Winds of Change

Part 11

Charles, it turned out, knew a guy. Or more to the point, knew a woman who he said would give them their money's worth in terms of getting their fortunes told.

They were headed across Jackson Square, down one of the side streets that led to it and past a big, and bustling market to a small store that had a sign plastered simply with a star bisected hand and a window fully covered with dusty red drapes.

Right this way ladies.” Charles pushed the door open and went inside, holding it for them to follow him. “Hallo, Marie!”

Kerry paused inside the door and looked around, her eyes widening. “Wow.” She uttered. The inside of the very small storefront was cluttered in the extreme, and the ceiling was hung with what looked like bird and bat wings and bones. “Watch your head, hon.”

No kidding.” Dar was ducking, her own eyes somewhat wider and rounder than normal.

Hallo, Charles.” A tiny woman in a purple crinoline dress came out from a back room, wiping her lips. “Who you got here, eh?”

Dar was immediately distracted by a skull mounted on a tall umbrella as a handle.

These here nice ladies stopped and passed the time of day with me over by the square, and they're interested in having their fortunes told.” Charles said. “You busy?”

Oh, yes. Can't you see all the people in here lined up waiting?” Marie chuckled. “Too many people at too many parties last night for sure.” She turned her eyes to Kerry. “Hello there.”

Hi.” Kerry edged closer. Marie had a relatively high table with a stool padded with worn denim behind it, and two more on the other side. She glanced up at the ceiling. “Are those bird bones?”

Marie slipped onto her stool. She had, now that she'd entered the lamp light, a lined and weathered face, indeterminate tan to brown shaded and silver gray hair that was pulled back in a tight bun with a pair of flying monkey chopsticks holding it in place. “They're all sorts of things.” She said. “I pick things up when I walk around, you know? Its like they're looking for homes, so I bring them here.”

Kerry seated herself on one of the stools. “I pick up rocks when I walk.” She admitted. “They remind me of places and times, is that the same kind of thing?”

Dar kept her head ducked to one side as she examined the book case that lined the entire short length of the side of the shop. The books were varied and old, all hardback, some with barely legible titles in a number of different languages. There was a scent of dust and aging paper that wafted out from them, lit by a candle sconce flickering gently nearby.

Oh, something like that.” Marie agreed. “Charles, there's some coffee in the back if you want some.”

Charles smiled, and availed himself of the offer, disappearing behind the thick bead curtain that separated the front of the shop from the area behind.

So what's your name?” Marie asked.

Kerry.” Kerry responded, hooking her feet around the stool's supports and resting her arm on one knee. “Charles said you were a fortune teller.”

Oh, something like.” Marie said, with a brief grin. “Do you want your fortune told, Kerry? You looking for riches or gold, or a sugar daddy?”

Behind her, Dar chuckled, while examining a round crystal.

None of the above, actually.” Kerry said. “I”ve got everything in the world I need.”

The old woman studied her. “Yes, you know you seem like that.” Marie said, after a pause. “You are someone who has their hearts desire. But it was not always so.”

Kerry felt a faint shiver. “No, that's true.” She said, slowly. “Took me a while to find what I was looking for.”

Took me about thirty seconds.” Dar commented from her idle browsing. “Came around the corner, stopped in the doorway, done deal.”

Dar.” Her partner gave her an affectionate look. “C'mere and pay attention to my fortune.”

Dar put down the rock she had been examining and walked the few steps over, seating herself on the second stool and regarding Marie benignly.

Marie, this is Dar.” Kerry said. “Dar isn't really into palm reading and that sort of thing. She's humoring me.”

Marie studied the taller woman, glancing briefly into Dar's pale, intense eyes. “No, I don't figure that.” She said, with a smile. “You're someone who makes their own future, and needs no telling from me.” She wagged a finger at her. “Not often someone brings a crusader into Marie's store, thats for sure.”

I'm no crusader. “ Dar chuckled.

Of course you are.” Kerry disagreed. “We were just talking about that, Dar. A creepy ghost shows up on our balcony and what happens? Do you scream?”

Dar cleared her throat.

Marie watched them with interest. “So you've seen one of our honored guests, have you? Where is that, you said on the balcony?”

Of our hotel. The Sonesta.” Kerry agreed. “I woke up last night to find my modest friend here facing off against some ghoul outside scaring him off.” She put a hand on Dar's leg, seeing the blush even through her tan. “I freak out about them, Dar just wants to kick their asses.”

That true?” Marie studied Dar “You know, the departed ain't something you really want to mess with.”

Dar cleared her throat again. “I don't want to mess with them. Assuming they exist. But they also don't scare me, and I'm not going to let them scare her.”

See, I told you, Marie.” Charles had reappeared in the doorway, with a steaming cup. “That's an old soul you got there.” He came over and took the last stool at the table. “Most times, the departed don't take much interest in the living, you know? They got other things to do. Some of them replay their ends, over and over, some of them don't realize they're gone, so they keep trying to get done whatever they had to do when they died.”

That's kind of hard for me to wrap my head around.” Kerry admitted. “I had a pretty conservative upbringing.”

You brought up in the church, that what you mean?” Marie smiled. “My daddy was a preacher, here in N'awlins. Didn't stop him from consorting with the spirits. He used to hire out for exorcisms. Made some good money at it.”

Kerry blinked at her. “Exorcisms?”

Sure.” The old woman said. “You got people who come here, and buy them a house, you see? Old houses, and they like that, cause they're pretty. But they find out there's creaks and bangs, and stuff moving round, and hearing voices, so they call up the local priest, and he takes care of all that.”

Really?” Dar asked.

Honey, I seen things. I done grew up in this town, and things I seen, you can believe or not believe but I dont doubt.” Marie said, firmly. “You said yourself, you saw something last night. You know what it was?”

Dar considered the question seriously. “No, I dont know. But it looked like a tall male figure, wearing an old style hat, and a trenchcoat.” She said. “Couldn't see a face, just the outline.” She paused. “I thought it was someone trying to break in our room at first.”

Ah huh.” Marie frowned. “You sure it wasn't?”

If it was, he jumped off the balcony after I went to the window.” Dar replied. “There was a big crack of thunder and lightning, blinded me a little, then he was gone.”

Marie and Charles exchanged looks. “They got some ghosts up at that Sonesta, but the ones I heard, aint' like that one.” Charles said, slowly. “They got the library ghost, and the butler one, walks up and down those big stairs they do have, and then the cook what done hung himself in the kitchen. They don't like to be in that kitchen after hours.”

Marie nodded. “That tall one, that sounds new.” She said.

Is it possble it was just imagination?” Kerry asked. “We took that night ghost tour earlier in the night.”

Could be.” Marie said. “You all see anything on the tour? Some of that, you know, ain't all together on the up and up.” Her eyes twinkled a little. “We got a living to make, after all.”

Charles chuckled. “That rooftop woman, and then do have a projection they do in the garden.”

That's fake?” Kerry's eyes widened. “Really?”

Dar patted her leg, and grinned. “There ya go, babe. I figured there was a logical answer.”

Kerry felt, suddenly, like she'd been cheated. “Wow. That's a bummer.” She said. “So I guess they were probably blowing cold air down your neck from that alley.” She looked chagrined. “But I don't get it.. you said before that ghosts were real, and that New Orleans was full of them. Why would they need to fake it?”

Well now..” Charles put his cup down.

Because ghosts don't perform on schedule.” Dar said. “And those tours depend on people seeing them.”

Marie lifted her hands and put them back down. “All those stories have a grain of truth, see.” She said. “But like your crusader friend here says, you can't depend on them. Those tour companies, they need consistent visions so that people get on the Internet.. you know the internet?”

Both Dar and Kerry chuckled. “We're familiar with it.” Dar said. “But I get it. People see those things, and take picures and that kind of thing, and the word spreads.” She added. “Good marketing.”

Yes.” Marie said. “But this thing you saw? That's new to me. You?” She looked at Charles.

Never heard of that one.” He agreed. “So what you say, Marie? You going to tell these ladies their fortunes?”

Marie studied them thoughtfully in silence. “I don't think I can.” She said. “I think you and I could lead them to some beautiful place for lunch, but when I look to see what road these two are taking, I don't see anything at all.”

Kerry felt a weird prickle go down her spine, and she felt Dar's thigh twitch under her fingers. “Is that good or bad?” She finally asked.

For me? Terrible.” Marie laughed. “Honey please don't be telling everyone I said that. I got my reputation to think of.” She sobered, and paused briefly. “But you? I talk to people and I kind of guess where they're going, if you know what I mean. What they said, what they do, what they want.. when people come to ask for their fortune, they want what they want, you know?”

Dar nodded. “Yeah.”

That's what she asked me.” Charles said. “If I told people their future, or what they wanted their future to be.”

Mm but people who go chasing off big scary ghosts? I dont know where to begin to tell you what you're going to get yourselves into.” Marie said. “So what about that lunch? I got me a place you can get the best fried chicken in New Orleans. That do you?”

Fried chicken? Always.” Dar amiably agreed. “Let's go.”

Kerry slid off the stool, with a strong sense that the two fortune tellers were diverting their attention away from the arcane. She could tell they were both a little uneasy with her and Dar, and as she followed them out the door, she also had the sense that someone inside the store was still watching them.

Or maybe it was just her imagination again.


Well.” Kerry sucked on a bit of sugar candy as they walked down the sidewalk back towards Jackson Square. “That was, for sure, the best fried chicken I've ever had.”

For sure.” Dar agreed wholeheartedly. “And I'm willing to bet I've had more of it than you have.”

Probaly true.” Kerry agreed. “Wow, it was good.” She felt pleasantly stuffed, and equally pleasantly surprised at the southern style sides that even seemed new to her partner. “I've got to try making that corn bread.”

You can try any of that on me any time you want.” Dar said. “So, more shopping then back to the hotel to get ready for our Boos and Booze tour?”

Kerry snickered. “Now that I know it's all fake, I'm going to have a much better time.” She admitted. “That was fun, Dar. I'm glad we ran into those two. Except it was kind of weird that they just decided to go to lunch with us and left off all the fortune stuff.”

Did we freak them out?” Dar wondered. “Hey, want a cup of coffee?” She pointed. “There's a cafe, and I think there's a parade coming.” She pointed down a side street, where the sounds of music were suddenly loud and present.

Mm. I see cheap plastic beads in my future.” Kerry contentedly followed her over to the cafe, mounting the steps and taking a small table off to one side. “Have I told you how much fun I'm having at our Valentine's day celebration? I”m going to have to work my butt off to match this next year.”

She sprawled in a chair, glancing around at the rapidly filling up cafe as others heard the approach of the parade and decided to get a good spot to watch it from. “I think you freaked them out.” She said, after the waiter left with their order. “With all that old soul stuff. What did you think about that?”

Dar leaned back in her chair and hiked one boot up onto her opposite knee. “I don't know. I'm not sure what that was about. I don't feel like an old anything right now.” She rolled her head to one side and gave her partner a grin. “Didn't make sense to me. I think they were trying to tie that into reincarnation, but I don't think I've been here before.”

Mm.” Kerry considered that, as she watched a young couple at the next table sharing a kiss. The other onlookers watched with wry bemusement, but she wondered if that would still be the case if she and Dar were to copy them. “I don't feel like I've been here before either.. “ She mused. “Well, except for when I met you.”


Kerry nodded. “Remember when we met, we were racking our brains to figure out where we knew each other from?” She reached over and curled her fingers over Dar's. “But we never could, because we never had met.” She watched Dar's pale eyes intently study her. “But when I met you, I felt like I'd always known you.”

The parade was getting closer and louder, and the street was filling with watchers. Dar's gaze went internal for a few minutes, until the waiter came back with their cafe au laits accompanied by small crunchy biscuits She nodded absently, then returned her attention to Kerry. “Yeah, maybe.” She conceded. “I definitely felt a connection to you. Always have.”

Her phone rang, and she pulled it out and answered it, holding her other hand over her ear, as she rolled her eyes at Kerry. “Yeah, I'm here. It's loud. Sorry about that.”

Kerry leaned back and watched the parade, the crowd near the street all cheering and reaching towards the floats, who were again tossing things at them with cheerful abandon. Rather than stand up and attract them, she settled for watching the street side participants instead as she listened with one ear to Dar's conversation.

Alastair, they're out of their minds.” Dar spoke, after a long period of listening. “There is no way I'm going to agree with that, much less the client. Why should we? You know perfectly well how I got involved in that, hell, Hamilton was there.”

She listened again. “They did? Okay, well, then they're more brainless than I figured.” She shook her head, and glanced at Kerry. “They fired Hamilton.”

Kerry wasn't surprised to hear it. After the last round between the Louisana lawyer and ILS she'd figured him for short term. “Is he coming here for Mardi Gras? Maybe we can have dinner with him.”

Dar paused in mid word, and her eyes twinkled. “Good point. Is he coming to visit the family? He know we're here?” She grinned. “I'll text him. Anyway, Alastair, they need to just move on. They probably don't want any part of it anyway, it could get a little squirmy for them from a publicity standpoint.”

She listened for a minute. “Because the contract involves domestic surveillance.” She said. “That enough for you?”

Kerry could hear the exasperated sound coming from the phone. “Didn't he know that?” She frowned. “Have him tell them from me that as the ex VP of operations, I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.”

That's just what Kerry just said.” Dar said into the phone. “Or better yet, have your friend the vice president explain it to them, because I saw that memo about who could or couldn't bid. Doesn't he owe you one?”

Poor Alastair. Isn't he retired yet?” Kerry sipped the rich, fragrant coffee.

Exactly.” Dar said. “It's a contract based on delivery objectives, they're not funding anything. I just gave them a framework and brought on some programmers. I don't even know how much margin its even going to end up having.”

You sound so sexy when you talk like that.” Kerry commented.

They did?” Dar sounded surprised. She looked back at Kerry. “Mariana and Duks resigned.” She told her. “That's why Alastair's still around.”

Poor Alastair.” Kerry repeated, shaking her head. “Maybe they'll open their own accounting and HR firm and we can outsource to them.” She winked at her partner. “Hey, didn't you say Alastair was a pilot? He want to come be our private plane guy?”

Are you listening to this?” Dar started laughing. “Kerry's got a business plan for everyone.” She gave her a fond look. “I don't think Alastair wants to move to Miami, hon.”

Pfft.” Kerry saw another float heading their way and she stood up and went to the rail to see better. “Oh wow. Look at those costumes.”

Dar leaned back and admired her partners profile. “So anyway.” She said. “I'm sorry it's such a mongolian, Alastair. Seriously, anything I can do to help?”

Well Dar.” Her ex boss sighed. “Call me crazy, but I did think of suggesting they contract you as a consultant.”

Oh fuck.” Dar clapped her hand over her eyes. “Kill me now.”

No, listen.” Alastair chuckled. “It's really not so funny, because the problem is these people just don't know what to do. They leaned for so long on you, and probably me a little, that they're striking out in panic now, Dar. If I could get you to come in and talk to them, maybe that'll help.”

How? So I can tell them what to do and they can throw their cobalt blue ceramic cups of piss and vinegar at me?” Dar asked. “Alastair, I've got my own company to run here.”

Whooo!” Kerry snagged a tangle of beads out of the air, then grinned as one of the men on the float hopped off and danced through the crowd, ducking and weaving as people thrust their hands out to him begging for the trinkets he carried.

Well, that's the point, Dar.” Alastair said, placidly. “You start a company, and before the paint's dry on your business card it's a success. Remember what we said, about them figuring out how much of ILS's success was you?”

Oh for pete's sake. I'm just one person.” Dar sighed. “Ker, watch out!”

Kerry had her thighs braced against the railing, and was leaning over as the float runner danced over to her and leaped up, handing her a coconut as he grabbed onto the rail to hold himself in place for a moment. “Thanks!” Kerry grinned at him, pulling herself back.

I know you're just one person, Dar, but you made a difference, and maybe, if you talk to these guys, they'll figure out how to move along instead of sitting there stewing, and plotting to send lawyers after you.” Alastiar said. “Worth a try?”

Dar sighed. “Sure.” She shrugged. “You're the one suggesting it and in the line of fire.”

Atta girl.”

Anyway, let me go grab hold of Kerry's belt before she ends up being pulled onto a parade float.” Dar said. “Whatever you want to do, Alastair, I'm good with it. Just don't promise I'll come back to work there.”

Will do, lady. Have fun.” Alastair sounded pleased with himself. “Talk to you next week, and if you see Ham, buy him a burbon on the rocks for me will ya?”

Will do.” Dar said. “Later.” She closed the phone and got up, tucking her fingers into the back of Kerry's jean waistband as she leaned over to talk to the still hanging float man. “Complications, Ker.”

They'll wait for Monday.” Kerry handed her the coconut. “Say hi to the Zulu folks. They like to party.”

Dar smiled and toasted the man with the coconut, getting a waggle of his eyebrows and a stuck out tongue in response. “I guess it'll wait for Monday.” She agreed. “Cheers!”


Several hours later it was late, and they were back in the hotel, and free of beads and bangles and mostly drunken tourists that had accompanied them on their tour.

That was way more Booze than Boos.” Dar was flat on her back, regarding the slowly circling ceiling fan. “Way funnier than last night though.” She admitted. “That guide was hilarious.”

He was. My stomach still hurts from laughing.” Kerry responded. “That one story about that pub owner who told everone he heard voices telling him to tap the kegs....”

Dar chuckled.

So I didn't see any ghosts. Did you?” Kerry emerged from the bathroom and joined Dar on the bed, squirming over and using her partner as a pillow. “Like, not even one.”

Nope.” Dar stretched her body out, then relaxed again, and closed her eyes. “Hungry?”

Oh no.” Kerry shook her head. “I'm still full from lunch.”

Good. Me too.” Her partner agreed. “Maybe later I'll be up for ice cream.”

Kerry chuckled. “Dar, I've never heard you not be up for ice cream regardless of what we've eaten.”

No, that's true.” Her partner admitted. “But they had cappuchino mint chip hand churned on the menu and it caught my eye.”

Uh huh.” She gave Dar an indulgent look. “Should I get an ice cream churn for the cabin?”

Dar's brows hiked up and she returned the look with interest. “We can get one that actual real people can use, not chefs?”


Hot damn.”

Done deal. It's healthier to use all fresh ingredients anyway.” Kerry said, virtuously, glancing up and seeing the devastratingly droll look had to laugh. “Well, that's the theory.”

The front desk said they could get us tickets to some ball somewhere. You interested?” Dar listened to the derisive snort in response and smiled. “Okay, so we've had our fortunes not told, been on two ghost tours, seen parades, have throws from at least.. I think five different krewes, eaten the best fried chicken on earth and have had around a half ton of beingets. What next?”

You forgot the picture I bought.” Kerry stifled a yawn and snuggled closer, wrapping her arm around Dar's. “How about we just hang out here together and listen to the music from outside.”

Dar stretched out her other hand and began scratching Kerry's neck gently, moving along her scalp as she squirmed in pleasure. “That sounds really good to me. We can chill out on our balcony too.” She smiled, as she felt Kerry's breath warm the skin on her stomach through her shirt. “Or we could just lay here.”

We could do that.”

Dar gave her a hug. “You're so easy.”

I love you.” Kerry said, simply.

Dar lifted her head a little and peered down at her. “I love you too.” She said. “And I think this is a completely appropriate discussion for Valentines Day, don't you?”

You bet.” Kerry sighed contentedly. “You know what's cool too? That we're both here, and not having to worry about anything or anyone saying anything because we're both here.”

Did they ever do that?” Dar mused. “Not after the first year or two, right? No one cared after that, did they?”

Kerry pondered that for a minute. “Well, I cared I guess.” She admitted. “I always was thinking about what people would think if both of us took off at the same time. Which doesn't really make sense now that I'm hearing myself say that, but I think there always was a little bit of guilt there for me. “

You mean, how you got the job?” Dar asked.

Kerry nodded. “Even though you told me a thousand times.” She gazed up at her partner. “I'd been in that spotlight too long.”

Dar nodded. “Yeah, I know. When I actually pressed all the buttons to hire you, and sent you that email, I thought about that.”

You did?”

For about five seconds.” Dar grinned sheepishly. “I knew you'd be rock star at the job, so that never bothered me, but I also knew if we ended up where I thought we would it was going to be a little awkward.”

Kerry smiled in response. “I remember being in a meeting one day, after we'd started sleeping with each other and I swear I was convinced everyone was both staring at us, and knew.” She mused. “Then I realized that everyone was staring at us and they probably did know because we were wearing each other's necklaces since we'd gotten up late that morning and just grabbed and ran.”

Dar started laughing silently, shaking Kerry a little.

And then, I kinda did stop caring.” Kerry mock sighed. “I said, what the hell, Kerrison. If they're going to think that then just thank God it's true.”

Dar was still laughing. “I remember that day.” She got out. “I realized it when I went to the bathroom and I was washing my hands and looked up into the mirror. Should have seen my face. I felt like such a goofball.”

Kerry enjoyed the low, musical sound of Dar's laughter. She had remembered the day too, because Dar had ended up coming into her office and sprawling onto her desk pointing at her throat in eloquent silence.

Too funny. “So, I do love you.” She slid Dar's shirt up and then nipped her on her navel. “Not only do I love you, but I love being in love with you. It's like Christmas every single day.”

Dar folded herself around Kerry and hugged her. “My birthday everyday.” She exhaled in contentment. “Do you know how nice it is to know that I don't have to worry about half the IT planet going down? I never realized what a drag that was until now.”

Were you reading my mind?” Kerry rested her cheek against the soft skin on her partner's stomach. “I was just thinking that before.”

Want to dance?” Dar asked incongruously, as the music got louder outside.

Not really.” Kerry traced a light line down Dar's skin. “I'm just having fun laying here and messing with you.”


You could sing for me.”

I could. But I dont' know the words to whatever that is they're playing and I can't compete with the volume.” Dar responded, in a practical tone. “Want to go find a pool and swim in it?”


Just want to lay here and mess with me?”


That was okay with Dar. They'd gotten up early, after a long night, and spent the day running around. There were some concerts on tap for the next afternoon and a carriage ride planned and it felt good to just chill out and enjoy the rich, sexy sound of the music and let her mind drift.

Kerry felt Dar's breathing even out and slow after about ten minutes of their just quietly laying there. She watched the tension in her body go slack, and she hesitated, not wanting to wake Dar out of sleep when she'd just slipped into it.

Moving would. So she let the tension run out her, and settled down to wait until she was sure her pillow was deeply asleep before shifting.

It was very peaceful to lay still, watching the easy rise and fall of Dar's chest as the sounds outside started to fade off a little. She could hear people laughing, and the clink of glass and she shifted her gaze to look out the window at their balcony.

It was empty, just the backs of the chairs visible. Beyond that, she could see the splash of light from the street, and the outline of leaves from the trees in front of the hotel, moving in the breeze as she watched.

It was windy outside. She could see the outside shutters moving too, and then, as she lay there, she saw the rocking chair outside moving gently as well.

Was that the breeze? Kerry watched the chair, feeling her heart rate pick up a trifle. The motion was regular and casual, just as if someone was sitting in the seat and enjoying the view.

So maybe it was the wind. She slowly let a long held breath out, watching that motion, which remained steady, despite the variable breeze she could see outside in the movement of the trees.

Hey.” Dar's voice broke the silence, making Kerry jump. “What's up?”

Urf.” Kerry put her head back down. “I was trying not to wake you up.” She muttered. “But I saw that chair out there moving and it was giving me the creeps.”

Dar lifted her head slightly. “The rocking chair?” She asked.


Dar studied it. Then she hiked herself up on her elbows, waiting for Kerry to lift up off her before she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. “I'll check it out.” She rubbed her eyes. “Bleah.. I was just heading into a dream.”

I know. Sorry about that.” Kerry patted her hip. “I saw you twitching a little.” She got out of bed and followed her partner across the floor over to the balcony, putting her hand on Dar's back as she opened one half of the french doors and looked out.

The chair stopped rocking.

Kerry eased her head around Dar's shoulder and looked at her.

Dar regarded the piece of furniture pensively. She walked out and circled the chair, putting her hand on the back of it and giving it a tentative push. It rocked back and forth twice or three times, and then settled down to a mild creaking. Dar paused, and then she half shrugged and sat down in it, putting her hands on the chair arms.

Kerry sat down in the regular chair next to her. “I was really expecting that chair to squeal when you sat on it.”

So was I.” Dar admitted frankly. “But this is our porch, for the time being and I'm not going to surrender it to a moving chair. “ She leaned back, hiking one knee up and folding her hands around it. “So now that I'm wide awake again, how about some ice cream?”

Absolutely.” Kerry leaned over and kissed her shoulder. Then she got up and went back inside, picking up the room service menu and studying it's possibilities.


The next evening, after a long day of parade and concert watching and a distinct lack of any weird stuff or creepies, Dar and Kerry were seated at a table on the outside deck of a Mississippi river paddlewheel steamer cruising slowly past the dockside festivities as they waited for dinner.

This is nice.” Kerry leaned back and regarded the scene with a smile. “Beautiful way to end up our Valentines day celebration.”

It is.” Dar was sipping at a glass cautiously. “Holy crap.” She put the drink down. “You could take the paint off the hood of my new truck with that.”

Kerry chuckled. It was a bit chilly on the water, but she had a pair of heavy jeans on, and a thick woven pullover on, and she was comfortable out on the deck. Dar had a newly bought hoodie encasing her tall form, and niether of them really fit into the more formally dressed couples around them.

Her mother would have been competely scandalized, and she actually could not have cared less. The seating hostess hadn't batted an eye either, and she was glad they'd opted for the cruise rather than one or the other of the balls the concierge had tried to entice the with again.

Tomorrow morning they would fly home, and probably go into the office in the afternoon. She took a sip of her own drink, and luxuriated in the sense of freedom. She hadn't scheduled anything for Monday, and if they were in the mood when they landed, they could just go home and stay there if they wanted.

Too bad Hamilton's up in Boston.” Dar said. “Since it's snowing there. But I'm glad he suggested this.” She indicated the cruise. “I could picture him on this, in his tux, with a mint julep.”

I'm kind of surprised they fired him, but kinda not.” Kerry responded, giving their waitress a smile as she put down two bowls of golden colored gumbo down in front of them. “Those guys are in a place where they don't want to be told what to do.”

Dar was munching thoughtfully on a spoonful of the gumbo. She swallowed, and took a sip of her drink. “Hope so. Then they'll tell Alastair to get lost when he suggests I talk to them and he can finally get loose of the place.”

Oo.” Kerry wiped her lips. “I've got to figure out how to make this. It's awesome.” She poked around in the bowl. “Are those shrimp?”

Crawdads.” Dar supplied knowledgably. “Also known as mudbugs.” She watched Kerry's eyes lift and pin her. “Or crawfish.” Here eyes twinkled.

Ah.” Kerry then recognized the animals. “Same as we had at the Zydeco festival last year?”

Right, but just the tails.”

They were cruising along the river, right now passing a wooded section that came right down into the water giving the impression that the trees were marching right down the bank and under the surface. They were outlined in the moonlight and as Kerry looked at them, she suddenly thought she saw something moving.

Then she was sure she did, a human shaped figure appearing at the water's edge between the trees, going into the river up to their knees. “Dar...”

I see him.”

Kerry continued spooning her gumbo into her mouth as she watched the shadowy form. He appeared to be a black man, of middle height, dressed in pants, rubber boots, a collarless shirt and a ragged denim jacket. She could see the appearance of suspenders under it all, and he stood with a long walking stick propped in the water in front of him that he was leaning against.

There were no features to his face, but his dark skin, and the night illumination could just be obscuring them. Then she recalled what river she was on, and her school reading and smiled faintly. “Could be Jim from Huckleberry Finn, huh?”

Could be.” Dar agreed. “Probably some guy they pay to dress up like that and give the tourists a thrill.” She remarked. “Coincidence he shows up right when the boat gets there.”


Realistic.” Dar's blue eyes twinkled at her, as she looked up across the table. “C'mon Ker, you heard those guys.”

True. Kerry sat back as she finished her gumbo and watched the bank as it ambled past, the figure on it turning it's head to follow the boat as it went past. So Dar was probably right, and he was probably a bit of window dressing. She lifted her hand and waved at him, and the figure tilted it's head and looked back at her.

There were eyes there, she was sure of it. But they seemed too large, and too luminous. She felt a shiver go down her back and then the trees were between them, and she could no longer see the figure on the back. “Maybe fake, but sorta creepy.” She folded her hands, as the waitress removed the bowls and set down their main courses.

That could sort of describe Mardi Gras.” Dar investigated her plate. “You still seeing ghosts, Ker?”

Kerry wrinkled up her nose in reaction.

I think the whole idea of ghosts is pretty sad.” Her partner continued, carefully separating her shrimp from her grits.


Dar consumed a few bites. “Yeah.” She eventually responded. “The whole idea is, if you subscribe to an existence after death that you go on to some other place. Do something else, whatever. But ghosts, if you agree with the idea, are stuck here.”

Oh. “Yes, like those stories they told us the other night.” Kerry agreed. “They're looking for something, or whatever.” She thought about that as she slowly detached forkfulls of her blackend catfish. “Just left behind.” She paused. “You're right. That is sad.”

Not something I'd ever want to have happen to me, you know?” Dar said. “I'd rather not have anything happen than that.”

Kerry stopped chewing and merely sat there for a moment, staring slightly past Dar's shoulder. She thought for a moment what it would be like to be separated for eternity from Dar and the food lost all it's taste and appeal.

She put her fork down and sat back. “Boy so would I.” She said, after a long pause. “I think I'm going to go throw up now.”

Dar swallowed hastily, setting down her utensils and reaching across the table to clasp Kerrys' hand. “Sorry, hon.” She said, sincerely. “I didn't mean to get you crazy.”

No, of course Dar hadn't. Kerry sniffled a little and lifted her free hand up to wipe her eyes and rub the bridge of her nose. “I just imagined what it would be like to be without you.”

Dar got up and came around the table, crouching down at Kerry's side and putting her hand on her leg. “Totally dumbass of me, Ker.” She watched her partner give her head a little shake. “Don't worry. There's nothing that's ever going to keep us apart, no matter where we are.”

Kerry peeked down at her.

I won't let that happen.” Dar gave her a wry smile. “Ghosts or angels or dust, you won't ever be without me.”

At the words, the sounds around them rushed back in, and the music struck up, and Kerry felt her body relax as some part of her understood the truth being spoken that had nothing to do with what had been said. She glanced around, feeling al ittle foolish as she saw the other diner's eyes quickly go elsewhere. “Thanks, sweetie.” She managed a grin, patting Dar's hand. “Go finish your grits before they solidify into plaster.”

Dar waited for a moment. “You okay?” She asked, head cocked slightly to one side.

Yes.” Kerry offered her a bit of catfish on her fork, which Dar accepted. “You knew just what to say.”

For once.” Dar got up and went back to her chair, settling into it and returning her napkin to her lap. She looked up and past Kerry to find the people at the next table staring at her. “Is there a problem?”

Only that people like you should keep their unnatural behavior behind doors.” The man answered straightforwardly. “Not ruin other people's dinners with it.”

Kerry took a breath to turn and answer, but Dar lazily lifted one finger and wagged it slightly at her and she subsided.

Buddy. “ Dar said, in a tolerantly amused voice. “If you thought that was unnnatural, you've got a lot to learn about life. Better get started on that before you try breeding.”' She shook her head and went back to her shrimp and grits, ignoring the continued stare.

The waitress came back. “How is everything ladies?” She asked, standing with apparent randomness between their table and the next. “Can I get you a glass of bubbly to wash that down?”

Sure.” Dar agreed. “Got any Cristal?”

The waitresses smile went from indulgent to dazzling in a flicker of an eye. “We do. A flute each?”

Bring a bottle.” Dar countered. “And two nice big glasses.”

Kerry chuckled under her breath.

Yes, ma'am.” The waitress left with a cheerful wave, moving past the other table without a glance.

They were passing a brightly lit area and finally that drew the other people's attention and they were left in peace in their corner. Dar quickly consumed her grits, which had in fact started to stiffen in the cool night air. She'd already dismissed the jerk at the next table, but she could tell by the furrow in Kerry's brow that her partner hadn't.

Jerks were jerks. Dar didn't waste her time on them. “Chew, hon.” She advised. “It's too good to waste.”

Kerry paused, then smiled and went back to her plate. After a minute, though, she picked up her gizmo and tapped on it briefly, reviewed the results, then texted Dar a message.

Dar fished her device out and regarded it, then looked at Kerry, her brows hiking. She watched her partner shrug, and reviewed the note again, before answering it. What are the odds we'd end up sitting next to one of the heads of Aryan Nation?

Kerry put her fork down and typed back. About the same as him ended up sitting next to Roger Stuart's kid and a decendant of the Amerian revolutionaries.

Dar laughed. Could be worse, could have been Pat Robertson.

And that was also true. Kerry put her phone down and finished off her catfish, just in time to smile at the waitress who had returned with a gently offgassing bottle and glasses. “Can we get a couple of pieces of the strawberry shortcake too?”

Absolutely.” The waitress finished pouring their bubbly, and then tucked the bottle into an ice filled holder against the wall of the ship. “Be right back. “

Dar lifted her glass, and they touched rims. “Happy Valentine's day, sweetheart.” She said, slightly louder than needed for Kerry to hear her.

Same to you, my love.” Kerry responded with a wry grin, before taking a sip. “But boy, am I ever going to have to bust my ass to beat this the next time.”

They toasted each other again, then settled back to wait for their cake, and watch as the boat slowed to give them a good view of the waterfront road and a big, boofy parade that was making it's way along it.


Good morning, Kerry.” Mayte looked up from her desk as Kerry entered. “Did you have a good time in New Orleans?” She put down what she was working on and focused on her boss.

Kerry grinned, walking over and depositing a handful of beads and trinkets. “I had the best time.” She said. “I've got some pictures I'll show you – it was a riot. What a party that is, between the music and the parades and everything. Nonstop craziness.”

I was watching the news on television last night, and they had some video and it looked amazing.” Mayte replied. “I was hoping maybe we would see you but we didn't.”

Oh, we might have been in the crowd.” Kerry's eyes twinkled. “We got to see some parades, and went on ghost tours, and did a riverboat dinner on the Mississippi... we had a great time.” She exhaled in contentment. “We got home just after lunch yesterday – the flight was late, but that was the only issue we had.”

My mama said it looked like a crazy place.” Mayte remarked. “But papa said he'd like to go there sometime, only maybe not so close to the carnival.” She added placidly. “But I think he really wants to go because there are all those pretty ladies with no clothing.”

Hehehe.” Kerry chortled under her breath. “Well, there were those there for sure. Some of them take their clothing off so that the people on the parade floats will throw favors at them. Dar threatened to take her shirt off to get me a stuffed monkey but I made her stop.”

Mayte clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh.

Kerry removed the monkey from her pocket and waggled it. “She managed anyway.”

Am I being made fun of?” Dar entered, carrying her jacket over her shoulder. “You were the one hankering after that coconut.”

I would never make fun of you, hon.” Kerry bumped her affectionately as she passed. “I was just telling Mayte how you got me my monkey.”

Dar paused at the entrance to her office, looked over her shoulder, smiled and lifted one eyebrow in silent, yet sexy eloquence. Then she shook her head and chuckled, dissappearing from view as she headed for her desk.

Mm.” Kerry muffled a halfway embarassed grin, and moved along into her own space, tossing the monkey up and down. She went over to the built in shelves and plopped the memento onto one of them, next to a stuffed pig she'd won in a baseall toss at a street carnival a few months past.

She studied it, then retreated back to her desk and set her briefcase down, aware of Dar's low tones next door. She sat down and started up her desktop, pulling out the laptop and setting it down on the desk. While she waited, she brought up her calendar on her gizmo, reviewing her appointments as the machines booted.

Busy day.

She was glad they'd decided to go straight home instead of coming in the previous day though. It had been nice to settle back into their space, and play with Chino and Mocha, and deliver to Colleen the presents they'd bought for her. Even nicer to take a late night swim, and relax in the quiet of their home.

No loud bands, no drunk people, and no weird visions of potential ghosts around anywhere, not even around the Vanderbilt Mansion they'd passed on the way back to the condo.

She'd had no bad dreams, no spooky visitations, in fact she'd managed to mostly forget completely about any of the odd things they'd seen as she'd curled up in their waterbed wrapped up in Dar's long arms.

So it was all good.

She put her gizmo down and stretched her body out, feeling the mild ache of well used muscles from their session at the gym that morning. A little longer, perhaps, than their usual but a natural reaction to having spent the preceeding three days in nonstop indulgence.

Worth it though.

Kerry smiled, and opened her mail, then she removed the contents of her inbox and began to sort through them. Four contracts to review, three new hires, and a report from their real estate agent on possible expansion options in the area. She set aside the report and pulled the contracts over, picking up a two ended pen and focusing her attention on the text.


Dar wrapped her legs around the base of her chair, and leaned on the small worktable in the programmers area. Two of the database coders were across from her, and they had a structure diagram spread out between them.

So, we started with the base platform, but you said you wanted it to be really flexible.” The younger of the two was saying, a cleancut and dark haired latino with broad shoulders and powerlifter arms. “So we want to use relational, but we're going to need a big box, maybe one of the IBM P Series to run it.”

Okay, Fidel.” Dar said. “Here's the problem with that. The customer's good for the cash, we know it, but this is a step by step delivery project. We'd have to shell out for the hardware, then hope they'll accept it.”

Why woudln't they?” The other coder asked. “It's not like we're getting it second hand from North Korea. It's IBM.”

True.” Dar agreed “But those guys always have tech lists. We need to see what's on theirs, or get their buy in on the box before I sign the check for it.” She studied the diagram. “You always have to pre-buy to some extent, but you try to limit it wherever possible. It's a gamble otherwise.”

Fidel propped his chin on his fist. He was restless and aggressive, and actually reminded Dar a little of herself, back in the day. “Maybe we can get IBM to give us one for a POC?” He said. “So the deal would be, if it goes, then we buy it, and they get paid.”

Why would they do that?” Dar supressed a smile.

We tell them we're going to buy a box from someone else. Like HP.” Fidel said. “I bet they would do it. They did on my last gig.”

Dar tapped her thumbs on the table. “If I'm going to play that game with them, might as well up the stakes” She said. “Let me see if I can get them to use us as a platform for whatever experimental they've got on tap.” She decided. “No sense in going for a mid range.”

Fidel looked surprised. “Experimental?”

Like that Big Blue thing that beat the chess guy?” Mike, the second progammer spoke up again. “That would be cool.”

Something like that.” Dar said. “I like the idea of leveraging them. But I'll bring in the guys from Cray in too, and see if we can get a high level pissing match going.”

Cray? Wow..” Mike said. “You think they'll play ball with us?”

Dar smiled briefly. “We'll find out.” She said. “It's worth asking at any rate. Good ideas, people.”

Both men looked pleased at the acknowledgment. “Okay, so.” Fidel put his finger on the grid. “Then I can work out some three dimensional dynamics for the database structure. I'm going to need a crapload of table space.”

And a bigger SAN.” Mike said. “We're going to run out of LUNs.”

Dar sighed. “Yeah, Kerry's already looking for more space for us.” She shook her head. “Mark's working on bringing up a datacenter – I can't put in any bigger systems until we get that done. Won't fit in that server room.”

No way.” Mike said. “This all going faster than you thought?” He asked Dar.

It was strange, yet refreshing, Dar thought, to have these people treat her so casually. Regardless of how long she'd worked with people at ILS, they never had regarded her the way these men were. “It shouldn't have.” She admitted straightforwardly. “But yeah, I was expecting a little more runway.”

Well, we can work out the structure on paper anyway.” Fidel said. “We could use that new coder they interviewed yesterday.”

Kerry's working on it.” Dar said. “Okay, thanks for the recap. I'll go give the big boys a call.” She pushed herself to her feet. “Onto the next group.”

Thanks, Dar.” Fidel collected the printouts. “Check back with you later.”

Dar headed across the programming bull pen over to the other side, where she could hear a spirited argument about search metrics. The overhead lights were out, flashes of neon impacted her eyes as she went past desks covered in wall hangings, and over in one corner she could see the outline of a bean bag chair.

It all made her smile.

Hey Dar?”

She paused and looked around a cube wall. “Yes?”

Can you check this code progression?”

Even more so. “Sure.” Dar pulled up a rolling stool and cracked her knuckles. “Lemme see.”


Kerry signed off on the contracts and dropped them into her outbin, then paused. “Well, since you made your admin a manager, who are you expecting to come pick that up, Kerrison?” She asked herself wryly. “Get out of that big company mentality and get off your ass and take them down instead.”

She got up and retrieved the contracts, then made her way out through Mayte's space to the main corridor. She waved at Maria through her open door, then continued on to the suite of offices taken up by the accounting group. “Hey Col.”

Hey girl.” Colleen was supervising the installation of a set of file cabinets, which lined the walls of the good sized storage area her department had been assigned.

Kerry came over to where she was standing. “Wasn't technology supposed to get rid of all this paper?”

Colleen laughed. “Oooo sure.” She held her hand out. “When you bits and bytes types are 100 percent sure you can't lose them in the ether, we'll stop printing.”

Point made.” Kerry handed her over the contracts. “Can you execute these, please? I'll stop by HR with the personnel requests for them.”

Colleen studied the contracts, whistling softly under her breath. “Good gracious.” She glanced up at Kerry, who returned the look with a wry, slightly sheepish grin. “I was telling my brother about this place. He thinks it's really that you and the tall dark and dauntless one have the touch.”

Kerry cocked her head to one side. “What touch?”

Colleen rubbed her thumb against her first two fingers. “The money touch, or really, success.” She said. “Most people would have been out there pounding the pavement handing out flyers looking for work. Not you guys.”

Oh, that won't keep up.” Kerry shook her head. “We caught a break because of the government projects.”

And these?” Colleen held up the contracts.

Well, we're lucky in that, we've got a history in this industry.” Kerry put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down a few times. “And we've got a history of success, between the two of us. If we didn't, we probaby would be out there pounding pavement.”

Lucky for the rest of us.” Colleen winked at her. “Let me get these squared away and filed, in these bonny new cabinets of mine. Half a drawer already with documentation.” She indicated one set, which carefully labeled drawers.

We should talk about offsite storage.” Kerry said. “Set up an account with Iron Mountain, at least.”

Already did that, m'dear.” Colleen said. “But it would be better if we could transfer it all digitally. The tapes.. I never much did trust them.”

Me either.” Kerry confessed. “Let me see what I can come up with, okay? I”m going to go grab a cup of coffee.”

Surely.” Colleen went into the office with the folder, leaving Kerry to emerge back into the hall and head for the stairsn dropping down them in an easy rhythm.

Roberts Automation.” The receptionist was answering the phone, as she got down to that level. “Yes? Oh, yes, let me put you through to our accounting department.” She gave Kerry a little wave. “I”m sure they're interested in a new stationary vendor.”

Kerry rolled her eyes and chuckled as she ducked into the downstairs break room, newly finished and equipped with tables and microwaves and two big refrigerators. The coffee service had been moved inside and off it's cart, and she nodded in approval at the newly plumbed drink machines and the box with it's selection of teas.

The refrigerator was already full of lunchboxes when she opened it, and jars of various condiments in the door pockets as well.

They had a smaller kitchen upstairs, but Kerry had decided to keep things on the lower level, to encourage people to get up and move around not get stuck in their chairs all day long. She opened one of the cabinets, stepping back as she spotted lines of neatly logo'd mugs inside, in their blue, gray and buff colors.

Nice.” She took one down and examined it, then put it down and selected a green tea bag rather than the coffee she'd intended on making. She added some honey to the beverage then took her cup and strolled around the lower level. She could hear carpenters and other workmen near by, and she stuck her head inside one of the nearly finished staff work areas whose door had a ladder parked next to it.

The room was empty and looked large, but Kerry knew once they got the modular furniture inside, it would rapidly shrink and she counted in her head how many cubes it would hold. “Sheesh.”

This would be the room for the support group the HR firm was busy hiring. They would report to Mark, but as she imagined the space she made a mental note to set aside the back section – which had a little angle to it and windows that overlooked the garden - for a supervisor.

Yet another person they'd have to hire.

Wow. Kerry moved along the corridor and headed around to the back side of the building, where the HR group had moved having expanded to require more space. She entered their new office, finding six people there with modular furniture, all busy on the phone.

She looked around, but the supervisor had spotted her and hurried over. “Busy in here.”

Boy is it” The woman said. “Let me tell you something Ms. Roberts, I've been doing this for fifteen years and I've never seen a company come off the blocks like this one has.”

I'll take that as a compliment.” Kerry smiled. “But I've got another set of requests for employees. We're going to need four more web developers, and two mobile specialists.”

My goodness.”

And next week, the support area's going to be ready, so we need to fill it.” Kerry said, almost apologetically. “Six tech support people and a supervisor. That's all for us.”

Wow.” The woman seemed slightly overwhelmed. “I”m going to have to call up some other agencies. Our pools are almost empty.” She grinned though. “But that's the kind of problem I like to have.”

Kerry remembered something. “Let me send you a list of possibles. I had heard of some layoffs in the recent past that could end up working in our favor.” She patted the woman on the arm. “See what I can do.”

She left the HR people in a buzz of activity, and went along the back side hallway heading for the other set of steps leading back up to the 2nd floor.

Going past the loading dock though, she paused when she heard voices outside. She turned and went to the dock, sticking her head out of the big rolling door to find Carlos there with their persistent antagonist, Wheels. “Hey.”

Carlos was standing on the dock, his big, muscular arms crossed over his chest, regarding the disabled man at street level. “Hello there, ma'am. Was just having a discussion with this guy.” He indicated Wheels. “He doesn't like that I had Waste Management put a locked hatch on the garbage dumpsters.”

Ah. Kerry hadn't realized their new security manager had done such a thing. “Well, it's s shame that people couldn't just abide by our wishes, but there ya go. Good job.” She returned Wheel's dour glare with a mild expression. “I'm not really sure what your problem is.”

It's just garbage.” Wheels said. “Why do you care if someone roots in it?”

Cause it makes a mess we gotta clean up.” Carlos answered him. “I saw what you did yesterday. That's why I had them come out today and lock it. Guy had to spend two hours cleaning up after you.”

There ya go.” Kerry started to pull her head in.

Hey, chick!”

Kerry debated on responding. Then she leaned against the doorframe. “Hey, jackass.” She called back.

But Wheels held up a hand. “I'm not trying to be an ass that's what we call women.”

I”m not trying to be an ass either That's what I call men who call women chicks.” Kerry responded promptly. “So now if we've got that clear, I've got work to do.”

Carlos chuckled, and started to follow her inside.

Hey wait.” Wheels yelled after them. “I just want to ask you a question.”

Kerry paused just inside the door, exchanging a look with Carlos who was filling the opening. “I”m going to regret going back out there, aren't I?”

Not with me around.” He responded, with a faint grin. “Gwan if you want to. I was trying to get him to talk before you came out but I think maybe he's just a jerk.”

Kerry sighed and eased around him and out the opening, emerging back on the loading dock with Carlos at her heels. She walked over to the edge of the concrete and sat down, dangling her legs and leaning her elbows on her thighs. “Yes?” Her eyebrows lifted in question.

Carlos leaned against the building wall, watching them closely.

The disabled man stared at her for a minute, apparently surprised that she'd come back. “Okay, yeah so.” He now looked embarassed, and he checked around him carefully before he looked back at her. “I seen new people around here all week.”

Yes. We're growing.” She studied his face, which had scars on it that she could see now, this close. They reminded her a little of the ones Andrew had. “Why do you ask?”

He looked away furtively. “Just wondered.” He muttered. “Stupid queer that owns the place said you were hiring. Just wondered why we never get a piece of that.”

Kerry felt a warmth between her shoulder blades and she somehow knew if she looked behind her, she'd find Dar there watching them. Either from the dock door or the windows above, but she knew it as surely as she knew going down the road this disabled vet was heading on was likely going to bring them nothing but trouble.

But that had never stopped either of them. “Piece of that.” She repeated slowly “As in, why we woudln' consider hiring you?”

Us. Any of us.” He waved a hand in a vague circle. “All I heard was crap about bringing jobs in here. But not for us.” He repeated, refusing to look at her.

Ah. Kerry regarded him in silence for a moment, until he looked up, and she had just that long to decide what she was going to do. “Well, the jobs are open for anyone who's qualified for them.” She said. “We didn't tell the agency to not look around the neighborhood.”

He stared trucelently at her.

We're an information technology company.” Kerry went on, in the same mild tone. “So if anyone around here is interested in that kind of job, they're free to apply. I can give you a list of the openings we have, and you can show people.”

You're just saying that.” He accused.

Kerry sighed. “You want to see them or not? Honestly, I wouldn't bother just saying that. I've got enough to do as it is, but we're expanding and we need people, and if there's someone around here who is qualified and wants a job, better for me.”

There was a long silence in which they just looked at each other. Then Wheels finally lifted his hands off the arms of his wheelchair and put them back down. “Yeah okay. I'll look at them. You're probably way to snooty for the likes of anyone here but what the hell.”

Kerry started to get up, but she heard steps behind her and looked over her shoulder to see Mayte trotting out, with a folder in her hands. She took the time to top her head up, finding the windows overhead empty but the swinging plastic curtain of the main entry swayed enough to give her a glimpse of a tall figure just inside.

Thanks Mayte.” She took the folder and then hopped off the dock, landing and walking over to offer the disabled man the papers. “There you go.”

He grabbed them from her and shoved the folder between his body and the side of his chair. “Yeah, okay thanks.” He muttered, turning the chair around and starting off. Just past the garbage dumpster he stopped and turned, looking back at her. “Sorry about the mess. We didn't think anyone cared.”

Kerry crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against the dock wall, watching him go, and as he turned the corner at the end of the alleyway she heard the scuff of footsteps behind her and a moment later Dar was landing next to her, comig to stand at her side with her hands planted firmly on her hips. “Hey sweetie.”

Hey.” Dar responded. “Was that a good idea?”

Kerry shrugged. “We do need people, and you never know, hon. You manage to find skills in the weirdest places. Maybe one of those guys has tech experience.”

Maybe.” Dar said. “But do they have a bank account we can drop an ACH into, and will they pass the security review?” She took the cup Kerry still had on one hand and drank a sip of her tea. “At any rate, that was a lot better outcome than last time, and we don't need to call the cops.”


Dar handed her the cup back. “Think I'll go get some java and apologize to my coders. I hauled ass out of their crib like the schizoid overprotective nutcase I am and knocked some sodas over.”

Kerry eyed her. “You didn't really.”

Dar made a face. “Maria came hauling past me saying you were out here and she was going to get the security.” She explained. “I didn't really have super secret psychic powers this time.”

Ah.” Kerry smiled. “I think that was a good choice, Dar.” She said, in a sober tone. “Halfway through escalating a bitch fest with him, it occurred to me that we weren't going anywhere with that attitude. Then he took a step in. I took one too.”

Trust your judgement one hundred percent.” Dar offered her hand. “Let's go back to work.”

You got it.”


Kerry whistled softly under her breath as she folded another pair of underwear, bopping gently to the song playing in her earbuds as she worked. Chino and Mocha were sleeping in Chino's bed nearby, after being run to exhaustion by Dar earlier in the evening.

Now her partner was diligently upgrading the wireless in the condo while she got two washes done, just a typical weeknight at the condo taking care of chores.

Dar poked her head in the bedroom a few minutes later. “Hey.” She entered, removing one of the ear buds. “Dinner's ready.”

Kerry finshed folding the pair of fire engine red panties in her hands and removed the other bud. “What are we having?” She asked, turning off the digital player clipped to the waistband of her shorts. Dar had offered to cook, or actually, had offered to obtain a meal from them and that pretty much could end up anything from corn dogs to filet mignon from the island's restaurant.

Never was the same thing twice.

Chicken and rice.”

Kerry removed the ear buds and put them down on the dresser. “Well, you haven't had time to cook that so did it come from the italian place?”

Dar smiled. “Haven't had time, and have no idea how to.” She agreed. “Would you believe the Cuban place across the channel delivers here by boat?”

I do now.” Kerry followed her back out of the bedroom and over to the kitchen, where there were carefully aluminum foil wrapped packages on the countertop. “I dont even want to know what the delivery charge is.” She unwrapped the items as the clatter of toenails sounded on the tile. “Ah, our children heard the crinkling.”

They retreated to the living room with plates of fragrant chicken and rice, and sprawled on the couch next to each other as Dar flipped on the television.

This is good.” Kerry forked up a bit of the tender chicken. “You get the wifi all worked out?”

Yep.” Dar slung one long leg over the couch arm, and stuidiously ignored the two pairs of Labrador eyes watching her every move. A nearby handset rang, and she set the plate on the side table and reached over to answer the house phone. “Don't know who the hell this might be. Hello?”

Hey Dar.” Mark's voice echoed through the handset. “Just heard from one of our old workmates, so I thought I'd give you a buzz since I figured you could use a laugh.”

Sure.” Dar put the handset on speaker. “Kerry's listening too. What's up?”

Remember you said, eventually they'd have a fuck up, and then we'd know how screwed up they really were?” Mark sounded amused. “Happened sooner than later. Pete, the guy who took over my spot? He just called me. Total cluster. They did some change that the new ops vp told them to do, and half everything's cocked up.”

Oh. Damn.” Dar mentally pictured it. “What kind of change?”

Pete was in too much of a flop sweat to tell me. He was just praying to cheezus I could tell him what to do, because everyone's screaming at him.”

Did you?”

Mark hesitated a trife, then cleared his throat. “No.” He said. “Not... I mean, if I could have given him a quick answer, ten words, I might have you know? But I don't know what they changed.”

Sounds like a mess.” Kerry contributed, fishing out a small bit of chicken breast for each of her two furry acolytes.

Yeah, it is.” Mark said. “So besides thinking you'd think it was kinda funny, I thought I should warn ya because Pete knows, and probably everyone else knows there's only one person they could call who maybe could help them.”

Dar sighed.

Would you?” Kerry asked, curiously.

I would tell them just revert their damn change.” Dar said. “Shouldn't take me to do that though. It's common sense, Mark.”

Hundred percent, boss.” Mark agreed. “That's what I told Pete. Problem is, so many cooks were in the kitchen and making changes to try to fix it, they never recorded the start state and they don't know what to do to put it back.”

Dar frowned. “Pull the configs from the repository and push them.”

They tried that. Pete said something went wrong with it.” Mark said. “He's kinda freaked.”

Dar paused thoughtfully, taking a forkful of her dinner and chewing it. “Someone making things worse on purpose?” She asked, after she swallowed. “Big coincidence the repository going down in the mix.”

Mm. I kinda thought about that, but the guys left there want their jobs. I dont think they'd do that. Bigger gain for them if they run smooth, and get in good with the new dude.” Mark said. “So anyway, like I said, just thought I'd let ya know because you never know, they might swallow the pill and pick up the phone.”

Huh. I doubt it, but thanks Mark.” Dar said. “Let us know if you hear any more tidbits. Pays to be in the know.”

You got it, boss.” Mark sounded satisfied. “See ya tomorrow.”

Later.” Dar hung up the phone, and for a long few moments they simply ate together in silence, deep in thought.

It's so weird.” Kerry finally said. “Knowing that's going on and not getting any calls for it.”

Uh huh.” Her partner agreed. “They won't call me. Too much loss of face.” She decided. “They'll bring in specialists or someone from the vendors to sort it out.”

I think you're right.”

Dar handed over a bite of chicken to the patiently waiting Chino, then provided a smaller piece to Mocha who stood up on his hind legs and pattered on her knee with his front paws. “When they get through this, maybe they'll start forgetting about us, and move on.”

I sure hope so.” Kerry wiped her lips and got up, putting her plate down. “Watch that for me will you? Want some ice tea?”


Kerry went into the kitchen and got a couple of glasses out, pausing a moment to think about how she felt about ILS being in trouble.

Part of her felt a little gleeful, and she wasn't sure if she was altogether happy about that since she'd spent the time she had on the other side of the coin. But there was a resentment there too, of how ILS had treated her and Dar and it would be folly to pretend that didn't exist either.

And if they did call Dar?


She opened the refrigerator and poured the beverage out from a jar on the top shelf, the tea itself having been made using the sun method by her before the weekend. It had tea, of course, but also raspberries and blackberries in it, and it was murky and weird looking but tasted fine.

Sweetened with honey. Kerry took an experimental sip, then grunted approval and filled the other glass. She brought them back into the living room where Dar had found a special on penguins to watch. “Oh, cute.” She settled back on the couch, this time with her shoulder right up against her partners so she could let her head rest there too.

Dar shifted and touched her head to Kerry's. “I was just thinking about what I was going to do if they do decide to call me.” She said.

Naturally, since I was just in the kitchen wondering the same thing.” Kerry observed. “Hon, tempting as it is to be the knight in shining armor that saves them, I think those bastards will just use that as leverage to say you deliberately crippled the company by leaving.”

Dar smiled. “Now who's being psychic?”

Seriously. I think the reason they fired Hamilton is because they want to come after you no matter what our agreement was, and they'll take any excuse.”

They're businessmen.” Dar said. “I would hope that would mean they'll do things just to continue the company's success. Coming after me doesn't do anything for anyone.”

I think some of them don't care.”

Dar shrugged. “Could be. Anyway, it's a moot point unless they do call.” She paused, thoughtfully. “As I said, I don't think they will. I think it'll kill them to have to. But if they're desperate enough to do that, then if I do help, I get one up on them.”

Hm.” Kerry grunted softly. “I dont know, Dar.”

Wait till it happens. Or not.” Her partner said. “They don't have idiots there. I”m sure they can figure it out.”

Kerry snorted, but remained silent, finishing up her chicken.



Kerry looked up from her desk, to find Maria in the doorway. “Hey Maria. What's up?”

The receptionist, she has someone downstairs who wished to speak with you.” Maria said. “I think it might be one of those terrible men.”

Oh really.” Kerry tapped her pen on her desk. “Can you ask Carlos to bring him up?”

Surely.” Maria smiled in agreement, and ducked out.

This might be interesting.” Kerry mused, cocking her head to one side to listen for Dar in the next room. There was nothing there but silence, but she figured if Carlos was bringing the guy, it should be all right.

A couple of minutes later, Carlos knocked softly at the doorframe, then stood back to let his charge enter, following him closely inside.

Kerry was waiting, her desk cleared, and the folder she had of the job openings off to one side. Not to her surprise, the man who came in was the guy who had stalked her, and she remained neutrally silent while he crossed over and sat down in one of her visitor's chairs.

Carlos went over and stood on the other side of him, hands clasped in front of him. “You be polite to this lady, or you're going out the window, bud.” He remarked in a mild tone.

The man looked at him, then looked back at Kerry without commenting.

So what can I do for you?” Kerry finally broke the silence. “Mr. Patterson, is it?”

Yeah.” He said, clearing his throat. “Wheels told me you gave him a list of open positions.”

I did.” Kerry agreed. “He asked me why none of the jobs had been offered to you and your friends – and the real reason is none of you are registered with a technical placement agency. But I gave him a list of openings in case he was qualified for one of them.”

Seems like he can talk just fine.” Carlos commented. “Not sure why you're all in his business.”

Patterson turned and looked at him. “Why don't you get out of here?”

Cause I don't have to. I work here.” Carlos replied, in a mild tone. “And my job is to make sure that this lady doesn't have to deal with jackasses. So don't be one.”

Kerry was really getting to like Carlos. He stayed relaxed, leaning against the wall and maintaining a benignly friendly expression that was at complete odds with his words. He didn't see any need to bluster, there was just a calm confidence about him that reminded her a little of Andrew.

Whatever.” Patternson turned back to Kerry. “So here's the deal.” He said. “All of us come in together.”

Kerry folded her hands. “Do all of you have IT experience?”

Wheels knows that stuff. And Doug, too. But it's all or nothing. We're a team.”

Mr. Patterson.” Kerry cleared her throat. “I do not hire gangs.” She paused. “If any of you have experience, I would be more than happy to have you apply, and if you qualify for a position, I'll hire you. But no one gets to work here on someone else's back.”

That's not how it works.” He said.

That's how it works here.” Kerry interrupted him. “Because I get to make the rules. I own the company.” She had to stifle a smile as she said it because it was impossible to supress the shiver of pride that went through her. “So if you or any of your friends, individually, are interested in a position, c'mon in, and fill out an application.”

Behind him Kerry suddenly caught sight, in her peripheral vision, of Dar coming to stand quietly in the doorway between their offices, leaning on one jamb, arms crossed, watching Patterson like a hawk.

So what's it going to be?” Kerry asked, since Patterson was just glaring at her. “I don't really have the time to debate with you about it.”

Okay look.” He grudgingly responded. “We all of us been friends since grade school. If we could do civ stuff we woulda. But we ended up going into the service, and had each other's backs there. Same thing here. We want to stay together, and e call all do useful stuff. Just not all that tech crap.”

I get that.” Kerry said. “But it's just not how we do things. We're a small company, and every person has to be here to help us go forward. I can't just hire people with useful skills, because they might not be useful to me.”

Yeah well I figured you'd say that.” Patterson stood up. “Screw it. We'll go find someone else that appreciates veterans who served their country.” He turned his back and started out, pausing when he saw Dar watching him. “Too many queers around here anyway.”

Dar looked him up and down. “Takes one to know one.” She drawled, with a smile. “Carlos, see the gentleman out, please.”

Yes ma'am!” Carlos caught up to Patterson at the door and bowed him through. He followed him out into the hall and their boots were heard going down the steps.

That was icky.” Kerry commented, as Dar sauntered over and parked herself on the windowsill behind Kerry's desk. “Was he serious, Dar? Did he really think we'd just hire a bunch of guys like that?”

Should have offered to take all of them but only pay for the guys who were qualified. Let them share that.” Dar commented, muffling a smile when her partner turned all the way around and stared at her. “Just kidding.”


I think.” Dar folded her arms. “I think those guys are in a place where it's them against everyone. You let someone get ahead, like Wheels maybe, and the group breaks down. I can see why they'd want to stick together.”

Kerry eyed her thoughtfully. “Isn't that sort of a fantasyland?”

Well. I think they're looking at it like, that's all the family they have. They don't have anything else.” Dar said, in a gentle tone. “I don't agree with the request, and I think they're a box of assholes in a pink paper wrapper, but I remember what my dad used to say about his team mates and it is what it is.”

Mm. Wish Dad were here.” Kerry sighed. “Maybe he could talk to them since he's been there.”

I think we should talk to Wheels on the side, if he's the one with tech skills. Not fair to him to hold him back.” Dar said. “Maybe we can force a split there. Might be a good thing for all of them.” She pushed herself up off the sill. “But I wouldn't hire this guy that was here even if he was Charles Babbage himself.”

Booyah.” Kerry agreed, giving her a wry grin as she retreated back to her office. “Okay, next.” She picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Charles? Hey, it's Kerry.” She said. “Just wanted to make sure you got those quotes.”


Dar dropped into her chair and leaned back, glancing at the darkening sky over her shoulder. Mark had just settled in her visitor chair and they both had bottled drinks they were sucking on. “Hear from your buddy?”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Six times.” He admitted. “I'm feeling it for the guy. They're roasting him.” He related. “They got like three contractors and half the tech staff from two vendors and they're still in the weeds.”

Dar frowned. “What in the hell could they have done to screw things up that badly? Network was stable for two god damned years before I left.”

Well, from what he told me.” Mark muffled a smile. “That new guy, the one that took Kerry's spot? He said we'd been doing it wrong, you know? So he had them switch all the routing protocols, because he told them it would make everything faster.”

Dar covered her eyes in eloquent silence.

Boss, it's a mess.” Mark agreed. “They literally had to static route stuff in the main office just to keep systems up.”

Oh my fucking god.” Dar muttered. “Are you kidding me?”

Pete didn't want to tell me. He's sure it's gonna get out he was talking to me and he's gonna get fired, but he said today, he's probably gonna get fired anyway because the new guy's got teflon boxers and he's throwing them all under the bus.”

Dar lowered her hand and stared at him. “What?”

He told the big cheeses Pete and his team screwed up the change and he's doing his best to fix it.” Mark watched his bosses face alter from exasperated bemusement to a dark, cold anger in the flash of an eye. “I felt bad for Pete. He was kinda losing it. Said he never thought his boss would do that.”

No.” Dar said, in a clipped tone.

We never had to worry about that.” Mark added, gingerly. He could see Dar was totally pissed off, her body was getting restless and she was breathing a little faster. 'Sorry boss, didn't mean to tick you off.”

Dar took a deep breath and released it. “That sure did tick me off.” She confessed. “What an asshole.”

Mark grinned wryly at her. “I kinda hope they call you.” He admitted right back. “I want to be there when you finish fixing that crap and tell that guy what he's going to die of.”

What's that?” Kerry came in, sorting through a handful of papers. “Charles signed the letter of intent, Dar. He got funding for about ninety five percent of the quotes we gave him.” She glanced up at her partner, and saw the storm clouds. “What's up?”

Just filling Big D in on stuff at the old place.” Mark explained. “Anyway if I hear any more, I'll clue you.” He got up. “Time to go get on the bike and ride.” He lifted a hand and waved, then left.

What's got you so torked?” Kerry put her papers down and went around behind her partner, reaching over the back of the chair to start massaging her neck and shoulders. “They still screwed up?”

Dar exhaled again. “Yeah, but.. Mark found out what they did, that new guy told them to make that change, then when it went south he blamed them.”

Oooo. Yow.” Kerry winced. “They would never see that coming.”

Dar braced her elbow on the arm of her chair and rested her head against it. “Yeah that's what Mark said.”

Kerry leaned over and gave her a kiss, along with a compassionate hug. “Aw, hon.” She felt Dar reach up and take hold of her hand. “Hey maybe those guys will figure out how to fix it, and turn the tables.”

Her partner shifted and looked up at her, eyebrows hiking.

You never know.”


Dar tapped her boxing gloves together and studied the big hanging bag, determining what to pound the crap out of next. The release of the pent up aggravation had come as a relief, and now that she'd spent forty five minutes just whaling at the bag, she had gotten enough out of her system to make her back off, and take it easier.

Kerry was wisely across the gym, doing sit ups. They'd been together long enough at this point for Kerry to know when to leave her alone for a litte while, and she knew that Dar would come over to join her at some machine once she felt better.

She was almost at that point.

Dar switched bags, going from the big body bag over to the speed bag and starting a slow rhythm on it. She could feel the stretch in her shoulder muscles, and as she sped up the routine, finally, the stress released out of her and she was able to focus on the exercise and not wish it was a human being taking the punishment.

She spent ten minutes on a rapid patter battering of the bag, then slowed it down and finished, feeling a pleasant ache in her arms. With an exhale of satisfaction, she turned and left the boxing area, working the gloves off her hands.

The island gym was mostly empty at this hour, and she was unimpeded as she crossed the floor and zeroed in on her partner, who was just at that moment taking a break from her routine. “Hey.”

Hey.” Kerry wiped sweat from her eyes. “Feel better?”

Dar smiled. “Yeah.” She shadow boxed at Kerry. “When you're done, want to take a swim?”

Sure.” Kerry stretched her body out, one way, and then the other. “Let me just do the leg press, and we can go splash.” She got off the incline board and moved to the next machine, while Dar took her place and hooked her feet under the holders and started a set of sit ups herself.

Kerry settled on the leg press and unlocked it, adjusting the weight and slowly starting the exercise. She could see Dar's profile as her partner moved up and down, and was glad to see the furrow gone from between her brows and a relaxed expression on her face.

Much better. “Guess what I have when we get back?”

Dar eyed her. “Does it start with ice cream?”

It does.”

Mm.” Dar looked contented. “Y'know, something you said before gave me an idea.”

Kerry paused at the top of her extention. “Yeah?”


Is that good or bad?”

Dar smiled, and boxed a little with her hands as she continued her sit ups. “We'll just have to find out.”



Continued in Part 12