Surfacing by Paul Seely and Jennifer Garza

surfacing
Artwork by Calli

Surfacing
by Paul Seely & Jennifer Garza

One – Friday

Surveying the decor of Edmund Salmon’s darkened abode, the masked intruder couldn’t help being impressed by the man’s taste in home furnishings. Oriental rugs on hardwood floors. Chippendale and Stickley chairs. Numerous oil paintings by promising artists, mostly neo-impressionist innovators and pop-art upstarts, with one genuine Matisse and one Andrew Wyeth conspicuous among them. A gleaming black grande piano stood by the bay window. No doubt about it, Salmon was a man with expensive tastes. He was also a criminal with a rap sheet of white-collar crimes as long as the Persian runner lining the hallway. Salmon had bargained with the feds, exchanging his continued freedom for his testimony in a very complicated, very fragile case against an alleged gun-running drug dealer. The intruder was here to make sure that deal never bore fruit for the prosecution.

After exploring the first-floor rooms, the intruder moved up the stairs, peering into each bedroom to check for surprises. The child’s bedroom provided a mild shock — it was occupied. No one else was supposed to be here. Salmon’s wife had left him and taken their son to her mother’s in Sonoma nearly a month ago, and had not allowed him to see the boy since. Evidently, she had a change of heart when she discovered that he may not be going off to the pokey after all. Or maybe he told her that the freeze on his assets had been removed, and that thawed her attitude toward him. In any case, the child was sleeping soundly and was therefore of no interest.

Unerring steps in the darkness brought the intruder to the door of the master bedroom, and the dark-clad figure paused to adjust the newly issued night-vision glasses over the ski-mask. As light as Wayfarers, the glasses were more company-required than field-necessary, but they came in handy in situations like this one. Turning up the sensitivity, the darkened hallway now appeared as if it were lit by the sun.

The door opened without a noise and revealed Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Salmon sound asleep, as far apart as possible on their king-size bed. Mrs. Salmon wore a black silk sleep mask, and the table by her side sported a couple of prescription drug bottles, leading the stranger to hope that the woman was sleeping with ‘Prince Valium’ tonight, and would not wake up at an inconvenient moment. The intruder adjusted thin black leather gloves while approaching the slumbering couple, rounding the bed to stand over Edmund Salmon. A quick inventory was necessary for verification. *Fifty-two years old. Five-foot-ten in his bare feet. Two-hundred and forty pounds. Gray hair, mustache. Scar above his left eyebrow from a childhood bicycle accident. That’s you all right. Sorry about this, Eddie.*

His breathing ragged and noisy, the sleeping man inhaled and held his breath for an interminable period of time, causing the intruder to wonder if sleep apnea wouldn’t kill this man soon, anyway. At last, Salmon inhaled again. It was to be his last breath. The intruder’s hands flashed expertly at Salmon’s neck like twin striking asps, pressing fingers hard into his flaccid flesh. He woke immediately and struggled against the inexplicable pain, flopping around helplessly on the enormous bed. Lying four feet away, his snoozing wife was not disturbed in the least. The intruder smiled crookedly and, on some strange impulse, stooped to check the paper tag dangling near one booted foot. *Good mattress, too, huh Ed? Top of the line, individual spring coils. You might be a crook, but you’re no cheapskate.* A moment later, Edmund Salmon lay dead in his own bed, a trickle of blood from his nostril the only sign of distress. The intruder leaned forward again and gently eased Salmon’s eyelids closed, then turned to leave. Only then was the small witness noticed.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, Salmon’s four year-old son stood in his Hercules footy-pajamas, clutching an empty plastic cup with “Wally’s Wa-Wa” scrawled across it in blue crayon. Without missing a beat, the intruder soundlessly crossed the room and took the cup from the groggy little boy. The soft sound of treated water running from gold-plated fixtures was audible from the adjoining master bath, and then the stranger returned and handed the cup to the child, turning him back toward his own room. At the door, he turned to ask a question, a small whimper threatening to sound the alarm and make this evening very messy. The intruder smoothly crouched in front of the boy and gently laid a leathered finger against his thin lips, and whispered, “Shhh. Go back to bed, now, and keep dreaming. Hercules needs your help to fight a dragon, so don’t keep him waiting.” The child nodded his fair head and ambled sleepily toward his race-car shaped bed as the stranger closed the door behind him.

The intruder left the Salmon home through the sliding glass door on the patio, making sure to reset the alarm and re-lock the door. Vaulting over short fences, clearing low shrubs, and dodging sprinklers were the only remaining challenges of this mission. None of the pampered, middle-class dogs barked at the stranger – but then, no dog ever did. With the lightweight high-tech glasses turning night into day, the interloper made quick time through the suburban neighborhood, turning once in a while to appreciate a flower bed or a tiled roof. This was definitely a nice place to live. Beautiful, quiet, safe. *Well, as safe as anywhere, I guess.*

Less than a minute after leaving Salmon’s house, the figure reached the end of the cul-de-sac and continued running into the woods, eventually reaching a black Jeep Cherokee 4×4 parked in a well-concealed pocket. Once inside, the dark leather gloves were shucked, followed by the enhanced glasses and the ski-mask, revealing first the tapered fingers and narrow hands, then the gleaming blue of azure eyes, and finally a cascade of ebony hair – a beautiful woman lurking beneath the accouterments of a killer. She ran a hand through her hair and wiped her eyes, adjusting to the darkness a moment before retrieving a cellular phone and a small black box from the glove compartment. Activating the box, she entered a ten-digit code and waited for clearance before placing her call. Once the lighted keypad changed from red to green, she called in to report.

“Enter access code,” answered a smooth, synthesized voice. The woman punched in another ten-digit code. “Thank you. Your call is important to us, so please stay on the line, and our next available representative will be with you in a moment.” The woman settled back against the car seat’s lumbar support, wiggling her tight lower back against the padding. It didn’t ease the pain much, but at least she felt like she was doing something to help. *I gotta find a good chiropractor.* The seconds ticked by while her call was traced and verified, and she began softly singing along to the canned music played by the screening service. “I’m ‘enery the eighth, I am. ‘enery the eighth I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door, she’s been married seven times before…”

A series of clicks and beeps sounded to let her know that her call was accepted and was being forwarded to her supervisor. After barely one ring, a gruff male voice came on the line, barking his own name in greeting “Mars.”

“…needs women,” she responded, negating the need for him to ask who was calling.

Harry Mars gave a short, raspy chuckle and willed his sphincter muscles to relax. “You get it done, Di?”

“Jesus, Mars. You actually think I’d fuck this up?”

“Well, we didn’t get a chance to contact you about the new arrivals before you went silent. Sorry about that, by the way. Any problems?” The nervous undercurrent in his voice would have been imperceptible to anyone else.

“No,” she lied, voice low and steady.

Mars sighed deeply. “You sure about that? Nothing to expose us?”

“Not a thing. In and out, quick as pie and twice as sweet.” She knew what would happen to the boy and his one surviving parent if her employers knew of his untimely need for a drink of water. What she didn’t fully understand was why it mattered to her what happened to these people.

“Well, what are you waiting for, Diana? Get your ass home and go to sleep. Today we see how the feds case holds up without their keystone. Stinkin’ drug running bastard’s gonna walk thanks to you, kid. How does that make you feel?”

“Like a tool. I wish we didn’t need this guy out to get this done.”

“I know. Makes me queasy, too. But we can get on with the job once this trial shit is over. You’ll be there in the flesh, right?” he asked with a sneer in his voice.

“You know I will, Harry. I’m working the early shift every freakin’ day thanks to you. Couldn’t you have gotten me a better cover? At least as a Marshal, I could wear some decent clothes.”

Mars laughed again, then offered a curt but affectionate goodbye and disconnected, leaving Diana listening again to Herman’s Hermits. She pressed ‘end’ and powered down the cell phone and scrambler, locking them in their custom case and replacing it in the glove compartment. Starting the engine, she drove the Jeep toward her latest temporary home, trying to think about anything but the face of Ed Salmon as he felt his life slipping away, just when things started to come back together for him. She willed away the image of a small boy in soft flannel pajamas with rubber-soled feet, erasing the sight of his tiny, half-aware face as he watched her kill his daddy. *I can’t do this anymore. I’m losing my stomach,* she thought. And for the first time in her ten year career, she considered asking Harry about ‘surfacing.’ *Maybe I could survive it… there’s a first time for everything.*

Driving the deserted streets of the southern California suburb, she repeated those thoughts until the words ran together and she could no longer stand their hopeful ring. *God, I need a distraction! I’m gonna drive myself crazy if I start dreaming about getting out.* She shook her head forcefully, slinging the congealing plan back into the dark corners of her mind. Diana then sang out loud, on key, complete with silly accent, “… she’s been married seven times before, and every one was an ‘enery. She wouldn’t have a Willie or a Sam, I’m her eighth old man I’m ‘enery. ‘enery the eighth I am…”

——————————————————————————–

That night, Diana dreamed that she was swimming through thick, warm liquid. Her eyes were closed and she did not worry that she was underwater. She could breathe the liquid, drawing it into her lungs like air. She swam effortlessly, frolicking and spinning, loving the freedom and the silence of the world below. No one called to her, no one tried to bind her, yet she knew that she was trapped underwater, that she had changed so much that she was no longer suited to life above. Still, the curiosity nagged at her until she gave in and decided to just take a peek above the surface. She swam for what seemed an eternity without breaking through, and she realized that she no longer knew which way was up. It occurred to her that she could follow bubbles of air to the top, so she opened her eyes and exhaled… and screamed soundlessly as she realized that her lungs contained no air to push to the surface, and that the liquid she swam in was blood.

She woke alone in her narrow bed, clammy and cold with the sweat of nightmares. Certain techniques taught by the psych department at work had allowed her to block out memories of her dreams, both good and bad, so she never really remembered the exact events, only the sensations. The cold sweat was also a good indicator that her dream was not one she’d want to recall. Rising to stand on melting legs, Diana gave up on sleep and went in search of a cigarette to calm her nerves. She sat quietly on the bed and smoked as the crimson sun rose in her window.
Two
In the wake of the defense’s motion for dismissal, the Federal Courtroom of Elceda County, California was awash in murmurs and whispered speculations. Judge Rena Perez banged her gavel just once, sharply, and asked for silence while she conferred with the attorneys. The prosecutor, Roger Van Susterin, a dignified man with caramel skin and salt-and-pepper hair, eased his ample girth from his creaking chair and sidled up to his opponent. The young defense attorney already stood before the judge, almost rocking back and forth on her heels in anticipation. The look in her hazel eyes as she fixed him with a triumphant gaze said, “I finally got you, old man. Been waiting for this day since law school, and I’m gonna enjoy every minute.” Aloud, she said nothing, letting her body language speak to all those who would listen.

“Ms. Browning, you realize that the prosecution could still pursue a case against your client, even without Edmund Salmon’s testimony?” Judge Perez asked evenly.

“Yes, your honor, but I feel that it is my duty as an officer of the court to spare both my client and the esteemed federal prosecutor the embarrassment of a long, public trial which would inevitably lead to a full acquittal, anyway,” declared the young woman, her tone clipped and professional. She casually ran a hand through her burnished blonde hair and fired a killer grin at her opponent.

The prosecutor stiffened and prepared to argue against his former student. “Inevitably, Charlotte? You’re awfully cocky for your first appearance in federal court,” he said, choking down the more venomous reproach rumbling in his throat.

“Yes, Roger, I said ‘inevitably’ and I meant it. Without Salmon, you have no case against Marco Falcon, and you know it. Why humiliate yourself and your office by chasing after an innocent man? Just let this one go. No hard feelings,” she offered generously, savoring the withering glance the prosecutor fired her way, deflecting it with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

“That’s enough – from both of you.” Judge Perez had thought it over and was prepared to rule. She sent the tendentious attorneys back to their corners and called the room to order again. At the defense table, the accused – a handsome Hispanic man – gripped the hand of his attractive lawyer a little too hard. She jerked her hand away, then shook it out with an exaggerated grin when she saw that her client was offended. “Not so hard, Marco,” she whispered. He seemed appeased for the moment, but Charlotte Browning would be glad when this case was over and done with. Falcon was a little too… affectionate for comfort.

“In light of the tragic passing of the prosecution’s key witness, I must agree with the defense,” Judge Perez began. “Due to insufficient evidence, I hereby order that the charges against Marco Falcon be dropped, and that he be released from custody immediately. Court is adjourned.” SMACK! One pound of the gavel, and it was over. Marco Falcon was a free man again, for now, and Charlotte Browning had scored the first big victory of her promising career as a criminal defense attorney. She was so happy that she even hugged Falcon, trying to ignore the way he pressed his hips against her stomach, silently cursing her less-than-imposing stature which had often made for such inconvenient geometry.

She was then swept up in a hug by Marco’s grateful mother – a large, Mexican woman with twinkling dark eyes and a smile as warm and easy as a noon siesta. After returning the embrace as best she could (because she actually liked Falcon’s mami), Charlotte disengaged herself and squeezed between the appreciative members of Falcon’s family and his various and sundry employees, desperately trying to reach the door before Marco noticed that she was gone. All she wanted right now was a quiet room, a drink, and a cigarette – then she remembered that she didn’t have any, and cursed herself for ever thinking that she could quit smoking permanently. She would do her celebrating later tonight with her co-workers, none of whom would try to cop a feel.

——————————————————————————–

As the courtroom slowly emptied, no one noticed the old man sitting alone in the back row, weeping quietly. He waited for the puta attorney to exit the room, and he saw her “client” trying to follow her. Knowing that this would be his best and only chance to get them both together, he reached into the back of his pants and removed the old .22 pistol he had smuggled into the building.
The old man was familiar to the security team at the courthouse – he had been here every day since Falcon was arraigned – and they knew that the old man had a long, steel reinforcement rod in his spine, necessitated by a farming accident years ago. The metal detector sounded its usual alert when waved across his lower back, and he had been waved through without question. Now hiding the pistol under his soiled denim jacket, he stood and pursued his targets into the hallway. He would have his vengeance.

——————————————————————————–

Just as Charlotte reached the door to the lounge, Falcon’s hand lit on her shoulder, spinning her around and into another profane embrace. This time, she could feel just how excited he was. He voiced a steady stream of thanks and praise, swearing that he would never hire another attorney, and that she would never want for anything again as long as he drew breath. “As long as you stay in trouble, you mean,” Charlotte corrected, pulling away and purposefully avoiding his hungry eyes. Falcon kept an arm draped across her shoulders, unwilling to let go so soon.

“No, my sweet Charlotte, I say what I mean. Besides, as long as I’m breathing, I’ll probably be in trouble, right? So you’ll always have work. In fact, I have an employee who needs an upgrade in representation, and I…”

“You murdering bandit! You killed my son!” The old man interrupted Falcon by screaming and running towards the embraced pair with surprising speed, moving so fast that Falcon could barely release Charlotte before he was slammed against the marble wall with a gun pressed to his nose. Charlotte tried to move away, but the man grabbed her arm and swung her against the wall to stand by Falcon. “And you fix it so he goes free!” He glared furiously at both of them. “You gonna die like my boy died. You gonna see it coming, just like my Pablo did,” the old man declared in a shaky voice. His hand was trembling as he moved his weapon back and forth from the man who executed his son to the woman who kept him out of prison. He couldn’t decide who to kill first. Falcon looked to his men, none of whom were armed today, and actually found himself praying for the intervention of a cop. “On your knees,” said the old man, “Both of you.”

As they knelt, Charlotte scanned the panicked crowd for help, seeing several court officers with their guns drawn. *What the hell are they waiting for?* she wondered. Then she saw someone in black shoes and gray pants step from the crowd and approach the old man from behind. Only visible to the knees, obscured by the old man’s body, the figure moved closer. *Sheriff’s deputy, I’ll bet. Gonna get us all killed.*

Then a man’s voice called from the right, causing the old man to spin toward the sound, and one of Falcon’s crew stepped forward with his hands raised. Younger than Marco’s other associates, this man was slim and well-dressed, with a mildly pock-marked face which gave him the look of an eternal teenager. His demeanor, however, was that of an older, confident man.

“Hey, mister. He didn’t kill nobody. Why you hassling with Marco? He helps people, old timer, he don’t kill nobody,” the young man spoke in an even, calming voice intended to draw the old man into debate, and it worked. Charlotte noticed that the black shoes had drawn closer, yet not a sound was heard except the old man’s shouting as the deputy crept up behind the gunman – just when the old man lost his patience and drew back the hammer, preparing to fire at Falcon’s man.

A hand blurred across the old man’s field of vision in a flash of gray and yellow, and he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. A dull, muted click sounded, then the gun was snatched from his trembling hand and he was jerked into the waiting arms of two U.S. Marshals who spirited him away without a word. Falcon jumped up and ran to embrace his mother and thank his quick-thinking employee. He then faded into the throng of press waiting to hear from the exonerated man. Charlotte, meanwhile, remained kneeling by the cool stone wall, still a little stunned at the quick turn of events, still unsure exactly what happened.

“Hello, down there,” called a friendly voice, “You all right?” A woman’s hand appeared before her and she took it, surprised at the warmth and strength of the grip as she was hauled to her feet. In the woman’s other hand was the .22 pistol, which now sported an unsharpened Berol No.2 pencil trapped beneath the hammer. Charlotte put it together fairly quick, still staring at the weapon which could have ended her life, and asked for confirmation, “You… you wedged a pencil in his gun?”

“Yeah. The way he was shaking, someone could have gotten hurt if I’d just grabbed at it, so I used my chew toy to jam him up,” the woman answered. She then handed the gun over to another officer, and Charlotte’s attention was finally drawn away from the pistol. “You sure you’re okay?” the deputy asked again, and this time the attorney looked at her as she spoke – and swooned. Her knees buckled and she was headed for the floor again when the deputy caught her by the shoulders and held her up, easily supporting the smaller woman’s weight as she guided her to a bench. People were swarming all around them, but somehow the noisy hallway became eerily quiet for Charlotte Browning as she tried to focus again on the deputy’s face, the sound of her voice.

“Stay here. I’ll get you some water,” the deputy offered, but Charlotte grabbed her by the forearm and refused to let go. She didn’t understand why, but she didn’t want to be left alone, couldn’t stand the sight of this woman’s retreating back. “No. No, I’m fine, honest. Just… just sit with me for a minute while I get my bearings,” Charlotte requested.

The deputy nodded and sat quietly as the young woman looked her over, seeming to find some reassurance in her presence. Her arm was still firmly locked in the attorney’s grasp, and was starting to get a little numb, but she did not try to withdraw. There was something oddly familiar and easy about silently comforting this woman, something she could not put her finger on.

The lawyer’s drawn face and sea-green eyes still held a trace of fear, but her breathing had steadied. She continued to stare at the deputy as if she were trying to convince herself she was real, that she was here, now. *She’s fine, she’s okay, she’s here,* Charlotte thought, then blinked rapidly at the unbidden sentiment. *That’s strange. I’m the one who had a gun stuck in my face, and I’m relieved that some stranger is okay? I’m cracking up.*

The deputy finally spoke up. “You, ah, you keep staring at me. Do I have something stuck in my teeth, or what?” she asked with a bright smile. Charlotte flushed instantly and looked away. “No. You just seem… familiar, that’s all. Like I recognize you, only I know we’ve never met. I would have remembered,” Charlotte explained, “You look very… distinctive,” she paused to look at her name tag, “Deputy Starrett.” *Her eyes, I know those eyes from somewhere…*

Those eyes flashed and widened as Starrett asked, “Distinctive – should I take that as a compliment?”

Charlotte’s face relaxed a little. “As you like, Deputy Starrett. Right now, though, I think the most beautiful sight in the world would be a lit cigarette,” she sighed. As if on cue, the deputy produced a pack of Marlboros and a sleek silver lighter. She withdrew two, placed them both in her mouth, and ignited the tips with the crimson jet from the lighter. She handed one to Charlotte and took a deep drag off the other. Charlotte accepted with a smile and a nod of understanding, not even glancing at the ‘NO SMOKING’ plaque mounted over their bench. *Let ‘em arrest us,* she thought, once again caught up in the bizarre sense of ease and permissiveness she now felt. Maybe it was due to staring death in the face only minutes before, but somehow she felt it had more to do with her present company, like everything would be all right as long as she was around.

“I’m lucky to have been rescued by someone who smokes, I guess,” Charlotte mumbled, her lips firmly wrapped around the filter.

“Actually, I don’t usually carry cigarettes with me. I only allow myself two a day, and this makes two.”

“You must have amazing will-power. It’s all or nothing with me. I’ll probably go out and buy a carton now that I’ve had a taste.” Charlotte shook her head and the deputy smiled in sympathy.

The young attorney then cringed visibly as she saw Falcon break away from the pack of reporters and head back toward her, relaxing only when he passed without spotting her through the throng of people surrounding him. As his posse made its way to the exit, she thought she saw one of Falcon’s men – the young one who had stepped forward to talk to the old man – wink in her direction. A glance at Deputy Starrett revealed a return wink, and she realized that they must know each other somehow, but were not going to speak to each other. “You know him?” she asked, surprising herself with her sudden question.

“Not really. He flirts with all the women every time he comes in here, though. Ladies man, I guess,” answered Starrett with a non-committal shrug. Charlotte could not remember that particular guy flirting with anybody in all the weeks she had worked around Falcon- and his crew was a veritable testosterone factory. Before she could comment further, a U.S. Marshal and a very fat man whose badge read ‘Chief Deputy’ walked up to Starrett and asked her to come along and give them her version of events. Charlotte grudgingly released her arm, frowning as Starrett got up to leave. *She’s leaving. SHE’S LEAVING! SAY SOMETHING, IDIOT!*

“Hey, Deputy Starrett!” she called. Starrett turned and motioned for her supervisor to give her a minute. She walked back toward the smiling Charlotte Browning, suddenly realizing that her own face mirrored the young attorney’s expression. *What the hell is going on with me?* she wondered, shaking her dark head and loosening a thick strand from the tight bun which held it aloft. “Yes?” She tried not to sound too hopeful, aware now that she was actually hoping for something.

“My firm had planned kind of a victory dinner thing tonight…” her courage waned slightly and her voice trailed off. “I don’t know if you’d be interested… Have you ever been to Treus?”

“Yeah. A couple times,” she lied, tucking away the errant strand of hair.

“Oh, good. It’s my boss’s favorite place.” Charlotte looked lost again.

“And?” Starrett prompted, smiling encouragingly.

“And… I was wondering if you might drop by for a drink. It’s the least I can offer you, seeing as you… saved my life and all that,” Charlotte said, relieved that she had at least given it a shot, ready to be assured that it was all in a day’s work, that no thanks were required.

“When?” Starrett asked bluntly.

“Umm… it’s tonight at nine. Treus on tenth street.”

“I have a few things to do tonight, so I won’t promise anything, but I’ll try to make it.”

“Oh. That’s… that’s great, deputy. I look forward to seeing you there.” Charlotte was virtually beaming, then she remembered that somewhere along the line, formal introductions had been overlooked. They had seemed almost unnecessary. “Geez, where is my head? My name is…”

“Charlotte Browning. I know,” the blue-eyed woman said. “And please, call me Diana.”

“Okay, Diana,” Charlotte extended her hand, “I hope you can make it.” *Diana Starrett. Nice name. But it wasn’t what I expected, somehow.*

Diana took Charlotte’s hand and held it more that shook it, hanging on for a few ticks longer than conventionality dictated was appropriate. She looked back at her supervisor and released the attorney’s small hand, smiling. “It’s time,” she said simply, and walked away, leaving Charlotte to work her way through the throng of reporters which descended on her scant seconds later.
Three
Marco Falcon’s estate lay just outside of Elceda proper, about halfway between San Diego and Chula Vista. Isolated but accessible, the property was dotted with pine trees and a stray palm or ten, plenty of live oaks filling in the empty spaces. Iron gates down on Parsonage Drive (an irony Diana still giggled over) opened onto a long, winding gravel road which led past cracked tennis courts, a rotting picnic area, and a slimy green fountain complete with an eternally upchucking, buck-naked Cupid. The house itself was a massive three-story affair of dusky-colored stucco and Spanish-style tile roofing. Diana had never been inside, but she had studied the blueprints and memorized the layout shortly after being assigned to Falcon. She could probably find her way around the rambling house in the dark – without the night-vision glasses – but for now, she had to make-do with listening.

Parked on Parsonage, a few blocks down from Falcon’s gate, Diana sat in her black Jeep and watched the sun slide behind a bougainvillea-covered hill. She tucked in the tiny ear-piece as Falcon returned to the conference room and resumed talking. His voice was only slightly tinny, and Diana checked the recording unit again, making sure his levels were adequate for a clear master. Falcon’s volume level suddenly jumped sky high as he started yelling at one of his associates.

“You stupid fuck! You think I’d be talking if I hadn’t had this whole place swept for bugs? You think I’M stupid, cabron?” There was no answer. Diana assumed the doubter had been properly cowed. “My man Eladio checked this place himself!” She could hear Falcon cross the room, then fabric rustling as Eladio was pulled into an embrace. “This man saved my life today. He distracted that crazy old fuck while that puta police snuck up on him! Brave man, Eladio. You got promise.” As she listened to Falcon walk away, Diana mouthed the word ‘puta,’ aware of the negative connotations the term held, wondering what she had done (other than saving the rat bastard’s life) that merited such an epithet. “Sorry, Di,” a low voice whispered in her ear. Eladio. “If it matters, I still love you – even if you’re a puta.”

She laughed first, muttering “Bite me, junior,” then wished again that the young agent didn’t play so fast and loose with his life. But sometimes, his timing was impeccable. This morning at the courthouse, he stepped up to the gunman only a beat after she cleared the crowd, as if they were on the same wavelength. She knew that he had done it to protect Marco Falcon – because until they were done with him, keeping him alive was priority number one – but Diana was now inordinately relieved that no harm had come to Falcon’s attorney.

*Charlotte Browning,* she mused silently, *Nice name, it just doesn’t seem to fit her somehow.* As Falcon rambled on, complaining now about the neglect of his pet birds while he was held in prison without bond, Diana continued to reflect on those few moments spent in the young woman’s company. A stray memory of her eyes, which changed from a misty blue to a deep green, depending on how the light hit them. *What’s that called? Hazel. Nice eyes.* Her blond hair glinting with red highlights, the way she seemed so instantly friendly. *The way she kept smiling at you, moron. The way she grabbed onto your arm like you were pulling her from a riptide. Think about that if you want a distraction – which you don’t,* her inner voice reprimanded. *You have a job to do. Do it and get the hell out of town before it’s too late.*

“Now, about our guests,” Falcon said, finally kicking it into gear, “I want to speak with their representatives this weekend, maybe Sunday evening, and we’ll decide whether to continue providing accommodations for such… demanding tenants.”

“But Marco, we had agreed that after six months, we would be done with the hotel business!” objected one of Falcon’s lieutenants. Diana pegged the speaker as the stumpy, sweaty one named Virgilio. “You said yourself that our guests were more trouble than they are worth!”

“That was then, Virgilio. This is now, and I have good reason to believe that it could be worth our while to abide their presence a while longer,” Falcon said reasonably. Then his tone changed suddenly and he was all menace. “And Virgilio? If you ever throw my own words at me again, I’ll cut your tongue out myself and feed it to you. Comprende?”

“Yes, Marco. I apologize,” the man answered soberly.

“Good. Now call up our contacts and tell them that the lease is up Monday morning, so either they pay up for another term, or we evict the tenants. We can meet here Sunday evening and discuss it. Hell, I’ll make it a party to celebrate my release! Mami would like that,” Falcon declared, storming out of the room to check on his beloved pets.

Diana had what she needed, so she shut off the surveillance equipment and started the Jeep, deciding to make her report from further down the road. She retrieved the encoding transmitter and the cell phone and started the procedure as she parked along Branch Street. As she entered her codes and bided her time humming along to the wretched strains of Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” Diana realized that she was two streets over from the home of the late Edmund Salmon. She closed her eyes against a brief flash of the tiny boy standing silhouetted in the bedroom doorway. Sounds closed in from all around her – suburban kids playing late pick-up games in driveways, chasing dogs across manicured lawns, and making the most of the remaining dusk. Then she thought of a small boy whose life she had irrevocably altered less than eighteen hours before. Clicks and beeps jolted her back to life as the line cleared and Harry Mars demanded a report.

“Sunday night, he’s having a party, the reps will be there. He’ll make his decision then, and we should have their locations by Monday morning,” Diana droned.

“Good news. So our boy’s still in the greaseball’s good graces?” Harry inquired.

“Oh, yeah, just call him ‘golden boy.’ He’s a hero and I’m a puta. You see the news?”

“Yesss. You look good in gray, Di. Maybe I’ll petition the committee to issue uniforms next quarter.”

“Do it and you’re dead, Mars. Stupid outfit itches like a sonofabitch. Is that all you need for now?” she sighed.

“If that’s all you got. Pull out your Merc unit and transmit the verbatim. I wanna read it tonight.”

“Right after I hang up, Harry. Then I gotta get moving.”

“Why? You got a date or something?” Mars laughed.

“As a matter of fact, I think I do. So either wish me luck or kiss my ass.”

“Bend ov…” Diana clicked off before Mars could finish. She used the same secure connection to send the recorded version of events to his eager terminal via the small encoding box/transmitter which was affectionately known as a Mercury unit – because it was currently the fastest messenger in existence. A few minutes later, she was cruising slowly by the Salmon home. Why, she didn’t really know. Just some strange compulsion to return to the scene of the crime, she guessed.

*No wreath on the door. No car in the drive. No lights burning inside. Maybe they went back to her mother’s place. Guess she left the arrangements to someone else.* she concluded, not wanting to entertain any theories of a more sinister bent. Turning around in the asphalt bulb at the end of the cul-de-sac, Diana flipped on her headlights and headed back to town, anticipating the rest of the evening and softly singing a favorite song from her childhood to ward off any more bad thoughts.

“Miss Lu Lu had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell, the steamboat went to heaven and Miss Lu Lu went to helllll-o operator, give me number nine…”
Four
“So Quentin saunters right up to Madame Justice Pamela Rundberg, runs a manicured finger down her starched lapel and says, ‘Pammy, sex is only dirty when it’s done right,'” Charlotte finished, her latest account of the adventures of their beloved senior partner lighting up the faces of her co-workers. The young woman gave them a dazzling smile, basking in the laughter and smiles being rained on her by associates and partners alike. Tonight, she was not merely the premier raconteur among her peers, she was a hero who had obtained vindication for her entire cohort by slaying the prosecutorial dragon named Roger Van Susterin. While she was secretly bursting with pride, she bore their congratulations with characteristic good grace while draining her third vodka gimlet.

One thing about the law firm of Quentin & Berkhoff which caused it to differ drastically from other august legal establishments was the way victory equalized everyone in a kind of narcissistic solidarity, a collective ‘Hooray for us!’ kind of fervor. Every time one of their attorneys won a big case, the entire office celebrated as one, transforming the victory dinners into a shark Utopia where they joyfully feasted on the humiliation of their opponents while sharing food, wine, and tall tales. Charlotte was totally in her element, and grateful to be there. The firm cultivated not only her innate competitive instincts, but her talent and affinity for holding court no matter where she went. She could disassemble a hackneyed old anecdote and re-weave it into a vibrant, picturesque event which made all who heard it feel as if they’d been there.

In the crowded dining room at Treus, the swanky restaurant favored by Quentin Carver and his gang of miscreants, Charlotte stood out like a bleeding ray of sunlight. Her russet silk suit, accented with small bright flashes of gold jewelry, set off the prominent red highlights in her fair hair, and lent additional color to her full crimson mouth. White, even teeth gleamed in a pained smile as she absorbed the ribbing of her colleagues over her brush with danger this morning. The comments ranged from a candid appraisal of her TVQ rating following the crush of interviews she granted, to a somewhat off-color remark about the nature of her relationship with Falcon. Far from being a wilting flower, Charlotte turned up the heat until her tormentor begged for mercy and another glass of wine to balm his bruised ego.

Even in the midst of all the noise generated by her table and the multitude of other diners, the room suddenly went silent as Charlotte caught sight of Diana Starrett picking her way through the restaurant, headed for the bar. She moved with a grace which belied her stature, like she was walking through warm salt water. Watching her, the young attorney had to remind herself to breathe. “Excuse me, everyone. I think I see someone I recognize,” Charlotte said as she hastily departed, making a beeline to the refreshment counter. A flurry of questioning glances followed her until she rounded the corner and was out of sight. Charlotte was usually firmly entrenched at the table until Quentin Carver arrived, but tonight of all nights, she abandons her post? It didn’t make sense.

Upon entering the restaurant, Diana did a quick survey of the layout, marking exits, vulnerable positions, and most importantly, restrooms. The truth was that she had never set foot in Treus before, but she had lied to Charlotte on reflex, making it easier for the young woman to ask what she needed to ask without additional worry. Treus was rather decadent for a middling southern California suburb, but the small population was more than made up for by the per-capita income of Elceda residents. Such folks would need a haven like this place, brimming with leather, oak, brass, and tasteful art.

While leaning her tall frame against the end of the bar, Diana’s sharp peripheral vision spied Charlotte approaching, and unconsciously, she found herself striking a pose. She wore a slate blue skirt, very short, and a matching suit jacket with a satin and lace camisole underneath. While dressing earlier, she had not even considered going demure. Something within her wanted to impress this woman, not just with her strength or timely intervention in times of crisis, but with her more aesthetic qualities, which were numerous. Sensing that she was being watched, she flexed onto the balls of her feet, throwing her toned calves into high relief. She smiled as the movement behind her stopped, and turned her head just in time to catch a glimpse of Charlotte Browning staring at her legs.

“Hope I’m not too late for that drink, Ms. Browning,” she said evenly, letting her voice jolt the younger woman back into motion.

“No, your timing is perfect. Conversation among my colleagues is approaching the ‘obnoxious to unbearable’ level about now, so you have unwittingly rescued me again, deputy,” Charlotte replied, effectively masking her concern that she had been caught leering at those unbelievably long legs. *What the hell is wrong with me? This is a woman, for God’s sake! Keep your head, Charlie.*

“So, what’s your poison, counselor?” the barkeep queried in a gravelly voice, as the two women settled into tall chairs discretely bolted to the brass railing.

“Whiskey sour, Jeeves,” Charlotte responded with a teasing grin.

He tapped his enamel name tag, which clearly read ‘Harvey,’ and turned to Diana.”And you, miss?”

“Glenlivet, neat.” Harvey set off to fill their orders, and Diana laughed softly over some private joke.

“What’s so funny, deputy?” Charlotte asked, her light brows furrowed in question.

“Nothing. Just that if someone had pointed you out and asked what you drink, I would never have guessed what you just ordered.”

“And why not? I don’t look like I can handle it?” Her voice was thick with sarcasm and mounting indignation. “What would you have guessed, oh skilled investigator?”

“Don’t get upset, but I wouldn’t have thought you were old enough to drink, period. But, if pressed, I would have said something quick and deadly. Maybe a vodka-based molotov… something like that.”

A sheepish grin broke across Charlotte Browning’s face as she realized she had been pegged. “How old do you think I am, deputy?”

“Diana. Call me Diana. And you look like you’re on the green side of your twenties, so I’ll say twenty-five,” she ventured, blue eyes twinkling with mischief. She had read the file on this woman as soon as she signed on to represent Marco Falcon, so unless the attorney saw fit to lie, there would be few surprises here tonight.

“Bingo! How did you guess that? Most folks overshoot by at least two years, trying to compensate for my diminutive stature, I think,” the blonde offered amiably.

*They probably don’t know that you skipped a year in high school, and graduated from Berkeley at twenty, though, do they?* “I’ll grant that you look young enough to crash a student council meeting,” Diana explained, “but I’ve heard enough about you to know that looks can be deceiving in your case, Ms. Browning.”

“Hey, if I’m gonna call you Diana, you gotta call me something other than Mizz Browning – makes me sound like a math teacher,” Charlotte insisted. Harvey arrived with their drinks, and she downed half of hers as Diana watched in amazement. “So. My friends call me Charlie, and I’d feel better if you did, too. Now, just what have you heard about me, anyway?”

*Charlie BROWNing? Nonono, that’s too silly. Don’t mention it.* “I have heard that you are an up and coming attorney with Quentin & Berkhoff, that you can rip apart an unworthy civil suit with your bare teeth, and that you got your first taste of blood in the criminal waters this morning. You’re a dangerous woman, Charlie,” she said, her voice dropping an octave to accentuate implied menace at those last words.

Charlotte lifted her drink and toasted herself. “Damn right. I can wield a tort like a baseball bat, baby, and don’t you forget it! SMACK! Cheers to me!”

“Cheers to you.” Diana grinned and clinked her heavy crystal glass -still containing most of her scotch- against Charlotte’s nearly empty one. *Baseball bat, huh? Not a MAC-10, or even a sword. Blunt instrument for pummeling. Seems appropriate. You’re willing to fight, but you’re not a killer. And I don’t even want to know why I’m so sure of that.*

Conversation meandered between the two like a stream running though a meadow, nourishing growth on both sides. Somewhere during her second drink, Diana let herself sink into deep focus on Charlotte, laughing at all of her stories and jokes, musing over her perceptive comments. The relatively puny amount of alcohol consumed allowed her to overcome the need to distance herself from her feelings, and she let herself be charmed by the chatty young woman. Charlotte needed no such chemical enhancement to let herself open up -although she was two-and-a-half sheets to the wind already- she had known that she could trust Diana since first laying eyes on her this morning. So engrossed in the minutiae of each other’s life stories (both genuine and fabricated) were they, that Diana only noticed the distinguished gray-haired gentleman approaching them after he cleared his throat to garner attention. Diana recognized the dapper, handsome fellow immediately and pointed him out to her companion.

“Quentin!” Charlotte cried happily, nearly leaping out of her chair, “You made it! I won today, ya know.” Her words were just now beginning to soften and slur.

“So I’ve been told, Charlie, so I’ve been told,” Quentin said, embracing the young woman. His eyes twinkled and he was obviously very proud of his protégé. “Now tell me the truth. You actually enjoyed sticking it to old Van Susterin, didn’t you?”

“Abso-freakin-lutely! You were so right about that; there is nothing quite like whipping up on your teachers to make you feel invincible.” Charlotte’s face lost a little of it’s glow then, as she recalled what happened afterwards. “No matter how temporary those feelings may be. I guess you know about the other part too, huh?”

Renewing his hold on her, Quentin whispered, “Yes, I saw your performance on the evening news. I’m just glad you’re alright, child.”

Squeezing him a final time and stepping back, Charlotte waved her hand to direct her boss’s attention to the tall woman still seated at the bar, watching with interest. “Thanks to Deputy Starrett, here. She’s more skilled with a pencil than our entire accounting department. Diana, this is Quentin Carver, my boss and default father-figure.”

Diana met Carver halfway, and took his hand in greeting. “Pleasure.”

Carver lifted an eyebrow appraisingly, and smiled. Although not a full-time lover of women, he still liked what he saw and made no secret of it. “A woman of few words, I take it. No matter. Such beauteous acts of heroism speak volumes about your character. You have my eternal gratitude for assisting this young lady in her hour of need. If you should ever need an attorney…”

“She’ll call me, sir,” Charlotte interjected, stepping between the two and steering Carver away. “Don’t you have a party to host, old man?” she whispered when she thought they were out of earshot.

“As a matter of fact, I do. And since the guest of honor is occupied with other pursuits,” he nodded toward Diana, ” I shall essay to divert attention from her absence by making an absolute ass of myself.”

“Thanks, Quent, I appreciate the tremendous effort that will require. I just felt like I owed her something, even if it’s just a drink or two. Or seven. She saved my life, you know,” Charlotte said happily, weaving a little as she walked Carver toward the dining room.

“So you’ve told me. And everyone else with a television set. Too bad she wouldn’t do an interview; that glimpse of her the cameras managed to catch hardly did her justice. She’s quite lovely. Great gams, too” he declared with a comical leer. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Charlie.”

“You lecherous old goat! We’re having a friendly drink, that’s all. I just like her, okay? I’m not ready to start chasing around after anybody yet.”

“Honey, you’ve been divorced for over a year, now! You’ve gotta climb back on the horse sometime, and she looks like just the filly to give you a good run,” Carver suggested. “Besides, it’s almost midnight. One of you might turn into a pumpkin or some such nonsense if you don’t get a move on.”

“I think you should let me worry about that and get out of here – before I forget how much I like you,” she deflected, gently shoving at his back.

Carver allowed Charlotte to push him into the dining room, an act witnessed by all at their table. He turned and wagged a finger at her, then blew her a kiss as he turned away. Charlotte’s glare lost a little wattage at the gesture, and she returned to the bar on unsteady legs. Seeing Diana Starrett standing at the bar made her wonder if maybe Quentin was right about trying again. *But it’s more than that, Charlie, don’t kid yourself. And whatever you do, don’t jump the gun and blow this.*

“I should be going,” Diana began, “I’ve kept you away from your victory celebration, and I know your boss probably resents that.”

“No, no, no. You couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, he told me I should…” *IDIOT! Shut-up right this instant!*

“He told you that you should what?”

Charlotte thought quickly, no mean feat with the alcohol fog shrouding her good sense. “Quent said I should go home and get some rest. I’ve been working non-stop on Falcon’s case for weeks.” *That was good. Stick with the truth, kind of.* “Weird how all that work went into a hopeless case that turned around overnight because Salmon had an aneurysm. Huh. Just shows that you never can tell.”

Diana grimaced slightly at the mention of Salmon’s name. “Yeah. You never can tell. So, you gonna get a ride home with one of your work pals?”

“Naahh. I have my car. I can drive myself,” Charlotte said, having forgotten what Diana did for a living.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Charlie.”

Charlotte looked hopeful. “And why not?”

“You, Miss Browning are quite drunk. I’d have to arrest you,” Diana explained in a firm, official tone.

“Oh. Well, my friends in there are all at least as inebriated as I am, so I guess I’ll call a cab.” She tried not to sound crestfallen.

The taller woman frowned as if contemplating something dangerous. “I suppose I could drive you home. Where do you live?”

Charlotte blinked a couple of times before answering. “The Meadows, off Vega Avenue.”

Diana gathered her things and went to retrieve Charlotte’s coat while the attorney hastily paid the check. Harvey noticed her hands were shaking, and reached out to calm her.

“Don’t sweat it, kid. She likes you. Couldn’t keep her eyes off you all night.”

Blushing furiously, the words were out of Charlotte’s mouth before she knew what they meant. “That can be misunderstood. I can’t push her this time.” Then she turned and left the restaurant with careful steps, not wanting to stumble when she was this close to going home.
Five – Saturday
“This is a nice car, Diana. It suits you.” Charlotte had her window open, trying to inhale every molecule of the cool night air, hoping the fresh air would ease her building nausea.

“Thanks. You sure you feel alright? You look kinda green around the gills there, counselor.”

“I’ll be okay. I think that calimari I had for dinner is trying to swim ashore, though,” she explained. Smirking, Diana reasoned that with all the liquor the small woman had chased the creature down with, he should be too pickled to put up a fight. Charlotte tried to laugh, but that only made her stomach rumble ominously. She fidgeted a little, unsure of what to say, and not wanting the evening to end so soon. Diana drove through the streets of Elceda like she was racing against the clock, cutting through gas stations, taking shortcuts and speeding the entire time. Charlotte started to get the feeling that the deputy couldn’t wait to be rid of her company. “Do you always drive like this?”

Diana stifled a laugh. “No, I’m calm tonight. Sometimes I actually go kinda fast.”

Charlotte lifted both brows and shook her head. Diana careened around another corner and they found themselves at the gate of The Meadows – A Planned Community For Young Professionals. A guard stepped up to Diana’s window and eyed her warily as she lowered the glass.

“Hi, Teddy,” Charlotte called, “It’s just me.”

“Good evening, Miss Browning. I’ll buzz you in.” He squared his shoulders and looked Diana over, then turned a proprietary eye to Charlie. “Will your friend be returning?”

Charlotte started to say yes, but Diana surprised her by leaning toward the burly security guard and saying in a low voice, “Just open the gate, Teddy. Now.”

Looking not a little surprised, the guard backed away and hit his little red button, and Diana left rubber on the asphalt as she tore through the gate. Charlotte had already told her which house was hers, so she wasted no time getting there. Just as she pulled into the driveway of Charlotte’s white split-level home, the attorney started breathing erratically and looking panicked. Diana got out and raced around to the passenger side, flinging open the door and easing Charlotte out of the Jeep mere seconds before the young woman lost her struggle with the nausea – and spewed her squid friends all over the front of Diana’s suit before passing out cold.

The tall woman sighed resignedly, removed her jacket and folded it before tossing it into the Jeep, and scooped the little blonde up in her arms. She had known this was coming. “At least we got here in time to spare the upholstery.” She took Charlotte’s keys from her purse and shifted her body around to get to the locks. Once inside, the shrill beeping of a burglar alarm prompted a stream of curses from Diana. She settled the unconscious woman on the foyer carpet and set out to disable the cheap, consumer grade sentry. Popping open the control panel, she pulled out two wires, stripped them with her teeth, and twisted them together. The alarm stopped beeping. A glance to the foyer revealed that Charlotte Browning was dead to the world, curled up on the carpet and snoozing away.

“Shit. Wish I could sleep like that.” Diana returned to Charlotte’s side and lifted her again, surprised at how trustingly the young woman curled into her arms. She took her to the bedroom and gently deposited her on the coverlet. Charlotte’s lovely, expensive suit had suffered no damage in the squid attack, but her face was speckled with remnants of the accident. After removing Charlotte’s pricey suede pumps, Diana eased off her suit jacket and skirt, and after a small internal debate, her stockings and slip. Allowing herself only a moment to look, she absorbed the pleasant sight of the lithe form with its small, sculpted muscles and soft curves. Charlotte Browning was a beautiful woman. She then took the afghan from the foot of the bed and covered the sleeping young woman.

Diana found the bathroom and soaked a washcloth in warm water, then returned to the bed and settled alongside the sleeping woman. She eased the soft cloth over her cheeks, chin, and mouth, cleaning her skin with a gentleness of which she would not have believed she was capable. Diana was not known as an affectionate or gentle woman. Her personality was usually described as “aloof” or “high-strung,” but here, with this trusting young woman who was virtually a stranger, she felt ferociously tender, protective. She put the washcloth on the night stand and lay on her side, facing Charlotte, and watched her sleep.

*You should go home now. She’s gonna have a massive hangover tomorrow, but she’ll live. You, on the other hand, have to concentrate on your job. Find out where Falcon has his safe houses, bust the tenants and hand them over to the U.N., and go on your merry way. You can’t afford to get attached to this girl. What if she knows more than the reports indicate? What if she’s involved with Falcon’s business? What if she’s involved with Falcon?*

Diana then reminded herself that her mind spun paranoid theories like spiders spin webs – this was nothing new. She looked at the cherubic face of the woman next to her, and she dismissed that possibility out of hand. *You saw the way she reacted to him. She can’t fucking stand him – and she only took the case because Quentin Carver handed it to her on a silver platter. Something to cut her teeth on. She’s not one of them, Di. She’s an innocent lawyer.* Diana snorted out a laugh at that oxymoron, then covered her mouth as Charlie stirred a little, her hair falling across her face.

Unable to stop herself, Diana reached out and brushed the golden strands back into place. She did, however resist the mounting urge to place a small kiss on her smooth forehead, concerned where that might lead. The last thing she wanted to do was abuse this woman’s trust. She felt a sudden, powerful surge of guilt which constricted her throat at the very thought of hurting this woman. Diana swallowed hard and rose from the bed, then padded into the bathroom and drank from the faucet until the lump in her throat washed away. She then sighed in surrender, unable to leave Charlotte alone just yet, and slipped off her skirt and climbed onto the bed. She did concede to her conscience that she should stay above the covers. Minutes later, Diana was asleep.

——————————————————————————–

In the dream, she was drowning. No longer able to breathe the thick, crimson liquid she was immersed in, she choked and gagged in painful spasms as her lungs filled nearly to bursting. She couldn’t find the surface, didn’t know which way was up anymore. She struggled and twisted, throwing her body this way and that, to no avail. Diana resigned herself to drowning in the red sea, into which she dove all those years ago. Her last thoughts were of that difficult choice made by a nineteen year-old girl, whether to face a trial for her crimes or sell her soul to Harry Mars and the shadowy figures watching from above. She remembered begging to see her mother again, wanting to apologize for causing that woman such pain and heartache, only to have Harry shake his head somberly. If she accepted, Mars would clear her record and arrange for her “death.” Her mother would be bereft of children then, but would not have to live with the shame of her daughter’s crimes, would believe that Diana was innocent. Maybe she would even forgive her…

Diana’s body began to shut down, and she lost consciousness. She couldn’t tell how much time had passed when she woke up, lying on a beach with the sun warming her skin. Her clothing was unlike anything she had ever seen, strange and archaic. A calfskin battle dress with ornate brass armor girded her body, her feet booted in soft leather. Diana then realized that she was not alone, that her head rested in the lap of someone obscured by the sun, only visible in silhouette. The person leaned down and pressed soft lips against Diana’s own, and salty tears dropped onto her face. Small hands stroked her hair, her cheek, her throat.

“You’re here, you’re okay! Oh, thank the gods! Please say something… please talk to me,” the person – a young woman – pleaded. Her voice was familiar, as was her scent – and her touch. She leaned in for another kiss, but Diana pulled away. She rolled aside and got to her feet, then reeled from a sudden head rush. The woman moved to her and wrapped her arms around Diana’s waist, pulling her close.

“I thought I’d lost you again. But you came back to me… you came back,” she breathed the words more than spoke them, warm tones against Diana’s chest. Pushing the girl away again, Diana found herself looking into familiar eyes, green now against the backdrop of the sea. Bright hair shining with more red than before. A name was forming on her lips… then she noticed the blood.

The woman wore a small green halter and a brown skirt, both of which were covered in blood. Abdomen, arms, chest and face… all smeared with red. Diana looked at herself again and saw that she was completely soaked in viscera; it was caked in her hair, dripping from her limbs and pooling in her boots. She felt sick, and tried to scream, but the younger woman again launched herself forward and embraced her with strong arms. Diana had to squirm and fight to get free, then she pushed the girl down onto the sand and spoke to her in a pained voice that was not her own.

“No, Gabrielle. Stay away from me… you should have let me drown.” With those words, she turned away from the crumpled figure and ran toward the sea, only to be tackled as soon as she reached the surf. She felt herself being turned onto her back by the surprising strength of the young redhead, then the girl straddled her hips… and began to scoop up handfuls of clean sea water and wash away the blood. Diana felt the resistance fade from her body and mind as gentle, patient hands ministered to her stained garments, flesh, and soul. She arched back into the tide, ducking below the water to cleanse her head, and she surfaced to see the face of love.

——————————————————————————–

Charlotte woke with a bitter, acrid taste in her mouth and a dizzy pounding in her head. She blindly rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, gulping down two aspirin with a glass of water. She fumbled with her toothbrush and paste until the awful taste was gone, then rinsed her mouth and looked in the mirror. Only then did she notice that she was clad in just her brassiere and panties, only then did she turn her bleary eyes back to her bed. *She’s still here. She stayed with me…* Charlie thought. *Might be nothing but pity for a sick woman – but I’ll take it.*
Moving quietly, Charlotte returned to her bedroom and stood looking at the long, lean form stretched out on her bed. Wearing only her slip, Diana lay still and silent above the covers. Visible by the moonbeams streaming through the skylight, her limbs seemed to glow as if lit from within, her face incandescent. Charlotte trailed her eyes from curled toes to sinewy thighs, from the swell of a hip to the fine delineation of a shoulder, resting briefly on various parts in between. Diana Starrett was a beautiful woman.

Carefully climbing back into bed, Charlotte pulled the afghan over the both of them and impulsively draped her arm across Diana’s waist. A few minutes passed, and she was nearly asleep again when Diana suddenly jerked away from her grasp and started thrashing about wildly. Charlotte saw that the woman was still asleep, and realized that she was having a doozy of a nightmare. She reached out once, then twice, only to have Diana twist away from her. She started murmuring soothing words, hoping to calm her down. Diana seemed to react to the sound of her voice and stopped fighting, allowing Charlotte to hold her. Then the tall woman inhaled deeply and suddenly, releasing the long breath in a word repeated over and over as she settled down.

“Gabrielle…Gabrielle… Gabrielle…”

Charlotte knitted her pale brows, wondering vaguely who this ‘Gabrielle’ person could be, then she moved a little closer and renewed her hold on Diana’s waist. She leaned close and whispered, “Shhh. It’s okay, everything’s okay… just a bad dream.” Diana shifted position, rolling onto her side and easing a long arm around Charlotte’s body, pulling her in tight. Charlie found her face now firmly wedged between the pillow and a sheaf of silky black hair, which smelled so good she could hardly summon the will to move. When she did try to ease herself back, Diana moved again as well – this time sliding one leg over the young attorney’s thigh and pressing their hips together. Charlotte nearly passed out again.

*Jesus H. Christ! I’m trying to be good, here! Someone up there must really have it in for me,* she thought. Charlotte gently tried to extricate herself from the sleeping woman’s embrace, only to have Diana draw her even closer, pressing against her chest, breasts separated then only by thin layers of satin and lace. Charlotte felt a warmth blossom in her loins as her breathing became a bit labored. A low vibration began to resonate in her body, like the soft thump and strum of distant bass, and a voice in her head advised *This is right, so right. Don’t be scared, just go with it.*

Still sleeping, Diana moved her hand to Charlotte’s face, caressing her cheek. She brought her mouth to the young woman’s trembling lips and whispered, “I’m sorry, Gabrielle, so sorry…” Then with infinite tenderness, she kissed her, moving across her lips with slow, practiced movements. The strong leg draped over her body tightened and again her pelvis was tucked against Diana’s. She had no time to adjust to the rush of heat coursing through her before her lips were nudged apart and Diana deepened the kiss, filling her mouth with a sweet, wild, darting tongue. Charlotte was floating down a river of lava on a rubber raft, and she knew she didn’t have long before it burned away and dumped her into the fire. Her vaunted ethics made one last play for control…

*This isn’t right! She’s asleep, and dreaming about someone else on top of that! Think, Charlie; when she put you to bed, she could have done something then if she’d wanted to, which she obviously doesn’t – not with you. She didn’t even get under the goddamned blanket with you! It’s this ‘Gabrielle’ she thinks she’s with.* As her tongue continued to dance and tease inside the paralyzed young woman’s mouth, Diana’s hand slid away from Charlotte’s face and moved to her back, caressing in slow circles, then down her spine, tickling along the bones, and finally came to rest with a firm squeeze of her ass. That did it. Charlotte moaned out loud. Diana woke up. Her eyes flew open and she roughly pulled away from Charlotte as if shocked with a cattle prod, rolling off the bed and standing at a safe distance.

“Oh, shit! I’m sorry, Charlie. I didn’t mean to…” Diana looked like she wanted to curl up and die.

Charlotte held up a hand to dissuade the apology. “I know – you thought I was someone else. But what I did was worse.”

Diana ran a hand through her dark hair, a puzzled expression on her flushed face. “You didn’t do anything, you were asleep. This was my fault. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Well I know what got into me,” Charlie said bluntly. “You thought you were with someone else, and I let you. I was wide awake, Diana. I could have stopped you, but I chose not to.”

Out of a million possible questions, Diana asked the hardest one of all. “Why?”

Still glowing from the heat stoked inside her, the attorney gathered her considerable wits and answered with candor borne of passion. “Because I want you. Because when you touched me, it didn’t just feel good, it felt right. It didn’t even matter to me that you were calling me Gabrielle, I just didn’t want you to stop touching me.”

Diana’s mouth fell open as she took in those words, that invitation she knew she needed to hear in order to move forward. Her placid blue eyes warmed as she let them roam freely over Charlotte Browning, kneeling on the bed, wearing only her white satin unmentionables, a smear of lipstick, and a wanton smile. Letting her gaze linger on that strained brassiere, then drift down across firm abdominals to those sheer white panties, Diana realized that she may have figured out Victoria’s secret.

In spite of the joyous little flame now dancing in her eyes at the prospect of making love to this woman, regardless of the relief she felt knowing that she had not acted against Charlotte’s will, Diana’s suspicious mind picked out the one false note in the lawyer’s argument. “Charlie, I don’t know anyone named Gabrielle.”

Narrowing her eyes, the shrewd mind which lurked beneath the crown of golden hair shifted into gear. “So this woman that you were making love to was a figment of your imagination?”

“I guess. I don’t really remember my dreams. I can tell you for certain that I have never met anyone named Gabrielle, though,” Diana assured her, taking a step toward the bed. “All I remember is waking up wrapped around the most lovely woman I have ever seen, and being terrified that I was doing something that she didn’t want.”

Green eyes brightened anew, and Charlotte held out a beckoning hand. “You needn’t have worried about that. I think my hopes were aimed somewhere in this vicinity since I first saw you.”

Diana reached out to grasp the small hand and moved to the edge of the bed. “Are you telling me that you knew this could happen? With all the stuff that happened this morning, you had time to think about this even then?”

Pulling the object of her affection closer, Charlotte whispered cryptically, “No. It was long before then…” She tilted her face up to capture those full lips in a kiss, both women now fully aware of who they were with, and what they were doing. Inch by inch, savoring the anticipation of first contact, Diana lowered her mouth onto Charlotte’s, and though it may have been the first of a million kisses, it felt like coming home.
Six
Charlotte bent back onto her heels and grasped Diana’s shoulders, urging her to move in closer. Diana eased one knee onto the bed, her fingers tangled in long, golden hair, her lips still welded to Charlie’s from the heat of their first kiss – the first kiss that Diana administered while conscious, anyway. Agile tongues danced intricate steps in the warm space created between merged mouths, steps which were alternately quick and light, then slow and ponderous.

Charlotte’s mind reeled from the sheer sweetness and ease of their kisses. She had never known herself to move so rapidly, so confidently, and she vaguely suspected that this should have been harder, more enervating. Her ex-husband – a man she married in her third year of law school because she was too exhausted and lonely to realize that she didn’t actually love him – had called her frigid on more than one occasion. She never touched him in casual expressions of affection, and barely tolerated his fumbling, sloppy kisses when they made love. But this… this whole thing – asking a perfect stranger out for a drink, spending the entire evening talking her ear off, then vomiting on her (and passing out for God’s sake!), then finding herself miraculously in her arms, kissing her with not only passion, but abandon – this was more than she could have hoped for, and she was wordlessly, profoundly grateful.

As Diana brought her other leg up on the coverlet, she wrapped muscled arms around the young pliant body and pulled her in tight, her hips tucked against the attorney’s firm stomach. Charlotte marveled that she didn’t so much as flinch at the contact. A similar embrace from Marco Falcon made her crave a scalding shower, and she was struck by the realization that this didn’t feel like someone taking what they wanted from her – Diana was giving her what she wanted, what she needed. The kiss still unbroken, Diana slipped her hands from Charlotte’s hair, tracing burning paths down her neck, over her shoulders, and down her back, coming to rest over the hooks of her brassiere. Deft fingers opened the hooks and eased the straps down, and Charlotte grudgingly released her hold on Diana to work the garment free. Then the phone rang.

Eyes still closed, the younger woman pressed her full, bare breasts against Diana’s slip, rubbing her own jutting nipples over the soft satin and rough lace, sighing at the feel of responsive flesh rising beneath the fabric. The phone rang again. Diana’s long fingers curled around the firm swell of her buttocks and kneaded the fleshy orbs with strong hands. Another ring, and the irked lawyer finally realized that some idiot was actually calling her at the most inconvenient moment in the history of the world. “Machine’ll get it,” she mumbled into Diana’s open mouth, and she felt a nod in response. The whole damned world could hang, for all she cared. All she needed to live and breathe could be found in the harbor of Diana Starrett’s arms.

The tall woman finally, reluctantly broke off the marathon kiss and drew back, breathing heavily, eyes wide in disbelief at her inconceivably good luck. It had been far too long since she allowed herself to be intimate with anyone and even then, it had never been like this. Diana could feel these touches and kisses sinking deep into her being, sensations absorbed through her pores and coursing through her veins like the perfect drug.

She touched Charlotte’s cheek, stroking the smooth skin with a thumb to assure herself that she was real. In the silvery glow streaming in through the skylight, the younger woman’s full face and luminous eyes gave her a look of timeless beauty. The passion, affection and trust she found beamed at her from this woman’s very soul made her feel both treacherous and unworthy for the lies she had to tell, and infallible and immortal for awakening such feelings in the young woman. Surely, making someone this happy was an act with some redemptive value, no matter how small.

The phone rang for the fourth time, and the machine picked up. Charlotte’s voice echoed down the hall as her outgoing message played. Diana reached down for the hem of her slip and slowly began to pull it up. Charlotte’s eyes were tied to Diana’s hands by the silken threads of desire, and she hungrily took in each new sight as the garment lifted away from thighs and over hips to reveal a tantalizingly long, defined torso. Diana smiled in anticipation of Charlotte’s bare skin against her own, and she flipped the satiny fabric up over her head, ready to be rid of it altogether. Then she heard the tones sounding from the answering machine speaker, and she froze.

With the slip still wrapped around her head, she grimaced and listened closely for the sequence. 2 1 2 1, 911 911, 411 411. She recognized it immediately and began cursing furiously in her mind. *Fuck! Shit! Fuckshitsuckdammit! Why NOW? How the hell am I gonna explain leaving NOW?*

The code meant that the secondary agent, Eladio, needed to talk to the primary agent. He evidently had some emergency information, and needed to talk so urgently that he tracked her down at Charlotte Browning’s place and sent the code. A warm hand on her stomach shocked Diana out of her cursing fit, and she eased the slip back down over her body. Charlie looked understandably confused.

“Is something wrong? D-did you…” she stammered, visibly concerned now. “Have you changed your mind?”

The look of vulnerability and hurt on her lovely face nearly broke Diana’s heart, and she realized that she felt the same way about having to leave. “No way. I have most definitely not changed my mind. I’m just… concerned that we might be moving too fast. We only met this morning…”

“Yesterday morning. It’s Saturday.” Charlotte pointed at the bedside clock glowing 4:08 am.

“Whatever. You know what I mean, and I think you know what I’m getting at,” she retorted, studiously maintaining eye contact. To look elsewhere might weaken her resolve beyond repair.

“Diana, I do know what you’re getting at, but I think you’re wrong. This is as right as it gets,” Charlotte said, more sure of this than the curve of the world. She wrapped her arms around Diana’s waist and drew her close again. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this my whole life! You could have taken me right there in the hallway at the courthouse and it wouldn’t have been too soon!”

Laughing softly, Diana lighted a series of butterfly kisses all over Charlotte’s face, suddenly aware how bruised and slippery her lips were from their earlier, aggressive efforts. “What a scene that would have made for the six-o-clock news, huh? The long tongue of the law…” Diana licked at an ear, and the young woman giggled in relief.

“So you still want to…” she murmured.

“Oh, yeah. I still want to. But I meant what I said about needing to think.” Diana decided on a temporary retreat. “I’ll just drive around for a little while, clear my head. Then, I promise you, I will come back, and we’ll finish what we started. Wait for me?” She punctuated her plea with another nip of Charlotte’s earlobe.

Charlotte seemed to consider for a moment, startled to realize that she felt not at all rushed, like they had all the time in the world. The hard part was finding each other. “Mmmm. I can’t say I agree with your timing, but I can wait until you’re ready,” the attorney agreed amicably. “I should let you know though that I am ready enough for the both of us, so don’t dawdle.” She patted Diana’s rear, then released her grip around her waist. Diana found her skirt and looked around for her jacket, then she remembered where it was. The attorney noticed her scanning the room for something and ventured a guess.

“I spewed on your jacket, didn’t I?” Diana nodded, and Charlotte looked somewhat shamefaced. “I am so sorry about that.”

“Don’t be. If you hadn’t gotten sick, I’d probably have left right after dropping you off.”

“Well, then. Thank heaven for bad squid,” the lawyer said with a grin. “But you can’t go out in just your slip. What would Teddy think?”

“Teddy can blow me,” Diana said acidly. She remembered the way the guard looked at the younger woman as they came through the gate.

“Oh, come on. I’ll get you one of Richard’s shirts,” Charlotte offered, and headed for the dresser.

“Who’s Richard?” Diana knew, of course, but had to ask.

“Ex-husband. Divorced over a year ago. I kept some of his stuff in case I felt like having one of those Angela Bassett in ‘Waiting to Exhale’ bonfires,” she explained.

“Why didn’t you burn it, then?”

She thought for a moment, then handed Diana a San Diego Chargers sweatshirt. “Dunno, really. I never felt like it was worth the effort – kind of like the marriage, I guess. I just didn’t care enough to get mad.”

Diana said nothing, just pulled on the sweatshirt – which was a snug fit across her broad shoulders – and hugged Charlotte as tightly as she could without hurting her. Looking down at her, she realized for the first time how much taller she was than Charlotte, the difference exacerbated by the lawyer’s lack of footwear. Again she found herself feeling somewhat protective, then shook it off as being presumptuous and patronizing – she had an idea that this woman would resent those sentiments, that she could take care of herself. She turned to leave and realized that she was being followed. “Stay here, you need to get some sleep, while you have the chance,” Diana teased, twitching her eyebrows. “I’ll let myself out.”

Charlotte sighed and nodded in agreement, but forced Diana to agree to drive more carefully before releasing her from custody. Now that the adrenaline was fading away, she felt drained and exhausted, but she knew that she would be wide awake as soon as the doorbell rang and Diana returned. Hoping that the deputy wouldn’t take too much time, she fell onto the bed with a disappointed groan. The bedroom door closed and the woman who should be her lover by now was out of her sight. A slight pang hit her chest, and she rubbed the skin under her left breast lightly as she curled up under the afghan and sank into slumber.

In the hall, Diana stopped and erased the message from the machine, then let herself out the front door, re-locking it on the way. She felt strange coming out the front door of someone’s home in the dead of night, not having to be concerned with who might be watching, not scanning for obstacles or potential problems. It was an unfamiliar, free feeling which made her breathe a little more deeply as she made her way down Charlotte’s front walk, shoulders squared, moving easily.

She savored the residual peace for one more fleeting moment before mounting up and riding out to meet with Eladio. Diana rolled down the windows to air out the Jeep and tore out of the driveway, headed for their pre-designated meeting place. *The sooner I get there, the sooner I can get back.* This trip, she was not influenced by the rotten music intentionally selected by the screening service, so she sang a favorite Cole Porter tune while speeding like a maniac through the quiet streets of Elceda.

“I’ve got you under my skin, I’ve got you deep in the heart of me, so deep, you’re really a part of me, I’ve got you under my skin…”

——————————————————————————–

Dreaming came easily to Charlotte Browning, ever since she could remember. Her childhood was filled with vivid imaginings, nocturnal adventures, and comforting voices guiding her through the night. She could slay dragons, fight villains and save innocent lives with the best of them. As she grew up, she had occasional nightmares, mostly during difficult periods of adjustment. Her first broken heart, for instance, plagued her for months with dreams of her own paralyzing weakness, leaden limbs, and a profound sense of loss and helplessness. After she recovered, she found that her dreams had changed; she came to see herself less as a hero and more as a spectator, unwilling to risk getting hurt for less than a perfect reason.

Charlotte practiced this theory in her waking life as well, and she made rational decisions based on logic and applied them to her heart, even when they did not fit. She watched from a distance as her dream self achieved good grades, made sound career choices, and married a man her parents approved of. She then made each dream a reality, and was soundly disappointed when she realized that she was still unhappy. She shifted her priorities to focus exclusively on her career, and found an involving atmosphere in which she could bury her other concerns and be praised as an ‘ambitious’ woman.

Charlotte was used to dreaming in the third person, so the sight of her dream-self walking along a rocky, deserted beach was not that surprising – despite the hideous wardrobe her subconscious had selected. What she did next, however, both shocked and impressed her so much that she would write down every word, every scene of that dream and keep it close to her for the rest of her life. She knew, without understanding why, that it was very important. Nearing dawn on a Saturday morning in October, she again dreamed she was a hero. That dream would change her world.
Seven
Outside of Elceda County, Diana turned onto an old access road leading to an abandoned industrial excavation sight, the locale specified for face to face meetings between operatives. Eladio’s rented, non-descript Cavalier sat along the edge of the quarry with park lights burning to guide Diana to him. She pulled alongside and climbed out of the Jeep quickly, sensing from his tense posture and pacing that something was really wrong.

“Falcon knows something’s wrong, Di. I can tell he smells something hinky,” Eladio began. His voice was thin and tight. “I’m not sure he trusts me so much, now that he’s had a chance to think about it.”

Diana tried to calm him, taking him by the arm and leading him to sit with her on the hood of his car. Facing the gaping maw of the quarry, Diana could see the smallest glimmer of light bouncing off the brackish water at the bottom. She leaned down and grabbed a stone, rolling the jagged rock around in her palm. Sometimes, tactile sensations had a calming effect on her which helped her to think. “Do you believe you’re exposed? Do you want out?”

Eladio shook his head. “Not sure, but it’s too late to pull me out now. I disappear, we ain’t never gonna find Jamal OR Bartok because Falcon’ll go apeshit and pack ’em off to Outer No-Namia, and you know it. Paranoid motherfucker thinks everyone’s out to get him.”

Diana laughed. “Gee, I wonder where he got that idea.” She nudged Eladio’s arm and smiled. “You know, you’re probably just picking up on his anxiety about this meet Sunday night.”

“He is anxious, I know he is. And I been sending Mars my reports like clockwork. He’s reviewed everything, but he says I’m imagining things. Falcon hasn’t come right out and said anything, but I think what I did at the courthouse might have tipped him off. It impressed him at first, then that rat fuck Virgilio started telling him there’s no way a thug from Mexicali’s gonna take a bullet for him, no matter what he’s paying me.”

“So you’re just too slick for your own good, eh?”

“Might be. Then again, I may be wrong. It’s just a weird vibe I’m pulling off him since it happened. I can’t explain it any better, Di.” The young man shrugged and threw his hands up, open to suggestions.

“El, I won’t tell you that what to do. I know I’m the primary op here, but this is your life we’re talking about. If you want out, I’ll get you out. Set up a ‘fatal’ traffic accident for you, fake him out so he’s not suspicious. I’ll make the operation work without you, just give me the word…”

“No. No, I don’t want out. I can do this,” he insisted. “Maybe I just needed to hear that I still have a way out – from you. I trust you.” He sold the compliment with a sincere smile, which Diana returned.

“Glad to hear it. I feel the same way about you. I know you’ve got my back.”

Eladio tensed visibly before continuing. “That’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Mars had me do something Friday morning. I gotta tell you about it, and you won’t like it.”

Diana closed her eyes and sighed. She had an idea what was coming, and it made her feel sick. “Salmon’s kid, right?”

Eladio nodded. “Those new night specs are wired for visuals. You weren’t alone in that house – Mars was watching. He had me go back and do clean-up on the wife and kid, so he could edit your footage with mine for the bosses, show them that it was a full sweep with no exposure. The bodies are in Mrs.Salmon’s car. Looks like a traffic accident on the way back to her mom’s place – your second favorite method, next to that shum-shum neck-thing.”

Drawing her knees to her chest, Diana lowered her head, unsure what to make of her own reaction. Why did this matter? What made this hit any different from all the others? For ten years, she had followed orders without trouble from her conscience, and it’s sudden re-appearance was distressing and inconvenient. Flashing back on those inappropriate impulses to protect Charlotte Browning, she wondered if they were coming from the same place as her guilt over the little boy. Of more immediate concern was why Harry Mars was covering her ass so carefully.

Diana tossed her rock out into the quarry and waited in vain to hear a splash, but the only returning sound was the light report of stone against stone. “Why didn’t Mars just have me put down? I violated protocol by letting a witness live, that means immediate termination.”

“Not this time. He said do the clean up and send the video, that was all he told me,” the young man answered. “But if you want my opinion, I think he has other plans for you – don’t even bother calling him, though. He won’t admit to anything and you know it. He just don’t want you dead, Diana.” Eladio reached over and rubbed her shoulder. “And neither do I.”

Diana just shook her head, still puzzled. “I don’t know what’s going on with me, El. First I couldn’t finish the job at Salmon’s – that bothered me. I know I’m having the nightmares again, but the block is still in place. I can only assume that they’re about the kid, since I don’t remember any of them.”

“Heh, well you’re one up on me. I can’t tell you one damned thing about what’s in my head between sleeping and waking. That conditioning Dr. Mengele did on me pretty much wiped the slate,” Eladio confided. “I’m lucky I still remember where my dick is.”

That brought a small chuckle from the troubled woman, and she leaned back against Eladio’s hand, still massaging her tight shoulders. “It’s the weirdest feeling, like an unearned state of grace. These things we do should weigh on us somehow, shouldn’t they? It’s normal to feel some guilt, some responsibility when you take a life, but we don’t feel it. Psych just wipes it off like a spill on the counter, and we don’t bear the load.”

“I think that’s part of Mengele’s trip, Di. He fixes it so you don’t really remember any of the bad stuff, so it’s easier to do the work. We’re more effective when it don’t touch us.”

“His name is Dr. Mangano, El. Not Mengele,” Diana corrected. “But I think you’re right. The only time I even think about any of this is after I’ve been in the field awhile. No recent visits to psych to ward off the bogeyman, so I start feeling things I normally wouldn’t.” She sighed, wondering if her spontaneous attachment to Charlotte Browning was a symptom of her blocks eroding. This kind of emotional reaction was just the kind of thing Dr. Mangano deemed dangerous. Eladio’s hand worked steadily on her shoulders, but her lower back was still stiff. “Could you rub a little lower?”

“You still ain’t found a bone-cracker to fix your back? Baby, they’re gonna stick you behind a desk, you don’t watch out. Here, get down a minute.” Eladio jumped off the hood and Diana followed. He wrapped his arms around her middle and whispered, “Don’t take this personal.” Then he lifted her off the ground and twisted suddenly to the side, wincing at the sound of her vertebrae wrenching back into place. Diana sighed in relief as he set her down on her feet, and she did a few gyrations to test his work.

“Ahhh, thanks a heap. I feel a difference already. You’re pretty strong for a skinny little runt.”

Eladio made a muscle and pulled back his t-shirt sleeve to show off. “I ain’t skinny. I’m wiry.” His face then screwed up in disgust as he finally noticed her outfit. “What the hell are you wearing?”

Diana smiled indulgently and turned in a circle to model her duds. “You like? It’s the latest thing: old, borrowed sweatshirts with designer skirts.”

“Where’s your jacket?”

“It’s got lawyer pyuch all over it,” she revealed, smiling suddenly. “I feel like wringing your neck, by the way. For the first time since I’ve known you, your timing absolutely sucked.”

Eladio grinned broadly, white teeth showing in the moonlight. “You and Falcon’s attorney. Man, that threw me for a loop when I got a fix on your Jeep. I had to double check the address just to make sure I wasn’t wrong.”

“You got a problem with anything, junior?”

“Naah, just be careful around her. Sometimes you can’t tell the players without a program. Falcon likes her a little too much, if you know what I mean.” He shook his head and ran a hand through his thick, dark hair. “You know you’re breaking my heart, Diana.” He comically clutched a hand over his chest and reeled backward.

Diana waved a finger at him. “If I thought for one minute that you were serious…”

“You’d have to kill me, I know, I know,” he interrupted. “I’m only half joking, though. I do care about you, Diana. I think about you a lot. In fact, I was staying in this motel room in Queens during the setup – ”

“I don’t think I want to hear this, Eladio.” Diana made a discouraging face.

“No, no. Just listen, it ain’t nothing bad. Anyway, I was watching this nature show on the t.v. and they showed these animals that live at the bottom of the ocean, down where there’s no light, no sound.” Eladio’s voice lowered as he realized Diana was now listening intently. “These divers took cameras down there and showed where the creatures live. It’s pitch black and colder than a well digger’s ass, but the animals have survived and adapted. But that ain’t the best part,” he assured her, smiling like a schoolboy. “They glow, Di. They got this chemical in ’em that makes their skin, their eyes, everything, just glow bright blue, white. It’s beautiful. Reminded me of your eyes when you smile.”

In spite of herself, Diana was moved. She cocked her head and considered all the times she and Eladio had worked together, spending long hours in each other’s company, joshing and kidding around to make the time pass, sharing confidences. He had never once put the moves on her. She didn’t get the feeling that was what he was doing now, either. He was merely letting her know that she was in his thoughts, and that he cared. She smiled at him as if she was seeing him for the first time in ages – a brother in arms, a friend.

“That’s it, that smile. ‘Luciferin,’ they called that glow-stuff. There’s something like that in you, Diana. No matter how dark it gets down here where we live, I can see it glowing in your eyes. Lets me know I’m not alone.”

Diana moved to him and took his arm. “You’re not alone, El. I’m gonna keep my cellular with me. If you change your mind about staying under, you bolt and call me afterwards. We’ll figure something out.”

Eladio pursed his lips and nodded, taking her hand and planting a quick kiss on the knuckles. “I gotta get back, and you got somebody waiting for you, so as much as I hate to break up our little party, here…” He backed away and opened his car door. “I’ll be okay, Di. And I’m sorry about the kid. Had to be done.”

“I know. Be careful, El.” Diana stood back and watched him drive away, hoping against hope that his cover was still tight. She knew now that there was more at stake than the success of the operation. Diana felt an unfamiliar fear gnawing at her gut – the fear of losing a friend. Still shaking it off, she got in the Jeep and started back toward Charlotte Browning’s place. *Still have a little time left before dawn. Maybe I can get back before sun-up.*

Through a great exercise of will, Diana resisted the urge to sing Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” as she predictably stressed the Cherokee to its limits on the ride back to town.
Eight
After transcribing every moment of the most incredible dream she could ever recall having, Charlotte was unable to get back to sleep. She paced the bedroom like a caged cat, anxious beyond conveyance to share the details of this startling, disturbing dream with Diana Starrett. Her legal pad lay on the bed, covered in fevered scrawlings ready to be repeated for and, hopefully, interpreted by the woman who had as much at stake in this dream as Charlotte herself.

She soon tired of the scenery in the lonely bedroom and sought the more hospitable confines of the kitchen. Just as well, because her stomach rumbled more than once since waking to remind her that it was without suitable content since the previous tenants had been so rudely evicted. Mumbling something about never eating squid again, she donned a plush white bathrobe and set about making breakfast. Thoughts of the exceptionally vivid dream kept coming back to her as she busied herself grinding coffee beans and halving grapefruit.

*Maybe ‘dream’ is the wrong word -‘Vision’ is more like it. Everything seemed so clear, so real. I could feel the warm sun, the gritty sand. I could taste the salt of the sea water when I jumped in and swam out to her, felt her weight as I pulled her to shore. But the other part… all that blood, where did it come from? Why was Diana covered in blood?*

That sight, the fearsome vision of Diana Starrett bathed in red, had nearly shocked her to death. The strange costume of leather and armor she had chalked up to some kinky little dominatrix fantasy, but the blood was not at all what she had expected. Neither was her reaction to it. Charlotte Browning was notoriously squeamish, but her dream-self had lunged at Diana and embraced her tightly, heedless of the gore. She recalled looking into those fevered blue eyes and assuring her that this blood did not belong to her, that it was someone else’s fault, that the bloodied woman in her arms was not to blame. Nearly in tears, she had thwarted the tall woman’s escape and pushed her into the surf, calling her by another name – calling her ‘Xena.’

This part confused Charlotte greatly, and the meaning escaped her. She had an idea about who to ask for help in that department, but she would need Diana’s approval. Her mind drifted inexorably to the conclusion of the ‘vision,’ which was quite self-explanatory. *Then came the washing, and the kissing…*

Charlotte’s hand drifted perilously near the heating element of the coffee maker as she drifted between memories of dreams and realities, then the doorbell rang and she jumped clear of the counter, nearly toppling a chair as she headed for the door. Tripping through the house like a kid headed for the tree on Christmas morning, she was nearly bouncing by the time she looked through the peephole to find an extraordinarily beautiful woman standing on her doorstep, smiling crookedly under a raised eyebrow. The sun was rising over Diana’s shoulder, bathing her in a vermilion glow which caused the attorney’s breath to catch in remembrance of her dream.

“Please let me in, Charlie. Don’t let Teddy’s death be for nothing,” Diana said in a faux menacing tone.

Charlotte opened the door a crack and peeked out cautiously. “You couldn’t have just roughed him up a little? He did have a family, you know.”

“He was trying to keep me from you. He had to go,” she replied matter-of-factly. Really, Teddy had opened the gate after getting a good look at her badge, although that didn’t keep him from glaring at her jealously.

Smiling eagerly and opening the door wide, Charlotte reasoned, “Well, I can’t argue with that logic. Get in here, deputy.”

Two steps into the foyer, Diana wrapped her arms around Charlotte’s waist and lifted her off her feet, kicking the door closed behind her. She started walking toward the bedroom as her mouth again sought the company of the attorney’s full lips, then Charlotte mumbled something into her mouth The word sounded like ‘kitchen,’ but Diana knew that couldn’t be right. She drew back and shook her head.

“No kitchen. Bedroom. Us. Now.” She moved in again and took Charlotte’s lower lip between her teeth, licking along the edges, sucking it into her mouth like a sugary treat. Slow, steady steps were carrying them closer to the bedroom door, when Charlotte suddenly pulled away from the insistent, intoxicating kiss. Her face flushed and eager, her hands wound tightly into Diana’s hair, there was no doubt that she was willing to continue into that room and do whatever occurred to her as soon as the door closed. But she had to get that dream off her chest first.

“I need to talk to you about something,” she pleaded in a breathy voice.

Diana had relocated her mouth to the smooth skin behind an ear, and was not responding verbally. Her lips and tongue teased and sucked at the tender patch of flesh, and Charlotte got a little dizzy.

“Whoa. Please, Diana…”

“Please, what?” A soft murmur, then her earlobe was under attack.

“Unnhh… I need to tell you about this… dream I had… while you were out.” Charlotte felt one of Diana’s arms ease from around her waist to move under her bottom, supporting her weight easily as the other hand drifted into the folds of her robe. As incredibly warm as she felt at the prospect of what that questing hand might discover first, she realized that if she didn’t talk about this blasted dream soon, she would worry at it like a dog with a bone when she should be concentrating on other things. Her reserves were galvanized by the time they reached the bedroom door – then Diana’s cool fingertips grazed her left nipple and gave it a light squeeze.

“WHOO! Okay! Time out, please!” Charlotte cried, tugging her hands free from the dark, silken locks and bracing her hands against the doorjamb. “I’m begging you, deputy, please let me get this off my chest.” Diana started to withdraw her hand from beneath the robe. Charlotte frowned and said, “No, not that. Leave that right where it is. I was speaking figuratively.”

Smiling with equal parts lust and mischief, the dark woman replied, “I know that, counselor. What’s so important about this dream, anyway?”

“I was hoping you could help me with that, since it was mostly about you.” Charlotte wiggled her feet, which were still about ten inches from the floor, and brushed her toes against Diana’s calves. “Could you put me down for a minute? I know you must be getting tired.”

“Nahh. You’re light as a feather. Plus, my back hasn’t felt this good in a while.” Nonetheless, she lowered her precious burden to stand on her own dainty feet, then moved both hands off of the attorney’s body – an act which prompted another frown. “Well, you said you needed to talk. It might be easier to concentrate if I don’t touch you. Don’t pout, I’m trying to help.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Charlotte sarcastically replied. “Another example of your stunning will power.”

“The faster you talk, the sooner we get back to where we left off,” Diana reasoned, surprising herself with her own patience. She was eager to be with Charlotte, but not at all rushed. Raising one sculpted brow to emphasize her statement, she smiled as Charlotte stopped frowning and got down to business.

“Right. Kitchen, coffee, food, dream, then… other stuff.” She straightened her robe and headed back down the hall, stopping suddenly as they passed the foyer. She backtracked and bumped into Diana, who asked her what was wrong.

“I just remembered something. Was the alarm set when we got here last night?” She walked over to the panel and looked at it curiously. The display read ‘Clear – Ready to Arm.’

Diana did not hesitate. “Nope. Do you usually set it everyday?”

“Yeah. Old habit since Richard broke in and stole my CD collection right after we separated.”

“Hmm. Maybe you were just distracted yesterday, with the big case and all. You want to set it now? Just to make sure it’s working?”

Charlotte regarded Diana a moment then punched in her code, 7371, which Diana recognized as the young woman’s birthdate. She tried to stifle a snort of disgust at the commonly used code.*Oh, man. That’s too easy. Anybody could figure that out… so why were you in here stripping wires with your teeth, smartass?*

“It’s not working,” Charlotte said. Diana snapped to attention and peered at the panel over Charlotte’s shoulder.

“Let me take a look at it. I did some security work before I got this job,” Diana lied. “Do you have a small Phillips-head screwdriver?”

Charlotte nodded and went to retrieve a pouch of tools from the hall closet. Diana worked quickly, popping off the panel face and restoring the wires to their proper positions. A sharp beeping sound rang out as the alarm was re-activated, still with an alert pending. She replaced the plastic cover panel and punched in the code, silencing the racket just as Charlotte wheeled around the corner.

“What happened? What did you do?” she questioned, approaching Diana and looking skeptically at the panel, which was slightly askew. Diana smiled innocently and straightened the plastic facing. “I just gave it a whack. These things get a little bug in them from time to time. It should be fine now.”

The display once again read ‘Clear – Ready to Arm,’ and Charlotte punched in her code. The function lights changed from green to red, indicating that the alarm was now armed, and Charlotte gave Diana a peck on the lips in thanks. Resetting it to standby mode, she turned and headed for the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “Where did you learn to do that?”

The tall woman shrugged and said simply, “I have many skills.”
Nine

Sparing an occasional glance at her silent cellular phone, the taller of two women seated at a heavy oak dining table picked at her slice of toast – to her surprise, she wasn’t really hungry. Diana watched in awe, however, as Charlotte guzzled her second glass of juice, finished her third English muffin and then dug her spoon into the untouched second grapefruit half. “You sure you don’t want this?” she consulted, even as the spoon was at her lips.

“Nope. Go ahead, knock yourself out,” Diana said, grinning indulgently. Charlotte continued talking as she ate, detailing the dream sequence from the seasoned perspective of not only an efficient attorney, but a capable storyteller. She made the whole thing seem less like a dream and more like a memory, a legally admissible eye-witness account. As she sipped her coffee, the tall woman had an inexplicable and slightly unsettling sense of deja-vu during Charlotte’s colorful narrative. Still, she couldn’t hide her amusement as the young woman shivered while describing the sight of Diana Starrett dressed up like some Valkyrie SM maven.

“The blood surprised me, but the part where she – I – jumped on you and pushed you in the water, that really surprised me,” the younger woman was saying, “I don’t think of myself as being a physically aggressive person.”

“I beg to differ.” Diana couldn’t keep the eyebrow down, no matter how hard she tried, the damn thing just shot right up. Charlotte stopped mid-chew and mirrored the gesture.

“Smartass. I meant fighting. I don’t do violence. Creeps me out,” she explained, stifling a shudder. “I didn’t seem at all hesitant about using force on you, though. Pinned you down in the water and started washing off the mess, just like it was second nature, like I was used to taking care of you.”

Diana mulled that over while pouring another cup of coffee. She stirred in one sugar and one cream, watching the strong, dark liquid lighten with each turn. *How long do you have to know someone before you trust them that much? I have never trusted anyone like that. I wonder if I ever could.* Lifting her eyes, she found Charlotte staring at her intently, trying to glean a reaction from her poker face. *Her eyes are blue in this light, sun reflecting off the cornflower tiles. Why was I expecting green?*

“If you’re not gonna offer, I’ll have to ask.” Charlotte was tired of watching Diana brood. She wanted some feedback. “What do you think it means?”

*Too much booze and an insalubrious squid make for funky dreams?* Instead of voicing her skepticism, she merely shrugged and turned the question around. “I told you I don’t remember my dreams, so I don’t have much experience interpreting them. It sprang from your wicked little mind, Charlie. What does it mean to you?”

Charlotte licked her spoon clean and waved it at Diana. “Evading the question, eh? Well, I’ll let you off – for now. What do I think it means? Hmmm.” She tapped the sterling spoon against her chin, pretending to think. As usual, Charlotte Browning had sounded out her arguments ahead of time. “I think the whole thing is some kind of metaphor my subconscious generated to help me take the initiative with you, to help me feel a bit more in control of my part here.”

“Are you worried about that? Being a little out of control?” Diana seemed genuinely concerned.

Shaking her head, Charlotte smiled warmly. “No, that’s just it. I have never been one to jump into things feet first, I always think something through rationally before making a decision – especially a decision of this nature. Of a personal nature. I don’t try to rope every gorgeous deputy I meet into my bed, Diana.”

A hand snaked across the table, and the dark-haired beauty wove her fingers with those of her breakfast companion. “I kinda guessed that. You haven’t even taken your best shot at roping me, counselor.”

“That’s my point… in a way. I am so sure that this is right, that this – us – will happen, that I’m not worried in the least, and that surety worries me because I don’t know where it’s coming from,” she offered, shrugging at her own pretzel logic. “I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I feel so strongly that we didn’t meet at random, that there’s something else at work here. Maybe the dream was an expression of this sense of purpose that I’m feeling with you, a way of reaffirming my feelings and endorsing my conscious decision to jump your bones.”

Plainly shocked at the choice of words used by this woman who undoubtedly had far more eloquent euphemisms at her disposal, Diana laughed until her coffee nearly came through her nose. She choked a little and coughed once before Charlotte sprang to her feet and administered a few stiff slaps to the woman’s broad back. Diana held her napkin to her face until the coughing jag passed, then leaned back against Charlie’s hand, still laughing.

“Jump my bones! My, but you educated types do wax poetic.” Diana turned her head to see Charlotte looking chagrined and blushing faintly. She knelt by Diana’s chair and tried to steady herself as she gazed deeply into those surpassingly blue eyes, preparing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Maybe that came out wrong. I need for you to know that there’s more to it than sexual attraction, that’s only a part of what I’m feeling. What I mean is that I felt something the first time I laid eyes on you, and I didn’t know what to make of it. At first, I thought it was gratitude for saving my neck, then I assumed it was some sort of rampant, virulent lust,” she expounded, flashing a saucy little grin. “But after last night – and this morning – I got a better read on it.”

Not attempting to hide her curiosity, Diana nodded mutely, urging her on. “What I feel when I look at you is the same kind of familiarity I feel when I look at the sky, the ocean, or the lines on my palm. We may have met less than twenty-four hours ago, but I know you, Diana Starrett,” Charlotte declared, the passion rising in her voice as she sought to find the right words.

“I don’t want to scare you, but if I don’t say this now, I know I’ll regret it.” Charlotte folded her hands reverently and lay them on Diana’s thigh, trying to draw some courage through osmosis. Blue eyes regarded her kindly, exuding patience. She took a slow breath to fill her lungs and jumped off the deep end.

“It’s like my whole life, I’ve been stumbling around in some dim, crowded room. I knew some of the people there, but I still felt like I was alone. I started looking around for a lightswitch, a windowshade or something so that I could see them more clearly; but then yesterday morning, the shades rolled up all by themselves and the light streamed in and I saw you. I could hear my soul sighing in relief and saying, ‘Finally! There she is! We can go now. There she is.’ For twenty-five years, I’ve been milling around in my best dress, waiting for you to show up and take me to some cosmic prom.” Charlotte squinted and shook her head. “And I’m not even mad at you for being late.”

Stunned silent by both the words and their implications, Diana managed to close her mouth and stop fidgeting with her napkin before Charlotte noticed her nervousness. Her heart was pumping double-time, flooding her mind with new possbilities – each of which was summarily shot down. *You are in way over your head here, Di. You should get out of here now before one or both of you gets hurt, badly. She’s asking for something from you that you can’t give, no matter how much you may want to try. God only knows why, but she wants you, and you can’t give her something that you don’t own.*

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Charlotte asked tentatively. She had just sewn her heart firmly to her sleeve, and was scared to death that her fashion statement would be deemed inappropriate wear for a first date.

Diana tried to set aside her own apprehensions and fears, letting her anxiety about this sudden escalation in stakes fade into the background. Right now, the only thing she knew for certain was that a beautiful, intelligent, gentle young woman had offered her the one thing she couldn’t afford to accept – her love. She knew that she had to be more careful here than she had ever been in any operation. But what could she say? Any promise she made to Charlie could be broken at any given moment with one phone call from Harry Mars, and the thought of lying to her had suddenly become unbearable. By the same token, there was no way in hell she could deny herself to this woman. So she didn’t say anything.

Charlotte started to panic. The hammering in her chest grew so frantic that she was sure Diana could hear it. *IDIOT! Too much, too soon! Why did you have to go and open your big mouth? She’s moving her hands, putting up her napkin. Oh, God. She’s gonna leave…*

With movements slow and calming enough to ease the fears of a wounded animal, Diana reached for Charlotte’s hands. She eased them apart and brought each to her mouth, kissing the palms and placing them on her face, an offer of control implicit in the gesture. The younger woman’s eyes went wide, and her face relaxed into a smile of sweet relief as she rose up and pulled Diana down. Lips met half-way, issuing greetings and answering welcomes as they proceeded to reacquaint themselves.

Charlie eased her tongue past the lazy guard of lips and teeth, gaining entry to the warm depths of Diana’s mouth without struggle or fear. Sliding between smooth enamel and wet velvet, she mapped the terrain of this increasingly familiar territory in a kind of lover’s cartography. Diana let her explore to her heart’s content, making herself pliable and responding to Charlotte’s unspoken requests. Fingers slid from her face into her hair, clutching and opening convulsively as the attorney’s kiss became urgent and insistent, expressing a deepening need. Diana answered by closing her lips around Charlotte’s questing tongue and sucking lightly, nipping at the tip and tasting traces of citrus.

A low moan welled up from her core, spilling from her mouth as Charlie pulled away. When Diana looked at her, she was amazed by the ravenous hunger clouding those variegated eyes. The young lawyer stood and pulled her up easily, as if by sheer magnetic force. Charlotte drew her hands along the tall woman’s sides and slid them under the sweatshirt. “Take this off.” A command issued in a smoky tone, not a polite request. Diana quickly complied, tossing the shirt over her shoulder and into the sink. Nimble fingers had already moved to the zipper of her skirt, and it slipped from her hips and slid along her legs in a whisper of surrender.

Charlotte took a step back and moved Diana’s chair away from the table. She tried in vain to collect her thoughts and steady her breathing, but she was too far gone already. Her vision blurred into soft focus as she took in the sight of the magnificent woman standing before her, close enough to touch, almost close enough to love.

Diana stepped out of her pumps so that she merely towered over the smaller woman instead of dwarfing her. It was an act of preferance more than a ploy to instill confidence, since the attorney was clearly in charge here. Diana was slightly giddy with the newness of this dynamic and allowed herself to fall into a light sexual thrall, ready to do whatever Charlie wanted.

“I need to see you, Diana. All of you,” Charlotte whispered, and again Diana did not refuse her. Right there in the kitchen, with the bright morning sun lasering through the windows and gauzy curtains, a trained killer more dangerous and deadly than anyone could know stood naked and exposed before this mere slip of a woman, awaiting her judgement. Arms at her sides, shoulders back, Diana watched Charlotte’s eyes carefully as they swept over the length and breadth of her body, not lingering this time, but surveying, taking stock of her assets in one continuous, heated appraisal. Anxiety and lust simmering in her gut, she worried how the sheltered young woman would react to the small scars peppering her back, if she would ask how the wounds were inflicted, if the burns had hurt…

“Sweet Jesus, you are so beautiful,” Charlie breathed. She released the words in one long, grinding exhale and realized that she had been holding her breath since the dawn of time. Hands raised, she started forward, then stopped cold. *This is real, Charlie. Not some dream, not a drunken hallucination, not a mirage. She’s real… and she’s waiting for you, now.*

Spurred by the sudden realization that nothing but divine intervention would stop her this time, Charlotte Browning found the courage to take that last step, to act on feelings she had been terrified to realize were so deep. Her fingers drifted to Diana’s shoulder, stopping just short of touching her skin as she looked to her for assurance. “Do you want me to touch you?”

In an astonishing triumph of the will, Diana did not give in to her impulse to strip off Charlotte’s robe and lift her onto the dishwasher – instead choosing to nod her assent. This was an exercise in trust, letting someone else dictate pace, and she did not want to abandon it so soon.

Still skimming across the fine hairs of a forearm without touching flesh, Charlotte found that she was not quite satisfied with that mute response. “I want to hear you say it, Diana. I want to hear your voice, asking me to touch you.” *Please say it! This is killing me! Why am I doing this? Why don’t I just push her down on the table before something else happens to interrupt us?*

A contralto plea woven through with fire burned into her ears. “Please, Charlie. Please touch me.”

*Oh. That’s why I thought this would be a good idea.* “Where do you want me to touch you?” she teased, unable to stop herself now.

Diana’s mind reeled off a list of hundreds of wonderful starting points, but, as was her habit when nervous, she opted for a joke. “Anywhere in the kitchen would be good.”

It took a second to register, but Charlie’s face soon relented to the smile bubbling up to her lips, and she started to giggle. Diana followed suit, and the ridiculous tension soon evaporated as the laughter escalated, and the two women leaned on each other for support. Diana took a step forward as she held onto Charlotte’s shoulders – and her feet became tangled in the skirt still curled at her feet. She swayed once and leaned fully against the smaller woman, who was by now at the full-throated guffaw stage of her giggle fit and none too steady on her feet. She listed suddenly, and they knew they were going to fall.

As Charlie tipped backward, Diana wrapped an arm around her waist and extended the other out to absorb the shock of the fall. Charlotte tensed and squeezed her eyes shut, preparing for an impact which never came. When she opened her eyes again, she found that Diana was supporting their weight with her right arm, holding them a few inches off the floor.

“Wow. So all that muscle isn’t just cosmetic, huh?” Charlie marveled.

Diana lowered the attorney gently to the floor and lay fully on top of her. “Nope. All functional.” She reached for the ties of Charlotte’s robe and released the knot with one finger. “Fully.”

“Care to prove that again, Deputy Starrett?”

“I intend to, Ms. Browning,” Diana purred. Lifting her weight onto her elbow, she eased open the folds of the white robe, exposing the smooth, firm flesh enfolded therein. “Repeatedly.” She reached down and took one of Charlotte’s arms in each hand, slipping them from the sleeves and freeing her completely from the garment. Leaning in for one light kiss, which was over far too soon for Charlie’s taste, Diana smoothly got to her feet and extended an arm down to the prone woman.

As she grasped the proffered hand, Charlotte clearly remembered accepting that same hand yesterday morning and, ephemerally, countless times before. “No kitchen?” she asked.

“No kitchen,” Diana answered. “Bedroom. Us. Now.” Charlotte led and Diana followed, snagging her cellular phone from the table on the way out, praying to any benevolent spirits who might be eavesdropping not to let the damned thing ring for a few hours, at least. Charlotte walked to the bed and Diana shut the door behind them.

——————————————————————————–

Minutes, hours, even days may have passed after that door closed, and neither would have noticed. Time loses meaning when your heart touches eternity, and forever is no longer an abstract concept in the purview of philosophers, but a truth which belongs to all those who truly love. On a conscious level, such realizations are often overwhelming, and lovers lose themselves in the rituals of learning each other – mapping, memorizing, and marking with invisible yet indelible touches. Souls wind together so tightly that each comes away changed, carrying something of the other with them.

Love becomes as indefinable and undeniable as the universe itself, something which exists without boundaries, yet is ruled by immutable laws. Therefore, as is the case with everything in nature, love changes form, but does not cease to exist. It is always present, whether in the air, the soil, or the blood of a human heart. Perhaps there is an as-yet undisovered gene present in those whom love has touched with this divine plague, carrying this blessed disease from one generation to the next, causing them to seek the cure which can only be found by re-connecting with the one who infected them, the soul who can save them.

Such a rejoining might feel like finding a part of yourself you had long ago abandoned, or never even known that you posessed. For Diana and Charlotte, it was a homecoming after lives lived in foreign lands, alone and disconnected. The language they shared was older than time, invented when darkness first spoke to light, when chaos and order came to an understanding.
Morning stretched into afternoon and evening fell swiftly by the wayside as they drank from each other (and occasionally, the bathroom faucet), finding that the unsettling feelings they were both experiencing were not cries of alarm and warning issued by frightened souls, but shouts of joy and salvation. Sleep eventually took them, and Charlotte fell into the dreamless, blissful sleep granted to those who speak and act on the truth of their hearts. Diana Starrett, however, still had a few things to work out.

——————————————————————————–

In the dream, Diana found herself on a rocky shore, staring out at the sea. The only sounds were the cries of gulls and the soft collision of water and sand. An orange and purple sky overhead, bleached shells and stones crunching underfoot, and the endless aquamarine of the water pushed her to near sensory overload. It was beautiful, but somehow more clean and unspoiled than any beach she had ever seen, like it was untouched by thousands of years of abuse from mankind. Perhaps it was even more pure than that, perhaps no one had ever been here before. *Maybe this is Heaven,* she thought.

“Not quite, but you’re close,” a voice from behind said calmly. Diana spun toward the sound, hands clenched into half-fists, and what she saw stressed her belief in her own sanity. Standing a few feet away was a woman who could have passed for Diana’s twin, a doppelganger dressed in leather and armor. Long, dark hair and vibrant blue eyes rounded out the picture Diana was accustomed to finding only in a mirror. The woman was quiet and still, hands hanging open at her sides.

“Who are you?” It seemed a fair question, but the woman only shook her head and moved closer. Diana assumed a defensive posture and readied herself for an attack. The woman laughed at her.

“Enhance your calm, Diana Starrett. I’m not going to hurt you – unless you make me,” she said reasonably. “You’re a guest here, this is my turf. I only asked that you be allowed to visit so that I could talk to you.”

Wary still, Diana relaxed her posture and took a step back from the strange woman. “So talk.”

“First I need to ask you a few questions, just to clear a few things up.”

“Shoot.”

The stranger stepped close again, invading Diana’s space and prompting her to meet the eyes which could have been her own. “Don’t bother lying, this part is more for you than me. Do you love her?”

Diana squinted and furrowed her brow. “Charlotte?”

The woman rolled her eyes. “No, Helen of Troy. Of Course, Charlotte!” she confirmed sarcastically. “I already know the truth, you just need to admit it to yourself.”

As certain as she was of the answer, Diana still hesitated, resenting the intrusiveness of this woman’s question. *Still, it’s only a dream, right? Won’t change anything in the real world, so just say it.* “Yeah. God forgive me, but I think I do love her.”

“And you know what you have to do in order to be with her?” the woman queried gravely.

“I have an idea,” Diana confirmed. *I can’t give her something that I don’t own, so I’ll just have to take myself back. And that would mean surfacing.*

“So what are you waiting for? Get on with it, Diana. Own up to your past and claim your future.”

“But it could kill me,” she argued. The leather-clad woman shook her head in disapproval.

“You’ve yet to really live, so you don’t have much to lose. You shouldn’t be afraid of death. And maybe, deep down, you think it’s what you deserve.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Diana demanded. Suddenly she was aware of the cessation of ambient noise – no surf, no birds.

“This is your turf. Look familiar?” The woman turned to the sea and swept her hand across the stark new vista which lay before them. The sea now resembled an endless sheet of pink ice, stretching into the mantled horizon. Diana stared openly, at once stunned and fascinated. She recognized it immediately. *The red ocean where I drowned, before she pulled me out…*

“The very one,” the stranger concurred. “The ice is only a temporary fix, though. Being close to her brings you some small measure of peace, but it’s just the first step down a difficult path. Once it thaws, you could still find yourself out there again, drowning. Believe me, I know. I used to have this same dream. That’s why I thought it was my fault – that you were my fault.”

Puzzled by that statement, Diana turned away from the shining frozen sea and gasped, stumbling back in horror. The leather-clad warrior by her side was now covered, head to toe, in blood.

“You see, I thought that my blood might have made you who you are, made you do what you do. You’re of my line. You inherit the bad along with the good, sometimes,” she shrugged.”I was ready to assume the guilt for your actions, since you either can’t or won’t take it on yourself. A sage old soul convinced me to try a different tact.”

She then wiped long fingers across her cheeks, clearing two streaks through the gore, then raised them to Diana’s face and painted two crimson trails along her jawline. “This belongs to you, Diana. You have to accept it. Own up to your past and claim your future.”

“That’s easier said than done, lady,” Diana retorted.

“You’re right. So you had better get cracking,” the woman advised. “And don’t call me lady. My name is Xena. You’ll be seeing me again soon, but for now you should wake up and answer your phone.”

——————————————————————————–

Diana awoke and reached out in the darkness, certain that she had something specific in mind to grab hold of, but she didn’t remember what that thing could be. Finding herself still safely ensconced in Charlotte Browning’s arms, she settled for taking one of the sleeping woman’s hands, stroking the fine bones of tapered fingers, marveling by moonlight at shape and size. *Nothing, not even the rain, has such small hands… uh oh. Poetry. I’m in such big trouble, here,* she thought. *And I don’t even really like Cummings.*

On the bedside table, the dormant cell-phone came to life and bleated one dull ring before she snatched it up and answered. “Yes?”

“It’s me, Di,” Harry Mars announced. “We have trouble. The operation is being aborted.”

Groggy and stunned, Diana whispered loudly, “What the hell do you mean?”

A sigh in response, and a long pause. “Eladio is dead. Falcon popped him at his apartment earlier today. He knows somebody’s after him.” At this, Diana felt her heart drop into her stomach. *Oh, God. Eladio…*

“We risk exposure if we continue, so we’ve been ordered to pack it in. Get your stuff and meet me at the rendezvous point in one hour. We’re pulling out of here tonight.” Mars hung up immediately, leaving no room for questions or objections.

Diana turned off the phone and stared ahead blindly. She couldn’t see anything at all in her future worth living for if she were to leave Elceda, California, if she were to leave Charlotte Browning. The thought of losing anything else to a murderous thief like Marco Falcon suddenly became not only distasteful, but totallly unacceptable. *He sells crack cocaine to teenagers, smuggles guns to gangs, turns street kids into whores, provides shelter for genocidal warlords… and then he kills my partner, my friend.*

Turning to the sleeping woman curled against her body, Diana felt a small, cool spark of peace tickling her blood, working like a sedative to subdue the acid heat of vengeance cousing through her veins. *I just found you, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lose this because of Marco Falcon, or even Mars himself. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let anybody take this away.*

Diana eased her body free of Charlie’s warm embrace, kissing her hands as she reluctantly left the bed. She moved silently through the house, gathering her clothes and dressing in the kitchen. From the fridge, she swiped a bottle of water and two apples – now she was hungry. Setting the alarm and locking the door on her way out, Diana prayed that she would be back before Charlotte woke up, she had no time to leave a note. She managed to hold down the Jeep’s speed until she cleared the gate of The Meadows, then punched it once she hit the highway, her mind turning more RPMs than the engine. The first glowing edges of a plan began to form in her mind, and all she could do was hope that Harry Mars was still a gambling man. *This could work. This shit could actually work…*

During this particular trek through darkened streets, careening towards an abyss of uncertainty, the suicidally confident, lovesick black bag operative chose to perform several numbers by Concrete Blonde.
Ten – Sunday

After burning down 805 for just over half an hour, Diana exited and soon found herself bumping along an ungraded dirt road on private property. The dash clock read 12:27am, and she figured she still had a few minutes to work with before pick-up. Once on the driveway, she peered through the trees at the rambling ranch house utilized as a base of operations by surveillance and management.

The remote locale and adequate space for air transport made it an ideal site for an extended operation HQ. Behind the house, slightly obscured by a ragged border of evergreens, was a flattened area which served as a makeshift helicopter pad. She could just make out the lone familiar figure of her supervisor standing at the edge of the clearing, smoking and pacing. Diana parked alongside the outsized, innocuous equipment van (from which she imagined Harry Mars had watched her performance at Salmon’s house), and jogged through the thin line of pines to stand with him.

“Gimme that,” she said immediately, gesturing at his cigarette. Mars smirked and handed it over, and was rather surprised when she dropped it and ground it out under her shoe.

“Now, what did you go and do that for?” He was already reaching for another when she grabbed his hands and forced him to look at her. Diana was momentarily struck once again by how much Harry Mars looked like a comic book character. Tall, muscled and sharp featured, with short black hair sporting streaks of gray, he made her think of “Doctor Strange” with a buzz-cut.

“Harry, please. I need your full attention, no distractions,” she insisted. “I need to talk. We can’t let this one go, we’re too close to pulling it off.”

Mars shook his head and tried to look sympathetic. “Hey, Diana, I know you’re upset about Eladio…”

“YES! Yes I am. He was a good agent and a good guy, but he would not want us to quit when we’re so near the end.” Diana was certain of this, and it came through in her voice. “He thought he was okay to continue, he said so himself. Eladio would want us to finish this.”

“Di, I want us to finish this, but word came down that we were to suspend surveillance and back the hell off of Falcon,” Mars related. He let go of her hands and exhaled heavily in frustration. “The directive came from Riggins himself.”

Diana backed away and screwed up her face as if she had smelled something terribly foul. “Why would he take an interest in this? No unstable governments to topple this weekend? Or is he bored with de-stabilizing currencies of third-world nations?”

Smiling slightly in agreement, Mars shrugged. “None of my contacts seem to know the deal here. I thought at first that he might want to take over the op himself – that Bartok and Jamal are actually important to him – but that can’t be it.”

Diana agreed wholeheartedly, wrapping her mind around this new puzzle and spontaneously deciding to use it to her advantage. “He didn’t give a damn about them when they were busy with their ‘ethnic cleansing.’ These men killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, and we didn’t move a muscle to stop them. Now we’ve got them within our reach, and we have to roll over and play dead again? It makes no sense to me, the way Riggins uses his power.” *C’mon, Mars. Bite… bite.*

“Men like him are the reason the intelligence community has become a joke,” Harry spat, “We are neither ineffectual nor impotent, but with orders for inaction coming down like rain, it feels like we might as well pack it in and let it all go to hell! If men like Jamal and Bartok are not tried for their crimes, then what kind of message does that send to others who would rule by their methods? It’s a tacit endorsement of brutality,” he concluded, nearly out of breath and flushed with anger.

*Perfect, just perfect.* “I still think you should be in charge. You’re not like him, you wouldn’t abuse the power,” Diana asserted, praying that Mars would hang with her. “Riggins is a corrupt old dinosaur, and the directive of our agency has fallen aside in favor of his personal advancement. It’s Mosca’s Iron Law, Harry. You’d be more likely to resist that temptation and keep us on track.”

Harry Mars seemed flattered for an instant, then his face went stony and his eyes darkened. “You’re not the only one who thinks that, Di. There have been rumblings about ousting Riggins for some time now, but no one has ever had the means to lever away his support. From time to time, he hands the U.N. something they want, and they renew funding and let him slink back into the slime, no questions asked.”

“They want results, and they don’t care how he gets them,” Diana prompted. Mars was on a roll, rolling right into her hands, so she kept him talking. The more eager he was to depose his old rival and detractor, the more amenable he would be to her plan.

“It might surprise you to know this, but I have a number of supporters within the agency,” Harry said. “The only problem would be persuading those who sit the fence to come down on my side. Then I may have a shot.”

*Now! Just jump right in there!* “I may be able to help you with that,” Diana began, “but you would have to disobey Riggins… and leave me here to finish this. Alone.”

Mars was stunned initially, then disbelieving, then curious. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about sticking around here and finding where Falcon has General Scumbag and President Pisswad stashed. I can find out, Harry – without risk of exposure. Monday morning, you’ll know their locations, and you can use them to win over your fence-sitters and bargain with the U.N. I think they want to try the war criminals on an international stage more than they want to keep Riggins,” Diana explained. “You’d be running things before lunchtime. A bloodless coup.”

He seemed to consider the general idea for a moment, stroking his mustache and pacing some more as he sorted through the possible outcomes. Once settled, Mars nodded and stood facing Diana with an oddly concerned expression. “Extremely dangerous idea… it could work. But, how would you manage to procure the info? His computer systems are unhackable, and he’s constantly running security sweeps on the house.”

“I’m gonna walk right through the front door,” Diana said, smiling widely enough to make the Cheshire Cat seem dour. “You know that party tonight? I’m gonna get myself invited. I’ll be there when Falcon meets with their reps. If he spills the beans then, I’ll beam you the news immediately. If he doesn’t, I’ll get it out of him one way or another,” she promised. *Whatever it takes.*

“This goes against every protocol, every rule in the book, Di.”

“We both know there is no book, Mars – not for us. Maybe you could write one after you take over. Until then, I say we play fast and loose… and cheat.”

Again, the concern flared in his dark eyes. “What if you get caught?”

“I won’t. But if the impossible should happen, I’ll make them put me down. They’ll know even less about me than they did about Eladio,” she answered. “No exposure. You trust me to do this, Harry?”

A deep sigh deflated his barrel chest, and he nodded. “I believe you could handle Falcon. I believe you’d find a way to get the information, and I believe that you don’t give a damn about the possible risk to yourself. Going in there unauthorized, alone… you got a death wish now?”

“No, just the opposite,” Diana stated honestly. “I want to live through this, and then I want you to do me a favor as payment.”

Sensing that he wasn’t going to like this, Mars silently waited for her to continue. When she did, her low voice dropped to a whisper. “If I get you what you need, and you take over the helm, I want out. I want to surface.”

The tall man stood rooted to the ground, stock still and blinking in disbelief. “No way, Diana. You don’t know what you’re asking for. The surfacing process has killed twenty-three of the twenty-six agents who’ve tried it. Mangano turned the other three into vegetables.”

“Then you can chop me up and make soup, Harry,” she retorted. “This is what I want, and I think I can survive it. I deserve the chance.”

“How much do you know about Mangano’s method? Do you realize that any one of the things he’ll pull out of your head would drive most people crazy?”

“Tell me what you know about it and we’ll compare notes,” Diana offered.

Mars started pacing again, then reached for another cigarette. A few puffs later, he flicked it away and started talking. “Surfacing for you would be like reliving every bad memory, every horror you have ever endured or committed, in rapid succession. Mangano claims that for most subjects, it’s like trying to breathe while standing under a waterfall – every time you try to catch your breath, another cascade beats down on you, drowning you,” Harry related. “He uses hypnosis, regression, drug therapy and a few more nefarious means to break down the psychic blocks keeping these memories at bay. Eventually, either all the memories are purged or they recede back into the mind all at once and overload the circuits, and your brain shorts out. Either you die right then, or you stare at the carpet for the rest of your days. Nobody’s come out of it intact.”

“Yet,” Diana said. “I want out, Mars. I’m aware of the risks, and I know that I have a bad time waiting for me if I try this, but I’ve dodged that bullet for ten years now. I think it’s time for me to own up to the things I’ve done, even if it’s only for a few moments. Then the memories will be gone, and I can start over – fresh. Anyway, how bad could the memories be? It’s all been in the line of duty, right?”

“I think you could handle most of the events of the past ten years, Di. It’s what happened before that worries me,” Harry confided. His angular countenance was drawn and grave, and he didn’t seem anxious to elaborate.

“Before? You mean when I was recruited?” she inquired hesitantly. “I thought all that was wiped out just for convenience, to avoid endangering recognition of family and the like.”

“It’s not just convenience in some cases, especially not yours. Something happened to you that brought you to our attention, that made you seem a viable candidate for our purposes,” Harry responded, being intentionally vague. He still got a queasy feeling in his gut whenever he thought about what Diana Starrett experienced only days after her nineteenth birthday, all that pain and guilt laid at the feet of such a sensitive young woman. “Re-living that would be the worst part. It broke you the first time you went through it, and it may do so again. I don’t think you should take the chance.”

Not having the slightest idea what he was referring to, she remained unswayed in her determination. “I need to do this, Harry. If I can’t get out, I might as well be dead,” Diana declared. “But I have a good reason to live now, so I’m willing to gamble on this. I just need to know that you’ll bet on me.”

“You’re my horse, kid. Always have been,” Mars answered, smiling as best he could manage. “I do worry about you, though. Can’t seem to help myself.”

*Might as well ask him now…* “Is that why you cleaned up after me Friday morning?”

He nodded and stepped closer, feeling compelled to look in Diana’s eyes as he answered. “I only did that because Riggins demanded the tape. He’s been all over this Falcon thing lately, and I couldn’t stand the thought that he might turn the dogs loose on you, just because you maintained some sliver of humanity and spared the boy. That kid wasn’t gonna talk – not in time to make trouble, anyway – but that wouldn’t have mattered to Riggins. You violated protocol.”

“I know, and that’s precisely the reason I can’t do this job anymore. I didn’t even think of killing that boy; it wasn’t until afterwards that I wondered why I spared him.” Diana was suddenly aware that she could hardly remember the child’s face now, that his image was already fading – another curious quirk of her mnemonic alteration. She could remember song lyrics, poems, philosophies, long numeric sequences, but no clear image would come to her of the dead boy whom she could recall so clearly only yesterday. She shook off her discomfiture and made a final plea. “I’m not running on autopilot anymore, Harry. I’m reacting to things differently, like I’m feeling first and thinking later. I gotta quit while I still have a chance. Please, just tell me that if I help you with Riggins, you’ll help me surface.”

Though his decision was already made, Mars found he was unable to say it aloud. Instead, he reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a set of keys, tossing them to Diana. “Leave the Jeep here, the clean-up crew will take it – it’s wired. There’s a clean ride in the garage, no trackers. You’ll find a full complement of gear in the trunk, some cash and a few extras up front,” he explained, before adding a warning. “You should watch your back, just in case Riggins doesn’t buy my excuse for your absence and starts looking for you. I’ll get everything straight on my end, start making some moves. I’ll be waiting for you to call in, Di, so don’t leave me hanging.”

Nodding solemnly, Diana and Mars stood facing each other, the weight of their decision settling in and nullifying the need for further discussion. The soft thwack of approaching helicopter blades could be heard in the distance. “Thanks, boss,” Diana managed to say softly, as Harry Mars turned away from her and waved over his shoulder.

He waited, pensive and still, as the unmarked black bird touched down. Amid the swirling wind and swaying grass, he stood steadfast for another long moment, then turned to look back at Diana – but she was already loping down the driveway toward the garage. He slipped into the chopper and signaled for the pilot to head out, staring down the whole time as Diana keyed in the door codes and tore out seconds later in her new ride. Harry smiled to himself, hoping she liked the car, hoping she wouldn’t wreck it. Buried beneath several layers of anxiety and tension, a small glowing core of hope started to burn inside him. Mars knew that the events of the next thirty-six hours would determine the futures of the only two concerns he carried in his leathered heart : the agency… and Diana Starrett.
Eleven

On her fifth trip through the gate of The Meadows in roughly twenty-four hours, Diana made a special effort to be nice to Teddy, the late shift security guard. He approached her car and was clearly flabbergasted when the window lowered and revealed her smiling face. She couldn’t tell if he was more jealous about her returning to see Charlotte Browning again, or about the inordinately expensive car she now piloted. Either way, she was on her best behavior, for she hadn’t been so stunningly optimistic about her future since… well, she couldn’t remember when.

“Evening, Ted. All quiet on the western front, I trust?” She noticed then his crooked posture, which suggested a reason for his toiling in private security when his demeanor was so clearly that of a policeman.

The swarthy guard stepped up to the car and whistled, thinking that some people have all the luck. “Yes, deputy. Silent as a tomb – ‘cept for you tearing in and out of here at all hours, that is.”

Diana chuckled softly and reached into the glove compartment for a peace offering – or a bribe, as it were. “Duty called, I had to go. Here, pal. From one cop to another.” She handed him one of Harry’s hand-rolled Cubans, and watched amusedly as his jaw dropped in recognition. He ran the cigar across his mustache, inhaling deeply and smiling with anticipation. Diana tapped her fingernails on the door to regain his attention, and he opened the gate promptly, this time forgetting to glare at her as she drove away.

——————————————————————————–

On the third ring of the doorbell, Charlotte managed – with great effort – to open her eyes. She could never recall being so deservedly, deliciously exhausted. She noticed that Diana was no longer in bed, and hoped that the doorbell heralded her immediate return. Awake less than ten seconds without her, she already felt her absence. Moving as quickly as she could manage, given the terminal languor settled in her muscles, she made her way to the front door, stumbling over the carpet border no less than three times before reaching the foyer. After a brief check through the peephole, she flung open the door, either unaware or uncaring that she was stark naked. Diana noticed.

“Counselor, you seem to have forgotten your briefs… and everything else,” she observed, in a casually appreciative tone. “What would Teddy say?”

Charlotte, totally artless and beaming, replied “How did you put it this morning? Oh, yeah – Teddy can blow me.” She stepped out onto the welcome mat and took Diana’s hands, leading her inside the house, closing the door deliberately behind them. Perhaps half a second later, the tall woman found herself sitting on the hall table, being kissed witless.

“Actually,” Diana said, when her mouth was freed up, “I said that yesterday morning. It’s Sunday.”

A groan stifled against her neck told her Charlotte was unaware of this fact. “Time’s passing too fast,” the lawyer mumbled. “I don’t want Monday to come. Can’t we petition father time for an extension?” Warm lips settled on a pulse point, and Charlotte decided never to move from that spot. *I’ll be like a remora, a barnacle… she’ll just have to get used to me.*

With Diana’s hands stroking long down her back, her knees squeezing gently on either side of her hips, and those long legs curled in against the backs of her thighs, Charlie’s wishes were briefly granted. For a few infinitely precious moments, time took a coffee break and watched the lovers. The rest of the universe was held in suspended animation as their breathing slowed and their heartbeats matched rhythm. Charlotte could feel the synchronicity pulsing through her lips, and she smiled against Diana’s throat. “So this is how it feels.”

“This is how it feels,” Diana confirmed. “I had always wondered… now I know. I can die happy.”

Charlotte jerked her head back, and as soon as her lips left Diana’s skin, time picked up where it had left off, and the universe was none the wiser. “Die? What a buzzkill! I’m thinking eternal bliss, and you’re thinking tombstones? What a romantic you are,” the younger woman teased, grinning hard enough to tighten her scalp.

Taking a long look at Charlotte’s face in the dim light, Diana could see the imprint of the pillowcase pressed into her cheek. Her eyes were alive, yet slightly droopy from hard sleep, and small crinkles formed along the edges as she smiled. Also, her bangs were poking up like a blond cockscomb. She was, without exception, the most beautiful creature Diana Starrett had ever seen. Just looking at her, Diana could feel her own heart filling like a carnival balloon and soaring up into the sky, doomed to explode. Just when the pressure became unbearable, Charlotte produced a pin and popped it without warning.

“I love you, you know.”

The words were out before she had a chance to review them, by-passing her brain and running straight from her heart to her mouth to Diana’s ears. Charlotte looked terribly surprised to have said it, but not as surprised as the tall woman was to hear it. Out loud, that is… they had been saying it from the start in a million different ways, but not in a simple, succinct sentence. Unable to stand the look of needless worry marring her lover’s countenance, Diana gathered what remained of her wits and tried to level the field.

“Charlie, I’m gonna have to retool my definition of courage, because it’s not big enough for you,” she said, looking deeply touched and very proud. “I don’t think I could have said it first, but I do… love you. And yes, I do know. It may be the only thing in my life I’m sure of, but it’s enough.”

Although she would have bled to hear those words said back to her over and over, Charlotte was too overjoyed to ask for more – it would be like tasting ambrosia and asking for seconds. While the time for words is fleeting, the opportunity to act is even more so, and the young woman’s timing was sharpening rapidly. She eased herself back and tugged Diana from the table, guiding her slowly into the darkened living room, moving by memory and instinct. Once her legs touched the couch, she spun around and pushed the larger woman down onto the sofa, quickly moving to straddle her hips.

Diana moved to take off the sweatshirt again, but Charlotte stopped her with a whisper. “Let me.” She could imagine the arching of that arrow-like brow in response, and she giggled knowingly. “I want to undress you. It just feels right somehow, so go with it.”

Nodding dumbly in the darkness, Diana lay back against the sofa cushions and turned herself over to Charlie’s capable hands. Faster then she would have imagined, the nimble-fingered attorney had entirely dispensed with her mismatched clothing and discarded the garments into the black void surrounding them. As they kissed, gravity was nullified, and they rose and tumbled through the airless night. Blind hands moved to touch and explore, to connect and anchor as they floated in the opacity of space, alone… together. And though sorely tempted to intervene once more, time let them have their privacy for the rest of the night.
Twelve
Sometime just after dawn, Charlotte Browning’s rumbling stomach scored a 4.1 on the richter scale, confusing seismologists as far north as Fullerton, and causing Diana Starrett to laugh out loud.

“Don’t laugh at me. This is your fault,” Charlotte accused, poking the chest of the amused woman lying beneath her.

“I didn’t tell you not to eat. On the contrary…” Diana got no further before the lawyer’s small hand covered her mouth, smothering that line of thought.

“Hush. If you get me started again, we’ll both starve,” she warned. “They’ll find two naked, smiling, desiccated corpses laid out on this sofa.”

Diana sighed and stretched, cat-like and purring with hedonism. “Ahh, but what a way to go.”

Chuckling her agreement, Charlotte slid down to nestle in what was quickly becoming a favorite rest stop, lying with her cheek against the concave plane of muscle between ribs and hip. She traced the borders of sinew and bone, planting kisses like flags, staking claim to a choice part of her new world. *Mine,* she thought. *Mine mine mine mine mine! Every inch, every pore, every hair, every scar. I’m keeping this. And I’m not giving it back.*

“I wonder if I could have this declared a protected area, maybe a wildlife refuge for the endangered Charliebird. Wouldn’t be contested by the county, I bet – and I could count it as pro bono work,” the attorney proposed, causing the coveted landscape beneath her to shake with laughter. “I’m serious! My species will die out without some kind of intervention. We’re too busy mating to forage for sustenance.”

Pressing her ear down again, she listened closely for a similar complaint of emptiness to issue from Diana’s stomach. All she heard was a faint gurgling which sounded more like digestion than starvation. “You have food in there. Did you grab something when you went out on that call?”

“Naah, just grabbed a couple of apples on the way out,” Diana answered, recalling her cover story of being on call and responding to assist with a domestic violence situation. “I rushed right back here once things were in order.”

“I’m glad it turned out alright. I know most cops say domestic calls are the worst, that they can go bad really fast,” Charlotte said softly, “I think I’m worrying about your job already.”

“Don’t. I’m quitting.”

*What?* Charlotte raised her head and edged up a little. “What?”

“I said I’m quitting my job,” came the reply. “I’m ready to get into another line of work. Something a bit less stressful, maybe.” *Like gator wrestling.*

The blue eyes held steady, glinting with humor and sincerity. Charlotte followed up for confirmation partly out of habit, partly out of hope. “You’re serious about this?” Diana nodded. “Since when?”

“The idea came to me recently, but I wasn’t really certain until last night. I still have a few things to clear up,” Diana understated. “If all goes well, I should be unemployed in short order.”

Growing more accustomed to life-changing decisions being made overnight, Charlotte took only a moment to adjust to the impulsive nature of the idea. “Wow. You… ahh, you move pretty fast once you make up your mind.”

“I guess. It’s really the only choice for me, though.” Diana moved her hands across Charlie’s back, dancing along her spine with gently thrumming fingertips. “My priorities have undergone a major shift this weekend. Suddenly, making sure that I live a long, long time has become very important.”

A wide, easy smile broke across the young attorney’s face, her chin settling between Diana’s breasts. “It wouldn’t be too presumptuous to assume that I played a role in this ‘priority shift,’ would it?”

“The only role. It’s a one-woman show.”

“Oh, goody,” Charlotte sang, “I don’t play well with others.” She lit a feathery kiss on a convenient span of shoulder. “Wellll, since you’ll be on the market…” Another kiss fell like a stray raindrop on Diana’s throat. “I happen to need an assistant of sorts…” A third brought warm lips and tongue sweeping beneath her chin. “and I think you would fit the bill nicely, Miss Starrett. Would you be interested in applying for the position?” Charlie hovered over Diana’s mouth, looking every bit like a cross between a corporate headhunter and a temptress of Biblical prowess.

“Hmmm…” Diana turned her head, feigning disinterest. “I was thinking more along the lines of private investigations, security consulting, that sort of thing.” She cut her eyes toward Charlie, finding the young woman’s gaze burning green in the watery gray light. “What kind of perquisites would this position offer?”

“Name it, and it’s yours.”

“Company car?”

“Done.”

“Two weeks paid vacation?”

“Make it three,” Charlotte offered.

“Ooh! I like your style. How ’bout a Swedish masseuse?”

“Don’t push it, stretch.”

Diana chuckled dryly. “Well then, would I at least get personal attention from my employer?”

An awful, devouring smile in response. “More than you could handle.”

A sharp inhale as the tall woman took that in and felt her heart list hard to port, perilously close to capsizing with its massive cargo of gratitude. *More than I deserve, or could ever hope to.* “This offer just gets better and better. Anything else on the table?”

Charlotte closed her eyes and considered for a moment. *Don’t chicken out now. If you don’t play, you can’t win.* Her eyes flashed open in the drowning light, bright with determination.

“I could offer you room and board at a very reasonable rate.”

It was Diana’s turn to adjust to an impulsive decision, and she blinked slowly, letting it sink in. *More than I could earn in ten lifetimes of sainthood…please give me the chance to try.* “Now’s the part where I ask if you’re serious. Living together… that’s a pretty big step, Charlie.”

The blonde shook her head in earnest. “Not in comparison to the one we’ve already taken. I feel like I’ve stepped off the edge of the Grand Canyon, here. I have been falling since I first looked into these eyes.” She traced an oval from the brow above to the tender skin below, following with a kiss to the eyelid. “Falling literally and otherwise.”

Diana smiled, remembering the swoon at the courthouse, viewing it with new perspective. “The feeling is mutual. But it’s not the falling that worries me, it’s the sudden stop.”

“Pththbbt,” Charlotte responded, blowing that sentiment away with a dismissive raspberry. “I can’t see this stopping anytime short of my hundredth birthday – and you had better be there. I’ll want a chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. And those little candy letters…”

“Charlie. I’m serious.” Diana’s words caused the young woman to draw back a little, and she raised herself on her arms and looked down with a solemn smile.

“So am I – please don’t take this as a joke just because I’m happy,” Charlotte said, suddenly very serious. “I want you here – with me – as much as possible. If that means camping out on the weekends, I’ll take it, but you should know that I want more. I want eight days a week until the twelfth of never. I want you in my life as much as you’re in my heart, and that means all the time. If you’re not ready for that, just say no and I’ll back off until you are ready. Just be warned – I am notoriously stubborn, and insidiously patient,” she declared, waggling her pale brows.”And nobody works harder than me. Nobody.”

“Is that so?” Diana reclined happily, ready to let herself be talked into something she already wanted.

“That is so. When I was a kid, I once sold five-hundred magazine subscriptions to attain that most coveted of prizes – an authentic imitation Wonder Woman costume,” she revealed, lowering her eyes in reverence. “I spent five days of one summer vacation sifting through tons of sand, until I discovered a shark’s tooth bigger than the one my older sister found. I roamed the streets after school every day through my entire third grade year, collecting bottles and cans, saving up for the bike my dad wouldn’t buy me. So you see, I’m used to getting my own way – by hook or crook or hard work. And those are only the G-rated stories. I’d need to see some I.D. before telling you about puberty.”

Caught between being amused at the hard-headed child, and terribly impressed with her indomitable work ethic, Diana sucked a breath through her teeth and whistled. “Sounds to me like you were a dangerous woman even then, Charlotte Browning.”

Grinning with trouble in mind, the attorney responded, “Not really. Just willing to go the distance for something I wanted. When I was a child, I had an invincible confidence in my own opinion, and a willingness to wait and suffer and work until I got my way. I thought I’d lost the instinct, but you seem to bring it out in me.” She leaned in and pressed her lips against Diana’s mouth in a quick, hard kiss, then pulled up and hovered less than an inch away. The tall woman tried to raise up in pursuit of more contact, but Charlie eluded her, keeping just out of range until Diana gave up and lay back again.

“Must be because I haven’t really wanted anything for a long, long time. I was afraid to love, afraid to get hurt. So I started settling, playing safe.” Again she dove down and landed hard, a touch-and-go kiss. “I didn’t want to go into law, but I’m good at it and it was safe, so I settled. I didn’t want to marry Richard, but I was lonely and he was safe, so I settled again.”

The third descent was slow, painfully slow for Diana, whose heart had climbed up into her throat to find out what the hell was going on. Finally, Charlotte touched down, brushing her lips over Diana’s as she delivered her closing argument into her lover’s mouth. “I’m through settling. I’m through playing it safe. I want you with me as much as possible for as long as possible, and I will do whatever it takes for us to be together.” She paused and licked her lips, wetting Diana’s in the process.

“If that means kidnapping you and tying you to my bed, I’ll do it. If that means splitting the atom with a cuisinart, I’ll find a way. If that means doing the Macarena on the PCH wearing nothing but a Sumo diaper, I’ll do it. I’m willing to fight again, so welcome to my second childhood. I love you. I want you. You’re mine now, Diana Starrett. Mine.”

The words were still echoing in Diana’s mouth when the tongue which formed them followed its spawn inside, thrusting hard and filling her in a kiss of possession. She had been claimed. She understood now that whatever she could give, this woman would take – and that made Diana want to give her everything. *Everything I am, everything I will be… maybe even everything I used to be.*

Charlotte continued asserting her rights of ownership, raking her hands over expanses of flesh, kneading and twisting, stroking and caressing every accessible surface, acutely aware that her touches went much deeper. She understood that this woman would give her everything she had to give – and Charlotte knew without question that she would risk anything to keep it safe. This realization calmed her brazen hands, slowing their roaming to a gentler pace as she moved her fingers down to wind in dark curls.

“Ow.” Diana didn’t mean to say it out loud, but the sudden contact on her swollen, tender center caused a slip. The instant look of concern on Charlotte’s face made her curse the untimely lapse in stoicism. “It’s okay. We’ve just been really… active. I guess being a little sore is the price you pay.”

Blushing guiltily, Charlotte did not remove her hand, but merely cupped the sensitive area gingerly, protecting her lover’s vulnerability. “My fault, I know. I think you were right about me being physically aggressive, but only under the right circumstances. Sorry if I overdid it.”

Hugging the smaller woman close, Diana sighed and shook her head. “Don’t you dare apologize. I’ve never been so happy to hurt. But I think it wouldn’t kill us to take a break.” She kissed Charlotte’s ear, her hair, her temple. “Let me cook for you. We’ll have a huge breakfast, take a bath, do the Sunday crossword…”

Charlotte smiled against Diana’s cheek. “Ink or pencil?”

“Ink. Pencils are for wusses.”

“Deal.”

——————————————————————————–

“Where did you learn to cook like that?” asked the blissfully sated attorney, swishing her hand around to test the bathwater. Charlotte recalled a blur of chopping knives, sizzling pans, and savory smells preceding the birth of two heavenly Southwestern omelets.

*I never really thought about it. Who did teach me to cook?* “Home Economics, ninth grade,” Diana improvised. She sat on the edge of the enormous, claw-footed tub, pondering this question as steam rose and tickled along her back. *Another of the mysteries which may or may not be solved by surfacing. Maybe my mother taught me…*

“Hey! Earth to Diana!” Charlotte called, seeing that the woman was lost in thought and had not heard her last question.

“Hmm? Sorry, what did you say?”

“Bubbles, yes or no?” She held up an unopened bottle full of plum-colored liquid.

“Oh, yeah. Bubble me,” Diana answered. “Doesn’t look like you take many bubble baths.”

Charlotte poured a bit of the fragrant liquid under the faucet, and the smell of dewberries filled the warm air. “I never took the time, never saw the point.” She shut off the water and stepped into the tub. “Come here.”

Without so much as a raised eyebrow or a smirk, Diana obeyed, moving behind Charlotte and easing them both down into the steaming water. Gladdened to find that the massive tub accommodated her long legs, she stretched out fully, letting Charlotte relax back into her arms.

A deep, unanimous sigh of contentment from both women spurred a new fit of laughter, amused at how quickly and easily they had found a rhythm together. Diana rested her head against the cool porcelain lip, and tightened her arms to pull Charlie closer. *An unearned state of grace… that’s what this is. I swear, if I get the chance, I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to be worthy of this.*

Charlotte concentrated hard, blocking first the outdoor sounds of birds and lawn sprinklers, then the soft pop and crinkle of soap bubbles completing their life cycle, until the only sound in the world was the twin of her own heartbeat thumping against her back. “I bet if somebody cut you, I’d bleed,” she murmured quietly.

“Beg pardon?”

“Nothing. Just saying how I understand the concept of bubble baths much better now,” the blonde demurred. “I wish I could figure out that blasted dream as easily.”

A groan from the tall woman. “You still stuck on that?”

“Yesss. I think dreams are important, and I don’t know nearly enough about them to figure out what mine meant.” *But I know somebody who would.* “Partial non-sequitur, here. How would you feel about going to a party tonight?”

*Thank you, God. Saves me from asking.* “Party? Sure. Where?” Diana queried, all innocence.

“Marco Falcon’s. I don’t really want to go, but he called Friday before I went out, insisting that I come by. He made it pretty clear that Quentin expected me to show.”

“You don’t sound too enthused.”

Charlotte sighed and rubbed her fingers absently along Diana’s forearm. “Marco gives me the creeps, to be perfectly honest. He’s not a good guy.”

*Understatement of the century.* “So why go?”

“His mother is part Yaqui. She’s totally into spiritualism, does astrological charts, numerology, past-life readings, among many other things.”

Diana started to catch on. “Lemme guess. She does dream interpretation, too.”

“Ooh. Busted,” Charlotte giggled. “I want us both to talk to her. Maybe she can shed some light on why we’re dreaming about people we don’t know.”

“You lost me. What ‘people we don’t know’?”

“Well, in my dream, she – I – kept calling you Zima… Zela… Xuxa?” Charlotte shook her head, wishing she had her legal pad to consult. “NO! Xena! That was it. And you were dreaming about somebody named Gabrielle, remember?”

“Not a glimmer. Sorry.”

“Right. You don’t remember your dreams,” Charlie said, looking thoughtful. “Hey! Maybe Maribel could help with that. She does this spirit guide thing using peyote cactus juice. Tried to get me to do it once, said I was an ‘old soul’ with a destiny to fulfill. She could probably help you with your dream problem.”

Intrigued by the notion of reclaiming some of her past without going through Dr. Mangano, Diana pressed for details. “Did she say how this ‘spirit guide’ thing worked? What was involved?”

“I didn’t ask. The prospect of drinking that nasty-looking slime put me off the idea real quick,” Charlotte said, wincing at the memory. “I’d do it with you, though. Might be interesting to see what you look like with eight heads.”

“Eight times as gorgeous?” Diana teased, self-deprecation evident in her tone.

“Works for me. I think it would be worth a shot.” The blond twisted a bit to face her companion, trying to look serious for at least five seconds. “I wish you would take this dream seriously. I still think it means something, maybe something important.”

Still doubtful, the dark woman gave her an impish smile. “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, Charlie. Or maybe it was a premonition…”

“How now?”

“Yeah. The whole washing thing was a flash-forward to this momentous occasion, when you at last get to help wash my steenky feeet.” Diana raised said feet from the water, wiggling her toes in the suds. She managed to close one eye as the splash of water Charlotte threw hit her flush in the face. “That was uncalled for, counselor.”

“So stop making fun of my dream. And your feet do not stink,” Charlie asserted. “In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if you have sweat glands at all. You always smell so good.”

Wiping and sputtering the suds away, Diana couldn’t help smiling at the complement. “So do you.”

“No, I smell clean, and I sometimes wear expensive perfume. You just naturally smell like… like the way a green aspen leaf smells when you crush it in your palm. That smell just comes off of you in waves.” Charlotte gave a little shrug at her own explanation. “Maybe it’s pheromones.”

“Gee.” Diana raised one hand to her nose and sniffed. “I never noticed.”

“Of course not. You can’t smell it, but everybody else can. Pheromones usually make guys love you and women hate you, from what I’ve heard. Yours must be universally appealing.”

Blue eyes narrowed in an arrogant smile. “Coooll,” she drawled. This earned her another splash.

“Don’t start getting cocky, Starrett. You should warn anyone who looks twice at you that they’ll have to deal with me if they get fresh.”

Sputtering soap again, Diana raised a hand to protect her face before speaking. “Oh, yeah. That should really scare them off.” The expected attack came, was blocked, and returned with a vengeance. Soon, water and suds were flying several feet in the air as the two women moved to opposite sides of the tub and splashed and screamed for all they were worth. Half the water was relocated to the floor and walls, and both fighters were stooped with laughter and covered in bubbles, hanging on to each other for dear life. Charlotte barely registered the sound of the doorbell ringing.

Diana sobered instantly, alert and aware. “You expecting company?”

Charlotte paused, trying to remember if she had a life before Friday. “Not that I know of.”

The bell rang again, and was quickly followed by the sound of a key in the lock, and the opening of the front door. Dead silence in the bathroom, except for tiny, residual drips and pops.

“CHARLIE?” A woman’s voice. Loud.

The blonde’s face collapsed in fear and recognition. “Oh, shit. It’s my sister. I gave her a key.”

“CHARLIE! YOU HOME?” The voice moved into the hall.

“You gonna answer her?” Diana asked, clearly amused beneath her bubble mask.

Scowling, Charlotte leaped from the tub and donned her bathrobe. “Guess I should head her off before she barges in here and has a heart attack.” Darting back to the edge of the bath, she cleared a patch of suds away from Diana’s mouth and kissed her soundly. “This is not over. Stay put.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Charlotte slammed the door behind her, and Diana was left alone with her thoughts – which centered on Mars’ warning about Riggins. *Watch your back. If he suspects you’re active, he’ll say you’re a rogue and send hitters after you… and they won’t care who gets in the way. You have to stay low until this is over, until Mars has control and can cover you. The first thing they would check would be the locator on the Jeep – Harry fixed that. The second would be your apartment – can’t go back there.*

With a start, Diana realized she didn’t want to go back there. Ever. She liked Charlotte’s house. It felt more like home than any place she could recall, though she doubted that feeling had anything to do with the house itself. Sparsely furnished (“Most of the junk went with Richard,” Charlie had explained) and mercifully free of pastels, the house reflected the persona of its owner in deep, rich jewel-tones and solid, earthy textures. Blues, greens, grays, and dark wood inside, bright and cheerful outside. *If she still wants me when this is over, I would stay here. For just as long as she’d have me. Please let this work out. I believe she does deserve happiness more than I don’t.*

Sinking back into the tub, Diana washed her hair while listening to the odd music of Charlotte’s mellifluous voice dueting with her sister’s loud, ragged husk. *Must be the older sister, Emily.* The voices rose and fell in a cadence of conflict, and Diana wished guiltily that she could be a fly on the wall, listening to the words instead of the noises.
Thirteen

Eyes burning red with soap and ire, Charlotte Browning charged from the bathroom into the hall, slamming the door behind her to cut off the enormous urge to turn back and kiss Diana one more time. Her sister bellowed her name again, and Charlie rounded the corner and came face to face with the evil hellspawn who interrupted her bath. Still struggling with the sash on her robe, she stopped short and glared as her hair popped and crackled, bubbles drifting down to the smoke colored carpet.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Charlotte demanded as she ran a hand across her forehead, clearing away a few errant colonies of suds.

Emily Browning-Avila, dressed in her Sunday best, looked her sopping sister over curiously before responding. “What the hell do you mean, what the hell am I doing here? It’s FIELD DAY! You said you’d come to the church and help me set up the goddamned booth!”

“Oh.” *I completely forgot… jeez. She’s gonna make me pay for this one.* Charlotte attempted to assume a contrite expression before speaking again. “I’m afraid I’m gonna have to cancel.”

Emily did a double take, shaking her gamine-cut magenta hair. “I must not have heard you right. I thought I heard you say that you were backing out on me.” Slightly taller and rounder than Charlotte, Emily moved closer as she spoke, falling back on a lifelong habit of using her size to intimidate her younger sibling. That along with the loud voice and command presence inherited from their father usually did the trick when she wanted something from Charlie. This morning, it didn’t quite cut it.

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t do it today.” *Can’t, or won’t… oh, what’s the difference! I ain’t going.*

Emily’s blue gimlet eyes narrowed to slits. “You’re just gonna leave me at the mercy of all those wicked little nuns! Alone!”

“And I am so sorry about that – I just can’t go,” Charlotte insisted. “Luis will run interference for you. He always does – your husband is a very a diplomatic man.”

Huffing and shifting her weight rapidly from foot to foot, Emily performed her patented ‘disappointed shuffle,’ but her little sister remained unmoved. “So just what is so damned important that you bail on me at the last second? Paperwork? Spending the day with your nose stuck in some dusty old law book?”

Charlotte considered (for a split-second) telling Emily just where her nose had been stuck recently, but backed off when she realized that this would not shock the blustery woman, only make her obnoxiously curious. “No, Emmy. I’m just taking the day off to recover. I didn’t think I’d be so tired, but this Falcon case really wore me out.” The younger woman played the pity card, yawning theatrically, and the move had it’s desired effect. Emily’s stern visage melted into a familiar expression of consternation and concern.

“Charlie, honey, I’ve been telling you for years that you work way too hard. You keep up this pace, you’ll be old before your time.” She placed her hands on Charlotte’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze for emphasis. “Well, did you at least win the case?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear what happened?” Charlotte was quite surprised, now that she thought of it, that her sister had not called after the incident Friday.

“No. Remember, I told you that we’d be out on the fishing boat through Saturday night,” explained Emily. “So what happened? Spill it.”

“I won, alright,” Charlotte began, holding up a hand to forestall congratulations. “But then this old guy with a pistol shoved Marco and me against a wall and threatened to shoot us. A deputy took his gun away and he was arrested.” She shrugged, past the shock, convinced now that it was no big deal.

Aghast, the red-haired woman opened and closed her mouth several times before speaking. “Well, shit! I go away for two freakin’ days, and you nearly get killed! Are you okay?” Emily drew her into a quick hug, then bounced her away again, looking her over more carefully.

Nodding serenely, Charlotte held her sister’s hands tight to reassure her. “I am perfectly fine. The deputy helped me get my head together, calm down. I’ve hardly even thought about it since Friday.”

“Do mom and dad know? Did you talk to them?”

“They haven’t called. And before you ask, no, I’m not calling them,” Charlotte declared. “If they want to talk to me, they’ve got my number. Not that they ever use it.”

“Sorry, sorry. I had to ask,” Emily said, still apologizing for their parents estrangement. “You’d think they’d be over this whole Richard-divorce thing by now.”

Snorting in derision, Charlotte released her sister’s hands and stepped back. “They won’t let anything go, Em. Dad’s still not over… you know. That whole thing in college.” A tiny flicker of pain crossed the younger woman’s features, and Emily’s eyes hardened in response.

“Lia. You can say her name, you know,” Emily informed. “She doesn’t deserve your reverence or your fear, Charlie. That little bitch wasn’t worth the salt in your tears. And daddy had no right to treat you the way he did. It wasn’t your fault.”

A somber nod in response. “I know that now. But then…”

“You were seventeen! What the hell did you know about anything? That girl used you, and I for one was damned glad when her parents yanked her back home to Japan. I hope they caned her ass.”

“They do that in Singapore, not Japan,” Charlotte corrected, but she couldn’t suppress a smile over her sister’s typical righteous, protective anger. *After eight years, she’s still mad. Not at me, like Dad, but for me. She got angry because I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t risk it. Going numb was safer. That was when things changed for me, I guess – and Emily knows it. I wonder how she’s gonna react to Diana, and how things are gonna change again because of her…*

Emily was still talking when Charlotte regained radio contact, and she tried to look like she’d been listening. “…or maybe you ought to look into switching specialties. Try something safe and dull, like corporate law or lobbying. If working for Quentin Carver is gonna put you in the line of fire, the money just ain’t worth it. Even if you are buying new cars every other month.”

The attorney was momentarily confused, then she remembered that Diana’s Jeep would be in the drive, so she played along and switched the apparent subject from her career to her car. “Well, I’ve wanted one of those forever. With my cut of that fat settlement from Rowland Pharmaceuticals, I figured I could afford it.”

Almost smiling, the larger woman wrapped an arm around Charlotte’s shoulders and drew her close. “Well if anyone deserves to spoil themselves a little, you do, kiddo. Though Luis is turning absolutely green with envy. He’s probably still out there drooling on the hood.” Emily steered them toward the front door, and Charlotte started to feel the enormous relief of being let off the hook.

“I hope the nuns aren’t too rough on you, Emmy. Just don’t pick any fights… some of them still pack rulers under their habits.”

“And they’d whack me in a skinny minute, I know,” Emily continued, chuckling. “Guess we’ll go pick up the kids from Mama Avila’s and head out. We’ll manage without you, somehow. You just take it easy, shortcake – watch some football, do the crossword… rest, okay?”

“Yes, Miss Emily,” Charlotte cooed, opening the door and gently poking her sister in the back. She caught sight of her brother-in-law, Luis, waving at her from the driveway and pointing appreciatively at a strange vehicle parked beside his mini van. Charlie tried, unsuccessfully, to keep her jaw from dropping in surprise as she realized that in place of Diana’s Jeep sat a sleek, deep blue Porsche. The car resembled a crouched jungle cat, all coiled muscle and potential power.

*Jesus H. Christ. Where did that come from?* She tried to regain her composure, but Emily noticed and poked her in the arm, ready to tease her.

“I never knew you had a thing for sports cars. You sure you can handle all that, shrimp?”

Charlotte took in the sleek, dangerous lines of the vehicle, then turned her head toward the last known location of Diana Starrett, drawing a vague parallel. “I thought so, but I’m beginning to wonder.”

Good-byes were exchanged, and Emily and Luis bravely set off to deal with Field Day at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Charlotte snatched up the Sunday paper from the front step and made a bee-line for the bathroom. She found Diana reclining languidly in the tub, a folded towel pillowing her head on the porcelain edge. More than a little curious about the car perched on her drive, Charlotte ditched her robe and stood by the tub, watching Diana watch her.

“Everything okay?” asked Diana. “Your sister gone?”

“Yeah, it’s okay, she’s gone. But you…” Charlotte began, then shook her head and assumed her best Ricky Ricardo voice, “you got some ‘splainin to do.”

Diana lifted one hand from the bubbles and made a ‘Well? Go on.’ gesture.

Charlotte stepped into the bath and immediately set about washing her matted hair. “What’s with that muscle car? Where’s your Jeep?”

Sticking with her new policy of lying as little as possible, Diana hastily explained that her Uncle Harry needed the Jeep for utility purposes, so she borrowed his car. “Made the exchange last night. I hope he never asks for that car back. The thing can fly, Charlie.”

“Yeah, that’s just what you need – a faster car.” A quick smile, and she ducked under the faucet to rinse her hair.

“That’s not just any car, missy. That happens to be a Porsche 911 Carrera Turbo. Driving it is so much fun, I think the Moral Majority once tried to have that model outlawed,” Diana claimed.

“Yeah, pull the other one while you’re at it,” Charlotte said, nudging Diana with her leg while squeezing the excess water from her hair. “Would you be interested in going shopping with me today? I need to pick up something to wear tonight… and we really should get my car out of the Treus parking lot before they decide to have it towed away.”

“I guess we should do that. As for shopping, I’m not really that into it – but I’ll go if you want me to. I should find something to wear to this soiree myself…”

“Oh yay!” Charlie interrupted, “You’ve gotta let me get you a dress, something really killer… maybe a little black number with spaghetti straps, something to show off that tan… oh, hell. Like it matters what you wear. You’d look great in a burlap sack. But, just between you and me,” she whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “I’d rather you wear something really sexy. Let’s pick up some silk stockings, garters… no underwear, though. I wanna be ogling you while Marco’s ogling me.”

Though she had the good grace to blush at the notion, Diana soon relented to the young attorney’s powers of persuasion. She only hoped that she could keep some small part of her mind on work tonight. *Well, you wanted a distraction. Guess falling ass-over-teakettle in love wasn’t quite what you had in mind… but it’s too late now. Enjoy it, use it. She’s the best motivation you could ask for.*

——————————————————————————–

After the bath, the two fell into a series of impossibly familiar and comforting activities. The morning hours passed pleasantly with the completion of the crossword puzzle (although there was a brief, negligible conflict over the use of the word epee instead of foil on 23 down), and the viewing of CNN and numerous Warner Brothers cartoons. There were several instances of spontaneous lovemaking, and by lunch, every room in the house had been christened – including the laundry room.
While removing a dryer sheet from the back of her brassiere, Charlotte noted that she would never think of the ‘spin cycle’ quite the same way again.

Just past one o’clock, they settled down long enough to have a light lunch of sandwiches on the sofa, sitting close enough to feed each other, acutely aware that they were now loathe to be out of physical contact for more than a few moments at a time.

“This is just getting disgusting now, you know,” one of them observed. The other agreed and smiled, reveling in the feeling even as they acknowledged how sickeningly sweet their behavior would appear to any who witnessed them – giggling and groping like teenagers whose parents are out for the evening. Eventually, another shower became necessary before embarking into the outside world for their shopping expedition. Being environmentally conscious, they chose to conserve water by taking only one.

Charlotte managed to find a presentable shirt among Richard’s belongings, one that would look decent enough to stroll around in, and Diana finally relinquished the Chargers sweatshirt to the hamper.

——————————————————————————–

Although she didn’t want to give Diana the satisfaction of hearing her say it aloud, Charlotte loved the car. Windows down, stereo blasting, and Diana actually driving like a responsible citizen – what more could she ask for? She was moved enough by the experience to croon along with “Love Is A Battlefield” in a remarkably bad Pat Benatar impression, causing Diana to sing even louder trying to drown her out.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Charlie yelled over the din. Diana just grinned and shook her head. “Good! Just wait ’til you hear my Sheryl Crow!”

Diana groaned quietly and drove a wee bit faster.

Snug in the heart of town, Lansing Center was well known as the home of the best clothiers in Elceda, but just as well known for its woefully insufficient parking. The three story structure of old stone, translucent glass and gleaming chrome had been erected with style as the foremost concern. Convenience and functionality could be found at the mall off the highway.

Diana and Charlotte had opted to use the multi-level parking garage across the street, cheerfully coughing up five dollars for the sleepy eyed attendant rather than wasting time scouting for an all too rare free space in the street. As Diana lagged slightly behind, Charlotte trotted over to enter the consumer wonderland, brimming with an ebullience and generosity she only felt when preparing to buy a gift. They disappeared through a set of smoked glass double doors and did what came naturally. For Charlie, that was shopping like there was no tomorrow; for Diana, that was complaining about having to try on the endless supply of outfits the attorney suggested, and unconsciously intimidating the hell out of a few snooty salespeople.

——————————————————————————–

Approximately forty-five minutes had passed when a black sedan carrying two men wheeled into the parking garage. They did not know which car belonged to the target, only that she was in the shopping complex less than ten minutes ago, and chances were high that she would use this garage. They parked, checked their weapons and equipment and took their positions – one near the entrance, the other by the elevator. Both men knew that it could be a while before their target returned, so while the older one waited silently and tried to maintain the focus necessary to carry out what he knew would be a difficult assignment, the younger retrieved a packet of pistachio nuts from his coat pocket and had a light snack. He had not worked with her, and felt sure that his partner exaggerated, that the woman was overrated.

——————————————————————————–

“I think you’re too civic-minded for your own good, Charlie,” Diana teased as they struggled through the exit, hauling nine shopping bags stuffed to capacity. “You’re single-handedly trying to hold off a recession among retail merchants, aren’t you?”

“Leave me be, woman!” Charlotte shot back, “What’s the good in working like a dog if I can’t enjoy spending my exorbitant salary?” She turned to stick out her tongue, and nearly toppled over with the
weight of her parcels. “WHOA, NELLIE!”

Diana grabbed her arm and righted her, then settled her share of the packages on the sidewalk. “You might not even make it across the street at this rate. Wait here, I’ll go get the car and bring it down. ”

“And they say chivalry is dead,” Charlotte deadpanned.

The tall woman curtsied gracefully and gave her a wink, checking her watch before darting across the road, weaving carefully through the light traffic. As she approached the entrance to the garage, she slowed her steps almost unconsciously, passing the attendant and offering a friendly wave. Once inside, Diana noted how utterly silent the place was – like a car mausoleum. Her heels made a sharp, rhythmic click against the concrete, and she fell into an easy gait as she headed for the stairs. Almost there, she picked up a faint sound, like the scuffling and crunching of soft-shoe dancing – or nut shells being crushed underfoot. The sound ceased almost instantly, and was replaced by a light rustling of fabric and quick, airy footsteps. All her warning bells began to ring at maximum volume as adrenaline flooded her system. Someone was following her, and trying not to be heard.

*Behind me, maybe twenty feet, closing fast.*

With no time to think, Diana let her instincts take over, and her first instinct was to run. Her shoes fell away and she broke into a dead run for the stairs, throwing open the door and taking the first flight three steps at a time. She could hear her pursuer’s footfalls as they reached the door and came up after her. Once she had reached the second floor exit, she flung the door open loud enough to make a racket, and headed up to the third level. She stopped just behind the rail and peered over the edge, watching as a young man in a dark suit rushed through the second floor door. He had a small-caliber pistol with a silencer in one hand, and what appeared to be a syringe in the other. Tucking the capped needle into his coat pocket, he scanned frantically for her, and completely forgot to watch his back.

*Rookie.*

She dropped over the rail, landing softly and slipping through the door just before it closed. Ten long strides and she stood behind him, matching his movements and staying out of his line of sight.

*God, where does Riggins get these guys? Mercenary magazines?*

Diana drew back a fist and punched a wedge of knuckles into the base of his skull even as her foot rocketed out to strike the back of his knee. The man cried out sharply and fell to the concrete, but did not drop his gun. She then grabbed the gun hand and twisted his arm at an ungodly angle, opening up his armpit to a quick uppercut from her knee. The sharp, searingly painful contact of speeding bone with the vulnerable ganglia of nerves made him relinquish his hold on the gun. It also dislocated his shoulder and ripped the hell out of his rotator cuff, but that was beside the point. The gun clattered to the floor, and Diana knelt and retrieved it just as the man’s partner cleared the doorway, gun in hand. Diana grabbed the younger agent roughly and held his squirming body in front of her as a human shield, aiming the agent’s confiscated weapon over his own mangled shoulder at his partner.

“Drop it or die where you stand,” she ordered, her voice even, hard, and not remotely reasonable.

He hesitated less than a second, then pulled the gun up, pointing the barrel at the ceiling as he slowly lowered it to the ground. He kept his palms raised and in clear view at all times, taking no chances.

“Thank you. Now make like Pele and kick it as far away as you can. Keep your hands up.”

Again, he complied almost instantly. His partner moaned a little and struggled, prompting Diana to speed things up a little. She pressed the barrel to his temple and reached inside the coat pocket for the syringe, then held it up for inspection. The pale green liquid within was a familiar sight – a powerful, custom synthetic used to induce up to eighteen hours of unconsciousness.

“This was for me, I assume.” She addressed the question to the older, obviously smarter agent.

“Yes.”

“So Riggins wants me alive?”

“Yes.”

She regarded the syringe curiously, then clamped it between her teeth and tugged the young man up by his hair, keeping the gun firmly against his head. She uncapped the needle and pressed the point to his neck, whispering in his ear, “Try not to stumble. I don’t want to have to carry you.”

Diana addressed the senior again. “Is your vehicle downstairs?”

“Yes. First floor.”

“Good. Let’s take a walk. You lead the way, slowly. Hands behind your head now.”

The older agent did as instructed, and Diana followed along, pushing the limping young man in front of her. Soon, they had descended the stairs and stood behind the standard issue black sedan, fortuitously parked in a far corner. She was aware of and thankful for the lightness of the traffic in the garage, easily dodged and causing no real distress.

*Chargers play today, maybe all the sane people are watching football.*

“Open the trunk and pull up the carpet. Take out the tire tools and slide them under the vehicle,” she instructed again, still in a commanding tone, but low enough not to carry to other ears. The agent did as she asked, and as soon as she ascertained that there were no other goodies in the trunk, she shoved the younger agent against the bumper and held the gun on the two men.

“One quick question before you go in, gentlemen. How did you find me here?”

The younger man snorted in derision, and the older agent smacked his injured shoulder.

“Shut-the-fuck-up, Martin,” he hissed. He knew that there was a small, smoldering chance that they might get out of this alive, and he was determined to keep that ember lit. “Cellular phone. A call was placed, we triangulated the signal to the building across the street.”

*Oh, great. Left it in my purse. Charlie must have used the phone for something. My bad. At least this one won’t cost me.*

Diana smiled at the man, appreciative of his cautious nature and vaguely aware that he seemed familiar. She couldn’t place his face, though – and there was no reason that she should recognize one of Riggins’ men… was there?

“Thanks. Now, Prince Charming, it’s time for a little nap,” she said, and approached the younger agent with the syringe. He lunged forward, as expected, and she struck his nose hard with the butt of his pistol. That took the fight right out of him, and he slumped into the trunk, unconscious.

“Well, that’s one way to do it, Di.” The older man spoke to her in a friendly voice, even offered a wan smile. His pale, flat features, and straw-colored hair combined with his lanky, thin physique to give him the look of a scarecrow.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

“You used to.” He shook his head, marveling at the things Mangano could make people forget. She was important enough to merit the full wash, but he himself had been subjected to minimal action and had, therefore, received minimal treatments. He still remembered Diana Starrett quite well – well enough to make him very cooperative. “Could you inject me first, please? I don’t know where this little shit has been,” he requested, gesturing at his partner with a jerk of his thumb.

“Sure. Turn around.” Diana placed the barrel against his head, though she knew somehow that she wouldn’t have to use it, and injected half of the syringe’s contents into the man’s neck. “Step forward, but don’t turn around yet.” She repeated the procedure on the younger agent, then crammed him into the trunk, leaving the lion’s share of room for the taller man. “Okay. Get in.”

He folded himself into the trunk with as much dignity as possible, even giving her a smile before she closed the lid. “Good luck, Diana. I hope Harry pulls it off,” he said as the darkness enveloped him.

Tucking the gun into the waistband of her skirt, Diana retrieved her shoes and headed for the Porsche, aware now that Harry Mars was not exaggerating about having supporters within the agency. *Hell, he even has supporters on Riggins’ own staff.* She unlocked the car and got in, shoving the gun under the seat as she cranked the engine. The dash clock read 5:48 – less than five minutes had passed since she left Charlie on the street, but her first thought was *Damn! She’s gonna kill me…*
Fourteen
Much to her relief, Diana found Charlotte exactly where she had left her – marooned on the sidewalk amid the flotsam of her shopping spree. She was still slightly wired from the encounter in the garage, but her breathing was now even and calm. Casting only a brief glance back to the scene, her mind lingered a moment on the older agent, his familiar manner.

*Dan? Is that this name? He didn’t say… Dan… I gotta call Harry.*

She pulled the car over and rolled down the window as Charlotte stepped towards her. She didn’t look angry about being left there so long, her smile flashing flirtatiously as she leaned against the door.

*Maybe those five minutes didn’t feel as long to her… then again, she wasn’t stuffing two men into the trunk of a Crown Victoria, was she?*

“You lookin’ for a date, sailor?” Charlie asked, pale brows lifting expectantly over cool green eyes.

“Naaah, just window shopping,” Diana replied. “You don’t look like a working girl in those clothes, miss. Way too preppy.” She slipped the Porsche into park and clicked on the hazard lights, then jumped out to help load the numerous bags.

“I’ll have you know that I was propositioned after no more than two minutes of standing here alone,” said Charlotte, a tad indignant as she relayed one glossy parcel after another.

“I’m guessing it was an offer you could refuse,” the taller woman teased.

“Oh, yeah. A veiny old perv in a white Cadillac. Said I looked like Pippi Longstocking with these braids,” she said, flipping one lengthy twine of golden hair over her shoulder. “Maybe I should wear my hair up tonight. Makes me look older, less like the eternal virgin.”

“That look, my dear, has nothing to do with your hair,” Diana claimed. “Although I would be happy to correct anyone who suffers from that particular delusion. I’m already having a bit of trouble walking after only two days in your company…”

A stiff slap to the shoulder cut off any further commentary on that subject, though the young woman did look somewhat prideful at the notion of having impaired her lover’s ambulatory abilities.

“I still can’t believe you bought all this stuff,” said Diana while stuffing the last of the packages into the tiny back seat. “I never would have pegged you as a clotheshorse.”

“Drop it, Starrett – or I’ll go back in and clean out the entire store just to spite you,” Charlotte threatened, pointing a loaded finger. Diana held up her hands in surrender as she jogged back to the driver’s side and got in.

“Consider it dropped. On to Treus, then?” she asked, flicking off the hazards and easing the car back into traffic.

Charlotte nodded and stretched, yawning as she spoke. “Yeeeaaahh. Grab my car, then we should head home, dress and get over to Marco’s as soon as we can.”

*Home,* Diana repeated to herself, mulling that over first before processing the rest of the words and managing to formulate a question. “Why the rush to get over there, Charlie? Didn’t you say that guy bugged you?”

“I don’t want to see Marco. I want to talk to his mother – I told you that,” Charlotte answered, sounding more amused than defensive. “You have a memory glitch, there, hon?”

Diana nearly had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing at the irony of that innocent jibe. “Just a little one. Long-standing problem I hope to have fixed someday,” she said, smiling toward the tinted side window. “Still, why go earlier than necessary?”

“I used your phone to call Maribel while you were trying on that little Donna Karan number,” Charlie recalled. “She said she’d be happy to talk to us, but that we should get there before Marco’s guests start arriving, so that we can have some privacy.”

*Well, that makes sense. Thus ends the phone call mystery.* “You want to talk to her about the dream thing, right? Slipped my mind. Sorry.”

“S’okay. I have trouble remembering things myself these days. I think my brain is rebelling against all the tortures I put it through in school,” the attorney explained, taking advantage of a stoplight to weave her fingers with those of her driver, resting both their hands on the gear shift.

“Law school was that rough on you, eh?”

The younger woman bit back a snort of laughter. “Now, there’s an understatement! I always thought of law school as being the opposite of sex – even when it’s pretty good, it’s still lousy. Felt like three years in a liberal gulag.”

“Oooh,” the dark woman moaned in mock-sympathy, “such tortures you’ve known.” Diana pulled Charlotte’s hand to her lips, kissing each finger in turn before leaning over to connect with her mouth in a soft, slow kiss. A horn blared behind them, and Charlie blinked her eyes open.

“Light’s green,” she murmured, without moving to pull back.

“So? Let ’em wait.” Diana deepened the sweet contact, finding teeth and tongue, determined to steal a bit of peace while she could. She knew such moments would occur with a distressing infrequency over the next several hours, and was determined not to let a single opportunity pass unexploited.

One open eye caught the turning of the light from green to yellow, and she hit the gas just enough to get them through the intersection. The route to Treus translated to twelve blocks = twelve kisses, and for most of the trip, Diana was driving while intoxicated.

——————————————————————————–

“That’s your car? It looks more like an armored personnel carrier!” Blue eyes squinted as they took in the black, boxy shape, the toothy silver grill.

Charlotte huffed, taking offense. “Hey, don’t give me shit about my Volvo! It’s..”

“Safe. I know, I know,” Diana interrupted, shaking her head as Charlotte disembarked. “I’ll meet you back at your place. Gotta fill up the tank and have the oil checked.”

“Okay. Don’t be long, but be careful – drive like a sane person,” Charlotte warned, then waved as she jogged across the deserted parking lot to her luxury Sherman tank. Diana watched her until the Volvo had pulled onto the street, then she peeled out of the lot and found the nearest service station, setting up her phone and coding unit while the eager young attendant popped the hood. Twenty-four dollars later, she punched in the digits for a secure connection and drove away, waiting for the call to go through.

Today, the screening service played the Richard Harris version of “MacArthur Park,” and for the first time, she found herself unable to listen to a selection on the jukebox from hell. Diana held the phone away from her ear until Harry Mars came on the line, sounding out of breath.

“Running yourself ragged, Mars?” she asked, only slightly smug.

“Hey, organizing a coup is hard work,” Harry shot back. “How are things on the front line?”

“Heating up, I’m afraid. Two of Riggins’ goons stumbled onto me this afternoon.”

“Shit. They give you any trouble?” The scrape and click of a lighter was heard as Harry lit up a cigarette to calm his nerves.

Diana chuckled, as if the answer should be evident. “You’re talking to me, aren’t you? I’m fine.”

A long hiss of breath, like a release of steam from a swollen pipe. “You put ’em down?”

“Nope. Drugged ’em hard and stashed them for a while. They won’t bother me tonight.”

“Dammit, Diana! You gotta watch your ass on this one. You’re out there alone, and you can’t afford to play nice with everybody.” Mars tried to keep his voice more angry than concerned, but failed.

Frowning as she waited at a stoplight, the agent realized that she hadn’t even considered killing the men as a precaution, only as a last resort. *Just like with that little boy.*

“I know that, and I don’t intend to hold to this policy if I feel I’m in danger, but these two were no threat. One was a complete amateur, and the other treated me like an old friend,” she said, rousing her own curiosity again. “Skinny blonde guy, very cooperative – scared, almost. May be called ‘Dan,’ or something like that. Addressed me by name. Can you think of any reason why he’d do that, Harry?”

The answer was delayed by two beats, just long enough to make Diana worry. “None that I like the sound of. He’s one of Riggins’ men? You shouldn’t have had any contact with them during your time here,” he claimed. “They do a different sort of work than us.”

“What kind of work?”

Mars paused, sucking the cigarette and exhaling smoke into the phone. “Wetwork,” he said simply.

“Just killing? That’s their specialty? Nonono… these two were not stone killers. If Riggins has all these wetwork pros at his disposal, why would he send Slim and None after me?”

“Can’t say for sure – maybe my moves have cut into his selection. His staff is shrinking by the hour,” Harry gloated.

“Is that a dick joke, Mars?” she asked, mustering a tiny giggle.

“No, gutterbrain,” he chided, trying to stay on the subject. “All I can really offer you are rumors about his unit’s proficiency, rumors of their involvement in messy situations over the past several years.”

“Like what? Anything I would have heard of?” Diana was undeniably intrigued.

“You remember eight years back, that keiretsu seeking protection from the Yakuza?”

Diana came up with a hit immediately. She remembered the important points of the case. “Yeah. Matsuda Group, wasn’t it? We had to turn them down because there was no national threat.”

“One and the same. The Japanese government may not have thought it important enough to ask for help, but Riggins has always been responsive to private offers. Some say that he sent his crew in there and expunged the troublemakers,” Mars explained. “Quite a mess. But afterwards, there was a sudden infusion of capital for the agency – it may have been a private deal with the keiretsu.”

“Harry, we’re not guns for hire. We’re supposed to have a just purpose, something more than money,” Diana insisted, though some part of her knew that this had never been completely true.

“You and me, Di. Can’t speak for the Director, although I know in my gut that this Falcon thing comes down to money for him. He’s working an angle, and it has nothing to do with an international trial for war criminals.”

“Maybe he arranged for their escape in the first place, just so he could sell or barter them back,” Diana theorized, making a sudden leap in logic. “Could be that he and Marco Falcon are team mates.”

Dead silence on the line as Harry Mars worked that possibility into a probability. “If that’s the case, he could show up for the meet tonight. Diana, you need to get out of there. If he spots you, there will be trouble.”

She quickly weighed the risks of a personal encounter with Riggins against the benefits of busting not only Falcon, Bartok and Jamal, but the director himself. Then there was the immeasurable benefit of getting out and having a future of her own making – one which she was unwilling to set aside for anything.

“No, Harry. I’ll see it through.”

“You don’t have to,” he persisted, “It’s not inconceivable now that I could strong-arm him out the door – I have the support of enough people to make it possible.” Mars tried again to quell the rising anxiety by taking a long drag. Both he and Diana knew that he was lying – without something to take to the U.N., the transfer of power would not be official, and Harry’s authority would not be recognized.

Diana tried again to take the yoke off his shoulders, to ease his immoderate sense of responsibility for her safety. “I’m not afraid of him, you know. If those guys this afternoon were all he has left to throw at me, then he’s dead in the water – I could take the likes of them in my sleep. If he shows tonight, all the better. We’ll add him to our gift basket for the U.N., along with the rest of the He-Man Human Haters Club.”

The quiet told her he was probably smiling, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing for certain. “I don’t doubt your abilities, and I know that under normal circumstances this would be a walk in the park for you… but these are not normal circumstances,” Mars began, trying to keep his courage level high enough to speak candidly.

“This is the first time you’ve had anything personal at stake, and while your situation may augment your motivation, it may serve as a… a hindrance to maintaining focus.”

“Harry, what the hell are you talking about?” she interrupted, tiring quickly of his double-talk. She heard a defeated sigh on the line, and when Harry spoke again, he sounded different. Not just worried, but strained, reproachful…

*Jealous?*

“I’m talking about your sudden interest in quitting us after spending two nights in the sack with some chippy lawyer. I’m talking about the possibility that I could lose my best agent because she isn’t thinking straight – no pun intended. My worry is that your ‘good reason to live’ could wreck your concentration – that could get you killed… and I’m not prepared for that contingency.”

Diana waited silently, somewhat dumbstruck at the latent revelation. She heard him draw a deep breath and light another cigarette. She realized that Harry Mars had been listening to her words very carefully at their meeting the previous evening, and that he knew more about her reasons than he had let on.

*Eladio probably told him about Charlotte at first, and he inferred the rest. I know he’s always had kind of a soft spot for me, but I don’t need to deal with his feelings right now. Neither does he.*

She downshifted and turned sharply, scraping the ground spoiler on sloped asphalt as she wheeled into a convenient parking lot – she wanted to be sitting still for this. Finding a secluded spot, she slipped the Porsche out of gear and let the engine idle.

“You finished, Harry?” asked Diana, surprisingly calm.

“Mmm hmm,” he mumbled. “I said my piece. Am I wrong?”

“You’re more than wrong, you’re out of line,” she stated bluntly. “My reasons for wanting out are my own, and they have nothing to do with you, therefore they are none of your goddamned business. I can focus just fine, thank you, and I will complete my end of the deal. At the very least, I’ll deliver the location of the safe-houses. Then I’ll expect you to come through on your end – and let me out.”

“I have no intention of reneging on our agreement, I’m just concerned you’re doing this for the wrong…”

“Don’t be. This was my idea, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could pull it off. Quit wondering about the whys and think about the hows. Take care of your end and let me worry about mine,” Diana advised in a clipped tone, free of pretense.

Harry Mars was quiet then, thinking hard and brooding over his untimely emotional outburst. Despite his doubts regarding her choice of partners, he knew that Diana had exhibited shrewd judgment in that area, and had never compromised an operation for personal reasons. A long drag later, he cleared his throat and choked out a quick, hacking cough – evidence of his two pack a day habit.

“You outta quit smoking so much, boss. There’s eight million ways to die without begging for another,” she offered finally, breaking the standoff.

“Hey, you smoke,” he muttered.

“Only a little, and not often. All things in moderation, right? I don’t go overboard with anything.”

“Does that include the lawyer?”

*Touché.*

“I’m not gonna lie, Harry. I’ve never felt like this before, and although she is the main reason I want out, she’s not the sole cause. Everything I told you last night about burning out is true – I just can’t stand the thought of doing this until I die,” Diana explained. “I want a new life, and I know that I could be happy with her. Whatever has to be done to afford me that opportunity, I’m gonna do.”

“Even if that means a face to face with Riggins?”

“He won’t know what hit him,” she promised. “Unless he’s got some mondo ace up his sleeve, he’s going down. Underestimating you is dangerous enough, but if he thought those two goons could bring me in, he’s misjudged me as well.”

Harry shook off a second of confusion. “Wait a minute. Bring you in?”

“Yeah. The skinny one said that Riggins wanted me alive. They had a heavy dose of Morpheus with my name on it.”

“Well, that speaks to how important he thinks you are. He’s not known for leaving loose ends, Di,” he reminded. “And you say one of the hitters seemed to know you?”

“That’s what I said. And that’s what he said – I dunno how much credence to give his word, though.”

“If Riggins didn’t stand to lose anything, he would have sent them in with guns blazing. Why would he want you intact?”

“I wondered about that myself, but I didn’t have time to question this ‘Dan’ thoroughly,” she said. “This is starting to worry me a little. Would you do some checking, find out if there are any gaps in my service record before I was assigned to you full time?”

She could hear the wheels turning in Harry’s head as he processed the request.

“You think there’s something to find? Some connection with Riggins?”

Tapping her fingers nervously on the steering wheel, Diana wondered if she really wanted to know.

“Mars, if I surface, it’s gonna come out anyway. If that’s the case, I’d like to know before it blindsides me.”

A heavy exhale, and he agreed with a grunt. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Diana hit the clutch and shifted into reverse, pulling back onto the street to resume her trek back to Charlotte’s. “You do that. I need to go.”

“Gotta get ready for tonight?”

“Uh huh. I checked the trunk and was well pleased,” she purred. “You stashed a little bit of everything in here, didn’t you?”

“Be prepared, that’s my motto.”

“Ahhh. Maybe that’s why Riggins hates you – deep down, you’re just a fuckin’ Boy Scout.”

Diana waited until Harry Mars stopped laughing before saying goodbye, hoping that he had forgiven himself for the little slip in his cool facade.

*Eladio used to tease you about being ‘teacher’s pet.’ If he were here, he’d give you such hell about this…*

As she drove on, something Charlie said that morning kept coming back to her.

*Pheromones.*

She drew her hand up to her face and sniffed her own wrist.

*Naaahh.*

Fifteen

Charlotte Browning sang along with the radio all the way home. Van Morrison, Shawn Colvin, and Puff Daddy all were beneficiaries of her unique vocal accompaniment, and she generously left the windows down on her car so that pedestrians and passers-by could enjoy a free (if incredibly brief) concert as she whizzed past. Her thoughts were occupied with several small revelations about her new lover’s character, traits revealed over the course of an afternoon filled with slow tortures for the dark beauty – like forcing her to try on twenty-two pairs of shoes in a row.

*She’s patient. Diana hardly complained at all, just let me loose and humored me all day – even though I could plainly see that she hated all those sales vultures fawning all over her.*

On at least three separate occasions, she had feared for the safety of some aggressive salesperson, mostly when one of them had disagreed with the young attorney’s selections. When the wisdom of her choice was questioned, Diana seemed to impose herself between Charlotte and the offending party, not ashamed to use her formidable presence to send them into fits of kow-towing. First time it happened, Charlie nearly fell over laughing as the tall woman tried her best to look innocent.

*She doesn’t mind the occasional PDA, either. Held my hand a few times, couple of hugs, kiss on the cheek. Almost daring somebody to look at us sideways. Good for them nobody did…*

Charlie still used her father’s military appellation for ‘public displays of affection’. Even as children, whenever she or her sisters had sought to kiss or hug him in front of other officers, he would whisper harshly, “PDA,” and they would immediately disengage or suffer the consequences. Possibly as a result, Charlotte had become a “huggy” person, but only on her own terms, with those few people she liked or trusted enough to risk it. She wondered absently why she had never felt the need to hold Richard’s hand, or even hug him when he made some silly joke or comment to lighten her mood.

*It doesn’t count unless you mean it. Touching him with nothing behind it would have been like lying to him, and I can at least say that I never did that intentionally, despite daddy’s lectures about the sanctity of marriage vows. Saying ‘I do’ might be the only time I ever deceived him – and then I was lying to myself more than to Richard.*

Gradually, as she was in no rush, she made her way through the gates of The Meadows and found herself parked in the driveway. Then she just sat in the car. Charlie realized that she was a little hesitant to go into her own house alone.

*It’s empty…. that never bothered me before. Going into an empty house, being alone. Certainly didn’t bother me when Richard left, but this is different. It’ll feel different without her here.*

She switched off the engine and sat twirling her keys around a finger, staring at the front door and feeling terribly silly.

*When the hell did this happen? At what point did I actually start to need her? To think that she might need me? Had to be that dream. Saving her seemed to be my only concern, and that feeling just transferred over when I woke up. And now I’m stuck with it, even if she doesn’t need me.*

Her attention shifted as she heard the sound of running water off to her left. Charlotte’s nearest neighbor, Fred Potter, was hosing down his driveway with a power washer. The hood was up on his Saab, and a red pool of oily fluid left in the wake of some odd repair job was being hustled into the gutter. Charlie found herself transfixed at the sight of the pale pink solution being blasted away, leaving only faint traces of crimson stain on the pale concrete.

*She will need you.*

The thought came loud and clear, totally unbidden – like a disembodied voice. Charlotte thought for a second that she might have left the radio on, then remembered that the keys were in her hand. The voice came again, both familiar and new.

*Don’t be afraid. Just trust your instincts, follow your heart. She won’t hurt you…*

She twisted around, checking the back seat and finding it empty.

“What the fuck is going on?”

She was alone. And hearing voices.

“Oh, God. I’m cracking up,” Charlotte declared, a little too loudly. Fred Potter heard her voice and gave her a friendly wave. Gathering her wits, she managed to return the gesture and smile at her still-sane neighbor. When she turned away, she was tremendously relieved to see the midnight blue Porsche turning in the drive. Charlotte closed her eyes and sighed, only to hear the voice once again.

*You’re going to have to trust her. She will need you.*

“OKAY! OKAY! I TRUST HER! NOW JUST SHUT-UP!” Charlie cried out, suddenly shaking in frustration and confusion. A hand fell on her forearm and she nearly jumped through the sunroof.

“It’s alright, it’s just me,” Diana said softly. She opened the car door and crouched at Charlotte’s side, keeping one hand on the young woman’s arm. “You okay?”

Looking down into Diana’s eyes, Charlotte found her calm again. She noticed tiny white specks floating in those irises of surpassing blue, and wondered if they were signs of concern – like calcium deposits under fingernails. Her mother told her than those little white spots meant she worried too much, so she covered them with a pale polish, not wanting to worry about how much she worried.

“I’m fine, really. Just yelling for no good reason,” she lied, not wanting to question her own sanity aloud – at least not yet.

Diana didn’t seem entirely convinced, but let it go anyway. “Good.” She pulled lightly on Charlie’s arm, tugging her from the Volvo. “C’mon and help me lug your new wardrobe inside.”

No sooner had the blonde woman reached her feet than she wrapped her arms around her lover in a crushing hug. She whispered low, barely vocalizing, barely understanding her need to say the words.

“I do trust you. I swear I do. I love you, Diana.”

She felt the tall woman stiffen for a fleeting moment, then return the embrace fully, resting her cheek against the top of her head. Then she heard a response, so light it could have been a breath.

“Ditto.”

Diana held her until Charlotte loosened her grip, then she leaned down and gave her a small kiss. “Mind if I ask what brought this on?”

The blonde just smiled thinly and shook her head. “Wish I knew. I just needed to say it, I guess.”

Blue eyes swam with a flurry of unidentifiable emotions, then warmed remarkably with regard. “It doesn’t matter why you said it. It’s good to know,” Diana said enigmatically.

“Thank you,” Charlotte murmured, clutching the arms resting around her waist.

“For what?”

“For not letting my loopiness scare you,” she replied. “Most people would be a bit put off by dream – obsessed, yelling-at-thin-air, spontaneous-declaration-making lawyers.”

A toothy white grin and another kiss for reassurance came in short order. “It’s gonna take a lot more than that to scare me off, Charlie.”

“Good. You’re probably in for a lot worse in the future, so buckle up. This could be a bumpy ride.”

“Ooh. Promises, promises…”

A few more moments were spent in the pursuit of solace before the two decided to break off and head inside, toting along the spoils of an afternoon spent looting department stores. To his credit, Fred Potter only stared for a few seconds after they disappeared before retreating into the garage to coil his hose.

——————————————————————————–

“Diana, would you please sit still! You squirm around like that, the liner will smear and we’ll have to start all over.”

“I don’t like having anything poked at my eye. Can’t help it.”

“Well, try. Now be still.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“There. That’s more like it. See? You don’t need much eye makeup at all, with those dark lashes. I, on the other hand, look like an embryo unless I get two coats of mascara.”

“You do not.”

“I do, too. Doesn’t bother me now, though. I made my peace with Max Factor several years back. Now purse your lips like this.”

“Charlie, I can do this myself.”

“Please let me? I want to feel like I have some hand in how incredible you look.”

“Sheesh. All these compliments are giving me a swelled head.”

“I’ll get you an ice pack – after you purse you lips.”

<Purse>

“Thank you. Now smeck them together for me.”

<Smeck. Smeck.>

“See? Now that didn’t hurt a bit. Stand up and let’s have a look.”

Diana rose from the chair where she had spent the last ten minutes being painted like a flesh canvas, stretching out her stiff lower back. She turned to the mirror and did a double take, not quite recognizing the glamour puss staring back at her from the glass. Charlotte stood by her side, gloating quietly.

“Holy cow. Vendela, eat your heart out,” Diana joked. “You’re a regular artiste, Madame Browning.”

Charlie poked her in the arm. “Not that there was much room for improvement. Ninety-nine percent genetics, one percent artistry. You look good enough to eat.”

Blue eyes met hazel in the mirror, and for a long, long second, they considered blowing off the party altogether. Diana smiled crookedly and shook her head, turning to face her greatest temptation.

“So do you,” she purred, running fingertips along Charlotte’s bare shoulders. “But from what you said, Mrs. Falcon is a wonderful cook. We shouldn’t spoil our appetites by having dessert first.” Diana chucked her on the chin and went to find her shoes.

“Phooey.” Charlie feigned a pout and straightened her dress, checking her profile in the mirror. A slim silhouette in aquamarine silk, strapless and carefree. The hemline fell right above her knee, revealing just enough toned leg to attract attention without sending out invitations.

*Well, maybe one invitation,* she thought, lascivious smile flashing in the mirror as Diana reappeared over her shoulder.

The dress Charlotte had selected for her companion was black, form-fitting, and did not restrict her range of motion. During a rare moment alone in the dressing room, the agent’s sense of professional responsibility compelled her to run through a difficult kata, testing her limits in the garment. One of the sales vultures had walked in while Diana had her leg stretched almost parallel to her body, braced against the wall in an impressive display of flexibility. “Just checking the seams. Does Donna Karan offer a gi in a size 8 tall?” Diana had quipped to the nonplused woman, who seemed torn between her concern for the safety of the dress, and her obvious shock at seeing the tall figure contorted in such a position.

“Well, I’m ready whenever you are,” Diana said, gathering her purse and giving it a light squeeze. The success of her endeavor this evening would hinge in large part on the items cleverly concealed within that small black bag, and she had selected and tested each before stocking them inside. Guns would be a no-no – with Falcon’s paranoia about security, there would surely be a discrete check made for such weapons. With that in mind, she had chosen a few small items from Harry’s collection of razor-sharp ceramic blades and concealed them invisibly on her person.

*Any luck at all, and I won’t need them,* she thought.

“Let’s head ’em up and move ’em out!” Charlotte responded. “We’re off to see the wizard, babe.”

“Yipe.”

——————————————————————————–

The Porsche reached the gates at Parsonage Drive shortly before seven-thirty pm. Diana reached out and buzzed the house on the rusty call box.

“HOLA?” shouted a brusque voice through the tinny speaker.

“It’s Charlotte, Mrs. Falcon. Can we come up now?”

“CHARLIE! COME! COME! I’M IN THE KITCHEN! I’LL OPEN THE BACK FOR YOU!”

A bzzzzt, then the gates slowly drifted open, creaking like an ancient tomb. Diana allowed Charlotte to guide her down the winding driveway, even though she was as familiar with this house and property as anyone could be, and she parked in a gravel lot just behind the house.

Up close, Falcon’s home was less impressive than she had recalled, looking more like an aged pink monolith than a residence. Mold grew in patchy clumps along the base of the structure, blending with the vines choking along a rickety trellis which stretched up to the third floor windows. Tall lamps cast a salmon light on the back path, and dimly illuminated the rest of the grounds. An olympic-sized swimming pool – set too close to the house – was filled with brackish water and coated in dead leaves. Rose bushes grew wild along the back perimeter, a thin border between the mushy grass and dense forest just beyond.

They clicked carefully up a cracked stone path, and Charlotte led them in through the unlocked rear entrance. Inside the house, no lights burned in the back foyer, and they ambled through a dark, barren hallway before emerging into the comparative heaven of the kitchen. A large woman, colorfully dressed in a multi-hued kaftan stood hunched over the stove, testing the contents of one bowl among several burbling pots. The room smelled better than anything Diana could have imagined – spicy, sweet and warm.

Charlotte motioned for Diana to stay put, and she crept silently toward the distracted woman. As soon as she stood directly behind her, she reached out to touch her shoulder, intending to surprise her. In a flash, her hand was caught in a firm grip as the cook turned swiftly away from her work and grabbed her with a free hand – the other still held a spoon full of pale green paste.

“You should be ashamed, trying to scare an old lady. Maybe you’re not hungry, eh Charlie?” the woman said with a mischievous twinkle in her dark eyes.

The blonde smiled back, slightly embarrassed. “Shoot. I didn’t think you heard me, Maribel.”

“I didn’t hear you, mija. But I knew you were here. Now taste this,” she ordered, thrusting the spoon toward Charlie’s already open mouth.

“Mmmm. Wohw, that’sh ghood Whackamoyey,” she mumbled. On all three previous occasions when she had been treated to Mrs. Falcon’s cooking, Charlie had been struck with a similar speech impairment for nearly the entire meal.

Diana watched quietly from the doorway, grinning through her puzzlement. Maribel Falcon turned to her and interpreted Charlotte’s mumbled remarks.

“Guacamole. My own mother’s recipe – it’s one of Charlie’s favorites.” She handed the spoon to Charlotte and strode across the dark ceramic tile floor, with her hand extended in greeting. “You must be the new friend. I’m Mrs. Antonio Falcon, but you can call me Maribel.”

A low trace of accent curled around her words, causing her to enunciate a little loudly. Her voice boomed low and powerful, but with such an undercurrent of friendliness that Diana was temporarily caught off guard. She took the woman’s hand and returned her firm shake measure for measure, aware that she was being sized up by a sharp eye. The woman made no attempt to cover her thorough perusal, looking Diana up and down several times before meeting her eyes, holding fast to her hand all the while.

“Diana Starrett. Pleased to meet you,” the taller woman announced evenly. Even though she stood at least five inches above Mrs. Falcon’s graying head, she felt smaller and younger in the woman’s comforting presence.

“You the one in the dream? The bloody lady?” she asked, never stilling her eyes as they raced along the edges of Diana’s body, as if discerning important things. The close attention caused the agent to question for the first time whether anyone got more than a brief look at her during the courthouse escapade Friday morning – not that the dowdy deputy bore any resemblance to the stunning woman
standing in the kitchen.

Nodding and shooting a quick glance at the smirking attorney, Diana confirmed this with a muttered “Guess so. And you’re the part-time shaman.”

“HA! Let me guess where you heard that one.” Maribel turned to face the responsible party. “Charlie makes me feel like one of them ‘Psychic Pals’ or something, the way she talks. She doesn’t really believe me, I think… but I’ll help her anyway.”

Charlotte grabbed a napkin from the red enameled countertop, wiping a green smudge from her mouth. “I never said I didn’t believe you, just that I was too busy to try that thing you wanted to do. The one with the green goo drink.”

“Too busy, or too scared?” the older woman retorted mildly. When Charlotte did not respond, she waved off her own question and bade the two women to sit at the kitchen table. They took chairs side by side facing the stove so Maribel Falcon could continue with her cooking while they talked.

“So tell me about this dream of yours, Charlie. From the beginning – and leave nothing out.”

As Charlotte Browning began to weave again the strange, familiar tapestry of her vivid dream, Diana took her hand beneath the table, holding on steadily as the young woman spoke. Mrs. Falcon contributed the occasional nod, hmmm, or chuckle as she prepared the rest of dinner on autopilot. She took a large iron skillet and tossed in an indeterminate amount of garlic, diced peppers and onions, then added a generous squeeze of fresh lime and a dollop of butter. A bottle of Jose Cuervo dribbled a stream of gold tequila into the pan, and several boneless chicken filets jumped in willingly to sizzle in the mixture.

When Charlotte reached the part where she first addressed Diana by a strange name, Mrs. Falcon seemed to prick up her ears, as if she were finally getting to the good part. After Charlotte finished the account of her own dream, she mentioned that Diana had a similar dream wherein she spoke to a woman named Gabrielle. Since no details were forthcoming from Diana herself, Charlotte filled in the blanks with vagaries about what Diana had said aloud, and what kind of dream it might have been. Maribel was no slouch, and got the idea right away, even though she was momentarily concerned over Charlie’s proximity to the sleeping woman only hours after having met her.

“Never mind. That might be part of the puzzle, mija, how you got so close so fast,” she reasoned. “This connection you speak of might go farther than either of you could know, without exploring it in a deeper sense. I think it’s possible you knew each other before this life. Maybe delving into that area would reveal more than simply skimming over the surface of one dream.”

“Wow!” the young woman exclaimed, “We could be… what’s that new-agey term for it? Soul mates! Yeah, that would be so cool!” Her hand squeezed Diana’s tightly under the table, and the tall woman winced at both the vice-like grip and the sheer hokiness of Charlotte’s theory.

“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you buy into all that ‘X-Files,’ souls reunite mumbo-jumbo,” Diana teased half-heartedly.

Both pale brows rose in protest. “If not that, then how would you explain what’s happened with us over the course of three measly days? How can you possibly form such an intense attachment so quickly without there being some underlying cause?”

Pondering that, Diana stared at Maribel Falcon’s back as she poked at her dishes with a studied non-chalance. “I don’t know. Love at first sight?” she offered.

“Baloney. I’m cute, but I’m not that cute,” Charlotte shot back. “What made you decide to stay with me Friday night after I got sick? Why didn’t you just leave me to sleep it off alone?”

The answer to that question was now so painfully obvious that Diana actually had to take a deep breath before admitting the embarrassing truth. “I couldn’t leave you alone. I had this overwhelming urge to protect you, to take care of you. Even though you probably didn’t need me…”

“But I do! Don’t you see? That’s what’s been giving me fits! That’s why I was screaming at thin air this afternoon in the driveway!” Charlotte declared vehemently. She flushed then, chagrined at her own outburst, and tried to steady her voice. “I do need you, but I can’t shake this nagging suspicion that you might need me even more – maybe for something important. That’s why I felt that my dream meant something. And that’s basically why I wanted to come here and ask for Maribel’s help.”

Taking a second to let that sink in, Diana tried to offer a condensed version. “You want to do a past life reading… to understand your dream… so that you can be ready help me.”

“In a nutshell, yes,” the blonde confirmed with a warm smile. “I need to know what’s behind those images, and why they disturbed me so much.”

“Geez, Charlie. I don’t know how to take that,” Diana answered honestly, her mind spinning with the unknowable implications of Charlotte Browning’s offer. Even though she did not believe that anything damaging could be discovered this way, there was always a chance – a fraction of a percent of a chance – that she could be wrong. And that chance worried her. “What if you don’t like what you find out? What happens if you uproot something that changes your mind about me… about us?”

The smile returned, and a sage glow lit hazel eyes with surety. “Don’t worry. That won’t happen. True gold fears no fire.”

Diana brought two fingers to her lips, then pressed them to Charlotte’s. “You read too many fortune cookies, Confucius. But if you really want to try this, I’m with you.”

So in short order, Charlotte’s insistent confidence won out over Diana’s caution. Mrs. Falcon further explained that she could ‘regress’ them into a state where other memories would be accessible – memories of the soul. Hypnosis would be the primary tool, but without a willingness and curiosity on their behalf, any tool would be useless.

“I can’t help you remember things that you don’t want to know, only that which pertains to the questions you ask of your own spirit.”

Diana pushed aside her innate skepticism and spoke up then, seeing a chance at something else. “You mean that if I want to know about something I can’t remember from this life, if that was my question, I could be guided to that answer instead of regressing back farther?”

Mrs. Falcon shook her head strongly. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I’m no psychiatrist. I can only help you to find your spirit guide, I can’t control your mind.”

Flaring slightly in sudden agitation, the blue eyes did not notice Charlotte staring at her, wondering where she was heading. Diana pressed for clarification. “That makes no sense to me. Aren’t the mind and spirit the same thing?”

“Thinking so is a common mistake. Science has long sought to combine the soul, spirit and mind into one convenient package. Makes it easier to judge, to generalize about someone’s behavior. I know for a fact that they are separate entities, they only merge together in harmony when a person is at peace with themselves, when they confront their own fears and accept the truth about themselves,” Maribel explained, ever patient with a neophyte.

“But hypnosis is a psychological approach, so how can you say that the mind isn’t involved?” Diana persisted.

“I didn’t say that it doesn’t play a part, just that I am not skilled in controlling where the mind goes when someone is on a spirit quest. With most people, it seems to act as a recorder, taking down the details of the spiritual revelations so that they are not lost when you awake.” The old woman turned back to the stove and cut the flame under the sizzling chicken, then turned each filet and covered them with liberal doses of the mixture before settling the pan in the warm oven.

“Well, all I want to know about is that dream. I want you to put me under, Maribel,” Charlotte suddenly insisted. “No drinking any green stuff. Just help me to figure out who this ‘Xena’ is – and what that blood thing was all about – and I’ll be happy.”

“Maybe,” Mrs. Falcon said firmly. “Not all spirit guides bring happy news, Charlie. Sometimes they speak to us of things that are difficult to hear. But they always tell the truth. One cannot cross over if they possess a forked tongue.”

“That’s good to know. So, will you do it? Give me my baptism into the spirit world?” Charlotte inquired, her enthisiasm becoming infectious.

Maribel Falcon glanced to one cream colored wall, checking the cheery red clock. “We have time, I think. I’ll tell everyone to leave me alone for a while,” she answered, adding a conspiratorial wink. “Nobody likes to come in my kitchen when I’m cooking, anyway. I’m too territorial.”

She scuttled out of the room for a moment, leaving Charlotte and Diana alone. The younger woman finally released her lover’s hand and stood, fighting the urge to pace the length of the roomy kitchen.

“You really want to do this, Charlie?” the dark woman asked suddenly.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m ready, just a little nervous,” she confided. “I’ve never been hypnotized before.”

“Yeah, well you’ve neve met your ‘spirit guide’ before either. You might wind up tooling around ancient Egypt with Shirley MacLaine.”

“Ha ha ha.” Charlie gave Diana the bird just as Mrs. Falcon returned to the room.

“Ready, mija?”

Charlotte nodded and took a seat at the end of the long pine table while Maribel dimmed the lights. She set the rest of her dishes to simmer and took a chair facing Charlotte. She produced a pale lavender crystal suspended on a silken cord and let both women see it.

“This is just to focus on. It means nothing, really. I just thought it was pretty,” the old woman told them, breaking the small cluster of tension.

The blonde shot a quick smile Diana’s way. “Don’t go anywhere, stretch.”

“Not on your life. Say ‘hi’ to Xena for me.” Diana grinned even as a little shiver worked down her spine. She wrote it off to nervous anticipation.

“Will do. Pismo Beach, here I come…”

And Maribel Falcon began to speak in slow, soothing tones, counting backward until Charlotte could hear the sounds of crashing surf.
Sixteen
“You are drifting back, back through the hours and times of your own life, back through the years of innocence and beyond. You are drifting, light, ethereal. Floating above this shell, floating into the light above. Can you see the light, mija?”

“Yes. It’s all around me. I’m… flying.”

Move toward it. Move through it, let it move through you. Can you feel the warmth of the light?

“Yes. It’s like summertime. I feel warm, safe.”

“Good. Now I want you to focus your mind, Charlie. Focus on the questions you cannot answer. Repeat them not to me, but to the light. Ask your questions of the light.”

*What is the meaning of my dream? Why do I think she might need me?*

“Keep repeating your questions, and soon you will be met by the one who can answer. Focus on your questions as I count down from one-hundred. When I reach zero, you will return from the light, and you will remember your answers. You will feel refreshed and revived, and you will know that you have heard the truth. One-hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight…”

——————————————————————————–

The words Maribel Falcon spoke seemed awfully simple and vague to Diana, and she did not understand how this could possibly work. Still, she listened carefully and watched the crystal sway like a glittering metronome. She watched as Charlotte’s eyes closed – and she felt her own eyelids grow heavy. Although Maribel’s words were intended for someone else, Diana Starrett’s conditioned mind was silently responding as well. Ignoring the warnings Mrs. Falcon had issued, the dark woman’s questions related to mysteries from her own life, those things lurking in the black corners of her memory. Specifically, the year she came to the agency.

*What happened to bring me here? What happened when I was nineteen? I need the truth.*

While Charlotte aimed her consciousness toward enlightenment, Diana’s own path led in another direction, and she drifted stealthily away to a quiet, dark place to await her own answers.

——————————————————————————–

Charlotte repeated her inquiries over and over in her head, whispering her thoughts. *What is the meaning of my dream? Why do I think she might need me?*

Before the fourth repetition, Charlotte Browning felt solid earth beneath her feet. She was no longer floating in the light, but standing on rock-studded sand. The breath in her lungs sang with clean, salty notes, and her ears delighted to find the lapping rhythm of the ocean. As the sound of waves drowned out Maribel’s voice, Charlotte slowly opened her eyes.

*The beach. The same beach from my dream. God, it’s so beautiful!*

She spun in a circle, taking in the brilliant white sands stretching to an infinite distance, the rolling water, pristine in its clarity, and the sky doused with colors from a child’s purest wish. With her mouth agape and eyes goggling like some awestruck traveler on a Cook’s tour of paradise, Charlotte’s 20th century heart wished idly for a camera, then sincerely for Diana Starrett to be at her side.

“You’d love this place, I know you would…”

“From what I’m told, she did enjoy the view.”

The words sounded both inside her head and outside her body, alarming Charlotte tremendously. She was certain that she was having a repeat of the ‘voices in the Volvo’ episode, until a figure began to take shape against the shimmering sand – a hyaline human, approaching at a steady clip. At first the form shook and warped like a heat distortion, then steadied and became quite solid, taking on color and depth and texture. The final result was breathtaking – and very, very familiar.

From booted foot to burnished gold crown, tanned leather skirt to ragged green top, the woman now standing before the Californian was a sight she had never expected to see.

“You… you look just like m-me,” Charlotte stammered.

“Or you look just like me. Either way, we could both do worse.” The vision spoke with an easy humor, her voice now projecting solely from her body to give her presence a sense of normalcy. “You’re Charlotte Browning. I’m Gabrielle – bard, Amazon, and dead chick,” she announced, extending one hand in greeting. “It’s okay. I’m here to help you.”

A blinding flash of irrational jealousy caught Charlotte by surprise as soon as she registered that name. *Gabrielle – the name Diana called out in her sleep. She’s real. Dead, but real.* Calming herself, Charlotte haltingly reached out and grasped the offered hand, finding it warm and supple as flesh. Moments before, it was what? *Ectoplasm?*

“Are you a ghost, Gabrielle?”

“Sort of. Spirit is my designation of choice,” Gabrielle explained. “I’ve been trying to talk to you for days now, but you’re difficult to reach. Harder than Diana, if you can believe that. You catch bits and pieces of everything, but direct communication with you is a real challenge. You’re sort of cut off.”

Charlotte displayed a delaying palm as she tried to catch up. “Waitasecondhere. You’ve been trying to talk to me? And Diana?”

“Diana is not my area, someone else is taking on that challenge. I have made attempts to reach you, though.”

As the bard spoke, a small flicker of recognition crossed the attorney’s features. “Were you the voice I heard in my car today? Please tell me that was you. This is weird enough without dragging potential insanity into it.”

“Yeah, that was me. That was the first time I was able to get through to you in person – you’re not very open in your dreams anymore,” the spirit observed without reproach. “We need to talk, Charlie. Have a seat, this could take a while.” The bard plopped down instantly, folding her legs Indian-style.

“But I only have, like, ninety seconds left before…”

Waving a dismissive hand, Gabrielle interrupted. “Time is different here, so we have as long as we need. Don’t worry about it, just focus on accepting. Everything I say will be the truth, and if I can’t answer, I won’t. Okay?”

Charlotte nodded dumbly and lowered herself carefully onto the sand, trying to spare her ludicrously expensive frock any damage. This seemed to amuse her new companion, for the bard smiled at her brightly as she fussed with sugary sand clinging to the fabric.

“Don’t worry about the dress. You’re not really here, remember?”

Recognition dawned on Charlotte, and she stopped immediately. “Oh. Right. Where is ‘here’, by the way?”

“Home. It’s just where I live now,” Gabrielle began. “Some people call this place Valhalla, others say Heaven. I’m not sure who’s right, but where I come from, it’s called Elysia.”

“Jesus Christ! How old are you?”

“Older than him – although I’m not sure by how much.” The bard smirked at Charlotte’s stunned expression. “I was born in a little Greek village called Potadeia, long, long ago – at least two millennia, I believe. I think I’m holding up pretty well for someone who’s been eating like an ox for thousands of years,” she joked, patting her flat stomach. “They have the best food here. Nutbread that would float off your plate if you let it. And the fruits! I never knew so many fruits existed! There’s this one little thing called a tangelo…”

“Did you always talk so much, Gabrielle?” Charlotte finally interrupted, prompting a self-conscious blush from the bard.

“Yeah, actually. Sorry, I just get carried away. There are things you need to know, and I wanted to be the one to talk to you. Xena can be a little brusque sometimes, although a few thousand years of peace and quiet has mellowed her somewhat.”

“So there is a Xena, too? That sounds like a good place to start. I had a very strange dream about me and Diana, but when I spoke her name, it came out ‘Xena.’ Your name came up in one of Diana’s dreams as well. Can you explain that to me?”

“I can try,” the bard offered gamely. “I should start by telling you that our physical resemblance is no coincidence – you are part of my family line. Diana is part of Xena’s. Sometimes, when similarities between members of a line are deep enough, memories get crossed up and the borders between your life and the past get a little blurry. Dreams are the area where this happens most often, and it can leave you with a weird sense of deja vu. Situations seem so familiar, it feels like you’ve done it all before.”

“No kidding,” Charlotte replied, flashing a knowing smile. “I only met her two days ago, and I already feel like I’ve known Diana all my life.”

“That’s it exactly – that feeling of instant kinship. I’ve known Xena forever, and I’ve come to accept that, in one form or another, she will always be there – both for me and for those of my line. There’s a very old, very strong connection, and it kind of defies explanation. Not one generation has passed without at least one re-joining. Sometimes as family, sometimes as friends…”

“Sometimes more,” Charlotte interjected.

Gabrielle smiled, understanding. “I see you already know that part. But the connection is often more than a physical one, in some people it reaches an almost empathic level. You can sense things about each other, sometimes consciously, sometimes underneath the surface. Your dream was shaped when you tapped into Diana’s distress. She’s in trouble. You could feel it, and you want to help her.”

“Trouble? What do you mean by that?” the attorney demanded suddenly, sans politeness.

“Take it easy, now,” the bard urged. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you many details, but I can try to prepare you. In a way, you already know about this, don’t you? That something’s not quite right.”

“If you mean that nagging little whisper in the back of my head telling me that she needs me, then yes. I get that feeling a lot, but it just fades away,” Charlotte confessed. “I talk myself out of it, try to build up a hedge against believing it.”

An expression which could have read as empathy softened the spirit’s lovely face. “And why do you do that?”

“Because it’s probably just wishful thinking on my part. If she needed me for something, she’d be less likely to leave,” the young woman answered with disarming candor, surprising her questioner. “But that’s above and beyond the point, Gabrielle. Tell me more about this trouble you spoke of.”

“Diana Starrett is not merely who she appears to be,” the bard opened, “she is both less and more than you know. She is an incomplete person, and yet she carries another life within her.”

“Another life?” Charlotte was understandably puzzled. “So she’s what, pregnant or something?”

“No. The life inside her is her own, but she has been made to live apart from it – this is something you have in common. You burned bridges in your own heart because you were afraid of being hurt by those you love. Diana’s bridges were destroyed by others. I don’t think she had a choice in the matter,” Gabrielle explained, her grave expression keeping questions at bay.

“She has been manipulated and used by those who separated her from herself, and when she tries to look back and own her memories, they block her view. They’ve taken part of her away. Just how they do that is a mystery to me, but their methods seem to work.”

“She says she can’t remember her dreams. You’re telling me it goes further than that?”

“A lot further,” the bard agreed. “Now you both want to go back and rebuild those bridges, but she will face great danger in doing so. You may confront your fear of emotional pain without flinching, because you know that she loves you. She will need that same assurance to a much greater degree, and you will have to either forgive her deceptions and tresspasses – or lose her forever.”

“Are you saying that she’s been lying to me?” Charlotte asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

“Only about what she could not tell you, what circumstances prevent her from revealing. Her past deeds are somewhat of a mystery to her, but she has not lied about the contents of her heart, of that I am certain,” Gabrielle stated, noting the relief which fell over her companion. “The trial she must endure to reclaim herself could overwhelm her and force her under – if she has nothing to fight for. She would rather drown alone than drag you down with her, so you’ll just have to convince her that you’re a strong swimmer.”

As the connection was made in her mind, Charlotte’s face grew tight with worry and her eyes drifted out of focus. “The beach… she was drowning. Then all the blood, covering her, covering me. Oh, God. These things she hasn’t told me – can’t tell me – are they that bad? All that blood…”

“That was an image I hoped I’d never see again,” the bard solemnly revealed. “The bloodied warrior, torn between washing away her past and drowning in it. I feared that dream for a long time, Charlotte. It’s what binds us together, the four of us. Xena and Diana have lived that dream, you and I play a part in it because we love them. How big of a part depends on you – how much you are willing to fight for what you want, and how much you can forgive.”

“You make it sound like a lot of this is on my shoulders,” the younger woman observed. “What about Diana, and what she wants? Isn’t this a choice she has to make for herself, whether she wants me enough to take that risk?”

“Her decision has already been made.” Gabrielle smiled warmly, the unearthly sunlight seeming to shine right through her face. “She chose you, without so much as a second thought. Her intentions are more honorable that her methods, as has been the case for a great while. Diana has made mistakes because she was hurt very badly, and those mistakes were used against her by evil men. They led her into a life that she would have never chosen, but she’s ready to change all that now – because of you.”

Charlotte was quiet as she let that sink in. “Maybe I’m just thick, but some of these allusions you’re making are confusing the hell out of me,” she said. “I know this isn’t like calling information for a phone number, but could you please be more specific? I still don’t know what she’s done, or how I’m supposed to help her.”

Gabrielle shook her head and gave a sympathetic smile. “You’re right, I know. This is really complicated stuff, and I don’t mean to confuse you with all this cryptic vagary – I hate talking like this. I wish I could just tell you everything straight out, but Diana has to do that herself. When she’s ready, she will. At first, you can help by being patient and trying to understand… and forgive. After that, just follow your instincts.”

The attorney stared blankly ahead, certain of her own feelings on the matter of forgiveness, but unsure if a verbal confirmation was required. She knew that someone could offer her incontrovertible proof that Diana clubbed baby harp seals for fun while dumping barrels of nuclear waste from her leaking oil tanker, and none of it would change her feelings for the woman. Charlotte couldn’t think of anything that would.

“If she wants my help, she’ll have it. If she wants to talk to me, I’ll listen,” the lawyer firmly stated. “And if I can’t figure out what to do after that, I’ll wing it. That I can promise. I’ve had a little practice at flying blind, and I get the distinct impression that I may be doing just that.”

“You may indeed, Charlie. I wish you luck – and love,” Gabrielle said sincerely. “You’re certainly going to need a lot of both.”

“That’s very encouraging. Thank you so much,” Charlotte replied, her tone oozing sarcasm. She got to her feet, sensing without being told that Gabrielle’s informative limits had been reached. “Any words of wisdom before I blow this pop stand?”

The bard smiled and reached up for Charlotte’s hand, hauling herself off the sand. Not letting go, she looked her descendant in the eye and spoke as succinctly as she ever had.

“She will need you. Don’t judge her, just listen – and follow your heart. You’re stronger than you know, and you might have to be strong enough for both of you. Trust and accept her… or lose her.”

Gabrielle shone like a diamond, light filtering through her body to cast prisms on the sand. Then she dissolved into thin air, leaving Charlotte Browning alone in Elysia with no clue how to get home.

“Guess Maribel will call me when dinner’s ready,” she mused, then set off walking down the beach.
Seventeen
As Maribel Falcon’s voice faded away, the first thing Diana noticed was cold concrete under her bare feet. Chill air against skin and a confirming sweep of hands told her that she was naked. Darkness surrounded her, silence smothering all sound except her own labored breathing.

Moments dragged long until a man’s voice, calm and hard, called from the center of the darkness.

“You want the truth about yourself. This is where you ended. This is where you began. ”

“WHERE Am i?” Diana cried unevenly, fear blocking her throat. She knew his voice, could never forget the sound of his laughter. The speaker elected by her subconscious was Joshua Riggins.

“Home, sweetheart. Where it all started. Don’t you recognize this old haunt?”

Slowly, filthy gray light began to filter through the air, strung like dusty ropes up to high windows mounted in cinder block walls. The room took on an identity, revealing length and breadth and content. Enormous empty crates, concrete pipes, rusty chains. Tattered paper, scattered bottles and cans, mattresses stained and bare.

*Warehouse. Abandoned. Looks like people have been here, maybe lived here…*

“Not just any people, doll. Those people. You stayed here with them for a little while. Don’t you remember all the fun you had?”

“I’ve never been here before. I don’t know what you’re talking -”

Diana ceased her objections as her eyes suddenly began to deceive her. Bright light beamed from nowhere, forming a spotlight on something she was meant to see. Across ten feet of dusty floor, on a filthy single mattress, she saw a hand. A woman’s hand, with long, tapered fingers and blunt, unpainted nails. Disembodied and alone, it waved and fluttered fingers to catch her attention, and Diana perversely thought of “Thing” from The Addams Family.

She stood perfectly still, breath caught in her throat as the hand stopped waving and latched on to the side of the mattress, gripping tightly enough to rip the rotten fabric. Another hand appeared, an opposite and a twin. A pair of hands now tore frantically at the bedding, obviously in a panic.

“Go on. Touch them. You say you want to… or are you afraid? Maybe you don’t really want to know after all,” the voice mocked, adding a sharp, staccato laugh. “You can still go back, Diana. It’s not too late to just forget about all this and play by the rules.”

“NO! I need to know! I need to know everything. You can’t stop me, you bastard.”

Summoning her courage, Diana took careful steps across the floor littered with glass from small, broken pipes, snapped needles and discarded syringes. She stood by the mattress, looking down at the lonesome right hand. Stretching her own down to meet it, she noticed a pale ribbon of scar tissue across the knuckles of that struggling hand – it matched the lines crossing her own fingers. She noticed this too late.

As she tried to jerk her hand back, it was captured by lunging fingers and held fast. On contact, she felt her legs weaken and buckle, and she collapsed to the floor, gashing her knee on a jagged shard of glass. Diana barely noticed the pain as her head swam and a wave of nausea crashed over her, causing her to vomit convulsively on the floor. She pulled weakly at the restraining hand as she caught her breath, but it held strong and kept her still.

“You asked for it, kid. Don’t say you I didn’t warn you.”

The air surrounding her shook and warped as figures took shape and solidified. At least twelve men, dressed in shabby clothing, their skin black, white and brown. Dirty, all of them. Two clutched small, glowing pipes which they slipped between their cracked lips and sucked greedily. Wild eyes lit their faces, and although they did not seem to notice her, they made her feel incredible fear and loosed a trickle of adrenaline through her battered system. She was trying to stand when a call from the darkness stopped her efforts cold.

“STOP!! LEAVE HER ALONE! DON’T TOUCH MY SISTER!”

A desperate cry from a voice she knew. Then she remembered the real reason she came here, ten years ago.

“Ethan?” she whispered. “Ethan? I was looking for you. Mama told me to bring you home.”

“He was a junkie, sick with a disease sent straight from God Almighty! Isn’t that what she told you, dearie?”

“He was her son. She forgave him, wanted him to come home. The police wouldn’t help, so I went looking for… you. Ethan.”

A thin young man stepped into the circle of light, shouldering his way through the throng. He barely looked old enough to claim his sixteen years. Dark, wavy hair fell to his shoulders. Bright blue eyes swirled with terror and anger. He looked not at Diana, but at the bare mattress. Diana followed his gaze, and saw white lines shimmering, drawing a body. Flesh slid over the gridwork of light, and a young woman appeared before her. A young woman with her face. Soft featured, unlined. Barely more than a child. She wore a red sweater and faded jeans, scuffed sneakers on her feet.

“Me… I was here. I am here,” Diana muttered, not even hearing herself speak the words.

Diana’s hand inexplicably slipped free, and she watched as the young woman tried to rise to her feet only to be pushed down by two men. Ethan stepped forward to help her, but was caught by the hair and jerked back by one of the onlookers. The scraggly man produced a hunting knife and pressed the blade against the boy’s throat. Fury screamed through Diana’s veins as she found her feet and lunged at the men hovering over the defenseless young girl, but to her great astonishment, she passed right through them and landed on the floor. She tucked and rolled through the impact and sprang to her feet, preparing to rush them again as that damnable voice rang out once more.

“It already happened, hon. You can’t change anything now. They did what they did…”

>> A rash of images and sounds broke out, covering all her senses with a raw, evil pain. She saw herself beaten to near unconsciousness as she fought her attackers. Stripped of her clothing, naked and delirious. A vein tapped awake on her arm, a needle inserted. White fire burning away all thought and sensation as she was drugged and raped, over and over. A lit crack pipe burning the smooth skin of her back, peeling away dots of flesh as she was taken again.

Flashes of her little brother, struggling against knife-man, screaming her name until he was hoarse, his face dripping with tears and snot. Knife-man wearying of his cries, punching the knife into Ethan’s side. Her brother sliding to the filthy floor, his blood pooling beneath him. A dozen men sated by a docile girl’s body, scattering through the warehouse like rats, leaving her for dead. Leaving her brother for dead. <<

“And then you did what you did. You want to know so bad? Live with it…”

>> A young woman rising from a bed of violence, feeling it soak into her soul, taking power from it, needing it to survive. A glacial strength builds within her, numbingly cold and epically powerful. Walking quietly behind knife-man, clutching a shard of glass. Cutting his throat, warm blood on her hands. His blood. Taking his long knife and slipping it between the ribs of one sleeping rapist, then another. And another. Some are awake, some see her coming. Oh, she wants some more, they think. They have no idea. Ten men die within ten minutes. She is efficient, she knows where the arteries lurk, even beneath their grime. Pre-med, Columbia University.

She finds eleven, and he fights. He loses. He dies badly, his head nearly taken off in four deep strokes. Blood covers her from head to foot. She seeks twelve. She will not stop. She does not feel the terrible aches of her own body, she feels nothing at all. She is blind, deaf and speechless. A creature with one mission.

Sirens wail. Men rush in. Four men, policemen. They see her and two come to help her, only to find swift slashes flying across their throats, her bloody fingers fumbling to take their guns. Shots are fired and two more policemen die, bullets in thighs, hearts and heads. She seeks twelve, and no one will stop her. Scratching sounds on the floor behind her, she spins and fires, hitting two men. One is twelve, he dies with a pipe in his hand, coming to finish her. The other is Ethan, trying to stop him.

She looks into his face as he sinks to the floor. He bleeds from a ragged hole near his eye. He is dead before she recognizes him. She returns to the mattress and dresses in her torn clothes, slipping shoes on bleeding feet. The young woman returns to her brother and lifts him into her arms as more sirens sound outside. She slips through a hole in the back of the building, where seven was trying to escape, and she carries her brother home to mama. <<

Diana Starrett knelt on the warehouse floor, holding her face in her hands. Anguish ripped her heart out, leaving her bloodless and dying, clutching memories which dragged at her limbs like lead weights. She reached out wildly, flailing her arms like a drowning woman, sinking onto the concrete. Grief and guilt settled heavily on her chest, crushing her into the ground as she murmured the only words which came to mind.

“Charlie? I need you…”

——————————————————————————–

Examining shells and wetting her toes in the sea, Charlotte was deep in the ethos of ‘beach’ when a whispered plea crept up her spine. This time she knew the voice, and her heart raced at the words.

“Charlie? I need you…”

Her head jerked around as she tried to find the source. “Diana? Where are you?”

Turning to the tide, the attorney saw something which struck her dumb and froze her movements. A dark cloud rose from the water and swept over the sand, settling in front of her like black fog. The voice called again, shaky and faint through the dark smoke.

“Please, Charlie. I can’t do this alone.”

——————————————————————————–

Chilling laughter rang through the warehouse as Riggins’ voice returned to torment the broken woman who lay twisting on the floor.

“I told you so. Dummy. You don’t know what you’re asking for. You can’t even handle this one day, let alone ten years worth of them! And believe me, baby – you’ve done worse. Quit now, go back to HQ and let them fix everything. No more pain, Diana…”

She called forth the strength to interrupt his speech. “Shut the fuck up.”

“You aren’t strong enough to deal – ”

“Yes, I am. I just need… I just need her.”

——————————————————————————–

Charlotte stepped into the fog and felt her feet leave the ground. She was frightened out of her wits, but did not hesitate as she recalled the desperation in her lover’s voice. Cold air swirled around her and she tightened her grip on her shoes, pointing the sharp heels out like weapons – just in case. Seconds later, her feet touched gritty stone and the fog dispelled, leaving her standing in the doorway of a rotting, darkened building.

She piped up immediately, hoping that she was in the right place. “Diana? Are you in here?”

Across the wide expanse of concrete, Diana Starrett heard her voice and nearly cried out in relief.

“Charlie! Here! I’m over here.”

Slipping into her shoes, Charlotte dashed across the littered floor, dodging the flotsam like a slalom skier. The first thing she noticed was that Diana was nude. The second was that she looked like death warmed over. She dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms around her love, squeezing as tight as she dared.

“Christ almighty. What happened to you? What is this place?” she asked nervously, heartened as Diana’s arms snaked around her back to return the embrace.

“Can we go, Charlie? I just want to get out of here,” Diana said softly. “I’ll explain later. Please?”

Moving back to look in her eyes, Charlotte saw blue deepened and cracked by dark emotions, shaded now like depression glass. She stood and helped Diana to her feet.

“Yes, we can go now,” the younger woman agreed. “You tell me whenever you’re ready.”

They started slowly picking their way to the door, pausing as Charlotte kicked bits of sharp debris out of Diana’s path. No sooner had they reached the patch of sunlight pouring through the door than they heard Maribel Falcon’s soothing cadence, counting down from five…

——————————————————————————–

“Four, three, two, one. You will awake now with your new knowledge, and you will feel safe and well, refreshed and revived.” The old woman snapped her fingers, and two sets of eyes blinked open, desperate to find each other.

Diana was up first, but Charlotte met her halfway, and they collided in a crash of arms at the end of the table. Bodies pressed so close nothing could pass between, the two stood, encircled and inseparable, nearly weeping with relief.

Long moments passed in this fashion, and Mrs. Falcon busied herself with the final preparations for dinner. She had expected a strong reaction, but did not realize just how right she was. When Diana’s eyes had closed, she had considered waking her, since she could tell that the woman would go unguided. At that thought, muscles in her neck clenched hard – involuntarily – and she took that as a sign to stay out of it. Maribel Falcon could be called many names, but ‘dense’ was not one of them.

Finally, each was satisfied that the other was actually here and intact, and they moved to a looser embrace. Eyes scanned head to toe, checking for signs of damage and finding none.

“It seemed so real,” Charlotte said at last. “I thought I’d have sand in my shoes.”

Diana chuckled nervously, unsure where to start. “Were you really there with me? Where I was?”

Charlotte nodded and was silent. She smiled and raised onto her toes, kissing scarlet lips with a light, reassuring touch.

“Thank you. I don’t think I could have made it out without you.”

“Oh, Pish,” Charlotte said dismissively. “Nothin’ to it, stretch. I love you. You call, I come running.”

“Lucky me.” Diana lowered her mouth and captured Charlie in a deep, wondrous kiss, parting only when she heard Mrs. Falcon clear her throat.

“We got rooms upstairs, you know. My kitchen ain’t built for speed, mija,” she teased, causing Charlotte to blush to her roots.

“Sorry,” she said to their grinning hostess, then turned back to Diana. “Maybe we should leave. We’ve got a lot of stuff to talk about.”

“No,” Diana said, a little too firmly. She softened her tone and continued her objection in a calm, rational manner. “I mean, we have plenty of time to talk. Tomorrow. This evening is supposed to be a celebration, right? Of Marco’s being found innocent?” She noticed that Maribel snorted at the mention of the word ‘innocent,’ leading her to believe that even his mother knew the score on the little scumbag. “And isn’t your boss expecting you to be here? Not to mention all this amazing food Mrs. Falcon has prepared.”

“Okay, geez. You win. But we will discuss this further – don’t think I’m gonna let you slide on that,” Charlotte warned. “I think there are some things you need to tell me. Am I right?”

Quirking her eyebrows, crossed up between worry and wonderment at what Charlotte might have learned on her little ‘spirit quest,’ Diana finally nodded in agreement. “There are many, many things I should tell you. And I will – just please wait until this evening is over and we have some time to ourselves. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, Charlie. I promise.”

“You better.” Charlotte rested her arms lightly on the taller woman’s hips, and she had just begun to relax again when Marco Falcon strode through the door. His dark eyes lit immediately on Diana, and he seemed quite put out at both her presence in his home, and her proximity to his attorney.

“What the hell is going on in here? Who the fuck are you?”

Eighteen
As Marco almost shouted his questions, Charlotte’s spine stiffened, and she discretely moved one hand from Diana’s hip to slip it around her waist in a more sisterly manner. She launched a false, innocent grin at the scowling man, and Diana followed her lead, knowing the attorney would not make a false move in front of her volatile former client. Just as Charlotte started to answer him, Marco piped up again.

“I’m walking around to check the house, and I find the goddamned back door unlocked! Somebody gonna talk to me? Charlotte? Mami?” He looked rapidly from one to the other, not waiting for a response before turning on Diana. “And who the fuck are you, standing in my kitchen -”

He got no farther, because Maribel Falcon popped him hard across the butt with a spatula. He yelped and grabbed his hind-cheeks as she started to read him like a cheap paperback novel.

“Villano idiota! Shut your filthy mouth right now and show some respect! Charlotte brings a guest into our home, and this is how you treat her? I taught you better manners than that,” she chastised, brandishing the spatula like a lethal weapon. “And this is my kitchen, Marco. You and your friends can play your chollo games in the rest of the house, but this kitchen is off-limits unless you can behave yourself, comprende?”

A stunned silence followed for several seconds as Marco Falcon, heinous international criminal, pouted after being shamed like a schoolboy by his mother.

“Yes, mama,” he said quietly, staring at his four-hundred dollar shoes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me, mjio. Tell our guest.” She pointed her wicked kitchen implement toward the dark-haired woman whose arm was still casually draped across Charlotte’s bare shoulders. Marco looked on her with undisguised jealousy, and repeated the word with as little sincerity as possible. Charlie took the opportunity to defuse the situation before Mrs. Falcon whacked him again for his insolent tone.

“No, I’m sorry, Marco. I should have told you I was bringing a guest, but I thought it would be okay,” she explained, throwing him a bone. “This is a girlfriend of mine from way, way back. Diana, meet the infamous Marco Falcon – an important client and dear friend,” Charlotte lied smoothly. She patted Diana on the back, encouraging her to play along, so the tall beauty took the ball and ran.

“Mr. Falcon, Charlotte has told me so many wonderful things about you. It’s truly a unique pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said, stepping forward and delicately presenting one hand in greeting. This gesture was accompanied by a demure, overtly flirtatious smile and a general softening of her features. Then came the coup de gras: in a piece of acting worthy of Meryl Streep, Diana widened her alarmingly blue eyes and assumed the look of a woman dazzled by masculine power. She trailed her focus along the trim lines of his hunter green suit, effectively feigning intense interest in whatever lurked beneath the fabric. By the time she dragged her eyes up to meet his, the hook was firmly embedded in his jaw – the line and sinker would soon follow.

Falcon seemed comforted and appeased by the gestures of both women, and flashed his pearly whites in a wolfish smile. He took Diana’s hand and deposited an inappropriately hard kiss on her fingers. “Diana, again I apologize for my outburst. Any friend of Charlotte’s is more than welcome here, but I have certain security precautions which must be observed by all of my guests – even beautiful women.” Marco leered at her openly now, loosing his eyes on her body like hungry dogs.

“What security precautions?” Charlotte inquired, anxious to rein in his attention and divert it to less prurient matters. “Are you expecting some trouble tonight?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. Not really, just can’t be too careful these days.” He managed to tear his gaze away and choke out a tiny laugh. “You know as well as I do that the cops are sniffing around me 24/7, trying to set me up for something, so I’m watching my back a little more carefully now. Making sure no rats sneak into the house.”

Maribel, who had turned back to her stove, snorted and muttered, “Too late.”

“What, mami?” he asked absently.

She did not respond, so Falcon resumed talking to the two younger women about the need for precautions. He asked to see their purses, and though they looked dubious, they complied without protest. Marco gave the contents of Charlotte’s small bag the once-over, then emptied out and closely inspected the contents of Diana’s loaded black purse.

Charlotte wrinkled her brows at the sight of three unexpected items: a pair of reading glasses, a tampon, and a diaphragm case. She knew that each was completely unnecessary, but kept her questions to herself for the moment. Once Marco’s check was complete, he was at a loss for words. He had even looked a little ashamed for having invaded her privacy, most notably when he saw the tampon and birth-control device. Falcon then snapped his fingers twice, and two burly men dressed in lovely sorbet-colored suits entered the kitchen, each of them holding a scanning wand.

“This is the last thing, I promise,” Marco told the women, as his henchmen swept the detectors close to their bodies. After a thorough inspection, Orangeman declared them “insect free,” and Limeman proclaimed them untainted by “lead poisoning.” The guards were dismissed and silently shuffled out the door, resisting the stupid urge to ask when dinner would be ready. The last time they had done so, Mrs. Falcon accused them of rushing her, and fed their supper to the garbage disposal. Once the security hurdles had been cleared, none of the three seemed to know what to say next.

“Mijo, now that you know there are no spies among us, why don’t you take our guests into the library and fix them a drink,” Mrs. Falcon suggested helpfully. “I think they could both use it.”

Marco enthusiastically agreed, but offered to give Diana a quick tour of the house first as a sort of peace offering. He explained that Charlotte already knew her way around and could wait for them in the library. Although it was the last thing she really wanted to do, Diana politely accepted the generous invitation, even took his arm as they departed the kitchen. She would use the opportunity to lay some groundwork for this evening, confirming the layout of the house, and erasing any lingering suspicions by driving Marco Falcon crazy with distracting thoughts.

Left alone with Mrs. Falcon, Charlotte turned to the old woman with urgent questions already forming on her lips.

“What on earth happened to me? What happened to us, I should say. When you put me under, where did I go? Where did Diana go? And how did I find her?” Charlotte asked, rushing one word after another in a flood of anxious curiosity.

“Calm down, child. One thing at a time. Now, you say that you found her – what do you mean?”

Sighing and leaning against the counter, Charlotte began an abridged account of the events which occurred during the countdown between ninety-eight and five.

——————————————————————————–

“We have twelve bedrooms, you know. Most of them are here on the second floor,” Marco was saying as he steered Diana by her elbow, wrapping up the tour of his home. Diana had marched dutifully up and down the winding stairs, oohing and aahing at the gaudy decor in countless rooms. She had been shown every piece of expensive art he owned, including collections of paintings, erotic sculpture, and walls hung with antique weapons. She had paused to inspect and fondle several of the mounted swords in the first floor hall, oddly oblivious to the effect this sensual act had on her host.

“The room at the end of the hall is mine,” he continued. “The largest of my paintings hangs on the far wall, so it’s the first thing I see each day, illuminated by the morning sun. Would you like to see it?”

“Which? Your bedroom, your huge painting, or the morning sun?” Diana remarked, even though the words were like bile in her mouth. Still, she played the game to the best of her ability, and smoke-screening horny jerks was second nature by now. Since they left the kitchen, she had been softening the paranoid man’s caution and sending that rigidity stampeding to other parts of his anatomy.

Flustered only a moment by the innuendo, Marco slid fingers along her forearm and gently encircled her wrist. “We could combine the three activities, if you like.”

His dark eyes shone with an almost puppyish ardor, clean-shaven jaw clenching tight. Under other circumstances, Diana might have actually noticed that he was very handsome. Wavy black hair curling near the nape of his neck, smooth features unlined by either excessive age or worry, naturally red, full lips – all these things slipped past her radar because she simply did not care to see them. Currently, she was too besotted with another to process such judgements, and her evaluations of this man were kept cold, logical, and entirely accurate.

*Gotcha now, stud-puppet.* “But, what about Charlotte? I thought that you and she might be… ”

“No, no. Charlotte is just as she said – a dear friend and an able legal advocate. She’s almost like a sister to me,” he claimed, not at all convincingly.

*Sister? In the Ozarks, maybe. Twisted little weasel. Let’s see just how distracted we can make you tonight.* “That wasn’t the impression that she gave me, Mr. Falcon.”

His adam’s apple bobbed slightly as he swallowed hard. “Please Diana, call me Marco – and tell me what you mean by that.”

“Well, Marco, my friend seems to harbor ideas of a different nature,” she teased. “Charlotte confided to me that she finds you very intriguing.”

Falcon couldn’t have looked more surprised if Diana had said Charlotte was from another planet. “Really? She’s never given me that impression.”

“She was probably concerned about a breach of professional ethics, since you were her client and all. But now that the case is over, her interest in you has changed. She’s more… open-minded.”

“Charlotte told you this?” Marco shook his head and released her wrist, confused and a little offended that he was being given such welcome news by a stranger. “I can’t believe she would reveal such feelings to someone other than me.”

“Oh, Charlie and I are verrry close. We share everything.” Diana’s emphasis on those key words did not escape him, and his entire body seemed to shake in anticipation of the subtly suggested event – which she neglected to mention would never occur, even if he lived for a million years.

*Some men are soooo easily side-tracked. If all goes well, you should be in prison this time tomorrow, getting all the love you can handle from a psycho gorilla,* the agent reflected, smiling to herself. She recalled the words of one of her early trainers, a stunningly beautiful Swede named Julia, who had bluntly summarized the theory Diana was currently putting into practice.

“The more blood you send to the little head, the less there is flowing to the big head. If they see you as an object – especially a sex object – you’re not a threat. You all but disappear.”

A wicked synthetic flame in her eye, she pressed her advantage. “I take it this is an idea you would be interested in exploring with us, Marco?”

Falcon wiped damp palms on his pants. “Absolutely. Are you sure about this?”

“Don’t worry about anything. Just play it cool tonight and let me flesh out the details with Charlie,” Diana proposed. “She’d kill me if she thought I embarrassed you somehow, telling you like this.”

“I understand completely,” he said, trying to sound unfazed. “She’s a very classy lady, and I would not want to embarrass her, either.”

“Good. So, you’ll keep us in mind?” He nodded mutely in response. “And don’t mention this to her, just leave the arrangements to me.” Another nod, accompanied by a sharp gleam of teeth. “Thank you for your discretion, Marco. I’m starting to realize that Charlie was right about you.” *… when she called you a creep.*

“And thank you for coming to me with this proposition,” he said at last. “I look forward to hearing more, Diana.” At that, Falcon linked arms with the lanky beauty and descended the stairs, a spring in his step.

On the landing waited Falcon’s lieutenant, Virgilio Marquez. The squat, swarthy man was virtually salivating as he waited for an introduction to his boss’s new adornment. Diana put on her charm hat again and swept Senor Marquez right off his stubby little feet, then she asked to be excused for a trip to the nearby rest room. The gents stepped into the library next door, where all the punctual guests were congregating.

Once the men were out of sight, Diana doubled back and headed down the dimly lit passage to the kitchen, hoping that Maribel Falcon was still in there. The agent’s mind was faintly reeling from her experience while under hypnosis, but she needed to talk about going deeper.

*That ordeal in the warehouse seemed so real – like I was living it all over again – but it’s already fading away. The pain barely lasted past waking up, and the rest of it is just receding so damned fast I can’t hang on to it. That memory is mine, and however much it hurts, I should be able to keep it. It’s my duty to keep it, to bear it. I killed all those people! I killed my brother… dammit, what was his name!?! There has to be some way to get around these blocks, some way to get my memory back for good without going through Mangano.*

As she approached the door, she could hear Charlotte’s bright voice drifting from the room, so she pulled back and waited outside.

*Sounds like someone else had the same idea,* Diana thought. *Well, what did you expect? She’s probably confused as hell about what might have happened to you in that warehouse, and you sure weren’t in any shape to give her answers. Charlie deserves to know whatever you know – everything you know. She has a stake in this, too. You’re gonna have to talk to her. Soon.*

Pressing an ear to the knotty pine door, she caught stray snippets of Charlotte’s words: memories, secrets, dreams, Gabrielle, help, trust, forgive. Diana heard just enough to make her worry about the rest. Maribel’s voice was too low to be heard clearly, so her responses were a mystery, and that only made things worse. Diana could feel the muscles tightening in her lower back – a symptom of the chronic tension she had all but forgotten in recent days.

The sound of Charlotte’s sudden laughter broke the ominous silence, and the eavesdropping agent stepped away from the door as she heard clicking heels approaching. As Charlie barreled through the door, Diana took a step forward, contriving an accidental collision.

“Aaack!” the blonde cried, after ramming her head full speed into the taller woman’s chest.

“Whoa there, hoss! Where’s the fire?” the ‘victim’ of the crash inquired innocently, wrapping a steadying arm around Charlotte’s waist. She soon noticed that her lover made no move to retract her face, wedged in tight against the front of that low-cut little black dress. Diana cleared her throat, hoping to get her attention.

Now looking not the least bit hurried, the younger woman tilted up her smiling visage and kissed Diana squarely on the mouth, surprising the hell out of her. That was not what she expected, and she was delightfully shocked. In the darkened hallway outside the kitchen, there was little chance of being observed, so one little kiss wouldn’t hurt. But one begat two and two begat three, and three lingered on like Methuselah. Someone was backed against the cool plaster wall as hands and arms and legs meshed and locked tight, creating a bright space in the company of shadows.

Both knew that it was neither the time nor the place for this – they had other things to do, important questions to ask and answer – but it was just so damned easy to fall against each other, to hold and be held, to get lost and be found all at the same time in this one simple act. Everything else could wait, if only for a minute. In less than that span of time, Charlotte had nearly forgotten why she was rushing out of the kitchen, and Diana had ceased to care. She did, however, want to know what brought on the sudden burst of affection.

“Please tell me what I did to deserve this, so that I may do it again – repeatedly,” she requested as Charlotte swept aside loose, dark locks and latched her mouth onto a diamond-studded earlobe. The attorney answered in spurts of words, alternating each with a lick, kiss or tug.

“It’s not something you did, really… I just feel like I did when I was a kid, reading a mystery… and Nancy Drew started to put things together… she didn’t have all the answers yet… but at least she knew what to look for… that’s why I’m happy… that’s why I’m feeling frisky… okay?” She finished by slipping her tongue into Diana’s ear, and it was all the woman could do not to scream her surprise out for the whole house to hear.

“Shit! That tickles, Charlie,” she managed to say, without the slightest air of protest. Enduring the wet probing for barely another moment, she slipped her hands into cascading blonde hair and brought that mischievous mouth back to meet her own in a kiss that burned up most of the oxygen in the hall.

“You hungry?” Charlotte inquired finally, after being forced to come up for air. She quietly damned her pathetic lung capacity and swore never to smoke again.

“Not really, but I’ll fake it.” A shy smile as Diana removed a small, straying hand from beneath the hem of her dress – a hand which grazed dangerously close to the sheathed ceramic blade clipped on her garter belt.

“Good girl. Wouldn’t want to offend the chef – I hear she’s one tough old broad.”

“I guess dinner’s ready, then.”

“Yup. Maribel dispatched me to round up the rowdies and get them into the dining room. Wanna help?”

“Certainly. Wait a minute, though. You’ve got some lipstick on your teeth.”

“Mine or yours?”

“I don’t think there’s a difference anymore. Here, let me get it. Smile bright, Lil’ magic.”

A handkerchief produced from the magical black bag reminded Charlie to ask about the three mystery items, so she did just that while Diana neatened up her mouth.

“Are you expecting your monthly visitor?” she asked first while the hankie squeaked against enamel.

“No,” Diana answered, smiling already since she knew what would come next. “And I don’t need the glasses or the sperm trampoline, either, but I had to bring them along. I promise, I’ll -”

“Explain later, I know,” Charlie interrupted. “I swear, if you say that one more time…”

“I mean it, though. Let’s just see if we can make it through dinner peacefully, huh? You can give me the third degree when we get home.”

Though she liked the sound of that idea, Charlotte Browning could not help speaking her mind. “This is really starting to piss me off, Diana. I don’t like this ‘later, later’ rap you keep pushing on me.”

A deep sigh as Diana put away her hankie. “You really want to know about that junk in my purse?”

“YES! Of course I want to know, or I wouldn’t have asked!”

“Okay, I’ll tell you,” Diana said quietly, her face impassive and serious. “The glasses are actually high-tech, ultra-violet light detectors. The tampon contains long-range listening equipment, and the diaphragm case is a digital recorder. Clever packaging, huh?”

Dead silence in the hallway for at least a five count as the two women stared at each other, Diana not believing what she had just said, and Charlie not believing what she had just heard. The lawyer then scowled harshly and stepped back, turning on her heel and muttering as she walked away.

“I wish you’d stop making fun of me and just tell me the truth.”

She hurried down the hall and disappeared into the library before Diana could even try to catch her.

“I was,” Diana whispered to no one.

——————————————————————————–

Soon, the madding crowd from the library had perambulated into the dining room, settling into their places with drinks firmly in hand. Marco sat at the head of the table, with a fuming Charlotte on his right and a half-lit Quentin Carver on his left. Falcon seemed nervous when Charlotte refused to tell him what was wrong, but noticed her frowning intensified when her tall, dark friend entered the room on the arm of Virgilio Marquez.

“Is there some problem with you and Diana? Anything I can help with?” he asked sincerely, not wanting his budding fantasy encounter nipped in its youth.

“Not unless you’ve got some sodium pentethol lying around, Marco,” she replied, dead serious.

Falcon quickly changed the subject to the safer topic of his beloved pet cockatoos, singing their praises until his mother and her drafted helpers – two of Marco’s cadre of musclebound guards – finally brought in the heavily laden trays, each plate bearing portions large enough for three adults.

Once everyone had been seated and served, Falcon stood and asked, “Is everyone here?” The raspberry-suited silent hulk lurking by the door shook his head no, and a shiver ran up Diana Starrett’s spine.

*They’re not here? Jesus Christ, please let them show…*

“Well lock it down anyway, Paz. Let me know when the stragglers arrive,” Marco ordered. Suddenly, Diana could breathe again. The representatives were expected to arrive later.

The giant stepped into the hallway and lingered for a few moments. Several men and one woman in the dining room knew exactly where he went and what he was doing. In fact, the woman could have activated the alarms and security for him, if she had been asked to do so. A brief series of blipping sounds as the house was electronically secured, and Paz the Humongous was back at his post.

For a while, all was blissful conviviality as nearly everyone present lost themselves in the pleasures of excellent wine and delectable food. The two notable exceptions were Diana Starrett, who lost what little appetite she had during the guilt trip which followed her cavalier confession, and Charlotte Browning, who was just plain mad. The attorney would get over herself soon enough, but Diana was determined to use this fleeting remission from her terminal lovesickness to get some work done.

She took inventory of the guests, counting eight bodyguards with sidearms among them. Two more were external employees of Falcon’s, one an accountant, the other a banker. Then there was Quentin Carver, his dewy little anonymous companion, and Virgilio Marquez. She had yet to hear a complete sentence the man uttered, even though he had talked constantly since escorting her into the room. Diana just didn’t care about his speedboat, his stock portfolio, or Pamela Lee’s tits – and those seemed to be the limits of his discourse.

For the umpteenth time, she mentally pored over the blueprints of the house, matching them with the rooms Falcon had shown her. She knew the likely spot for the meet was the heavily secured conference room here on the first floor, and she had observed several of Marco’s men scanning the room and the adjoining library for bugs – bugs which had not been planted yet. Diana had her plan now. She was in the house, equipped like mad, and ready to get this damned thing over with. Now all she had to do was pick her moment to slip away and go to work.
Nineteen
As Marco Falcon prattled on about his precious birds, Charlotte’s eyes glazed over from boredom. She cast surreptitious glances down the table at the tall, placid beauty sitting much too far away, watching as Diana cut her eyes across the table. She wondered what her companion was thinking, since she was obviously not listening to the boastful chatter of Virgilio Marquez. All the little toadstool ever talked about was money, women, and money – Charlotte knew this from experience.

The attorney felt in her bones that something bad was going to happen here tonight, and she was certain that it would revolve around Diana Starrett. Therefore, she was determined to be a part of it. No matter how mad she was over the woman’s incessant teasing and infuriating evasiveness, she knew without question that she loved her more than life itself, and would defend and aid her unto her last breath. Gabrielle’s parting words circled inside her head, buzzing like a low-flying plane.

*She will need you. Don’t judge her, just listen – and follow your heart. You’re stronger than you know, and you might have to be strong enough for the both of you. Trust her… or lose her.*

Poking idly at the remnants of her chicken, Charlotte nodded and smiled alternately at Marco Falcon and Quentin Carver, all the while keeping part of her focus at the other end of the table. The two men began to argue the merits of legalized drugs, with Quentin vehemently pro and Falcon just as passionately opposed. He didn’t come right out and say that such measures would cut into his profit margin, but all present knew what he meant, and some were not amused. Charlotte wasn’t the only one here tonight who worked legitimately with Marco while secretly despising him.

She continued observing Diana covertly, noting her coiled, tense posture, her slowly shifting smile and hooded, omniscient eyes. While she looked to everyone else like just another stunning trophy on Virgilio’s arm, Charlotte saw these things about her when others could not.

*She’s waiting for something. Watching the room like a hawk, while appearing about as lively and interesting as the furniture. Neat trick, that. Guess I’ll just wait along with her.*

As Marco paused to offer her more wine, Charlotte politely declined, opting instead for water. “I’m the designated driver,” she lied sincerely, glancing toward the wine-sipping woman who held the keys, while idly wondering if she could drive the Porsche if push came to shove. Diana tried earlier that day to explain how to switch the tiptronic transmission over to automatic to nullify her fears of driving in manual mode, but Charlotte had only half-listened and mumbled affirmatives around the earlobe in her mouth. Now she worried that her inattention might come back to haunt her.

*No more intoxicants for me – I’ll be ready. Whatever you do, whatever you need, I’ll be ready. Even if it means driving stick.* She sipped her water and nibbled at her dinner, watching and waiting.

Falcon soon picked up the thread of his discarded argument and baited Quentin until he gleefully re-entered the fray, this time singing the praises of hemp.

——————————————————————————–

Midway through the entree, Diana watched the conversation between Falcon and Carver grow heated again, and she saw her opportunity to slip away unnoticed. She excused herself and made her way past the politely nodding Paz, and back to the first-floor rest room. Once inside, her first impulse was to press one fingertip against the wide mirror over the sink. Seeing a gap between her nail and its reflection, she sighed in relief.

*Not a two-way – no spying in the potty. Falcon might be scum, but he’s one up on Chuck Berry.*

Diana cleared her mind of all distractions – memories new and old were banished in favor of laser-like focus on the job at hand. She turned on the exhaust fan for some cover noise and dumped the contents of her purse onto the vanity to take inventory. A tampon was selected from the pile of innocuous objects, then quickly unwrapped and the cardboard cylinder unwound, revealing a sealed plastic packet. It held what appeared to be a pill and two coin slugs.

*Earpiece…* A small flesh-colored plastic capsule was retrieved and slipped into the left Eustachian tube.

*Mike one, mike two…* No larger than dimes and just as flat, the two ultra-sensitive listening devices were activated and tested for the final time.

*Perfect working order. Thank you, tech lab.* She tucked the two discs into her bra.

Next, she removed the reading glasses from their case, twisted lightly on the arms to activate the U.V. sensors, and slipped them on.

*Super-duper spy goggles, good to go.*

Two slim metal tools were plucked from the lining of the purse, and Diana smiled as the familiar, heady rush started to build.

*God, I love lock picks. Skeleton keys to the world.*

Unlike her mounting distaste for violence, she actually still enjoyed this part of the job. She suspected that she would have made an excellent burglar.

*R.T.G. mode, baby. Get ready to go.*

She refilled her purse, flushed the tampon, and set about picking the lock on the side door, the one which led into the library. After ten seconds, the deadbolt gave up the fight and slid open, freeing the door to swing quietly ajar. Diana crept into the room and eased the door closed behind her. While surveying the mildly challenging security, she slipped off her heels, dropped her purse and picks, and laid out her plan for the last time.

*Twenty-six feet across to the conference room. The air vent is shared between that room and the library. One bug under the door, one in the vent, both transmitting on the same encoded frequency. Live monitor in your ear. One digital, voice-activated recording device in the diaphragm case in your purse, and one in the Porsche. It’s not rocket science, so just do it and get back before your dinner gets cold – or someone comes looking for you.*

Eight ultra-violet beams criss-crossed the room, rising from the floor at various inconvenient angles. An average intruder would not have been equipped to see them, and even if they had the proper equipment, they would likely have lacked the skill to negotiate passage. This particular intruder was untroubled by either of these worries.

Diana ducked, leaped, and rolled under and over the beams, carefully weaving through the bright blue maze until she reached the other side of the room. Allowing herself a moment to gloat, she reflected that she could make a lot of money around here setting up real security systems.

*That was too easy – and this beam array is considered the good stuff. Hell, this whole town might as well be Mayberry.*

She removed the first mike from her brassiere and licked the tiny disc to trigger the adhesive backing, then knelt and secured the bug underneath the conference room door. The air vent would prove a bit more difficult to reach, being ten feet up.

Diana edged around the bookcase by the door and stepped onto the second shelf, boosting herself up to eye-level with the vent. Through the dusty louvers, she could see across the air shaft into the dimly lit conference room. The long table in the center was surrounded by several high-backed chairs and bedecked with crystal liquor decanters and marble ashtrays. A cherry-finish humidor sat at the near end, a glinting gold lighter at its side.

*Looks like somebody’s expecting high-brow company. Goody goody gumdrops.*

She planted the second bug just inside the vent, steadying herself on the top row of books – which she was amused to discover were not books at all, merely cardboard facades cleverly printed to look like the collected works of Thomas Jefferson – then dropped to the floor softly as a cat. A sudden flood of light from the opening of the bathroom door froze her in her tracks, and she ducked down into the shadows by the bookshelf.

Diana cursed herself to hell for the obvious mistake. *Idiot! How could you have left the fucking door UNLOCKED!?!?!?*

“Hello? Diana?” Charlotte called softly as she peered into the darkened room. Presently, she noticed the purse and shoes discarded by the door.

*Go away. Goawaygoawaygoaway.* the agent chanted silently.

Charlotte flinched as a shiver ran along her neck, fine hairs standing on end.

*I knew it! I knew something was up when she left the table. She’s in here somewhere. But where? And why?* the lawyer wondered. Then she decided to find out for herself.

Diana’s mind screamed while Charlotte hesitated by the door. *Dammit! No, Charlie! Stay back!*

Charlotte was about to step into the room when Diana – left with no other option – jumped up from her hiding place waving her hands frantically.

“Stay right there! Don’t move,” she whispered harshly, seeing that Charlotte was only inches away from tripping the first of the low U.V. beams. “Just close the door and I’ll come to you.”

Looking stunned at her lover’s sudden appearance, and more than a little confused by her harried manner, Charlotte complied. The young woman turned and shut the door, plunging the room into darkness and making it much easier for Diana to discern the beams. She acrobatically wove her way back through the lines, vaulting over two hurdles at a time until she reached Charlotte’s side. Through the wired lenses of her glasses, Diana’s blue eyes flashed the full spectrum of anger – from the red gleam of humiliation to the violet of cold fury at Charlotte’s unbelievably bad timing.

If Charlotte noticed this look, she chose to ignore it. “What the hell are you doing in here?” the attorney immediately inquired, “What’s with the specs? And why were you jumping across the room like an epileptic kangaroo?”

Heaving a weary sigh, the agent chose to answer the latter queries first. Diana removed her glasses and offered them to Charlie. Placing them over her eyes, the young woman immediately gasped, seeing for the first time the web of blue light strung across the library.

“Holy shit. You… you weren’t kidding me earlier, were you?”

“Ultra-violet sensors. Security system,” Diana said, by way of an explanation.

“Okaaay,” Charlie drawled, trying to keep cool, “that’s two down. Now tell me why you’re in here dodging Marco’s security.”

“Let’s get out of here first.”

“Are you gonna talk to me or not?”

“Move. Now,” Diana insisted as she opened the door, gathering her things and hustling the two of them into the restroom. She knelt and re-locked the door with her picks, then turned to face Charlotte Browning with no clue where to begin.

*You can’t lie to her anymore. You trust her, and you know she would never betray you. So tell her the whole truth. Just tell her the truth.*

Taking a seat on the toilet, Diana motioned for Charlotte to get comfortable. The blonde seemed a little put out by this latest delaying tactic, but hopped up onto the vanity within seconds, hoping to get a more forthcoming response through cooperation.

“I’m sitting. You’re sitting. Start talking,” she instructed, eyes and voice metrically level.

A few deep breaths for courage, and Diana finally managed to form a word.

“Charlie…”

Granted, it was only the one word.

*Well, that was brilliant. Where do I start?* the agent pondered, vigorously running both hands through her long black tresses. That didn’t shake loose an answer.

“Look, I know something’s up. But Diana, you’re not on trial. I only want you to clue me in as to what’s really going on here tonight,” Charlotte prompted. “I know there are a lot of things you can’t tell me yet, but I think I deserve to know something. Let’s just try to cover the pertinent stuff right now, and we’ll fill in the rest later.”

The dark woman’s face fell from composed anxiety to sheer disbelief in under half a second.

“Oh. Generous of you.”

“I thought so. Do you trust me?”

“Yes, I do. More than reason would dictate as possible,” she answered, no hesitation.

Eyes glinting pale blue, the young blonde smiled. “It works both ways. So talk to me. Is the sheriff’s office investigating Marco?”

“It’s not that simple. I don’t really work for the sheriff’s office, Charlie.”

*She’s gonna tell me! Oh God, please don’t let it be too bad,* the lawyer prayed. Pursed lips and a raised eyebrow preceded her spoken response. “Well, then you’d better give back that snazzy gray uniform. Can you tell me who you do work for?”

A thoughtful pause as Diana Starrett worked on that one. “No. We really don’t have a name, just a mandate and directive issued by the United Nations.”

Somehow, Charlotte kept her jaw from dropping too far into her lap. *Great, so my girlfriend is Jane-fucking-Bond! Not quite what I expected, but it could have been worse.*

“So you’re what, a spy? Is that the right word for it?” she asked, still completely ingenuous.

“Ummm. Gee.” The tall woman was momentarily at a loss, and she fidgeted with the fuzzy toilet lid cover while her mind reeled in utter shock at the things coming out of her own mouth. *Shut up. Shut up right this second.* “I guess that’s as good a word as any.”

“Okay. You’re a spy, then. At least you work for the good guys, right?” Charlotte’s inquiry was tinged with hope.

Diana answered as carefully as she could. “Good guys. Hmmm. There are some who would argue that point, but I’ve always thought that we were the ‘not-quite-as-bad-as-them’ guys. My hat would be gray rather than white, I suppose. There are black hats and white hats scattered through our group, just like they’re scattered among the U.N. membership.”

“I can accept that,” Charlotte allowed. “So why does the U.N. care about Marco Falcon? He’s got his hands in a lot of dirty stuff, but most of it would be in the investigative realm of the feds, right?”

*This is too easy…* “You’re taking all this incredibly well, Charlie.”

“Thank you. I’m trying my best to be supportive and understanding – but I reserve the right to kick your ass at some point in the future for not telling me about this until you were caught in the act,” she threatened, waving a finger. “Answer my question, please.”

The tall woman nodded slowly, a bit frightened by how calm Charlotte was.

*No sense in stopping now. You’re completely screwed already, might as well be honest about everything. If she kicks your ass for being a lying dog, it’s the very least you deserve.*

“Yes, normally a little crook like him would be their problem. He came to our attention due to his association with a couple of old school villains. Do you recognize the names Radovan Bartok and Halle Jamal?”

“Of course. Bartok was the general who slaughtered all those unarmed civilians in Bosnian war camps. He buried them in mass graves. Jamal orchestrated the mass murder of Hutus in Rwanda a few years back. Nearly one-hundred thousand bodies left rotting in their villages,” Charlotte recalled with a shiver. “I do watch the news, you know.”

“Then you also know that both of these men vanished without a trace shortly before they were to be taken into custody by U.N. peace-keeping forces.”

“I remember seeing video showing a lot of men in blue berets looking very pissed off, yes,” Charlotte confirmed. “What does that have to do with Marco?”

“He knows where they are. He’s hiding them – for money.”

“Scumbag,” Charlotte spat, disgusted. *And I defended him. I’m going to hell now, for sure.*

Diana smiled at hearing the highly appropriate epithet. “My thoughts exactly. We were supposed to find where his safehouses are located and get out, but things got complicated. I lost my partner, and the op was canceled. We were supposed to pack up and leave last night.”

“But you’re still here. Why?” Charlotte asked, although she knew the answer already.

“Three guesses,” the agent wryly challenged.

“Me.”

“Bingo. You win the grand prize, such as it is,” Diana said, shrugging meekly. “I just… I couldn’t leave you. So they went on without me.”

Charlotte smiled at the ceiling, offering a little prayer of gratitude for the spirit who tried to tell her as much as she could, about the superficial lies and the deeper truths. Stifling the urge to hug Diana and tell her to shut up now, Charlotte stayed focused. There was more to learn, and not much time before they were missed at dinner.

“You’re obviously still working, though,” the lawyer observed, gesturing toward the violated library. “You’re still trying to bust him.”

“I don’t have a choice,” Diana answered, exhaling heavily and wishing that the next part would go as smoothly as the previous batch of revelations.

“There’s a rift between factions at my agency, and I’m trying to use it to my advantage. The only way I could stay with you was by promising to finish this job and turn over the spoils to one of the two warring parties – the one in the white hat,” she added. “And I wasn’t lying about quitting. If I deliver Falcon’s playmates, I’m out of the job for good. I’ve been promised… a chance, at least.”

Charlotte looked more dismayed than surprised as she recalled more of her conversation with that helpful spirit. *Manipulated and used by evil men, Gabrielle said. They wouldn’t want to just let her go – white hat or not, there must be a price to pay.*

“So you have to bargain your way out of this job. What happens when you give them what they want? You just sign a non-disclosure agreement and walk away?”

Diana smirked as Charlie said ‘when’ and not ‘if ‘ – she took that as a sign of confidence. “I wish it was that easy. There’s a process set up for agents who want to leave, and I’ll have to go that route.”

“What will you have to do?” Charlotte asked first, then re-phrased her query in an eerily appropriate manner. “Or maybe I should ask, what will be done to you?”

Steeling herself to press on and explain the most difficult part, the part which could separate them forever, Diana reached out for Charlotte’s hand. Moving from the vanity to kneel on the floor, Charlotte did her one better and took both hands in her warm grasp, her eyes showing fear for the first time tonight.

“It’s bad, isn’t it? A trial of some sort, a danger you have to face…”

The dark woman tried to hide her surprise and wonder at her lover’s perceptiveness. “Something like that.”

“Tell me. I know I can help somehow. It’s what I’m supposed to do,” Charlie claimed.

“Huh? Supposed to do?”

“I’ll explain later. It’s your turn to talk now. How do you get out of this job?”

Now it was Diana’s turn to be puzzled over vague allusions, and she didn’t like it at all. She did not get the chance to press the issue, though, as a sudden, insistent knocking shook the door and jarred both women into action. Diana slipped on her shoes and flushed the commode again, and Charlotte grabbed their purses and shut off the noisy fan. When they had made themselves presentable, Charlotte opened the door and came face to stomach with Paz.

“You can’t be in here now. Everybody’s in the dining room having coffee and dessert. You should join them,” he rumbled, and it was not a suggestion.

Though Paz stood blocking her view, Charlotte could see activity behind him. A group of five men, some very black, some very white, were filing into the conference room two doors down, escorted by Marco and four of his guards. The accountant and banker were also in tow, as was one lone gray haired man in an Italian suit. He walked slowly, apart from the group, smiling like a hyaena about to pick off weak members of a pack of zebras. The gray-haired man took a final draw from his brown cigarette and dropped it on the oriental rug lining the wide hallway, grinding it out under his shoe. Marco Falcon saw this, but said nothing about it.

“Ladies?” Paz prompted, shifting position and stretching out one enormous limb to guide them away.

Charlotte thanked him and took the lead, but they had barely stepped into the hall when Diana suddenly grabbed at her shoulder and spun her back into the rest room.

“Do you have my purse?” she asked quietly. Charlotte looked confused, but held up the bag to show Diana. The tall woman took it from her and smiled at Paz. “I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached.”

Down the hall, Mr. Italian Suit paused and looked toward the waiting guard, then resumed his placid smile and entered the conference room.

As soon as Diana heard the conference room door close, she took Charlotte by the arm and walked calmly into the hallway. Once they were out of earshot, the attorney leaned in and asked, “What was that business with the purse?”

They paused outside the now-unattended dining room door. “You saw that man – gray hair, expensive suit, cigarette on the carpet.”

“Yeah. What a jerk-off,” Charlie agreed at first, then realized that there was more to it. “You didn’t want him to see you. Who is he, Diana?”

“The big black hat, that’s who he is,” the agent explained, opening the double doors and re-entering the dining room as several disembodied voices began to appear in her left ear.
Twenty
“The big black hat. So the other team captain is hedging his bets,” Charlotte observed, adding in a conspirator’s whisper, “That means trouble for us, right?”

This was not a time when Diana wanted to hear the word “us.” In the dining room alcove, blocked from the view of the few remaining occupants, she gently pulled Charlotte to her and whispered low, firm words.

“Yes, his being here makes things a bit more complicated. I can handle this, but I’ll need you to promise me something.”

Charlotte, still buzzed from the dangerous knowledge recently imparted to her, unconsciously leaned closer as hot breath tickled her ear. “Anything.”

“If I get the sense that something is going wrong – or I feel at anytime that you’re in danger – I’m going to give you a signal and you will leave without questions. Here, take these.” Diana pressed something into her hand – a black plastic square dangling two silver keys. “I left the car in automatic, so you just fire it up and get gone. Promise you’ll do that for me, Charlie.”

Laughter curled around the corner as Quentin entertained the small group of diners, and the two huddled women cringed at their proximity. The blonde heaved a short sigh. “Maybe I should have said almost anything. You’re not alone in this anymore, and I won’t be leaving here without you.”

“Believe me, that’s what I want too,” Diana said, trying not to sound agitated as her left ear was filled with voices from the conference room, chattering idly about drinks and cigars. “But you’ve gotta understand that things could get out of hand real fast with that man here. I honestly don’t know what he’s going to do, and I have to be ready for anything – and that means not worrying about you getting hurt.”

“You should have thought of that before you spilled your guts in the bathroom,” Charlotte shot back. “I know you have a lot to deal with, but don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself, and I won’t get in the way. You do what you have to do, but we’ll walk out of here together, or not at all. Got it?”

Though the attorney spoke in a confident manner which brooked no arguments, Diana shook her head and clutched at her arm to get her full attention. “Charlie, you don’t understand. I’m telling you that I don’t know what I might have to do tonight, either. I will get that information, no matter what it takes. If it doesn’t come easy, this could turn into a real mess…”

“And you’re worried about me seeing you at work, that it might change my mind about you,” the younger woman finished, all but reading her mind. “Don’t be. My opinion of you is locked in tight.” She tapped two fingers against her heart, and Diana was struck speechless, wondering what she had ever done to deserve this woman.

“Thank you,” she said reverently. “I’m gonna have to keep one ear on what’s happening down the hall, so anything you could do to help cut down on distractions would be greatly appreciated.” Diana touched her left ear, and Charlotte got the message.

“Will do. Quentin should be leaving soon enough. He has an early hearing tomorrow on a contempt charge Judge Pamela Rundberg hit him with, so he’ll be out of the way. I’ll stick close to Maribel until you’re ready to go. Next to you, she’s the only person in this house I trust – plus, she’d kick Marco’s butt if he tried anything with me.”

“Jesus,” Diana muttered. She then heard Falcon trying to impose order on the meeting.

“Starting to wish you’d kept lying to me?” the attorney asked, a sly smile creeping across her face.

“No way. Just glad you’re on my side – you handle pressure amazingly well.”

“Comes from years of faking it. You pretend to be cocky and impervious long enough, you start to become that way for real. Now get on with your mission, double-oh-seven, and come get me when you need a ride home. Then be prepared to stay up all night… talking. You still owe me a shitload of answers.” Charlotte lifted onto her toes and kissed the spy who loved her, then moved into the main room and took her seat between Quentin Carver and Maribel Falcon.

Diana stared after her a moment, cursed softly in awe, then returned to her seat and easily assumed a lopsided duality which would have taxed most minds. While a fraction of her feigned interest in polite conversation and spiced nut cake, the majority listened closely to every word transmitted from down the hall, where Marco Falcon had just made five men very angry.

——————————————————————————–

“You can’t be serious, Falcon! You expect us to bid for custody of our leaders as if they were pieces of property? You are insane!” The Rwandan delegate was indignant, as were his two large companions. All three men strained against the confines of cheap suits and chairs built for less imposing persons, making them all the more irritable.

“I agree. This is totally unacceptable,” rumbled the Bosnian envoy – a grizzled, graying bear in unseasonable black wool. His leather-jacketed, linebacker-sized guard nodded mutely and cracked his knuckles.

“Gentlemen, please,” Falcon interrupted, “I know this is a departure from our original terms, but things have changed. I know as well as you do how crucial your leaders are to the survival of your nations. Without General Bartok’s connections, no weapons are available to your soldiers, and you are impotent,” he said to the Bosnian, who nodded ruefully while his guard scowled.

“And without the imaginative economic ventures conceived by President Jamal, Rwanda would never have developed her highly profitable capacity for producing recreational substances.” He smiled toward the African contingent, who jointly refused to meet his gaze.

“You need them, if not at home, at least in an advisory capacity. And you are not the only ones interested in these trailblazing men. Face it gentlemen, the market price for such comic-book villains is at an all-time high, and I am only following the trend by allowing other concerned parties onto the exchange floor.” Marco looked toward the silent man milling around behind his antique desk, studying patterns in the rugs. The man brushed stray bits of ash from his pinstriped charcoal lapel and ignored everyone.

“Who is this man?” the Rwandan demanded, “And what is his interest in President Jamal?”

“And General Bartok,” added the Bosnian, silently furious over the description of his national liberator as a ‘comic-book villain.’

“His name is of no concern to you. You should take his presence as a sign that world government is serious about prosecuting war criminals, and adjust your bids accordingly.”

“You are full of shit, Falcon!” The Bosnian pounded his fist on the table, causing everyone to flinch except the gray-haired man, who merely smiled. “The United Nations does not do business this way, they do not buy arrests!”

“They might if it were the only way to obtain them,” Falcon responded. “They have failed in their attempts to steal information from me, so they are now open to other, more direct options. When it comes to undercover work, they are just as inept as the CIA.”

——————————————————————————–

In the dining room, Diana Starrett felt her blood heat up as Marco smugly admitted that he had caught an agent trying to infiltrate his organization, and had killed the man in his own home, with his own gun. The truly alarming part was that he made this admission with the director who deployed that agent in the room, evidently with no fear of repercussions.

*You son of a bitch! I’d bet my life now that Riggins told you about Eladio to blow the op on purpose. It’s obvious you’re in bed together… but why? We were so close to making this work, and now he wants to buy what he could have had for free! That can’t be right…*

She noted that Charlotte gave her only an occasional glance, choosing to steer the conversation away from Diana at every opportunity. When Quentin whisperingly inquired if there was trouble in paradise already, Charlie explained that her quiet friend was suffering from a headache tonight. The older attorney looked Charlotte square in the eye and said, “Oh, honey – I’m ever so sorry for you.” Charlotte cuffed him hard on the arm and Diana managed to shoot her a quick smile, which vanished abruptly as Joshua Riggins finally began to speak. Despite the quick-fade job her mind was doing on her memories from the warehouse, his slithering voice still chilled her blood.

——————————————————————————–

“Gentlemen, I understand your displeasure,” he began magnanimously, “You don’t want to see your esteemed leaders dragged through the mud and imprisoned for life. Nor do you want to suffer the wrath of massive sanctions – which will doubtless be imposed on you by my superiors.” Riggins came form behind the desk and paced around the conference table, blowing billows of foul smoke over the group. The heads of the three foreign guards poked through the haze like mountain tops through smog, and they employed formidable stoicism in not showing how much the pollution bothered them.

“This is the situation – I want Bartok and Jamal, and I am willing to pay top dollar. As Mr. Falcon has noted, our efficiency has suffered of late and we were unable to obtain them by traditional means, therefore we are now amenable to employing a financial solution. He has been most welcoming of our efforts. If you are unable to compete with the offer I have been authorized to make, well… that is not my problem. This is a buyer’s market, gentlemen, and tonight I am a buyer. So ante up, or go home.”

Silence reigned in the conference room as Riggins let his ultimatum sink in while he lit another of his hideous cigarettes. Low murmurs began to flow between the envoys as they weighed their options, then each nodded at Falcon in turn. They would stay in the game.

“Good, good,” Marco purred, greed flashing dollar signs in his dark eyes. “We will begin the bidding at double the present rate. Eight million – do I hear eight-five?”

——————————————————————————–

Diana could not believe what she was hearing. It was impossible, surreal. *Just too fucking strange.* She listened as the head of the most underpublicized, underfunded agency in the game made exorbitant bids, driving the price higher with each round. *We don’t have that kind of money! Harry’s always bitching about how we have to scrape and bow for every dime, and Riggins is in there pledging Fifteen Million Dollars? What the devil is he up to?*

Quentin Carver and his friend said their good-byes at last, forcing Charlotte to receive a welcome kiss on the cheek from her boss and unwelcome advice about how to “cure whatever’s ailing that amazon cop of yours – wink wink, nudge nudge.” One of the guards walked them out, apologizing for the delay as the front door alarm was disarmed. He saw them to their car and returned to his seat after resetting the sentry.

The three guards splayed out around the dining room were evidently assigned to watch over Falcon’s mother, because their eyes followed every move she made as she stood and began to clear dishes. They also assumed that the two young women were waiting for their boss, and they shared a few leers and snickers over Marco’s incredible luck.

Charlotte took a seat on the banquette and leaned in to whisper, “Is everything okay so far?”

Diana waggled her hand in a so-so motion. “Can’t tell yet. Stay ready to bolt, though.”

The blonde jangled her tiny purse, keys to the chariot tucked inside. She then went to help Mrs. Falcon pile up the dishes, again utilizing the same excuse for Diana’s lack of participation – she had a headache and was still disoriented from the ‘trip’ she took in the kitchen.

Maribel eyed the tall woman curiously, then gave her a warm smile and fretted over her a bit. She promised to make her a cup of tea guaranteed to cure anything short of a migraine, and relocated her to a comfortable banquette near the door.

“Thank you very much,” Diana murmured, wincing as she followed the bidding. Finally, it slowed and tapered off as Riggins apparently reached his limit, and she found herself oddly disappointed that he had burned out so quickly.

*As long as you’re bidding with money you don’t have, you might as well go all the way, you cheap bastard. Unless you were driving up the price on purpose, bluffing them to raise the stakes higher… uh-oh. That money would fund a lot of unauthorized ops. Marco, you’d better watch your back.*

——————————————————————————–

“So we have a deal at twenty-two-five? Excellent,” Falcon said, trying not to salivate. Both victorious envoys gave curt nods to the vulture and glowered at the defeated U.N. spook.

Riggins sighed dejectedly and took a seat in the corner, enduring hard stares from most of the room.

“You are prepared to execute the wire transfer tonight?” Marco asked. Both the Rwandan and Bosnian groaned affirmations as they retrieved the necessary codes from locked cases.

The banker and accountant moved into action. They booted up the Powerbook on Falcon’s desk, and entered a series of keystrokes and passwords until, at last, the security protocols were satisfied and they logged on with the foreign accounts officer at Marco’s bank in the Caymans.

“Ready,” said the two anxious, pencil-necked anglos, almost in unison. Despite the cool temperature in the house, they were both already sweating through their Brooks Brothers suits, and the banker’s glasses looked slightly foggy.

“Let us be done with this,” the Rwandan grumbled, then took his turn first, scrutinizing the secured web document before entering the authorization data requested by the bank officer. Minutes later, the Rwandan treasury was twenty-two and a half-million dollars poorer, and Marco Falcon’s numbered offshore accounts swelled dramatically once again with the addition of the Bosnian contribution.

Although he knew it was not prudent to poke at angry bears, Falcon could not help thanking them for the easiest money he had ever made. This was forty-five million dollars, for hardly any work at all.

“The American Dream, gentlemen. Money for nothing and chicks for free,” he laughed, capped teeth shining through Havana smoke. “Now that our business is concluded and my tenants are secured for a long winter’s nap, I’d like all you ugly bastards to get out of my house. There are a couple of lovely young ladies who are desperate for my company.”

——————————————————————————–

Stifling a snort of laughter, Diana listened as the foreign envoys hastened from the room and Marco dispatched his flunkies to let them out. He sent Virgilio and the two money-men out as well. From what she could hear, the accountant and banker were going home. The four guards, Virgilio, and Paz the Doorman milled around in the hall waiting for Marco to dismiss his final guest.

*Don’t let him leave yet! Dammit! That can’t be all there is to it…* She barely noticed as Charlotte and Maribel came back into the room bearing the promised cup of tea. Diana nodded her thanks and sipped, hanging from the padded edge of her seat.

Riggins didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and Falcon told Paz to stand watch and make sure they were not disturbed. The huge man grunted and closed the door behind him. Alone in the conference room, they cut to the chase rather quickly, and Diana felt ill as her worst suspicions were confirmed.

*Sometimes, I actually guess right. God, why did I have to be right about this?*

——————————————————————————–

“You needn’t have been so disparaging in your indictment of my agency, you know. Most of those criticisms were unwarranted,” Riggins was saying. “You would have never found the mole agent if I hadn’t rubbed his identity under your nose.”

“I had to sell the story to them, didn’t I?” Falcon responded defensively. “They bought it and paid out big, so it doesn’t really matter.” He moved to his desk and leaned over the computer, tapping away at the keyboard. “Now let’s finish this up – I was serious about those young ladies. Where do you want your cut to turn up?”

A pregnant pause as Riggins lit up again, then he moved to the heavy oak door which led into the hall. He took two brass keys from his trousers and used them to throw the deadbolts on two solid locks, effectively sealing the room from outside intrusion. Marco Falcon looked up for a response to his query, and his jaw dropped as he realized he was being locked in.

“What the fuck are you doing, man?”

Riggins removed the keys as he produced an asthma inhaler from the pocket of his vest, and squeezed off two rounds of mist into the locks. The mist turned to foam, which permeated every crevice of the lock and hardened like stone. The gray haired man then tucked away his tools and addressed his young confederate with almost paternal patience.

“We need to talk, Marco. I’m afraid half is no longer sufficient – I’ll be taking all forty-five million. If you’ll step aside, I can take care of the transfer myself.” He walked toward the desk with quick, purposeful steps, not even noticing the sudden fury spreading over the flustered Falcon.

“Well, fuck me. Well, just FUCK ME!!” Marco caught on very quickly. “You think you gonna take my money? You got another thing coming, cabron!” He opened his desk drawer and reached for his gun, which was not there. He rifled through each drawer in turn – no pistola.

“Looking for this?” Riggins sang, dangling the missing Glock from his pinkie as he perched on the edge of the desk. “Don’t worry, kid. I won’t shoot you unless you make me. I’m taking the money and Bartok and Jamal as well. You see, I’m in kind of a pinch, so I need that money and those men – and I will have them. If you try to stop me, you will regret it,” he stated, cold as death coming for a helpless child. “Now step aside.”

Falcon did as he was told, for the moment, and Riggins logged on and started the process of draining forty-five million dollars from that heavily-trafficked Caymans account. Determined not to panic, Marco remembered that the odds were stacked in his favor – after all, this was his turf, crawling with his people.

“Oh yeah? And how you planning to do that, old man? You came here alone. No bodyguards, no backup – not that those pussies who work for you would be much help. I got eight men in this house, all packing, all perfectly willing to kill your ass if you so much as… why are you smiling?”

“Because I know something you don’t know. I’m not alone here, Marco. In fact, one of my agents is standing by waiting to assist me in taking you, your mother, and all your men into custody – dead or alive – if you don’t comply fully with my demands.”

——————————————————————————–

*What the hell is he talking about?* Diana thought, dutifully sipping Maribel’s theraputic tea. Sickened as she was by this development, the tension was killing her and she tried to look relaxed as the confrontation down the hall escalated.

——————————————————————————–

“What the hell are you talking about? Everybody in this house has been checked top to bottom – ain’t nobody packing in here except my boys. So your agent can go play with himself…”

“I didn’t say that my agent had a gun. Neither did I reveal my agent’s gender. The fact is, my ace in the hole could be anyone from your Lieutenant to your mother – and they wouldn’t even know it. I just say a few magic words, and Shazam! Here comes the cavalry.” Riggins gave a chilling smile and a harsh, staccato laugh as Falcon puzzled over that one.

——————————————————————————–

In the dining room, Diana Starrett was now very worried, and she coughed to get Charlotte’s attention. She slid one hand along her thigh and jerked her thumb toward the exit. Charlie did not acknowledge her, but rose and took Maribel by the arm, ostensibly escorting down the back hall to the kitchen to discuss recipes. Two guards went with them, leaving the youngest of the litter behind to watch out for the “sick lady” who sat quietly sipping tea. Diana relaxed enough to whisper a quick prayer for Charlotte’s safety… and for her current suspicions to please be wrong.

——————————————————————————–

“You’re talking bullshit now, Riggins,” the angry young man declared. “Paz! Get in here!”

“I wouldn’t recommend that, Marco. You cause me trouble, and I will make certain that you are laid to waste, and then laid to rest. I have the weapons to do just that. Don’t make me use them.”

Muffled shouts from the hallway as Paz struggled with the door. He butted a massive shoulder against it repeatedly, and it would not budge.

“The keys won’t go in, goddammit!” Virgilio shouted. “Cut the alarm and go through the library!”

Riggins twirled the Glock around his thumb and walked calmly across the room, stopping in front of the only other entrance. “You really don’t believe me, do you Marco? That’s a mistake. You’re making me reach up my sleeve.” He sprayed the library locks with the inhaler, and smiled at the sounds of Virgilio and his ilk scuttling around next door.

“Go ahead and reach up your sleeve, motherfucker!” Marco was starting to lose it. “PAZ! Break it down, you mongoloid fuck!”

Joshua Riggins sighed and took a seat midway between the library door and the shared air vent. His voice crawled low and confidential as he addressed his alleged accomplice.

“Diana, I hope you brought enough party favors to go around. Marco isn’t playing nice.”

——————————————————————————–

*No. No. No. Not me. No. No. No. Not me. Is he singing? Why is he singing? No. No. No…*

——————————————————————————–

“Incense and peppermints, the color of time… Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone… He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year… All I want to do is have a little fun before I die… L.A proved too much for the man…” Riggins sifted through snippets of song openings, camouflaging the trigger phrase just as Mangano advised. Once the keywords were uttered, the door would open and there was no going back.

——————————————————————————–

The agent picked up her purse, reached in a grabbed her make-up kit, extracted the pair of rubber-tipped tweezers, and slipped them into her ear, latching onto the live monitor, nearly tugging it free… then she heard words which made her breath catch and her muscles tense and harden like cement. Shaking, her hand withdrew and dropped open. And she waited.

——————————————————————————–

Marco Falcon looked at Riggins as if he were the poster child for insanity. “Goddammit, old man! Are you crazy or something? Shut-up! PAZ! Get in here!” More thumping on the solid doors, now from both sides of the room.

Riggins kept talking, preparing to loose the beast on the unsuspecting villagers. “And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”

——————————————————————————–

*No. No. No. No. Please…*

Diana looked to the one guard who remained in the room with her. He smiled and fidgeted with his napkin, wiping crumbs from his fuzzy upper lip. He was going to die soon, and she would be the one to kill him. Blue eyes watched him with forced detachment, powerless in their knowledge, waiting.

She could not move her body, and yet she felt herself moving inside – sliding off and down and away, into darkness, into oblivion, and the voice drew her in further still until it was the only thing she knew.

Then came the pain. A resentment, an anger, a hatred, a rage, a fury, an apocalypse – all building, existing and exploding in seconds as the words poured over her, scalding, entombing and fortifying her with guilt like molten steel.

——————————————————————————–

“And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Ethan thy brother? And she said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground, and now thou art cursed from the earth. And Diana said unto the Lord…”

——————————————————————————–

“My punishment is more than I can bear.” The young guard eyed the muttering the blue-eyed woman, wondering if she was talking to him. She couldn’t see him anymore, sliding down, down, and under.

——————————————————————————–

Riggins was cooking now, emoting like a Baptist lay preacher, ignoring the futile thumps assaulting the doors of his stronghold, ignoring the pacing and cursing of Marco Falcon. Absently fondling the pistol in his hands, he was in the zone…

“Come to me, so that I may ease your burden. My cause is your cause, my goal is your goal. Come to me, give me aid in my time of need, and I will ease your suffering. Slash and burn, my child. Slash and burn.”

——————————————————————————–

“I’m coming.”

The sound of her own voice surprised her – it was like talking so loudly in your sleep that you wake yourself up. Diana’s body stood and walked toward the dining room door, seeing everything, hearing more. Her own breathing became a loud, harsh whistling in her ears, and she could hear her own heartbeat accelerate as she receded further into the blackness, scrambling for a hold on wet stones, slipping down a deep, deep well. She could see now, but it was a distant, impossible view. Watching the shore from the bottom of the ocean.

Sensing a presence coming up behind her, Diana waved off the peach-fuzzed young man. “I’m fine. I just need to go to the bathroom. You should wait here.”

He wouldn’t listen. The young bodyguard intended to escort her to the rest room, the kitchen, wherever she wanted to go. This was his job, and he explained that it was a simple matter of necessity – strangers don’t walk around Marco Falcon’s house alone.

When she turned and looked on him with an adorably flummoxed expression, he blushed and almost apologized – then her hands were shooting at his neck, pushing hard on his skin. Then he couldn’t breathe, and his knees gave out, and his head felt like it was being crushed between comets. Blood trickled from his nostrils, and he realized in his final moments of life that Diana Starrett really didn’t want company.

She stepped over his body and dragged him by the collar through the double doors, his shoes squeaking against the glossy hardwood floor. Diana opened up the hall closet and tipped the body inside, shutting the door and leaving no signs at all.

“Slash and burn. I’m coming…”
Twenty One
“There it is again.”

“What?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t hear that.”

“What?”

“That thumping sound. Like thump, thump, thump…”

“I know what thumping sounds like, dickhead. I just don’t hear any.”

“Then listen harder, shitface!”

This new round of eloquent debate between the two guards was cut off by the loud ‘SMACK!’ of Maribel’s hand slamming against the sink. Everybody jumped, including Charlotte, who was studiously ignoring the thumping sounds while helping wash dishes.

“Enough! Both of you shut up,” Mrs. Falcon ordered, “If you think you hear a noise, go find out what it is, don’t stand around my kitchen calling each other nasty names. That’s not going to accomplish anything, except getting you both on my McDonald’s list – permanently.”

Horrible visions of greasy fast-food meals flashed before their eyes as they realized that she meant she would no longer feed them for the duration of their employment with Marco, so they apologized hastily and decided that one of them should investigate. A coin toss determined that ‘dickhead’ would be the one to leave the kitchen, so he checked his shoulder rig and adjusted his large frame Sig-Sauer automatic, then sped off to play detective while ‘shitface’ sat at the table and sulked.

“Do all of Marco’s guys have guns on tonight?” Charlotte asked Maribel as they resumed scrubbing plates.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. Everybody except Marco and Virgilio – but then Virgilio wouldn’t know what to do with a pistol if one fell in his lap. He’s all talk.”

“Are the rest of them all talk, too?” she asked hopefully.

Maribel gave her a curious look, then shook her head. “No. Some of these chollos are bad boys, especially that one who looks like an oak tree wearing a suit – Paz is one I would not want to see angry. Why do you ask?”

Charlotte hesitated, apparently lost in thought, then shrugged it off. “No reason, I guess. Guns just naturally make me worry. So easy for people to get hurt with those things around.”

“I see.”

The old woman noticed the tense set of her young friend’s shoulders, saw the little jumping muscle on the side of her neck that reacted to every muted thump wafting down the hall, but made no mention of these observations. Maribel herself heard the noises quite clearly, knew that they meant trouble, and was determined to stay out of it.

Maribel Falcon grew up in a family of bandoleros, and she tried to keep her only child out of their sphere of influence. To her everlasting shame, she failed, and macho, competitve Marco became even worse than her father and grandfather had been during their years of mayhem in Tijuana. Love for her son kept her by his side, hoping in vain that he might change his ways, but she lost nearly all of that hope the previous year when she accidentally witnessed Marco execute a young runner named Pablo by placing a gun against his head, making him beg for his life, and then killing him anyway. Ever since then, she both dreaded and longed for the day when her son would answer for his crimes, and she had the strangest feeling that day was at hand when she first saw Charlotte’s friend standing in her kitchen.

Many years in the company of predators had honed her instincts about certain types of people to a keen edge. She could cleave away a sheepskin from a masquerading wolf at a glance, and she realized when she first set eyes on Diana Starrett that the woman was a falcon dressed as a swan. She knew that the woman had come into this house hunting for something, and she presumed that something was her son. What she didn’t fully understand was why the bird of prey had chosen to nest with a dove like Charlotte Browning.

“Some things are of the soul, and cannot be explained,” she unconsciously said aloud.

Charlotte stopped scrubbing the plate in her hands and nudged her friend with an elbow. “Were you talking to me?”

“No, mija. Just thinking out loud. You sure your friend is okay alone out there? You want to go get her, bring her in here for some more tea?”

“Naahh, Diana just wanted to be alone for a little while. She’ll be fine.” Still covertly listening to the continuous, insistent thumping, the attorney hoped with all her might that she was right.

——————————————————————————–

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”

Falcon stopped pacing and glared at Riggins. “If you’re gonna keep spouting that bullshit, I’d just as soon you shoot me now.”

“Oh, don’t be petulant. Step over to the hall door and listen, Marco. Tell me what you think is happening out there,” the older man dared him, grinning like a jack-o-lantern. He waved the Glock at his unofficial hostage, just for encouragement, and Falcon started walking. Large bodies still pounded the wood, as they had for the previous two minutes, and the door showed no sign of weakening – but Marco was an optomist.

“I think my man Paz is about to break this door open and pop a cap in your thievin’ ass, that’s what I think.”

Riggins seemed highly amused by that prospect. “Really? Keep listening, kid.”

——————————————————————————–

Hugging the wall, the warrior felt cold plaster against her skin as she peered around the corner into the main hall. She could see Paz and two other guards, all with their backs turned to her, all throwing the weight of their bodies against the unyielding wood of the conference room door.

“Take care of the ones in the hall first, in any order you choose, my dear. Just remember – slash and burn means no survivors, leave no one behind. Let’s not have a repeat of our little Japan fiasco…”

She touched her left ear, still vibrating with her master’s voice. Reaching under her skirt, she removed two blades, each strapped to a thigh. The zipper on her back was lowered and the stiff facing around the seams turned out, then two more lines of trim, lethal ceramic were in her hands. She balled her right hand into a loose fist and slipped the rubbered handles between her fingers, blades jutting up like three-inch claws… or talons, if you will.

“I’m coming.”

——————————————————————————–

From deep in the safe waters of her own gray matter, the soul trapped within the warrior’s flesh heard her own voice responding to Joshua Riggins’ deadly directive, and was enraged.

*No hell I’m not coming! Stop. Stop! STOP, DAMMIT!*

Squirming and struggling against the nothingness which held her suspended in dim warmth, Diana Starrett slowly began to recognize just how much trouble she was in. Her body was no longer under her control, it was receiving instructions from an outside source and processing them with some dark fragment of her consciousness. And here she was, flailing away like someone going mad in a sensory deprivation tank, wanting out but not knowing where out is, let alone how to get there from here. She tried to calm herself and go over what she knew, take stock of the situation.

*He’s using me like some sort of meat puppet, jerking on strings Mangano sunk in my head over ten years time. Son of a bitch formatted me like a hard drive, erased my memories and laid rotten egg programs in the sub-routine. I can’t believe I never discovered this was going on… then again, maybe I did and just don’t remember it…. AAARRGGHH!!!*

Another fit of anger ensued as she struck out blindly in her limbo prison, thinking of Riggins laughing as he used her body for God knows what, thinking of her rediscovered brother crying out her name, fighting to help her, dying at her hand. Her mind began to focus, grasping at something she was not supposed to know.

*What did Harry say about surfacing? That it was like every bad memory crashing down on you, one after another. And what did you do when you remembered the warehouse? You ran away from it, ran to Charlie and got the hell out of there. I wonder what would have happened if you had pressed it, tried to push it further. Whatever came next couldn’t possibly be any worse. I need to know what happened after I left that place.*

Haunting laughter warbled through the void, taunting Diana in a mockery of her own voice.

“You’re not strong enough!”

*I have to be. I have too much to lose now.*

“You can’t handle the truth!”

*I saw the worst of it and lived to tell the tale. I can handle it.*

“Prove it.”

*Oh, I will. I will.*

And so she pushed with all her weightless might against a formless wall, urging herself to feel something besides anger and helplessness, eager now to confront the long-buried pain of the assault, the distant agony of her brother’s death. She already had a starting point, a blurry recollection of the boy retained from her hypnotic state. Her mind strained to filter away the static from his picture, to tune the hum from his voice. By making him as real as he was three hours ago, by finding him again, Diana thought she might find herself as well. Resurrecting the dead, one by one.

*Ethan. That was his name. Ethan. My brother’s name was Ethan. He was sixteen when he died. In a warehouse. I shot him, and he died right in front of me.*

She felt something solid connect with her fist, something just outside the tender trap of safety which ensnared her. Something dangerous and painful. Something cold, hard and confining, like stone – like the truth. She got excited and kept going, pounding away at the barrier with her hands, with her feet, with her pirated memories.

*I went to that place to find him, to bring him home. I was attacked by a dozen men, beaten, raped and left for dead. Ethan was stabbed by one of those men when he tried to stop them. When it was over, I killed all of them, and then I killed everyone who tried to help me. Including Ethan.*

The barrier shifted against her assault, buckling in and groaning from the strain. She felt the shift, and kept going, using the pain as motivation to push harder.

*He had long, wavy hair. Dark brown. And blue eyes, bluer than mine. He was so beautiful…*

The wall began to crumble, weakening to the consistency of rotten sheet rock, and she tore chunks of it away with abandon

*Like a cloudless day, his eyes were. Ethan. Skinny kid, big feet. Wore sneakers, even to church… wait a minute. I didn’t see that in the warehouse.*

The knowledge threatened to slip from her grasp, elusive as mercury. Diana clenched her fists and railed at the wall, grinding her teeth and huffing like a steam engine as she exerted all her energy to reclaim it. Almost there, almost, almost…

*Ethan wore his white Nikes with the black swoosh to communion because I dared him to! Father Pete was furious! YES! YES! YES! That’s mine! That’s MY memory! MINE!*

She felt it first, then saw it – a pinprick hole opened up on the other side of the barrier, leaking energizing white hope into the black solitude. The first breach had been made and Diana Starrett picked at it frantically, scraping at the wall like an Alcatraz inmate with a sharpened spoon. Escape was supposed to be impossible, but she was absolutely certain that no one had ever wanted it as much as she did.

Such was the state of affairs in the now turbulent sea of her mind; meanwhile, the renegade river known as her body was nearing flood stage. The villagers had not been warned.

——————————————————————————–

Right hand behind her back, the warrior limped into the hall barefoot, clutching her stomach and groaning. She headed for the bathroom, knowing that she would be intercepted and turned back halfway there. As expected, Paz sent one of the smaller guards back first to run her off. She feigned nausea, convulsing in a dry heave as he reached her. He leaned over and she moved in fast, her fist a blur of razor-sharp matte gray, now pressed right against his balls. She casually draped her left arm over his shoulder and moved her face close enough to whisper.

“Walk backward to the bathroom. You’re just helping me get to the john to throw up, got it?”

He gasped. He shook. But he nodded.

“Good boy.”

Paz called down after him. “I told you to get her the fuck out of here!”

A sheen of sweat broke out across the young man’s forehead as he stared into soulless blue eyes. Blades twitched against his crotch. He lied for all he was worth.

“She’s just gotta puke, then she’ll be outta here, man. Chill out.”

“Jesus Christ! Useless fucking women are more trouble than they’re worth!” Paz lost interest in cursing the weaker sex and turned back to the door, now employing a new, more imaginative tactic – kicking it really hard.

The warrior let her guard lead her into the bathroom slowly, very mindful of his delicate predicament. Her attitude changed once they cleared the doorway. Blades jumped from crotch to neck and her left hand clutched a fistfull of hair as she spun him around by the head. She ordered him to step into the bathtub and kneel with his back to her, four knives to the throat inspiring cooperation. Once he knelt, the knives were drawn away and he breathed a sigh of relief. Then his hair was snatched back and a sharp, pinpoint knee-strike to the back of the head broke his neck cleanly, without so much as a whimper. She slid the shower doors closed and turned away from him, having less interest in the corpse than a motorist has in a cleared speed bump.

Through the closed door leading to the library, she heard three other men cursing and contemplating shooting the locks. They could wait – she had her orders. A quick adjustment to the blades, and she headed back to the hall for her next two targets.

——————————————————————————–

“Maybe you should ask your bodybuilder friend if there’s a problem. He doesn’t seem to be making any headway,” Riggins suggested helpfully.

Marco stood by the hall door, off to the side. He expected it to fly off the hinges any second now. Then Riggins wouldn’t think this was so funny.

“PAZ? You out there, man?”

Kick. Thump. “Yeah.”

“What the hell is taking so long?”

“These doors, they ain’t meant to give none, you know?”

“Can’t you just shoot the locks?”

“No way. They’re reinforced, and there’s plates in the door. Ricochets, man.”

Not surprisingly, Marco Falcon cursed a blue streak over this disappointment.

“Security is a double-edged sword, my boy,” Riggins quipped, still the picture of repose as he reclined in a brocade wingback chair.

Muffled voices from the hall recaptured Marco’s attention, and he stepped closer to hear what Paz was saying. He caught a random “…didn’t I tell you…”, a stray “… where’s Victor…”, then a louder “…out of here, bitch!”

The first sound he intercepted cleanly was Paz screaming as his body crashed through the door, landing in a still, twisted heap inches from his boss’s Italian loafers. His thick neck twisted impossibly toward his back, and there was an angry, deadbolt-shaped indention on his forehead, finally proving that the man could use his head to solve a problem, albeit against his will. A patch of red spread across his massive chest, ruining his custom-tailored silk suit. Four thin slits in the fabric were visible, all located right over his heart. A glance past the shattered door frame revealed a second guard dead from similar wounds.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” whispered Falcon, shocked by the sight of his dead bodyguards, but moreso by the revelation of who put them in that condition.

Charlotte’s horny friend stepped into the conference room, four small wet blades protruding from her clenched fist. Marco was too stunned to move, trapped like a deer in headlights as she drew back her right hand and prepared to tenderize his face.

——————————————————————————–

The real Diana Starrett was missing the floor show. She tunneled relentlessly through the wall until the opening was large enough to crawl through. A wide bolt of sunlight shone in from the other side, and she dove through the hole head first.

And found herself standing in an urban canyon – a curving street shadowed by dilapidated apartment buildings. … home. Another barrier breached, a bridge rebuilt. The memories kept coming.

*I grew up here. This is New York. The Bronx. Holy shit.*

She spun in a circle, looking at all the cars lining the street, looking at the street itself, the shape as it stretched off into the distance.

*We lived on Kelly! Called it ‘Banana Kelly’ because of the curve! HA! YES! YES! YES!*

Diana jumped up and down, dancing a little jig on the warm asphalt.

*That’s my building! The one with the old lady coming through the door… man, she looks upset.*

Her curiosity remained idle until the woman began screaming. She lurched from the cluttered stoop, dropping a dish towel onto the sidewalk as she stumbled into the road. Diana peered at her closely, recognizing the frumpy matron, but not clear on her identity – until she saw what made the woman scream.

A battered teenage girl dressed in jeans and a red sweater came into view, staggering between the parked cars across the way. She carried the limp body of a thin, dirty boy with red-stained clothing and a gaping black hole near one eye.

*Ethan… I brought him home… to mama. That’s my mother.*

——————————————————————————–

“NO! Don’t kill him!” Riggins yelled, leaping from his chair like a frog from a hot plate. “At least, not yet. Calm yourself, Marco. She won’t hurt you unless I tell her to.”

Falcon tried to catch his breath and slow his racing heart as he adjusted to this warped, parallel universe where he was no longer in charge of anything, and some crazy puta was sticking holes in a three-hundred pound man and using his body as a battering ram.

The warrior lowered her bladed fist and looked to the gray-haired man. “There are still four guards left. Should I go get them?”

Riggins waved off her concern. “They’ll be here directly.”

Right on cue, Virgilio and his posse of two rode to the rescue. Just as they cleared the door, before they even had time to assess how deep the shit was that they had stepped in, Joshua Riggins smiled at his lovely assistant.

“Duck, sweetheart.”

She dropped to one knee and he raised the Glock, tracking three targets with a dark, adept eye.

BOOMBOOMBOOM.

——————————————————————————–

A sharp clatter and splash as Charlotte Browning lost her grip on a plate, and it broke in the sink. She closed her eyes and tried to quell a rising fear, regretting her promise to stay out of the way before the triple report of gunfire even died down.

*Oh God, no. Please, not her. Please.*

Maribel Falcon watched Charlie turn a ghostly shade of pale, and her suspicions of Diana’s involvement were confirmed. The old woman crossed herself and muttered, “Madre de Dios.” Even though she knew Marco was in trouble, she had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, that she would not have to make her choice here tonight.

The one remaining guard bolted from his chair and began struggling to free his firearm from its holster. “I’m gonna check it out. You two stay in here ’til we know what’s going on. I’ll come for you when it’s safe.”

He pushed through the swinging door, and both women got a strong feeling that he wouldn’t be back. A moment of confused silence followed, then the attorney yanked her hands from the warm, soapy water and dried them on her dress as she headed for the exit. She would have made it if Maribel’s hand hadn’t lit hard on her shoulder and pinned her in place.

“Charlie, you can’t go out there.”

“I can’t not go out there!”

“The safest thing for us to do is leave this house. Do you have a car?”

“Yes! But I am not leaving without her, so you can just forget that option.”

“Then there’s nothing to do but wait. We’ll stay in this room, be quiet and wait it out. Let whatever’s gonna happen happen. You have no reason to get in the middle of trouble.”

“Diana is not in this room, and I just heard gunshots! That’s reason enough for me. She might need help.” Charlotte shrugged off the restraining hand and tried again to make her getaway.

“Wait! Wait, mija.” Mrs. Falcon had reached a decision.

Charlotte pressed one hand against the pine door, turning only her head to see what she wanted now. She was surprised to see Maribel headed for the freezer, even more so when the woman reached in an retrieved a carton of ice cream.

“Maribel, now is not a good time for Fudge Mint.”

The older woman cracked open the box and pulled out a plastic baggie – which contained a nickel-plated .38 Special and six hollow-point rounds. She loaded the gun with steady, swift hands, spun the cylinder and snapped it home.

“I’m coming with you.”

——————————————————————————–

“That’s three,” Riggins noted with satisfaction as he lowered the Glock. Virgilio and two more of Marco’s guards lay dead in the hallway, ten-millimeter slugs in their heads. “You said there were four?”

The tall woman rose from her crouched stance and nodded. “The last one was in the kitchen with the women. He should be on his way.”

“You go out and intercept him. Marco and I have something to discuss.”

She nodded again and left the room without a word, striding into the hall with deadly purpose.

Marco Falcon still had not found his tongue, and was gaping openly at Riggins as he settled into Falcon’s chair at the head of the table. The older man suppressed a chuckle and waggled his finger, summoning Marco to take a seat as well.

“I need for you to do me one last favor, my boy. If you comply, our business will be at an end, and I promise to let you and your mommy live out the natural course of your days.”

“Wha-wha… shit.”

“Calm down, son. Breathe in, breathe out – and ask yourself if you want to continue doing so.”

Falcon finally started walking, his unsteady legs carrying him as far as the middle of the table before they gave out, dumping him into a stiff-backed chair. “What do you want from me?”

“Here’s the deal. You’ve not been convicted on major drug charges, so if I just kill you, all your assets go to your heirs and I gain nothing further from you. However, if I hand you over to Treasury along with a gift box of prima facia evidence, your sizeable assets are forfeit to that agency. I owe them a big favor, due to a little currency exchange mishap last year which they were kind enough to overlook. One hand washes the other, you see.”

Squinting through his confusion, anger and disbelief, Marco tried to boil it down. “You want to give Bartok and Jamal to your people, and give me to Treasury, all to score some kiss-ass points?”

“Not hardly. This game is not about currying favor, it’s about amassing power.”

“This ain’t no game, man! We’re human beings! You’re trying to play us all like pieces on some fuckin’ Monopoly board!”

Riggins scratched his temple with the gun barrel and propped his feet on the conference table. “I prefer Risk or Stratego, actually. And as for you three being humans? That’s debatable. You detestable mongrels are being utilized to serve a higher purpose.”

“Higher purpose? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“The security of the free world is at risk, Pip. The Mossad blowing assasinations and cutting deals with Hamas, Nelson Mandela patting Gadhafi on the back and urging us to drop sanctions against Libya… it’s all over the news. The inmates are taking over the asylum, and it’s time for the silent watchmen to stand and be counted, or live with the consequences of our apathy.”

“You are out of your fuckin’ mind, man.”

“Marco, just for me, try to complete a sentence without using the F-word.”

“Fuck you. And fuck your deal, too. I am not going to jail.”

The older man sighed from the pits of his chest, and the pale skin around his jaw stretched as he clenched it tight. “I’m very sorry to hear that. I suppose we should find your mother now, since you’ll be dying together. I think I’ll let Diana work on her with the blades first. You can watch.”

——————————————————————————–

*Mama?*

Diana Starrett watched from a distance as her younger self trudged numbly across the street, ignoring the hysterical woman clawing at the dead weight in her arms. The old woman screamed the boy’s name over and over, a banshee’s wail echoing along the curved road. She seemed oblivious to the wounds of her living daughter, absorbed completely by the loss of her son.

*She didn’t even look at me. I didn’t look at her either. I blamed her for driving him out and sending me to that place after him, and she blamed me for… everything.*

They walked on, two shell-shocked women and one dead boy trailed by one castaway observer. The youngest woman mounted the first step leading up to her home – and stopped. She turned back to look at Diana through eyes swollen and riddled with red, and spoke to her.

“You have to carry him from here. He’s not heavy. Take him. Please.”

The battered girl held out her tired arms, offering the burden. Diana stepped forward and took her brother into her arms, swaddling the thin coat around the boy’s body, as if he could be bothered by the cold now. She looked into his open, glassy eyes and felt hot tears flowing down her cheeks, felt the lump grow in her throat until she could barely breathe. The pain was her own now, burning through her chest like a brush fire as the wind kicked up and consumed every emotion but the agony of guilt and shame.

She started up the stairs and saw that her younger self had vanished, and she now stood alone with her mother. The doughy, wrinkled woman blocked the entrance to the building. She pulled at the fabric of her floral-print dress, making fists in the fabric as she addressed her daughter.

“You did this! You killed my son! I don’t want you here! You can burn in hell!”

The pain of hearing those words on top of everything else she felt was almost too much. *Mama?*

“It’s your fault, Diana! You made him think that it was okay for him to shoot those drugs!”

*I did not. I told him he needed treatment, but that I’d love him no matter what…*

“He got that disease from those needles! That AIDS that kills all them queers and junkies!”

*He contracted HIV from sharing needles. He did that because he had to hide from you, and was too afraid to ask for help, too afraid of you.*

“I told you to bring my boy home to me, and you bring me a dead child! Who shot my boy?!?”

*I did. It was an accident, mama. Those men at that warehouse attacked me, they -*

“YOU KILLED MY SON!! YOU KILLED MY SON!!”

The woman flew at Diana in a hail of fists and feet, driving her down the steps as she scrambled backward to avoid the blows. She felt warm water lapping at her ankles and spun around to find that the tide had come in on Kelly – the street was flooded with pitch black water. She had no time to adjust to the unreal image before her mother landed on her back, beating bony knuckles into her ribs. Gasping in pain, Diana shifted her brother’s body around and slung him over one shoulder. With her free hand she tried to block her mother’s assault – then a familiar voice called to her.

“COME ON IN, DIANA! THE WATER’S FINE! IT’S WHERE YOU BELONG, IT’S THE ONLY PLACE YOU CAN BE SAFE FROM THE PAIN!”

Standing on a stoop across the way was Joshua Riggins. He waved his arms to get her attention.

“HEY! PUT THE BOY DOWN AND SWIM FOR IT! YOU CAN GET AWAY!”

Diana knew that she could not do that, that Ethan was now her burden for the duration. A sharp rap against her head diverted her back to her mother, and she folded her arm over her face to fend off the rain of stabbing fingers and nails. The water started to rise around her feet, and she danced back up the steps to avoid the warm pull of its safe oblivion.

*I will not put him down. He’s mine to carry now, and I will not put him down.*

“THEN BRING HIM WITH YOU! COME ON, NOW! HURRY! I CAN FIX THIS FOR YOU, JUST LIKE BEFORE!”

*I don’t need you to fix anything. I will not put him down, and I am not going back under.*

“YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS! YOU CAN’T HANDLE IT ALONE!”

*I am not alone anymore! I can handle it! And I will get out of here!”

“OH, REALLY? AND JUST HOW DO YOU PLAN TO DO THAT?”

*I’ll find a way. And when I do, you’re a dead man.*

With that, Diana Starrett turned to her mother, shoved her aside and stormed into the building. She ran down the dark wooded hall and out the back door into the rear foyer. She slammed the door behind her and took off again, strong momentum carrying her into a hard collision with an invisible wall covering the deceptively open back exit.

*OW!! Shit.*

She rubbed her forehead, perversely grateful that most of the impact had been absorbed by Ethan’s dangling feet. Stepping back, she took a look through the transparent blockade at the alley beyond – only it was no alley she saw. It was a staircase of red marble built on an impossibly steep incline… and it was wet. A steady trickle of blood flowed down from the top of the steps, which was far out of sight.

*Surprise, surprise. I knew it couldn’t be that easy. I hate climbing bloody stone stairs while carrying 130 pound metaphors. I wonder if everybody’s subconscious is as fucked up as mine… probably not.*

She shifted Ethan’s body and gently laid him on the floor. Diana then set to work demolishing the clear barrier, taking the new set of memories given to her by her mother and wielding them like a ten-pound sledgehammer. For motivation, she imagined that the wall was Joshua Riggins’ head.

——————————————————————————–

The warrior watched with hooded eyes as Falcon’s last bodyguard crept down the main hall toward her. Hiding in the darkened bathroom doorway, she smiled as she noted his finger braced on the trigger guard. That would give her at least half a second while he shifted the finger and raised the gun. That would be enough. She waited in silence, bidding him to take just five more steps, then he would be in range.

A sudden flash of dizzyness swept over her, and her knees weakened. A pounding began in her head, distracting more than painful, and she righted herself and shook it off. The target was within range now, and she slipped one of the blades out of her fist and cocked her arm, preparing to hurl it through his throat.

The pounding intensified to a fever pitch and the dizzyness returned with a vengeance, but her only concession to the distress was the emission of a quick, soft exhale.

In the comfort of the kitchen, the guard had been unable to hear the thumping assault on the hall door, but with the enhanced hearing that accompanies high paranoia, he heard that small breath as if it were right in his ear. His gun came up in a blur and he fired three rapid shots into the darkness of the bathroom.

——————————————————————————–

“Come on! Move it!” Charlotte was agitated beyond belief, frightened out of her mind, and running down the back hall toward the dining room as fast as her rubbery legs would carry her. Maribel lagged only a few steps behind, but it seemed like miles to the attorney as she raced ahead, certain that Diana was in deep trouble.

*That makes six bullets! She didn’t have a gun, so chances are she wasn’t firing them. And what are the chances that none of them was aimed at her? ZERO! Dammit!*

They crossed the dining room and Charlotte started to open the double doors when Maribel’s hand fell on her shoulder, and she had to stifle a scream.

“Wait here while I check the hall, Charlie. Don’t move.”

“No way. I’m coming, too.”

With a shake of her graying head, Mrs. Falcon dismissed that out of hand. “Wait for me.”

“Why do you get to go?”

“Because I have the gun. Now stay put, or I’ll nail your feet down.”

Not liking the sound of that at all, the blonde glared at her friend and gave her a curt nod. Maribel eased open the doors and slipped out into the hall, leaving a crack for Charlotte to observe through.

*This is my fault. If it wasn’t for me, Diana would have gone back home with her spy people and none of this would be happening. She’d be all safe tonight in her little spy apartment with nobody shooting at her, and I would have gotten drunk and caught a ride home with Quentin. Shitshitshit! Whoever said that the course of true love never runs smooth didn’t know the half of it, brother.*

She watched as Maribel walked soundlessly along the hardwood floor, raising the revolver as she peered around the corner into the main hall. The old woman jerked her head back instantly, alarming Charlotte enough to make her tiptoe out of the dining room in stocking feet. As she neared Maribel, she could hear the sound of footsteps from around the corner, someone walking very slowly in hard-soled shoes. As soon as she caught sight of her, Maribel shot her an awful look and raised a finger to her lips in a ‘shhh’ gesture. Charlotte nodded and stood quietly beside her, waiting for something to happen.

——————————————————————————–

The guard took small, careful steps as he approached the bathroom, keeping his gun leveled at the entrance. He didn’t hear anything else, no breathing, no one falling to the floor wounded, and he started to think that he had imagined that breath. No one was there at all.

He was turning to continue down the hall when something flew out of that darkened room and struck his shoulder and sharp pain blazed down his arm. A knife blade was embedded deeply in the muscle – had he turned half a second later, it would have pierced his heart. He swung back toward the doorway, preparing to fire again, and was met by the speeding heel of a hand, driving into his nose and shattering it in a spray of blood. His gun hand was seized and the wrist turned and snapped across a forearm. He heard the gun clatter to the floor and saw a flurry of black, blue and red as his attacker moved behind him and wrapped one long arm tight around his neck, dragging him nearly off his feet as he was spun around. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was Mrs. Falcon charging toward him with a pistol, followed closely by a screaming blonde attorney.
Twenty Two
“And the waaaallls… came tumbling down! Joshuaaaaaa… marched seven times around…”

If asked, Diana Starrett would have never thought she’d have occasion to sing a song from Sunday school, but special circumstances had arisen, and the anthem about the destruction of Jericho seemed an appropriate selection as she pummelled away at the barrier blocking her path. Each blow rang out loud and long, the sound flying up those steep red stairs as a harbinger of her imminent, angry arrival. The memories were flowing like cheap table wine now, sour and numbing, pouring relentlessly from a dark, seemingly bottomless carafe.

*Mother told me that I deserved to die for what I had done. I had no choice but to turn myself in to the police – had I not, she would have done it for me. I tried to tell them about the assault, but they weren’t interested in what happened to me first, only in what I had done. I didn’t blame them. Four of their own were dead because of my blind rage, and I deserved what they gave me.*

Flashes of those hours in custody blasted into focus, blindingly clear. Seven hours with the enraged men of her local precinct before she was given medical attention, seven hours with her hands and feet cuffed behind her back – hogtied and tossed on the floor of a dark holding cell. The shock of a Tazer, a lightning rush of pain. Kicks to her legs, stomach and arms, stomping on her back where the bruises would blend with the damage that had already been done. Curses, both muttered and screamed, all sounding like truth and justice to her guilty ears.

CRaaaACK!!

A split – no more than a hairline fracture – appeared before her eyes. This barrier was much stronger than the first, but she was certain that it was no match for her determination. She kept going, pounding harder and harder, savoring the ache building in her heart. The more it hurt, the closer she was to freedom, to control, to herself. Closer to loving the woman who made her want it all back, and killing the man who took it all away from her.

*I’m coming.*

——————————————————————————–

“Man, you are a smooth smoothy, aincha?” Marco commented after hearing three gunshots from the hall, and seeing no reaction whatsoever from Joshua Riggins. “Your bitch is probably laying out there full of holes, and you don’t even flinch!”

A smug look as Riggins lit another cigarette. “She’ll be back in a minute or two. You don’t know that young lady like I do. She’s been through more than either of us could ever dream of enduring sanely, and I have complete confidence in her ability to cope with whatever arises. That is why I didn’t flinch. I built her to last, my boy.”

“The fuck does that mean? You built her?” Falcon followed Riggins’ lead and lit another Havana, retrieving a leaded crystal ashtray while he was up.

“I mean just that – I built her, like the perfect beast. You start with quality materials, like physical abilities, mental toughness, capacity for extreme violence. Then you cultivate those assets, apply a stamp of ownership, and reap the rewards of your investment,” he explained, smiling with pride. “I have a bit of a Pygmalion complex, so Diana is my own highly lethal Galatea.”

Marco puffed on his cigar, fingering the beveled edges of the heavy, round ashtray. “And you expect her to kill me and my mother, just because you tell her to.”

“Unless you reconsider my offer, that is exactly what will happen to you.”

“What about Charlotte?”

Riggins seemed lost for a second, then placed the name. “Oh, you mean the cute little lawyer. The one who’s been keeping her warm these past few evenings.”

Scowling amid a swirl of sweet smoke, Marco muttered, “Yeah.”

“She’ll have to go, too. Pity – she’s quite fetching.” A harsh little laugh. “But then, I don’t have to tell you that – you’ve been sweet on her for a while now. Maybe if you ask nicely, Diana will tell you if getting her in bed would have been worth the trouble.”

Although Marco knew that the man was trying to push his buttons, that awareness didn’t stop them from being pushed. He hissed and bowed up, preparing to launch another round of expletive missiles, but was interrupted by panicked screams from the hall. Riggins turned his gun toward the sound and Falcon made his move, picking up the weighty crystal ashtray and flinging it with all his might at the older man’s head.

——————————————————————————–

“NOOOO!! NOOOO!! STOP!!”

Charlotte rushed past Maribel in an aquamarine streak, hands flailing and hair flying as she positioned herself between her armed friend and her lover.

“NO GUN!! DON’T HURT HER!!”

Mrs. Falcon kept the pistol down at her side, finger on the trigger, as she reached out one meaty arm and shoved Charlotte behind her in a protective gesture. She could see that, in her worry, the young woman had jumped to conclusions about why she had the gun. Maribel was also certain that she was not the one who presented a danger here – a flash of wild, chaotic blue eyes peering over the guard’s shoulder told her that much.

“I’m not going to hurt anyone unless I have to,” she whispered firmly. “Look, Charlie.” She jerked her head at the two forms backing down the hall, and Charlotte finally took in the scene. She cried out once in a strangled, peeping voice when she saw the dead bodies lying near the conference room door, then again when she took in the desperate retreat playing out fifteen feet ahead of them.

“Oh, Jesus… Diana?” she said, staring into eyes vacant of recognition, full of pain and confusion.

*She’s not in there. She’s not in there…*

——————————————————————————–

The warrior’s right arm was wedged beneath the chin of the unconscious guard, choking him even as she supported his weight. Three blood-stained knife blades jutted up from her knuckles, sharp edges pressed against the man’s neck as she slowly dragged him backward, using his body as a shield. The pounding in her head was almost unbearable now, making her nauseous with hideous, skull-splitting agony. Her body was weakened to the point that she struggled with the guard’s weight, losing her grip on the back of his belt twice already. She was also losing blood, though the wound was not serious yet. Each tug on the guard’s body tore her skin open a little more.

She could not concentrate, could not seem to focus on anything but covering those last twenty feet to the conference room. Then he would tell her what to do, how to make the pounding stop. Just a little further. Just a little further, now. Just a little…

——————————————————————————–

*Harry told me that I couldn’t say goodbye to her, that it was better if I just forgot about my mother altogether. I wanted to say that I was sorry! I wanted to tell her that I loved her, and that I loved Ethan, and that I was so, so goddamned sorry for hurting them! But he wouldn’t let me, and I could see all those men looking at me from behind the glass, and one of them was smoking. He said something to Harry, then they took me out of the jail in a big, black van and I never saw her again. That was the day I killed my brother. That was the day I died.*

She stepped back, exhausted, spent, weeping and afraid. That was all she knew, her memories dried up after that, and it looked like it wasn’t enough. The barrier held firm, exept for that one pathetic crack, mocking her hopefulness. She knelt by Ethan’s slumped body and reached for his cold hand, pulling it to one wet cheek as she sobbed.

*I am so sorry. I love you… I love you. I’m sorry it took me so long to tell you, but I’ve only recently figured out how it’s done… and now I’ve failed you again… and Charlie… and myself. This is all my fault.*

Eons passed as she cried out her frustration, her moans drifting through the barrier and into the hollow space beyond – a lonesome echo claiming responsibility for guilt and pain long buried, begging for a response, a verdict to guide her fate.

Finally, an answer came.

A low rumble rolled down the stairs like thunder from furious heavens, colliding with the barrier and shaking the tile floor beneath the penitent woman’s knees. She saw that single crack which hovered like spider’s silk strung in midair widen and spread, multiplying threads across the clear expanse until it was a webwork of fractures, achingly vulnerable, waiting for one final blow to shatter it completely.

——————————————————————————–

The ashtray smashed against his exposed forehead, knocking Riggins senseless for the time it took his young hostage to lunge across the table. Hands grappled for the Glock as the chair toppled backward, dumping both men on the floor in a heap of twisting legs and jabbing elbows. Riggins’ arm was forced back and beaten against the floor, loosening his grip as the arm jerked forward – and sent the gun sailing across the room, clattering into an unseen corner.

Marco Falcon smiled as the odds fell in his favor. He instantly flew into a rage, pounding the older man with fists and knees and elbows, landing blows to his face and throat and groin in a flurry of pain, screaming away his fears and frustrations all the while.

“MOTHERFUCKER!! HOW DOES THAT FEEL, HUH?!?! HOW DOES THAT FEEL!?!? YOU NOT SO TOUGH WITHOUT A FUCKIN’ GUN, EH CABRON!?!?! WHERE’S YOUR SUPERBITCH NOW?!?!”

All Riggins could do was lie there and pray and bleed – until he got his breath back, until he could call for her. Marco intended to make sure that never happened. He leaned in and wrapped strong hands around the old man’s throat, alternating hard squeezes with bangs of his skull against the floor until Riggins’ eyes fluttered shut and his chest stilled. Marco smiled at the prone form beneath him, rolled off and went to look for the gun.

“It went over here somewhere,” he mumbled, crouching to peer beneath his desk. He saw something wedged under the far corner, a dark shape which looked vaguely gun-like. “Gotcha!” Falling to his belly, Marco shimmied halfway under the desk, stretching one battered hand out until the gun touched his fingertips – then he caught movement in his peripheral vision. Riggins was not dead, not even unconscious, but crawling toward the library door. Falcon smiled at the tough old bastard, obviously trying to escape.

“IT’S LOCKED UP TIGHT, REMEMBER? YOU DID IT YOURSELF, STUPIDO!!”

He watched as Riggins appeared to give up, dragging himself to the base of the door, moving his swollen mouth as if he were speaking.

“PRAYING AIN’T GONNA HELP YOU NOW, OLD MAN!”

Turning his attention back to the pistol, he stretched out a little farther, scratching the cold barrel with his nails, summoning it closer with his will.

“Almost there. Come on, baby. Come to papa.”

——————————————————————————–

“Diana…”

A thin, weak voice in her left ear, almost lost against the sudden peal of angry noise inside her head. A sound like stone crunching on glass followed the rumble, and she swore her brain was being ground to dust in some cosmic mortar and pestle. She lost her grip on the guard’s body and they went down in a heap. The women advanced on her – one of them had a gun. Instinct took over as she loosened two knives from her fist and cocked her arm back, preparing to throw.

——————————————————————————–

“Diana?!?” Charlotte cried, pushing past Maribel and moving toward her fallen lover.

“Charlie, no! Stay back,” Mrs. Falcon ordered, pacing her young friend. She cocked the hammer on her revolver and again blocked the path with her arm.

“But she’s hurt!” The attorney struggled to get by, but the larger woman held her at bay.

“That makes her dangerous.” Maribel saw the dull glint of sharp blades and raised her gun.

——————————————————————————–

“Diana… come to me… now… now. I need… I need you, dammit! Stop what you’re doing… and get in here right now!”

She heard his words and was helpless to disobey. The pain could take a back seat, and she felt no sincere threat from the woman – the gun was a defensive measure, or she would have fired it already. She took a deep breath and bunched her legs up beneath the guard’s body, shoving him up and away like a catapult. He flew toward the women in a limp spray of arms and legs, and they spun away to avoid direct impact. The warrior bolted up to her feet and turned toward the conference room, not able yet to run, but eating up the distance with long strides. She barely noticed the eerie calm settling inside her head as the pain ebbed away to a dull crackle.

“I want you to kill Marco Falcon.”

——————————————————————————–

*Okay, so what do I do now?*

That was the obvious question as Diana Starrett gazed at the deceptively fragile barrier. Two swift punches to the cracked wall had done nothing but painfully jam her wrists, kicking was even less effective, and she could find no more memories to use as bludgeons. She knelt again by her brother’s side, brushing her fingers through his matted hair.

*I bet you’d have plenty of ideas, Eth. How’m I gonna get out of here?*

A glance back at the closed door which seperated their foyer from the main hall of the apartment building revealed that the black tide continued to rise, chasing her with its Lethe-like temptations. The water invaded the hall and now lapped at the lowest pane of glass on the door, leaking through the cracks like oozing bile.

*Wonderful. I can’t go back, so now this is the only way out.*

She looked up those stairs, so steep, so dangerously slick, and wondered where they led. Where was that steady flow of blood coming from? A refracted flicker of dull torchlight from high above fell across the stone steps, illuminating the crimson wash.

*It’s leaking down from somewhere. Some source at the top of those stairs… shit, that’s a long way up. I wonder if hell is up from here. Why didn’t Mangano install an elevator? Make it easier for a body to get around.*

Sighing at the floor, Diana wished that she could remember just one more thing, just one more thing that would break that barrier down and send her on her way, up and up and out.

*I have everything from kindergarten up to that last day, and then it just… I draw a blank. It’s like nothing at all happened between the time they took me away, and the time I came to Elceda. The memories I still have are those I had all along – small stuff about work, Harry, Eladio – but it’s not enough to cover all the time that’s passed. There are all these gaps… where did they put it all? Ten years can’t be that easy to hide.*

Settling alongside her little brother, Diana started reasoning things out by testing the limits of the knowledge she had reclaimed, by recalling their life together.

*I can remember how you got sick from eating a whole bag of those orange circus peanuts. You vomited on a transit cop in the subway on the way home from Coney Island, and he chased us through four cars! We vaulted the turnstile at the station and ran all the way home. And that time you stole ten bucks from mama’s purse and bought She-Hulk comics. I covered for you, said I took the money for milk and bread. Paid for the stuff myself, then made you work off the debt by washing dishes for a week at my after-school job.*

Stroking the back of her hand against Ethan’s cold cheek, she wondered aloud how all these small, precious and distant memories could have come back to her, but none of the intervening years were accessible.

*Maybe it’s because nothing good happened to me during that time. We had some good times, me and you. These past few days, I’ve remembered what it’s like to be happy. I met somebody, Eth. She’s out there now. She said she loves me… loved me. There’s no way she could still… when she finds out what I’ve done, it’s over.*

Round tears rolled from eyes full of regret, certain they would never see her smile again.

*But it was great while it lasted. Being in love, being loved in return – it’s like going to heaven without dying. I should have known I didn’t deserve that.*

Alone with her guilt and abandoned by fragile hope, the dark woman felt that those fates were more justified. She had earned this trap, this tiny facet of hell where she was faced with choices she could not choose – the path forward, which she apparently lacked the strength to follow, and the path of retreat, which she would never be weak enough to take again.

*We came so close, though. So close. I almost made it, Charlie. *

Unsure what would happen next, and left with nothing else to do, Diana decided to tell her dead brother all about Charlotte Browning. She figured that might be the only thing to keep her sane as the warm black water licked at the door.

——————————————————————————–

“Let Me GO!!” Charlotte squirmed away from Maribel Falcon’s grasp, spinning out of her reach and heading for the conference room, into which Diana had just disappeared.

“WAIT! WAIT!!! You can’t go after her!” Maribel stepped over the fallen guard’s body and pursued her friend.

Turning to face her, but still walking slowly backward, Charlie spoke in a voice desperately sincere. “I have to! This is all wrong! She’s in trouble, and she needs help!”

“Mija, she is not herself! That is not the same woman who was in my kitchen. Didn’t you see her eyes?”

“That’s my point! She’s not herself, and I’d bet my life it’s that man’s fault!”

The older woman looked confused. “What man?”

“She told me that one of those men Marco was meeting with was a very bad guy,” Charlotte explained, gesturing with a sickened expression at the dead men. “This is not what she came here for. Something must have gone wrong. He’s making her do this..”

“How can you know all that? You only just met her! Did you even know that she came here for Marco?”

“NO! She didn’t come here to hurt anyone, Maribel! And I know that she’s being manipulated by him somehow, and that she needs my help because… ” Charlie stopped dead still, unable to believe what she was about to say. “Because a dead Amazon bard told me so.”

Mrs. Falcon was silent then, thinking hard. “Your spirit guide told you these things.”

“Yes. She also told me that I have to trust her, that Diana would not hurt me.”

“But, you can’t be certain of that!”

“Yes, I can! Didn’t you say that spirits don’t lie? I know she won’t hurt me, but you’d better keep that gun away from her.”

“You admit that she might hurt me?”

“I’m saying that if you point that gun at Diana again, I might hurt you.”

With that steely glint of determination still in her eyes, Charlotte turned around and stepped to the shattered frame of the doorway, peering around the edge to assess the situation in the conference room. She barely noticed when Maribel crept up behind her, whispering.

“You’re right – spirits don’t lie.”

——————————————————————————–

“There… he’s under the… desk,” Riggins managed to wheeze through his bruised, swollen throat. He pointed toward Falcon’s last known location, directing his weapon toward her target, and she took it from there. Crossing the room in five long strides, she leaned down and grabbed the two hunter green-clad legs sticking out from under the desk and jerked up hard.

“OWWW!!” Marco Falcon screamed as his body made sudden, violent contact with the underside of the desk. The Glock was within an inch of his grasp, and he made one last, desperate lunge toward the weapon before he was yanked unceremoniously clear of his protective cover.

The warrior twisted her captive’s ankles, spinning him onto his back. He grinned at her and raised the pistol – too slowly

WHAP!!

One lightning swipe of her left hand sent the gun flying again, and his smile disappeared. She dropped to her knees, landing her full weight on his chest and feeling the whuff of breath leave his body. A stunned horror leapt into Falcon’s eyes as he realized that Riggins was not going to stop her this time. She closed one hand around his throat to hold him down and drew back a half-fist, right hand formed into a tight sharp wedge studded with stained gray blades.

“DIANA, NO!! PLEASE STOP!!”

Although it wasn’t his voice and shouldn’t have mattered – it shouldn’t have given her the briefest pause as her fist descended on the terrified man’s face – that voice stopped her cold, and she turned her head to find the source.

A small blonde woman dressed in blue-green that neared the color of her eyes. Barefoot. Hands raised, palms out, walking toward her with halting steps and a beautiful, pleading face. The older woman followed a few feet behind, pistol still clutched in one hand.

“Don’t do it,” the blonde whispered, coming nearer.

The room seemed to still and quiet as the two focused on each other, both confused and scared, both desperate to understand what was going on.

“Please don’t hurt him. He’s not armed. He can’t hurt you,” the young woman told her.

The warrior turned back to Marco Falcon, still pinned under her hand, struggling for his next breath.
It occurred to her that the blonde woman was right. Why was she supposed to kill this man?

“What are you… waiting for?”

That choked whisper in her left ear. It itched, annoying her, and she ducked her head and scratched that ear against her shoulder.

“Finish him.”

“I have to do what he says,” the warrior murmured, looking down on her victim, twitching the blades.

“No, you don’t,” the young woman insisted. “You can just get up and come with me.”

“Diana! Kill him!”

The voice was louder this time, and she heard it with both ears. So did the other women. The blonde jeked her thumb toward the sound, and her older friend reacted.

Maribel Falcon scuttled around the table and found Joshua Riggins laid out against the library door, wheezing and bloodied. She pointed the cocked .38 at him and stooped to his side. She squeezed his swollen mouth open with one strong, fleshy hand and slipped the barrel between his lips.

“I think you should shut up now.”

If he had been the type of man who was ever less than supremely confident, Joshua Riggins might have actually experienced fear at that moment. As he was not that type of man, he viewed the gun in his mouth as merely a temporary setback.

“Diana. Look at me,” Charlotte pleaded. “Look at me.”

The bladed fist drooped a little, and the ear once again dipped down to rub against her shoulder. She turned to face the one who addressed her.

“What am I… why am I…” Her voice trailed away into a breath, a frustrated sigh.

Charlotte stepped closer. “It’s okay. It’s okay, just put down the knives and let him up. He’ll tell you what you need to know.” She directed this last comment at Marco, who was staring at her with wide, begging eyes.

Thoughts clouded with confusion, the warrior tried to shake off the unsettling urge to listen to this woman, to believe her. She wasn’t supposed to hear anybody else but him.

“What I need to know. What I need to know.”

The attorney moved a step closer. “That’s right. Marco will tell you all about those safe houses if you just let him up. Just stand up and come over here to me.” She held out her hand, beckoning.

“Safe houses. Safe houses.” A glimmer of a memory made its way through the fog. “He’ll tell me?”

“Yes he will,” she stated firmly. “If he wants to live, he’ll sing like a goddamned bird. Now just toss those knives away and let him up. Just take my hand and come over here to me, Diana.”

“To you?” Blue eyes squinted at the young woman, wanting to know her, knowing they should.

“Yes. Just come over here to me. Come back to me.”

“Why?”

Charlotte didn’t expect that question, and her pale brows knit for a long second. “Why what?”

“Why come to you… tell me why.”

Lower lip quivering as tears streaked down her face, Charlotte Browning heard only a deafening silence in the room as everyone waited for her answer. Summoning every last drop of courage from the bottom of a very deep well, she spoke the truth of her heart.

“Because I know there’s a reason for what you’re doing, and because I won’t be the one to judge you. Because I trust you with my life, my heart, my soul… and because I love you so much that if you don’t come back to me, you might as well kill me too.”

The hand around Marco’s neck finally loosened enough for him to take a shallow, pained breath. The other hand shook slightly, one blade falling free onto the floor.

“You love me?” A tremulous, vulnerable question.

“God, yes.” A solid, granite-sure answer. “More than life itself. I love you, Diana. Come back to me.”

Hesitant movements brought the left hand away from it’s murderous task, lifting in a slow, graceful arc toward the outstretched hand of the woman the warrior now recognized.

Though she was merely a sliver of consciousness, a violent shard of persona, she was part of a greater whole, a whole unified by one irrefutable, irresistable fact – down to the last fraction of ancient stardust hurtling through her veins, down to the last sub-atomic particle – Diana Starrett loved Charlotte Browning. In sharing this truth, the warrior was part of the greater being, and she was ready to let go, to rejoin.

This was going to hurt like ten-thousand hells, but it had to be done.

In the moment she realized as much, the awareness shook the very pillars of her being, and she wanted to scream from the sudden fractious pain rumbling thorugh her head, but the only word that left her lips was the name which struck her tongue like lightning crashing through a hailstorm of emotion.

“Charlie?”

——————————————————————————–

The shaking shifted the ground like an earthquake, the kind which would finally send California sliding into the Pacific. Deafening waves of noise crashed into her ears, and all Diana could do was try and get ready for whatever was coming. She stooped and picked Ethan up again, settling his body across her shoulder as she tried to get to her feet, leaning against the swaying walls for support.

Then she saw the flood.

*Uh-oh.*

Rushing down the stairs in a fevered roll of energy, smashing against the wall like a deep crimson storm surge, rushing through the crevices of the lucid barrier in rich, red rivulets… it was awesome. Frightening. Powerful.

*Maybe powerful enough to bust this wall right down to nothing. Here we go, baby. Here we go. Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you strong enough to face this?*

It kept coming, stronger and stronger, faster and faster, until the wall could take the strain no more. One large piece flew away, propelled like a razor-sharp cannon shot across the foyer, smashing into the wall and digging deep into the plaster. A fountain of red blasted into the room, the pressure of the flow enough to shatter the glass of the rear door. Pooling around her feet, the first touch of the blood was agony, burning fast and hot like acid as new images and sensations flashed into focus, becoming real as life.

Because they were real. Because they were a part of her life. And they were coming back. Now.

A ship in brown water, the deck swabbed with red as you gut another small black sailor and toss his body over the rail to the crocodiles.

Swirling a blaze of steel, whipping a sword through the stomach of an old Asian man.

Fearlessly jumping from a prop jet without a parachute, cutting through the air like a bullet. Snagging the harness of a dead chutist, and cutting her loose to plummet alone to the earth.

Crossing a crowded street in an arid desert town, dropping a paper sack into a trash can and walking away. An explosion at your back. Screaming. The smell of burned flesh.

A breathtakingly beautiful young girl with dark Eastern eyes. Writhing under your hands, crying, begging. Nails scratching down your back, drawing blood as she curses your soul.

*I’m sorry… I’m sorry…*

The blood flowed ceaselessly, rising above Diana Starrett’s waist, burning slower now. Glowing coals. Sizzling grease. A trail of lit gunpowder along the skin. And still, she remembered more.

Soft footsteps along a carpeted hall hung with tapestries. A nursery door breached, a whimpering child kidnapped by moonlight and handed over to a crying man. He kisses your hand before you turn away.

Snow, red snow warmed by your life’s blood as you lay dying by a hot spring. Monkeys laugh at you as you stare at a cold sky raining white, praying to hear the thrum of prop blades.

Breaking both hands as you beat in the face of a dead man, a man with no face. A naked man whose filthy room is papered with pictures of children. You don’t even feel the bones snap.

Chasing a tall, fleeing figure. He carries a satchel dripping thick plops of red on the pavement of an alley. You run him down in a station wagon, crushing him under the wheels. You take his bag containing the head and toss it in the backseat like a bowling ball.

A battered woman cringes behind you as you lock her husband’s genitals to a chain-link fence with finger cuffs. A Rottweiler bitch is unchained, and you hear the woman hiss, “Kill, Hecate!”

*My God… what am I? What am I?*

The stinging lessened, but the flow was unabated. Up to her shoulders now, Diana had to make a move or drown where she stood. The pain lurked near the level of alcohol on a large, open wound, and she decided that it was bearable enough to overlook while she escaped.

*It’s now or never. I can do this. I can do this.*

Diana stepped to the side of the deteriorating barrier. She stuck one leg around the corner and kicked at the lower portion, finding it weak enough to break through. Three, four, five kicks and there was a hole large enough to accomodate both she and Ethan. She took a deep breath and ducked under, propelling herself and her cargo through the hole and swimming hard against the current, toward those submerged stairs, with one direction in mind.

*Up. Up. Up! Up! UP! UP!*

Still, the memories burned, singing through her mind like wildfire. And she welcomed the burn, welcomed the pain. Because with each face, each name, each event, she was buoyed higher and higher. Coming closer and closer to the surface.

Twenty Three

“Charlie?”

Diana’s hand hovered shakily in the air between them, inches from brushing Charlotte’s fingertips. She leaned back to get closer, shifting her weight from Marco’s heaving chest, not noticing as his left hand crept along the floor toward the discarded knife.

The attorney kept her eyes locked on those of her love, willing her return. She was so close, so near she could almost touch her. “Come on, Diana. I promise you, everything will be alright, just… NO!”

Like a jump-cut in the film, shifting focus to an unexpected event, she saw a development evolving that simply wasn’t supposed to happen. Charlotte saw that forgotten blade being raised, almost in slow-motion. She saw the hateful gleam of humiliation and anger in Marco Falcon’s dark eyes as he swung the bloodied weapon up in a vicious, killing arc, aiming for Diana’s exposed throat.

Call it peripheral instinct. Somehow, even through the tumultuous rocking in her head and heart, some part of the warrior within Diana Starrett was always focused on self-preservation, and it watched through a multi-faceted hawk’s eye for impending danger. By this provident advantage alone was the dark-haired woman able to feel the shift of air, to see the gray dart racing toward her, and tilt her throat away from its razored path even as she raised her right hand to block the strike.

All Marco Falcon knew at first was that he had cut her – somewhere – and he smiled. A thin spray of blood flew from the blade’s end as his swing terminated and his arm wrenched to a sudden stop, the knife sailing out of his grasp. Then he felt the pain, sliding up his forearm like a flaming messenger, a napalm blaze of awareness. Looking for the source, he saw two sharp red points protruding through his wrist, his arm impaled on the woman’s fist. He glanced up at her in disbelief, meeting two clouded blue orbs which regarded him without emotion, as if he were an insect pinned to a display board. She seemed totally unaware of what she had just done, or why she had done it.

Marco, for his part, drew in a long breath and let out a deafening caterwaul of a scream.

It all happened so rapidly that Charlotte barely had time to process what she saw before she made her move. She lunged forward, looping both of her arms under Diana’s and dragging her back, away from the hysterical Marco. Luckily for the wounded man, the tall woman’s fist went limp as soon as Charlotte touched her, and her fingers opened to release the blades, simply leaving them embedded in his arm instead of ripping them free.

Diana looked over her shoulder at the small blonde struggling to transport her weight, and could not find words to say to her. She was an emotional tabula rasa, wiped clean except for that one nagging little word which now contained everything she was missing, wrapped up neatly in seven letters.

“Charlie?”

“Shh. It’s okay, I’ve got you,” the young woman said, wincing as she noticed a long, thin cut on her charge’s jawline. Once they were several feet away, the attorney dropped to the floor and drew Diana onto her lap, cradling the stunned woman in her arms and murmuring reassurances in her ear, words to which her lover showed no reaction whatsoever.

Across the room, Maribel Falcon was unable to ignore her son’s anguished yelling, and could not stop herself from reacting. She withdrew the .38 from Joshua Riggins’ mouth, lowered the hammer, and smashed the barrel hard against his temple – just to discourage him from interfering. Quick steps carried her to her boy’s side, and she knelt by him to check his wounded arm. The gun she placed on the floor, out of his reach, before gently taking his wrist in her hands.

“Stop screeching, mijo. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“AAAAAAAARRRRRR!! Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!”

“I have to stop the bleeding. Now stop squirming, and don’t look at me like that!” she warned. “It’s not like you didn’t deserve it.”

“WHAT?”

“She was gonna leave you alone, idiot! And you try to kill her anyway. I didn’t raise you like that.”

Maribel loosened a bright scarf from her neck and fashioned a tourniquet to stanch to flow of blood as Marco looked on her with a mixture of outrage and shame, unsure what he should be feeling. She hazarded a brief glance at Charlotte and her mysterious companion, huddled together on the hard wood floor, closer than two sides of a coin. She noticed that the tall woman was bleeding from a cut on her face… and from another, unseen wound. A narrow streak of blood led across the floor, ending under her hip.

“Charlie,” Maribel prompted, pointing at the tell-tale smear.

A look of instant panic slipped onto the young woman’s face as she gently shifted out from under Diana’s limp body and searched for the wound, running her hands gingerly over the woman’s form. It didn’t take long before her palm came up smeared with red. She found a small rip in the fabric of the black dress, along her right hip.

“Jesus Christ. She’s been shot!”

“Good,” muttered Marco, and his mother tightened the tourniquet suddenly, wrenching another raw scream from his throat.

“We have to get them to a doctor,” Charlotte declared. “Marco, who do you use in situations like this?”

“The fuck are you talking about, situations like this? I ain’t never been in no situation like this!”

“You know exactly what I mean – when you need medical help, but can’t involve the police,” she explained calmly. “Who do you use?”

“That psycho bitch killed nearly everybody in this house, and you want me to help her? Fuck that!”

“It’s not just for Diana! You will need medical attention for that arm, and there’s a guard out in the hall who may just survive if he gets help soon! Now answer me, who do you use?”

Marco yanked his wounded arm away from his mother before she could try to encourage him to answer, and got to his feet. A sudden head rush nearly dropped him to his knees, and he realized that he had lost a lot of blood. Maybe a doctor wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“I’ll call him, but you keep that… woman away from me, or so help me, I’ll finish her off.”

“You mean… you’ll try.”

The unexpected, rasping voice caught everyone by surprise, and all eyes turned to Joshua Riggins as he leaned casually against the library door, holding the elusive Glock – which was now aimed directly at Charlotte Browning.

——————————————————————————–

The visions and their accompanying emotions were diffuse, disjointed and totally random. Diana was being handed one puzzle piece at a time – one out of thousands. With no idea what image the assembled whole would form, she was forced to guess where each fragment belonged, placing them blindly, trying to keep track of her progress as she struggled onward and upward.

The weight of her brother’s body was of little notice, and when she took notice of him, his presence seemed to motivate rather than impede her. She thought little of this fact as she pressed on, assuming that it meant nothing crucial.

Climbing a rusty fire escape, pursued by a mountainous man who doesn’t know he’s being lured. Up to the roof, where the streets don’t seem so dirty, where the air is not stale with the smell of urine and vodka. One breath, two, and he is on you, cursing in Russian. Then he is gone. Flying over the edge, ten stories down, smashing against the sidewalk in a heavy heap. You hold his pilfered wallet, searching through wadded money and expired condoms until you find the keycard. You peer at the body and toss his billfold after him.

Skiing down a steep, pristine slope. Laughing as you slow down and allow your opponent to streak past in red and white, black hair streaming like a silk banner. She raises her arms in victory, and then opens them to embrace you. You move to her with a smile on your lips.

High above the crowd, in a tree, rough bark against your back. Scanning the crowd for a small woman in blue. Leveling the rifle and focusing the sight, centering her in the crosshairs. Squeezing the trigger and hearing the muted pop of a perfectly silenced round. Seeing her head crack and slump. Bracing the rifle among the high branches and rappelling down the back, cutting loose the harness and walking away as you smooth a wrinkle from your skirt.

In a small, uncomfortable chair in a dusty sitting room. Staring into the eyes of a huge, drooling Chow as his black tongue lolls toward the floor. You smile, sensing a surrender, and he turns away first. Your hostess laughs at you both, and offers you a milk bone as a trophy.

A hotel room, lavishly appointed. On your hands and knees on a large bed, a fat man taking you from behind, his whiskers grating between your shoulder blades as his thrusts become violent. A thin, pale woman circles you with a video camera, and you listen for the private signal to kill them both. You pray that it arrives soon, before he comes inside you. It does, and you wrench yourself free, turning on him with blood in your eyes. Two jabs to his thick neck, and one twist of hers. You dress and leave quietly, taking the camera with you.

*So I’m a murderer and a whore,* she thought unkindly. Even though she knew the reasons for each of these actions, they seemed inadequate from her current perspective.

*I did it because he told me to. He explained the hows and whys, then wound me up and turned me loose. But how did he manage to make me do these things? How did I get so far gone that I let him use me like this?*

A gloved hand checking your pulse as you lay on a stretcher. Loud whirring as the chopper lifts into the starless night. A gentle brush of fingers across your forehead as another man whispers that you’re going to be alright. Straw-colored hair, pale skin, flat face. Scarecrow. He stays with you, holding your hand as you feel yourself slipping under.

*I know you.*

He tells you that you’re going to be alright. That they won’t let anything happen to you. That you did a good job, and they will be pleased. His hand is warm, bordering on hot as he touches your cold skin, brushing away clinging earth and ice. You shiver under the blankets, and he covers you with his coat.

These memories seemed less random, gelling into an almost cohesive narrative, one scene following the next as Diana made slow, steady progress forward and up, muscles burning with the effort.

You feel the prickling, frigid ache start to thaw, and the pain of your wounds comes to the foreground. Burning tears in the flesh, throbbing pain. You can almost feel the bullets shifting inside your body, taking root. Reminders of your punishment. You see her face as she fires at you, emptying the clip. Her eyes are wet as she beholds the traitor, the thief, the liar. You.

*She loved me, that girl. I remember her…*

In a hot, small room. Dim light, a futon mattress on the floor. Sweating from every pore, slick lean body sliding on yours. A million kisses on your skin, a million curses in your ears. Love and hate trade dominance like a strobing light, darkness and blinding white as you move together.

*But she tried to kill me. Why? What did I do to her?*

——————————————————————————–

“I must ask, what did I ever… do to you to make you… hurt me so, Ms. Browning?”

Riggins massaged his bruised throat with his free hand as he steadied the pistol in the other. A small trickle of blood from his hairline was evidently the only damage from the blow Mrs. Falcon delivered to his incredibly hard skull, and he gave her a quick grin to acknowledge her effort. She scowled hard in return, but he knew that the old woman would not try to retrieve her gun and make a move as long as her little friend was his target. He returned his hateful eyes to the blonde woman, in whose cocooning arms his most lethal weapon lay motionless.

“You’ve broken my favorite toy, you know. Diana was doing just fine until you came along,” he accused, taking careful steps toward the huddled pair. “It’s going to take a lot of work to fix her again, and I blame your interference for this… hitch in my plans.”

“You made her do all this for you, didn’t you? What did you do to her, you son of a bitch!”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. No need for that kind of language. I think Marco there curses enough for all of us,” the older man chided, winking at his angry, bleeding former confederate. “She doesn’t just work for me, you see. She belongs to me. That woman is my property, and I will be taking her back. I’ll fix whatever damage you’ve inflicted, and she won’t remember you ever lived when I’m done.”

Both of the Falcons were keeping one eye on Riggins as he rounded the table, and one eye on the nearby .38. They were each waiting for the right moment, sure that it would come, unaware that they would probably collide with each other on the way to retrieve the weapon.

“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,” he continued, painting those last two words a sickening color as his tightly controlled anger started to spill out in waves of bilious green.

Charlotte tensed as he drew closer, and she pulled Diana tight against her chest. The agent was now evidently catatonic, eyes staring ahead blankly, as if she were not even in the room. Her breathing was shallow and her pulse slow, as if all her energies were being directed someplace else, toward some inner effort.

“It took months to set things right again. Months! I can’t afford those kinds of delays!” He was raging now, flecks of spittle collecting around thin lips. “It took two years of legitimate rebuilding to get her ready to work in the first place, and that came crashing down in a matter of weeks. She even turned on me! ME! I had to resort to extreme measures to salvage a return on my investment, but on her, they worked like a charm. She is truly amazing, such an organized, nimble mind. Easily segmented and partitioned.”

Charlotte’s mind flashed back to something the bard told her, something about how their methods of controlling Diana are hard to understand, but seem to be very effective.

“Now, she’s been completely reliable for eight long, glorious years… until you saw fit to try and domesticate her. Have you any idea how incredibly foolish that notion is? You may as well try to keep a lioness in a doghouse!”

He stepped closer to Charlotte, close enough for her to see his finger twitching on the trigger.

“I want you to step away from her, right now.”

“No.”

Riggins smirked at her instant answer, and felt it necessary to explain his request. “Ms. Browning, I am going to shoot you, and I don’t want to risk any further damage to my property . Please get up and step away from Diana.”

“I’m not leaving her,” Charlotte said evenly, keeping her arms tightly wound around the contested being. “She doesn’t belong to you anymore. She’s mine.”

The gray-haired man just shook his head, amazed at her stubbornness. “You think a few trips across the rug entitles you to ownership? What arrogance!”

“It would be, if that’s all there was to it,” the attorney allowed. “But that’s not what it’s about. I know you could never understand this, but I love her, and that makes it possible. She loves me, and that makes it true. You won’t be able to change that, no matter what you do to her… or me.”

Riggins seemed to think about her words for a moment, mulling them over. He smiled coldly.

“I’ll risk it, dear.”

He stepped closer and pressed the barrel of the Glock against Charlotte’s forehead. She didn’t move, just stared up at him with a defiant tilt to her chin. There was no way in hell she was going to step aside for this man.

“You want to die in her arms, that’s fine with me. You’ll soon be nothing more than another one of her bad dreams.”

The young lawyer’s eyes blazed with a sudden anger, and for the first time in her life, she wished someone dead. She took one last look at her love’s face, and closed her eyes, hoping they wouldn’t be separated too long.

*Didn’t Gabrielle say that she and Xena were still together?*

——————————————————————————–

She knew what she had done, and why she had deserved yet another death. The burning sensations were now identifiable as the last flow of answers ebbed away, answering Diana’s question, leaving a freezing hot trail of sensation in its wake.

Guilt. Shame. Loss. Rage. Emptiness. Fear. All running in an infinite loop, coiling around her heart and squeezing it until it nearly burst in a rain of sorrow.

*Oh, God. Dear sweet Lord, forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurt her like that… she wasn’t supposed to know. She wasn’t supposed to be there. How could I forget something like that?*

An antiseptic room, strapped to a bed, facing a gray-haired man wearing an Italian suit. Monitors beep and flash your vital signs, betraying a rising heart rate as you speak to him. You don’t like the director, and you genuinely feel that killing him would be a service to the world. You are still upset that your attempt to do so yesterday failed miserably.

*Why me? Why are you doing this to me?*

“My dear, you don’t seem to understand that I’m doing you a favor. You’re quite the ingrate. Trying to terminate your benefactor – not exactly good form.”

*I would never have chosen this life, done these things, if you hadn’t brought me here in the first place. What happened is as much your fault as mine, and neither of us should be alive.*

“If I had left you in jail, you would have died. Either those cops would have killed you, the courts would have executed you, or you would have taken your own life in prison. Are you saying that death is preferable to the life I have given you?”

*YES!! I hurt so many people, there is so much blood on my hands…*

“And none of it is innocent, Diana. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that these were nice, minding-their-own-business civilians you were dealing with. They made themselves targets, and you were merely the arrow that pierced the bullseye. Guilt over their deaths is a waste of time and energy.”

*So you’ll just take that option away from me.*

“Precisely. When freed from the petty constraints of morality, conscience, and societal mores, you are… a marvel. A force of nature. A lightning strike of controlled rage. I have yet to meet your equal, and yet you have the largest achilles heel of any warrior I have ever seen. You care. You feel. You make yourself vulnerable by exposing your heart – and you jeopardized this operation with a ludicrous display of sentimentality. That, I cannot allow.”

*How can you stop that from happening? I don’t understand how this will work.*

“Trust me, it will work. When you wake up, you won’t remember anything about Nagano. Your wounds will have healed, and you will not remember how they were inflicted. All the pain, inside and out, will be gone. Dr. Mangano here will make sure of that.”

*Everything I did… will be gone? Erased, or just hidden?*

“Gone. That’s all you need to know. Now just inhale deeply, and let us take care of you.”

Lying on the stiff hospital bed, you draw long breaths under the mask, filling your lungs with sweet-tasting gas. Drifting into a muzzy limbo, you hear the two men talking in hushed voices.

“What happens if Mars finds out what we’re doing?”

“You worry too much, Doc. Harry Mars is not a problem. He’s too busy with his little POW crusade to care about our project. I threw him a bone with that missive from Vietnam. He actually thinks there are soldiers still alive over there. Fool. He’ll be chasing his tail for years.”

“His interest in that situation is most unhealthy. His psychological profile indicates an extreme sense of responsibility for missing soldiers, almost as if he looks for them as penance of some sort – trying to right some age-old wrongs.”

“Who cares why he does it? It keeps him off my back, and makes him look ridiculous when he comes back empty handed. This girl is my only concern right now. If you can accomplish this, I’ll have the weapon I’ve been looking for. The perfect little toy soldier – wind her up, and turn her loose. They’ll never know what hit them.”

“And neither will she. I’ll need to be alone with her now, sir.”

“Of course, Doctor. Take your time and do this right. If it works on her, we’ll talk about putting your technique to work on a larger scale. This could be your shot at immortality.”

“I look forward to the challenge, sir.”

The door closes, and you feel a cold hand on your wrist, checking your pulse. Once released, your arm flops bonelessly onto the bed… and you realize that you can no longer move. A quick series of injections prick at your skin. Your eyes are pried open and held wide by small, cushioned wires braced against the lids. Your breathing grows rapid as a sense of fearful panic claws at your gut. A light blazes to life, blinding you, but you cannot turn away or close your watering eyes. Drops of moisture fall onto your eyeballs, and he speaks to you at last.

“Now, I need for you to listen closely, Diana. Listen to everything I say, and I promise you that you will feel much, much better. You want to feel better, don’t you?”

The light moves closer, burning hot on your face, and you cannot turn away. His voice drones on and on, and you cannot shut it out. Eventually, you don’t want to shut it out, and you stop trying. Tears flow, mixing with the occasional eyedrops, soaking your cheeks as he talks to you like you imagine your father would have, if he had loved you, if he had wanted you.

His voice is so soothing, so caring, so full of compassion and free of judgment. He talks to you about all of the things you’ve done, and you remember right along with him, unafraid, unashamed.

He takes your hand and you walk together. Your steps are light and easy, and you match him stride for stride, trying to stay close to him as he speaks.

He talks to you about how to tie up all the bad pictures and sounds and feelings in tight little bundles, so that nothing can leak out. You bind them all up and jauntily sling them over a shoulder, skipping along after him like a hobo headed for the next train out.

He walks with you along a bridge suspended by clouds, a bridge so high it nearly touches the bright white sun warming your face.

He bids you look over the left side, and you see that the water far below is dark as pitch.

“It’s warm and safe in there. Nothing can hurt you.”

They walk to your right, and you look over the rail at a sea of roiling red.

“That’s the place where all the bad things go. They sink to the bottom and disappear. Throw them in, sweetheart. Just toss those bad things over the side, and we’ll be done with them forever.”

He puts his arm around you, and you feel safe. You stand together at the rail, and he smiles as you toss over the bundles, one by one, until they all disappear beneath the rippling water.

“Good, good. You did just great, Diana. Now, there’s just one more thing I need for you to do.”

Guiding you back to the left side of the bridge, he puts his arms around you and embraces you warmly. He points down to the black water and whispers something in your ear.

“Jump.”

You don’t think you hear him right, and look him in the eye, pleading.

“Don’t you trust me, baby?”

You nod. You do trust him. His voice is so kind… he wouldn’t hurt you.

“It’s for the best. You’ll feel so much better if you do. Go ahead. Jump.”

You climb onto the rail and gaze down, dizzy from the height. You look back at the face of this long-lost man, the gentle planes of his cheeks, those watery blue eyes so honest. He looks just like he did in the pictures mother keeps tucked away in her hope chest. Surely, your father would not let you get hurt? No, of course he wouldn’t. You smile at him.

*I love you, daddy.*

And you jump. Falling, falling through miles of frigid air, and plunging to the bottom of the deep, wet dark. Alone. Picturing your father’s face as warmth creeps into your bones and you fall asleep.

This was a pain she had not expected. The sting of betrayals committed and endured, the sickened hollow feeling of violent acts perpetrated and suffered, the emergence of these sins could be foreseen and accommodated. But the revelation that they had utilized the face of a man she had spent her childhood revering and missing… the notion of them using her need for a father’s love against her… this made Diana unbelievably angry. But she had to admit, it made a great deal of sense.

*My father? Of course. Mangano knew I had so many bad feelings toward my mother that she wouldn’t be able to comfort me, or make me believe anything. Daddy. I never really knew him, but I always wanted to, wanted to think that he loved me. In their eyes, love is just a weakness to be exploited. All the primary barriers they erected were basically serving to keep me numb, safe from that need, from the pain it can cause. Riggins was telling me that it’s love that makes me vulnerable, gets me hurt – and in a way, he’s right.*

Your father packing his bags and leaving one Saturday morning, as you watch cartoons on the living room floor. He does not say goodbye.

Your mother slapping your face as you try to explain.

Weeping hot tears, choking out apologies as the dark-haired girl lifts her gun and curses you for the last time.

*But he also couldn’t be more wrong.*

Dan sitting with you all night in the hospital, holding your hand as you sweat and bleed and cry, aching inside and out. He listens, quiet and calm as you pour out all the pain. You ask him why he’s there, and he smiles. Says he owes you. And you have really beautiful eyes…

Eladio walking on your back in a pink hotel room with a heart-shaped bed. Asking how you got hurt in the first place. You say that you don’t know. He walks four blocks to a drugstore and buys you some kind of wonder-creme he saw on television.

Charlotte. Every minute in the grace of her company, a blessing. Every smile, every touch, a gift beyond price. The sense of fate, of destiny that makes you feel as though anything is possible as long as her heart is yours.

*Anything at all. It’s worth it… opening your heart to someone, whether they be friends, family, or lovers. There is no bigger risk, but there is no greater reward.*

Suddenly, a light blazed forth, cutting into the darkness, high above and far away, but visible. She followed it, moving forward and up with furious strokes and kicks, pulling herself along on the sturdy thread of hope she had just discovered.

*Love. That’s why I went after Ethan – I wanted to bring my brother back home safe because I love him. I did it because I wanted my mother to love us both. I went to the police because she told me I should, and I wanted her to forgive me. Love makes us do stupid things sometimes. But it’s worth it.*

The light grew brighter, guiding her up even as her lungs burned and her muscles ached from lack of air. She followed it, pulling and pushing through the thinning pink, now less blood than water.

*Love was what I wanted from that girl… and I very nearly had it. We came close, but I messed it all up. I hurt her because I was trying to protect her, and she hurt me for betraying her. Love makes us do awful things sometimes. But it’s worth it.*

The way grew clearer, cleaner, and brighter still shone the light, drawing her up into its presence even as her body rebelled and cramped, craving oxygen. She was so close now, she could see the bright, shimmering play of water and sky rolling above her, waiting for her to break through, waiting for her to make that final push to the surface.

*Love is what I have now, with Charlie. That’s the reason I’m here now, doing this, fighting through this agony with a willing heart. It’s the reason I want my life back. Maybe it’s the only reason I’m alive at all.*

One stroke, two strokes, three strokes, four. Closer and closer, and closer still.

*It’s worth living for, it’s worth dying for. It can hurt us so bad we want to curl up and die, hide inside ourselves until everyone leaves and it’s safe to come out again, but it’s worth the pain, it’s worth the fear. Every bit of it, over and over, forever.*

Yards became feet became inches, closer and closer. A hair’s breadth away…

*It can make you weak, or it can give you the strength to do anything, defy anyone – even yourself. Anything is possible. I can do anything. I can do this. Because she loves me. Because I love her. I can do this. I will do this.*

One finger, one hand, one arm piercing through. Cool air bracing the skin, pebbling gooseflesh.

*I’m coming, Charlie. God, don’t let me be too late.*

And with one powerful kick, she propelled herself and her cargo up to the ceiling, crashing through it in a massive shower that rained down all the way to the distant shore.

Diana Starrett had surfaced.

——————————————————————————–

“HEY!” Marco Falcon yelled, drawing Riggins’ attention away from Charlotte.

The gray-haired man sighed, exasperated and ready to get on with the execution. He believed in killing lawyers on principal, but shooting this one would be a distinct pleasure. “What do you want?”

“That deal you offered me, about going to jail. I’ll do it.”

Another sigh at the obvious ploy. “What prompted this change of heart, sonny boy? The knowledge that you and Senora Falcon are going to die next?”

Reining in his anger, Marco gritted his white teeth and swallowed hard. “You need my money. You want it, you’ll listen to what I got to say.”

“Talk fast.”

Riggins moved the gun slightly away from Charlotte’s head, and she exhaled unevenly, grateful for even a few extra seconds of life. Looking down into her love’s face, she noticed that Diana’s pale complexion was a little rosier, and her breathing had deepened. Her eyes almost seemed focused, although not on her. She was looking up at the ceiling, staring into the light fixture. She even blinked a couple of times as Falcon presented his offer.

“I’ll agree to let you take me in, but you gotta put me in minimum security. Someplace with cable and tennis courts. That part where you let my mother go, that still stands. And I want one other thing.”

“Don’t push me, Marco. You are not in a good bargaining position.”

“You want that money for your little daisy chain buddies, you’ll give me what I want.”

“Well, spit it out!”

“I want Charlotte. You let her go with my mother. That way, I’ll have something to look forward to when I get out.”

The attorney whipped her head up for a moment, mouth agape, unable to believe what she had just heard. Riggins was nearly as stunned, and had to stifle himself to keep from laughing.

“Marco! Are you deaf and blind, as well as being incredibly dumb? Blondie doesn’t swing that way, in case you failed to notice that you’re not the one lying on her lap, blankly enduring her professions of undying love” the older man pointed out acidly. “Although you are tall, dark, and ultra-violent. Three out of four, my boy – not quite good enough. Close, but no cute little lawyer for you!”

Falcon took a step forward, as if he were going to charge, and his mother’s restraining arm might have been the only thing that kept him from doing so. His lip curled and his nostrils flared, which only made him look more ridiculous to his tormentor. As he spoke, Riggins brought the Glock around to point at the younger man – just as a deterrent, really. His shift of attention caused him to miss a startling development.

Mere seconds after Marco made his last-ditch play for Charlotte’s attentions, as Riggins launched into his taunting tirade, the young woman returned her focus to the expressionless face of her lover – only she found that Diana Starrett was no longer staring off into space, but looking right at her with familiar, warm eyes. Eyes that saw her, knew her, and were indescribably glad to see her. An overpowering sense of relief and gratitude nearly made Charlie lose her breath, and her eyes went wide as saucers as she realized that Diana had indeed come back to her.

Perhaps two full seconds passed before Charlie smiled at her, softly mouthing the word ‘Hi,’ meaning ‘Thank God you’re back!’, ‘What took you so long?’, and of course, ‘I love you.’

The feelings were utterly, completely mutual, and Diana was smiling back as if she hadn’t seen her in years. One blue eye even gave her a little wink, for pete’s sake, and Charlotte suddenly felt as if everything would be alright after all. Then the silent woman bowed up her lips and scrunched her forehead in a gesture that meant ‘keep it on the down-low,’ and although the ecstatic blonde wanted to sing out her thanks to heaven, she kept quiet and maintained a neutral expression.

“No deal,” Riggins said at last, ready to kill them all and forget this whole messy evening. He turned back to Charlotte Browning and stepped toward her with the gun raised – then felt at sudden pressure around his ankle, a jabbing of fingers, and his leg folded under like a wet strand of pasta. He instinctively squeezed the trigger, but a hand flashing upward seized his wrist, bending it back hard and fast until it cracked, and the booming round strayed into the ceiling.

“Wha-”

Riggins processed the sweep of motion before him, the pain of a broken bone, and he knew he was in trouble. The gun was no longer in his hand – which now hung limply from a misshapen wrist – but pointed directly at his face. His eyes trailed from the empty black eye of the barrel to the red right hand to the long, bare arm to the shoulder to the neck… to her face.

Streak of blood along her jawline. Teeth bared. Eyes lit with a cold, primal fury, lusting for his blood. This was someone he had met only once before, and he had hoped never to see her again. Through a clenched jaw, he spoke as calmly as possible.

“Diana.”

She smiled at him. A horrible, feral grin that made his ulcers ache.

“Hi, Josh. Long time, no see.”
Twenty Four
Marco’s eyes lit on the .38, and he dropped to his knees in an attempt to scramble past his mother and reach it. The sudden shift of control – away from a man he thought he could deal with to a woman whose motives and purposes were as clear to him as mud – made him extremely nervous. A loaded gun in his hand would make him feel ever so much better.

He sprawled on the floor, reaching with his good hand, and he very nearly made it. Maribel grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled his head up suddenly, shifting his weight onto his wounded arm and causing him to scream again as the blades tore into his flesh with renewed vigor. He rolled onto his side, cradling the injured limb carefully.

“Stay out of this, mijo. It’s not your business,” Maribel advised as she stooped and picked up the gun, then returned her attention to the unfolding drama. She watched the tall woman carefully, ready to act if Charlotte’s instincts about her were in error.

Diana kept both eyes on the director, aware that she could lose control here in a second if she allowed him any opening. She held her left hand back and felt Charlie slip her fingers around it, and she grasped the small hand tightly and pulled the woman to her side, speaking to her in a dry, clear voice.

“Go to the desk and take the cords out of the phone. Bring them to me.”

Charlotte nodded and moved quickly, unclipping the long cord running to the wall jack. She paused, biting her bottom lip in thought. “You want the little curly ones too?”

Diana chuckled and her eyes warmed imperceptibly. “Sure. Bring ’em all.”

Straightening the cords into unknotted loops, Charlie smiled at Maribel Falcon, trying to dispel the lingering worry on her friend’s face. “It’s gonna be okay.”

A thin smile in return as the older woman decided to withhold judgment until this was really over.

Riggins piped up suddenly. “What do you intend to do -”

“SHUT UP!!” Diana roared, jamming the nose of the Glock against his lips, splitting the top one open on impact. She was instantly almost quaking with rage, and everyone in the room was holding their breath, waiting for the imminent gunfire. Riggins just stood there on his one good leg and bled quietly as she got control of herself.

“I want to take you in alive, but so help me, if you open your mouth one more time… I will kill you without hesitation. I know what your words can do to me, and it ain’t gonna happen again. Charlie, the cords please.”

She held out her free hand for the bindings while motioning to the floor with the gun. “Kneel down. Hands behind your head.”

Riggins looked like he was going to object, but Diana hissed through clenched teeth and cut him off.

“Not a fucking word! Do it!”

He slowly went to his knees and winced as his shattered wrist flopped behind his head, and his numb leg nearly gave way again. Diana stepped behind him, released the pressure point and stood quiet for a moment, then she turned to Charlotte and extended her hand. Charlie offered her the cords, but the agent shook her head and indicated that she wanted her hand again, and it was promptly offered. Long fingers wrapped around her palm, giving it a slow stroke before a heavy, warm lump of metal and resin was deposited in her grip. The attorney looked down at her hand, stunned to find herself holding the gun.

Only slightly less surprised was Maribel Falcon, who was again forced to re-evaluate this woman as she handed over her weapon without hesitation, trusting Charlotte implicitly.

“Aim at his chest. If he moves, shoot him,” Diana instructed, taking the cords and unwrapping the loops. A wink and a mock-mean face told the blonde that she wasn’t serious, and Charlotte assumed that she was merely to provide a distraction for the dangerous man’s attention. She nodded at the dark-haired beauty and tried to mimic that menacing expression she had demonstrated.

‘Close enough,’ Diana mouthed, and the attorney took her position, hoping that she didn’t look too much like one of ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ She felt ridiculous.

Diana took one of Riggins’ hands – the injured one – yanked it down to his waist and began to tie him up as tightly and quickly as possible.

The grind and crack of bone against bone nearly made Charlotte sick, but she tried to hold the gun steady. In spite of the obvious pain he was in, the gray-haired man maintained eye contact with the gun-wielding woman, and she found herself hard pressed to look away. Those beady little dark eyes were almost hypnotic.

*Like that snake in ‘The Jungle Book,’* she mused, afraid to wonder what was making him smile.

Momentarily, he started wheezing. Coughing convulsively. His face reddened, and the tendons in his neck popped tight as he tipped forward, stopped from a direct collision with the floor only by Diana’s grip on his bound wrists. She flipped him onto his back and pried open his mouth, checking to see if he had chomped on some sort of suicide caplet – although the idea of Joshua Riggins offing himself was totally implausible.

“What’s happening? What’s wrong with him?” Charlotte asked in a tense voice, the gun drooping toward the floor.

“I don’t see anything in his throat. No blockages,” Diana observed calmly, content to let him choke.

“HIn… hinhallle,” Riggins gasped, his eyes darting frantically from Diana’s face to his vest and back. “Hin..hallleerr. Vesstst.”

“Don’t speak. Die slowly and painfully, but don’t speak to me,” the tall woman warned coldly, her hands hovering near his neck.

“Diana! You can’t just let him die! I thought you wanted to turn him in!” the lawyer insisted, uneasy and afraid at the sight of her lover’s composed countenance as she watched the man’s tortured writhing. “This just… you’re here now. You, not the person he was using… so you would be completely responsible for this. You can’t just let him die, Diana. It isn’t right.”

Sighing, the agent looked into Charlotte’s eyes, and was frightened a bit by what she saw. Even though this man had done unspeakable things, and forced her to do more of the same, she saw that this young woman felt it was very, very wrong to idly observe as he choked to death. She saw that the only person she loved in the entire world was genuinely upset by that prospect, and that she was in danger of hurting her if she let it continue.

“Dammit,” Diana muttered, and started rifling through his pockets until she found the inhaler she felt sure he was asking for. She gave it a quick shake and lowered it to his lips, preparing to squeeze.

From his vantage point on the floor, Marco Falcon watched with undisguised interest. He remembered how Riggins had used that inhaler, and almost giggled at the idea of what that stuff could do to the old bastard’s rotten black lungs.

Just as she was about to give him a long, stiff shot of medicine, Riggins coughed again, jerking his head forward and knocking the inhaler from Diana’s hand. He rolled on top of it, feigning a ferocious spasm, and grabbed it up behind his back, aiming the spray at his bindings.

“Great. Cough to death then, you black-lunged…”

Pssshhhhtt. Crackle.

Diana’s eyes went wide and she held out her hand to Charlotte. “Give me the gun.”

Charlie jumped forward, more than ready to be rid of it, and offered it immediately. Riggins swung his foot up and caught her right in the solar-plexus, knocking the wind out of her as she stumbled backward and dropped the gun. Diana turned back to him, and his swinging, loaded fist caught her just below the eye, the metal canister opening a cut on her cheek.

Stunned by the blow, she reeled back slightly and brought up her left hand to block a follow up, giving him a fraction of a second to act. He depressed the trigger on the inhaler and coated her hand with the mist, which hardened almost instantly and numbed her hand. Shocked by the sudden lack of sensation, Diana righted herself and cracked a hard right uppercut under Riggins’ jaw, driving him a few inches across the floor – and , unfortunately, closer to Charlotte and the gun.

He scrambled to his knees – slipping once on the brittle fragments of the shattered phone cord – dropped the inhaler, and scooped up the pistol in one swift motion. He didn’t bother aiming at Diana, because he knew in his gut that the threat of being shot would not even slow her down. Riggins again chose Charlotte Browning as his target, lunging for her and grabbing her by the hair, dragging her on top of him with the gun pressed to her ear.

“GET BACK! STAY BACK, OR SHE’S DEAD!” he cried, a tinge of desperation finally creeping into his voice. If this didn’t work, it was over and he knew it. She would most certainly not be turning him over to that pansy Mars – she would kill him. It was a gamble he was willing to take.

Charlotte had barely gotten her breath back when she was jerked to the floor and once again felt that damnable gun against her head. Fear, anger, and an unexpectedly strong sense of annoyance and deja vu hit her all at the same time as she looked into solid, determined blue eyes, certain they would save her somehow.

“Don’t hurt her, and I won’t hurt you,” Diana proposed, getting to her feet as Riggins and Charlotte did the same. She took slow steps toward him, pacing his retreat.

Maribel kept her gun hidden in the folds of her skirt, watching and waiting.

“I am leaving, and YOU are coming with me! You are mine, do you hear me!?! MINE!”

His dark eyes fluttered as he looked at the advancing agent, the woman who was never meant to stand in opposition to him, the weapon he had grown accustomed to wielding like the sword of an archangel.

“Don’t hurt her. Let her go, and I’ll come with you.”

“NO!” Charlotte cried out suddenly, struggling in his suffocating grasp. “Diana, don’t…”

“It’s okay, Charlie,” Diana said calmly, shaking her head as she gazed into frantic green eyes. “Let her go, and I promise I’ll come with you. Just tell me what to do.”

Although she was deadly earnest in this offer, Diana couldn’t help but wonder how effective Riggins’ dreaded commands could be after all she had learned about herself, after she had forcibly wrested control away from her mind’s captors. Was she now immune to their suggestions? Was she wrong to still be afraid of losing herself to him at the sound of a few mere words? After a brief debate about the wisdom of revealing herself, she added another oath, quietly and with serious reverence.

“I swear on my brother’s grave.”

At that promise, the gray-haired man stopped dead in his tracks – and for the first time in his adult life, he broke out in a nervous sweat. That part of their little dance was now over, and he knew it. “I don’t believe you. What’s to stop you from turning on me as soon as she’s loose?”

His reaction did not go unnoticed, and Diana upped the stakes. “You tell me,” she shot back. “Got any more aces up your sleeve, or am I a one trick pony?”

“What?!?” Riggins slunk back a few more steps, getting close to the door, and he pushed the gun tighter against his hostage’s ear.

“You know what I’m talking about. Tell me what to do,” she ordered in a taunting tone, aware now that she was onto the truth. “Chant something. Sing something! Quote some more bastardized Bible verses! If I belong to you, then tell me what to do, goddammit!”

“Diana, please don’t do this!” Charlotte pleaded again, “Don’t let him take you.”

“Well? Whaddaya say, Josh?” Diana persisted, closing in on the pair with every lengthy step. “Do do that voodoo that you do so well…” she sang, waving her encrusted left hand in time with the music.

“I – I…” Riggins stammered, watching her with an odd fascination and pride, and counting the seconds until he would be forced to shoot both the worthless girl and his prized possession.

“What’s a matter? Afraid it won’t work? ‘Course it will!” she cried in a happy voice, wildly flapping her elbows until she looked like a chicken on acid. “Because you the man! The grand potentate! The GOD DAMNED WIZARD OF OZ!! PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE GUTLESS SON OF A BITCH BEHIND THE CURTAIN!! NOW TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!”

Distracted beyond the capacity for rational thought, Riggins let the gun drift an inch from Charlotte’s ear, and she again imitated Diana – the elbow cue nearly got past her – and drove that bony point into his ribs as hard as she could. His arm loosened and she wriggled free just as the gun went off, still very close to her ear, and her world went mostly silent as she fell to the floor.

Once he had lost his hostage, Joshua Riggins did the only thing he could think of, the only thing that might get him out of here alive.

He turned and ran.

The tall woman was really not expecting that. “Well, shit.”

Diana dropped to one knee and checked on Charlotte, who seemed extremely confused and shaken up, but physically sound. She kissed her on the forehead. “I have to go after him.”

Charlotte watched her lips, barely able to make out the muffled, distant words through the ringing in her ears. “No! Your hip… shot?”

“Graze. Nothing to worry about,” she lied, then turned to address the lady of the house. “Mrs. Falcon? Watch out for her, please.”

Maribel was already on her way over, and she held out her .38 to Diana, offering it silently.

“No. Keep that in case he comes back – or in case Scarface over there gives you any more trouble,” Diana said, jerking her head toward Marco as he finally got to his feet. “Don’t let him go anywhere. I still need that information.” With one more look at the beautiful blonde whose loving expression made all this seem worth it, the agent turned and darted through the door in pursuit of her quarry.

“Be careful,” Charlotte whispered after her. Taking Maribel’s hand, she pulled herself up and wobbled to the conference table, taking a seat and reaching for the bourbon decanter. Mrs. Falcon joined her and plopped down three glasses, urging her son to join them for a much-needed drink. He hesitated until Charlotte smiled at him and slid him a glass, indicating a temporary truce was in place.

“Now, Marco… we need to talk.”

——————————————————————————–

Because it was highly distasteful to steal from dead men, she ran directly to the only guy who was still breathing – the one she discarded when things first went haywire.

“Sorry, pal. I need this more than you do,” she explained as she took his gun, pleased to find an extra magazine in his shoulder rig. Diana checked the chamber and loaded the full clip, hoping she wouldn’t need thirteen shots to bring Riggins down. She still intended to bring him back alive, if at all possible.

Diana raced down the main hall, checking each room and coming up empty. She headed for the dining room and snagged her tweezers from the banquette, removing the listening capsule from her ear and tucking it into her bra as she ran back down to the kitchen. She saw no sign of Riggins or any indication that he had come through these rooms, but the exit alarm had not gone off or even chirped from being deactivated, so she knew he was still in the house.

*But where? Place had to have three floors, didn’t it?*

With loping steps, she set out for the staircase, certain that he was moving slower than she as a result of that numbing pinch she put on his leg. Her hip was starting to ache, but her recent experiences coping with pain made it seem relatively insignificant, and she mounted the first flight of stairs with purpose. Eyes wide open, she searched for some sign, some clue that would point her in the right direction. She stepped onto the landing and pricked up her ears, ready for action.

*Second floor – gaudy paintings, copulating statues, and ten bloody bedrooms! Fun, fun, fun.*

——————————————————————————–

“No way. No fucking way I’m giving them up to her,” Marco was saying, shaking his head and slurping bourbon like there was no tomorrow. It seemed to make the throbbing pain in his wrist lessen somewhat.

“Listen to me. As your attorney, I’m advising you to spill your guts.”

“That’s your professional legal opinion, Charlotte?”

“Yep. You’re going to have to do time, that’s definite, but how much and where depends on your cooperation,” she continued.
“I know that you don’t trust Diana, but I do. If you tell her what she wants to know, and help her get that… what’s his name again?”

“Riggins. Joshua Motherfuckin’ Riggins,” he slurred angrily.

“Nice middle name. Appropriate, I’m sure,” Charlotte added. “Anyway, if you tell her people all about his dirty dealings, they’d have reason to go easy on you. It’s the only way you can help yourself now. Be smart, Marco.”

Shaking his head, Falcon looked to his mother with pleading eyes. “Mami, I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. We could be on a plane to Puerto Rico by now, but no! You’d rather send your son to jail than leave here with me! What kind of mother are you!?!”

“The kind who doesn’t give up on her children,” Maribel responded honestly, conscious of the irony as she held her son at gunpoint. “I have seen the evil that you can do, mijo, but I can’t believe that there’s nothing more to you, that you can’t be a better man if you try. Realizing that there are consequences for your crimes and paying for some of them would be a good place to start.”

“Jail does not make better men! It takes a man and makes him harder inside than he was before! How you think that’s gonna help me?” Marco questioned, slamming his glass down against the table. “Jail ain’t gonna make me into some Jesus freak or nothin’, it’s just gonna remind me that you gotta be harder than the next guy to survive. Mami, don’t do this… just give me that gun and let’s get the hell out of here while we can, before that psycho bitch or Darth fuckin’ Vader comes back!”

“No. I’m not leaving here until this is settled, and neither are you. We wait for Diana.”

Snorting, Marco drained his glass, wondering how they were so certain that she would be the one returning for them.

Charlotte finished her bourbon and got up to pace. She wiggled a finger in her ear, pleased that the ringing had dulled to a rhythmic throb. After walking the length of the room twice, she sat down, and got right back up again, too nervous to stay still.

*I should stay here. I should stay right here and wait. I’ll be in the way. I’ll only get in the way again. I’m gonna stay here. I’m just gonna wait right here until she gets back.*

“Like hell I am,” she disagreed out loud, turning back for the door and heading out to look for Diana as Maribel called after her in vain.

“Charlie, no! Don’t go out…,” she trailed off, aware that the young woman was beyond listening to reason. “Damn! Estar enamorado.”

“Ha! Ain’t love a bitch,” Marco observed, pouring himself another drink.

——————————————————————————–

Having no luck on the second floor, Diana cautiously proceeded to the third level of the Falcon manse, knowing that Riggins had nowhere else to go. Although it was nearly pitch dark in the hall, she could make out faint traces of pink light leaking from beneath the doors, as all six were set along the back side of the house. It gave her a starting point as she scanned each spill of light for tell-tale shadows, hoping that the man was unsettled enough to slip up and stand near the door of whichever room he had chosen. She silently walked the length of the hall, seeing no movement, but certain she was on the right track.

*He’s up here, alright. My spider-sense is tingling.*

She shook her left hand to clear out the pinprick sensations of ebbing numbness, forgetting for a moment that it was covered in a tough, thick layer of foam. It brushed against her dress in a whispery rustle, which sounded like a rampaging herd of wildebeasts to her hypersensitive ears.

A corresponding thump and shuffle sounded from a room near the center of the hall, and she spun and aimed at the sound. A slip of darkness edged away from the pink pool at the base of door number three, and she smiled as she picked up the scent.

*Here kitty, kitty.*

——————————————————————————–

Charlotte scoured the first floor without luck, pausing only a moment to check on the one surviving guard. His pulse was thready and faint, but he was breathing, making him a lucky, lucky man in her estimation. She recalled the stranglehold Diana had put on him, his eyes bulging in fear as she pressed those knives to his throat…

*Yeeesh. Stop thinking about that – that wasn’t her. That wasn’t her.*

She moved to the staircase and headed up, trying to exercise as much stealth as possible. Her mind, however, would not be quiet.

*Diana – my Diana is not like that. She had a chance to kill Marco and didn’t. She tried to help that awful man when he was choking… now that, I should have kept my mouth shut about. If he hurts her, it’s my fault. He wouldn’t have gotten loose if I had just kept my stupid mouth shut and let her handle it! I have to trust her, right? She knows what she’s doing.*

On the second floor landing, she peeped around the rail and looked down the hall, eyes floundering in the darkness. Exactly what she was looking for… she didn’t know. What she would do if she heard something… well, she didn’t know that either.

*Diana knows what she’s doing. I sure as hell don’t know what I’m doing…*

——————————————————————————–

Positioning herself beside the door, Diana tried to gauge the damage done to her body, to estimate what she could reasonably expect it to accomplish or endure.

*The scratch on the jaw means nothing. Left hand might as well be in a cast – can’t feel it, but it’s hard as hell. Might make a good club. The hip – now that stings a little, but I can move well enough. I can do this. I will do this.*

A picture came unbidden to her mind’s eye – a crystal image of Charlotte taking her hand, walking at her side down a white sand beach as the mantled sun sank behind them, extinguished in an ocean of cool blues and greens.

*Anything is possible. I’ve owned up to my past, and I will claim my future. So close, so close…*

She stepped back, tilted her body onto her weak leg and lauched her foot like a missile, kicking the door open in a stunning shatter of wood and brass. The strike plate clattered to the floor as the first shots were fired from inside the room, lighting up the darkness with loud booms and fleeting flares.

——————————————————————————–

Running up the stairs to the third floor, Charlotte Browning was tabulating lead expenditures in her head, and trying not to trip over her feet again.

*Four shots. Plus one when Diana grabbed him. One more near my ear. He probably shot those three guards, too. That makes nine. Nine bullets. Please let that be all he has – OOOFF!! Dammit!!*

She scraped herself up off the steps and kept going, wishing for a flashlight, unsure how many times she could fall without breaking her neck. Nearing the landing, the attorney thought she could make out a faint voice, and she tried popping her ear to make it come in clearer. Willing herself quiet, she sat and listened, anxious and hungry for more of the voice she had heard.

——————————————————————————–

“Missed me, missed me, now you’ve got to kiss me,” Diana chanted softly, certain that the director could hear her, hoping that his cease-fire meant he was out of bullets.

“Come on in, and I’ll see what I can do for you,” he called out from an unseen corner. She could not pinpoint his voice, but her best guess placed him near the windows. Heavy drapes hung from floor to ceiling, smothering the pastel-hued light from the back yard and completely obscuring the windows themselves.

*He might even be hiding behind the curtains. Maybe he’s feeling more talkative now.*

“Hey, Josh? You hear the one about the British guy who went to a costume party as an escargot?”

A dry chuckle and a quick “No.”

“Well, he stuck some antennae on his head and loaded this blonde chick on his back. When he got to the party, the host said ‘What the hell are you supposed to be?’ The guy tells him he’s come as a snail. The host says ‘That’s bullshit, you just got some girl on your back!’, and the Brit says ‘You don’t understand mate, that’s Michelle!'”

A long silence, followed by a low sigh and a scrape of wood on the floor. “That’s the worst joke I have ever heard.”

*Far right corner, by the window. Probably leaning on a table or desk for support.*

“Yeah, well. Guess I shouldn’t give up my day job for a comedy career, huh?”

“This is the only job you’re suited for, Diana. It’s not too late, you know. We can just walk out of here, put this behind us.”

Lying on the floor, peeking around the doorframe, she thought she could make out a shifting form in the blackness. “I can’t do that now. It is too late for me.”

“I don’t believe that.” He was quiet for long seconds, and she waited for him to explain. “You have disappointed me greatly, and at the same time, you have exceeded all my expectations.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I mean that. Somehow, you managed to break through the most advanced psychological barriers ever invented. You manipulated painstakingly constructed situations, and beat odds that could only be expressed in scientific notation. That was never supposed to happen, and it never had until tonight.”

Another long pause and a faint creaking which could have been from the furniture or from his own joints. “Answer me one question, if you would.”

“Sock it to me, Josh.”

“What did you do with Ethan’s corpse once you surfaced?”

Her lips parted in surprise at hearing him address her brother by name. She had no idea he had such specific knowledge of her internal struggle, and she felt a profound sense of violation. Closing her eyes, Diana rested her forehead against the cool plaster wall and told him what he wanted to know.

“I buried him on the beach, in a white dune covered in sea oats. He can rest there, and I’ll always know where he is. I’m never going to lose him again. I’m done letting you take things from me.”

“Even things that hurt?”

“Especially things that hurt. They are mine to carry, like Ethan. Like my parents. Every one of those hurts makes me grateful, makes me appreciate life all the more.”

“Oh, spare me. Your little playmate gave me the grotesquely sweet luuuv speech earlier. I don’t need to hear it again.”

“I don’t intend to talk to you about Charlotte. You would never understand what she’s done for me. I can tell you this, though. She’s the main reason I’m not charging in there and wringing your neck until your head pops off.”

“Ouch. That does raise a question, though, doesn’t it? What are we going to do to end this amiable little standoff?”

“You could toss your gun over here and surrender to me. I like that plan.”

“Not gonna happen, toots. I would chew razor blades before I let that sanctimonious prig Mars see me in prison. You could ditch the little femme and blow this place with me. I have a chopper standing by at the ranch house, and a plane waiting at a private airstrip. Take you anywhere you want to go.”

“No can do. I’m not leaving her, and I’d rather die than go back to that life. It’s not living, what I was doing. I’d rather be dead.” Diana got to her feet and wiped her wet right palm on her dress, wanting a steady grip on the Sig-Sauer when she went in for the kill.

“Well. Detante, babe. What now?”

“Now I come in and get you.”

Metal scraping as Riggins checked his weapon. “I’m waiting.”

Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the doorway and stood perfectly still for a full count of five. Framed by the trace light of the hallway, she was certain he could see her, yet he did nothing. She started walking toward him with long, easy strides, her gun at waist level. The woman was now immersed in the black air of the room, invisible to the unadapted eye.

Still he did nothing, made neither a move nor a sound. Closer still, and Diana could almost make out his shape lurking in the darkness, a living shadow hovering quietly. She raised her weapon and leveled it at that anomaly, that phantasmic presence.

“Drop your gun, director. Or I will shoot you.”

Diana heard a sharp intake of breath and sensed motion both in front and behind. Unsure from which direction the threat would come, she dropped to one knee and rolled sideways to remove herself from the middle until the situation clarified.

That happened all too quickly.

A shot came from the corner where Riggins assuredly stood, and a mewling cry sounded from the doorway where Charlotte Browning slid limp against the jamb, curling in a soft pile on the floor.

Blinking hard to will away this hateful sight, to make it disappear like the lie it had to be, Diana Starrett nearly died right then and there. Every muscle in her body seemed to liquify and dribble off her bones like melted ice cream. Her heart stopped beating and she no longer wanted to draw breath. So she stopped.

She simply stopped and waited for it to happen, waited for the snap. The break. That one final crushing moment when she would admit to herself that her life was over and it didn’t matter one goddamned bit. She stopped and waited.

“Well, I guess this changes things a bit, doesn’t it?”

He laughed. Joshua Riggins stood near the center window, several feet away, laughing.

“Yes, it does.”

She stood before him. Dropped her gun. Raised both arms. And charged him, thudding steps bringing her closer in a thunder of movement. Hideous, unearthly screams assaulted his ears, and he actually shook as he raised the Glock and pulled the trigger. Firing the last round into Diana Starrett’s body as she crashed into him and bore him up into the air, tossing him over one broad shoulder like a gunny sack, and kept running. Faster and faster, until he realized what she intended to do, until he remembered that they were three stories up.

“NOOOO!!!”

His hands tore madly at her hair as she left the ground in an inhuman leap that carried them several feet off the floor, through the heavy drapes, through two panes of glass, and out into the warm southern California night.
Twenty Five

At the first sound of shots fired, Maribel Falcon jumped up from her chair, and she waved her pistol to indicate that Marco should do the same. “Get up! Come on, now!”

“No way.” Marco shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “Didn’t you say this wasn’t any of my business? I don’t want no part of that funky shit between them two nutcases. Let ’em kill each other.”

“It’s not them I’m worried about. Charlotte loves that woman, and she was headed right into the middle of this,” Maribel expounded, catching a twitch in her son’s jaw at the mention of the young lawyer’s name. “If something happens to her, it’s your fault for bringing that man here tonight.”

“HEY! Everything would have worked out different if that bitch hadn’t started churning out the corpses! Don’t lay this all on me, mami,” he protested, then added in a softer voice, “You know I didn’t mean for nothing to happen to Charlotte.”

“I know that you… care about her in your way. If, God forbid, something should happen to Diana, who’s gonna stop that Riggins man from hurting Charlie?” his mother asked, trying to appeal to whatever sense of decency Marco had left. He downed the last swallow of his drink and snorted, staring at the table as he tried to think of a way out of this.

Another shot was fired, and Maribel got a sick feeling in her stomach. Something told her things were going very, very wrong upstairs.

“We have to do something. Are you coming with me, or do I have to lock you in the bathroom?”

“Stupid. Stupido cabron,” he muttered, cursing himself as he pushed his chair back. “Let’s go.”

——————————————————————————–

*ooooOOOOOWWWWwwww.*

Dizzying, swirling, painful nausea hit Charlotte Browning right in the gut the second she regained consciousness. Fighting the urge to vomit, she tried to reconnect the nerves in her fingertips and feel around to find out where she was.

*floor i’m on the floor on the floor. owww.*

Her face was wet, and she slowly lifted one hand to touch her cheek.

*sticky. eeewww warm sticky. eeewww.*

Next on the agenda was the difficult task of opening her eyes. The lids seemed to have put on weight, and she could not lift them with puny ocular muscles, so her other hand had to assist. Prying one lid open, she saw darkness only for several seconds, then registered a large rectangular spill of pink light in the center of the room.

*Breeze coming from somewhere. Oh. The window’s open…. where’s Diana?*

Stifling another wave of nausea, Charlotte opened her other eye and tried to slowly unfold from the fetal position she had curled into at the base of the door.

*God. What happened? I heard her talking to that man. She was going to shoot him – but he had a gun, too, didn’t he? Yeah, he did – she said to drop it or she’d shoot him. So I peeked around the corner to see what happened next and… oh.*

Her mouth dropped open from profound embarrassment, and a trickle of iron-bitter liquid seeped past her lips. She gasped as she realized what happened, and her hand strayed to her face, searching for the source of the blood.

*He saw me. Shot at me instead of her. Dammit! I just peeped around the corner for one second…*

Fingers lit on a raw, open streak just above her right ear where the bullet brushed along her scalp. Charlotte breathed a long, stuttering sigh of relief as she realized just how close she had come – a half-inch away from certain death.

*Guess one second was too long. Man, he’s a good shot. Where is Diana? Where is he? I wasn’t alone up here before.*

Again her eyes moved to the only source of light in the room, and she the followed the beams up to the barren frame studded with glass shards and splintered wood, shreds of the missing drapes. A gaping hole in the wall poured tinted light from the backyard lamps.

*That window isn’t open – it’s gone. Busted out totally. What the hell happened up here?*

Struggling into a kneeling position, Charlotte braced one arm against the doorjamb as she tried to stand on legs about as sturdy as pinestraw. They bent and folded, sending her tumbling onto hands and knees, but a sudden sense of urgency was pulling her to that window, and she began to crawl.

“DIan…” she croaked, trying to swallow the bile rising in her gullet. Struggling ahead a few more feet, making slow progress as blood ran down her face and dripped from her chin.

When her voice would come again, it was a faint, low gurgle. “Diana?”

Closer to the window, she heard sounds from outside. Cracking wood. Grunts of pain and effort. Sobbing. Cursing.

“Dia- oh god.” Charlotte’s head swam and she could not hold back the nausea any longer. Doubling over, she clutched her stomach and vomited a pool of toxins onto the floor. The noises outside the window continued, and she wanted more than anything to know that was Diana’s hissing voice she heard drifting on the night air.

——————————————————————————–

“Let go, you son of a bitch! Let go. Let go. Let go…”

Riggins heard her say it over and over, and he would not – could not – listen. She may have been ready to die, but he wasn’t. He had things to do, and he needed to live. That need led him to release her hair as they first crashed through the glass, that need forced him to ignore the pain of his shattered wrist and reach out to grab onto something – anything – that would keep him from falling with her.

Inches from the window’s edge, his fingers closed over thin strips of wood, and he clenched them tight in a death grip as she propelled their bodies forward. The force of her momentum carried them out a few feet before they jerked to a sudden stop, anchored to the trellis by his weakened hands and mighty will, and they swung back to collide with the vine-smothered latticework and the hard stucco wall beneath. She did not let go.

As their combined weight suddenly became solely his responsibility, he gasped hard and nearly passed out from the pain. His broken wrist popped completely free of the joint and a sharp shard of bone poked up through the skin. Riggins screamed out a strangled cry, but held on through the agony. He simply could not give up.

Diana held Riggins tightly by his waist, her face pressed against his stomach as she dangled freely over the stone path. She knew the lattice would not hold them for long, and she bounced her body against the wall and jerked him lower to speed up the process. The sooner they fell, the sooner he was dead. When she was certain of his demise, she could let herself give up the ghost and end the gnawing pain which became her world once he took away her reason for living.

When she saw Charlotte drop to the floor with dark blood oozing over her face, she knew she was dead – and some part of her had almost expected it. This couldn’t have ended any other way, could it? This was the fate she deserved, the fate she had earned with years of mindless bloodshed. Dying alone with a heart empty of everything but guilt, anger, and tarnished memories.

She knew that it was her own fault. That knowledge ate away at Diana’s heart like an injection of acid, decimating her insides until she felt as hollow and frail as a discarded snakeskin, waiting for the wind to blow her away. She tugged again at Riggins’ body, certain it wouldn’t be long now.

“Let go, old man. I’m ready to go now, and you’re coming with me,” she whispered through clenched teeth, swaying out over the jagged stones below, ready to meet them head-on.

Riggins said nothing, just held tight and tried to snuff out the keening sobs welling up in his throat as the skin of his wrist ripped open further. He had a vision of his entire hand tearing free as their bodies fell away, his fingers still wrapped around the wood trellis. Tears rolled down his face. He had so much to do…

Seconds later, the wood started to crack and he panicked. Whipping his head to and fro, he searched for something to grab onto as his supports splintered in his palms. His eyes lit on the copper gutter, and he swung one foot over and wedged his shoe behind the pipe just as the wood gave way. One hand left the trellis and wrapped around the greenish metal tube, tucking behind it in time to keep them from falling… for at least another few seconds.

“That isn’t gonna hooollld us,” Diana told him in a sibilant, sing-song tone. “Just let go, Josh! Stop blubbering, you fucking baby! Die like a man!”

“Noooo,” he whined, jamming his broken hand behind the gutter as well, hugging his chest against the cold, smelly metal.

“Well, I’m tired of waiting,” she said. Diana grabbed onto his belt and twisted her body around so that she faced the house, then braced both legs against the stucco and pushed out with all her might as she used Riggins’ grip to pry the gutter away from the house. The rings around the pipe squealed and twisted with the added strain, and two popped free, causing the gutter to sway suddenly to the right.

“Noooo, don’t -”

“SHUT UP!!,” Diana shouted, pushing out with another powerful thrust of her legs. “She’s dead, I’m dead, and you are most definitely dead! Face it.. and say your prayers.” She pushed again and felt the gutter supports give way, and she closed her eyes and smiled with a strange sense of anticipation.

*Charlie… I’m sorry.*

The last four rings on the top section of pipe wrenched free, and the metal wilted away from the house with tortured groans and snaps which were all but drowned out by Joshua Riggins’ screams as they tilted back into empty air.

——————————————————————————–

Once her stomach had purged all the toxins, Charlotte regained enough of her equilibrium to stand up, although she was incredibly unsteady. Voices from outside still held her attention, and her singular surety was that one of those voices belonged to Diana.

*But, what’s she doing out in the back yard? Well, look – but don’t go and stick your head out this time, idiot. He probably wouldn’t miss twice.*

Her eyes burned and blurred as blood trickled over her brows and she tried to wipe it away, but only succeeded in smearing it over the rest of her face. A brief memory came to her, some hospital show where they talked about scalp wounds bleeding a lot, even minor ones. Those medical programs always made her mother sick, and she wouldn’t allow the girls to watch them. She almost laughed as an image of her mother’s horrified face flashed in her mind.

*Boy, if she could see me now… ‘No really, mom. It’s just a little gunshot wound.’*

The voices continued, and she could hear Diana yelling. Staggering steps took Charlotte to the window, and she leaned against the sill and peered out into the backyard, seeing no one around the nearby swimming pool or the surrounding benches. The groan of metal and a sudden scream prompted her to carefully peek over the edge and look slightly down and to the side – just in time to see the gutter rip away from the house with two bodies attached.

“NO!! DIANA!!”

For a fraction of a second, Charlotte considered jumping after her, as if she could swoop down out of the sky, plucking the falling woman from the air to fly away with her. Then she just froze and watched, helpless and still as the pipe bent and twisted in midair, seemingly in slow motion as it moved them farther away from the house, plunging now toward the unyielding cement patio.

Then the strangest miracle occurred – another support caught along the lower half of the copper tube, and jerked the loose portion several feet to the side, changing the trajectory just enough to send the two bodies away from the cement and into the slimy, black waters of the pool with a gigantic splash.

Charlotte Browning’s heart stopped cold. Her breath was caught somewhere between weak knees and curling toes, and she was sure her eyes were going to pop out of her head and roll around on the floor. For an interminable moment, she stared down hard at the rippling water, overcome with relief.

“Holy shit.”

Hardly the most eloquent response to this development, but it was all the attorney could say without actually thawing her brain. She was well beyond rational thought, relying solely on instinct to tell her what to do next.

Instinct sent her one very clear message: *Go!*

Charlotte turned from the window and scrambled for the door with urgent speed, bumping headlong into the unseen Maribel Falcon and nearly toppling the large woman as she drove into her with a shoulder. Both women were just a tad surprised.

“AAAHHH!”

“AAAHHH!”

Maribel recovered first drawing back into the hall – then she saw the blood covering Charlie’s face.

“Madre de Dios! What happened to you, mija?”

The young woman was shaking, and she barely looked at Maribel, instead glancing back to the window and then past her toward the stairs. She had no time to try and explain.

“Pppool! She’s in the pooooool!” Charlotte said, her voice trailing away as she squeezed through the doorway and past a startled Marco. She grasped the banister and tripped/ran down the stairs at breakneck speed, headed for the back yard.

The Falcons took a moment to stare at each other, then Marco shrugged and motioned for his mother to lead the way.

“I guess we’re going to the frickin’ pool, then.”

——————————————————————————–

As the gutter swayed and twisted away from the house, Diana thought she heard her name called out by a familiar voice, but that was impossible.

*She’s dead – he shot her in the head! I saw it. I saw it.*

Then with a violent pitch to the side, they were flying off of the pipe and hitting the ground – but then they kept falling, slower and slower into cold black liquid. The air rushed from her lungs on impact, and her wounds throbbed hot and steady, but she knew the pain would not last long. Certain that she was dead, her mind puzzled over this new environment.

*Maybe hell starts off cold and wet, then gets hotter and drier gradually. That must be it.*

Seconds passed, and only the bracing feel of water soaking through her clothes and hair, seeping past parted lips into her mouth and running up her nose convinced Diana that this was not, in fact, the gateway to hell, but something much more banal and unexpected.

*We’re in the goddamned swimming pool?!?!? HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?!?!*

Her arms flailed madly in the water, and she mistakenly kicked her way to the bottom first, then reversed thrusters and broke through the crust of dead leaves on top of the water. Frail light cast shadows over everything, and she blinked her eyes into focus and looked around. The first thing she saw clearly was Joshua Riggins wading through the shallow end headed for the stone stairs.

“OH NO, YOU DON’T!!”

She shouted out her first breath in a gust of rage and dove under again, aiming her body and cutting through the water, heading for him like a torpedo.

Riggins cradled his mangled hand and slogged forward, coughing up brackish water as fear pushed his beaten body ahead. He was amazed to be alive, but she was still alive as well… and closing on him fast. He looked up to the sky and whispered something to the moon, a grimace of anticipation twisting his mouth.

She didn’t keep him waiting long.

A hand closed around his ankle and his right leg was suddenly yanked from under him, causing a face-first collision with the water. Then she was on him. He felt one arm wrap around his neck from behind, a hard-shelled hand scraping his skin. A body straddling his back, holding him rigidly still between two thighs which nearly crushed his ribs with their pressure. A hand twining in his hair and pulling his head back suddenly, just enough to clear the water… so that he could hear her voice.

“This is the end of the line, Joshua. You’re gonna die tonight,” Diana Starrett promised.

A swift yank to weaken his neck, then he was shoved under again and held fast for long seconds, air bubbling up through the black liquid as his lungs expelled their content. She waited until he stopped struggling, was nearly unconscious, then pulled him up again. He gasped, a sudden, ragged inhale, and she waited for him to regain the strength to fight.

“I want you to know how it feels, Joshua. To be under, to be blind and deaf and weak and scared, to DROWN in this shit! I want you to know before you die.”

Again, she pushed his head below the surface and held him still, choking with one arm, pinning with the other until he went slightly limp. Then she dragged him back up and allowed him to get his breath.

She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, hot breath burning his skin. “Not much fun, is it?”

“Diana, please – ”

“Shhhh,” she crooned, dipping his mouth back under. “That won’t do you any good. The only thing left for you is to ask God to forgive you, because I won’t.” She paused, then pulled his face out of the muck and asked him quietly, “Are you afraid to die, Mr. Director, sir?”

“Oh, Jesus,” Riggins sputtered, his chin dripping as the foul liquid spilled from his mouth.

“ARE YOU AFRAID?!?!”

Choking down his pride, hopeful that there might still be a way out for him, he whispered, “Yes. I don’t want to die -”

“Why? What have you got that’s worth living for? Nobody needs you, nobody loves you. Hell, nobody even likes you! Why would a worthless son of a bitch like you want to live?”

“My work… is the only thing that matters. There is so much left undone…”

“Oops! Should have managed your time more wisely, sir. All your wicked little schemes are gonna wilt on the vine now. What a shame.”

She pushed his face down again, hard and fast, holding him still, watching him squirm and struggle as the water seeped into his ears, nose and throat. Diana waited until he was choking, then pulled him up again. She wanted his torment and fear to last as long as possible – this shallow, bitter moment of vengeance was all she had left. He came up spewing water and vomit as his weakened body rebelled against this treatment. She waited as he cleared his throat, wanting to hear his desperate final plea.

“I… sa-saved you! Others too, others… like you…”

“Then I guess you’ll go out a martyr, huh?” Diana laughed, “Joshua, Patron Saint of the Charitable Mind-Fuck!”

“NO! My work… you, your blood…” Riggins began, coughing violently as his captor tightened her hold on his chest. “You were sick… like Eth-”

“Shut up about him. He had nothing to do with you, and you don’t get to talk about him,” she warned, slamming his face against the water and jerking it back rapidly in a punishing gesture. “I was willing to move past what you did to me, you know. Could have just given you over to Harry and let it slide. All I really, truly wanted was to get out of this mess and be with her.”

Diana moved her teeth closer and bit down hard on his ear to make sure he was listening. He yelped a bleating cry, and she continued, speaking in a teasing, reproachful tone.

“What – you thought that if Charlie was dead, I’d come running back to you, asking you to fix things again? Boy, did you miscalculate that one. You ruined everything, everything.”

“I can fix -”

“Too late now! Too late for me, too late for you… just too fucking late for everybody.”

She sighed and looked up at the sky, catching a glimpse of a shooting star as it streaked through the night. Tears welled up at the sight, and she suddenly felt so small and frail and alone that she wasn’t sure she could do this. What would it accomplish? Who would be satisfied by this act?

*I have to finish it, to stop him. What if he does this to somebody else? What if he already has? No, it ends here. We will be his last victims, Charlie. It ends here.*

“Diana, please don’t do this. I’m sorry about the girl! That was wrong of me, so wrong -”

“It’s over and done now,” she interrupted in a low, weary rumble. “I’m tired, Josh, I’m just so tired and empty. I’m ready to stop now. Let’s just stop now, me and you. Let’s just end it here…”

“WAIT, Pblble-”

This time as he went under, Diana went with him into the chilly darkness, willing herself to stay down, to stay where she belonged after all. Eyes shut so tight she could almost see Charlotte’s face, she drew in the first rancid, choking spray and started to drown for the last time.

——————————————————————————–

Even with her head spinning and the blood stinging her eyes, Charlotte only fell twice on her way down the stairs, and she broke for the back door like she was running the anchor leg of an Olympic track event. Heavy wood, thick glass and two deadbolts stood between her and the outside, but she was not about to wait for Marco to bring the keys. She looked around the foyer and spotted a large wilting something in a brass planter.

*That’ll work.*

Shaking off a tremor as she hefted the heavy metal bucket, she swung it with all her might and let it fly through the plate glass window in the upper portion of the door. A stunning shatter and a spray of shards followed immediately, but Charlotte had already turned away to fetch a chair. The whooping of the alarm rang throughout the house, but she hardly even heard it. She slid the chair up to the door and stood on the seat, then knocked away some of the remaining fragments and boosted herself through the hole she had made, landing softly on the glass-strewn back steps. Unfortunately, she was still barefoot.

“Aaaagghh! Shit!”

Tilting forward as one particularly large sliver jabbed into her heel, she righted herself and hopped on one foot until the plucked the glass free, then set off at a gallop for the still waters of the pool.

“Diana? DIANA? WHERE ARE YOU?”

Scanning the perimeter of the yard, she saw no movement, heard no sound. The Porsche was still parked in the gravel lot.

*As if she would have driven off with him… but where did they go?*

Another sweep of eyes over the murky waters of the pool revealed a slight ripple in the shallow end, then another and another. After a long moment, Joshua Riggins’s body floated to the surface… followed by Diana Starrett’s own.

Charlotte Browning probably screamed, but she couldn’t hear anything above the blood rushing in her ears and the frantic pounding of her heart. She dashed across the patio, leaving little red footprints on the concrete as she headed for the water and dove in head-first.

——————————————————————————–

Maribel headed for the door and tugged fruitlessly on the knob. Marco was only a few steps behind, and he went to the alarm panel and punched in the code to quell the cacophony of whoops and buzzes.

“Give me the keys,” Maribel said firmly.

“Aww, man! She busted my door!”

“GIVE ME THE KEYS!!”

“Okay, okay. Calm down, mami.”

Marco handed over the deadbolt keys and the locks were thrown in a flash, then his mother bustled out the door in a colorful hurricane of motion. There was a commotion in the pool, and she made a bee-line for it. He had never seen her move so fast, and hung back a few steps just to watch her go.

“Wow. Didn’t know you could run like this.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know, Marco,” his mother said as they reached the patio.

They saw that Charlotte was in the water, struggling to bring the larger woman’s limp body to the stairs. Riggins floated face-down nearby, but no one seemed anxious to give him aid. Maribel moved over to the water’s edge and waited to offer help when Charlotte was close enough .

“Go to the poolhouse and get some towels,” she ordered in Marco’s direction, wanting to keep him distracted enough not to run off while her back was turned.

“We got towels in there? Nobody ever swims in this thing -”

“In the white cabinet along the back wall! GO!!”

The funny thing was, he actually did as she said, turning without further protest and heading off to the low brick poolhouse to find towels. Maybe it was the inordinate amount of stress he was under this evening, maybe it was just a default setting in his psyche, but obeying his mother seemed to be a course of action that made perfect sense.

Turning back to the pool, Mrs. Falcon saw the attorney dragging Diana’s body close to the edge, and her heart nearly broke at the sight of her young friend’s face.

“Help me get her out,” Charlie pleaded, eyes swollen with a sudden torrent of tears, blood trickling down her neck from the head wound. Dead leaves clung to her golden hair, filthy water stained her dress and skin.

“Please help me,” she repeated, more urgently, and Maribel realized that she had been staring. She took off her shoes and gripped the railing, descending carefully down the slimy steps into the pool. Looping both arms under the tall woman’s shoulders, she lifted her upper body onto the tile lip of the pool while Charlotte supported her legs. Once she was settled, Charlie shakily boosted herself out of the water and knelt at Diana’s side, brushing tendrils of black hair away from her pale face.

“Don’t you leave me, Diana. Don’t you dare.”

Charlie leaned over the unconscious woman’s face and opened her mouth. She pinched her nose shut and breathed long and hard into those dormant, flooded lungs, praying she wasn’t too late. She repeated the procedure, then took one wrist between her fingers and searched in vain for a pulse.

“No. NO! You can’t do this!”

Maribel watched silently as Charlie pressed the heels of her hands against the still chest and pumped hard, over and over, in a rhythmic, methodical fashion. With each press, blood oozed from a ragged, black hole torn in Diana’s shoulder – a bullet wound from point-blank range.

Charlotte was counting under her breath as she pushed down, trying to remember anything from those long-ago CPR classes she took in high school. After four pumps, she pinched off the nasal airway and breathed into her mouth again. She renewed her efforts, again and again, talking almost the whole time.

“You can’t do this… I won’t let you, won’t let you go… it’s not time, it’s too soon… don’t leave me, please… we’re so close, Diana, so close… don’t quit on me now… I love you… I love you.”

——————————————————————————–

Dragging herself from the surf, Diana barely recognized the beach at first sight. Once she realized where she was, she buried her face in the sand and grabbed up fistfuls of wet silt, the tide lapping around her head as she started to cry.

Momentarily, two booted feet appeared by her side, and she followed them up the long, leathered and armored body to that eerily familiar face. The warrior woman from her dream had returned, and she did not look happy. Pushing her forehead back down to the beach, Diana decided to ignore her.

“So you just decided to give up, huh?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You quit, Diana. After you came so far, you took the easy way out.”

“I had no reason to go on. Leave me alone.”

“Fraid I can’t do that. After all the trouble we’ve gone through, it wouldn’t be right to let you off that easy.”

That got Diana’s attention, and she finally managed to lift her head and look at her bizarre mirror-image. “I don’t think I heard you right. All the trouble you’ve gone through?”

“You’re not as alone as you think. There are others who have a stake in your life now. We’ve kept an eye on you since this thing started… and I think I owe you an apology.”

Getting to her knees, Diana gave the warrior a puzzled look. “Apology for what?”

“It’s hard for me, even after all this time, to accept that… people can be manipulated like you were. I didn’t want to believe what Gabrielle told me about you, about what they did to you.”

“Oh, save it, Barbarella,” Diana said, waving her off. She did not want to hear any more about how she was not responsible. She knew for a fact that she was, and she wanted to hang on to that knowledge, that pain. It was hers to carry. “I did all that stuff ’cause I was good at it, and because it was all I had to offer in exchange. I traded my soul for that emotional Novocain Riggins offered me, and everything I did as a result is my own fault for being so damned weak.”

“That is not true,” Xena insisted, taking Diana by the shoulders and jerking her to her feet. She looked into her descendant’s eyes and spoke with passionate intensity. “You took back all that pain, took it and bore it with great strength and courage! Facing your dark side is not an easy thing to do, but you absorbed all the evil, confronted all your sins, and still came out of it believing in the power of love, of life.”

“It was arrogant and selfish of me, thinking that would be enough to save me,” Diana protested at first, then paused in thought as her tears rolled unabated. “As soon as it was gone – as soon as she was gone – it just slipped away. I couldn’t hold onto it without her, I didn’t even want to try. It hurt too much, and I just wasn’t strong enough to try.”

Staring out at the sea, she tried to look inside, to examine the truth of those words. It all seemed so clear, she wondered why she hadn’t seen it before.

“That was wrong of me, to let go of that love, that hope she had given me. Just because it hurt to lose her, just because I was angry at him for taking her away. I should have at least tried, shouldn’t I? Charlie wouldn’t have wanted this, she would have wanted me to try and hang on to what we found. She wouldn’t want me to quit, to forget. That was wrong of me…”

At this, the tall warrior smiled and closed her arms around her soul’s reflection, and soon she felt the embrace returned in kind. They stood silent as the waves broke around their feet, holding tight as the water grew colder and the sun dipped suddenly into the sea.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes for some people to learn that lesson? Sometimes eternity isn’t even long enough for it to sink in,” the warrior whispered in her charge’s ear. “It isn’t too late, you know. You can still go back.”

“I could?” Diana pulled back, surprised at first, then sullen. “But, why should I? I can’t go back to the agency, and the only other purpose I had in life is gone. What would I do without her?”

“You’ve done many things over the past ten years, Diana, and not all of them were bad. Some were actually noble deeds which changed the lives of those you helped. If you are given an opportunity to right a wrong, then it’s a crime not to do so. Following that path would be a good place to start over, to make amends.”

“You’re saying there might be a chance that I could redeem myself by becoming some kind of do-gooder?” she said, totally incredulous. “I – I wouldn’t know where to start, or what to do.”

“Just keep your eyes open. There are people in need everywhere, and if you look for them, you will be found.”

“I don’t know how I would find the strength to help anyone. I feel bad about what I’ve done, but guilt won’t motivate me for long. I’m not sure I’d know how to do those things by myself.”

“Who says you’ll be alone?” Xena stooped to the sand and picked up a large conch, shaking the water from the shell. She held it out to Diana, offering it with a smile. “I think you should listen to this.”

“I can hear the ocean just fine from here, thanks.”

“When the living think of the dead, the dead can hear their thoughts. Listen.”

Rolling her eyes, Diana took the shell and pressed it to her ear. She listened for no more than a few seconds before her mouth fell open and she nearly dropped the shell.

“Oh my God… you said I could go back, right? Show me how.”

——————————————————————————–

“One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand four…”

Pinch, breathe.

“Come one, Diana! Don’t do this to me!”

Charlotte pumped her hands frantically against the dead woman’s chest, willing her heart to beat again. She shared her breath, willing her lungs to draw air again. Seconds stretched into a minute, then two.

Maribel and Marco Falcon looked on as the young woman struggled with death herself, refusing to admit defeat even though she had clearly already lost. Even Marco found himself experiencing mixed emotions, and his good hand twisted the towels nervously as he watched the hopeless scene.

“Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me, damn you!”

Pinch, breathe.

“If I had known you were gonna ditch me so soon, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you in the first place, you bitch! You can’t do this to me! I need you, please, don’t do this to me. Come back!”

“Mija, don’t…”

“BREATHE, DAMMIT!! DON’T YOU LEAVE ME!!”

“Charlotte, she ain’t in there no more. Stop beatin’ on her and let her go.”

“SHUT UP, MARCO!! She wouldn’t do that to me… would you, Diana?” She stroked her face, her lips, her forehead, blanching at the chilled skin. “You love me, you said so. I know you meant it. Why won’t you wake up?”

“She’s dead, that’s why. It happens to us all sooner or later,” Marco said quietly.

Charlotte turned on him with fire in her eyes. “Yeah, well unless you want it to happen to you real fucking soon, you’ll shut up talking like that!”

Pinch, breathe.

“One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand four… wake up, Diana. Breathe for me, baby. Come on, just breathe for me. Please. PLEASE!!”

Pinch, breathe.

This time, her lips stayed still, pressed tight against Diana’s mouth in a desperate, heated kiss. Tears dripped from her nose, stained red by a forgotten wound. Begging with tortured whispers, she spoke into the tiny cavern of her lover’s mouth, her needs echoing back unmet, unheard… or so she thought.

“I love you… please don’t leave me alone. I don’t want to be here without you anymore. Please, just come back to me.”

Hands sweeping aside clinging hair from her cheek, Charlotte tried one more time. She pinched the airway closed and drew a long, deep breath and gave it away, gave it all away. She tried to transfer every hope for happiness she ever dared entertain, every sweet, fragile dream of the life they could have made possible together. It was a gift and an offer, a promise and a prayer. All this she sent to Diana in a single gust of wind littered with the crushed remnants of her heart.

If she received it, Charlotte knew she would send the gift back, amplified ten-million fold.

If her offer was shunned, it was just as well that she had given away those hopes and dreams, for they couldn’t possibly come true without Diana, anyway.

Nothing happened.

Seconds ticked by and Charlotte held herself rigidly still, staring at that pale, cool mouth. She couldn’t believe it hadn’t worked. She was so sure that it would, she hadn’t really confronted any other possibilities. It simply wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It didn’t.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Diana’s bottom lip trembled. That tremble became a twitch, and that twitch became a curl.

Charlie could only watch and wait and hover, hoping she wasn’t hallucinating, hoping this was real.

When at long last, she finally expelled that laden breath in a cough, sending a surge of water burbling out of her body like a geyser, her entire body convulsed and she threw Charlotte off of her – for all of two seconds. She grabbed Diana’s face and held
it to the side as liquid spilled from her lips, dark, vile pools of it rejected by her body and soul, clearing out as she at last drew breath on her own.

“AAAAHAHAHAHA!!! THANK YOU!!” Charlotte screamed out, laughing and crying hysterically, heedless of anything except the overwhelming joy she felt at that moment. “THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! HAHAHA!! WHOOO!!”

She gathered Diana’s shaking, shocked, living body into her arms and held her against her chest, feeling those small intakes and exhales tickling her wet skin. Nothing in her life had ever felt so good.

Since it wasn’t everyday she witnessed a miracle, Maribel was beaming from ear to ear as she snatched the towels from her son and moved to Charlotte’s side. Just for an instant, she thought she had caught Marco smiling as well before his impassive scowl reappeared.

As the numbness of death receded and her body became aware of itself, she felt arms wrapped tight around her, warm skin against her cheek, and throbbing, wicked pain in her chest. Diana’s eyes were shut tight as she coughed up the last of the fluid, and she was almost afraid to open them, unsure of what she would find. A kiss fell on her forehead, and whispered words in her ear evicted all doubts and fears almost as quickly as they had arrived.

“I love you.”

Blue eyes eased open, eager to behold the speaker’s lovely face… then blinked several times, trying to focus in the dim light. Diana coughed once more, then gasped softly.

“Jesus Christ,” she croaked in surprise, her voice thin and harsh.

Charlotte brushed one hand along her cheek. “What? What is it?”

“You… you look like Carrie after the prom.”

A wide, white smile broke through the red-stained face as Charlotte Browning laughed. “You don’t look so hot yourself, slick.”

“That mean you’re not glad to see me?”

Leaning in to answer, she pressed her lips against Diana’s, finding them warmer and weakly responsive. Maribel folded two towels and placed them on the cement, letting Charlotte lower the woman’s dark head onto the makeshift pillow.

“Your shoulder is bleeding pretty badly. We have to get you to a doctor. Marco -”

“Wait,” Diana rasped, lifting her heavy left hand to garner attention. “I can call my people, just get… the keys to the Porsche. I’ll take care of it.”

“Got ’em right here.” Charlotte reached down her dress and pulled them from her bra.

Diana grinned at the sight. “Wow. That had to be… uncomfortable.”

“Mmm hmm, but these frocks don’t come with pockets. Next time, I’m wearing pants. Now what do you need from the car?”

“Help me up. I’ll do it.” Diana tried to raise up, but a hand against her chest halted her progress.

“Not a chance. You stay put and let me fetch it,” Charlotte said firmly.

Sighing heavily, Diana directed her to the phone unit and watched her scramble off to the car. Maribel knelt at her side and gently wiped away the trash from her shoulder wound, pressing the towel against it to stanch the bleeding. She offered the older woman a wan smile of thanks, then her eyes lit on Marco Falcon as he stood quietly to the side, supporting his injured arm.

“How’s that wrist doing?” she asked innocently, pausing to clear her aching throat.

He glared at her as the pain flared up again. “Great. Just fuckin’ perfect, thanks very fuckin’ much.”

“Glad to hear it. I take your continued presence as a sign you want to cooperate?”

Snorting, Marco kicked a pebble with the toe of his shoe, sending it skittering into the dark pool where Riggins’ body still floated. “I’m thinking about it. He sure as hell ain’t makin’ any offers.”

“Tell me where they are, and I’ll do what I can for you,” she promised, wincing as Maribel pressed on the wound. “The new guy plays fair, as long as you don’t jerk him around.”

Charlotte arrived with the phone unit and helped Diana into a somewhat upright position, nestling in behind her so that the tall woman could lean back against her. She watched as Diana’s fingers punched in several long sequences of numbers, changing the colors on the keypads as the codes were accepted and the call was put through to the screening service.

“How do you remember all that stuff, all those numbers?” the attorney asked as she loosely draped one arm around Diana’s waist, the other holding the towel firmly against her shoulder.

“I wish I knew,” the tall woman answered presently as faint strains of elevator-style music seeped from the phone. She glance up at Charlie with a worried expression. “You don’t like Yanni, do you?”

“Nope.” Charlotte kissed the top of her head.

“Good. We’ll get along just fine.”

Clicking on the line signaled that the call was being accepted and forwarded, and then Harry Mars came on the line. He sounded none too thrilled.

“Mars.”

“The angry red planet,” Diana said, stifling a cough.

“Di- Diana? Is that you?”

“Yes, indeed. You sound, well… shocked to say the least.”

“I’m just… wow. Good to hear your voice. You okay?”

“So-so. Ran into some trouble. I need a med team, and a clean-up detail here on Parsonage.”

“No problem, I sent a crew out to the ranch house a few hours ago – just in case.”

“Riggins said his people were out there. Something about a chopper…”

“You spoke with – nevermind. I know about the chopper. Don’t worry about his guys, though. I sent Julia out with a full crew. The place should be cleaned out and set up by now.”

“You sent her? You were expecting something very bad, weren’t you?”

“Diana, that stuff you asked me to look into… I found out some things. About your connection to Riggins. Mangano, too. He talked. You won’t like what he had to say.”

“Probably not, but right now I am bleeding all over Marco Falcon’s patio. There are two others wounded, and we’re all gonna need stitches and dope. I’ll worry about that other shit later.”

“Did you get anything on Bartok and Jamal?”

“Actually, there’s someone here who could tell you much more than I. Hold on, Harry.”

Diana covered the receiver and crooked a finger at Marco, summoning him closer.

“This is the guy you’ll be dealing with. Talk to him.”

She held out the phone and Marco reluctantly took it, turning away from six prying eyes as he spoke with the man on the other end. Maribel crossed herself and said a quick prayer.

“I need to get up,” Diana told Charlotte. “We have to drive down the road aways, get help.”

“Okay. Easy now,” the blonde said, gently grasping the larger woman’s waist as she struggled to her feet. Maribel lifted Diana’s healthy arm and draped it over her shoulder, supporting most of her weight as she took a few shuffling steps forward.

“I gotta know that I’m covered before I give them up!” Marco exclaimed suddenly. “If you can’t promise me I’ll be looked after, you can go fuck yourself, man.”

Everyone watched him as he went silent for long moments, listening carefully to Harry Mars. His head cocked to the side, then nodded. “Alright, alright. She’s got the authority to deal?… Okay, then. I’ll talk to her – after my goddamned arm gets fixed up… yeah whatever, man.”

Marco turned around and held the phone out to Diana. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Yeah, Harry?”

“What a moron, this guy. I can’t give him what he wants. We’ll have to work it another way. Just get your little band of misfits up to the house as soon as you can. The cleaners are on the way.”

“We’re on the move. Oh, and I left you a present in the pool.”

Diana hung up before he could ask.
Twenty-Six
“Where are the headlights again?” Maribel asked, scanning the controls in the tiny cockpit.

Diana gave instructions from the backseat where she was laid up close against Charlotte, making the most of the cramped space. “See that little switch, no the other one. Right beside it – there. That’s it.”

“Okay, here we go.” The older woman hit the gas suddenly and the car lurched, throwing up a spray of gravel and dust and sending Marco’s face into the dashboard.

“AAAHHH!! Dammit! Busted my fuckin’ lip!”

“Put on your seatbelt, mijo. I haven’t done this in a while.” Maribel punched the gas again, causing her son to reel back suddenly and collide with the headrest. She tore down the drive in a cloud of dust, stopping only to buzz open the gate, and then they were off.

“How far did you say it was, Diana?”

“Just head down 805 for about thirty minutes. I’ll tell you where to turn,” she answered wearily, relaxing back into Charlie’s arms, still quietly amazed to be there again. She laced the fingers of her right hand with the younger woman’s own, stroking a thumb against her palm with lazy affection.

“How do you feel?” the blonde whispered in her ear, shifting slightly as she pressed a formerly white towel against the graze on her own scalp.

“Great, now. Almost perfect. How ’bout you, counselor?”

“Eh, it’s kinda like a really bad hangover. My head hurts and I’m a little dizzy. Throwing up helped a lot,” she added with a smile. “Teach me to go sticking my head into war zones.”

“I’m so sorry,” Diana murmured roughly, suddenly near tears. “I thought you were… gone, that he’d killed you. That’s why I
just -”

“Shhh. We both made some stupid mistakes tonight, but I’m okay, and you’re okay. We have all the time in the world to kick ourselves. Later.”

A gentle squeeze shared between joined hands told them both that proposal was acceptable. Charlotte allowed her eyes to flutter shut for a few seconds, lulled by the speeding traffic and Diana’s even breathing and steady heartbeat against her chest.

“That road there,” Diana said suddenly. “Take it easy, it’s sorta rough going.”

“Right,” Maribel said as she eased the Porsche onto a bumpy, dark road.

“Where are we?” Charlie asked, yawning and wincing as she pried the towel away from her sticky hair. Her face was tight from the dried blood, and her neck ached something awful.

“The ranch house. Go around back, Mrs. Falcon. The med staff should be waiting for us.”

Blinking at the dash clock, Charlotte saw that half an hour had elapsed in an instant. “I fell asleep?”

Diana squeezed her hand and struggled into an upright position. “Yeah. How’s the scalp?”

“I think the bleeding has stopped, actually. What about you?”

“I’m fine,” she answered instantly, watching as Maribel drove on. “Turn up the drive and pull between those trees. The back door is to the left side.”

No sooner had they cleared the trees than four men in white uniforms bustled out the back door, two of them carrying a stretcher. They waited by the steps until the Porsche’s engine shut down, then moved to the car to assist the passengers. Marco Falcon was escorted inside first, his mother at his heels. Charlotte helped Diana out of the car, and forced the tall woman to get on the stretcher, even though she insisted she could walk in under her own steam.

The med staff waited patiently for Diana to finish her argument before moving her at all, and when they did move her, it was like they were handling a six-foot container of nitro glycerin. Charlotte noticed that all of them were careful not to look her in the eye as they examined her wounded shoulder and hip. They didn’t want her to notice them.

Once they moved inside the house, Diana was wheeled into a white room and hustled through blue paper curtains into some sort of makeshift operating room. Charlotte took a seat on a red vinyl chair just outside the flimsy drapes and patiently endured the necessary separation. One of the men in white cleaned her scalp and told her that she would need several stitches, but it looked like superficial damage.

“Heh. Wouldn’t that make a great news story : Tonight, Elceda attorney Charlotte Browning was shot in the head, suffering only superficial damage. Ms. Browning is, of course, blonde,” she joked as the young, anonymous med tech gave her a local anesthetic and started stitching her up. If he smiled at all, she completely missed it as she stared at the blue curtains and listened. She lost track of time as the doctor’s inane medical chatter blurred her into a sleepy state, but she snapped to attention when their discussion turned to Diana’s injuries.

“Chalk up two more for Wonder Woman.”

“How many does this make now?”

“I lost count. At least these went clean through.”

“Mmm hmm. Lucky her.”

“Did the girl do it?”

“Ha ha. Not this time. Don’t know who, yet.”

“These’ll heal up nicely, but she should be down for at least a few days.”

“Right. More like a few hours, knowing this one.”

“That left hand gonna be okay?”

“Fine. Just numb for a little while. That foam’s nasty stuff.”

“You gonna fix the scars?”

“Not yet. I’ll wait for an order before I do anything else. She’s lost a lot of blood, needs rest now.”

“Which room?”

“End of the hall. Left side. Take the girl with you.”

“What about the guy?”

“He stays here for now. I’ll do him next. Go on and get her out of here.”

The curtains burst open just as the last stitch was closed on her foot. She hadn’t even noticed when he finished with her head, and Charlotte wondered if these people drilled to get their timing so precise. The med tech wrapped bandages around her feet, then gave her two pills and a glass of water, saying they would ease her stomach and help the pain. She eyed him for a few seconds, then sucked them down.

One of the white-suited men eased Diana’s gurney out and motioned for Charlotte to follow him. He walked backward, pulling his unconscious cargo down the wide, wood-paneled hall, and stopped to unlock a thick metal door painted a warm shade of brown. Easing inside, he whispered instructions to Charlotte as he lifted Diana from the stretcher and deposited her on an enormous, elaborately made-up bed, which had already been turned down as if someone were anticipating her arrival.

Cleaned up and dressed now in a shapeless white cotton gown, Diana looked so small and frail that it nearly made Charlie cry on the spot. She held it back and gazed at her sleeping face as the man continued talking.

“She’ll be out for a while, but there’s nothing to worry about. Bathroom’s over there. Shower has good water pressure. Some clothes in the armoire will probably fit you. There’s food and drink in the mini-bar, and if you need anything else, just hit the call button by the bed. Rest for a while, nobody will bother you in here. This place is safer than anywhere you’ve ever been.”

Charlotte stood by mutely, nodding as his footsteps receded behind her and the door closed, leaving her alone with Diana – something she wasn’t quite ready for then. Somehow, she didn’t feel strong enough to start dealing with all those jumbled, crazy feelings just yet.

Looking around the room, she was surprised at how… coordinated it was. By the light of a dim lamp on the far side of the bed, she saw that the furnishings all complimented the carpets, which matched the drapes, which went with the wallpaper. Even the tiny refrigerator, nestled between a walnut bookcase and a walnut bureau, was covered in a veneer of walnut.

“Yeesh. Stepford spies,” Charlotte mused aloud, startled at how muted her voice sounded. Thick draperies blotted out the light from outside bulbs, and the colorless carpet was thick underfoot. She walked over to the nearest wall and, on impulse, poked it.
It was soft, and she figured it was some kind of noise-absorbent material. The room was probably damned near soundproof, if a little boring.

Now the bed was a different story. A California king made up with pricey linens, cornflower blue and creme. Piles of pillows and a great striped duvet that she contemplated stealing, for about two seconds. Whoever made up this room meant for the occupant to be comfortable.

*Even turned down the bed for her… don’t worry about that now. Take a shower. Rest up for whatever fresh hell comes down the pike next.*

——————————————————————————–

The med tech was right about the water pressure, and the quick, careful shower did Charlotte Browning a world of good, serving to scald away the remaining dried blood and the clinging detritus from the pool. She emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a thick towel, her skin glowing pink as she gently toweled her hair. The sound of the door closing made her nearly jump through the ceiling, and she whipped her head up just in time to see… nothing.

*Somebody was in here.*

She moved to the bed at a slow trot, feeling the cuts in her feet for the first time, and she was relieved to find that Diana was unharmed and still sleeping soundly. There was even a hint of a smile on her face, making all the tiny wounds on her cheeks seem invisible to Charlotte’s biased eyes. She leaned down to place a kiss on the snoozing woman’s forehead – only to find that someone had beaten her to it. A faint, smudgy trace of pale red in the shape of lips stared back at her from that smooth patch of skin, and she blinked rapidly to make sure she wasn’t seeing things.

*Nope. That’s what I think it is.*

The attorney looked around the room again, checking the thick carpet to see if it held any footprints. Nothing showed but those made by her own bare feet, the wheel ruts from the gurney, and the larger shoe prints of the med tech who had shown her in.

*And I don’t think this is his shade. I don’t like this… not one little bit.*

Diana’s face was calm and relaxed, perfectly innocent in sleep, perfectly unaware of her situation. All Charlie could do was shake her head and let it go for the moment. Right then, she just wanted some clean clothes. She found a pair of thick socks, some loose, faded jeans and a white sweater among the clothes stowed in the armoire and bureau – even unearthed a racy little pair of red panties still packaged in plastic.

Once dressed, she snagged a bottle of orange juice from the fridge and settled into a plush, oversized chair by the bed and waited for Diana to wake up. A slight pang of guilt tugged at her as she rejected the idea of slipping into bed beside her lover, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea. She was content to watch her for the moment, to see her and hear her and know that she was alright.

*There is no way I could sleep in this place, anyhow. Goddamned kissing bandits running around.*

——————————————————————————–

Time passed slowly as Diana lay still and quiet, breathing evenly in sleep. Her battered face, bearing several neatly stitched cuts, relaxed into an expression of utter repose as Charlotte stroked her right forearm with gentle fingertips. It was one of the few areas of exposed flesh on the sleeping woman which did not sport some sort of cut or bruise, and the young attorney was grateful that she had found it. She could not have sat there, patiently waiting for the dark-haired woman to wake, had she not been allowed to touch her, to feel the warmth of life sliding beneath her skin.

“I nearly lost you,” she whispered, slowing her strokes and staring at closed eyes ringed with faint, dark circles. “We nearly lost each other, I should say. I can promise you this, Diana – I will never let it get that close again. Never again. You’ll be lucky if I even let you out of my sight for ten minutes straight. I’ll think of something.”

Charlotte stretched in her chair and checked the clock, wondering if Diana should be awake by now. As she looked away, blue eyes fluttered open, slowly coming aware as Charlotte voiced her final idea on the subject of separation prevention.

“Maybe I’ll buy a pair of handcuffs. That might work.”

“Save your money – I have three sets,” Diana said softly.

The blonde’s head whooshed around so fast it almost merited some sort of sound effect, and she broke into an easy grin as she beheld a most wonderful sight – the smile of someone who loved her.

“Hey, you. ‘Bout time you woke up.”

Diana took in her surroundings in a quick glance. The drapes were drawn, muting the steel gray light from outside. A dim lamp burned on the bedside table, casting yellowish light on the familiar layout. Generic carpet, typical wood furnishings. Only the four-poster bed with its bone and blue striped coverlet stood out, and she knew who was responsible for that.

“How long was I out?”

“Three hours. It’s almost dawn.”

“Damn. I shouldn’t have drifted off like that, left you alone.”

Straightening her mouth to a firm line, Charlotte corrected her with careful words. “You didn’t leave me alone, I’ve been right with you since we got here. And you didn’t just drift off, Diana – you were shot twice, and you nearly drowned after falling three stories into a pool. Don’t make it sound like you were taking a nap or something. Your body needs rest.”

A little grimace of resignation as the agent nodded, acknowledging the truth of those words. “Still, I’m sorry. I don’t want to let you out of my sight, either.” With narrowed eyes, she added, “Handcuffs, eh? I won’t forget you said that.”

“I won’t let you… forget, that is.” Charlotte slipped her hand into Diana’s, a promise in her gaze.

“So, what have you been up to for the past three hours?”

“Not a whole hell of a lot.” She smiled as she said it. “Mostly watching you sleep, being grateful, crying a little. Stupid stuff like that.”

Diana tightened her grip. “I love you, you know.”

“Boy, do I ever. I love you, too.”

Leaning over the bed, Charlotte moved in for a small, soft kiss, just for confirmation. It lasted a bit longer than she had planned, and soon she had moved from her chair to sit by Diana on the side of the bed, hands dodging her multiple injuries as they made out quietly, easily, and verrry carefully.

Light knocking on the door drew their attention away, and the tall woman groaned at the prospect of company so soon after waking up, and at such a horribly inconvenient time.

“Come in,” she said reluctantly, easing herself into a sitting position as Charlie tucked supporting pillows behind her back.

The door opened slowly and a crown of platinum hair eased into view, followed by a peeking pair of shale-colored eyes.

“Are you up for a quick visit?” a lilting voice inquired.

Diana seemed to brighten instantly, and she responded in a gruff, teasing voice. “Hell, no! Get out of here, Julia.”

The visitor stepped into the room and closed the door behind her, presenting a picture of strangely cool beauty. Black jacket and trousers cut in a loose pajama style fluttered around long limbs, the suit contrasting sharply with her startling coloring – even her skin looked blonde.

Charlotte found herself staring openly as the woman swam across the room and lit softly on the unused side of the bed without disturbing even a molecule of air. She had never seen anyone move like that, as if she were not really there and her presence was merely an illusion. It both fascinated her and gave her a slight case of the hinkies, but Diana seemed completely unaffected by the woman’s ethereal aura. Maybe she was used to it.

“How are you feeling, Diana?” the woman asked, smoothing the bedcovers absently with one hand while the other drifted hesitantly over her slim leg, as if it were waiting for something to do.

“Been better, been worse. How do I look?” she responded, flashing a toothy grin which made her guest chuckle musically.

“You’ve looked better, I must admit. Yet I doubt that anything could truly ruin this face.”

That waiting hand lifted to Diana’s face and traced each cut, tripping lightly over stitches and stroking bruises with impossibly soft touches, cradling her jaw in a smooth palm as if she had done so many times before. She suddenly removed her hand and licked her thumb, brushing away the forgotten trace of lipstick from Diana’s forehead.

“Sorry. Didn’t know I left a mark earlier.”

Charlotte then noticed the woman’s pale red lips and put two and two together at last. She did not know what to make of these gestures, and was uncomfortable with the liberty this woman seemed to take with her lover’s body. She watched for a moment and saw how relaxed Diana was, so she decided not to make an issue of it… yet.

Turning to face Charlie with a warm grin that spoke volumes, the dark-haired beauty took her hand and knit their fingers together. “I want you to meet someone. Julia, this is Charlotte Browning – undoubtedly the most wonderful creature on the planet.”

Charlotte blushed deep red, and she innately knew why. It was the revelation that someone like this exquisite woman could sit close to Diana, express obvious affection and touch her in a very intimate way, and yet not touch her at all, not in any way that counted. That particular smile – with all its infinite connotations – was for her, and only her. She lost track of things for a moment as her heart swelled a bit larger with a gush of sweet pride and warm security.

Julia’s attention drifted to the attorney like wind through high pine boughs, and she immediately smiled and extended her hand, leaning carefully across Diana’s body and giving Charlotte’s hand a quick squeeze with deceptively strong fingers. “I am pleased to meet you, Ms. Browning. It’s not every day one encounters the most wonderful creature on the planet.”

“Don’t I know it,” the young woman replied, glancing back at Diana.

“Charlie, this is Julia. She does odd jobs,” the tall woman explained diplomatically, drawing another tiny laugh from the teutonic bombshell and a puzzled frown from Charlotte.

“You, my dear, are capable of extraordinary understatement,” Julia replied, shaking her head and brushing strands of pale hair behind elfin ears. Her gray eyes twinkled suddenly, and she tried to sound serious. “I’ve been informed of the director’s tragic demise.”

“How awful,” Diana said, matching her faux-mournful tone. “Where shall I send the flowers?”

“I don’t think FTD delivers down there, darling.”

“True enough. Were there any survivors at all in the house? There was one guy -”

“In a tangerine suit. He was alive when the cleaners arrived, but he didn’t make it back here.”

Heaving a deep sigh, Diana reconstructed the man and added his face to her collection, another link in her own Jacob Marley-style chain of guilt. “So, I’m guessing everything’s okay – Harry’s in now.”

“Yes, he is. The council called a special meeting not one hour ago, wherein the position of director was officially assigned to our own Mr. Mars.”

“Who cut the deal with Marco Falcon?” she asked out of sheer curiosity.

“There was no deal. I talked to him myself, and he told me what I wanted to know,” Julia explained matter-of-factly. “General Bartok and President Jamal were taken into custody about forty-five minutes before that meeting I mentioned. They were quite surprised, and most unhappy.”

“Oh. How long did it take for Falcon to give them up?”

“Fifteen minutes, ten of that for prep time. He was quite predictable. The old silly putty in a jar trick.”

Diana broke out laughing in a fit of black humor and Julia soon joined her, lying across the bed and giggling like a couple of evil little children. The tall woman pressed a hand to her shoulder as the shuddering started to hurt.

Charlotte went pale as the implications of this casual, frivolous discussion became clear. She wasn’t sure she even wanted to know what the ‘old silly putty in a jar trick’ was, but she was still concerned about Marco. “Is he dead? You didn’t just kill him, did you?”

Diana straightened up immediately and started to say something, but Julia shushed her and answered for herself. “No, Mr. Falcon is not dead. I merely used a favorite interrogation technique of mine, and he walked out of here physically unharmed. He will live a long, miserable life in a federal prison – a fate he has avoided for too long.”

Feeling just a little responsible for helping him dodge that fate, Charlotte asked her next question more quietly. “What about his mother?”

Smiling anew, Julia said, “Senora Falcon is still here. We offered to fly her back to her house in Mazatlan, but she refused to leave until she sees you. She’s waiting in the room across the hall.”

Clearly relieved, all Charlotte could say was, “Thank you.”

The pale woman quirked her face. “For what?”

“For not hurting them, for letting her go. Maribel is a good, decent person.”

“I know that, Ms. Browning,” Julia responded evenly. “I’m afraid that your experience this evening may have given you the wrong impression about us, about what we do. Joshua Riggins was an abberation, an abomination. A blight. He would not have let her go, but we are more interested in reaching an accord with her than killing her.”

“I didn’t mean to offend -”

“Pshaw. No offense taken, I merely wanted to set the record straight.” The cool blonde uncurled her long limbs and scooted off the bed, standing and stretching out her arms. “How is your back, by the way?”

Diana waited several seconds, as if assessing it at that moment. “Fine, I think. Julia, could you answer me a question about that?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Did that – the back trouble – start because of carrying Ethan?”

There was a long row of silent moments as Julia processed what she just heard. She looked into Diana’s steady azure eyes for a long time, and evidently she found what she needed to see.

“Yes. Eighteen blocks, and no one stopped you or tried to help you. God, I hate New York.”

The tall woman drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Thank you. I don’t really remember feeling anything then. Guess it came later.”

“About a month, actually. It took a while to get you back on your feet.” After a long pause, she put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes questioningly. “Tell me please, how you regained this knowledge. On your own, I mean… if you would.”

Diana just shook her head, debating how much of the story she was willing to share. “Wish I could explain it all, but I’ll tell you what I remember. Riggins was cutting a deal, and it went bad. He said his little magic words to trigger Mangano’s planted suggestions – which I assume Harry told you about, otherwise you wouldn’t have come out here yourself.”

Julia nodded somberly, confirming Diana’s suspicion.

“My guess is that if I’d shown up here with Riggins, you would have taken me down.”

“I would have tried, I’m sorry to admit.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jules. It would have been the right thing to do.”

“I realize that, and I won’t worry anymore. That’s over now. Please, go on.”

“I went through the house, removing all obstacles to get to him, to help him. When I finally did, he told me to kill Falcon. He was unarmed, and Charlotte asked me not to hurt him, so I didn’t. I just stopped dead in my tracks and came back to my senses.”

Charlotte stared at Diana as she grossly simplified that whole episode. Although many things were being discussed about which she had no knowledge, she was there for that particular moment, and she could sense the monumental struggle Diana went through inside herself to regain control. The attorney understood that perhaps her lover was unwilling to tell this woman how close she came to the edge tonight, that maybe the internal struggle was too private to share, too raw to explain.

“Ms. Browning’s presence was key to your recovery, then,” Julia prompted, wanting to hear more.

“She asked me to stop, and I stopped. She asked me to come back… and I came back,” Diana explained, casting a knowing glance at Charlotte. “That’s pretty much all I remember about the practical aspects. When I came to, I just knew all these things about my past. The memories were there again, and Riggins had no control over me after that. We fought, he drowned. End of story.”

The icy blonde stared at her dark counterpart, reading the unspoken warning in her eyes. “Incredible. So it turns out that the missing component for the failed surfacers was… what? Love?”

“That about sums it up. Worked for me, anyway.”

With a slightly sad smile, Julia looked at each of the two women, and knew that Diana had told her what she felt to be true. “Pity there isn’t more of it to go around. Then again, if there were, I might be out of a job.”

“Hey, you could always go back to Sweden. Can fish, or whatever they do there.”

“Screw you, Di.”

Laughing softly, Diana smiled at her strange friend and spoke sincerely. “Thanks. For everything. I’m gonna miss you, I think… a little.”

“Same here.” As she turned to leave, the platinum-haired woman spun lightly in her tracks. “Oh! I almost forgot. In the spirit of reciprocity, the new director has arranged a gift for you as well. It arrived while you were sleeping, and I left it in the basement. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll take you down.”

Diana immediately threw back the covers and slung her legs over the side of the bed. “Can we go now? I want to get out of here and get on with the rest of this ordeal as soon as possible.”

“The rest of this – ahh. That’s part of your present. There is no ‘rest of this ordeal.’ You can leave as soon as you’re able.”

The dark woman’s jaw tensed and her voice dropped dangerously low. “Don’t jerk me around, Jules.”

“I wouldn’t dare.” Displaying her palms and smiling a secret smile, she backed over to the bureau. I brought some of your casual things – jeans, trainers and the like. Let’s get you dressed and get on with the entertainment portion of our program.”

——————————————————————————–

Leaving Charlotte in the company of a very relieved Maribel Falcon, the two most dangerous women in southern California headed down to the basement at a slow, steady clip.

“You’re not gonna even give me a hint?”

“Harry said not to, that this gift is what you make of it. You may do whatever you want with it.”

“If it’s a slinky, I’m gonna be pissed.”

Julia tightened her arm around Diana’s waist, smirking as she helped her along. “It’s not a slinky, but you can toss it down the stairs a few times if the urge strikes you.”

“I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. You just want instant gratification, like always.”

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

Julia chuckled again as they reached the basement door and she produced her keys. “Ready?”

“YES! For God’s sake, yes. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

As the heavy door was unlocked, Diana heard muffled noises and scraping sounds drifting up from the pitch black. A light was flicked on, and they descended the stairs one step at a time, Julia’s arm keeping her balanced. At the bottom, the blonde turned the light off, casting the room into total darkness. Diana found herself alone, her back against a cold concrete wall.

“What are you doing? Julia?”

“Hold on. Where is that damned switch… aha! Surprise!”

A click and a hum later, the room was flooded with fluorescent light, blinding Diana for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Julia standing in the center of the floor, her hands on the back of a tall leather swivel chair.

“Naugahyde? Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

“I didn’t.”

She spun the chair around, revealing an older man in a lab coat, bound and gagged with bright red ribbon.

His name tag read, ‘Dr. Salvatore Mangano.’

——————————————————————————–

“I wonder what’s taking her so long,” Charlotte asked for the third time. She had nearly paced a rut in the carpet, and Maribel was starting to fidget just watching her.

“You should sit down, Charlie.”

“I can’t sit down! I’m too nervous… besides, my feet don’t hurt so bad when I’m moving.”

“That makes no sense. You’ll tear your stitches if you keep that up. Sit down and talk to me,” Maribel urged, patting the bed. “Tell me what’s got you so worried.”

Grunting, the attorney plopped down beside her friend and gave her the condensed version of the paranoid intrigues rolling through her head.

“Diana works for these people. They all either seem to like her a lot, or they’re scared to death of her. I understand that. I like her a lot myself, and what I saw tonight – seeing what she was capable of – scared me senseless.” She sighed raggedly and ran a hand along her scalp, touching the stitches.

“She told me that she’s quitting, and that there’s some sort of process that she has to go through to get out. Then that woman, Julia, comes in and tells her that she can leave whenever she wants! Like it could be that easy, like they’d just let her walk, free and clear. I don’t buy it at all.”

“Julia. She was the one who talked to Marco,” the older woman interjected.

“Yeah. Evidently, she’s some sort of master interrogator. Grace Kelly meets Torquemada. Got him to talk in fifteen minutes, she said.”

Maribel shook her head as she remembered her son’s ashen complexion as he staggered into the hall, followed by a chilly blonde woman with an impassive face and the strangest, most protean aura she had ever seen. “She frightened him badly. He could barely talk to me before they took him away.”

“Well, that woman took Diana to the basement to see some present from her boss. That was, what? Half an hour ago? This is not good. This is why I’m wearing a hole in the rug. I don’t trust these people, especially her.”

Picking up on her friend’s unspoken anxiety, Mrs. Falcon pressed her friend to continue. “You don’t think she would hurt Diana, do you?”

“I don’t know. Diana sure didn’t seem to think so, and Julia acted like they were old friends or something. Laughing with her, touching her. She even snuck in and kissed her when she was sleeping.”

“That doesn’t sound like someone who would wish her harm.”

“HA! Didn’t you see ‘The Godfather?’ Do the words “I know it was you, Fredo” mean anything to you? A kiss is often a prelude to a betrayal.”

“Well, I can’t fault you for not trusting these people,” Mrs. Falcon conceded. “The real question is, do you trust Diana?”

That one stopped Charlotte cold, and she stared into the mirrors of Maribel’s dark eyes, looking inside herself for a true answer.

“Before we came to this house, I would have said yes, absolutely,” she answered soberly. “It just seems like… like every time I think I have a read on who she really is, she shows me another side, another facet. Another person I hadn’t met before comes up and introduces herself – but they’re all Diana. I know this sounds weird.”

“I think I’m starting to understand, mija. Keep going.”

“The way I see it, the woman who saved my life Friday morning is the same woman who was just over there laughing with this Julia person about stuff that would probably give me nightmares for the rest of my life! She’s the same woman who rampaged through your house and killed those men, then stopped herself from killing Marco.”

Mrs. Falcon nodded her acknowledgement, remembering how close she came to losing her son.

“She went after Riggins because she wanted to arrest him, not kill him. She’s the same woman who jumped out of a third story window when she thought I was dead.” Charlotte went quiet as she thought about that one. “All those women are inside her, and the only thing they seem to have in common… is me. No matter what she’s doing or saying, I look at her and know that she loves me.”

“Diana is very complicated,” the older woman added unnecessarily.

“She scares me, Maribel,” Charlie whispered. “I love her more than anything in the world, but what she must have done, what she could still be capable of doing… it scares me deep in my heart.”

“Didn’t you say that man was making her do some of those things?”

“Some, but not all. He made her hunt down those guards, and he tried to make her kill Marco, but he sure as hell didn’t make her grab him and jump out that window.”

“No, he didn’t,” Maribel agreed. “You did that.”

Charlotte sat up ramrod straight and glared fiercely. “You had better explain that one. Right now.”

“Out of worry for Diana, you stuck your nose where it didn’t belong. Riggins shot at you, and she thought you were dead. Diana wanted to kill the one who hurt you, and she wanted to die as well,” Mrs. Falcon recounted succinctly. “Most of what she did tonight was done because of you, Charlie. Because of her great love for you.”

“But… I think that’s what scares me,” the young woman choked out, unfamiliar emotions welling up from her eyes. “Now that I have time to stop and think about it, that’s an awfully dangerous kind of love. The kind that makes you lose yourself if the other person isn’t there to anchor you.”

“Then you have your answer. Even though the intensity of it may frighten you, you trust her love for you above all else, and you realize now that she does need you.” Maribel took Charlie’s hand and held her gaze, making sure she would be heard and understood.

“You keep her anchored, safe from drifting. I know that it’s a big responsibility, but if you love her long enough, and well enough, she will learn to guide herself. Unlike Marco, Diana is at least trying to do the right thing on her own, but she needs help. Be her anchor until she can guide herself, then your love will serve as a compass, keeping her course steady as she learns her way.”

Letting it all sink in, Charlie sat silent as tears finally broke loose and trickled down her face. Although it seemed overwhelming moments before, the weight of her dilemma felt remarkably more manageable after Maribel showed her how to carry it, how to look at her fears and her hopes and use them to balance each other out.

“Do you think you can do that, mija?”

Leaping forward and crushing the older woman in a hug, Charlotte had no doubts about her response. “I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the rest of my life, actually. Thank you! Thank you for being my friend, for helping me – us – so much. I don’t know how to repay you.”

Squeezing back gingerly, Maribel freed herself from the embrace, and Charlie saw that her dark eyes were a little damp as well. “You owe me nothing. Because of you, my son is alive. As long as he lives, I won’t give up hoping that he’ll find his way out of the darkness, that he will someday know what you have found.”

“I hope so, too. But, I still feel like we owe -”

“Pssshhtt! If you want to make me happy, come visit with me after all this is settled,” Maribel proposed with a twinkle in her eye. “My house in Mazatlan big and lonely, and I would love some company. It faces the most beautiful white sand beach you’ve ever seen, stretches on forever.”

Charlotte would not refute Maribel’s opinion, but in her heart she knew that she had walked on a more pristine and lovely shore than any on earth, and she smiled at the memory of her time there. She recalled wishing that Diana had been with her, but she amended that wish and decided that Mazatlan would be as close as they got to that particular shore for many, many years.

“I gratefully accept your kind invitation,” the little blonde smiled. “But I warn you, we’ll be on your doorstep before you know it.”

“I’ll hold you to that, mija.”

As Charlotte sniffled and wiped her eyes, the loud clicking of locks suddenly being thrown startled her, and both women watched nervously as the door was flung wide and Diana Starrett stormed in alone, tossing the keys over her shoulder.

“Come on, both of you. We’re leaving.

——————————————————————————–

Several of the men in white almost stepped into the hall as Diana barreled past, but jerked back into doorways to stay out of her path. Her eyes were a little wild, and her labored breath indicated that she was in some distress, but her steps were quick and deliberate.

Charlotte was hard pressed to keep up, only Diana’s firm grip on her hand forced her to maintain the hectic pace. She had to risk a question

“Diana, what’s going – ”

“Later,” the tall woman called back brusquely. “Let’s just get out of here.”

The attorney looked back at Maribel Falcon and shrugged her shoulders, not understanding the sudden urgency but more than ready to put this place behind them.

Nearing the end of the paneled hallway, with the back door finally in sight, Julia stepped into their path and stood firm. She wasn’t going to move unless Diana felt up to moving her.

“Back off, Julia,” Diana warned as she came closer. Even though her shoulder ached terribly, she was fully prepared to throw a serious block on the smaller woman and she let Charlie’s hand go to make herself ready.

The pale woman held out her empty hands, palms up. “Please, let me explain -”

“MOVE, GODDAMMIT!! Or I swear, I will lay you out.”

Julia pursed her lips and waited, waited until Diana’s body began to tense like a coiling spring and her eyes lit with a familiar, irresistible energy.

She stepped out of the way.

All three women brushed past without looking at her, and that was probably a good thing. No one witnessed the terrifyingly cold smile slide across Julia’s face as she watched her favorite pupil defeat yet another teacher. She was so filled with pride that her cheeks actually took on a little color for a few seconds.

——————————————————————————–

“Diana, where are we going?” Charlotte asked when they were back on the road.

Once again, there was no reply, just a twitching muscle in her jaw as the driver ground her teeth.

The attorney sat by her in the front seat looking nervously at the mute, dark woman as she drove like the hounds of hell were on their tail. The speedometer fluctuated between ninety and one-hundred miles per hour until she had put a few more miles between them and the ranch house, then she slowed to a more sensible seventy and her facial muscles finally relaxed into a less menacing expression.

“I’m sorry.”

Diana’s words were spoken so softly that Charlotte barely heard them, but she had finally broken her silence and the attorney decided to take another shot.

“Please, tell me what happened… or at least tell me where we’re going,” she urged. “This is driving me crazy!”

A deep breath followed as Diana tried to steady her nerves and answer sensibly. “Airport. We’re taking Maribel to the airport.
I have her papers, some money and a ticket to Mazatlan.”

Maribel piped up from the back seat. “I thought they said they would take me. ”

“I didn’t want to trust them with you. I’ll get you there myself.”

The older woman did not argue; in fact, she was more than a little relieved at the change of plans. Another silent stretch settled in the car and Diana reached to turn on the radio, only to have Charlie catch her hand in mid-mission and hold it tight.

“Talk to me. What happened after you left me with Maribel?”

“Harry lied to me, that’s what happened. The son of a bitch says he can’t let me go.”

*I knew it,* Charlotte said to herself, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the window. Early morning sunlight streamed into the car, and she felt it warming her cheek as she tried to think of something to say that didn’t sound completely selfish, something that would not betray the fact that her heart was breaking.

“You have to go back.” It was a statement, not a question. Diana knew what she was thinking, and answered her anyway.

“He says no. I can go where I want, but he wants to keep me on… retainer, I guess. Maintain some tie to the agency – here’s the pisser – for my own protection.”

For a few ticks, all Charlotte heard was that Diana didn’t have to leave, and then her mind started processing the rest of the information. “Protection from what? What does that mean?”

“It’s bullshit nonsense, a way to justify keeping hold of me. I don’t think he ever intended to cut me loose completely, but he led me to believe it so that I’d help him get the agency,” Diana said bitterly. “That present in the basement? He sent me the doctor who helped Riggins mess with my head, like some kind of sacrificial offering to make me happy. I think he and Julia expected me to go mad-dog and kill him on sight.”

Charlie stared at the dash and listened as Diana gave a little derisive snort. She was afraid to ask, but forced herself to do so. “Wh-what did you do?”

“Well, first I unwrapped him. She had him tied up with a fucking red ribbon, if you can imagine that. Then I tried to ask him some questions, about how he did it. How I could get this trash out of my head so that it won’t cause me any trouble later on, once my normal life gets started. Do you know what he said, Charlie?”

“Uh-”

“Nothing! And do you know why?”

This time, Charlotte just waited.

“He didn’t answer my questions because Julia had the good doctor’s tongue in a specimen jar!”

Nobody said a word. Maribel shifted slightly in the backseat, recalling her son’s face and wondering what that woman had done to him. Charlotte was aghast, staring at Diana as a single tear spilled from the corner of one dark blue eye.

“They don’t want me to know if I’m safe from what he did to me,” she reasoned. “It’s the only thing that would keep me off-balance enough to need their help, and they want me to think I need them. That way, it has the appearance of being a reciprocal relationship, even though it’s just a way to keep a hook in me in case they ever want me to do something for them. But, until they call me up and tell me it’s time to work, I’m free as a bird!”

Diana laughed completely without humor, an awful, hollow sound that made Charlotte’s chest hurt. She reached out to touch her shoulder, and Diana flinched at the contact, but the young woman persisted until she felt the muscle relax under her hand.

“I’m sorry, Diana. I know that doesn’t help much, but we’ll find a way to make this work out.”

For a moment, the dark woman pried her gaze from the road and looked at Charlotte with confused eyes. “What do you mean by that? How can this possibly work out?”

“I mean that, unless you have… pressing engagements elsewhere, I want you to come home with me. Stay with me.”

“Oh, Charlie, I -” Diana faltered as she fumbled through kind ways to let her lover off the hook. “I couldn’t ask you to live like that. It’s not fair to either one of us.”

“No, what’s not fair is letting them take anything else from you. From us. I don’t intend to let them or anybody else separate us again, especially with some cheap trick like this.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking for. We’d be waiting every single day for that other shoe to drop. Waiting for the day that you come home and find Julia curled up on your sofa watching Oprah, or waiting for Harry’s voice to pop up on the phone. Living day after day with that kind of threat hanging over our heads… you deserve better than that.”

“Then it’s up to you to give me better than that!” Charlie cried, smacking her palm against the dash. “Dammit, Diana! I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and I absolutely refuse to let you run out on me because of something that might never happen!”

“What if they call me tomorrow?”

“What if they never call? What if this is just some sort of trick to make you lay low and stay out of their way? They’ve already taken so much from you, don’t just hand over the rest of your days to spare me some anxiety.”

Diana lifted one hand from the wheel to wipe her eyes, which were leaking steadily. “I… still, I just couldn’t put you through that. As much as I want to be with you, it’s too much to ask of you.”

“You’re not asking. I’m offering,” Charlotte clarified.

The driver was quiet as she made a right turn and headed for the airport terminal. Maribel Falcon, who had tried to make herself invisible during their conversation, was on the edge of her seat, hoping for a resolution before they parted company.

“The ticket and papers should be in the glove box. Get out that brown envelope, too, please,” Diana asked politely as she wheeled the Porsche into the white zone in front of Aero Mexico.

Charlie opened the dash pocket and handed back Maribel’s passport and plane ticket, along with a fat packet the size of a brick. Although there must have been an awful lot of cash in there, the attorney took little notice as she pinned Diana with a hard stare.

“I need an answer.”

Maribel made no move to leave, afraid to disrupt the moment. Finally, Diana turned to face Charlotte, and the attorney lifted one small hand to her love’s face and gently brushed away a tear with her thumb.

“Come home with me, stretch. I swear to you, you will never regret it.”

——————————————————————————–

Epilogue

On a spotless teakwood deck lined with swaying palm trees, Maribel Falcon sat under a purple beach umbrella, nursing a Corona with lime and reading the latest letter Marco sent from Leavenworth. She smiled as she read of his progress with his anger-control group, and laughed over some profane comments about his computer geek cellmate. All in all, her son seemed to be adjusting to prison better than expected, and she looked forward to visiting him again soon.

The sweet sound of laughter drifting up from the beach caught her attention, and she leaned over the rail to check on her guests. She watched them for a while, playing in the surf like puppies, splashing and screaming and tumbling over each other as the sun went down on a perfect May afternoon in Mazatlan.

“Children,” she said to no one, settling back in her chair and shutting her eyes for a nap before dinner. A sense of peace filled her at that moment, and Maribel sighed and thought of making them her special paella in honor of their first night in her home.

——————————————————————————–

White sand gleamed pink under the reddish glow of the setting sun, and the blue waters of the Pacific shone like a living jewel in the background as a tall woman with long, dark hair stood in the breaking waves, squaring off against her smaller, fair opponent in a fight to the death. Sort of.

“AAAAACCKK!! Stop doing that!”

“You splashed me first, counselor. Payback is a bitch, no?”

“It didn’t even hit you!”

“Close enough. Take that!”

“Do that again and I’m gonna tell on you.”

“Oooh, I’m sooo scared. Come here.”

“Why?”

“Maybe I want to apologize.”

“You can do it from over there, can’t you?”

“Nope. Please?”

“What’ll you give me if I do?”

“My flip-flops?”

“Nahh. Too big. Plus, mine are nicer than yours.”

“My suntan lotion?”

“Your SPF is too low to interest me. What else you got, Starrett?”

“A Baywatch towel and a bikini. That’s all I brought.”

“I detest Baywatch, and I was under the impression that the bikini was mine for the asking, anyway. Offer me something else.”

“Hmm. My everlasting love and devotion?”

“Oh, you’re good, aren’t you?”

“Come over here and find out.”

Taking hesitant steps, not trusting her opponent totally, the wily blonde kept her hands near the water, ready to respond to any sneak attack. She edged closer, and was taken aback as a sudden, breath-stealing smile swept across the wicked woman’s lovely visage.

“What are you grinning at, monkey-face?”

“You, I guess. You’re just so damned beautiful, it almost hurts to look at you sometimes.”

Charlotte Browning stopped moving and her mouth fell open at the unexpected compliment, and Diana Starrett saw the opening she was waiting for. Lunging forward, paying no attention to the weak screams of protest coming from the tiny blonde, she scooped her up in her arms and flung her into the breakers, laughing maniacally all the while. There’d be hell to pay later, but she was actually looking forward to it.

The first two months had passed in a sort of haze, both of them growing more familiar with habits and preferences, learning the small things as if they were both afraid to go much deeper so soon. Charlotte could now tell anyone that Diana did not drink ginseng tea, and that she used Nexus shampoo and conditioner. Diana could in turn reveal that Charlotte could not program a VCR, and that she never used brush auto washes because “they scratch the paint right off your car.”

The next two months were rather intense. Realizing that the call could come at any moment, they passed the time loving like each day would be their last. Charlotte called in late nearly every day, and Diana took many, many nights off from her job as an insurance investigator. She reasoned that she didn’t really need it anyway, it was just to kill time and make a little pocket money. Their conversations started to dig a little deeper, and Diana finally entrusted her lover with the care of her memories. Charlotte swore to keep them safe, and vowed not to judge her for her past. Their frail future was all that mattered.

By May, a certain level of comfort had set in. Emily and Luis invited them for barbecues every Sunday. Charlotte won her fourth criminal trial. Diana was named ‘Employee of the Month’ by Trans-Fidelity insurance for busting a ring of crooked chiropractors – although she let one of them slip by in exchange for free treatments for life. But nobody needed to know about that.

When Maribel’s invitation for a vacation arrived, they were both champing at the bit to get the hell out of Elceda for a while, and they were on a plane two days later. The humongous, lily-white house on the Mazatlan shore was a surprise. It bore none of the signs of neglect that stained the pink house on Parsonage, and they reasoned that this was Maribel’s home. That house was merely Marco’s place of business, and unworthy of such care as this house received. They were both pleased that their friend had found a measure of peace, and she seemed thrilled that they had finally consented to make the trip down for a few days in the sun.

“You are in such trouble, Diana!”

The tall beauty snapped out of her trance as a very ticked lawyer charged out of the ocean, looking like a drowned kitten. She knew that she was signing her death warrant by doing so, but Diana Starrett threw back her head and laughed until her lungs ached, only stopping to catch her breath as Charlie tackled her and they rolled together on the white sand beach with the clear waves tickling their bodies, and the sun reflecting on the rolling surface of an endless blue ocean.

Finis
Continued in Persistence of Memory

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