Winds of Change
Kerry passed Dar a copy of the paper as she pulled away from the arrivals terminal at Miami International Airport. “There you go, rock star.”
Dar unfolded the paper as she settled into the passenger seat. “I knew they were taking pictures but I figured... ah hell, yeah, there I am.” She exhaled. “I look like a dork.”
“Oh you do not.” Kerry objected. “Did they have you leaning over that table so you wouldn't tower over him?”
Dar studied the picture, then started laughing. “You know, maybe they did.” She admitted. “I still think I look like a dork. Stupid ass posed shot. I was drawing a cow on that pad.”
“Did you really?”
“Yeah.” Dar folded the paper and put it in the side pocket of the door. “He kept it.” She looked mildly embarassed. “He was all right.”
“Glad I have my sunglasses on so my eyeballs can't fall out.” Kerry commented. “Because I would never in a million years have guessed that would come out of your mouth.”
“No me either.” Her partner agreed mournfully. “I don't know. I don't know what I was expecting.” She propped her elbow against the window and rested her head against her hand. “Anyway, I'm glad I”m back.” She reached over the center console and curled her fingers around Kerry's arm.
Kerry released the hand on that arm off the wheel and moved it back so she could clasp her fingers around her partners. “I'm glad you're back too. Now maybe I can get a good night's sleep.”
Dar brought their joined hands up and kissed Kerry's knuckles, waiting for her to stop at a red light and turn her head so their eyes met as her partner's sunglasses slipped down a little.
“Or maybe not.” Kerry managed a wry grin.
Dar winked at her. “We should always travel together.” She suggested. “Sorry you had a crappy night last night.”
Kerry looked back at the road as the light changed and pushed her sunglasses back up on her nose. “Where you go, I go, baby. Sounds good to me.” She left her right hand clasped into Dar's left, and felt the squeeze as Dar's long fingers contracted gently.
“Did Mark goose up that web server?” Dar asked, after a minute or two of quiet. “We'll get some traction from that dumb ass picture anyway.”
Kerry chuckled. “Oh yes. He was already working on it before I left to get you. I can just imagine the teeth grinding going on over at the ILS boardroom though.”
“Eh.” Dar grunted. “They knew that contract wasn't on the table for them. Bridges told me he was told in no uncertain terms that he was prohibited from giving it to any company with a multi national presence.”
“I know that, but can you imagine the scene?” Kerry shook her head. “Every single one of them would have wanted to be in that picture with him.”
“You know, I don't feel bad about that.” Dar said, suddenly. “We earned that contract, Kerry. We came to his attention because of who we are, not what ILS was.”
Kerry decided not to correct her beloved, since there hadn't been any 'we' involved.
“We did an impossible task for this guy.” Dar continued. “We didn't have to, but we did, and he knows that, and he trusts us because of that. ILS would have thrown Alastair to the wolves, and he knows that too. Why should he trust them?”
“That's all true, hon.” Kerry pulled into the parking lot of their building. “But it won't stop them from from being pissed off about it.”
They walked towards the building, and as they did, they clasped hands again, walking up the path side by side, then pausing as they spotted a tall ladder blocking the way. “Oh.” Kerry said, in surprise. “Our sign is here. Wasn't when I left.”
There were two men beneath the ladder, preparing the large wooden panel, and they looked up as the two women approached. “Be just a minute, ladies.” The nearer of the two men said. “Boss just sent us over to get this ready to mount up.”
Kerry kept her hand clasped around Dar's as she studied the sign. It was a honey colored wood, with the company's logo carved into it in a relief. The background of the sign was stained a dark blue, and their compass point logo had been painted white and silver. “I like it.”
“Me too.” Dar smiled. “Once it's up I'm going to take a picture and send it to mom and dad.”
“Between that article and this, your dad's going to explode.” Kerry could imagine her father in law's expression without much effort. There was just no prouder father anywhere, and she spared a moment remembering coming back uptown with him after they'd managed to get the stock market working.
She, half dazed and aching. Andrew sitting next to her in the limo and both of them listening to Alastair explain what had happened to Cynthia Stuart, and ending it with the statement I can tell you this, Senator, I seriously believe with all my heart there's nothing his kid can't do.
Andrew hadn't said anything, but Kerry remembered with extraordinary clarity the glint of tears in his eyes, and the paradoxical grin on his face and despite the pain, she remembered smiling too, if a bit wistfully.
Or yours. Alastair had given Kerry a gentle pat on the knee. Saved our asses.
Cracked ribs or not, it had felt good.
The two workmen finished preparing the sign, then they mounted the big dual ladder and walked the panel up, positioning it on the second level ledge and clamping it in place so they could drill the bolts in.
Kerry nudged Dar. “Wave, honey. We're on candid camera.”
Dar glanced up to the 2nd level windows, where there were faces watching them, and waving. She lifted her hand and waved back, then made a beckoning motion to the people there. “Let's get a group picture.” She draped her arm over Kerry's shoulders. “Only get a first sign once.”
True. Kerry grinned as the staff started emerging from around the side of the building, having gone out the back to avoid hitting the ladders. They gathered around to watch, making a careful circle around their two owners.
Mark eased forward. “Hey Dar.”
“Hey.” Dar responded amiably. “This our new security chief?” She delivered a smile to Carlos, whose head was roughly even with her own, and extended a hand. “Hi, I'm Dar.”
The big man blushed a little, but took her hand. “Hi.” He said. “I've heard a lot about you.”
“I bet.” Dar gave Mark a droll look. “Welcome. Glad you decided to give us a try.”
Mayte came over. “Kerry, I have some messages for you. I left them on your desk.” She said. “Welcome back.” She added to Dar. “My mama also has a package for you, and some notes.”
“Thanks.” Dar pulled Kerry a little closer. “We just want to get a picture with everyone and the new sign.” She pointed at the second level, where the workmen were climbing down off the ladder after finishing with the bolts.
“Oh! That is so nice.” Mayte's eyes lit up.
They cleared the ladder away and Kerry retrieved her camera from the SUV, taking a few pictures of it, before everyone had come down from the office and gathered in front of the entrance. “Okay, now.. “ She glanced at the workers. “Could I impose on you guys to take a picture of us with this beautiful new sign?”
'Sure.” One of them came over and took the camera. “Just press that to focus, and then to take the picture?” He asked. “My son's got one of these. He really likes it.”
“Yep.” Kerry crossed over to where the group was and paused long enough to pick up Mocha, turning and coming up next to Dar who put her arm back over her shoulders. “Everyone ready?”
The workman smiled, and focused, and then it was over and everyone was swirling around again, this time coming up and asking Dar about her meeting.
Kerry took a step back and gave Mocha a hug, walking over to reclaim her camera. “You guys did a great job.” She said. “It looks really good.”
The man nodded. “He's a good carver.” He said. “Said he'd be by later to check the install, and pick up the fee.” He scratched Mocha's ears. “Glad he got a comission. Been a while. People don't want to pay for stuff like this in these times.”
Kerry nodded. “It's tough.” She said. “I was really glad they referred him to us.”
The man glanced around, then back at her. “I heard you had some trouble with some of those guys, that hang around in the streets round here. That' true?”
Kerry wondered if it wasn't just a little more small town like than she was strictly comfortable with. “Yes.” She said, briefly. “But I really think it was more of a miscommunication than anything.”
The man nodded. “Be careful with them guys. You seem like nice ladies, and we heard they like to hassle women.”
Kerry sighed. “I sure hope they don't.” She said. “But thanks for the warning.”
The man lifted his hand in farewell, then shouldered his tool kit and picked up his end of the ladder, he and his partner moving off down the street together.
Kerry went back to the crowd who was now sorting themselves out to re-enter the building through the front door. Dar was waiting for her and they walked back in together, and headed up the steps to their offices. “Did you get any lunch?” She asked, as they reached the top of the stairs.
“They fed us on the plane.” Dar remarked.
“Take that as a no, then. We probably have some of those pastalitos left.” Kerry bumped her with her hip.
“I've got some kit kats left in my backpack.” Dar bumped her right back. “We can trade.”
The sun was setting as they gathered in the conference room, Dar and Kerry, Mark and Carlos, Maria and Mayte. Dar had a copy of the newspaper article and she put it on the table as they all sat down. “Okay, so.” She folded her hands. “We seem to have aquired some additional notoriety over the past day.”
Mayte was taking notes. “It is a very nice picture.” She said, diplomatically.
“Well, a lot of people think so, because four of those five messages you left me were from people who'd seen it, and who want to come in and talk to us.” Kerry said. “So we have a couple issues here. One, we've become very visible very quickly.”
Carlos was nodding. “People might see you as a way to get in on the government.”
“Exactly.” Dar said. “That kind of influence is in a business sense, priceless.”
“But Dar.. you always had those hooks.” Mark said. “I mean, they came after you the last time, remember? Like, right out of the blue.”
“That's true. I'm not worried about that part of it. My links to the military are what they are. I can't change that.” Dar said. “But we need to think hard about how we're going to secure ourselves because other people might want to find out what we're doing for them.”
“Cams.” Mark said, then looked pointedly at their new security man.
Carlos pulled out a folder from where it had sat on his lap, and opened it. He was dressed in neatly pressed cargo pants and a blue pullover sweater that had a faint look of the military about it. “I think we should use these.” He pushed a datasheet over. “They're expensive, but they're PTZ, IR, nightscope, and 10X zoom.”
Dar pulled the sheet over and studied it. “IP?”
He nodded. “The last place I was at, they did the wired and wireless, so if someone got some smart idea to cut the cable it would go over the radio.”
“Good.” Kerry agreed. “That's nice.”
Maria folded her hands. “If you tell me the places you want these things, I will have the electrical man make the connections for them.”
Dar's eyes twinkled, as Carlos passed a diagram over to her. “Thanks, Maria.”
Mark grinned. “Good job, buddy.” He complimented Carlos, who grinned back.
“I like that.” Dar said, passing the page off to Kerry. “Get them and get them installed. I'll write a program that takes the input from them and parse alerts.”
Kerry eyed her. “We do have programmers, hon.”
The pale blue eyes pinned her with ferocious intent. “When it comes to the safety of the people here and especially you, I want absolute perfection.”
“Got it.” Kerry muffled a smile.
“Anyway, I'd like to get the cams in before next week ends if we can. Kerry and I will be out of town this weekend, I'd like to start on the program after we get back from New Orleans.”
“Business there, boss?” Mark asked.
“Valentines Day.” Dar responded without missing a beat. Her eyes twinkled a little at his blush. “Back at the old place, Ker and I were pretty low key. This isn't ILS. We own this joint for better or worse, so I dont' see any point in not being open.” She glanced at Carlos. “If you have an issue with that, speak up now.”
Carlos shook his head, undisturbed. “I”m fine with it. Mark told me.”
“Okay, so.” Dar cleared her throat. “Cameras. Now we've also got to secure the data. I can write the encryption into the database schema, but what about the physical side?” She looked over at Mark. “I don't want people to be able to load up external hard drives, or thumb drives, and walk out of here.”
Mark nodded and cleared his throat. “I got a schematic to protect the server room.” He pulled out his own page and pushed it over to Dar. “And it's gonna be a pain in the ass, but we're going to certify all the local storage, and not allow any transfer to any device that ain't coded in.”
Dar studied the page, and grunted in approval.
“The big datastore, here?” He pointed at one of the racks. “We should only allow remote access to. Work in a virtual sesssion, with sandboxing. No local transfer at all.”
“So the work will actually take place on the main system?” Kerry asked.
“Yeah. I have dot1x on the net, and it'll be an encrypted session.” Mark said. “They can check code in and out, its like they're working local, but everything stays inside the big box.”
“I like this.” Dar said, after a long silence. “Good work, Mark.”
“Once we get an offsite datacenter, I'll do a real time synch over the wire to it.” Mark went on, a pleased expression on his face. “That place I told you about? It's lit from three directions.”
“Nice.” Now Dar was smiling. “Thanks guys. You made me feel like I can take Kerry on a month vacation in a little while and not worry about things back here.”
Kerry acknowledged all the smiles with one of her own, and then leaned back in her chair in a relaxed pose. “Yeah, so then I can look forward to shooting the rapids with Dar coding in her head.” She remarked. “Someone remind me to not let them give her a paddle.”
A round of easy laughter went around the table.
Dar's phone rang and she pushed back from the table a little, pulling the device out and answering it. “Dar Roberts.” She paused to listen. “Hey dad.”
Kerry chuckled and picked up the paper, pointing at the picture.
Dar rolled her eyes. “Thanks.” She spoke into the phone. “It was all right. Got good press from it.”
The group tactfully got up and busied themselves at the coffee station, giving Dar at least a fascade of privacy. “Dar's mama and papa must be so proud.” Mayte said, as she got herself some tea. “It was the paper calling the last one, wasn't it, Kerry?”
“Yep. Business section of the Herald.” Kerry also got some tea. “They remember us from the cruise ship debacle.” She added wryly. “I blocked off a two hour session for them tomorrow morning.” She glanced over at Dar. “Probably with more pictures.”
“Good thing we got the sign up then.” Mark said. “Boy I tell ya this is so much damn fun.”
Kerry smiled. “It is, isn't it?” She said. “I mean, we've been lucky, so far. Things have fallen in place in our favor.”
“But even if they had not, it would still be more interesting than the other place.” Maria spoke up. “It is so in the energy yes? To have to make everything new and not to be listening to the same things the same complaints all the time.”
“You got it.” Mark agreed. “Not have to be in the same old box all the time. This is great.”
Kerry thought about that as she leaned against the wall, listening to the chatter and watching her partner from the corner of her eye. Dar had a distinct blush showing and had that look of half pleasure and half embarassement that meant she was getting praised by her parents.
It was good. She decided. She was glad she didn't have to suffer the same routine day after day, meetings and conciliations with Marketing, and taking customer complaints about service. It was nice to have everything be new all the time, though she knew eventually that, too, would change and there would be another set of routines to get used to.
“Hey Ker?” Dar held the phone out. “They want to talk to you.” She got up and passed the phone over as she traded places with her, pulling open the small refrigerator under the coffee station and issuing a satisfied grunt as she removed a chocolate chug from it. “Good job, people.”
“We aspire to take after our bosses.” Mark grinned at her. “Your pop see the pic?”
Dar opened her milk. “Yes, he did.” She said. “He's not really a fan of the current administration, but he did say he was glad I learned my lesson well from him about at least pretending respect to authority”
Mark started laughing so hard he almost choked.
“Yeah, Thats pretty much what my mother's reaction was.” Dar agreed. “I could hear her through the phone. They're out in the BVI's right now at some tiki bar.”
“They coming back any time soon?” Mark asked. “I figure if your pop shows up, we won't have to worry about those guys much after that.”
“They'll be back in a couple weeks.” Dar said. “They're going to stay at our place while we're gone. My mother said she painted a few canvasses for our walls here.”
“Oh, Dar.” Maria held a finger up. “Uno momento, por favor. A person from this area came in this morning, and gave me some informations about a bed, and that we must get in and ride in it.”
Dar blinked at her. “Uh.. what?”
“Down the street, yes. All of us together, but not until September. So we have time for it.”
“Oh the bed race.” Carlos said. “Yeah, that's a lot of fun.”
“Okay, Col, you got everything you need?” Kerry finished zipping her overnight case. “Thanks for staying over.”
Colleen was seated on the loveseat, her own overnight bag next to her. “No problem at all, Ker.” She was flipping through a People magazine. “It's never a hardship to stay here on Fantasy Island you know? But you'll do me a favor while you and the Mrs are partying in Mardi Gras and see if you can find me a man who can buy me a place out here.”
“Do my best.” Kerry promised. “What happened to that guy you were seeing... Arthur?”
“Meh.” Colleen glanced up. “He's all right, but he's a bit of a bring to church on sunday, if you catch me.”
“Ah. Yeah. Kind of like Brian was for me.” Kerry's eyes twinkled a little. “I've never been to Mardi Gras.. .hell, I've never been to New Orleans but I'll see what I can find for you there.”
“Take pictures.” Colleen said. “Hey, you intending on flashing your tatas to get some of those lovely beads?”
Kerry stopped in mid motion and looked at her. “What?”
“What what? Haven't you seen those programs about Mardi Gras?” Colleen chuckled. “All those tourists standing on the sidelines, lifting their shirt up to get the laddies on the floats to toss sparklies at them?”
Kerry blinked, putting her hands on her hips and staring at her friend. . “Colleen.” She said. “It took me months to casually take my clothes off in front of Dar, alone in our bedroom. I don't see me doing it on the street for the Travel Channel for plastic beads and coconuts.”
Her friend snickered, and covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.
“What was that about plastic beads and coconuts?” Dar entered from her office, carrying her own overnight bag. “Are we talking about what I think we're talking about? Our hotel's on one of the parade routes, and we've got second floor balcony rooms.”
“Nice.” Kerry said. “So that means I don't have to take my shirt off to get party favors right?”
Dar stopped in mid motion in unconcious mimickry of her partner. “What?” She gave Kerry an incredulous look. “Babe, I'll buy you a whole damn float if you want. You don't have to take off anything, honest.”
Colleen at this point had fallen over on the couch, guffawing silently.
Kerry mock sighed. “Oh, good.” She said. “C'mon lets get out of here before I get myself into any more trouble.” She shouldered her bag. “Bye kids! Be good for auntie Colleen.”
They escaped out the front door and got in Dar's truck, throwing their bags in the back seat. “This is going to be fun.” Kerry said, as Dar started up the engine and backed out of her spot. “Especially after this week. Holy cow. Dar, we're going to be out of space for new employees at this rate in six months.”
Dar waggled her eyebrows and grinned. “I figure, once we get the data center going, we can move the IT people there.” She said. “The support groups we're going to need.. unless we can get more space around our office. To be honest I had no idea we were going to take off like that.”
“Six new clients in the last two days.” Kerry shook her head. “Unbelievable. Even with that press.” She said. “Wait until the Business Monday piece runs.”
“And none of them current or previous ILS customers.” Dar looked satisfied. “Which is a good thing, since we don't need any more hot pokers to shove up the ILS board's collective ass.”
“Was that Alastair that called you before we left?” Kerry asked. “I guess they saw the story.”
“They saw the story.” Dar confirmed. “He's about tied up everything there, figures he'll be out by the end of next week. From what I got from him, we are very persona non grata.” She pulled up to the ferry dock and put the truck in park, to wait for the next ferry. “They're fuming over not getting a piece of that action.”
“They wouldn't have gotten it anyway.” Kerry objected.
“No, I know, and besides, that's not really the direction we'd been taking the company. They stopped doing a lot of custom software a few years back.” Dar said. “They really don't have much to be pissed about, especially since Gerry renewed those support contracts with them. Alastair said he made sure they knew why.”
Kerry was quiet briefly. “How are the new guys doing?” She finally asked.
“My replacement has been busy shooting off hot air in Houston. Sees himself as a tech evangelist.” Dar said, in a mild tone. “Your replacement brought in about a half dozen of his own people, and is cleaning house.”
Kerry exhaled. “Damn.”
“If it's any consolation Alastair said Jose told him in the men's room he really misses us.” Her partner smiled. “He said he thinks this guy's a bigger ass than I was.”
“Oh Lord.” Kerry covered her eyes with one hand.
“The test will be the first major issue they have.” Dar concluded. “Lucky for them, we built up a lot of reslience these last few years but problems will happen eventually. Once that happens – either they'll be able to handle it and start making things their own, or they'll lose it, and the shit will hit the fan.”
“Well. If they're cleaning house, chances are they're going to be letting go the people who were closest to us.” Kerry remarked.
“And we need people. Synergistic.” Dar took the truck out of park and drove onto the ferry. “Sometimes things work out like that.”
“Sometimes they do.” Kerry settled back in her seat. “But let's worry about it next week. After Mardi Gras.”
“Sounds good to me.” Dar folded her hands over her stomach.
“Sure.” Dar steered Kerry towards the proffered conveyance. “Royal Sonesta.”
The taxi driver smiled. “You bet.” He gently closed the door and then jog trotted around the front of the cab to get in the driver's seat. “Beautiful night to be flyin into Nola.”
“Its really busy.” Kerry was looking around, at the packed airport pick up area.
The driver glanced in the rearview. “You all did know you were comin in last weekend of Mardi Gras, right?”
Dar chuckled. “We knew.” She said. “We've just never been here before.”
“Ahh! Now.” The smiled again. “First timers. Lordy lordy”
“Got any recommendations?” Dar asked. “Hate to be a typical tourist if I don't have to be.”
“Well now, see.” The driver cleared his throat. “My view is, first time you're here, be a tourist.” He said. “See all the stuff, do all the stuff, specially if you're here for Mardi Gras. Ain't no other purpose for that then tourism, know what I mean?”
“Okay.” Dar looked out the window, hearing the blare of music that fell behind them quickly. “Good point.”
“Second time? Then you can start being choosy.”
“Oh Dar.” Kerry had been reading the plastic covered map fastened to the back of the seat. “They have a ghost tour. Can we do that?”
The driver laughed throatily. “Careful with that one if you get scared easy. There's plenty of old spirits here.”
Dar eyed the advertisment. “Sure.” She said. “Why the hell not?”
“Why do you have a lot of old spirits here?” Kerry asked. “Because the city's so old?”
The taxi driver met her eyes in the rear view. “You fooling with me? You ain't never heard of all the hoodoo and voodoo and things like that here? For real?”
Kerry looked over at Dar, who shrugged and lifted her hands in supplication. “No, you know, I don't think I have. I don't know that much about New Orleans. Do you, hon?”
Dar remained silent for a bit, then cleared her throat gently. “Well. I've heard a little bit about it. My father's folks come from Alabama, remember.”
'Whereabouts in Alabama?” The driver asked, with interest. “Got family there.”
“Small place near Ozark.” Dar replied. “Nearest big town is Montgomery, I guess.”
“Lordy that is deep woods Alabama.” The driver chuckled. “My folks are just north of Mobile. “
“Ah yeah, I remember that story he told us when he came back from his sister's wedding.” Kerry recalled. “You know, maybe we should have brought him and your mom here. Between his ghost tales and her being a pagan, we could have had some real fun on this tour.”
“Next time.” Dar remarked as they slowed down, turning into a part of the city that had narrower streets, and a lot more people. “Is this the French Quarter?”
“Yes, ma'am, it sure is.” The driver relaxed, as the pace slowed to a crawl. “Just get yourselves a good look now, we got plenty of time before we get to the hotel.”
Kerry felt like a kid, her eyes falling on another after another scene on either side of the car. The streets were filled with revelers, dressed in everything from casual clothing to lurid masks and paint.
Or just paint. “Dar.. is that.. “
“Woman naked? Yes.” Her partner was busy peering out her own window. “Is that legal?”
“That's what them fleur de lis are for there.” The driver replied with a chuckle. “You got to have the illusion of something, see what I mean?”
“Oh. Yeah. I see what you mean.” Kerry put a hand on her cheek. “My midwestern roots are curling up and screaming.”
Dar patted her on the leg. “Breathe, babe.” She could hear music thorugh the window, brassy and penetrating, a rhythm she knew only slightly, new and raw. “Here's the hotel.”
Kerry glanced outside, her eyes lighting up. “Oh wow.” She studied the building, which wrapped around a corner and had old style wrought iron railings on the floors overlooking the street. “We're in one of those rooms, Dar?”
“We are.” Dar opened the door as the driver got hastily out. She handed him a folded bill. “Keep the change.”
“Yes, ma'am, and thank ya.” He gestured to the hotel as he handed them out their overnights. “You all have a good old time now, hear?”
“I am absolutely sure we will.” Dar paused as a man on stilts rambled by between them and the entrance.
“Wow.” Kerry tucked her hand inside Dar's elbow and they advanced cautiously through the crowd. “Hope you packed earplugs or we're not getting any sleep.”
“Didn't figure we would anyway.” Dar remarked, as they got inside the door. “I'm sure there's coffee here.”
The lobby was filled with people, but it was quieter inside. Kerry kept her grip on her partner as they eased through the crowd to the check in desk, turning when they got there to survey the interior while Dar attended to the necessary proceedures.
The space was full of old fashioned furniture and trim, heavy velvet draping and chandeliers. Everyone in the lobby seemed to be holding a drink of some kind, and some had layers and layers of beads around their necks.
Wow. Kerry turned back around as Dar put a hand on her arm, and indicated the stairs to their left. “Might as well walk up.” She commented, regarding the crowd around the elevators.
They climbed up the old fashioined sweeping stairs and walked along the hall until Dar stopped at a set of double doors. She opened them and they went inside, presented with a suite of rooms as traditonally decorated as the lobby had been. “Wow.” Kerry put her bag down and went to the French doors, which opened out onto a long balcony. “This is all ours?”
“Yep.” Dar looked out, to see Bourbon Street stretching out in front of them, filled with people and music and parties, along with the smell of garlic and sugar. “Hungry?”
“Hell yeah.” Kerry walked out onto the balcony and put her hands on the cold, dark wrought iron, looking out over the crowd. “This is wild.”
“Let's go to that place.” Dar pointed. “I can see the sign that says shrimp and grits.”
Kerry started laughing. “Okay, shrimp and grits, and then we go ghost hunting.” She regarded the busy street with a relaxed, and totally engaged grin. Then she turned and put her arms around her partner and squeezed hard. “Thanks.”
Dar returned the hug with a happy grin of her own. “Let's go have fun.”
Kerry added a festive burgundy silk scarf to her leather jacket, and ran a brush through her hair, then followed Dar out the door of their snazzy suite and back down the steps.
The crowd was dense, and the restaurant packed. But Kerry negotiated that with ease and fifteen minutes later they were seated and examining a rustic menu. “Holy pooters. I can see I'm going to be putting on ten pounds this weekend.” Kerry remarked. “I want one of everything.”
“Milk punch.” Dar regarded the drink menu. “Do I have to try that?”
“I think you do.”
A waiter arrived shortly, with no pad or pen, just an inquisitive eyebrow. “We'll share a large seafood plate to start.” Kerry told him. “I'll have the catfish pecan, and my friend here wants the redfish on the half shell.”
The waiter smiled at them. “Good picks.” He said. “Drinks?”
“I guess I have to try the milk punch.” Dar said. “Ker?”
“I”ll try a Bluegrass sunset.” Her partner decided, handing the menus back to the waiting server. “And some water, please.”
The waiter half bowed, and disappeared.
“Do we need to make reservations for that ghost tour?” Kerry relaxed in her chair, regarding the busy restaurant contentedly. “And I thought you were going to get shrimp and grits?”
“Tomorrow.” Dar had her phone out. “Let me get reservations. I'm sure they're packed tonight.” She looked up the number on the gizmo, then pressed it to dial. “I really like these things. Wish the internet was faster though.”
Kerry caught sight of a group of musicians outside, and as the door opened to let in more diners the sounds of a saxophone blared inside, a background to the group of garishly dressed faux skeletons moving past. Way different than she'd expected, but in a good way. “This is cool.”
She took a sip of Dar's milk punch when it arrived and licked her lips. “Bet these are popular.”
“Yes, the ladies really like them.” The waiter winked at her. “They go down easy.”
“Oh yes. I can see why a lot of people end up taking their shirts off in the street in that case.” Kerry settled back with her drink. “That's very good.”
Dar sucked cautiously at her glass. “Hardly tastes like there's alcohol in there.” She remarked, as she hung up the phone. “We're set for ten pm. We lucked out. They usually only go at 8.”
“That's why they're dangerous.” Kerry pointed at the glass. “There's a shot and a half of bourbon in that thing.”
“Ah.” Dar eyed it. “Okay. One for me then.” She put her gizmo away. “I don't really want a picture of me showing up somewhere with my shirt off in the streets of New Orleans.”
“Somehow, I dont' think that would hurt sales any.” Kerry enjoyed the look of self deprecating exasperation on her partner's face. “Hey, I've seen you with your shirt off.”
If anything, it was even busier on the street when they emerged, making their way slowly through the crowds. “Uf.” Kerry put her hands into her jacket pockets. “That was awesome. But I'm stuffed.” She sighed. “Glad we're on a walking tour now.”
“Me too.” Dar agreed. “They said to meet up at Reverend Zombie's Voodoo Shop.” She gazed reflectively down the street. “Two blocks from here.”
“Reverend Zombie's Voodoo Shop?” Kerry repeated the name carefully. “Really?”
“Mmhm.” Dar nodded. “I”m sure there'll be a shopping opportunity there. We could get a skull or something for my desk.”
“We could get your mom some crystals I bet.” Kerry countered. “No skull, hon. It'll freak Maria out.” She tucked her hand inside Dar's elbow again and slowed her pace, looking around at everything in the chaos they were walking through. “Do you believe in any of that magic stuff?”
“No.” Dar replied promptly.
“Even after what happened with your dad?”
“No.” Her partner repeated. “Do you really think the ghost of his daddy rose from the grave and was chased off by some demon?”
“Well, sweetie, he's not really an oogiee boogie kinda guy, you know? If he said he saw creepy things like that, I'm inclined to think something happened.” Kerry objected. “I really can't picture him making up a story like that and telling us.”
Dar sucked on the mint she'd taken from the restaurant in silence for a few minutes. “Well.” She cleared her throat gently. “He might have done that to avoid telling us what really might have happened to those guys who disappeared.”
Kerry digested that as they walked along, turning a corner and heading for where a group had already formed on the sidewalk outside a shop. “Oh.” She finally said. “You mean, maybe he did something to them?”
“He kinda makes up rules sometimes.” Dar said, in an almost apologetic tone. “So I think he'd rather tell us about ghosts, than he would about how he maybe took those guys out.”
“Oh.” Kerry said, again. “Huh. I never really thought about that. I just never could imagine him lying to us in that kind of way.”
“I'm not saying he definitely did.” Dar said. “It's just possible, y'know?”
“Or, what the hell. Maybe he did see ghosts.” Dar sighed. “I don't know. But no, I don't really believe in that stuff. All that psychic mumbo jumbo just never rang true to me.”
Kerry eyed her, but said nothing, a brief faint smile appearing on her face.
Dar caught it. “Except for that stuff with us.” She acknowledged. “I'll find a scientific reason for it sometime.” She had to chuckle though, shrugging a little wryly. “But that's not ghosts.”
“No, it isn't.” Kerry pressed her head against her partner's shoulder. “Let's go see if Nola can cough up some ghosts for us. Here we are.”
They slowed to a halt as they joined the group outside the voodoo shop, which was, in fact, closed. Dar went to the window and peered inside curiously, since the guides were still getting their paperwork sorted out. She studied the objects then gave a side glance at Kerry as her partner came up to join her. “Nice.”
“Oh. Dear.” Kerry's brows contracted. “Huh. That's some weird stuff, but hey, look. They do palm readings.” She took Dar's hand in her own and turned it upmost. “We could come back and get our fortunes told, right?”
Dar cleared her throat. “Sure.” She answered after a brief pause. “Or maybe get our Tarot cards read.” She pointed at the sign inside. “I've wondered over the years how many people have stopped in Nola and gotten voodoo dolls for me.” Her eyes flashed with sudden humor. “I always imagined Jose's inner office to have a picture of me on the back of the door filled with dart holes.”
“Or beebee holes.” Kerry chuckled. “Didn't seem to have done you much harm.”
Dar moved over to the guides to confirm their registration, leaving Kerry to peruse the window. She let her eyes run over the candles, incense, herbs, charms, trinkets.. it seemed to be a veritible cornucopia of magic inspired products including books and magazines she imagined were devoted to the practice.
“If you go in there.” A woman who had been leaning against the wall turned to speak to her. “Don't take pictures and don't ask questions about black magic. It pisses them off.” She advised. “I went in there today and they threw this guy out becauses he opened one of those books.”
“Really?” Kerry turned and leaned her shoulder against the window surface, folding her arms. “Not very customer centric, I guess.”
The woman shrugged. “Mostly tourists, I guess, so they get tired of it.” She acknowledged. “I did get my palm read though, and that was amazing.”
“Really? I was thinking of doing that tomorrow.”
The woman nodded emphatically. “It was really amazing. Probably.. eighty percent accurate? I was blown away. So weird. But I enjoyed it and my husband did too. It's our first time in New Orleans.”
“Ours too.” Kerry decided she'd somehow wrangle her partner into the place. “So far it's been a lot of fun. We just got here tonight.”
“We came this morning. It's our wedding anniversary.” The woman smiled. “Something different! Last year we went to Vegas.”
The woman was middle aged, and about Kerry's height, with curly brown hair. She was stockily built and had a knit pullon cap on her head to ward off the night chill. “I can't wait to see the ghosts. Some people take pictures of them.”
The husband came back over with Dar right behind him. “All right, Sarah, you ready?” He looked good humored about the tour. “Let's go find you some spooks.”
The woman beamed at him, and they moved off to get in line as the tour guides got ready to lead them off.
Dar and Kerry joined the queue, and Dar put her hands behind her and rocked up and down a few times on the balls of her feet.
“Are you going to kill me?” Kerry asked, slipping one hand into Dar's front pocket.
Dar chuckled. “Only if you keep me up all night yelling about ghosts.”
“Well.” Kerry started forward as the group did. “You'll have to find something else to distract me with then.”
Kerry felt that it would likely seem far spookier on the tour if she couldn't hear people partying a street or two over. The stories behind the haunted or so called haunted places were interesting, but she didn't feel even a twinge of creepiness as they moved along from the Lalaurie Mansion to the next tale of the Octaroon Mistress.
The tour guides were dramatic and fun, and everyone was having a good time though. Kerry was standing in the front part of the circle around the guide, and Dar was behind her, casually resting her arms on Kerry's shoulders.
“That's right ladies and gentlemen, right up there, on that ledge, only in the coldest nights you can see a figure... a wispy figure.. of a woman mostly naked, up there on the roof!”
Kerry fastened her eyes attentively on the spot. “You think it's cold enough?” She whispered to Dar.
“I think if we see someone, it has to be a ghost because it's too damn cold to be up there naked.” Her partner responded practially. “Even piss ass drunk.”
“Can you just picture it?” The guide said. “As the moon rises over the building, as the mist comes up from the river..”
A gasp went up, as motion was detected across the roof, and for a brief moment, a dark shape could be seen. Then it was gone
“Did you see it!” The guide said, excitedly. “Anyone get a picture?” He moved over to look at one woman's digital camera. “You did!”
“Mm.” Dar grumbled softly. “Did you see it?”
“I did.” Kerry admitted. “I've got no idea what it was... at this distance it could have been a cat for all I know, but I saw it. Did you?”
“I saw something.”
The excitement around the group was now electric. Many gathered around the woman with the camera, others shaded their eyes from the streetlamps, peering up at the ceiling.
“The ghost is Julie.” The guide said. “She was an octaroon. Does anyone here know what that is?” He looked around, but no one answered. “It is someone who is one eighth black, seven eighths white. In the old days, there were many of these women in New Orleans and legend says they were very beautiful.”
Kerry listened with interest.
“These women were much desired by the Creoles and the Frenchmen who made their home in New Orleans, but because of their social status, they could never marry.” The guide motioned them closer. “The Octaroon Julie fell in love with a Frenchman, and very much wanted to marry him. But he refused her, because of her status.”
“Prick.” Dar enunciated softly, making her partner smile.
“So one night the Frenchman thought he would put Julie's love to the test, and if she met the test, he would think about marrying her. He brought many friends to his house, and told her if she would take all her clothes off and wait for him on the roof, he would come get her, and bring her down to introduce her to society. He never thought she would take the dare.”
The wind seemed to get colder, all of a sudden. Dar lifted her head and felt her ears twitch, as above the revelry streets over she thought she heard a moan through the trees.
“But she did.” The guide said. “She went up on the roof, and took off her clothes, and stood up there, waiting for her love to come meet her.”
“Ugh.” Kerry muttered.
“But he never did. He finally went to bed, and was surprised not to find here there warming the sheets for him. So he rushed up onto the roof, and there, on the roof, in the cold, was her dead, frozen body.”
The crowd murmured.
“He died himself, several months later.” The guide said. “Many say, of a broken heart.”
“Don't really have much sympathy for the guy.” Dar commented quietly. 'But it says something about how it was back then.”
“If they were that hung up about one eighth of someone's blood I can only imagine how they would have felt about us.” Kerry responded. “Sheesh.”
“So often, today, those who work in that building say they hear Julie running around the top floor, where her rooms were, and hear her laughing, and too, they see the Frenchman in the garden, a sad and lonely figure.” The guide continued. “Of course, the fact that a palm reading and tarot company owns the building probably makes the encounters all the more interesting.”
“And a good advertistement.” The middle aged woman's husband commented.
“That too.” The guide agreed, with a cheerful smile. “Let's move on to see the garden, shall we? Maybe we'll see the Frenchman in there.” He led the way across the street towards the shadowed, gated space.
“Oh my gosh, this is so exciting!” Sarah said, reviewing her camera. “I can't believe I got a picture of it!”
Kerry glanced up at her partner. “You're not buying this, are you?”
Dar remained silent for a moment then she coughed a little. “There was something behind us back there.”
Kerry almost came to a halt, so surprised was she to hear that. “What?” She looked back the way they came, seeing nothing more interesting than a lampost. “What?”
Dar put her hand on Kerry's back to keep her on the path. “There was something back there watching us. I could feel it behind me.”
“Something like... a stray dog or a cop or..” Kerry asked, hesitantly.
“I don't know. I could feel cold breath on my back.” Dar said, with devastating calmness. “Sort of like in the condo, when you' stand in that spot outside the kitchen? Under the vent?”
Kerry looked behind them again, and stared up at Dar, unable to come up with a response. “Uh.”
“Anyway.” Dar said. “Maybe I just imagined it all. Let's go in there and see what we find.” She focused her attention on the crowd, which had filtered in through the wrought iron gates into the garden. “Maybe it was just a draft from between those two buildings.”
Kerry latched onto her arm and collected her scattered wits. She edged into the garden and peered around, half expecting to see a tall, spectral figure watching them from between the bushes.
The guide was speaking, relating some details about the life of the Frenchman as they walked between the high hedges, but Kerry was convinced she kept seeing whispers of motion in her peripheral vision and as she realized that, she felt her heart start to beat faster.
Dar was strolling along at her side, turning her head to look between the flowers, and reaching out idly with her free hand to touch the petals stained gray by the night gloom.
A frog croaked to the left, and Kerry almost jumped into Dar's arms, bumping her partner abruptly and making her take a little hop. “Oh.. sorry.” She muttered. “Stupid frog.”
Dar moved, shifting her hand off Kerry's back as she draped her arm over the smaller woman's shoulders instead. “No problem, babe.” She looked up into the sky. “Was that a bat?”
“Are you trying to freak me out?” Kerry said, after a pause.
“No...am I?” Dar responded. “I really just did think I saw one.”
Kerry looked up herself, and sucked in a breath as a shadowy figure flittered overhead, moving from one tree to another. “Oh!”
“Yeah, that's what I saw.” Dar had also been watching. “That's a bat, right? Not a bird?”
Kerry looked at the tree, then she let her eyes drop and she jerked as her gaze fell on a translucent form, with moonlight pouring through it, staring at them. “Ah!”
Then it was gone. “Did you see that?” She whispered to Dar.
Dar was half turned, her blue eyes grayish silver in the gloom. “I just saw some fog.” She said, after a moment. “What did you see?”
Kerry looked back over, and saw fog too. It was just a light mist, drifting between the bushes and she hesitated, now doubting what she herself had seen. “Well.”
“So sometimes, people walking in the garden so encounter the Frenchman.” The guide was saying, enjoying the wide eyes of his audience. “He's always dressed in a cutaway coat, and a cravat. Let's move on and see if we can find him.”
Had she seen something? Or was her imagination just working in overdrive? Kerry tried to recall what she thought she'd seen, but the more she looked at the fog, the less she was convinced she'd seen anything at all. After a moment, she relaxed and walked along with Dar after the group, most of whom were starting to huddle together.
They could hear the sounds of music getting louder, and as they reached the other end of the garden, the guide was almost having to shout over it. Kerry looked quickly behind her as they moved out back into the street, but the garden was quiet, and empty of anything but moonbeams and some fog.
But she felt strange. She took a breath and let it out, following Dar as they caught up to the back of the tour group on their way to the next station. Despite the empty trees she had the uncanny sensation that she was being watched, and no matter how quickly she glanced around she couldn't find a concrete set of eyes pointed in her direction.
“Yeah.” Kerry cleared her throat and tucked her hand inside Dar's elbow again. “Hon, next time just tell me to go find an ice cream parlor, okay?”
“What in the hell was I thinking?”
Dar leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Relax.” She told her partner. “Whatever comes out of the ether at you, I'll take care of it, promise.”
Kerry was glad of the reassurance when the guide took them down a narrow lane, and between towering buildings to stop at one, with a wrought iron balcony not too different from the one at their hotel. It was dark, and the wind was chill, and she kept hearing things being blown around behind her.
Leaves? She moved a bit closer to Dar. Sure. Leaves.
She heard a scuff and a crunch, and she half turned, to see a shadowy form that nearly made her guts come out of her ears before her brain sorted it out and she realized it was a dog. “Hey, looks like Chino.”
Dar turned her head, and smiled. “It does.” She agreed. “Glad it wasn't the Hound of the Baskervilles?”
Kerry cleared her throat and focused her attention forward. “Yes.”
Dar pulled her closer. “Chill, Ker, chill.”
“I feel kind of like a dork.” Kerry sighed, as they came up to the back of the group who had stopped on the sidewalk.
“So, we come to the tale of the Mad Butcher.” The guide began. “Many cities have a legend of a Mad Butcher, but here in New Orleans it takes on a different tune because of course, it also includes sausages, and a mistress. So here we go.”
“Hm.” Dar grunted softly.
“Back in the day, there was a butcher who lived in that house, with his wife, and his factory. He made the best pork sausages in town, and everyone bought from him. The butcher was happy, but as the years went on, and he and his wife got older, he began to tire of her.”
“I don't think I want to listen to this one.” Kerry said, with a faint grimace. “I can see where it's going.”
“You want to duck out?” Dar asked. “It's just a short walk back to the hotel.”
Kerry thought about it, then she nodded. “It's late, I”m really tired and my mind is going in circles.” She apologized. “Maybe we can try another tour tomorrow night.”
“No problem.” Dar guided her away from the back of the crowd, and down the next side street. As they moved along it, the music got louder and they saw bright lights and something big moving. “Hey, a parade.” She pointed. “That's a lot more cheerful than creeps.”
Kerry was glad to leave the spooks behind as they turned at the corner of Canal Street and saw a long cavalcade of floats and marchers, all in lurid, pungent colors, brass instruments blaring. “Oh yeah, this is better.” She eased in beside Dar near the edge of the street, smiling as one of the floats came even with them, full of revelers in masks. “Oh, those are pretty.”
It was all very frenetic. Kerry wasn't sure who or what the float was supposed to represent, but there were members on the floats and they were throwing things to the crowd with distinct enthusiasm. Strings of beads, round metal bits, cups, stuffed animals...
“Look out.” Dar's reflexes saved her from being bonked by a flying disk. Then she put her hands up and found them ringed by strings of beads that wrapped around her wrists.
“Hey babe!” One of the float members yelled, looking right at her. “Smile!”
Kerry did, and was rewarded with a tossed cup. “Holy crap.” She said, as the float passed. “What the hell is all this?”
“They're called throws.” Dar was laughing. “Hey, at least they didn't ask you to take off your shirt.” She dropped the disk into Kerry's cup, and took the beads from her, putting the around her neck “C'mon, hot stuff. Let's see what other swag we can get.”
Kerry felt the shadows fall away from her thoughts, and she grinned, seeing rows and rows of spectators also covered in beads, necklaces, and a range of other gaudy decorations. They were also yelling at the parade. “What are they all shouting?”'
“Morpheus.” Dar said, knowledgably. “That's the group that's doing this parade.” She explaine.d “Each parade is sponsored by a society of volunteers.. they're called krewes.”
Kerry studied the oncoming marchers. “They just all do this for fun?”
“They don't get paid?”
“Nope. It's all just to party.”
Kerry blinked. “Wow. I think I like New Orleans.”
The band marched by, all playing their hearts out, sending brassy tones up into the night air as unicycle riders wove in and out of their ranks, tossing beads and glowing neckaces as they passed.
“Jesus!” Kerry glanced down the road for the next float. “Oh look at that. I want a stuffed animal.” She pointed at two women throwing the objects randomly.
“No problem.” Dar responded gallantly, starting to unbutton her shirt.
“No wait.. not.. Dar!” Kerry grabbed her clothing hastily. “I don't want one that bad!”
“I thought you liked me with my shirt off.” Her partner complained.
Dar chortled softly and put her arns around Kerry, giving her a hug. “Okay hon.” She rocked them both back and forth. “How about a beer?”
“Sure.” Kerry steered her towards an outdoor cafe. “That's a lot safer than plush toys. All I need for this place is cash.” She fished a bill out of her pocket and pinned the waitress with an intent stare. “ I don't have to share my eye candy.”
Dar started laughing out loud.
It was very late when they finally wandered back into the hotel lobby, arm in arm. Kerry felt amiably overstimulated, her ears still ringing from the brassy music and a sense of pleasant displacement insulating her from the several mugs of beer she'd consumed.
It smelled of wood and candles in the hall, and there was a sense of age and decorum about the room, historic and different and reminding her oddly of some places she'd been in the Capitol. “Shouldn't have had that last beer.” She remarked mournfully. “Time to park my ass in bed.”
“That's where were going.” Dar guided her up the steps, giving a brief smile and nod to the room service waiter on his way down.
“Evening, Ladies.” He returned the greeting with a smile. “Anything I can bring you lovely gals tonight?”
“Please don't say ice cream, Dar. I've got too much beer in me.” Kerry muttered. “Not a good mix.”
“How about some nice hot tea.” Dar suggested. “And a couple bottles of water.”
“Surely!” The waiter smiled. “Be right up with it.”
“Mmm.. nice hot tea.” Kerry sighed. “You're the best.”
Dar unlocked the door and steered them both inside finding their bed turned down and chocolate truffles placed neatly awaiting them.
“Boy, that looks good.” Kerry kicked off her shoes. “I don't know if I”m going to last for tea. I'm wiped.” She carefully untangled the many strands of beads from her neck and put them on the desk, adding the coins to them. “That was wild and crazy.”
Dar pulled something from her pocket and dropped it next to Kerry's booty. “There”
“Oh, you got one?” Kerry picked up the plush animal with a look of surprise. “I didn't see you do that.”
“Did you have to flash them for it?” Kerry peered at her from under very disheveled bangs. “Tell me the truth.”
Dar obligingly came over, wrapping her arms around her partner and gazing down into her eyes. “The truth is, I'd have stripped naked and covered myself in honey if it would made you happy.” She smiled at the gentle shift in Kerry's expression. “But the truth also is three people from the ILS New Orleans office were on that float and nearly split their pants rushing over to give me their toys.”
“Bwahahahahah!” Kerry fell against her and savored the hug that followed. “They recognized you?”
“Oh yeah.” Dar laughed easily along with her. “Actually they told me someone told them we were going to be here and they were on the lookout for us.” She said. “You were getting beer at the time, and they had to keep up with the float. They were bummed they missed you.”
Kerry closed her eyes, glad the windows were sufficently insulated that only a faint blare of horns and yells filtered through to them. She felt Dar start to peel her shirt off and merely smiled, enjoying the sensation of the room air hitting her bare skin between her shoulderblades.
There was a slight sound as Dar tossed the fabric over the back of the nearby chair, and she pushed the edge of her partner's shirt up and and savored the skin to skin contact. She pulled the sweater over Dar's head and it went somewhere, as she felt Dar's fingers cradle the back of her head and their lips met.
She let her hands slide down and work at the button on Dar's jeans, the well worn and broken in fabric yielding easily to her fingers. The loosened denim slid down revealing the taller woman's briefs, a pair sedately decorated with Unix commands Kerry had gotten her for Christmas.
Some people shopped for lingerie at Victoria's Secrets, she shopped at Thinkgeeks. So did Dar, who had gotten her the Darth Vader boxer shorts she was currently in the process of losing, believing the statement 'come to the dark side, we've got cookies!' seemed to fit her.
She had just removed the spots from Dar's hips, and they were making a slow move towards the bed when there was a knock at the door.
“Tea.” Kerry banged her head gently against her partner's chest. “Why did we do that?”
“We're drunk.” Dar nudged her over to the bed and pulled the covers back. “Gwan. I'll get it.” She pulled her shirt back on and tugged it down to an almost modest length and trudged over to the door.
Kerry watched with a faint grin and half closed eyes, as Dar opened it to accept the tray, setting it down on the credenza and walking the bill back over ot the waiter and closing him out of the room once he took it. Then she went back to the tray and opened one of the bottles of water, her figure outlined by the light from the window.
“Here.” Dar brought two glasses back over. “I've been told if you stay hydrated, you get less of a hangover.” She sat down on the edge of the bed and offered Kerry one. “True?”
“Never tried it, no idea.” Kerry drank the liquid anyway. “But it sure as hell can't hurt, right? I figured you'd find some way of making that chocolate fizzy thing if waking up tomorrow's too bad.”
“Mm.” Dar put her glass down, then took Kerrys and got rid of that too, pulling off her shirt and giving it a toss in the direction of the credenza. She licked her lips and slid under the covers. “Now. Where were we?”
“I was taking off your spots.” Kerry rolled over and put a hand on her hip, getting her thumb under her waistband. “And you were... ah, yeah.”
She felt the straps on her bra come loose and then Dar's thigh was slipping between hers, and she gave herself over to the growing passion that burned it's way through the alcohol and brought life into sharp, sensual focus. It brought a lightness to her thoughts, and any memories of earlier shadows vaporized as Dar put her knowledge of Kerry's body to good use.
They were part of each other in this moment, and this moment was the only thing she knew or cared about. Kerry felt the aching tension start to escalate and it brought a rush of adrenaline with it, making her ferociously happy.
Hangovers and ghosts be damned.
Dar opened her eyes, half lifting her head off the pillow. After a moment of silence she blinked, not sure what had woken her up.
It was dark and quiet in the room, soft creaks and pops sounding at irregular intervals. It was raining outside, and she could hear a faint rumble of thunder, but that was it. She glanced over at her bedmate, finding Kerry curled half on her side and half on her stomach, her arm wrapped around her pillow, very sound asleep.
“Hmph.” She settled back down on her side, resuming her spot against Kerry's back and putting her arm back around her waist. Without waking, Kerry seemed to sense the pressure, and she shifted a little, moving closer and pressing against her partner with a faint sound of contentment.
That made Dar smile. She blinked a few times and closed her eyes again, glad at least that her head seemed to be fairly clear, and there were no obvious aftereffects of their fun evening. She'd had a hangover once or twice in her life and hadn't enjoyed it, but she also didn't regret spending the night letting her hair down with Kerry either.
Sometimes, you just had to do that. Dar exhaled and let her body relax, but halfway through that she stopped as she got the uncanny sense that something was watching her, a prickling of the shoulderblades that made her nape hairs lift.
Imagination? Dar lifted her head back up and turned it, looking back over her shoulder at the window, fully expecting to find nothing and shocked breathless when what she did see was a shadowy figure on the balcony looking in.
For a long moment, she froze. Then some instinct took over and she slid out from under the covers, getting her feet under her and standing up to put herself between the window and Kerry.
She straightned up to her full height and squared her shoulders, flexing her hands a little as she took a deep breath and a step forwards towards the window. The figure was dark, and tall, and indistinct, and though she coudln't see the features, she knew the head was looking right at her.
It occurred to her, somewhat belatedly that facing an unknown intruder stark naked wasn't the smartest thing she could do, but she had no intention of taking the time to put clothes on when that same intruder could burst in the doors and...
Well, it would have to go through her to get to Kerry. Expecting fear, but finding only fierce determination instead, she flexed her hands again and took another step forward, spreading her arms out to present as threatening a defense as she could, blood rushing to her skin and sending a warm flush through her muscles.
The figure moved as she did and she drew in a breath to let out a yell when thunder interrupted her, and lightning followed, a sudden and startling crack, making her jump. It bathed her in silver overflash and she blinked from it, and when it faded, the figure was gone.
Dar walked to the double French doors and put her hands against them, looking out onto the long balcony beyond. She could see the length of it, and the emptiness echoed in her senses as her heart rate started to slow back down.
She stifled a yelp, sucking in air abruptly before she turned around to see Kerry sitting up in bed, her bare upper torso visible in the faint light outside. “Ah.”
“What's wrong?” Kerry cleared her throat of it's huskiness. “You okay?”
Dar came back over and sat down on the bed. “Yeah, I'm fine. Storm out there. Woke me up.” She ran a slightly shaking hand through her hair. “Whew.”
Kerry touched her arm, closing her fingers around it. “That last blast woke me up too.” She said. “You sure you're okay? You look a little freaked out.”
Dar turned and pulled one knee up, resting her hands on it as she studied her partner's face. “I thought I saw someone out on the balcony.”
Kerry jerked in surprise. “What?” She looked in reflex at the window. “I don't see anything out there.”
“No, not now.” Dar responded. “When I woke up.. I looked over there and saw someone standing outside. Then after that big flash, it was gone.”
“It.” Kerry repeated, after a pensive moment of mutual silence. “What did it look like?”
Dar lay back down and pulled the covers up, the cool air of the room giving her goosebumps. “Coudln't really see detail. Just something tall and dark, and maybe in an overcoat or something.” She responded. “But it might have just been a shadow, Ker, because it wasn't there when I went to the window.”
Kerry studied the glass. “Or maybe whatever it was got scared when they saw a six foot plus tall buff naked woman lunging at them.” She gave her soulmate a fond look. “That'd be enough to scare off a robber, don't you think?”
Dar's dark eyebrow hiked.
“But you know.” The blond woman continued quietly. “I think I saw something like that in the garden we walked in.” She said. “Just really tall, and all shadowy.”
They regarded each other in silence again. “You mean, not a real thing?” Dar said, hesitantly. “As in, a ghost?”
Kerry shrugged. “It was there, then it wasn't.” She said. “I don't know. I don't know what you saw, but it sounds like what I saw, and it was full of creepitude.” She paused. “So what's creepier? A ghost, or some guy following us around and climbing up on our balcony?”
“Hmph.” Dar grunted softly. “That puts it in perspective doesn't it?” She gave Kerry a wry look. “I don't know, Ker. Maybe it was neither. Could have just been my imagination.”
“Mm. That's what I thought in the garden too.”
Dar pondered the idea quietly. What had she really seen? Had it been shadows? Her imagination? Nothing? A real intruder trying to get in their hotel room? Should she call the front desk, the cops, or a psychiatrist? “I dunno.” She finally concluded. “And I don't really want to get dressed and go out in the rain to see if whatever it was left footprints.”
Kerry settled back down next to her and put her head down on Dar's shoulder. “What exactly were you planning to do running out like that in your altogether, sweetie?” She asked, conciously trying to lighten the conversation. “I mean, what if it actually had been a burglar?”
“Damned if I know.” Dar admitted, with a faint smile. “All I was thinking about was staying between whatever it was and you.”
“You're such a super hero.” Kerry tickled her navel, feeling the motion as Dar chuckled silently. “I'm going to get you those Superman panties I saw on the internet the other day.” She looked over to find herself being watched by those pale eyes almost glowing with affection. “And besides all that, you sure are my hero.”
Dar stuck her tongue out.
“Anyway, we'll check out the floor out there when we have coffee tomorrow.” Kerry concluded. “Hopefully this headache I've got'll be gone by then.” She muttered. “Teach me to mix bourbon and beer.”
Dar tucked the covers around the both of them, and firmly shut her eyes, letting the rumble of thunder slowly lull her back into some level of relaxation, while she even more slowly allowed her mind to ponder what had happened. She could feel the warmth of Kerry's breath against the side of her neck, and the gentle motion of the edge of her thumb making idle patterns against her bare skin and she knew a moment of deep echo, a wash of familiarity that seemed ancient and new all at the same time.
What, really had she intended on doing? Rushing out onto the balcony and drop kicking the damn thing? Dar had to smile at herself, if only in self deprecation. What if it had been a ghost? Should she have been afraid of it? She hadn't been. Or maybe it had all just happened so fast she hadn't had time to be scared either way.
New Orleans was known for odd things. They'd gone out looking for ghosts, half jokingly, and she was now ready to internally accept that maybe they'd seen something unexplained.
Or maybe they both just had good imaginations. Dar dismissed the events, and snuggled up tighter with Kerry, content to leave any other analysis until the morning, when sunlight and coffee might put a completely different slant on things.
One eye opened and she regarded Kerry. Unless she had to go find an egg cream. Her eye closed again and now the silence returned, broken only by two sets of quiet breathing.
As it happened, no egg cream was needed. Kerry picked up her cup of coffee and sipped from it, watching benignly as the early morning strollers cruised by on the street below. She was dressed in a pair of ragged old jeans and a royal blue sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, enjoying the cool air and the completely ghost free balcony.
There was no scuff or footprints, but then, it had been raining all night and she doubted if there would have been any anyway. Kerry studied the long stretch of empty ground as she sipped her cup, trying to sort out in her head really what had gone on.
Dar was not an easily suggestable person. She had an imagination, certainly, but she was so logic driven, Kerry often suspected her daydreams were formed from ethernet packet encapsulation schemes where her own mind tended to be far more flexible in that regard.
So what had Dar seen? Since her imagination tended to the prosaic, Kerry was pretty sure she'd seen something, and something that was alarming enough to get her out of bed, and ready to.. She glanced inside the open French doors, where her beloved was studiously stirring her coffee. Ready to defend her from whatever it had been.
Which was really sort of charming. Kerry picked up her Handspring and reviewed her mails, which had been refreshingly few and mostly focused on acknowledgements for pricing she'd provided, and a note from their landlord praising their new sign.
It was really nice, she realized, to not have to have a knot in her guts every time the new message alert went off, and then she thought about how long it had been that she'd been living with that tension. “Hey hon?”
“Yees?” Dar came out and took the seat next to her, extending her denim covered legs with her socked feet out and crossing them at the ankles. “So I went to the front desk on my way back from getting this coffee and those doughnuts.”
Kerry licked her lips. “They were good.”
“First time I saw carnival food presented in a French style cafe, but yes.” Dar said. “Anyway, I asked about tours and stuff and said we'd had a good time last night and the desk clerk mentioned this hotel was on one of the other outfit's tours but they didn't like it.”
“Because they say this place is haunted?”
“Yes.” Dar said. “So I told them I saw something on the balcony last night.”
“I think she was waiting to see if I was going to freak out about it and when I didn't, she coughed up the fact that maybe some other people that have stayed here have mentioned that, and it's why they usually rent out these rooms to big groups who want to have a party.”
“Mm.” Dar sipped her coffee. “I said I didn't care.”
“Do you?” Kerry watched her lover's profile curiously. “You really weren't scared, were you?”
“I wasn't. Not really sure why.” Dar responded readily. “Maybe I was still drunk. I should have been scared, either by some damn robber on the balcony who might have had a gun or a ghost. But I wasn't.”
“Dar, you're never scared when it's go time.” Kerry said, in a placid tone. “I've watched you for years throwing yourself into situations starting with the night you saved my ass from being carjacked. You have more guts than sense sometimes.”
Dar's dark lashes fluttered a little, and she watched Kerry from the corner of her eyes. “Is that a bad thing?” She countered. “I remember you doing some crazy ass stunts too, like diving in the water after that guy.”
Oh. Erg. “Well..”
Dar shrugged. “We're two of a kind. Someone once said that. Maybe Alastair.” She rested her elbows on her chair arms. “So what do you want to do? Go find Madame PooPoo and get our fortunes told?”
“Absolutely.” Kerry smiled. “I don't think they have daytime ghost tours, so let's stick to stuffed animals, tacky beads and beignets today.” She suggested. “In fact, can you show me where you got them?”
“Sure. And I found this.” Dar handed over a pamphlet.
“Boos and Booze tour?” Kerry started laughing. “Of the French Quarter. You really want to do that, hon? Ghosts more interesting now?”
Dar grinned, and shrugged “Yeah, maybe.” She admitted. “I'm kind of wondering. As in, how is that possible?” She mused. “Is it an energy anomaly?”
“You're looking for a logical explanation for ghosts?” Kerry smiled, watching her partner nod. “Okay, Boos! And Booze it is.” She checked the number, then dialed it on her phone. “My treat.”
Dar rocked back and forth a little in contentment. Kerry had woken up without her headache, and they'd enjoyed a shower together using the shower attachment in the charmingly old fashioned tub installed bathroom. “I think I want to go find a litlte protein with my funnel cakes.” She said, as Kerry hung up. “Shall we?”
“Absolutely my little ghost busting chickadee.” Kerry finished her coffee and got up, extending her hand. “Come. Let's go find out what the future has in store for us.” She said. “And get you some bacon.”
“Mm. Bacon.” Dar joined her and they went inside, closing the doors behind them, the chair Dar had been sitting in continuing to gently rock.
They strolled along the street in the sunshine, having consumed a few more beignets and then ducked into the street market to wrangle a baguet and some cheese they shared while strolling along to Jackson Square where a crowd was already gathering.
“Beautiful day.” Kerry commented, peering along the wrought iron fence they were walking by. “Oh look, Dar. Artists.”
Obligingly, Dar looked. “If we get a picture of us done by someone other than my mother, you get to explain it to her.” She said promptly. “Since we keep saying no.”
Kerry put her hands behind her back and clasped them. “Good point.”
“But we can get one of New Orleans.” She pointed. “See? Isn't that pretty? It's the parade.”
Dar willingly followed her over to the artist, who had several examples of his art propped up against the fence. She wandered down the row as her partner bargained for the piece, enjoying the antics of a street performer who was juggling while riding a unicycle.
That took a lot of skill and balance and she appreciated that. She'd made one abortive attempt at unicycling herself way back when in college on a long weekend down in Key West, and even now all the years later, she winced at the twitch in her tailbone that well remembered that collossal fall.
“Hello dere, pretty lady.”
Dar turned from watching the juggler to find a man at a folding table, covered in a tie dye cloth straight from Haight Ashbury. He was reviewing some tarot cards, and watching her with one bright, deep hazel eye, the other covered in a weathered patch.
“Hi.” Dar responded, after a brief pause. “Are you a fortune teller?”
“Oh my no.” The man smiled at her. He was probably in his sixties, with curly gray hair, and a spare frame. “Sounds so carnival, does it not? Should I have a monkey, then, and man in the front calling people into the sideshow?”
Dar folded her arms over her chest. “Didn't mean that as an insult.” She said. “What do you call yourself then?”
“I call myself Charles.” The man's eyes twinkled. “And you, pretty lady?”
Dar allowed herself to be charmed, and drawn in. “Dar.”
“Now that's a very unusual name.” Charles said, sorting the cards together and putting them away. “Is this your first time here in the great N'awlins?”
“It is.” Dar confirmed. “I thought I lived in the craziest place in the US until I saw this town. Impressive.” She indicated the chair across from him. “Mind if I sit down?”
Charles's nose crinkled up in a surprising grin. “Usually I have to coax people to take a seat.” He said. “Please sit, Ms Dar.” He cleared off the table in front of him and leaned his elbows on the table as she sat down, and they regarded each other. “What can I answer for you? Is there a question you want to ask me?”
Dar considered. “Tell me about this place.” She indicated the city with a brief hand gesture. “Why is it so different? What's with all the ghost stories?”
“I've got some time, and cash.” Dar added, with a twinkle of her own. “My wife's over there wrangling prices. I figure I can at least get some local information from something other than a tour pamphlet that'll be worth the price.” She glanced at a passing cart. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Ms Dar, I do not know what our conversation will be leading to, but I will surely use my professional skills to predict I will be having a very good time.” Charles laughed. “And I would love a drink. It's been a thirsty morning already.”
Dar pinned the cart pusher with a direct blue gaze, and pointed, then raise two fingers. “Do you use those cards to tell people what's going ot happen to them?” She asked, as the vendor hurried over. “Or, what they want you to tell them about what's going to happen to them?”
Charles studied her while she paid for the drinks, and when she turned back around he was smiling. “Ms Dar, you are an old soul.” He said, briefly. “I don't see too many of those round here these days.”
“What does that mean?” Dar settled in to listen, curling her hands around the cup.
“What does that mean.” The man mused. “Sometime you all meet people, talk to people, and they're all on the surface. They ain't been around, see what I'm saying?”
Dar let her chin rest on her fist. “Not really... well.. “ She thought about the question, and Charles gave her space to do that. “Hard to say.” She finally concluded. “My life mostly puts me in a space with high achievers.”
“Not about smarts.” Charles said. “Can be the most no count, no school, depressed and raised in a trailer person but they got a story in them. They got practice at this life thing.”
“ You talking about reincarnation?” Dar asked, curiously.
“Am I?” The man said. “Could be. Don't cotton much to that, I more look to the old ways, where earth's part of you, you'ure part of earth. But when I say I see an old soul, I mean there's a piece of the earth's history there in you.”
That didn't really make sense to Dar, but she kept quiet, waiting to see what else would be forthcoming. She certainly didn't feel like she had any old knowledge in her.
“So anyway, to your question.” Charles said. “Na'wlins is an old place. Old place, and been a place full of hurting, and bloodletting from all way back.” He looked up at her. “Know what that's about?”
“My daddy's people are from east Alabama.” Dar said, then paused.
Charles nodded. “See that?” He said. “You got history in you. Go through places like that and the trees weep from it.”
“They've been there a long time.” Dar allowed.
He took a sip from the drink and put it down. “N'awlins is like that too. Been a lot of heartache in these parts. Wars. Slaves. Pirates. Drowning. Magic.” He waited for her to react, but the angular, intent face across from him remained still. “Black magic. Things them people being put on used to make their lives a little less hell.”
“Hmph.” Dar grunted. “A way for them to take a piece of themselves back?”
Charles smiled. “Yes, Ms. Dar. When you ain't got no power, you make your own.”
“That I get.” Dar said.
“So you have all this emotion.” He said. “All this misery, and so they say, it sticks. Them people who didn't have joy in their lives, they stay around after, to find it.” He gestured around him. “It's a pretty place, no?”
“It is.” Dar smiled.
“Some people say, all them who die here, stay here, cause Heaven ain't no better.” Charles smiled back. “But it's true that you walk here, you look round a corner, behind a tree, up in a window... you see things.” He laced his fingers, his single eye watching her. “Foggy mornings walking here, I see things.”
Dar caught sight from the corner of her eye of Kerry's distinctive little swagger heading her way. “You ever been to an old battlefield?” She asked him. “Valley Forge, or Antietam, or one of those?”
“This here square was named for Andrew Jackson. He and a bunch of men done beat the British not far off. War been here, but not so it's like what you mean.” Charles anwered, slowly. “You been?”
“I have.” Dar said. “And a lot of people say they feel an atmosphere there. But I always wondered how much of that was because they did, and how much of that was because they expected to, because they knew what happened there. My college did a psychological study of that.”
He cocked his head. “And?”
Dar shrugged, lifting her hands. “I wasn't included. I knew. I'm from a military family.” She replied honestly. “But I never felt anything there.”
“So Ms. Dar, you're a skeptic.” Charles said, after a brief silence. “That what you're saying?”
Was she? “I live in a very rational world.” Dar said, sounding even to herself slightly apologetic. “I”m an engineer in the technology space. Logic comes with the territory.”
“Whose territory?” Kerry arrived at her side, and gave Charles a grin. “Hello.” She draped a hand on Dar's shoulder. “They're sending that picture home for us.”
“Well, hello there.” Charles half rose, and bowed. “Please join us, ma'am.” He glanced at Dar. “Is this your lady?”
“This is Kerry.” Dar looked up at her. “Charles and I were just talking about why there are so many supposed spooks here.” She informed her partner as she took a seat.
“Did you tell him about your ghost last night?” Kerry asked, pressing her knee up next to Dar's. “Maybe he knows about it.”
Charles sat back down, looking from one of them to the other, his brows contracting. “Does Ms Kerry live in your rational world, Ms. Dar? This is coming along to be very interesting.”
Dar sighed. “There's always exceptions.”
“Maybe we should ask him about our thing.” Kerry's eyes twinkled. “I think that's an exception too.”
Continued in Part 11