Harry and let him know what’s up. He’ll make sure you’re all taken care of, set you up wherever you want to go.”

“You know something?” Angelia looked serious, contemplative. “I think you’re a better kisser than you were ten years ago.”

Diana widened her eyes, shuffled her feet. “Uhh… well -”

“If you say anything about CB being responsible for that, I’m gonna scream bloody murder.”

“Okay,” Diana grinned guiltily. “I won’t say it.”

Angelia began walking backward, slow steps, edging away in fits and starts. “Will there be food on the plane?”

“If I know Julia, there’ll be a spread fit for ten people.”

“Good. Feels like I haven’t eaten in years.”

And with that, she turned her back and started walking away. Fast. Like she was trying to achieve escape velocity, to get free of the strong pull emanating from Diana and launch herself into a safe space where no one could hurt her again, intentionally or not. Watching the young woman propel herself forward, Diana said what she needed to say.

“Goodbye, Angel.”

——————————————————————————–

Technically Monday

At around a quarter past midnight, while her sister’s family slumbered uneasily inside the locked house, Charlotte sat side-by-side with Julia on the Avila children’s backyard swing set, drinking a bottle of chilled white zinfandel and playing a game – nothing so organized and boring as checkers or Scrabble, but a game nonetheless. Kind of a negative version of “The Liar’s Club,” it required that they tell the unvarnished truth about one subject… a very personal subject.

“Are you certain you wish to continue?”

“Go ahead. Unless you’re afraid you’ll have to resort to fabrication soon.”

“I assure you, that won’t be necessary. I could regale you with similar accounts all night.”

“Go for it, Ingrid.”

“You really must stop calling me that.”

“Fine, whatever, Julia. It’s still your turn.”

“Fine, indeed. Now, where was I?”

“Dusk, Africa… blah, blah, blah.”

“Right. Dusk, in a church basement in northern Eritrea, on a bed of wrapped C-4 explosive, two detachments of armed soldiers tromping the streets above looking for us,” Julia recounted.

She remained rather disappointed that no more details were required than where, when, and a brief, dry recap of circumstances. The attorney set the rules for this odd game and she complied fully – though she had to wonder what motivated Charlotte to begin this at all, other than abject masochism. That idea fascinated her, and Julia sniffed her companion surreptitiously, trying to smell her reasons. Anyone who could willfully torment herself like this had to be just slightly twisted, perhaps even (GASP!) interesting.

“Your turn, darling.”

“You really must stop calling me that.”

“Certainly, Charlotte. It is now – ”

“My turn, I know. Near dawn, in a rented limousine, top floor of a downtown parking garage, open moonroof. Four times,” Charlotte enunciated, bearing down on the last words to bolster her confidence. That whole C-4 thing was pretty tough to ignore. “I’d just won a big case that day.”

“Congratulations.”

“Not necessary. I was congratulated until I couldn’t see straight, thanks very much. You’re up.”

As they talked, Charlie watched Julia’s eyes – cool gray like tired snow – sliding carelessly across the yard as if her awareness alone could keep out any intruders. The funny thing was, she got the feeling that Julia wasn’t really worried about that possibility at all. In fact, she looked almost sleepy.

“In a stolen Bradley fighting vehicle, while waiting on a backroad in St. Petersburg for a terrorist caravan headed to kidnap Yeltsin. They didn’t show, so we spent the whole night there.”

“I thought the Bradley was a bust.”

“Pardon?”

“They didn’t pass safety testing, too small for efficient troop transport, nobody could afford to make them or buy them. Something like that.” An arched brow and a smirk clued her in that Julia was impressed by her rudimentary knowledge. “I watch the news occasionally,” she explained.

“Bradleys are misbegotten monstrosities, unworthy to bear General Omar’s august name. Imagine a Chevrolet Suburban with big guns and armor plating,” the Swede detailed, “one that only Bill Gates could purchase without going broke. Ours was stolen. I didn’t like it, but it was actually quite roomy for two people – even two as active as we were that night.”

Charlie didn’t take the bait. “You’re not worried about this Chen guy coming back here?”

Julia sighed, seeing her hook bob fruitlessly on the water, and answered wearily. “He isn’t entirely stupid. He will take a short breather to recover from his close encounter with Diana’s car, then search out a way to surprise you, popping up like some nursery rhyme weasel.”

“Great. So we just sit under the mulberry bush and wait?”

“Yep. Should I take your lack of retort as a surrender?”

“No. I’m far from tapped.”

“Ms. Browning, you are out-gunned. I knew her for ten years. You can’t possibly win.”

“I already have. I’m just trying to prove something to myself.”

“And what might that be?”

“That you’re not worth worrying about anymore.”

Julia peered through the wan mix of moonlight and white spill from distant floodlights on the Avila’s deck. She saw just the right spot – about midway up the young woman’s throat – where one quick punch could cave her trachea like a mine shaft in an earthquake. If only she could convince Diana it was an accident…

“A very premature judgment. You don’t have all the facts about me yet.”

“I know enough. She was only with you so often because of the agency’s assignment protocols.”

“And I suppose you learned this by reading the agency employment manual.”

“A superfluous document, if it even exists. This is common sense… and an educated guess,” Charlie continued. “Riggins placed her with you to stabilize you both. You were her mentor, and evidently, you were a barrel of monkeys in bed, but it didn’t go any farther than that for Diana.”

“In a pillowed and curtained canvas hammock strung between olive trees, less than six hundred meters from Colonel Muammar Al Gadhafi’s personal tent,” Julia said suddenly, sheerly to shock the other woman into silence. “Broad desert daylight.”

“It’s not your turn, Julia.”

“A jet full of dead coke smugglers, over the jungles of Cartagena,” she pressed on, determined to at least annoy the woman once more. “The jet was on autopilot – Diana was decidedly not.”

“It will never be your turn again.”

“Keep telling yourself that, dear. She will grow weary of domestic bliss, if not today or tomorrow, then someday quite soon. Diana can’t drive in low-gear forever. She’ll burn up.”

“That won’t happen.”

“When she does burn up, she might take you with her. I suggest you quit now, for your own safety.”

“I’m touched by your concern, but it’s wasted on me. I won’t be losing her by default or apathy or mistrust. Nothing short of death will do the trick, Jules.”

“That could still be arranged.”

“You wouldn’t risk it. You’re a lot of things, but even I couldn’t call you foolish. All this trouble to get your own business off the ground, to get yourself a killswitch – ”

“Ahh. She told you about that.”

“Of course she told me,” Charlie said, certainty shining in her eyes. “Diana trusts me.”

A long moment of silence followed as they studied each other from opposite ends of the telescope; one clearly visible, bursting with the detailed blue, green and gold of the Earth, the other too cloaked and hidden to define beneath a densely luminous atmosphere, the planet Venus personified.

Julia shut her eyes and looked away first, trying hard not to resent the clarity of emotion love had afforded this young woman, the privilege of knowing another’s heart as well as her own. The inescapable sting came from knowing that particular, branded heart was the only one which stood a chance of pairing with her own.

“Don’t blow it,” she advised, her voice void of emotional turmoil. “Once that trust is gone, you might find you have to shift a mountain to get her to speak to you again.”

“You’re lucky to even get that much. If it were up to me, Diana and I would be in Argentina by now, miles away from you and all the unfathomable crap you brought down on her. On us.”

Julia rolled her eyes, apparently exasperated. “It wasn’t all done to ruin your weekend, you know. The Angelia situation needed closure for everyone involved. A family has been reunited, a despot mobster dethroned, a deadly virus taken from criminals and placed in the responsible hands of world security groups, and I get my start in the wonderful field of independent contracting.”

“At what expense? Dan is dead. Teddy is in the hospital, lucky to be alive. Diana is out hunting some mad weasel you brought here – directly or not – and you’ll likely have the Yakuza on your ass until the day you die,” Charlotte summarized angrily. “There must have been more convenient routes to get what you wanted.”

“Convenience is for apathetic bores and armchair quarterbacks. Any game worth playing is worth overplaying,” Julia proclaimed proudly.

Charlie took a long sip of wine, then broke one of the cardinal rules of courtroom procedure, one that judicial cossack Roger Van Susteren had drummed into her in law school – she asked a question to which she didn’t already know the answer.

“Why didn’t you just kill me yourself?”

Julia did not hesitate, did not lie. “I needed a beard, darling, as do we all from time to time. Had Chen succeeded in killing you, Diana would have chopped him into mincemeat with a rusty razor blade. I take his body for trading purposes, and our girl becomes my girl again. See the logic?”

“The inside of your mind must look like a stereogram,” Charlie dazedly observed, stunned by such brutally clean honesty. “It’s there, but it’s so masked… did you ever really intend for me to die?”

“Only is the most half-hearted, half-assed sense. It would be a lie to say I gave much thought to your fate, other than identifying the possibilities and planning for each,” Julia said, watching the flickering of Charlotte’s face, reading each twitch like a telegram. “I wouldn’t hurt you myself, even now.”

“Huh.” Charlie felt disconcerted by her own reaction – she believed her. And she knew the exact reason why. “That would blow whatever chance you think you still have with Diana. From what little I know of you, that seems to be the only thing you won’t risk.”

Julia shrugged, unwilling to deny it. She drained her own perspiring wine glass, the kicky potable no longer cold enough to properly enjoy. “Were our positions transposed, would you kill me?”

Recalling Diana’s challenge earlier in the evening, Charlie tried once again to imagine the impossible. She could not begin to guess how these women reasoned things out. They were more alike than she felt comfortable admitting, and so different from regular people, so different from her own withdrawn, relatively small self. Still, she gave it her best effort, though even briefly trying to empathize with a living, breathing trigonometry problem like Julia gave her a pisser of a headache.

“No. If I had even the slightest bit of hope for a future with her, I wouldn’t gamble it away.”

The Swede granted her a genuine smile. “And Diana was worried we’d have nothing in common.”

Charlie almost grinned back, lightened by the surprising warmth of her smile and words. “I think she was more worried that we’d attack each other with Emmy’s croquet mallets.”

Julia scanned the flat, grassy yard, quickly locating the wire stand loaded with colorful wooden clubs and balls. “Would you like to play? I promise not to hit you – unless you cheat.”

Spinning a half-turn in her swing, Charlotte curved her mouth into a funky little smirk. “We’ve already established that I don’t need to cheat to win.”

One hand swept down and deftly corked the dented white zin bottle, gray eyes never leaving Charlie’s amused face. “So you actually think you won our little bout of prurient one-upsmanship?”

“That was one game I won before it even started. Like I said earlier, I was just trying to test my newfound confidence, and you were most accommodating. Thank you.”

“I must apologize for underestimating you,” Julia said, giving her a soft golf-clap of applause. “It seemed you were merely seeking salacious stories for the purpose of flagellating yourself. I’m not accustomed to being used as an unwitting therapist.”

“You’re not accustomed to being used at all,” Charlotte ventured. “You pull the strings, push pieces around on the board – you don’t get played unless you want to, unless you’re willing. You shift mountains to get your exes to talk to you, for crying out loud.”

“Just one particular ex, actually.”

“Still, one has to marvel at the lengths you went to in order to make it happen… even if one finds you morally reprehensible, well-beyond egomaniacal, and in need of extensive psychotherapy.”

“Marvel away,” Julia chuckled, striking a ridiculous, triumphant pose.

“Ooh. Ahh,” Charlie hummed blandly. “Where’s a camera when you need one.”

“I wouldn’t want you to think that I did all this out of malice or boredom,” Julia said, once she stopped preening. “The main objective was gaining my unconditional freedom and assuring myself a place at the world’s most exclusive dinner table. Everything else, including Diana’s agreement with me, is gravy – though you, sweet Charlotte, are a lump in said gravy.”

“Oh. Goody.” Charlie appeared mildly offended. “I’m a lump.”

“Lumps are inevitable. No matter how well executed a plan may be, there is always a snag, something that goes ass-backward because it’s meant to be that way.”

“An ass-backward lump. Stop, please. My swollen ego can’t take this flattery.”

“I still may come away with a ninety-nine percent success rate, even though you stubbornly refused to sit home and wait to die. Terribly uncooperative of you, ruining my perfect score.”

“A stubborn, ass-backward lump,” Charlotte summed up harshly, irritated by the fact that she wasn’t irritated more. Staying mad in the face of such unrepentant, sociopathic charm was an effort, one she regrettably lacked the energy to maintain. It was easier to just go with it instead of grappling for the sustained fury which eluded her grasp like mercury. “Do you sweet talk everyone like this?”

“Only those of whom I am indescribably, malevolently jealous,” Julia revealed, sounding very near serious. “Months of planning, countless deals, compromises and alliances went into making this happen… and I’d trade it all away if I thought there was any chance she’d leave with me.”

It almost sounded like a concession speech, with that one tagalong addendum admitting her situation was nearly hopeless. After all the maddening machinations set in motion by this one, absolutely singular person, Charlotte found her almost sympathetic in acknowledging her singular defeat. The attorney knew in her marrow that she would do the same, fling away everything she had worked for if it meant she could be with Diana. To her, it was perfectly understandable.

“You might change your mind about killing me if I say this – ”

“So don’t say it,” Julia interrupted, getting a bad feeling from the softly spoken preamble.

Charlie tried to strip the pity from her voice and said it anyway. “I feel sorry for you.”

“Well, that did it. Now I have to shoot you on principle.”

“I don’t really understand you and I don’t think I want to,” Charlotte continued, unfazed by the mock-threat, “but Diana wants to believe you’re better than the sum of your schemes. She thinks there’s a person of some value underneath all that ice and bullshit.”

“Eww.” Julia shuddered, frowning sourly. “How utterly unappealing you make me sound.”

“Diana got out of your world because she wasn’t meant to be there in the first place. She wasn’t happy there and she never could be… but you, on the other hand, you probably couldn’t find happiness doing anything else. I feel sorry for you because you have to do it alone.”

The frown creasing her mildly pinked face deepened and a hand absently riffled her silvery hair. “Are you really a lawyer? You’re beginning to sound incredibly like a psychiatrist.”

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Even if you were, I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction of hearing an affirmation.”

“Afraid of losing your mystery?” Charlotte prodded gently.

Her inflated frown sputtered flat as Julia realized she was being teased. “They’d boot me out of the Enigmatic Blonde Spy Guild for certain.”

“Ahh. We don’t want that to happen. Not when you’re so close to getting your pension.”

“Bite me,” Julia suggested, chuckling just a tad. “I am not that old. Besides, I’m their best hope for dissembling the notion that all fair-haired women are harmless, brainless bimbos.”

Unable to stop herself now, Charlie poked at her once more. “I can now attest that you are neither harmless nor brainless. The bimbo issue is still on the table.”

“Again, I urge you to bite me,” the Swede muttered, moderately peeved. “It’s simply not proper to address a woman with interests in arms dealing, gambling, drugs, money laundering – especially one who currently has a loaded gun in her pants – as a bimbo.”

Charlotte could only blink at first, dizzied by the concise listing of criminal enterprises in which this person was involved. She wondered how many countries would gas her for just sitting here with Julia, then shivered at the thought. Maybe it was best to stop teasing her.

“How can you not go crazy juggling all that shit?” she asked, eyeing her sneakers as they brushed a straight, predictable line in the dirt beneath the swing.

“Only God knows,” the cagey blonde answered, “and she’s not telling.”

Charlotte raised her head and looked dead at Julia, unable to stifle her curiosity. “She? Why she?”

“You are so irrevocably Catholic. Have you never questioned that old assumption?”

“Not really, no. And I am not irrevocably Catholic,” Charlie protested, “I’ve just never given that possibility much thought.”

“Neither did I… until the first time I nearly died,” Julia revealed soberly. “Scads of shrapnel lodged in my back, lots of internal bleeding, miles from help. I was a mess, and I honestly thought it was over. Twenty-six years old, and I realized I was totally unprepared for the end of my ride.”

Charlotte slipped a hand into her hair, felt the slight ridge of scar tissue along her scalp – a trail blazed by a whizzing lead slug that missed killing her by perhaps an inch. “I don’t think any of us are ever truly ready for it to be over, no matter what we say.”

“When you feel time running out, it sets you to thinking. I realized I had no belief system, no concept of a life after this one is over. If eternity exists, our notions of it – of what we want or need or think we deserve – will likely play a large role in the formation of where we end up.”

“And you’d prefer to end up being judged by a woman?”

“I’d prefer not to be judged at all, thanks very much. My notion of the perfect afterlife contains not one single courtroom and no judges of either gender.”

“HA!” Charlotte barked, rather taken with that idea. “What a concept. Wouldn’t that be nice.”

“Heavenly,” Julia agreed. “My trouble is that I simply cannot envision a male God without thinking of all those blissfully simple paintings of a benevolent, bearded Christ, and I know the creator of the universe would not choose to look like one of the Grateful Dead.”

“Unless that was what we wanted to see.” Charlie was beginning to catch on, and she tried to picture her ideal notion of a creator, some visage she would respect enough to plaster on GOD itself. “I’m having the same problem. All I can think of are faces from paintings. Michelangelo, Dali…”

“Try imagining a fifty-foot Liv Ullmann.”

Charlie did a double take, then tried to place the name. “Fifty-foot who?”

The Swede slumped her shoulders in exaggerated disappointment. “Have you never watched a Bergman film?”

“Not many,” Charlie confessed, having tried to sit through a few of his works in a film appreciation class at Berkeley. “They don’t make sense, all those pale women dressed in black turtlenecks, looking for some damned missing caribou…”

“Good night, Ingmar!” Julia slapped both hands to her cheeks, her mouth a disgusted twist. “Possibly the greatest director of modern film, certainly the most acclaimed genius of my country’s entertainment industry, and all you know of him is from some comedy skit about a caribou?”

Charlotte remembered then; that was a skit from “Saturday Night Live,” not an actual Bergman movie. She felt strangely embarrassed and sought to make amends for her cultural ignorance of all the varied artistic jewels Sweden had offered to the world.

“Well… I like ABBA.”

Gray eyes went wide as pie plates, and Julia bit her own lip to keep from screaming. Or laughing – she wasn’t sure which, only that it would be loud enough to wake the neighborhood and possibly summon one of the cruising police cars weaving through the subdivision.

Having agreed to keep the night watch and sleep tomorrow when Luis and his 12 gauge pump shotgun took over, they stayed up talking until dawn.

It wasn’t all friendly, but Charlie couldn’t manage to hate herself for the recurrent lapses, for trying to make the best of a terribly awkward situation. Maybe it was some incurable weakness of character that made her search for something worth knowing in the unknowably dangerous woman… maybe it was a genetic defect inherited from that damned amazon bard. She certainly seemed the type to pass down some hidden sucker gene in all that tangled DNA.

By around three a.m., it no longer mattered. Charlie was past placing blame for all the hardship, intent on getting through the weirdness with her sanity and her newly strengthened heart intact.

Diana’s words came back to her time and again as she and Julia discussed baseball, the validity of a unified European currency, hair conditioners, insurance payoffs for totaled Porsches, and the uncanny resemblance between one’s notion of God and some actress named Liv Ullmann.

“When she isn’t trying to kill you, fuck you, or fold your brain into origami, Julia can actually be a lot of fun. If – heaven forbid – I don’t find Chen by Monday night, she’ll stay with you through dinner at Xanadu. Your folks will love her.”

*Find him, stretch,* Charlotte prayed more than once over the course of their discourse. *I got a bad feeling she’ll kill my father before the salad plates are cleared.*

Thirty

*Nearly dawn,* Diana noted, watching orange fingers of light peel back the gray duvet of evening blanketing her adopted hometown, swaddling the little white house in the Meadows. *If he hasn’t come back here by now, he’s probably bunked down in his hidy-hole until tonight.*

Chen Kaige would need a rest after his trying Sunday adventures, then he would be on the move again, pecking up the clues Diana scattered like bread crumbs during the night. He would know exactly where and when to find his target, and he would come for her.

*And I’ll be waiting. This time, you won’t get away from me. This time, I’m gonna be sure of it… if I can manage to stay awake. Jesus, how long has it been since I really slept? Forty-one, forty-two hours? I need a fucking nap something awful. It’s getting harder to stay alert with these yahoos snoozing like babies all around me.*

The three abducted viral scientists and the captive Yakuza boss certainly looked peaceful as they lay quietly in a neat row on the living room carpet. Diana watched them all sleeping and wondered if they dreamed while the potent synthetic drug trapped them in slumber. Some ancient Greeks worshipped Morpheus, the god of sleep and dreams who was the drug’s namesake, and Diana felt certain the agency’s home-brewed pale green liquid did at least as good a job as that mythical deity.

*Maybe I should keep a vial of the stuff handy, just in case either of us ever has insomnia again,* she considered, only a scoche from serious. *Charlie can’t sleep when she’s too worried, and Unisom doesn’t cut it when she’s that keyed-up – though that can be a good thing sometimes. When she’s really revved, neither of us gets any sleep… heh. On second thought, we don’t need it.*

Swallowing a goofy smile at the remembrance of several all-nighters during the last legal tangle with Rowland Pharmaceuticals – which culminated in a Browning victory and a particularly interesting celebratory limo ride – Diana put the thought of mooching Morpheus out of her mind.

She rested on the couch in a half-doze, feet inclined on a pile of throw pillows, a cocked .38 revolver balanced on the flat expanse of her stomach. Reaching into her trusty canvas beach bag of goodies, she drew out the phone unit Dan sent her and dialed up the man who never slept. Diana had put off this necessary call long enough and it was time to face the music, both literally and figuratively.

Donny Osmond’s “Soldier of Love” played while her call was connected, and Diana was mortified to find herself humming along when Harry Mars finally answered with caffeinated clarity.

“I was wondering when you’d get back to me,” he tinnily groused, still on the dread speakerphone.

“Didn’t want to bother you until I had something good,” Diana effused, pleased she had decent news to impart for once. “Looks like you might be off the hook with the bigwigs while you recover.”

“Don’t tease me. They’re sharpening the guillotine as we speak.”

“Would a live sample of Marburg/Utah make your life any easier?”

“Tell me it isn’t you bringing it in.”

“It isn’t me. I’m way too sleepy right now.”

“Martin, gimme a smoke. Now. Then get out,” Mars ordered, addressing someone else, perhaps a nurse or an assistant aiding him through his unfortunate disablement. Three beats and a lighter flick later… “When and who?”

Waiting until she heard a door close in Harry’s office, a sign that they were speaking privately, Diana spat out the details. “Sixteen hours, maybe less if we don’t hit any snags. Notify the field office in Japan that two civilians are bringing a hot delivery. They’ll need a full relocation, and some special help from you as recompense.”

Mars drew heavily on his cigarette and exhaled a smoky sigh. “Yoshima’s kids, right?”

Diana, miffed by his accurate intuition, answered without sounding too surprised. “Right. Angelia and Gedde are in transit right now. They’ll pick it up and bring it in for you, then you gotta spring their mom from wherever she’s been held and get them all settled somewhere safe.”

“I gotta?”

“Yes, Harry, you gotta. They don’t have to do this for you. The agency has caused them a lot of grief over the years – they’re owed a fair shake.”

“The girl, maybe, but not that boy,” Mars amended. “I ran a check on Angelia’s family, pulled up all the stuff on her mother and brother like you asked.”

Diana swallowed an unchewed gumball of anxiety, gulping hard as it ricocheted painfully down her gullet. *Uh-oh. Monkey wrench time.*

“Gedde Yoshima looked pretty goddamned familiar, Di. Right before Julia shot me, he was running around her bedroom, flapping in the breeze and making like he wanted a piece of me.”

“He’s a good kid, Harry, he just fell in with some bad company. You know how Julia works, what she must have… done to him,” Diana said mildly, tamping down her angst. “Angelia needs family around her, and he’s practically all there is. The mother can’t be in good shape.”

“She isn’t, but once she’s off the elephant-sized doses of meds they’ve forced down her throat, she might have a chance. What I wanna know is how you got Don Juan away from Julia in one piece.”

“I’d rather not get into that,” she squirmed, her stomach turning spastically acrobatic, doing clumsy somersaults inside her torso.

“If you want me to help, you’d damn well better get into it,” Harry persisted. “Have you had contact with Julia since the shooting?”

*Aww, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!* she thought.

“Yes,” she answered.

Mars sucked hard on his cig, vainly tried to slow his racing heart. “Tell me she’s dead.”

“Oh, she’s dead all right,” Diana lied, too quickly.

“Are you lying to me?”

*Noooo!* she thought.

“Yes,” she answered, silently cursing her inconvenient honesty.

Harry Mars promptly exploded, spewing loud verbal shrapnel through the speakerphone like an expletive bomb designed by Sam Kinison, late genius of cuss-munitions. Some words Diana had never even heard before, spontaneously composed composites of extant curses melded with Harry’s own inventions, and she was actually quite impressed with his creativity. She deserved worse, she felt certain, and so remained silent as Mars vented his spleen at maximum volume.

“How could you let her go?” he asked once his venom sac emptied, his voice hoarse and hollow.

“I don’t work for the agency anymore, so I’m under no obligation to dispatch rogue agents,” Diana told him, calm as a mill pond. “I have to look out for my own interests now.”

“Getting rid of Julia would help you as much as me.”

Diana wanted to agree with him, but couldn’t risk a detailed an explanation of her plan for making that happen. “She won’t be bothering me anymore, Harry. If you stay after her until termination, that’s your business. Don’t expect me to get more blood on my hands for you.”

Harry cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the implication that he was asking her to kill strictly for his benefit. “You’re right. Steer clear of her once the lockdown is over. Julia’s an agency target now.”

“How many agents can you afford to lose in the pursuit?” she asked, her meaning clear.

He sighed in resigned understanding. “As many as it takes. The field is too crowded, too unstable to support players like her. I gotta make sure she’s taken down – soon.”

“You’ll have competition. Yoshima’s people will be on the same trail.”

“More power to the bastards. Maybe they’ll save me the trouble.”

Against her better judgment, Diana mounted a weak defense of her former colleague. “How bad could it be to let her try her hand at this? Aren’t there enough assholes out there to keep everyone busy, even Jules?”

“Diana, she could turn,” he rebutted mildly. “She could be worse than Riggins ever was.”

“I don’t wanna believe that.”

“Neither do I, but I can’t allow her actions to go unanswered. If she gets set up, she’ll drop out of sight and it could be months – years – before she comes up again,” Harry explained. “I remember years back when the old man was first feeling his way around, spreading his tentacles to see how tight he could squeeze. If I had intervened then, before he hooked up with Mangano… ”

“Stop,” Diana urged, cringing nervously on the sofa. “Please, just… don’t go there.”

Mars had no deep need to recount his failures to Diana, so he complied by cutting short his backward attempt to apologize by taking responsibility for the horrors that resulted from his inaction. He knew it was partly his fault. She knew it, too. Maybe the fact that she was still talking to him, offering him honest, hard answers, was proof that he was forgiven for his earlier cowardice.

“I just don’t want that to happen to you – or anyone else – again,” he continued. “Riggins is dead and gone and I can’t make that right for you, but if I can spare you anything else – ”

“Harry, I’m not your responsibility,” Diana reminded gently, “and you’re not mine. We help each other because we’re… friends. You were always decent to me and I want you to be okay, but this is strictly a trade arrangement. I get the virus to you, you help Angel and Gedde get their mother to safety.”

“Julia’s off the table,” he concluded stonily.

“I can’t play dice with someone else’s life anymore, not even hers,” she fibbed, knowing that was exactly what she was planning to do. “Are you gonna help Angel and Gedde?”

He waited just long enough to make her nervous before answering, perhaps a passive-aggressive payback for her admitted interaction with the woman who crippled him. “Yeah. I’ll put the word out in the field. If they show up with what you promised, I’ll look after them.”

Diana shut her eyes, tipped her head back on the sofa arm, and breathed a sigh of unqualified relief. “Thank you, Harry. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

“What I know is that you’re up to something,” Mars replied, displaying his intuition again. “You don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. If it involves Julia, just remember this – you’re playing with fire.”

“So is she,” Diana crisply declared, starched again by his perceptiveness. “You do whatever you have to do to keep your life going, Harry. Don’t doubt for a second that I’ll do the same.”

He sat on that for a bit, then spit out his half-smoked cigarette with a silly phtooey sound. “One down, one to go, eh?” he queried strangely.

Diana quirked an eyebrow and frowned into the phone. “Pardon?”

“Well, Angelia’s all but taken care of,” Mars explained. “Now you just get Jules off your back and things return to normal for you and the lawyer. Betcha can’t wait till this excitement’s over, get back to the hum-drum stuff. Tend your garden, go to the movies, catch an adulterer or two…”

There was a flippant disrespect in his voice, something Diana did not like at all. It was similar to the casual disapproval she heard in Julia’s tone when she critiqued her “boring little life” with Charlotte, as if neither of them truly believed she could swim happily through her days without the agency’s morass of troubleweed tugging at her feet.

“Angelia deserves a chance to construct a life of her own,” she diplomatically stated, “and so does Julia, but nobody’s gonna knock down my life and build in the ruins. Not them, not you. No one. I’m happy, Mars. God help anybody who tries to take that away from me.”

A shocked spool of quiet unwound between them as Harry fumbled with his traitorous tongue. “I didn’t mean for that to sound so shitty, Diana. You know I don’t begrudge you your happiness.”

“You just don’t understand or accept the source. None of you get it.”

“I want to understand, but… I’m sorry. I don’t really get it at all,” he said contritely.

“What’s not to understand?” Diana querulously pressed. “Exactly what do you think I’m missing out on by being with her?”

Analogies were not Harry’s specialty, but he grunted softly and took a shot at explaining his confusion. “This is bound to sound stupid, but it’s like we were a football team, you know? Everyone down on the field, putting aside personal differences, slugging it out with a common goal in mind… then some spectator comes out of the stands and waltzes off with the star running back.”

“I’d make a lousy running back,” Diana interjected. “High center of gravity.”

“Wide receiver, then,” Mars grumpily amended. “You tossed a lateral to get rid of the ball, pulled off all your protective gear and left the game with a stranger. You didn’t depart with another player, didn’t defect to another team, just turned your back on the whole thing for… a spectator.”

Slightly dazed and confused, Diana jostled her head to and fro to make the logic settle. “My leaving doesn’t trouble you so much as who I chose to leave with?”

“Uh… yeah. I suppose that’s the issue.”

“Harry, listen closely because I’m only going through this once. Charlie is not just some idle spectator. From the moment I confided in her about who I really was, she’s been right with me, guiding me down the field – through all varieties of hazardously weird shit – like a veteran quarterback,” Diana explained, sticking with his admittedly goony pigskin metaphor.

“She accepts, forgives and loves everything in me that I can’t accept, forgive or love about myself. Charlotte Browning makes me feel like it’s possible to leave behind who I was, and she’s made me strong enough to become who I want to be. I might not look any different, but some quantum alterations have occurred inside me. I have changed. Do you… can you see that? Does it show?”

On the other end of the secured phone line, Harry Mars was so quiet she thought he might have nodded off during her didactic mini-lecture. A soft, wet sound like parched lips being licked, then a rasp of breath signaled that he was merely digesting her words rather than snoozing.

“It shows,” he admitted finally. “Some of us just don’t want to look.”

Diana shook her head ruefully, regretting the decision to go down this road. “Why is it so hard?”

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but… seeing someone actually accomplish what I considered impossible makes me feel weak in comparison,” Harry ventured. “If you can do it, why can’t I? Why haven’t I ever tried it myself? It’s hard to look at what you have and not feel jealous.”

“Ah-hah. That’s where you and Julia each misjudged the situation so badly – you both seem to think you need me when what you really need is Charlie.”

Harry snorted gently; Diana could almost see him smiling. “You willing to part with her for a while?”

“You wish,” she growled. “Find your own galvanizing cathartic impetus.”

“I won’t pretend to understand what you just said.”

“She’s done my vocabulary a world of good, too,” Diana smiled. “I gotta sign off, chief.”

“You sound tired, kid,” he understated drastically.

“So much so, I think I’m actually dead. My spirit is being channeled through the phone service operator. Ooky spooky, huh?”

“Horrifying. Three things before you go: one – get some sleep, two – watch yourself with the bad guys and gals, three – if you need anything at all from me, just call.”

“I wrecked the Porsche,” Diana impulsively confessed. “Can I have another one?”

“You cannot be serious,” Mars intoned, his voice threaded through with dread.

“How about silver or red this time?” she teased, fully expecting him to cuss her out again.

“Christ, you’re more trouble now than when you worked for me,” he grumbled. “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

Diana’s eyes went wide and her mouth fell open. “Mars, I was just…”

The line went silent – Harry had hung up on her somehow, even without use of his arms. She pictured his pressing the disconnect key with his nose as she voiced her objection to dead air.

“… kidding. Oh, hell. I hope he was kidding, too.”

In the waning minutes before blazing sunrise sent that eventful Monday into full tilt boogie, Diana Starrett drifted into a light doze. She blearily envisioned herself as the bratty Veruca Salt from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” facetiously begging Harry Mars for an Oompa Loompa and waking to find a tiny, orange-faced man in white overalls waiting on her doorstep.

No matter what her misguided, materialistic mother may have told her as a child, Diana knew now that it could be a very dangerous thing to have an indulgent, powerful man willing to fulfill her selfish whims. She wondered how she would explain it to Charlie, how she managed to obtain another extravagant gift from poor, infatuated Uncle Harry.

“It was an accident, honey! I swear!” she cried softly, experimenting with her seldom-used begging voice. *Yeah, she’ll believe that… right after the monkeys stop flying out of my butt. Charlie’s rubbing off on me – I never talked myself into trouble before.*
——————————————————————————–

*This is pointless,* Charlotte told herself, not for the first time. *I can’t sleep. Too revved to idle, as Diana would say. Wonder if she’s gotten even a wink the past couple of days… probably not.*

Over three hours into Luis’ morning watch, and the attorney still couldn’t make her eyes stay shut. Her hazel focus drifted aimlessly around her sister’s guest bedroom, wishing the cheery colors of Laura Ashley bedding and Gauguin prints could ease her tense disposition into restful slumber. Julia didn’t seem to share her difficulty; the blonde woman sprawled like al dente pasta on the chaise lounge in front of the bedroom door, her pricey pistol warming under one bedenimed thigh.

Checking the bedside clock, Charlie calculated there were less than twelve hours remaining before dinner at her parents macabre manse, and she shuddered at the thought of going into that house with the Swedish stranger instead of her partner.

*Ick. Don’t wanna.*

All her thoughts on the matter ran along a similar line, with variations in expression if not in theme. She pulled one floral cased pillow over her head to block out the daylight streaming freely through too-pale blinds, and gave a grunt of dissatisfaction.

“Are you ever going to sleep?” Julia asked, her clipped annoyance rousing Charlie from neath the pillow shield.

“I’m afraid you’re gonna sneak over here and smother me,” she replied, eyeing the other woman warily. “Thought you were zonked out over there.”

“Cat naps are usually all I need.” Julia sat up and smoothed a hand over her slightly mussed hair. “Did you know that Thomas Edison rarely slept more than twenty minutes at a time? He considered the whole concept of beds and pajamas and eight-hour deaths to be a foolish waste.”

Charlie rolled onto her side and faced her de-facto guardian, wishing she were able to sleep if for no other reason than to avoid more conversation. “Someone certainly has a noggin full of trivia.”

Julia shrugged, working out a kink in her shoulder. “Serves me well on occasion. If your parents want to play Trivial Pursuit tonight, I’d advise you to pick me. We’ll clean them out.”

“My parents will be too busy berating me and wondering where Diana is to play party games.”

“Hmm. You could always say that I’m Diana, that I bleached my hair and shrank several inches.”

Cocking a brow, Charlotte couldn’t tell if the offer was serious, but chose to decline as quickly as possible. “Wouldn’t work. My sister’s family would give you away.”

“How so?”

“They love Diana, think of her as part of the brood. You, they don’t know at all. The kids would flub the dub in less than a minute.”

Julia looked rather amused as she recalled the less than warm welcome she received from the waking Avila children a few hours ago. The girl child, Katie, asked Charlotte no less than ten times where Diana was, why she hadn’t come over to sleep at their house too.

“Auntie Diana. Who’d have thought?” she yawned, wincing as the sore spot Diana planted on her ribs finally began to loosen and fade. “If I do accompany you this evening, how do you plan to explain my presence and her absence?”

“I’ll wing it,” Charlie answered grumpily. “Just be ready to follow my lead.”

“Why must we attend this dinner at all? None of you seems anxious for a visit.”

“We’ve been summoned. Emily and I, along with our significant others. I’m told this is in regards to something important, something my father considers crucial enough to stomach our company for a few hours.”

“Stomach your company?” Julia repeated, clearly intrigued by the underlying turmoil her words implied. “Does daddy dislike his daughters?”

Charlotte kicked at the restraining quilt wrapped around her legs, her discomfort growing. “Let’s just say the Brownings should have forgone procreation and adopted some Guatemalan kids through the mail. We’d have all been better off not knowing each other.”

Sensing a change in the conversational terrain from sand to eggshells, Julia changed the subject. “I did that once. Adopted one of those needy third-world kiddies.”

“You did not,” the lawyer grumbled, rolling her eyes.

“Did so,” Julia insisted. “Siarah Mbusi, a boy of ten from Sudan. Once, while on a little trek through the region, I visited his village to check on his condition, see if the food was getting though. What I found there ended my sponsorship agreement instantly.”

“Let me guess – he didn’t exist. The charity just stole contributions and shut down overnight.”

Julia shrank back a bit, frowning grossly. “My, but you are a jaded little thing.”

“It’s not a new story,” Charlie complained.

“No, it certainly isn’t – but it wasn’t that simple. When I arrived, a troupe of thugs ran the village, raiding most of the food and supplies sent in by well-meaning but hands-off westerners. The Mbusi family lost their father and two sons in resisting, and the mother had been repeatedly raped by soldiers until she was virtually catatonic. The child I sponsored was essentially orphaned and left to fend for himself and two younger sisters in a hard, barren country.”

“I’m getting a very Lifetime Network Movie feeling about this tale. You probably rescued the boy and took him to safety someplace, complete with a tearful goodbye scene, right?”

“Not quite.” Julia stood up, stretched a bit more, then produced a pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket. “Will I be crucified for spewing carcinogens in this household?”

Charlie blanched unaccountably at her choice of words, then shook her head. “As long as you don’t smoke around the kids, they’re pretty tolerant.”

“Glorious,” the older blonde sighed, lighting up and inhaling deeply. “Now, as for Siarah, he was thirteen when we finally met, and he was unwilling to leave his village in the hands of criminals. Very noble boy, very stubborn as well. Sooo… I gave him the equivalent of five thousand dollars, some explosives, several AK-47s, as well as a few lessons on how to use them in defense of his people.”

“You armed a little boy?” Charlotte gasped in startled horror.

“God bless the child that’s got his own,” Julia sang. “Besides, a thirteen year-old who grew up in those conditions is not a child – he was already a man. His people rallied and ousted the thugs within a week’s time, and he no longer needs the support of charitable dilettantes to feed his family.”

“I don’t get you at all. How could you risk his life like that, send him into danger?”

“Most human beings don’t reside in ivory towers. I didn’t send him down from some safe, puffy cloud into a pitched battle – he lived inside that horror, and I helped him find his own way out. As a result, there is at least one village in that wasteland where people can live free of victimization by traveling brute squads… also, it’s one place I know I’ll always be welcomed, protected.”

Charlie just shook her head, marveling at the selfish foresight masquerading as generosity. “Some place where no one would ever find you, where the people would cover for you… geez. You’re some piece of work.”

“I wouldn’t say no one could find me there – Diana knows where the village is. That’s likely the place she’ll find me if things bottom out and I need her to… finish it.”

A picture came unbidden to Charlotte’s mind; Diana striding into a collection of ramshackle huts built on dusty earth, past dark, nervous men with hidden guns, finding Julia waiting alone in a shadowed doorway, smiling as if her old friend was expected.

“High Noon played out on the African desert,” she commented, fighting off a sudden chill.

“Don’t fret, darling,” Julia urged gently. “It might never happen. I might take a turn for the better, make Mother Teresa look like Pol Pot.”

“Oh, do, please,” Charlotte begged facetiously, flipping onto her back and staring at the speckled white ceiling. “That would be such a nice surprise.”

Julia snickered as she crossed the room, stopping at the windows and peeking through the blinds. The fenced rectangle of grass littered with toys, the swingset where they chatted the night away, a neat, orderly garden of unambitious but pretty flowers, all of it so achingly normal. She tried to imagine Diana here, at some family function, at play. At peace. She sneered briefly, then broke off when she felt the ceramic fillings in her teeth start to throb, overdosed on sweetness.

“This dinner is at eight, yes?” she asked suddenly, turning back to the bedded lawyer.

“Yes,” Charlie moaned in reply.

“Formal attire is expected?”

“They’re a formal bunch, so I would again answer yes.”

“We have nothing to wear,” Julia whined, hating the idea of appearing slovenly for any longer than necessary. “Not that I really mind being in Diana’s pants…”

“Hush up, Ingrid,” Charlie ordered, miffed by the double entendre. “We’ll borrow something from my sister. Emmy has a closet full of dresses she never wears, all a few sizes too small.”

“Why would she buy clothes that do not fit? Inspiration to shed a few pounds?”

“No, Emily’s fine with her weight. The dresses are spiteful little gifts from our mother, non-verbal messages of disapproval, silky little suggestions of what Emily should look like, in her opinion.”

“How tritely passive-aggressive,” the Swede noted, getting a better idea of why nobody wanted to visit mummy and daddy Browning. “Perhaps she should send your mother a gift with similar intent.”

Charlie peeked at the woman with one curious eye. “Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Julia sighed, loosing her catty imagination on the dilemma. “Job listings? Advertisements for plastic surgeons? A vibrator?”

Against her will, a wicked giggle conned its way up her throat, and she smiled at the playful evil inherent in such ideas. “How much did Diana tell you about my folks?”

“Very little, but enough,” Julia replied honestly. “They make you feel bad and she doesn’t like that; therefore, she didn’t paint a pretty picture.”

“What did she say, exactly?”

“Something like ‘intolerant puritans with old-growth timber lodged in their rectums,’ I believe.”

Charlotte laughed again and mentally gave Diana a pinch to the heinie. “That about covers it.”

Julia watched the younger woman laugh, saw the winsome crinkles appear around eyes and mouth, and wondered if these tiny aesthetic details charmed Diana as much as they did her. Probably more, she concluded, finally seeing a fraction of the attorney’s appeal in that moment of mirth. Surprising them both, she took a long step and leapt onto the foot of the bed, folding her legs under her like a schoolgirl as the squishy mattress bounced her to a stop.

“How shall I behave before the dread duo?” she asked the discombobulated Charlotte. “We can go a number of routes – polite professional associate, vacant-and-lonely client from out of town, worldly corporate entrepreneur, grabbily lusty new love interest… ”

“Hold it right there,” Charlie nervously commanded. “There’s no way they’d buy that one.”

Gray eyes wide, Julia assumed a hurt tone. “I’m too homely, aren’t I? You’d be embarrassed to have them think of me as your lover.”

Charlie gave an exasperated sigh at the concealed attempt to fish for a compliment. “It’s not that. You know what you look like. They’d never buy it because I’m… uncomfortable around you, to say the least. Even now, I feel like there’s a rabid pit bull sitting on my feet, pondering whether my calf would taste like chicken.”

“Well, we could work on that,” Julia proposed, grinning and snapping her teeth around her cigarette butt. “We have several hours to kill… wanna fool around?”

The look on Charlotte’s face conveyed that she would rather swallow broken glass, lay in front of the bull chute at the Calgary Stampede, chew asbestos insulation, move back in with her parents…

She was up and out of the bed before five heartbeats had passed.

“I’m gonna get some breakfast,” she muttered as she exited the bedroom, disdain swirling in her wake like a surly gout of oil smoke.

“Darling, I was only joking!” Julia called after her, chuckling indolently as she rolled onto her back. “Some people have no sense of humor.”
——————————————————————————–
Thirty One

T-minus 1:15:00

Diana paced the length of the strange kitchen, sweating under generously padded clothes and thick, sticky make-up. The dress she wore was too long, and the hem brushed the cold white ceramic tiled floor when she stooped even a few inches, but it concealed everything she needed to hide and kept her body as anonymous and innocuous as her face.

She went over the evening’s menu once more in her head – a challenge for a novice chef like herself – and wondered idly if the men and women coming to help her could cook at all. Her “staff” were due to arrive at any moment, and she checked her reflection in the shining steel door of the Sub Zero refrigerator, making certain her disguise was holding up.

*Been a long time since you had to play dress-up, huh? Well, you look fine. Like Nancy Kwan on stilts and steroids. Just stop messing with the hair,* she scolded herself as she picked at her itchy silvered wig. *Everything’s done – except catching Chen. That’s all that remains. The trap is set….*

An early morning call to Quentin Carver cleared Charlie’s schedule for the day, and the firm’s senior partner agreed to personally field all inquiries regarding Ms. Browning’s whereabouts. By two in the afternoon, he reported back that a new client phoned in and requested an after-hours consult with Charlotte specifically, and Carver dutifully informed him that Ms. Browning was away from the office due to a family obligation. After a bit of subtle prying from the polite male caller, Quentin revealed a few details, like the wheres and whens of the dinner – things Diana wanted fed to any curious parties.

“I don’t understand what you’re up to, my girl, but you must promise to divulge the entire sordid mess to me at your earliest opportunity,” Carver genially demanded, a small price for his effective compliance with Diana’s instructions.

Chen Kaige never retraced his steps, never ever chanced walking over the same ground time and again, so she felt confident that he would not risk another appearance at Emily’s house or a return trip to The Meadows, but he would try to intercept his target on fresh ground, even if that meant an ambush outside her office building or a sneak attack at her parent’s home.

*You know where she’ll be, so this is your only option, son,* Diana called out to him, summoning the killer closer with her will. *You want her, you gotta come here… to me.*

Diana aimed a finger gun at her alien reflection in the Sub Zero and fired a whispered shot. The smile had barely faded from her masked, wrinkled eyes when the kitchen door swung soundlessly open, admitting a thin, matronly woman in a sparkly red dress nearly as crimson as her dyed hair. She smelled strongly of perfume – Elizabeth Arden’s Red, if Diana was not mistaken – and wobbled a bit as she walked, as if her shoes were too tight… or as if she herself were too tight.

“Have your people not arrived yet?” she asked, fluttering around the large island in the kitchen’s center, wiping bony fingers across floured cutting boards where Diana had begun preparing tiny balls of dough for steamed dumplings.

“No, missy,” Diana replied in a voice not her own, in the shrill, cheesy accent this woman would expect to hear from an elderly asian immigrant. She resumed her place before the cutting board and attacked the dough balls with maximum attention. “They come soon. I already making dim sum now. All will be in readiness before you dinner.”

“It is six-fifty in the P.M.!” the woman fretted, brushing the flour from her hands as she surveyed the strewn ingredients for a large meal, lying in colorful piles on every kitchen surface. Her lined face tensed hard, as if she were fending off a migraine, and she turned hard little blue eyes on the pudgy, tall old woman who was her last and least favored choice to cater dinner… after all her other preferences proved mysteriously and suddenly unavailable. “Listen to me closely, Mrs. Wong…”

“Name is Fong,” Diana corrected, eyes glued to the dough squishing through her fingers.

“Fong, then,” she said, spinning the name back with prejudice. “I pray that you are competent enough to comprehend these words – dinner is to begin promptly at eight. If there are any delays or mishaps, your fee will be garnished or perhaps withheld entirely. Do you understand?”

“All will be readiness, missy. Take chill pill or something,” Diana advised, killing the woman with a kindly smile, aware that she sounded like some awful stock character from a canceled sitcom. Still, the opportunity was too ripe and juicy to resist. “You worry too hard. Worry make you old and ugly like me. You can no afford much more worry, missy.”

Those hard little blue eyes nearly leapt from their sockets like Mexican Jumping Beans, alive with some squirming internal worm of offense and scorn. Her narrow nose tipped upward, allowing her to stare in a vaguely downward direction at the stooped old woman. “Mind your tongue,” she hissed. “I know the number for INS, and I’m not averse to calling them to report illegal aliens.”

“I got Green Card. You no scare me,” Diana shot back, wanting so badly to laugh that resisting the urge made her sides balloon and ache. “You want cook dinner you self?”

“This dinner is to be a catered affair,” she said primly, bowing up slim shoulders until the lax flesh of her neck stood out on tense tendons. “Much to my disappointment, my usual provider canceled on me today and all the reputable caterers were booked. You were my last choice, Mrs. Wong…”

“Name is still Fong, no Wong.”

“WHATEVER!!” she shouted, nearly blowing herself off her shoes with the force of her bellow. She took a moment to run a hand over the front of her dress and pat down her poofed hair, soothing her flared temper to a dull glow of condesencion. “Tonight must go smoothly. If you cause an incident or if the meal is unsatisfactory, I will see to it that you never work in this town again.”

Diana looked up at the woman as she neatly wrapped a dozen dumplings in wax paper for moist keeping. She tried to see something of Charlotte in that harsh, angular face, even a sliver of Emily would do, anything to prove that the girls weren’t adopted or found like puppies discarded on the doorstep of Cruella DeVille.

This woman looked tired and strung-out and appeared older than her fifty-something years would prescribe. There was something brittle in her manner and posture, as if all that sustained her was a stiff coating of pancake foundation outside and a porous core of moth-eaten superiority within.

This was not how Diana pictured the mother of the most lovely, loving woman on the planet.

“You not nice lady,” she quietly observed, blue eyes burning cool behind dark contacts. “I make good dinner for you, ready before eight, no problem. Ask you one thing?”

Hands on narrow, soft hips, Anne Compton Browning sighed wearily. “What?”

“Try be nice tonight. Everything taste better with no hate in mouth.”

Just as Mrs. Browning was preparing to launch into a colorful indictment of the strange old woman’s presumptuous nature, a bell sounded from the kitchen entrance. Diana left her dough and quickly scurried over to open the heavy wooden door, one hand inside her dress pocket, grasping the stock of Dan’s barely used Glock 13.

Fortunately, she did not need the weapon just yet. Two men and one woman – all variously asian, all dressed in white kitchen smocks – filed into the house. Each of them eyed the lanky old woman curiously as they passed but none spoke until spoken to, per their earlier instructions.

“My people here now,” Diana called back to her employer of this evening. “You rest easy, go have stiff toddy or some such. We take care everything for you.”

“Oh, what an incredible relief!” Mrs. Browning sarcastically cried, waving her hands at the shifty crew of foreigners invading her home. “That is what I’m paying you good American money for!”

Diana shuffled over and herded the tense woman out the kitchen door by extending both long arms and walking toward her, relying on Anne Browning’s reputed aversion to being touched to get her moving. “You go now. Go. Go,” she urged, then called out one more thing as she finally cleared the swing of the weighty kitchen door. “And try be nice! Never know – you might like it!”

Once the door settled, Diana turned to the three newcomers and smiled as she spoke to them without accent or pretense. “Glad you guys could make it on such short notice. Names, please?”

The three looked to each other in abject confusion, and the two younger ones seemed ready to defer to the elder of their group. Diana stepped up to him and cordially extended her hand. “My name is Diana, but in the presence of others tonight, I’d appreciate it if you would call me Mrs. Fong.”

The oldest man, around forty or so with thinning hair and a distinctly Korean set to his eyes, carefully took her hand and gave it a light shake. He seemed surprised to find it wasn’t as frail as it appeared, strong fingers contracting tight around his hand.

“I’m Joseph,” he said solidly, the very picture of mature rien and forced confidence.

“Joseph,” Diana repeated the name for confirmation, then turned to the woman.

She appeared to be around thirty years-old, and had a peculiarly flat nose that covered nearly a quarter the breadth of her pleasant, fleshy face. Vietnamese descent, Diana guessed.

“Sonia,” she announced quietly, sharp almond-shaped eyes mentally peeling away the costume, evidently curious what was under the ingenious, seamless disguise.

“Sonia,” Diana parroted, nodding briefly as she found the third member of her crew – a rangy youth in his mid-twenties, with slightly rounded, liquid black eyes that made Diana remember Laos.

“B-buh-Bryan,” he gradually admitted. His examination was even more obvious as he craned his head from side to side, fascinated by the old asian woman who was neither old nor asian.

“Bryan,” she said finally, indexing the new names and faces. “I’m pleased to meet you. Tell me, are you all tagged?”

“Of course,” Joseph answered. “Control’s outside, on the move. Mobile unit.”

“I need you to bust the tags and tell Control to shut down any signals – no pinging, no sending.”

The three looked at Diana as if she were speaking in tongues, so foreign was the idea of working without supervision, without the constant stream of advice and strategy from an outside source.

“Look, Chen has access to good detection equipment. If there’s any funky waves beaming around this place, he’ll pick up on it and he won’t show,” Diana explained patiently. “Can you comply?”

Joseph touched a hand to his left ear, listening to the disembodied voice of the team’s controller. He frowned and his two partners looked tense as he carried on a one-sided dialogue with someone Diana alone could not hear.

“You’ll get static from upstairs. Shouldn’t you ask first before… okay. Okay. Will do.”

With a shaky sigh, Joseph removed a small, flesh-toned cone from his ear and handed the tiny device to Diana. After a glance to Joseph for approval, Sonia and Bryan did the same. Apparently, Control saw things her way and agreed to go radio/laser/microwave silent for the evening.

“Thanks for the cooperation,” Diana whispered carefully into her cluttered palm, certain the controller was still out there somewhere, listening. She walked over to the Cuisinart by the sink and opened the top. “You might want to cover your ears,” she advised Control, then dropped the three tags into the food processor and hit ‘dice,’ instantly turning them into incredibly expensive techno-mulch.

Turning back to her three de-tagged helpers, Diana opened a drawer in the center island and withdrew what appeared to be a curling iron. “This’ll only take a second,” she told them as she switched on the detection wand and swept it over their bodies, scanning for any additional bugs.

*No beeps, no lights,* she noted, pleased with the results. *Control plays honest, one tag per person. That’s actually… refreshing.*

“So what do we do now?” Bryan asked, his eyes darting between Joseph and Diana, begging for someone to answer him, to guide him.

“We cook dinner,” Diana jovially replied, replacing the scanner and dumping the tattered tags into the garbage disposal, “we protect several innocent people who will gather here tonight for a family meal, and last but not least, we apprehend a world-famous assassin – hopefully before dessert. I’m making this ice cream and sour cherry rum thing that’s on fire… ”

“How?” Sonia asked, sounding doubtful in the extreme.

Diana quirked a brow at the woman, as much as she could through her make-up. “Hey, I know it sounds hard, but if Emeril Lagasse made one, so can I. Granted, I might burn down the kitchen…”

Sonia’s eyes widened as she glanced at her two companions and gestured to include herself in their number, still making only a lowly foursome. “I mean catching Chen. You implied that we’re going to do this alone?”

“Oh, yeah.” Diana gave a grin that stretched her painted and taped cheeks, one that nearly conveyed the immense pleasure she was feeling at the prospect of success. “And when we’ve got him in custody, if the three of you are still alive, you get a nice little surprise as a ‘thank you’.”

Though they tried to hide it, each of the three faces showed they were thinking the same thing – that this ‘thank you’ would be something rather small, hot, and made of lead which would collide with their skulls at an extremely rapid rate of speed. They had all been expecting it for weeks now, in light of their poor adaptation rates and slipping mission success factors…

“No, no, no!” Diana waved away their pensive looks with a fluttering hand and a cheery grin. “God, don’t be so negative. I’m not going to kill you, but Mrs. Browning might if we don’t get dinner ready by eight. Sonia, Bryan – start chopping those peppers and celery over there,” she directed, “And Joseph, you slice the chicken into strips while I finish the dumplings.”

Joseph nodded to the younger ones, and they slowly commenced with their tasks, if only to take their minds off the hopelessness of the evening’s endeavor. Three dead meat, screw-up spies and one loony somebody dressed like an old woman were supposed to catch the world’s most elusive contract killer? Their collective attitude could be summed up in two words – as if !

“Try thinking positive, you guys,” Diana encouraged, trying hard to sound upbeat. “Your negative vibes are killing my whole ‘impending danger’ buzz.”

Joseph gave her a weak smile and attempted to explain. “You must know why she sent us here tonight instead of first-stringers. We’re not exactly the most skilled tradesmen in the field.”

“You’re here tonight because you deserve a second chance, not because you’re condemned,” Diana argued. “I can’t promise you your freedom, but if things go well and you make it through the night, you’ll get a do-over on this whole covert operations career, okay?”

“What do you mean by ‘do-over’… Mrs. Fong?” the man asked cautiously, guarding a fragile hope that Diana wasn’t lying through her obscenely white teeth.

“Just follow my lead and you’ll see,” Diana told him, administering a chummy pat to his back as she finished up the dumplings and saw that Joseph was done slicing the chicken. “Great, now we’re getting somewhere. Bryan, be a love and fire up the wok, would you?”
——————————————————————————–
T-minus 00:07:00

Darkness gradually slipped up on the scene, draping itself over the city’s shoulders like a blanket on a slumbering child. Chen Kaige was glad of the nightfall as he sat in his new ride, a purloined black Plymouth Breeze with an almost opaque screen of 360 degree window tinting and a masque of alternative rock band stickers in the back window.

He wrapped a Kleenex around his gloved index finger pushed a button sticky with a brown cocktail of Pepsi and blood spilled by the Plymouth’s recently and violently evicted owner and rolled down the passenger-side window. He then aimed the wide barrel of a microwave scanner toward the massive, indecorous house.

On the rear-mounted four-by-four LED screen, he saw multi-hued representations of three bodies moving in the front room – two men of average build and one woman who nearly vanished when she turned sideways.

*So thin. Women here are either too fat or too thin. It seems no one is happy being healthy,* he reflected, his dislike for America’s excesses growing with each passing hour. *Only the predators and the fearful see fit to cultivate strength, and there are no predators here tonight… save myself.*

Having scanned the residence for a variety of communications emissions, he found no signatures of note, nothing suspicious. His comfort level increased with every sign of Diana Starrett’s absence, and his hope grew strong that she was either killed or severely injured in their automobile collision. If she was somehow kept from protecting her lover, his chances for a successful kill would rise to the status of certainty, and Chen felt sure he was due a lucky break by now.

*One lawyer should not be so difficult to locate, isolate and kill,* he brooded, visualizing dry wind blowing over Hideo Yoshima’s bleached bones, angry for his non-disclosures regarding the attorney’s entanglements. *My promised bonus will prove insufficient for enduring such difficulties.*

Chen eavesdropped on the dull conversation of the imbecile catering staff and surmised that the rest of this evening’s guests had not yet shown. According to the foolishly helpful old man he spoke with at Browning’s law office, his target was destined to be among the imminent arrivals. Punctuality could be a wonderful thing, especially if it positioned him correctly to pick off Charlotte Browning with a single, quiet rifle shot from the street. Clean and fast. Drive to the airport and fly away home.

Just as the stolen Plymouth’s dash clock flipped to read 7:56, a dark blue minivan rolled to a stop at the curb, parking right in front of 665 Drury Lane – the home of Charles Foster Browning. Perhaps sixty yards away, the Caravan sat at a convenient diagonal slant which gave him a clear view of the passenger side.

“Blessed are the persistent,” Chen muttered, exchanging his microwave lens for a .45 caliber rifle with precision crosshairs and liquid-filled silencer. “Sit on the riverbank long enough, and the head of your enemy will float past.”

Braced gingerly against his injured shoulder, the rifle felt right. A perfectly comfortable relationship existed between weapon and hunter. One well-placed shot and this would all be over. Chen eased his eye onto the padded sight and traced the crosshairs along the lines of the boxy family vehicle and waited for his duck to flap into view.

A swarthy, thick man in a dark suit exited the driver’s seat and rounded the van.

“Not her.”

He opened the passenger door and offered his hand to a redhead wearing a burgundy evening gown.

“Still not her.”

The woman opened the sliding door and three children tumbled out of the back seats.

“Not her at all.”

The van was now empty. All the passengers filed up the stone walk and gathered at the front door of the hideous house. They knocked and were soon admitted by a graying man who politely smiled at the adults and ruffled the children’s hair. Chen felt the tuggings of frustration in his stomach and allowed himself to swear a profane oath.

“Drat.”

He drew in the rifle and settled back to wait a little longer. If the easy route of sniping didn’t pan out, he would be forced to use more extreme measures, which could prove infinitely more fun. Chen cast a glance at the bag in the Plymouth’s back seat and smiled, thinking the neighbors would probably thank him if his fail-safe plan were implemented.

* No one would mourn this house if it were to suddenly… disappear. *
——————————————————————————–
T-minus 00:02:10

It didn’t really matter to Charlie where Julia got the car. The thing just seemed to appear at Emily’s door when it was time to go, like some pumpkin chariot whipped up by a fairy godmother with an RPM fixation. Silvery, sleek, and fast enough to race at Daytona, the car fit the blonde driver like it was tailored to her personal specs. A suit of snappy clothes, made to order.

“How do you know he’ll be there when we – WHOA! – make that if we arrive?” Charlie asked. She was wondering if they’d even get to her parent’s house safely, what with Julia zipping through four-way stops and cutting corners in a driving style reminiscent of Diana’s skilled recklessness.

“If he’s still alive and lurking around somewhere, this is his last opportunity for a clean hit before the set deadline. Like all good little running dogs of the capitalist regime, he wants his bonus. He knows you’ll be there tonight, and he will walk into our waiting arms like a good little pawn,” Julia promised, spying a worried frown on the lawyer’s kisser. “Trust me, darling. Diana and I have pulled off far trickier stings with no collateral damage.”

Charlotte nodded, though she couldn’t really appreciate the strategy. If Diana hadn’t gotten to him already, this loose plan seemed only to delay the inevitable, to force Chen into an illegal entry and assault inside her parent’s home. Too little time to worry about that. Two more squealing turns and they were on Drury, a few blocks from the house. Julia cut her headlights.

“The alley starts right up there by the blue Victorian,” Charlie pointed, tensing as they slowed to a creep along the softly lit street. “It runs behind the house, then right back around to the street in two more blocks.”

Julia made the turn and eased the car down the alley, past immaculate garbage cans, ritzy mountain bikes without anti-theft chains, and at least two golf carts monogrammed with their owner’s initials. All the houses she saw were prettily normal, solid and stately houses built in a safe neighborhood by professionals with plenty of money and no architectural daring. Then she saw Xanadu. Even over the high wood fence, lit only by a mocking moon and pale sodium lamps, it was a jarring sight.

“Ohhhh, my.”

Three stories of dark stone were crowned by a sharply-slanted roof of mildewed slate, cut at odd angles to cover jaggedly situated upper rooms. Circular parapets like serrated teeth perched on the east and west corners. A stained bronze spire in the center pointed up to pierce heaven. The rear of the house showed numerous darkly curtained windows, gouges in the stone flesh scarred over with glass. It appeared to be nearly alive, a slumbering or comatose monster that could wake if prodded too hard by happy noises.

Julia pictured the house standing on moldy granite legs, stomping the sweet Cape Cods and Victorians to rubble, carelessly crashing through the streets on its way to the sea.

“Ugly, ain’t she?” Charlotte whispered. Her guts tightened at the thought of going any closer, twitched as she pondered venturing inside the house she escaped several years earlier. She swallowed a dry lump of fear, fending off an instant of nausea.

“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming,” Julia muttered, unable to tear her eyes from the awful sight.

Charlie blinked at the cryptic oddity, wondering if she’d missed something. “Kathie Lee does what?”

“Lovecraft’s wet dream, this house is,” Julia said, shaking off the willies. She reached behind her seat and produced a small, pistol-like device with a folding LED screen. A quick scan of the back yard showed nothing but a large dog laying on its tummy near the back door. “No bi-pedal guests back here, just a big canine something. You’ll be okay getting up there alone?”

“They keep the back gate locked, but I’ve jumped that fence more times than I care to recall. And mom’s Akita is horny but harmless. I’ll be fine.”

“Get going, then. I’ll check out front for our boy – just on the odd chance of providence intervening on my behalf – then I shall come knocking for that free dinner.”

Charlie fired off a snarky grimace as she unhitched her safety belt and fumbled with the door handle. After three tries, she got it open and waited as the hatch lifted on a pneumatic cylinder. With a little rock forward, she tipped out of the leather bucket seat and stood by the car, feeling as if her spaceship had touched down to deposit her on some weird little planet.

With a little wave, Julia pushed a button and the door slipped down silently, locking itself. She watched Charlie nimbly step onto a trash can and boost herself over the fence without a hitch, as promised. After waiting a few beats to make certain her assistance was not needed, she put the fierce engine in gear and the car slipped into a slow prowl. Still with the headlamps off, she piloted through the alley and back around to Drury, gray eyes wide in the search for anything (aside from that rotted hulk of a home) that didn’t belong.

“Like that black Plymouth papered with cheeky stickers. In an area so filthy with disposable income, even the teenagers drive BMWs,” Julia told herself, powering up her microwave scanner as she approached the rear of the parked Breeze. “You’re worth a look, aren’t you?”
——————————————————————————–
T-minus 00:00:17

Diana stirred the entree again, tossing in a few more bits of pepper and celery, and took a little taste of the finished product.

“No bad,” she judged, speaking as Mrs. Fong since the Browning matriarch was looking over her shoulder. “No good, but no bad. Kung-Pao make gassy, but it not kill you, missy.”

Anne Browning arched her penciled brows and sighed. “I suppose that’s the best one could ask from such as yourself, madam. However, you shouldn’t expect a glowing recommendation from me.”

“You, neither,” Diana retorted, smirking at her helpers, all of whom had done the best they could.

“Everything’s ready now, ma’am,” Brian announced brightly, brandishing a dish of egg rolls. Sonya arranged the dim sum appetizers on a sterling silver tray with three dishes of dipping sauce while Joseph scooped steamed rice into large ceramic serving bowls.

“I’m still expecting another guest. We’ll give her…” Anne checked her jeweled platinum watch. “Five minutes. If she has not arrived by then – ”

Her ultimatum to the kitchen staff was cut short by a frantic knock at the back door. She huffed and puffed, grumbling to herself as she unlocked the entrance and found her youngest daughter leaning against the door frame with a furry white suitor humping away at her left leg.

“Mom, get him to stop or I’m gonna kick him right in his little doggy sac!” Charlie demanded, shaking her Akita-covered leg in high annoyance.

“ROTHSCHILD! HEEL!” Mother Browning roared, cocking her bony hand as if to smack the amorous beast between the eyes. “HEEL!”

The Akita, whose full pedigreed name was Christopher Snowden Rothschild, whimpered pitufully and shrank away from his beloved. His ears flattened to his head as he cowered on the back steps, urinating submissively in the hopes of avoiding the wrath of the skinny food lady.

Charlotte hopped through the doorway and hastily brushed at her dress, dusting a mass of white hairs from the deep blue satiny material. The cooks, a coterie of asian men and women, stifled laughter and studiously tried to ignore her embarrassment. Charlie looked twice at the eldest of the crew, a stooped old woman who smiled briefly before returning to her work, and had an odd feeling they’d met somewhere before. Maybe she worked at Liu Chu’s place downtown… no matter. No time to wonder about it just then.

She surveyed her mother’s thin frame, her coiffed helmet of hair, the tense lines deepening on her face. Too rich, too thin, and too, too unhappy. Same as ever, only more so.

“Mother, you have got to get Roth neutered before he impregnates some poor, unsuspecting poodle. Or a cat. Hell, squirrels probably aren’t safe around him.”

Wasting no time arguing that pointless issue, Anne Browning slammed the door and locked it, then went directly into attack mode. “You’re late.”

* First I’ve seen of her in ages and this is how we get started? * Charlie thought, oddly comforted by the hostility. * It’s like the past year didn’t happen at all. Let’s do the time warp again, mom. *

“I am not late. It’s eight on the dot and oh! Would you look at this? Here I am.”

“Your sister managed to show up with a little time to spare for conversation.”

“Emily is a wonderful girl, isn’t she?”

“Hmm. We expected you to arrive with an escort. Of a sort.”

“She’ll be here shortly.”

“So we finally get to meet this Diana person,” Anne sniffed, haughtily appraising her daughter’s physical appearance – along with every tiny reaction to every little poke.

* Keep a cool head, baby,* Charlie coaxed silently. * She’s talking through her nose. That’s not a good sign. Cool head. Ice down the temper. Siberia. *

“Diana is busy tonight. My guest is a very important client from work.”

A muscle tightened and vibrated in Mother B’s jaw. “This is a family gathering, Charlotte, not one of your little business functions. Your father and I have some important things we need to discuss with you. Private matters.”

“Mother, I assure you she won’t alert the press or anything. She’s really not the type to hang out and gossip with your Junior League friends.”

“For your sake, I certainly hope not. Honestly, I don’t understand your priorities at all. Bowing and scraping in the service of that vile Carver man…”

“Don’t start in on him again,” Charlotte cut her off, anticipating worse would follow. “Quentin asked me to keep her company while she’s in town and I promised him I would. Besides, it’s too late to cancel now. She’s already on her way over.”

With a resigned hrrumphing sound and a sharp wave of her hand, a sort of c’est la vie gesture Charlie recognized as ‘Well, what can I expect from such a disappointing child?,’ Anne Browning placed a chilly palm on her daughter’s back and ushered her toward the kitchen door.

“Begin serving in the dining room in ten minutes,” she called to Mrs. Fong, who seemed to be eyeing her with even more impudence than normal.

“Fine, missy,” Diana replied, then whispered low, “May you choke on a dumpling.”
——————————————————————————–

Charlotte took a deep breath as she and mommy dearest left the kitchen and moved down the hall together, no words exchanged until they reached the living room. She wondered where Diana was. She said she’d be in the house, watching over her… if she couldn’t find Chen Kaige alone.

* Please, God. Let it be over already. I don’t know how much more I can bear with grace. *

Emerging from the dark hall into the living room, Charlie spied Emily and Luis huddled with their brood on that squeaky, blood-colored leather sofa which occupied most of the far wall. A large mahogany table with clawed feet separated the Avilas from two enormous brown suede chairs which swallowed and shielded the occupants from rear view. One of the chairs was smoking – or the sitter was, at any rate. A plume of bluish cigar smoke rose from the chair and swirled among the high beams of the ceiling.

* Daddy, * Charlie realized. Even her inner voice was quavering. * I so don’t want to do this. *

Charlotte stopped at the edge of the room, her heels on the carpeted hall runner, the balls of her feet on the unforgiving hardwood floor of the cavernous, echoing den. For a moment, she considered flight. She was certain she could outrun her mother. The woman had quadriceps like peanut brittle.

“Charles, look who decided to put in an appearance,” Mrs. Browning announced to the smoking chair. She gave her offspring a bit of a push to the back to get her moving again.

And suddenly, there he was. Leaving his chair, walking toward her with his hands in his pants pockets, casual as hell. Standing about five-ten, more gray-haired and slimmer than Charlie ever remembered seeing him, wearing a black suit fit for a funeral director, Charles Foster Browning greeted his youngest child, his practically prodigal daughter.

With a handshake.

“Nice of you to show, Chick,” he said, his growly, deep voice bereft of affection, even as he called her by a childhood nickname. After a quick, dry grasp, he withdrew his hand and put it back in his pocket. “Where’s your girl?”

“Working or something. She didn’t want to come,” Anne told him, breezing past them into the room.

“It’s not that Diana didn’t want to come, Daddy,” Charlotte hastily corrected, chafed by her mother’s favorite game of painting her into a conversational corner. “It’s just bad timing. She’s really busy lately. So am I. She would come if she could.”

“That right?” He chewed his lip thoughfully. “Been telling her war stories, have you?”

Charlie stood erect, looked him in the eye. “I didn’t make anything up, daddy.”

“Didn’t say you had. Just that when a body hears one side of a tale, they take it as gospel.”

“Is that why you wanted us here? You want to set the record straight for your ersatz daughter-in-law?”

Charles Browning flinched at the designation she gave Diana. It wasn’t much of a reaction, but Charlie read it as a direct hit when he actually removed a hand from his trousers and scratched his chin. When he spoke again, his voice was low, too low to be overheard by anyone else.

“Got a lot of things to set right, Chick. You and me. Can’t let it sit forever.”

Despite her fear and apprehension, Charlotte felt her heart quicken slightly. Her father had a way of speaking that said more than his words. His eyes could convey his thoughts more easily than his tongue, and right then, they were sending the most hopeful vibes Charlie could ever recall sensing from him. If her mother hadn’t altered her attitudes, that was one thing, but her father…

“I’m willing to try if you are,” she whispered, keeping her hopes tight and secret.

“Good deal. Glad you came.”

He smiled at her and, by heaven, she smiled back. Even with her world turned on its head, even with her life still possibly in danger, Charlotte felt one small knot of tension dissolve in the mass of coiled fear behind her eyes. Maybe this evening wouldn’t be such a horror after all.

She moved into the main room and grinned honestly at Emily, who did not reply in kind. Her sister sat ramrod straight on the couch, Katie huddled close at her side. Luis and the boys looked rather dour as well, their dark eyes jumping from Mrs. Browning to the second suede chair, on which the lady of the house had lain a protective hand, as if she were guarding the chair. Or its occupant.

“Charlotte, we invited someone else as well,” Anne sweetly informed, clucking her tongue as a cue for her special guest to rise and face the crowd. “Someone we’ve sorely missed seeing around.”

Still by her father, Charlie shot him a curious look, to which he replied with a sour frown that told her ‘we’ actually meant mother acting solo and using him as cover. She watched with renewed wariness as the guest stood and turned to face her.

A handsome young man with sandy hair and a shy smile. Gray designer suit, green and blue pattened Zegna tie – money clothes, just like he always wanted. A white circle on the middle finger of his left hand that begged questions which Charlotte was ill-equipped to ask at that particular moment, as she was struck functionally dumb by her roaring, revived anger.

“Gee, Charlie… you look incredible,” he told her, ingenuous and utterly earnest as ever.

Summoning the last reserve of arctic cool remaining in her seething soul, she didn’t scream foul invective at her mother, didn’t turn and stalk out of the house. Charlotte took a deep breath and returned the compliment paid by her former husband.

“You look pretty spiffy yourself, Richard.”

Thirty Two

* Why the fuck did she drag him down here? * Charlotte screamed silently. * Richard lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, making scads of money and doing just fucking fine without us! What can mother hope to accomplish? Reconciliation? That’s a laugh! *

Her mother simply didn’t buy her relationship with Diana as anything more than a phase. Emily and mother superior had discussed “the lesbian thing” enough – with each conversation always coming to that same stand-off on the credibility issue – that Charlie felt certain those were her mom’s true feelings. Richard and marriage were meant to be permanent, some fling with an amazon cop wasn’t.

* It’s been nearly a year now! What do I have to do? Get a pink triangle tattooed on my forehead? Wear a sandwich board that says ‘I’m not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is?? Jesus, this is not looking good for me. Where the fuck is Diana? I need some help here, baby. *

“We nearly thought Richard wouldn’t be able to come,” Mrs. Browning announced, an artificial warmth wafting from her eyes, “and that would have been such a tragedy. This evening is a family affair, and you’re still a part of this family in my eyes, Richard. So like a son to me.”

* I am going to vomit now. Seriously. Shut her up, someone, please… *

A thought, evil through and through, all poison claws and snapping jaws, slithered into Charlotte Browning’s forebrain, planting a seed of cold resentment in her normally peaceful nature.

* Maybe the Menendez boys had the right idea. *

She looked across the airless space separating her from her ex-husband and her soon-to-be ex- mother, and the wicked thought took root and blossomed.

* I’d reload twice, just to make sure. *

“Charlotte,” her mother crooned as she gave Richard a pat on the back, “come over here and give your husband a proper greeting.”

No one else spoke. The Avilas sat silent, radiating a unified field of electric loathing. Charles Browning seemed to shove his hands even deeper into his pockets, his eyes focused on some distant point around the front door. Richard still smiled winningly at Charlie, apparently unaware that his presence was quite unexpected and a major source of potential friction.

Anne Browning bobbed her head and made a little clucking noise, summoning her daughter through clenched teeth and thin smile.

* Okay. If that’s your game tonight, mom, okay, * Charlotte hissed silently. * Let’s play. *

Charlie renewed her smile, angled her shoulders back, and marched across the room with brisk, determined steps. She extended one arm and drew Richard into a half-hug, planting a polite peck on his meticulously shaven cheek. He still wore the same after-shave lotion – some citrusy scent that always made her sneeze. Her nose started to twitch and she caught her breath just in time to avoid a serious fit of tickly, wet sneezes.

“It is nice to see you again, Richie,” she said, selling the greeting with a whispery sincerity. “How are things in the city of angels?”

“Oh, Valerie’s great. We’re just getting moved into the new house in Brentwood. It’s going real well with the new firm, too. I’m up for junior partner at the next meeting,” Richard answered with a vague hint of righteous pride. His focus dropped suddenly to her broken hand sheathed in plaster and bandages. “Nothing as exciting as what you’ve been up to, though.”

Charlotte had a panicked moment, wondering if Emily had told them about her injury. “Really. And just what have you heard?”

Richard regarded her admiringly. “Em here says you busted some evildoer in the mouth.”

A biting glare to her sister, who shrugged with a guilty smile. “She did, huh?”

“Yeah!” Richard seemed altogether too jovial, too impressed. “You always did have a problem with that type, but I never figured you’d do anything so… direct.”

Her confusion growing larger by the second, Charlie scrambled to stay ahead of the curving line of revelation. “Well… it, uhh, it was bound to happen sooner or later… wasn’t it?”

“I suppose, knowing your temper,” Richard agreed. “I can’t believe the jerk hit his kid right in front of you. I think I would have just called the police.”

“Rrrriiight,” Charlie drawled, feeling herself catching up to the cover story Emily handily supplied before her arrival.

“But not you, huh, bruiser? Em says he was twice your size!”

Her eyes widened and she nodded in mute agreement. No wonder her parents hadn’t said boo about her busted hand. Heroic as it might seem to Richard, the Brownings would find it distasteful to think of their little girl punching some abusive dad in the kisser. Emily puffed up a bit on the sofa, waggling her eyebrows as she saw her subversive PR job reap a little reward.

“He wasn’t that big,” Charlotte demurred, stroking her cast, which had become her first prop in the evening’s play. “Anyway, you know I can’t stand people who mistreat children.”

On the last line, she fixed a hard eye on her mother. Anne stood with crossed arms and a blank face. She didn’t like this development; her daughter adjusting so quickly to Richard’s presence was not the plan. It was meant to throw Charlotte off-kilter, and it didn’t seem to be working. Yet.

“Let’s everyone go to the dining room,” Anne suggested suddenly. “Dinner will be served soon.”

Without waiting for anyone to precede her, Anne looped an arm around Richard’s elbow and hustled him down the hall. Charles retrieved his cigar from the coffee table and gave his youngest a brief nod of acknowledgment as he followed. Luis herded the kids along behind in a solemn processional.

Emily slowly stood and walked over to her sister, looking every bit like a gloating spin doctor after successfully defusing a Presidential scandal.

“So I decked a child molester,” Charlotte mused aloud, her voice low and serious.

“Mad at me, champ?” Emily asked gently.

“No, but… couldn’t you have told them I had a traffic accident? Or that I fell in the shower?”

Emily wrapped an arm around her little sister’s shoulders and tugged her into a slow walk toward the dining room. “Now, how much fun could we have had with a boring story like that?”

“When did you decide that tonight’s supposed to be fun?”

“As soon as I saw the witch dragged out your old Ken doll. Can you believe that shit?”

“Yes, I can. Mom’s up to something,” Charlotte whispered, “and I don’t think it’ll be fun.”

“We’ll just have to fix that,” Emily countered, hugging Charlie tighter. “Where’s blondie?”

“Julia?”

“Yuh-huh.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“Lemme ask you something. Is she the type who likes to poke sharp sticks at hungry bears?”

Charlie rolled her eyes and sighed. “I think that’s kinda what she does for a living, Emmy.”

“Cool! This is gonna be great.”

“You are so twisted.”

Emily stopped just outside the double doors leading to the dining area. She posed with a hand on her hip and the ugliest grin this side of sanity. “And just who do you think made me this way?”

“Point taken,” Charlotte conceded. “Let’s party.”

With a backward glance and a silent hope that Diana was covertly prowling the halls, she ushered her sister into the lion’s den with a sense of certainty that someone would bear bite marks before dessert.
——————————————————————————–

Julia’s scan of the parked black Plymouth revealed nothing stirring, not even a mouse. Still, the odd presence of a domestic sedan in this snooty milieu irked her, felt incongruous. She traded the microwave for a compact infrared model, tuned up the sensitivity and swept the barrel in a slow arc from the quiet street to the Browning’s vacant front lawn.

“Hello. What have we here?”

A stone walk split the manicured grass and led up to dark marble steps at the front door. Squared hedges rose up to window level on the ground floor, providing around five feet of dense cover around the perimeter of the house. As Julia aimed the scanner on the cluster of bushes at the west corner, something glowed red on the cool LED screen.

Something crouching and silent and man-shaped. Julia bared her teeth, unable to contain her glee.

“Why, Mistah Chen! Whatevah ah yew doin’ henh?” she giggled, fluttering her eyelashes like a coquettish Scarlett O’Hara on speed. “We didn’t receive your R.S.V.P.!”

She watched as the red blob scuttled around the corner and vanished, presumably scouting the house for a point of entry.

“Please, please, please let him get inside. The welcoming committee awaits.”

Her mind churned out a number of grisly potential scenarios, the lightest of which featured Diana ambushing the assassin, dragging him into a bathroom, dipping his head in the flushing toilet and giving him a swirly. With a coy titter, she checked her hair and make-up in the visor vanity mirror and mentally keyed herself down for a meeting with Charlotte’s loving family. Brimming with anticipation, she secured her small stash of concealed weapons and left the car, softly singing a happy tune.

“And she’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til her daddy takes the T-Bird awaaaay…”

——————————————————————————–

Diana, a.k.a. Mrs. Fong, led her staff of caterers into the dining room on schedule and immediately felt a thorny tension scrape her senses. Seated at the rectangular table of gleaming cherry wood were nine obviously unhappy diners, most trying hard to make small talk, all on the verge of failure. The parents sat at opposing ends, with Luis, Emily and the kids on one side and Charlie, some chatty fellow in a gray suit, and one vacant seat on the other.

* No Julia? Where the hell is she? * Diana wondered angrily as she situated steaming dishes on a maroon linen cloth centered on the table.

The gray suit guy was a surprise, too – a sandy-haired young man she didn’t recognize. He spoke exclusively to Charlotte, regaling her with some fascinating anecdote about the difficulty of obtaining concert tickets for a client’s teenage daughter.

“You know how kids get about these things,” he was saying. Droning. Whatever. “She wanted to see the Spice Girls and she wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer, so I called up Judge Pentland and…”

Charlie looked as if he were speaking in tongues; her attention bore a sheen of polite interest, but Diana could tell she wasn’t really hearing him at all.

She tried not to stare at Charlie’s pinched face, finding that her lover’s look of barely controlled dismay posed a serious threat to her cover. She tamped down her protective instincts, aware that it simply wouldn’t do to have a superannuated asian caterer dropping to her knees beside the Browning’s daughter, kissing her hand and asking if she wanted to talk about what was bothering her.

* Soon, sweetie. * Diana projected the words with her mind, her heart. * We’ll be out of here soon and you can rail away, scream it out until my ears fall off. *

As soon as the thought had formed and flown, Charlotte looked up at her. They locked eyes and for a brief instant, Diana saw a fleeting glimmer of recognition. She placed the tray of dumplings in front of Charlie and waited for some clue that she was known, spotted beneath the disguise.

Charlotte took a dumpling and popped it in her mouth, instantly making a yummy sound.

“Mmmm. Thethe are wunnerful!” she praised while chewing, savoring. She smiled at Diana, and her pleasure was genuine if oblivious. “I think I’ve had these before. Do you work at Liu Chu’s restaurant, the one on Cretts Boulevard?”

* Good grief, * Diana sighed to herself, comforted that her identity was still concealed. Not even the sharp-eyed Avila kids gave her a second glance, though Katie did appear to find the entire catering staff worthy of a lengthy eyeballing. * I must be better at this make-up thing than I thought. ‘Do you work at Liu Chu’s?’ Oh, honey, you’re gonna hate me… *

“No, missy. I free agent,” Diana replied, almost laughing at her own dumb private joke. “Just cook for fun and profit. No boss-man tell me what do.”

“That will be all, Mrs. Wong. You may leave us now,” Anne Browning interrupted, waving the presumptuous old woman away.

“Fongfongfongfongfong,” Diana corrected merrily, noting a sharp glance passing between mother and child as she retreated back into the kitchen.

“God, mother. Rude much?” Charlie tartly chastened, but by the time affronted Anne was ready to reply, her daughters were already digging into the spray of scrumptious dishes and noisily encouraging the kids and men-folk to do the same.

As plates were filled and wine (along with non-fermented fruit juice for the kiddies) poured from Baccarat crystal carafes, the doorbell rang; a low set of three tones echoing through the house.

Charlie, Emily, and Luis exchanged glances, each aware of the possibility that this was an unwanted guest. With a serious air that told Charlotte he knew the full complement of dangerous consequences his action would spawn, Luis got up and patted a slight bulge under the left arm of his jacket.

“I’ll get that,” he offered, motioning for Charles and Anne to remain seated. He leaned down and kissed Emily’s hair, lightly stroked her cheek with a bulky knuckle. “Be right back, babe.”

“You better,” she warned him, knowing her husband had a secret urge to play hero. Emily silently prayed that he wouldn’t be following Teddy Rinna’s path straight to the intensive care unit.
——————————————————————————–

Chen Kaige crept through the obscuring border of bushes, gradually reaching the back of the house, determined to find a quiet way inside. All the side windows were double-paned, locked and curtained, same for the first portal encountered on the rear. A repeat effort at front-door entry was too chancy. Even if Diana Starrett wasn’t around, there could be another armed, piggy-eyed watchman waiting within. If Charlotte Browning was to be here this evening, the risk of another protector cropping up was worth consideration.

* If the odds are poor, there is always plan B, * he thought, carefully adjusting the light nylon bag hanging from his shoulder.

Still, before destroying the entire house, he wanted to take a shot at keeping things quiet, getting some personal contact with the ignorant sheep huddled together inside these walls. Much cutting would be required to transform this job into a satisfying memory, and Chen had brought enough knives to shear the entire flock.

“Woof!”

The bark caused Chen to jump, then freeze for a second, more due to the dog’s close proximity than any burgeoning threat. Roth, the hump-happy Akita, was less than a yard away, hiding between two bushes with his belly resting in a cool pit of freshly-dug earth. Chen slipped a double-edged dagger from a sheath at his waist, the serrated teeth of a steel blade glinting in dim light.

“Hello, puppy,” he whispered, edging closer to the dog.

Roth panted and smiled at the assassin – or came as close as a dog gets to smiling, anyhow. As far as he was concerned, new people were great. New smells, new tastes, new legs to love. He wagged his tail and rose from his dirt hammock, sniffing at this new hand which held what he felt certain was a shiny new toy for him to play with.

“That’s a good puppy. Come here. I won’t hurt you.”
——————————————————————————–

Luis drew his .45 automatic from the shoulder holster, chambered a hollow-point round, and crossed himself. Though he was prepared to commit a mortal sin in defense of his family, he prayed that the visitor would not force him into such a situation. Navy SEALS are highly trained and able to kill. Luis Avila was fully prepared to do so as he unlocked the front door.

“It’s just me, darlings,” came the sing-song greeting from outside. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Ohhh, thank you sweet Mary, Mother of God,” Luis breathed, fastening the safety on his pistol. He opened the door and let Julia in, then closed and locked the entrance behind her. “I thought it might’a been… you know. The guy. Whoever.”

“Obviously,” Julia said, eyeing the weighty blue steel pistol with appreciation. “I could hear that monster gat loading up through the door. Made me feel most unwelcome.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare ya.”

“Of course you didn’t, darling. It’s quite all right,” she cooed, giving him a conciliatory pat on the arm. “Now, on to more important matters – how do I look?”

Emily’s old black silk halter dress was a few inches too short for Julia, but the extra length of toned leg revealed beneath the hem turned the shortcoming to an unintended blessing. The neckline swum dangerously low, and the fitted waist clung to her gentle curves like a second skin. Her platinum hair was piled loosely atop her head, poking out in a fashionable mess, and the barely-there hints of cosmetics only accentuated high cheekbones and mirthful gray eyes.

Though his wife was unparalelled in beauty, Luis thought this woman came in a close third, just behind his sister in-law’s godawfully gorgeous girlfriend. Charlie herself didn’t rate that way; lusting after her felt too much like incest.

“You look mahvelous,” he replied, offering his arm and escorting her down the darkened hall to the dining room. “We just got the grub, so you ain’t missed much. Except that Charlie’s ex-husband is here, and that can’t mean nothin’ good.”

“Oooh. I smell trouble brewing, sir.”

“Could be, could be. Let’s hope that’s as bad as it gets.”

“It might get a lot worse if you return to dinner bearing arms against the clan,” Julia wagered, jutting her chin at the .45 still in Luis’s hand.

“Oh! Shit.” He quickly holstered the piece and buttoned his suit jacket. “Thanks, man.”

“Anytime, handsome.”

Luis opened the double doors and let Julia enter first. She smiled at Charlotte, who surprised her by smiling back. Big-time. A charmingly sweet smile that called up those little crinkles around mouth and eyes which Julia found so appealing.

“Hi, Jules! I’m so happy you decided to join us!”

Another surprise – the loud greeting, the excessively affectionate delivery, the persistent smile. Julia got a funny, fluttery feeling in her stomach. She widened her eyes and tried for a similar tone, recalling Charlie’s admonition to follow her cues.

“I apologize for my tardiness, but I was waylayed when I spotted an old friend in the area.”

Charlie swallowed a dry lump of fear and maintained her cool. “Anyone I know?”

“Oh, no, darling. You haven’t met him yet, but I could introduce you. Maybe even tonight.”

As Charlotte processed the subtextual warning and made the connections, Anne Browning chose to chime in with her typical $.02.

“Charlotte, you’re so thoughtless sometimes. Aren’t you going to introduce your guest?”

“Yes, mother,” she growled. “This is Julia Wainwright, a client of Carver and Berkhoff, and my very, very good friend. Julia, this is my family.”

Charlie went on to point out each member as if it were the first time Julia had seen any of them, which mildly confused James, Danny, and Katie, who had met her this morning in their own kitchen. The kids looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders as Emily and Luis greeted the blonde woman like a stranger, but wrote it off as another dumb thing adults have to do at times.

“Well, it’s certainly an uncommon pleasure to meet you all,” Julia noted, withdrawing her hand from a fast brush with the warm mitt of Rear Admiral Charles Foster Browning, U.S. Navy, retired. “And it was so kind of you to invite me, Charlotte.”

Screwing up her courage to pull the rug out from under her mother’s evil plans – and follow through on Emily’s ‘let’s have some fun with ’em’ policy – Charlie scooted her chair back and walked over to Julia with her hands extended. Julia took them in a firm, cool grip and felt a little tingle of anticipation for whatever Charlotte had in mind. The young attorney looked caught between horror and mischief as she fired up a sultry glare and lowered her voice.

“Well, I certainly wasn’t going to leave you alone at the hotel tonight,” she purred.

Purred. Yes, indeed. It was a damned good thing Julia could improv with the best of them, because what Charlotte Browning did next was among the most unexpected things she’d ever experienced.

With a gently urging tug, Julia felt herself pulled forward and in… and down onto a pair of moist, slightly parted lips. Charlotte kissed her smack on the mouth, lingering there long enough to send a clear signal to any and everyone in the room. No tongue, though. That would just be too tacky.

Before Charlie could pull away, Julia angled in next to her ear and whispered words that made the lawyer doubt the wisdom of her provocative ploy.

“Here comes trouble, darling.”
——————————————————————————–

Diana Starrett stood in the kitchen, her ear pressed to the door separating her from Charlotte and the rest, but she was listening only enough to pick up what she needed to hear. She knew Julia had arrived and, implausibly, that set her more at ease. The Swede was minding their pact, as Diana knew she would. Julia’s overpowering self-interest was the only thing that made her reliable.

The dining room sounded safe and secure as chairs scraped the floor and settled, dishes and glasses clinked, voices murmured. All the cues of normalcy allowed Diana to slip away from the present for a moment and slide back into the past, to ponder yet another mistake come back to haunt her.

She was in prison. In her mind’s eye, she could see wet cement walls crawling with roaches, iron bars covering a foot-wide window four yards up, the rusted steel cell door, the frail, gray-skinned man sitting on the splintery wooden bunk, waiting for his executioner. He searched the dark and found his protector standing perfectly still, hidden in the corner, barely visible and utterly silent.

* Bangkok all over again. Waiting for Chen. *

The gray man gasps and trembles as footsteps sound in the hall outside, keys jangle. The cell door locks turn and the door opens. A man enters, dressed as a guard. His cool shadow falls over the sweating prisoner. He holds a knife, shiny and toothy, raises it to bite into the prisoner’s flesh…

And she is on him. Hands flashing, twisting the knife away, wedged knuckles pounding into the guard’s throat, his eyes. He is stunned, stumbling through the door and running. Running through the halls, out the door, across the dewy weeds of the prison yard, he comes to the wall. He leaps, scrambles for a hold atop the glass-studded barricade, feels her hands close on his leg, beating the limb brutally against stones, snapping the bone before he pulls free and disappears. A voice in her ear gives the order to let him go. She bites down on her jaw, quelling the urge to pursue, to stop him now and forever.

* I shouldn’t have listened, * Diana told herself. * Should have taken him out that night, stopped this before it started. It’s the only way to be sure they don’t come back. *

“Mrs. Fong?”

Joseph was whispering close behind her, easing her out of the reverie and sparing her the ensuing fit of regretful damnation which was sure to follow. Diana noticed that Brian and Sonya hung back, surreptitiously peeking through curtains and checking the back door peephole.

“Yeah?” she prompted, secretly grateful that her guilt trip was cut short.

“We were wondering… ”

“You were wondering what to do next.”

“Well, yes.”

Diana leaned her forehead against the kitchen door. She squeezed her eyes shut tight (the contact lenses made her eyeballs itch) and worked her jaw until it popped, releasing a little of the lingering tension. “You’re all packing?”

“Yes, of course.”

* Silly question, * Diana realized, thinking of Julia’s dangerous liaison with the woman who had sent these people. * Rotten choice for a supply line, Jules. Still, I heard she makes her agents sleep, eat, shower, and go potty with loaded guns in their hands. At least they come prepared. *

“Check your equipment. If he isn’t here already, he will be soon.”

“We’ve done that. Three times.”

“So do it again.”

“Is there an… I mean, do you have a plan?” Joseph sounded a touch nervous, but only a touch.

“Oh, I definitely have a plan.”

* Liar, liar, pants on fire… * sang an annoying voice in her head.

“Ummm. Could you perhaps tell us?”

She turned to face her de facto sous chef, addressed him in her most chipper voice.

“Okay. My plan is this: company comes and I take care of ’em while the three of you hang out and watch the dinner party. Check mate, clear the board, everybody gets on with their lives.”

Joseph’s face hardened as he clenched his teeth. Sonya bit her bottom lip and blinked furiously. Brian leaned his head against the back door and sighed. Their reactions made Diana slightly ashamed for being so direct about her preference for spontaneous action. These folks were not used to taking the field without detailed instructions, but that would have to change if they were to survive.

“Don’t pout. I never claimed to be a master strategist, kids,” she told them, her tone unrepentantly dry. “And now that I’ve thoroughly demoralized you all… is anyone hungry? I made way too much Kung Pao and egg roll.”

Brian perked up, raised his hand as if asking the teacher to call on him.

“Yes, Master Brian?” Diana pointed a synthetically wrinkled and spotty finger, bidding him to speak.

“I’m not hungry or anything, but could I feed a bit to that dog outside?”

“You want to give that spicy Kung Pao to a dog? It’ll make him queasy and gassy.”

“Just some chicken, then?” Brian pleaded kindly. “I heard him whining a minute ago, sounded so sad. I think he’s hungry.”

“Oh, get a grip,” Sonya complained. “What is it with you and animals?”

“I like dogs,” Brian stated without shame. “I’m a dog-guy.”

“That you are, boy. You know, Brian here once ran back into a burning warehouse to fetch some rabid mutt,” Sonya told Diana, her disgust over the folly clearly displayed, “and the damn cur nearly bit his hand off. Had to get shots to keep him from frothing at the mouth.”

“Well, excuse me for caring! My people don’t eat our pets!” Brian shot back.

“I never said you did,” Sonya corrected. “Why would you bother when there are millions of perfectly good rats running around?”

“Hey! That’s – ”

“That’s quite enough out of both of you,” Diana interrupted. She was beginning to see how these two could be considered liabilities; soft hearts and foul tempers did not make for good operatives. Most of her own mistakes on the job could be traced to those two factors. Mainly the latter. “We all gotta get focused. Arguing like that takes you off your game.”

“I agree,” Joseph added. “You two don’t seem to realize that this is our last chance. If we screw this up, we’re gone. I don’t know about you, but personally, I’d rather remain employed. So shut up.”

Both younger agents had the wisdom to look shamed, even if they weren’t, and they did shut up. That was the important thing. Diana gave Joseph a nod of gratitude for his intervention and his veiled language. The threat of death hung over them like a brewing storm, but it did no good to point and scream at the gathering clouds.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Diana assured them, trying to instill some confidence in the jittery crew. “We’re all gonna come out the other side. You don’t believe that, you end up stalled and screwed.”

* How’s that for a motivational speech? Anthony Robbins, look out. Christ, I suck at this. *

Diana kept this critique to herself as she waddled over to the range and scooped several plump bits of chicken onto a saucer, then took the dish to where Brian stood. He looked at her quizzically, as if he’d already forgotten his request. “I like dogs, too,” she explained while unlocking the back door.

“Cool,” he replied, grinning at Sonya with vindicated pleasure.

Diana gripped the stoneware plate hard, her knuckles white with tension. “Thing is, I fed Roth before you guys got here, so I’m pretty sure it’s not hunger making him whine. I’ll go check on him, see if he’s okay. Brian, would you cover me, please?”

The youth’s eyes widened in alarm, but he drew his weapon – a silenced Heckler-Koch 9mm – and gave a quick nod. He stepped beside the door frame and lifted the gun, positioning himself to fire. Diana exhaled softly and turned the brass knob. She eased the back door ajar and shuffled out onto the steps, into the bright spill of light falling from an overhead fixture.

From the rear stoop one could see the majority of the back yard, which covered over half an acre. Most of the grounds consisted of a flat, broad plane covered in clipped green grass – Charles Browning’s own private putting green, where he allegedly spent entire nights chipping golf balls in pursuit of the perfect short game. A border of black iron lamp posts circled the green, a testament to his practice of whiling away the evening hours alone with his graphite and titanium friends.

* Wish those lamps were on, * Diana griped, her strained eyes scouring the dark landscape, * I bet he installed the switch is out there to keep mother from cutting his power off. Shoot. *

A line of shrubs, some flowering, some plain, ran along the back fence and provided some meager cover, but they were too short and dense for a practical hiding spot. Roth’s sad brown doghouse stood in the lonely western corner, apparently empty.

“Puppy, come! Got food for you!” she called, using her full Fong-ness as she altered her voice and stooped to an arthritic crouch. “Chicken good! No MSG!”

Nothing. No whining, no barking. No Roth.

* Right. Who thinks it’s too quiet back here? Ooh! Me, me, me! *

“Come! Puppy! Come!” she called again, eyes scanning left and right, picking through the hedges along the rear of the house. Nothing. Her vision lingered a moment on the basement hatch, two heavy wooden doors that opened at ground level and led down to steep concrete stairs. The doors lay in a closed position, but were not locked.

* There was a lock there. A big ol’ Master padlock. The game is afoot. *

Diana turned back to the kitchen entrance and spoke through the small opening, her voice electric with sudden excitement. “He’s here. Lock this door. All of you, stay ready. Watch over Charlie.”

“Wait – aren’t we here to help you catch him?” Brian asked nervously, itching to join her search.

“No. You’re here to protect my family,” she hissed, “Chen is mine. Now lock it.”

Before Brian could argue, Diana slammed the door shut, nearly catching his nose in the jamb. She waited on the stoop until she heard the locks turn, then set her sights on the basement doors. Ambling slowly down the steps, she edged into the narrow alley between bushes and house. After only a few short steps, her foot dragged across something soft and still.

* Oh, God. *

She saw, yet gave no impression of having seen. Eyes darted down quickly for confirmation, then straight ahead, outwardly oblivious. Hidden between two bushes was a small body covered in white fur, a crimson blotch staining throat and muzzle. The dog’s chest was still, his eyes closed.

* Motherfucker! Low-life little shit! The dog wouldn’t have hurt you, Chen. But I will. *

Diana smacked her palm against the stone wall. She felt like screaming, roaring out a challenge to summon the coward into a direct confrontation. Her anger was swelling again, a high, chilling wave of memories: Teddy lying in the hospital bed, clinging to life, Dan’s limp body, cool in her arms, narrow misses in a Bangkok prison yard and the Elceda hospital parking lot, the smash of metal and glass as their cars collided.

* Damn you, Chen. God damn you straight to hell. *

She remembered her own deal with Julia’s devil woman, struck earlier in the day during a hasty conversation. In addition to other things, Diana promised to deliver the assassin alive in exchange for certain concessions, certain promises of intervention. She knew that Chen deserved the agony of torments planned for him by that vindictive party, but still… she needed to hurt him. Badly. Soon.

With a twitch of her head, she tried to clear her mind of worries past and present, to focus on the task at hand. “Chicken,” she called softly, walking toward the basement doors. “Chicken? Got chicken for good little boy.”

Not a sound was heard in the yard as Diana leaned down and grasped the steel handle. She pulled it slowly, and the heavy door lifted up and open with a slight squeak of strained hinges. The basement stairs were dark, and the fetid smell of mildew and damp earth rose up and rolled over her. Diana stood at the opening, her stooped body silhouetted in dim light. She grasped the plate tighter and called down into the dark, her summons now sounding more like a threat.

“Chicken? Chicken! Come get some.”
——————————————————————————–

“This chicken is so tender,” Charlie praised as she took another bite of the spicy meat. She feigned a smile, though her stomach was tight and ached with immoderate tension. She tried to write it off as a side-effect of the malicious game she anticipated from her mother, for that seemed a reasonable explanation. Still, it felt like something else, something bigger and closer and even more wrong.

Charlie took another drink of wine, then another. The sick feeling did not go away, so she fought it off with an oft-used therapy – talking. “You should hire that Fong woman to cook for you full time, mom. She seems awfully fun, and you could use a little spice in your diet.”

“I would sooner starve than abide her company for another minute,” Anne sniped, poking a fork at her dinner. “This food is horrid, and that wretched old woman is a nightmare. I’ve a good mind to lodge a complaint with the Chamber of Commerce, look into revoking her catering license.”

“Anne, really,” Charles mumbled, though he did not meet his wife’s eye. “Food’s fine. Just fine.”

“I don’t see what’s so bad about it, either” Emily contributed between bites. “It’s a little hot, but I think it’s supposed to taste that way. The rice is perfect. Dumplings are pretty tasty, too.”

“Mmm,” agreed Luis, noting that his children had nearly cleaned their plates already, while the blonde seated opposite him had barely touched her petite serving. “You like chinese food, Julia?”

“Adore it. I’m just not terribly hungry at the moment – though I plan to eat later,” she answered, casting a sidelong leer at Charlotte.

Charlie’s stomach clenched violently at the implication, though she painted another smile across her flirty facade. She wondered how long she’d have to stay in this game before her mother snapped and revealed her hand. The little kiss just made Anne uncomfortable and perhaps a tad confused, and the double entendres Julia lobbed like hand grenades simply irritated her.

* Time to up the stakes, maybe? Who’s wondering about that ring line on Richie’s left hand? *

“So, Richard,” Charlotte trilled happily, “when are you and Valerie getting married?”

Her ex looked up from his plate, where he had kept his eyes during most of the meal, and laughed nervously. “Gee. Uhh, we haven’t really talked about it.”

“Oh, come on!” she teased, keeping her tone light and easy. “You’ve had an appropriate period of time to mourn our busted union. What’s the hold up?”

“Yeah, Richie,” Emily chimed in. “Nice-looking guy like you, bright future, good hygiene – she’s gotta be hearing wedding bells.”

“Uhh… ”

“It’s good for a career-minded person to be wed. Gives the appearance of stability,” Charlie added, smiling knowingly at her former husband.

“Stop pressuring the boy,” Anne ordered tersely. “Some people prefer to keep their private lives private instead of parading them around in some perverse pageant.”

* Finally! * Charlotte crowed inside. * She took a shot at me! ‘Bout time, mom. *

“And some people prefer to be open and honest about themselves,” she replied mildly. “Some people don’t lie their way through life.”

“Some people should,” Anne grumbled.

Charlotte’s eyes widened in mock horror, feigning offense. “Why, mother! Was that remark aimed at someone in particular?”

Anne took a long gulp of wine. Charles stopped chewing and watched his wife as if she were ticking, set to explode. Richard squirmed noticeably, but resumed eating his dinner. Emily, Luis and the kids were silent as death, their patience growing taxed. It felt like someone was about to start fighting, and no one was anticipating the melee with more glee than Julia.

“Unless I’m dreadfully mistaken, I feel certain that taunt was directed at us, dearest,” she hummed, weirdly happy that she had drawn dinner duty rather than Chen patrol. “Mrs. Browning, if my presence here is unwelcome, I apologize.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Charlotte, gulping down her bile as she patted Julia’s cool hand. She was eager to draw all fire toward the unspoken problem, to flush the covey of mutual contempt between mother and child out in the open. “Mom disapproves of nearly every choice I’ve ever made, and I think tonight she’s pointing out what she considers my biggest screw-up ever.”

“So many from which to choose.” Anne’s voice scalded Charlie’s ears, her disdain boiling right out of her mouth like foam. Staunchly, the young woman pressed on with her inquiry.

“She and daddy didn’t want us to divorce. You knew that, didn’t you Richie?”

Though embarrassed, he had the grace to answer truthfully. “We both knew, but that’s not why I – ”

“Richard,” boomed the man at the head of the table, utilizing his solid command voice.

Charles Browning’s singular utterance froze the fellow’s explanation, silenced him instantly. All eyes went to the family patriarch, saw him glower at wife and daughter in a silent bid for the floor. He obviously had something more to say, but he was mired down in the moment, his watery eyes angry and sad.

Charlotte’s stomach cramped suddenly and she grimaced, but the spasm was easily attributed to the fear of an oncoming argument. She licked her parched lips and tried to ease her father out, get him talking. After all, his admonishment couldn’t be any worse than what her mother had to offer.

“Dad? You’re in this, too. If you have something to say, I need to hear it.”

“I want… I want this to stop,” he said, more plea than demand. “All of it. Right now.”
——————————————————————————–

During his brief stop in the basement to set up the fail-safe plan B, Chen shed the small nylon bag, leaving both hands free to break into the Browning house. Unlike the newer windows on the ground floor, the second level windows were wood-framed and single-paned. Since they provided the least troublesome shot at access, he went straight to work.

From his perch on the second story window ledge, concealed behind the jutting center stones which swelled out from the rear of house like a scoliotic backbone, Chen Kaige heard the old woman calling to the dog. He wanted to wait until she gave up and went back inside, but she insisted on finding the stupid beast and kept looking. When she opened the basement door and called again, something in her shrill voice changed, became hard and sharp as razors… and he knew.

In his mind’s eye, the aged disguise fell away. He smelled the predator beneath, recognized his enemy cleverly cloaked in raiment of age and innocence.

* She’s come. Again, she’s come for me. *

Abandoning his efforts at forcing the window open, the killer prepared to end this nagging pursuit here and now. He held fast to the ledge with his right hand and drew a dagger with the left – the same dual-edged instrument he used to dispatch that worthless, defective dog. Leaning out to see around the barrier, he watched her posture change, her body lengthening, uncoiling.

* This will be the last time you come for me, blue eyes. *

Chen flipped the knife around and held the blade in gloved fingers, cocked his arm, and threw the deadly weapon in a beautiful, spinning arc. Straight for Diana Starrett’s exposed throat.
——————————————————————————–

Diana didn’t hear the skilled, liquid throw or see the knife blade glint in moonlight. In fact, she couldn’t explain how she knew it was coming, only that she knew. A normally dormant sense, one beyond the five standard issue, picked up an incoming threat and sounded a claxon in her head, flooding the halls of her body with adrenaline soldiers responding to a call to arms.

* Incoming! Evasive maneuvers! *

Her head tilted back, her spine arching hard, knees bent… and the blade whizzed by her neck in a tight spin, burying itself to the hilt in firm soil not five feet away.

She barely let herself feel relief before snapping her gaze to the side and up, spotting an arm retreating behind the centered row of dark stone blocks. Diana ducked low and scurried along the wall, bracing herself against the other side of the divider. Close enough now to hear him moving, she picked up sounds of effort, low strained grunts as he again attacked the window. A popping noise issued from the wood frame, and she understood he had pried the lock free.

* Can’t let him inside. Move! Now! *

Three steps around and she saw him fully, nimbly positioned on the narrow ledge, both hands forcing the window up and open. One leg inside, he moved to swing in the other, to enter the house.

* No! *

With all the furious strength she could summon, Diana curled the stoneware saucer into her body and flung it toward Chen’s head. Pieces of chicken pelted her face as they spun off the plate, but her eyes remained focused on the retreating man, the speeding piece of dinnerware turned weapon.

*Please… *

The saucer zipped through the night air, cutting a path toward its target as if it were made for the mission. Ballistic crockery. Something inside Diana wanted to laugh at the improvisation. Later.

*Please… *

The plate found the mark, collided violently with Chen’s skull and shattered into sharp, falling shards.

Chen made not a sound as he felt the impact rush pain through his head, though he did make a startled “Ooaaa!” noise as he lost his balance on the ledge and tumbled backward and down, landing with a rustle and a thud as his body ripped through the cushioning hedges to the hard earth below. A wave of dizziness washed over him as he struggled to regain his breath, to overcome the shock and mount a defense for the attack sure to come.

Knowing he wouldn’t be stunned for long, Diana lunged across the distance and grabbed at Chen’s black-booted feet. She dragged him from the bushes and dropped onto his back with both knees, driving a labored gasp from his lungs. His hands scrabbled for purchase in the dirt as he tried to push himself up and lever her body off, but a fast punch to the back of his neck drove that idea – along with his face – right into the ground.

“You’re bleeding,” Diana announced, cruelly driving her palm against the stoneware cut on Chen’s scalp, sending thick streams of red trickling down his neck. “Oops. Looks like I just made it worse.”

“I’m going to kill you,” the pinned assassin promised, “and then I’m going to kill her.”

“Sorry. ‘Fraid not.” She grabbed his hair and slammed his face into the earth again, then repeated the procedure just for fun. “You’ve got a hot date with a naughty lady. Can’t keep you here for long.”

Chen spat out a mouthful of bloody dirt and swung his stronger right arm back in a desperate attempt to make contact, to inflict damage, but Diana’s dominant position afforded her a tremendous defensive advantage as well as amazing leverage. She caught his arm and yanked hard, pushing it across Chen’s back, not stopping until the shoulder popped free of the joint, thoroughly dislocated.

“Agghhh!”

“Flatterer.”

She let the right arm fall to the ground, then grabbed the flailing left and levered it twice as hard. Little did she know that her extra effort was unnecessary, for that shoulder was the one injured in their unfortunate auto collision the previous day. The supreme torque applied to Chen’s weakened limb not only popped the bone loose, but tore the surrounding tendons and cartilage all to hell.

“AGGHHH!”

“Shut-up, you sissy,” Diana whispered, though a dark part of her welcomed his screams.

She felt so good at that moment, nearly jubilant. For the first time in days, she knew she had the upper hand on everyone. She could control the situation, make it back to her life, back to Charlie. Everything would be all right. Everyone would be safe now, just like she planned.

* Safe again. Normal again. So close now. So close… you could finish it all tonight. *

At the realization, a rush of euphoria rolled over her like a sustained orgasm, made her limbs feel loose and hot, burning fuses of bone and muscle growing shorter by the second, racing to detonate the tight ball of rage nestled inside her.

* Stop it. You can’t snuff him. Rein it in, baby, rein it in. *

“I’m going to kill you, bitch!” Chen roared, furious with frustration and pain.

“That’s the spirit,” Diana cheered, cocking her legs back and delivering a knee strike to each of Chen’s kidneys – no mean feat with thick lumps of foam padding on her rear end. “Never give up.”

“Rrrgghh! Ahh!”

With each blow, the heat grew more intense inside her body, filling her with a need for definitive, permanent action. This man was a threat to all she held dear and he should die. Now. At her hand. Vengeance for all he had done, prevention against all he would do in the future. That heat, that fear-fueled fire, demanded closure, surety.

* No. No. No. Stop it. You can’t – * Diana argued, trembling, burning.

* Oh, yes you can, * countered the heat, a ghastly voice echoing from the bottom of a deep, black pit. The pit sunk straight into her subconscious. The pit she fought each day to fill with better things.

* No. I promised Chen alive. A corpse is a deal breaker. Fucks everything up. *

* So? Can you risk turning him over to someone else? You can’t trust anyone else to do this for you. End it now. One less enemy to worry about, one less person who’ll cut Charlie’s throat because of who you were. Who you always will be. *

Chen Kaige twisted and struggled beneath her. Without sustained punishment, he would recover enough strength to pose a threat. Diana absently drove her elbow into the back of his neck, satisfied when she heard vertebrae crack and shift, smiling as she heard his muffled cry. Under the make-up and latex, she was sweating rivers. She had a vague fear that her organs were becoming tough and shrunken, like they were roasting in an oven turned up too high.

“Too hot,” she grumbled, peeling off the wig and tossing it aside. The stomach pads followed, then the artificial fanny. As she anticipated, it wasn’t enough to cool her body, but she wasn’t ready to concede the obvious answer – that the problem was more mental than physical.

* Kill him. The rest of them are for another day, but Chen is here, in your hands. Tonight. *

“I will flay the flesh from your bones and spit inside your womb!” the killer boasted, bucking again.

“Quiet!” she ordered, banging a fist on his demolished left shoulder.

* He’s begging for it. Give it to him. Take him out now… or he’ll be baaaack. *

* I know there’s a chance of that, but… God. So hot out tonight. *

* You can fix that. Kill him and ditch the body. Go back inside and say ‘false alarm.’ Tell them all Chen never showed. That’ll cool you right off. *

“It’s so hot,” she said, standing up and stripping off the billowing house dress. Underneath, her tank top and jeans were soaked with perspiration, evidence of her building distress.

“You’re all going to burn,” Chen told her ominously, though his meaning did not touch Diana’s ears.

Diana leaned down and took one of his ankles firmly between both hands, well aware that his lower extremities were lethal as well. He kicked back with his free leg, and she nimbly jumped over the sweep intended to trip her. With a nakedly evil grin, she powered her upper body into a turn that swiveled Chen Kaige’s ankle nearly 180 degrees, loudly snapping the bone.

* Hurting him won’t be enough. He will heal and then he’ll come back. They all do. *

She let the mangled leg drop, causing him to whimper as it hit the ground. Her smile only grew larger as he cursed into the dirt, an unending litany of impotent threats and character assaults. The proud murderer lay before her, twisting about like a worm trapped underfoot… and it pleased her.

* They all come back, don’t they? Bad pennies keep turning up. *

The heat blossomed inside, warmth flooding every crevice of her mind as the pit bubbled and spewed smothering, pitch-dark hate over the dim light of reason.

* Time to toss this one down the well. Make a wish and throw him right in. *

Her breathing slowed, heart rate eased from gallop to trot. Diana became calm, as if a decision had been made, as if she accepted the veracity of her fears and allowed them to set her course.

“You killed a friend of mine,” she told Chen Kaige, watching from on high as he writhed on the ground. “In my home.”

“… mmmph… die… kill you… ”

“And you nearly took away another friend, a man I trust, a man I count on.”

“… pigs… all of you will die… ”

“Then you wrecked my car – with me in it. After all that, you have the gall, the outright temerity to come her tonight, thinking that I’d let you harm the woman I love more than life itself?”

“… burn you all… pieces in the trees… ”

“If you do think that, you’re cracked. Just like that senile old coot, Yoshima. Birds of a feather.”

“… kill him, too… liar… fool… ”

“Get. Up.”

Chen stilled his struggles as she said the words. Were it not for the sporadic trembles of searing pain, he wouldn’t have moved at all.

“I told you to get up,” Diana repeated. “You want a shot at me, you gotta face me.”

“I will kill you,” he gasped, rearing up and angling his body sideways. Chen slammed his right shoulder into the ground, trying to pop the bone back into the socket. “I swear it.” Again, he raised up and pounded his body against the earth. Again, he was unsuccessful.

“Is this going to take long? Some of us have other engagements.”

“This is my last engagement,” Chen muttered, rolling onto his back with great effort. “You will get no satisfaction from me, foo-bar.”

Diana blinked at him, her smile wider and colder than ever. “What did you call me?”

“F-U-B-A-R! Are you deaf, satanic cow? It is an acronym!”

His hands had a limited range of motion due to his ruined shoulders, but they scampered onto his stomach and under his jacket, prompting Diana to kick him in the balls. Not for any other reason than they were the most convenient route to stopping him, mind you.

“Agghhh!”

“That’s for calling me a satanic cow,” she claimed, pleased to note that Chen’s hands had ceased their meandering for the moment. “By-the-by, where did you hear that particular expression?”

Chen groaned through a fading impulse to vomit, though he reserved the right to do so in the near future. He needed something from his jacket, and stalling Diana seemed like a good idea. Perhaps cooperation would distract her. “My mother said it often. When a heifer will not give milk or mate without violent reactions, it was said that the cow was possessed by satan and – ”

“Not that expression, moron!” Diana cried, fighting down the urge to kick him some more. “Jesus, I didn’t hit you that hard.”

“Ahh, you mean foo-bar. Your skinny friend introduced me to that one, and I assumed it was a pejorative term, an insult,” Chen clarified, sneaking one hand under his jacket, more stealthily this time. “He suggested that you should explain it to me. And then I cut out his liver.”

A growl issued from deep inside Diana’s chest, a black sound that promised more pain than even Chen’s disciplined body could handle. His fingers found what they sought in an inner pocket- a small device with a small button that issued a small beep as he depressed it. Despite the rage he sensed building inside the deadly woman, and perhaps because he knew that death and relief and Pyrrhic victory were now only ten short minutes away, that beep assured him the last laugh.

“Heh. Heh. Heh.”

“His name, laughing corpse, was Dan,” Diana rumbled, waiting for Chen to draw a weapon from under his jacket, waiting for an excuse to fall on him and begin the end. “Daniel Winston Holheiser, late of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

“I could not possibly care less.”

“FUBAR was one of his favorite expressions. It stands for your fate, your future, short as it may be.”

“Blah, blah, blah. They’re all going to die. You can’t save them now, you arrogant cunt.”

She rolled her shoulders, cracked her neck, flexed her knuckles. Preparing. “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. That’s you, meat. Now get up.”

“Make me.”

Diana lost it. The thin veneer of remaining restraint stripped away, leaving only a molten, naked rage. She fell on the assassin with both fists, pummeling his face with a monsoon of blows, each one falling harder than the last. Here, she was in control. Here, she had the power to dictate outcomes. No one could manipulate her, bend her will, control her, exploit her weaknesses.

* That’s it. That’s the way. *

No Riggins, no Harry, no Julia, no Yoshima, no Angelia. No one but a bad man and a worse woman set on his destruction. Black and white and blood simple.

* It’s the only way to be sure. The only way. *

Skin split open, bones cracked and crumbled, and still she went on. Hitting him, bartering for vengeance and satisfaction with pieces of her humanity. Chen lost consciousness, no more laughs or smiles or quips to give her fuel. The heat inside grew stronger, burned hotter, burningburningburning with no sign of slowing, no relief in sight.

* You were made for this. Like it or not. This is the only way to make it better. *

She saw herself as if disembodied, floating above the scene. The fire in her eyes, the flurry of fists forming a tornado of violence, herself as an animal feeding some sickening bloodlust conceived in fear, incubated in that black pit she could never fill. In that moment of clarity, Diana was cruelly disabused of all notions that she was a civilized being worthy of anything but revulsion.

Rushing headlong into the inferno of her black, burning soul, Diana felt it was too late to stop.

* It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late, * sang the voice from the pit. *Gotcha now. This is what you were born to do. This is the only way to make it better. *

All she could do was cry… because part of her would always, always know that to be true.
——————————————————————————–

“Joseph, you’ve gotta go out there!” Brian repeated. His attention was riveted to the spectacle barely visible in the bushes, several yards to the left of his window. “She’s gonna kill him!”

“I”m not going to interfere with her. If she kills him, fine. I’m sure he deserves worse.”

Sonya looked at the eldest agent, wondering at his cold detachment. “Not that I give a damn about the bastard, but isn’t she supposed to turn him in alive? I thought that was the deal she cut for us.”

“I will not interfere,” Joseph repeated. “The man killed Ops and left us all subject to the whim of that dead-eyed harpy. Let him die.”

“Aww, man. I can’t watch this,” Brian claimed, still not leaving the window, still watching.

“Shit! Somebody’s gotta do something!” Sonya asserted. “Which one of the women in there is Julia? Didn’t Diana say she was blonde, real pretty?”

“Don’t disturb them,” Joseph ordered, his expression stern.

“Fuck you, Joe. I want to get out from under the harpy, too, and I don’t want Diana fucking up our deal because she went crazy and couldn’t close her own can of whoop ass!”

Sonya shoved past Joseph and opened the dining room door, finding a crowd of nervous, silent people, all of them staring at Charles Browning. She located a striking blonde woman in a black dress and made a jiggling motion with thumb and index finger – the universal sign for ‘telephone’.

Julia excused herself and silently pouted, knowing she was going to miss the juicy bits of the Browning family soap opera, which was turning out to be better than “Dynasty.”

Once in the kitchen, Sonya hurriedly explained the sitch and Julia was out the back door like lightning, running though the bushes toward Diana Starrett and the bloody hunk of meat formerly known as Chen Kaige. She drew the Walther from her purse and discarded the bag in transit.

“Diana!” the Swede shouted, pulling up a few feet behind her friend. “Stop it! Get hold of yourself!”

“This is the only way,” Diana gasped, nearly choked by her flowing tears, unable to shut it off.

Somewhere under the spatters of blood, the strange, wrinkled face and dark contacts, the woman Julia knew was hidden, lost. If she wasn’t stopped and soon, Diana might not come back.

“Sorry for this, darling,” she whispered, then clonked Diana over the head with her pistol butt.

The frenzied fists ceased punching and fell to her sides; limp, torn and tired. A black pool opened inside Diana’s mind and swallowed her whole. Only then did her fearful fever break, her body cooling as she slipped like a glowing hearth stone into the glossy pond of unconsciousness. Her last thought was one of gratitude, whispered through a cloud of steam.

* Thank you… *
——————————————————————————–

After Julia’s sudden departure, there was a long stretch of quiet, a calm before the resumption of the unscheduled storm. Charlotte watched her go and felt the cramps in her stomach intensify, nearly causing her to double over. Something was very, very wrong, and it had nothing to do with this dinner party from hell. She wanted to follow Julia, find Diana and see that she was fine… but with each passing moment, she grew less sure that was true.

* Please, honey, please be okay. Please. *

“She started this,” Anne groused to her husband while pointing a bony finger at Charlie. “Bringing that strange woman here, as if living with the other one weren’t bad enough. Rubbing it in our faces – ”

“Annie, please,” Charles cut her off, annoying her tremendously, aware that there would be trouble for it later and somehow not caring. He eyed his youngest with more tolerance than she’d ever seen or expected, and spoke to her with about as much affection as he could generate.

“I tell you Chick, if that Julie’s good enough to bring home to dinner, I got no problem with her. I just thought you were bringing that Dana person, that’s all. I was all set to meet her. Wanted to for a while now.”

Charlotte’s mouth opened and closed several times, but no words would come. She felt dizzy, nauseous with fear and hope. She simply couldn’t form the words to express the feelings.

“Grampa?” Katie said quietly, breaking the stiffening silence.

“What is it, Katherine?” he inquired gently.

“Her name’s Diana, not Dana. You’d like her.”

“Do you like her?”

“She’s my friend. I like her an awful lot.”

“Then I’d probably like her, too.” He nodded and smiled at his grandchild, finding her dark eyes honest beyond measure. On impulse, he asked Katie another question. “Do you like your Grammy?”

“Which one?” Katie asked warily, hoping he was referring to Grammy Avila.

“Grammy Anne, the one right over there, looking like she needs to eat a few pounds of prunes.”

His remark drew a few stifled snorts of laughter from an abashed Luis and stunned stares from nearly everyone else. Katie looked at her mother first, then her grandmother, then back to Charles.

“I love her,” she answered, her careful omission of the word ‘like’ noted by all present.

“Me, too. Just kinda hard to like her sometimes,” he agreed. “Kinda hard to like me most days. Had cause to think about it lately. Know what?”

His query seemed addressed specifically to Katie, so she answered him. “What?”

“I’m gonna try to fix that.”

“Pop?” Emily said softly, finding Luis’s hand under the table, clenching it tightly. “Wanna tell us what’s going on? This isn’t turning out like the usual torture sessions.”

“My fault. This set-up wasn’t all your mother’s doing, Em,” he admitted. “I wanted Richard to come talk to me. Just didn’t plan on having him to dinner with you all here. That was Anne’s idea.”

“Why, daddy?” Charlotte asked, finding her voice had become smaller and softer since last use. “If you really want to turn down the hostility, why would you let her invite my ex-husband?”

“I need somebody who does estate planning, somebody from outside this talky little town,” Charles explained calmly. “Anne says that’s his thing, planning and such. Richard is a good man and I trust him, so I asked him to help me out.”

“If you needed legal help, you could have asked me,” Charlie claimed, though she knew that would never happen and probably shouldn’t – it just felt like the right thing to say to keep him talking.

“Not on this. Gotta re-do the will, fix a few things I broke myself.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, surrendered his fork and abandoned his forgotten meal. “Mistakes. Lot of mistakes in my head got put down on paper. Richard’s here to help me set it right, that’s all.”

“Why now? Why all this tonight – importing Richard, wanting to meet Diana, playing referee for the first time in my memory, all the ‘like’ stuff – what’s with the urgency, dad?”

“Hoo. That’s the thing, huh? Urgency,” he said to Charlie, gray brows lifted in a plea for patience. “Always think we’ve got time to make it right. Tomorrow. Shit your life away thinking like that.”

“Charles.”

Anne spoke, but he didn’t seem to hear. His eyes never left Charlotte as he laid it all out, let it all go, and she did not waver. Charlotte had waited her entire life to hear something from this man, and no one was going to stop her from giving him her attention. Her stomach still felt like she’d eaten a plate full of glowing coals, but she fought down the painful anxiety, determined to listen.

“Say ‘once I retire, get that money, build that house, buy that car, get that woman, spend some time with so-and-so bigwig, get to know my kids’ – then one day, you get a headache,” Charles paused here and cleared his throat, took a deep breath. “Go to the doctor, get all the tests. Turns out there’s a big, nasty knot right behind your eye. They use the word ‘malignant’ more than enough to get the message across.”

A soft moan fell over Charlie’s lips, dropped into her lap. Something hot and thick closed off her throat. Her nausea climbed and she felt a fever coming on; her hands grew clammy with sweat. This wasn’t at all what she wanted to hear.

“They can’t take it out. Doesn’t respond to treatment, they tell you. Six months at the outside, they tell you. And all of a sudden, you realize that it’s gonna end. All those times you said ‘tomorrow’ come back and bite you in the ass. You got your money, your house and all that shit, but you didn’t do the important stuff. You thought it would wait for you until you were ready, ’til you were old enough and wise enough to make sense out of what you didn’t understand.”

James and Danny started to fidget, while Katie sat transfixed by her mother’s expression. Her mommy looked like she was going to cry. She took her dinner napkin and handed it across Luis’s lap to Emily, who did start crying as she accepted it.

“Mommy?”

“Shh, honey,” Emily soothed her, mustering a shaky smile. “Let Grampa finish.”

“I don’t mean to prattle on,” Charles said contritely. “Gist of it is this; I’m dying. Now, I’m a selfish old man and I don’t want to die with my children hating me. Whatever I gotta do to make that change, that’s what I’m gonna do. I just hope… I hope there’s enough time to put it right.”

He looked at Charlotte, then Emily. The girls saw tears well up in his eyes; those cold blue eyes they thought were incapable of such a human function.

“I messed up,” he said, his voice shaking. “I messed up and I’m sorry and I love you. That’s all I got to say for now.”

On that note, he stood up and left the room, leaving the group shell-shocked and wondering what the evil alien pod people did with the real Charles Foster Browning.

Thirty Three

Somehow, Diana found herself home, in the bedroom of a little white house at The Meadows.

She heard running water and the sound of music from the stereo. In the bathroom, Charlie sang along with Donna Summer, carelessly happy and off key. Diana breathed in the sound of her love’s artless warbling and smiled from the inside out as the lawyer missed another high note on “Heaven Knows.”

She felt safe for a fleeting instant, but she knew all was not well. In fact, she was in deep shit.

“I’ll only be a few minutes, hon,” called a sweet voice, bouncing loudly off bathroom tiles.

Charlie was dawdling in the shower, probably in the second stage of lather-rinse-repeat. Diana still had time to hide everything, to clean up the mess and make it all just go away. First, she had to move Chen Kaige’s corpse from their bed…

* How did he get there? *

… then take the sheets and toss them into the washer with two cups of bleach…

* Blood all over the bed. God, I’ve really screwed up this time. *

… then bury the gore-covered weapons and clothes in the back yard.

* Charlie can’t see this! She’d freak! *

She could still fix it. Cover it up. Wash it away. Keep Charlotte clear of the mess. Clean.

The phone rang just as Diana bundled Chen in the soiled sheets and yanked him down onto the carpet. She picked up the cordless handset and cradled it on her shoulder, then resumed tugging the body out of their room. To where, she didn’t yet know.

* He’s too big for the freezer. *

“Hello?”

No answer.

* The hall closet? Just for tonight… no, no, no. *

Chen’s boot slipped out from the sheets and caught the dhurrie rug at the foot of the bed. Dislodged, the rug revealed an irregular brown stain beneath. Old blood. Dan’s blood. Hidden, but not gone. Diana struggled with the dead weight, jerking Chen free of the rug and finally out of the room.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

Still, she received no answer.

* The garage! I can wheel him out in the garbage cart. *

“Diana?” Charlie called from the shower, leaving Diva Donna to sing solo. “Who’s on the phone?”

“Ahh… it’s nobody!” she replied, pulling the body into the hallway. “Wrong number.”

“I’ve got your number,” the caller finally spoke, in a sibilant mimic of Diana’s own voice. “You can’t hide from her, and you can’t hide from me. I know what you are.”

Diana stopped dragging the body. She paused halfway down the hall, frozen by fear and shame.

“She knows what you are. Charlotte used the right word to describe you.”

The CD player skipped to the next track just as the water stopped running. Behind the provocative beats of “Hot Stuff,” Diana heard the sliding steel rings of the shower curtain. Her hands opened and Chen’s limp arms fell to the floor. She knew Charlie was coming, but she couldn’t move.

“Murderer.”

“I didn’t want to,” she hissed into the phone, a weak, wavering denial. “I mean… I don’t want to be.”

“But you are. And you always will be. You’ll always be afraid, and you will always deal with your fear through violence.”

“Chen would have hurt Charlie. I stopped him. I did it to protect her,” Diana said, though she couldn’t even make herself believe it was that simple.

“She wouldn’t want you to kill for her, but you will. You just did, and you’ll do it again.”

“Diana?” Charlie called from the bedroom. “Hey, hot stuff! Where’d you go?”

“She’s coming. She’ll see what you’ve done and that, killer, will be it for you.”

“No. She loves me. She’ll listen, she’ll understand why I had to – ”

The phone disconnected, sending an unnervingly loud dial tone into Diana’s ear. She dropped the handset and reached for Chen’s arms, determined to get rid of the evidence of her crime before…

“Oh, my God.”

Charlie stood naked in the bedroom doorway, a towel wrapped around her wet hair, one hand covering her mouth, eyes wide with horror.

“What have you done?” she gasped. Her glance slipped from Diana to the corpse at her feet, making connections that shook her soul loose from its moorings, spun it asea in an instant.

Diana took a step forward – over the body of a dead man – her own eyes begging in advance for an opportunity to explain. “Charlie, I know this looks bad, but – ”

“NO!” Charlotte roared, backing away as her lover advanced. An unfamiliar gleam shone in her hazel eyes, and Diana knew what it meant.

Charlie was afraid. Afraid of her.

“Please, just listen to me!” Diana kept coming, forcing Charlotte to retreat into their bedroom.

“Stay away from me!” Charlie stumbled in her panic and landed beside the bed. Her hands trembled as they slipped between the mattresses, trembled as she drew out the .38 kept hidden there, trembled as she pointed the gun and shouted. “Leave me alone!”

Diana gasped softly, shaken by the sight of her own heart preparing to shoot her down. Angelia looked just that way at the springs; her face stricken and tight with terrible fear, palpable loathing, and unshakable determination that she was acting in self-defense against one who posed a threat.

“I would never hurt you,” Diana whispered. “Never.”

Charlotte’s eyes went cold as she spoke. “This is the only way to be sure.”

As Donna chanteused on about the debilitating need for love, Charlotte Browning pulled the trigger.
——————————————————————————–
Charlie grabbed tight to the rim of the toilet as her stomach convulsed again, sending up the last of her dinner, along with four glasses of wine. She had left the dining room hot on her father’s heels – the only one who had the guts to pursue Charles Browning after he dropped his bombshell – but she broke off the pursuit and stumbled to the rest room when her nausea suddenly escalated.

She’d been sick for two solid minutes, and it was only getting worse. Admittedly, she was confused and upset over her father’s revelation, but this reaction struck her as extreme.

* He’s the one who’s ill… so why does it feel like I’m dying? Oh, no… *

Her mind blanked as the sickness swept over her again, buckling her knees and sending her to the floor. Lying in a ball on the cold tiles, Charlie clutched her empty stomach and began to cry.

“Charlie?” Emily called softly, knocking at the door. “You okay in there?”

She summoned the strength to reply, “I’m fine. Fine. Just need a minute,” though her voice quavered and dipped as it traced along the obvious lie. She just wanted Emily to go away, wanted them all to leave her alone until she figured out what was wrong. They couldn’t help her anyway. There was only one person who could. Charlie wanted to call for her, to search the house and find her, to hold her tight and partake of her endless strength until she felt whole again.

* Diana promised to be here, so she is here. Somewhere. She doesn’t lie. Not to me. *

“Let me know if you need something,” Emily whispered through the door.

Charlie heard her walk away and breathed a sigh of relief.

* I do need something, Em. She’s just busy right now. Otherwise, she’d already be with me. *

Of that, Charlie was certain. Whenever she had a truly rotten day, came home frazzled and angry, worn to the bone, Diana seemed to know it ahead of time. Sometimes she would greet Charlotte at the door with a glass of wine and a philanthropic hug, then lend both broad shoulders for the purposes of crying, bitching, or whatever her lover needed. Occasionally, she found the house empty when Diana was working late, but those evenings did not pass without a phone call to check on her condition, to tell her she was loved and that everything would be all right.

* Weird how she always knows when something’s wrong with me. She says it’s like a premonition, just a feeling she gets… but it works both ways, doesn’t it? *

Charlotte’s tears ceased immediately. She braced her shaking arms against the floor and boosted herself up to a sitting position. As her thoughts on the matter gelled, her priorities re-shuffled like a deck of cards and dealt her a hand she couldn’t fold, one on which she would bet her life.

* This sick thing isn’t just me. It’s her. She’s in trouble. Christ, I’m half-blind and all stupid! *

As soon as her legs solidified, she would stand. Then she would leave the bathroom and find Diana.

* Oh, baby hold on. Please, wait for me. I get it now, I get it. I’m coming. *
——————————————————————————–
* NOOOO!! *

The impact Diana was expecting never came, as if the bullets all magically strayed off-course or the shots were never fired at all.

* Not real. I’m dreaming, hallucinating. Not sure which, but I know that was not real. Not real. *

Diana’s addled mind grasped that it didn’t really happen, that she was not, in fact, dead again. She didn’t feel bad or good, cold or hot, wet or dry – it was as if her psyche hung suspended in mid-air, hovering. Waiting.

* In the plus column, I’m not brain dead. Hallucinations are a form of synaptic activity, therefore I must be alive. Charlie didn’t shoot me. Chen didn’t jump up and kill me. Julia… hit me with something very, very hard. Oh. Okay. I can live with that. *

Her heart raced around inside her chest nonetheless, frightened into a sympathetic response by the horrible vision of history repeating itself with new players starring in old roles.

* Dirty trick, miscasting Charlie like that. But it seemed so real at the time. She was so scared of me, just like Angel. They both thought that I’d actually… no. Wasn’t real. Don’t go there again. *

Masochist that she was, Diana could scarcely stop herself from remembering their faces, real and imagined, at the moment they decided to kill her. In her mind, the two women morphed together, their expressions matching perfectly – a look of love turning to fear turning to hatred. Somewhere in her brain’s jukebox was a broken record by the group ‘Bad Karma,’ and it was stuck on the lyric “your love is dangerous.”

* Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to hear that fucking song for eternity. *

You certainly will. It’s your theme song. All the great killers have a theme song – James Bond, Shaft, Darth Vader…

The voice again, speaking inside her mind, that same high-pitched, mocking voice heard on the phone and in the backyard during her fevered rage. Diana began to fear that it was not her own subconscious at all, merely some dormant program loaded like a computer virus into her brain, accidentally activated when she confronted Chen Kaige.

* Shut-up. You’re nothing but flotsam, litter left behind by Riggins and Mangano. You don’t control me, I control you. I put you down when I surfaced. *

Are you sure about that? Willing to bet your life?

* Yes, I am. Any day of the week. *

Easy answer, what with your self-esteem deficit and that silly old death wish. Let me rephrase the query – are you willing to wager Charlie’s life? Are you that sure of yourself?

* I would never hurt her! That’s bullshit! *

You thought you could stop that scene with Chen Kaige, and we saw your iron will in action there, didn’t we? That could just as easily be Charlotte. You could lose control with her.

* Never happen. Never. *

Never say never. What if she turned on you, like that morning on the boat? She can hurt you, kid. Leave you bleeding. You might decide to fight back next time. Bossy little bitch would be up the creek then, wouldn’t she?

* You’re trying to manipulate me. I will not listen to your lies. You are irrelevant. *

Ooh, listen to Diana of Nine! Me? Irrelevant? Hardly. I’m the best part of you, killer, the only honest part of you. All this ‘normal life’ shit? All that ‘love heals’ tripe? That’s the lie.

* Go away, go away, go away, go away… *

Gee, that didn’t work. Maybe you should try a catchier chant – Go back! Go Back! Go back to the woods! Your team ain’t got no spirit and your coach is no good! – try that one.

* You’re trying to scare me. The dream of Charlie, her shooting me, that fever – that was all you. This is some kind of trick. *

No, baby, that dream was your future. Call it a divine vision. Moses got the burning bush, you get me. I’m letting you in on the joke you’ve made of yourself.

* My life is not a joke! I found what I need, I have everything I’ve ever wanted – *

And you don’t know what the hell to do next. You think it’ll go on forever, just like it has been? An endless series of picnics and birthday parties with someone else’s kids? Motel stakeouts with that slob Teddy? Screwing the same woman, night after night –

* STOP IT! That’s not the way I feel! You do NOT speak for me! *

Come on! How many times can you do all that shit before it gets old?

* Every day until I die. It’s all I need. Every day, every night. *

Now who’s lying? How many times have you been cut off in traffic and forced yourself not to chase down the fuckhead driver and beat them senseless? How many times have you sparred with Luis and had to hold yourself back so you wouldn’t snap his neck? You have the ability to run roughshod over these peons, to make them quake with fear, to make them die…

* You say that like it’s something to be proud of. It isn’t. *

It’s part of you. I’m part of you. Just because you choose to ignore me does not mean I’m gone. You’ll have to fight me down every time you get angry, every time you’re afraid, every time you get keyed up too tight. I’ll be there, Pollyanna, every goddamned time.

* I can beat you. *

Wishful thinking. The genie’s out of the bottle now. You got scared and you let me out. I will not go back, and I will not be ignored.

* I can beat you. I did it before, I can do it again. *

Resistance is futile, babe. I own your ass now. You’re just too stubborn to admit it.

* You’re wrong. I’ll find a way. I have to. *

Diana expected another rebuttal, but it never came. Evidently, the debate was over.

She was left with the distinct impression that she had lost.

——————————————————————————–

Charlotte filled her lungs, threw back her shoulders, and flung open the bathroom door. She marched into the hall, past the living room where her father sat talking to Richard. She barely noticed Emily, Luis, and the kids milling about at the edge of the room, all appearing lost as toddlers set loose in a shopping mall. She was too focused, blindly determined to reach her destination.

There was a price for her tunnel vision – while wheeling around the corner on a sharp left to the kitchen, she ran right smack into her mother.

“Ohh! Where do you think you’re going?” Anne crowed, rocking back on her heels.

Charlie bounced off the slim matron, then spun to the side like Barry Sanders shaking a weak tackler. “I’m looking for my date,” she replied, proceeding down the hall to the kitchen.

Anne Browning braced her hand on the mahogany wood paneling, trusting the wall to hold her up as her daughter breezed past. “Well, I hope the two of you are very happy! This dinner was a fiasco, and between her vanishing and your vomiting, you totally upstaged your poor, dying father!”

Stopping dead in her tracks, Charlotte turned and cast an evil glare upon her mother.

“Mom, if daddy is dying, I feel very sorry for him and I will do my best to make amends for every rotten, stinking bad thing that’s ever passed between us,” she vowed in a most serious tone, meaning every word. “However, on the upside of the whole imminent death thing, he won’t have to wake up next to you for much longer.”

She could see her mother turn red, virtually glowing in the dim hallway, but she had no interest in pursuing the conversation any further. Charlie gave the woman nothing but her back as she walked away. Four long strides later, she pushed open the kitchen doors and found three of the catering staff standing around with large guns in their hands. They tried to hide the weapons. Too late.

It took less than a second for her to put it together.

“Where is Diana?”

No one spoke. The three looked at each other as if weighing the risk of running out the back door and catching the next flight to Sri Lanka.

“Dammit, somebody better talk to me!” Charlotte roared, losing what little patience she had left.

“She’s gone.”

The young man standing by the door had cracked first, drawing glares of disapproval from his companions. Charlie noted that the kid had his finger on the trigger of a mean-looking nine mil, but she was well past the point where that would scare her.

“Gone? That’s not good enough! Tell me where!”

Charlie advanced on him with such purpose, such intensity, that Brian thought she was going to march right up and whack him with her cast.

“That blonde woman, that Julia… see, there was some trouble out back and we told her and she went back there and she just sort of… took over.”

Getting right up in the tall lad’s face, Charlotte barked a one word command. “More.”

Brian’s tongue could scarcely keep pace with his desire to spill the whole story. “She went back there and then she came back in and took this scanner and got this stuff out of the basement and made us put everything and everybody in that weird-ass silver hot rod and then she just took off!”

“Julia took Diana?”

“Yeah! Her and that Chen guy and the dog and the basement stuff and everything! Poof!”

Charlie was getting dizzy again. “Julia took the dog?”

“Yeah! And Diana and the Chen guy and – ”

“I get it! She took everybody and everything but the fucking kitchen sink!” Charlie yelled, pushing down the urge to introduce her cast to Mr. Helpful’s nose. “But where did she take them?”

“She didn’t say.”

“SHE DIDN’T SAY???”

“No,” Brian whispered, suddenly struck by the desire for a larger gun. “I’m sorry.”

“Move away from the door,” Charlotte calmly requested.

Brian got out of her way as if he were dodging a bullet train.

She unlocked and opened the door, stepped outside and closed it behind her. Charlotte then walked out onto her father’s pristine putting green, cleared her throat, and let out a scream of frustration that could be heard all the way to the Elceda county line.
——————————————————————————–
On Highway 280, a silver flash zoomed in and out of traffic, abusing the carpool lane and scaring the bejeesus out of numerous commuters, some of whom whipped out cell phones and alerted the highway patrol to the presence of a reckless driver. Not surprisingly, none of the helpful tattlers were able to identify the make of the vehicle.

The exotic sportscar roared on, blurring past a large yellow and blue sign. The gray-eyed driver read the speed-smeared words – “Thank You For Visiting Elceda County! Come Back Again Soon!” – and she felt her heart sink.

“Only now passing the county line,” Julia said to herself. “Five miles to the access road, then down to the pit. We’re not going to make it.”

According to the digital speedometer, Julia’s car was whizzing along at one hundred twenty-two miles per hour. She was growing afraid even the twelve cylinder engine wouldn’t be able to move them fast enough, get them far enough to make safety. At their current speed, the gravel pit was at least three minutes away. Her watch, synchronized with the digital timer on Chen’s detonator, told her she had two minutes left before the package in the car’s reinforced steel trunk went boom.

“Knolla!” she cursed, slamming one palm against the steering wheel. She pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the engine promptly jacked up their speed to one-sixty and beyond.

The Swede was upset over being forced to run the explosives clear. She would have attempted to simply defuse the bomb if she’d had the appropriate tools in her possession. Unfortunately, Julia left her precision voltage meter, needle-nose wire snips, and high frequency oscillator in her other bag – along with a tin of Altoids and some apricot lip balm. She was ashamed to be caught so unprepared.

“I’m down to reacting now. Reacting is not my game, Diana,” she said, addressing the zoned-out woman to her right. “You’ve put us in quite a pickle.”

After knocking Diana cold, Julia heard beeping sounds coming from Chen Kaige’s jacket, and instinct told her he was not being paged. She rooted out the trigger switch, saw the open basement doors, and executed a quick, fruitless search. Chen had hidden the twenty-odd pounds of SEMTEX quite well, making the plastic explosive detector Diana wisely brought along a serendipitous find. Her well-equipped foresight probably saved the lives of everyone in the Browning house.

Still, the timer was too complex to tackle with a knife and bare eyesight, so her only choice was to pack up all the incriminating evidence and make a run for a safe dump sight, namely the abandoned excavation site where Diana had once met Eladio.

“Chen and his stupid triple switch timers,” Julia griped aloud. “Why couldn’t he make a simple, straight-forward bomb out of a big load of crap, like all those naughty little redneck terrorists?”

In the passenger seat, Diana stirred again, moaning and twitching as she fought something wicked in her sleep. Julia hoped she would awaken soon, for she did not relish the prospect of jettisoning Diana from the car on her own. The woman weighed around 150 pounds, much more than the slim blonde could manage comfortably on her best day. To speed the process along, she steered with one hand and slapped Diana’s cheek with the other.

“Wake up, kronjon!”
——————————————————————————–

Kronjon?

Diana heard the word yelled across a somnambular chasm. She wondered why her hateful alter ego had decided to berate her in Swedish.

* I know I’m an idiot, but please do me the courtesy of insulting me in my mother tongue. *

Dit javla dajmkryss!

* Wait, I don’t even know what that one means… Julia? *
——————————————————————————–

Another sharp slap later, Diana’s wild blue eyes snapped open.

She blinked dazedly and tried to orient herself to her surroundings, but the bits of awareness fell random as raindrops. There was pain, of course. She winced while trying to flex bloodied, swelling fingers, but her hands were mercifully unbroken.

* Just cuts. Iodine and bandages. Might need a stitch or two on the right knuckles. *

Furthermore, she was wicked dizzy and sleepy and her head ached like a drunken Clydesdale had danced the Tarantella on her skull.

* Another concussion. Peachy. *

Julia sat beside her, both hands gripping a tan leather steering wheel. She smiled sideways at Diana, keeping both eyes on the road ahead.

“We now rejoin our regularly scheduled program,” Julia said, jerking the wheel to the left as they bolted past a parked BMW Z-3… only it wasn’t parked. It was cruising along in the passing lane.

* Ooookay, * Diana thought, * We’re in a car, going ridiculously fast – one-seventy? – and we’re not wearing seatbelts. I wonder if I should even ask… *

“What happened?”

Julia’s first response was laughter, and her second was another stream of curses Diana could barely make out. Her own command of the Swedish vernacular was rusty from disuse, but Julia’s was apparently in fine form.

“You screwed us over, darling,” she said, finally getting herself under control. “I found you out back, beating Chen like a redheaded stepchild. I konked your noggin, found twenty pounds of SEMTEX in the basement, loaded all the booty into me magic wagon, and now we’re headed for the old quarry on Thiel Road to dump the bomb – which will detonate in, ohhh, ninety seconds.”

“There’s twenty pounds of high explosive material in this car,” Diana stated, trying to get a grip on the gravity of their predicament. “Where is Chen’s body?”

“You mean the pile of raw hamburger meat formerly known as Chen Kaige?” Julia snorted out a tiny, rueful laugh. “He’s in the trunk. The poor doggie is back there as well.”

“Dead?”

“Thoroughly,” the blonde confirmed. “Rarely have I seen a man so dead. Vengeance is thine.”

“Jules, I didn’t… shit.”

“May I ask you a question?”

Dreading her own answer like a vampire fears sunrise, Diana gave her the go-ahead. “Shoot.”

“What the hell were you thinking?”

After a long pause, Diana sighed out the truth. “Simple answer – I wasn’t. Something went wrong.”

“I believe Mr. Chen would agree.”

“I mean something in my head went wrong,” Diana clarified. “I couldn’t stop myself. If you hadn’t come out when you did – ”

“Boom,” Julia finished, “Big ba-da-boom. Here’s our turn-off.”

Diana braced her right hand on the dash as Julia swung the speeding car across four lanes of traffic and squealed onto the exit for Thiel Road. Horns honked, brakes screeched and tires smoked as the innocent drivers on Thiel were forced to yield to a growling silver machine with no regard for right of way. The engine revved high as Julia downshifted to fourth gear and threaded the rocket through a maze of light traffic, drawing ever nearer to the quarry road entrance.

More people took it upon themselves to alert the police… once their own heart-attacks were over.

“How long now?” Diana asked, now fully alert and appropriately scared.

Julia ran straight through a four-way stop and pulled into another hard right, swinging the car onto the bumpy access road at seventy-two miles per hour. The car fishtailed wildly, tires spinning up titanic sprays of dirt and gravel as she fought the road for control of the vehicle and just barely won. After the considerable jostle was over, Julia sped up to eighty and checked her watch again.

“Forty-one seconds, by my count. How far to the pit?”

“Bit under half a mile, but the road is rough all the way,” Diana recalled, struggling to maintain her blank game face. “You can’t keep up this speed. We’ll wind up in the woods.”

Staunch oaks and pines blurred into a solid tapestry on both sides, and deep, water-filled drainage ditches separated the forest from the dirt road. With the slightest provocation, the blazing vehicle could jump the ditch and smash into the wall of trees. However, the driver was averse to a smash-up with mother nature, so she slowed her machine to a near-crawl of just over sixty.

“Skit!” Julia swore again as they bounced violently across an uneven patch, nearly swerving into the right side ditch. “We’re closing in, time to get ready. See the green button on your door?”

Diana spotted three buttons – one red, one blue, and (thank God!) one green. “Got it.”

“That’s your exit key. When I say go, you push it and jump out. We’ll be doing around fifty, so remember to roll through the impact.”

“You’re gonna ditch the whole car in the pit?”

“That’s the plan.”

“What about Chen? Without his body, you get nothing!”

“I get noth – ” Julia started to question the phrasing, but her mind skipped right over it when she realized what the other woman was thinking. “Diana, there’s not enough time to stop the car, chuck the bomb and get to a safe distance!”

“Well, no, not if you do it! You throw like a girl!”

Julia’s eyes widened as the dark road ahead opened into a clearing – the pit was in sight. She slowed to fifty and keyed both the exits open. The hydraulic cylinders lifted the doors up like wings and the car shook as dusty wind roared inside the cabin.

The countdown on her watch gave them twenty-three seconds.

“GO!”

“No! We can still do this!” Diana insisted. “I need to do this! Pull to the edge and pop the trunk!”

Though she knew it was a bad idea and would likely get both of them blown into raccoon food, there was simply no time left to argue. Julia reached down and released the trunk latch as she hit the brakes, spinning the car to a stop less than ten feet from the rim of the yawning pit. She slipped the car into first and kept one foot on the gas, ready to rock as soon as the deed was done.

“You’re a fucking lunatic, you know that?” she screamed at Diana, who was already out the door.

“Look who’s talking!” the dark woman replied, smiling in spite of her fear or perhaps because of it.

She knew she was afraid… and yet she was still in control, mastering it through action.

Diana rounded the rear of the car and jerked the trunk lid open wide. Inside, Chen’s battered corpse lay on the stiff beige mat, his arms curled around the body of a furry white dog. She saw his ruined face and cringed, knowing that she was responsible for the demolished man.

* Don’t look. Don’t think. No time. Where bomb? There bomb! Come, bomb, come! *

Lodged securely in the black nylon cargo netting on the driver’s side was a large brick of gray putty bound tightly in black electric tape. The red digital counter on the device’s face read :12.

She yanked the device from the net, clutching it tightly in her right hand.

:11

Three long strides to the edge of the quarry, barely gazing into the dark gulf far below.

:10

A twist on the last step, turning her upper body nearly perpendicular to her hips.

:09

“RRRRAAAGGGHHH!!!” A scream of effort as she pivoted into the throw and sent it sailing.

:08

Running back to the car even as the bomb arced downward into the deep, black water.

:07

Inside. Clutch released, fuel flowing, tires spinning up pinwheels of stone and earth. Moving fast.

:06

Feet turn to yards as the car doors slide smoothly shut, leaving the noisy wind outside.

:05

In third gear, at forty-five MPH. Safe. Julia begins to laugh. Diana is helpless against her own joy.

:04

She feels light and electrified, aerated with thrill. There are no voices. No guilt. No shame. No fear.

:03

“God damn, I feel good!”

:02

“I still say you’re a fucking lunatic.”

:01

“You may be right.”

:00
——————————————————————————–
At the bottom of the quarry, in a deep pool of pitch-black stagnant water, it explodes.

The solid rock basin cracks under the sudden, immense force.

The ground shakes. Dark geysers of water and stone spout high into the air, crashing against the sky and falling to pepper across dry ground on every side of the pit.

The instant impact is violent and visible, but the water soon settles. The waves become ripples and die away, leaving the surface of the pool looking unchanged, untouched.

Underneath, the damage is greater. What was solid and strong now bears a wound, a fissure.

It will go unnoticed until some foolhardy explorer takes a swim in the still pool and finds their foot caught in the crevice. They will drown and only then will the danger become known. A warning sign will be placed at the site, too late to help that first casualty.

Until then, the calm black water waits, concealing a trap to be sprung.
——————————————————————————–
Thirty Four

Back on the highway, Julia drove the speed limit, used her turn signal to change lanes, minded all the niggling rules of polite driving… and it was killing her. She was so wound-up, so jubilant that she felt she might explode even without the aid of SEMTEX.

“I need to get laid,” she brazenly stated. “Well and soon.”

Diana stared straight ahead, left the bait bobbing in the water. The need was there, and it almost hurt to tamp it down, but she’d be damned before giving Julia the satisfaction of hearing about it. She could wait – would wait – until she got home. Charlie was going to be repaid with heavy interest. Right now, she’d have to find something safer than adulterous rutting to occupy her energies.

“Got any cigarettes, Speed Racer?”

“In the glove compartment. Get me one while you’re at it.”

She found a box of Winston Ultra Lights 100s and slipped two between her lips. “Lighter?”

“Check under the owner’s instruction manual.”

“Huh. Since when do you need instructions for anything?” Diana quipped, rooting out the simple red plastic Bic from beneath a thick brown leather book that looked like a Day-Timer.

“This car is custom built,” Julia deflected. “Many cutesy extras. I just had it delivered this afternoon and we haven’t had time to get acquainted yet.”

“Would’ve been a shame to chuck this baby out with the bath water.” Diana lit both smokes and handed one to the blonde. “It’s a Callaway V-12, right?”

“Nice guess, motorhead. I asked for no insignias – how could you tell?”

The dark woman shrugged and took a sinfully long drag, filling her lungs with poison and not caring in the least. “Teddy’s car magazines. Your body style is sleeker, but it looks near enough to call.”

Julia grinned and flashed narrowed eyes at her companion. “I didn’t think you noticed my body style anymore, darling.”

Diana returned the smile at half-power, eyes glinting through a cloud of smoke. “You never quit.”

“Neither do you. Not really.”

Julia paused as she gathered up her thoughts and assembled them into an order Diana would not find immediately objectionable. The woman’s steely will was hotter and more malleable now than it had been in ages, and Julia could not pass up the opportunity to strike. With a little subtlety and a lot of luck, she might be able to hammer these events into a circle and roll Diana right out of town.

“You really did enjoy that last bit, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” came the grudging reply. “You know I did.”

“But you feel this evening should never have come to that point.”

“It shouldn’t have gone past the back-fucking-yard,” Diana agreed nastily. “I had Chen down – I had him – and everything would have gone down so easy if I hadn’t… ”

She trailed off and stared out the window, watching the road signs whiz by as they drew nearer to Elceda. It hurt to think about what happened, how she lost control, how hard she fought to regain it only to fall so terribly short. And that voice in her head, like the disembodied spirit of her own dark half, taunting and threatening, playing on her greatest fears.

“I don’t believe it was all your fault,” Julia said, drawing her back from dangerous rumination.

“How can you say that? You don’t know what happened to me.”

“Tell me this – did you plan to kill Chen Kaige?”

“No! I needed him alive for… no. I didn’t intend for that to happen. I just snapped.”

“Has it happened before, this snapping business?”

“Not since Riggins died,” Diana revealed solemnly. “Not a peep since I surfaced.”

Julia cracked the window and let out some of the thickening smoke as she plotted her next move.

“Mangano and Riggins never monkeyed with me. You know that.”

* They never needed to, * Diana thought with an inner smirk. * You’re monkey enough already. *

“I guessed as much,” she said aloud.

“So you’re right, in a way. I don’t know what you’re going through. No one does.” Here, the Swede exhaled noisily, as if the matter weighed heavy on her soul. “You are the lone survivor of their experiments to create the perfect killer. You were Dr. Mangano’s greatest success. His legacy lives on in you, in so many ways.”

Diana watched the blonde with the wary curiosity of a snake charmer. Julia had a certain sway to her neck and head when she worked an interrogation – a nifty body-language device to distract and disarm a subject – and she knew instantly that she was being played. But…

* Here we go again. *

“What are you getting at?

“I believe your snap with Chen was a manifestation of latent instructional programming,” Julia rattled off, spinning the unwieldy technobabble like a pro. “Mangano’s key trick involved a transmutation of suppressed pain – usually a buried memory – into fear and anger, which sets off a tsunami of adrenaline and allows one to exert superior strength. With you, the old impetus was the memory of your rape and the ensuing death of your brother.”

“But I dealt with that already,” Diana argued. “That fuel was spent when I surfaced, and I own that part of me now. I don’t see how those things could cause what happened tonight.”

They were passing the Elceda city limit sign. Winking lights from town peeked over concrete rails along the highway, reminding Diana of familiar locales in the town she’d chosen to call home. She didn’t feel at home, though. Some part of her was still adrift in the sky, tethered to her like a balloon.

“You say you weren’t thinking when you attacked Chen, but there must have been something going through your head,” Julia asserted. “The fury behind that beating didn’t just fly out your ass, Diana. Did he say anything to set you off, make you afraid?”

“Just the usual claptrap about killing me brutally, yadda, yadda, yadda,” she recounted. “He made reference to hurting Dan, mentioned Charlie a couple of times.”

Julia straightened in her seat and cleared her throat. “Well, there you have it,” she announced while tossing her cigarette out the window.

Diana watched in the rear-view mirror as it tumbled and sparked along the pavement. “What?”

“The program Mangano utilized doesn’t just die off once you overcome the initial trigger sequence, it evolves right along with your conscious mind, like a virus overcoming an innoculant. It finds a new way to infect you. You’ve got yourself a shiny new activation mechanism.”

“I didn’t order one,” Diana groaned, gently banging her forehead against the window as she damned Salvatore Mangano’s genius soul to the depths of hell, right along with all the other demons who saw themselves as gods. “Is it too late to send it back?”

“That depends,” Julia replied silkily. “Did Ms. Browning give you a receipt for her heart?”

Diana dropped her voice to a low hiss and gave Julia a withering glare. “What the hell are you trying to say?”

“Isn’t it obvious? If you want to adapt to your new strain of psychosis, you must dispense with the underlying cause. That cause, my dear love-struck softy, is the fear of your old life, your old self, steamrolling over your current set of attachments. Lose the attachments and you lose the fear, rendering the threat of further snappage as limp as an old rubber band.”

Her initial reaction was vehement denial. A shouted, resounding ‘NO!’ should have passed her lips… but it didn’t happen. Her second, more canny reaction was doubt, and it clamped down on her tongue and depressed all thoughts that didn’t involve the words ‘liar’ or ‘manipulative’ or ‘canard’ in reference to Julia’s hypothesis.

The third reaction simultaneously flying around in her head, for all were stacked atop each other like circling planes, was the one that scared her the most. It gave credence to both Julia’s cold approximation of her plight and made sense of her own hopeless battle with the fevered voice, her own private doomsayer, preaching jeremiads only she could hear.

* It makes sense. I don’t want it to, but it does make an awful sort of sense. *

“Diana?” Julia said quietly, gentling her tone. “Sorry to be so blunt, but you really should – ”

“Don’t talk about that anymore,” the dark woman rumbled, her voice laden with warning. “We have work to do tonight and I don’t think I can handle anymore distractions.”

“What work remains for ‘we?’ I thought your participation ended when the threat was removed.”

“Just drive back to the Browning’s place. It’s quarter past nine now, and we need to meet your contact for the official trade at ten sharp. I’ll come along ’cause I’ve got some explaining to do about why Chen’s not breathing,” Diana explained dryly. “Wouldn’t want you to get credit for that.”

“Blame is a more appropriate term than credit,” Julia corrected. “But why return to the house of horrors? We have what’s left of Chen, and the rest of the material is still sleeping at your place.”

“I thought you might want to meet your new crew.”

Julia’s pale brows lifted anxiously, an unspoken question stuck in her throat.

“Yes, I do mean the three asian caterers, along with whoever’s working control tonight.”

“No, no, no,” the Swede objected. “I arranged for twelve operatives, not four. If that miserly bitch is trying to cheat me, I’ll be quite put-out.”

“That bitch has promised to address the security council tomorrow morning, to intervene on your behalf in exchange for fewer personnel… and a promise that you’ll keep your activities confined to the Pacific rim for eight months.”

“What??”

Julia was plainly shocked, unnerved to the point that she nearly missed the exit for the Windham Hill subdivision, home of Drury Lane.

“How could you!?!”

She jerked the wheel right and swerved into a narrow spot between a Little Debbie delivery truck and, oh boy, an Elceda County Sheriff’s Department patrol car. The deputy sighted the silver animal prowling dead ahead and immediately flipped on the blue light.

“Goddammit, Di! You tell me she can’t be trusted, then you go to her behind my back!” Julia cried, genuinely upset. “And now I’m going to get a fucking traffic ticket!”

“Her vouching for you will officially get Harry off your case,” Diana explained, hurriedly fastening her seat belt as Julia pulled onto the road’s grassy shoulder. “It’s the best thing for you both.”

The deputy waited for them to park and eased in a few yards behind – a show of proper procedure which oddly heartened Diana. “Put on your friggin’ seat belt! Here he comes!”

Julia threw up her hands and yelled, “To hell with the seat belt!”

“It’s more money on the fine if you’re not wearing it.”

“This is how out of touch you are! You actually think I’m going to pay the ticket?”

Diana scowled and shut her mouth, not wanting to recall how good it felt when she didn’t have to play by all the rules of the responsible citizenry.

“You think you’re so tame, don’t you?” Julia spat, searching the glove box for her dummied-up license and registration. “Pay your fines and taxes, sit quietly in the corner and they’ll leave you alone so you can be a good girl. Well, it doesn’t work that way, darling. Not for you.”

“Shut up, Jules.”

“The next time someone elbows in front of Charlie at the DMV, you’re going to track them down and break both their arms. Just wait and see.”

“Shut up!”

“The cops will come to arrest you, they’ll try to cuff you and you’re gonna fuckin’ freak out and wipe the floor with their heads,” Julia insisted. “Then you will see that I’m right. Then you’ll understand what I mean. You don’t belong here and you never will.”

Diana turned to the blonde with the full intent of punching her lights out. The only thing that stopped her was a light tap on the driver’s side window and the presence of a large man in a tan uniform.

Julia rolled down the window and the deputy stooped to look inside the vehicle. Both women saw his face and let out a collective groan of disbelief.

“Well, well, well! Good evening, ladies!” Will Franklin said, clearly amused as he realized who was driving the ‘terror of Thiel Road,’ as one frantic citizen informant had put it.

He looked first at Julia, clad in formal, attractive evening wear, to the embarrassed jeans-clad woman in the passenger seat. “Out for a little joyride, Diana?”

“Will, I think you know what I’m going to say,” she muttered, hiding her blood-stained hands under her legs to prevent this stop from growing infinitely more complicated.

“Can I let this one slide? Something like that?”

“Yup. Please?”

The deputy cupped his chin in a large hand, deep in thought. “At least six reports of reckless driving on this car tonight. That’s pretty serious.”

“I was not reckless,” Julia objected. “They were merely going too slow.”

“What will it take, Franklin?” Diana asked pointedly.

“Weeelll, lessee here. Nobody got hurt, just scared is all,” he drawled, enjoying the upper hand for all it was worth. “I guess I can let you go – on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“I set up a time for you to talk to Sheriff Broward and you give some serious thought to coming back and working with me again,” Will proposed. “I can’t take much more of Gomer’s mouth. Somebody gonna get popped ‘fore long, and it ain’t gone be me.”

Julia looked at Diana with her gray eyes crossed in a goofy expression of inbred awe. “Gee, that sounds swell! They’ll probably let you have a gun and everything!”

Diana crunched down on her tongue, holding back an extremely un-ladylike retort. She looked past Julia to Franklin and gave him a tight nod.

“Deal.”

“Shit, yeah!” he crowed, slapping his hands together. “Tomorrow be too soon?”

“Make it Wednesday or later,” Diana suggested. “I’m not promising anything, but I’ll talk to him.”

“Hey, it’s a start. Now, as for you,” he said, addressing Julia, “you try to keep your speed down and quit scaring these poor ‘burb babies. I know D.C. cops don’t let you get away with that mess.”

Julia gave him her most innocent smile, which was still enough to unsettle Franklin’s nerves. “I’ll take that under advisement, deputy. Thank you for your understanding.”

“Uh-huh, no prob. Diana, I’ll see you later,” he said, giving a friendly wave. “And if I don’t see you again before you leave for Washington, you take care, Agent Scully.”

“I will, deputy. Have a safe night,” Julia replied, biting back a giggle.

Will Franklin walked away singing “It’s Alright, Baby’s Coming Back,” and smiling like he’d just won the Trifecta. Diana was quiet as Julia started the car and pulled onto the road, but the question begged so loudly she had to ask it.

“Agent Scully, is it?”

“Small town cops are so gullible. I showed him some FBI creds at the hospital,” Julia explained. “I don’t think he got the joke.”

Diana did not laugh, though she really, really wanted to. It was one of Julia’s most infuriating weapons, this ability to make people set aside her treacheries and view the actual woman as separate from her actions.

* She isn’t, though. We are what we do, not what we say or how we look. Julia is what she does. *

She was in it to win at all costs, that was beyond question, but she was always having such a damned good time that her wicked in-jokes and above the law attitude tended to magnetize anyone standing too close. Knowing this, Diana edged away to lean against the soft leather door and savored venomous bits of their earlier confrontation, trying to build up a sandbag wall of cautionary dislike.

* I can’t afford to go easy now. She’s not exactly the enemy, but she is not my friend. *

“So you restructured my deal in order to save me from Harry,” Julia said, picking up pretty much where they had left off. “And to save Harry from me.”

“Pretty much,” Diana agreed.

Julia snorted a little, a wistful expression hidden as she kept her face turned away.

“And you wonder why everybody wants you so badly.”

Diana closed her eyes, trying to stay angry.

* She is not my friend. *
——————————————————————————–

After checking on the yelling attorney and finding her wildly unpleasant but physically intact, Emily, Anne, and Richard all went back inside and counted their noses, just to make sure Charlotte hadn’t actually bitten them off. Once they realized she was safe, none of the “catering staff” saw fit to intrude on her moment of cathartic noise. They knew where she was coming from.

Charlie stayed outside for nearly half an hour before someone else disturbed her. She spent her time breathing, shoring up her strength, and praying that Julia would get hit by a bus.

* Don’t listen to her, baby, * she said to Diana, pushing the message out with all her might, knowing that if she tried hard enough, the thought would get through. * I know what she’s about, and I know what she wants. She’ll say anything to get you back, so don’t you believe her. *

“She’s the devil. Devil with a black dress on,” she murmured. “Devil with my sister’s black dress on.”

“Excuse me?” someone said from too close behind. A stranger’s voice.

Charlie jumped to her feet and spun around to face the interloper, her plaster-and-bandage hammer raised and ready to whack away. The stranger was female, five-eleven, long blonde hair hanging loose on her shoulders, cautiously kind blue eyes… and a big fucking gun.

“Wait! Wait! Hold up!” she pleaded, turning the machine pistol aside in the interest of calming a clearly frantic Charlotte. “I’m not going to hurt you. Here, let me put this down.”

Charlotte squinted and remained extremely nervous as the woman laid the gun on the clipped grass, but felt her mania lessening as the stranger displayed her empty, gloved hands and smiled.

“Damn it, do you people ever do anything without guns??” she hissed, keeping her voice low. The low voice was partly due to discretion, partly due to the persistent, croaking ache her primal scream had left behind in her throat. “Probably wipe your asses with shotgun shells.”

The woman frowned at the insult, though it was very near true. “I’m sorry to bother you, Ms. Browning, but – ”

“Does everybody know my name??” Charlie cringed at being the odd-man-in, knowing about half the story while everyone else knew either nothing or way more than her. “Who are you people? Did Diana bring all of you here to watch me? Or do you work for Ingrid, bride of satan?”

Confused and a little amused, the woman chuckled and stepped closer. “At this point, I’m not really certain who I work for anymore. I was hoping Diana could clear that up.”

“You know Diana?”

“Not well. Our employers put us together on a joint op two years ago. Amazing skill with a long bow, that woman. I was really surprised to hear she’d left the agency.”

“You and everybody else on the planet.”

The woman shrugged carelessly, though a tinge of envy colored her voice as she said, “Rumor held that she earned her way out. Guess she deserves the shot. She due back anytime soon?”

Charlie tried to place the woman’s funny trace accent and decided that she was either a transplanted Australian or doing a very bad job of faking it. Something about the woman’s easy, lax posture and exultant physical confidence reminded her of Diana. Because of that minor similarity, she was noticeably kinder in her reply.

“Ingrid kidnapped Diana and flew the coop, but I have all ideas that they’ll return,” she said, hoping it was true. “The other three cowboys are in the kitchen, in case you need to parley.”

“No thanks. I’d rather wait until she gets back.”

“Me, too.” Charlotte plopped down on the green again, folding her legs under her dress hem to minimize grass stains on the borrowed garment. “You can hang out here with me, if you don’t mind the company of a grouchy litigator.”

“Okay,” the woman agreed, scooping up her gun and settling onto the grass after a quick sweep of the yard. “As long as you promise not to – ”

“Sue you,” Charlie finished for her. “Since that’s clearly the only threat I pose to anyone, you’d be surprised how often I hear that.”

“Actually, I was going to ask you not to hit me with that cast,” the woman corrected.

Abashed, Charlie hid her broken hand beside her leg. “Oh. Sorry. I’m a little on edge tonight.”

“You have every right. From what I could pick up on the remote dish, the worst is over.”

“Remote what? Were you eavesdropping?”

“Just a little, just enough to know Diana had everything well in hand. I shut it down a few minutes after she found Chen – ”

“She found him? Alone?”

“Beat the stuffing out of him, too.”

“That’s my girl,” Charlie said proudly. “You didn’t happen to pick up anything on Julia, did ya?”

“No. I pulled back once it became clear I wasn’t needed,” the woman explained. “Julia – is she otherwise known as Ingrid, bride of satan?”

“Yesss. Your buds in the kitchen say she ran back there and took Diana away, along with Chen Kaige and my mother’s pet Akita. Why the hell would she take the dog?”

The tall blonde fudged up her mouth, as if she were holding something in, something Charlie would not like hearing. “Dunno. Seems strange, though.”

“Amen,” Charlotte agreed. “Look, I know you guys have all these secret code names and stuff, but I’d appreciate it if you’d introduce yourself. I think it might make this feel a little less weird. I’m Charlotte Browning – but seeing as how you know Diana and all, you can call me Charlie.”

The attorney extended her hand to the spy and waited as the woman came up with a disposable moniker for courtesy’s sake.

“Josie,” she finally announced, taking Charlie’s hand in a strong, slow shake.

“Josie. It’s cute. Short for anything?”

The spy seemed pensive and cautious as she retracted her hand. “Someone used to call me Josephine. I guess it’s as good a name as any.”

Charlie didn’t pry into it, for the woman’s past was not nearly as interesting unless it contained tales of a black-haired, blue-eyed woman who could wield a long bow and make Kung Pao chicken.

“Tell me everything you remember about Diana.”

Josie smiled and humored her. She kept watching the yard, listening for anything untoward, her finger resting on the trigger guard of the machine pistol.

“Two years ago, a very wealthy little boy was kidnapped from his father’s home in Turin and taken to an old castle outside of Brussels. Diana and I were on the silent entry team, taking out guards with the bow… among other things.”

Charlotte soon realized that Diana had never told her this story, and she thought she knew why.

* She never tells me any story where she did something good, where she’s the hero instead of the villain. She rescued a kidnapped child and I hear about it from a stranger? We’re gonna have to have another long talk about her poor self-image. *

“When she handed that baby back to his father, the man started crying, trying to hug her. Diana wouldn’t let him. She just backed off, boarded the chopper and left with her crew. I haven’t seen her since,” Josie said, suddenly turning eyes and gun back toward the house as she heard soft footsteps on the grass. “But she still looks the same.”

Charlie spotted Diana approaching and placed her hand on the raised machine pistol, gently pushing it down. “Don’t point that at her,” she instructed firmly. Josie put the gun down.

The lawyer stood up, walking with mildly shaky legs toward her lover. She saw her hands, saw the cuts and bruises and swelling, saw the dazed, tired look in those familiar blue eyes, and she wanted nothing more that to take her into an embrace and hold her, certain that enough love could heal whatever hurts she had endured in the quest to protect them both.

“Hi,” Diana said, opening her arms wide as she came near.

“Hi,” Charlotte echoed, falling against her and wrapping her up tight, tighter.

Diana nearly stumbled as all of Charlie’s weight became her responsibility, but she squelched the dizziness in her head and let her heart do all the work. At moments like that, all doubts were gone, all voices silenced, and she honestly believed she was strong enough to make it last forever. She felt the small body in her arms shudder and quake, and she knew Charlie was crying.

“It’s okay,” she crooned, kissing her hair, her temple, her ear. “He’s gone now. He’s gone.”

Charlie rubbed her back through the thin tank top, alarmed to find it felt almost damp, the skin beneath abnormally warm. “Are you okay?” She looked up at Diana and found her eyes distant, unfocused. “What happened? Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Had a spot of trouble, but I’m cool now. It’s just… miles to go before I sleep, you know?” Diana murmured by way of an explanation. “How about you? Did you talk to your family?”

“Yeah, we talked. Not good news by any stretch, but it can wait until we get a quiet moment.”

“You enjoy Kung Pao, missy?” Diana asked, in full-Fong mode.

“It’s better the first time through, lemme tell ya,” Charlie sniffed, wiping her wet eyes.

“You got sick?”

“I got worried. Then I got sick. Then you weren’t here and I got pissy.”

“Natural progression.” Diana leaned in and kissed her mouth, just barely brushing her lips. She noticed that Charlotte was no longer crying. “Better now?”

“Only just. When will you be finished?”

“One more errand to run, then I’m out. You want to wait here, or can we drop you at home?”

“Who is we?”

“Me and Julia and the motley crew from the kitchen,” Diana answered. She looked over Charlie’s shoulder to the tall blonde woman waiting silently on the lit putting green. “And you, Rapunzel. Gather up the heroic trio and meet us around front. I’ll lead you to the house.”

Josie nodded her thanks for the invitation and trotted off to corral the motleys, leaving Diana and Charlie alone. Making the most of the privacy, Diana lowered her mouth again and kissed her love properly, easing lips apart and gentling the last tremors of fear from Charlie’s mind. The lawyer stirred enough to kiss back, but pulled away after too few seconds.

“What?” Diana touched her face in concern.

“Vomit breath,” Charlie explained, frowning sourly. “Sorry.”

“You vomited the night I fell in love with you, remember? It’s gonna take more than that to keep me off you.” Diana stole another quick kiss, grinning with boundless regard.

In that moment, she looked the way Charlie always envisioned her – lit from inside with a halogen heart, as if her love would shoot out from her nose and ears and mouth like beams of light, should she choose to let it. Still fussy over her foul breath, Charlie kissed the woman’s long, perfect throat, nibbling her neck with teeth and tongue just enough to get the message across.

“Love you, stretch” she said quietly.

Diana squeezed her eyes shut tight, trying to keep those words in her ears, wanting to hear them forever. “Love you, too.”

“That is simply too precious,” Julia pronounced, stalking into view over Diana’s shoulder. “However do you stand each other?”

Charlotte slipped one arm away, allowing Diana to turn around, but one arm remained tightly wound about her lover’s waist, a thumb snagged inside a belt loop. “Beat it, Ingrid.”

“Fickle, fickle. Not ninety minutes ago, you gave me smoochie-lips, now you tell me to go away. A girl gets confused with all these mixed signals.”

“Smoochie-lips?” Diana questioned, and felt Charlie tense against her side.

“I was trying to piss on mom’s corn flakes,” she explained. “It didn’t work.”

“Good thing, too,” Julia added, twisting the knife even more, “otherwise, she might have tossed me on the table and gobbled me up right in front of her ex-husband.”

“Ex-husband?” Diana repeated, and felt Charlie turn to granite.

“Mom invited Richard. I didn’t know he’d be here.”

“The guy with the stupid tie was Richard?”

“Yes,” Charlotte confirmed, her voice small and cold. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“Later is better than now,” Julia said, tapping her watch. “We have an appointment to keep.”

“Jesus, we do have a lot to talk about,” Diana surmised, giving the statue in her arm a comforting squeeze. “You coming with?”

“Naahh. Now I see you’re okay, I think I’ll leave with Emmy and Luis,” Charlie decided.

She didn’t want to be in Julia’s company for another second. She didn’t trust the woman alone with Diana, but they would be with Josie and those other gun-type people from the kitchen. That made her feel a bit better; that and the fact that Diana seemed to be perfectly fine. A little tired, but fine.

Upon hearing Charlie’s answer, Diana felt a measure of her strength ebb away, knowing they were about to separate again. But she was better for having seen her, having held her and kissed her and been with her for those few minutes, so she sucked it up and gave her a final squeeze before moving away to follow Julia around the house.

“See you at home later,” she called back to Charlotte.

“Yeah, I’ll see you… at home… later,” Charlie parroted unevenly.

Standing alone in her parent’s yard, she picked at her cast and suddenly felt she had made a grievous mistake. She wondered if it was too late to change her mind and accompany them. She wondered why Diana pulled away from her so suddenly. She wondered why she was standing there wondering so much instead of doing something about it.

“Wait!” she called out, as loudly as her damaged throat could handle.

She couldn’t get through the bushes and around the house in heels and a tight dress, so she took the steps two at a time up to the rear stoop.

“Wait!” She flung open the back door and rushed into the empty kitchen.

“Wait!” She burst through the swinging doors and sped down the hall, through the living room, past her clustered, conversing family.

“Wait!” She unlocked the front door and slammed it open… just in time to see a silver car and a blue van vanish around the corner.

“Wait.” Her voice was worn down to a sad, hoarse whisper.

“Don’t go.” She sat on the front steps and smacked herself in the forehead with her bare palm.

“Shit.” <smack> “Shit.” <smack> “Shit.” <smack>

This ritual was repeated until Emily came out and bodily dragged her inside the house. She would not tell anyone what was bothering her, despite Anne’s badgering and Emily’s gentle solicitation. She was not at all interested in joining the group’s discussion of her father’s amended will.

After a good tooth-brushing and two glasses of Glen Ord whiskey, she finally stopped cursing herself and took a nap on the long suede couch in her father’s study.

Under the pretext of going to the restroom, Charles Browning left the group and slipped into his den. He silently rooted something out of the closet and walked over to Charlie.

He laid his old Navy blanket over his sleeping, troubled daughter. He wished they had the kind of relationship where she could talk to him without fear of disapproval, but that was his own fault. He wondered if they would have enough time to pave over the rough spots and construct that strong a trust before it was too late.

Facing the end of his life, Charles Browning found that was all he wanted.

“Love you, Chick,” he whispered, hoping that would be enough to build on.

Thirty Five

On the cross-town drive to Vega Avenue, Julia tried several times to initiate conversation, to strike up another debate on the futility of maintaining a civilian life, but her raven haired compatriot threw up a wall of silence she could not openly breech. She’d think of a way in, but it would take some time and a bit of stealth. Their time together was running short, and she did not want to spend it arguing.

Halfway to The Meadows, Julia sighed loudly and signaled surrender by turning on the CD player. The boisterous, slinky music of Garbage poured from ten hi-fi speakers, and the Swede hummed along with Shirley Manson.

Diana stared out the window, solemn and quiet as a Carmelite nun while cars and houses and scenes of Monday night banality whizzed past, all looking to her like sanctuary. But she was not Hugo’s renegade Esmeralda; she was not the sort to run inside and find safe harbor in the bell tower with just any old besotted hunchback.

The only safe place for her was with Charlotte… who had chosen not to be with her.

* Charlie didn’t come because she isn’t done with her folks, * she rationalized, aching for some excuse. * She’s too tired to deal with me. She didn’t want to be around Julia. She didn’t want to leave Emily and Luis there alone. Yeah. Right. *

Each explanation could have been true. Maybe all of them were true. It didn’t matter. The end result was the same, and though it was only a temporary parting, it still hurt to be away from her. She felt lost and alone again, and now was the worst time imaginable to show her weakness. Julia could smell it like a hungry shark scents blood in the water. Another dip in the pity pool and Diana would be a chumsicle in seconds. Hence the wall o’ silence routine.

Another stony hour, maybe less, and this would be done and she could go home and they would be together again and that was all that did matter. Everything else was irrelevant, worthless as confetti.

* If this swap goes off right, I’m home by eleven… but that’s a big if. How am I going to explain about Chen? Will she balk? Walk? Shoot at me? Shoot at Julia? Jesus, too many variables. Makes me wish I was still unconscious. No, bad idea. I like being alone in my head. *

“Boooowww down to meeeee,” Julia sang, grinning through the harmonies of “Supervixen.”

The cool blonde was distracted just enough to concentrate on the lyrics. She found herself identifying with the singer, which was a rare thing. Very few modern songs meshed so neatly with her egomaniacal passion. Insecurity, vindictiveness and defeatism were so prevalent in popular music that she found herself unable to listen to radio anywhere except Latin nations, where the soundtrack was hot enough to melt the average bourgeois complaint-rocker into a puddle.

“Do you like this music?” she asked Diana.

The queried party slowly turned to face her, blinking herself out of deep thought. “Hmm?”

“The music. I find it rather cathartic,” Julia went on. “Hearing someone express such nakedly confident anger can serve to purge the bile tanks of the mass consciousness.”

Diana listened for a few seconds, then nodded her agreement. “Jungian rock and roll therapy.”

“With very Freudian production values – all those pointy guitar riffs and deep, thrumming bass lines. It gives one naughty ideas.”

A little smirk nibbled at the corners of Diana’s mouth. “Still horny, I take it.”

“With no relief in sight,” Julia sighed, frowning pitifully. “Unless you – ”

“No.”

Diana’s response was definite and intractable, like cold water on the eardrums. Julia frowned and took a second shot, ever the gamer.

“Oh, come on! I wouldn’t tell anyone!” she swore, hiding crossed fingers by her thigh.

“No. If you get any tonight, it won’t be from me.”

“Fiddlesticks.”

The disc player segued into the next track, sending the sulky moans of “Queer” into the cabin. Julia lifted one slim brow as an immediate – if lesser – alternative entered her mind.

“Perhaps you could put in a good word for me with the tall blonde,” she offered. “She’s a dish.”

“Don’t go there, Jules,” Diana said sternly. “Not a good way to start things off. Out of that crew, she’s far and away your best operative.”

“If she is so skilled, why is she being traded away like a swap meet leftover?”

Diana pursed her lips and regurgitated a few sketchy details from the abeyance report she received via encoded fax that afternoon. “They say discipline problems. Very strong willed, high personal morality factor. In other words, she’s no puppet. You’ll need her good judgment down the line.”

“Oh, you dear thing!” Julia praised, her voice thick with sarcasm. “You’ve arranged for an external conscience to keep tabs on me?”

“Someone has to give me an honest appraisal of what you’re up to,” Diana explained. “I promised to act as your fail-safe and that’s a moot position if I don’t know when you’ve… failed.”

“Hmm. I suppose you’re right. Well, if I must have a spy peering over my shoulder, I’m glad it will be someone so criminally attractive,” the blonde lecher observed, glancing in the rear-view at the tailing blue van. “Do you think she’ll like me?”

“Play fair with her and she won’t let you down. As for anything more, she’s straight.”

Julia shot Diana a look of challenge, as if she had just been triple-dog-dared to accomplish some impossible task. In her mind’s eye, the Swede saw Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield bleachers, calling his legendary home run shot.

“For now,” she said.

As the Callaway slowed on approach to Vega Avenue, Diana had a new worry – that she’d arranged to have the marked woman tossed from frying pan to fire.

* I knew this would happen. Any beautiful person within ten miles of Julia is fair game. The question is did I ask for her on purpose, hoping that she’d provide a distraction to keep Jules away from me? That’s tantamount to pimping. Am I that selfish? Ugh. Disturbing thought. *

Her own memories of Julia as a suitor and lover were tainted by their current flirtation with enmity, but she consoled herself that it was a fate preferable to certain death – which the young agent faced if she remained with her current group.

* Gedde Yoshima came away unscathed, as far as I know. Maybe Julia’s calmed down these past few years… or maybe she was only into the rough stuff with me. Maybe she did those things because that was what she thought I wanted. Needed. Ugh. An even more disturbing thought. *

“Just don’t ask her to tie you up on the first date,” Diana suggested, rubbing her weary eyes.

Julia laughed in a singularly evil way as she replied, “Good idea. No bondage ’til the third date.”
——————————————————————————–

LeRoy Parks awoke from his nap just in time to see the slinky silver car pull up to the gate, followed closely by a dark blue van with no rear windows. He dragged an ashy hand across perpetually baggy eyelids and plodded out of the glass booth with the languor of a drugged tortoise.

“Got to find me a better job where I can get some sleep,” he complained, blindly pressing the red button to open the gates, permitting the vehicles to pass without so much as a second glance.
——————————————————————————–

“So much for the security of life in a gated community,” Julia observed. “I hope Charlotte doesn’t have to pay extra for his protective presence.”

“I’m gonna get that guy fired,” Diana swore as her hands convulsed into fists. “This is ridiculous. I mean, we could be serial killers! That lazy shit would let Richard Ramirez stroll right in without even asking him why he’s carrying that big fucking knife!”

“Need I remind you that we are here conducting rather nefarious business ourselves?” Julia pointed out. “Not that I’m judging you, darling. Hypocrisy helps many people sleep better at night.”

Diana rolled her eyes, trying to keep the hooked comment from sinking in too deep. “Shut up.”

“Fine. If you enjoy living in denial, far be it from me to break your lease.”

Diana fell silent again, and Julia gloated quietly, certain she’d found the perfect chink to exploit. In a laboriously ideal world like The Meadows, this nitro-blooded woman stood out like Courtney Love at a Promise Keepers rally. Julia saw it clearly; the trick was forcing open Diana’s own eyes, prying away the rose-colored shades and making her confront the paradox. Once that happened, Diana would do the rest of the work for her.

“Can you open the garage for the van?” she asked. “It might arouse suspicion should your neighbors see us shuttling four drugged bodies to and fro.”

“Yeah. I’ll do that,” Diana groaned, keeping her eyes on the passing, peaceful domiciles.

The neighborhood houses were quietly alive with the soft yellow of late evening light and the flickering blue of television sets. Sprinklers watered lush lawns down for the night, tossed chemically treated moisture over colorful beds of flowers and unblemished sidewalks, wooden mailboxes bearing homey carvings, painted birds and family names. Pricey, well-maintained cars were tucked into garages, their owners nestled in bed with spouses, children, or lovers. Reading. Watching Leno.

Few people lived alone in The Meadows. This was a community populated almost exclusively by young professionals sowing the seeds of their lives, growing families, relationships and businesses inside a safe, walled garden. At least, they thought it was safe.

* I have brought danger into your lives, * Diana reflected, steadily resenting Julia for shoving her into a quiet room populated by such thoughts. * The three people inside this car have caused more death and destruction than any of you could imagine. One of us is dead, another is leaving soon, but I live among you. I pretend that I belong here. *

As the unmarked Callaway slithered along the asphalt path, Diana couldn’t help feeling like a snake, an intruder looking to sneak in, hunt, and get out before being discovered and decapitated with a sharp red hoe.

* I see you all nearly every day, taking out the trash and recycling bins, tending flowers, checking mail. I see your kids skateboarding without helmets and I tell them how stupid it is not to wear protective gear. If I really cared about any of you, I wouldn’t stay here. *

When she looked up, she saw the white split-level looming ahead, and her eye twitched in strange, nervous reaction. The automatic night lamp on the front walk was on, casting a cheery brightness over the front of the sweet little house. The moon provided a lovely backdrop, visible just over the dark gray roof. Stars peeked out between hazy clouds shifting in high atmospheric winds.

“Home, sweet home,” Julia chirped. “Such a pretty night to commit multiple felonies.”

The chipper driver dropped the car out of gear and coasted to a halt into the driveway, then cut the headlights and engine. The blue van cut a neat three-point turn, backing in so the rear cargo doors faced the garage.

Diana stared at the house – her house, her home – and her heart was seized in a tight vice of guilt. What right did she have to be here, to put anyone else at risk? Her past had caught up to her once and could do so again. Maybe next time, the casualties would be higher, hit closer to home.

* Charlie knows what she got into with me, but no one else does. Emily and Luis, their parents, the kids, our friends and neighbors… none of them asked for my baggage, yet I make them carry it every day while I walk around in their lives, feeding on their peace. I am that selfish. *

“I’ll do it if you give me the key,” Julia said, again jarring Diana out of contemplative mode.

She realized the car was parked and that the Callaway’s doors were up. Three of the four operatives waited by their van, hands tucked discreetly into jackets. Joseph was behind the wheel, waiting to back into the garage.

“No, I got it,” she responded, easing herself forward and out of the bucket seat. The soft leather clung to her back and peeled away like moist paper tape. She wasn’t actively sweating anymore, but she still felt as if something filthy and hot had crawled under her skin and fallen asleep.

Once the house was open and the garage door released, Diana became a superfluous spectator. Julia and her crew loaded the sleeping bodies of Hideo Yoshima and the three viral scientists into the van in under a minute.

As they hustled about, she stood in the foyer, leaning against the scratched wooden table where Charlie always noisily tossed her keys, and tried to remind herself that this was no bell tower refuge, no temporary haven. This was her home. She belonged here… didn’t she?

* God, Charlie, why didn’t you come with me? If you were here, I wouldn’t be freaking out like this. Maybe I’ve got Alzheimer’s or something. If you aren’t here to reassure me every ten fucking minutes, I forget everything you’ve spent the last year teaching me. About how I belong here, how I’ve changed for the better. *

Changed. Behavior is the best measure of change, and killing Chen Kaige didn’t feel like a change for the better. Surrendering to the voice of her own anger and fear felt more like resumption than change, a needle falling into a well-worn groove. Her undeniable ebullience after tossing the bomb into the pit didn’t fill her with confidence, either – the happy rush had the stigma of deja vu attached.

* Maybe I haven’t really changed that much at all. Maybe I just believed it because Charlie told me to. I’d believe anything if it came from her… especially something I want to be true. *

She could have stayed there for hours, running the memory footage of her mistakes again and again, analyzing it like the Zapruder film, but Julia tapped the wall by her head and waggled a crooked finger, telling her it was time to go.

“Ten to ten. Don’t want to be tardy, do we?” she said, already skipping out the door.

Diana took a last look around the house, noticing small footprints in the carpet, indentations in sofa cushions, sundry papers on the coffee table, all reminders of the person who did belong here, the only person who could convince her that she belonged, too.

“Please, God… let her be here when I get back.”

She set the alarm, locked the door, and walked away, feeling cold for the first time in hours.
——————————————————————————–

Charlie slept until ten o’clock, a short but heavy nap that only served to make her more tired. She could have snoozed on, but Emily interrupted her by sitting on the end of the long suede sofa and jostling her legs.

“Honey, you in there?” her sister whispered, taking Charlie’s feet into her lap. “Wakey, wakey.”

“No. Go ‘way.” She drew the scratchy wool blanket up over her head, barely aware enough to wonder where it came from. “I’m hiding.”

Emily tugged on the blankie, drawing it off Charlie’s face. “I wanna hide, too.”

“No room,” the lawyer protested, grabbing tight to her cover. “Hide somewhere else.”

“Greedy brat.”

“That’s me.”

The redhead sighed and slumped back into the cushions. Someone had to let Charlotte know what was going on, and she was the obvious choice. Everyone else was either afraid or unwilling.

“You’re gonna have to talk to daddy and Richard eventually. He wants to make you the executor.”

Charlie blinked open her eyes, wiping away a bit of sleep. “Me? You must be joking.”

“Believe me, you’re not half as shocked as mom was,” Emily said, a hint of pleasure winking in her voice. “Pop’s already setting up trusts for the kids, divvying up some of the cash to avoid probate. He’s giving me and Luis the golf villa in Palm Springs and a trust account of our own.”

“Wow. That’s gotta be a surprise.”

“Luis is just about catatonic. He doesn’t know what to make of it. To be honest, neither do I.”

“Join the club. What about mom?”

“She gets the house, the cars, his Navy pension, the insurance – eight million bucks worth – and all the art stuff, including that butt-ugly Bosch carving.”

“Nice haul,” Charlie commented, propping herself up on a pillow. The demand for attentive listening had a bracing effect, served to wake her up more rapidly than coffee. “Is that set in stone?”

“Richie’s drawing it up right now. Momma’s not talking, but I can tell she ain’t happy.”

“Geez, I bet not. Did daddy say what he wants from me?”

Emily grinned as she rubbed aimlessly at the tops of her baby sister’s stockinged tootsies. She knew she was about to drop a bomb, and she was enjoying the anticipation for all it was worth.

“Short version – you take thirty percent of the cash accounts as a fee, dole out the rest to cancer and AIDS charities in his name, manage the stocks and bonds, take the boffo dividends and establish a couple of scholarships in his name at the learning institutions of your choice.”

Charlotte’s eyebrows were arched high into her hairline, her mouth hanging slightly open. This was all too much to take in over the short course of one night. The political structure of her family was now officially standing on its head, and the rapid changes made Diana’s clandestine clan of spies, killers and weirdoes look relatively normal.

“You must have misheard him, Emmy. He’d never trust me with anything like that.”

“Mom looked at him like he’d gone nuts, but he said it clear as a bell,” Emily pronounced, giving a little tickle to Charlie’s instep. “You da man, shortcake.”

“But I don’t know anything about stocks or… thirty percent?”

“That’s after all the trust funds are deducted. Richard estimates it’ll be around four million.”

“Four million would be all the accounts total, right?”

Emily’s grin spread even wider. “Nope. Four would be your cut.”

Charlie stopped breathing. Her chest felt heavy, as if the money had been dropped directly onto her sternum from a great height. There had to be some mistake.

“There must be some mistake,” she wheezed, feeling a full-fledged anxiety attack building inside.

“No mistake, baby doll. You’re destined to be a millionaire.”

She was dizzy again; not sick, just reeling. Rocked. Shaking. “I don’t… I don’t want… ”

Emily noted her distress and leapt up from the couch. She poured a glass of water from the crystal carafe on her father’s desk and hustled it over to Charlie’s flapping lips.

“I don’t want… what am I supposed to… why would he… ”

“Shhh. Drink this,” Emily urged, easing a sip of water into her panicked sibling. She knelt by the couch and held Charlie’s clammy hand “Calm down. This is a good thing.”

Charlotte turned her mouth away from the water glass and and shook her head. “But I don’t want his money! It just feels wrong!”

“Like he’s paying us off for being an absentee parent?”

“Exactly!”

Emily paused thoughtfully, nodding. “You may be right. I say we let him.”

“What?”

“He wants forgiveness, Charlie. He feels bad now and wants to set things right,” Emily began. “The money is just an excuse to get his foot in the door. It’s an opening gesture, not the end goal. If we snub him now, he’s gonna draw back and that’ll be the end of it. If we take it, it’s like we accept his apology, and he’ll feel like it’s okay to be around us again.”

“But what if he chickens out, changes his mind?” Charlie protested. “It wouldn’t be the first time we opened up to him only to have daddy back away from us.”

“I think he deserves one more chance. Don’t you?”

“I don’t… I just don’t know. If it’s guilt money, it’s dirty money. I don’t want dirty money.”

“Huh.” Emily edged away, walked over and leaned against their father’s desk. “So says the former mouthpiece of Saint Marco Falcon.”

Charlie scowled harshly, hurt by the pointed remark. “Fuck you.”

“That’s right. To hell with me and daddy and everybody else,” Emily sighed, weary and scorn-stung herself. “You’ve got every right to be angry with him.”

“So do you.”

“Yeah, but we gotta grow up. We need to let some things go. All the people we’ve spent our lives hating, resenting… there’s only one way they can whip us. That’s if we don’t forgive them.”

Charlotte sat up and put both feet on the floor to steady her. It seemed her dizziness had spawned some sort of aural hallucination; she could scarcely believe this was really her sister talking, speaking soft words about the empowering nature of forgiveness. Still, she was making sense. In a wussy, peacenik sort of way.

“Do you mean that, Em? Do you honestly believe that?”

“I don’t want my kids to grow up hating anybody. That’s not what I teach them, and it’s past time for me to follow my own advice,” Emily stated. “That thing in his head is a stage four tumor, which means this is the last chance we’ll ever get to find out who Charles Browning really is, or who he wants to be. I want to go looking for our father… and I want you to come with me.”

At this last entreaty, Emily extended her hand in invitation, and Charlie rose to take it. They held fast and watched each other for a moment, aware that the pact they just sealed might put them both through the wringer and never pay off the kind of intangible benefits they sought.

“What if we find out he’s an even bigger jerk than we thought?” Charlotte questioned.

“In that case, you may smack me about the face and shoulders and gloat over what a world-class sucker I am,” Emily conceded, smiling broadly. “Then we’ll race our gold-plated Bentleys to Palm Springs and play the back nine.”

“HA! And you call me the greedy brat!”

“Hey, pass or fail, we’re gonna be heiresses. Might as well get used to the idea.”

Charlie squeezed her eyes shut and leaned against her sister, the very idea of being responsible for all that money making her queasy. “I think I’m gonna be sick again.”

“Back to the toilet?”

“No, no. I just need to go home. I need to see Diana.”

Emily scrunched her brows and tipped her sister’s chin up, forcing eye contact. “Are you sure it’s okay to go back there, what with the stalker and all?”

Biting her bottom lip as she revealed the bare minimum of truth, Charlotte dismissed Emily’s fears with a simple phrase. “Diana took care of that.”

“So that’s why she wasn’t here tonight,” Emily said, nodding. “I was getting worried.”

“You were worried about her?” Charlie asked softly, touched by the vicarious concern.

“And you. Kissing ‘Sociopath Spice’ was a tad out of character for my monogamous sister.”

“Ecch.” Charlie absently wiped her mouth, anxious to be rid of any trace of Julia. “I really spooked mom, though, didn’t I?”

“Hey, she already knows you’re a perverted heathen. Now she thinks you’re a slut, too.”

Charlotte pumped her cast in a mock cheer. “Yay!”

“Richard was more disturbed by your harlotry than mom was,” Emily offered. “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he tells his darling Valerie about tonight. As if she didn’t hate you enough already.”

“Valerie hates me? I’ve never even met her,” Charlie responded, mildly confused.

“This is gonna kill ya. Luis has this gossipy friend in the L.A. district attorney’s office, and she says that the chatty, catty Ms. Valerie Velasquez absolutely loathes you.”

“Why have I not heard this before?”

“We didn’t think you’d ever see Richard again.”

“Neither did I. Still, what does she have against me?”

“Remember that pale circle on Richie’s left ring finger?”

“Yeah? So?”

“Well, it seems Richard tells his bosses at the firm that you two are still married. It keeps them off his back about starting a family and alleviates any pressure to wed Val the Vile. Plus, it keeps the door open for a happy reunion with you… once this lesbian phase is over.”

“That sneaky little bastard!” Charlie jerked her hand away and made for the door, fire leaping around in her eyes. “I’m gonna kill him!”

“NOnonono!” Emily cried, latching on to her fleeing sister’s shoulder. “Don’t bust him just yet!”

“Why the hell not?” Charlie demanded, shaking loose from the tight grasp.

“Because it wasn’t his idea!” Emily revealed, looking even more mischievous than usual. “With all this will stuff going down in such a controversial way, we need to protect ourselves by keeping a few wild cards in our hand, baby sister. This is a sure-fire Joker.”

Charlie drew in a quick breath as it dawned on her just who would have suggested to Richard that he perpetrate such a deception. “She told him to say that?”

Emily laughed a little and nodded. “Anne Browning strikes again.”

The bitter knowledge caught in Charlie’s throat and she swallowed it like a jagged little vitamin, knowing it tasted horrible but was reputedly good for her. Emily was right – if their mother tried to use Richard to get herself power of attorney, tried to claim Charles Browning was impaired or incompetent in order to nullify his wishes, they would need to fight back.

“Emily, about this new policy of tolerance you’re advocating…”

“Yeeeess?”

“That doesn’t include mom, does it?”

“Not at the moment,” Emily confessed. “But I continue to believe in miracles.”

“Speaking of which, I really need to see Diana. Will you drop me home?”

“I think that can be arranged.”

Charlie wrapped an arm around her sister’s waist and tugged her into a hug. “I love you, Em.”

“Me, too, shrimp. Me, too.” Emily rubbed Charlie’s back vigorously, gave her butt a pat, and slipped out of the embrace. “Get your shoes and stuff. I’ll make your excuses and you can slip out the back. Just promise me you’ll call daddy tomorrow and give him an answer about the executor business.”

“I will. Pinkie swear?”

The sisters hooked pinkie fingers together and shook on it.

“Pinkie swear,” Emily echoed. “Five minutes, in the alley.”

“I’ll be there.”

Emily left the den and Charlotte gathered her purse and shoes. As she sat on the couch to wedge her feet into the cruel pumps, she noticed that the wool blanket someone had lain over her bore a United Stated Navy insignia. She reached down and touched the design, tracing the blue wings and anchor with a single, slow finger.

* Nearly twenty-six years old, and that’s the first time dad ever tucked me in, * she thought, trying to fend off a fit of maudlin tears. * Diana, honey, you’re not gonna believe this. *

Charlie crept out of the study and down the hall, through the kitchen and out the back door without encountering a soul, blessed or otherwise. They were all gone now, riding around in sleek silver cars or bulky blue vans, carrying guns and cloaks and daggers, doing whatever they did to make it to another day. Same as the rest of us, only more so. Truthfully, none of that mattered to Charlotte.

She was only concerned about one among their number, the one she called her own.

“Please, God… let her be there when I get home.”

With that whispered prayer, Charlie climbed over the back wall and dropped into the alley, rubbing her bare arms as a sudden chill pebbled her skin with goosebumps.

——————————————————————————–

Thirty Six

Late on a weekday evening – especially a blandly misbegotten July Monday- the most deserted place in downtown Elceda was the ritzy, closed-by-five-oh-one p.m. shopping complex called Lansing Center. The only place in the area still open for business at ten was a lone Starbucks coffee house, selling chilled frapaccinos to caffeine junkies seeking to score a hit of America’s last legal drug.

Across the street and five floors up, the brightly lit rooftop level of the public parking garage was deserted, save one silver car and one dark blue van, parked tail to tail by the back wall. Both vehicles were angled toward the exit ramp – a precaution to facilitate a hasty exit.

A well turned-out, soignée blonde perched on the warm hood of the silver ride, fiddling with a shiny Walther P99. She watched as the woman beside her – a powerfully built dark beauty in faded jeans, white tank top and a borrowed black Armani blazer – cleaned blood from her hands with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alcohol.

“Try not to get any blood on the jacket, darling. It’s off the rack, but it still cost an obscene amount of money,” Julia requested, rooting through her ballistic nylon supply bag. She withdrew a pair of gloves and tossed them onto Diana’s lap. “Please put these on when you’re done.”

Diana hissed as the alcohol seeped into a deep cut on her pronounced knuckles. She looked at the black kidskin gloves and raised a questioning brow. “Gloves? Is the jacket that important to you?”

“Humor me.”

“And people say I’m fussy about cleanliness,” Diana griped.

She finished tending her wounds and slipped the gloves on carefully, assuring no further blood leakage. Julia lent her a brush and a scrunchie, and Diana groomed her tangled hair into a neat pony tail and a soft fringe of bangs. Her complexion glowed like newly cast bronze, thanks to a vigorous scrub with the cool alcohol towels, which she also employed to give herself a partial sponge bath. Back of the neck, shoulders, pits… everything else would have to wait.

“Much better,” Julia said, finally deeming her presentable.

Looking at her own reflection in the windshield, Diana noted that she now looked considerably less like a nutcase. The slick jacket and gloves covered all the tiny, tell-tale red spatters on clothes and flesh, leaving her with the appearance of a casually dressed, coolly composed no-goodnik.

“I look like a gangster,” she grumbled.

With a flutter of pale lashes and a dreamy sigh, Julia asked, “Can I be your moll?”

In better spirits due to her relative upgrade in hygiene, Diana merely stuck out her tongue.

“Ooh, don’t tease me, Bugsy!” Julia giggled, flickering her own tongue lasciviously.

“Cool it, sister,” Diana replied, nodding toward the van. Joseph and Sonya sat in the front, eyes fixed on the two women who ostensibly controlled their future. “The kids are watching.”

Julia gave the two observers a wink, then returned her attention to Diana. “Audiences never bothered you before. When did you become such a prude?”

“What time is it?” Diana asked, totally ignoring the question.

“Twelve after,” Julia replied, checking her absolutely accurate platinum watch. “They’re quite late.”

“Is this unusual for her?”

“Highly, darling, but the tardiness could be a cheap ploy to put me in my place,” the blonde theorized. “Yet it’s not as if we have anything better to do than await her exalted majesty.”

Diana scowled, adjusting the .38 resting in the small of her back. She looked up at the night sky, recalling the last time she viewed the Elceda stars from this particular spot – through an open moon roof in the back seat of a stretch limousine, Charlotte naked and giggling, tasting of champagne, her lover’s softly gilded hair draped over Diana’s shoulders like a shawl.

“Speak for yourself,” she corrected.

As Julia readied her rejoinder, she heard the smooth purr of an engine approaching from below, an advance warning echoing up through the concrete tower.

“Ooh, here they come!” she trilled, slipping off the hood. She moved beside Diana and dropped the heavy black bag at their feet, whispering a low reference. “Just in case.”

Diana looked askance at the bag, well aware of what was inside. Both women were hoping they wouldn’t need to pull out the heavy artillery, preferring a simple trade to a gargantuan mess. They each nodded in understanding and took a casual, defensive stance behind the Callaway, ready to duck and cover if it became necessary.

The passenger door of the blue van opened and Sonya stepped out, preparing to join them.

“Stay put,” Diana called to the young woman. She didn’t want any of the four caught in the middle, forced to make decisions about loyalty so early in their acquaintance. “If it goes bad, just bolt. We’ll catch up to you later.”

Sonya hesitated, then nodded and hopped back into the van. She left her door partially open.

A black Jaguar XK8 crept up the ramp onto the roof level, followed by a typically non-descript black van. The windows on both vehicles were tinted to total opacity, hiding the number of passengers. The van parked several yards away, tail facing its blue twin, while the Jag circled the entire lot, obviously taking a survey of the terrain and scene. It then pulled alongside the Callaway and parked, the V-8 engine idling smooth.

Diana held her breath and flexed her gloved fingers. Julia yawned, feigning boredom as her senses slipped into a trance-like state of high alert.

Three of the Jag’s doors opened at once. Three people stepped out into the bleached night, leaving the driver alone inside the vehicle’s shadowy, safe interior.

Julia and Diana checked out the newcomers – two modestly attractive men with empty blue gazes and monochrome clothing, and one slim, fiftyish woman in a fetching lavender business suit. She wore her dark hair very short and sported tired purple rings around storied black eyes. Her focus skipped quickly from the blue van to the silver car to the two women standing side by side… and her pale mouth twisted into a chilling simile of a smile.

“Good evening, Julia,” her low voice greeted, the tonal equivalent of dry gin. “Diana. How interesting to see you… together again.”

Diana stiffened slightly and started to correct the woman’s erroneous impression, to clarify the extent of their togetherness, but Julia’s fingers brushed against her arm as the Swede spoke up first.

“We are lucky to have each other,” she agreed, edging closer to Diana. “It’s so hard to find a trustworthy partner these days. They’re all too ambitious, don’t you find?”

Julia’s well-chosen words had their desired effect. The woman’s jaw tensed visibly and her eyes hardened. She dispensed with the pleasantries and got right to the point.

“You have the merchandise?”

Diana jerked her thumb toward the van. “Two virologists, one biochemist, one Yakuza boss.”

The woman gestured for her two companions to check the van and they immediately moved away to carry out her unspoken order. “And what of Chen Kaige?”

Again Diana started to speak, to accept responsibility for her screw-up, only to hear Julia edging her out and answering first.

“Chen Kaige is dead. We found his body this evening at Yoshima’s beach house.”

Only through extreme self-control did Diana manage to stifle a gasp. She confined her reaction to a brief, composed glance at Julia, then turned her eyes back to the disappointed woman.

“Yoshima?” she asked, black eyes turning blacker. “He killed Chen?”

“Apparently so. Hideo tells us that Chen declared his target unreachable and broke their deal. He refused to return his initial payment, claiming that the damage Diana inflicted on his person demanded recompense. Yoshima was most irate, and promptly ordered his death,” the blonde lied, sounding utterly disinterested. “Chen killed all of Yoshima’s guards in the struggle, but his internal injuries were too severe to allow escape. He was dead by the time we arrived.”

Everyone was quiet then, thinking whatever they were thinking. The two monochrome men were busy loading the scientists and Yoshima into the black van. The black-eyed woman stared at Julia, who picked at a hangnail and stared right back.

Diana was figuring the odds of anyone buying Julia’s story – she was not particularly hopeful, and she gave them five to one. Her foot brushed against the black bag, and she mentally reviewed the rules of proper Gabler usage.

“Where is his body?” the woman suddenly asked, her face tight and immobile, a death mask.

“In my car,” Julia answered. “Would you like to see him?”

“Yes, please.”

Diana stepped back as Julia rounded the rear of the Callaway, keys in hand. She pushed a button on the silver key fob and the trunk sprang open. Diana remembered too late that the white Akita was still in there, cuddled under Chen’s corpse like a macabre pillow.

Julia watched her one-time counterpart survey the damaged body, saw her keen eyes logging obviously broken bones, torn flesh, smeared face, one eye drooping nearly out of its socket.

“They beat him quite badly,” the woman noted. “Almost as if it were… personal.”

“It was personal. This entire episode began with Yoshima’s vendetta against a business competitor,” Julia explained. “His vanity demanded discreet vengeance, so he hired a vindicator from outside his usual circle.”

“Who was Chen’s target?” she asked, still staring at the body.

“An attorney who represented Marco Falcon – the man who stole Yoshima’s drug routes in South America. Yoshima failed to inform Chen that this attorney was Diana’s lover. Hence the impossibility of completing the assignment. Hence his ill-advised attempt at resignation.”

“Hence his death,” the woman said, completing the refrain. “And this dead dog figures in… how?”

“The dog was mine,” Diana answered, stepping forward. “Killed this afternoon, defending us against Chen’s second attempt.”

“Tragic,” she responded, shaking her head. “Loyal animals are rare.”

“Yes,” Julia chimed in. “All too often, they turn on their masters.”

Again, Diana noticed a slight tension erupt around the black eyes, the firm jaw. She wondered just what Julia was doing, why her lies seemed to go unquestioned even as her innocent words pricked this woman like needles. And what to make of those lies? Why was Julia bothering to cover for her? Diana didn’t even want to think about that just yet.

“I want his body,” the woman announced, summoning her helpers to take Chen away.

“Of course. Help yourself to what remains,” Julia drolly consented. She stepped aside, allowing the men to transfer Chen Kaige’s corpse to the black van. “Will there be anything else?”

The woman straightened and looked dead into the Swede’s gray eyes, her expression arid and empty as desert air. “Is Yoshima fit for questioning?”

“Oh my, yes. When he wakes, he’ll be mad as a hornet,” Julia informed her. “He’s quite insane now, you know. Brain tumors can affect people in such strange ways.”

“As long as he’s… physically aware. That will be enough,” the woman said ominously. “I must be going now. I have a security council briefing tomorrow morning, as you both know.”

“Best of luck with that, dear,” Julia said, smiling. “You’ll have your work cut out for you, convincing the old bastards to let me roam the earth unfettered – after the eight month probation, of course.”

The woman’s gaze softened slightly as she backed toward the Jaguar. “It’s been a boys club for too long. I find that women are much better at keeping secrets, don’t you?”

“As long as it serves our interests to do so,” Julia agreed, placing one slim finger over her lips in a gesture that promised quiet. She waved goodbye to the woman, then closed the Callaway’s trunk.

Diana watched that final exchange with heightened interest, feeling for the first time that she understood what was passing unspoken between the two women. She breathed a sigh of unqualified relief as the dark eyed woman slipped into the Jaguar with her envoys and rolled away, the black van following close behind.

Julia returned to her side and retrieved the black bag, tossing the Gablers into the back seat. She caught Diana’s eye and raised a brow, prompting the dark woman to speak her thoughts.

“She’s the one who hired Chen Kaige to kill Operations,” Diana whispered, stating rather than questioning. “You knew it all along. That’s why she wanted Chen so badly – not for revenge, but to make sure he was silenced.”

With a joyful laugh, Julia edged onto her toes and kissed Diana’s forehead. “You are, without question, the quickest study I have ever known.”

Diana took that to mean she was correct in her assumptions. “She knocked off her own boss and got away with it. God damn. Does anyone else know?”

“No one but you and me and the lamp post, darling.” Julia was already in the car, obviously ready to blow this piddly town and get on with her next venture. “Kicky, isn’t it? Now let’s go!”

Diana stood there for a moment, leaning heavily against the raised silver door. She slowly began to realize that she was not going to be killed, was not expected to bear the official responsibility for Chen’s death, and that she was about to go home to Charlie.

All thanks to Julia’s twisty little tongue.

* What the hell just happened here? * she wondered, knowing it was probably better not to ask.
——————————————————————————–

The two vehicle convoy was only five blocks down Main Street when Diana’s resolve crumbled.

“Why did you do that?” she asked, edgy and exasperated.

Julia was smoking another cigarette, and she smiled around the filter. “Narrow your inquiry, please.”

“You lied to her about Chen, and I don’t think that was necessary or prudent,” Diana declared. “I was ready to take the rap for what I did. I’d have let her know you weren’t at fault there.”

“Self-preservation was not a factor in my decision.”

“Then why?” Diana persisted. “It’s not like you to fudge something on the spot like that, especially when the truth is so much more expedient.”

“You’re always so willing to take responsibility for your mistakes, perhaps too willing,” Julia observed. “This was a case where your conscience would have gotten you in serious trouble.”

“With her?”

“Oh, yes. Chen was hired blind, through a contact in Hong Kong. While receiving completion payment, he was ambushed. The wily devil escaped and subsequently discovered his true employer’s identity. After that, he was a marked man. She wanted to kill him in the worst way – and I mean that literally. Yoshima will suffer the torments of hell for robbing her of the satisfaction.”

“I assume you have reason for pinning a bullseye to Hideo’s chest.”

“I promised Gedde that his father would pay the piper. My word will be kept… by proxy.”

Diana took a moment, letting that sink in, getting used to the notion of Julia keeping promises to someone who was of no use to her professionally. Gedde Yoshima may have gotten under her skin a little, with his gentle manner and wounded eyes. It gave her pause, made her wonder about whether Julia had it in her to change, to grow…

“Was that your only reason, Jules?”

The Swede drew on her Winston again, then tossed it out the window. She didn’t answer for a while, and Diana began to wonder if she would at all. Maybe she’d touched a nerve.

“You have a need to crucify yourself, Diana,” she whispered at long last. “You think that if you punish yourself enough, you might save your soul. You might deserve the love of an innocent, earn the peaceful life you want so badly to resume. But you are not wired to maintain the facade, you are wired to destroy it. You are doomed to fight against yourself forever. Eventually, you’ll lose.”

“That’s not an answer,” Diana sighed. “That’s more of the same bull you’ve been spewing since you waltzed – uninvited – back into my life. Starting to sound like propaganda.”

“My answer is this – your intent to sacrifice yourself tonight was unnecessary. I will never require or accept such acts from you. I wanted to show you as much.”

“That wasn’t what I meant to… ” Diana began, then trailed away as she recognized the lie. That was what she intended to do; throwing her own guilty bones to the lioness, hoping that Julia and the others wouldn’t be made to pay for her mistake… be allowed to pay for her mistake.

“You struggle with the lure of it even now,” Julia stated, reading Diana perfectly.

The Callaway cut a sharp left turn and they were on Vega Avenue, so very close to home. Diana didn’t even notice, for her blue eyes were shut tight, looking inward.

“It’s just, like… instinct,” she admitted quietly. “I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing.”

“More’s the pity. Come with me and I promise you, that self-eroding instinct will die away,” Julia solemnly vowed. “You will never need to put yourself up on a cross for me, never need to lie, never need to hide who you are, never need to apologize for anything.”

“Julia, don’t – ”

“I already know your black moods, your fevered rages, your lapses and your strengths. You know that I would never make you feel dirty and small and insufficient. You know that, with me, you could simply be. As you truly are. For me, that is good enough. You are good enough.”

“No,” Diana denied. “I am not good enough.”

“For Charlotte?”

“For me. And I’m not giving up until I get there.”

They were through the gates of The Meadows, and still Diana had not opened her eyes.

“You must realize by now that such a goal is folly,” Julia said sharply. “It’s like chasing the sun. It will always recede away from your grasp, always elude you. You have dark, shifting shadows in your mind, and they will never allow you to stay in the light long enough to adapt.”

“I have to try. If I went with you, it would be the worst kind of surrender. I’d have no pride, no love, no reason to live. There would be nothing of worth left in me.”

“Given enough time, you will have nothing left here. You will destroy yourself and everyone you love in a pointless crusade, one which you will never allow yourself to win. I offer you the chance to let yourself off the hook – ”

“Julia, I belong on the hook,” Diana interrupted, eyes flashing open, alive with a swirl of white indignation. “So do you! That’s why you’d never put me up on a cross – because you’d have to do the same damned thing and you’re not ready for that. Not now, maybe not ever.”

“Because the conscience is a bodiless enemy! It can’t be beaten, only ignored, silenced!”

” I don’t want to beat it! I want to make it a part of me! I want to let it run me instead of the other way around!” Diana argued. “If I get up on the cross, it’s because I remember, because I own the foul shit I’ve done, and because I want to do better. That’s the only way I’ll ever get down.”

Diana pushed the green button and her door rose up, offering egress and escape, showing her the way home. She turned back to Julia and dropped her voice to a sincere whisper.

“Thank you for tonight, everything you did to help me and Charlie.”

“Think nothing of it,” Julia said mildly, not meeting her eyes.

“I wish you luck.” Diana meant that. “Don’t ever call on me again unless you intend to activate the kill-switch. Goodbye.” She meant that even more.

With a heavy whoosh, the Callaway was closed up tight and Julia was alone, watching Diana Starrett walk into Charlotte Browning’s house… watching her shut the door. She waited there in the driveway for nearly a minute, then lit another cigarette and drove away.

“Ninety-five percent success rate,” Julia said to herself. “And that’s only if I get laid.”

She glanced in the rear view mirror at the blue van and wondered if tonight would be too soon to break in one or two of her new operatives.

Julia was never one to wallow in self-pity.

Thirty Seven

Diana stood in the dark foyer with her back against the locked door, counting each passing second. She waited, tense, silent and blind, listening for sounds of the silver Callaway in retreat. What a powerful yearning she held for that simple, mechanical music – shifting gears, tires on concrete – knowing that it would serve as the driver’s exit theme.

* Go away, Julia. Call it a day. Please, please… just leave me alone. *

Finally, she heard the car slip into first and head out. It took longer than she expected.

* Fifty-four seconds, * she tallied to herself. * After taking her final bow, Julia leaves the stage to thunderous applause. *

> Clap! Clap! Clap! <

“Pheww.”

That hurdle cleared, Diana opened her eyes and scanned the living room for any sign of Charlotte’s presence. No lamps were lit, no clothing lay scattered over furniture, and she found no shoes discarded in the entryway – all bad signs.

Usually, Charlie could barely get herself through the door before she began stripping off the confining pumps, stiff suits, and hot stockings her job required. The formal attire she had worn this evening probably chafed her like a full-body strait jacket, and Diana was disappointed not to find the get-up strewn willy nilly around their habitat.

* Maybe she’s staying late with her folks, * she reasoned sadly. * I bet Emily got her to – *

The stream of excuses abruptly ran dry, dammed up by something glinting in Diana’s peripheral vision. To her left, on the lightly scuffed wood table, lay a bulky set of keys on a plain golden ring.

“Oh, divine providence,” breathed Diana.

She shucked the black leather gloves, picked up Charlie’s keys and cradled them in her bare palm like a talisman. She walked into the living room, then down the short hall into the bedroom, finding it black and empty as a tomb. She was puzzled by the excessive darkness until she remembered that the broken skylight was boarded shut. She would have the glass replaced tomorrow.

“Charlie?”

No answer. Standing near the bed, Diana kicked idly at the large dhurrie rug, straightening a folded corner. She reminded herself to rent a Stanley steamer to clean Dan’s blood from the carpet beneath; another item on her ‘to-do’ list for Tuesday. Being so pragmatic was a habit, a coping mechanism, not an indicator of aloofness. The guilty memory of what lay beneath the rug made her queasy.

Down the hall again, past the vacant sofa and cold television, she found herself peering through the back windows. No one in the yard. By bright moonlight, she saw a broad rectangular mound of freshly turned earth near the back fence. Diana winced and drew a shaky breath, realizing anew that she had turned their idyllic little home into a graveyard.

“Charlie?”

Her voice sounded small and faintly desperate. Again, there was no answer. She turned away from the window and walked slowly to the kitchen, her clay feet dragging along the carpet.

Opening the kitchen door, she found the room dark, like all the others. Unlike all the other rooms, it was not empty. At that realization, Diana nearly burst into song, instantaneously renewed by joy. After a second’s debate, she talked herself out of doing a happy dance, fearful it would be premature. She knew that her better half would set the tempo from here on out, dictate the pace of revelation and possibility of revelry. That suited Diana just fine.

Charlotte Browning sat at the oak dining table, slouching inside her thick white terrycloth bathrobe. She was sipping from a bottle of Evian and eating some form of food directly from a black enamel pot. She dropped her fork into the pot when she saw Diana standing before her, nervously shifting foot to foot.

They looked at each other for an endless, heavy moment, transmitting and receiving dense waves of emotion. Euphoria, suspense, remorse, contrition and gratitude all shuttled between them through eyes and breath and stillness, the odd sort of telepathy they shared when they were all alone.

“Is she gone?” Charlie finally asked.

Diana hesitated, then mutely nodded. She took the seat opposite her lover and braced both elbows on the table, battered hands folded together in an almost prayerful pose.

“For good?” Charlie asked again, needing clarity on this salient point.

Though she wanted to say yes, Diana hedged her bet. “For now.”

Charlie pondered that for a bit, then shrugged and took up her fork again. “It’s a start.” The attorney dug into her food, shoveling it down like an engineer commissioned to fill the Grand Canyon.

Diana mustered a grin at the evidence of her strong appetite, knowing it was a good general indicator of well-being. “How’s the tummy that ate Korea?”

Charlie smirked around her fork. “Much better, no more yakking up. Bulimia’s for the birds.”

Diana leaned up and looked into the pot, glimpsing stout orange noodles. “So whatcha eatin’?”

“Kraft Macaroni and Cheese,” Charlie mumbled. “Blue box.”

“Didn’t know we had that in stock.”

“We didn’t. I had Emmy run me by the 24 hour Ralph’s on the way home.”

Diana made an ‘ohh’ face, though she was mildly puzzled by the choice. “You like it?”

“Ehh,” Charlie answered, waggling her cast side to side. “It’s a childhood thing. Comfort food.” She paused and slid the pot halfway across the table. “Want some?”

“Nope. Not hungry just now, but thank you for offering to share.”

Charlie smiled at her and resumed eating. “It’s the mature thing to do.”

“Ethan loved Kraft dinners,” Diana cheerily revealed. “I think that’s only because the stuff was orange. Circus peanuts, Cheetos… the boy would eat anything orange. Except oranges.”

“Sounds like me. Emily cooked this stuff for us on six navy bases,” Charlie contributed. “It always helped us feel at home wherever we were. We grew up on hot dogs and Day-Glo macaroni.”

Diana snaked a hand across the table and touched the fingers poking out of Charlie’s cast. She was immeasurably pleased when two of those fingers curled around her thumb and held tight, connecting them as they prattled on about nothing, as if this were just another day.

“Judging by the way you turned out, it must be the food of the gods.”

Charlie stopped chewing and looked a tad bashful. “I think it stunted my growth.”

“You’re perfect,” Diana replied sincerely. “Many blessings on Kraft and Oscar Meyer.”

The attorney blushed faintly and took a sip of water. “You don’t think I’m too short?”

Diana immediately shook her head. “You’re big where it counts. Big brain, bigger heart.”

Charlie smiled again and snorted softly. “Still wish I were taller. Stronger,” she said. “I would have kicked Julia’s skanky butt all the way to Tijuana, then come back for Lia.”

Tapping her fingers against the plaster covering her lover’s broken hand, Diana grinned broadly. “I don’t think Angelia found you lacking in physical force.”

“Julia thinks I’m a twinkie,” Charlie retorted, trying not to sound bitterly insecure. “Human snack food. I got the impression that she found me wanting, inadequate as a suitable companion for you in the long term.”

“Forget everything she said or implied,” Diana testily instructed. “Her words and opinions mean nothing because Julia does not know you.”

Charlie raised her eyes until they locked on blue. “Yeah, well she knows you.”

Diana felt the mood change, felt the turn steering them away from the soft shore and into deep, tilting swells. It hadn’t been a day at the beach for either of them, and playtime was apparently over.

“Not as well as she thinks,” Diana amended. “She wanted me to leave with her. You know that.”

Charlotte nodded. “I know. She was never vague about her intentions.”

“Despite those intentions, she’s gone. And here am I.” Diana curled her fingers around Charlie’s cast, emphasising their connection, proving her presence. “Obviously, Julia’s intel was flawed.”

“Obviously,” Charlie said, flashing a smug smile. “She was so confident, so sure she’d get you to bug out and dump me. She had me worried… for a minute or two.”

“I told you when all this started – ”

“I know, I know. Pointless to worry about that,” Charlie finished, completing her lover’s kept promise. “You just love being right, don’t you?”

“About that, yes. Yes, I do,” Diana agreed. “When it comes to you, it would take a tectonic shift to change my mind or my heart. Julia gave it a go, but I don’t think she took it to the wall.”

“Meaning?”

“She gave up too easily. She had an edge on me tonight, and when push came to shove, she didn’t use it.” The dark woman shrugged, rubbed her brow with a tired hand. “I’ll never understand her. Trying always gives me a headache.”

Charlie laughed softly in sympathy. “You, too?”

“Everybody,” Diana confirmed. “That’s the way she likes it.”

“I’ve been thinking about all this. Her plan, I mean. Bringing Angelia here, sort-of-kind-of trying to have me knocked off, that kill switch business.”

“It’s a right mess. You able to make any sense of it?”

Charlotte nodded once and launched into her explanation, hatched in the time it took to boil the macaroni. “Distilled to a phrase, I think Julia’s strategy was divide, confuse, conquer. She separated us, put a bunch of obstacles in your path, and hoped that the struggle would demoralize you enough to call it quits and run off with her. Am I close?”

Diana blinked a few times, letting her weary mind soak up the blunt wisdom. “Close as anyone, I guess. Sounds like you’ve got Julia pegged pretty good.”

“In this case, maybe. It’s clear as crystal… in retrospect,” Charlie admitted. “Wish I could have seen it all sooner. I’d never have left you alone with her.”

“It worked out better this way.” Diana’s voice dropped low, scraping the bottom of her register. “There were some factors I needed to deal with alone. When you’re around, I can’t see past you.”

Perversely, Charlotte smiled again, mouth twisted with an odd sort of pride. “Glad to hear my dense nature proved helpful. Still, I know she couldn’t have pushed you so hard with me there.”

“I don’t know.” Diana shook her head slowly, contemplating the final minutes spent in Julia’s company, the things they discussed. “Like I said before, she didn’t push me nearly as hard as she could have. Maybe she finally understood the hold you have on me. How much I need you.”

Charlotte closed her eyes to trap those words inside, glowing against her lids like neon script. How much I need you. Very carefully, she took Diana’s hand, gently tracing her palm with a thumb.

“Phases,” she whispered.

Distracted by the young woman’s confident touch, Diana barely heard the word. “Hmm?”

“Some people seem to think this is a phase, us being together,” Charlie explained. “My parents – or maybe I should just say my mother – thinks you’re my rebellious experiment, a fling before returning to Richard and settling down for good. Julia thinks you’re sampling life as a homebody, that you’ll get tired of me and go back to her when boredom settles in.”

“Dummies,” Diana said dismissively. She mentally replayed Charlotte’s words and lit on a puzzling exclusion. “Why single out your mother? Did Charles change his stance?”

Charlie widened her eyes and shrugged. “Possibly. Ready to hear about my night?”

Grateful for a change of subject, the dark woman nodded. “If you’re ready to tell me.”

Clutching Diana’s hand a bit tighter, Charlie drew a deep breath and started in the middle. “He’s dying. Brain tumor, stage four. He has a few months left, maybe less.”

Even with all the angst and ambivalence involved in Charlie’s relationship with her father, Diana could tell this news had truly hurt her. Though she was able to write off a bad connection with a friend, colleague, or even a lover, Charlotte had never been fully able to relinquish hopes of gaining her family’s acceptance. Now it seemed she might not have the chance to make that happen.

“Honey, I’m sorry,” Diana whispered. “I should have been with you.”

Totally against her will and aware that it was horribly inappropriate, Charlie snickered. “You were busy trying to keep me alive, if I recall correctly.”

Diana blanched at that innocent description of her activities. She let the flinch melt away, preferring to wait until later before dragging out that nasty bit of business. “Still, I know you must – ”

“It’s okay. You’re with me now. That’s the only thing that matters.”

With that gentle assurance, Diana felt her natural inclination toward guilt and self recrimination ebb away. The pain Charlie felt over her father was an independent fact, not another atrocity of Diana’s doing. Her role was to listen and comfort, not to apologize for things she could not control.

“What will you do now?” she asked. “Now that he’s told you this.”

Again, Charlie tightened her shoulders in a shrug, as if the answer hadn’t come to her yet. “Daddy says he wants to make amends, get to know me and Emily better. I think he means it.”

“Guess the trick will be finding a place to start,” Diana noted.

“Oh, he’s got that covered. He wants to make me the estate executor. I am to handle the distribution of his dear departed Uncle Namor’s fortune. Stocks, scholarships, charities. The whole mess.”

Diana’s brows furrowed in surprise and disbelief. “That’s quite a chore. Do you want to do it?”

“I don’t see how I can say no,” Charlie grumbled. “If it’s the first step toward something more, I can’t turn him down. Emily says that if we reject him now, that would be it. No more chances.”

“How did Em react?”

“Sad, crying. Then stunned. Then the will talk started and she got dollar signs in her eyes,” Charlie said, instantly regretting her callous words. “No, wait, that wasn’t fair. She’s confused, doesn’t know what to make of him yet. Relative to that uncertainty, the money is a safe focal point. I think we’re both gonna take it a step at a time, not get our hopes up too high too soon.”

“But she wants to try him again, right?”

Charlie nodded, ducking her head low, slightly ashamed of herself. “Emily’s being her typical, tough self. If she’s afraid of getting hurt by him, she’s not letting it show.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Hell, yes. Scared to pieces.”

“Don’t be,” Diana smiled. “You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll know you tried. That satisfaction alone might justify the risk.”

Charlie tilted up her chin and gave a dubious squint. “You think?”

“Sure. But you’ve gotta believe it’s worth it,” Diana stressed. “Your first instinct is usually the right way to go.”

“Ha! Following my first instinct has gotten me arrested, married, nearly disowned, shot – ”

“Ahh, but some of your gambles pay off big, counselor.”

“Not often, stretch. You’re the exception that proves the rule.” Charlie drew Diana’s hand to her lips, kissed a bruised knuckle. “Daddy’s still a big IF, but you… you’ve never let me down. I do believe you’re worth it.”

Charlotte’s words conveyed a faith deeper than lunar canyons, a trust more precious than tomorrow, and a love no weak, flawed mortal would ever deserve. More than anything, Diana wanted to be worthy of her lover. She wanted to be steadfast and strong, caring and generous, sweet and passionate, kinder than saints, honest as stones…

* Honest, eh? * the dark woman thought, * Honesty is always a good place to start. Seems like we’ve done this countless times before. And here we go again. *

“I mentioned earlier that there were some… factors… things that happened tonight,” Diana cautiously began. “Things I needed to deal with alone.”

Charlie curled her fingers around her lover’s broad palm, holding on as tight as she dared. “Whatever it is, you know you can tell me.”

“Right. I know.” Diana nodded vigorously, then lost her voice for nearly a minute, unsure where to begin. When she picked a starting point, her stomach lurched like she was in freefall, and her voice was soft and frail as spring snow. “I think I had… a relapse. With the… in my head. I mean, I… ”

“Honey, it’s okay, just – ”

“I killed him, Charlie.”

It was out before Diana realized what she was saying. That was the root of the problem, the fact of Chen’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. She was powerfully compelled to dig out that root and serve it to her confessor, to feed Charlie the bitter, dirty truth and see if she could swallow it.

For her part, Charlotte was quiet. She still held Diana’s hand. Though her fingers trembled and her palm started to sweat, she was determined not to let go.

“Chen?” she questioned, her gentle voice devoid of judgment.

Diana nodded. A round tear rolled free and streaked down her face. “I beat him to death in your parent’s back yard.”

Ashamed and afraid, Diana could not meet Charlotte’s eyes. She looked down at her hand – cut and swollen and still entirely too lethal – resting in Charlie’s palm like an unloaded weapon. She felt no strength in her hands now, could not even make a fist if she tried. Touching Charlie made her weak, sapped the anger from her flesh, rendered her docile as a lamb.

“He attacked you, right?” Charlie pressed, nervously searching for a rational explanation. “You defended yourself. You have a right to do that.”

“No. No. See, I had him down, pinned,” Diana confessed. “I could have knocked him out and kept him alive, but I… that didn’t happen. I didn’t stop.”

“Well, you’ve been under a lot of stress, and sometimes when – ”

“Charlie, please don’t defend me,” Diana begged. “I can’t take that right now.”

The attorney bit her tongue and nodded, vowing to keep quiet and listen to the whole confession before mounting a rebuttal. It was her nature to defend Diana against any attack, even one she launched against herself. Charlie kept her teeth clamped down tight to fight off the urge.

“I’ll stop,” she promised. “Just talk to me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Thank you.”

Diana took a deep breath and tried to find the thread of her confession, but she lost it as soon as she looked into Charlotte’s eyes. There was such regard there, such surety that she had done the right thing, that she had good reason for killing a man with her bare hands. It made her so ashamed that she wanted to curl up and weep herself dry, cleanse her conscience with tears.

But that never worked before. The only thing that ever did work was telling the truth, letting Charlie see her dark half and receiving absolution from her lover’s words and hands and eyes. Diana would never feel that she deserved such acceptance, but like an aged drunk shaking in the presence of liquor, she was helpless against the blood-deep need.

“I told you about what Mangano did to me,” she murmured.

“The programming?” Charlotte responded. “The stuff you had to fight through when you surfaced.”

“I think the program got turned on again. Tonight.”

Diana’s statement tripped and stumbled into Charlotte’s disbelieving ears. “But… how?”

“I’m not sure. When I had Chen down, I heard this voice… in my head… and I got these hot flashes all over. Started sweating real bad.”

She paused here to think, and to recharge her courage. By simply flexing her fingers against Charlie’s hand, feeling that she was indeed still there, she found the strength to continue.

“The voice told me that I had to kill him, just to be sure that he wouldn’t hurt us. I tried to fight it off, I think, but it just rolled over me and I got so scared… ”

“Had you heard this voice before?”

“No, I don’t think so. It wasn’t Riggins or Mangano. In fact, it sounded like me,” Diana revealed. “I heard it again later, when I was dreaming… or whatever. It was acting as a sort of narrator, twisting my perspective, showing me bad things.”

“What do you mean by ‘bad things?'” Charlie inquired. “Was it Ethan? The warehouse?”

“No, it was nothing real. It was only a dream. It doesn’t mean anything.” Diana’s argument was so weak, she couldn’t even convince herself to buy into it. Her dreams always meant something.

“Your dreams always mean something,” Charlie intuitively persisted. “Was it really so bad that you can’t tell me?”

“I just don’t think it’s relevant. Besides, it happened later, after the trouble with Chen.”

“Relevant or not, you better tell me or I’ll have to break out the hot lights and rubber hoses.”

Too unnerved to pursue any humorous course from that remark, Diana just held up a palm and surrendered. “It was just a dream or part of the program, but… I saw you kill me.”

“I killed…?” Charlie’s mouth dropped open from shock, anger. “The hell you say!”

“I told you it doesn’t mean anything. It was just the program trying to scare me.”

Charlie took a few deep breaths, calming herself. “I need more context, please.”

“In the dream, I was trying to hide Chen’s corpse here in the house. You caught me, then you got scared and pulled the .38 on me.”

“I fired a gun at you,” the pacifist shuddered.

“Right down the hall in our bedroom,” Diana explained. “Bang, bang. My baby shot me down.”

The lawyer took a minute to sift through the images, not liking the inference at all. “Diana, you know that I would never… that’s just… I don’t think I could… ”

“I never said I believed it, Charlie.”

“But you thought it! That horrible thought was actually in your head!”

“The fear of being hurt by you has always been there,” Diana said bluntly. “From the first time we made love right up to now, you’ve held my fate in your hands. I’m yours. I trust you. That doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid of you.”

“You have no reason to be afraid of me! How could I possibly hurt you?”

Diana sighed and shook her head, as if Charlotte were missing the obvious answer. The young woman never seemed to grasp the amount of power she held, how her least reaction could set her lover’s moody spirit flapping – a high sail in a hurricane. Her love had become an elemental force in Diana’s life, a binding reality like the burn of fire, the quench of water.

“I don’t have any family. I don’t have any friends who really know me. I can’t go back to the way I was before. Those doors are all closed to me.” Diana wiped her eyes and her shaking hand came away soaked with pitiful tears. “Charlie, you’re all I’ve got. If I did something so bad, so heinous that it made you reject me… that would kill me.”

She waited. Breathed shallow and quiet. Waited some more, just to be certain Diana was finished, then Charlotte spoke. “That is never going to happen. After all the things you’ve told me, all the things you’ve done… if you don’t believe in me by now, you never will.”

“But I do believe in you,” Diana insisted, her voice strangled with fear. “That’s why I’m telling you now about Chen, about what I did. I can’t lie to you. I can’t hide from you. I don’t want to ever start down that road. I murdered a man tonight, and I’m afraid that might not be the end of it.”

“There’s more?” Charlie was straining to maintain her composure, to keep her keel even and stay in afloat until the end. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It just… I don’t know.” Diana struggled to find the right words, ones that wouldn’t elicit terror or confusion. “If the program is active, it’s possible that I could… overreact to a threat. Lose control somehow. It could be a defense against mortal threat or it could be more sensitive than that. Until it happens again, I won’t know how far it goes, what triggers it.”

With that loaded warning, Charlie was reeling, lost. Without thought, her hand slipped out of Diana’s grasp and she folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t know what to say here.”

“Say anything!” Diana’s eyes blazed, bright with tears and anxiety. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to yell. Just tell me what you think. Just… talk to me. Please.”

Charlie flinched visibly when Diana raised her voice. She straightened in her chair and tried to stay cool, to keep her head as she worked through the potentials. “Do you feel that you might pose a danger to me or my family?”

She wanted to dismiss that possibility out of hand, but her conscience demanded full disclosure. Lowering her head, Diana wiped her wet eyes and nose across the sleeve of her jacket, then folded her hands across her face. “I honestly don’t know.”

“Oh, God.” Charlotte’s voice was broken and small, crushed by the weight of Diana’s words. Her own eyes watered silently, leaking frustration. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

“Yes, you did,” Diana insisted. “I would never want to hurt any of you, but I didn’t want to kill Chen, either. I never intended for things to go that far. I just couldn’t stop myself. You need to understand what that might mean.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t accept it,” Charlie stated. “I know you, Diana. You’d sooner die than hurt an innocent person.”

“I wanna believe that I can control it… ”

“You can. You did before, when Riggins ambushed you at Marco’s, remember?” Charlie eased forward, loosening her posture and using her hands as she made her argument. “You were totally lost that night, and still you managed to avoid hurting me and Maribel, even Marco – and he deserved it. You knew it was wrong and you stopped yourself.”

“It wasn’t like that tonight. There was a disconnected feeling to it, but I was still lucid. I was aware of my actions the whole time with Chen. Right now, I could name each bone I broke, every muscle torn. It was never like that before.”

“So the program changed tactics. That doesn’t mean you can’t beat it again.”

“I tried, Charlie! I tried to stop and I failed!”

“Chen Kaige was going to kill me!” the attorney cried, matching Diana’s frantic tone. “The way you reacted to him can’t be used to project the way you react to me or anyone else! You didn’t kill Julia, did you? No! You didn’t kill Lia’s sonofabitch father! They were threats, too, right?”

“To an extent, but – ”

“But nothing! This is bullshit!” Charlie swept her cast across the table, flinging the black pot across the room in a violent outburst of temper. By the time the pot clattered to a stop, her eyes were agate-hard, her course set. “I know why you’re telling me all this. You’re not afraid of hurting me. It’s a pretty slick smokescreen, baby, but I see through it. You’re looking for an excuse to leave me.”

Diana reacted as if stricken, shot with a flaming arrow. Her chest caved and her shoulders bowed forward, her voice a foul, powerful bellow. “I AM NOT!”

“Julia’s probably waiting right down the block.” Charlotte wiped her eyes dry and ran a hand through her hair, casual as hell and twice as cruel. “Go to her. Don’t let me keep you.”

Blue eyes turned dark as Diana grasped that her lover was serious. Her heart was being cut from her chest with a dull spoon, scooped out and discarded in cold, dead chunks. She had to make her see, had to convince her that she was mistaken…

“Charlie, I don’t know what you mean. Julia’s gone. She has nothing to do with this.”

“So it’s Angelia, then?” Charlie sniped, skipping right to the second alternative. “Guess it’s true what they say about never getting over your first love. She must have been one sweet lay. Pity I never got that far with her.”

Diana’s head began to throb, her eyes shut tight against overwhelming pain. In the back of her mind, she felt a tiny flame burst to life, warming her slowly, spreading through psychic kindling and igniting her worst fears. “Don’t,” she whispered, laying her heavy head against the table. “Don’t do this.”

“This is what you wanted. You need a reason to push me away, well you’ve got it. I won’t risk you hurting our family.” Charlie got up and moved around the table until she stood over the nearly collapsed body of her lover. She reached down and wound her fingers in black hair, hauling Diana’s head up until she met her eyes. “Get out.”

Diana’s jaw went slack, her eyes glassy, breath grinding wet and hot. The heat spread through her limbs like a strafe of napalm, and she heard the voice waking, laughing inside her mind.

“I fucking told you so! Feels like you’re dying, doesn’t it? She did it to you again, bitch! I knew it! I fucking knew it all along! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhaha——–”

“I told you to get out!” Charlie repeated, jerking her fingers free. She drew back her hand…

“Here it comes! Here it comes! Oh, this is perfect!!”

… and slapped Diana full across the mouth with all the strength she could martial.

“There we have it, sports fans! Full contact dumpage! Are you just gonna take that, babe?”

Diana felt the sting on her mouth, the wet spill of blood dribbling down her chin. She felt the heat stoking higher, and she started to sweat fiercely under the Armani jacket.

“GO, GODDAMMIT!” Charlie yelled, drawing back her hand again.

“She’s gonna hit you again! Stop her! Hit her back, dumb ass!”

“No,” Diana muttered, both to Charlotte and her own internal coach. “Never.”

<SMACK!>

Charlie slapped her again, and her hand stung like a hive of bees had attacked her at once. She had to ignore it, had to keep going until she got what she wanted. What she needed. Again, she swept her hand back, cocked to deliver another blow.

“She’s ripping you apart, beating your ass, and you’re not gonna do anything? You are pathetic! Stand up! Stand up right fucking now, you pussy! Stop her!”

Diana abruptly stood and swept her chair aside, sending it toppling over onto the floor. She towered over Charlotte like a high stone pillar, moonlight from the kitchen window casting her shadow over the young woman’s tight, determined face. Charlie swung again and this time, Diana caught her wrist, stopping the palm inches from another impact with her damaged mouth. Charlie froze, knowing her own fate was now in Diana’s hands… literally.

“Do it, killer. She lied to you, then tore a hole in you. Time to make her pay. Do it.”

Shaking with the effort of her own resistance, Diana grasped Charlotte’s wrist tighter, almost leaning against the smaller woman. Her eyes were struck through with scores of angry red jags, seared nearly shut with molten tears. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead and ran down into her densely bunched brows.

“If you’re gonna do something, do it now,” Charlotte urged, trembling from feet to scalp.

“Do it, killer. You tell the truth and she calls you a liar, betrays your trust. Make her pay.”

“GO AHEAD! DO IT!” Charlie bared her throat, giving Diana a clear target. “DO IT!”

“Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it —–”

Diana’s free hand darted up and long fingers wrapped around Charlie’s neck, pushing her, forcing her to stumble backwards until she collided with the refrigerator. She bent her lover’s good hand behind her back and pinned it hard against the fridge. She formed a fist, drew her arm up to strike.

If she was surprised or scared, the attorney’s hazel eyes didn’t show it. She looked up at Diana, stared through blue and red, directly into the unseen black fire…

“I love you,” she said.

Charlie’s words rang out like a careless cry in snowy mountains. An avalance tumbled from high cliffs, falling heavily on internal fires, obscuring half of Diana’s demon in a cloud of rising steam.

“Liar! Liar! Kill her now, you stupid fuck! Kill her! Do it!”

The voice was weaker now, distant and desperate. Dying. With a scream torn straight from the pits of her soul, Diana bundled up what remained of the voice and crushed it to smoldering dust her palm. She threw it forward into one mighty, bone-crunching punch…

“Aaaggghhhh!!”

… which landed just beside Charlie’s head and mightily dented the freezer door, knocking all the magnets off in a wild explosion of post-its and smiley faces and falling teen idols.

In Diana Starrett’s head, all was quiet, white and cold as a virgin snow drift. She closed her eyes and searched inside for the voice, for the program, for her fears. They were lost; if not gone, at least covered, buried somewhere far beneath deep drifts.

The lawyer’s nerves finally gave way, and she burst into tears, shuddering and crying out the last of her energy. Her knees wiggled and threatened to dump her to the floor, but she was still effectively pinned between Diana and the icebox, so she let them hold her weight. She looked up at Diana and searched her face, found what she needed to see.

“I knew it,” she said simply, too weak and relieved to gloat properly.

Diana leaned in and pressed her lips to Charlie’s forehead, leaving the hot imprint of a bloody kiss.
She released Charlie’s arm and took one step back before crumpling to a wasted heap on the kitchen floor. One hand strayed to the waistband of her pants, withdrew the .38, and offered it to Charlie.

“I can’t leave you. I can’t hurt you,” she groaned, utterly spent and defeated. “If you want to get rid of me, you’ll have to kill me.”

Charlie had a moment of panicked confusion before she realized that Diana did not yet understand what had just happened. With slow, patient movements, she took the gun, opened the cylinder, and dumped the bullets. She then tossed the pistol away, further cluttering the crowded kitchen floor.

“You’re not going anywhere, stretch. Not now, not ever.”

Diana blinked hard, wiped her eyes to make sure she was seeing clearly. Charlie had stooped down and was now kneeling over her… smiling. Twice. Once on her mouth, once on her forehead.

“What?”

“I had to show you,” Charlie said. “Now you know. You can beat it. You won’t hurt me.”

Slow as a winter dawn, the light of understanding washed over Diana’s face. “You played me?”

“Not you. Never you. The program… or whatever. I picked a fight with your subconscious and counted on you to bail me out,” Charlie explained, as if it were the simplest tactic in the book.

Diana sighed and worked her aching jaw. Her lip had stopped bleeding, but was still very tender from her fit lover’s hard smacks. “That was a very dangerous thing to do, counselor.”

“Depends on your point of view. It was more dangerous for me to let you walk around doubting yourself, always afraid you were gonna blow up and cap me… or any of the myriad people who tick you off on a given day. This way, we know for sure that you’ve got a grip. You’re in control.”

“My mind is not a set of tinkertoys, Charlie. How could you know that would work?”

“Bait the hook, taunt the witness, and let them twist on the line,” Charlotte said, drawing a confused scowl from Diana. “Nasty old courtroom trick Quentin taught me. Your Doctor Mangano might have been an ace head shrinker, but he obviously never went to law school.”

Diana’s scowl deepened until Charlie tipped down and kissed her nose. Then she just frowned and canted her head like a curious, annoyed puppy as the lawyer finished her summation.

“And he obviously never had a clue about how strong you are when you’re in love. You can whip anything, Diana. Anybody. Even yourself. I knew that all along.”

“You sure had me convinced otherwise,” the dark woman retorted. “All that stuff about Julia and Angelia, telling me to get out – and did you have to hit me so damned hard??”

“Selling the drama. I’m sorry, baby. Let me get you some ice.”

“No, no. I don’t need ice right now,” Diana said, waving her off and summoning her closer in one motion. “Come here.”

Charlie smiled graciously, wiped her eyes and nose. She scooted closer and eased down herself onto Diana’s prone body, folding herself into open arms, feeling them wrap around her and squeeze like twin pythons. It was not in her to object, even when the pressure threatened her ability to breath.

When Diana was this close to her, she was far too happy to need something so pedestrian as air. Everything she needed to survive armageddon was held tightly in her arms, safe and alive and totally hers, forever and ever, amen. Diana was right – sometimes her gambles did pay off big.

It suddenly occurred to Charlotte that no one else could have done such a thing to Diana and lived. She also realized that no one else would have been dumb enough to try. Against all odds, she found the grain of sugar in the salt mine, and she savored it with a sweetened laugh.

“What fun,” Diana moaned sarcastically, so far from laughing herself that it really wasn’t funny. “We gotta do all this again sometime.”

“No need, dearest,” Charlie sing-songed, kissing a convenient ear. “The yellow brick road is closed for repairs. The witches are melted, the tin man’s got a heart, and you’re all mine, Toto.”

“Have you been drinking?”

“Not much and not recently.”

“Smoking crack?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I think that macaroni was laced with something. You’re entirely too loopy.”

“Does your mouth hurt real bad?”

Diana pursed her lips, testing them. “No. Why? Feeling guilty?”

Charlie raised a brow and frowned, then shook her head. “I want you to kiss me.”

“Oh. I guess I can do that.”

She edged forward and pecked Charlotte’s mouth, almost chastely. The attorney was clearly expecting something more earth-shattering. She showed her disappointment by rolling her eyes and blowing a raspberry.

“Inadequate?” Diana queried, her missing smile making a cameo appearance.

Charlotte nodded mutely.

“You’re the one with all the brains in this outfit,” Diana teased. “Maybe you should show me how you want to dance and I’ll see if I can stumble into the steps.”

Charlie grinned with a sudden lusty mirth, then she sallied forth to take what she had been promised Sunday night, in Room 216 of Elceda County General Hospital. She latched onto Diana’s mouth like doomsday was upon them – bombs were dropping, missiles flying, cities falling – and the only thing that could save the planet from complete destruction was the birth of the perfect kiss.

She was gentle, mindful of the cuts, tasting the occasional tang of copper as her tongue swept over Diana’s lips and slipped into the pulsing hollow of her mouth. Long moments passed in soft, warm exploration as Charlie set the pace, telegraphing her desires through nips and sucks at the upper lip and long, languid sweeps of the lower.

The kiss was replete with abbreviations and suggestions, sent in a lover’s shorthand, and Diana spoke the language like a native. She noted every signal, carefully logging each in her mind as if they were transmissions received from space. Charlie was making this so easy… but then, she always did.

The youngest Browning always knew what she wanted, and she almost always knew how to get it. She once told Diana that nobody worked harder than her, that she always got her way in the end because of sheer persistence. Ingenuity, reckless disregard for personal safety, and an unshakable faith in her own opinion also helped greatly.

But at times like this, Diana felt the savvy young professional shouldn’t have to work so hard. All she ever had to do was ask – out loud, with her eyes, or with her body – and she would receive.

Sharp teeth clamped down lightly on a skilled tongue as the kissee took charge of the kiss and shifted their positions. Diana rolled Charlie beneath her and thrilled the young woman by laying her body down fully, crushing her with an achingly sweet press of flesh and bone in all the right places.

“Oh, yeah… like that,” she mumbled, her words lost in Diana’s mouth.

Charlie was never happier than at such moments, when her lover’s long form was covering her like a protective shield of muscle and bone. It barely made a difference whether she was gloriously naked, or clad in tonight’s strangely arousing combo of black Armani, pungent sweat, and faded Levi’s.

The key factor was her weight, Charlie figured; the solid, encompassing feel of Diana stretched along every length, touching every inch of her, reminding her entire body that she was loved from stem to stern and cherished at all points in between. Being squashed into the cold tiles of the kitchen floor was such a good thing. So good that she’d lost track of Diana’s hands, which had somehow untied her belt and opened her robe without her notice, and were now drawing circles around her breasts.

“Oooohhh.” Charlie broke away from the kiss to issue a moan of approval. “Like that, too.”

“Do tell,” Diana drawled, her voice dropping into a devilish growl. “Wouldn’t have known if ya hadn’t told me.”

Charlie knew she was being teased, for her drawn, tight nipples had provided all the evidence Diana needed to prove certain charges – namely, arousal of a high and aggravated nature. She started to speak to this issue, but Diana was way ahead of her, already licking a path down her throat and attaching her mouth to one key witness… the left one.

“Sweetgodsandgoddessesoftherealmsofheavenandhell,” Charlie breathed, forcing it all out at once.

Diana paused and looked up at her curiously. “That was a new one.”

“Make me wait much longer and you’ll hear plenty of new ones.”

“I’ll hurry,” Diana lied, returning to her slow worship of a particularly worthy breast.

Charlie knew her lover’s words weren’t entirely true. With Diana, foreplay could go on for hours. Literally. One night, Charlie had secretly kept track of the time between opening ceremonies and the completion of the first act – Diana clocked in at just under three hours.

Not that she was complaining – or ever would – but that was in the bedroom, in their nice, soft, warm, spacious bed. This was the kitchen floor, and though Charlie loved Diana more than her luggage, she didn’t think her back would ever forgive her for submitting to such a gorgeous torture session on the unforgiving tiles.

Just to ease things along, she placed her hand on the crown of dark hair and urged her sideways. Diana resisted at first, closing her bright teeth around the crown and hanging on until Charlie gave up… only then did she surrender to the suggestion and move her attentions to the neglected twin, which had been attended and primed all the while by tweaking, stroking fingers.

Diana wasn’t ignorant. She knew that her speed was a frustration and a torment to her lover, but she could never bring herself to rush through lovemaking with this woman. Charlie could zip right through the preliminaries and bring the tall woman to a moutainous climax in minutes, but Diana’s ceremonial leanings would not allow her to reciprocate in kind.

Charlie deserved the best she could offer, every time. She merited romance, and Diana always found herself compelled to deliver, as if there were some a priori deficit she had to repay with centuries of massage, millions of kisses, and enough hugs to squeeze an orange grove dry. She didn’t mind in the least, but she knew now was not to be one of those times.

Too much had happened tonight. And besides, the kitchen was never her favorite place to make love. The tile floor was too cold, too hard, and that bobbly-eyed refrigerator magnet of James Dean always seemed to be watching her too closely. He wasn’t a factor just then, having tumbled to the floor when she smacked the Whirlpool fridge and dented the freezer, but still… it was creepy.

She kissed a rambling trail down Charlie’s stomach, pausing here and there for a bite of firm skin or to nuzzle baby-fine hair scattered across the landscape like gold dust. She received no objection when she moved lower still and kissed protruding hip bones, though when she began suggestively sucking on the points, Charlie lost her body awareness and spat out a curse as she brought her cast down on Diana’s skull a little too hard.

“Ow! Shit!” Diana swore, rubbing her sore head. “I’m going as fast as I can, here.”

“I’m sorry!” Charlie giggled, blushing deep red. “That was not a commentary on your technique.”

“Hope not. Watch that cast, please.”

“Aww, did I hurt my snookums widdle kwanium?”

“Did I mention that I have a mild concussion?”

“I did not hit you that hard.”

“It’s from earlier. Julia knocked me out cold.”

“When? Why? That bitch! I’ll give her something to – ”

“Don’t get mad. She found me working on Chen and stopped me. If she hadn’t been there… ”

“Mood killer. No more Julia talk. Just… go about your business.”

“I forget where I was.”

Charlie growled from deep in her chest as she placed both hands on her lover’s dark head and pushed her down and sideways and then just a bit higher until she had Diana right where she wanted her, right where Diana always wanted to be.

Where she would have wound up on her own… eventually. Charlotte Browning was her true north, and though others may set magnets near the compass, give false directions, and otherwise try to steer her off course, Diana Starrett knew that she would always remember how to get home so long as she had her heart to navigate.

True love may not always run smooth, but it beats GPS any day of the week.
——————————————————————————–

By the dawn, the story was all out. Charlie listened, commented, and forgave things she felt she had no right to forgive. But her careful words of absolution were what Diana needed to hear, and she would always, always give her beloved whatever she needed to set her at ease, to make her smile. That was her nature. That was her mission. That was her greatest joy.

It would take much longer for her to summon enough good will to forgive Julia, Angelia, and those long-dead bastards who made Diana’s sanity a plaything. There would always be doubts, she knew that now, and they would learn to live in the long, cold shadow of what might happen, but Charlie was confident that they could fix anything as long as they stayed together and continued to trust in their love. It hadn’t failed them yet.

As Tuesday crept up and sat on Elceda, Charlotte lay awake in bed and watched Diana sleep. She looked so formidable in the light of day, with her guard up and her game face on, but when she slept it was a different story. With her sharp eyes trustingly closed, powerful arms curled under her chest, wounded hands bandaged… Charlie was struck by just how fragile the woman really was.

* She breaks just like a little girl, * she thought, not for the first time.

It bore repeating because it was so easy to forget. Diana Starrett wasn’t perfect or invincible, or even particularly brilliant. But she was strong and honest and beautiful and smarter than most people ever dream of becoming, and she was so easy to love that Charlotte actually found herself sympathizing with Julia and Angelia and poor Will Franklin, because they would never know how this felt.

Just to be lying there with Diana in her arms, watching her sleep, knowing she was loved by her.

As the morning sun beamed through the windows, she could almost fool herself into thinking that it was just another day. In an hour or so, she would rise and shower, dress, go to work and make excuses to Quentin Carver, and she would lose herself in the pile of paperwork that surely built up in her one day of absence.

She had to call Richard and make an appointment to go over the will. She would call Emily. She would call their father and try to be nice to their mother. Then she would call Emily again and dish about whatever was said. She would take Lynn Piolo out to lunch and thank her for covering Monday’s appointments. Then she would settle in with Carver and the partners for another round in the eternal battle of Trumbull, et al VS Rowland Phamaceuticals – a case that threatened to become her own personal Quixotic joust.

She had stuff to do. Stuff that didn’t involve Diana. And she didn’t want to do any of it. Charlie wanted to call in sick and spend the day in bed, watching Diana sleep. But she knew that her lover would wake soon, and that such moments weren’t meant to last forever, or even all day. They were fragile and precious and all too brief, and she was already building up a new store of them to last her through the next hard time, which was always just around the corner.

“Love you,” she whispered, kissing Diana’s hair to complete the moment with a tangible sensation.

On cue, Diana woke up, sleepy blue eyes blinking open to the sound of Charlie’s laughter.
——————————————————————————–
Epilogue – Thirty Days in the Life of the Supporting Cast

Gedde Yoshima watched the changing hues of a russet sunset glimmer on flowing water, tint the green grass of the riverbank, and brighten the faces of his mother and sister. He stood before a canvas, paint brush in hand, and preserved final bits of the peaceful scene in jubilant watercolor strokes. This painting would be his third in less than a month, and he wondered how long his fit of creative productivity would last. He hoped it would go on forever.

Angelia sat on a blanket, shuffling through items in a wicker picnic basket, while their mother stood over her, occasionally brushing back the young woman’s long hair with gentle, hesitant fingers. Each time she did so, Angelia would gaze up at her and smile, fighting to keep sweet tears at bay.

Jae Chiang Kamura, formerly known as Mrs. Hideo Yoshima, was in the final stage of treatment to cleanse her system of anti psychotics – drugs she never needed in the first place. Her small body was weak, her skin wrinkled and sallow, her hair almost entirely gray, but she was growing stronger with each passing day, learning how to speak and move and express, learning how to live free again.

The three were adjusting to each other more rapidly than anyone could have predicted, and they rarely spent more than a few hours apart from their reassembled nucleus. Angelia shopped in local markets, cooked and cleaned and wrote in her journal. Gedde fixed loose boards on the front porch of their secluded country house, mended leaks in the high roof, and painted every single day.

Their mother mostly watched them, occasionally mustering the energy to help. More often, she just stood nearby as her children went about their tasks, relishing the ability to reach out and touch them at will… her only dream during all those stolen years.

Learning a new language was difficult, but Gedde and Angelia were acclimating to their new nation rather well. The Dutch people were kind and open, and many spoke English fluently. Angelia had an interview set with a communications troubleshooting firm in the city, and her technical expertise almost guaranteed work, although they didn’t really need money.

Harry Mars came through for them on all counts. When they arrived in Amsterdam, they found a house, a car, and a modest wealth of native currency waiting, all to ease their settlement. New names on passports, papers of citizenship, physicians to care for their mother – he’d provided nearly everything they could have hoped for.

Still, Gedde found himself looking for her, scanning every woman for gray eyes and platinum hair, aware that he was harboring foolish hopes. He would never see her again. Although she was loathe to admit it, Angelia was guilty of the same folly. Some part of her would always search every room she entered, seeking the black and sapphire beauty who would never be there.

They were together, brother and sister and mother, but a fragmented shard of their hearts would remain reserved, alone, waiting in hope. As Gedde predicted, they commiserated like mad. Wine and words, art and work and science, all helped to begin the transition that they feared would never be completed – to a comfortably numb state where you live with a dream that will never be realized.

On the plane that Julia chartered, Gedde read and burned her note. The content would stay with him always, and he had no need to keep the paper. He would recall unto death the lilt of her script, the gentle words she selected to convince him to let go of pretense and falsehood, to embrace only the truth of the present, to weed out fear and sentiment and get on with his life.

“With memories, as with jewels, it is always the most brilliant, the most beautiful which are false. Rely on your perceptions of each new moment. Distrust the glamour of memories. They betray us all, darling boy, and you deserve better than lies. If you should need aid, do not call on me. I cannot be trusted with a fragile thing. My only pride is that I did you no harm.”

He recognized the first sentence as a paraphrase of Salvador Dali’s words, and he always smiled at the remembrance of the surrealist’s wisdom put to such practical use. Julia was terribly keen, that much was certain, for she utilized the voice of Gedde’s idol to belittle herself, to influence his mind and make him uncertain of her worth. It very nearly worked. Nearly.

Angelia had no such comfort, no warning to steer her away from the rocks. She cried in her sleep, unwilling or unable to share the encompassing nature of her pain. Gedde did what he could, but she remained inconsolable, rejected and well aware that it was no one’s fault but her own. She tried to live by Diana Starrett’s parting advice, to live each day anew, to shed the burdens of past mistakes, but it was a struggle. She would try, though. That much she had promised, and she’s be damned if her final words to that woman would prove false. She would try.

The first canvas Gedde completed during their month of solitude was a cryptic scene composed in oils of black, blue, red and white. A mighty woman stood in a snowy forest, one hand reaching high, grasping the cold moon, the other submerged in the earth, tugging red hell up through the surface. Her face showed the strain of futile effort, and the snow was wet with her crimson tears.

Angelia first thought the woman was Diana. Then she assumed that Gedde had painted Julia. Then she stopped wondering, proclaiming the true answer was irrelevant. As with most paintings, people see what they want to see, and Angelia did not want to see herself as a figure of tragic proportions. She was a garden variety fool, selfishly broken, not the type to engage in epic struggles.

Each time he looked at his sister and remembered the sacrifice she made to keep him and his brother safe, the tortures she endured to spare them from harm, Gedde knew different. His mission in life became a quest to make Angelia see herself through better eyes, to see the truth, the strength and love she held inside. He saw it. Diana Starrett definitely saw it. Even their addled mother saw it.

Eventually, they would make her see that she deserved to be happy, teach her how to let the past go. Maybe by helping her, they would learn how it was done. Maybe they could all let it go. Maybe they could find a better tomorrow together.
——————————————————————————–

After six days of hospital vigil and a few weeks worth of home care, Sherrie Rinna-Klein left her second husband and moved from their two story house house on Windham Hill into Teddy’s four room apartment on Vista Terrace.

Their daughters, Gina and Marie, were cramped into one bedroom for the first time in years, but they were so happy that the lack of personal space didn’t matter… at first. Their family was together again, for however long Teddy and Sherrie could make it work, or however long the two preteens could abide the close quarters.

Teddy recovered nicely, though he occasionally grumbled and fussed like an angry bear. His medical bills were fully covered, thanks to Charlotte’s legal intervention. On pain of an impending lawsuit, she wrangled Teddy’s HMO into a corner and they coughed up one hundred percent payment, leaving him with the sole worry of minding Nurse Sherrie’s orders and getting back to full strength in time to keep his feisty daughters from killing each other.

Diana let him know that she was taking a position as an investigator for the Elceda County Sheriff’s Department, and that he would have her help only on a moonlighting basis. Teddy was cool with that. Their agency had established a good rep for trustworthiness and discretion, and he knew that there would be enough piecemeal work to keep him busy indefinitely.

Once, when they were having lunch alone in his hospital room – a smuggled feast of Reubens and potato chips and bottled Budweiser – he asked Diana what happened to the man who shot him. She told Teddy that the shooter was dead. He took a long swig of beer, bit off a hunk of his sandwich, and nodded. He was alive and well, cared for by loving family and honest – if mysterious – friends. Diana’s answer was enough for him. Teddy Rinna let it go.
——————————————————————————–

For the first thirty days, Julia ran her crew from a rented apartment in Manila. She linked by satellite to her contacts – including Ilya Kurzin, who was most pleased with a certain shipment of armored helicopters – and made scads of deals for purloined property she held in unofficial escrow.

Money was ridiculously easy to come by, and her meager brace of operatives soon became the best equipped, most elite strike squad in the region. Before two weeks had passed, they busted three local drug gangs and took their stash, trading the prisoners and their booty to the Philippine government for transportation logs and classified computer codes, which they used to hack into shipping registries and trace the path of heroin floating through the Pacific.

By the third week, Julia owned two unregistered freighters and had a crew of forty-eight mercenary pirates ready to do her bidding in order to stay out of jail. She used the ships to provide safe transport for all varieties of cargo, everything from stolen antiques to precious humans (mostly influential political dissidents and refugee idealogues), and her network of contacts grew exponetially.

Her four-man core quickly came to view her as something quite other, for she was radically different from anyone in their former group. Julia allowed them input on mission decisions, and though their thoughts were sometimes casually disregarded, she was never derisive or unappreciative. She gave them judicious amounts of personal freedom, gobs of spending money, and provided sage advice with an almost maternal affection. Contrary to their expectations, they felt safer in her rag-tag unit than they had in the cryptic, cold enormity of their former group.

Within the first month, the four had forged a secret pact to remain with her. Their decision came not from necessity or fear of death, but was born of grudging admiration and fast loyalty. Julia was out to accomplish something in the world, and though they did not know specifically what her agenda was, they felt that following it through to fruition had to be better than a life devoid of purpose and meaning, a selfish life lived with blind eyes and closed ears.

In short, they had stood too close and been thoroughly magnetized. Joseph and Brian were mildly, discreetly in love with her, Sonya viewed her as a sort of quasi-feminist guru, and Josie… well. Best to say that their third date was quite eventful and leave it at that.

They had seven more months of quarantined activity ahead before they could launch out into the great, big world beyond the Pacific rim, and Julia was determined to make each moment count. She would not rest, she would not give herself time to stop and think, to ruminate on her failure. If she found herself lonely, she sought company. If she found herself bored, she authored a new mission.

Even so, there were a few stray seconds in every day when she would drift into memory and replay that last minute in Charlotte Browning’s driveway, when she threw in the towel and let Diana walk away from her again. There was no question in her mind that she had allowed it to happen, that she had pulled back in those final moments rather that bludgeon her intended into submission. Why?

Perhaps she had simply acknowledged the futility of pursuing it further, sensing that Charlotte’s hold on the dark woman went deeper than Julia knew. Perhaps she had glimpsed the pain her sharp words caused in Diana and she grew reluctant to hurt her by pressing the issue.

Or maybe Julia had felt a sort of pain herself. Maybe it hurt her, knowing that what she wanted was out of reach, that Diana would never willingly choose to be with her again. Her pride prevented her from indulging in such weak, maudlin behaviors as begging, threatening, forcing… and she chose to give up and walk away rather than debase herself in pursuit of a lost cause. Maybe that was it.

In any case, these thoughts occupied her for only a few seconds each day. Not enough to worry about, certainly not enough to weaken or distract her in any measurable way. Julia had work to do, and as long as she had other things to focus on, she could manage to confine her pondering to brief dips in the pool of melted memory. Eventually, perhaps she could let it go. Let Diana go.

Maybe.

In the evenings, Julia did the same things she did every night: make plans, make love, make tiny little wars, and make light of the notion that she would someday take over the world. After a few drinks, she would sometimes sleepily whisper The Bard’s advice into Josie’s blushing ear.

“The first thing we do, darling, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Finis

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