Winds of Change

Part 17

Andrew stood beside the love seat Ceci was sitting on, watching the big screen television mounted on the far wall.  His eyes were fastened on the angular face the camera was pinned on, listening intently to what his daughter was saying.  “Huh.”

“I have no idea what the dickens that kid’s talking about.” Ceci said. “And neither does that reporter.”

“Wall.” Andrew cleared his throat. “I do believe she just told that there feller something about that bank thing that broke yesterday.”

“Hm.” Ceci regarded the familiar figure.  “She looks good on television, Andy. Maybe we should have taken her to acting class. Remember that agency that wanted her for commercials?”

Andy looked around at her, both eyebrows hiking up.

“Okay maybe not.”  Ceci chuckled, as Dar stopped talking, waiting for the next question.  She was at some desk somewhere, and she looked relaxed, her elbows resting on the surface and her hands folded.

She did look good on camera, the blandness of the cubicle walls making her dark hair and pale eyes stand out, and picking up on the focused intensity her kid tended to project. When she started talking, her speech was crisp, and confident and you just got the feeling she knew what the hell she was talking about.

Dar always had, even in the wretched youthful arrogance that had driven Ceci insane there was always an understanding, at least on her part that annoying and aggravating as it was there was always truth in what came out of that mouth.  “Did she just tell that reporter the guy who replaced her there was a one balled unicorn?”

“Yeap.”

“CNN’s getting bold in it’s old age.”

“Yeap.”

Ceci shook her head and went back to watching Dar field questions,  shrugging off the accusations of the former board members, downplaying the chaos her mother knew had been going on as long as a few hours previously.

Master of her element.  Ceci smiled. “Sharp kid, our daughter.”

Andy grinned wholeheartedly.  “Sharp as mah old boot knife.”

Ceci extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles, feeling a new sense of contentment as she watched the screen, the sight of Dar’s face no longer igniting in her any feeling of regret over their mutual mixed history.

Dar glanced off camera briefly and smiled, and it was easy to guess who she was looking at.   “I thought she said they weren’t going to get involved in all that stuff.”  Ceci said after a bit. “But that… they said they’re at an ILS building, right?”

“That Virginia one. I recognize it.” Her husband agreed.  “Dar probly went out there to fix ever’thing up. Got tired of all the yapping.”

“Maybe they’ll  leave her alone now.”

“Maybe that there dog’ll turn that tail around and fly off.”

“Idiots.”

Andrew snorted, then glanced up as her heard the doorbell ring. “Who all’s that?”

His wife craned her head around him and peered towards the door. “Oh damn it, my xray glasses are on the table. Can you toss them to me?”

“Lord.”  Andy got up and went to the door, opening it and moving forward to stand in the opening.  “Yeah?”

The young, copper haired girl on the landing took a step back. “Oh. Hello.” She said, in a doubtful tone. “I was looking for Ms. Roberts.”

“She ain’t here.” Andrew said. “What’cha want with her?”

“Andy, stop scaring that kid.” Ceci edged her slim form around his.  “Well, you’re the young lady from the Island Market, aren’t you?”

The girl nodded. “My name’s Kristie.” She said. “Sorry to bother you. I’ll come back.” She started to back up. “Thanks.”

“Eh eh eh.”  Ceci held up a hand. “Hold on there, kiddo.  I think we need to talk to you.”

Kristie stopped, and eyed her uncertainly.

Ceci crooked her finger at her. “ Don’t’ worry. I won’t kill ya.” She said. “I just want to talk to you.  I think you owe me that after the trouble you got my child into.”

“I didn’t mean to.” The girl said instantly. “That’s w.. I mean, I wanted to apologize.”

“C’mon in.”  Ceci pushed the door open. “Maybe you can do more than that.”

**

“All right now, let’s see what we got.” 

They were seated around the small work table on one side of the big office. Dar was showing the demo on her laptop, her screen turned so that the president could see it.

The surreal nature of the moment wasn’t lost on Kerry. She was seated on the other side of the table, watching the man alternate his attention between the computer and Dar, head cocked slightly in an attitude of listening.

“So you can just ask it whatever you want to, right?” He finally said, once Dar had finished her explanation.

“Right.” Dar agreed.

“Sounds easy.”  The president inched over. “Can I try it?”

“Sure.” Dar turned the keyboard over and pushed back in her chair, extending her legs under the table.

Kerry watched him peck out a question. “Eventually Dar wants to make it so you can just talk to it.” She commented.  “Speech recognition is a little tough.”

“Specially when you sound like I do.” The president looked up and winked at her. 

“Any variance is tough.” Dar conceded. “Unless you talk like Kerry does.  But you can write algorithms that can deal with tonal variations.”  She glanced at the screen, where the database was pondering a response. “I’ll have it practice on my dad.”

The screen cleared and returned some data.  “So, what it says is, it found nothing in the current dataflow that referenced your  name, and the world jackass.” Dar said. “Remember this is just a random test database.”

The president chuckled. “Okay how about this.” He pecked the keys again. “How about, tell me something about rockets and the US East Coast.” He hit enter.  The screen hesitated, then responded, this time with a full page of detail. “Well now, look at that.”

Dar nodded. “So it found some email that referenced those terms, and some song lyrics.  The human operator will probably want to see some additional detail about the first, but maybe not the second.”

Bush nodded, and hit the key for the first return.   “So this’ll show me that actual mail, huh?”

Dar nodded.

“That’s going to freak everybody out.”  He studied the screen. “Ain’t it?”

“Well.” Kerry sat forward and rested her elbows on her knees, looking past Dar at the screen. “In reality, it’s something that any internet service provider can do right now.” She said. “They see all your data so if the police wanted, they could have them capture all the traffic you send and receive and turn it over.”

Bush blinked. “Really?”

“Sure.”  Dar said. “It’s what I could  have done when I was at ILS.  Capture every bit of information going in and out of the Pentagon, and sold it to the highest bidder.”

The president sat back in his seat and regarded her.   “I don’t think I like that idea.” He said, after a pause. “Here’s the problem with all this technology stuff.  We don’t have a handle on it.  It’s too wide open.”

Dar considered the question. “It’s true the internet changed everything.” She said. “It connected the world in a way that I don’t’ think anyone was really ready for. But the truth is, bad people do bad things and use whatever is available to do what they do.”

Bush nodded. “That’s right.  I did a study on that, if you can believe it.   Telegraph,  telex, morse code, fax modems, all that.  But now this here everyone connected thing makes it too easy for them, too hard for us.”

“So this is a tool to help counteract that.” Kerry said. “But you have to put it in the hands of trusted people. Really trusted.”  She added.  “This would be so easy to use for someone to persecute people for a lot of reasons not related to national security. You know what I mean?”

He produced a wry smile.  “Lot of things can be used for good or bad.” He remarked.  “But I thought someone told me all this stuff was .. what did they say… “ He frowned. “Encrypted? So you can’t see it?”

“Technically that’s true.” Dar said.

“But there’s a way around that?”

“Yes.” 

Bush nodded slowly. “Tell me something.” He hunched forward, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together. “What do you ladies think? This thing a good thing for us to do?” He looked from Dar to Kerry. “This right?”

Silence fell, as they all sat there, thinking.

Finally, it was Kerry who cleared her throat and spoke first. “The truth is, if someone wants to hurt us bad enough, they will.  They’ll find a way, and if it’s known that we can do this.” She pointed at the computer. “They’ll find a way around it.”

Bush glanced aside, then back at her. “That’s probably true.” He said.

“So what I think is, you should tell everyone you decided not to do this.” Kerry said. “Tell them either it cant’ be done, or it’s not right, or whatever you want to make people think it’s not being done.”

The president watched her face thoughtfully. “But do it.”

Kerry nodded.  Then she smiled faintly. “That’s what my father would have said to do.  He would have called this playing to the beliefs of the people.”

“What about you?”  He glanced at Dar. “You think that’s the thing?”

Dar hand her hands folded on her stomach. “I think you should do it because it can be done, and if we can do it, whoever’s against us can do it too. It’s stupid not to.”   She remarked. “But I don’t disagree with Ker’s slant on it.”

Another silence fell.   Dar found herself wishing they were home, all the excitement she’d felt about demonstrating her program evaporated away into doubt, and uncertainty of where they would be tomorrow and what new problems she’d face.

She felt a little down.  She wasn’t sure if she really cared what they did with the app now, in fact, if they decided to just cancel it she sort of felt like she might be glad.   In fact, if they finished up now here, she and Kerry could go see the Air and Sea Museum.

That sounded like a hell of a lot more fun than doing a demo for Congress. 

“Well.” Bush finally said, after pondering to himself for a long time. “Here’s what I think. “ He straightened up in his chair and leaned back, hiking up one ankle and putting it on his knee.  “I think we’re going to have to show this off, because if we say never mind, they’re all going to think we’re lying sacks of marbles.”

Ah well. Dar sighed inwardly.

“I”ll just have to come up with a good story about how we’re gonna lock this up in the depths of the Pentagon and only allow access to it with a gun and a court order by Eagle Scouts.” Bush concluded. “Or something like that.”

“Will they buy that, sir?” Kerry asked, quietly.

“Doesn’t matter.” Bush shook his head. “She’s right, about the cat being out of the bag.  Can be done, so we gotta do it.”  He scratched the bridge of his nose. “Sometimes politics are a mess.”

Kerry almost laughed.   “I think my mother agrees with you.”

“When I demo this for the senators, I’ll skew it to show how the automatic processing works rather than have them ask questions of it.” Dar said. “How it finds connections. I think that’s less intimidating.”

“Mike was right on that.” The president said, in a rueful tone. “I shoulda kept my yap shut. One of them poked the bear one too many times about us not knowing enough to stop those planes and I told em we had something to make that up now.”

“I remember when it happened, right after, everyone was so angry and.. I guess embarrassed.” Kerry said.  “I remember thinking, how could we let this happen.”

Bush was staring past her. “Just be glad you weren’t sitting in my chair.”  He said, then he straightened back up and clapped his hands together. “But that’s water under the bridge, right? How about some coffee, ladies?  Bout that time of day.”

“That would be great.” Kerry said. “We didn’t get any sleep last night trying to fix that problem. It’s been a long day.”

The president got up and picked up a phone, which connected with out him having to dial. “Hey, get me a tray with some coffee and some cookies in here, willya?  For all of us? Thanks.” He put the phone down. “Now, we got a minute here, tell me about that whole thing with the press.  What’s up with all that?”

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances.  “It’s a long story.”  Kerry temporized.

“Hey, I like stories.” The president sat back down. “Specially when they’re being told by good looking women.  Have at it.”

**

“That was weird.”  Kerry smiled politely at the guards as they left the office.

Dar eyed her. “Given what we’ve gone through in the last few hours  I don’t know what part of that you’re referring to.”

“Yes.”  Kerry had to admit.  “This is one of the stranger days I can recall.”

They were being led down the hall by an aide.  Dar finally took her phone out of her pocket and looked at it. “Ten missed calls. Glad this thing has a silencer.”

Kerry was checking hers. “Yeap.” She thumbed through the numbers.  “Here’s Richard.. I better call him back once we’re outside.”

“Did you know you used to be able to listen to analog cell phones by tuning in a radio scanner?” Dar asked, as she put the phone away.   “They were radio transmissions in the clear.”

“You  know this personally?”

“Yeap.”

Kerry digested that as they left the building and started down the sidewalk to the parking lot side by side.

“Roberts.”

They turned, to find Briggs jogging after them.  He waved them forward. “Let me walk you ladies to your car.’

“Bout to get weirder.” Kerry muttered as they cleared the gate.  “I can just tell.”

**

Ceci took a seat in the little garden,  while Andy collected the dog toys and started tossing them. “So.”  She regarded the girl sitting uncomfortably in the other chair.  “You know we talked to your father.”

She nodded, relaxing visibly. “Yeah he told me.  I got really pissed off at him.”  She said. “I was so mad. He told me he was going to get them out of here, and.. you know that’s not fair.”

“No, it isn’t.”  Ceci agreed. “That wasn’t a nice way to pay Dar back for a good deed she did.”

“That’s what I told him, that it was so cool for her to come in and get in this guy’s face, so he should be thankful, you  know?  Not get all mean with her.” Kristie looked around, then back at Ceci. “But he didn’t get that. He thought maybe she did it just to get in with me.”

Ceci shook her head. “Not my kid.” She said, flatly.  “Let me tell you from the perspective of someone who had to deal with raising Dar. “ She leaned an elbow on the table. “She’s nuts.  Not really in a bad way, but she does crazy things for people because she’s got some weird internal chivalry that makes her do it.”

Kristie frowned. “What do you mean?”

“She would step in front of a bus for a complete stranger.”  Ceci said. “She got into that guy’s face on your behalf just because jackasses offend her sense of what’s right.”   She watched Kristie’s face closely “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Kristie looked away.  “Well, that’s not what my dad thinks.”

“Therein lies the crux of the problem.”  Ceci said.  “Because it’s true, and it’s  not fair of you, or your father to make assumptions like that.    The idiot who was going after you – he could have had a gun. She could have been shot getting involved in that and you know what kid?  You aren’t worth it.”

Kristie stared at her.

“Not to me, not to my husband, not to Kerry Stuart.” Ceci said. “I would rather have seen you raped and beaten than have to have her get hurt doing something like that.”

“That’s harsh.”  The girl said, bluntly.

“Life is, sometimes.”  Ceci agreed.  ‘Your father telling us he intends on making hard for us to live here until we leave is harsh too, especially since the only reason he’s doing that is because he thinks Dar’s going to turn you gay.”

The girl turned bright red. 

“You do know that’s not how that happens, right?”

“I…” Kristie said. “I don’t know anything about it, but that sounds really stupid.” She added. “You cant make people any way like that.”

Ceci regarded her. “No, you really can’t.” She said.  “But you know,  you can’t all the time help who you’re attracted to either.”

The girl gave her a suspicious look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, take me.” Ceci suppressed a smile.  “I grew up in a very rich family, up north.  My parents were willing to provide me with pretty much anything I wanted, and they took a lot of pains to introduce me to young men who were in the same station of life I was, and give me a chance to find a partner among people who were like we were.”

Kristie paused, and then nodded. “Yeah, I get that.  My dad does that too. He has me go with him to his club meetings and stuff like that.”

“Right.  So what did  I do? Ran away to a Greyhound bus station and fell in love with the first guy in uniform waiting for a ride I found.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Ceci glanced fondly at Andrew, who was chasing Mocha across the grass. “Andy’s from a very poor family in Alabama.  We have exactly nothing in common.  But that never stopped us from loving each other and making a life together.  So when my daughter told us she wasn’t going to have a conventional love life it never fazed either her father or me.”

“Did your parents freak out?” Kristie asked, curiously.

“They certainly did. I was disowned.” Ceci said. “But I never cared.  Andy was more important to me than they were.    So I sympathize with you about your father.”

“He’s so stupid.” Kristie said, suddenly. “That’s all he can think of- about that gay stuff. . It had nothing to do with .. that.. with sex or anything I just thought it was really cool what she did and I said so.” She got it all out in a rush of words.  “I didn’t think he’d freak out like that.”

Ceci studied her in silence, glancing up when Andy wandered back over and sat down next to her.  “He’s not religious?”

Kristie shook her head. “No, we don’t go to church or anything like that. That’s what I told them. “ She gestured vaguely in the direction of the condo.  “He just doesn’t like gay people.”

“How come?” Andy spoke up.

“What?”

“How come he don’t like gay folks?” He repeated. “He grow up with the church or what all?”

Kristie shrugged. “Most people don’t. Right?” She said, in a straightforward way.  “It’s weird.  It’s not .. I mean it seems really weird.”

Andrew shrugged back. “I guess we got a different view on it.  Never much bothered me.”  He cleared his throat gently. “Not with Dar, anyhow.”

Ceci turned her head. “But you didn’t like it when they hit on you. I remember that.”

The girl’s eyes widened.  “Hit on you… what do you mean?”

Andrew rested his elbows on his knees, one hand stroking Chino’s head as the Labrador nuzzled him.  “Had me some problems with that in the Navy.” He said, briefly.  “I got het up when folks talked bad about gay people, cause of Dar, and some folks took that to mean I went that way too.”

Kristie frowned. “But you..  you were married, right?”

Ceci raised her hand. “E-yep.” She agreed. “We’re an old fashioned couple. We got married before I had Dar, strange as that probably seems to you young uns.”

“And they still wanted to..  uh.. have you? “ Kristie made a face. “Now see what I mean? That’s gross.”

Well now, Ceci had to internally agree that the kid might actually have a point there.  She remembered the feeling she’d gotten when Andy had indignantly told her of the advances, and she had to admit..  “That is kind of gross.” She admitted. “But at the time, I told Andy to just ignore it.”

“But I did feel something bad. So I thought maybe your father had something like that go on.” Andy said. “Put people off.”

“I don’t know.” Kristie shook her head. “He never said anything like that. I think he just – “ She paused and fell silent.  “He just wants us to be normal.”

“Aint no such thing.” Andrew said.

“Okay well.”  Ceci said. “I’m sorry we all got into this mess, especially since it all started with a relatively good deed. “ She added. “Any ideas on how we can get everyone’s shorts out of a knot?”

They regarded each other in silence. 

**

“So look.”  Bridges folded his arms and leaned back against their rental car.  “Here’s where we stand.”

They were standing outside in the late afternoon sun, a cool breeze moving past.   Dar was seated on the hood of the car, and Kerry was leaning next to her. 

“I know where we stand.” Dar said. “But if it means anything, sorry we pissed you off.” She shifted a little on the hood. “Didn’t really mean to.”

“What? Never mind that.” Bridges waved his hand. “That boat’s down the river.  Something else came up.” He said. “You’ll be a footnote in an hour.  Everyone got focused elsewhere.”

“Great.” Kerry sighed.  “This needed to get more complicated.”

Bridges peered at her. “You should be used to this, Stuart.”

“I’m not. I went into high tech for a reason.” Kerry told him. “I’d rather be home installing servers for the Dade County school system.”

“What?”

“I want to go home.” Kerry rephrased her speech.  “You can keep Congress.”

“Thanks for nothing.” Bridges turned back to Dar. “How close is this thing to being able to do something useful?”

Dar folded her arms. “Six months.” She said. “We could start a limited deployment in probably four.”

“Not fast enough.”

“Do you want it to work?” Dar said. “I think I asked you that in our last meeting. If you want it to be this, a canned demo, you can take this and use it. Wont’ do anything useful though.”

Bridges looked around. “We need this thing.  Situation just came up, just after you left off talking to POTUS.”  He said. “I can’t give any details, but let me tell you after that piece aired on Turner’s butthole I got a call from some people who want to see this, as in, now.”

Dar shrugged. “I’d be glad to show whoever wants to see it this demo. But the real thing’s just not ready. Writing code takes time.”

“Not only that, its going to take time to get all the taps into all the ISPs for the collecting to start.” Kerry added. “This can’t happen overnight.”

Bridges pinched his lips with his fingertips.  “Will throwing money at it help?” He asked. “Buy a bunch of bodies for you to use?”

“To an extent, sure.” Dar said. “More people can code segments. But it’s still not going to be overnight.”

“I could find some other bunch of idiots to do this.” 

“You could.” Dar’s voice remained mild. “That’s capitalism. There’s always competition.”

“Smart ass.” Bridges said. “Tell you what, I’ll quadruple the contract price. You get me something in four weeks.”

Four weeks.  Kerry looked at her partner,  mentally doing the math and feeling a touch lightheaded at the amount they’d clear from it.   She saw the thoughtful look in Dar’s eyes, and remembered their upcoming vacation, feeling a pang of regret.

Regret which lasted barely more than a microsecond.

“No.” Dar said.  “I’ve got something scheduled the next couple weeks I’m not going to back out of.  I”ll have my team work on it, but they’ll finish it when they do.” She got up off the car hood and unlocked the doors. “If that’s not good  enough let me know. We’ll move on.”

Bridges studied her. “You actually mean that.” He seemed slightly amazed.

“I do.” Dar said. “I don’t want to put my life on hold right now. Kerry and I are going to the Grand Canyon.”

Bridges stared at her.  “You are shitting me.” He said. “You’re going to blow me off for that?”

“Yes.”

‘What in the hell is wrong with you?”

“Excuse me, we’ve got an appointment with Congress.” She opened the car door and slid behind the driver’s seat as Kerry scooted around and got in on the other side.   “Do me a favor, and let us do this right.  It’s going to be damned embarrassing if you don’t.”

“Huh.” He put his hand on the door. “Roberts, if something happens that this thing could have prevented and didn’t, it’s on your head.”

Dar met his eyes without flinching. “It is.” She said. “Which is why I’m going to deliver it to you when it’s ready.   It’s my reputation on the line.”

For a moment she was sure he was going to slam the door on her.  She made sure her bodyparts were inside, in fact, but he merely shut the door gently and patted it.  Then he lifted a hand and walked off, heading back towards the gate with its stern guardians.

“I have no idea how that ended.” Kerry admitted.

Dar started the car “I think we’re okay.” She said. “And if not, screw it.”

“Well, I don’t know, hon.” Kerry settled back in her seat. “This is pretty deep.”

“Honestly I don’t care.”   Dar backed up and started out of the lot. “I’m going on my god damned vacation and I don’t care of the whole Western world falls on it’s ass while we’re gone.”

Kerry started to make a comment, then she saw the line of Dar’s jaw tighten and she merely reached over and tucked her hand around her partner’s arm.  “Can we stop and grab a snack?” She said, instead. “I’d like to get something in my stomach first before I start returning these calls or talking to Congress.”

“Sure.”

Kerry leaned over and let her head rest against Dar’s shoulder.  “What a weird day”

It had been.  Dar was diligently searching the passing buildings for something edible, wishing the demo for the Senate was behind them and more than that wishing they were on the way home.  The events had left her more than a little unsettled. “Tacos okay?”

“Mm.”

“How about fried chicken?”

“Mm.”

“Jamba Juice?”

“That’s the ticket.” Kerry said. “My guts not really willing to deal with that other stuff right now.” She kept her head where it was, as Dar pulled off into a small strip mall and into a parking spot.  “Thanks.”

“Anything for you.” Dar patted her cheek. “And there’s a chicken wing place next door. Meet you back here?”

Kerry gave her arm a squeeze and released her. “You bet.”

They got out of the car and split up, Kerry ducking into the smoothie shop and Dar making her way into the wing joint.  It was moderately busy in both, and Dar got in line and waited, thumbing through her messages.

One from Maria,  hoping things were all right. Another from Colleen, congratulating her on the interview.  

Dar smiled a little, at both of them.   She opened a third, that had an attachment and she opened that to find a set of code snippets for her to review.

“Ma’am?”

Dar looked up to find the cashier waiting for her.  “Sorry.” She put the Handspring away.   “Dozen wings hot and a large coke.”

“Sure.”  The woman said. “Naked?”

“Yes.”  Dar responded, ignoring the sniggering of the two teen boys behind her.  She paid the woman and moved down the counter, hearing the door open.  Without turning, she felt a sense of warmth on the side of her body facing the entrance, and she knew without looking that Kerry would be there.

“Hey.”  Kerry bumped her with an elbow. “I got you one too. I thought it might counteract the wings.”

Dar collected her wings and they went to a back table, sitting down together on the bench seats.  Dar pushed the basket of wings in the center of the table, and Kerry handed over a tall, blended smoothie. “Is there peaches in that?”

“Of course.”

Dar pulled the cup over and contentedly sucked on the straw. “Thanks.”

“Anytime” Kerry had picked up a wing and was nibbling on it.  “I called Richard while I was waiting.  I thought he’d have stacks of subpoenas for us so I figured I might as well find out the worst before we fly home.”

“And?” Dar was divesting a wing of it’s meat, sucking at the bone with single minded intensity.

“And nothing.” Kerry said. “He called the lawyer that was in that press release and the guy hung up on him.”

Dar looked up and frowned.

“He thought it was pretty weird too.”

Dar’s phone rang and she sighed, putting down her wing and fishing the gizmo out.  “Dar Roberts.” She said.  “Who’s this? What? Oh.”  She cleared her throat. “I’ve said everything I’ve got to say already about that.”

“Uh oh.” Kerry picked up another wing.  “Hope they don’t get cell signal in the Grand Canyon.”

**

They sat in the car parked in the lot outside the congressional office building, finishing up their fruit smoothies, the windows rolled down as the late afternoon sun streamed through them. 

They had ten minutes before their appointment.  Dar was leaned back in the driver’s seat, one knee hiked up with her elbow resting on it.   She had her head tipped a little back, and she was looking out the window, watching people walk down the sidewalk and turn up the steps to enter.

“Ready?” Kerry asked, putting her cup down.   “Let’s get this over with.”

Dar nibbled on the straw from her smoothie and remained quiet for a moment.  “Hm.”

Kerry half turned and regarded her. “Hm? Hm what?”

“Not sure what I should tell these people.” Dar said, slowly. “I’ve been thinking about that since we left the White House.”  She shifted a little and also half turned, so they were facing each other. “I keep wondering if we got ourselves into something we shouldn’t have.”

“It’s a little late for that, hon.” Kerry responded, in a gentle tone.  “We made a commitment to them.”

“I know.”

Kerry watched her profile, which was thoughtful and sort of somber.  “Well.” She finally said. “Regardless of what we end up doing, we probably should do this thing here and not blow them all off.”

“Yeah.” Dar responded. “You’re right.”

Kerry waited.  “But?” She prompted after another silence between them.

“But I realized.. when he was typing in questions in to it, that I’d overlooked something about this system” Dar said. “I’ve been thinking about it.. in the terms of, having trusted people use it.”

Kerry exhaled a little. “And you realized that trust is relative?”

“Outside you and me, yes.” Dar said. “It’s too enticing. You could find out anything about anyone that uses computers with this.”

“That’s true. But you also said, that it’s technology that is out there, in the wild.  So its going to happen anyway.”

“Yeah.” Dar said, briefly.  “I don’t k now, Ker. I don’t know what to do.  My perspective’s all turned around now.”   She put her cup down and opened the door,  pressing the buttons to roll the windows up .”But you’re right. We do have to go show them something.”

Kerry got out and pulled her messenger bag from the back seat.  She slung it over her shoulder as she joined Dar in the front of the car, and they walked towards the building entrance.   They walked up the steps and through the door, walking across the floor to the reception desk.

Dar handed over her business card, and the woman nodded, handing it back and pointing to the door behind her that had, once upon a time, been guarded by some big, hungry Marines.   Kerry followed her partner through it, then took the lead on the way to the big room the intelligence committee met in.

Just outside they paused, and Kerry reached up to twitch Dar’s collar straight. “So, I’m sure ..” She paused, as Dar put two fingertips against her lips, and looked up at her partner in surprise.

“Don’t do that.” Dar said, quietly.

Kerry’s fair brows contracted. “Hmm?”

“Be straight with me. You’ve been telling me what you thought I wanted to hear all day. Stop it.”

Kerry was stunned speechless.  She stood there, just staring into Dar’s eyes.   Finally she took a breath. “I ju..”

“I know.” Dar cut her off gently.  “You just didn’t want to piss me off and I was in a crap mood. I get it.” She moved her fingers and cupped Kerry’s cheek instead. “But don’t do that.  I don’t want that between us. I don’t want to wonder what you’re thinking.”

It was painful and not.  It poked a pin in her heart, and yet she felt a certain relief at Dar’s words that surprised her and yet as she thought about that, it didn’t surprise her at all.  She put her hands in her pockets and exhaled. “I think maybe this place does that to me.”

Dar looked around, then back at her.

“I lived most of my life inside the mirror fun house of politics.” Kerry said, looking past her at the wall behind them. “Reality was whatever you convinced people it was.”  She felt her skin flush as a skittering of past memories flashed into her mind’s eye. “I had to learn how to pitch everything.”

Dar reached over and unexpectedly tweaked her nose.  “Not with me, okay?”

 Kerry hesitantly looked up, to find herself being watched with wry affection and a mature understanding that made her feel suddenly like a high school kid again.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t be.  I just don’t want to ever start down that path with us.”

Kerry’s eyes dropped, then lifted.  She reached over and took Dar’s hand, lifting it to her lips and kissing the knuckles. “Thanks for being such a grownup.”

Dar’s eyes twinkled. “If my mother were here to see that, she’d be peeing herself.”

“If anyone else in this building were here to see that they’d probably be peeing on us.”  Kerry admitted wryly. She released Dar’s hand and took a breath.

“So level.  What’s your take on the demo?” Dar asked. “How should I play it?”

Kerry studied her face for a moment. Then a faint smile appeared. “Okay.” She said. “What I think you should tell these people is the truth. Just lay it out. They’re not idiots. They know the politics. Don’t’ whitewash what could happen.”

‘Even if that kills the project?” Dar watched her intently.  “They’re going to freak out.”

“Yes.”  Kerry said. “Because it’s going to come out anyway.  I’d rather get that out up front.”

“Bridges is not going to be happy.”

Kerry shrugged.  “At some point – I think what matters is what makes us happy.  Isn’t that what this whole crazy last month has shown us?”

“Could be.” Dar smiled. “But thanks.  Glad to hear you say it.”

“That’s what you were going to do anyway, wasn’t it?” Kerry smiled back, then sobered  “It’s the right thing for us to do.  What stresses me out is that we have all those people back there depending on us now. It bothers me that we could do something that would result in them getting hurt.”

“Isn’t that what we just did though?” Dar asked. “You and I decided to retire.  Whole fucking planet stops in mid spin, and half the country floats off into space.  I think it’s just part of our mojo.”

“Mm.”  Kerry grunted.

‘Anyway.” Dar leaned forward and touched her forehead to Kerry’s. “Don’t ever hold back, okay?  If you feel it, say it.”

“Even if it pisses you off? I really was trying not to do that, with al the craziness.” Kerry admitted.  “I wasn’t really bullshitting you, I just figured there was a better time to mouth off.”

“Even if.” Dar looked up as footsteps approached. “Ah.”

Kerry glanced over her shoulder. “Ah. “ She repeated. “At least this wasn’t in a dusty old stairwell. Hello mother.”

“We’ll continue the talk later.” Dar squeezed her shoulder, and turned as well. “Hi.”

Cynthia Stuart arrived at their side, and produced a smile. “Hello there.  How did your other meeting go?”

Dar turned and pushed open the door to the hearing chamber.  “It went well.” She said, standing back to let the other two enter.  “Its been a busy day.  Hope everyone’s on time here.”

“Oh, I have no doubt. Everyone is most interested in hearing about this.” Kerry’s mother assured her.  “In fact it was the topic of conversation at a luncheon I just left. One of the senator’s sons is part of the technology office in the White House and he was quite enthusiastic about it.”

“Uh huh.” Dar walked over to one of the tables and put her bag down, opening the top of it and pulling out the laptop.  “Do you have a..” She looked around at the room “No, probably not.”

“I think they last retrofitted it with electricity in place of gas lamps.” Kerry felt a flood of humor come through her body, making her feel giddy.  “So if you’re looking for a projector hon, give it up.”

“Mm.”

“Did I tell you they had the Titanic hearings in this room?”

Dar looked up at her, hands still on the keyboard, eyebrows lifted. 

Kerry winked at her, then she went over and leaned against the table, facing the slowly filling room.   She remembered the last time she’d been here, and the faceoff she’d dealt with. 

An evening of utter aggravation stress and anxiety that had ended peacefully in Dar’s arms and as she thought that, she turned to watch her beloved partner mess with her demo , thinking about their conversation just moments ago.

Dar sensed the attention and glanced at her. “Something wrong?”

“Not a damned thing.”  Kerry said. “I was just reflecting on the fact that there is no luckier son of a bitch than me anywhere.”

Dar’s left eyebrow hiked up.

Kerry just smiled and turned around, moving away from the table and into the center of the chamber.  “Ladies and gentlemen, if we could please get seated since we have a limited time for this demonstration and I know you all want plenty of time to ask questions.”

There were some surprised looks, and some annoyed looks, but Kerry returned a smile to all of them, waiting for the group to settled down behind their desks and grudgingly give her their attention.  “The last time we had a conversation you were all wondering how we knew what we knew when we knew it.”  She said. “This time, we’re going to show you how much information is out there that people like us have access to, and people like you want access to.”

Now she had their attention. “”Or you think you do.”  She added. “So lets get started.”

**

It was late, and it was dark outside the airplane windows  as they flew along the east coast on the way home.   Dar had the hood on her hoodie up surrounding her face, and she was sound asleep in her seat, her long body relaxed.

Kerry was close to being the same, but her mind was slower in winding down and so she was quietly sipping some Kahlua and cream as she listened to the drone of the engines in the mostly silent plane.  

The demo had gone fine.  Dar had answered questions in a calm and straightforward manner and therefore had scared the living crap out of everyone in the room up to and including Kerry’s mother.

Outrage, shock, disbelief, and calculated interest all wound up in a ball as both the positive and negative of the systems ability occurred to the distinguished audience in turn.  

They had shared all that with Gerry Easton, who thought the whole thing was hilariously funny and she’d gotten a chance to meet Alasbaster the Labrador who had made her fiercely miss home and Chino and led to them taking a red eye home instead of waiting  until the following morning.

So here they were, content to leave the politics to the politicians and she had come around to the decision that whatever happened did. Dar had said, if they lost the contracts, there would be others and the staff they had onboard would shift over to those.

And if no other contracts were found, and it turned out they needed to shrink rather than grow, then that’s what would happen.

They would go on their vacation. They would let the chips fall where they may, and since they both tended to potato chips and not gambling chips, the fallen ones would be taken care of by the tongues of two Labradors so in the end –

What would be would be.   Kerry put the cup she was drinking from down, and let her eyes close, turning her head to the right to face her sleeping partner.

The sounds around her shifted a little, and took on a hint of echo and she could feel herself start to fade out glad of a chance to get a nap before they landed and would have to drive home.

Two flight attendants in the galley just forward of their seats were talking in low tones, and now, curiously the words sharpened in her hearing as she hovered on the brink of sleep.

“Boy, I’m glad that computer glitch got cleared up.”

“No kidding!  It’s been a nightmare with flight ops the past two weeks.  What was it, two hundred cancels, and those four near bang ups on the ground?  Sheesh.”

“They couldn’t schedule half the planes yesterday.  But it was smooth tonight.”

“Sure was. Don said everything’s running like normal again. Glad they figured out what the problem was but damn it took them a long time.”

“Sure did.”

Kerry let her eyes open and she studied Dar’s sleeping profile as the words faded, and the attendants moved off down the aisle.   They had done that,  she and Dar.  Two anonymous women sprawled in seats at the front of a half empty airplane, and

Should they have done it sooner? Could they have?  Kerry sighed, and closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly.   It didn’t really matter, did it?

Water under the bridge.  That was in the past.  She couldn’t change it, so they just had to carry on and take each moment as it came.

**

‘Good morning, Kerrisita.”   Maria waved at Kerry as she passed the open door to her office.  “Did you have a nice trip back?”

“We did.” Kerry paused in the doorway, a cup of coffee in her hand. “Very quiet flight, and no traffic when we drove back to the island.”   She paused to take a sip. “Which reminds me, I’ve got to find a real estate agent and have them come in this afternoon. Dar and I are going to find a place somewhere around here to live.”

Maria looked surprised. “I thought you very much liked the place you have?”

Kerry shrugged. “It’s a condo.” She said. “We want some place more like a house, with a yard.  Some place the dogs can run around, and we can personalized more.  Dar used to live around here, matter of fact.”

“That is so nice.  Would you like me to make those arrangements?” Maria asked. “I have how you call them, the contacts?”

“Sure.” Kerry smiled.  ‘That would be awesome, Maria.  You know us.” She said. “Something on the waterfront, with a slip for the boat and a yard.”

“Si.” Maria nodded. “I will have my cousin come in to talk with you. She and her husband have many clients in this town, and also, Coral Gables.”

“Sounds good.” Kerry toasted her with her coffee cup and headed off to her own office. “Good morning Mayte.” She said, entering the outer chamber. “You ready to move down the hall?”

There were boxes scattered around, half full.  “Ah Kerry yes.” Mayte paused in the act of putting papers in one of them. “I like the new office very much but I will miss being around here with you and my mama.”

“You needed your own space.” Kerry said. “Dar and I will be just fine here, right Zoe?”

The younger girl smiled, from her place kneeling in front of another box. “Yes, ma’am” She answered slowly. “I will do my best.”

Kerry smiled and walked past, entering her own office and it’s sedate sunniness. There was a distinct scent of waxed wood from the floors and fresh paint from the walls and as she crossed through the beams of light from the window  she felt a sense of contentment.

From the room next door she could hear Dar’s voice on the phone,  and a moment later her presence was detected and Chino came trotting in with Mocha at her heels. “Hey kids.”

“Growf.” Chino came over and sat down next to her chair, tail wagging. 

Kerry sat down behind her desk and put her cup down, reaching for her mouse to wake up her desktop system.  She studied her screen and chuckled, starting on the first of her list of new mail, glancing up at footsteps to see Mark entering. “Hey.”

“Hey.”  He came over and sat down, picking up Mocha to pet him as the puppy came pattering over.  “Guess what?”

“What?”  Kerry started sorting through her mail.

“Pete got a call from the old place.” Mark said. “Said they were straightening stuff out, and did he want to come back.”  He scratched Mocha behind his ears, and the puppy yowped, tilting his head back and poking his tongue out.  “He said he told them thanks but no thanks, but at least they sounded sane again.”

“Well, it must help that things are working again.” Kerry said. “And boy am I glad that’s done.”

Mark nodded. “The way the big D did it – that was slick, you know? Got those guys in Herndon to do it.  And they recorded the whole thing.”

Kerry nodded. “I don’t’ blame you for not wanting to touch that, by the way.” She said. “I was glad Dar didn’t either though at the time I was ready for it to get done any way she could.”

“I felt like a chickenshit.”  Mark admitted. “But man, I so didn’t want to go in there. It gave me creeps just standing at security, even though those guys were totally cool, and would have let me up if I asked them to.”

“The guys at Herndon were pretty glad to see us too.” Kerry said. “Until I told them the government wanted to hire them.” She shook her head. “Not sure how that’s all going to work out.”

“They really going to take all those contracts?”

Kerry glanced up at him and nodded. “They lost trust.” She said. “I still can’t believe they were that stupid.”

“Wow.” Mark said.

“Speaking of stupid.” Dar came to stand in the connecting door, leaning against the frame of it.  “Hamilton just called. He said he’s got a meeting with the lawyer from the ousted board members in about a half hour. He’ll let us know what comes out of it.”

“Tell him to tell Richard.”  Kerry took a sip of her coffee. “Maria said no process servers have shown up here yet so who knows what’s going on.”  She pushed a folded newspaper across the desk towards her partner. “No sign of anything in the news.”

“Which is probably good news.” Dar said.   “So lets move on.”  She winked at them then returned to her office, with Chino at her heels.

“She’s right.” Kerry said.  “So, I got your note about the data center.  Dar and I had talked about not doing that, but now I think we should.  Talk to me about the location.”

“Sure.” Mark got up and came over to the desk, putting down a folder. “So here’s the deal, it’s a giant freaking datacenter one of the big boxes put up and then the county tanked em. So it’s all ready for us… “

“You guys can get this rolling while Dar and I are on vacation, right?”

“You bet.”

**

Kerry wriggled a little into the base of sand she was lying on, gazing up at the canopy of stars overhead and listening to the breeze stirring the sabal palms and palmetto bushes nearby, surrounding the small beach on Dar’s little offshore island.

She felt mellow and relaxed, tired from a long day of diving and swimming, content to lay where she was being warmed by a nearby campfire and waiting for the sounds of Dar coming up out of the ocean, where she was busy collecting them some dinner.

That would mean she would need to stir and go cook whatever it was Dar came up with, but until then, it was just her, and the salt tinged night air and the gentle sounds of the Dixie riding at anchor nearby.

The weather was perfect.  Not too cold, but not muggily hot either,  the air full of the smell of the ocean and the seaweed on the shore, and the wood smoke from palm branch fire. 

Here there was no sound of civilization to bother them, and only the threat of a curious crab to disturb them and Kerry was glad of the isolation and the opportunity to spend some time with her family without interruption.

She stretched her arms out and her fingertips brushed Chino’s damp fur, feeling the twitching of the sleeping animals dreams  as she looked up at the stars and thought about the past little while.

What had Ceci called it? A  cycle of change.   Kerry pondered for a moment whether the change had now ended for a while, or would continue on.

But only for a moment before the sound of something emerging from the waves made her lift her head and peer past the fire, smiling a little as the moonlight revealed the outline of Dar’s tall form as she trudged up out of the surf, crossing from shadow into the firelight as the ruddy gold mixed for a moment with silver.  She had a shortie wetsuit on, and a tank, and she turned and sat down on one of the picnic benches to take them both off, dropping her fins and mask on the table’s surface.

“Ah, the primordial huntress returns.” Kerry commented. 

Dar gave her a droll look, then held up her catch bag.  “I have critters for you.”

Kerry amiably got up and brushed herself off, then walked over and took the bag, handing Dar a towel in return.   “It feels like there’s a lobster in here.”

“Dos.”  Dar roughly toweled her head dry, walking over to the folding table and donning the dive coat laying across it.   “Nice under there.  You can see the moon almost to the bottom.”   She draped her towel over a hook under the umbrella covering the table and ran her fingers through her hair.

Kerry hung the bag on another hook, then turned and shifted a big pot of water onto the fire’s sturdy grate,  stepping back as the flames bathed the bottom of it and it hissed gently. 

The heat of the fire toasted her, a counterpoint to the cool breeze coming off the water and through the rough underbrush of the little island that had once been Dar’s hideaway and still had no real name. 

Dar fished a bottle of ginger ale from the cooler under the table and opened it, then settled into a hanging rope chair with a satisfied sigh. “Nice.”  She rested her hand on one knee and took a swallow of the cold soda, rinsing it around inside her mouth before swallowing.  “What a beautiful night.”

Kerry looked up from taking out covered side dishes that had come with them on the Dixie and grinned.  “Glad you thought of coming out here.” She kept an eye on the pot, waiting for it to boil, and got out the plates and cups they’d likewise brought. 

“C’mere, little man.”  Dar picked up Mocha and set him on her lap, where the sleepy puppy yawned and plopped down, idly chewing on her fingers. “I saw an octopus.”

“Did you?  Damn. Now I’m sorry I didn’t tag along.” Kerry observed the water starting to bubble and took the catch bag off the hook, positioning it over the pot and turning the lever that let it latch on to the edges.  “Wish I’d remembered my ear plugs.”

Dar chuckled as she swiveled a little and watched Kerry grimace in reflex as she unlocked the bottom of the catch bag, dumping it’s contents into the pot.   The glow from the fire outlined her beautifully, catching highlights in her hair as she cautiously removed the bag.

There were no sounds save the hiss of the water droplets hitting the fire,  and after a moment, and a grunt of satisfaction, Kerry popped the lid onto the pot and went back to fixing their plates up. 

“No screams?”  Dar asked.

“Pfft.”  Kerry came over with a plate of cut fruit and offered her some. “One more week, and we’re off to river rafting.  Dar, I can’t wait.  Even if we end up sleeping on rocks I don’t care.”

“I care.” Dar selected a piece of watermelon and bit into it. “These are supposed to be high class campsites. We better the hell get air mattresses at the least.”

“Sissy.”

“Hey, shortie. I’ve camped rough. Have you?”

Kerry chuckled. “Closest thing to rough camping I’ve done is sleeping on the floor of your office. So no.”  She admitted. “But I’m sure we’ll be fine. I was thinking before about going to sleep and being able to see all the stars in the world overhead. Not like here. I want to see the Milky Way. “

“Me too.” Dar rested her head against the rope and rocked back and forth gently.  “My dad once told me he’d been to places where you could see stars like that. In the desert and all – but he said you would always wish for clouds because for them it was the darker the better.”

“Sure.”  Kerry rocked along with her in the next chair.  “But I can’t wait to just go do that.  Spend time looking at stuff I’ve never seen, and the rafting.  I want to get out of my head space for a while.”

Dar remained quiet for a bit, just nodding slightly as she scratched Mocha under the chin. 

The wash of the waves was broken suddenly by the sound of a boat engine, growing slowly louder.  Dar looked over her shoulder, then she got up out of the rope chair and went to the shore, walking along it and peering out over the ruffled waters.

“Of course, our life can’t stay perfect for more than fifteen minutes.” Kerry sighed, getting up and going over to the fire.   She removed the pot lid and peered inside, then put it back down, going over to the table and getting it set.

“Cutter.” Dar called back, over her shoulder. “Heading this way. I’m going to go over and get on the boat radio before they assume we’re illegal aliens.”

“Okay.” Kerry  got the tops off the side dishes and portioned them out. “Don’t take too long. Lobster’ll be ready in about five minutes.”

“Won’t take more than 2.”  Dar jogged along the shore and hopped up onto the floating dock that extended out to the anchored yacht bobbing at the end of it.   She got to the side of the boat and vaulted up and over the railing,  moving quickly across the deck and into the cabin where the inside radio system was.

She’d just reached out and picked up the microphone when searchlights lit up the outside of the Dixie an she stepped halfway out of the boat, shading her eyes from it.  “Dixieland Yankee  to Coast guard cutter, coast guard cutter off my portside.  What’s the problem?”

The light outlined her a moment more, then cut off, and the radio crackled. “Cutter Avalon – sorry about that Dixieland Yankee. Is that Captain Roberts?”

Dar felt her brain quietly explode at the title.  “Uh. Yes.”  She said after a moment. “It is.”

“Standby , Captain.   We’re coming in.”

Dar put the mic down and went onto the back deck, standing with her hands in the pockets of her dive coat as she watched the cutter rumble closer.

She could see several men standing on deck, and two were getting into their pontoon launch, which was lowered into the water and shortly speeding her way.     “Over here.” She pointed them around the front of the Dixie, and a moment later they were alongside the floating dock, and hopping out.

Dar got onto the dock to meet them. “What’s up?”

One of the men stepped forward. “Lieutenant Davis, we met a bit ago down south.”

“I remember.   Did I look suspicious again?” Dar asked, with a smile.

“Well.” He half shrugged “You know how it is.”

Dar nodded. She did.  “We were just having a cookout. I’ve been coming to this little spot in the ocean since I was around fifteen.”

He nodded. “I have a spot like that about ten nautical south from here.  But ah.. “ He glanced past her to the firelit beach scene. “Mine’s not nearly so nice.”  He had his own hands in his pockets. “But I’m glad I bumped into you, because your name came across the wire not long ago.”

“It did?”

Davis nodded. “One of our other ships picked up a body the other week.  Guy apparently drowned, but no one seemed to know how he got into the water.” He said. “It was just off that island you live on, apparently he lived there too.”

Dar felt a chill.  “His name Billy?”

The lieutenant looked hard at her. “Yeah. So you did know him?”

The dock rocked slightly and they looked over to see Kerry approaching.  “In a manner of speaking, I guess. “ Dar said. “He was a jackass I ran into on the island and had an argument with.”

“What’s up?” Kerry asked

Davis was nodding again. “Well, we heard that some guy on the island told the cops about that, and that they should find you and ask about it.” He said. “About that argument, I mean. He told the cops there was bad blood there, and maybe you knew what happened to him.”

“What?” Kerry said, sharply.

“They found the missing guy. The one who was after Kristie.” Dar told her . “And I’m willing to bet it was her father who told the cops to come looking for me about it.”

Kerry looked at her, then at the two coast guard officers, then back at her. “Son of a biscuit.” She pronounced in a crisp clear tone.  “If there’s anyone who might have done something to him it would be that bastard Jim. The developer, who owns that place.”

To both of their surprise, the coast guard officer nodded again. “That’s why I’m glad we ran into you, because I’ve got some intel on that guy and it’s not good. You should watch out.  The cops ran everyone’s records and the guy who was talking to me told me that guy’s bad news.”

“What kind of bad news?” Dar asked. “Criminal background?”

Davis shrugged. “That I don’t know.  He didn’t say.”

“What a bastard.” Kerry exhaled. “What happened was, Billy, the guy, was threatening Kristie the cashier in the island market. She’s Jim’s daughter.  Dar happened to be there, and got in his face, and he left.”

The officer frowned. “Okay, well..but why is that guy Jim sending the cops off after you then? Sounds to me like you did him a favor.”

Dar sighed. “Long story.” She said. “But thanks for the warning.” She said. “I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open.   Do the cops want to talk to us?”

Davis shrugged “Not my area.  It was just coffee machine convo, you know? At the base, because anything that happens on that island gets chewed over.  I listened because I heard your name and we’d just met.”

“I appreciate that.” Dar said. “Jim has a problem with us, and so I guess he thought this was a good opportunity to get us in some hot water.” 

“Is it possible the guy just actually drowned?” Kerry asked. “He seemed like a guy who liked to party.”

“Yeah, that’s what the cops said.” Davis agreed. “Who knows? Anyway, just be careful, okay? Especially out here like this in the middle of nowhere.”  He lifted his hand in a wave and got back in his pontoon boat, making a gesture to the seaman who was driving it. 

Dar and Kerry watched them putter off, and then they both sighed.  “Well, poo.” Kerry said. “I didn’t need to hear that.”

“Me either.” Dar put her arm around Kerry’s shoulders. “Let’s go have our lobster.”

They walked down the dock back to the beach, where Chino and Mocha were waiting,  both animals not fond of the floating dock and wary of walking on it.   Kerry went over to the pot and took it’s top off, releasing a cloud of bay leaf and spice scented steam into the air.

As she worked she thought about Billy. To hear something had happened to him seemed sad, in an impersonal kind of way, because as much of a jerk as he had been,  jerkiness didn’t often deserve death.

To hear that they’d been blamed didn’t surprise her at all.  From the time the security guards had asked her and Dar if they had seen him that time, in the back of her mind she’d suspected something was in the works.

Sucks. Kerry got their dinner plated, then glanced up to see Dar standing on the shore, hands in pockets, staring off at the dark horizon.   She put the plates down and covered them, and walked over, nudging Chino aside as she put her arm around Dar’s back. “Hey.”

“Hey.” 

Kerry looked up, spotting tears rolling down her partner’s face. “Oh, hon.”

Dar shook her head and lifted one hand to wipe her eyes. “Last time I do someone a favor.” She said, clearing her throat. “Bastard.”

Kerry put her other arm around her and gave her a hug.

“What’s the point in doing the right thing if all it gets you is kicked in the ass?” 

“Ah, Dar.” Kerry felt the ache in her heart for her.  “It’s not always like that.”   She rocked them both a little.  “A lot of people love you for your doing the right thing.  I sure do.”

Dar sighed.

“Your mom picked the right name for you, honey. You are a Paladin.”   Kerry said.  “You have such a polished, white soul.”

Dar blew a raspberry at her.  “I tried to do right by ILS, and it gets me lawsuits. I do a favor for some kid, and I get thrown under the bus when some guy croaks.  What’s the damn point?”

Kerry patted her on the stomach and hugged her again. “The point is, it’s who you are.” 

“Ugh.”

“You told me not to talk smack at you.” Kerry said. “So I’m not.  Dar, you are who you are.  Don’t even contemplate changing that.”

“Growf.” Chino added commentary.

“Ahh. Screw it.” Dar wiped her eyes again. “Let’s go have dinner. “  She walked arm in arm with Kerry back up the beach, circling the fire and dropping into the chairs dug into the sand on either side of the table.

Kerry uncovered the plates and handed her one, then pulled her own over, and they ate in companionable silence for a few minutes.   “I’ve got apples baking over there when we’re done.”

A faint smile appeared on Dar’s face as she concentrated on divesting her lobster from its’ shell. “I can smell them.” She said. “Thanks, Ker.” 

“Anytime.  I can make them in the oven but theres something about a campfire that makes them extra good”  Kerry replied.  “Not sure what it is.”

“Everything tastes better over a campfire.”

“Well, that’s probably true but I have to admit I’m glad I don’t have to gather wood everytime we make coffee.”

Dar chuckled softly.

“Feel better?”

Dar shrugged. “I just decided to hell with it.  Let them come talk to us.  By the time we’re done with Jim and that island they’ll be sorry they messed with us.”

“You mean because we’re giving the condo to your folks?”  Kerry chuckled.

“My mom’ll run for condo association president, and my father’ll use that golf course for target practice. They’re screwed.  All we did was bring our dog in the gym.”

“And love each other.” Kerry reminded her.  “That’s our biggest offense.”

Dar picked up the cup of apple juice and toasted her with it. “That, I plead guilty to.”  She waited for Kerry to lift her own cup and touch it to hers.  “For all time.”

“Likewise.”  Kerry smiled.  “To hell with what anyone thinks about it.”

**

The End. (for now)