Persistence of Memory by Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza

Persistence of memoryArtwork by Ciegra

Persistence of Memory
by Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza

Prologue – Wednesday morning

On the high slope of a perpetually snowy mountain top dotted with majestic evergreen isles, spreading stains of red melted away patches of fresh powder underneath the bodies of three large men. All were dressed in winter camouflage uniforms and sported radios, knives and guns about their person – items which their killer never allowed them to use. Not one of them fired a shot, hurled a blade or called for help as they were attacked. It simply happened too fast.

Only one of the men still lived, but his remaining time could be measured in minutes. Swallowing the pain like a good soldier, the guard tried to reason out how he came to be in this sorry condition. The last sane thing he remembered was his patrol group turning back for the cabin to get some coffee, then things got a little blurry.

He recalled a slight figure in white leaping from the roof, a shimmer of silver as the morning sun caromed off a sharp blade, then he felt a cold, hard intrusion inside his chest. If such methods and weapons weren’t so ridiculously archaic, he would have sworn he’d been run through with a katana. He fell face-down in the chilled powder and knew he wouldn’t be getting up again. His two companions also went down quickly, exsanguinating wildly and noisily from slashed throats.

Just as suddenly as it appeared, the figure was gone. Though too stunned to track the attacker’s departure, he knew exactly where they were headed and why they were here.

As promised, someone had come for her.

Only three guards now stood in their way. Something about the speed and fury of the sword’s motion told him three wouldn’t be nearly enough.

Gunfire erupted from the nearby lodge, and he struggled to stay awake and listen. Breath trickled from his lips in foggy plumes as he bled out on the frozen ground, wishing he were able to move, to draw his weapon, to intervene in some way as three more men screamed and died less than thirty feet away. As the residual crack of shots fired drifted away, a blanket of silence fell over the mountain and he heard only the gentle wind playing through the trees.

“Move. Now, please.”

The words tumbled out the open door of the stone and wood lodge. He knew the language, spoke English more fluently than most in the organization, but he did not recognize the voice. He knew only that it belonged to a woman other than the one he had guarded here for the past month.

“Why are you doing this? Where do you think you are taking me?”

That was her. The woman’s carefully enunciated, London-learned English was unmistakable, even with the strained, panicky screams underlying her words.

“You have something I need,” the killer answered simply. “If I could just take your head away with me and drain the contents, believe me, I would.”

“I don’t know what you want from me! I’ve already told them everything I remember!”

“Well, in that case, at least you’ll be getting away from this wretched cold,” the strange woman offered, her voice bright and curiously calm. “Does a California vacation sound good?”

“Absolutely not! I am not going anywhere with you!”

“Perhaps you’ve failed to notice your guards are stone dead. Now you can walk under your own steam, or I’ll knock you out and carry you.”

In the quiet, he fancied he could hear her mouth drop open. No one was allowed to talk to her like that, not even his revered boss, Hideo Yoshima. The man was in charge of a veritable army of deadly men, but he always handled this woman with kid gloves, mystifying all in his command.

“You would not dare to lay a finger on me! Hideo will come for you! He will – ”

BAP. THUD.

“He’s welcome to try.”

Then came the crunching of footsteps in the snow as the woman emerged, presumably carrying her silent captive. He listened to her steps as she moved away and stopped to settle the girl somewhere, then the sound resumed at a barely audible volume. Instinct more than hearing told him that she was coming back. Coming toward him.

She stopped short and stood perfectly still for a long moment while he held his breath. A sharp poke in the back alerted him to the presence of a blade, so he tensed and waited for the death strike. Much to his surprise, she spoke to him instead.

“Still alive, are we?”

He felt the toe of her boot dig into his side as she rolled him onto his back, and he gasped as the renewed pain washed over him. Glaring light burned through the gaps in his sunglasses, and he squinted blindly until she moved to block out the sun. He lay quiet and still in her shadow, staring up at her silhouette as she pulled off her white knit mask.

“It’s too late for you, I’m afraid,” she said, sounding almost sympathetic as she tapped the compact blade of a short sword against his bleeding chest. She knelt beside him in the snow and took the radio from his belt. “Do you want to call your people anyway, let them know what happened? It won’t make a difference in the outcome, but it would certainly heighten the drama.”

He knew she was right, they were beaten and it was too late now. He shook his head.

“No? Fine. They’ll know soon enough.”

As she hovered just over him, her features became clear. He saw hair like corn silk, and eyes of smoke set in a face sculpted of dreamstone. He was sure he was hallucinating. Not even in films had he seen such western women, certainly never in life. They weren’t real, and they certainly didn’t do this kind of work. There had to be some other explanation.

“A- a- angel?” he asked softly, his breathing shallow and wet.

Her pale red mouth curled into a smile. She rubbed snow on her leather gloves to clean off some of the blood, then ran a finger across his exposed bluish lips.

“Angelia? Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s fine for the moment.”

He shook his head as she missed his meaning, then he repeated the word.

“Ahh. You mean am I an angel?” She gave it a second’s thought, then whispered, “Maybe once… but I fell from grace.”

Carelessly, she dropped the stained katana beside the fallen man, intending to leave it as part of a message. The sword belonged to Yakuza chief Hideo Yoshima himself; it was a custom steel and ivory relic passed down through twenty generations as an emblem of strength and longevity.

The woman had stolen it to prove that her enemy was vulnerable. She used it to kill his men just to rub salt in the wound, to show her scorn and make him lose face. Criminal or no, the man clung to a code she considered old-world bushido bullshit, and she knew he would feel compelled to revenge himself on his enemy. She intended to use his sense of honor to deal a blow to his organization, but that was only part of the plan. His participation would help her realize a greater goal.

To complete the remainder of her statement, she reached into a coat pocket and produced a fat black marker, then snagged the cap in her teeth. Leaning over the guard, she started inscribing something on the unsullied crotch of his white uniform. The dying man managed a gasp as he felt the tickling contact at his groin.

“This is just a little note for your boss. He won’t give me his e-mail address, and we have to communicate somehow…” she explained as she finished writing and gave his crotch a little pat. “There we go. Short and sweet.”

She capped the marker and dropped it in the snow. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being short and sweet,” she whispered confidentially, squeezing one last time at his sensitive, improvised notepad. “Quality wins over quantity, you know.”

Then she was gone. He barely heard her light steps as she moved away. Soon, a loud motor roared to life. He recognized it as a snowmobile, and heard the high noise of its engine fading into the forest down the slope.

Gone. She simply came, took the girl, and was gone. Six trained men, all killers, all armed, all taken out with an ancient blade. They hadn’t even wounded her. This was not supposed to happen. In his professional opinion, he found her very impressive.

Even though he knew he was going to die shortly, the woman had instilled such a strange curiosity in him that he simply had to know what she had written to his superior. Coughing as blood filled his lungs, he pulled himself up enough to glimpse the words written in neat, blocky print across his pants.

HIDEO,
TRULY PATHETIC SECURITY.
WHAT SHE KNOWS, WE’LL KNOW.
GRAB YOUR ANKLES –
YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE FUCKED.

ALL MY LOVE, JULIA

“Julia.”

He let his head fall back into the snow as the light dimmed and his voice failed. In his head, he found himself repeating her name over and over while his world went dark, and he wished he were going to California instead of dying in the frozen heights of Nagano, Japan. He’d always wanted to see Disneyland.

——————————————————————————–

One – Friday night
Through a maze of thin walls and glowing blue lights, a little girl ran carefully, trying not to trip over the dangling laces from her untied sneakers. In her hand was a pistol, the laser sight beaming a jumpy streak of red on every surface from floor to ceiling as she carelessly pointed it wherever her tired wrist flopped. She was trying to find the exit, but had taken a wrong turn somewhere and now she was definitely lost. Every wall, every light looked the same in here.

She could hear her pursuers chanting her name as they tracked her through the maze, their voices melding into one loud, long summons and call for her surrender.

“Katie! Kaaaatie… Katie-kate! Come on, Kate-bait! You know we’re gonna find yoouu!”

She was sure she was the last one left from her group, and the enemy would find her soon. Oddly, the prospect of being caught did not bother her much. A sly smile creased her round face as she ducked around a corner and crouched, covering the tell-tale laser sight as she prepared an ambush. She planned to take a few of them with her.

Without warning, a large hand closed over her mouth, stifling her instinctive scream.

“Shhh,” a low voice urged, and she relaxed immediately. “It’s just me, Katie.”

The child turned to face her friend, and her dark eyes lit with confidence. “Diana!”

Though she hadn’t known Diana Starrett very long, she liked her from the first time her aunt brought her over for dinner a few months ago. Katie Avila thought the towering brunette with the bright eyes looked like a super hero, and she told her so instantly. They had been friends ever since, and there was no one she would rather have on her side. “I knew you’d come get me. I tried to find you -”

“It’s okay, sweetie. I got lost myself. This Lazer Battle stadium must take up half the building.”

“I didn’t want to come here, but dummy-butt Danny did. Mom said it’s his stupid birthday party.”

“Yeah, well… I think you and me are the only ones left on our team. You want to get out of here?”

The girl hesitated long enough to let Diana know that she was open to other options.

“Or do you want to teach those boys a lesson?”

At that, the child lit up like a sparkler, her tiny teeth taking on a strange hue under the blue lights. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

“Cool breeze,” said the woman with the glowing eyes, her hand extended to seal a pact.

“Cool breeze,” the child echoed quietly.

She slid her palm across the larger one of her friend in a now familiar gesture. Diana said she used to do that with her little brother, but he died a long time ago and Katie Avila felt that Diana needed a new sidekick. Very mature for her six years, Katie felt she was well-qualified for the job and was more than happy to take up the accompanying rituals. Plus, she knew that her spending time with the coolest adult in Elceda, California made her big brothers extremely jealous. Not to mention her Aunt Charlie, but that was another story.

“You ready Dyna Girl?” Diana asked her diminutive partner.

Katie giggled and spun her laser pistol on one tiny finger. “Let’s kick some butt, Electra Woman!”

——————————————————————————–

As she parked the gleaming Porsche in the lot, beneath a huge blue and green neon sign that read “KidZone,” Charlotte Browning rifled through her purse for her compact. She knew that her sister would snap an ungodly number of photos tonight, and she also knew that their parents would see these photographs since they were of their eldest grandson’s birthday party.

* And I’ll be damned if I’ll let my mother see me with a greasy nose, * Charlie thought as she applied a coat of absorbent powder to the appendage in question. She also checked her lipstick and teeth, and found nothing else wanting. Her dress would be commented on, of course, but she was coming here straight from a disastrously unsuccessful business dinner and the somewhat formal attire could not be avoided.

* I can just hear her now… What on God’s green earth is your sister wearing, Emily? Did she not know this was a children’s party? Hmmmm? How much did she have to drink? *

“Oh shut-up, mother,” she said aloud, her anger causing her to clutch her purse extremely tight as she headed for the entrance. She stopped just outside to gather herself with deep breaths and soothing words. “Calm down. They’re not here. You can have fun because they’re not here to stop you. Don’t worry over what they might say or do later.”

A teenage boy clad head to toe in Tommy Hilfiger togs stopped beside her near the door. He looked her up and down with an appraising eye, logging the shiny golden hair and greenish eyes, then launched his most winning smile. “Hey, you okay?”

Suddenly aware that she was talking to herself, Charlie blushed and nodded as the gangly blonde youth held open the door for her. “Fine, fine. Just trying to psych myself up to face a battalion of nine year-olds.”

“Tell me about it. My kid brother’s having his party here, too,” the walking billboard confided. “I’m just here for the cake.”

“Shrewd policy. Grab the food and run.”

They walked into the lobby and checked the LED schedule board in the center of the room for the location of their respective parties. Charlotte’s nose started to itch as the boy stood a little too close and she caught a snootfull of his cologne.

“Well, looks like I’m headed for the Martian Adventure,” the boy commented, smiling down at Charlotte with as much charm as his pubescent libido could generate. “Maybe I’ll see you when I get back to earth? We could get a pizza or something.”

Knowing that she looked much younger than she actually was, the attorney gifted the kid with a sweet smile for his bravery. “I’ll be way too old for you by then. In fact, I’m too old for you now.”

“Aww, don’t hand me that! You can’t be but two, three years older than me,” he protested. “That lawyer suit makes you look older, though.”

Looking herself over, Charlotte noted that her habiliments – maroon skirt and jacket, cream silk blouse and dark suede pumps – did give her a decidedly grown-up air which contrasted with her baby face. Which was exactly what she was going for, but the kid didn’t know that.

“Lawyer suit, huh?”

“Yeah, very Daria Morgendorffer.”

Nearly twenty-six and already chronically unhip, Charlotte didn’t even bother to ask who this ‘Daria’ person was. The boy rambled on, unaware that he was being patiently humored by a woman ten years his senior.

“You oughta try a different look, you know? Maybe hit The Limited over at -”

“Charlotte Browning!” a voice called sharply as the door to Lazer Battle opened behind the two and a plump redhead stepped into the light. “Get your ass in here right now and help me!”

The boy looked puzzled and slightly put out until Charlie explained with a grin and a shrug. “Emily. My older sister. I gotta go.”

“Oh. Right. Well, I’ll catch you later, then?”

“Uh, w-w-well…” she stammered, wanting to let the kid down easy. After all, he had accidentally done her a favor. A few seconds of harmless flirting with an underage boy, and her mind was right off her hypercritical parents. “You never know, right?”

“Right. You never know,” he agreed, stuffing his hands into his baggy pants pockets. “I hang at The Galleria most days after two. Maybe you could -”

“Charlie!” Emily bellowed impatiently, “Get a move on, or I tell Diana you’ve developed an unsavory craving for jail bait.”

The look exchanged between the sisters over that remark could have singed the eyebrows off any normal person, but Emily and Charlotte had long ago grown thick asbestos skins specifically for the purpose of verbal sparring. Charlie stalked toward the entrance, waving a finger in warning.

“Emmy, if you make a big deal out of this, Luis finds out why you really took that aikido class.”

Holding the door open for her little sister, Emily Browning Avila scowled with as much menace as she could muster. “You know that was nothing. I was just looking…”

“Right,” Charlie agreed facetiously. “Moot threat, anyhow. Diana isn’t the jealous one. I am.”

“So she just turns a blind eye when you start flirting with nubile young rejects from Hanson?”

“Hey, he was a nice boy!”

“I’m sure he was, honey.” Emily led Charlotte into the brightly lit staging area dotted with black tables and benches, all strewn with the colorful remnants of a monster birthday bash. “He’s just a nice boy from the ‘burbs, looking to have his lolly popped by an experienced older woman.”

Picking a paper plate from the festive rubble and heading to the food table for a piece of Danny’s enormous birthday cake, the blonde could barely suppress her grin.

“You almost sound jealous, Em.”

Emily was rolling up the sleeves on her baggy denim shirt. She stooped over, gathering shredded gift wrap as she responded with a snort. “Me? Jealous? Bite your tongue.”

“You know, I could introduce you to that boy if you want,” Charlotte teased. “Have him bathed and brought to your tent or what not.”

“Why bother? It’s you he was interested in. I’m just a frumpy, dowdy, overweight, uneducated baby machine.”

“Whoa!” Charlotte turned around to face her sister’s unexpected outburst. “Where did that come from?”

“Never mind.” Emily continued cleaning up, not looking away from her work. “It’s just been a long day, that’s all.”

“You know none of what you just said is true. It’s downright silly for you to think like that.”

“HAH!” Emily dropped her bag of trash and wiped both palms on her jeans. “Maybe you’re right. Why should I feel inferior?”

“You shouldn’t – ”

“Just because you’re five years younger than me, and have a high-paying, high-profile job, a lovely home, two killer cars, the body of an aerobics instructor, and a gorgeous lover who thinks the sun rises and sets with you? Hmm… tell me, why would anyone be jealous of you?”

The attorney had a ready answer, but knew it would fall on deaf ears. Attractive, smart, clever Emily had more going for her than most. A loving, genuinely happy marriage, three amazing children, a successful boat charter business where she and Luis were their own boss. She had no grounds to be envious of her sister… unless someone convinced her otherwise.

Charlotte frowned as she suddenly recognized the familiar, sullen tone in Emily’s voice. Someone had been chipping away at her normally solid self-esteem by using Charlie as a chisel, and they had done a fairly tidy job. She could think of only one person who would gain from instilling bad feelings between the two.

“You talked to mom today, didn’t you?”

Emily eyed the floor and stuffed another few pieces of wrapping paper into the trash bag as she calmed down. “It’s that obvious, huh?”

Nodding with a flat smile, Charlie ditched her plate and went to stand by her sister. “No one else is able to do this to you; or rather make you do this to yourself. You know that’s all bullshit, what you were saying about yourself. That’s just her talking, and none of it is true. You know that, don’t you?”

Sighing heavily, Emily extended one arm and gave her little sister a half embrace, touching at the forehead. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Charlie placed a hand beneath her sister’s chin and lifted until they were eye to eye. “You know so. Say it. Repeat after me – I know so.”

The older woman closed her dark blue eyes as two choked streams of tears leaked down her face. “I know so.”

“Mom’s full of crap.”

Emily smiled, her shoulders shaking with silent laughter as she repeated the words. “Mom’s full of crap.”

“A bitter old crone who can stick her criticisms up her ass.”

“A bitter old crone who can stick her bullshit criticisms up her old droopy ass.”

Charlotte grinned at Emily’s creative improvements. Encouraged, she pressed on. “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone-it, people like me!”

Wrapping both arms around her younger sibling, Emily hugged her almost painfully tight as she tried to stifle the twin urges to guffaw and sob. “Stuff it! I’m not saying that!”

“Okaaay, you don’t have to,” Charlie whispered, “as long as you believe it.”

“Jesus.” Emily stepped away and wiped her eyes, still gasping out small, nervous giggles. “Why do I let her do that to me? God, I wish I could be like you and just stay away from them both.”

“You and Luis would be better off.”

“Don’t I know it. Wednesday at dinner, I could tell he wanted to slug daddy right in the chops,” the elder Browning recalled. “It got pretty ugly before I talked him down. If I knew they wouldn’t sue for visitation with the kids, I would love to just… uggghh!” She stopped and rubbed the bridge of her nose as if warding off a headache. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Don’t listen to me.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have stopped him,” Charlie suggested, only half joking.

Emily chuckled, then looked on her sibling with a serious expression. “He said afterwards that he wanted to wait until Diana was there to help him bury the body.”

“Huh?” Charlotte’s mind raced right past the joke to the underlying implication. “Why would Diana ever be at our parent’s house? They don’t even acknowledge her existence.”

“They did Wednesday night. They want you guys to come with us next week.”

Charlotte did a double take, certain she had misheard. “Us? As in me and Diana? Are they nuts?”

The redhead threw her hands up. “Maybe so, but dad said they had something to discuss and they wanted all of us there to hear it.”

“You and me and Diana and Luis.”

“Yup.”

“No fucking way, Emily. That would be apocalyptically bad.”

“I dunno. It could be… what’s the word? Cathartic?”

“Not!”

“I think it would be worth it just to see how Diana reacts if they try to lay into you. Man, they wouldn’t know what hit them.”

The young attorney was quiet for a long while as she paced around and thought about that. She knew that Emily was unaware of Diana’s past, that her sister could not realize what she was asking. Her sister’s family knew Diana Starrett only as the former cop who now worked as a private investigator, and as the friendly, easy-going woman who had lived with Charlotte for the past nine months.

They had seen her only at her best, at picnics and barbecues and baseball games. She played with the kids for hours, exhibiting an exuberant energy that would wear out the average adult in minutes, and the three Avila children adored her – especially Katie. But there was so much more to her that they had never seen, so many dark and dangerous currents curling beneath the surface. Charlotte hoped they would never have occasion to see that side of her lover. She knew that putting Diana in the same room with her parents would mean courting disaster.

“I already mentioned it to her, Charlie.”

Emily’s voice drew her out of herself, and she was instantly incensed. “You did what?”

“Me and her and Luis were talking about it before they went off to play Lazer whatsits with the kids. She said she’s willing, but that it’s really up to you.”

“Diana said that?” Charlotte was genuinely shocked. “My Diana – tall chick, black hair…”

“Believe me, I know the one. She said if you want to do it, she’s there.”

“I… geez. There goes that excuse.”

“Didn’t expect her to go for it, huh?”

“I’ve told her about our parents, Emmy,” Charlie explained coolly. “I wouldn’t think she’d wanna poke ’em with a ten foot pole, much less dine with them.”

“She doesn’t have to love them, just you,” the redhead reminded. “And me, of course.”

“Yes, but to a much lesser degree.”

“As far as you know, shrimp.”

Noting the wicked little gleam in Emily’s eyes as she launched that barbed insinuation, Charlotte decided to let it go. If she was confident enough to take her life in her hands by saying such things, her sister was obviously feeling better.

“Score one for the horny housewife,” Charlie said, her finger painting a strike in the air.

“Thank you very little.”

Scratching her nose absently, Charlie reflected on the possibilities of Diana finally meeting her folks. On a few previous occasions, she had tried to imagine how it would go, but none of the initial scenarios were good. “She actually told you guys she’d do it? Invade Xanadu with us?”

“Yeah, and she also said…” Emily trailed off as the whoops and hollers of the returning Lazer Battlers reached her ears. “Well, here she comes. Ask her yourself.”

Charlotte watched the stream of children pouring into the room, all of them rubbing their eyes as they adjusted to the bright light. Most of them were laughing and talking in that strange, malleable kid-speak that sounded like jabberwocky to adult ears, but she could make out enough to know that they were all talking about Diana. Her brother-in-law came in then, wrangling his two boys, and even they were grinning and re-hashing her exploits.

As unsettled and confused as she was from talking with her sister, Charlie could not keep from smiling as she realized how totally awed they were by the woman she had brought into their lives.

* She’s got them all eating out of her hand. Maybe I’m worried over nothing, * Charlotte thought guiltily, admitting about how drastically Diana had mellowed. * She could probably handle my parents a lot better than I ever did. But… oh, God. If they got her angry… *

Such cautionary thoughts were immediately tossed aside as she watched the volatile woman in question parade into the room with a beaming little girl riding high on her broad shoulders. Her niece’s face was flush with the pride of victory, and Katie’s little hands were tightly clutching Diana’s own.

“We won, mom!” the child shouted to Emily, who pumped her fist and hissed out a proud “Yesss!”

“They killed us all, baby,” Luis chimed in, wrapping one beefy arm around his wife’s shoulders and pointing at his daughter with the other. “We gotta keep an eye on our little girl. She’s a tricky one. Got her henchman there to play possum so she could jump out and ambush us.”

“Don’t feel bad, daddy,” Katie said as she slid from Diana’s shoulders. “You did your best.”

“Yeah, Luis. Your warriors fought valiantly, and we bow in deference to your organizational skills,” Diana added, bending gracefully at the waist.

Katie mimicked the gesture while offering an exaggerated wink to her mother. “Uh huh. He was very nice to me when I shot him, momma. Not grouchy like Grampa Charles.”

“That’s why I married him, sweetie. Your daddy isn’t ashamed to admit when he’s whipped.”

Luis caught a light elbow in the ribs before he could object to Emily’s phrasing. Diana laughed, and Katie just shook her head, knowing that adults sometimes laughed at things which didn’t sound all that funny. The Avila family clustered together and joined the throng of children picking through Danny’s presents. Emily was ready to start calling parents to pick up the guests, who were mostly partied out and starting to get sleepy.

Charlie watched as Diana gave her final birthday wishes to Danny, then hugged his younger siblings James and Katie in turn. The little girl hung on a bit longer than her brothers and gave the tall woman a kiss on the cheek, then deposited a few secret words in her ear. Charlotte was still smiling when her lover finally broke away from her fans and turned her way.

Dressed in a beautifully drapey black silk habutai shirt and tight faded blue jeans, her dark hair neatly braided and hanging down her back, eyes shining with residual joy, Diana Starrett simply took her breath away.

* I wonder if it will always feel like this, looking at you and wondering why you’re looking back at me, of all people, * Charlie asked silently, her smile growing wider by the second. * Probably so. *

“What?” Diana asked innocently, looking over one shoulder to see what Charlotte was staring at. “What did I do now?”

Charlie just shook her head and opened her arms for a hug, which was immediately granted. “Hail the conquering hero,” she whispered as long arms wrapped around her and pulled her in close.

“Aww, not you too.”

“I’m just one of your many admirers these days. What did Katie whisper to you?”

Diana drew back and twisted her fingers across her lips, symbolically locking her mouth. “Can’t tell ya. It’s a secret.”

“I thought we didn’t have any secrets,” Charlotte pointed out, raising one pale brow.

“We don’t. Katie and I do.”

“Ooh, neat dodge.”

“Thanks, I learned it from you, slick. You get any cake yet? There’s some ice cream left, too.”

“Naah, I don’t want any now. Did Danny like our present?”

“You betcha. Two of his compadres tried to nick it already. We forgot the batteries, though.”

Charlie frowned, knowing whose fault that was. “I thought you wrapped them up with the figure.”

“Well, yeah. I was supposed to,” Diana confessed, “but I blamed it on you, anyway.”

“Turd.”

“You want to tell him the truth, ruin all the good PR I’ve done tonight?”

“I’m too tired to destroy your public image right now. I think I just want to go home.”

Diana rubbed a convenient shoulder, finding the compact muscle unusually tense. “Rough day?”

“And evening – my night went straight to hell after I dropped you off here. Dinner with Quentin and the Rowland attorneys was a total bust. They won’t settle, so we’re going back to court.”

“Damn. This makes, what? Three times in the past month?”

Charlotte barely nodded, not wanting to fall back into shop talk. She was depressed enough already. “Can we sneak out?”

“Sneak out? Without saying goodbye? You must be in a bad way to take such a risk.”

“I don’t want to get into why right now, but I feel like shit.” Charlie nestled into the long body, resting her cheek against a warm, silken chest.

Diana poked out her lips in a comical frown. “I’m sorry. How can I make it better?”

“Well, if you really want to help…”

“I do.”

“You could drive me home, get me drunk and make love to me all night.”

Charlotte could feel her lover smile against her hair, then a tiny kiss landed on top of her head before Diana backed out of her arms and looked her over carefully.

“You think that’ll fix it?”

“Not completely,” Charlie allowed, “but it’s a great starting point.”

Blue eyes flared brightly, and the lawyer knew the verdict was in before Diana even spoke.

“Right. Give me the car keys.”

——————————————————————————–

The warm July night air blew softly against her face as she ushered Charlie out the front exit, both of them giggling at the notion of two grown women sneaking away from a pack of children and one grouchy sister. Luis didn’t count, because he understood Emily’s moods and reactions like no one else could. He alone would not object to their stealthy retreat.

In the parking lot, Diana located the Porsche and used the remote to kill the alarm and unlock the doors as they approached. As always, her eyes scanned the dark spaces between shafts of light, looking for things she hadn’t seen in several months – stealthy figures with menacing postures, the dull glint of a weapon, anything at all that could be perceived as a threat. She did this covertly because it made Charlotte uncomfortable, but she could not help looking. Or listening.

As she opened the passenger door for her companion, she heard something on the far side of the lot, beyond the lights. A cold bolt of energy glanced along her spine at the sound, but she couldn’t say why.

* Just footsteps. Someone walking. It’s a free country. People can walk at night if they want to. *

When Charlie dropped herself noisily into the leather seat, Diana heard it again, then once more when she closed the door. Someone was using the sounds of these actions to cover their movement, but she surveyed the lot again and still saw nothing. The scuffling noise of shoes on asphalt returned while she made her way around the car, and her head snapped around toward the noise.

* Nothing. There’s nothing there… so why do I feel like someone’s walking on my grave? *

Shaking if off, Diana got in and started the engine, watching Charlotte’s hazel eyes flutter shut as she reclined her seat and stretched out for the ride home. She tried telling herself she was being typically paranoid, or that her instincts were revved up from playing war-games with the kids. Still, as she drove the Porsche along dark streets, some small part of her was screaming that this was no game.

* Someone was watching me back there… watching us. *

Checking the rear-view mirror, she found the street behind them empty. It appeared that no one was following, but Diana continued to check every few seconds, all the way home.
——————————————————————————–
Two

After two days in the San Diego safe house with the abducted young woman, Julia’s patience had nearly reached its end. Authorized by Director Mars to use any means necessary to get answers, her more humane psychological tactics had been exhausted. At nearly midnight on Friday evening, she decided to take a break and left the prisoner sleeping fitfully in a secured bedroom.

Now leaning against the rail of the second floor deck overlooking a small, man-made lake, Julia parleyed with her lone associate, smoking and debating the merits of physical torture. She took a deliberately strong stance against, leaving him with his much-preferred pro position.

“Dan, she isn’t going to tell us anything because she doesn’t know that she knows anything. Harming her would be pointless.”

The tall, thin man with the flat face and straw-like hair unrolled a pack of multi-flavored Tums and promptly crunched down four tablets. “How can you know that for certain? There’s no record of her undergoing treatments from Mangano or his staff, so how can you say that she’s been washed?”

“Because we’ve both seen this before. This is exactly the response we received from agents who have undergone extensive treatments. Her memories are buried so deep, we can’t get at them.”

“We haven’t tried everything yet. Give me an hour with her.”

Taking a deep draw off her cigarette, the platinum-haired woman sighed a cloud of smoke. “I know you want to get your hands on her for what she did, but that was over nine years ago. She doesn’t even remember -”

“That’s her story,” Dan said bitterly. “I don’t think Riggins washed her. I think she’s lying, trying to save her ass.”

“We can’t afford to take that chance. If she was treated by Mangano, the stress of physical torture could surface her accidentally, then everything she knows would be lost. She’s not strong enough emotionally to endure the process.”

“I’m not buying it. This is a woman who nearly killed our best agent in cold blood. She’s capable of far more than you give her credit for.”

“I know you have good reason to hate her. Still, this can’t be used as an opportunity to settle personal grievances, no matter how deep-seated.”

“You weren’t there, Julia.” Dan turned away from his supervisor and lowered his voice. “You didn’t see her body, you didn’t sit with her all night waiting for her to die – and she could have. That little bitch shot her ten times at close range. She doesn’t deserve to be soft-pedaled.”

The cold-eyed woman tossed the butt of her smoke over the rail and into the lake, watching the orange light arc through the air and die as it hit the water. Part of her agreed with his argument, but experience told her that their prisoner was not deliberately hiding anything. They would have to find another way to bring her memories up and out.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I had kept Mangano alive.”

“From what I heard, Harry wanted him dead. You had no choice.”

Julia laughed ruefully and smiled at her associate. “Mars would never have known. He’s too swamped to keep tabs on me these days. I could have moved him somewhere, just in case a situation arose where we needed to pick his brain again – like now.”

“Why didn’t you, then?”

“Harry wanted the good doctor terminated for the same reason you want to kill the girl,” she said, gesturing loosely with one slim hand. “Personal reasons overruled his good judgment. I suppose I let those same feelings influence me, although I am loathe to admit it.”

Dan snorted softly. “Didn’t know you had that problem.”

“Normally, I don’t. Neither do you… nor does Harry, for that matter.”

“I’m seeing a definite pattern here.”

Juila shrugged, resigned to be lumped with the majority on this issue. “Perhaps she shouldn’t have retired. Diana had more friends in the agency than she knew.”

“She saved my life twice. I’ll never get to ask Harry this, but what’s your excuse?”

Her gray eyes flashed a warning, but her voice betrayed amusement. “Watch your step, Daniel. That’s none of your business. ”

The thin man shifted his weight from foot to foot, hesitating before asking his next question. “She’s why we’re here, right? In San Diego, I mean. She still lives nearby.”

“As far as I know, she’s still in Elceda, yes.”

“But we’re not supposed to have any contact with her. Mars said she’s out.”

Nodding, Julia debated the wisdom of revealing too much, then spoke very judiciously. “We must assume that Yoshima has tracked the girl to California. He knows of her connection to Diana, therefore she might be in danger if he decides to go on the offensive.”

“Even though she’s no longer an active agent?”

“Don’t be naive. You know that wouldn’t matter to him.”

“Shouldn’t we go to her? Warn her?”

Taking a deep breath, the pale woman told herself to be patient with him. “If Yoshima does decide to go after Diana Starrett, she’ll likely be the one coming to us.”

Finally spying one gossamer thread of her web, Dan didn’t know whether to be impressed or frightened. He was certainly regretting the luck of the draw that sent him to California to assist her.

“Julia, if you’re saying what I think you’re saying…” He trailed away and stared out at the dark waters of the lake, finding them less opaque than his present company. “You’re playing with fire.”

She lit another cigarette and dropped her lean frame into a chaise lounge. “I know that, Danny. But this job is infinitely more fun that canning fish.”

Dan looked suitably confused by her remark, but she waved him off with a thin smile. “Private joke. Check on our guest, would you?”

Without another word, he slipped through the sliding glass door and left Julia alone with her tangled thoughts. Strewn like minuscule silk cords in a secret pattern, they spread out from the center of her mind to reach all the way from across the Pacific. Whether the web was strong enough to bring in all of her prey remained to be seen.

Three – Saturday

Getting through the gates of the walled housing community called “The Meadows” had recently become a lot easier, especially for intruders. When former night shift guard Teddy Rinna moved on to greener pastures as a private investigator, his post was filled by an obese, sleepy man named LeRoy Parks. At half-past midnight, a lone figure in dark clothing slipped over the six foot gate and silently crept past the glass booth where Mr. Parks was snoring, a Delfonics tape playing on his walkman.

Running beside the high stone wall which encircled the enclave, he soon reached the back row of homes and found a neatly maintained white split-level house with a deep blue Porsche lurking in the driveway. This was the place.

He took a moment to mentally review the security layout for the house. His employer provided a thorough list of obstacles, and they were formidable if somewhat traditional. The paranoia of one of this home’s two residents caused the installation of triple-paned, leaded glass windows with horizontal bar locks. Getting through three panes of the heavy glass would certainly allow the occupants time to realize to an impending threat.

Adding to his list of challenges was their replacement of an inferior alarm system with one of surpassing quality, the presence of two reinforced, long-throw deadbolt locks on both doors, and the ultimate frustration of burglar bars bracing both heavy oak doors to the point of impregnability. The innocent-looking little white house was actually closer to a fortress. Fortunately, he was not here tonight to break in, merely to leave a message from his employer.

Positioning himself at a rear window, he produced a compact matte gray device with a six digit LED readout, then gently pressed a sensor pad against the metal window sill. The device whirred for several seconds, then produced a code which he routed back into the alarm system, temporarily disabling the sensitive motion detector which guarded every conceivable entrance into the house. The code would change and cycle in thirty seconds, and the detector would reset on another frequency. This would allow him to briefly touch the windows without activating the alarm – if he acted quickly.

Attached to his belt was a small black leather bag which squirmed and kicked at his touch. Opening the bag, he found a pint-sized rat, still very perturbed and ready to nip at his gloved fingers. This problem he solved by pinching the rat’s neck until it snapped like a thick twig. A wicked knife with a serrated blade and a tip hooked like the beak of a hawk came out next and neatly whacked the head from the rodent corpse.

Standing firm in the mushy garden soil under the window, he began to draw on the glass with rat’s blood, mindful to make each graceful swipe in reverse so that the message could be read from inside the home. The curtains were not drawn, and he imagined morning light beaming through the eastern exposed window and projecting the red characters onto the pale carpet of the living room. What a nice surprise to wake up to on a Saturday.

Finished, he dropped the vermin paintbrush at his feet and stepped back onto the grass to scrape his tabi shoes on the dry lawn, clearing sticky sod from the treads. Stooping to examine some tiny plants he had trampled, he found that he had all but destroyed a burgeoning herb patch, the tender shoots just beginning to clear the earth and search for sun. Reflecting on a nine year-old memory of cold blue eyes, he found himself reluctant to believe that the intended recipient of his message would be the type to tend a fragile garden. It must belong to the other one, the blonde from the parking lot.

In seconds, he had departed the back yard and returned to his point of entry. Back at the front gate, he scooped up a handful of gravel and leapt to the top of the wall. Just before dropping outside onto the wide shoulder of Vega Avenue, he disdainfully flung the pebbles at the guard house, waking LeRoy Parks from a lovely dream where Pam Grier was feeding him fried pickles.
——————————————————————————–

Some people dream, conjuring lovers from the lonely alchemy of the subconscious, and some are blessed enough to live their dreams in waking hours. These people are often marked by a suspiciously reduced need for sleep and an indifference to the barbed lure of excessive fantasy. Although it may be our latent instinct to regard them with scorn, in fairness, they are merely to be envied like no other creatures on our earth.
——————————————————————————–

“Can you see the clock?”

“Yeah, it’s two-forty-eight. Why’d you toss it over there in the first place?”

“Uhhh… I forget. I think it was humming or something. Bothered me.”

“Humming.”

“Bothered me. So, what do you want next?”

“What do we have left, barkeep?”

“Not much. Take a look-see for yourself, stretch.”

Diana rolled Charlotte over and straddled her hips, then quickly surveyed the bedside table as distractingly nimble hands tickled up and down her ribcage. Past the two remaining shot glasses of apricot brandy and the dregs of a bottle of merlot she spied the forgotten ingredients to the perfect tequila shooter. Well, most of the ingredients, anyway. The key component was lying beneath her.

“Find anything?” Charlie asked as she noted the mischievous flare in her lover’s smile, visible even by wan moonlight falling through the skylight over the bed.

“Oh, yeah. Lay back and relax for a minute. I’ll fix this one myself.”

“Noooo problemo.”

The blonde flopped her arms out wide and sighed as her eyes drifted shut, thinking of absolutely nothing in her slightly buzzed, post-connubial bliss – not her disapproving parents, not her crushing workload, nothing at all. It was the most satisfying oblivion imaginable. She could feel the brush of a firm breast against her forearm as Diana leaned over to reach the night stand, but that tactile tease merely elicited a trippy little smile. She hadn’t the energy for much more.

“Don’t go to sleep, now,” a low voice warned her.

“Mmm hmm. Won’t,” she promised, yawning as her muscles took on the consistency of warm syrup.

Her torpor was short-lived, however, as a tepid trickle of liquid drizzled into her navel. Hazel eyes flew open and she was beset by a sudden squirming fit, which the tall woman ended by tightening her thighs around Charlie’s hips.

“Be still. This is Cuervo Gold – don’t wanna waste it.”

“Diana, dear… what are you doing?”

“Fixing myself one last drink.”

“In my belly button?”

“Small drink,” Diana explained, smiling as she replaced the bottle and came back with a lime wedge and a tiny crystal salt shaker.

“And what do you plan to do with those?”

“Shhh.”

“But… ohh.”

Charlotte closed both her mouth and her eyes as Diana lowered soft lips to her breast, kissing a wide circle around the perimeter, then slipping her tongue out to run a smaller path around the dusky pink aureole, wetting the pebbled surface and the waking tip. One last, languorous swipe across the fleshy crown, and she moved away.

“Hey, don’t stop,” Charlotte whispered, then giggled as she felt a rain of minute granules fall across her damp nipple, the salt clinging to the moisture.

“Would you open your mouth for me?” Diana’s voice was a throaty husk, making it unthinkable for the younger woman to refuse her. Charlie let her lips drift apart and felt the cool rind of the lime wedge rub against her mouth.

“Hold on to this, please.”

Again, she complied and clutched the thin wedge between her teeth. Diana deftly shifted their bodies, parting Charlie’s legs and moving between, then sliding down with a slow, delicate exertion of pressure as her stomach brushed over a gilded pubis. An unsatisfied groan met the end of this action, alerting her that they might not be done yet after all. She drew her long black hair over one shoulder and leaned down to kiss sloping indentations outlining each hip bone, murmuring into smooth flesh.

“You’re not going to sleep, are you?”

“Nuh-unh,” Charlotte managed to mumble around the lime.

“Good,” her lover’s contralto answered back, just before dragging the point of a firm tongue through the preliminary dusting of fine hair linking the lower abdomen to something even lower. Diana strung a line of whispery kisses along the curly border, testing Charlotte’s resolve to collect on her promise. “You said all night, remember?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“If you’re too tired, let me know and I’ll stop.”

“Phuck you.”

Diana smiled as she raised her head and surveyed the tiny pool of golden liquor, but couldn’t resist a final tease. “Later. If you’re lucky.”

“Don’t shtart wiff me… ahhh.”

The attorney’s brief fit of pique dissolved like sugar in hot water as her lover dipped a rigid tongue into her flooded navel. Hazel eyes popped open and a smile tripped accidentally across her face as she felt the odd tingle of oft-ignored nerves livening in her tummy. Both hands fell instantly on the dark crown of hair, petting and pushing and stroking in time with the dancing tongue.

Her toes pointed and her calves contracted as Diana withdrew, then dropped the wet muscle in again, slowly swirling around the tiny cavity, gently sucking out the potent alcohol. Without warning, the probing tongue hardened again and shoved in deeper, spelunking to the depths of the baby cave touching each hidden, hypersensitive crevice, rooting out every trace of tequila. Charlotte didn’t know whether to laugh or scream, so she did both, nearly losing the lime in the process.

Once the first of her three enjoyable little tasks was complete, Diana immediately ascended to the whitened peak of Charlie’s breast and dropped her open mouth fully onto the salted skin, hungrily lapping up the grains. The twin textures of the scratchy crystals and velvety tongue seemed particularly delightful to the young attorney, and she moaned unabashedly until, with one parting kiss to the drawn nipple, the second step was done as well.

“Hold on to it,” Diana said, sliding up a bit further.

It took a moment for Charlotte to register that she meant for her to tighten her teeth around the fruit, then she felt the warmth of her lover’s breath climbing her neck. Diana opened her mouth wide and laid her lips over Charlie’s, trapping the lime between them. Her tongue eased out and ran along the tart pulp, grazing over both their lips, tasting the sweet and sour before gently closing her teeth and stripping the lime bare.

As requested, Charlotte kept a firm grasp on the wedge, letting the sour juice trickle into her mouth as Diana licked away the the excess from her chin. She felt another tug on the rind, and still she resisted, stubbornly protesting the end of a truly novel experience.

“You can let go now.”

Opening her eyes, she found two fingers ready to pluck out the barren lime, and she sheepishly grinned and loosened her hold. Diana took the rind, then twisted her body around slightly and tossed it across the room into the small wastebasket. Proud of herself for more than one reason, the older woman smiled brightly and waited for praise.

“Show-off,” Charlotte said dryly, wrapping her arms around her lover and pulling her down into a particularly flavorful kiss which lasted (in one form or another) until the sun slipped through the skylight and warmed their backs with dawn’s first rays.
——————————————————————————–
Four

Sunrise found Hideo Yoshima sitting on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, his arms folded and eyes closed in useless meditation as the warm wind flirted with his blue silk robes. Peace would not come to him this day. Among a myriad of other troubles, he was somewhat irked at his spot on the planet as the glorious ball of burning gas slipped up on the wrong side of the water.

Having spent most of his life on the eastern shore of the Japanese mainland of Honshu, it was the first time that he had greeted dawn on the other side of the great sea, and he didn’t like it one bit. As he pondered this disconcerting feeling of displacement, an early morning jogger loped by, followed closely by a yapping pomeranian wearing a nylon windsuit and four tiny sneakers.

“This is not pleasing,” he said, so softly that only the man by his side could hear him. The other three guards milling about nearby were not there for conversation. “California has always seemed alien to me. I wish to obtain that which I need and return home quickly. You did as I asked?”

“Yes,” his compact, dark-clad companion answered, just as quietly.

“Written in blood?”

“Yes. Are you sure she will understand?”

“She will remember, and she will come to me,” the elder man proclaimed, “and I will live on.”

Sitting in the lotus position, his back ramrod straight, a casual observer would find him strong and healthy. A closer look at his powdery pallor, low body weight and the small, dark lesions on his face betrayed his true condition. Nearing the final stages of AIDS, Hideo Yoshima was dying.

Physicians of world renown had come to him and attempted to treat his illness with a variety of drug therapies and protocols. Mystics had performed rituals with animals and blood and smoke and darkness. His diet was altered to emphasize the inclusion of dairy, then the exclusion of dairy; in fact, he had endured the ingestion of everything from apricot pits to raw flatworms in his search for an extension of his dwindling life span, all to no avail. Every day found him weaker and more desperately aware of his mortality.

Two months prior to this morning on a foreign beach, he had celebrated his fiftieth birthday at home in a sickbed. The humiliation of reaching that milestone in such a shameful condition renewed his commitment to the search, and he hired a staff of twenty data retrieval experts and scientists to search and examine the records of disease research facilities, world government medical databanks, and pharmaceutical manufacturers for anything that held even a glimmer of promise.

Seventeen days in, they hit gold. In an encrypted lockbox on a discarded eighty-five megabyte hard drive, a collection of files was discovered. The drive was unearthed in the computer repair shop of Matsuda Industries, and contained records of experiments conducted on behalf of an unnamed agency. The company’s contact within the agency was listed as Dr. Salvatore Mangano.

The files contained innumerable, indecipherable formulas combining a form of protease inhibitors with short-chain artificial protein polymers – things he did not and would never understand. The only fragment of information which merited interest at all was the repeated assertion that a test subject – an agent working for Mangano’s group – had once been completely cleansed of the virus by an early formulation of this treatment. Upon seeing the name of the cured party, Hideo Yoshima fainted.

“You are taking a great risk in trusting this woman to help you,” the younger man whispered, his tone cautious and respectful. “She cannot be trusted.”

Yoshima turned to his companion and smiled. “I do not trust her to help me, but to help herself. Her heart is soft and weak, as it was years ago. Perhaps even more so, now that she has… stabilized.”

“The woman I recall from Nagano felt nothing. She was a machine, an instrument.”

“For us, she felt nothing. Our blood stained her hands, and she was unmoved. For the girl, she knelt in snow and surrendered her life as penance for her sins. She would do the same today.”

“For Angelia? But we’ve lost her…”

“She will be safely returned to us, but that is irrelevant. I do not intend to bargain with Diana Starrett’s past, but with her future. Her heart is weaker now than ever before, and she will do my bidding to protect those she loves.”

“The lawyer.”

“And her family. You will have a grand selection of targets if she is foolish enough to refuse me.”

Yoshima unhooked his thin legs and stood slowly, refusing help from his spry assistant. He surveyed the shining, tumultuous ocean, then looked over his shoulder at the blazing sun. He shook his head and ran one hand through his thinning black hair as the jogger with his windsuited pomeranian passed by again on their return trip.

“She will come soon. If not by tonight, then you will bring her to me tomorrow. I will not be kept in this asinine country any longer than is necessary.”

Bowing slightly, the younger man offered his arm and escorted his father up the stairs to the rented beach house, silently vowing that he would do whatever was necessary to ensure the compliance of the blue-eyed monster from his youthful nightmares. The great and fearsome Yoshima would not be felled by any enemy foolish enough to spare that deceitful woman. She would save his father… and then there would be an accounting for old wrongs. The passing of nine years had not helped him forget. Diana Starrett was going to suffer.

Five

The summer sun was full in the sky when, at half-past eleven a.m., someone complained of a backache and the other proclaimed herself near-starvation. Charlotte and Diana managed to drag themselves from bed and stagger unsteadily to the loo for relief and a quick, hot shower. Dressed in Saturday gear of shorts and tees, they ambled slowly down the hall and debated whether they should bother with breakfast or shoot straight ahead to lunch.

“I don’t want anything breakfasty,” Charlie said, tucking the tag into the back of Diana’s khaki shorts as she followed close behind. “A fatburger and some chili fries from KayJay’s would hit the spot.”

The tall woman on point turned and scowled as her stomach did a tuck and roll at the thought of ingesting such deadly food after last night’s abuse. Ice cream, cake, soda and hot dogs were not meant to be topped off with large doses of alcohol. “You never get hangovers anymore, do you?”

“My head aches a little, but that doesn’t affect my appetite,” the attorney replied with a grin. “If you have any other, less gluttonous ideas – ow!”

Charlotte was stopped cold by a long, muscled arm which suddenly shot across her chest and barred her from walking any further. Looking up at Diana’s frozen face and darting eyes, she felt a sudden chill racing up her neck and lifting the fine nape hairs in alarm. Diana turned around and pressed a finger to her lips, then motioned for her to return to the bedroom. When Charlie scowled and shook her head, Diana cocked her fingers into the shape of a gun and motioned her away again.

“GO!” Diana mouthed, and this time she did not argue. Charlotte ran on the balls of her feet back to the bedroom and knelt by Diana’s side of the bed, slipping one hand between the mattresses and retrieving a stainless steel Colt Python revolver.

* Burgled. We got burgled, that’s all. They took the VCR and the television and the cappuccino machine and left. It’s nothing more than that. Nothing, nothing, nothing else, * Charlie lied to herself. * Oh, sweet Christ, please let that be all it is. I’m not ready for them yet. *

Holding the Python by its molded rubber grip like a snake that might rear up and strike at her, she raced back down the hall and handed the gun to Diana, who stood perfectly still, ears pricked up as she searched for any unfamiliar sounds.

“I think we’re okay right now,” the dark woman whispered at last, lowering the pistol to her side and stepping around the corner into the main room. “We’re alone in the house.”

“Then what’s going on? What set you off like that?” Charlotte queried anxiously. “Jesus! You scared me half to death!”

“Someone was here last night.”

“But the alarm didn’t go off?”

“They didn’t come in, just left a calling card.” Diana’s eyes were locked on some point in the living room, and Charlotte stepped carefully around her to see what it was. Immediately, she spied the streaks and swirls of red staining the glass of a back window. It wasn’t what she was expecting at all, and she found herself more curious than frightened.

“What the hell is that? Chinese or something?”

Diana grunted a vaguely negative response and covered the length of the room in four long, determined strides. She stood quietly before the glass, studying the characters and absently playing with the hammer on the Colt. Her face remained stiff and unreadable, not betraying the roiling shift of emotions she experienced as the meaning became clear. A light touch on her shoulder caused her to start and jerk away.

“Whoa. Just me, just little ole me,” Charlotte whispered, coming around to stand at her side. She let a few moments pass in silence before trying again. “Do you know what it means?”

“Yeah.”

“Could you maybe… tell me?”

Prying her fluxing blue eyes away from the message to stare at the floor, Diana kept her voice level and calm. “It’s kanji. Japanese. It says ‘Poisoned blood fells both demons and angels. Remember and atone.’ Then it’s just numbers along the bottom.”

“And this means something to you.”

“Mmm hmm. Means I’m in for trouble from some old… acquaintances.”

“But you don’t even do that stuff anymore. Couldn’t you just tell them – ”

“Doesn’t matter.” Diana eased her head up to find Charlotte staring at her with a mix of concern and panic. She took one of her lover’s hands and squeezed it reassuringly. “I’ve told you I did a lot of things, bad things, for the agency. These people… what I did to them was strictly for myself. I wanted something they had, and I tried to take it. They don’t forget, and they don’t forgive.”

“What people? Who is this from?”

“A man, a very important man in the Yakuza.” She paused and averted her gaze, hardening her jaw unconsciously. “One I should have killed when I had the chance.”

Taken aback by the declaration, Charlotte spoke hesitantly and softly. “You don’t mean that.”

“Oh, but I do,” the dark woman whispered with deep conviction. “All this time, I’ve been worried that Harry would show up here and fuck things up for us. But this…” she waved the pistol at the window, “this is my fault. All my fault.”

Diana’s head drooped suddenly and her hand loosened around the Colt, dangling it by one finger looped through the trigger guard. She rocked back and forth on her heels, her lips moving as they formed silent words. Not willing to let herself be shut out of even the darkest corner of her lover’s soul, Charlotte wrapped an arm around the tall woman’s waist and pulled her close. Diana did not resist, but made no move to reciprocate.

“Hey,” Charlie said suddenly, then snapped her fingers a scant inch from Diana’s face. “HEY!”

Blue eyes flicked open, colored with flecks of white – something Charlotte had come to know as a symptom of worry. “I’m just thinking,” Diana explained. “I need to think this through, sort it out.”

“Any rule against doing that out loud?”

“Hmm?”

“Come here.” Charlotte tightened her arm around the high waist and tugged toward the couch, then eased them both down into the plump cushions. “Now, continue thinking, just do it out loud so I know what’s going on. Okay?”

“Charlie, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Well, I think it is. You’ve told me some pretty rough stories, ya know.” She lifted a brow and gave a half-smile as Diana nodded in agreement. “So tell me this one.”

“This isn’t just another past-tense thing. This is now. I have to figure out what to do.”

“All the more reason for you to tell me about it. Since this is a now kind of thing, we’re in it together. I need to know what we are in for, Diana. Not just you – we… us. Whatever. Go.”

“Wha- go what?”

“God, you are so bad at this. This is where you start talking.”

Open-mouthed and a little annoyed, Diana started to come back to herself as she realized Charlotte was right, that whatever Yoshima’s plans held would affect them both. It was just easier to keep silent as the fear swept over her and she adjusted to its return. The months of peace, happiness and safety were ebbing away as life’s tides turned coldly, suddenly dangerous. She was only just acclimating herself to the shift when she was reminded that Charlotte stood with her, felt that same fear. She wondered how it was that the young woman could handle the abrupt changes so well.

“How do you do that?” Diana asked, sliding her hand around to cover the smaller one at her waist.

“Do what?”

“It’s just like that night at Marco’s, when I first told you about what I did. Shit starts raining from the sky, and you just pop out an umbrella and skip right into the storm.”

Smiling at the backhanded compliment, Charlotte laced her fingers through her lover’s and squeezed tight. “I only do that because you never bring an umbrella with you. Somebody’s gotta cover your ass, make sure you don’t get drenched.”

“It’s a lousy job, that. You could do so much better.”

“It ain’t the job, stretch, it’s the company it allows me to keep. You’re worth the trouble.”

Sliding the pistol away, Diana freed both hands and placed them gently on Charlie’s face, drawing her into a kiss that rose and fell with the restless waves of relief and anxiety buffeting her heart. She slipped her tongue inside the welcoming mouth and just held it there, reveling in the total, trusting acceptance Charlotte never failed to offer. Diana almost wanted to cry when she realized that telling the young woman the unvarnished truth might injure that trust. When she felt two small hands twine in her hair, and a formerly submissive tongue stir to wrap around her own, she pulled away and pressed their foreheads together. Charlotte’s hazel eyes blinked open to find Diana staring softly into them.

“I like it when we see eye to eye on something,” the attorney breathed, drawing a wide smile from her taciturn lover.

“God help me, I do love you so.”

The tone in Diana’s smoky voice was beyond sincere, causing Charlie to giggle nervously. “Well, that goes without saying. But hearing it is always welcome.”

“I need you to remember that, Charlie. That I love you. That I would never… hurt you.”

“I do know that,” she said, her words solid and sure. “I know who you are now, and I love you something awful. Nothing you did back then will change that.”

“I wish I were as sure as you.”

Planting a seedling kiss on Diana’s lips, Charlotte took one of her hands – just for something to hang on to – and drew back to lay against the pillowed couch arm. She threw her legs across Diana’s lap and gave her a final nudge of verbal encouragement.

“We have no secrets, right? Just things we haven’t gotten around to discussing yet. Don’t keep this from me. Trust me. Tell me.”

At this gentle urging, Diana could feel the large, tight node of doubt blocking her throat start to shrink, allowing passage for whatever she was strong enough to bring up and out. Telling Charlotte about Ethan and her rape had been difficult, but recounting her own terrifying, murderous rage after the fact was the trial by fire. She felt a similar panic that night as she told the tale, leaving nothing in shadow.

Looking at the calm young woman reclining across her body, Diana recalled the wash of relief which swept over her when Charlotte told her that she loved her still and was neither afraid nor repulsed. She held her close and wept for her lost brother, for her pain and guilt, but assured her throughout that none of these revelations could change the content of her heart.

“I’m not your judge,” she had said, “I love you. I just want to help you carry the load. You’re not alone anymore, and you never will be again.”

Diana uttered a silent prayer for the continuing truth of that promise and tightened her grip on Charlotte’s hand. “Okay. I guess I should start at the bottom, work up from there. It’ll save time if I skip some details – irrelevant stuff.”

“Take as long as you want,” Charlotte said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m gonna have to move on this soon, Charlie. He won’t wait for me very long.”

“Fine. Give me the Cliff’s Notes version if you have to, but don’t leave out anything on my account.”

Drawing a deep breath, Diana steadied herself and began the tale with a sober solemnity.

“It was my first assignment as a lead agent. Riggins hadn’t messed with my head yet, so I still knew who I was and how I came to the agency. After my training was completed and I had a few smaller missions under my belt, I was starting to get a grip on what they wanted from me. Although I was constantly in and out of Mangano’s clinic for something, I was able to manage the pain and the memories pretty well. I honestly thought I was ready.”
——————————————————————————–
October, Nine years ago

Stepping off the helicopter, Diana Starrett took a quick moment to absorb her surroundings, aware that the awe she personally felt was unprofessional and could find no outward expression. Her eyes took in the towering peaks of the Japanese Alps without a flash of appreciation, her lungs drew full and tight with thin, clean air and she could not smile. Ninety-nine percent of her was here to work, but the remaining fraction wanted to flop down on the white ground and make snow angels.

Growing up poor in a borough of the world’s premier cement playground, she had dreamed of going on exotic vacations to a tropical paradise or a mountain top ski resort, but those dreams were for the future. After she finished med school and completed her residency, she would have the time and the money to make them come true… but all those dreams died with her brother. That life was over, and she had to find a way to exist in this new one Harry Mars had offered her.

The chopper pilot cut the engine and the deafening din faded away to a faint echo as he came up beside her and picked up her suitcases. A black Mercedes limousine waited at the edge of the clearing and he pointed her toward the car. As they approached, the doors all opened at once and a small flood of business-suited men stepped out into the cold, most keeping one hand inside their jackets as they scanned the area. The oldest man approached her with his hand extended in greeting. She took his hand gently and bowed.

“Miss Starrett, I am Hideo Yoshima. Allow me to welcome you to my country.”

“I am honored to be here, sir, and I am grateful for the chance to see Japan. I have long dreamed of visiting, and I am very thankful for the opportunity you have given me.”

Yoshima bowed in return and offered his arm in escort. Diana looped her gloved hand around his elbow and let him lead her into the warm, dark interior of the limo. After her bags were packed in the trunk and all the men had settled in the car, they began the long drive back up the mountain to Yoshima’s vacation home – where Diana would ostensibly spend the next few months.

“Your agency has extended you their highest recommendation, Miss Starrett. I hope they are accurate in their accounting of your abilities. Working for me will be challenging.”

“I feel confident that I can provide you with the help you requested, Mr. Yoshima. I specialize in difficult cases,” Diana replied, trying not to watch the breathtaking scenery whizzing through the windows as they ascended.

“Pardon me for my frankness, but you look very young to have so much experience.”

She smiled and mustered a controlled blush, which softened his stern expression. “I am twenty-eight years old,” the twenty-one year old lied. “I have worked in this field for six years, sir.”

“As your records indicate,” Yoshima confirmed. “We are nearing my estate. Soon, we will know if you are as good in person as on paper.”

Diana only nodded and turned to the window, still aware of Yoshima’s dark eyes dissecting her features and demeanor, taking stock and accounting with deft precision. Unless he felt comfortable with her, this wasn’t going to last very long at all.

At last, the car came to a stop in front of an enormous stone, wood and glass home, built in a strange, stylized mix of Swiss chalet and traditional Japanese architecture. As Yoshima again offered his arm, she took it and let him guide her up stone steps and through massive oak double doors.

In the cool stone foyer, he took her coat and indicated that she should leave her shoes on the wire drying rack. She complied as he did the same, then barked out orders for his men to place her things in an upstairs guest suite. He led her into the dimly lit main room, a large, lavishly furnished affair of woven rugs, carved tables and plump suede furniture, all in tones of brown and rust. A collection of ancient swords hung on one wall, suspended by silk ropes. Tapestries and paintings covered most every other vertical surface, giving the room a smaller feel once she stood within its warm confines.

A popping fire burned hot in the hearth, casting flickers of orange light onto the face of young woman sitting quietly before its glow. Diana could barely make out her features in the weak light, but saw a drift of cigarette smoke curling around the girl’s hand as she lazed on a large, reddish chair with her legs curled under like a jack knife. The girl did not spare them a glance as Yoshima turned on the overhead lights and destroyed the cozy atmosphere, merely grunted and muttered a string of curses as she rubbed her eyes. Diana tried to take a better look then, but was interrupted by her host.

“Banana!” the man called sharply, and a petite old woman dressed in a traditional maid’s outfit scurried into the room, wiping wet hands on her apron. “Where are the boys?”

“In kitchen. I bring them to you?”

“Yes. They must meet their lovely new governess,” Yoshima said, smiling at Diana, who smiled sweetly in return. Banana took but a moment to come back with her arms around two slender young boys with matching sullen pouts and shiny black, bowl-cut hair. Their white shirts and dark slacks appeared starched, with razor-sharp creases jutting out and exaggerating the roundness of their faces. The boys were conspicuously displeased when Banana removed her protective arms and urged them toward their father and his towering, blue-eyed guest.

“Miss Starrett, these are my sons – Yukio, who is now 12, and Gedde, age 9.”

Stooping to their level, Diana held out one hand to the elder boy and greeted him warmly. “Yukio, I am honored to be selected as your teacher. I understand you already speak near-fluent English.”

“Yes, miss.” He took her hand and shook it once, hard, and released it hurriedly.

“And Gedde, your father has written that you are quite an artist. You enjoy painting?”

The smaller boy repeated the perfunctory shake Yukio had given and smiled shyly. “Yes, miss.”

“I am sure it will be a great pleasure working with you both,” Diana said, “I look forward to it.”

“Thank you, miss,” the boys said in unison, backing away until they stood nearly behind Banana.

“That is all, boys. Your lessons will begin tomorrow, and I expect to hear of no problems. Do you understand?” Yoshima asked, regarding them with a stern affection.

“Yes, father,” the children answered seriously.

He nodded to the maid, and she hustled the stumbling boys back to the kitchen. Yoshima turned his full attention then to the young woman still smoking by the fire. Dressed in faded jeans and a Berkley sweatshirt, she displayed a loose-limbed flexibility as she unfolded her legs and ran a hand through long black hair. Her eyes were still closed against the bright light, but Diana noticed her posture stiffen as the man moved closer.

Taking her first clean look at the girl’s face, Diana found herself tempted to stare at the high, wide cheekbones and poreless skin. She blinked the urge away as Yoshima spoke to her once more.

“This one is not your charge, but she will be staying here for a while as an unscheduled guest. You may as well meet now,” he said as Diana joined him to stand in front of the girl’s chair. “Miss Starrett, this is my daughter, Angelia.”

At that, the girl’s eyes flashed open with ready anger. She glared at Hideo Yoshima with bold impertinence as she hissed in a low voice, “I am not your daughter.”

Yoshima’s countenance darkened instantly, his mouth set in a hard line. “You are under my care and protection. You will show me respect, and you will respect my guest.”

“Or what?” the girl spat, still not shifting her deep black eyes from their target.

“Do not test me again. You have shamed me once already, and you will not be granted leniency.”

The two stared at each other, and Diana wanted nothing more than to remove herself from this contest of wills. This had nothing to do with her, and she wanted no part of it.

“Fine,” the girl said at last, turning her attention to the woman at Yoshima’s side. She looked Diana up and down several times before speaking to her with barely concealed scorn. “As for you – don’t get in my way, and we won’t have any trouble.”

Unable to stop herself, Diana actually laughed – a snorting, derisive laugh that shot out though her nose and caused her broad shoulders to shake. Her first instinct was to bite it back, try to pass it off as a cough, but she spied Yoshima’s smirk from the corner of her eye and played out the hand.

“Well, Angelia, was it?” she began, “I know I’m a pretty big girl, but this is a pretty big house. If I’m ever in your way, just ask me nicely and I might step aside.”

Narrowing her eyes, Angelia looked from the tall woman to the smug man and found she had nothing more to say to either of them. She tossed her cigarette into the fire and vaulted over the chair arm, unwilling to ask either of them to move, and stormed up the stairs in a major huff.

Yoshima’s eyes held a new respect for the young governess as he regarded her then, and he actually smiled. “I believe your presence here will benefit this house in many ways, Miss Starrett. The girl is troubled, and needs discipline and guidance. She will accept neither from me. Perhaps you will have better luck.”

“There was no mention of a third child in your letters.”

“Ahh, as I mentioned, her presence is an unforeseen complication. She was attending school in California until some… problems arose,” Yoshima explained as he and Diana sat on the plush suede sofa. “The same business difficulties which force me to bring my sons here necessitate Angelia’s presence as well. Her university studies can be postponed, but the education of my sons must continue. The boys are in formative years. Any slacking now will have serious repercussions later.”

“I understand.”

Diana knew all too well the “business difficulties” which forced him to hide his children. A schism in leadership of the Yakuza had formed over Yoshima’s conquest of Matsuda Group and their international holdings, including lucrative pharmaceutical industries in the west. His pursuit of such high-profile, legitimate business interests concerned his partners, and their anger had put his family in danger. Instead of abandoning his ambitious plans, he decided to step up the extortion and pressure on Matsuda, and moved his family from the line of fire.

Her agency intended to stop him, and that was what brought Diana here in the first place. She was still concerned over Harry’s lack of involvement in this op – her cover came directly from Mr. Riggins himself, and he told her that additional instructions would be forthcoming. Until that time, she was merely to ingratiate herself into the household and keep track of Yoshima’s activities, reporting daily via an encoded satellite hookup. Another operative was already in place somewhere else in the organization, though she had no guarantee that they would ever meet. For now, she had to play her least favorite game – the one where she smiled at a brutal criminal and sat on her hands.
——————————————————————————–

That afternoon, Yoshima explained her duties in detail and took his leave. He was in and out at all hours during the following week, and Diana dutifully made her reports each day, still blind as to what she was really supposed to be doing there. The boys were easy students, both bright and quick, but Yukio always seemed a little distracted and tense in his father’s presence, as if he knew he was being judged more harshly than his younger brother. Gedde showed her his paintings and was thrilled to the point of giddiness each time she lavished him with praise or asked to watch him work.

Angelia, on the other hand, was a total enigma. She moved through the house like a ghost, avoiding contact with everyone. She took her meals alone in her room, and spent much of her time skiing under the watchful eye of a cadre of guards. The one instance where she and Diana met in a narrow hallway, she pressed her back flat against the wall and extended one hand to grant right-of-way, then waited for the tall woman to move past. Like Yukio, she was on edge when Yoshima was home.

The cycle continued much the same way for the next several days, until one night when Diana woke from a dead sleep to the pitiful sound of her own stomach growling. Banana was an excellent cook, but her dinner that night – some Cantonese concoction with monkey brains – had proven impossible to ingest. Donning an ice blue silk robe over her matching nightgown, Diana crept down the stairs to the kitchen, only to find that someone else had the same idea.

“I couldn’t eat that shit, either,” Angelia said, spying Diana lurking in the doorway to the dark kitchen. “I made BLTs. There’s some left on the counter if you want.”

Slightly stunned by the offer to share, Diana hesitated. “Real bacon?”

“From real pigs, yes,” the girl confirmed, flicking on the small light over the stove. She was wearing her normal attire of jeans and a sweatshirt, even though it was three a.m. “Iceberg lettuce, fat tomatoes, and whole-egg, yankee mayonnaise. Wheat toast in the toaster. Help yourself.”

Diana watched her sit back down at the small kitchen table and noticed that she also had a half-empty bottle of beer, flouting Yoshima’s insistence on his home being a dry zone. “Tsing-Tao. That any good?”

“So-so. Coors is better. Wanna try one?”

Finally moving to the counter to assemble her own sandwich, Diana nodded and smiled her thanks. Angelia went to the back door, and Diana saw that she still wore her shoes – a direct violation of house rules. Somehow, she knew it wasn’t an isolated incident. The girl opened the door, reached down into a small drift of snow, and came up with two frosty, green glass bottles.

Once she returned, Diana was already tucking into her sandwich, almost moaning as the taste flooded her mouth with sensations of home. Angelia perched the cap of one beer on the table edge and rammed the heel of her hand against the top, and the cap popped off. She slid the open bottle across to Diana and sat back down to resume her illicit feast.

“God, I love America,” she said, her mouth brimming with huge bites of sandwich.

“Where did you get all this stuff, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Shhh. You wouldn’t rat me out to ‘ol Hideous, would you?”

Diana laughed softly at the mutilation of Yoshima’s name, then shook her head.

“I didn’t think so. Gedde says you’re cool, and I trust the little twerp. Sorry we got off to such a bitchy start, but I thought you were another one of his tools, come to babysit and tattle on us.”

“That’s not why I’m here at all,” Diana confirmed honestly.

“Well… I sneak out sometimes. For supplies, or for a little night skiing, just to keep me sane.”

“You ski at night? The slope isn’t even lighted.”

Angelia grinned and popped open her second beer, taking a few pulls before explaining herself. “You don’t need lights when you know this place like I do. I could go up and down this mountain ten times, blindfolded, without even stumbling over a root. I know where all the good spots are, too.”

“I wish I could get out of here for a little while, myself,” Diana admitted. “Think I’m getting cabin fever or something.”

“The walls closing in on you?”

“More every day.”

The girl finished off her sandwich, her face serious as she lost herself in thought for a bit. When at last she swallowed the final bite and washed it down with the dregs of her Tsing-Tao, she looked up and smiled impishly at her clandestine dining companion. “Can you ski, Missy Starrett?”

“Diana. And yes, I can ski.”

“Well, I happen to know that Hideous bought you some gear and stashed it in the garage – just in case young master Yukio wanted to swoosh around after his lessons, which he doesn’t. The boy’s a stick in the mud. Might as well put the stuff to good use.”

“Is that an invitation?”

“Maybe,” Angelia said, smiling brightly as she rose from the table. “We’ll see.”

Without another word, the girl exited the kitchen and went up to her room. Food scraps and beer bottles littered the table and counter, and Diana knew that she was being tested. If she left the stuff for Banana to clean up, Yoshima would know the girl had been out unescorted, and had purchased alcohol. She’d be in big trouble. On the other hand, if she took care of the mess herself and kept Angelia’s secrets… what? What would that possibly profit her?

Still pondering the possibilities, Diana finished her sandwich and beer, then cleaned up everything and stuffed it into innocuous black garbage bags. After setting them gently on the stone floor in the rear foyer, she crept off to bed wondering if the boredom and monotony was making her stupid.
——————————————————————————–

“Did you sleep with her?”

So engrossed in the recollection was Diana that she didn’t immediately register that Charlotte had spoken. She felt the smaller hand grip hers more firmly, and she turned her head to find the lawyer staring at her with an odd expression.

“What?”

“I asked you if you slept with her,” Charlie repeated. “She was obviously interested in you.”

Nonplused, Diana debated the wisdom of a straight answer. “I… well…”

“Nevermind,” the blonde said shortly, taking back her hand and folding both arms across her chest. “Go on. Sorry I interrupted.”

Familiar by now with the symptoms of Charlotte’s deep-rooted jealousy, Diana could almost see her lover turning green at the thought of her being with someone else.

“It was a long time ago,” Diana said softly.

“I know. I’m just getting a bad feeling about her.”

Impressed by the empathic sense that gave Charlotte warning through simple words, Diana wished she had felt such misgivings back then.

* Would have saved me a world of trouble… and hurt. *

“Could you do me a favor?” Charlie asked suddenly.

“Sure.”

“Skip ahead some and tell me where this Angelia is now? Just to ease my mind.”

Diana swallowed a lump of bitter emotions as they rose in her throat, and answered in a firm, clear voice. “She’s dead now, Charlie. Riggins killed her himself.”

Six

Julia waited at her desk as the communications satellite link was established and her vid screen clarified, displaying a six-inch picture of a deeply tanned, bearded man wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian print shirt. Gold chains tangled in the dark carpet of hair covering his chest, and his nose bore a pink stripe of zinc-oxide sunblock. Julia put on a happy face for the camera before addressing him.

“Ilya? Am I coming through clearly?” she asked, tilting her mouth at the lavalier mike on her collar.

“Perfectly,” he answered, a slavic roll and clip to his syllables.

“Nice shirt. Enjoying the warmer climes, I see.”

“These days, I never leave here willingly,” he laughed. “You look well, Julia, as always.”

“I’d rather be in the Caribbean with you, but…”

“Work, work work. I know. What do you have for me today?”

She tapped a finger against her chin, drawing out his suspense with a cheeky smile. “You still want to corner the cartel business? Those nasty boys from Cartagena?”

“Of course, but that is impossible,” Ilya said, dejected. “Yoshima has that market covered.”

“Not necessarily. He’s suffered some bad luck – three of his shipments destined for South America were seized this morning on their way out of port at Nagoya, leaving a rather… large opening,” she explained suggestively. “I think you’re just the man to fill it – if you’re up to the challenge.”

His hirsute face split into a wide grin, and she knew she had him. “I am always up to filling any opening for you, my dear.”

“Excellent. How would you like to be the broker for a dozen fully-armored BellJet Rangers?”

The line went quiet and Julia saw the big man tense and wait for the punchline – he was no sucker. In a former life, he was a KGB operative, but now Ilya Kurzin was an illegal arms dealer working with the Russian mafia. She approached him four months ago with a shipment of surface-to air missiles, and had built on that relationship with several deals since. Each time, she brought him quality product, and each time, he made a small fortune. This offer, however, set off all of his alarms with the sheer improbability of escaping detection and arrest.

“That is a very, very large opening,” he breathed, trying to maintain his composure.

“Ilya, if you’re worried about getting caught -”

“Of course I worry! Only idiots do not worry! Twelve armored helicopters? TWELVE!?! How can they be moved without the Colombians boarding the transport ship, or shooting them down?”

“Safe mainland passage by air has already been arranged, and I will provide charts to an unpatrolled shipping lane for your freighter. If your buyers come up with the cash, the choppers are all yours.”

“Even if they could be delivered safely, Yoshima would retaliate for my usurping his trade.”

“Yoshima has his hands full these days. Now is the time to move in and take his territory. By the time he recovers, if he recovers, you will be too strong, too entrenched for him to take it back.”

Hesitating again, Ilya scratched his beard and gazed at the impassive beauty on his vid screen. She had delivered on every promise thus far, although he had yet to understand how she managed such machinations. This deal would ensure him an exclusive share of a very lucrative market. Yoshima was once a very powerful and feared man, but his international fortunes were now vulnerable. Shaking off a mental picture of himself as a vulture picking at a competitor’s bones, Ilya decided to strike while the iron was hot. After all, if you don’t play, you can’t win.

“When can you get them to me?”

Julia could almost hear the tumblers clicking into place as she made good on her recent threat. Yoshima was being violated in a similar way by several other strategically empowered factions, each of whom now owed a debt to the cold, opportunistic blonde. Yoshima’s drug routes, weapons trade, his interests in gambling and prostitution were all under siege thanks to her manipulation and encouragement. Handling this end of the agency’s business was proving much less difficult than she had anticipated; she felt like a chess prodigy discovering how many people fall for fool’s mate. With each deal, each victory, her own position was solidifying, the end potentials becoming greater than she had dared dream.

“Tonight. Twenty-three hundred hours, promptly. Be ready.”

As she leaned forward to cut the connection, Ilya shouted out one last question.

“JULIA! Who the hell are you?”

She paused then, remembering how Joshua Riggins once answered that question.

“As far as you’re concerned, I’m Santa Claus.”

Terminating the call as the wheezing sound of Kurzin’s laughter seeped from the speaker, she detached the microphone from her lapel and walked to the kitchen to check on Dan. Finding him squatting in front of the refrigerator, she leaned against the counter and waited for him to finish rummaging. He came up with a head of lettuce, a tomato, and a pack of turkey bacon.

At Julia’s curious expression, he explained, “She’s finally consented to eat something.”

“Good. I didn’t think her hunger strike would last long. She isn’t used to going without.”

“I’m not her personal chef, though. This has gotta stop,” Dan declared. “She knows where those files are. How long are you gonna let her play us like this?”

Having answered that question too many times already, the pale woman hung her head and sighed. Maybe Dan was right. Perhaps it was time to risk more invasive procedures, although if she could put it off just a little bit longer, it might not be necessary to do anything at all.

“If, and I do mean if she is faking memory loss, she is doing a better job of it than any hardened, conditioned operative I have ever questioned. Do you honestly think that spoiled little rich girl is capable of such clever obfuscation?”

“Yes,” Dan answered hotly, plunging a serrated kitchen knife into the lettuce head.

“Why? Why would she put herself through this? What does she get out of it?”

“She gets to fuck us all! It’s the only card she has, and she’s playing it against Yoshima and the agency!”

“You think she wants revenge?”

“Call it revenge, call it whatever you want. I think she enjoys the attention, the power that knowledge gives her,” he said as he popped two slices of wheat bread in the toaster. “I mean, look at me. I should be in there beating the living shit out of her, but instead, I’m making her a goddamned BLT!! This is what gets her off, Julia!”

Reaching out a hand and placing it firmly on his shoulder, she silently urged the tall, thin man to calm himself down to a reasonable level. “This won’t go on much longer. Either Diana or Yoshima will contact us soon, and we’ll find out for certain whether she’s on the level.”

“How you figure that?”

“Regardless of what she remembers about him, Angelia knows she is safer with us than with Yoshima. She did not want to be taken by his men. According to eyewitnesses, she fought hard to get away from them in Bonn, and they had her bound quite tightly in that cabin in Nagano. If threatened with recapture by him, she may crack.”

“And Diana?”

“That’s a bit trickier,” Julia said, patting him on the back and stepping away. “Diana once told me that the key to her surfacing unscathed was love.”

“But the girl hated Diana. She tried to -”

“I know what she did, Dan. But you also remember the setup, what she believed she saw Diana do.”

“Yeah,” he admitted grudgingly.

“She felt betrayed, hurt by someone she cared about and trusted. There is a very thin line between love and hate. Her feelings for Diana were intense enough that she felt compelled to kill. Those feelings might be enough to carry her through the re-emergence, to bring her out safely.”

“If she’s even under in the first place.”

“Correct.”

Shaking his head, Dan wished again that he were anywhere else in the world but here. If his hair were not so thin, he would have considered pulling it out in clumps just to vent his frustration. “So we just… wait for Starrett?”

“For now.”

“I really hate this shit. I mean, the whole thing just doesn’t sit right with me, waiting around to lure her into God knows what. We oughta leave Diana alone. She’s better off believing the girl dead.”

“We are leaving Diana alone. If she gets involved, it won’t be at our request,” she assured, aware that her promise rang hollow. Dan had drawn a bead on her intentions, and although he couldn’t pull the trigger and do anything about it, at least she knew where he stood. “Meanwhile, why don’t you go outside and get some air. Cool your jets, so to speak.”

“Right,” he agreed, abandoning preparation of the captive’s sandwich. “Let the bitch starve.”

Cracking a smile, Julia shoved at his back as he walked away. “I’ll finish this. Oh, by the way – did she ask for this food specifically?”

“Yeah. BLT on wheat toast. Why?”

“Nothing,” she answered quickly, keeping her suspicions to herself for the moment. “Go on outside.”

Her gray eyes flickered with suspicion as Julia pondered the puzzle of the girl’s lies. During more extensive questioning, several subtle inconsistencies had been noted, but she had no way of knowing how significant these slips were. Angelia covered well; nearly nine years in hiding will teach one how to lie, if nothing else. She was entertaining doubts about the assumption that the girl had been washed by Mangano. Perhaps the captive was biding her time, waiting for someone to rescue her again. The question plaguing her was an intriguing one: who was Angelia expecting? Joshua Riggins, maybe?

Riggins had made damned sure that the girl’s location remained secret, leaving nothing on paper about her relocation to Germany. The man was very good at keeping secrets, though Julia had her own ideas about why he kept this one alive in the first place. Angelia was, in her opinion, a failsafe insurance policy for dealing with both his own rebellious, blue-eyed prodigy and Hideo Yoshima. Riggins just didn’t live long enough to cash her in.

Still, Julia was certain that her patience with the prisoner would be rewarded. As it happened, she didn’t truly care whether the girl was another tragic victim of Mangano’s process or merely a skilled fibber. The files they sought were important to the agency, to Harry Mars and his humanitarian agenda, but not to Julia. The girl was a tool – her knowledge, an excuse to hold her and use her. Though Angelia might have fancied herself in a position to direct events, for every other player currently cast in this drama, she was merely a means to an end.

“And that end is my beginning,” Julia whispered, slicing open the tomato with a surgeon’s touch.
——————————————————————————–

Seven

“He… he killed her?” Charlotte asked, her voice edged with guilt over pushing Diana into the premature revelation. “Why?”

Diana shook her head – just a small jerk to the side, really – and bit her bottom lip. “Same reason he killed anybody, I guess. She was in the way of his plans, so he removed her.”

Charlie leaned heavily against the sofa arm and shifted her legs on Diana’s lap. She slipped back to a moment etched in her mind from that fateful evening at Marco Falcon’s mansion, and she heard Joshua Riggins speaking to her with venom lacing his tongue.

“She’s done this before, you know – rebelled, fought against her true nature. It didn’t work that time, either, and she nearly lost her life because some ignorant little strumpet convinced her that she was in love.”

* Christ… this was the woman he was talking about. He said in love, * Charlotte’s mind whispered.

Her left eye twitched and she felt her stomach tighten at the sudden comprehension that this girl had genuinely meant something to Diana, enough to motivate her to try and turn away from the agency. Although it was now the last thing she wanted to put herself or Diana through, she needed to hear more about this dead woman. Her part in this story had suddenly become very important.

“I’m sorry,” Charlotte began, “I shouldn’t have rushed that out of you.”

Diana shrugged away the concern, resting her hands on Charlie’s knees in an almost conscious attempt to anchor herself. “The book still turns out the same way, whether you read the last chapter first or not. It’s already been written.”

“Well, if I promise not to stop you again, will you tell me the middle?”

“I don’t know,” Diana said, straightening her back. “I… I have to go soon, but I don’t want to leave you alone. Teddy’s probably at the office. He can come over and stay with you until I get back.”

Glancing to the VCR clock, Charlie was surprised to see that less than twenty minutes had passed. “No, don’t go yet. It’s not even noon. You have time to finish this first. Please?”

“Charlie, it just gets worse from where I left off.”

“Hey,” Charlotte whispered, taking her hand and holding on loosely, “I won’t make you tell me if you don’t want to, but I still think it’s important to get this out in the open.”

Taking a long look into her lover’s eyes, Diana got the feeling she had already said too much. She saw the fine lines creasing Charlie’s brow and the drawn, tight set of her mouth, both signs of the masked anxiety and insecurity she knew the young woman to be feeling. “You don’t have to hear this. None of it makes any difference now, to us.”

“It makes a difference if we can’t talk about it,” Charlie claimed, lowering her head to stare at the floor as she spoke. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to spare me anything. I admit that it’s difficult to hear, but I haven’t been kidding myself. I knew there must have been… others… for you.”

Diana’s head snapped around and her hand tightened on Charlotte’s fingers until her grip was almost painful, her voice almost angry. “There is nobody else in the world for me. You must know that.”

Mustering a smile, the attorney squeezed the strong hand trapping her own. “I’ve bet my life on it. I’m not worried.”

“Good, because you have no reason to be. Do you still want to know the rest?”

“No,” Charlie said honestly, “but I believe I need to.”
——————————————————————————–

Nagano Revisited

Two days slipped away without significant event, and the time passed easily for everyone in the Nagano house since Yoshima was out of the country. The boys were both relaxed for once, and Angelia actually ate her meals in the dining room with everyone else. On the second night, Banana made decadent, enormous hamburgers and fat wedges of seasoned potato that could pass for uptown cousins of french fries. The tiny woman then swore them all to secrecy regarding the dietary indulgence. Everyone agreed that the grilled beef boulders stuffed with herb butter were far preferable to monkey’s brains anyday, despite Yoshima’s insistence on broadening their palates.

Sitting in a straight-backed maple chair at the dining room table, Diana split her attention between chatting with Gedde about his worship of Salvador Dali and catching the sidelong glances and smirks Angelia tossed her way when the conversation got a little too deep for her to stomach.

“I think he was afraid of nuclear war,” Gedde observed, struggling to speak without showing his food, “and that is what the painting was about – the persistence of fear. Once something scares you so badly you think the world will end, it changes how everything in that world looks to you.”

“So his memories of fear distort perception of his surroundings?” Diana prompted, marveling quietly at the child’s ferocious intellect.

“Right. That’s why everything’s all warpy and the horizon is so bleak,” the boy explained. “After the fear hurts you, everything changes. The memory never goes away.”

Gedde’s smile became broad and infectious as he noticed his brother and Angelia staring at him with impatient frowns and Diana regarding him with twinkling eyes. The child clearly loved the attention. He never got the chance to talk about art with anyone except his teachers in London, and his father discouraged his single-minded pursuit of knowledge on the subject. Yoshima made it plain that devoting too much time to such frivalous studies was folly, since he would be going into the family business as soon as he was grown – despite the younger boy’s distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Yukio was the one who worshiped his father and longed to walk in his shadow. Gedde dreamed of traveling the world and painting everything he saw until he grew old and died peacefully, with a brush in his hand and a sunset warming his wrinkled face. Diana liked the kid, and it was plain from the way she picked on him (only when she thought no one could see) that Angelia did, too.

Since their late-night conversation in the kitchen, Diana had made a point of watching the girl at every opportunity. She found herself growing curious about the young woman’s obvious hatred of Yoshima and her ambivalent relationship with her brothers. She searched through Riggins’ intel reports and found only scant information about Angelia, but dismissed the dearth of reseach as an oversight or a symptom of time constraints during preparation. In her daily missives to the agency, she asked for more background on the family, specifically Angelia. Her requests were never answered, nor was her part in the mission clarified. She told herself to be patient, but it was getting harder by the day, just waiting, waiting, waiting… Diana was helplessly, indescribably bored.

That night, her tummy full of meat and potatoes, Diana settled on the queen-size bed in her suite for an evening of studying encoded transcripts of Yoshima’s takeover proposal for a division of Matsuda Group. For whatever reason, the fates decided to toss those plans in the bin and plotted a new course for Diana; a path that would lead her close to paradise, but even closer to ruin.

A sharp ticking against her window drew her attention away from the dull perusal of paperwork. She put on a robe and parted the drapes, immediately seeing a faint shimmer of glossy black near the bushes under her window. Sliding the glass panel up, she craned her head out and peered into the night – just in time to catch a tossed M&M right on her cheek. She was startled up and back by the impact, and smashed her noggin hard on the window frame.

“Motherfuck…” she muttered under her breath.

“Hey! Get dressed,” a voice urged, brimming with stifled laughter. Angelia. “Meet me in the garage.”

“The guards will see me!” Diana objected, rubbing the new bump on her skull.

“They’re in the kitchen, pigging out on leftovers! Hurry up and let’s bolt!”

Diana closed the window and immediately moved to her closet for jeans and a sweater, not even considering the consequences of her actions. She was already caught up, smiling through the rush that always came from breaking the rules. Memories of sneaking out late at night to get in trouble with Ethan came back with a vengeance, and she suddenly realized why she was willing to play along with the young woman’s game.

In the agency, she had only associates, teachers and superiors. On missions, she had targets, partners, contacts, and the occasional jerk who tried to get in her pants. This was the extent of her world, and there was no room in it for a personal life or friends. Angelia was presenting an opportunity for something she sorely missed – this was the first time anyone had attempted to befriend her in over two years… and it felt pretty damned good.
——————————————————————————–

Angelia angled her skis to the side and shushed to a sudden stop near the bottom of a steep hill. Diana did the same, halting a few feet behind. The moon was almost full, and pure white light washed across their path, illuminating large, dense clusters of trees just ahead. Diana could make out wisps of smoky distortion dancing through the high limbs.

“What’s down there?” she asked, watching as Angelia bent to undo the catch on her ski boots.

“My hideout,” the girl answered, white teeth gleaming in a quirky grin. Soon, the expensive fiberglass skis were detached from their feet, and the women trudged downhill through the snow. As they reached the border of trees along the bottom, Angelia turned around and stopped Diana in her tracks.

“Before I show you, you must swear to me that you won’t tell anyone about this place – especially not Hideous. He can’t know about it. Ever.”

Quieted by the serious timbre of her guide’s voice, Diana nodded and said simply, “I promise.”

“Even if he hauls out the pliers and bamboo shoots?”

“Huh?” Diana lifted both eyebrows in what she hoped was a fair approximation of shock.

Angelia smirked at the naive governess, remembering that a large portion of the world neither knew nor cared what Yoshima did for a living. “Nevermind. C’mon.” She offered her hand to help Diana through the thicket, and they walked in silence for several minutes, dodging branches and roots in the dark. Just as she had boasted, the eastern beauty never tripped once. A clearing was barely visible ahead, and Diana saw more of the ghostly tendrils drifting through the trees. As they finally stepped free of the brush, the agent had to catch her breath at the sight she beheld.

Lush green boughs formed a wide, rough circle around two steaming pools of glistening, clear water. One spanned perhaps twenty feet in diameter, the other looked about half that size. The moon angled across the high rim of trees, and she could see pale stones covered in mossy carpets of green and yellow ringing the edges of the water like soft jewels. Delicate sounds of burbling, moving fluid and wind singing through tree tops crept under the staccato chatter of birds and other animals as they passed the word that humans were present in their secret paradise.

“Nice, huh?” Angelia understated, removing her backpack and flopping onto the ground, legs folded up in a frightful display of flexibility. Soon, she was digging out several thick candles housed in tall glass jars.

“It’s amazing,” Diana breathed softly, not wanting to devalue the moment with fumbling words as she dropped to her knees on mossy black soil dotted with patches of thin snow. She hadn’t ever seen anything like this before, except in wrinkled, torn copies of National Geographic at the dentist’s office. The grind and flick of a lighter brought her back to earth, and she watched as her host lit candles, carefully shielding the flame until each glowed inside the safety of its container.

“Natural hot springs pop up in the damndest places all over Japan’s mountain ranges,” Angelia explained. “This one’s home to a rowdy bunch of snow monkeys. We might see a few if they get brave enough to come look at us. Hopefully, they’re not in the mood to throw shit tonight.”

Diana did a double take to indicate that she wasn’t up for fecal dodge ball, but Angelia just grinned until her guest smiled back and changed the subject to less messy matters.

“How did you find this place? Happy accident?”

“Sorta,” the girl agreed, her dark eyes warmed by candleglow and the company of someone who didn’t seem to have an ulterior motive for being with her. “I wandered around a lot the first time we came here, back when my mother was still with us. I couldn’t stay in that house with him there all the time, so I took up skiing and hiking and intermediate guard-ditching. Stumbled onto this place one night. Seren-fuckin-dipity, I guess.”

“Yoshima really isn’t your natural father?” Diana asked, curious for first-hand information.

“Hell, no. He isn’t my natural anything,” she said dismissively, waving a hand in passionate denial. That’s when Diana saw it – a pale ridge of scar tissue running lengthwise along Angelia’s wrist. Without being told or shown, she knew there would be an identical match on the other arm.

* Suicide attempt. Looks to be several years old… * Her thoughts were interrupted as Angelia continued her tale. She knew better than to bring up the scars, but her curiosity was piqued.

“He married my mother for her family connections. She went nuts just after Gedde was born, and her loving husband had her committed. Acute scizophrenia, his shrinks say. Hideous took over as my guardian and has delighted in keeping me under his thumb ever since.”

“Sorry about your mother,” Diana offered sincerely. “That must have been rough.”

“I’m dealing,” she responded, staring numbly at the ground. “So, how ’bout you, Missy Starrett?”

“Diana. How about me what?”

“Tell me about your life – your mommy for starters.” Angelia perked up instantly, eager to get the focus off herself and onto the virtual stranger sitting before her, the woman she wanted to know better. “Tell me nice things. Tell me she never forgets to send you birthday cards, even when you’re fighting, that she takes you to lunch at the Russian Tea Room whenever you’re in the city. Tell me that she’s just as beautiful as you, only streaked with gray and wider around the hips. Tell me she has those same surpassingly blue eyes trapped behind bifocals and silver Liz Claiborne frames.”

“Gee whiz,” Diana demured, trying not to dwell on the compliments couched in the diatribe. She realized that this girl had somehow obtained and read her Riggins-concocted background file – very carefully. Any more displays of ingenuity of this caliber and she might consider getting nervous. “You seem to know a lot about me already. What else you got?”

“Well, your pedigree is positively covered in ivy, you bright girl. Sarah Lawrence. Yale. Presented your paper on the psychology of childhood rape victims at some big deal national conference when you were twenty-two. Looked like you were headed toward a promising career working with troubled kids when, all of a sudden, you bailed. Started jaunting around the world, working as a private teacher and counselor for little colored children.”

Narrowed azure eyes greeted this characterization. “Did you say ‘little colored children?'”

“Well, mostly us yellow ones, because we have money,” she teased, pursing her lips in understanding. “Your family doesn’t understand why you feel the need to roam all over creation, but they have decided to find your career choice “charming” and let you pursue it without hassling you. Before this assignment, you were in Singpore for a while, then Hong Kong. You didn’t even bother to go home between jobs before coming here. Looks to me like you’re avoiding static from the homefront, but I could be wrong.”

Angelia finally paused for a breath and shifted her legs from the cramped lotus position, vigorously rubbing her kneecaps. “Sooo, that about covers my Jean Dixon psychic routine. How’d I do?”

“Wow.” Diana was truly impressed at the inferences Angelia made from Riggins’ skeletal cover story. The girl took the ball and ran on many counts, mostly in the right direction. Her improvised history sounded as authentic as any the agency had formally issued. “Are you always this nosy about new people?”

“Usually, no. Most times, I couldn’t care less.”

“I’m flattered you find me worthy of attention,” Diana said, totally straight-faced.

Angelia broke out a wide, easy grin. “You should be. Researching you is the first time I’ve gotten off my lazy ass to do anything in weeks. If you hadn’t shown up, I’d probably be in a boredom-induced coma by now.”

“Glad to be of service,” the tall woman said graciously. “So bringing me here is payback or something?”

“Or something,” Angelia murmured vaguely, leaning over to rifle through her backpack again.

Kneeling on damp ground only a few feet away, Diana noticed how the girl’s long, thick hair soaked in moonlight, absorbing the white and transforming it to an onyx shimmer. It wasn’t the first time she noticed how lovely this sloe-eyed young woman was, but it was the only time she looked on her openly, with the danger of being busted. She caught herself only after Angelia glanced up and smiled, but was left wondering why she was staring in the first place. Truthfully, she didn’t know… yet.

“I brought potent potables,” the young woman announced, producing a bottle of dark wine from her pack. “Swiped it from the cellar this morning. Should be pretty good – it’s nearly sixty years old.”

“Sixty… Jesus! You’re gonna get in trouble if he misses that.”

“Certainly won’t be the first time,” claimed the thief, winking saucily. “Hope this turns out to be worth the risk.”

Diana incorrectly assumed that she meant stealing the antique Cabernet. Angelia took a corkscrew from her pack and opened the wine with an expert economy of motion. Her eyes fluttered shut as she brought the bottle to her lips and took a long, deep pull, revealing a hunger for the liquid burn that belied her youthful, wholesome looks. She passed the wine to her guest, who politely took a shallow sip and was amazed to find that such an expensive vintage didn’t taste that much different from the gallons of Paul Masson sold at grocery stores in the Bronx.

Once the bottle was returned, Angelia crawled over and settled it among the candles around the lip of the pool. She then did something that stunned Diana into another fit of quiet – she stood up and started taking off her clothes. Boots, coat, sweater, pants, and socks all fell in a pile atop her nylon rucksack until she stood with nothing but her matching black skivvies to guard her against the frigid mountain air.

“Are you crazy?!?” Diana asked, when she was finally able to speak. It was almost pointless trying to keep her eyes from raking harshly over the smooth white flesh revealed to her by candles and moon. “You’ll catch your death!”

Turning to face the tall woman still kneeling near the trees, Angelia placed both hands on narrow hips and frowned her disapproval of such maternal advice. “I’m not afraid of a little cold… or a little heat, for that matter.”

Keeping her eyes locked on two shining points of blue, her hands shifted and disappeared behind her back, unhooking her bra. She straightened her arms and let the delicate undergarment slip down to her hands, revealing small, firm breasts capped with tight, dark nipples. Noting with barely restrained glee that Diana was still watching, she let the bra drop to the ground and looped both thumbs through the waistband of her panties.

“You shouldn’t be afraid, either,” she said pointedly, bending at the waist and sliding the briefs down to her ankles, then straightening her back to stand naked before the American governess. “As you once said, you’re a pretty big girl. I think you could handle it.” Lifting one foot, her underwear dangling from the toes, she kicked up and sent the garment flying into Diana’s lap, then turned her back and waded into the steaming water.

Diana was frozen to the ground, unable to swallow, unable to move her eyes from the young woman’s retreating back. Her heart was beating just a little too fast, her breath coming a little too shallow, and she finally admitted to herself what was really happening here. She wasn’t being befriended, as she had first thought or hoped. She was being seduced.

A flurry of questions, truths and doubts clamored for her attention, and Diana’s head was suddenly full of noise.

* Jesus, Mary and Joseph. A nineteen year-old. A nineteen year-old female, let’s not forget. Can’t overlook that fact, can we? Would I even know what to do for her? To her? Shit. What the hell does she want with me? Lonely? Needy? Maybe just horny… hey, she’s a kid. A fucking kid, just like I was… before. Two years ago. Seems like so much longer that that, like a whole other lifetime. A safer one, where I might have tried something like this myself, if I’d had the guts. *

“Are you coming?” a voice called, slipping through the mist hanging over the pool. It was a simple invitation to come and play; no recriminations, no guilt, no strings.

* I’m an adult, damn it! So is she, technically speaking. And she’s so… so beautiful. Almost like one of those china dolls, with her lips, face, all so perfect. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t, is there? Riggins didn’t say not to…*

When the voice called again, singing her name low and long like a chorus of sirens, Diana Starrett found she hadn’t the slightest inclination to fight it. It felt so good just to give in, to tell herself “yes,” to let go and follow a basic instinct. She had nearly forgotten the low wonders of illicit physical sensation revealed when the libido hijacks the body and tells the brain to piss off.

She recalled high school parking lot makeout sessions with a leather jacketed slick named Mickey. Wearing nothing beneath her skirt, straddling his bulging lap as he drove his Harley way too fast, feeling him harden and rise inside her as the powerful engine revved and vibrated and wind tore at her back… but all that was before. Before that day at the warehouse, when those men had touched her and died for it. When Ethan had died.

Two years of therapy and anger channeling in the agency had helped her through the pain, but there had been no one since, no one close enough, safe enough, or enticing enough to touch, not that she had time to miss it much. Maybe enough time had passed, maybe she was ready to try again.

“Befriended. Sheesh,” Diana said to herself, wondering why it had taken being hit over the head for her to pick up on Angelia’s true intentions. Perhaps it had simply been wishful thinking.

It wasn’t even debatable which she missed more – friendship or sex. Friendship would win by a landslide. At that particular moment in time, however, she was willing to settle for the latter. In an ideal relationship, one could find both, but Diana knew she’d never get that lucky. Shucking her clothes as if they were constricting armor, she went into the water, naked and slow, without knowing how incredibly vulnerable she would soon become.

A cool breeze blew through the trees and stirred the steam. She couldn’t see where she was going, so her world became about sensation, about cold and heat and blind, aching need. Angelia’s form on the far side of the pool was blurry at best, but she could feel something pulling at her, a hot grip on her lower spine, tugging her body across the distance.

She didn’t expect the water to be so toasty, even though this was clearly the cooler of the two pools. The second, smaller pool hissed steam from jets hidden in creased rock, and could probably cook lobster in the shell. Diana waded in gradually, allowing the heat to roast her toes, lick behind her knees and braise her thighs.

Tiny bubbles tickled over her flesh, bringing it to life like a million grazing kisses. When this living heat hit the swelling skin at the juncture of her legs, she nearly turned around and ran back up the mountain. She wasn’t familiar with this kind of advanced anticipation, this quickening pulse beating out a primal tattoo inside her skin. It scared her a little, but not enough to stop her.

“Watch out for the slope,” came a low whisper through the fog. “The bottom dips down, then rises again.”

Diana kept moving until she slipped down into a smooth stone depression, the water lapping up suddenly to cover her breasts with liquid palms, then dropping away to leave them bare. She hadn’t even noticed as her own nipples contracted at first exposure to the cold air, but she felt them jump and strain as the frigid air teased them anew, as if they were reaching out for something, some contact.

“Keep coming. Dead ahead,” Angelia guided, piloting her forth like a harbormaster, her voice as soft and hot as the rising steam. She was close, so close. “Almost there, almost…”

Something brushed against her calf, and Diana stopped moving. Stopped breathing. And waited to feel it again. A tender touch, the instep of a small foot hooking around her leg, pulling her forward. One step, then two, and another before her sight was restored, and she saw slitted black eyes staring through the mist.

Both her legs were corralled and tugged forward as Angelia’s flushed face swam out of the dark. She wore a dim, sultry smile, her arms flung behind her head and grasping a length of stone as her lower body floated and swayed free beneath the pool’s surface. She had both legs wrapped around Diana’s thighs and dragged the lax loop up to her waist, then clenched tight to close the trap.

“Gotcha now,” Angelia observed, feeling no resistance from the tall woman as she surged up and pressed her sex against a hard length of stomach.

“Ohmygod,” Diana gasped, freezing still as a statue when the soft folds of flesh collided with her abdomen. She had not anticipated having such a strong reaction – but then, this was a whole different ballgame from the one she’d played with men. Already, she could tell that the rules would be different, so she resolved to pay attention to every detail, starting with the sweet crush of velvet and tickling curls grinding lazily against her torso.

Even submerged in hot water, she could feel thick wetness and formidable heat seeping from the young woman’s body, clinging to her and marking her skin. Against her will, she shuddered and closed her eyes as it was committed to memory. Slim fingers curled around Diana’s shoulders as her seducer pulled closer, slowly shrinking the space between their bodies until there was none. Angelia nuzzled against her neck, burrowed into her hair and breathed anxious words in a waiting ear.

“You having any second thoughts?”

“Uh… that implies that I had first thoughts,” Diana managed to mutter as impossibly light kisses peppered her throat.

Open mouthed, spoken against the skin, “Say the word and I’ll stop.”

“Mmm hmm…”

Gentle suction just below an ear. “I’m taking that as consent, okay?”

“Mmm hmm…”

“Diana?”

It was the first time she had called her by name, and Diana took a moment to recover as a shiver crawled down her back. “Hmm?”

“Are your arms broken?”

“Huh?” Blue eyes flashed open, focusing on bits of stone and moss peeking around a shade of wet black hair. Through a pleasantly dizzy haze, she realized her arms hung loose at her sides, fingers flexing underwater. “Uh, no.”

“Then lift them up… and put your hands on me.”

* Sweet mother… better get this out of the way now. * “I’ve never… with a woman, I mean.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Angelia whispered, smoothing fine hair away from Diana’s forehead.

“But, I’m not sure what -”

“Diana, do you want to touch me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to kiss me?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anywhere you would object to touching or kissing me?”

The pointed phrasing made the tall woman flush all over again. “Absolutely not.”

“Well, then.” Angelia drew back, looked deeply into sapphire eyes swarming with desire, and she grinned sweetly. “I think this will work out just fine. You can do whatever you want with me… just promise you’ll do it soon.”

Diana felt a shy grin creep out, and she leaned her face against the smooth palm floating beside her cheek, then turned and kissed the center with her eyes closed. Slowly finding her bravery, she lifted her hands and stroked the tops of slender thighs squeezing on either side of her hips. The softness of pliant skin under her fingers was intoxicating, and she slid over it repeatedly to memorize the texture, folding up the memory of silken flesh and storing it like a coveted swatch of fabric.

“You have nice hands,” Angelia noted as the rubbing became deeper, harder. “Very strong. Long, tapered fingers, like a piano player. Do you play piano?”

“No,” Diana sighed. Her hands rounded the hairpin curve of hips and found the young woman’s round, firm buttocks, stroking and caressing with a heightened intensity as Angelia clenched them tight and again drove her sex against the stone pillar of Diana’s stomach.

“That’s too… b-b-bad.” Her breathing grew heavier as those slim fingers grazed the cleft of her ass. “Hands like that shouldn’t go to waste.”

“They won’t,” Diana promised, wrapping one arm around the girl’s tiny waist and pulling her up higher as her other hand slid down the cleft with agonizing slowness and cupped her opening. Something inside the agent shifted as she felt delicate skin twitch against her fingers, and she blinked away a hateful image of her own naked, twisted body covered in blood, lying on a filthy mattress.

* Don’t… * she told herself, * don’t go back there now. Stay here. Stay here. *

She focused hard on Angelia, trying to ground herself in reality, in the now… a beautiful young woman in her arms, mouth open, begging with her eyes. Diana felt the shift coming again and knew she had to do something to stop it. She wasn’t going back there again. Ever.

Face to face, eye to eye, with nothing between them but rising steam, she drove three fingers inside the girl and crushed their mouths together in a violent, empty kiss that split her bottom lip in two places. A tongue rushed into her bleeding mouth, and she instantly bit down, trapping it as her fingers twisted inside tight walls, searching the girl’s womb for something important, something she had lost and was suddenly desperate to get back. She lost herself in the quest, welcomed the oblivion.

Angelia pushed her face hard against Diana’s and stretched her tongue out further, curling the tip to touch the roof of the mouth which imprisoned it. Unable to remain passive, she stroked it along the inner skin and over the sharp ridges of teeth until her jailer loosened her grip and allowed free access to her mouth, which she exploited immediately.

Matching the thrusts of her tongue with those of Diana’s pistoning hand, she was suspended in the sexual purgatory between heaven and hell for an undefined slice of eternity, until she felt herself tighten, heat up from the inside, and explode with a scream muffled by bloody lips. She spasmed out a thousand little deaths, rubbed herself raw against the ridged abdomen of her new lover, and moaned loud and long without shame or remorse… because this was how it felt to be alive.

Diana slowed her hand after she felt the girl come, regaining a small measure of sanity and awareness as tremors jolted the small body in her arms. A steady, strong pulse beat against her chest where a small breast nested atop her own, and she could feel an echo of that beat against her fingers, still trapped by clutching muscles sheathed in slick velvet. She was vaguely aware of something inside her mouth, something thick and wet and moving, something that tasted strangely familiar…

Shocked by the realization that blood had been drawn, she jerked her head back and abruptly pulled her fingers free, bringing both hands up to Angelia’s confused face.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked, loosening her legs and standing them for the first time in what felt like years. She took Diana’s hands in her own and held them tight.

“Your face, mouth. There’s blood,” Diana said softly, shamed to the point of blushing. “I’m so sorry if I hurt you. I just -”

“It’s your blood,” Angelia interrupted, scooping up a handful of water and rinsing traces of crimson from her face. “See? I’m okay. Better than okay, really.”

“Mine?” Diana ran her tongue experimentally over her lower lip and found two small cuts. “Oh. Shit. Didn’t even feel that.”

“Guess not. You were sort of… out there for a minute.”

“You’re sure I didn’t hurt you… anywhere?”

Angelia brought the hand she still held to her lips and kissed the fingers, still glistening with heavy moisture. “God, no. You were a little intense, a little rough. But I like that.”

Diana tried to say something, but no words would come. Her relief at having not caused Angelia harm had barely ebbed when a fresh wave of desire washed over her, pulling her out to sea again.

The eastern beauty closed the gap between them with one step and brushed Diana’s soaked fingers across her wounded mouth, painting a trail across the bleeding lip with the remains of her arousal. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this wet before. I can still feel these fingers, moving inside me.”

On impulse, Diana opened her mouth and drew her own fingers inside, closing her eyes at her first taste of a woman’s passion. It was nothing like what she had expected, combining salt and sweet in a flavor that instantly ignited an undeniable craving for more. Before she knew how it happened, her hands were wrapped around the girl’s hips, lifting her up and almost out of the water and pressing her back against the stone rim of the pool.

“Wha-ohchristyes…” was all Angelia managed to get out before she realized what was happening.

Diana wedged one shoulder between her lover’s thighs and spread them wide, then eased a leg over each shoulder and moved both hands around to support the girl’s back. Once in position to take what she wanted, she found herself hesitant and unsure. This was an entirely different proposition from anything she had attempted before. She knew what felt good to her, but she also knew that every woman’s bell rings at a different pitch.

* Let’s hope some things are universal, * she prayed silently, edging closer to the cloaked apex of the girl’s thighs. She ran her nose along the top of the soft, dark pubis, inhaling the rich scent in a deep, grinding breath. A slow, firm kiss landed on fragile pink skin, and Angelia shuddered and pushed against the back of her lover’s head, urging her to exert more force. That was all the encouragement Diana needed. Her tongue shot out and drove between the folds like an invading army, taking everything the new territory had to offer and trampling all resistance into glittering dust.

This time, she kept herself in the moment without even trying, so absorbed in the act that no fear, no distortion or fugue was allowed. She could hear every moan and gasp and profane exclamation, feel every push and tug of small hands in her hair, and taste every precious drop of nectar wrung from the sweetly weeping womb. She fed on the reality of making love for the first time in years, perhaps for the first time in her life. The palpable joy she ingested while feeding on the young woman nourished her, made her feel stronger inside, healed something she didn’t know was still hurt.

As a fluid rush of heat built inside her, she knew she was lost, that she would need this again and again until the end of her days and beyond. Angelia tightened around her tongue and shouted her name when the tide rose too high and crested the banks, pouring out waves of perfection into her lover’s hungry mouth until Diana felt the same irrepressible release burst from her own body and turn in on itself, a dying star spawning a supernova.

Time folded in on itself as the women slipped out of their bodies and raced around hyperspace, trying to figure out how the universe had flipped over like a pancake on God’s griddle in the course of only a few short minutes. Sex wasn’t supposed to feel like this, like the world had ended and you were still standing, stronger than before the blast, standing beside the only other survivor and certain you were in good company. When they came back and donned their skins, they both knew something had changed; how and why were totally irrelevant.

Angelia found herself wrapped in Diana’s embrace, sobbing silently as her tears soaked the tall woman’s throat. She didn’t know why her soul had picked this moment to let go of the pain held so close to her heart, only that it felt like the right thing to do, like the only moment when she could survive admitting the truth. When she found her voice, the words came out as easily as the tears.

“He’s been fucking me since I was eleven years old.”

Diana heard the admission, felt the girl start to shake. She tightened her arms around the slight body and nuzzled her hair, listening with an empathic ache in her chest.

“I tried to stop him at first, but he hit me so hard… I passed out. When I woke up, he was gone and there was blood all over my bed. I couldn’t walk for two days. I told my mother about it, but she didn’t believe me at first. She caught him in my room one night, on top of me. Naked. She lost it, tried to kill him with a paring knife. That’s when he had her committed.”

“I’m sorry,” Diana whispered.

“He told me it was my fault. He said he wanted her out of the way so we could be together more, that if I let him do what he wanted, he wouldn’t need to hurt the boys.”

“Son of a bitch. He hasn’t… since I’ve been here, has he?”

Angelia shook her head. “He’s busy with work, thankfully.”

“Has he touched the boys?”

“I don’t think so, although if they’re anything like I was, they’ve learned to lie and cover for him. I was so scared of him, I would have said anything just to keep him from hurting me. I tried to run away, but he always finds me. I even tried to… ” she trailed off and edged away, just enough to bring her hand between their bodies. “See this?” she asked, displaying her scarred wrists. “I was fourteen. Straight razor in a hotel bathroom. Fucking housekeeper found me and called 911.”

Lost in a storm of anger and sorrow, Diana could only bring the girl’s wrist to her lips and kiss her scar, wishing she could balm the other wounds somehow. “It’s not right. He can’t get away with it.”

Snorting softly, Angelia knew that wasn’t true. “You don’t know who he is, Diana. He can get away with anything, even murder. He has before. Nobody can stop him.”

“I will,” Diana stated, certain that she could kill him and make it look like an accident. Riggins would never have to know about any of this.

Angelia grinned and more tears began to flow as she heard someone actually offer to protect her. Only her mother had tried that, and she was destroyed for it. For the foolish attempt at chivalry, the governess deserved a kiss and got one, soft and warm and mindful of her split lip.

“As much as I appreciate the offer, it isn’t necessary,” she said, sniffling. “I have a plan to get out of here and keep him off my back permanently. It’s risky, but if it works, I’ll be off the hook and he’ll be too jammed up to even think about hurting Gedde or Yukio.”

The agent inside Diana perked up upon hearing of a plan. “Can you tell me?”

“Not yet. Still in the planning stages, but if I get it off the ground…”

“You can count on me to help. However I can.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not get you involved. If this goes bad, he’s gonna come down hard on me.”

Diana Starrett’s eyes hardened and gleamed with a dark light, and she knew that she couldn’t let that happen. “He won’t hurt you anymore, Angelia. No matter what else I’m supposed to be doing here, protecting you just became my first priority. I know how much it hurts, but it’s over. No more.”

Skeptical brows rose and knit as she heard the wealthy young Manhattanite governess speak as if from personal knowledge. “You know, huh? Diana, studying rape and experiencing it are not the same thing. No senior thesis, no matter how well-respected, can put you where I was. Where I am.”

All at once, Riggins’ cover story for her made sense, and she understood why he had chosen the background she was given. It also meant that the director knew about Yoshima’s abuse of his step daughter. What Diana didn’t understand yet was why he had withheld that information from her and sent her in blind. That was something to think about later. Right then, she had something far more important to deal with.

“I said I know because it happened to me.” Diana spoke carefully, in measured tones revealing nothing but bare truth. “I was your age. Nineteen. A group of men jumped me and raped me, left me for dead on a warehouse floor. I walked home, covered in blood, completely numb inside. Stayed that way for a long time.”

Angelia’s mouth hung open as she fumbled through a series of inadequate apologies. “I… I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to make you… I’m sorry. I’m so fucking stupid sometimes.”

“Don’t say that. You were right – anyone who hasn’t been there doesn’t know, and they shouldn’t. It’s a bad wisdom, one I wish you didn’t have.”

As if by mutual consent and need, they embraced again, holding on until the silence pressed down like a weight. There was so much to say, so many questions.

“You said you felt dead inside for a long time,” Angelia whispered against her confidante’s chest, “when did that change? When did you stop feeling numb?”

“About five minutes ago.”

“Me, too.”
——————————————————————————–

The moon was high when they finally left the pool and started the slow trek back up the mountain, hand in pruney hand. Ski gear was replaced in the garage in the exact order Angelia had found it, so as to provoke no suspicion from the meticulous Yoshima.

The house was dark and no one was in the kitchen, so they snuck through that entrance and spent long moments saying goodnight and promising to find time for each other tomorrow. When at last they agreed to retire to their respective rooms, quiet steps led them into the darkened main room where a fire burned low in the hearth.

Diana had just set foot on the bottom stair when the lights blazed up and they saw Hideo Yoshima standing silent in the foyer, a stern expression masking his furious anger.

“Miss Starrett, you may go to your room,” he decreed condescendingly, “Angelia. I wish to speak with you in private.”

The girl stood frozen at the foot of the staircase, her eyes wide with terror. She knew that she was in dire straits, and wished that she hadn’t dragged the understanding governess into this. At least he wouldn’t blame Diana. She lowered her head and started forward to face her punishment, but was held fast by a strong hand falling on her shoulder and halting her steps.

“No. It ain’t going down that way tonight.”

The words were spoken by a stranger with a familiar face, but the face was the only thing Angelia recognized as Diana moved to stand between her and Yoshima. Her voice had dropped into a low, diamond-hard register, her posture resembled nothing quite so much as a coiled cobra ready to strike. One hand rested reassuringly on Angelia’s shoulder. The other was curled into a fist.

“Mister Yoshima, we need to talk.”

Eight

On a peaceful Saturday in July, as sun worshipers and sweaty citizens played volleyball in the sand and encouraged the onset of melanoma, the occupants of the beach house at 1414 Sepulveda Drive in San Diego were crammed together in two back bedrooms, busily loading clips of armor-piercing ammunition into automatic pistols and sub machine guns in preparation for a raid.

The men were a score in number, all decked out in brazenly conspicuous black suits, all prepared to kill or die on this summer day at the command of Hideo Yoshima – who, at that moment, was in the living room clasping an oxygen mask over his mouth in an effort to cease hyperventilating.

He had lost his breath as soon as he was informed of the shipments seized at Nagoya, and had not fully regained himself since. In an impressive display of will, he gasped out commands to his son to prepare the men for retaliation, and continued spewing invective between labored breaths.

“Bitch… <wheeze, inhale> dies… <wheeze, inhale> today! ”

Yoshima’s son stood by his right hand, leaning over the chair and checking the oxygen gauge on the small green metal tank. He was concerned over the ill man’s unhealthy penchant for anger, but knew that it was unavoidable under the circumstances. His father had every right to be furious.

“Kill her… <wheeze, inhale> bring me her head. I want her head! <wheeze, wheeze, inhale>”

The young man nodded gravely. “I will take it myself, when we find where she is hiding.”

“When will we know? <wheeze, inhale>”

“Before sundown. Our source in her agency has confirmed that she only has one man assigned to her. They have promised to deliver the list of area safe houses within a few hours,” he explained. “Father, I feel we should keep most of the men here with you, in case Diana Starrett should arrive early.”

“No.”

“But you will be in danger-”

“NO!” Yoshima raised his voice only slightly, but it was enough to make his son cower and lower his eyes. The older man was finally regaining his breath. He dropped the plastic mask into his lap and sat up straight in his chair. “She will not come here to harm me, only to question my purposes. We will talk and she will learn the consequences of refusal.”

“Still, you must have protection.”

“Take ten with you, leave ten here. That will be enough. Do the men understand their orders?”

“If Angelia is present, bring her back. Everyone else in the house dies.”

“And you will bring me the head of the whore.”

“Yes.”

Yoshima closed his eyes and sighed. Waiting for vengeance was not his strong suit, but he could manage to last a few more hours if he knew that his mantle would sport Julia’s skull as a trophy. The woman had defiled his family’s ceremonial weapon, abducted Angelia, and set in motion the ruination of his business. It was no longer enough that she die, she must die badly. And soon.

“Take my sword. Use it on her. The weapon must be reminded of its true master.”

Hesitating, the young man reflected on the unexpected request. He had not been allowed to touch the katana as a child. Now, as a man, he would use it to vindicate his father and slay his enemy. He put aside his fearful memories of that sword in the hands of a blue-eyed madwoman, and bowed.

“As you wish.”

Yoshima watched with a detached interest as his son crossed the room and reverently took the ivory and steel weapon from its display case, knowing on some level what it meant to the boy to be trusted with the heirloom. His emotions were not stirred, he remained cold and unmoved. He felt only that it would provide some additional motivation for success, and his son would need that in order to have any chance of taking the blonde bitch in combat.

This Julia was as cruelly efficient a killer as he had ever known, if her recent butchery of his men in Nagano was any example. As effective as any… save perhaps one. The one he would meet again in this house. The one who cost him his dream of a legitimate empire, the one who poisoned two of his children against him and left him with only one son. The one who now unknowingly held his precious life in her bloody hands.

“She will remember,” Yoshima whispered to the ghosts he felt swirling like an icy mist around his feet, those who wished to pull him down to hell before he was ready, “and she will atone.”
——————————————————————————–

Charlotte Browning was tense and white-knuckled, waiting for the proverbial ass to be kicked as Diana recounted her threatening words to the abusive Yakuza boss. In spite of herself, she felt sorry for this Angelia, sorry enough to put aside her resentment and hope that some retribution was taken for the pain she suffered at the hands of her step-father. As if sensing her eagerness, Diana chose precisely that moment to stop and ask,

“Do you still want me to go on?”

The attorney scrunched up her face in disbelief and drawled out, “Yeeeess, III doooo. What did you do to him?!? I assume that’s when the trouble started.”

“After my macho intervention and Eastwood-style threat, you mean?”

Diana said this without humor, as if she were looking on herself in the third person and mocking a foolish act. Charlotte didn’t quite see it that way and took umbrage.

“I don’t think you were being macho at all. You have a strong instinct to protect people you care about. You identified with what she’d been through and wanted to keep her from being hurt again. That makes perfect sense to me, Clint.”

A fragment of a smile crossed Diana’s face as Charlie patted her hand and stroked a thumb along the top of her wrist. She still felt like a world class idiot, but that was due to the unerring clarity of hindsight. Nine years ago, she was just as sure as Charlie that she was doing the right thing.

“I could have blown the whole mission right there, you know. Whatever Riggins had planned for me would have gone out the window. Totally fucked up everything.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No, I didn’t actually fuck everything up until later.”

“Jesus, Diana! If you don’t hurry up and tell me what you did to that creep, I’m gonna have to hurt you myself,” she threatened, balling up a small fist backed by a half-smile. “You obviously didn’t kill him, judging by the red paint on our window.”

The blonde gestured toward the smeared pane, and Diana sighed raggedly upon seeing the ghoulish calligraphy. “That isn’t paint, Charlie. That’s blood.”

Charlotte’s mouth fell open, then twisted in disgust. “Ewwww.”

“It’s the way Yoshima sends messages to him enemies – writes notes in fresh blood. Stylish, eh?”

“This is a habit with him?”

“Mmm hmm. One of many twisted peccadillos.”

“And?” One hand waved in circles, urging further explanation.

“And…” Diana began just as the phone rang, startling both women with its sharp bleating.

“Don’t answer-” Charlotte jumped a little and shifted her legs as the tall woman sprang from the couch, nullifying her worried protest. “Shit.”

Diana was already standing at the table in the hall, staring down at the phone and answering machine as the second ring sounded. She drew in a deep breath and lifted the receiver, ready to hear almost anything. Her greeting was a firm, steady “Hello,” and she waited for trouble to answer back.

“Hey, hot stuff,” a woman’s low voice purred in her ear. “Whattaya say we ditch the shrimp and the bohunk and take a little sea cruise? Just moi et vous?”

Releasing a breath she didn’t know she was holding, Diana relaxed her shoulders and unclenched her fist. “Good afternoon to you, too, Emily.”

On the couch, Charlie pressed a hand to her chest and formed a relieved little ‘oh’ with her mouth.

“Seriously, Di, we don’t have anyone scheduled for the cruiser this weekend,” Emily continued, dispensing with the faux-flirting. “Grab Perry Mason and get down to the marina. We’ll tie her to a deck chair, strap one of those double beer hats with straws on her head, make her relax for once.”

Diana had to close her eyes and smile at that image, wondering if she would ever have the chance to see it come true. Upon reflection, it didn’t seem like a bad idea.

“Beg if you have to,” Emily insisted. “Luis doesn’t wanna go unless you guys come.”

“Hold on and lemme ask her.”

“Ask me what?” Charlotte inquired, getting off the couch and belatedly realizing that her left foot was asleep.

“They want to take the big boat out today. I think you should go with them, stay the night.”

Hobbling over to Diana’s side, the young woman seemed offended at the notion. “Without you? No way. I’m not going anywhere until this deal here is worked out,” she said, waving again at the reddened window.

“Charlie, you’d be a hell of a lot safer out in the middle of the ocean than sitting here with Teddy. No one would know where to find you.”

“Forget it.”

“Please?”

Charlotte’s shoulders slumped and her face flattened in exasperation. “Gimme that.” She snatched the receiver from Diana’s hand and set about ending the argument herself. “Emily?”

“Yo.”

“Love to. Can’t. Feel bad today. Staying home. ‘Kay?”

“Aww, come on shortcake! I won’t make you cut bait or anything!”

“No. Have fun. Try to keep James and Katie from jumping overboard this time.”

“But we won’t even-”

“Bye, sis.”

Charlotte hung up the phone and that was that. She put both hands on her hips and looked up at Diana, shaking her head as if scolding an obstinate child. “Will you never learn?”

“Charlie…”

“Trying to maroon me at sea while some asshole is back here doing God knows what to you. You are about as dense as a quasar sometimes.”

“A what?”

“Highest density matter concentration in the universe, next to your hard head.”

“Hey,” Diana complained, feeling mildly insulted, “this sounds like a double standard to me.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. When I was ready to thrash Yoshima, you said I was doing the right thing by being protective. I try to look out for you and keep you safe, and you get pissed at me.”

“This is sooo not the same thing!”

One dark brow arched skeptically. “Enlighten me to the difference.”

“Well, first I think I should point out – since you may have failed to notice – that I am not some victimized teenager in need of a guardian. I am a grown woman who makes her own choices and takes her own risks.”

“Believe me, I know that.”

“You should also know that I don’t need you to be a hero or soldier for me, Diana. All I need from you is for you to love me and trust me,” Charlotte said, emphasizing these points by counting them off on slim fingers. “That morning at the airport, when I asked you to stay with me, I knew there was a chance that something bad would come up eventually. You made full disclosure when I signed on for this detail, and it isn’t fair of you to try and transfer me out when things get hot.”

Diana understood the attorney’s argument, but that didn’t mean she was willing to concede the point. “Something you have to understand is that… I can’t not try. I can’t ignore the danger to you and I will never agree to let you follow me into a situation where you might get hurt. Again.” One hand drifted of its own accord to the side of Charlotte’s head, fingers threading through the golden hair to touch the ribbon of scar tissue along her scalp. “He nearly took you away from me, t-”

Though the last word was pulled up short, Charlotte knew what was coming… and it hurt. Diana’s hand fell away and she closed her eyes, ashamed and confused at the slip.

“Say it,” Charlotte urged in a pained whisper. “Riggins nearly took me away, too. Like Angelia.”

“No, that’s not…”

“Diana, please. The only way this is going to hurt any less is if we tell the truth and deal with it, right here and now. Together,” Charlie explained reasonably, even though she felt like she’d been kicked in the gut. “Tell me the truth. Did you love her?”

Her mouth opened, and she tried to summon another denial, but it wouldn’t come. Lying to Charlie had become damned near impossible, even when her soul was screaming that the truth would only hurt her. “I don’t know. Didn’t get the chance to find out,” came the blunt admission.

Hazel eyes shifted to full green as the attorney tried to blink away the hard bite of jealousy and possessiveness clamped around her heart. It didn’t work. Her gaze fell to the floor as harsh thoughts berated her own folly. * You asked for that, you know. Pushed her until she said it out loud. Do you feel better now? Masochistic little thing, aren’t you? *

Next thing Charlotte heard was Diana picking up the phone and dialing someone. She knew who, and didn’t have the presence of mind to object to the advancing of events anymore. Things were going to happen with Diana that were not under Charlotte’s control or even in her presence, as they had in the past… and she hated being left out with every fiber of her being. * You keep telling her to trust you. That has to work both ways – trust her. Can you do that? Or does hypocrisy run in the Browning family? *

While her love was lost in thought, Diana tried as hard as she could to regain a forgotten skill – stoicism. Her face exhibited only a small trace of the resurgent anger she felt over old wounds, and a dull burn of the searing pain from unwillingly hurting the only person she would ever truly love. The phone in her hand was cooing an electronic call as it connected with the office and Teddy finally picked up.

“Starrett/Rinna Investigations. How can we help you?” he asked mechanistically.

“Teddy, I need a favor.”

“Diana? Thought you were taking the day off.”

“I was. Something came up. I need you to look up this number in the reverse directory for San Diego.” She glanced at the message on the window and read off the numbers along the bottom and waited as he ran it through the computer.

“It comes up 1414 Sepulveda Drive,” Teddy said, taking pains to pronounce the address clearly. “What’s going on there?”

“That’s what I intend to find out. Some old friends who wish me ill are in town. I need to go talk to them, but I don’t want Charlie to stay here alone. Can you come over for a while?”

The gruff man silenced himself for a stretch as he assessed the tone of his partner’s voice. Over the past couple of months, they had worked closely to get the new agency started, spending long hours in each other’s company. Theodore Rinna had a sharp ear and a suspicious mind, both of which helped him survive six years in Vietnam. Against his nature, he had come to take Diana at her word, however vague. If she was asking for help, she actually needed it.

“Should I pack light or heavy?” he inquired.

“Heavy.”

“Right. Can do.” He was already composing a mental list which included two Ruger .45s and a Mossberg pistol grip shotgun. “When do you want me there?”

“Half an hour,” Diana answered curtly, then added a softer, “Thanks, Teddy.”

He grunted in response, and she could hear him scratching his bristly chin. “Yeah. See ya.”

Diana hung up the phone and turned her focus back to Charlotte, who was staring holes in the cream carpet. “Charlie?”

The blonde snapped her head up, jolted back to the present. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“Teddy’s coming. I’m gonna get dressed now.”

Waiting for a response soon lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, and Diana turned slowly and headed for the bedroom, feeling only slightly lower than pond scum.

“You were right,” Charlie said firmly.

The tall woman stopped and looked over her shoulder, confused. “What?”

“When you said this doesn’t change anything. Between us.” Charlie took a few steps forward and grasped one muscled shoulder, turning Diana until they faced each other again. “I can’t say that I’m pleased, learning you cared about her that much… but I understand. What’s past is past. Thank you for telling me the truth.”

A warm current of relief swept through the cold waters numbing her inside, and Diana reached out with trembling arms to pull her lover close, hoping to leech some of Charlotte’s understanding and learn how to extend it to herself. She had learned many lessons from the younger woman about how to tolerate others, to excuse their treacheries and trespasses, but Diana Starrett wondered if she would ever be so at peace, so enlightened by love that she could, at long last, forgive herself.

With her face nuzzled close in golden hair, strong arms wrapped around her waist, and a crest of faith rising in her spirit, for a moment, Diana believed she might get there someday.

“Charlie, if I have ever said one true thing in my life it’s this: I love you. More than I have ever or will ever love anyone or anything. I was born to be right here,” she swore, tightening the circle of her arms and feeling a corresponding squeeze as her lover conveyed her understanding of just where “right here” was. “The world doesn’t turn backwards, but even if it did, I know that this is where I belong. Nowhere else on earth but right here, with you.”

Quiet moments passed, a new truth shared among the two, but not coming between them. At that moment, they were certain that nothing could. Charlotte’s hands drifted naturally along Diana’s long back and under her shirt, stroking her sides as she lifted her mouth for a kiss. Lips met and parted, spreading warmth through bodies on contact, easing tensions and assuring each that some things were certain in life, as long as there was trust and love.

“When’s Teddy supposed to be here?” Charlie mumbled, trailing her mouth down a length of throat.

“Too soon for this,” Diana responded, disappointment threading through husky tones.

“Mmm.” Charlotte nimbly unfastened the button on Diana’s shorts and whisked open the zipper, slipping one hand inside and down. “I won’t waste any time, then.”

“Uhh… Charlie, I don’t think-” came the prophetic protest, for then she suddenly couldn’t think. The shorts slid down her long legs and Charlie was kneeling, pulling the trapping garment from around her feet, then lifting one thigh to drape over her shoulder to accommodate a most intimate, hungry kiss.

Diana braced her shoulders against the wall as tremors and chills raced through her body and she felt herself turned inside out by the younger woman’s need. Charlotte seemed intent on marking her again before sending her back into the wild, tagging this particular animal as her own so that she would certainly come back as soon as possible.

Her lover’s tongue probed and stroked, lips teased and pulled and led to gentle bites and harder sucking until the tall beauty screamed out a violent release and pounded the back of her head against the wall, over and over – not even noticing that the pounding noise continued after she had stilled and come back to herself. When she did hear it, Diana was puzzled, but not enough to truly give a damn.

“Someone’s at the door,” Charlie announced, kissing the swollen folds a final time before getting to her feet. Long, shaking arms drew her in, and she opened her mouth to share the taste of passion in a lengthy, heated exchange of gratitude and promise. The knocking continued at the front door, this time accompanied by the chiming doorbell.

Reluctantly breaking off the grounding kiss, Diana bent to retrieve her shorts and put them on. “Too soon to be Teddy. Stay here. I’ll see who it is.” She left Charlie standing in the hall, smiling, and jogged gingerly to the couch to grab the Colt, then on to greet the unexpected visitor. Through the peephole, she saw a man in a familiar brown uniform, holding a package.

“Yes?” she called out loudly.

“Delivery for Deborah Carson,” came the answer.

Diana was just about to tell him he had the wrong address when a memory seized the words in her mouth. The name was neatly typed on a plastic bracelet fastened to her own wrist as she lay in a hospital bed, a thin man seated beside her, holding her fevered hand.

“We couldn’t get to the airport. You were losing too much blood. I had the chopper drop us here. We’ll get you out of the country tomorrow morning,” he said.

In a flash, she was punching in alarm codes and struggling to open the many locks on the heavy door, anxious and terrified at what might be inside that package. Diana lunged out onto the front step, gun still in hand, and grabbed the startled delivery man’s clipboard.

“Sign right – okay. Th-thanks.” Before he knew it, he had his clipboard, complete with scribbled signature, and was relieved of the weighty parcel. The door slammed shut and he nearly ran back to his truck, ready to get the hell away from “The Meadows” and apply for a new route, one where suburban women didn’t answer the door brandishing pistols.

Inside the foyer, Diana set the heavy cardboard box on a table and reset the alarm and locks. She studied the box for a bit, then took it into the kitchen. A magnifying glass was produced from a loaded junk drawer, and she stood in the bright sunlight of a window to peer at the clear packing tape, searching for wires or magnetic leads. Finding nothing suspicious, she grabbed a thin-bladed fish knife from the butcher block and carefully slit the tape. Inside the box was another container, this one all too familiar.

A small, black metal case with combination locks and no visible hinges. Waterproof, fireproof, and resistant to X-ray and electromagnetic interference. It could also take a high-caliber bullet at close range without so much as a dent, although she had never tested that for herself. Taking the cool handle, she lifted the case from the box and found a plain white envelope taped to the underside, which she pulled off and examined closely as well. Slitting the paper with the knife, she removed a note written in an angular, terse hand.
——————————————————————————–

D –

Something’s going on and it smells black to me. The numbers have all changed, so I have enclosed updates inside the case. Use code C-91 to interpret, just in case you need him. I don’t think he knows any more than me, but maybe he should. Keep one eye on the past – nothing is ever really over. Maybe you know that already.

Dan
——————————————————————————–

After reading the note twice more, Diana could only curse in angry confusion and slam her fist against the nigh-invulnerable black case. “Motherfuck!”

“What is it?” Charlotte asked as she entered the kitchen.

“This shit with Yoshima is only the tip of something. The agency is involved somehow.”

* Motherfuck! * The attorney found herself mentally echoing Diana’s sentiment. “How? What do they have to do with Yoshima?”

Snatching up the case and barreling through the door, the former agent made another eerily prescient statement as she charged for the bedroom with renewed vigor.

“They won’t tell me outright, but somebody sure as hell will before this goddamned day is over.”

Nine

In the walk-in closet which took up nearly one wall of Charlotte and Diana’s bedroom, the former agent had made a few modifications for convenience and security’s sake, not the least of which was the installation of a hidden compartment in the floor. Diana knelt on the carpet and pushed aside a pile of Charlie’s shoes, then slid her hands over the rug, patiently plucking at the fibers until she found the camouflaged seam. With a quick rip, she lifted up the Velcroed carpet piece to reveal the large, impassively ugly face of a combination safe.

Classified as a TXTL-60, the monstrosity was guaranteed tool, torch and explosive resistant for at least sixty minutes. It wasn’t agency standard, but it was the best she could afford as a civilian. Diana installed it herself shortly after moving in, having convinced Charlotte that keeping the classified equipment secure was well worth tearing up the floor for a weekend.

* Oh, man. Hope I haven’t forgotten how to use this stuff, * she worried unnecessarily. * Forget which button detonates the exploding whatsits… no, that wouldn’t do at all. *

Although it had been several months since she last saw the safe’s contents, Diana was already clicking off a mental inventory list and reviewing what she would need. Inside was every agency-issue item removed from the Porsche Harry Mars had let her keep, including more edged weapons, guns, and covert surveillance and communications equipment than most international militias could ever afford, even if they could find suppliers. In giving Diana that car, Mars had made her into a virtual one-woman army. Somehow, she felt sure that was his intent.

* And as a farewell gift to our departing contestant – your own mobile private arsenal! Use it in good health! * she had imagined him announcing, in a nauseatingly cheery, game show host voice. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Diana didn’t waste time attempting to glean ulterior motives or trying to return either the sports car or the weaponry. She chose instead to drive the pure hell out of the automobile and – after a lengthy internal debate – stashed the martial stockpile for a rainy day.

On several occasions, she had to resist the urge to employ certain pieces of equipment in her current trade. Long range laser microphones, night-vision video cameras and microdisc recorders would make the mundane work of busting adulterers ever so much easier. Then she imagined Teddy asking where she got such a stellar array of costly toys and dismissed the idea.

Even though Harry had let her keep the squeaky clean background she used while working as an Elceda County sheriff’s deputy, Diana knew the less she had to explain to her business partner about her past, the better. She also knew she was taking a huge risk by asking Teddy Rinna to watch over Charlotte today, but there was no one else to turn to. Besides, the grizzled veteran was usually very good at minding his own business and keeping his opinions to himself. The man had a past of his own, after all.

Taking a deep breath, Diana brought her mind back to the task at hand, and spun the combination knob in smooth circles, feeling soft clicks under her fingertips until the lock was clear and ready to open. Twisting the steel handle and pulling up the weighty door, she drew in another sharp breath and released it in a long, sad sigh.

Watching Diana in silence, Charlotte was laden with questions, but unsure if speaking was wise in her current state. She could feel herself slipping into an unfamiliar funk – almost a depression, but not quite – as the sweet taste still lingering on her lips slowly soured, revealing the latent bitterness of her own fear and desperation. She hadn’t meant to feel that way, hadn’t meant to fall to her knees and veritably beg for some final, tangible reminder of love before parting. Despite her best intentions, that’s what happened, and she was mortified at the memory of her own neediness.

Charlie’s arms were crossed over her chest and wrapped around herself in a tight circle, her expression a pained blank as she tried to mask the feeling that her insides were now held together by faith and duct tape.

* Toughen up, * the lawyer told herself. * Self-pity is the last thing you need to deal with. *

“I hoped you’d never need to open that thing,” she said quietly from her observation post, leaning against the bedroom door.

Diana glanced up from the safe, her face a tapestry of regret and resignation. “Me, too. I wish I could have thrown it all away, but something told me not to. One of my stupid dreams, I think.”

“One of those dreams, you mean? Where… she talks to you?”

The dark woman looked embarrassed, but nodded her head. “Happened back when I was thinking about getting rid of it all. She said that you can’t just ditch the tools of your trade and expect that to be the end of it. Someday, if you need them again, you’ll have to exhume them, so don’t bury them too deep or too far away.”

Charlotte dropped her gaze and stuffed her hands in her pockets, still unsure how to discuss Diana’s didactic visions without sounding like a doubting Thomas. After their one shared experience in Maribel Falcon’s kitchen, her own vivid dreams of beaches and bards had tapered off as she relaxed rather easily into the life she wanted to build with Diana.

The former agent, on the other hand, continued to entertain nocturnal visits from an ancient counselor as she struggled to adjust to life among people who weren’t out to kill her. Charlie didn’t truly question whether the dreams were real, but she was guilty of trying to rationalize them as Diana’s own subconscious aiding her through a period of assimilation. The truth was, even though Diana told her of the occasional discussions with the warrior, she felt kind of left out.

“Sound advice, I suppose. Wherever it came from,” the attorney said, mumbling the last bit.

Diana was already rooting through the contents of the safe, neatly setting aside leather cases and black metal boxes, but she was present enough to reply. “I got the feeling she was speaking from experience.”

“Mmm hmm. Sure.” Not sarcastic, but not enthusiastic, either. “So, what are you planning to do?”

“Today?”

“Yeah.”

Diana unzipped one shiny leather pouch and peeked inside, poking at a mess of black wires and nodding to herself. “You need two points of reference to establish your position, right?”

Charlie quirked her mouth, puzzled at first. “Yeah. So?”

“First, I need to find out what Yoshima wants from me. Next, I’ll check into what role the agency is playing. Then I can figure out where I stand.”

“I see,” Charlie replied, not at all impressed with this strategy, which smelled more of high school geometry than Sun Tzu. “That note with the package was from who, Uncle Harry or Aunt Julia?”

“Neither. Someone I actually used to trust, back in the dark ages. He didn’t say much, just enough to raise my hackles and get me to ask questions. Whatever they’re doing is probably not above board, not authorized by Mars or the U.N. committee.”

“And what about Yoshima? Is he supposed to just talk to you? He could be luring you into a trap.”

“I don’t think so. If he wanted me dead, he could have taken me out last night in the parking lot.”

Dropping her arms to her sides, Charlotte involuntarily clenched both hands into fists. “He was – he was watching us? At Danny’s birthday party!! And you didn’t think you should say anything to me about it?”

Diana continued checking each case carefully, not even looking up as she heard the anger seep into her lover’s voice. “I heard someone sneaking around when we were getting in the car, but I didn’t know it meant anything until this morning. Would have been pointless to worry you if it had been some wino taking a piss.”

“Jesus H. Christ!”

“You know, I didn’t think to tell Him, either.”

Charlie took a few steps forward until she stood over Diana’s shoulder. “Stop that.”

“I have to get this stuff ready. Teddy’s on his way.”

“I mean stop with the cavalier attitude. Don’t joke – I can’t take that right now.”

Turning her head slowly to peer over her shoulder, Diana’s face showed no trace of levity. “It’s just how I deal with it, Charlie. If I let myself worry too much, I’d be paralyzed. I can’t afford that.”

Their eyes locked for an interminable span – cool blue asking for understanding, greening hazel struggling to offer it – until Charlotte opened one hand and rested a warm palm on Diana’s back.

“Well, what can I do? To help?” she whispered. “There must be something…”

The dark woman managed a thin smile. “Just lock the house down and sit tight until I get back. Knowing you’re safe will help me more than anything.”

Charlotte mirrored that smile as best she could and rubbed her fingers over a length of spine. “I think I can manage that.”

“Thank you. Really.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Charlie muttered, stepping back to sit on the edge of their bed. “Just don’t expect me to watch baseball with Teddy. I don’t think I could stand seeing the Padres lose, on top of everything else.”

Diana chuckled as she gathered up her selection of packages and shut the safe. “Now who’s joking?” she teased, carefully replacing the carpet piece and pile of shoes.

“I’m not kidding. Baby, I’m about half a Prozac away from Sylvia Plath-dom.”

Blue eyes narrowed as Diana scanned her slumped companion for any sign that she meant those words, and found none. Charlie was upset, scared, and maybe a little threatened, but she was far from defeated. She was just working the kinks out of her umbrella.

“Good thing we don’t have a gas oven, then,” Diana teased in return. “Bad place to take a nap.”

“How did Dotty’s poem go? Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give. Gas smells awful, might as well live?”

“Might as well live – that’s my preference, too.” Diana tossed the array of several pouches and cases onto the other side of the bed to wait with the new black box from Dan, and she dropped to one knee in front of Charlie. “I promise, I won’t take any longer than is absolutely necessary. I’ll call if there’s any delay.”

“Is it too late to consider packing off to Tanzania?” the younger woman pleaded, her shoulders hunched and curved in a defeated posture. “We could raise goats, live in a mud hut…”

“I wish running was an option, but it isn’t,” Diana explained brusquely, heading off those thoughts before they started to become appealing. “If I don’t handle this right now, it’ll just get worse. Everyone left behind, everyone we love will be put at risk.”

Charlotte straightened immediately, meeting Diana’s intense stare with one of her own. “You mean… he would go after -”

“Yes,” the former agent confirmed, not needing names to know the truth of their jeopardy. “Hurting family and friends of his enemies is as de rigeur to Yoshima as writing in blood. It’s the way he does business. Now you see why I have to go to him?”

Understanding dawned on the attorney then, and its rays were chilling cold. Her notions regarding Diana’s motivation were way off base. “This isn’t about revenge at all, is it?”

“No, Charlie,” she admitted sincerely, hands coming up to fold around the blonde’s knees. “That’s the last thing on my mind. I wouldn’t put you, your family, or even myself at risk for that. Not anymore.”

Closing her eyes and sighing deeply, Charlotte suddenly felt inordinately guilty for not seeing it sooner. She was ready to explain away Diana’s past behavior and defense of Angelia as being protective, but her envy of the dead woman had temporarily blinded Charlie to the fact that she was now the one being treasured, safeguarded, defended. It was still an unusual role for the young attorney who was so used to taking care of herself. She didn’t like it, but she had to accept it.

* She only wants to protect me. And Emily. And Luis, Danny, James. And Katie. God, it’s getting crowded in here. *

Charlie was so used to living alone in Diana’s heart that she had barely adjusted to her sister’s family moving in, but there they were. The Avilas were settled in for good, even if they didn’t know it yet. Charlotte Browning knew without question that when Diana admitted new tenants, the lease was for life – at the very least – and the only cost was letting the landlord act as a bodyguard. In terms of a risk-benefit ratio, it was a very small price to pay.

“Diana… I’m sorry.”

Sculpted black brows lifted at what she felt was an unnecessary apology. “For what?”

* For what happened in the hall, for needing you so much I can hardly breathe sometimes, for making you feel guilty because you once loved somebody else… and I’ve never loved anyone but you and never will. Shit, just pick one, Charlie. *

“For doubting,” she said at last. “Even if it’s only for a second, it’s a waste of time.”

Diana smiled and lowered her head, kissing each bare knee in turn before looking up with shining eyes. “There are two things that you should never doubt. One is that I love you. Truly. Madly. Deeply. Eternally.”

“And the other?” Charlie inquired, feeling a bit of her lingering fear dissipate like fog in sunlight.

“No matter what happens, no matter where I may have to take this, if I know you’re here… I will always, always find a way back to you.”

A quaking smile jittered open Charlotte’s lips, and she found her hands lifting, grasping, pulling on Diana’s neck until the tall woman rose and let her body be drawn onto the bed, fending off the final charge of fears with hard promises and soft kisses.

“You better get back here soon…”

“I swear.”

“Because if you don’t…”

“I promise.”

“I’ll have to come after you.”

“You won’t even have the chance to miss me.”

Limbs tangled and kisses deepened as seconds ticked by, each one merciful and eternal and precious beyond price. The doorbell rang, causing spines to stiffen, eyes to shut tight, mouths to close and part as both wondered how thirty minutes could pass so quickly. Diana shifted onto her elbows and gazed down into moist eyes which showed not a trace of green, only the quiet strength and faith she had come to count on more than gravity.

“That was a stupid thing to say,” Charlie whispered harshly.

“What?” Diana’s concern was instant and naively sincere.

“About not missing you. You’re lying on top of me, and I miss you already, idiot.”

The doorbell chimed again, but no one seemed desperate to answer it. Diana moved one leg toward the side of the bed, but Charlie looped a foot under and over the calf, corralling it again. Blue eyes turned slitty and chiding, but the lawyer just smiled and whined “Not yeeet!” as she tightened her limbs around her captive like a love-starved anaconda.

“Counselor, I have to let Teddy in soon, or he’ll think something’s wrong and break his shoulder ramming the door.”

“Shoot!” Charlotte pouted weakly, knowing Diana was right. “Before you do, may I make one last plea, your honor?”

“Be quick.”

“Luis has relatives in Argentina, he and Emmy could -”

“No! Now lemme up.”

Reluctantly uncoiling herself from around the long solidity of her lover’s body, Charlotte watched as Diana sprinted down the hall. Soon, the low murmur of voices came from the living room as Diana fed some fable to Teddy Rinna about busting members of the Asian Boys gang when she worked in Los Angeles, and how they must have held a grudge. She outright lied about the “red paint” on the window, claiming it was a gang sign about which she needed to confer with former colleagues to interpret and investigate.

* I wonder if he’s buying that one, * Charlie wondered. * Probably so. *

She knew that Teddy had pulled some hard time in Vietnam and held a deep-seated grudge against Asian-Americans in general. Maybe that distasteful prejudice could work in their favor, causing him not to ask too many questions. Shortly, Diana came back into the bedroom and started packing the scattered equipment into a canvas beach bag.

“He’s in,” the dark woman explained as she worked. “He’ll just hang out here with you until I get back. You two try to play nice.”

“Okay.” Charlie sat up, straightening her rumpled clothes and mussed hair. Reluctant to get out of bed, she lingered there and waited, smoothing one hand over warm sheets that still smelled like crushed green aspen leaves. She wondered how long that smell would last before it faded, if Diana’s scent would linger here all day to keep her company. A brief, awkward imagining of Teddy finding her face-down on the bed, sniffing like an insecure hound dog wiped that query away P.D.Q.

Scant moments later, Diana stood before her, still wearing the same khaki shorts and white tee-shirt, accessorized now by flip-flops, mirrored oval sunglasses, and a baseball cap Charlotte bought her in Mexico that read “Tourista Loca” in bright turquoise stitching. The hat was spun backwards, letting little shoots of dark bangs peek out, the long brim obscuring the ponytail hanging down Diana’s back. The attorney was rather surprised at the casual outfit – she had assumed a change into some sinister, sleek spy suit would be in order. Emma Peel would not be caught dead in this outfit.

“This is how you dress to confront a mortal enemy?” Charlie asked, lifting a speculative brow.

Diana smiled broadly, for she was secretly, almost shamefully excited in some buried, dormant corner of her psyche. The old rush was already building, tempered this time by a healthy amount of guilt and fear. She didn’t know how she should feel about what she had to do, though she was certain that being so perversely giddy was wrong, wrong, wrong.

“I’m not confronting anybody, Charlie. I’m just going to the beach.”

“Uh-hunh. Sure. Try selling me the Golden Gate Bridge while you’re at it.”

“I would, if I owned it,” Diana replied, hauling the smaller woman up and into a crushing hug.

“Who does?” Charlie asked absently, her face burrowing against a warm length of throat.

“Ezra C.V. Mildew Desire, Junior.”

Recognizing the name from one of Diana’s favorite dopey movies, “The Cheap Detective,” Charlotte found herself chuckling totally against her will. Soft lips touched her forehead, and the embrace dissolved until they stood facing each other, smiling to fend off pointless tears.

“It’s time.”

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

“Don’t rush… but hurry back.”

“I love you.”

“Same here, stretch.”

A turning away, a few strides down the hall, final words to Teddy… and Diana Starrett was gone.

Charlotte Browning closed the bedroom door, flopped onto their bed and wrapped herself in the sheets, lying face-down on a pillow littered with a few strands of long, black hair, and screamed.
——————————————————————————–

Ten

The drive into San Diego was quick, with Diana pushing the turbocharged engine to its limit most of the way. Mounted on the dash was a Christmas gift from Charlie – a Whistler laser/radar detector with 360 degree scanning radius and invisibility to VG-2 radar detection devices. Diana hadn’t received a single traffic ticket since she was eighteen, but with her fondness for lead-footed driving, her personal attorney decided it was best to take proactive measures.

Once within the city limits, she made a b-line for the shore and found herself creeping in second gear past 1414 Sepulveda Drive, rubbernecking the opulent home with an assessing eye. The gray wood house stood two full stories, plus an attic and a sturdy looking crow’s nest on top. Graceful, sweeping eaves and cerulean blue accents drew the eyes along shutters and edges, the mix of colors leading one to assume maritime attitudes before even seeing the ocean.

A high wooden privacy fence bordered the home on both sides, and stretched across three-quarters of the front and rear. The remaining front quarter was barred by a spiked iron gate that said “look, but don’t dare try to enter, ye foolish trespasser.” Diana Starrett only smiled behind her mirror shades. Getting in would not be a problem, but the four black Cadillacs parked in the circular cement drive did give her pause. Four large cars meant a lot of passengers.

* Must have brought lots of friends to keep him company. I’m flattered. *

She cruised along the clean street, scouring nearby houses for a vacant rental. Nearly a block down, she discovered a neglected looking driftwood stilt-house; a brown and rust vacation palace which looked very, very empty. Papers piled in the mailbox, weeds sprouting willy-nilly from the slim, dry front lawn, thick swirls of white salt water stains on windows, and piles of blown sand littering the cement walkway and carport.

* Oh, this should do nicely. *

Diana pulled the Porsche under the cover of the carport and sat for a moment, staring between the wooden beams under the house at the bright glory of the Pacific. Sunshine and sand and warm water took her back to a happy afternoon spent in Mazatlan, accompanied by the smartest, sexiest beach bunny she could ever imagine. If she closed her eyes, she could still hear Charlie screaming comically as she was tossed into the breakwater, could still feel the sand on her back as they rolled in the tide.

A more recent memory warmed her heart next, recollections of bobbing in the deep waters as Luis dropped anchor for a day of fishing. Charlotte and Emily playing rock, paper, scissors to decide who would draw bait detail, the blonde bitching piteously and crying foul as she lost. James and Katie jumping ship when they swore they saw a dolphin playing off the stern, and the tall woman diving in after them half a second later to stand watch. She’d never swum in water that deep before, and the three wound up playing like frisky otters until Emily demanded that they get back on board.

Diana hadn’t caught anything that day, (unless you count the annoyed little tiger shark she pulled in and promptly cut loose) except a deep, new infection in her heart that she could only interpret as love for these new blessings in her life, her new family. Until that day, Charlie had been the only person she was willing to kill or die for, but her vulnerability grew dramatically, far beyond her control with these new additions. If she factored in her growing affection for Teddy Rinna, Diana would have to admit that her Achilles heel now covered most of one leg.

* I can’t let this touch them. None of them. *

With that thought in mind, she set the locks and alarm and left the Porsche to take a stroll on the beach, ready to get sand in her shoes or blood on her hands. Whatever it took.

She set up less than one hundred feet from Yoshima’s back door, laying out a long red and orange beach towel emblazoned with a setting sun and the ubiquitous Baywatch logo, and unpacking what appeared to be a walkman and an 8mm video camera from the canvas bag. She sat facing the ocean, but the camera lens was aimed at the home behind her.

One lead from the camera was attached to her mirror shades, plugging into a socket on the graphite arm resting above her left ear, turning the two darkened glass ovals into small projection screens inside which blurry red forms of humans and pets passing behind were visible.

* Infrared camera still in working order. One down. *

The walkman’s padded ear pieces settled into place as she donned the headset, but the Tracy Bonham tape inside was just for show. The audio input came from the camera, which she blindly angled up until it trained a thin red laser beam through the rear gates of Yoshima’s stronghold and onto the sliding glass door. Any vibration from within the room could be heard through the sensitive microphone, and she immediately identified the rapid, tense chatter of many male voices.

* Laser mike’s perfect, too. Luck be a lady. *

On Diana’s shades were the projected heat outlines of twelve bodies clustered in the living room, and a pan to the right revealed ten more waiting in a side room. She moved the camera back to the main area and watched ten standing men loiter near one seated figure and one kneeling. She listened closely for anything at all that might be of interest, glad that her Japanese was not rusty as the voices spoke in their native tongue. Diana didn’t have to wait long for things to get interesting.

“We have the list of safe houses. Four possible locations in this vicinity.”

“Only four? This will be simple enough for you. You have your instructions.”

The second voice was weak and roughened by age, but Diana knew it instantly as Hideo Yoshima. Something in her chest contracted, and her heartbeat accelerated to be so close to him again, after all these years. He still sounded as cruel and cold as in her memories.

“Yes.”

“Then go, and do not disappoint me. I want the head of that murderous blonde bitch.”

* Who… oh. Julia. Has to be. *

“You will have it.”

“And I want what is mine returned to me.”

“She will be back where she belongs by nightfall. I swear it.”

* Huh? Julia took something – no, someone – from him. Probably kidnapped one of his concubines. But why bring her to the states? How stupid is that? Yoshima must have someone inside the agency to get a safe house list… but that is not my worry. Let Julia deal with them. *

Then eleven men moved as one from the room, leaving the house through the front door. She heard the faint crank as two purring engines started up, and the boys left on their mission. Yoshima’s red outline was still slumped in a chair, and a cool blue cylinder sat by his side.

* Oxygen tank? Is he sick? God, I hope so. *

The heat quotient in the room rose rapidly as the ten remaining guards filed in and scattered through the room, some sitting near Yoshima, some standing by entry points. One moved to the glass door and peered outside, but Diana cut the mike beam before he could take notice. She was fairly certain that nothing more would be said among these men; they were too far beneath Yoshima for him to discuss anything crucial.

* Ten men, and one ill son of a bitch on oxygen. I’ll take those odds. Time to make an entrance. Showy or demure? Maybe I should take the direct approach. Not like he isn’t expecting me. *

Quickly, she dismantled the camera and mike set and packed them back in her bag, then took off at a slow jog up the beach until she was one house down from Yoshima’s place. Taking a shortcut through the neighbor’s yard, she went about halfway down the length of eight-foot high privacy fence until she reached a spot she deemed as good as any. One quick vertical leap later, she had one hand and one foot on top of the fence, enough to boost herself over and onto Yoshima’s property.

* No one posted outside. Either he’s incredibly arrogant, or he isn’t looking for a fight. *

Diana hoped for the latter as she walked, pretty as you please, around the house and right up to the front door. Stuffing the canvas bag behind a large, squatting cement lion just to the left of the door, she reached up with a steady hand and rang the bell.

A small metal panel in the thick door slid open, and angular black eyes peered through slim bars at the smiling woman, standing empty handed on the front steps. The panel slid closed after only a brief moment, and Diana waited for word on whether the great and terrible Oz was taking visitors. Time stretched on with no return appearance by the guard, and she wondered if this unscheduled tete-a-tete was really what Yoshima had in mind.

* I don’t remember the note saying to RSVP. Gee, maybe they’re just fixing him up to look pretty for me. Lord knows, he hated appearing weak to his foes. *

Before Diana had the chance to move into the foot-shuffling stage of impatience, the door was unlocked and a large, wide man in a black suit stood in her path. In his hand was a Tec-9 machine pistol, and the barrel was pointed directly at her chest. She lifted both eyebrows above the mirrored lenses of her shades, clearly amused by something.

“He outfits you guys with Tec-9s? That’s a toy gang bangers use for drive-by shootings. He can afford better than that. You should protest. Do you fellas have a union rep or something?”

The guard was less responsive than one of those comatose Beefeaters posted outside Buckingham Palace, his features frozen into a cheap Halloween mask, which he probably intended to be intimidating. After fixing the offensive woman with his best glare, he shifted his bulk aside just enough for Diana to squeeze past.

“Come. You are expected,” he rumbled, in a voice he must have practiced after seeing too many Sonny Chiba movies.

“Thanks, Odd-Job.”

Diana slipped between his broad shoulder and the door frame and waited for him to lock the door and escort her from the foyer into the house. Just inside, she was greeted by three men almost identical to the doorman, all bearing the same cheesy armaments. They stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking her view of the living room. What she could see were high ceilings with exposed beams, all hard wood. She was reminded of Yoshima’s home in Nagano, and wondered the masculine architecture was a pre-requisite for his tenancy.

“Arms up,” Odd-Job said from behind her, poking the barrel of his gun into her spine. Diana raised her arms and sighed as he patted her down, running a hot, meaty hand over her bare legs, arms, and under her shirt until he was satisfied that she was not carrying.

“Clean,” he announced loudly, his voice reaching someone beyond the three onlookers.

“Admit her,” an answering voice ordered from inside the house.

Odd-Job moved to stand beside Diana, and she lowered her shades and winked at the latest man to chart a thorough map of her anatomy. “Call me,” she whispered.

He frowned even harder as he took her arm and guided her between the parting wall of guards, bringing her into a large living room furnished in plush dark blue and even more wood. Yoshima sat bolt upright in a gigantic chair studded with brass upholsery tacks and perched on clawed mahogany feet. He was much thinner than she remembered – even his billowing black silk robe could not mask the obvious emaciation – and his eyes were circled in tired deep purple.

No oxygen tank in sight, she noted, as Yoshima struck a pose of quiet strength designed to inspire respect. Diana barely noticed, for her eyes were drawn to the faint, dark underscorings dotting his pale face. They were covered in make-up, but her unforgiving eyes had seen lesions of this type before. Terms clinical and hearbreaking swam up from her soul as she remembered where she saw them first, on the sweet countenance of her younger brother, Ethan.

* Kaposi’s sarcoma. KS. Linked to a herpesvirus, KSHV or HHV 8. Lesions can be pink, brown, blue. Most common victims are men who have… AIDS. Jesus Christ, he’s dying. He’s dying.*

The realization must have shown on her face, because Yoshima’s reaction to her silent observation was to dismiss his guards, rudely and loudly, leaving no room for defiance or doubt.

“Get out, all of you! Leave us alone!”

The posse of armed men scuttled from the room, congregating around the corner in the den to wait until they were summoned again, ready to act at the slightest breath of a threat.

Diana could feel Odd-Job’s theatrical glare as he brushed by her, but she was lost to the pitiful fury evident on the sick man’s face. Yoshima knew he was being picked apart by those blue eyes, even if they were hidden behind mirrored lenses. It nearly killed his soul that she knew of his weakness… but if there was a way out, a way back to strength, it would come through her.

“Diana Starrett,” he announced, choking down humiliation and rage and chasing that bitter pill with a dose of formality. “Welcome. Please, take a seat. We have much to discuss.”

“Hideo – may I call you Hideo?” Diana asked lightly, trying to regain her equilibrium as she sat on the plump, hard couch opposite the frail man. “Mister Yoshima seems so formal, and we know each other far too intimately to need such polite buffers.”

“I agree… Diana.” Almost choking again on the name. “I am pleased that you chose to acknowledge my message in person. Actually, I expected a phone call. The boy was instructed to leave a number.”

“He did, but telephones are so impersonal. Some poor creature shed its blood to get my attention, and I wanted you to know that you have it in full.”

Yoshima waved one pale hand dismissively. “Save your sympathy. It was but the blood of a rat. Vermin are too plentiful to mourn.”

She removed her shades and hung them from her collar, fixing him with an inquisitive gaze. “Is there a message for me in the selection of sacrifice?”

“Only if you feel a kinship with the rat.”

Silence blanketed the room, and they both knew what he meant. He still saw her as a traitor, someone he took into his household, someone he entrusted with his children’s lives. Someone who took his daughter and son, poisoning their minds against him. For a man who dealt daily in death, he had awfully strict standards about loyalty. To Hideo Yoshima, this woman had the soul of a rat.

“I know what you think of me, personally. I was doing a job-”

“Your job did not include seducing my child! You would have exhibited more honor had you simply murdered me in my bed!”

Yoshima’s angry voice rang in the rafters, drifting around the wood beams and fading slow. His men shuffled around nervously in the hallway, but did not come in.

Diana’s reply to the accusations was voiced softly, but with a hard core. “I wish I had.”

A deep sigh welled from his tortured lungs as Yoshima sat back in his chair, eyes fluttering closed. His composure soon returned, his head cooled, and he resumed speaking in a civilized way.

“The time for regrets is not in this life, but the next. If those of our kind wallowed in past errors, we would swim in the slime of our misdeeds until the end of time. Punishment will come for us, Diana. Let us not seek it out from each other.”

Irked mightily at being lumped in as one of his “kind,” Diana found her patience skipping out the door. “How about you just cut to the chase. What do you want from me?”

“I want… I want… recompense. I want you to take away what you gave to me, this slow death your tainted blood passed from flesh to flesh.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” she demanded, truly vexed.

“Your sin begat my fall,” he insisted, eyes wide and wild. “Your disease reached out for me through the body of one I loved, my angel, my beautiful child. Your armies have been striking me down with glancing cuts every day for nearly a decade.”

“Look, if you’re as sick as I think you are, your mind might be playing tricks on you, and-”

“Don’t you see – on my face – the evidence of your attack? I can hear the invaders riding inside my own body, battering the walls down to rubble! Don’t you hear their noise in your own blood anymore? Or did your Doctor Mangano silence them forever?”

Diana was lost, crazily confused at these absurd rantings, but she shrunk away at the mention of Mangano’s name. The things he was implying were impossible… weren’t they?

“What do you know about Salvatore Mangano?” she asked, her voice dipping lower.

“He performed a miracle, an incredible and wondrous feat,” Yoshima claimed, nodding his head and almost smiling as he looked on the living evidence of Mangano’s genius. “You live! And you will make it possible for me to live on as well. You will lift this curse from me, and then from my angel. Your demon’s blood is the grail, Diana, the holy grail from which we will drink.”

“I am not – I don’t have what you have! My brother did, but-”

“So he was the one who cursed you! The genesis arc of our circle – from him, to you, to my angel, to me! All the world runs round and round, you see. Does he live as well? Perhaps he can partake of our miracle -”

“NO! Shut-up, goddammit! I am not sick! And Angelia is dead, you crazy old fuck!”

These last words seemed to snap Yoshima out of his trance, for he blinked rapidly as if adjusting to a bright light. He folded his hands in his lap and drew in a pained, wheezing breath. He needed his oxygen tank, but would not grant this woman the satisfaction of seeing him that vulnerable. After calming himself, he began again with the resolve to remain reasonable.

“My angel will be home soon, and you will help us. If you refuse, I will call on every man in my employ to bear arms and soak the soil of this country with the blood of your lover and her family,” he said, sounding more like the ruthlessly sane man she had once known. “I will call on you tomorrow. You will be prepared to offer up your very life to my quest, or you will suffer the consequences.”

Rooted to her seat and numb inside, Diana could only mutter, “I am not sick. I’ve been tested.”

“I know. That is the only reason I did not have you killed last night. Your health is very important to me, Diana. Try to stay alive until we meet again,” Yoshima instructed coldly. “Tanaka!”

The broad man Diana thought of as Odd-Job hustled into the room and stood by Yoshima’s chair, waiting for instructions. Diana was still a little dazed, but she knew it was time to go and stood up, although her eyes refused to move from Hideo Yoshima’s pale, spotty face.

“Show my guest the door. Good day, Diana Starrett.”

Next thing she knew, Diana was standing on the front steps. She wasn’t sure how she got there.

* It can’t be true. He’s fucking with my head, that’s all. *

She retrieved her canvas bag from behind the lion statue and looked up to find that the front gates were now open. Walking between the two remaining Cadillacs, Diana vaguely remembered that there were four here earlier.

* No. Two left before I came in. They were going somewhere. Julia. Going to kill Julia and bring back something. Someone… no. No. Nononono. Dead. She’s dead. *

“My angel will be home soon,” Yoshima had said.

An internal dialogue began as Diana walked through the gates and onto the sidewalk, slow steps mechanically carrying her back toward the Porsche.

* She’s dead. Angelia is dead. *

* Did you see the body? *

* No, but Riggins said – *

* And you took him at his word? *

* I – I… yes. I did. *

* Fool! That man’s tongue was twisted enough to open a wine bottle! *

* But, why? Why would he tell me that? *

* The same reason he lied about anything. It served his purposes somehow. *

“It can’t be true,” she said aloud.

* But what if it is? *

That thought echoed around inside her head, bouncing off every surface of her brain until she was running, fast and hard, back to the car. The keys were in her hand and the alarm and locks were disabled from ten feet away as Diana skidded to a stop and jumped inside. The engine fired up strong, and she was peeling out of the driveway and swerving onto the street while her mind sifted through a new problem. She was past believing anything except her own eyes, and she had to see for herself whether Yoshima was lying, crazy, or both. She had to see for herself.

* Where would Julia take her? Come on, Julia! Where would you go? Wherewouldyougo, wherewouldyougowhere – shit! *

“The lake house!”

Three minutes later, Diana was on the highway doing 110 mph, a dark blue blur in the carpool lane as she raced toward a collision with a future memory.

Ten

Charlotte stayed in bed for about an hour and moped, alternately worrying about Diana and worrying about what Diana must think of her now; specifically whether she had screwed up big-time by playing the clinging vine and giving voice to her resentment of someone who was obviously not a threat to their relationship.

* She didn’t seem to hold it against me. She was very understanding, very patient, said all the right things… So why do I still feel like this? At least I waited until she was gone before I gave in to it. But, why am I doing this at all? *

* Piggy wants to wallow, * her mind answered in a taunting parental voice, one that matched exactly the mocking cadence of her mother. * She doesn’t want to feel better. Let her wallow until she gets tired of the mud. *

“I do so want to feel better,” Charlie announced into the pillow covering her face.

* And the first step is figuring out why I feel so shitty about this. Am I really that petty, to have a hissy fit over hearing about someone she cared for? Where the hell did that trait come from, anyway? My parents are certainly not concerned about each other’s current infidelities, much less any past imbroglios. Maybe it’s a recessive character flaw, some screwy sort of romantic solipsism – I am your world and thou shalt put no other before me. Thus spake Charlotte. *

Four quiet knocks on the bedroom door drew her away from such pondersome matters, and she managed to croak out the word “WHA??” in response.

Teddy Rinna took that as a heartening sign of life and cleared his throat before making his pitch through the closed door. “Hrrrummmph! Uh, hey? You hungry or somethin’? I, uh… I could fix us up some food, if you want.”

Charlie sat up in bed and mulled it over. * Hmmm. Sulk or eat, sulk or eat. Maybe I could sulk and eat simultaneously. *

“Okay.”

“Great,” Teddy said, finding himself smiling already over his accomplishment of getting the young woman out of bed. He was afraid she was going to stay shut up in there all day. “You like enchiladas? I saw a bunch of junk in the fridge, and I could make a decent batch.”

“Sounds good, Teddy. I’ll be right out… and thanks.”

“Taste first, then see if you still feel grateful. Hope you got Pepcid AC in this place.”

Feeling that she should at least try to get out of the mud, Charlotte stood up and straightened her clothes again, smoothing a hand over her hair as she opened the bedroom door. “The way Diana cooks, it’s a necessity,” she said to Teddy, who was obviously pleased to see her, even in her rumpled state.

“I don’t doubt it. Lady’d eat peppers on her friggin’ ice cream if they’d let her have ’em.”

“Grody, but true,” the lawyer said, grimacing at the notion. “Everyone has something like that, though. Some gastronomic peccadillo that everyone else finds freaksome.”

“Oh yeah? What’s yours, then?” Teddy asked, setting a slow pace as they walked to the kitchen.

Charlie noticed that the baseball game was on television – and the Padres were indeed losing again. “Me? Too dull to discuss. My taste buds are very sheltered.”

“Baloney.”

“Well, I used to like that,” Charlie jumped in, “but I forgot to remove the little red ring from the outer rim of a slice once. Choked on it until I turned blue. That put me off circular lunch meats for good.”

Teddy took a second to shake off the image of Charlotte turning Smurfette blue, then agreed that bologna was indeed dangerous. “We’ll just do chicken and veggies today, seeing as I’m supposed to make sure you stay healthy and all, you know?”

“I know.”

That was a reminder she didn’t need. Following a few steps behind, she trailed him into the kitchen with her good humor clinging by a thread. She didn’t want to mistakenly let anything slip about what Diana was really doing today. Teddy had a way of asking leading questions that reminded her of the scores of perpetually suspicious cops she had deposed over the past few years – their methods were smooth, but hardly subtle. As soon as she could, Charlie turned on the countertop radio beside the microwave and let the music substitute for conversation as they cooked.
——————————————————————————–

During the meal and after, Charlie found herself doing more listening that talking. Teddy seemed eager to keep up the patter just to prevent the young woman from getting nervous as another hour passed with no word from Diana. Charlie found the gruff man to be most forthcoming when plied by understanding smiles and genuine curiosity.

He talked very little about his time in the service, but was more comfortable discussing his two teen daughters and his work. Eventually, the attorney finagled the topic around to his defunct marriage – a subject change he hadn’t discussed much with anyone. They each had a bottle of beer – their second and last – and were trying to avoid watching the nerve-wracking conclusion of the Braves/Padres contest as Kerry Ligtenberg came in to close it out for Atlanta.

“If you don’t mind me being nosy, why did you get divorced?” Charlotte asked, propping herself up on the couch as Teddy settled in the recliner.

“Psheww. Sad story.” Teddy sipped his Coors and shook his head. “Depress the hell outta ya to hear it.”

“Actually, I’m already… nevermind. You guys were together for how long?”

“Twenty-two years, three months, eleven days – give or take a couple hours. Met at the VA hospital where she was a nurse. My back stayed all messed up for a few years after the chopper crash in ‘Nam, and she decided I needed taking care of. We got married a week later.”

Charlie nodded, vaguely able to identify. “Whirlwind courtship.”

“I thought so at first, but later… I dunno. It started to feel like we’d settled for each other ’cause we were scared of bein’ alone. We stayed together for the kids, mostly. Then, she got a better offer from some doctor she used to see.”

“An old beau?”

“Yeah. Friggin’ proctologist, if you can grasp that shit.” Teddy rubbed a hand over his chin, covered in itchy dark stubble and breathed a heavy sigh. “She says he’s the love of her life – a guy who spends all day tickling prostates. Unbelievable.”

“And she hadn’t seen him in over twenty years? At all?” Charlotte probed nervously, trying hard not to hit any sensitive nerves as her morbid curiosity took over.

“Nope. Guy was working at a clinic in Boston all during our marriage. No contact between ’em as far as I could tell – and yes, I did check.”

“But she still had feelings for him – the time passing didn’t matter.”

“Not to Sherrie. She packed up and took the kids while I was working third shift one night. Moved in with him and his little boy up on Windham Hill. Just like that, my family was gone.”

“Teddy, I’m sorry,” Charlie offered sadly. “You still see your girls, right?”

“Oh yeah, I screamed and yelled for visitation rights. Alternate weekends and two weeks in summer. I’m taking ’em to Hawaii for ten days in August,” he explained, smiling from ear to ear.

“Isn’t that expensive?”

“Yup. But what’s money for if you can’t waste it on those you love?”

Charlotte grinned at that sentiment and took a long pull from her chilled bottle. Diana was always on her case about her frivalous spending habits, even though she had an excellent excuse. Charlie simply weighed the potential gain from leaving the money in the bank to draw interest against the immeasurable benefit of seeing winsome blue eyes turn shy and demure as some surprise or another was discovered hidden in her jacket pocket or shining up from the bottom of her wine glass.

The clever attorney even made a game of it a few times, just to see if Diana would discover the gifts without prompting. A Movado watch was slipped into the dash pocket of the Porsche, a pair of sapphire earrings hidden among rattling bottles in the medicine cabinet, two Lilith Fair tickets (in plastic sleeves) smuggled inside a packed lunch turkey hoagie. Each time, an accompanying note would explain the presence of the present with eloquent brevity.

“I love you

C.”

That was usually the extent of it. Charlie felt that was explanation enough. On several occasions, Diana tried to make her take the pricey gifts back. Each time, the formerly irresistable agent failed to achieve her objective.

“Does your wife mind you spoiling the girls?” Charlie asked.

“Who cares if she minds?” Teddy answered coolly. “Coldfinger spoils ’em rotten, so she can’t say squat to me for making the most of my time with my kids.”

Nearly spitting out her beer, Charlie choked out something between a gasp and a cough as she latched onto the throwaway insult. “Coldfinger??”

“Heh. Just a nickname for Doctor Tickle. Gina, my youngest, told me that one. Sings that James Bond ‘Goldfinger’ song sometimes, with different words. She don’t like him so much. Says he’s tryin’ to to buy them off and turn her mother into June Cleaver.”

“I can’t see that happening to anyone who was married to you. She’s got to have more on the ball than most women to have put up with a hardcase like you for two decades.”

“Ah, shit. Guess that’s as close to a compliment as I’ve gotten in ages,” Teddy rumbled, shifting in the recliner to ease his back. “Sherrie’s tryin’ hard to fit in up there on the hill, but she never will.”

“Windham’s a snooty neighborhood, alright,” Charlotte agreed, wizened by personal experience. Windham Hill was the hoity-toity area where her father had chosen to build his obscenely expensive manse twelve years ago, the house she and Emily pejoritively referred to as “Xanadu – stately home of Charles Foster Browning.”

Inherited money from a wealthy uncle had financed the construction, and the sisters watched with horrfied eyes as their father squandered piles of cash to build his dream house – which looked to the girls like some gothic temple from the fevered imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft. The new Browning house fit in the general scheme of Windham Hill about as well as a scaly pewter dragon in a curio cabinet full of dewy-eyed Dreamsicle figurines.

“Snooty don’t quite cover it,” the swarthy man agreed, “but Sherrie’s done two things that keep her from ever being too much like those robot ladies up there.”

Charlie sat up and fixed him with an inquisitive smirk. “Do tell.”

Theodore Rinna grinned broadly and counted off on thick fingers. “One – she’s held a job. Two – she’s had an orgasm.”

After a brief, uncomfortable pause during which Charlotte reflected on the miniscule likelihood that her mother had or ever would know either of those experiences, she found herself doing something that was unthinkable only minutes before. She laughed. Hard enough and long enough that Teddy Rinna jumped from the recliner and pounded her on the back until she regained both her breath and her self-control.

“Oh, oh… Jesus!” she gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “I’m going straight to hell!”

Teddy was a scoche confused as he backed away and watched for a relapse. “Whatdja do?”

“Just thinking… heh. My… my mother is one of those… robot women,” Charlie explained haltingly. “She and Sherrie would have nothing to talk about.”

Dark eyes widened beneath bushy brows as the man choked down his embarrassment. “Shit. Sorry ’bout that. I didn’t know you came from money or nothin’. You just… you don’t act like it.”

“Thank you very much,” she said, completely sincere. “I don’t really come from that place, or anywhere like Windham. I was raised on military bases. Daddy was a career Navy man. He got a lump of cash when his uncle passed away, and he moved on up to the east side, so to speak.”

Teddy nodded as he sunk back into his chair, idly wondering how his attempt to divert Charlotte from worry had turned into some kind of sensitive chat. Diana had warned him that she had a way of pulling you into saying more than you wanted, but this was the first time he had experienced it first hand. This little lawyer would have made a pretty smooth cop – but now it was his turn to be nosy.

“Still, your folks had enough dough to educate you, right? Law school ain’t cheap.”

“Nope, it certainly isn’t. I thought law was a nice, respectable field to explore, one that would make my folks happy – a safe option. But my father didn’t shell out more than the price of a bus ticket to send me to school,” Charlie recalled gravely. “I lucked into some generous scholarships and wrote other people’s term papers to get spending money. Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Browning don’t own one share of stock in me, not that they ever wanted to.”

“You don’t get along?”

“No.”

“Is the shit fresh or petrified?”

A tiny smile for that colorful metaphor. “Mixed bag, I guess. They’re not thrilled about how I live my life today, but it goes back a long way. I don’t think their children lived up to their expectations. From birth right on, we provided a steady series of disappointments for them. Emily was blessed with Luis in high school, and he helped her to learn a better way of dealing with them.”

“How’s that?”

“They started their own business so they would never need to ask for anything, then they started a family. The kids give them a kind of edge, so they can bargain from a position of power. If mom and dad want to see their grandchildren, they have to try and behave like human beings.”

“I guess they gave your sister a fit when she trumped ’em.”

“Lord, yes! Especially over Luis. They went nuts when she announced she was moving out and marrying… as my father put it, “some goddamned wetback bean farmer.” It really burns daddy up that Luis and Emmy are doing so well. They have three boats now, you know. One of them is really, really nice. A cruiser they bought at a government auction last fall.”

“One of them seized property things, where they sell off stuff from drug dealers and such?”

“That’s it. Well, the boat used to belong to a client of mine. You remember Marco Falcon?”

“Shit, yeah! He’s doing life in Leavenworth!”

“Uh-huh. Marco’s prized boat. Worth over one million dollars retail, sold to my sister for just over ninety-thousand bucks. Ironic, eh?”

“Damn. I can see why they resent her. She don’t need them for nothin’ at all, really,” Teddy observed, still smiling about that sweet boat deal. “So they lost out on her when loverboy came along, but what turned it around for you? Had to come to a head somewhere, as sour as you are now.”

Charlotte closed her eyes and rubbed the lids. She did not want to dredge up that sordid tale of her own ignorance and naivety, but part of her promised that the memory was too old and toothless to hurt her now. She wasn’t that same teenage dupe, the girl left wondering what she did wrong.

* I did nothing wrong. It wasn’t my fault. Just remember that and it’ll be okay. *

“I got into some trouble my freshman year of college, and my parents never got past it.”

“You got in trouble?” Teddy was incredulous. “Betcha got caught selling those bogus term papers.”

Charlie’s hazel eyes dimmed a little as the memories crept up slow. “It was more serious than that, I’m afraid. There was a lot of drug activity at Berkley that year, and the cops had warrants to do room searches with canine units.”

“They hauled out the drug dogs? Shit. Must have been bad news all around.”

“I’ll say. I got busted with half a kilo of cocaine in my dorm room.”

Surprise didn’t cover Teddy Rinna’s reaction as his color paled and his mouth dropped open. Even his mustache curled a little from the shock. “No fuckin’ way!! You?? Nahhh. Had to be planted by some skell, right? Right?”

“Well… yes and no.” Charlie’s voice dropped to a shamed whisper as she tried to put a better spin on the dumbest mistake she ever made. “Of course the cocaine wasn’t mine, but I knew who put it there. It wasn’t just some skell, either.”

“Whoever it was, I hope to hell you turned ’em in!”

“I didn’t say anything at first, actually. I wanted to give her a chance to come forward on her own, to do the right thing. She never did. I thought she’d help me… I thought she was my friend.”

The shamus was pissed well beyond his rights that anyone would do such a thing to Charlotte, but he was determined to keep a lid on it, not to overstep his bounds. “Anybody who’d stick you with a felony bust ain’t no friend,” Teddy noted acidly, rubbing his mustache back into shape.

“Yeah, that’s what my sister told me. She finally convinced me to go to the police and work with them until we got a deal out of it. Turned out my “friend” had a nice little side business going, selling coke to grad students on weekends. They found was enough white powder in her car to choke Tony Montana, so they let me off pretty light.”

“You don’t actually still have a record, do you?”

“No, that was taken care of by my terribly embarrassed father One black mark on my juvenile record, expunged when daddy twisted a few arms among his friends on the bench. That was that, he said, but I don’t think he ever honestly believed me. He never forgave me for humiliating him, for causing his neigbors to gossip about his junkie daughter.”

“What a shitbird,” Teddy sighed angrily. “How ’bout the bitch who planted the coke? She do time for her little monkeyshines?”

“No, her family just pulled her out of school and flew her back to Japan. I think her father paid off a lot of the people involved. He was some big shot businessman or something.”

“Man, the rich get away with everything. That girl could have totally screwed up the rest of your life, and she gets away clean? It ain’t right.”

“Nobody gets away clean,” Charlotte said as she slipped quietly away into a freefall of memories. She knew in her heart that even that girl paid for her offenses somehow.

* The universe has a way of taking everything you put out and returning it to you three-fold. *

If that was true, the beautiful young Asian woman who held her hand, who kissed her more softly than she had ever imagined possible, who looked deeply into the eyes of a trusting seventeen year-old girl and lied with deft precision… well, she had the furies of hell waiting for her back in Japan. Maybe she knew it.

* She certainly didn’t seem to want to go home. *

——————————————————————————–
“I would sooner rot in prison,” she had said, angry tears flowing as two massive men in black suits shoved her into a waiting limousine. “I can’t go back to him again! I’d rather die!”

The men did not speak, to Lia or anyone else. They behaved like soldiers who were under strict orders, not allowed to use discretion. They simply came, took her, and left. Just like that.

Now that Charlotte thought about it, that was really kind of creepy, the way those men acted. A little shiver ran up her spine as she recalled their stiff faces, dark glasses, threatening bulges under the shoulders of those black jackets…
——————————————————————————–

“Charlie?” Teddy called softly. “Hey, you in there?”

Blinking her way back to the present, she mumbled an affirmative.

“The girl – she have a name?”

“Why do you want to know, Ted?”

He grumped a little, finishing his beer as he tried to explain in dispassionate terms. “In case I ever run across her on the street, I want to be sure I run across her on the street, okay?”

Against her will, Charlotte Browning chuckled dryly. “You sound just like Emily. There’s no point in being angry, though. What’s past is past, and I’ll probably never see her again.”

“I wouldn’t say that. It’s an awfully small world we live in. You can’t say for sure that she won’t pop into town and give you the chance to pop her flush on the jaw.”

“That could be interesting,” the attorney reflected, indulging in an Ally McBeal-esque ass kicking fantasy. Her smile turned sinister as she envisioned landing a gorgeous right hook to one of those unrealistically high cheek bones, and following up with a stream of invective she was too hurt and timid to loose back when she had the chance. “Really very interesting.”

Charlie’s wicked expression did not go unnoticed by her sharp-eyed chaperone. “So, you gonna tell old Teddy the name of this walking corpse?”

“Her name was Lia Imada. Still is, I would think – if she’s still alive. With her penchant for getting into trouble, she probably should have died years ago.”
——————————————————————————–
Eleven

“I’m assuming from your lack of tears that she’s still alive,” the man asked, no real concern in his voice. He popped three Tums tablets into his mouth and crunched them into fruit-flavored dust, habitually swallowing the antacids without any real expectation of relief.

“Sorry to disappoint you, but yes, she is still among the living,” answered the woman, keys jangling in her slim hand. “On the other hand, you look half-dead, Daniel.”

Dan’s tan trousers and white sport shirt were wrinkled and smelled stale, his eyes ringed with the faint purple of exhaustion. “Did you give her the injection?” he inquired lazily, his shoulders slumped as he held up a wall in the hallway, just outside the bedroom door Julia was locking.

“Yes, I gave her the injection. Now perhaps I should prep a dose of vitamin B for you,” the immaculate blonde suggested, slipping her keys into a pocket of her pressed, pearl gray slacks. The matching silk noile blouse showed no signs of having been worn before, even though it was a favorite. Julia’s outfits usually looked new enough to clothe a display mannequin at Nordstrom’s.

“Don’t need a shot. I’m fine.”

“You look very tired. Have you slept at all recently?”

“Not since Thursday night, no. I don’t feel like sleeping on this job.”

“That’s foolish. You can be of no help if you are worn down. I am ordering you to lie on the couch for a rest, whether you sleep or not.”

“I want to know about this drug therapy you’re trying on the girl,” he insisted, not budging from his spot against the wall.

“Go to the couch and we’ll discuss it.”

Seeing no point in causing trouble when Julia was trying to seem reasonable, he nodded his assent and moved into the living room to sit on the sofa. She did not join him.

“Lie down,” her voice commanded softly.

“Yes, master.” Dan stretched out awkwardly, his legs dangling over one end.

Pacing around behind the sofa, just out of his sight, Julia began to break down her latest attempt to crack open their prisoner’s psyche.

“She was too weak to try this earlier, but now that she’s eating… well, we can move forward with certain approaches. This morning, I lit on the idea of combining the traditional sodium pentethol therapy with one of Dr. Mangano’s own synthetic creations – the forebrain stimulant.”

Dan covered his eyes and sighed. “Forebrain stimulant? Mother Mary….”

“Mangano sounds more like Victor Frankenstein every day, no?”

“Whatever. I’m with you so far. Is the combo safe?”

“Well, his research indicated that spikes of fever and dizziness were common as side-effects, but the combination was overall judged stable. The point is to increase neural activity in the forebrain – the storehouse of long-term memory – and to combine that enhanced access with the inhibition dampening effects of sodium pentethol.”

“So you stir up the memory pot and wait for the truth syrum to make what’s buried rise to the top.”

Julia smiled and stopped pacing. “Succinctly put, Danny.”

She checked her watch, finding that less than five minutes had passed since the injection. Mangano’s records indicated a waiting period of at least twenty minutes while the drugs took effect, followed by up to twelve hours of viable interrogation time – providing the subject stayed conscious.

“Sorry, but this sleep thing just isn’t happening for me,” Dan announced suddenly, sitting up and smoothing a hand over his hair. “How long until we can speak with her?”

“Not long now,” Julia answered shortly. “I’ll be questioning her alone. Why don’t you -”

“Go out on the deck and get some air?” he interrupted, finishing her routine recommendation. “I swear, you’re like a broken record sometimes. That’s all you ever tell me to do.”

Platinum brows jumped in amusement. “Sorry if you’re finding this assignment monotonous.”

“I just don’t see the point of my being here. You do ninety-nine percent of the interrogations, and you certainly don’t need anyone’s help for security. I’m not a general services op, Julia – I work numbers and linguistics. Over twelve years, I’ve been in the field less than twenty times.”

“And your point is?”

“Why me? Why the hell am I here?”

Julia braced her hands on the back of the couch and looked down into Dan’s face. “I think you know. You’ve not disappointed me yet.”

“But I haven’t done anything!”

“Oh, yes. Yes, you have.”

Dan said nothing, didn’t even breathe. He knew he was busted.

“Actually, I found it curious that you waited until this morning,” Julia continued. “You left when I was in the shower, yes? To rendezvous with some handsome devil in brown shortpants.”

His countenance drained of what little color it held, the tall man managed to clear his throat and choke down the hard little ball of fear rising in his gorge. “You’ve lost me,” he lied. “Maybe you’d better draw me a picture.”

“Happily. UPS tracking software indicates that your package – addressed to Deborah Carson at 313 Meadows Drive in Elceda, California – was delivered today at 12:13 PM.” Julia leaned closer to the frightened man and smiled, the devil dancing in the glowing ashpiles of her eyes. “Thank you very, very much, Daniel. You have been a great help.”

“You – you knew that I would contact Diana?”

“Oh, yes. Men are sometimes very sentimental when it comes to women, be they lovers or friends. I was certain that – if you felt she were in danger – you would try to put her in contact with help. In our world, help equals Harry Mars. You sent her a coded phone unit and updated numbers, I assume.”

Dan nodded mutely, certain that he had somehow betrayed Diana Starrett by offering her aid, certain that Julia would make sure he did not live out the day. “Why me?” he croaked again. “Why not just send her a unit yourself?”

“Our relationship… suffered some damage when we parted last. Diana would not trust anything coming from me. If I extended an olive branch, she would likely use it to beat me to death. The only people with credibility were you and Eladio. He’s dead.”

“Leaving me.”

“Precisely. This situation with Yoshima will raise two mysteries for our girl to solve, and Diana will need answers. Even if it suited my goals to be honest and provide her with blunt truth, I couldn’t be the one to tell her. For one answer, Harry’s resources and trustworthiness are required, so she needed a way to contact him. She may talk to him first, or she may come here. It depends on whether she still puts others before herself.”

“If Mars can help her with one answer, what about the second?”

“Well, for the second answer, she will have to come here. The second answer is locked in the first bedroom on the left, and she’s probably running an elevated temperature by now. Diana will be most anxious to see her, once Yoshima spills the beans on that count. Also, I have changed my opinion on the issue of who will get here first. She’ll beat the Yaks here, hands down.”

“B-b-but-”

“Don’t stammer, Danny. It’s a good thing.”

To say that Dan was confused was a wholly insufficient characterization of his mental state. He knew that Julia had some plan involving Diana Starrett, Yoshima, and the girl, but his general ideas did not match up at all with these… tactics – although he felt that term should be applied loosely.

“Why would you want Diana on the offensive? I don’t get it.”

“You’re not supposed to get it. It’s my evil master plan, and only I should get it,” Julia explained, then sighed in exaggerated impatience as she stood straight and slipped both hands into her pants pockets. “You should probably go out on the deck and stare at the mudhole for a while. What happens to you from here on out will be based on your ability to mind your own business and cover your own ass. Now go on.”

Dismissed and dazed, but mercifully still alive, Dan made his way through the sliding glass doors and onto the wooden deck. A blaze of white sunlight burned over his pale face, spawning swarms of yellow dots to swim beneath his closed eyelids. He suddenly felt sick.

Stumbling to his left, he headed to the far side of the deck, to a place where Julia couldn’t see him if he had to vomit. He felt dizzy – make that dizzy and furious and ashamed – as his hands groped around in the inner dark between the hyperactive yellow specks, trying to find the wooden hand rail before it was too late to spare his shoes from an awful fate.

“Used me,” he whispered hoarsely, swallowing hard to keep his stomach level. “She just used me like a… like a -”

“Tampon?” offered a low voice, a soft boom from near his left elbow.

His eyes flew open, and he was momentarily blind as he tried to find the outline, the form to fit the voice. Dan slowly regained his focus and found himself looking at a tourist – a crazy tourist, if the turquoise embroidery on her hat was telling the truth. She was leaning into the corner where the rail met the house, silent and invisible unless she wanted to be heard or seen.

“Diana?”

“Toughen up, Dan,” she said simply, her mouth barely moving beneath the shadow of her cap bill. “You get used to being used after a while. I think I’ve played guinea pig about as much as I’ve played spy games. Sheer luck I didn’t wind up in Richard Gere’s ass, I guess.”

Swallowing hard again, he tried to match her tone; not quite joking, not quite psychotic. “I heard it was a hamster. Anyway, that’s just an urban legend, Di.”

“I know. I’m sure Richard is as square as they come. Is she here?”

“Uhhh…” Dan was at a loss. “Julia’s inside.”

A sharp glint off her mirrorshades as she lifted her head. “Not who I mean. Is Angelia here?”

Dan did not speak. Diana’s shoulders seemed to square, and she angled herself toward the entrance. He felt compelled to try and stop her, or at least warn her somehow.

“I know you think this is something you have to do, but -”

“What?”

“You shouldn’t. Diana, just leave her alone, leave this alone. Julia is up to no good, and she wants you in the middle of it for some reason. Don’t let her use you.”

The tall woman didn’t seem to be listening, her attention focused on the glass doors. He wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t thought herself a thousand times on the drive over. She spoke dryly to him, as if issuing a news bulletin.

“Yoshima sent some goons to bring back Angelia and kill both of you. You should get in that little dingy on the landing and row around the lake until this is over. Let Julia handle them.”

“How do you know they’re coming?”

“Passed them on the way here. Two cars, maybe seven minutes behind me. Get in the water, Ahab. And Dan,” she said, glancing back over a shoulder at the scarecrow-like man, “thanks for trying.”

Not waiting for a reply, Diana turned and moved to the glass doors, slipping inside with less than a whisper of noise. Dan watched her go and said a quick prayer for both of their lives. He walked calmly to the steps and trotted down to the landing, intent on taking a leisurely tour of the suddenly scenic and immensely appealing mudhole.
——————————————————————————–

Inside the lake house, Diana crept barefoot across the mustard yellow carpet, watching and listening for anything, everything. Old furnishings scattered through the room provided a virtual obstacle course as she weaved between a yellow and orange couch, loveseat, and recliner set in a tight conversational grouping near the glass double doors. The dark creme walls were hung with cheap paintings of bucolic lake scenes, all of which were infinitely preferable to this shithole.

Against a far wall closer to the kitchen, she saw computer equipment set up on a dark wooden desk, and recognized the setup as one intended for satellite conferences. A slim, black component she knew to be a high-powered receiver flashed a disconnect signal across the green strip of LED panel. It also indicated that Satcom J8 – an encryption-capable relay three times larger than any floating Ma Bell the major networks used – had been tapped for the last connection.

* Julia’s been busy conducting international fireside chats… so whatever she wants with Angelia isn’t her primary objective. She’s playing on a bigger field. *

Diana moved on, checking the adjoining kitchen – where some lingering smell caught her attention.

* Is that bacon? *

Moving on to the hallway, she found three doors, all closed. Diana moved to the first door and put her hand on the knob. Twisting in a slow circle, she was surprised to find it unlocked. Once the bolt was clear from the frame, she pushed the door open a crack, careful to make no sound. Through the crack, she could see the foot of a large bed, covered in a white and blue striped comforter. Someone was in the bed. A slight swelling under the covers shifted restlessly.

* My God… after all this time. Could that be- *

“Don’t wake baby,” a playful warning interrupted from the far end of the hall, where Julia stood watching. “I just got her down for a nap.”

Diana spun like a dervish, both hands raised and ready for a fight, even though she didn’t relish the idea. She had fought Julia before, and it was not a cakewalk; in head to head sparring, the two were fairly evenly matched, despite differences in age, height, and weight. If Julia wanted to make an issue of something, things could get very messy. Diana vowed to herself that if there was any other way to get the girl and get out, she would find that alternate route and run it.

“Now, now. There’s no need to get defensive,” Julia said calmly. “I mean you no harm, Diana.”

The dark woman was not interested, her blue eyes dull and hard behind the reflective glasses. She had only one question on her mind at that moment, and it had nothing to do with Julia’s intentions.

“Is that her?”

“Is what who?”

Diana advanced a step, pushing her glasses up onto her head and fixing the blonde with an arctic stare. “That lump in the bed. Is that Angelia Kamura?”

“Hideo Yoshima’s step-daughter, wasn’t she?” Julia stalled maddeningly, smirking. “I thought Ms. Kamura was dead.”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Diana hissed, coming closer, snarling.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Is… that… her?” Diana repeated, punctuating each word with a step, until she stood less than a yard from the slim, gray-clad blonde.

“Are you in such a rush that you can’t offer me a proper hello?” the Swede persisted. “When last we met, you were not alone. We were unable to spend any time together.”

“Answer me, Julia. Answer me, or I will take you d- ”

“Diana, we both know you were only able to take me when I wanted to be taken.”

The words hung in the air between them, laden with too much history to stay there for long.

* I’m threatening her and she’s flirting?? Christ All-fucking-mighty!! * Diana thought, growing more agitated every second.

“Goddammit! Stop messing with me and answer my goddamned question!!”

“Heavens. I knew Yoshima would get you worked up, darling, but really. Calm yourse-”

That did it. In Diana’s unstable state, the mere mention of that bastard’s name was more than enough to answer her question and blow her stack. Diana instantly had one hand around Julia’s throat as another darted to a pressure point in her right thigh. The sudden numbness in her leg dropped Julia to her knees and then she was shoved down onto her back. The reason she didn’t try to stop Diana was simple; she wanted it to happen.

“You want to play with me?” her attacker asked, dripping violent menace. Diana straddled Julia’s waist and pinned both of her arms beneath her knees. She applied steady pressure to that slender throat with five strong fingers – not enough to choke, but more than adequate to indicate that genuine throttling might soon commence. The other hand remained cocked in a half-fist, ready to rain down like Zeus’ own thunderbolt.

“Okay, let’s play a game, Jules,” Diana proposed, easing her grip enough to let her captive speak.

“Oh, goody,” the Swede smiled, her face flush with a perverse excitement.

“I’m gonna ask you one simple question and you’re gonna answer it. You tell me the truth and I won’t crush your larynx.”

“What do I get if I lie?”

“You get unconscious, then you get dead.”

“Now, Diana! You wouldn’t kill me, would you?”

“Not me. Eleven Yakuza toughs are gonna storm in here in about five minutes – ten with guns, one with a sword.”

“A sword,” Julia mused, not looking worried in the least. “Oh, my.”

“He wants to cut off your head.”

“How absolutely cliche.”

“Yoshima also seems to think that you have Angelia Kamura, alive and well, as your prisoner.”

“Well is such a relative term, don’t you think?”

“Obviously, you’re reaming Yoshima’s wallet out pretty good to get him this pissed off…”

“I’m doing my best.”

“And it’s obvious that – somehow – Angelia is still living. You have her, and that is her in that bed.”

“That didn’t sound like a question.”

“It wasn’t. My question is… what the hell do you want with me?”

“With you?”

“Yes, me! You snatched the girl from Hideous and brought her here, of all places! I think you did it so that Yoshima’s shit would land – literally – in my back yard!”

“That’s trespassing and public defecation. You should phone the authorities.”

“Why did you bring her here and lead him to me??”

“Is that a separate question from the first one?”

Diana’s hand came down and landed a sharp, stinging slap to Julia’s cheek. By the time the blonde registered the blow, that hand was raised and ready to deliver another. She ran her tongue inside her cheek, lighting on a small cut bleeding slowly over her right molars.

“Nice one, Di,” she said, flashing a grin. “Have you been practicing on the lawyer?”

The choking hand tightened and the striking hand curled instantly into a fist and dropped like lightning. Julia closed her eyes and eagerly anticipated the pain… but it never came. Gray eyes flashed open to find that full fist hovering just over her nose. She was pinned still by a pair of infuriated blue orbs, awash in hatred, restrained from dealing death by the thinnest of threads.

“Mention her again and I will kill you,” Diana promised.

Julia ran her tongue around and through the pooling blood inside her mouth, then licked her lips, painting them a bright, livid red. “Guess you don’t engage in… roughhousing anymore.”

Shaking her head, Diana sneered, “No, that was always your thing, Jules. Now answer me, or you won’t be able to defend yourself when sword boy gets here. Four minutes.”

“Release the pinch on my leg and I’ll give you the condensed version.”

Diana leaned forward carefully, keeping one hand on Julia’s throat while the other hand crept behind her back. Fingers skimmed over the top of one silk-clad thigh, finally slipping down between the pinned woman’s legs and applying hard pressure until the blood flow resumed to the limb.

“Well, didn’t that feel like old times,” Julia observed, wincing as a feeling like one million pinpricks wounded her leg from inside as the starved tissues came back to life.

“What part do I play in your current drama?” the dark woman asked, unmoved.

“Why, you’re the heroine, of course. You get to save the girl and make the world a safer place for capitalist governments, all by doing two simple little things.”

Julia stopped and smiled. Diana, if it was possible, got even angrier.

“And? Spit it out! WHAT!?”

“I want you to take the girl with you,” Julia announced evenly. “You said that surfacing would likely have killed you if you didn’t know love?”

“So wha- waitaminute. Riggins washed her?”

“At this point, that is my strong suspicion. If she’s faking, she might drop the act if confronted by the woman she murdered. If she is under… well, you are probably the only person Angelia Kamura would come back for, either to kill you again or to reunite with the lover she grievously wronged.”

“No,” Diana protested weakly, “she didn’t wrong me. I wronged her.”

“You sap!” Julia interjected. “You didn’t actually kill him! That wasn’t your fault, Diana!”

“She didn’t know that! I couldn’t convince her -”

“Well, now’s your chance. Take her with you. Help her to regain herself and set things right, then move on to the second part of your charge – tell Harry where she hid the stolen files.”

“Three minutes. What files are you referring to?”

“Oh, you remember! The data she pirated from Yoshima, the stuff she was planning to bargain with so that you two could run away together,” Julia explained, barely able to keep from laughing at that last part. “Surely you recall viewing the research she stole. You told former director Riggins all about it, after all.”

“Yes,” Diana admitted, her heart contracting in guilty spasms. * Big mistake. *

“Take Angelia someplace safe and talk to her. She’ll remain in a drugged state for the next twelve hours, so try to make something happen before she comes back around. She’s a tough nut to crack when she has full possession of her faculties. Not the girl you knew at all.”

“Where?” Diana let go of Julia’s throat, which was red and raw, with signs of severe bruising already showing. “Where can I take her? Yoshima has all the safe house addresses.”

“Figure that out on the road, but don’t tell anyone where you are. Except Harry.”

“Yoshima… he knows where we live. I can’t leave Charlie unprotected. No way.”

“Her protection comes from the edges we hold over Yoshima, and those are increasing all the time. Just to ease your mind, I’ll dispatch Dan to keep watch for a couple of days. Hideo Yoshima will be dead by mid-week. If Ms. Browning can last that long, she and her family are free and clear.”

“No! This is too dangerous, too complicated, there are too many loose ends! I don’t know how to tie them all off!” Diana raved, finally getting to her feet. She glared down at the prone woman who was likely the instigator of this entire debacle. “God damn you, Julia. Straight to the tenth level of hell.”

The platinum-haired woman slowly rose to her feet, her expression almost sad. Almost.

“It’s entirely appropriate to hate me, Diana. Just take care of the girl, talk to Mars, and you’ll come out alright. We all will.”

Suspicion lifted both brows high over cold blue twin seas. “Are you lying right now?”

“Maybe just a little. Yoshima and his boys will not come out alright. I will see to that personally.”

“He said some things to me today. He’s very sick and he thinks that I-”

“Talk to Harry,” she reiterated, stepping gingerly to the bedroom door and swinging it wide. “For now, he has more answers than I. Get the girl and go now. I must prepare the house for visitors.” Julia then turned from Diana Starrett and walked away, down the hall and out of sight.

Diana moved quickly into the small bedroom, carpeted and draped in soothing blues, and her eyes immediately found what she was looking for. Tears wanted to flow out and fall, but she had no time for regrets or fears just then. All that would come soon enough.

* Plenty of time to cry later, dummy. First priority is to stay alive. *

In the center of the queen bed, curled into the fetal position and sweating from fever, was a slim figure dressed in a white cotton nightgown. A tangled length of straight black hair clung to her back as she drove her face further into a pillow, seeking some cool comfort from the smooth fabric.

“Not me…” she whispered, “not me, not me…”

“It’s okay,” Diana found herself saying, totally without volition. “You’re gonna be okay.”

She put one knee on the coverlet and slipped both arms under the hot, damp body, scooping her up and cradling her as carefully as a newborn babe. The young woman’s face was covered by a sheet of matted hair glued in place by sweat, but Diana knew the peaks of her lips, the angle of her cheekbones as these features peeked through the veil.

“Angelia,” she said, letting her heart and mind float for an instant in the truth of it, privately confirming something to herself as she carried her living body away.

She moved down the hall and into the harsh sunlight streaming into the living room, observing Julia from the corner of her eye as she dropped two large black suitcases on the couch. One was cracked open just enough for her to glimpse the contents as she slid the glass door aside.

* Jesus! She brought two Gablers? * Diana realized with wonder. She recalled asking Harry about the curious name of the intercooled, autoloading, no-jam, 20mm monster rifle that kicked less than a three month-old fetus. She expected to hear that Gabler was a manufacturer name, only to hear:

“Julia calls it a Gabler because it’ll blow your Hedda clean off. She likes reading Ibsen.”

“Those boys don’t stand a chance,” she whispered to the moaning Angelia as they descended the deck stairs. “Kill ’em all, Jules.”

Diana broke into a dead run as soon as her feet touched the ground, and she aimed herself toward the right side of the yard – or, more accurately, toward the neighbor’s yard just beyond the battered old privacy fence. The Porsche was just over that fence, parked behind a stripped 78′ Camaro set up on cement blocks, and probably itching to ditch this whole depressing scene and devour some more highway.

Littered with patches of dried weeds and pokey little grass spurs, the dumpy yard didn’t seem an ideal place for a picnic table, but it served Diana’s purposes quite nicely as she raced toward it, jumped onto one bench, up onto the table, and leapt in a perfect hurdler’s pose over the eight foot graying wood fence.

A lightfooted landing eased the jolt to her passenger, but nearly caused Diana to weave into a staunch-looking Weber grill covered in rust. She shifted Angelia’s weight and tilted her legs higher, sweeping the hem of her nightgown over the top of the grill in a very near miss, but kept running until she stood at the passenger door of the Porsche.

“Not me… not me… not me…” the feverish young woman mumbled.

Diana fished her keys from a pocket and opened the door, shushing and soothing with as much patience as she could muster. She darted to the driver’s side and got in, and nearly fired up the engine when an ominous noise reached her ears.

* Cars coming this way – two large engines. Wait until they pass. *

She reached across Angelia’s lap and pulled the lever to lower her seat back, and then ducked her own head below the window as the Cadillacs rolled by. The vehicles turned into the drive of the safe house. Car doors opened and closed. Engines were cut. Troops marched toward their fate.

* Seven, eight, nine… *

Then the shooting started. Diana cranked the Porsche and roared out onto the shoddily paved access road, secretly smiling as the pop of the Yakuza Tec 9s was drowned out by the boom of the Gablers. The sounds doppled behind her and faded to nothing once she reached the main road, the one which led up to the highway… and down to the marina district.

* Emily said they wouldn’t take the cruiser out today if we didn’t go with them. Wonder if she meant that? The boat would be safe. Perfect to hide her in – just for a little while. *

“Hope you don’t still get sea sick,” Diana said, reaching out with one hand to brush the hair away from her passenger’s fevered brow. She could see the exhaustion and strain on Angelia’s face, but her watering eyes found no signs of aging.

“You still look the same to me. Still so… so beautiful.”

The woman, half-conscious, tilted her face into the gently stroking hand until Diana’s palm lay open against her cheek. She nuzzled the hand until her lips grazed its center, and breathed one soft word against the skin.

“Me.”

Twelve

When the Cadillacs arrived at the lake house, Hideo Yoshima’s son knew his purpose and his plan and his fate; he would retrieve Angelia by killing the blonde woman, thereby becoming the son his father wanted. It was the artless strategy of someone who had never planned an assault in his life, someone who had never wanted to do so. He was here for one simple reason – it was the only path to his father’s respect and love, a goal which now seemed further away and more impossible to attain than ever before.

Gone were the days when his missions consisted of acting as emissary, messenger or companion. Today, it was his father’s wish that he take a life. His desire to rescue his sister was strong, and he was willing to kill to bring her out safely, but he did not truly relish the task. The enthusiasm feigned for his father’s benefit was just that – false and hollow.

He feared his father. He respected the man’s strength, his will. He felt honor-bound to comply with his wishes, to make the elder Yoshima’s mission and quest his own. However, there were times when he sat waiting, thinking, wondering as silence and darkness cloaked him…

What would his father’s wishes mean to him if he were not all the young man had left in the world? If he had something – anything – else to care about, to live for, would he be spending this summer day preparing to decapitate a woman to earn the respect of that dying man?

As the cars slowed to a stop in the driveway, he clenched a sweaty hand around the hilt of the ivory katana. In that fleeting moment, he knew doubt. He knew sorrow. He knew a desperate loneliness that made his own death preferable to failure. There was no option but to go forward.

His force was ten men strong, all armed and trained to kill. They parked the cars nose to tail about fifty yards from the front of the house, and all the men disembarked from the passenger side to shield themselves against any shots from the house. Two men would provide cover fire from behind the cars while the rest of the force charged inside and overpowered the two agents.

Only ten seconds after the car doors closed, everything went to hell. Hideo Yoshima’s son forgot his fleeting acquaintance with purpose, plan and fate, as well as doubt, sorrow and loneliness, in favor of an intimate knowledge of three entirely different things.

Noise.

Sharp chittering from the Tec9s, and an awful booming in correspondence. Tearing metal and shattering glass as large, double-jacketed ammunition ripped through the Cadillacs like they were made of papier mache. He couldn’t hear or think.

Dust.

High, swirling clouds of dry, choking dust as bullets churned up the ground and men scrambled for some elusive safe place. He couldn’t breathe or see.

Fear.

Men falling close by, his face and hands peppered with their flying blood. He couldn’t scream.

And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. He could see the sun, burning a white hole in the perfect blue sky. A hot breeze blew clouds of dust away, and the only noise was the ringing in his ears. He felt the heat of the black Cadillac’s fender against his shoulder, warm and solid as he leaned against it for support. He did not remember kneeling behind the front wheel for cover, but it was probably the only reason he was still alive.

Everyone else was dead.

Ten men lay in the dirt around him, each shot in the head and chest. Some were missing large portions of their faces and skulls. Glistening shards of red bone and wet, soft matter littered the earth. He saw the barrels of their guns smoking; a testament to their efforts. One nearby man died with his eyes open, an expression of great surprise etched on what remained of his features.

The younger Yoshima wanted to throw up as he waited for the gunfire to resume, for his own oblivion to begin with the boom and crush of a bullet sinking into his body. Something in him was screaming out of resentment and anger that this was not supposed to be his fate. This was not the way he wanted to live his life, or the way he wanted it to end. Surrounded by dead men, soon to join them. Blinded to good sense by obligation, this life was his duty because he was the only son.

“Damn you for leaving me to this alone, brother. Damn you for leaving me to him,” he cursed softly, closing his eyes and tightening his fist around the ivory scabbard under his jacket. “Perhaps I was a fool for not following you when I had the chance.” He slid the katana from its sheath, the blade gleaming sharp in the sunlight. “Perhaps it is not too late.”

Shamed men have died this way for centuries, men who fail their families and themselves. Men whose strength leaves them, for whom life is over. Men who have lost more than face – men without hope of regaining their own souls. He turned the sword on himself, the tip of the blade pressing against his stomach. A hard thrust in and up, and it would all be over…

“Please don’t do that. Hara-kiri is so passé.”

The soft voice startled him, leaping out from utter silence like a cloaked attacker. He turned his head toward the sound, but saw only a long shadow with both wide arms stretched out like the wings of a condor. The shadow approached and fell across him like a cool, dark sheet, nearing until he could see her more clearly.

Looking close, he saw a vision of gray and pale gold, whose great arms were actually twin sculptures, creatures of violence crafted from gunmetal blue. The large rifles were strapped to her body, one over each shoulder. The left beast stared at him with an evil red laser eye, while the other flashed its attention on the blade of his father’s sword. The illogical impulse to attack her with the short blade came and went quickly as he admitted he was totally outgunned. His mission was now a complete loss, as was his life. “I am here to kill you,” he whispered.

“That’s not my tummy you’re poking, junior,” she said, not unkindly. “You should try to set more realistic goals.”

“I would have done it. Given the chance, I would have taken your head and given it to my father.”

“For what purpose? Bowling ball? I have a flat expanse on the roof of my pate that would kill the rotation.”

“I don’t… I didn’t…” He honestly didn’t know what purpose it would serve, now that he thought of it, but the fact that she was talking to him instead of killing him had taken him by surprise. This woman was not what he had expected. She just murdered ten men and stood there, holding the eleventh at gunpoint… joking with him? “Perhaps he wishes to display it on the mantle as a warning to enemies, or at the front gate, mounted on a pike.”

Translucent brows arched, revealing Julia’s capacity to be amused by almost anything. “He wanted to mount my skull on a fish?”

“No, I mean the sharp-ended… you are mocking me,” he observed cannily, wishing he had already pushed the katana inside his gut so that he would be closer to death. “Either that or you are simply crazy.”

“Being crazy keeps one from going insane. While we’re on that subject, what do you hope to accomplish by spilling your intestines on my driveway?”

“This is the only way to die with honor. I have failed my father and myself.”

“He sent you all here to get slaughtered. You accomplished that. You didn’t fail.”

“You… you have my sister. I failed to rescue her.”

“Rescue?!? Hah! Is that how Yoshima sees things?” Julia chuckled dryly. “Actually, I don’t know where she is at the moment. She caught a ride with an old friend. Flew the coop.”

“What? Angelia is… but my father said that you… I do not understand.”

“Obviously. Don’t trust him. The man is a demented, deluded liar.”

Against all logic, he was incensed by the assault on Yoshima’s character. The sword dug in a little tighter against his convulsing abdomen as he yelled, “HE IS MY FATHER!!”

“So what? Hideo Yoshima is a monster. He raped your sister, imprisoned your mother in an insane asylum, and caused your brother’s death. You know all these things to be true. Don’t let him take your life, too,” Julia said.

Her finger was ready to squeeze the Gabler’s trigger and stop him if necessary, but she wanted him to stop himself. If the boy was to be of any use, he had to be strong enough to defy his father’s programming and choose another path for the remainder of this journey.

“You weren’t meant for this death, and I don’t want to harm you. Put that sword down, come inside and talk to me. We can work something out.”

“No.” He pushed the sword again, feeling the bite and trickle of blood, yearning for an end to his pain and anger. “It is too late now for me to right those wrongs. I am ashamed.”

“Don’t be,” she whispered, “you have done nothing to be ashamed of. You were a child when those things happened, and the actions of your father are not your fault. But now you are a man, and your choices should be ones you can live with. You have yet to kill for him, yes?”

“You were to be my first.” The young man shook his head, loosening a single, bitter tear. “But I have done other things… terrible things for him…”

“But don’t you see? If you’re not a murderer, you are not like us yet. You are only a teenager! There is so much of your life to salvage, and your true family still lives,” Julia announced, knowing that would capture his attention.

It did. Instantly, he felt dizzy with the unfamiliar sensation of hope. He had to know what she meant by that. “My father is the only family I have left,” he whispered, pained by the admission.

“That is patently untrue. Don’t throw your life away to favor the bastard who sired you. Live for yourself, and for those who love you. Your sister and mother.”

“Father said she was far too ill to recover… that she was dead to us. Angelia doesn’t even know who I am anymore. You are lying to me.”

“Am not.”

“Stop that! Don’t mock me! Even if you were telling the truth, father would never allow-”

“For pity’s sake, would you quit fretting about your father! I’m going to take that man so far down into hell, he’ll have to look up to see Hitler,” she promised gravely. “But, when this is over, your family will need you. It’s not too late for you at all, Gedde. You have to believe that.”

His face turned up to her, eyes shiny with the mingled tears of regret and hope, Gedde Yoshima looked for a moment like the little boy who had wanted a quiet life of beautiful pictures, fingers stained with paints instead of blood. He didn’t really remember his mother, as he was told she took ill when he was only a baby, but Angelia had always said she was a woman well-worth knowing.

“It’s not too late,” Julia promised again, turning aside the rudely staring red laser eyes to let him decide in private. “Life is a difficult choice, but it is the only honorable one. Please, don’t give up on yourself yet. Find the strength within you to resist him. That strength to resist is your mother’s legacy to you and your sister. Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t give up on her.”

Dark eyes welled with tears of shame as his hand loosened around the katana and let the blade drop. He found the courage to turn away from death, not from the stranger’s words, but from within his own spirit. If there was any chance she was telling the truth, he could not risk letting Angelia and their mother down by running away from difficulty and danger, by letting the fear and shame end him… as his brother had done.

Julia slung aside one of her guns and extended a hand down to him. In her baleful shale eyes, Gedde found as pure a look of sympathy as he could remember. He didn’t know whether to believe what he was seeing, but surmised that if her emotions were not real, this woman was a genius forger.

“Take the sword with you,” she suggested in a reverent voice, playing a final card. “I’m sure your ancestors forged it more for posterity and the defense of prudent men than to slake a criminal’s selfish bloodlust. You should keep it. Restore its honor as you restore your own.”

Gedde Yoshima hesitated only a moment before he picked up the ivory scabbard and sheathed the blade, then took Julia’s hand and got to his feet. They walked side by side through the field of dead men, ventilated automobiles, and fat, buzzing summer flies. They went first to the edge of the lake, where Julia stopped and called out loudly across the water.

“IT’S SAFE NOW, DANIEL! YOU’VE BEEN REASSIGNED! COME ON BACK!”

The young Asian managed a questioning look. Even through his dazed stupor over the odd turn of events, he found it odd that any organized group would leave a woman to do this work solo. Maybe it was his strict upbringing in the sexist traditions of the Orient, but this was extremely unusual. There were no women in his father’s Yakuza, but between what he remembered of Diana Starrett’s volcanic violence and this Julia’s madcap efficacy, he wondered why the practice of employing women for such jobs was not more prevalent.

“Your partner left you to face a lethal threat alone? Is this normal procedure?”

Julia smiled thinly, still scanning the still waters for any sign of the missing agent. “Mmm, not really. He doesn’t like me very much, I’m afraid. Not sure who he was cheering for.”

“Oh.”

Five minutes ago, he thought he wanted her dead himself. Now, watching her stand there away with utter confidence and repose, he couldn’t imagine killing her. She was right; it really didn’t seem like a realistic goal. Like when heroic-minded children bury poison in the ground in an effort to kill Satan.

Who killed people like Julia, anyway? Other people like her, he supposed. Gedde Yoshima could think of only one person who might be up to the task, and she was probably busy planning to murder his father just then and couldn’t be bothered. Still, it was a clash he would pay to see.

“Do you know Diana Starrett?” Gedde asked, seemingly apropos of nothing.

Julia turned to him, her interest piqued. “Yes. Quite well, actually. Let’s go inside and chat,” she suggested, “It’s clear we have much to discuss.”

“That depends on what you want from me. I do not know why you chose to spare my life, but I wish to be of help to my mother and sister and I thank you for offering the chance. Know this, though – I will not tell you anything which will compromise my father, on pain of my life.”

“Come on, now. Don’t be so negative.” Her smile widened as she walked him back to the house, both Gablers hanging loose at her sides like casual accessories, beaded purses that fired 100 rounds per second. “Let’s be pals. Would you like some chocolate? I have a bit of this raspberry swirl confection that I picked up in Vienna. It’s to die for.”

“Chocolate?” was all he could manage to say as he mounted the stairs and climbed up to the deck.

“Yes, yes. It lifts the attitude, initiates a lovely swarm of positive neurotransmitters. Next to sex, there’s nothing better after settling a life and death struggle.”

“You are a very strange woman.”

“And you have a marvelous grasp of the obvious.” Julia opened the glass door and waved the young man inside. “Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly…”

——————————————————————————–

Thirteen

Diana parked in Luis Avila’s reserved space, making sure to prominently display her parking permit in the front window to prevent the Porsche from being towed. She popped the trunk and snagged a yellow cotton blanket left inside from a recent picnic, then carefully wrapped the soft cover around the shivering body of Angelia Kamura.

The young woman was experiencing fever and chills in rapidly alternating cycles as the drugs coursed through her system, and she moaned pitifully when Diana lifted her out of the car.

“Shhh,” the tall woman whispered, kicking the door closed with her heel as she headed for the slips. “We’ll be there in just a minute, then you can lie down again. Just hold on. Shhh. It’s okay.”

“Don’t want to go back… don’t make me, please, please, pleeeeaaassse…”

As her voice trailed away, her head lolled against Diana’s shoulder and both fidgeting hands went limp. For the third time in twenty minutes, she had passed out cold. Diana kept walking, but marveled at the efficacy of the delirium-inducing cocktail Angelia had been slipped.

“Damn, Julia! What the fuck did you give her anyway??”

Steady steps down the whitewashed dock carried them closer until Diana could see the boat. She breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that they hadn’t attracted too much attention from the boaters scattered along the waterfront; which is not to say that they weren’t noticed.

Two jauntily attired fishermen setting up the deck of their modest fishing boat gave the two women a few extra glances as they passed by, but Diana Starrett paid them little heed. There was virtually no danger of the two old-timers calling in Harbor Security once they saw she was headed for the former Falcon boat – a Sunseeker 51 Camargue.

Gossip held that the enviably luxurious cruiser occupying slip 383 had played host to Caligulan shenanigans that would make Larry Flynt blush, so one tall, dark woman smuggling aboard some unconscious, barefoot young thing wrapped in a blanket was nearly normal in comparison. All the leathered old men felt inclined to do was look at each other, smile, and clink their cans of Ensure together in salute to those who were still able to dance to that frantic beat.

Diana had a key for nearly everything these days, including a set of three for the Sunseeker. The first key let them into the cabin area, which boasted three twin beds, a full kitchen, a half-bath, and two nineteen inch televisions among its creature comforts. Cream-colored leather and carved teak were the decor staples, with thick bone carpet underfoot and ivory silk wallpaper with a subtle green jacquard design added to please the touch and the eye.

She gently settled Angelia on the bed closest to the door and eased a plump pillow under the young woman’s head, trying as best she could not to jar or startle her as the fever spiked again. One hand pressed against the burning forehead told Diana that her temperature was again in excess of 104 degrees. Doffing her own cap and shades, she let down her hair and nervously ran her fingers through the loose locks, shooting glances at the beach bag which held the phone unit.

* What to do now, Clint? Huh? Now that you’ve got the girl, what comes next? *

She knelt by the low bed, bracing her elbows on the wood frame bordering the mattress as she took a close look at Angelia’s face. Beads of perspiration erupted and rolled down her temples and into her hair. The drug was in full effect now, and time to question her was growing shorter every minute. Diana smoothed damp hair away from the girl’s sweaty brow, sighing from the pit of her soul.

“Alive. You’re alive.”

She took a long moment to revel in the simple truth of it, carefully avoiding the complicated issues that fact would inevitably raise. Diana ran her eyes down the girl’s frail body like a feather, barely touching the white cotton nightgown as she swept from slender neck to protruding hip bones, all the way down pale legs to her short, skinny little unpainted toes.

“And you need a pedicure. Maybe Julia was truthing on that count, maybe you are different now. The Angelia I knew wouldn’t even be buried without a fresh coat of toenail polish.”

* If Riggins washed you, he could have started you over someplace else. Made you rich or poor, connected or lonely, given you a whole new set of rules to play by. Who have you been for the past nine years? Who are you now? Damn. I have to call Harry, * she realized, then gasped as another pressing matter occurred to her. * Fuck! I have to call Charlie! She’s gonna roast me on a spit if I don’t tell her something soon. Later. I’ll call them later. I need to talk to you first, don’t I? *

“God only knows why Riggins didn’t kill you,” she whispered, watching closed eyelids twitch and bulge as the girl was gripped by some fever vision. “I wonder, do you know? Did he tell you? Did he want you alive to fulfill some purpose, some plan? Do you know any more about his motives than I do? Once, as I was choking him, he called you ‘collateral damage.’ So why didn’t he kill you?”

“No… stop stop stop…” came a low, pleading moan, accompanied by a sudden lurch and twist of the still body which startled Diana. She moved a bit closer and took one small hand in a slight grip, reassured when the frail fingers tightened around her thumb. Angelia seemed to calm down at the contact, her disturbance ebbing into a soft series of gasps. Diana couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking, whether the reaction was prompted by her insistent questions.

“I don’t want to wake you, but… putting this off won’t make it easier for either of us,” she explained gently, mostly to herself. “There are things I need to know, Angelia. I’ve got two monkeys on my back, and you know something that can shake one of them loose. I need to talk to you.”

Diana squeezed the hand she held tighter, and saw a flutter beneath the closed lids. “Wake up.”

She moved her other hand to the girl’s face, tracing whispery lines across her cheek. “Wake up.”

“Nooo…”

Patting her cheek, harder and harder, until it became a tender slap. “Come on. Please. Please.”

“Hurt me… go awaaay…”

“I promise I won’t hurt you,” Diana swore, silently adding the word ‘again’ to her vow.

“Lies… I lie, you lie…”

“I won’t lie to you, Angel. I won’t hurt you. Just, please… talk to me. Wake up.”

“Nobody left… alone.” Her breathing quickened and she rolled onto her side, curling into a ball and crushing Diana’s hand to her chest as she screamed, “DON’T LEAVE ME! NO! NO!”

Eyes wide and slightly panicked, Diana wrapped a half embrace around the quivering young woman and drew her close. She leaned half onto the bed as she felt herself pulled in tight by Angelia’s free arm looping around her neck, a sudden heat against her throat as the delusional girl burrowed into her skin in a search for safety.

“Shhh. It’s okay. I won’t leave you alone,” Diana said solemnly, her lips grazing a delicate red earlobe as her charge twisted in her arms. “I promise to keep you safe this time. Nobody’s gonna hurt you.”

The girl’s concealed almond eyes peeked open, but refused to focus as she remained caught between consciousness and dream. Angelia opened her mouth to speak, but no words came, only breath; hot breath blowing into a curtain of long, dark hair, then reversing to pull in a flood of molecules emitted from the scalp, neck, from behind the ears – the scent of her protector.

The olfactory nerve is capable of recognizing and cataloging a multitude of scents, and somewhere deep in her mind, she knew that slightly floral, minty odor. Maybe that smell was what triggered it, the process of her mind sweeping up crumbs of experience lying long-forgotten on a dusty floor and organizing them into a meal – or at least a semblance of an appetizer.

“Diana, don’t,” the lost girl whispered, falling away from the fevered present into the coolness of a snow-covered memory. “He’ll hurt you…”
——————————————————————————–

She steps between you and the man who wants to hurt you, to frighten you until you beg. She isn’t afraid of what he’ll do, but you are.

“Diana, don’t. He’ll hurt you,” you say, feeling her hand slip from your shoulder.

“No, he won’t. Will you, Mr. Yoshima?”

His eyes darken and he sneers. “This is none of your concern, Miss Starrett. Leave us.”

She shakes her head, her shoulders squared. You had not realized until that moment how tall she was, how imposing she could look. “Angelia is not to blame. It was my idea to go out for a little air. She came along to make certain I didn’t get lost. Please don’t be angry with her.”

You struggle to keep your jaw from dropping. Her words are carefully chosen to sound apologetic, but her tone of voice is pure threat. Believe me. Accept what I’m saying, or I will make you regret it, she is telling him. To your surprise, he is quiet. He seems to be sizing her up all over again.

“Very well,” he says at last, “but do not let this happen again. You are not to leave this house without the company of my employees. They are only here to make certain you remain safe.”

“I’ll be just fine, thanks,” she says in return. “So will Angelia. I’ll make sure of that.”

They stand there forever, eyes locked, unmoving. You don’t breathe. You can’t until one of them breaks the silence and surrenders to keep the tenuous peace.

Hideous gives in first. “Both of you should get to bed. It is very late.”

Diana walks backward until she stands at your side, then slips her hand around your elbow. It isn’t until she touches you with steady hands that you realize you are shaking.

“Goodnight, Mr. Yoshima,” she says graciously. “Thank you for your understanding.”

“We will discuss this further in the morning, Miss Starrett,” he calls after her as she guides you up the stairs and into the darkened hallway.

Once you reach your door at the far end, you drop like a dying sparrow and weep silently.

“Shhh,” she says, wrapping her arms around you, drawing you into a solid warmth that must be what safety feels like. “Nobody’s gonna hurt you anymore. I promise.”

“He’ll make you leave in the morning,” you sob against the supple column of her throat, “I’ll be alone with him again.”

“I won’t leave you with him. If I go, you can come with me.”

“You don’t understand. He isn’t just another rich son of a bitch, used to getting his way. Hideo is Yakuza. He’s dangerous.”

“I know that. I didn’t come here with blinders on.”

“You… you know? And you still stepped up to him?” You don’t know whether to be touched or furious, but decide that furious is easier to deal with. Touched would carry too much baggage. “You must be more fucked in the head than me! He could have shot you on the spot!”

“I suppose he could have tried. He still could. You have to leave this place with me.”

“If we try that now, he’ll kill you for sure. Maybe me, too.”

“No, Angelia. We’ll figure something out. We’ll get out of this.”

“Diana, you thwarted him big-time, and he’s not going to take that. He can’t stand being made small by anyone. I think it startled him when you stood up to him just now.”

“His bruised ego is not my problem. You said you had a plan, some way to get at him so he wouldn’t bother you or the boys,” Diana reminds, “tell me what you meant. You have to trust me – I can help.”

You search her eyes, looking for something to hold on to, something to believe in. Even through the blurry veil of tears, you see it. She means it.

“Come with me.”

You take her inside your room. It is the first time she has seen it, and you still have the presence of mind to be self-conscious. The room is large, but feels much smaller due to the proliferation of computer equipment lining the walls, stacked on the floor, teetering on the edges of every flat surface. The electronic hum from six separate CPUs and six monitors is low and steady, soothing your ears with its neo-natal ambiance and artificial warmth.

“You’re into this stuff pretty heavy,” Diana says neutrally, glancing around, trying not to stare.

“It’s a hobby. I’m always looking for new ways to get in trouble, and hacking seems less risky than robbing liquor stores. If I get arrested again… nevermind.”

You close the door and lock it. When you turn around, she is sitting on the futon mattress in the corner, carefully folding one of your discarded sweatshirts. She seems so careful with it, such economized movements. Once she finishes, her hands move to the jumbled sheets and start to straighten them out. You don’t want to smile, but it gets out before you can stop it.

“Diana, please don’t clean up. You’ll get lost in my piles of junk and I’ll never find you again.”

“Okay,” she says, sheepishly folding her hands. “Sorry ’bout that.”

“Oh, no. After what you just tried to do for me, no apology will ever be in order. Okay?”

She doesn’t say anything, just lowers her head and stares at the floor. You decide not to push it. You move to one worn keyboard hooked into a Wang industrial terminal and start typing commands in the cliquish language of UNIX until you have your presentation in order.

“Come here for a minute. Want you to look at something.”

“Whatcha got?”

“Do you know much about biological warfare?” you ask the governess.

“A little,” she says, staring at the digital image on the monitor, a color scan of living organisms in the shape of dots and twisted straws. “Is that some kind of bioparticle? It doesn’t look like anthrax.”

“It isn’t, it’s a bioagent called Utah,” you tell her, surprised that she could tell the difference. “Sharp eye. How did you know?”

“Same way I knew about your stepfather – it’s a hobby of mine. I like to learn about things that could kill me. What are those distortions, the little wires?”

“That’s not a distortion, it’s a scientific breakthrough. Those little wires are actually a filovirus called Marburg.”

You think you hear her gasp, then you press on, eager to get it all out before you lose your nerve or she comes to her senses and backs out.

“Hideous is trying to bumfuck this keiretsu called Matsuda Group, and he thinks he can blackmail his way onto the board of directors. Somebody working for Matsuda’s pharmaceutical division in the states was doing research for some, let’s say less than reputable interests in the middle east, and they happened upon this jolly little combination.”

“Jesus.”

“You get the worst of two killers – the dispersal properties of anthrax spores and the extra lethal bite of Marburg virus. Drop a few kilos of this shit in Central Park and you could turn New York City into a hot zone over the weekend.”

“This stuff is extant? Not just a project under development, or some spooky myth?”

“Hideous is buying a sample sometime soon. I’m gonna find out when and shanghai it.”

Her blue eyes widen with shock as she leans forward. “You’re gonna what??”

“Snag the sample. Bogart the biocrap. With a live culture of that virus and the research files I’ve hacked, I’ll have a strategic weapon instead of just a tactical one. I can shake him off my back once and for all.”

Diana is quiet for a long, long time, rubbing her chin and eyes, looking worried. Maybe you’ve said too much. You start to reassure her, to tell her that it’s not going to be as difficult as it sounds, but she stops you with a gentle exclamation and a snap of finger against thumb.

“Holy fucking Christ. This has to be it.”

“Huh?”

“You have to let me help you.” She stands and takes your shoulders in a firm grip, looking directly past your mind and into your soul. “If this is gonna happen, you have to let me in.”

“Okay, okay,” you concede. You don’t want her involved, but after tonight, that hardly seems possible. If she wasn’t involved when she made love to you, or when you revealed your softest vulnerability by telling her about Hideo’s abuse, Diana certainly became involved when she stepped into the breach between you and your stepfather. Her life is already on the line.

“He’s probably going to want you to leave in the morning. If you want to help, we’re gonna have to be careful. It’ll be tough to communicate and get together on details,” you tell her, wrapping both hands tightly around her forearms.

“Maybe not. If he didn’t kick me out tonight, he might have something else in mind.”

“We’ll have to wait and see, I suppose.”

“I can stay cool. Business as usual until we make a break for it.”

“Stay cool?”

“As in not doing anything else stupid unless I’m deliberately provoked.”

For some unknowable reason, her choice of words stings you like acid. “Anything else stupid?” you ask, trying to make it sound like a joke. And failing.

“I only meant that I’ll try not to butcher the son of a bitch like a Kobe steer,” she says, bringing her face level with yours. Her eyes are like windows thrown wide open, the light blue almost transparent as she lets you look inside. “I don’t regret anything we did. Thanks to you, I can feel something again.” She takes one of your hands and lays it by her left breast. You feel a deep, steady thrumming against your fingers. “In here.”

She leans in to kiss you, and you rise up to meet her, mouth open and eager. There is no patience, no timidity, no politeness in this kiss. Only a strange fire, a transcendent heat that blasts away all fears of pain or embarrassment or rejection. She is in your mouth and you are in hers, matching weakness with strength, gift with need. Hands dart beneath clothes to touch swelling flesh, and there are no thoughts of whether the feelings behind the acts are too much or too little, there is only the fire… and you are happy to burn.
——————————————————————————–

After the passage of nearly a minute, Diana felt the embrace of security start to change. She felt impossibly soft lips open and press against her throat. A delicate hand slid down her back and under her shirt, then drifted up to stroke between her shoulder blades. Her eyes grew heavy and threatened to fall shut. Her breathing became shallow and quiet. She felt very warm. Almost feverish. Hot.

“Hey. Come on. Stop.”

Diana almost failed to recognize her own voice. The interior of the boat seemed to be spinning, making her dizzy. She had to open the portholes, turn on the air conditioning… something. It was way too hot in the cabin. Her arms dropped from around Angelia’s steaming body as she tried to ease away. Pushing the girl back onto the bed and jumping headlong into the ocean was starting to sound like a good plan. A safe plan.

“Wake up. Stop that, now.”

The younger woman’s open mouth produced more heat than a furnace, and when her hidden tongue emerged to lick broadly up sinewy neck tendons stretched more tightly than suspension bridge cables, Diana Starrett’s eyes slammed shut. She lost track of where she was. Who she was. What she was supposed to be doing. Both hands were under her tee shirt now, one rubbing the center of her back, the other slipping along her side, down, around… and up to tightly grasp her right breast.

“Angangang! Christ!”

She grabbed Angelia’s shoulders and shoved the semi-aware woman away, simultaneously propelling herself across the cabin and onto a narrow sofa. Diana opened her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear away some of the lingering steam that seemed to be clouding her vision.

* What the fuck was that about? What is WRONG with me?? *

Opening one broad palm, she extended her hand and brought it rapidly to her own cheek, slapping herself hard, then repeating the procedure on the other cheek. The stinging breached the veil of distortion that fell over her perceptions, bringing her partially back to herself. She could see Angelia curled on the bed, arms wrapped around her own body, face buried in the pillow as whatever vision/fantasy had hold of her played itself out.

* She’s remembering something. That’s good, right? Maybe Julia was right. Maybe it won’t be as hard for her to come out of the conditioning with me around… but that can’t happen again. No way. Don’t you fucking go near her, idiot. Not unless you’re prepared to defend your chastity. *

Deciding it was best to leave the confined space below deck for a bit, Diana dug the phone case from her bag and unlocked the cabin door. She heard Angelia moan, and turned to look over her shoulder – much the way Lot’s wife couldn’t help one final glance at Sodom. The beautiful Asian had rolled onto her back, legs splayed wide, one hand moving steadily inside her panties.

Diana opened the heavy teak door, stepped through, and locked it behind her. As she mounted the stairs and headed topside, her own name floated up to her ears in a humid moan. The tall woman ran a hand through her long hair, accidentally grazing the wet patch along her neck and causing a shudder to wrack her body. Once on deck, she took a series of long, deep breaths, calming herself as she came to a decision.

“I’m gonna need help, or at least a chaperone. Maybe not right now, but soon.”

A green, all-weather chaise lounge was convenient, so she flopped down and opened the phone unit using the combination Dan had provided. Diana grinned as she noted the design change in the new generation communications device. Uplink buttons were more efficiently grouped, making the connection process a bit easier. Also, the keypad was ergonomically augmented to make speedier entry of long numerical sequences.

* Harry got his improvements put through for the com units. Wonder what else he’s changed since he’s been in charge. The safe houses still look like crap, but that’s by design. He always wanted to obtain more funding for tech research and field testing. Maybe he even approved the travel upgrades… stop it. *

Diana caught herself drifting back into an old mindset as she set up the phone, and it put an awful taste in her mouth. She closed one eye and winced.

* None of my business what he’s doing. Not my problem anymore. Just help Angelia remember where the Marburg files are hidden. Find out if Yoshima is crazy or if there’s any truth to his rantings. Give Julia what she wants and go home. This – all of this – is past. *

A warm ocean breeze rolled over the deck and cooled the drying moisture her former lover’s mouth left on her skin.

“Goddammit!”

She rubbed one hand vigorously over the bothersome trail of wetness, drying it to nothing.

* Dead or alive, she’s part of the past. I can help make things right for her now, but that’s all I’m gonna do. That’s all I owe her. I owe it to myself to try and make good on my failure so that I can move on with my life. Speaking of which… *

Punching in the new code for satellite access, Diana waited until the connection was open and waiting to be directed. She entered a phone number and hummed to herself as the call was put through. She didn’t recognize the song immediately, but as soon as she did, she stopped cold.

It was by one of Charlotte’s favorite singers, Beth Nielsen Chapman; the song was called “I Keep Coming Back To You.”

“Hello?” a voice came on the line, hesitant questions buried within the greeting.

“Hi. It’s me. Something’s wrong, and I really need to talk to you.”

Long silence followed, the quiet growing heavy in Diana’s ears until they finally spoke again.

“Whatever you need, you know you’ve got it.”

“I want to do this in person. I need to see you when we talk about this.”

“Tell me where you are, and I’ll get there as soon as possible.”

“Thanks,” Diana breathed. She gave out her position and broke the connection without saying goodbye. Her stomach felt a little less queasy already, knowing help was on the way.

* Now, if Angelia’s finished, maybe she could answer a few questions. I’ll sit on the couch this time, though. Just to be safe. *

Fourteen

“You understand what you’re supposed to do?” Julia asked, pacing in front of Gedde’s chair as she twirled a strand of pale gold hair. “I don’t want any surprises once we make the connection.”

“Despite first impressions, I am not entirely ignorant. I know what would happen to me should I attempt to – how do you say – get too cute?”

“You’re already too cute,” she responded, grinning. “I just don’t want you to get stupid again.”

He felt a blush wiggling across his face, and the shame of being affected by her tossed-off compliment made him blush even more. “I will do my utmost to spare us both from that fate.”

“Wonderful! Now practice looking exhausted and battered. Tap into your artistic nature. I’ll be back in a moment with some… props.”

Gedde watched her leave the room, stalking out with long, soft steps that barely left a mark on the puffy yellow carpet. The young man shifted uneasily in his stiff-backed chair, yearning to get up and walk until he could feel his ass again. After sitting still and listening to Julia for the better part of an hour, he felt considerably more informed and enlightened, but his rear deck was dead asleep.

He hoped that he had enough defiant courage left in him to look into the video camera and lie to his father without letting on the truth of his situation. Even though Julia promised the call would be brief, the young man realized that even the smallest slip of his facade would paint him as a traitor and put his own name on Hideo Yoshima’s black list. Julia told him that if her plans fell through, he would need to be able to leave the country without a bullseye on his back.

Nervous fingertips stroked the ivory katana grip as he wondered for the thirty-third time why she’d chosen to let him hang on to the sword. For his own comfort, he supposed. She seemed very adept at making situations feel normal, even when they were outrageously abnormal.

“And this is definitively abnormal,” he mused aloud.

“Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” a feminine voice trilled in response.

Julia was back and he hadn’t even heard her come into the living room – like that was a great big honking surprise. He realized by then that she simply didn’t make noise. Not when she walked, chewed, swallowed, or breathed. As she leaned over the desk in front of him, stretching her gray trousers across a firm bottom, he found himself wondering is she made noise when she…

“Stop staring at my bum.”

Gedde jerked his eyes away and lowered his head to stare at the katana again, his cheeks on fire. She wasn’t even looking at him, so how could she tell where his eyes had landed?

“Because you’re a nineteen year-old boy,” Julia said, answering the unspoken question. Her back was still to him as she prepared a tube of fake blood. “Keep focused on lying through your teeth, or I’ll have to knock them out for real.”

“I’m not – I mean, I don’t normally do – ”

She turned around, waving a slim hand as if tut-tutting away his explanation. “Think nothing of it. There are extreme pressures on you – extreme for anyone, but more so because you are such a young person. Your mind is struggling for something to latch onto, anything that doesn’t involve betraying your family or experiencing a horribly painful death on this ropey yellow carpet.”

“Still, it is an inappropriate response.”

“Nineteen year-old boys want to fuck more than they want to breathe,” Julia announced, leaning back against the desk and stretching her neck from side to side. “It’s just the nature of the beast, simple biology. Despite your amazing self-discipline, you’re not above it. Now give us a smile.”

“What?”

“Display your teeth,” she ordered again, brandishing the tube of red goo. “It’s nearly show time.”

Gedde Yoshima parted his dry lips and eased them back, showcasing two perfect rows of white enamel. He flinched when the blonde leaned in with a gob of red on her finger aimed straight for his mouth, but she stayed on target and smeared the gook across his incisors, then ran her finger under his upper lip to leave a thick trail between his lip and gum. Surprisingly, he found that the false blood tasted quite nice. Like cherry cola, almost.

“This deposit will gradually dissolve and leak down your teeth while you speak, giving the appearance of an open wound inside your mouth,” she explained, stepping back to examine the effect. “It looks rather gruesome, actually. As if you had been chewing glass.”

The young man grimaced, watching closely as she picked up a blue plastic safety razor – the double-bladed kind that could nick a water buffalo hide through two inches of shaving cream. Gedde found himself clinging to the sword a bit more tightly as she tested the razor’s edge on her thumb.

“You don’t plan to cut me badly, do you?”

“Don’t be nervous. I’ve shaved a man or ten in my day,” Julia said comfortingly. “One woman, too, come to think of it. Elana was East German and had no access to waxing facilities, poor dear. She also had enormous knees, like cantaloupe. Very ticklish behind those large patellae.”

A moment of confusion dropped over him like a great cloud, then blew away in a cold wind. Diana, her little lawyer, even his own sister… were all modern women bent to similar inclinations?

“You mean you… with women?”

“Now, I do what I like, and usually I do who I like,” she explained, ever the subtle diplomat. “Things were different during the Cold War. Those in my line of work would kill, steal, blow and suck to get what we needed. Since that job required making love with a fuzzy communist elephant, I chose to consider myself an agent of romantic Glasnost.”

“So it was simply work, then?”

“Not entirely difficult work, I must confess. Elana was very sweet and very, very vocal – a smoky alto, if I recall accurately. She often sang rollicking folk songs after too much vodka, or when she was… satisfied. I remember humming a happy little tune as I exited the checkpoint to West Berlin.”

Gedde Yoshima shifted in his chair and fumbled with the scabbard, as well as his next words. “But when you are – I mean, when you have your choice – do you still…”

Julia smiled, charmed a little by how flustered the boy had become. As his mind was not on what she had to do next, she encouraged the line of conversation as she approached with the razor. She had to cut him. Damned modern camera lenses showed too much detail to fake facial lacerations, and if his father didn’t buy the act, the operation would slip a little off-track; like an AmTrak commuter train. She determined to try and make the cuts as small as possible, and to keep Gedde distracted.

“Truth be told, I have genuinely enjoyed coupling with only three partners of my adult life, and yes, one of them was a woman.” She placed two fingers on his forehead and stretched the skin taut.

“My preferences run a tad on the rough side, and men are naturally more inclined toward such behavior, but that one woman… she had a gift for sensual cruelty.” Julia touched the razor to his skin and slid it sideways, splitting open two thin, red rows on his brow. Gedde didn’t even notice.

“She knew exactly what I wanted, and she let me know that she could break me in half if I displeased her.” The razor dropped to his left cheekbone, but he didn’t see it. His eyes were locked on Julia’s wide gray orbs, watching her every blink.

“She withheld her climax on purpose, keeping herself on the brink and blaming me, berating me and threatening me with unspeakable torments should I fail to satisfy her. It took me the better part of an hour to force her to orgasm. I’d never had to work so hard in my life.” Again, the blades bit into his flesh and sent rivulets of crimson down his face. He was only aware that his pants were far too tight.

“Do you know what I got for my efforts?” she purred, bringing her face level with that of the near-catatonic youth. “For working her flesh until my fingers curled into arthritic lumps, until my lips were numb and my tongue ached like a tread-worn radial tire?”

Julia was quiet, just hovering in front of him, dangling a licentious carrot for him to snap his teeth around. Gedde couldn’t resist. “Tell me.”

She drew one finger along the bridge of her nose, smiling as she felt the small, irregular bump about halfway down. “This. At her… crucial moment, she slapped me so hard, she accidentally broke my nose. I didn’t even know it until several hours later.”

“She hit you?”

“Oh, but that’s what I wanted. I came when she hit me. God, how I screamed…”

Just as she pounced on that last word, Julia smashed her folded knuckles across Gedde Yoshima’s nose, breaking it as cleanly as any Beverly Hills plastic surgeon could.

“OWWW!!!” Both of his hands rocketed toward his flattened proboscis and cupped around it protectively, far too late to do any good. “Why dod yew do dath??”

“Sorry,” she said, again parading that sincere, heartfelt smile. “If you’d seen it coming, you would have jerked away. This way, it will heal properly and you won’t have a souvenir like mine.”

“Noo thuveneerth, please. Thith ith nah thumthing I wan to rebember.”

“And here I thought we were having such fun getting to know each other.”

“PHUNN?? I amb betrayig by fambly!”

“You are taking care of your family,” Julia corrected. “You’re a very brave young man.”

The prematurely matured teen just sat there and bled. He could feel his nose swelling already, and a steady, throbbing pain was drumming under and behind his eyes. He let them drift shut and imagined himself along the bank of the Seine, watching the sun blossom orange and gold in a blue and white garden of atmosphere. Maybe he could still get there someday, maybe he would watch that sunrise with his mother and sister. As impossible as it seemed, the fantasy calmed him down. Gedde’s shoulders relaxed and his neck slacked, causing his face to droop forward and sending his unmarred cheek into a gentle collision with Julia’s lips.

“Wha-?” he murmured, jerking back immediately, sure that the contact was somehow his fault. Julia was bent onto one knee, looking at him in a very open and direct manner as she spoke softly.

“I am sorry for hurting you. I need your help to make this work, and I am very grateful that you have consented to deal with me regarding your family. You will not be required to say anything regarding your father’s business dealings, his failing health, or his personal behaviors. All you have to do is look into the camera and agree with everything I say to him. Do you understand?”

“Yeth.”

“Good. Now, try not to take this personally.”

His eyes went wide as he wondered what torment would be visited upon him next, and he watched the face of this strange angel as she moved her mouth to his right cheek, just below his eye, and planted warm lips on his skin. Her mouth was open, and he was aware of only a hot, wet tickling as she pulled a patch of flesh into her mouth and began to suck, gently at first, then with increasing force until it was nearly painful. As she finished, her full bottom lip brushed against his eyelashes, and he discretely inhaled her breath. Gedde identified the smell as a mix of rum and sour cherries.

Julia eased off and backed away as his skin turned red and purple, blood welling up inside. “There we are. To the camera, that will look like a godawful bruise. A Mike Tyson left hook.”

She sounded for all the world like a cool pragmatist, shrewdly choosing the methods because of their ease and effectiveness. In all truth, Julia knew exactly what kind of effect she was having on Yoshima’s son. She’d have to be blind not to notice.

“After we’re done, you’ll have another decision to make,” she said, standing and smoothing her hair.

Gedde lowered his hands to his lap and rested them on what he thought was the ivory katana scabbard stretching along his thigh. “What is that?”

“Whether to unsheathe that thing and show me what you can do.”

His brow furrowed in confusion. She wanted to fight him? “I don’t want to hurt you, Julia.”

To her credit, she didn’t laugh. “My, my. Someone thinks a lot of himself.”

The blonde beauty smiled broadly and lowered her eyes to his lap. He followed her gaze down to where his hands rested… and then over to the other leg where the katana lay. That firm length under his palms wasn’t the ivory scabbard after all.

Gedde Yoshima was torn between wanting to die of embarrassment, and wanting that video call to be over five minutes ago. He knew that he would have no trouble lying to his father now… and the weak, dishonorable part of him that was merely a nineteen year-old male didn’t really care.

“I apologize in advance for what I am about to do,” Julia said as she linked up with the satellite and powered up the digital video software on the sprawling desktop computer.

“You’ll understand if I wait until afterwards to forgive you,” the nervous young man replied.

“Oh, you’ll forgive me, alright. At the top of your voice. Over and over.”
——————————————————————————–

At the beach house, Hideo Yoshima was growing impatient. He paced and sat down, paced and sat down, then took several hits of oxygen. Over and over.

The remaining ten guards were getting antsy, too. Hours had passed since the kid left with his crew, and there was no word on the success of their mission. Since the dread Diana Starrett had already come and gone, a few of the senior men debated the merits of asking to be dispatched as back-up, but tossed that idea after the old man’s ninth circuit of the living room was complete.

At 6:58 p.m., an electronic bleating broke the silence, and all eyes turned to the computer near the kitchen. Yoshima walked calmly to the desk and took a seat in the leather captain’s chair. He tapped the keyboard’s integrated touchpad and cleared the screen of flying toasters, revealing the minimized program icon for his active video phone software. One extended finger drew the cursor to the button marked ‘receive,’ and the seventeen inch screen was suddenly filled with two faces which represented his worst-case scenario. He started recording the call.

In full screen living color, with over six-hundred lines of resolution, he saw his teenage son’s bloodied, bruised face. The first feeling Yoshima knew was a profound disappointment and shame at his child’s failure. If there was any concern for the boy’s condition, it was a distant, unheard whisper.

Behind the boy was a smirking blonde hellion, her chin hovering just above his slumped shoulder, her hand resting comfortably around his throat. The silver blade of a straight razor bit gently into the thin skin covering Gedde’s jugular vein. The camera focus was tight, revealing little of their surroundings, and absolutely nothing to reveal their location. Yoshima activated a keystroke macro which started a trace on the call. It would take thirty seconds to pinpoint the bitch.

“Hello, Yoshima-san. So nice to see you again,” she opened, grinning cattily, just enough for him to see the canary feathers in her teeth.

The Yakuza chief paused for five seconds, and got right to the point. “What do you want?”

“Will you never change? Cold, cold, cold!” she chided. “You know, you’re one of the few people I have ever met who makes me feel secure in my humanity.Your children are just fine, thanks for asking. I’m taking good care of Hansel and Gretel.”

Julia took a fistfull of Gedde’s straight black hair and pulled back on his head, revealing more of his throat and forcing his face around to meet her own. “I’m not as bad as your mean old daddy, am I?” She twisted his hair from side to side, dragging his head into an unwilling gesture of agreement. “See? Even little Gedde agrees that you’re a monstrous old bastard. And that’s nothing compared to what Angelia’s been telling me! Oh, she’s got some hot tales to tell about you, old goat!”

Hideo could feel his chest tightening, blood pounding in his veins as the Whore of Babylon dared to indict him. “You lie. You lie!”

“Eleven years old? For the life of me, I do not understand how anyone could go after a child that young,” she continued, her tone acid and merciless. “What was the problem? Afraid an experienced adult would recognize how pathetic you are? Couldn’t lower yourself to buy a whore? What?”

Uncaring that his guards were just around the corner and probably hearing the entire exchange, Yoshima raised his voice in anger. “I love my angel! She is mine and you will return her to me!”

“Or what, stud?”

“YOU WILL DIIIEE!!”

Julia held out one incredibly steady hand. “Look at me shake.”

“Bitchwhoredemoness!! I will destroy you!!”

“Calm down, Hideo. You used to be so rational, so reasonable. Oh, but that was before the tumors started eating into your brain, wasn’t it? How tragic it must be to lose one’s mind…”

“I am sane enough to save myself and to take vengeance on you! When I recover -”

“You won’t be recovering. Don’t tell me you fell for that red herring about Diana Starrett’s miracle cure! Hoho! Ohh, that’s rich!” Her smile grew wide and bright with gloating, and she rested one cheek against Gedde’s head as she laughed, stroking her face against his hair.

The old man froze quietly from the inside-out, feeling a chill growing from the marrow of his bones and stretching up to his skin. “Liar. You speak nothing but lies, you with your forked tongue.”

“Honestly, I didn’t think you’d fall for it,” she confessed. “I wanted you distracted by your disease, by the fruitless search for treatments. It’s simply too perfect that – out of all the breadcrumbs I dropped for your researchers – that was the trail they chose to follow. Irony can be so beautiful.”

The trace timer on Yoshima’s computer had passed thirty seconds, and there was still no lock on her location. He didn’t notice at all, didn’t hear or see anything except the red and black swarm of dying cells dancing behind his closed eyes. The room was absolutely devoid of sound; even the ocean seemed to be mute. The ten guards in the adjoining hall were holding their collective breath.

“Thanks to your selfish inattention, I have secured your operations in Africa, Central and South America, the Koreas, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, the Philippines… pretty much everything. They’re mine now. You’ve been economically neutered.”

“No… no…”

“Yes, yes! Despite the old cliches, there is no honor among thieves – or criminals of any stripe. I offered them a better deal, and they jumped on board the H.M.S. Julia without hesitation. They don’t like you, Hideo. Did you know that? Most of them couldn’t wait to cut ties with your organization. ‘A sinking ship,’ one Brazilian casino magnate said recently.”

Choking on his own bile, Yoshima gagged and retched pitifully until one of his men brought him a glass of water and his oxygen tank. He chugged the water and grabbed up the mask, inhaling as deeply as his lungs would allow. Seconds passed as he got control of himself and managed to croak out the one question she wanted to hear.

“Why?”

Julia slid her chin to the top of Gedde’s head and angled the razor to increase the bite on his neck until a trickle of blood flowed from the nicked skin. “Boss’s orders. The U.N. wants the entire economic structure in Japan to fold, and that includes the black market. If the Yakuza were listed on the Nikkei, your stock would bottom out Monday morning. We’re making it happen.”

“So this… all of this is not about me or my family?”

“Not entirely, no. You were chosen as our test case because you once brought pain to someone the director cares about, and because you are a murderous pederast. You shouldn’t have blamed your children for your own problems, and you certainly should have thought twice before threatening Harry Mars’ pet. Lady Diana’s person is strictly off limits, old son. No touchie. If you didn’t have something we want, you’d probably be resting in your coffin by now.”

Yoshima was boiling inside, his anger spewing acid around in his stomach like magma in a volcano. He had confirmation of some of the business losses Julia mentioned, but the others would have to be checked… after. After he had taken care of the impetus of his trouble – Diana Starrett. After he had seen to the return of his property and legacy – his children. After those things were done, he would make this woman and her master pay for interfering in his business.

“I want my children returned to me,” he said, low and slow.

“And why should I give them back?” Julia flickered her tongue at Gedde’s ear, while at the same time her hand slid the razor up and down his neck. “They’re such lovely company.”

“What is it you want from me?”

“Here, now. Let me think… for starters, how about turning over all your research and staff currently involved in producing a toxic compound bioagent?”

“I cannot give you these things. I have no such interests.”

“Yes, you do. I want every scrap of paper, every bit and byte of magnetic media, every gray cell in the brains of your chemists and virologists in Europe, Asia, and right here in California at Rowland,” Julia clarified, leaving no room for additional denials. “And I want a pony.”

Gedde flinched, causing the razor to take a nip at his throat. It wasn’t until later that he confessed to Julia that he didn’t do it out of fear – he was trying as hard as he could no to laugh.

“You have until the end of business Monday to comply, or the Yoshima family line ends when your sorry existence is over. I will contact you again soon to check your progress.”

As Julia reached toward the camera, presumably to terminate the call, Yoshima found his voice.

“Wait! WAIT!”

“Oh, what is it now?” she asked, clearly exasperated.

“I want to see Angelia. I want to know she’s alright.”

“The princess is positively peachy. Isn’t that right, Gedde?”

She lifted the razor away from his neck and watched carefully as the young man prepared to speak. This was the money shot, as far as she was concerned. If Yoshima believed he could get the girl back safely AND rain hellfire down on Diana Starrett’s life and loves, then things were gonna work out just fine.

Gedde’s lips parted, and a perfectly timed trickle of red gushed over his teeth as he said his piece. “She is unharmed, father. Just give them what they want so we can come home. Please.”

Yoshima’s face relaxed, and he barely nodded. “I will do as you ask, with one caveat.”

“You’re in no position, but go ahead and ask.”

“Retribution must be taken. If that woman is not able to help with my illness, and I am warned against attacking her directly, what would come of hurting her… indirectly?”

* Bingo, * Julia thought, as lights went on behind her eyes. “That is not my concern. Just know that any attempt on Diana’s life would be viewed with extreme prejudice.”

“That is all I needed. I will begin gathering the requested data and materials as soon as possible.”

“Thanks, Hideo. It’s always a pleasure doing business with someone who understands the intricacies of negotiation. Good day.”

Julia cut her end of the video call and moved around to straddle Gedde’s lap. The boy was shaking slightly, so she tossed the straight razor away to make him less nervous. It didn’t work.

“All those things you told him… are any of them true?” he asked cautiously, arresting a tremble that started at his feet and worked up to his hips. It was smothered by her light, warm weight and went no further, except in his mind. Inside, he was shaking like a leaf in a typhoon.

“True?” Her spare, golden eyebrows arched in surprise. “Does it really matter?”

Gedde hesitated, wanting to think before speaking out again and saying something truly dumb. His hands were resting neutrally on the sides of his chair, and he tried unsuccessfully to pry his attention away from her face. He wanted to touch her, and he wanted to run. Unable to produce the courage to do either, he simply whispered an answer to her question. “I suppose not.”

“What are you so afraid of?” she asked sweetly, staring into his dark eyes and seeing his conflict.

“What do you think?” he answered honestly. “You absolutely terrify me.”

“We’ll have to work on that.”

Julia tilted her face up a little and brushed her lips across her captive’s sweetened crimson mouth, noting that he managed to tip forward a smidge to encourage further contact. She drew back quickly and placed both palms along his photogenically battered cheeks, forcing him to look into her eyes. To his credit, he remained perfectly still and waited for her to make another move.

“Do you think I’m a monster?” she asked softly.

He nearly got lost in those wild gray fields, wanting to romp there all day like a child trespassing on property posted as dangerous or condemned. Gedde’s mind was still sharp enough to compose an answer. “No. Monsters often are unaware of the nature and quality of their acts. You are fully aware of your acts and the potential consequences.”

Julia nodded ever so slightly, not angered by his candor. “So what does that make me?”

“A professional,” the young man said calmly. “What concerns me is… why I am sitting here with you instead of lying dead outside, or on this ropey yellow carpet? Why am I cooperating?”

“Ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?”

“No. Is it contagious?”

“Perhaps, as much as a mass sociogenic illness can be. Stockholm Syndrome is the name for the curious phenomenon of captives identifying with and becoming fond of their captors.”

“So I am merely weak-minded or mentally ill.”

“No, not at all. I offer you the chance to win your unconditional freedom, and to save your sister and mother. Your father offers you humiliation, degradation, and certain death,” she argued logically. “Now, tell me – with whom would a wise man choose to align himself?”

She smiled at him, and this time, he smiled back. Compelled forward by some blessed influx of confidence or foolishness, he brought his mouth to hers and covered her lips in a sticky, cherried kiss that spread heat throughout his numbed body and inflated his hands, enabling them to rise up and circle Julia’s waist. When she broke off and looked at him, she was grinning with a strange humor, false blood smeared across her mouth and teeth. He was nearly able to laugh. Nearly.

“Stockholm Syndrome it is, then,” Gedde agreed finally, causing the svelte beauty on his lap to laugh. The sound of it tickled his ears like crystal wind chimes on a winter’s day. “What do you find so amusing?”

“I’m a Swede by birth,” she responded, still tickled by some private joke which he wasn’t catching on to at all. He made a puzzled face, and she tried again. “Stockholm? Sweden?”

“Oh,” was all he said as her lips parted and he gave himself up to the illness.
——————————————————————————–

After the call expired, Hideo Yoshima’s monitor screen went blue. He glanced at his tracer timer. Over three minutes passed with not a clue as to her location, as the call was evidently bounced off every digital tower in California. Undoubtedly, she had vacated the safe house after her location was discovered, and now she was out of his reach. He had not choice but to deal with her, for losing his angel was not an option… but vengeance was. Maybe he didn’t have the power to go after the one he wanted, but he could still make her suffer. Even if it took every last bit of his wealth and power, he would hire the best and make sure this was done right.

He called up his speed dialer program and selected the fifth entry, a Hong Kong number marked only by the letters “CK.” As the digits were dialed, he opened an encrypted file and viewed the text and images within, including several color photographs, home and business addresses, phone numbers, driver’s license and license plate number, vehicle I.D. number, college transcripts…

“Kaige Fish and Lobster,” a woman announced as the phone finally stopped ringing.

“Chen recommends the swordfish,” Yoshima replied.

“Hold.”

The line went dead and a dial tone sounded for ten seconds, then the phone rang again and a man answered in a harsh, rusty voice.

“What do you want?”

“The black fist wishes to obtain your services,” Yoshima announced, playing on his affiliation with the organization immediately.

If the man was interested in taking a job for the Yakuza, he did an excellent job of hiding it. “I’m busy,” he sighed, seemingly bored and tired.

“This job would take little time, and you can name your price,” Yoshima told him.

Silence fell again, no noise on the line except the man’s breathing. “Word is you couldn’t cover my price anymore.”

“Rumors. Disregard idle talk and believe your bank balance. I will wire the full amount – in advance – to your personal account. Two-point-five million for one single target.”

“There must be a catch.”

“Not unless you find killing defenseless women difficult. I am faxing you all the necessary information. Complete the job by midnight Monday and I will include a fifty percent bonus.”

In Hong Kong, a color fax machine hummed as sheets of paper were decorated with the flat life of another soon-to-be dead person. The assassin known as Chen Kaige plucked the stiff, warm paper from the fax tray and looked into a facsimilie of his target’s eyes. He wondered for only a second or two why Hideo Yoshima wanted this done, then remembered that he didn’t care.

“Send the money,” the killer said quietly. “By Tuesday, Charlotte Browning will be dead.”

Fifteen

“Meadows Security.”

“Hello, Roger. It’s Diana Starrett. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine, ma’am. Just getting ready to go home. My shift ends in five minutes.”

“And Leroy comes in, I know. I need a favor before you go, please.”

“What’s up?”

“Walk down to the front gate and tell me if there’s a car parked on the shoulder.”

“Okay, hold on.”

Sounds of quick footsteps falling, then quiet. “Yeah, there’s a white Audi down the road aways. Don’t look like anyone’s inside, though.”

“Roger, this might sound weird, but I want you to yell something for me.”

“Yell, Ms. Starrett?”

“Yes, sir. Just scream out ‘Deborah Carson wants to speak to the scarecrow!’ as loud as you can.”

“Huh.”

Quiet again for several seconds, then a shouted message that Diana was sure could be heard all the way to Bakersfield. Roger, the day shift guard, certainly had an excellent set of lungs.

“Somebody peeped up behind the wheel, Ms. Starrett. He’s coming this way.”

“Tall, skinny blonde guy?”

“Uh-huh,” Roger confirmed. “Scarecrow, eh? I can see that.”

“Let him through the gate and hand him the phone, please, then give him a little space.”

“Sure thing.”

Silence again, squeaking metal, then rustling as the phone was transferred to new hands. “Diana?”

“Dan. Glad to know you survived the battle of the mudhole.”

“Uhh, yeah. Right. After the cleaners left, Julia sent me over here to keep watch. No one’s come or gone in the last hour, and no disturbances have registered on your home alarm frequencies.”

“What – does that mean the agency’s wired into my house?”

“No, no! Harry’d have someone’s nuts on a plate if he thought that was going on! I’m just monitoring from outside on my own scanners. All’s quiet around here, though. No worries.”

“I want you to go inside. Stay close by her.”

“Come again?”

“I’m asking you go to my place, up to the actual house. When the big mean man answers the door, tell him that you and I knew each other in L.A., working gang crime. Tell him you’ve come to help. If he doesn’t shoot you immediately, tell him I said his birthday presents are in my left desk drawer, and that if Charlie says it’s okay, he can smoke one in the house. Only one! If the drapes stink when I come home, he’s in big trouble.”

“Shouldn’t you speak to them yourself?”

“I should, but I’m not ready yet.”

“Uhh… so what should I tell her?”

“That I’m okay. Confused as hell, but okay, and I’ll call as soon as I know more.”

“How much do they know about what’s going on?”

“Him, nothing. Her, most everything up to this afternoon – and what she doesn’t know, she should. If… no, make that when Charlie corners you and wants to talk, don’t front. Use your own discretion talking about yourself, but there’s nothing off-limits about me. Be honest, okay? I trust her.”

After an ample silence… “Sure. Whatever you say. Any closing comments?”

“Tell her I – nevermind. She knows already.”

“Okay. Later.”

“Dan?”

“Yeah?”

“She’s… she’s my whole life. Take care of her.”

“Count on it.”

On that note, the phone beeped and went dead. Diana Starrett waited a moment. listening to the electronic hum, then powered down her phone unit and set it beside her deck chair.

The air cooled suddenly as the sun melted into the sea, a large scoop of orange sorbet with strawberry syrup dissolving across the shimmering surface of the Pacific. A not-so-warm breeze whipped over the water, and Diana rubbed the chill bumps down on her bare forearms, wishing she had thought to bring along another shirt, or at least a windbreaker. More than that, she wished she had a certain warm-blooded blonde attorney wrapped around her. That would work much better.

* I should be home now, stretched out on the couch with Charlie, watching The Philadelphia Story on cable. Wonder if she’s watching without me? *

Lost, angry, guilt-riddled and confused already, the last thing she needed was to start feeling crummy about missing what Charlie called a “sofa date,” but she couldn’t help it. Again, Diana looked at the phone unit by her chair and thought about calling Charlotte. Each time, she talked herself out of it, not wanting to talk to her until she had a clearer idea of her current situation.

* You still have so few answers. Call her now and all you can do is worry her. Teddy’s there, and Dan will be soon. Besides, Yoshima’s probably so pissed at Julia, he’s forgotten all about me and mine. At least, I hope so. Oh, wow. Sweetie, would you ever love this sunset. *

Closing her eyes, she drifted off for a moment, dipping into the coffers of recorded sensation to let a remembered embrace warm her from the inside out. If she concentrated, she could feel splendidly solid arms slipping around her waist from behind, pulling her into a yielding softness that pressed against her shoulder blades, open lips falling wet on the back of her neck…

* Hmm… not cold anymore. Neat. You make me feel better even when you’re not here. *

Sighing, Diana resigned herself to being patient until the real thing was available again and returned her attention to the sunset. She watched from the same chair she first took when she came up on deck. She left it a number of times to check on her passenger, only to return in frustration to the safety of topside. Since waiting was proving more maddening than anticipated, Diana whiled away a portion of the time by bringing out her portable med kit and obtaining some samples from the oblivious Ms. Kamura, samples that would answer some lingering questions from this afternoon.

Down in the cabin, Angelia was tightly held within the grip of some waking dream, but it had nothing to do with the location of the information Diana needed. Rather, the girl seemed absorbed in the recollection of more… leisurely activities, and could not yet be bothered to make coherent conversation. Diana’s only recourse was to let her burn herself out. The only problem was – if memory served her correctly – it would take Angelia an awfully long time to run out of fuel.

More sweaty cursing and groaning sloshed up the stairs. “Unh…unh… damn you! UNNHHH…”

The former agent cupped her hands over her ears, uncomfortable in the knowledge that she herself was starring in those fevered fantasy/memories; aside from that, she was annoyed as the sounds periodically pricked her keen hearing and drew her mind off course and into dangerous waters. Although she was absolutely certain that nothing would happen between them, regardless of any circumstance, it was still much safer not to let her thoughts go there at all.

* Could you – at least ONCE in your life – come quietly? Hmm? Please? For my sake? *

Standing and stomping over to the railing, Diana scanned the wooden walkways for any sign of her expected guest, but saw only the few people who were still working on their vessels, rigging boats for night cruising, or buttoning them up to head back home. Peering down the walk to the entrance, she saw an obviously drunk man leaning against the guard booth, evidently asking for directions. Security pointed him toward the restrooms, but he staggered off toward the slips instead.

“Coming my way, buddy?” Diana asked, wondering if that could be… no. She dismissed those thoughts upon taking a longer look at the drunk’s clothing – white pants and a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt that almost glowed in the gathering dark.

“Nope. Wouldn’t be caught dead in that shirt,” she muttered, slipping a hand to the back of her shorts to re-adjust the warmed metal of her pistol. The Colt fit snugly against the small of her back, just big enough not to slip past the waistband and down her shorts. Talk about an uncomfortable wedgie.

Diana kept her eyes on the docks and noted that the loudly garbed person was walking her way, clomping along with big, sloppy steps fit for Otis Campbell on a bender. Keeping close watch, she drew her gun and held it behind her back, lightly fingering the trigger.

* That can’t be… well, I’ll be shit. Yes, it is. *

Only a few yards away now, the unsteady man brought himself to a wavering halt at the Sunseeker’s slip, just under a spill of light from the overhead lamps. He ran one large hand through wavy dark hair spotted with silver at the temples, brushing the thick locks back from his eyes. He was clean-shaven, except for a neat little mustache, and his eyes were drifting from his white canvas docksiders up to the sign that marked slip 383.

“Can I help you, pal?” Diana called down, keeping her tone neutral as she stepped into sight.

“Heya, bay-bee!” he answered cheerily, swaying like a palm frond in the evening breeze. “You wooden happn to know where I kin fine a baffroom, woodja?”

“I guess you could use mine. Just promise you’ll put the seat down when you’re done.”

“Thassa deal!” He smiled and made for the ladder, carefully climbing on board the massive cruiser.

Diana backed away as he came on deck, keeping her gun at the ready, just in case this was a mistake. “The head is right down those stairs, first door to the left,” she told him, watching as he turned and carefully negotiated the waxed teakwood steps down to the living quarters.

After giving him a few seconds alone, Diana followed and found him standing in the middle of the main room. She closed the door behind them, throwing the cabin into silence. He had turned on the lamp by the far wall, suffusing the space with a dim yellow light which draped his long shadow across the carpet. Steady and sober as the facade of inebriation fell away, he stroked his mustache and watched Angelia twist and turn on the narrow bed.

“I see you let your hair grow some, and you finally lost the beard,” Diana said. “Looks good on you, Harry. But you need to kill whoever sold you that shirt.”

The tall, dark man turned and faced her, his eyes unreadable. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that this has something to do with why you called me. What is she doing here?”

* A minute ago, she was masturbating to beat the band, * Diana’s warped mind quipped instantly. She could tell that Harry Mars was in no mood for pleasantries or jokes; fortunately, she had plenty of legitimate questions to pass the time. * Let’s start with the obvious. *

“So you recognize her – that means you know about Nagano. You always told me you weren’t in on Riggins’ black ops.”

Mars was keenly aware of the gun in Diana’s hand. Even though she had called him, she obviously didn’t know who to trust, so he decided to keep his answers quick, short and direct. “For the past several months, I’ve been reading his private field journals. There are lots of entries involving you, Diana. Angelia Kamura disappeared after the Nagano job. Riggins indicated she was dead.”

“Obviously, he was full of shit. Paranoid bastard even lied in his own case files.”

“He knew they’d be compromised if he fell from power. Apparently, he wanted to keep her continued existence his own little secret, even beyond the grave.”

“Any idea why he’d bother?”

Harry shrugged, his high shoulders shifting under the multi-colored tropical print shirt. It looked to Diana like he had lost a lot of weight, slimming down from his former bulky musculature to reveal a sleeker, more defined body. Maybe some of that had to do with job stress…

“Before you got out of the business, met this lawyer and all, what would you have done if you’d known Angelia was alive?” he asked pointedly. “You would have gone after her, right?”

Quiet and mildly surprised, Diana couldn’t disagree. “Maybe.”

“I know you. There’s no maybe about it, and Riggins knew it, too. He knew that if something should happen to disrupt his control over you, that he could pull a pretty little ace from his sleeve and trump you into submission again. Even Lex Luthor couldn’t toss out a big lump of Kryptonite.”

“Kryptonite?” Diana started to protest the intimation, then just decided to let it go. Now wasn’t the time to flex her humility. “I’m flattered that you think me nigh invulnerable. If that was his reasoning, why didn’t he bring her into play that last night at Falcon’s place?”

“I wouldn’t presume to speak for him, but from the carnage you left scattered around that house, I’d wager Joshua was too distracted or off-kilter to take the shot. Maybe he saw you were love struck over the lawyer, and he wrote it off as being too little, too late.”

“She has a name, you know,” Diana told him, catching his dark eyes on sharp blue hooks. “The lawyer. Given name, surname, embarrassing and matronly middle name. The whole magilla.”

Harry Mars nodded, then found something to study on the floor. “I know. If I can’t be angry about you leaving, I can at least be sullen and rude regarding the reason,” he explained, speaking in the general direction of the carpet.

A quarter smile peeled up one corner of Diana’s mouth. “Suppose I’m getting off light, there.”

“You have no idea.”

A few seconds rolled past in silence before the two were ready to move beyond whatever just happened. They both knew that Mars had some unresolved feelings for her, and it was an issue they would just as soon never confront directly. Things were strange enough already without adding that to the mix.

Diana sat on one of the narrow leather couches mounted to the wall and motioned for Harry to follow suit. She relaxed her grip on the pistol, holding it loosely against her thigh. After a small hesitation, Mars sat and popped open a silver cigarette case, slipping one between his lips.

“You want?” he asked, offering the case to Diana with a seductive waggle. “Nicoteeene.”

“I quit nine months ago. My lungs are all pink and healthy now. You oughtta try it, Joe Camel.”

“Spoilsport,” Harry muttered, lighting the cig and waiting for the talking to commence. His eyes flickered across the bed to the form of a restless woman, cocooned tightly in a sweaty sheet. With something like relief, he noted that Angelia was still mostly dressed, and that Diana bore no mark or scent of having… indulged herself with the young beauty.

“She’s drugged. Julia had her at the lake house,” Diana said abruptly, jerking her head to indicate Angelia. “Swede’s got something cooking with Hideo Yoshima, and I’m kitty in the middle.”

Mars didn’t look surprised at all. “What do you mean by ‘something cooking?’ In a friendly sense?”

“Definitely not. She’s fucking him over somehow. He wants her head as a dinner table centerpiece, so he sent a gun crew over to the lake today to take her out. They arrived just as I was leaving.”

“Shit. Is she alone?”

“Probably. Dan was there, but she sent him off to watch out for Charlie. I’d wager that her visitors are all long-since dead.”

“Julia have a Gabler with her?”

“Two. Big-ba-da-boom.”

Harry pursed his lips and shook his head. ” I knew this was coming, knew she wouldn’t wait.”

“Wait for what? What the hell is she up to?”

“Proactive threat neutralization. We know Yoshima is developing bioweapons, and that he has contracts with Middle-Eastern powers to buy his product. The U.N. wants that threat quashed yesterday, and Julia said she’d take care of it. I ordered her to leave it alone.”

“Why the hands-off routine? Isn’t this why the agency exists?”

“It’s not our game anymore, not the way I run things. There are other groups after this bio research and material – groups with pull. Politically speaking, it’s in our best interest to let them handle it. Trouble is, Julia didn’t agree with me.”

“Shocking,” Diana added tartly, privately disappointed to find herself siding with Julia. “Which other agencies are on the prowl?”

“You name ’em, they’re in. Everybody wants to bring this one off. Lots of points to be made.”

“So Jules disregarded a direct order because she wants to be prom queen of Spy High.”

“More like class president. Shortly after you left, she petitioned the committee for her own division – a counter-terrorism specialty outfit, separate from my general services branch.”

“Face-front mutiny? Jesus.”

“No, I don’t think she wants to run the whole ship, I believe she just wants exclusive use of the artillery. She thinks I’m not focused on the agency’s primary directive anymore, that things would work better if we split off into our specialties – me steering and her shooting.”

“But the committee didn’t bite.”

“They said they couldn’t afford it. No funding, no expansion. She said she’d take care of that, too.”

“That must be what she’s up to with Yoshima. She’s robbing him blind with one hand, and using me to help get the virus data with the other. Sneaky little -”

“Wait right there – using you how? Tell me how you got involved.”

“She knows about my connection with Angelia, and wants me to locate the virus info she stole and stashed years back in Nagano. It’s Julia’s opinion that Riggins had her washed when he whisked her out of Japan and she doesn’t remember anything about the missing Marburg crap.”

Mars mulled over that possibility as he stubbed out his cigarette, grinding out each smoldering spark. “If she’s under, you of all people know how dangerous it would be to try and surface her.”

“I know that. I’m also aware that I’m probably the only chance she’s got to come through intact. After everything I promised… and failed to deliver, I owe her at least this much.”

“That’s undue guilt. You didn’t kill them, despite Riggins’ orders. She’s alive because of you.”

Hearing that didn’t help Diana at all, even though in a practical sense, it was perfectly true. If anything, it made her feel worse. Things had come so close to working out the way they planned, so close…

“Whatever. I’m supposed to help her surface, then tell you where to find the virus data.”

“Tell me?”

“Julia’s idea. I suppose she wants you credited with recovering the first Marburg/Utah files.”

“Awfully generous of her. A peace offering to make the brass think I’m still in the loop. Clever.”

“She must want your support for this new division.”

“Sounds about right, but it would take much more than that to get me off her case now,” Harry said bitterly, tipping ash from his cigarette into a carved jade ashtray beside the couch. “Riggins had the girl set up someplace, right? Incognito, blind identity.”

“That’s standard procedure, but Yoshima couldn’t have found her without a tip-off. My guess is Julia arranged a leak within the agency to put him on the scent, get the ball rolling on this little scheme.”

“So he finds the girl and takes her away, Julia steals her back and leads him here – to you. How were you initially brought in?”

“That’s where she gets really twisty. I think she set me up from both ends, playing on my past with Angelia and giving the old man new interest in me. Yoshima is dying of AIDS, and he believes I was infected at one point… and that Mangano cured me somehow.”

Harry Mars, the preeminent prince of gruff cool, nearly swallowed his tongue. “WHAT?? That’s insane! I’ve had tech staff comb through the lab computers a hundred times! There are no records of any HIV experiments, and your medical reports have always been clean as a whistle!”

“I don’t know what to make of that myself. It really had me worried for a while there, but after the shock wore off, I came to the same conclusion as you. It’s just not possible.”

* It isn’t possible, after all, * Diana told herself again. * It isn’t possible… right? *

“So where would he get such a nutty idea?” Mars asked.

“Three guesses.”

“Julia’s disinformation tactics,” he said instantly, drawing a nod of agreement from Diana. “Damned woman makes Joe Goebbels look like Liz Smith. I still don’t see the point of it, though.”

“To divert Yoshima’s attention, maybe. In any case, he bought it. He decided he wanted to use me to somehow prolong his own life, so he sent me a bloody summons last night and threatened me in person today at his lovely San Diego beach house. I eavesdropped a little before I went in, and overheard him having a hissy fit and sending a hit crew out to whack off Jules’ head. I got to her first, she fed me a nibble of her story, and I lit out with Angelia. That’s pretty much everything up to now.”

“Christ, that’s enough. Take a second to catch your breath, Di. You’ve had a busy day.”

“Not as busy as Julia. She’s probably got Yoshima so perplexed and pissed by now, keeping hold of that virus is the last thing on his mind. He’ll give it up just to make her leave him alone.”

“Leave him alone? That won’t happen. If she loots his resources and pries that virus from his hands, she’ll have to take him out. Julia wouldn’t leave him as a loose end.”

“I doubt he understands that. Yoshima is not in his right mind, Harry. After seeing him for a few minutes today, I could tell that much.”

“He wouldn’t be a match for her even if he was sane. Takes all I can do to hold my own just talking with her most days. Wasn’t like this before, but since Riggins kicked off, she’s been on a tear and I don’t know how to control her. Some days, I’d like to just deck her and be done with it.”

Diana shook her head, lips poked out in a sour smile. “Naah. She’d enjoy that too much.”

Mars tilted his head like a confused puppy. “Huh?”

“Nevermind,” she evaded, staring off into nothing as her mind jumped onto something else. “I keep getting this funny feeling, like there’s more to this, something I’m not seeing yet.”

“Well, you have your suspect in Julia, your motive is money and power, and you got a partial confession from the guerilla queen herself. What’s missing?”

“I can’t tell, but it’s giving me the willies. Why would Julia want Yoshima so agitated over me? Am I just the accelerant thrown on the fire?”

“You’re as good a choice as anyone. Better than most.”

“Well, dammit… if that’s the case, I wish she’d picked someone else to be scapegoat. I don’t need this,” Diana told him, gesturing at the occupied bed. “Not in the least. It’s too strange.”

Nodding to himself, Mars stroked his chin and found himself agreeing with Diana. “Let me check into a few things. I’ll see what I can set straight while I’m out here.”

“While you’re at it, would you order another thorough sweep on the medical records?” she asked, trying to keep the nerves out of her voice. “Just in case something slipped through, I mean.”

“Consider it done. Keep your phone unit handy, along with my private numbers – which I will not even ask how you obtained – and call me tomorrow.”

“Don’t forget your lovely parting gift,” Diana added, handing over the med kit. “Angelia’s blood and tissue samples need testing. Total tox screen, blood work, AIDS, everything.”

“Is there reason to believe she’s infected with HIV?”

“Yoshima seemed to think she was. There’s no way to know when he was exposed to the virus, and he sexually abused her for years. I guess it’s possible.”

Mars didn’t seem so much surprised as saddened by the incestuous nastiness, his eyes closing for a second and a dejected sigh heaving from his chest. “I’ll send them to the lab tonight.”

“Thanks. Just one more thing, then you’re free.”

“Mmm?”

Diana didn’t really want to ask, but she had to try. “You didn’t start… I mean, all this wasn’t…”

“No. I didn’t arrange this, although I can see where you might think that,” he said, a note of apology underlying his words. “After we talked that morning at the ranch house, when you hung up, you were so angry at me… I honestly never thought I’d see you again. Protocol prevented me from saying it, but I intended to cut you loose once and for all. No strings.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Can’t say I wanted to do it. I’d still take you back in a second if you asked me to, but I know you won’t. You had a chance to know something most of us would kill or die for. Best thing I could do for you was to let you try and keep it. So far, so good, right? You seem happy with her.”

“Harry…”

“Don’t get me wrong, now.” Mars looked into Diana’s eyes, and both felt some ancient fire arc between them, something that even eons of time couldn’t entirely extinguish. “Everything in me was – still is – screaming not to let you get away. At one time, I would have listened, but I can’t justify it anymore. You don’t belong to me or anybody else, unless you choose to give yourself over.”

Blue eyes softened, sympathy warming them by a degree. “I have done that. Completely.”

“I know,” Harry said, looking away. “I know.”

“Thanks for coming out here. It’s not like you have an obligation to help me or anything.”

Somehow, Harry Mars found the way back to her eyes, guided by a need to connect one last time. “You must know by now that isn’t true. Anytime you call me, I’ll do what I can to help. It really means something to me that you trusted me enough to reach out.”

“Heh. Who else was I gonna call?”

“Diana, we are both well aware you have other recourse,” Mars protested. “This all hit you today, all at once. Give yourself a chance to breathe, to get your bearings. You’ll do what needs to be done. Meanwhile, call me tomorrow, lay low and watch your back.”

Without another word or a touch or a glance backward, Harry Mars crossed the cabin and disappeared through the door. Diana heard his light steps hitting the deck and then nothing more as he slipped off into the night, leaving her to face her dilemma alone again.

“Well. Just you and me now, kid,” she said to the discomfited Angelia.

The half-sleeping young woman let out a low, aching groan and rolled toward the wall, pressing her body along the cool wood. “Be careful! It’ll stain the floor!”

Diana’s eyebrows shot up at the sudden exclamation. Unlike the babbling and animalistic grunting issued consistently since they’d been on board, this time Angelia spoke clearly, just like she did a few hours ago before the hormonal flux drove her to incoherency. This time, Diana knew where the remembered conversation was heading, and decided to join in.

“What’ll stain the floor, Angel?”

“The ink! Don’t turn over the pot, whatever you do. Whatever you do…”

“I won’t. I promise I’ll be careful,” Diana said. She knelt by the bed and lowered her voice to a sultry register. “Hand me the brush.”

A frail hand drifted over to her own and pressed a slim, invisible sable paintbrush into her palm.

A loose thread from nine years ago was running through Angelia’s mind, and Diana hoped that if she could grab it and hold on, she could unravel the curtain that Mangano threw over the rest of her memories. Diana knew exactly what scene of their play her former lover was remembering, and although the exact lines were lost, she was sure she could fake her way through. She remembered the games they played.

* This could be a way in. Just be careful! That girl you knew? She’s in there somewhere, nineteen years old and not ready for the pain you’re gonna bring. She trusted you that night… *

That was the last night the two spent together before all hell broke loose, before everything changed for both of them. The next thought that occurred to Diana made her sick to her stomach. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes against the truth of it.

* You can use that. *
——————————————————————————–
Sixteen

Charlotte Browning lay on the sofa, alone, her arms around a body bolster pillow – which was proving a piss-poor substitute for Diana Starrett. The Philadelphia Story was on cable, and they had made a date to watch it together. Instead, Charlie was here taping the movie, and Diana was who-knew-where, doing who-knew-what with heaven-knows-whom.

* You said you’d call, so you’ll call. Patience, dear heart, patience is a virtue… one which I do not possess. You’d better call me soon, Diana, or you are sooo gonna get blasted next time I see you. Both barrels, baby. *

Still, as Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart gazed into each other’s eyes and made passionate statements fueled by champagne and loneliness, Charlie clung to the pillow tightly and snuggled her nose against the soft blue cover, rooting about for any trace of familiar scent.

Teddy watched her in silence, leaning out of the kitchen doorway. Creeping over his shoulder came a tendril of fragrant smoke from the mystery dinner roasting in the oven. He wore a white apron emblazoned with the cryptic credo: Dinner is served promptly at eight. Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup. He assumed it was Diana’s; aside from the fact that the apron’s long hem fell below his knees, the odd slogan made absolutely no sense to him – like most of her jokes. Charlie had tried to clear up the mystery, spouting off a stream of tidbits about Mel Brooks and someone called ‘Nurse Diesel,’ but he lost most of it behind the beautiful music of sizzling pans.

“You want a Kleenex over there?” he teased

Charlotte ceased sniffing immediately and shot him such a look. “Shut-up. I’m not crying.”

“Sure, sure. Another minute and you’d a been bawling like a baby.”

Charlie sat up tall, seemingly lifted from her prone position by some delectable scent. “What are you up to in there, anyway?”

“I’m dancing the Charleston with the Pillsbury dough boy. What does it smell like I’m doin’?”

“I smell onion, beef, mustard… is that worchestershire? Mmm! Spill it, Chef!”

“It’s something Sherrie taught me to make. You said you like beef, so you’ll like this.”

“Come on! Just tell me before I start to drool like a starving St. Bernard!”

“Suffer, girly,” the big man responded, heartless in his cruelty. Teddy glanced at the entertainment center and furrowed his brow upon seeing the video machine frozen on 0:00:00.
“You sure that VCR is working? The numbers ain’t moving.”

“It’s working, alright, but it always acts funny when I record something. No matter how I try, I can’t get the counter, the clock, or the programming thingies to work.”

“You just don’t do well with techie stuff, huh?”

“Guess not. Diana calls me a Luddite.”

“Whazzat, supposed to be an insult or something?”

Charlie shrugged and rubbed a palm over her eyes. “I think she means that I need to move past my fear of gadgets, make friends with a personal computer or some such rot. They’re not my thing.”

“If you can work the alarm clock and the coffee maker, you’re doing better than most blondes.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark! You’d just better – ”

DING-DONG?

Charlotte froze in mid-riposte and looked from Teddy to the front door and back again. The burly man wiped his hands on the apron and reached for the formidable Smith & Wesson holstered on his hip. He motioned for Charlotte to head to the bedroom, but she didn’t budge.

“Go!” he mouthed, cocking the blue steel .45 Magnum revolver.

“See who it is first,” she whispered sternly.

DING-DONG? the uncertain doorbell queried again.

“What the hell is wrong with that bell?” Teddy asked as he stepped into the foyer and touched the gun barrel to the thick wood door. He kept a firm finger on the trigger as he slid the brass cover away from the peephole and peered through. On the front step was a tall, thin man with straw-colored hair. He wore rumpled tan slacks, white sport shirt, and a linen blazer that needed to spend some quality time with a hot iron. His hands were raised just above his shoulders, open palms displayed, harmless and empty.

“What do you want here?” Theodore Rinna boomed, in his best John Wayne-was-a-pussy voice.

“Diana sent me to help. I’m a friend of hers from on the job,” the man answered neutrally.

“I don’t know nothin’ about that. Maybe you should leave now, pal.”

“Seriously, I saw her today, and she asked me to lend a hand. I’m just returning a favor.”

“Well, ain’t you a good sam. You got to the count of five to back the hell away from that door…”

“Whoa, there! If you’re the big mean guy Diana mentioned, she told me to say that your birthday presents were in her left desk drawer, and that you could smoke one in the house. Only one though, and only if Charlie says it’s okay. Please, at least check on that before you blow me away.”

“I ain’t checkin’ jack shit! Now you just move your ass – ”

“Teddy,” Charlotte said, appearing suddenly at his elbow and surprising the hell out of him.

“Jesus! Don’t do that!”

“Teddy, it’s true. Diana must have sent him. She bought you a box of Cohebas last week and stashed them in her left desk drawer, the one with the lock.”

“Well, Christ, that was awful nice of her, but what the fuck difference does it make right now?”

“It means that whoever he is, Diana sent him,” she argued, already punching the codes into the alarm pad. “Now let him in, or step aside and I’ll do it.”

Her tone had zipped right past ‘patient explanation’ directly to ‘closing argument.’ Charlie was convinced that the man just beyond her front door could tell her something about Diana, and she wanted to hear it. Right f-ing now.

“Back up,” Teddy said, waving her away from the door. He removed the burglar bar and twisted all the double-key deadbolts until the way was clear, watching all the while through the peephole just in case he should be forced to open fire through the thick slab of oak. Slowly, he swung the door open, keeping the .45 aimed at the stranger. “Step in here. Hands high.”

“Sure. Whatever you say,” Dan replied as Teddy Rinna began to vigorously frisk him for weapons and I.D. Per Diana’s cue, Dan had stuffed his wallet with standard LAPD credentials before approaching the house. Although he felt sure the fakes would pass muster, the way this brute was pinching and prodding his body made him a tad nervous. He sighed audibly from relief when Teddy at last yanked the Glock from his shoulder holster and took the wallet from his back pocket.

“Detective Daniel Webster, LAPD. Says here you been with the department since 89′?” Teddy said aloud, fishing for a lie as he purposely misread the date on the ID card.

Dan was not flustered; actually, he was relieved that the rough-looking lug was bright enough to try and trip him up – not that he really expected Diana to partner up with a moron. “Your eyesight okay, pops? Check beside my picture. Big black letters, nineteen eighty-seven, clear as day.”

Teddy edged forward, brandishing the gun quite close to Dan’s chest. “You wanna test me?”

“I think both of you should calm down,” Charlotte interjected from close behind them, startling the pair. Neither man had noticed as she stealthily slipped past to secure the door’s intricate lock system. Once all the locks were back in place, she turned on them, a rebuke in her eyes.

“When did you get so good at sneakin’ around?” Teddy inquired, secretly annoyed at having her spook him twice inside of a minute.

Charlie smirked at the two men. “You’re forgetting who I live with. I’ve picked up a thing or ten.” Her attention fell to Dan, and she already had her first question chambered and ready to fire. “You saw her today?”

Remembering Diana’s admonishment to tell her the truth, Dan nodded. “Yeah. She said to tell you she’s okay. Confused as hell, but okay. She’ll call as soon as she knows something solid.”

“You say you worked with her. You’ve known her for a while?”

“Yes.”

“What were you doing nine years ago?”

A pregnant pause later… “Working Asian crime, same as Diana.”

Pleased with that answer and aware that she was onto something, Charlie gave him a sweet smile. “Well, Detective Webster – may I call you Dan?”

“Please do, Ms. Browning.”

“Dan, call me Charlie,” the attorney instructed, edging by a gaping Teddy Rinna to loop her arm around the elbow of this lanky stranger. “You and I have a lot to talk about.”

“Can I have my gun back now?” Dan asked, trying to sound casual.

Charlotte waved her hand imperiously; an empress summoning her captain of the guard. “Please return his gun, Teddy.”

Grudgingly, the shamus handed over the confiscated Glock. “I’m keeping my eye on you,” he warned, the business end of his own .45 still trained on the newcomer’s body.

“Good.” Dan gave him a wink, then turned to Charlotte. “Is he cheaper than a Rottweiler?”

“Don’t tease him,” she warned. “He bites.”

To punctuate this, Teddy Rinna bared his teeth and clicked them together loudly. Dan cowered in mock fear and Charlotte smiled as she whisked the visitor off to the living room. Tonight’s after dinner conversation promised to be much more interesting than she had hoped. She could hardly wait to get Dan alone and toss him onto the hot seat. Charlie resolved that by the end of this evening, she would root out everything this man knew about Diana, whether he wanted to say it or not.
——————————————————————————–

Except for small talk about the increase in gang and other criminal activity in the greater San Diego / Los Angeles area, dinner was a quiet affair marked by palpable tension between the two men. Dan answered all of Teddy’s questions, even the twisted little tricky ones, with good humor and informed intelligence. Charlotte was conspicuously disinterested in such matters and opted for wolfing down her food like she was late for a court date. She preferred to take her time with good food, that was certain, but the young attorney had other things on her mind.

After generous helpings of caesar salad, Sherrie Rinna’s special deviled steak, scalloped potatoes, onion flatbread, and orange sorbet, Charlotte was ready to talk. She belched delicately, thanked Teddy for cooking, loaded her own place setting into the dishwasher, then bodily dragged Dan away from the table before he could even finish his dessert.

“We can talk in the study,” she announced, tugging him down the hall like a leashed puppy.

Knowing better than to argue, the tall man merely trotted along obediently and prayed that she wouldn’t ask him anything he couldn’t answer. As soon as they entered the small, tidy room that served as a home office for both women, Charlotte slammed the door and switched on a gray shaded desk lamp. She plunked herself down in a squishy, navy blue suede chair that was perfect for long sittings (recently, on one of her rare weekends alone, she read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor while ensconced in that chair), and waited for her guest to make himself comfortable.

“We can talk in here without bothering Teddy,” she told him. “Thick walls.”

“Good to know.”

Contrasted with the rest of the house – which was far from messy, but looked well-used – this room was quietly pristine. Dan looked around quickly, taking in the immaculate cream carpet, the tall bookshelves with contents organized by topic, the dormant laptop computer folded neatly inside the hutch of a carved cherry rolltop desk, the neat bundles of wires, tied and hanging tightly beneath…

“I always knew she had a neat streak, but this is too Diana,” he attested, finally choosing a seat across from his hostess. “I’m assuming she’s responsible for this space.”

“You assume correctly.” Charlie sat back, sinking down in the chair and propping her bare feet on the matching ottoman. “This room was empty before she moved in. I never used it for anything but storage. Richard, my ex-husband, used it as a game room, but he got the pool table in the divorce. Pinball machine and dart board, too, come to think of it. I like things better this way.”

“Mmm. So you don’t miss ’em at all?”

“Which do you mean? The pool table, the pinball machine, or Richard?”

Dan almost bit back his grin. “Given your current co-habitation, I’d answer ‘none of the above.'”

Charlotte couldn’t help returning his sly smile. “Then you really do know Diana.”

“Well enough to know that she’s happy here with you. From what I’ve seen and heard, you seem to be happy right back. I suppose that’s what makes this situation stink so bad.”

“Oh, good. I like a man who can get to the point, Dan. About this recurrent stench, things must be really rotten if she felt the need to send reinforcements over here, so…”

“Listen, before you put me on a spit and roast me, I wanna clear something up.” He leaned forward, gesturing nervously with both hands. “She told me that it’s my decision what to say to you, but to give you the unvarnished truth whenever possible, okay?”

Charlie was moderately surprised; 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. “Diana told you to talk to me?”

“Yes, ma’am. She knows you’re nervous and she wants to explain herself, but I think she’s scared.”

Upgrade that to a 6. “Scared? Of what?”

“An awful lot of shit came down on her today, some of it flying in hard from left field. Diana’s about as strong a person as I’ve ever met, but she can’t stand the idea of hurting anyone she cares about. Guilt cuts her deeper than most, so maybe that’s why she wants me to lay the groundwork with you.”

“Like this will be easier for me to hear coming from a stranger? Is that it?”

“Kinda, yeah. Easier on her, too.”

“Well, if it’s bad news, there’s no time like the present. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Me, either. I’m your shadow until this mess gets straightened out. I’ll explain as best I can, but this situation that’s come up… there’s a lot more to it than any of us peons know.”

Charlie found that tiny bit of self-deprecation oddly funny and familiar. “You’re just a peon?”

“In the agency fiefdom, I’m definitely a serf, a toady. I go in, do my bit, then go home. Once in a while, someone cuts me an untraceable check.”

“Forgive me for saying this, but you really don’t seem -”

“The type? I know,” Dan finished for her, having sensed what was coming. “Everyone says that. It’s true, though. Usually, my work is confined to numbers, logistics. I’m a computer nerd at heart. I never know the whole story on a mission, even when it’s over. Doing this – field work – was never my specialty. This was Diana’s niche. She’s the best. Was the best, I should say.”

The lawyer managed a non-committal “mmm,” acknowledging his praise. Diana’s deadly occupational proficiency was not a popular topic of conversation between the pair.

“She helped me out of a couple of tight spots over the years.” Dan paused and snorted out a soft laugh. “Put me in a tight spot last year, though. A really tight spot.”

Hazel eyes flashed, catching on to a bit of memory. “Wait a minute – you’re not one of the guys she locked in the car trunk downtown, are you?”

“Yep. Spent thirteen hours in there before the drugs wore off and I summoned an attendant.”

“And you don’t hold a grudge?”

“You don’t understand – had it been anyone but her, I would be dead now. Diana easily could have killed me. She didn’t really remember who I was, but she spared my life anyway. She always had a good core, just got bumped off center for a while. By that fateful day, she was finding it again.”

“I see.”

Watching the nervous way Dan blinked as he spoke, how rapidly his words came, how he kept his eyes almost glued to her own, she guessed his humility and farmboy sincerity was a big reason Diana chose to trust him. He seemed about as likely as Charlotte to be in this line of work. Although she was curious about Dan, Charlie wasn’t about to stray far from the subject at hand.

“Who’s responsible for the mess Diana’s being dragged into? What’s the hierarchy in this fiefdom?”

“Huh. Best to start at the top. Do you know who Harry Mars is?”

“The director,” Charlie replied, nodding patiently.

“Yeah, right. Harry’s the benevolent dictator… at least, he was this morning. He runs assignments and designates which areas are worth our attention. Julia – do you know her, too?”

“Unfortunately, yes. We met last year.”

“Well, she’s next in line. She manages field operations, sometimes organizes and executes them first hand, if she has some sort of personal stake or a goal in mind. That’s what I think is going on here, with Yoshima and Angelia. She went to -”

Charlotte’s face contorted suddenly into an expression of confused annoyance. Her blood thickened and slowed, her hand leaping out to flag Dan down. “Stop. Back up.”

“To where?”

“The part where you said Yoshima and…”

Dan caught her drift, and he felt his stomach tighten as his ulcers went crazy again. If Diana hadn’t known she was alive, Charlotte wouldn’t either. Idiot, idiot, idiot. “You mean Angelia?”

“Right there. Zoom in on that. Sharp focus.”

Clearing his throat noisily, Dan took the depleted roll of Tums from his coat pocket and tossed three into his mouth. All personal entanglements aside, this was not something he felt comfortable discussing. But Diana did say it was okay.

“Just to avoid covering old ground, what do you already know, Ms. Browning?”

“Charlie,” she corrected automatically, even though he could have called her ‘Aloisius’ and she wouldn’t have really cared. Her focus was already elsewhere. “I know that she was Hideo Yoshima’s stepchild, that he abused her, and that she and Diana became… well, involved during some sort of mission. Diana wanted to help her get away from a bad situation, but things went sour and Joshua Riggins killed the girl before she could get away.”

“Aww, geez!” His reaction came straight from his roiling gut, which was already dreading the rest of this conversation. All the Tums in the world wouldn’t help Dan now. “That’s it?”

“That’s all Diana got a chance to tell me before she left today. I know there’s more to the story, so maybe you can clear up the details. You were there, weren’t you?”

“In Nagano? Yeah, I was.”

“And?” Charlie thrummed her fingers impatiently, beating riffs on the suede chair arms. Soon, she couldn’t stop her toes from twitching. The attorney was starting to believe the anticipation would kill her sooner than any of Diana’s enemies. “There’s plenty of blanks to fill in. Take your pick.”

“Well, like I said, I’m a numbers man, not an active field operative like Diana was, so most of the work I did pertained to research and account tampering. I only saw bits and pieces of the op at first, and I didn’t even meet Diana until late in the game. Riggins was acting on behalf of a corporate group to clear out an extortion threat from the Yakuza.”

“Yoshima wanted a piece of the company.”

“He wanted a seat on the board and all the respectability that legitimacy could bring. He was the obvious villian, but no one knew exactly how many of Yoshima’s cohorts were involved. There was a rift in the Yakuza over his proposal. Some wanted to go legit, others wanted to kill him. We had to lure out his secret allies in order to neutralize the threat. Accomplishing that was mostly my job.”

“And while you did that, Diana went into Yoshima’s house as a governess.”

“Yeah, she was working there undercover…” Dan said, not hearing the double entendre until it was already out and a hot blush crept up his neck. “Er, so to speak. Sorry.”

“Bygones,” Charlie said simply, waving it off. “Past tense.”

“Umm… right.” For a full count of ten, Dan took deep breaths and stared at his shoes, willing himself calm, telling himself that it wouldn’t sting Charlie so bad if he could put off telling that bit for a little while longer, until she could put it all in context. It worked just enough to get him talking again.

“So anyway, Riggins set me up with a sensitive accounting job with the company Yoshima wanted to extort. I was in place about two months before Diana arrived. My position with Matsuda Group allowed Yoshima to approach me to buy inside information.”

Charlotte’s keenly devious mind was already divining their little scheme. “Let me guess – you fed him false info. He turned around and gave the inside tips to his cronies, then you just watched their bank accounts to see who’s investing where. Wait for the red flags to pop up and identify them. Sweet.”

“Very good. You have some intrinsic understanding of manipulation and deceit?”

“I am a lawyer, you know,” she explained, with a not-entirely facetious grin.

Unsure if she was playing, he chose to press on with his exposition. “Well, anyway, that was the simple part of the plan. The theory was this: we get his shadow associates all stirred up, they go to Nagano to confront him when the inside tips turn out to be bogus, Diana rolls tape on their confab, they all get tagged and sent off to prison.” Dan took another deep breath. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it went down. Things got… hot. In more ways than one.”

“From the guilt Diana’s carrying over this, I’m assuming she was there for the fireworks.”

“Charlie, I know you don’t know me from Adam – and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way – but believe me when I say this… she was the fireworks. Toward the end, Riggins gave her some orders she wouldn’t or couldn’t carry out, and Diana went off like a goddamned roman candle.”

Mouth open slightly, and a growing sense of dread rising in her gorge, Charlie murmured a haphazard guess. “He told her to kill Angelia, didn’t he?”

Dan nodded and agreed quietly. “Yeah. Along with every other living thing in the Nagano house.”

“But, there were children there. The two little boys…”

“If you think he cared about the lives of a couple of kids, then you don’t know anything about Riggins. Yoshima, the Yaks, the maid, the boys… and Angelia. He wanted to see corpses. That was a big moment for Diana early on, and that’s where she drew the line, I guess. To this day, I still don’t know where that woman found the guts to try what she did.”

“Just what did she do, Dan?” Leaning forward in her suddenly uncomfortable chair, Charlotte Browning was the picture of anxiety – eyes wide, knuckles white, cheeks slightly flush.

“She refused to give up her soul,” he answered, as honestly as he could. “From my point of view, she defied the devil himself, only to be struck down by the angel.”

“Tell me everything you know, and don’t stint on the details,” Charlie ordered. At Dan’s hesitant, unsure expression, she added, “Diana’s request, remember? Unvarnished truth?”

“I remember. Believe me, I remember everything.”

Seventeen

Gedde Yoshima couldn’t quiet his mind. Tired beyond exhaustion, sweat cooling on his body, muscles trembling from hours of exertion – an overload of physical sensation that should have baked his mental circuitry to a crispy, golden brown – and still he could not rid himself of the burden of thought and worry. Feet dangling off the bed, arms spread wide as his breathing returned to normal, he was unable to resist the urge to question his… captor? Benefactor? Lover? Whatever. All of the above. Perhaps none.

“What happens now?” he asked, turning his head sideways to lay on Julia’s bare stomach, ear over navel, facing where he imagined her eyes to be.

Somewhere in the darkness above him, she was amused, for her lean torso shook with light laughter. “I’d recommend a shower. Neither of us smells like dewy flowers about now.”

The young man rolled onto his side and aimed his voice through the bedroom’s black air toward the glowing orange beacon of Julia’s cigarette. “I feel that I am entitled to a more genuine response.”

“You are indeed,” she agreed. Her hand crept down her ribs, found his damp hair and brushed through it, absently grooming him as she smoked. “But you must admit, we smell horrid.”

“I can’t smell anything, and I only taste you. I am able to stand this condition indefinitely. Now, please answer me – what will happen to Diana Starrett and her companion? You are aware that my father will take the lawyer’s life as retribution.”

“I am aware.”

“He has likely contracted the services of someone to complete the job -”

“Chen Kaige, out of Hong Kong,” the smoking blonde finished. “The best money can buy.”

A fast learner, Gedde did not ask how she knew this with such certainty. He was beginning to sense when it was better just to accept that Julia knew everything and let it go at that. “And you approve of her murder? I understood that Diana was your friend, your colleague.”

“She is… was.”

“And yet you extend tacit approval of her lover’s assassination? For what purpose?”

*Assassination is the quickest route to change,* she thought, with the brevity of a long-dead philosopher. Julia thought it best to explain – or not – by changing the subject a bit. “What do you really remember about the events in Nagano nine years ago? Specifically, your memories regarding Diana.”

“Conversations about art. Men cut open and left to die,” he recalled, announcing the random impressions as they occurred to him. “Finding her in my sister’s bed. A snowball fight just before dawn. Her eyes… while she fought, they were almost white. Just little bits of blue, like an endless winter storm. Being afraid that she would find me and kill me as well.”

“Before that day, had you ever seen anyone die?”

“No.” Gedde sighed and nestled a cheek against Julia’s side. “I always knew my father was… powerful, that he could end lives, but that was fantasy to me. She brought death into my reality.”

“Hmm. I wouldn’t be so quick to blame her, if I were in your tabi socks.”

“But you are not me, and you did not see what she actually did there.”

“Neither did you.”

Stirred from physical complacency by sudden, indignant anger, Gedde managed to lift his head and sharpen his voice to a point. “What do you mean by that?”

“You saw things I didn’t see, I saw things you didn’t see. She’s gotten a bum rap for years about what happened there.”

“That’s not possible. You couldn’t know, you were not present – ”

“Detailed debriefings are standard after any mission. Also, this was only nine years ago, not the Stone Age. Diana was sent in with a great deal of modern surveillance and transmission equipment. Think video tapes, audio recordings, satellite transmissions…”

“So you were a witness from a safe distance, after the fact.”

“That’s part of my job function. I reviewed the operation thoroughly, trying to find out where things went wrong. My opinion is that the failure of the Nagano mission stemmed partly from Diana, partly from your sister, and partly from your father. It was truly a group effort.”

“Tell me,” he ordered… almost. “Please.”

“Well, since you asked so nicely,” Julia teased, ruffling his hair. Stubbing out her smoke, she wondered how much time she had before Harry Mars showed up and read her the riot act, then decided to chance the telling anyway.

“I have a feeling that this is a very popular story around these parts tonight. Let’s see if we can’t shed a little light on the shadowy tale of the much-maligned Ms. Starrett.”
——————————————————————————–

Nagano

Nearly midnight on that last Saturday, the moon was so big and bright that the sky mimicked dawn. A light snow fell, coating the hard-packed ground with fine, frail down. Westerly breezes chilled the air further, blowing steam from the secret spring up the hill through the aspen trees. The snow monkeys were wide awake and very noisy, but they had no visitors that evening. The two female humans who sometimes invaded their grove had chosen to stay inside for the night – inside that odd-shaped house that was neither European nor Asian – and make noises of their own.

During intermission from one of their now nightly sessions of seamless lovemaking, games were played, stories were shared in whispers, and physical contact was rarely broken. Lying side by side on the futon mattress, they faced each other, smiling and sated, breathing each other’s air. Diana raised herself up on one elbow and reached for the supplies they had requisitioned for this evening’s half-time break.

“Don’t spill the ink!” the younger woman urged. “If it gets on the floor…”

“I won’t spill a drop. Now hand me the brush.”

Angelia gave over the sable paint brush, running the exquisite bristles over Diana’s wrist, dusting the fine hairs. The tall woman smiled, not tickled, but charmed by the beautiful youth’s persistent flirting. The girl was getting under her skin, more with each passing minute, hour, day. Angelia was nearly all she thought about. Especially since the job was so remarkably boring.

Every day, the same routine – Yoshima wakes early and leaves for the city, then returns home late at night, accompanied only by his guards. His mood was mercurial, sometimes edgy and anxious, sometimes nearly human, but always aware of her presence and proximity to his children. Since the morning after their near confrontation, he had steered mostly clear of Diana Starrett, barely speaking to her and only then when it was absolutely necessary. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ seemed to be his policy regarding Angelia’s new friendship. That was just fine with both of them.

“Where shall I start?” Diana asked playfully, dipping the brush into the dark inkwell. As if in response, her young companion drew in a deep breath and poked up her bare chest, presenting two small, brown nipples for inspection and attention. “Excellent idea. Now close your eyes.”

Without hesitation, the girl eased her dark eyes shut, trusting for the first time in memory that she would not be harmed in surrender. The first touch of wet sable against her skin caused Angelia to squirm a little, then hum low in the back of her throat as the brush moved in quick, light strokes just below her left breast. All too soon, the brush moved away. Her mind began ticking off possibilities, guessing what symbol her lover had emblazoned on her flesh.

“Guess,” Diana whispered, lips brushing her young companion’s ear, kissing her temple.

“Heart… something,” she smiled, obviously guessing blind. “You lost me on the last few strokes.”

“Heart-something,” the painter repeated. “Hmm. Close enough.” She leaned down and pressed her mouth to each closed eye, then moved to the girl’s lips for a long, easy kiss.

When they parted, Angelia opened her eyes to find Diana grinning warmly and offering the brush. She forgot to ask what was written. It didn’t seem important, and it didn’t occur to her to check her chest – she accepted the charity and smiled in return.

“Score one for you,” Diana said. “Now it’s your turn, Matisse.”

Rolling onto her back, the tall woman stretched her arms over her head and pointed her toes sharply, getting a kink out of her calves. Blue eyes drifted shut to wait patiently for a sensory challenge.

Angelia watched her silently, unable to believe that this magnificent length of heaven was hers to do with what she pleased. The power of it made her a little light headed; no one had ever just given themselves over to her like that, trusted her.

“Well?” Diana prompted, waiting for reciprocal action.

“Don’t rush me. I’m thinking of a tough one.”

Eventually, she inked the brush and touched the tip to a lean abdominal canvas, using a softened square of muscle as a frame for her work. A few graceful lines later, she stopped, pleased with her selection. “Okay. Guess, smarty pants.”

“Strength,” Diana replied immediately, trying not to smirk.

“Dammit! This isn’t a fair game!” Angelia cried, sulking already. “You know Japanese better that I do, and I was fucking BORN here!”

“Don’t hate me because I’m brilliant.”

“Fuck you, mutant.”

“Give me another minute and I’ll take you up on that,” came the predictable, half-jested retort.

“It isn’t fair,” the girl persisted, sliding away the brush and ink and nestling against her lover’s side. “Eggheads shouldn’t be built like you. It’s almost like false advertising.”

“Would you rather I were short and round?”

“Yeah, with glasses and a plastic pocket protector full of leaky pens.”

“Nice look. I think I could pull it off.”

“The awful truth is, I think you really could,” Angelia said softly, kissing a convenient shoulder. “I am glad that there aren’t many like you, though. Makes you special, more of a mutant.”

“You have a fondness for mutants?”

“One in particular.”

They were quiet then, both letting the vague profession settle over them. Before any tension or fear of rejection could build, Diana slipped one arm over the young girl’s body and drew her in tight. It was as close as they had come to talking about their sudden attachment or admitting to any deeper affection, and it was a close as they would get.

Hands moved down backs and over buttocks, spurring heat and need, and lips soon met to take up where they had left off. Legs entwined and flesh met flesh, grinding slowly and subtly until passion demanded more definite action, keying up the inevitable intensity of touch and feeling.

Angelia’s room was warmer than the rest of the house, two vents pumping in heated air, electronics emitting radiation and upping the temperature further. In minutes, they were again coated in a thin sheen of sweat, pushing against each other as they raced toward another tiny, glittering death.

“Ohhh… damn you… fuck… hate you…” the younger murmured, denying and cursing as always, raking her nails down her lover’s long back as if trying to rend the skin like rice paper, to plunge pointed fingers inside and grab her very bones in a violent deathgrip.

It troubled Diana at the start, until she figured out that it was just her lover’s way, just how Angelia’s mind distanced her wounded heart from the ferocity of the act and the unsettling feelings it provoked. Maybe it was a release of all the hatred and anger she felt toward Yoshima. It didn’t matter to Diana. She gladly let her body be damaged, let her soul be damned to the scorching center of hell in exchange for a few moments in this oasis, to be able to offer the girl a drink of the ephemeral waters they found only here, only together.

Hours passed. Somewhere between satiation and exhaustion, the women fell into a light sleep.

Diana heard it first, of course – the sound of cars pulling into the driveway. Doors slamming. Footsteps. People moving across the pea gravel drive in a hurry.

“Angel,” she whispered, nudging the body laid out atop her own, “wake up. Wake up.”

“Why on earth would I want to do that?” came the drowsy protest.

“Because someone’s here. Several someones.”

“So?”

“So it’s…” Diana checked the glowing green clock bouncing around on a nearby computer monitor. “three-forty in the morning. Not exactly the time for polite company to visit.”

“Oh shit.”

The girl rolled to the side and scrambled to her feet just as a soft knock sounded at her bedroom door. Diana sat up straight and the women looked at each other, puzzled. Angelia walked to the door and asked quietly, “Who goes there?”

“It’s me,” answered a tiny, familiar voice. “Let me in, please. There are men downstairs with father.”

Not thinking, just reacting to the fear in her little brother’s voice, Angelia threw the locks and opened the door to admit Gedde to the relative safety of her room. The small boy, clad in neat white pajamas, immediately rushed inside and closed the door behind him. He seemed a bit startled to find his sister naked, and one hell of a lot more so to see his governess, unclothed as well, sitting on her rumpled bed and looking like a Delacroix painting of adult female perfection. His blush was so hot and red, it was nearly visible in the darkness.

“I am sorry! So terribly – ”

“Gedde, hush. It’s okay,” Angelia told him, patting his head as he stared at the floor. She grabbed a robe from the back of a chair and slipped it on, then tossed Diana Starrett her neatly folded clothes. “Now calm down and tell us what’s got you so upset that you’re roaming around at this hour.”

“I was in the kitchen getting some water when they came into the house. The men with father, they brought someone with them. I think they are going to kill him.”

“Do you recognize the man they brought in?” Diana asked as she slid into her black slacks and sweater. She didn’t like the sound of this already.

“No, but I think he is like you,” Gedde answered nervously, still unable to face either of them. “He is an American, I believe. They are hurting him, and I didn’t know what to do, so I came here.”

“Both of you stay put,” Diana ordered, making for the door. “I mean that, too. Stay right here.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Angelia asked, holding her position in front of the only egress.

“To my room. I’ll be right back.”

Diana moved her aside with one arm and a minimum of effort, then slid silently into the hallway. Quick steps took her inside her room and to her bed, under which she kept a deceptively simple briefcase stuffed with nonsense papers relating to her household position.

Combination locks were opened, revealing a small, black metal box. Inside was a global paging message unit, hooked into a network of communication satellites that could zip an encoded message from the peak of Everest to the center of the earth in less than five seconds, if need be. The black case was unlocked, revealing a row of ten highly-annoyed flashing red bulbs.

“Holy fucking Christ,” Diana swore, her heart hammering at the sight of the top-level alarm. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. She entered her access codes and opened the first of three messages, its date stamped at 1:21 am.

DCA 2 exposed – capture imminent. Mission security compromised. Exercise extreme caution. Further instuctions forthcoming.

R

*Good night, nurse. They got the other agent, the one Riggins wouldn’t tell me about. Jesus, I hope our ignorance was mutual. If he told anyone about me…*

She opened the second message, dated less than one hour ago at 2:50 am.

DCA 2 captured, presumed dead. YK carrier coming directly to Nagano with HOT package. Crucial that you assume custody of package at all costs. Ready A/V record and transmission of mission solution. Further instuctions forthcoming.

R

*Hot package – that means biohazardous materials. They’ve brought the virus sample here! A/V record? Riggins wants me to roll tape on this?* Growing even more agitated and anxious, Diana opened the third and final message, received at 3:32 am.

Hostiles incoming with HOT package. Retrieve package and record final mission solution. Silence the entire household. No witnesses. This means EVERYONE.

Slash and burn.

R

Diana held her breath as she read the message over and over, wishing the words would change into something less horrifying.

*Slash and burn.*

“No… he can’t mean that.”

But she knew that was exactly what he meant. The director’s terse missive was remarkably clear and not at all open to interpretation. He wanted her to murder every single occupant of the Nagano house and record the slaughter for posterity.

Not just Yoshima and his men, not just the jovial old cook called Banana… he wanted her to murder children. Little boys. Kids she had played with just this morning, flinging snowballs across the yard, laughing innocently like she used to with her own lost brother.

“I can’t.”

Riggins wanted her to murder, in cold blood, the woman whose transferred sweat was cooling on her own skin. The woman whose bed she had just left, whose taste was as sharp and bittersweet in her mouth as a dying dream. She had been ordered to kill Angelia.

“I won’t.”

And for Diana Starrett, it was as simple as that. She refused. There was a faint line drawn across her heart which even self-preservation would not allow her to cross, and Joshua Riggins had just run a highlighter pen across it, made it perfectly clear. She would find another way.
——————————————————————————–

“That’s your plan?” Angelia said, completely incredulous. “That’s all there is to it?”

“Yes,” Diana told her bluntly, “and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The girl, angry over the lack of details revealed, jammed her foot into her fleece-lined boot to complete her warm outfit of ski sweater and insulated pants. She sat on the futon and looked up at Diana with doubtful eyes. “Well, I think it’s fucked.”

“It may well be, but that’s what we’re going to do. You take the boys down to the hot springs and wait for me. I’ll be along shortly and we’ll get out of here for good.”

“I still don’t see how you’re going to convince Hideous – ”

“Leave that to me,” the dark woman interrupted. “Gedde, is your brother still in your room?”

“He was sleeping when I went to the kitchen,” the boy told her.

“Good. You and Yukio are to stay with your sister, understand? Do what she tells you.”

“But, my father will be angry with us if we leave the house.”

“No, he won’t. He’ll have other things on his mind.” *Like a 9mm slug,* she added silently.

“Don’t be stupid, Diana! You don’t know what he’s like!” Angelia nearly yelled. She had a terrible feeling that this was going to end badly for everyone involved, especially this cocky governess.

Diana’s eyes turned slitty and pale, her voice dropping to it’s lowest register. “No. He doesn’t know what I’m like. He’s about to find out.”

Angelia drew back, alarmed at some primal level by the sudden reappearance of menace, a cruel face she had only seen on Diana once before. “And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“He won’t be hurting you anymore,” she whipered, glancing from Angelia to Gedde and back. “None of you. Go now. Take them out of here and wait for me.”

“No! Not until you – ”

Angelia’s protests were silenced by two strong hands clasping her shoulders and jerking her to her feet, completely without her assistance. Suddenly standing, she felt something hard press against her chest just as Diana’s soft, warm mouth covered her own in a kiss. For a few seconds, she forgot about that uncomfortable foreign object jutting into her sternum, forgot her blushing, gaping little brother, forgot about the trouble brewing downstairs. For those few seconds, everything was fine.

“Everything will be fine,” Diana swore, confident she could make the promise into truth.

“You’d better be right behind us,” Angelia told her, “or I’m coming back to get you.”

Diana held something out to her – a large, black L-shape. “I want you to take this with you.”

“A gun?”

“You know how to shoot.” A statement, not a question as the heavy gun was placed in her hands. “You might need to use it on a bad guy,” Diana teased, nearly grinning. “It’ll be okay, Angel.”

Then she was forcibly turned around, felt hands pushing at her back, shoving her toward the door and out into the hall. Before Angelia could question her any further, Diana was gone, vanished into the shadows and down the stairs to do heaven only knew what. Angelia had her assignment – get the boys to safety and wait. It seemed like such a simple thing to ask, and it should have worked. In a logical and fair universe, it very well may have worked.

Sometimes, ours is neither a logical nor a fair universe.
——————————————————————————–

Downstairs, the living room was dim with firelight, the sounds of muffled cries and whispers drifting around the high, exposed beams. The noise was coming from the nearby den. The heavy door to that room was closed – as always. It was Yoshima’s inner sanctum, an inviolable zone to which even Banana was denied access. Inside now, men spoke in hushed, harsh tones, presumably to the western man Gedde saw them bring in earlier.

Praying she wasn’t too late already, Diana crept to the den door and adjusted her chic, librarian-look video glasses, quietly praying the little trick she set up for the camera relay unit was ready. The ruse was her only hope of saving anyone in this house, including herself. She had only one more thing to do before taping began, and it was crucial.

*If this doesn’t work, we are all fucked. Every last one of us. Fatally.*

With the additional weight of that responsibility on her shoulders, the young agent went to work. She took an antique sword from the wall display and sliently shucked the scabbard. A glass bottle of pale green liquid emerged from her pocket, a medicine dropper attached to the cap.

She squeezed the bulb full of liquid, then coated the blade of the short sword with the synthetic drug called ‘Morpheus,’ which could induce up to eighteen hours of unconsciousness when taken orally, but worked much faster when introduced directly into the bloodstream via injection… or laceration. Blowing on the blade, the drug dried into a clingy gel that she estimated would last through a number of vigorous introductions. Enough to make it look good.

Once armed, she donned her glasses and activated the video sensors mounted inside the bulky plastic arms. She checked her watch and counted down the seconds, waiting for her cue to begin, waiting for the tape unit to begin saving footage of Riggins’ command performance.

*Three, two one. Roll tape. It’s showtime. Remember, twelve minutes to curtain.*

The katana hidden behind her back, Diana knocked timidly on the den door and waited for someone to answer. She counted only a few seconds before Yoshima partially unlocked the door and peered out through a narrow crack, his obviously peeved eyes level with a thick length of security chain anchored to the door frame.

“Return to bed, Miss Starrett. There is nothing occurring which should concern you.”

“Sir, there is something occurring which should concern you,” she countered, knowing exactly how to get that door flung open wide.

“What do you want?” he hissed. “This is not a time for interruptions.”

“It’s Angelia. She’s disappeared.”

The reaction was instantaneous and utterly predictable. He slammed the door shut, unhitched the chain lock, and reopened it enough for Diana to glimpse the situation inside the den.

A slim, pale man tied to a chair, grimacing stoically as blood flowed from his nose and mouth. Straw-like hair, kinda funny looking – like Ray Bolger in Wizard of Oz, only younger.

*DCA2. He’s still alive, which means he hasn’t talked yet. Hold on, Scarecrow, just hold on.*

Seven Yakuza were visible inside the room, presumably all armed. One was a notably large man rubbing his abraded knuckles, taking a breather from the rigors of the interrogation. Diana saw nothing she couldn’t handle, in due time.

Yoshima stepped clear of the door, closed it and addressed her impatiently. “Explain yourself.”

Feigning nervousness and/or shame, the tall woman shifted her weight from foot to foot and stared at the floor. One hand tightly gripped the ivory-handled sword, itching to use it. “We… we had an argument. She took off about an hour ago, and she hasn’t come back yet. I’m getting worried about her. She was acting very strangely.”

“Angelia has been acting strangely since you arrived, Miss Starrett,” he said coldly. “I have been tolerant and understanding thus far, but know this – if anything has happened to her, I promise that you will be held accountable for your damaging influence.”

“I – I… I’m sorry,” Diana replied, trying to sound contrite but unable to keep the steel of disgust and hatred out of her voice in his condescending presence. “I don’t ever want to see her hurt again. In any way. By me or anyone else.”

Hideo Yoshima regarded her through distant eyes as he realized exactly what she meant. She knew. This woman – this stranger – had not only defiled his angel’s bed, but knew their secret. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to slap Diana Starrett, unaware what a huge mistake that would have been. Instead, he gathered himself and responded with commendable civility and restraint.

“I will send a group to search for her. Return to your room, please.”

“I want to accompany the searchers,” she insisted, “I think I know where she’s gone.”

“No. Return to your room. This is the last time I will request your cooperation.”

“But, if they don’t know where to look-”

That finally did it. Yoshima spun away from her and opened the den door. He snapped his fingers twice, summoning two black-suited young men into the living room. Barking orders at them in clipped Japanese, he turned away from Diana and moved back into the den, completely ignoring her. An instant after the door clicked shut, Diana Starrett made her move.

The guards didn’t expect any trouble from the governess; usually, she was the soul of cooperation, no arguments, no objections. She understood that they were around to ensure her safety, and normally, she did her best to make their job easy.

Not tonight.

Diana looked each of them in the eye as they moved to escort her back to her room. “I’m sorry about this,” she said, her voice barely above a breath. The guards did not hear her apology.

The katana whipped around from her back, held in an underhand grip. The blade was a blur of spotless, ancient steel, ground to a razor’s edge. It arced up and across both their throats in less than a second. Their faces were barely able to register surprise as they clutched torn flesh, gagged, fell to the floor and bled to death. Diana held her fear and disgust in check as she stood and watched, making certain they were gone, making certain she got good footage of their gory passing.

*Two. Smile for the camera, boys. We gotta make it a good show for the boss.*

Thirty seconds later, they were stone dead. Ever efficient, Diana used even those thirty seconds. She knelt beside each man and removed the large frame pistols from their holsters, arming herself with firepower for the first time since her arrival in Japan.

It felt oddly comforting, tucking one gun into her belt, palming the other and chambering a round. For the first time since coming here, Diana knew exactly what she was doing. She grabbed a foot on each corpse and dragged them clear of the den doorway, just out of sight of any incidental traffic.

By that time, Yoshima had assembled his search team and dispatched them to find Angelia. When the den entrance opened again, Diana was in position and ready. She watched from above as they filed out – three men in bulky coats and boots, ready to trudge around in the snow looking for a snotty teenager. Since this was not a state of high alert, they held only flashlights in their hands. Guns were still holstered securely inside jackets inside coats, far out of reach. They were not happy about this assignment in the least… but the really bad news was yet to come.

“Pssst.”

The last man out had just closed the den door when he heard a hissing sound coming from overhead. He turned around and looked into the beamwork of the high ceiling, expecting nothing even close to what he received.

A sharp poke in the eye. Through the eye. Into the forebrain. Then darkness.

*Three. Ten minutes to curtain.*

The other two men spun around when they heard their companion squeak, then fall to the floor with a limp thud. One hand covered his left eye; red gushed around his black leather glove in slowing gouts. Both men instantly reacted and began to unbutton their coats, trying to reach their guns. Scanning the darkened room, they perceived no immediate threat. No one else was there. They could not see the blackish blood trails concealed in shadow by the den door.

They did not think to look up.

Turing to each other with fearful eyes, they were unsure what was going on, only certain that it couldn’t possibly be good. Their shallow breathing was the only sound, aside from the random crackling of the fireplace and the frantic brush of leather against wool as thick gloves, slow fingers, and tiny buttons all entered into a conspiracy to keep them unarmed.

A soft, foreign noise came again from above.

“Pssst.”

Then – only then – did they look up.

*Five. Nine minutes to curtain.*
——————————————————————————–

From the upstairs landing, Gedde Yoshima saw nearly everything.

Angelia told him to hide in the hall closet while she looked for Yukio, who was not in his room. She left the small boy in the closet and began searching the maze of upstairs rooms to find their missing brother. After only a few minutes, Gedde could no longer stand the stifling, enclosed space. He crept out of the closet and down the hall, taking small steps so the floorboards would not creak and give him away to the strange villains conjured by his imagination.

At the landing, he peeked through the narrow slats below the bannister and saw Diana Starrett talking to his father. Concerned that she might be in danger from the faceless invaders, he stayed and watched, just in case she needed a hand. Then two of his father’s guards came out.

And everything changed.

Gedde watched as she cut them, as she killed them. His mouth hung open, frozen in a horrified ‘O,’ a silent scream of horror ripped from the canvas of Edward Munch and plastered on his small face.

Diana killed his father’s men with his father’s sword, then dragged them away like sacks of garbage.

Soundlessly, she climbed into the rafters and settled on a beam, balanced perfectly, waiting. Then she killed three more men. All without touching the ground. Hanging upside down by her crossed feet, pulling her body up like a coiling python, then dropping down to strike again. The child was terrified and amazed, awed and sickened all at once. He could not tear his eyes from her.

Silent and swift, economized movement. A predator of the highest order. A being of different stock.

He dared not make a sound – not even to draw a breath – lest he draw her attention. Gedde feared that she would turn on him, forget that he was her friend, and she would gobble him up like some surreal fairy tale monster, a walking fiction. She was the Golem, the Wolf; Grendel come to life.

Despite his fear, he was unable to cry out, to move. So he watched from the shadows, hidden, praying that he would survive to greet the dawn.
——————————————————————————–

*Five men in a four by four tomb. You deserved better, fellas,* Diana thought, folding the cooling leg of the last guard into the hall closet. She leaned against the closed door and took a few moments to gather her head, to convince herself to get back to work.

The nausea that hit her after each killing had abated, leaving her feeling only slightly dizzy, but extremely dirty. There were only negligable traces of blood on her dark clothes, but she fancied she could feel it soaking her skin, creeping through the tiny passages of her pores to leave a permanent stain inside. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself floating in a salty, red sea. Screaming. Drowning.

“Stop it,” she whispered, coaxing herself out of the unbidden fantasy. “Stop that right now.”

*No time for guilt, only action. Five down, that leaves two in the den with Yoshima – big ape with the knuckles included. Take them down, see to DCA2, and call it in. Send the tape with him, then get Angelia and the boys out of here before the cleaners show.*

“I can do this. I will do this.” She kept her camera-vision facing forward, and cut her eyes down under the glasses. Discretely, Diana turned her wrist and checked the digital stopwatch silently ticking down to zero. “Seven minutes to curtain.”
——————————————————————————–

“I don’t believe you,” Angelia said sharply, shaking Gedde by his frail shoulders. “You’re making this shit up because you’re scared.”

“It’s true! She put them in the closet! They are dead! All of them!” the boy claimed again, frantic to have someone else know the truth of what he witnessed.

His sister bit her lip and watched his eyes, searching for some sign that his claims were generated by hysteria. Gedde was not prone to violent fantasy; that was Yukio’s stock and trade. The older boy read and watched everything he could find about crime, criminals and the lifestyle he was certain to assume as an adult. Gedde scrupulously avoided such things.

“If you’re lying…”

“I swear, it is true!”

Angelia loosened her grip on her brother and gave his back a little shove. “Go back to your room and lock the door. Don’t open it unless it’s me or Yukio, understand?”

“You didn’t find him?”

“No,” she answered, frowning hard. “I don’t know where the little bastard has run off to, but he’s in a world of trouble when I find him. Go on, now. Lock that door.”

Frightened to the point of blind obedience, Gedde quickly returned to his room and bolted the door shut. He waited a moment, staring at the weak lock, then crawled under his bed and began to cry.

In the back waistband of her ski pants, Angelia found the gun Diana had given her. She reached back and laid her fingers against the stock, suddenly reminded of the weapon’s presence… and purpose.

“I don’t believe it,” she whispered to herself, “but I have to know. He doesn’t lie. Maybe it’s a mistake, a misunderstanding. But… five dead men would be an awfully big misunderstanding.”
——————————————————————————–
All that was left for Diana was going through the door. If she could just survive that, everything else would be a cakewalk. With six dwindling minutes left on her stopwatch, she had to move. Soon.

The thing that kept her immobile, kept her standing outside the den for an immeasurable length of precious time was a realization, one which excited and sickened her.

She was really, really good at this.

Killing the first guards had felt like child’s play, so easy, so natural. As if her body and mind were unraveling a mystery sewn inextricably into her DNA, decrypting her soul’s code. For twenty-one years, Diana hadn’t a clue what she was in the world for, but maybe this was it.

Maybe she was here to bring death to some and freedom to others, making morality entirely subjective in pursuit of the end goal. Did power play a role? Perhaps. The thrill of imposing one’s will, the god-like authority of deciding who lives or dies… there was no time for such ponderings. After this was over, when she and Angelia were safely away from here, she would search her heart for the answer to that question. Diana promised herself as much.

*Two more and Hideous, two more and Hideous,* she chanted silently, wringing her hands and trying to concentrate. *Knock ’em down, pile ’em up, take care of Banana, then the curtain falls and away we go, go, go! Someplace warm and peaceful. Aruba, maybe. Tahiti? Isn’t that where Marlon Brando lives these days? Hell, there might not be room for anyone else…*

One, two, three deep breaths. A slow exhale. Wipe both palms on pants and check the pistols, one in each hand. Bullets chambered, silencers screwed in tight. Take off the safety and…

*Open sesame.*

PHIP-POP! PHIP-POP!

Two hollow-point slugs ripped through the wooden door and weakened the jamb. A swift, hard kick sent it flying open, revealing the den and it’s surprised occupants. Yoshima was seated on the far side of the room, perched on a golden suede settee. A strange, fleeting glee was visible in his eyes as he saw the intruder’s face, her arrogant posture as she stood in his doorway.

As stunned as Hideo Yoshima may have been over the young woman’s revelation as a volatile component, and despite his curiosity regarding her motivation for the unforgivable intrusion, he very much wanted to see her die. Right now.

Both guards were standing near the bound agent, the larger evidently drawing back an enormous fist to hit his captive again. The smaller man stood nearer the door, grinning like a demented cheerleader, eyes begging for more violence from the behemoth. They recovered quickly from the shock and instantly went for their guns.

The men were just a little slow. Milliseconds. Tiny increments of time that seperate winners from losers, survivors from the dead. Temporal fractions that were Diana Starrett’s stock and trade.

Her first shot hit the smaller guard flush in the chest, ripping through skin and muscle, shattering at least one rib on its slightly inclined journey into his left aorta. Once inside, the slug flattened, slowed, and proceeded to make scrambled eggs of his heart. He fell to the floor with a stunned look to his partner and a pitiful whimper of pain. His face revealed disappointment, as if he had expected his sizable cohort to aid him somehow.

The larger man was busy with pain of his own.

Diana took no chances with the juggernaut, who must have stood a full six-foot-eight and weighed in at over three-hundred pounds. She fired both guns in tandem, two bullets flying at a time, until his chest and neck were peppered with eight small, black entry wounds that should have ground his innards to hamburger.

Then came the hard part. She waited as he stood still, his hand tucked inside his open jacket, his eyes bulging with agony. She waited for him to give up, to admit that Hobbes was right, that life was indeed nasty, brutish and short, and that it was time to call it a day.

*Fall, you son of a bitch. Fall. Fall.*

He weaved to the left, then to the right, taking a total of three small steps before his eyes rolled back and closed. And he fell forward onto the carpet, with a great thud that caused the captive agent to wince and blink. He looked from the fallen giant to the doorway, expecting John Wayne and the entire U.S. Cavalry.

He saw Diana Starrett instead; and she smiled at him. One eyebrow cocked, she fucking grinned like death’s own jester, making the Scarecrow nearly giggle at the grisly implausability of it all. For a moment, the pain of his beating ebbed away and he felt almost euphoric. He flashed back on Riggins’ sketchy description of the other undercover agent working this op.

“A young operative with immeasurable potential and untapped martial skill. A creature powered by lethal instinct. You should never have cause to come in contact, but if you do, you will thank whatever god you pray to that this agent is on your side.”

Blue eyes, long black hair, and a smile brighter than the north star. He knew that this could be none other than DCA1 – his savior.

“Thank you, Lord,” he whispered through torn lips.

Diana heard him, and she walked into the den with an almost regal bearing. Yoshima was alone now, and he knew it. His face showed nothing but a controlled tension, a sub-surface anger that Diana prayed would force him to do something stupid.

“Give me a reason to kill you,” she told him. “Please.”

“I have no intention of dying here today. I am sorry to dash your hopes,” Yoshima said, holding up his hands in a slow gesture of surrender. “If you would please, satisfy my curiosity. Who sent the two of you here? You’re not FBI. Was it the Company? MI8? Section?”

“None of your beeswax, you foul old sack of shit,” she answered politely.

“I suppose it does not truly make a difference. You will fail, as all the others have failed.” Yoshima’s eyes flickered from Diana for barely a tick, focusing on something behind her. A tiny smile creased his face, as if his hope for turning the tables was renewed.

“Oh, give it up, Hideous!” Diana cried, exasperated by the coy ploy. “I know there’s no one left but you and me and the punching bag over there. I’m not falling for it.”

The Scarecrow blinked several times, trying to clear his eyes. He knew there was something he should tell the woman, but he couldn’t remember what it was, couldn’t get his eyes to refocus fast enough to warn her of the impending danger.

“Boy…” was all he managed to get out.

Then Diana heard a soft whoosh from behind, and a sharp pain lashed across the back of her left thigh. She knew she was cut, and she spun to face her attacker with both pistols cocked, smoking, and ready to deal death to whoever had ruined her flawless victory.

She wasn’t ready for what she saw. Her brain started spinning inside her skull, confused and panicky, even as she gathered the wherewithal to voice a name.

“Yukio?”

*Fuck! He’s not with Angelia and Gedde… so where are they? Please let them be at the springs… and please let me find a way to avoid hurting this boy.*

The twelve year-old stood just beside the door, nearly hidden behind it. He still wore his crisp white pajamas, just baggy enough to make him look even smaller. In his shaking hands was a sword; long and sharp and wet with her blood. His bottom lip quivered. The child appeared ready to cry.

“Yukio! Finish it!” Yoshima exhorted his son on to murder, bloodlust swirling in his dark eyes. “She cannot kill a child, or she would have done so already! Isn’t that right, Ms. Starrett?”

“You bastard!” Diana kept one pistol impotently trained on the boy, and turned the other to his despicable tyrant of a father. “Why don’t you get up off that fucking couch and try it yourself! He’s a little boy, goddammit!”

“This is a test for one who wishes to be a warrior,” the older man explained. “If he is worthy, he will succeed. If not, he will die in the effort. Yukio! Kill her!”

“Father…” he whispered, tears beginning to roll down his round cheeks. He lifted the long sword once – as if he were trying to comply – then let it droop to the floor along with his shamed gaze.

“I… I cannot.”

Yoshima was still, the picture of frozen rage as he regarded the small boy. “Worthless. My children are worthless to me. Yukio, you are not my son.” He looked to Diana and said, in all seriousness, “You may kill him now. I have no need of a coward.”

“Father,” came the anguished plea of the boy, now kneeling on the carpet, penitent beyond belief.

“One son wishes to waste his life painting pictures, a daughter welcomes harlots into her bed and shows no respect for her father’s love, and now this -”

“Shut your mouth,” Diana warned.

“This spineless, simpering bastard reveals himself! A worm masquerading as a member of the noble YOSHIMA clan?? Unacceptable. It is too much disappointment for one man to bear with grace.”

“I think that’s about enough outta you,” Diana said, turning both guns on Yoshima, fully intending to empty the clips into his twisted face. Then maybe cut him into pieces. And burn him. Just as she was ready to pull the trigger, she heard a sound that no one should ever have to hear.

The sound of steel sliding into the soft body of a child, and the babyish whine of youth’s final breath.

“…forgive me…”

She turned halfway around. Saw Yukio slumped over, mortally wounded, an ornate ceremonial sword piercing his heart.

The boy, filled with shame and despair, had killed himself.

Diana couldn’t breathe. She wanted nothing more than to scream, but no air would come to power out the anguish of watching another unloved, unwanted child rush into the embrace of the grave – like Ethan had done when he surrendered to the deadly bliss of heroin. Like she herself had tried to do when she staggered into the police station, begging for her own execution.

The only words spoken in the room, a whisper of – “Oh, Christ no.” – came from the Scarecrow, who leaned forward against his bindings, wanting to get to the dying boy, to hold him as he passed over. He couldn’t have explained why he wanted to do this, didn’t know the answer himself.

Seconds dragged by eternally, no one knowing quite what to do next. Yoshima gathered himself first, sighed deeply, and sat erect on the settee.

“Perhaps the weakling had some honor after all.”

The Scarecrow just gaped at Yoshima, aghast and speechless. Diana was still staring at the dead boy, overcome with rage and regret. This was not supposed to happen. The plan was over.

Thump. Thump.

He looked up to see that Diana had dropped both her guns. He smiled, sensing that she was weak, traumatized by the horror of what they had just witnessed. Hideo Yoshima was right… and wrong.

Freeing the lengthy ivory handle from its snug position under her belt, Diana produced the drug-laced katana. She took four steps across the room, stood before the most foul creature she had ever beheld, and rammed the sword into his stomach, stopping only when the blade punched through his back and embedded itself in the couch cushions.

Blue eyes bore into dark as she hissed cryptically at her victim. “Fuck the curtain.”

She twisted the blade in a half-circle and jerked it to the side, cutting diagonally across his torso. A gentle gout of small feathers puffed out from the torn suede pillows and settled in a growing puddle of blood on the wounded man’s narrow chest.

Yoshima’s horrendous scream echoed down the cold mountainside, a fearful sound that caused the snow monkeys to take to the trees for safety. Something wicked was loose tonight.

Diana lifted a foot, braced it against Yoshima’s chest, and shoved him back onto the couch. She left the katana buried in his rent guts, pinning him to the stained suede settee.

“You should linger for a while – in incredible pain, of course. Your systems will begin to shut down, one by one, until at last, your body will no longer function.”

He gasped out a pitiful denial, as if he simply couldn’t accept this as his fate. “Nooooooo….”

“Don’t bitch. It’s better than you deserve.”

Without a backward glance at the shocked, gasping man, she went to the bound agent and untied his restraints. He tipped forward, nearly losing his balance and heading for the floor. Diana didn’t notice until he was in her arms that he was weeping, silently and steadily, for the lost boy.

“That son of a bitch,” he choked out, enraged and sorrowful.

“Do you know where the virus is now?” Diana asked, her forced voice cool and businesslike.

“Uh…yeah.” He took a moment to adjust to her wintry professionalism as she carefully set him on his feet. “It’s locked in the safe, under Yoshima’s desk, but I didn’t get the combination.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” She moved behind the desk immediately, leaving him to stand on his own unsteady legs. Ducking down, she opened the hinged cabinet which covered the desk’s small, generic safe. Diana figured she could crack it in under three minutes, even though a major part of her painstakingly timed plan had just gone out the window and time was nearly irrelevant. Still, if Angelia and Gedde were safe, it was worth trying to finish it out. First, she had to send DCA2 on his way.

“There’s a com unit hidden under the stairs in the main room. I want you to call for cleaners and an extraction team. Get yourself out of here, pronto. You need medical attention.”

“Well, so do you. Your leg, I mean. The kid cut you -”

“I’m fine,” she declared. “Get out of here. Tell Riggins I’ll be along with his hot package.”

The battered secondary agent didn’t move, just stood there and stared at her pleadingly. “I don’t think we should split up now. There’s more safety if we stay together – at least for me.”

“Listen to me carefully,” Diana said, leaning over the wide oak desk, eyeing the Scarecrow with malevolent intent. “Everything I ever wanted this op to be has just gone straight to hell. Right now, the only chance you have to stay alive is to let me finish this monumental cockup alone. If you insist on being a thorn in my side, I’ll have to pluck you. Got me?”

He ran a hand through his bristly hair, feeling chill bumps rise on his scalp. “Loud and clear.” No more objections left in him, he turned and walked slowly out of the den.

Diana again knelt by the safe and pressed an ear against the cool metal, turning the dial and listening for the soft click of tumblers falling into place. The first of the three numbers came fast, the sound of modest success soothing her jangled nerves.

*Thirteen…*

Careful, quiet footsteps on the carpet alerted her to the presence of another person in the den. Although she was certain she hadn’t miscounted the number of guards inside, it was possible that more had arrived. Diana remembered dropping both her guns on the floor and prayed that she would not be discovered, unarmed and alone.

“Ahhhh… oh no. No. Please…”

She heard the familiar voice, soft and mournful, and her heart instantly froze solid.

*She’s not supposed to be here! Christ-fucking-almighty, she wasn’t supposed to see this!*

For a moment, she couldn’t move, didn’t want to get up and face the girl who had just lost not only her stepfather, but her little brother. But she had to do it.

“Angel,” she whispered, rising to her feet and facing the stricken young woman.

“DON’T MOVE!!” Angelia shouted, leveling her pistol at Diana. Her eyes were already wet, and she tried to keep from looking at her brother’s body. A glance to the settee where Hideo Yoshima lay near unconscious from blood loss didn’t help. She felt nauseous and hollow and utterly alone.

Diana wanted to go to her, to comfort her. She held up her hands and took a step around the desk.

“I can explain.”

Angelia shook her head, not wanting to hear. “You know I don’t give a damn about Hideous, but Yukio? Diana, you killed a boy. A helpless little kid…”

“No, I -”

“SHUT-UP! Just… just stop lying, Diana. Stop it,” she instructed, almost calmly. The gun wavered a little as she tried to look her lover in the eye. “Gedde saw you kill the guards with a sword. I found the bodies in the closet. You did this.”

“I didn’t hurt Yukio. He killed himself! I swear, I would never… never.”

The girl raised one hand to halt her denials. Almost broken, she felt that hearing another lie would shatter her completely. “Just tell me the truth for once – who are you? Why did you come here?”

“I – I… shit.” Diana was nearly to the point of tears herself, hearing the pain in Angelia’s voice, seeing her fight the urge to lay down and die, too. “I work for a world government agency. My superior has ordered me to clear the house and take the virus sample.”

“That’s what this was about? All this is over the goddamned virus? The one I wanted… so that we could leave here together?”

“I wasn’t going to give it to him! I was going to take it for us! To get you and me and the boys out of harm’s way!” Diana waved one bloody hand, then let it drop to her side, ashamed at the evidence of her own nature. “I swear, Angel, that’s the truth. I just want to be with you. I swear…”

“Stop it. That’s enough.” Angelia lowered her gun. “Enough.”

“You believe me, don’t you?” Almost a plea, almost begging.

“Your people, are they coming here?”

A quick nod, mouth agape at the practical question. “Soon, yeah. We have to get the virus out of the desk safe and get moving. Fast.”

“I don’t know the combination.”

“I’ve almost got it open. Give me a minute.”

Diana was nearly shaking with relief as she dropped to her knees and finished opening the safe. Things were going to work out after all. Everything would be fine. Everything would be fine.

“Got it.” She swung open the safe door and gently removed a small, silver case with a biohazard sticker on the lid. She moved quickly around the desk and stood before her lover, asking forgiveness with her eyes. “It’s gonna be alright now. We’ve got this. We can still make it work.”

Angelia nodded slowly. “Gedde is down at the spring. We should go get him now, before he gets scared and comes looking for us.”

“Okay, just let me get my stuff.” Diana reached down to the floor, intending to pick up her guns. A hand on her shoulder stopped her, and the question that followed made her weak.

“Are you going to kill me, too?”

She stood up straight, shaking her head in vehement denial. “No. I would never hurt you.”

“Then leave the guns. There are no more guards left. You don’t need a weapon.”

A pause, then caution was defeated by genuine concern for the girl’s jeopardized trust. “Sure.”

“Let’s go.”

They left the house together, Diana walking just ahead. She ignored the warnings screaming inside her head and went down to the springs quietly, ready for whatever might happen next.
——————————————————————————–
California – Early Sunday Morning

“Then the tape machine stopped. The delay she set up caused an interruption in the transmission, and the recovered footage ends there. Yoshima’s allies – the ones who were going to buy the virus – they arrived before the cleaners and got him to a hospital. He survived. You already know that.”

“But what happened to the two of them after they left the house?”

“Diana and Angelia walked to the hot springs. Then, Angelia shot her ten times and left her for dead at the water’s edge.”

“Oh, God. Oh, God. I didn’t know that. I didn’t -”

“There’s no reason you should have known. It’s a hard truth to tell.”

“How did she survive?”

“Medivac chopper to a hospital in Nagano City. Fake name, lots of luck. I don’t really know how she did it. She just refused to die, that’s all. One of the reasons I admire her so much.”

“I feel like such a fool.”

“Don’t. It’s a waste of energy, and it can’t help anyone now. She survived that morning, and everything that came after. Diana is not weak, in body or spirit.”

“What do you mean by everything that came after? What happened next?”

“Riggins happened. He found Diana and brought her back to the agency…and the care of Dr. Salvatore Mangano.”

“Mangano… the one who could take memories away.”

“Yes. But before he did his magic on her, Diana had a go at Riggins. He told her Angelia was dead by his own hand. I think she tried to choke him to death.”

“You didn’t see it happen yourself?”

“No, but I wish I had. It became legend around the agency. Followed Diana throughout her career.”

“I wish she had killed him.”

“So did I. So did we all.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand now.”

“Not yet. There’s still something I haven’t told you. It might be hard to hear.”
——————————————————————————–

Julia rolled over in bed and turned on the bedside lamp, wating for her visitor to come through the bedroom door. She made no effort to cover her nudity, or to warn Gedde Yoshima, who was still patiently waiting for the end of the story, for the final revelation.

A twist of the knob and a firm push to the flimsy particle board door sent it flying open with a BANG against the wall, and Harry Mars stepped into view.

“Hi, boss. Long time, no see,” Julia greeted, grinning at the glowering, dark man.

Gedde scrambled to his feet, gallantly standing between the intruder and Julia, his hands raised in a defensive position. His instinct -as silly as it may sound – was actually to protect her.

Harry smiled at the thin, naked youth, impressed by the chivalry inherent in the gesture, if not with the reality of any genuine threat to his person. “Get rid of the boy-toy, Jules. We gotta talk.”

The Swede yawned and stretched, getting ready for battle. “I must say, it’s about damned time.”
——————————————————————————–

Charlotte shifted in her chair and looked Dan straight on, daring him to surprise her now. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle, not a thing she didn’t half expect. “Go for it, sport.”

“Riggins didn’t kill Angelia. She’s still alive.”

“Wha-wha-What?”

“That’s not all. She’s… Diana has her. Since this afternoon.”

The attorney was instantly on her feet. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know.”

“WHERE, DAMMIT?!?”

“I’m telling you, I do not know! Diana wouldn’t tell me.”

“Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Crap His Holy Pants!” Charlotte spun around and picked up her shoes, slipping them on as she hopped toward the office door. “This sucks. This is not good at all.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“You think you know what’s going on, but you don’t. You don’t know Diana like I do. She was feeling lower that a mudfish about that witch just this morning, and she’s gonna try to set everything right for little princess Angelia, you just wait and see!”

“That isn’t an answer.”

Charlie faced him with eyes alight, a fire burning in her heart that was fueled mostly by concern, but partly by something else. Something green. “Diana is gonna get herself in even more trouble if she’s alone. I’m going out to find her, Einstein. You wanna come, you better shake a leg.”

Before he could give voice to prudence and reason, or even grab her arm, she was out the door and down the hall, only pausing to grab Teddy’s keys off the foyer table.

“TEDDY!” she screamed, near the top of her formidable lungs, “Wake up and get out here! We’re going on a snipe hunt!”

Frouzled and half-asleep, Teddy Rinna rose slowly off the sofa and picked up his gun and his shoes, grumbling something about it being too early and the wisdom of not leaving the house.

“Things change, big guy. Adapt or be left behind. I’m driving.”

Barely thirty seconds later, the three were piled into Teddy’s vehicle – a customized jet black1978 Chevrolet Camaro, complete with hood vents, t-tops, and a cool ground effects package – and speeding through the manicured lanes of The Meadows. Charlotte honked the obnoxiously loud horn eight times to warn night guard LeRoy Parks that a vehicle was approaching, and he actually woke up in time to open the gate and keep the crazed attorney from smashing up Teddy’s grill.

“I’m coming, baby. Ready or not, I’m coming.”

Dan and Teddy exchanged a glance which could have passed between two men on death row.

“We are so fucked,” it said.

Eighteen

“You didn’t think yourself capable of this, did you?” the man asks as he circles you, drawing nearer with every circuit.

You are in a chair, hands bound behind your back, helpless against his examination. Your only recourse is to watch him and wait for his next move, his next word.

His hair is neat and silver, like a grandfather, but his eyes are hard and casually curious, as if he were a cruel child tearing the wings from a fly. “Murder. Cold-blooded, premeditated homicide. It’s an ugly thing you’ve done, Angelia.”

“Diana’s… dead? Dead.”

You can’t quite believe it, even as you speak the words. Your eyes were closed as you fired the gun, and you never looked back at her as you left the springs, stumbling up the mountain and weeping until everything was blurry and gray. Running through the snow to the car, recklessly speeding to the train station in Nagano City, running from what you had seen… and done.

“You are in a heap of trouble, my girl.” He draws near, so near you can smell the dry-cleaned wool of his tailored gray suit, the smoke and spearmint of his breath. “Why did you do it? Make me see why I shouldn’t place the blame for this fiasco on your shuddering shoulders.”

You have reasons at the ready – “She lied to me. She killed my brother. Betrayed me.”

“The boy killed himself, idiot! I saw the surveillance tape myself. Your father goaded him into it, darling child, and the whimpering little fool impaled himself from shame.”

“No.” She told you the same lie when you discovered her with the bodies.

“Oh, yes. You can’t pin that one on Diana. Now, everyone else… that’s a different story. She did gut your stepfather, and she did kill his men, but I would have thought you’d be happy about that. No more midnight visits from the grabby old man.”

“No! It’s not true.”

“I think we both know the truth. You acted hastily and foolishly, giving in to your own fears and insecurities, and you murdered the one person who would have brought down heaven to help you. Poor form, Miss Kamura. Most ungracious.”

“She didn’t love me. She didn’t trust me.”

“Now tell the truth – if Diana had confided in you, told you that she was there on a secret mission and all that jazz, would you have believed her?”

You stare at the floor, silent tears your only reply.

“Of course not! You were off in your own little world most of the time, fantasizing about escape and never seeing any of your efforts through to fruition. Trapped under Hideo’s thumb. Self-involved, plotting, destroying yourself by inches with drugs…” he trails off, glancing pointedly at your razor-scarred wrists, “or whatever was handy.”

He kneels down next to you and places a hand on your shoulder. You shiver as the hand creeps lower, to the buttons of your sweater, loosening one after the other until the garment hangs open, your naked chest bared to his greedy eyes. Surprisingly, he does not touch where you expect, but lays a finger on your drooping chin, tilting your face up to his.

“You say she betrayed you, cared for you not at all?”

You stare at him, mute and defiant.

“This isn’t exactly a Hallmark card, but I think it speaks volumes about how wrong you are.”

He points to your left breast, then slides the sweater aside until you see the symbol inked over your heart. There, in fine brushstrokes, is one word that cues another rush of tears, makes you bite your lower lip until blood flows, until you whimper and realize that you might have been wrong in your rush to condemn her. As wrong as one person can be about another.

Eternity, it reads.

Black ink, nearly as black as the hellish pit you feel opening up to swallow you.

“Kill me,” you whisper, finding his eyes, begging for mercy. “Please.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. She wouldn’t want that. Diana was trying to get you out of a bad situation, and I can fulfill her final wish. I can make it all go away… without bloodshed.”

The pain in your chest is unlike anything you have ever felt. You assume that this is what guilt must feel like, acid in your veins, hollowing out your insides in a slow, constant burn. You would sell him whatever remains of your soul to stop the ache.

“Make it go away.”

He smiles, his Pyrrhic victory now assured. “Tell me where you hid the virus sample.”

You tell him what he wants to know. He smoothes your hair back into place and buttons up your sweater. “Thank you. Everything will be alright now, Angelia. Trust me.”

You try to hide from him behind your eyelids, but inside your mind, you can see what your eyes never witnessed, the consequences of your paltry vengeance, Diana lying dead in bloody snow, swearing fealty, asking forgiveness.

You do the only thing you can do to release the agony – you scream.
——————————————————————————–

The coolness and silence of the pre-dawn hour was shattered by a tortured scream that ripped through the hull of the Sunseeker and sought to drown its burning form in the soothing sea.

The tall woman standing watch on board the cruiser – she who had been treating her tired body to a much-needed quick shower – nearly slipped and fell in the tiled stall as she jumped through the curtain, forgetting to turn off the hot water. She hastily wrapped a guest robe around herself and set out to find the source of her passenger’s distress.

“MAKE IT STOP!!”

Diana Starrett rushed from the bathroom and knelt by Angelia’s bed. The young woman was clutching the sheets, nearly tearing them in her panicked fervor, twisting around as if under attack from some dream demon. Checking the clock, Diana saw that only four minutes had passed since she last checked on Angelia, and she also noted that the drugs Julia gave her should be nearly impotent by this hour. If the distressed young woman didn’t manage to break through to full consciousness now, it was likely that she never would.

“Shh… everything’s gonna be alright now,” Diana whispered, instinctively gathering her charge into her arms. “It’s okay, Angel. I’m here now. Everything’s fine. You’re safe with me.”

Arms wrapped around her in return, embracing her tight. She could feel the girl’s chest heaving with quickened breath, the hammering of her heart, the soft whisper of words against her neck.

“I was wrong… I was wrong… sorry, so sorry…”

Something fell into place for Diana, and she realized that Angelia might be close to waking. Her words were nearly coherent, almost lucid thoughts, and she remembered how jumbled her mind was when she surfaced herself. The only thing that kept her from slipping away and drowning was the thought that Charlie was waiting for her, needed her. Wanted her back.

“I’m here. I’m here, Angel. Come on, wake up. Please wake up.”

“Diana, I’m sorry. I should… should have listened. Didn’t give you a chance.”

For the former agent, laden with nearly a decade’s guilt over her own arrogant actions, that simple apology lifted a weight from her soul that would have crushed a person of lesser constitution. She felt her burden begin to dissipate a little as her own voice, as sure and warm as spring sunlight, answered back. “It’s alright. I forgive you. The question is, can you ever forgive me?”

A flutter of eyelashes tickled her throat as eyes opened, and Diana was hopeful.

A gripping of hands on her back, slackening into a timid caress, and she became anxious.

A stiffening of spine and a slow pulling away, and she was looking into the face of a waking woman, one who thought she was seeing a ghost. One whose eyes focused on her own, made the connection between dreams, memories, and reality. One who was decidedly surprised to see her.

“AAAAAAHHHHH!! NO! NO! GET AWAY FROM ME!!”

Angelia yelled and jumped back against the wall, folding in on herself from fear and confusion. “You’re dead! I killed you myself! Stay away from me!” she cried, grabbing up a pillow and squeezing it to her chest like a shield, praying for protection from the zombie before her.

Diana lifted her hands, reaching out to touch the trembling form, which shrank from her as if she were aflame. She drew her hands back and tried to keep her voice calm and even.

“Angelia, listen to me – you’re safe now. I’m going to explain everything to you, but first you have to get hold of yourself. There’s no reason to be afraid, nobody’s going to hurt you. Now look at me. Just look at me for a minute. Do you know who I am?”

She took in the wet black mane of hair (slightly longer than she remembered), the eyes of unmatched blue (deeper somehow, imbued with untold experiences), the artful symmetry of her face (with fine lines etched on the canvas, denoting the passing of several years), and she knew for certain who this was. Eyes wide as saucers, lips trembling, she managed a nod and a whisper. “Diana.”

“And when was the last time you saw me?”

“The… the springs. Nagano. You were…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud again.

“Shot. More than a few times, but not dead. I spent a little time in the hospital, got a few things off my chest.” Diana opened her white terrycloth robe slightly and vigorously thumped her breastbone – which, without the aid of agency surgeons, would sport at least two nasty entry wound scars. An angry red mark rose and faded on the smooth, bared skin. “See? I’m okay now.”

Angelia watched, entranced as the blood hit the surface of Diana’s skin, proof that she wasn’t a robot or a hologram, but a flesh and bone human. Alive. “But he said that you were – that I had -”

“Riggins made you think you had killed me, didn’t he?”

A hesitation, then a murmured “Yes.”

Diana nodded, then took a deep breath to snuff out the pointless anger which flamed up in her heart at the idea of Joshua Riggins getting his hooks in the vulnerable, volatile girl of nine years back. “He lied to you. He lied to me as well. Riggins told me that he had killed you, and I believed him.”

Fine black brows knit in consideration of this possibility. “Why – why would he do that?”

Sighing as she prepared to reveal a raw spot on her heart, the dark woman lowered her head and closed her eyes. Harry Mars had been correct on at least this one count.

“Because he knew I’d try to find you, try to make things right with you.”

Slowly, Angelia could feel her heart rate decelerating to a more normal pace. She couldn’t explain just why, but she suddenly stopped being terrified of Diana. The feeling that crept in and took the place of her all-encompassing fear was much worse, one that squeezed her lungs like a bellows until the admission of the truth whooshed out into existence.

“I know you didn’t kill him,” she breathed, the words singeing her tongue with boiling guilt, tears springing from her eyes as if this had all happened minutes ago instead of years. “Yukio.”

“I tried to tell you…” Diana lifted her eyes to meet Angelia’s own, and she found herself unable to stem the salty flow of regret running up from her heart and spilling down her cheeks. “I messed everything up so bad.”

“No,” the younger woman said firmly, edging away from the wall, coming nearer to the penitent beauty needlessly kneeling before her. “No, it was my fault for not trusting you. I didn’t even try, Diana! I was so scared that you were just like everybody else… just like me.”

“Angel, no. I lied to you. I never gave you a reason to believe in me.”

“That’s not true,” she objected, shaking her head until a teardrop fell from her chin onto the tangled sheets. She inched forward again, closer to the edge of the narrow bed, closer to the only thing she knew existed in the world. “Diana, I did a lot of rotten things before you met me, and I was so used to that life – using people to get what you want and throwing them away when you’re done. I couldn’t allow that you might be different from us.”

“I don’t think I was any different.”

“Yes, you were! I never admitted it to myself, but I felt it the first time we were together. That’s why I told you about what… what he did to me. I knew you were different, that you wouldn’t hurt me. I just… when Gedde told me what he saw, then I found Yukio… I got scared. Can you understand?”

“I’m so sorry,” Diana muttered, her shoulders slumping as she struggled to maintain eye contact through the veil of mutual regret and self-recrimination.

“I just got scared! Goddammit, I was shaking like a leaf all the way down there, knowing that you were going to kill me, that I meant nothing to you and you were going to kill me unless…”

“Unless you killed me first,” Diana finished for her, nodding in agreement with the solid logic.

An uneasy silence settled between the women, inhabiting the narrow physical gap separating their bodies and holding them apart like some magnetic force shield. They could both hear the silence, a low hum audible over the lapping of water against the hull, the soft hiss of steam from the bathroom shower, their own wet breathing…

“It was a long time ago,” Diana said, finally summoning the courage to end the standoff. She sniffled softly and wiped the back of one hand across her wet, swollen eyes.

“For me, it was yesterday,” the asian beauty confided, her features twisted into a puffy grimace. “Yesterday, I killed you and I wanted to die. Today… today we’re both alive.”

Diana snorted gently and shook her head. “Funny, ain’t it.”

Angelia summoned up her courage and slid her hand across the sheets, knowingly touching Diana for the first time in forever. Blue eyes stared into her dark, questioning even as she explained.

“We have another chance.”
——————————————————————————–

“Answer the phone, Emmy,” Charlie said aloud, willing her sister awake from across the miles. She had checked nearly every haunt, every hotel, every roadside fleabag between Elceda and San Diego, and the frustrated lawyer was down to her last idea as to where Diana might be holed up.

She pressed her cheek down harder, pinning the tiny Star-Tac cellular against her shoulder as she took a sharp turn onto Kettner Boulevard. The Camaro’s tires squealed anxiously, and she could feel Teddy cringe beside her as he stoically rode shotgun. In the back seat, Dan covered his eyes and tightened his seat belt for the umpteenth time. Neither man said a word about her driving. After riding all over creation with Charlotte Browning at the wheel, they knew it was pointless to advise caution.

The phone rang again and was finally picked up by a woman who sounded extremely displeased to be awakened before sunrise on a Sunday morning. “What??”

“Emily, it’s me. I’m sorry to get you up so early, but this is important.”

“Charlie? That you?” she asked blearily, her voice rasping dry and harsh.

“Emmy, did Luis take the boat out yesterday?”

Still groggy and yawning, Emily did not pick up on the urgency in her younger sister’s tone. “You won’t believe this, but I was dreaming about you and me and Diana. We were at mom and dad’s -”

“Emmy.”

” – and Diana grabbed mom and poled her right in the face! She started pulling at mom’s hair like it was a wig, and she said “That’s not your mother! It’s a man, baby!”

“Emily, please.”

“We rented ‘Austin Powers’ for the kids last night, and he -”

“DAMMIT, EMILY! Listen to me!”

Charlie heard her sister gasp as she yelled at her, then Emily seemed to grasp that this was not the time for chit-chat. “Honey, what’s the matter? You sound pissed.”

“I’m not…” she paused and took a deep breath to calm herself. “I’m okay. I just need to know if the boat is still at the marina.”

“Yeah, unless somebody stole it. We decided not to go without you guys.”

“Same slip? 383?”

“Mmm hmm. What’s up, kiddo? You wanna go out today?”

“No, no. I just need to check on something. And Emmy? Don’t go down there today, okay?”

“Why not? Charlie, you better tell me -”

“I’ll take care of it. Just don’t go to the marina today. Diana and I have some things to work out, and I think that… well, it might be best if we know we won’t be disturbed.”

“Hey, that’s cool with me,” Emily allowed generously, quelling the powerful urge to snoop for more answers. “You still got your keys?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Call me if you need anything. We’ll be around the house all afternoon.”

Charlotte sighed, relieved that her nosy sibling was apparently not going to pry. “Thanks, Emily. I owe you one.”

“Then come to dinner at Xanadu tomorrow night.”

“What? Tomorrow?? I thought they meant later in the week! I can’t -”

“Charlie, dad called me last night and laid it on thick. He really wants us all to be there. Eight, sharp.”

“I can’t do it. There’s too much to deal with right now. I can’t handle them, on top of… shit.”

“Look, you don’t have to explain. Just try to get your act together by Monday night and put in an appearance! Stay ten lousy minutes if you want, just to say you showed up!”

Charlie peeled away from a red light and frowned hard. They were passing through Seaport Village, nearing the marina, and she wanted this conversation to be over. She had other things to prepare for at the moment. “I will not promise you anything, except that I’ll try. That’s all you’re getting from me, Emmy. Thank you, I love you, and goodbye.”

Not giving the other a chance to argue, Charlie shut the phone off and tossed it back to Dan, who juggled it a little, then dropped it into her open purse on the seat beside him. He could almost see the steam puffing from the blonde’s ears as she pushed the car along, far in excess of the conservative speed limits. Though he immediately saw why Diana found her physically attractive, he was beginning to get a sense of why his former colleague had fallen so hard for this young woman.

Her determination to find Diana was astounding, showing both ingenuity in her choices for possible locations and mulish stubbornness not to give up trying when she found she was wrong. She was – judging by the way she tried so hard not to lie to her sister – honest and forthright, a surprising quality for a lawyer, he thought. And while not exactly a Formula One-caliber driver, she was both speedy and careful, aggressive and defensive at once.

“Sister, you’re something else,” he muttered, grinning tightly.

Teddy heard him and turned to Dan with a similar smile. “No kiddin’.”

“Shut-up,” Charlotte warned them both, “I’m trying to think, here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in unison.

Charlotte was already lost in thought again, calling out with her troubled mind.

*Diana, please be here. I don’t know where else to go… and I have to know. Whatever else happens, I have to know.*

——————————————————————————–

Nineteen

Harry Mars stood just inside the bedroom, hands loose at his sides, half wishing that Julia would pull a gun or knife and give him an excuse to end her right here, half praying it wouldn’t come to that. Harry was nearing fifty now, past his prime, and he was not entirely sure he could out-gun the younger, wilier woman. She gave him a sweet smile, bereft of affection, and addressed the problem of their de-facto standoff.

“I won’t show you mine unless you show me yours,” Julia teased, fully cognizant of the irony since she was still naked as the day she was born. “I’m too tired to test your quick draw right now.”

Harry’s dark eyes drifted over the form of the naked, nervous young man who stood ineffectually between them, taking in the variety of bruises and cuts on his face. Two black eyes indicated the kid’s nose had been broken, although it looked fairly straight. “Sounds reasonable to me. Looks like you’ve been pretty busy here. Are you this rough with everybody you fuck?”

The Swede waved a graceful, dismissive hand and gave a light chuckle. “Oh, he’s fine, aren’t you dear? Just cosmetic damage.”

Gedde Yoshima lowered his hands slightly and turned half his attention to Julia. “Who is this man?”

“He used to be James Bond and Rambo rolled into one,” she said wistfully, “but these days, he’s more in-line with Margaret Thatcher.”

Harry raised one bushy brow, knowing he’d just been gravely insulted. He was rapidly losing patience as he jerked his head at the boy. “Get out of here. Now.”

Gedde looked to Julia for a sign that she wanted him to go, and she gave him a small nod. “Get dressed. I think your underwear is in the refrigerator.”

He hesitated for a moment, then looked from Harry to Julia and back, picking up on the razor wire of tension running between them. He decided to leave before it snapped taut and beheaded him.

“Very well.”

Gedde mustered as much dignity as possible and shouldered past the big man in the doorway, sparing one more glance back before the bedroom door closed and he was again shut out of the strange happenings which seemed to swirl all around him today, leaving him feeling a bit like Dorothy as she stared out the window of her shack as it was caught up in a Kansas twister.

It occurred to him that he might feel a bit less vulnerable if he were wearing clothes. Soon, he discovered that nothing sobers one up quicker than a frigid pair of jockey shorts.

As soon as the door was shut and they were alone, it didn’t take long for Harry to cut to the chase.

“I talked to Diana. I know about your little yank-off with Yoshima, but I still gotta ask – what the hell do you think you’re doing, Julia?”

The blonde walked to the closet and removed a pale blue dressing gown from a cedar hanger, slipping it on slowly, in no hurry to cover her body. “My job, Harrison. I am simply doing my job. You should try it sometime. There’s a delightful feeling of satisfaction to be had by doing so.”

“Aww, cut the shit and give me the rundown before I -”

Harry stopped short of threatening her, but she seemed anxious for him to finish. “Go on. You’ll what? Fire me? Kill me? Please, don’t leave me hanging.”

“Just… just leave her alone,” he sighed. “Finish up with Yoshima and get out of her life.”

“It’s too late for that. Diana is in this up to her eyebrows – by her own volition, might I add. No one forced her to play this time. She saw that girl and whisked her off like the proverbial white knight.”

“Only because you dangled the bitch in front of her like bait! God, that’s low. Even Riggins never played her against her own conscience like this.”

“He would have, eventually.” Julia sat on the edge of the bed and rakishly brushed her platinum hair from her smoky eyes, calm and collected in the face of Harry’s angry indictment. “Diana was growing out of the work and he knew it; it was only a matter of time before the truth regarding Angelia’s demise surfaced… so to speak.”

“What do you hope to accomplish here? She’s happy now, and she doesn’t want or need any part of us anymore,” Harry declared, and he almost managed not to sound regretful of that fact.

“Happiness is an unstable compound. You remove the grounding element and it becomes active again, volatile. Diana is the key ingredient of a fascinating chemistry experiment.”

Thinking that he’d caught on to some bit of gristle, Mars bit down hard on the assumption. “You can’t believe that she’d ditch the lawyer for that trigger-happy little twat?”

“Ouch! Such crude language, Harry. Is it something personal against Angelia Kamura, or do you hate all of Diana’s lovers on principle?”

“Julia, don’t. Don’t start that with me again.”

“I really think the issue of your objectivity should be addressed, boss,” the blonde persisted peevishly. “You berate Miss Kamura, you still take the occasional potshot at Ms. Browning… and if I remember correctly, during that brief period where Diana was sharing my bed, you sent me on no less that seven ‘suicide risk’ missions into South America, and always seemed a little dismayed when I came home alive.” She paused and flashed him a wicked smile. “Jealous much?”

Harry’s right hand crept behind his back, toward his concealed Ruger automatic. “Stop right there.”

“I think you’re the one who should stop.” Julia crossed her legs and leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbows in a pile of pillows. “Stop kidding yourself. You want her back as much as I do.”

“No. Not like this. Only if it’s her choice to return. I won’t force her.”

“I’m not forcing her to do anything, either. Merely narrowing her options.”

“Doesn’t even matter to me what you mean by that. It won’t work.”

“We’ll see.”

The scene froze for long, long seconds as each player reviewed their options. Escalation or detante seemed to be the only directions available, and they stared at each other, eager to see who would make a proposal first.

“That can’t be all you wanted to ask me,” Julia stated, bored with the silence.

“The HIV thing. Fabrication?”

She grinned in a tiny, crooked way and snuggled further into the pile of jumbled pillows against the headboard. “Not entirely. Diana tested positive upon recruitment and was placed in a group of experimental subjects for Mangano’s treatment. Twenty-six subjects, each in varying stages of the disease, were administered a high-dose drug protocol – something to do with polypeptide MIMs, almost like primitive nanotechnology, I think – and while all subjects exposed to the live treatment showed initial improvement, twenty-four eventually died from miscellaneous organ failure. The twenty-fifth is still alive, although now in the final stages of full-blown AIDS. Diana was the only one whose system adjusted to the drugs.”

“She tested clean on every physical we ever gave her. How can that be?”

“Mangano surmised that her success was due to the fact that she was exposed mere days before her admission to the program. Early diagnosis and early treatment equals stopping the virus before it storms the castle. She was strong, exceptionally tolerant of the drug’s side-effects, and she got lucky. That was the only explanation he could come up with. Diana’s success was never replicated, even though Mangano’s experiments were ongoing – up to the day you had me kill him.”

“Sure,” the director agreed facetiously. “He was a regular Jonas Salk, that guy. You’re making this shit up as you go along, aren’t you? Your facility with untruths never ceases to amaze me.”

“Heh. Flattery will get you nowhere. Check the records in the Vienna office, in Mangano’s lab on sub-level six. That’s where I found all this stuff. Non-networked computers.”

Mars shook off a muscle spasm in his thick neck and absently worried that she would confuse and frustrate him into a spontaneous aneurysm. “And what the fuck were you doing down in the Vienna basement?”

“My job. I thought we covered this already.”

“This doesn’t make any sense. I know it’s our business to keep secrets, but this is ridiculous.”

“Are you actually trying to apply conventional logic to Riggins, Mangano, and our own inexplicable Ms. Starrett? Really, Harry, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

One thing that was perfectly clear to Harry Mars was that his second in command was considerably closer to Riggins than he had ever thought. “Josh must have been laughing at me the whole time. I thought you were on my team, and you were sleazing around with him behind my back.”

Julia’s expressive face turned grave and solemn. “Ever hear the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer? I despised Riggins as much as you did, but I kept my options open, just in case I was backing the wrong candidate. You looked a bit shaky sometimes.”

“You two-faced bitch. I trusted you.”

“Oh really? Now who’s lying?” she challenged, some of the frost melting from her perfectly iced composure. “Working under you, I never knew a damned thing that I needed to know in order to perform my functions properly. You are so self-indulgent, chasing down your irrelevant MIA leads when you should be minding the UN’s business! Psychotics like Yoshima are buying and developing weapons of mass destruction, and you could care less!”

Mars dropped his gaze to the floor and muttered a weak denial. “That isn’t true.”

“Yes, it is. In your heart, you know I’m right. You need me, Harry. I keep you in good with the brass by doing all the dirty work, and you get to keep the shit off your shoes. If it wasn’t for operations like the one I’m running here, you would be out on your firm little derriere within the month.”

“I’m following our directive -”

“Only by the barest of definitions. Technically, you are taking care of things, but you don’t take the initiative on security threats like Yoshima. That you have left to me, whether you realize it or not.”

“Do you want me out? Is this the first stage of some sort of coup?”

Julia quickly regained her humor, choking out a tiny, derisive laugh. “Hardly. You are quite astute at managing the council, getting funding and approval and keeping them off our backs. I couldn’t finesse them, even if I wanted to. I find it too difficult to disguise my loathing for compromise. I’m a specialist, and I need freedom from nitpicky supervision in order to perform.”

“So you still think you’re gonna get your anti-terrorism branch up and running,” he surmised, shaking his head wonderingly. “I got news for you, Julia – it ain’t gonna happen. You disobeyed a direct order and compromised the security of a former agent, not to mention the blatant way you violated agency statutes on disclosure and procedure. I wouldn’t back you for a job at Burger King.”

The Swede cocked one eyebrow and smirked. “I’m sorry to hear that. We could have achieved great things together, Harry, had a prosperous partnership.”

“Until the day you and I disagree on something and you put a knife in my back,” he amended. “I want you to fix whatever it is you’ve done here. Set things straight for Diana.”

“And if I refuse?”

Mars wrapped his hand around the butt of his pistol and slid it from his waistband. “Don’t.”

Julia could almost see the director’s finger curling across the trigger of the hidden gun, waiting to jump out from behind his back and end the civilized portion of the conversation. She knew her own options were shrinking, and an irreversible choice had to be made in a matter of seconds.

“It’s too late to stop it now. Even if I wanted to.”

As he softly disengaged the safety on his gun, Harry Mars said a silent prayer for quickness and accuracy. He felt certain that he would only get one chance, one shot before things became highly complicated. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

PHHT. PHHT.

Two small holes appeared in the blue pillow by Julia’s right hand, and a tiny flutter of goose down wafted up and drifted in the warm, still air.

Harry Mars found himself unable to move his arms, and the heavy Ruger dropped onto the floor behind him with a stunningly loud thud. It took several seconds for him to register that he had been shot, once in each shoulder, right through the brachial nerve. He dropped to one knee and looked at Julia, at her placid, expressionless face, and waited for some goddamned smartass quip.

“I’m sorry, too,” she whispered, as sincere as she had ever been.

She slipped her hands from the pillows, the right still holding a smoking Walther P99 equipped with a bright silver silencer, and slithered off the bed to stand over her fallen superior. She looked at his wounds and knew they were not mortal, but frowned hard when she considered the extensive surgery and therapy Mars would have to undergo to rehabilitate the limbs.

“Finish it,” he urged, looking up with fatalistic defiance.

Julia said nothing, just shook her head and turned away. She went to the closet and removed a turquoise silk blouse and dark gray slacks, then stooped to root out a sensible pair of flats. Harry did not take his eyes off her as she stripped off the robe and dressed in silence. She didn’t look at him, would not meet his furious, challenging gaze for fear that she would weaken and grant his request. Once clothed, she came to him for the last time and finally looked him in the face.

Though his arms were throbbing and useless, Harry willed himself to ignore both the physical pain and the humiliation as he fixed her with a vicious stare. “If you don’t finish it now, I’ll find you.”

“Don’t waste your time. Without me, you’ll have your hands full trying to keep the council from… replacing you with someone effective.”

“Why spare me? It isn’t like you to leave loose ends.”

“Believe it or not, I respect you. You are a fool, but you’re one of a very few honest people living in the world today. Just… please take your head out of the sand, for your own sake.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fine. I understand your hostility, but I still intend for you to reclaim that virus sample. It should buy you an adequate amount of time to recover from your wounds and get back on your feet.”

Julia moved past Mars and opened the bedroom door, then she stopped and stood perfectly still. In an implacable tone, she delivered the requisite parting line.

“Oh, by the way – I quit.”
——————————————————————————–
Gedde Yoshima was sitting on the kitchen counter, chugging bottled water and scarfing down a cup of peach yogurt when Julia suddenly appeared at his elbow with a warm gun in her hand.

“You have a choice to make,” she opened, her eyes hard and serious. “I just shot the director of an international covert operations group, and I will probably be dead within a week. Either you can stay here and take your chances with his fair nature, or you can come with me.”

His mouth dropped open and the spoon slid from his fingers to clatter in the empty sink. “Never a dull moment around you, is there?”

Julia gave him a thin smile and reached up to wipe a smidge of yogurt from his chin. “Nope.”

“Do you still believe you can restore my family? Free my mother and my sister?”

“I’m not finished here yet, but that remains a priority. Once things are settled, I will do everything I can to get the three of you together again.”

“Then I choose to stay with you.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Though she couldn’t say why, it felt better knowing she wouldn’t be completely alone as she walked across the burning bridge she herself had just set alight. Julia took the young man’s hand and pulled him off the counter, leading him toward the sliding glass door of the safehouse and out into a world that now held as many possibilities as dangers. She took a breath of morning air, and realized that after eighteen years of servitude, she was completely free.

“Let the world beware,” she whispered, unable to stifle a giddy smile.
——————————————————————————–

Flight 309 from Hong Kong touched down at 4:38 am on Sunday morning, and the first class passengers filed through the terminal toward the luggage pick-up. Drifting anonymously among the crowd was a fit older man wearing a stiff navy business suit. His eyes were red and tired, and the pouches of skin underneath were purple with exhaustion. Even the slack skin of his neck seemed to sag so pitifully that the security guards offered to help him carry his luggage; an offer which he politely refused in broken English. He held only a briefcase, and retrieved only one hardshell suitcase from the baggage carousel.

From there, he walked slowly to the rental car agency and signed out a black Lincoln Town Car reserved in the name of Wo Fat, a favorite villain from the American television show ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ Once settled in the vehicle, his demeanor changed remarkably. He loosened his conservative striped tie and unbuttoned his collar, then reached under the stiff shirt and grasped his own skin – and proceeded to pull it off like… well, like a latex mask.

The false skin stretched and tore into pieces as he tugged it up and stripped it away, revealing the hard face of a much younger man. This was followed by the removal of the uncomfortably hot wig of silvered hair, and the bloodshot contact lenses which darkened his eye color to match the photo on his fake passport.

Chen Kaige was wanted in seventeen countries, and the United States was one of them. He could travel only in disguise, and this proved a minor hindrance to his mobility, costing him a few hours of preparation before embarking on a job. Still, he had roughly a day and a half to track down his target and finish the job before Yoshima’s fifty percent bonus incentive expired, and he expected no difficulty in completing the assignment on schedule.

He started the Lincoln and carefully exited the parking lot, meandering along the streets of San Diego and obeying all traffic signs and speed restrictions. Chen knew nothing could bring a job to a screeching halt faster than a run-in with police. There was only one law he intended to break here in California, and he planned to take his time and break it cleanly. A well-done murder was, in his opinion, the only crime worth committing.

Overhead, he spied the first sign announcing an exit to Elceda. Chen activated his turn signal, checked his blind spot, and changed lanes; the latest in a series of careful moves bringing him closer to his target, an attorney named Charlotte Browning.

Twenty

Diana looked at the small hand resting atop her own, heard the words replay in her mind, and finally brought her eyes back up to see Angelia’s face. The expression of sadness and longing she found etched on the fine-boned countenance nearly broke her heart, but she couldn’t let it show. Giving in to that kind of thinking would only cause them both more undue stress, raise false hopes in someone who was obviously in a very fragile state of mind. She had to play this carefully.

“You’re lucky just to be alive, Angel,” she noted, trying to edge away without being obvious. “You’ve been through a lot recently. Try to take it easy.”

The hand tightened around her fingers and a thumb rubbed against her palm, and she found herself being pulled in closer to the young woman kneeling on the thrashed bed.

“I missed you,” her lost lover told her, tears staining her voice. “My head feels like mush, and I don’t know how I know that, but I do. Nine years…”

Thinking that it was the perfect time to change the subject and dissolve the building tension, Diana asked her a serious question. “Speaking of which, where have you been staying? How did you live?”

Angelia paused, reflecting on the newness, the sharpness of her current reality. In relation, the intervening span seemed like a fog-shrouded dream, and she was having trouble picking out relevant details. “I remember being in Germany, living in a small flat in Bonn. I drove a white Fiat to work, five days a week at a company that makes computers.” She smiled and gripped Diana’s hand tighter. “Appropriate work for me, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” came the quiet, neutral reply. “You were always a whiz with that stuff.”

“We tested semiconductors!” she cried, latching onto something defined and clear. “Brundig Copper and Silicon, that was the name of the business. Wow, that just popped out! I didn’t know that until just now!”

Diana was slightly worried over the delayed blocks of memory, recalling how hard it was for her to come to terms with so many large chunks of her life suddenly bobbing up to consciousness. “Please, try to take it slow,” she advised, “the details come back in bunches, and they can give you a killer headache sometimes. Even make you dizzy sick, if you’re not used to it.”

Feeling the truth of that warning throbbing behind her eyes, Angelia raised a palm to her forehead and nearly crushed Diana’s fingers in a painful grip. “Oh, good. Now you tell me.”

“Sorry.”

“What the hell is wrong with me, anyway? I remember… all that other stuff, but the rest is so choppy.”

“All the bad things come back first, probably because they were foremost in your mind when you went under. Everything will get straightened out, but it takes time.”

“So five minutes from now, I might be reliving my hot affair with a chip designer named Gunnar?”

Diana couldn’t hold back a relieved smile, sensing for the first time that Angelia’s personality had survived intact. “Yeah, maybe. But don’t feel like you have to share all the details.”

“Why not? Afraid you might get jealous?” she prodded, forcing a little grin.

Flustered for a moment by the leading question, Diana fumbled for another neutral answer. “No, it’s just that these things will come up at their own pace. Don’t force it.”

“Okay, okay.” Angelia was quiet then, holding onto Diana and pushing against her aching head as the pain sharpened. A wave of nausea hit her, and she rocked forward onto the tall woman’s shoulder, nearly toppling off the narrow bed as her equilibrium went out with the tide.

“Ooohh… shit. I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Can you hold it? I’ll get you to the bathroom.” Looping her arms under Angelia’s shoulders, Diana lifted her to her feet and half-carried her across the cabin’s thick carpet. She could see the steam coming from the doorway, and remembered too late that the shower had been left running. “Hang on, we’re almost there.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” the girl said, just as she convulsed and upchucked a tiny trickle of liquid onto her gown. “Ugghh. I think I just ruined my entire wardrobe.”

Again, the former agent found herself fighting back a smile as they entered the steamy confines of the loo. She eased Angelia down and left her kneeling by the potty as she shut off the shower. “Nice to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”

The young woman placed both hands on the rim of the commode and quipped into the bowl. “Well, humor and pain go hand in hand, and right now, they’re pulling a daisy chain inside my skull.”

Unable to fight it any longer, Diana let out a gale of grateful laughter. She turned and placed a gentle hand on the bowed, dark head, then brushed the sweat-matted hair back and away from her face. Her hand stayed there, holding the hair at the base of her slender neck as the convulsions racked Angelia’s body. It was a strangely intimate gesture to offer, in light of her concern over misleading the young woman, and she was disturbed by how naturally it came to her.

“I’ll go get you some water,” Diana said suddenly, trying not to jerk her hand away and show her discomfort as she left the bathroom. She headed up to the tidy kitchenette and leaned against the sink, then closed her eyes and tried to figure out what she was feeling.

*Stop acting like such a schmuck! She’s okay, she’s just getting her bearings. Time has passed, enough time that she’ll realize things have changed for both of us. Tell her you’re not alone now, that you’re with someone. She’ll understand. Won’t she?*

“She has to,” Diana whispered aloud, waking herself from the downward spiral of her worries. She opened the fridge and snagged a bottle of Evian, opened it and chugged the entire thing in seven gulps, then marveled at how dry her throat had become. “Nerves. Just nerves.”

*Now, you have to ask about the virus sample. Get the sample’s location, tell Harry… and then what? Send her on her way with a thanks a lot for your help and a get lost? What happens to her from here? Jesus, Julia – you didn’t bother to tell me what to do with her after this is over!*

Then a chill worked its way up her spine as she realized what the crafty Swede may have intended.

*She couldn’t possibly expect me to… no. Julia’s not stupid. She knows I’d never leave Charlie. As long as she wants me, I’m not going anywhere.*

Letting that thought replay over and over in her mind until it soothed her into a more relaxed state, Diana trashed the empty bottle and took another out for Angelia. She was crossing the threshold into the main cabin when she first heard it – the sound of footsteps overhead. Someone was on board the Sunseeker. Her solid figure mutated into a blur as she darted across the small distance to the couch and picked up her gun, turning to defend the space against whatever came through cabin door.

A rasping click sounded as a key was inserted in the lock, then the knob turned. She cocked the gun and leveled it at the widening gap of morning light as the teakwood door swung silently open.

And Charlotte Browning stepped into view.

“Whoa! It’s me!” the attorney squeaked, waving her hands frantically as she caught sight of the gun. “Don’t shoot!”

Diana sighed and closed her eyes briefly as she lowered the gun. It occurred to her how futile was her hope that ‘Calamity Jane’ would listen to her and stay home, keep out of harm’s way. Another, more selfish part of her was irrationally glad to see the snoopy lawyer, to know that she was all right and that she cared enough to track her down. That part kept her from getting angry, kept her tone more exasperated than irked.

“Charlie, what on earth are you doing here? Are you alone?”

“I’m looking for you, dummy! I was worried about you. My armed escort – Teddy and your friend Dan – are topside waiting for me,” Charlie explained as she hungrily took in the sight of Diana’s face, the tilted smile, the bright eyes. Satisfied in seconds that her errant love was safe, her straying attention seemed to spread across the cabin, soaking up all there was to see.

The dim (some might say romantic) light of a single lamp.

The unmade bed, with its abused sheets and jumbled pillows.

Diana; her face aglow, dark hair wet, dressed in only a robe.

An unopened bottle of refreshing water in one hand.

Charlotte didn’t want to think it, tried not to think it… but she thought it anyway.

“So, what’s going on here? Dan said you had that Angelia person with you.”

Diana’s smile faded at Charlie’s caustic tone, and she started to reply, but didn’t get the chance. As if responding to a cue from a sadistic playwright, a call came from the bathroom.

“I need that water, Di. I think I’m dehydrated or something.”

Charlotte suspiciously narrowed her eyes and moved fully into the cabin, closer to Diana, closer to the voice from the bathroom. Unfortunately, she was also closer to the bed, and her nose twitched as she smelled a heavy, lingering scent that was completely unmistakable. Her hazel eyes fell like stones across the rumpled linens reeking of sex.

Her stomach lurched and fluttered until she felt like she had swallowed a live, claustrophobic hummingbird. Her fists clenched and unclenched in rhythm with its imaginary wings, and a strange sound fluttered up her throat and flew out her mouth – she laughed. Laughed at herself, at the realization of her worst fear, at her own greatest insecurity come true.

“I am so stupid,” she said, biting back the hysterical cackling. “Such a fucking fool…”

“Charlie, I don’t understand,” Diana complained, utterly confused by the humorless display.

“No, no, no! This is the part where you’re supposed to tell me you couldn’t help yourself, that these are extreme circumstances, beyond your control!” the attorney raved, arms spread wide to convey her atomic rage in grandiose body language. “At least offer me a plausible excuse, Diana! Goddammit, I think I deserve that much!”

“Whoa, now! I think you lost me on that last curve, hon. Maybe you should spell it out for me – just what am I being charged with, counselor?”

Charlotte froze for an instant, contemplating Diana’s innocent face, wanting so badly to ignore the circumstantial evidence and acquit her on the spot. Unfortunately for them both, her ego’s supreme court was currently composed mostly of hanging judges like jealousy, wounded pride, low self-worth and fear. They voted down trust and love without so much as a blink.

“Oh, that’s good,” she hissed, lips curled into a snarl. “You almost had me for a second, stretch.”

“Charlotte, get a fucking grip.” Diana was losing patience herself. “To my knowledge, I haven’t done anything to merit such a tirade, so you better explain yourself.”

“Are you telling me that you didn’t bring the helpless little geisha down here – to my sister’s boat – and FUCK her to the point of dehydration?”

Diana’s mouth fell open, shocked to the point that her toes curled like claws into the plush carpet. “No! God, no! I would never-”

“Hey,” came a soft call from behind, grabbing the attention of both women. Angelia emerged from the bathroom, clad in a short, white guest robe identical to Diana’s, her own hair wet from a quick rinse in the sink. “I didn’t know we were expecting company.”

The tall woman wheeled around as Angelia entered the room, and she felt her own stomach drop sickeningly fast as finally grasped the conclusion Charlotte Browning had already reached.

“Aww, Christ,” she muttered, disgusted with her own naiveté.

This looked bad. This looked really, really bad. She jerked her head around to gauge Charlie’s reaction and was dismayed to find the lawyer growing more pale by the second, struggling to form words adequate to impart her immeasurable disbelief at the cruelty life was inflicting on her.

“No way,” she sputtered, her face bright red, her arms crossed over her shaking middle. “The world isn’t this small. The world just isn’t this goddamned small!”

“Charlie, I know what you must be thinking -” Diana offered lamely.

“Oh, honey, no you don’t! If you did, you’d be laughing your ass off, too!” she managed to choke out between burbling gouts of maniacal giggles.

She kept looking at Angelia, who seemed confused if not embarrassed, and back at Diana again. Something in Charlie’s mind just refused to accept the connection, as if it were too freakishly coincidental to happen in an ordered universe.

“This rotten, lying, treacherous, traitorous bitch is THE Angelia? The one you were trying to save? The one who tried to fucking kill you?? I’m sorry, but the world simply isn’t this small!”

Diana was totally tossed by the storm of unexpected anger, and therefore rendered speechless, but the woman in question boldly stepped up to Charlotte and answered for herself.

“I’m afraid I match that description, but you have me at a disadvantage,” Angelia opened, staring at the pretty blonde with the uneasy curiosity of one trying to recall the face of a high school enemy encountered in mid-life. “You seem to know a lot about me, and I’m not able to place you – yet.”

“Awww, place this, Lia.”

The fingers of Charlie’s right hand curled into a perfect fist (knuckles first, thumb tucked flat outside) and she slugged the woman she once knew as Lia Imada right across the chops, packing her latent fury from a youthful betrayal right into the same potent punch with her raging, irrational jealousy.

The frail-looking easterner dropped to the floor like a sack of wet flour, unconscious yet again.

Instantly, the attorney felt a shooting pain run up her wrist and into her forearm, letting her know that her hand was likely broken. She didn’t care. All that mattered at that moment was that someone else was hurting – not as much as she was, but hurting nonetheless.

“Charlie, what the fuck!” Diana cried, sinking stunned to the floor beside Angelia. She checked her pulse and pupils, afraid that the sudden blow would trigger some sort of seizure. “Why the hell did you hit her? If you think I cheated on you, then hit me!!”

“Oh, believe me, I would, but I think my goddamned hand’s broken!” the stricken lawyer screamed, cradling her right fist gingerly. She looked down at Diana with a mixture of pain and horror that spoke volumes regarding her sense of betrayal, then glanced at Lia and felt nothing but sick.

“Paybacks are a bitch,” she muttered numbly, then turned her back and walked out the door, desperate to leave the rancid feelings behind and find some clean air.

Diana wanted to call out to her, but she knew that wouldn’t stop Charlotte’s exit. She had to go after her, so she picked Angelia up and settled her once again on the bed, then shot through the cabin door and up the stairs like a guided missile. The first thing she saw was the imposing form of Teddy Rinna, arms crossed as he glared at her with something close to contempt. Dan stood beside him at the stern rail, his flat face typically neutral despite what he might be feeling toward his former colleague. Whatever it was, she didn’t have time to care right now.

“Give us a minute, guys,” Diana said, and it was not even close to a request. “Wait on the dock.”

The two men exchanged a look, and Dan jerked his head to indicate that Teddy should come with him. They left the boat without a word, though Diana could hear Teddy mumbling something as he followed Dan up the walk.

“… looks to me like she got caught screwing around…”

Dan’s reply was a toneless “… can’t be that simple. Nothing ever is with her.”

Diana shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Dan was right – nothing was ever simple, and she knew there was more to her lover’s violent outburst than simple jealousy. Charlie wasn’t the type to go around punching strangers, no matter what she suspected them of doing. She turned away from the stern and found Charlie standing by the port railing with her arms wrapped around her body, shaking from the inside out. With slow, silent steps, Diana went to her and stood an arm’s length behind.

“I love you,” she whispered, and was wounded by the snort of laughter which came from Charlie in answer. She swallowed a lump of pain and pressed on with her delayed rebuttal. “I’m telling you now that I do love you, more than I ever thought was possible, because that’s my reason.”

The blonde’s head ducked low against her chest, tucking in tight as she choked out a reply between tears. “Your reason. For sleeping with somebody else.”

“For not sleeping with anybody else,” Diana corrected gently. “I did not go to bed with her.”

“Diana, please.” Charlotte drew further into herself, fighting to harden the sobs out of her voice. “I saw the bed. I know that smell. Unless Glade is putting out a new Roman Orgy-scented air freshener, I’d be hard-pressed to draw any other conclusion.”

“That was not my fault. Angelia just surfaced, for crying out loud! She’s been through what I went through, and I can tell you that messes your head up pretty good. Julia drugged her yesterday to help things along, and she was dreaming, remembering… I don’t know what. But what she did in that bed, she did alone,” Diana insisted. “I did not assist her in any way. In fact, I was up on deck a good deal of the time while she was -”

“Masturbating? Jesus, that has to be the worst excuse I have ever heard.”

“It’s the truth. Don’t you think I could make up something better?”

“No, darling, I’d like to think you would just own up to it,” Charlie said bitterly, finally composed enough to turn around and face the accused. “Maybe I don’t know you as well as I thought.”

“Charlotte, no. Don’t say that. You’re the only one who does know me.”

“Then explain to me how the smart, confident, savvy woman I believed you to be could have been taken in by a deceitful, cokehead con-artist like Lia Imada – or should I call her Angelia?”

Dark brows rose and knit in confusion. “Who is Lia Imada?”

Charlie rolled her eyes and jerked her left thumb towards the cabin below. “Your long lost could-have-been. The Yakuza princess spent a little time at Berkeley several years back, dealt blow on the side. What, is this starting to sound familiar?”

“Oh, God.” Diana had gone ghostly pale as she connected the dots from Charlotte’s tale of college trouble and Angelia’s own misadventures at an American university. Charlie was right. The world wasn’t supposed to be so small.

“Well, after unsuccessfully trying to pin the blame for a load of powder on little ol’ me, she got in trouble with the cops. She didn’t do time, though. Her big-deal daddy sent a goon squad to take her home to Japan – just in time to meet and seduce her family’s new governess. I didn’t know that last part until yesterday,” the blonde acidly concluded. “Huh. How do you like them apples.”

“It’s a mistake,” the dark woman protested, though she could not even buy that possibility herself. “Couldn’t it be somebody else? Someone who looks a lot like her, but…”

“Diana, I never forget somebody who fucks me over.” Charlotte’s hazel eyes were flashing with hatred long-denied. “I wasn’t able to clean her clock back then, but I’m more accepting of my anger these days. An unexpected side-effect of loving a murderer.”

The whole world went quiet as those last words settled between them. Blue eyes squeezed shut tight, and Diana Starrett felt a cold chasm open up beneath her feet and swallow her whole. One hand absently strayed to her chest, as if searching for the heart that had just been ripped out.

Charlotte Browning seemed to realize too late that she had crossed a line, said something that couldn’t be taken back. In all their time together, the one consistent thing regarding Diana’s black past was Charlie’s refusal to judge her for it. Her unconditional acceptance was offered repeatedly and proven time and again, supportively listening to lengthy confessions, holding fast in the night when hideous dreams attacked. One moment of angry indiscretion, and she belittled all those efforts, all those sincere promises became insignificant boasts.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” Charlie whispered, suddenly contrite and reaching out a tentative hand to touch her wounded lover.

Diana shrank away blindly, not seeing the offered hand, but running from the words that came too late. She could feel her soul shrinking, balling up into a fetal position and screaming silently that she was a fool to have ever counted on anyone but herself. It was only a matter of time before this happened, before Charlie realized that there was a monster in her bed and cried out in horror.

“I’m so sorry,” Charlotte told her again. “I’m just… it hurts right now. Too much. I didn’t mean it.”

“It’s okay.” Diana still had not opened her eyes. The darkness inside her head was her only comfort. “I understand. Don’t worry about it.”

“No! No, don’t do that. Don’t shut down on me,” the attorney begged, weeping hard tears of regret. “Get mad at me, tell me I’m stupid! Tell me I’m wrong!”

At last, Diana opened her eyes, and the emptiness that showed through cut Charlie like a blade.

“Believe whatever you want. I can’t decide for you.”

“I want to believe you!”

“So do that, then,” Diana advised coldly. “Tell yourself that everything’s okay because I didn’t fuck someone else. Then go home.”

Charlie felt like they were standing at the edge of a high cliff and Diana was pushing at her back, urging her to jump. Then she remembered that it was she who had led them to the precipice in the first place. Her only choice was to turn around and fight to regain some ground.

“I don’t want to go home. I want to stay with you.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There’s a lot left undone, and I have to get moving. Yoshima could be looking for me – or you – right now. Plus, Julia’s mixed up in this, and I can’t tell from one minute to the next what she might want. I have to finish this soon or it’s gonna get really messy. You can’t be here when that happens.”

“Oh, but you can haul what’s-her-ass around with you?”

“That’s not by choice,” Diana explained, still icy-calm on the outside. “I still need to keep track of her for a while. If things get rough, at least I know she can handle a gun. First-hand experience.”

Charlotte felt things slipping away from her again, knew that once Diana started making those gallows humor comments that she was moving out of range emotionally. “We can’t just let this sit. I know I hurt you, with what I said and not trusting… that was wrong. We need to talk about this.”

“We will, but this is neither the time nor the place.”

“Diana, I don’t want to leave things like this! This isn’t what I wanted…”

“But this is what we have,” the former agent said bluntly. “Go home. Take Teddy and Dan and sit tight until things cool off again.”

Out of reach, Charlie’s radar told her. Arguing was now officially hopeless. “When?”

“What?”

“When will things cool off. When will I see you again.”

“A couple of days, maximum. With the people involved, things will move fast from here on out. As for when you’ll see me again, I can’t say. Could be sooner than that.” Diana paused here and cast her eyes out to sea, willing herself to end this conversation on a definitive note.

“If I’m the last murderer left standing, that is.”

Charlie stood there dumbly and let herself be pushed over the edge. She wanted to cry out, to scramble for a limb or vine, something to hang on to… but it was useless. Despite her hurtful words to the contrary, she knew Diana Starrett pretty damned well, well enough to know that the more she tried to grab hold of her, the more Diana would fight. The damage was done.

“You will be,” Charlotte stated firmly. “And when this is over, don’t you even think of going anywhere but home. To me.”

“I have nowhere else to go,” Diana whispered bleakly. “Go to Our Lady on your way home. You need to have that hand x-rayed.”

The blonde’s face crumpled, and it took all the strength she had left not to shed more tears. She straightened up and started walking toward the stern ladder, then stopped just as she began her descent. In a cracking voice, Charlotte said the words that used to make everything all right.

“I love you.”

And she found she was repulsed by the sound of her own voice.

Diana found her lover’s eyes, puffy and gleaming red in the early morning light. With a pain-twisted little smile, she gave as good as she got.

“I love you, too.”
——————————————————————————–

Morning sunlight fell into white blonde hair, tinting it a mild orange and lending a false aura of warmth. Clothes joined in the deception, flapping silkily in the breeze and making the hardest woman he’d ever met look soft. As Gedde Yoshima watched Julia’s swift, floating steps carry her over the uneven terrain of the shoreline, he wanted to believe that warmth was more than an illusion.

He wanted to trust her, wanted to believe that she was not simply using him, and this obviously misplaced faith bothered him. It was foolish. Stockholm Syndrome or not, he knew it was wrong to count on her for anything. Still, he couldn’t help staring at the lissome beauty as she approached, couldn’t help hoping. He eyed the lavender suede duffel looped over one shoulder and wondered what was hidden inside, then accepted that maybe it was better he didn’t know.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” she asked, pulling up beside him and taking his elbow in a courtly gesture.

Gedde nodded and they began to walk down the beach together, looking for all the world like a happily mismatched couple. Julia still wore her semi-professional silk attire, but had provided him with more inconspicuous garb of shorts, sneakers, and a t-shirt with cartoon children on the front.

The oddly-drawn children were huddled over the bloody corpse of another child – evidently named ‘Kenny’ – and cursing those responsible for his death. Gedde did not see the humor inherent in such tragedy, but it made Julia giggle. He knew he should say something now, just to keep his nerves from fraying as they approached his father’s house.

“The beach is eroding very quickly here,” he noted absently.

Julia looked up then and glanced around, noticing the sparseness of sand in some areas, the plentitude of stones and shells. The beach made crunchy, inhospitable noises beneath their feet.

“You’re right. They should bring in sand to renourish it sometime soon, before too much damage occurs.”

“I cannot see letting it be destroyed. Perhaps they will prevent it.”

“Perhaps.”

Silence then, just the roll and retreat of the ocean, the obnoxious cries of hungry gulls. Morning joggers and hapless, wishful surfers. The pair were close to Yoshima’s house, and Gedde still didn’t know why Julia insisted on going there in the first place. He was afraid to ask. Only the tense set of his shoulders as the gray and blue beach house came into view tipped Julia off to his anxiety.

“They won’t look for me here,” she explained quietly, drawing his arm tighter against her side. “All the safe houses are no longer safe, and I have to wait somewhere.”

“Oh.”

“If you don’t want to come with me -”

“No, I do. I understand the logic of your choice, but I am troubled at the thought of being near my father after… after you confirmed what I feared most about him.”

“You afraid you might ring his neck?”

“Yes.”

“Aha.” Julia grinned and squeezed his elbow with something approaching affection. “Don’t worry, we won’t actually be going inside.”

Gedde was clearly puzzled… and maybe a little disappointed. “Why not?”

“Hideo needs to feel he is safe in order for him to comply with my demands. I want to keep a close watch on his activities so that I can end this portion of the game post-haste.”

“You are speaking of the research – and researchers – you requested.”

“Mmm hmm. I want to know the moment they arrive.”

They came to an abrupt halt less than fifty yards from the beach house, mostly because Gedde’s feet stopped moving. Julia touched his cheek and looked into his eyes; she recognized the twin sharks of anger and hurt swimming in their dark depths. Long ago, those creature were her familiars.

“Listen to me,” she urged, and her voice brimmed with uncharacteristic passion. “I know you want to hurt him, but you should let that go.”

“He imprisoned my mother, raped my sister, and exhorted my brother to suicide. You are saying I should let that go?”

“I am saying that we all eventually get what we deserve. Your father is dying, and no one and nothing can save him. Though it would certainly be satisfying to walk into his house and throttle the remaining life from his pathetic body, it would cause you more harm than such therapy is worth.”

“You kill so many, and yet you would deny me this one satisfaction.”

“One is all it takes to become a murderer.” Julia’s gray eyes darkened, her jaw set firm. “You are not like me, and you never could be. Once that hollow moment is over, you would live with it forever.”

“It does not appear that you are plagued with guilt.”

“As I said, you are not like me. Hideo and I are long past such innocence,” she admitted. Her hands found his, and she martialed a slanted smile. “Listen, I’ll make you a promise. One that I can keep.”

Gedde took a deep breath and waited to hear something that would ease his mind, some sweet beatitude to calm his vengeful heart.

“When I am dead and roaming the flaming depths of hell, I will find your father… and I will administer to him the worst ass-kicking in the history of the afterlife.”

That wasn’t quite what he expected, but somehow he found it more soothing than some superficial balm. Despite his suspicions, at that moment, it actually seemed that she cared about him. It was hard for Gedde to recall the last time he felt that from anyone. Mother, sister… it had been years. He shut his eyes and smiled, then gave her a curt nod.

“Good. Any particular torments you would like inflicted? Eye gouging, emasculation, toenail removal… I take requests, you know.”

He chuckled softly and squeezed her slim hands. “I will think on that.”

“Well, tell me as soon as you decide. Hideo and I are likely to meet down below sometime soon, and I will have other business to attend to, I’m sure. No rest for the wicked.”

“I thought the saying was ‘no rest for the weary.'”

“Darling, how do you think we all became so weary?” Julia teased. “Being wicked is hard work.”

“Oh.”

This time, as she pulled him forward, he did not resist. They walked up to the back gate and around the side to the narrow alley between Hideo’s high fence and his neighbor’s house. Julia scouted the side of the gray house for a viable means of ascension, then faced Gedde with a playful grin.

“How are you at shimmying up drainpipes?”

The young man looked up the side of the house, following the line of solid pipe to the roof… then just beyond to the crow’s nest. The ten-foot square deck set atop the highest part of the house would make a perfect vantage point from which to observe the comings and goings of the household. It was also settled far enough back on the roof as to be nearly invisible from the front courtyard. The only danger of discovery would come from someone far down on the beach, and he couldn’t see his father leaving the house again in his agitated, frail condition.

“Shall I go first?” he asked cautiously.

“Be my guest,” Julia answered cordially. “Take this up, please.” She handed over the suede bag, which was surprisingly heavy as he strapped it across his back.

Gedde moved fast, leaping up to the top of the wooden privacy fence and dropping quietly on the other side. He grabbed onto the wide length of metal pipe and crawled up the outer wall like a spider, his movements sure from years of physical training. He reached the top in seconds and rolled himself over onto the rough shingles, careful not to jostle the suede bag’s mysterious contents.

Once he got his footing on the sharply slanted roof, he turned and looked down. He expected to see the blonde woman climbing the privacy fence – but she was already nearly up the drain pipe herself. He shook off his surprise and offered her a hand up, which she accepted.

“Thanks.” Julia stood up, instantly balanced like a cat, and took the bag from Gedde’s shoulder. “Nice climbing.”

“I would say the same of you, had I seen you climb at all,” he said wonderingly.

She just leaped an eight-foot fence and scaled a two-story house – at twice his speed – and there was no outward sign that she had done anything remotely difficult. Not a hair out of place, not a smudge on her slacks or blouse, not even a broken nail. He looked at his own dirty hands, the scrapes on his knees, felt the sweat of effort beading on his brow… it didn’t seem fair.

“Come on,” Julia called softly. She was crab-crawling up the steepest part of the roof, then around to the stairs on the far side of the crow’s nest. Gedde carefully followed her lead and finally made it around to the stairs, but when he looked up to find her, he nearly toppled backward off the roof in shock. Julia was kneeling on the sanded plank floor of the structure, spreading out two towels from her bag… stark naked.

“Please,” she sighed dismissively as she rubbed on a light layer of sunblock, “it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.”

He managed to get his feet to work again, and climbed the stairs almost as fast as a dead slug. “B-b-but, here? Now?”

“Don’t get your hopes – or anything else – up, junior,” she taunted, reclining her pale, perfect length on one plush towel. “I only want to sunbathe a bit. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Display your nudity in a public setting?”

“No, you prudish boy. I’ve done that before. I mean I want to get a tan.” She raised up slightly on her elbows and addressed the flustered youth. “Do you know that sometime this year, my fortieth birthday will occur, and I have never sunbathed. Not once in thirty-nine years.”

Gedde settled on the towel beside her ran an appraising eye along her cream-pale flesh, unmarred by even a lone freckle, and knew her claim might be true. “Why start now? The sun can damage – ”

“You’re missing the point. It’s quite likely that I won’t be alive on my fortieth birthday, and I don’t want to die without having worn normal, flesh-colored skin, even briefly.”

“Oh.”

“It’s silly, I know, but there it is.”

“I… I think I understand.”

Julia regarded him curiously, tilting her head, then leaned over and gave him a brief kiss on the cheek. She lay back down and let her tired gray eyes flutter shut. “Maybe you do.”

So there they were; a naked rogue spy and her boyishly wise companion, lying atop the house of a Yakuza chief. Sunbathing under the bright California sky. Listening to the rhythm of the ocean and the playful people and noisy creatures drawn to it. Waiting for the arrival of scientists bearing information and knowledge that could conceivably wipe out the human race.

It might not have felt as awkward or uncomfortable as it sounds. They were alive, they were as safe as they would be anywhere, and they were not alone.

Maybe the warmth they both felt wasn’t completely an illusion after all.

Twenty One

Teddy drove. Dan sat in back again. Charlotte slumped in the passenger seat, mumbling and staring out the window. She had remained deathly quiet at the hospital, not sharing anything with Dan or Teddy except a bag of Doritos as they waited nearly two hours to see a doctor.

Now, her plaster-coated hand lay heavily in her lap, fractured in three places, but she wasn’t complaining about the uncomfortable cast. In fact, she wasn’t feeling much of anything. A nice PA in the emergency room at Our Lady had given her something with codeine in it, and she hadn’t bothered to tell the helpful woman that codeine made her loopy. And talkative.

“I lied to her,” Charlie said, exhibiting a sudden burst of clarity amid the mumbling. “I told her she’d never regret coming to stay with me.” She turned in her seat and cast a hateful glance at Dan. “She’d have been better off with you assholes.”

Teddy snorted and tried to keep his eyes on the road, but he could see Dan’s uncomfortable expression in the rear view mirror. The thin man leaned forward and touched Charlotte’s shoulder, and she promptly jerked away from him. She looked quite angry as she cut loose again.

“Don’t try to pet me quiet, pal. I’m serious, goddammit! At least she knew that you all lied to her, that you didn’t care about her or trust her or want her to be safe or… or… shit.”

Dan was starting to worry about how loose Charlotte’s lips had become in Teddy’s presence. Diana had said that her business partner was unaware of her past with the agency, and he owed it to her to keep it that way. He tried to keep his tone of voice steady and non-confrontational. “Charlie, I think you should talk to Diana about this. Whatever happened, it oughta stay between you two.”

“Why? You know everything already, Danny-boyo-boy. Boy.” She drifted for a second, losing her train of thought as she became fascinated by the fuzzy pink dice hanging from the mirror. “Oh! I know what you knew. You knew she was with the snow queen of SoCal, and you knew that they used to do… do… it. Butcha don’t think she did her, do ya? Not now.”

With a deep sigh, Dan shook his head. “No. I honestly don’t think she laid a finger on that bitch. Diana’s not stupid.”

“She shot her,” Charlie spat. “All those little white marks on her legs, her tummy, her shoulder. Holes. They were closed up, healed and everything.”

Teddy’s ears pricked up, but he kept his curiosity hidden, eyes on the road as they approached Vega Avenue and the entrance to The Meadows. Dan leaned up again, whispering his reassurance like a priest in a confessional.

“Yeah, Diana was hurt, but that was years ago. She’s okay now.”

“No, she’s not. I ripped ’em all open.” Charlotte leaned her head against the window, staring off into space. “She’s bleeding again. And it’s my fault this time.”

The agent didn’t know what to say to that. As much as he wanted to help, to figure out what happened on the boat, he couldn’t pry into the matter in front of Teddy Rinna. In Charlotte’s addled condition, there was no telling what she’d say. The three were quiet as Roger waved them through the gated entrance and they cruised up to Charlie’s driveway. Dan’s eyes were instantly combing the front of the house, looking for anything suspicious or out of place.

“Hey,” he whispered to Teddy, “park the car nose-out and keep it running. Stay here with her and I’ll check the place out before you bring her in, okay?”

Teddy nodded and backed the car up the drive, then leaned his seat forward and opened the door to let Dan climb out. The slim fellow drew his gun from his belt and palmed it discretely as Teddy drew the house keys out of Charlotte’s purse. The attorney was oblivious to the fact that she was in her own driveway; she seemed content to sit quietly and brood in limbo.

“Count sixty. If I’m not back by then, you get her the hell out of here.”

“Wait a sec,” Teddy objected, “I ain’t just runnin’ off. Marines don’t leave a man behind.”

Against his will, Dan grinned. He was growing to respect Diana’s choice in friends more with each passing minute. “I respect that, but I can’t agree with you this time. We’re supposed to keep Dreamboat Annie over there out of trouble. So far we’ve done a pretty shitty job.”

The burly shamus glanced at Charlotte, who was idly picking at her cast with a thumbnail, and he was forced to agree. “She’s got a sister, Emily Avila, lives across town. You get stuck and want to catch up with us, check there first. You got sixty seconds.”

Dan nodded once, turned away and jogged up the walk. He unlocked each of the deadbolts, then eased himself inside. The alarm was not activated, but he hadn’t actually seen whether Charlotte armed it or not when they left so hurriedly this morning. He didn’t like it, but it wasn’t enough to make him abandon hope that the house was secure.

Speedily, he checked the living room closet, scanned the kitchen, checked all the back windows and found nothing unusual. Next, he slipped down the hall and examined the guest bedroom and bath – empty. He had thirty seconds left as he got to the end of the hall and entered the master bedroom. The adjoining bath was clear, so he dropped to his knees and checked under the bed.

“Not even a dust bunny. Jesus, Di. Anal all the way.”

Getting up, he placed one hand on the rumpled bed and immediately drew it back as something bit into his palm. Dan winced and drew the hand up to check it. A tiny shard of glass protruded from his skin and he looked around nervously, scanning the sheets for more fragments. In his upper peripheral vision, he saw a patch of blue above the bed and looked up. The skylight was broken in, and a two-foot square of mid-day California beamed through unimpeded.

“Oh, shit.”

He brought his pistol up and swept an arc around the room. The only thing he hadn’t checked yet was the bedroom closet. Without sound, he crossed the carpet and jerked open the doors, poking his Glock inside, finger firmly depressing the trigger in preparation to fire. Except for neatly organized rows of jeans, blouses, business suits – and an awful lot of shoes – the closet was empty.

Dan blinked once in confusion. Twice. His palms were sweating, mixing with the trickle of blood from the glass cut. He withdrew from the empty closet and half-turned to his left… and found himself face to face with one of the most wanted men in the world. It took Dan less than a second to place the face, but that moment of recognition was one moment too much.

He raised his gun and tried to squeeze the trigger, only to find that his hand didn’t work. Somewhere in that infinite space between seconds, the man had placed two fingers on the webbing between Dan’s thumb and forefinger and jabbed sharply, numbing the extremity from the wrist down. The agent felt a sick weight in his stomach as he heard the Glock fall to the floor. His eyes stayed locked on the man who would soon end his life.

“You know who I am,” the asian man stated calmly, his obsidian eyes frigid as arctic coal.

He took his time, making a show of swallowing nervously, giving Chen Kaige what he most desired – the fear of his victims. Dan knew of the killer’s proficiency, second only to his legendary sadism.

“Yes. I know who you are.”

Dan answered slowly, his mind counting down the last ten seconds and praying, praying so hard that Teddy was counting, too. That he and Charlie would be long gone by the time this was over.

“Where is Charlotte Browning?” Chen asked. He stood statue-still, hands lifted and open, ready to react if this reed of a man decided to fight.

“I just gotta ask you – where were you hiding? I checked everywhere -”

Dan’s stalling was cut off by a vice-like hand shooting up and closing off his throat. He heard a nauseating crack as his trachea was compressed like a twinkie, then nearly released as Chen allowed him to breathe again. He saw spots before his eyes as the air rushed to his lungs in an agonized, grinding wheeze, then he screamed it right back out as two swift kicks dislocated his kneecaps and he dropped to the carpet.

“Tell me where she is, and I can make the pain end quickly.”

There was blood in his throat, trickling down into his lungs, choking him. Dan leaned down on his one functioning hand and coughed a red spray onto the pale carpet. As his vision cleared and he saw the crimson stain, he couldn’t hold back a chuckle.

“Great. I ruined her rug,” he gurgled perversely. “Now she’s gonna kill us both.”

Chen was growing impatient, and he launched a vicious kick at the thin man’s ribs which lifted him up a few inches into the air. Dan reacted like a pillow, absorbing the pain and settling back down on the floor with his new indentation. Three broken ribs, he guessed. He heard the sound of metal clicking against metal as Chen opened a black matte finish butterfly knife.

“Charlotte Browning is an attorney,” Chen said contemptuously, “I doubt she poses a threat to my personal safety.”

Unable to support his own weight on the one arm any longer, Dan collapsed to the floor. He rolled onto his back and faced the assassin with a grimace that could pass for a smirk.

“It isn’t Charlie you’ll have to worry about, Fubar. You go near her and you will be sorry.”

Chen Kaige cocked his head to the side, somewhat amused, then leapt into the air and landed with both knees on Dan’s chest, driving the air from his flooding lungs and shattering nearly every remaining rib. He raised the knife and drove it through the meatiest part of Dan’s shoulder, effectively pinning him to the floor. For his part, Dan was through playing scared. The ten seconds were long since up, and Teddy had taken Charlotte to safety. He gave Chen only a weak mewling sound to validate his efforts, then pried his eyes open to face the asian once more.

“I was in the laundry hamper,” Chen told him dryly. “Tell me where she is. This can still get worse.”

“Piss off, Fubar.”

Chen frowned and twisted the knife, tearing away muscle and skin as he ripped it out sideways and left a gaping wound between collarbone and neck. The killer sharply dug his knees into Dan’s decimated torso, grinding the broken ribs against each other and further lacerating a variety of damaged internal organs. This time, Dan did manage to scream, albeit weakly.

“What is this ‘Fubar’ you call me? You know my name.”

He could feel a chill creeping into his bones. Soon, the hemorrhaging would kill him and the pain would stop, once and for all. Taking a series of halting breaths, Dan managed to put the agony aside for just a few seconds, just enough to finish.

“Think back, asshole. Bangkok, ninety-four. The brunette who snapped your left femur like a popsicle stick. You keep after Charlotte Browning, and she’ll explain it to you. Personally.”

Chen’s countenance clouded over instantly as he recalled the only time he had nearly been caught – a hit on a political dissident jailed in Thailand. The thwarted attempt was best forgotten, but he could not forget the tall woman with cerulean eyes, chasing him as he leaped to the top of a prison wall spiked with glass. The tug of restraining hands on his ankle, and the rush of pain as the leg was repeatedly slammed against the concrete wall until bone broke through skin.

Dan saw the realization dawn on the killer, saw his brutal composure dissolve; if only for a moment, Chen Kaige was in doubt about continuing this job. Mission accomplished.

“F-U-B-A-R. It’s an acronym,” Dan clarified. “Ask Diana, if you decide to stick around.”

Chen twiddled with his knife, then raised it to deliver the deathstrike. “You are a foolish man to suffer so unnecessarily.”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” the Scarecrow muttered as his vision went dark. “See you on the flipside. Fubar.”
——————————————————————————–
Chen left the house the way he came in, pausing briefly to squat on the roof and survey the grounds for any sign that his target was on the premises. There was only the white Audi parked in the drive, and that was there when he arrived. He frowned hard and glanced down through the skylight at the mutilated body on the floor of the bedroom.

“Fubar.”

He resolved to check his American slang dictionary before heading to his next stop – the law offices of Carver and Berkhoff.
——————————————————————————–

The cycle of emotions began with nothing; a vacuum in which no pain could exist. It was a relatively comfortable state of being, but one in which Diana Starrett was reluctant to linger. She knew the lure of oblivion, heard the siren’s call drifting across the warm black water, and she stubbornly refused to wade in above her ankles. From there, Diana slowly found her way to profound hurt, then bitter, resentful anger, then guilt. Guilt was a favorite layover spot, so she stayed there for a good, long while. She knew the feeling well enough to welcome it like a distant relative, in town for a visit and imposing on you for shelter. After the visit ended, she relaxed into a state of fatalistic acceptance.

*She loves me, she loves me not…*

Her own feelings were hurt (wounded to the bone, actually), but they were unchanged in nature and quality. In the past few hours, Diana had come to doubt nearly every truth in the cosmos, to dismiss every reality… except the one where she loved Charlie. Her fear was that this love, which she held inviolate and sacrosanct, above laws both judicial and thermodynamic, had become too great a weight for her beloved to support. Maybe providing Charlie with a moment of doubt had awakened her from her romantic stupor and opened her eyes to the reality of who she had chosen to love.

The logical conclusion for Diana was that she herself was to blame, by simple virtue of what she once was. In the attorney’s favored view, the operative word in their related exchanges had always been was, as in done and done. But in anger, Charlotte saw fit to upgrade her lover’s past to present tense and poke at it like Achilles’ heel, to hurt her by insinuating that she was still the rampaging monster who roamed the halls of Marco Falcon’s house nine months before.

*But I have changed. Charlie claims I’ve changed her, but it’s so much less than she’s changed me – can’t she see that? Doesn’t she believe it works both ways? I’m different now. I am different.*

It came down to this: either Charlotte was momentarily distrustful and spoke the word to inflict pain, or she was revealing her own secret loathing of Diana’s veiled nature. If the former, then things were not past reparation; trust can be built and rebuilt as long as there is forgiveness and willingness to work. If the latter, she would simply leave. Take what she came in with – some clothes, a suitcase and a Porsche full of artillery – and get out of the attorney’s life for good. It would be Charlotte’s decision and Diana would abide by it, even if it killed her. She was certain that walking away from their life together would do just that, but if she had to leave, dying didn’t sound so bad.

*She told me she wanted me to come home. Maybe she actually meant it. Maybe.*

After resuming her unconscious state for another couple of hours, Angelia finally woke up – and she was instantly sick. Diana was prepared this time, having conveniently placed a lined pail beside the bed. She sat alongside in a straight-back chair, helpless and silent as the young woman heaved up what little liquid remained inside her, holding her hair, watching her suffer through it.

“Oh, Jesus,” Angelia muttered as she sank back on the mattress, totally depleted. “Water. Please.”

Diana handed her the bottle of lukewarm H20 and watched as she rinsed out her mouth and sipped shakily. She waited until the shudders passed and Angelia relaxed somewhat before speaking.

“Do you remember the woman who hit you?”

“Yeah. Charlie Brown.”

“Browning. If you recognize her, I don’t need to tell you why she did it.”

Eyes closed, she nodded. She remembered what she did at Berkeley, as well as what she tried to do to get herself out of the soup. “I deserved worse.” Faintly smiling through the stiffness in her jaw, she went on. “Man, when they say ‘Be sure your sins will find you out,’ they mean it. Why was she here?”

“She was here looking for me. You being here was fate’s idea of a joke at her expense,” Diana explained flatly. “I’ve been living with Charlotte for several months now.”

Angelia fixed her with a gaze of pure disbelief. “There’s no way you’re with her! No way.”

“It’s the truth. I love her, Angel.”

“The girl I remember was a doormat, Diana! Of all the people in the world, how the hell did you wind up with her?”

“Grace of God, maybe. And may I remind you, that doormat knocked you on your ass. She’s changed a lot since you knew her. Charlie is the strongest, kindest, most amazingly understanding person imaginable. I told her everything I’d done and she still wanted me, still believed in me. I left the agency to be with her, and I’d walk barefoot through hell if she crooked her little finger at me.”

Speechless, the young woman just let the new information sink in and settle. Her expression went from defiant and incredulous to resigned and disappointed in seconds. Diana’s tone was utterly serious and left no doubt regarding her sincerity… or her availability.

Though unexpected, the appearance of Charlotte Browning was no more than a Foo Fighter on her radar screen, a momentary blip in a sky full of phantom enemies. That was until she realized that little mousy blonde who once had ‘scapegoat’ written across her forehead had become the bloody Red Baron, flying in with guns blazing to shoot down her hopes of reunion. At that moment, Angelia understood a bit of the creative justice the universe can deal out to habitual offenders like herself. She let her head fall onto the pillow and forced back the tears that threatened to fall. Angelia did not let them pass because she recalled with perfect clarity the futility and wastefulness of self-pity.

“That Julia person – the cowboy who took me from Hideo’s men – she’s agency, right?”

“She is, or was last time I spoke with her. I’m not with them anymore.”

“Well, shouldn’t I be officially in custody or something?” Angelia continued, “If you quit, why are you here with me?”

“I’m not here because I want to be, I’m here because Julia sees me as a means to an end,” Diana said sharply. “I need to wrap up some loose ends for her so she’ll leave me alone.”

A hesitation, then the question in a small, pained voice. “I’m a ‘loose end’ to you?”

Diana bit her lip and considered that it was wrong to lash out at Angelia with a conveniently quick, hurtful lie, so she took a moment to formulate a careful reply.

“I want you to be safe. I want you to be happy. I want you to have the same chance I’ve been given – the chance to live a life that doesn’t require you to hurt anyone, including yourself. Neither of us is gonna have that kind of life again as long as people like Julia or your father need things from us, so we just gotta give them what they want and hope they back the fuck off.”

Angelia sighed and nodded her understanding and acceptance of Diana’s diplomatic answer; at least she hadn’t said ‘yes, you are.’ The words were both more and less than she expected.

“I know what Hideous wants, but what does Julia need from me?”

“The virus sample you hid in Nagano.”

“Oh.” Angelia was visibly relieved. “Is that all?”

“So she says. Your step-father’s been trying to develop a bioagent on his own, but he doesn’t have the original sample. Replicating it has proven difficult, if not impossible.”

“You know,” Angelia interrupted, “when I was puking earlier, I was praying he was dead.”

“No such luck, I’m afraid.”

“Why is it that assholes like him seem to live forever?”

“He won’t. It just feels like that,” Diana assured her. She went no further because she wanted to keep the secret of Hideo’s disease until Harry could confirm that Angelia was not a carrier herself. That sort of revelation was far too heavy to spring on her this soon. “Julia’s trying to gather up every related morsel so the virus doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

“That implies that hers are the right hands,” Angelia observed. “That broad totally gave me the creeps. I remember little snippets of her talking to me, saying strange things. She hit me, too – harder than your other girlfriend – before she hauled me out here. We are still in California, right?”

Diana decided to let the chafing ‘girlfriend’ remark slide. “Right. San Diego.”

“At least she told me the truth about where I am,” Angelia said, sounding almost bitter. “She fed me an utter load of crap for a while, trying to confuse me I think. She also gave me a bacon sandwich… and some really wicked drugs. That chick is weird. You shouldn’t deal with her.”

“Point taken,” Diana agreed , “but that weird chick is the one causing me grief right now. For the moment, I don’t have much choice. Do you remember where you put the sample case?”

“Yeah, but I thought that old man – Riggs, I think – got it. When he took me to Germany, he told me he would take care of it.”

Diana blanched a bit at the mention of Riggins, at the reminder of his contact with Angelia and the damage he caused both of them. “There’s no evidence that he ever retrieved anything from the Nagano op, so we are assuming that he left it right where it was. His own little ace in the hole. As long as he knew the location and kept it to himself, there was little danger of discovery.”

“I suppose. I know I sure as hell couldn’t have told anyone.”

“So where is it?”

“A permanent safety deposit box at Mitsugari Securities, in the city. The box was my mother’s, but she kept it under a false name so Hideous wouldn’t know. She told me about it when I was little, and I never forgot the confidence. She kept a good bit of money stashed there, and some personal items she wanted me and the boys to get if she… passed.”

“Sounds benign enough. Riggins probably left it there.”

“Shit, I hope so. If he didn’t – ”

“Don’t go there,” Diana cut her off with a stern glance. “We have to think positive. The sample case is there, safe and sound and hermetically sealed. We’re about due for an easy break.”

“Right.” Angelia agreed facetiously, not believing that they would get that lucky. “You and I have so much good karma built up, after all.”

“That might be truer than you think,” Diana shot back, perhaps a little enviously. “You’re the one who’s been living clean for nearly a decade. That’s worth more than what I’ve done.”

Angelia raised herself onto her elbows and lifted an eyebrow. “You were a bad girl, weren’t you?”

Diana pursed her lips and lowered her eyes. “The worst.”

“Don’t tell me about it.”

“Wasn’t planning to.”

“Good. I’m not Saint Charlotte – I might run screaming,” the young woman teased, although she was sharp enough to note the discomfort her off-hand comment caused Diana. The tall woman’s admirable posture deflated to a near slump, and her gaze trailed along the carpet. “Where is she, anyhow? Did she leave after she poleaxed me?”

“Mmm hmm. She sort of… misconstrued the situation at first. She left a while ago.”

“Misconstrued?” Angelia was a little slow on the uptake this time. “Oh! She thought we’d been…” She whirled one hand in the air, letting the thought finish itself silently.

“I corrected that impression,” Diana stated grimly before racing away from the subject. “This safety deposit box, do you recall the name your mother used? Or maybe the box number?”

“4809. The name was Ralph Roe.”

Diana’s eyes widened as she recognized the name. “As in the guy who supposedly escaped from Alcatraz in 1937?”

“She was socking away money in case she ever needed to bust out and run away with us. Mother always had a nifty sense of humor.”

“Huh.” Diana didn’t know what to say. She wondered for a moment how things would have been different for everyone involved if Mrs. Yoshima had discretely packed up her children and left the next day instead of trying to stab Hideo the night she caught him abusing her daughter. Then again, the stabbing thing sounded like the more appropriate response. Too bad she hadn’t succeeded.

“Do you know if my mother and brother are still alive?” Angelia asked suddenly.

“I don’t know for certain. I could find out, if you want.”

Angelia smiled at her, a glimmer of hope in her dark eyes. “Please. You have a home to go to when this is done, someone to be with. I need to know if I’m alone in the world.”

A twinge of guilt bit at Diana’s gut, followed by a pinching doubt regarding her own future. “I’m sorry. I know when you came to earlier, you were saying -”

“Shhh,” the young woman urged gently. “Forget about it. How ridiculous is it to expect the woman I tried to murder to wait until I came to my senses, forgive me, and take me back. Laughable.”

“It’s not ridiculous in the least. I… cared about you very much. We both made mistakes, but I always I wanted you to be all right. That hasn’t changed,” Diana said softly. “I don’t think it ever will.”

“But that’s as far as it’s gonna go?” she asked bleakly, dreading the impending rejection.

“That’s as far as I can let it go. No matter what my intent was, I ultimately helped the agency rob you of your freedom. I owe you the chance to determine how the rest of your life will go. My life belongs to Charlie. She helped me find myself. Everything in me that’s worth a damn is wrapped up in her.”

“So you’re with her because you feel that you owe her something?”

“I owe her everything,” Diana clarified. “Angel, as much as I care about you, as much as I may want to put my arms around you and prove it… I can’t do it. I won’t. I gave myself, body and soul, to Charlotte. I made you promises and I broke them, but I won’t steal from her to pay you back.”

The tears Angelia had been holding at bay crept up again, and in spite of her willful refusal to let them fall, one crept past her defenses and rolled heavily down her cheek. In her spotty memories of nearly a decade’s worth of existence, she had always known there was something wrong. Some absence made her heartbeat slow and her breathing shallow as she sat up late at night, barely awake, barely living, wondering what she was missing. Now that she had been allowed to remember just what that precious thing was, she found that it was beyond her reach… and it hurt.

She saw Diana reaching out tentatively to touch her face, perhaps to whisk away that guilty trickle of evidence, and she shrank away from her former lover’s touch. “Don’t,” she whispered. “It wouldn’t be enough. One thing I know, it’s easier to live with nothing at all than not enough.”

Diana folded her hand into a tight fist and let it fall to her lap. She picked at a loose thread on her shorts and wished she had brought a change of clothes. “Okay.” She stood abruptly and moved her chair away from the bed, returning it to the corner beside the couch. “I have to make a call. I will try to find out about your mother and Gedde. Is there anything you need before I go up on deck?”

“Nothing you’re free to give me.” Angelia wiped a hand across her cheek and sniffled, vaguely disgusted with her own weakness. “Go ahead. I’ll wash up and get ready in case we need to move.”

“I…” Diana stopped just short of apologizing again, knowing it was pointless. As hard as saying the word may be, ‘sorry’ never really makes things better, never eases the pain of a deep hurt or cures the disease of regret. It’s a topical balm, not a vaccine. Diana pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed away a sliver of headache, then turned and left the cabin. She had to call Harry Mars. All she could hope for was that Harry had good news, because she sure as hell needed to hear some.
——————————————————————————–

Lunchtime sunlight filled the Avila kitchen, giving a cheery atmosphere to a room that needed no outside assistance. Emily’s culinary domain was filled with fresh flowers, clean surfaces, and crayon pictures that even a quack psychologist would have to admit were the work of well-adjusted, happy children. Those three children whooped and screamed as they ran past the window to take another turn dancing under the lawn sprinkler in the back yard, oblivious to the troubles of the adults inside.

“Charlie, honey, if you’re not gonna eat that…” Emily began, shifting around in her chair at the dining table. Her sister had been here for nearly twenty minutes and had spoken less than twenty words – most unusual and very unsatisfying, in the loquacious redhead’s opinion.

“I’m eating,” the lawyer replied shortly. In fact, she was not eating – she was moving the rice on her plate into five separate piles around the perimeter, then molding all the bits of chicken and peppers into a lovely green, red and tan centerpiece. This was a habit of hers since childhood, and it got on Emily’s nerves. When Charlie wouldn’t eat, it meant she was either terribly sad or terribly nauseous.

“Are you gonna talk to me now or what?” the elder Browning queried. “Teddy and Luis are in the living room, so they can’t hear us. The kids are playing outside, so they can’t hear us. I found the bug mom installed in my can opener, so now even she can’t hear us. Now spill it. What’s eating you?”

Charlie was listening just enough to hear the joke, but she didn’t feel like laughing. “I’m a bitch, Em.”

Emily rolled her dark blue eyes and snorted. “News flash! Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I’m serious. I did a really bad thing today.”

Curious, her sister leaned forward and baited her out. “If you hired a hit man to take out mom and didn’t let me in on it, I’m gonna have to hurt you.”

Closing her eyes, Charlotte wished silently that she had been alert enough to suggest another place to wait for Dan. Her sister’s house was fine – it was her actual sister she was worried about. “Can’t you – just once – let me have a problem and keep it to myself?”

“No. It’s my biological right to push you around and get in your business,” the plump woman bragged. “Honey, you know it goes no further than this room. Talk to me.”

Deciding to go sparse on the inflammatory details, Charlotte tried to lay out her case. “This morning, I was looking for Diana. I found her… with another woman.”

Emily raised both brows, but said nothing.

“A woman she was involved with several years ago. She’s in trouble and Diana’s trying to help her.”

A nod of comprehension and more silence.

“I got really upset and accused her of screwing around. Diana denied it, but I wasn’t ready to listen, and then I hit the other woman. Hence my broken hand.”

Emily looked at the cast as Charlie waved it around, and nodded again. Inside, she was screaming out questions like a cub reporter in the White House press room, but she had to wait for her cue from the president. Speak too soon and Charlie would clam up again for sure.

“I said something to Diana, a bad, bad thing. Probably the worst thing I could say to her. I did it just to hurt her, I know… and it worked.”

Emily frowned. Hard.

“Then I left. Went to the emergency room and got my bones set. After a while, I started to realize that I was probably wrong, that Diana wouldn’t do that.”

“You’re goddamned right, she wouldn’t,” Emily hissed. She was done with that quiet crap, and the passion of her denial took Charlie by surprise. “Little sister, for such a brainiac, you can be a total shithead sometimes. You actually thought she cheated on you?”

Blinking through the shock, Charlotte gave a tiny nod. Wasn’t Emily supposed to be on her side?

“Jesus, shrimp! Have you not been paying attention for the last nine months? Are you blind? Have you never watched what happens to Diana’s face when you walk in a room?”

Still blinking defensively, she could only stand on the tracks as her sister’s lecture rolled over her like a runaway freight train.

“Charlie, her eyes brighten up from candlelight to neon. Her face gets all glowy, especially across her cheekbones, and then she breaks out a smile so wide it oughta hurt her damned jaw!” Emily exclaimed. “The woman gets positively fucking ecstatic, turdbrain! Over YOU! Anybody paying half a lick of attention can see – it’s like God kissed her on the cheek and gave her a free pass to all the rollercoasters in heaven. She looks blessed, excited… and maybe a little scared.”

Sinking into her chair, Charlotte suddenly felt about two inches tall. If even Emily could see it, could trust in and defend Diana’s love for her, why hadn’t she done so herself?

“She does not,” the attorney mumbled. “You exaggerate everything.”

“This needs no embellishment. I never saw anything like it until you brought her over to the house that first time. I remember thinking how goofy she looked when you crossed her line of sight, thinking it was for my benefit, that she was trying to get on my good side or something.”

“Huh. Right.” Charlie couldn’t imagine Diana courting favor with anyone, even the fearsome Emily.

“Well, the more she came around, the more I realized that she wasn’t putting on – you actually have a physical effect on her. Diana is so full of love for you, it just leaks out around the edges when she’s not paying attention. She can’t help it, because you’ve got her right in the palm of your hand,” Emily explained, her voice dropping to a confidential volume.

“Now, I’ll tell you this – I love Luis and I know he loves me, but I have never, ever seen him look at me with anything approaching that expression. God help me ‘cuz I know it’s wrong, but I do envy you sometimes. Charlie, that look is a benediction straight from the heart, and if I find you taking it for granted again or ever calling it false, I’ll smack you down myself for sacrilege.”

That was about all Charlotte could take. She scooted her chair back from the table, stood up and walked around to where Emily sat, and just looked down at her sister with a blank expression that could have been perceived as anything from a threat to gratitude.

“I love you, Emmy.”

With that, Charlie leaned over and pulled her sister into a rough hug, her cast scraping against the back of Emily’s neck. The older woman was momentarily surprised, but as always, she rolled with it and returned the hug in full force.

“You’d better,” Emily spoke into her shoulder. “There aren’t many of us who can put up with your insecure bullshit, you know.”

“I know,” Charlie agreed, and kissed the crown of the red hair. “Thank you.”

Emily pushed her away gently and looked up. “For what?”

“Kicking me when I’m down. Sometimes it’s the only way to make me stand up.”

“Damn straight. So what are you gonna do now?”

Charlotte sat on the edge of the table and sighed, wondering the same thing herself. “If it’s okay with you guys, I’d like to hang out here for a while. Teddy and I need to catch up with the third member of our cadre, and this is the only place Teddy told him to look for us.”

“That’s this ‘Dan’ guy Teddy mentioned?”

“Mmm hmm. He’s a friend of Diana’s.”

Emily sat on that for a bit, recalling Teddy’s harried manner when they arrived, as well as the two guns the big man had tucked under his jacket. “Are you in trouble or something, shrimp?”

Charlie was worried that was coming, and she had a cover story ready. “One of my former clients made a few threats, and Diana overreacted. She insisted that I not be left alone while she’s helping that… woman. Dan and Teddy have been stuck to me ever since.”

“Uh-huh. I can see that,” Emily murmured, a distinct tightness her voice. “You don’t think this client would look for you here, do you?”

“I doubt it. Your address and phone number are unlisted,” Charlotte began, then caught on to Emily’s apprehension. “But if you’re worried about someone coming here, if you’d rather we left – ”

“No! That’s not it at all,” her sister objected. “I’m just thinking this might be a good day to go for a long trip. Like, out in the middle of the fricking ocean, you know? Make you harder to find.”

At the thought of returning to the scene of her crime, Charlotte felt her heart drop into the heel of her left foot. “I don’t think that’s such a great idea, Em.”

“Look, if Diana needs the Sunseeker as a place to lay low while she’s helping that woman, that’s cool with me. She deserves to use the thing whenever she wants – if she hadn’t taken Luis to that secret auction, we wouldn’t have the damned thing in the first place.”

“If not the cruiser, then what are you suggesting?”

“See, Poppy Avila’s in town, and he’s got a sixty-foot sailboat. He’s been ragging on Luis about forgetting how to sail a real boat, and I know he’d love to take us out and show off.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Charlotte almost agreed instantly. Luis’ father, affectionately called ‘Poppy,’ lived in Mexico since his divorce from Mama Avila twelve years back. He was retired Navy, like the Browning’s own father, and had a profound, infectious love for the sea, as did his son. Spending some time cutting thorough water with the terribly yar Avilas sounded like just the ticket to get herself out of harm’s (and Diana’s) way and get her mind clear. She had a lot of thinking to do, and she could think of no better place than the open sea to do it.

“What about Dan? Teddy told him we’d wait for him here.”

“Teddy can wait for him here,” Emily suggested pointedly. “Luis can play bodyguard just as well as him, if not better. He was a Navy SEAL, after all. I’ll explain your situation to him and tell him to keep watch over you; it’ll make him feel all macho and shit.”

That just about covered it for Charlie. This was much closer to Diana’s own first suggestion for her safety than waiting at home like a sitting duck. She agreed about two seconds later, and Emily jumped up and rushed off to make the arrangements.

*This should piss Teddy off pretty good,* she thought, knowing how seriously he took Diana’s charge to keep her safe. *God, why didn’t I just listen to her yesterday and go with Emily then? I’m slow, that’s why. Slow and thick and dumb as a brick. She tries to make things simple, and I go running around behind her and complicate them again. Just like today. Fuck yesterday, why didn’t I listen to her today?*

A voice she had come to think of as her ‘inner defense attorney’ spoke up then. As always, it tried to rationalize her behavior into acceptability.

*It isn’t your fault. You didn’t conjure up Lia Imada. You didn’t know she was going to be there. Extenuating circumstances! Temporary insanity! Mistrial, dammit, mistrial!*

*Lia Imada is irrelevant,* she shot back, determined to prosecute herself with maximum prejudice. *If it had been anyone else on that boat, you would have talked yourself into the same conclusion. Diana couldn’t possibly love you, couldn’t be faithful to you, because who the fuck are you to think you deserve someone like her?*

*Objection! Your honor, the prosecutor is badgering herself!*

*Overruled. That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? She’s with you because you were in the right place at the right time, and she latched onto you like a lifeline. Diana needed to love someone in order to free herself. It’s not you, specifically, that she loves. It could have been anyone. She’s gonna figure that out eventually, and she’ll leave you. Isn’t that what you’re really afraid of?*

*OBJECTION! Your honor, permission to approach the bench and whip the prosecutor’s sorry, pathetic little ass!*

Just as she was getting somewhere, just as she was about to make a ruling, Emily came back and told her things were set. They would leave this afternoon and get back sometime tomorrow morning. Her sister was a blur of motion and noise as she called the kids in, cleared the table, and set off to pack a change of clothes for everyone, including her underdressed little sibling.

*Recess called until such time as the court is relocated to the high seas.*

*Great. This keeps up, I’m gonna tie up the prosecutor and keelhaul the self-pitying wretch.*

*Counselor, any more of this and I’ll hold you in contempt.*

“Join the crowd,” Charlie muttered. She stepped over to the window and watched the kids taking one more lap under the sprinkler before coming in, and wished with all her might that she could trade places with Katie Avila. At least the little girl was absolutely certain of the people who loved her. At least Luis and Emily made certain she knew she was worthy.

Continued in Chapter Twenty-two

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