Winds of Change

Part 8

Kerry leaned back in the deck chair and put her feet up on the aft well wall of the boat, idly watching the sun sliding towards the sea as they traveled along. Chino was curled up in a ball on her bed nearby, and Mocha had just given up watching the spray and was snuggling up next to her.

It was later than they'd planned, and Dar had the gerbils scrambling trying to get them down to the cabin before it got dark. If she tipped her head back the other way she could see Dar's back as she sat at the console, hands on the throttles and bare feet curled around the captains chairs footrest.

Was Dar ready for some coffee? Kerry felt like she was, so she got up and went into the boat's cabin, holding the door open as Mocha noticed her leaving and bolted after her. “Want to help me get your other mommy coffee, little man?”

Yap!” Mocha seemed amazed at everything. He skittered across the boat's deck, barking at the moving sunbeams, and astonished when the surface under him rocked suddenly as Dar moved across a wake. “Yap!” He looked at her with wide eyes.

Kerry started laughing. “What's it like to be so brand new, huh?” She went behind the counter in the galley and got some coffee working. “Everything's just so cool.”

Mocha came behind the counter and sniffed everything including her feet with earnest thoroughness. He sat down and looked up at her, his tiny u shaped tongue hanging out.

Thus appealed to, Kerry reached down and picked him up, cradling him in her arms. “Oooo.. you're so cute.” She scratched him behind his ears and examined his brown paws with their inky black pads.

A big shadow crossed over the boat and she glanced outside, seeing them moving past the bridge that linked the mainland to the start of the Keys. “Ah, we're crossing into the gulf.” She put Mocha down. “I need to get some coffee upstairs, kiddo. Don't start chewing anything.”

Yap!” Mocha bounced off and found a Chino sized nylabone that he pounced on and claimed with a paw, applying his baby teeth to the partially chewed surface.

Good boy.” Kerry filled the thermos with sugar, milk and coffee and capped it, then shook it vigorously to mix the ingredients. Then she hung the container around her neck by it's strap, and went to the door, slipping out and then climbing up the ladder.

Dar was just putting her sunglasses on, since they were heading into the westering sun, and she turned around as Kerry arrived, her face creasing into a grin. “Hey beautiful.”

Flattery will get you hot coffee everytime.” Kerry slid into the chair next to her and uncapped the thermos. “Almost there.”

Almost there” Dar agreed, taking the cup and sipping on it. “That was nice, today.”

It was.” Kerry took a mouthful of coffee directly from the thermos. “I really enjoyed just hanging out with all those folks, and talking like we were just regular people.” She pondered the horizon. “I lost count of the people who came up to me and told me how sad they were to see us go.”

Me too.” Dar adjusted a throttle a little. “But the new guys may make a go of it. Different outlook. Might not be all bad.”

You said you knew the guy taking your place?” Kerry asked. “Higgs? I think I read about him in one of the industry papers. Seemed like he was pretty well regarded.”

Met him at a conference last summer.” Dar acknowledged. “Reminded me a little of Bob. Very status concious, spent a lot of time talking about his Mercedes Benz.”

Nice.” Kerry sighed. “What did those people do to deserve that?”

The other one, who's taking your position – Mark sent me a brief on him.” Dar said. “David Willerson. He's from the oil industry, was the CIO of some drilling company who's got family ties to Higgs.”

Kerry sighed again. “I don't really care what happens to the company. I do care about what happens to some of those people. Especially the ones we managed.”


On the other hand, maybe rearranging everything we did there will keep them too busy to care about what we're doing” Kerry said. “And I hope they have some kind of success, Dar because I'd like all those people there to keep getting paychecks.”

Because we can't harbor all of them.” Her partner said, pragmatically. “I have to tell you though that Mark said, when he sent me back that brief, that after reading it he felt like whatever it was that pushed him to come talk to us that night we left was pure karma. He's so damn happy.”

Kerry smiled.

He said he'd been really wanting to make a change, to go in a different direction, but it was hard to take the risk. This forced him to.” Dar fell silent and put the thermos cup to her lips.

Kerry waited a bit, but there seemed to be nothing more forthcoming. “Hit home a little?” She asked.

Dar shrugged. “Not really.” She said. “Because we'd already made that choice, Ker. I keep losing sight of the fact that before they fired us, we quit.” She laid on a turn to the left, a lazy arc that would bring them around the end of Key Largo and into Blackwater Sound.

The water here was flat and calm, typical of the Gulf side. The water was alive with boats though, criss crossing through the shallows, many coming back from days out fishing.

That had never really caught Dar's interest. Going under the water had always seemed preferrable, spending her time watching the fish and seeing the coral structures far more enticing than sitting on the boat on the surface waiting for a bite.

Her father spearfished. Dar had tried that a few times, but though she'd had moderate success at it, she'd decided she'd rather get her fish at Publix and leave the living ones alone under the surface.

Never had been any question for Kerry. She hunted with her camera only, though Dar wasn't entirely sure if the fish or herself got more attention. “Want to do a night dive?” She asked. “Just off the dock? I'll turn the big lights on and we can see if we can find your earrings.”

Kerry grinned, her face reddening a little. “Sure. I still feel like an absolute idiot for having them in that pocket.” She admitted. “I'd love to go on a little treasure hunt with you.”

Speaking of lights, Dar turned on the boat's, though the sun was not quite near the horizon just yet. She checked the channel markers and aimed a course down the center of them, lifting a hand and waving at a sailboat turning off and going in towards shore.

Is that Marvin?” Kerry asked. “I owe him a half gallon of milk.”

Since when do we ever get mmmmilk in half gallons?” Dar inquired.

We don't. It's all he had.” Her partner patted her on the back. “Let me go downstairs before our puppy decides to chew a hole in the fiberglass.” She filled up Dar's cup up from the thermos, kissed her on the lips and then retreated down the steps to attend to the frantic yelps that were coming from the boat's cabin.

Dar smiled, looking ahead to the horizon where she could already see the spit of land that held their cabin and the dock she was aiming the Dixieland Yankee towards. She took another sip of the coffee, convincing herself she could taste the love Kerry had put into the making of it.

She could, right?

Dar?” She cocked her head as the boat's intercom crackled, and Kerry's voice echoed softly through it. “Yep?”

Did you know this new gizmo has a piece of software that lets me control the systems in the cabin?” Kerry said. “I just turned on the aircon and the lights.”

Dar shaded her eyes, and chuckled. “Yep, you sure did.” She could see the dock halons popping on. “That's pretty cool.” She admitted. “I forgot to do that from the condo.”

Heh.” Kerry clicked off.

The sunset spilled across the hull as she slowed for the approach ot the cabin, the bow coming down in the water as she cut power. The dock itself was just big enough for the Dixie, and she manuevered carefully past it, putting the engines into reverse to bring them to dead slow, then letting the mild current carry them back against the wooden pylons.

For a moment she let herself imagine a life where she piloted a boat for a living instead of what she actually did.

No high tech, no conference calls, no miles of wires to worry about. Just day after day of laying down float plans, and keeping the boat in condition, spending her days with her hands on the throttles and the sun in her eyes.

It was enticing, but she knew enough about herself to know that it would be interesting only for a little while, and then she'd wish she was doing something more challenging. There were only so many routes, so many soundings, so many people to take out fishing, or diving or just sightseeing.

Dar smiled, as she heard Kerry come out on deck, already reaching for the lines. Just a daydream.

But it was a nice daydream, and since she was lucky enough to own a boat that required a little skill to drive, she got to indulge in it from time to time when docking the yacht in places like this. She put the engines into drive and held the boat against the dock while Kerry walked along the side wall and tied them up to the standing posts.

Easier than floor based cleats. “We tied?”

Yep.” Kerry came back to the rear of the boat and then went to the door opening it to let Mocha and Chino out. Chino immediately recognized a favorite place and she leaped out onto the dock and trotted towards the cabin.

Yap! Yap!” Mocha was too short to follow, and he stood up and scrabbled at the fiberglass, hopping a little bit until Kerry picked him up and stepped shoreward with him. “Take it easy, Mocha.” She put him down and watched him ramble up off the wooden pier, starting a through sniff fest of the sandy back yard.

Kerry followed him, pulling the keys to the cabin from her pocket as she joined Chino on the porch, unlocking the door and pushing it open. “G'wan, madam.”

Inside, the cabin was already a comfortable temperature, and the lights were on. “Second home sweet home.” Kerry walked past the kitchen and entered their bedroom, taking a deep breath of the scent of clean linen. “Want to grab a sandwich before we go diving, hon?”

Sure.” Dar was busy in the kitchen. “Just giving the mooch pooches some grub.”

Kerry took a swimsuit from one of the drawers and traded her shorts and shirt for it, then adding a light dive coat over that which went to her knees.

It was terrycloth lined, with a water resistant exterior and a good compliment to a night dive in chilly weather. She walked back out and found Dar watching the dogs hoover up their kibble with an indulgent smile on her face. “I have some pita pockets. You up for a couple of gyros?”

Yum.” Dar agreed. “I'll go get the gear ready.”

Kerry flipped on the music system and went to the fridge, removing two carefully packed bags of shaved lamb from the freezer. She tossed them in the microwave and punched the defrost, then got a pan out along with a sealed container of chopped tomatos along with a can of fried onions and a bottle of ranch dressing. “Sort of gyros, anyway.”


She looked down to find Mocha attentively at her feet, with Chino sitting behind him, her tail sweeping over the tile floor. “Excuse me? Your other mother just fed you, children.”

Growf.” Chino responded, sniffing the air as the lamb defrosted.

Kerry chuckled, taking the lamb out and opening the bags into the pan, already hot with a little oil. She quickly warmed the meat, then assembled the pocket sandwiches with their personalized substitutions, putting the fried onions in instead of chopped fresh ones, and drizzling the definitely un-Greek dressing over it. “Sorry kids. No gyros for you.”


She went to the fridge and got two bottles of root beer, putting them in her coat pockets before she picked up the sandwiches and headed for the door with both dogs trotting after her.

It was now twilight, and the dock was lit up, the Dixie's white hull gleaming and reflecting into the water. Dar was sitting on the side of the boat, her phone to her ear, and as Kerry got closer, she could hear a wary tone in her partner's voice.

That's the general idea, yes.” Dar said. “The idea is to build intelligence into the filters, so you can let the processors do the heavy lifting and deliver possible vectors to your analysts.”

Kerry handed over a sandwich and sat down on the gear locker on the pier, gaining an instantly attentive pair of soulful eyed watchers. She took a bite of her gyro and took a piece of the lamb out, offering it to Chino.

Right, I get that, but it's a fire hose.” Dar said. “There's such a thing as too much data. You need to find a way to channel it so you're not looking at every byte.”

Kerry thought probably it was the government. She wiggled out a tiny piece of the lamb and handed it over to Mocha, who was standing up with his front paws on her knee. She knew Dar had sent over a rough top level plan several days back, but having her get a call on a Saturday about it was surprising.

Right.” Dar paused, then nodded “That's what I.. yes.” She took a bite and chewed as she listened, then hastily swallowed. “I”m due up to see Gerry Easton on Wednesday. I can stop by.” She listened again. “Exactly. You got it. Bring them in, and we can whiteboard the whole thing.”

Kerry could hear relief in her partner's low tones and if she turned, she knew she'd see that tall body relaxing, and sure enough there came the soft thumps of Dar's heels idly hitting the side of the boat.

Okay, then, see you on Wednesday afternoon.” Dar concluded. “Thanks for reviewing the plan and getting back to me.” She closed the phone and took a big bite of her gyro. “Yum.” She hopped off the side of the boat and took a seat beside Kerry. “Looks like I get to deal with both our government clients next week.”

So I heard.” Kerry contentedly munched. “I have four potential new clients scheduled for that day or I'd come with you.” She took a sip of her root beer. “By the time you get back we might not need that contract if they give you a really hard time.”

Dar was busy giving Mocha some of her lamb. “Did I tell you recently you rock my world?”

Kerry put her head against Dar's shoulder and grinned.

These are really good.” Dar indicated her pocket. “I love those fried onions.”

I know.” Her partner said. “Okay, let me get these guys inside while we go diving, because I know for sure we'll end up chasing them around in the water the whole time otherwise.” She stood up and displayed a bit of remaining sandwich. “C'mon, kids, first one back to the cabin gets a treat!”

Dar dusted her fingers off and went back to the equipment storage locker, built onto the dock along with the housing for the air compressor to fill the tanks. She removed two of the tanks and checked their pressure, then got out their gear and put them all up on the bench they sat on to put everything on.

She checked everything then jumped onboard the boat to go and get into her swimsuit.

By the time she finished and came back out Kerry was there, checking her mask. She joined her partner and they geared up in companionable silence, pulling on full wetsuits and in Kerry's case, a hood.

Polar bear.” Dar settled the back of the hood under her suit, and zipped it up. “For someone from the frozen north you sure put on a lot of rubber.”

Pfft.” Kerry stretched her arms out to settle the neoprene. “I haven't spent half my life in the ocean, Dardar.” She sat down and got her arms into her BCD, clipping everything up and fastening her camera in it's case to one of the D rings. “Especially not in the middle of winter.”

Dar stood up in her minimalist rig and tightened the straps, then picked up her fins and walked to the end of the pier, regarding the water. She reached over and flipped the underwater lights on the structure, then held on with one hand and put her fins on with the other. “Let me go check things out first.”

Yes, grandma.” Kerry smiled, though, and continued to rub no fog on her mask.

Dar inserted her regulator and put her hand over that and her mask, and stepped off the dock, landing in the water with a healthy splash.

The depth off the end was about fifteen feet, and Dar went down about half of that before she leveled out and relaxed, floating in mid water as she adjusted the fit of the gear and tightened everything down. The lights outlined the rough coral formations just off shore, and startled and bewildered fish were flitting around, not expecting the return of the sun quite so soon.

It was nice, with very little current and relatively clear. Dar inflated her vest and went to the surface, sticking her hand up and giving Kerry an OK sign.

Her partner was seated on the edge of the dock in her gear, kicking her fins. Seeing the sign, she leaned forward and just tumbled into the water with a less spectacular splash, sinking down to join Dar as she dipped again below the surface.

The water was cool, and it penetrated her wetsuit quickly, but just as quickly it warmed to her body and she relaxed as she felt the chill fade. The lights under the dock made the bottom as visible as daylight would have, and she adjusted her gear and followed Dar as she moved over to the end point of their part of the beach.

They started slowly searching the bottom, drifting along side by side as Dar gently fanned the sand with her fingers.

Kerry didn't really expect to find anything. She had already written off the baubles, marking it down to something she'd know better about the next time so though she dutifully peered in all the crevices and used her hand light to inspect the holes in the coral, her enjoyment was mostly based on spending time at one of her favorite hobbies with her very favorite person.

So it was fun for her to spend as much time watching Dar as she was hunting. She unclipped the camera on her shoulder and spent a few minutes taking pictures, getting shots in this unusual light of the coral before she casually swung the lens at her partner.

Who had divined her intention and was now laying on the bottom on a sandy area, body fully extended on her side, hand propping up her head.

Oh, nice. Kerry cheerfully shot the pose, getting a nice stream of tiny bubbles trickling up from the regulator in Dar's mouth. Then her partner cooperatively gave her another shot, by taking the regulator out and sticking her tongue out of her mouth as far as it could go.

Kerry managed to capture it, then she started laughing, bubbles emerging from her own gear in thunderous spurts.

Dar grinned and replaced the mouthpiece, then she elevated off the ground and started hunting again.

They were now directly under the pier where once upon a time Dar had gotten bitten by a fish, the illumination past it broken up by the large shadow cast by the Dixie.

Dar pointed as she spotted a lobster darting across the coral, hurrying out of sight as they cruised over it, and Dar put on a burst of speed and stretched one long arm out, getting a hold of the creature mid shell.

It's tail flicked rapidly, but Dar's grip proved it's match and she stuffed the animal in a mesh bag clipped to her BCD.

Lobster linguini for dinner, Kerry reckoned. She was about to swing around and go back under the pier when a flash caught her eye and she hovered, spotting something shiny where the lobster had emerged from. She dove down and got her hand flash out, flicking it over the rocks and finding the item.

Hot damn. Kerry was truly surprised. She felt Dar come over the top of her, and she pointed with her light at the sparklie, reaching down to capture it with her hand.

A spurt of surprise came out of her partner's regulator, a cloud of bubbles heading upward as Dar tilted her head to examine her find. Then she made a double OK sign and grinned visibly.

Kerry held both hands out in a motion of mock modesty and put the earrings, which had been tangled together and stayed that way safely into the palm of one hand and closed her fist around them.

Dar pointed her thumb upward and raised her eyebrows.

Kerry nodded, and they started up for the surface when they both paused, hearing boat engines nearby. Engines that didn't move past, but circled in an idling motion complete with a sudden, powerful beam of light that pierced the already halon lit depths.

Dar sighed visibly, and moved closer to the pylon, clipping her lobster bag to a ring before she breached the surface of the water.

Perfection, it seems, was too much to ask for.


Dar pulled her mask off as she climbed up the dive ladder onto the pier, spotting the coast guard cutter idling offshore without difficulty. She took the time to go sit on the gearing bench and unclip her BCD, putting her fins down and standing up in her wetsuit and booties.

She ran her fingers through her wet hair and walked to the end of her dock, putting her hand on the last pylon as the searchlight swung over and, to her mind since she was fully lit by the dock lights, unnecessarily blinded her.

She put her hand up to shield her eyes, opening up the radio box mounted near her hand and punching in the coast guard frequency. “Cutter offshore bayside MM 98 can I ask what your problem is?”

The search light cut off, and now she could see figures on deck. The cutter swung around and motored over, as Dar heard Kerry divesting herself of her tank behind her. She put the radio handset back onto it's holder and waited as the vessel eased closer.

Did we do something wrong?” Kerry asked, handing Dar a dive jacket.

No.” Dar shook her head. “Lobster's even in season. I just left it down there because I wasn't sure how long this was gonna take and I like mine fresh killed.”

Kerry grimaced just slightly.

The cutter dropped a small rubber boat with two figures in it and it roared over and came to the end of the dock. “You people have permission to be diving out here?” The taller of the two figures asked.

Dar glanced around, then back at him. “I own the dock, the land, the cabin up there and this boat.” She indicated the Dixie. “Who am I supposed to be asking for permission?”

The figure relaxed. “Okay, no problem. Can we come up?”


I'll go make some coffee.” Kerry zipped up her jacket. “And get out of all this wet rubber.” She patted Dar on the butt and retreated down the pier, heading back to the cabin where dog barks were now loudly evident.

Sorry about that.” The coast guard officer said, as he got to the top of the ladder and stood up. “We've had reports of trespassing up and down this area, and we weren't sure what was going on.” He held a hand out. “Lieutenant Davis. And you are?”

Dar Roberts.” Dar replied, giving his hand a shake. “Sorry for the wet.”

We're used to it.” The man smiled. “So were you folks doing work under there? We saw the lights.”

Dar shook her head. “Just looking for something we lost the last trip.” She said. “What kind of trespassing? We don't get down here a lot. I have an alarm but there's always a way to get around that.”

The coast guard lieutenant was already nodding before she stopped talking. “This area's got a lot of unlived in coastline, just up north of here. Got people living wild, and after 911, we don't like that so much anymore.”


Not that everyone's dangerous, but you don't know, and we're not in a mode to take anyone for granted.” The man said. “Even nice ladies like you.”

Got it.” Dar said. “Well, we've got some identification inside. Want to see that, and have some coffee?” She asked. “The last thing we want is to have you guys think we're troublemakers.”

The lieutenant and his petty officer attendant grinned, and followed her to the cabin. “Can't be too cautious, right?” The lieutenant said. “Bet you make a better pot of coffee than our cook does.”

Dar grinned wryly at the mild flirting and took it for the compliment it was. She led the way up the walk and opened the door, standing back for them to enter. “Careful of the dogs. They lick.”

Kerry already had the coffee perking, and was dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie, her wet hair brushed back to dry. She smiled as they entered, and indicated the stools at the breakfast bar, which they took after unzipping their heavy sea jackets.

I”m going to get out of this suit.” Dar said. “Give them our ID, wouldja?”

Sure.” Kerry went over to the messenger bag she'd taken off the boat and rooted in it, while their visitors fixed themselves some coffee. She removed their driver's licenses, and Dar's captain's license just in case, and brought them back over. “Here you go.”

That's good coffee.” The lieutenant said, taking the ID's and studying them. Then he handed them back. “So this is a weekend place for you gals?”

Kerry took a cup for herself and leaned against the counter “Something like that. We work and live up in the city. It's nice to get away from there sometimes.”

Where you live? Thats not the city.” The lieutenant smiled. “I”ve been to the Coast Guard functions out there.”

Close enough. We work in Coconut Grove.” Kerry, however, lifted a hand and half shrugged in acknowledgement. “It's still way more laid back down here.”

The petty officer hadn't said anything but now he nodded in agreement. “My family's place is ten minutes down from here. I liked it, growing up.” He said. “Just long summer nights of cracking open coconuts and grabbing land crabs for dinner.” He had the flat, not quite accent that some Miami natives did, and by the faint smile, the memory was in fact a good one.

Kerry coudln't quite imagine doing that, though she knew her partner had. “It's really nice here in Key Largo. I like the small town feel to it. I grew up in a fairly small place in Michigan.”

People here know you.” The lieutenant agreed. “That's what we want to key into, if you catch my drift. We want people to tell us when things are out of place. Someone saw the lights on here, and called us. Didn't know what was going on.”

We just had the lights put in a few months ago. “ Kerry admitted. “Sorry if it alarmed anyone. I didn't really think about it.”

Dar emerged from the bedroom, pushing the long sleeves on her t-shirt up past her elbows. “So you're crowd sourcing info?” She came over and stood next to Kerry.

Something like that.” The lieutenant said. “We've only got a limited set of eyeballs. If people had known what to look for, they might have noticed things like those men getting pilot's licenses, you know?” He said. “So we're asking citizens in the area to keep their eyes open, and let us know when they see something they just think doesn't look right.”

Dar nodded a little. “That could make people say things that might not be true, about neighbors they just don't like.” She suggested. “People can be assholes, that way.”

Its true. But the last time we had too little information. It's better to have too much.” The officer said. “Well, thanks for the coffee, ladies. Sorry to have bothered your diving. I'll make a note in our logs that you checked out, so if we get a call next time, we can let them know not to worry about it.” He lifted a hand, and he and the petty officer retreated out the door, closing it behind them and heading back to their ship.

Huh.” Kerry eyed her partner. “I get his point, but why do I feel like that's not really a good thing?”

Dar took a sip of her coffee. “Calling the authorities on your neighbor because you think they may be a terrorist isn't a good thing, Ker.”

Unless they really are a terrorist.”

Dar grunted, and nodded. “I'm going to go get our lobster. Got your earrings?”

Kerry pointed at the two items on the counter. “I can't believe we found them.”

Glad some fish didn't swallow em.” Dar ambled out of the kitchen. “Or maybe they did.” She winked at Kerry as she opened the door. “And that's just where they got pooped out.”

Oh.” Kerry regarded the two items. “Well, they can always be washed.” She picked them up and went into the bedroom, pausing as she saw both dogs snoozing comfortably on their bed. Chino was curled up in a ball, and Mocha was tucked up next to her, his head resting on her elbow.

Aw. Kerry put the earrings down and picked up her camera instead, freshly released from it's watertight case. She took several shots of their sleeping animals, then went back into the living room just as Dar entered with the lobster bag. “Pan fry it and toss it with linguni?” She asked, getting a grin in response. “You get to kill it.”

Amiably, Dar did, and about twenty minutes later they were seated on their couch, with two very attentive dogs, sharing a plate of seafood pasta.

You don't get any of this.” Dar informed the watching dogs. “This spicy sauce will make you both sick to your stomachs.” She put her feet up on the coffee table next to Kerry's. “This is awesome.”

Thank you, my dear.” Kerry absorbed the compliment with a smile. “I'm always happy to try and make something yummy from your hunting and gathering.”

Dar chuckled. “I'm going to finish this then see if I can work up a presentation for the feds.”

Kerry turned her head and gently nibbled her partner's bare shoulder. “Really?” She asked. “Let's not start working on the weekends so fast, huh?”

You have something else in mind?”

Matter of fact I do.” Kerry finished up a final bite of dinner and put the plate down on the table. “Starting with a hot shower to get the salt off, and a tumble into our very comfortable bed.”

They heard a clank, looking over to see Chino placidly licking out the plate, and Mocha scrabbling with his paws to try and get at the edge of it.

But first, we rescue the crockery.” Dar got up and swiped the plate. “Stop that you pirates!” She straightened up and went into the kitchen, rinsing the dish off and putting it on the drainboard as Kerry came in behind her, circling her with both arms and laying her head down on her back.

Dar turned around and returned the hug, absorbing the intensity of the affection almost radiating from her. “Keeerrryyy.” She warbled softly. “Yoooure the best.”

Not sure about that, but I am the luckiest.” Kerry exhaled in contentment. “C'mon. I can taste the salt on you.” She licked Dar's collarbone, then released her and led the way to the shower.

The hot water and scrubbie sponges felt good. Dar's sensual touch felt even better and in a well choreographed movement from the shower enclosure to the towel rack ended with both of them wrapped in a bath sheet, pressed together.

Steam from the shower, cool air from the cabin. Kerry felt like she was on something of a sensual overload, as Dar's fingers laced behind her neck and she circled her partner's waist with her arms, pulling her closer and savoring the emotional and physical charge as their bodies meshed.

Dar half turned and tried to move, but the towel was binding them and half laughing she removed it and they got from the bathroom into the bed in a tangle of arms and legs and comforters.

The lights were dim and they had the windows open, allowing the fresh breeze and the sound of the sea to wash through the room, brushing over their bare bodies as they stretched out and started a leisurely exploration of each other.

Only to be interrupted by a wild yapping and an invasion of paws and tiny teeth, which nearly made them levitate off the bed. “Holy crap!” Dar yelped. “He bit my..”

Kerry started laughing, burying her face in Dar's shoulder as her partner got hold of Mocha and lifted him up and over her body.

Stop that ya rug rat!” Dar tapped him on the head. “Who said you pups were allowed up here?”

Kerry was still laughing, rolling onto her back and holding her stomach as Chino sniffed at her in puzzlement. “Bwahahahahahahahah”

What the hell is so damn funny?” Dar sat up and defended herself from the wildly wagging tailed puppy. “Mocha, cut that out!” She picked up the animal and put him on the floor. “You too, madam!” She pointed at Chino. “Down!”

Chino obediently hopped off the bed and barked at Mocha, who was balancing on his hind legs trying to get back up. “Growf!”

Mocha fell over onto his back, with a yelp of surprise. Then he pounced on Chino's paw and started biting it.

Kerry was still laughing. She wiped the tears from her eyes and sat up herself, bringing her legs up crossed under her as she leaned her elbows on her bare knees. “Sorry hon.” She put her hand on Dar's back. “I dont know why that struck me so damn funny but it did.”

Dar sighed and got up as the dogs both raced out into the living room, and went to stand by the back door, looking expectantly at her. “Want to have some warm milk and start this all over again?”

Sure.” Kerry got up out of the bed and pulled on a tshirt, handing one over to Dar as she followed her out the door. “It's a little early for bed anyway and at least I'll get a chance for my hair to dry or I'll look like a chia pet in the morning.”

Now Dar snickered. “Kerry the Chia Pet. I think I”m going to add that to Gopher Dar.”


I'll make it a hedgehog.” Dar continued, as she went to let the dogs out into the fenced area in the back that led towards the pier. “Stay away from the water.”

A hedgehog?”

Sure. They're adorable.”

Kerry gave her a skeptical look. Then she turned and went into the first of the two offices in the cabin, sitting down behind her desk and turning on her pc. She waited for it to boot, then brought up a browser and did a search for hedgehogs.

She studied the results, then bit off a grin and went back to the living room. “Okay. She joined Dar at the doorway. “You're right. They're really cute.”

Dar affected a mock hurt look. “You didn't believe me?”

I just had no idea what they looked like.” Kerry evaded the question. “They're cuter than gophers.”

As they should be, since you're cuter than I am.” Dar whistled softly. “C”mon guys.”

Kerry circled Dar's body with her arms and leaned against her. Then she gave her a kiss on the shoudler, and retreated back to the kitchen, getting out the fixings for some honey laced warm milk.

I”m going to end up chasing that dog into the water.” Dar predicted. “Mocha!”

Growf!” Chino paused in the act of trotting back over ot the door and barked at the puppy, who was snuffling at something on the beach. “Growf!”

Whose idea was this?” Dar asked, sighing as she went down the steps to the sand.

That would be yours, Dixiecup.” Kerry said to her retreating back. “But I agreed to it, so I guess next time I get to chase down the little sucker.”

She got the cups out and warmed them, then filled them with milk and popped them into the microwave, leaning on the counter while she waited for them to heat. The living room was a comfortable place, couches facing the windows so they could watch the sunset and a television mounted on the wall to one side.

They had cable here, but they seldom watched it. They occasionally turned on the news, or, when it was that season, watched the hurricane coverage. Cabin time was mostly spent on the water, near the water, enjoying the town, riding the bike....

Dar's yell spurred her to come around the counter and head for the door, poking her head out. “What's up?”

Dar had Mocha under one arm and she was slogging through the sand heading back up to the cabin. “He was fighting with a damn land crab!”

Kerry stifled a laugh as her lover arrived at the porch. “Did he get hurt?”

No, but the damn thing bit ME when I tried to save it from him.” Dar gave her an aggrieved look, getting into the light and displaying a lurid red mark across the knuckle of her index finger. “Ow!”

Wooow” Mocha let out a puppy yodel.

Kerry bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing again. She leaned over and gave the spot a kiss “Aw, my brave Dardar. You saved the puppy!”

Dar came inside and put Mocha down. “Stupid crab.” She grumbled, going over to the sink and running cold water over her finger. “It was guarding it's hole.” She said. “Mocha was trying to play with it.”

Kerry eased around her and got the cups, adding some honey to them and mixing the liquid. “Well, he's a puppy.” She said. “He's never seen a crab before. Or a beach, or most of anything else. Can you imagine what it must be like to be so new and not know what anything is?”

Yap!” Mocha had recovered from his crab battle and pattered over to the water dish, licking at it with somewhat erratic enthusiasm.

No, actually I can't.” Dar dried her hand off.

Kerry took her cup and went over to the couch, sitting down on it and stretching her legs out across the tile floor. “What do you think about an electric fireplace for the corner there?”

Dar took a seat next to her and sipped at her cup. “Sure.” She agreed. “So long as we puppy proof it so we don't come back in to find our dog with no eyebrows.”

Point taken. I was listening to an infomercial the other morning and I saw these little fireplaces that are supposed to be handmade by Amish people.”

Dar turned her head and looked at her partner. “You don't for one second actually believe that, do you?”

No. I don't. But it gave me the idea of getting an actual real and nice one for here.” Kerry replied. “And hey, I completely forgot this, but I meant to tell you about it. I was walking around the back of the office building and I found a break in the bushes.”

Dar remained silent, sipping her milk.

It looked like something big had been going in and out of there, behind the hedges where that other property line is.” Kerry went on. “I think maybe something or someone went through there.”

Behind the hedges?”

Kerry nodded.

You think it was the homeless guys?”

Kerry shrugged. “I don't know. It just looked weird.”

Okay, let's have Marcus check it out next week. I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to have people living in his bushes.” Dar decided, then eyed her partner. “So that's why you put those leftovers from the cart on that iron table in front.” She saw the blush rise on her companion's face. “You sneaky little bugger.”

Well, it was better than leaving them for the bugs inside.” Kerry muttered. “The cleaning people had already been through.”

Dar chuckled, draping her arm over Kerry's shoulders. “It's fine. It'd just end up in the garbage, and besides, I had them put all the server crates out in the back with the pallets too.”

That's enough wood to make a Huck Finn raft.” Kerry watched the stars outside twinkle. “You know, we're sitting here in this nice cabin, with our dogs, and each other, and pretty much anything in the world we need taken care of – not to mention having each other, and..”

She paused, and shook her head.

We're lucky people.” Dar concluded for her. “You and I.”

We are.”

Yap!” Mocha put his paws up on the couch and looked at them expectantly.

And you're a lucky puppy!” Kerry put her cup down and picked him up, putting him in her lap and scratching his ears. “He's so darn cute.”

Chino jumped up on the couch on the other side of Dar and put her head down on the taller woman's leg, letting out a long sigh.

So what do you think about the little punk, Chi?” Dar asked, stroking her head. “You jealous of all the attention we're giving him?”

Chino's eyebrows twitched and she peered up at Dar soulfully.

Don't worry.” Dar smoothed the fur over her soft ears. “You're still our favorite girl.” She smiled when Chino's tail thumped on the surface of the couch. “I'm sure you're gonna enjoy him a lot more when he gets a little older and stops chewing on you.”

Yap!” Mocha looked up from chewing Kerry's fingers.

And you too.” Dar leaned over and gave her a kiss on the lips.

Mm. Feel like I'm floating in a big vat of marshmallow goo.” Kerry sighed. “Between those two pairs of Labrador eyes, and you kissing me I almost expect to hear the theme from the Love Boat starting up any minute” She looked up to find one round, blue eye peering at her, the other obscured by Dar's hair. “Yeeees?”

Is that a good or a bad thing?”

Being completely surrounded by love? What do you think?”

Dar smiled. “So.” She tickled Kerry's ear. “Valentines Day.”


Pack a bag for three days.”

Really.” Kerry nibbled Dar's shoulder. “What do I pack?”


Kerry's eyebrows hiked. “Beads?”

We have reservations in New Orleans for the last weekend of Mardi Gras.” Her partner explained. “That okay with you?” Dar noted the look of delight on her companion's face with satisfaction. “Good surprise?”

Hell yes!” Kerry bounced up and down in her seat, making Mocha yelp and bat at her with his paws. “Oh my god, Dar! I've always wanted to go!” Her eyes lit up. “You are awesome!” She put the puppy down on the floor and threw her arms around her partner. “Eeeeee!”

Contentedly, Dar drained her cup and put it down, very pleased with the reaction to her plan. “Now.” She turned and cupped Kerry's cheek, leaning over to kiss her. “Where were we?”

In the bedroom.” Kerry tugged her upright and giving her a nudge. “Go go go.”


We got phones.” Mark announced, sticking his head into Kerry's office. “And let me tell ya, Mayte's rocking it as a PM.” He entered, carrying a desk phone and put it down on her desk. “She's got those guys controlled.”

Kerry put her pen down and shifted her attention to her new phone. “Oh. Nice.” She waited as Mark ran the cable down and plugged it into the second network jack under her desk. The phone lit up and started thorugh it's bootup process, scrolling through it's various options on the square, color screen. “I'm glad Mayte's doing well.”

So, it's got a built in phonebook.” Mark perched on the desk and pressed the buttons. “And we're all in it. They got this module we can use to link it to email? So you can see who's online or not.”

Do we want to do that?” Kerry asked.

We can play with it.” Mark evaded the question. “Sure would be slicker than me using Pinger to see if you guys were here.”

Kerry chuckled. “That's true.” She admitted. “Okay, put it in. What the hell. If Dar doesn't like it she'll just hack into it and re-write it or something.”

Yup.” Mark got off the desk. “So that's it. I”m running all the phones out on the carts, I got two guys maybe starting tomorrow so I can get back to some planning stuff again.” He waved. “Later!”

Thanks.” Kerry amused herself for a few minutes punching the phones buttons, and looking up names. She hit the entry for her partner, hearing the phone in the next office start to ring.

Yeees?” Dar's voice rumbled thorugh the speaker. “Playing with your new toy, Kerrison?”

Can I record you saying that and use it as my ringtone?” Kerry asked. “I'im really getting into these ringtones.”

Dar started laughing, audible both through the phone and through the open doorway. She hung up the line and a moment later appeared at Kerry's side, dropping onto the window bench that had become one of her favorite spots. “Like the phones.” She comented.

Me too.” Kerry said. “Did you get your travel all sorted out?”

I did.” Her partner agreed. “Maria set up a deal where we get first class upgrades in return for ten hours of consulting time a week with a travel agent consortium she knew of.”

Hon, I wouldn't book you anything but first class anyway, even if I had to bake and sell cupcakes on Brickell every week to support that.” Kerry told her in a mild tone.

I know.” Dar smiled. “But Maria did a great job with the negotiation, so as much as I love your cupcakes we won't need them. “ She winked. “I'm off to my first programming team meeting. Wish me luck.” She got up and cracked her knuckles, then wandered out.

You need no luck, Paladar Katherine.” Kerry chuckled to herself as she sorted out the listings of service offerings she was developing. “All you need are those brain cells and the baby blues. Everything else falls in place around you like metal filings around a magnet.”

Pardon?” Maria poked her head in. “Were you speaking to someone, Kerrisita?”

Just myself.” Kerry scribbled a note. “Great job on the travel account Maria.” She glanced up and smiled at the older woman, who danced in place and snapped her fingers. “That's exactly the kind of thing we need.”

You are very welcome.” Maria said. “I am having such the good time here, Kerrisita, you have no idea.” She continued her little dance out the door, salsa-ing away in her ugg boots and leaving Kerry with a big grin on her face.

Now that's cool.” She said, resting her hands on the desk.

Her new phone buzzed. “Huh. Already?” Kerry glanced at the device, and pressed the answer button. “This is Kerry.”

Yes, ma'am.” The receptionist downstairs said. “I have a visitor for you? He says he has an appointment, a Mr. Bott?”

Kerry checked her calender. “Yes, please walk him up, Angelina, thanks.” She released the button with a feeling of satisfaction, then reached for her cup of tea and sipped it, sitting quietly unti she heard the sounds of approaching footsteps outside.

A soft knock came at her door. “C'mon in.”

Hello, Miss Kerry?” A doe eyed, dark haired girl opened the door cautiously. “Someone is here to see you.”

Thanks Ana.” Kerry said, giving their new junior admin a smile Maria's family friend had turned out to be a gentle, slight girl, as shy as Maria had said she was,with a look of perpetual astonishment on her face.

She had a slight speech impediment, and she limped a little, and Kerry could see there would have been several reasons for her to be a little on the wallflower side. But she was sweet and very willing to learn, and so far she'd done all right.

A man entered behind her and crossed the floor, extending his hand to Kerry as she stood to greet him. “Hello there.”

Mr. Bott? Thanks for coming over.” Kerry indicated one of her visitor chairs, and she seated herself as he did. “Thanks for coming to see me.” She studied him briefly. He was a little above average height, with curly brown hair and hazel eyes, and a tapered, athletic frame. “I appreciate it.”

No problem at all.” He said. “Your message said you were looking for some security services. That right? How can I help you?” He said, in a direct sort of way. “My company doesn't do the traditional security guard kind of thing, if that's what you're in the market for.”

I know.” Kerry said. “I wasn't really looking for security guards.” She got up and went to the door, closing it before she came back to her desk. “After all, it's not that big a building, and we don't transact in cash.”

He nodded, but remained silent.

What we do is provide IT services.” Kerry sat back down. “To some very average clients, like Dade Paper, and some not so average ones like the Federal Government.”

Ah.” He nodded again.

So I need some help in developing a security plan, that will keep our intellectural property secure.” Kerry said. “I need someone to strategize with us about how to put in place data security also.”

Now, Bott smiled. “Well good. Then I see you did your homework before you called me.” His eyes twinkled a little. “Because that is what we do. So let me do my sales spiel and lay out what our services are, and then we can decide if we can do business with each other.”

Kerry nodded, and leaned on her elbows. “Pitch me.” She said. “Just one thing – don't put any software into the sales job. My partner won't allow any third party in here.”

He paused, and regarded her. “You write all your own?” He seemed surprised. “Thats unusal, even for a tech company.”

That's unusual, especially for a tech company.” Kerry agreed. “But that's how it is.”

Bott shifted and hiked one knee up, resting his arm on it. “Fair enough.” He said. “So let's start at the beginning, with physical secuirty.”



Dar waited until the chatter died down and then she regarded her little pack of programmers.

Mixed bag. Mostly young, though one of the most recent hires was a old timer, a grizzled gray software architect with a long history of project work. Mostly a little restless and outspoken, none of them so far afraid to voice an opinion.

All of that pleased Dar. She suspected the attituded was likely going to rub her the wrong way at times, and she also suspected she would need to earn her stripes with this new group, but she much prefered that to a bunch of earnest yes men.

Or women, as it were, since two of the coders were.

Okay folks.” Dar said. “Let's get this going, and keep it short.”

The gang amiably settled down and focused on her.

Dar cleared her throat. “First off, welcome to the company.” She said. “At this point, most often you'd be given a little rundown on the history and all that, but we don't have any history. The company started up a few weeks ago, so we have to kinda make it up as we go along.”

She paused, and everyone looked at her in silent attention. “Any questions about that?”

Mostly head shaking.

Okay. So.” Dar said. “Our first project is going to be in two parts. One, a universal database, and two, an enterprise service bus that will feed into it, from a variety of different systems.” She paused. “The project is enterprise grade, and has to handle a very high rate of throughput.”

The programmers all exchanged glances. Most of them had started just that morning, and were still getting settled into their cubes. One of the females held her hand up. “Which database are we using for that?”

We're writing it from scratch.” Dar responded, with a faint smile. “But I have a base code for it.”

Another one raised his hand. “And the ESB? Are we writing that from scratch too?”

Dar nodded

Wow.” The man said. “Can I ask why?”

Sure.” Dar said. “Because the customers who come to us are looking for something that's very specific, and designed for them. Not a product that's off the shelf components stitched together.” She said. “And the other reason is, some of our customers want 100 percent assurance that every line of code is known.”

Like... for security?” The woman ventured.

Something like that, yes.” Dar agreed. “Sometimes the contracts we sign require confidentiality. Sometimes you do it to make it a differentiator between us and our competitors.”

So another company can't come in and tell your client, hey we can do that too, only cheaper.” The older man spoke up. “Custom. I like that.”

Dar grinned at him.

Company I was at last, they did it the other way.” The man said. “Put together some off the shelf stuff, then sold it with a support package cheap enough to convince the customers they'd be saving a lot of money.” He shook his head. “Didn't work out. Fifty percent of us got laid off after eight months.”

Stan, his name was. Dar recalled. Stan Ruffelhouse, who had worked for one of ILS's competitors and probably she reckoned, had some small idea of who she was.

Company was all about sales. What's the next sale? How can we sell more?” Stan said. “Never about keeping the customers, just getting new ones.”

Sales is like that.” Dar said. “It's part of the culture.”

Here too?” The woman spoke up. “You need sales, right?”

Dar paused and considered a moment before she answered. “Right now, Celeste, we don't have a sales department.” She admitted. “To be honest, I never got along with sales in my prior job. But you do need to put your products out there if you expect your company to grow. So we will have one, but I'll have to figure out how to do that.”

If you.. I mean, we, don't have a sales department how'd we get a project?” Stan asked.

Long story.” Dar said. “But that's why we don't have a sales department yet. I've got enough projects lined up to keep us busy until that all gets sorted out.”

The door bumped open and Chino wriggled into the room, trotting over to Dar and nosing her knee. “Growf!”

Hey Chino.” Dar greeted her pet. “You coming in to see my lecture too?”

The Lab wagged her tail, going over to the corner and settling down into a ball there.

That's a nice dog.” The woman commented. “It's cool you bring her here. Can we bring animals too?”

Dar leaned on the back of her chair. “I love animals.” She said. “But if your animals are going ot take up more time to watch after, or chase after, or keep from fighting after than your work does, we've got a problem.”

Celeste smiled and lifted her hands. “Point.” She acknowledged. “I was thinking more like a small fishtank.”

Fish are fine. I have some in my office.” Dar said, taking her seat again. “Since that came up, lets talk about work hours.” she leaned her elbows on the table and tapped the wood lightly. “I expect people to be productive.” She let her eyes track to each new face. “So you'll all have delivery dates and product schedules.”

They nodded in understanding.

Generally speaking, the doors'll be open from seven or eight am to seven or eight pm.” Dar said. “So figure out how you can get your work done in the hours we're open. Everyone understand me?” She asked. “Not everyone's a morning person. As we continue to build the company, the hours will change, and get later, depending on support groups.”

Slowly, faces creased into smiles.

Don't work from home though.” Dar said, after a pause. “One, we don't want the code out of the building, and two.. “ She felt her lips twitch. “You should have a life outside work.”

Stan leaned back in his chair with a satisfied expression. “And if we like being early birds?”

Have at it.” Dar said. “I am.”

Good.” He said. “So lemme ask you. All this about security, and all that. Who's the customer?” He asked. “For this project, I mean?”

Department of Defense.” Dar said, in a mild tone. “You probably guessed that from the security clearance requirement.”

Wow.” Celeste murmured.

But we have other customers that are a lot more mundane.” Dar said. “So don't worry about it.”

She waited for more comments, but there were noe. “So.” She said. “Heres how it's going to work. We'll start on the database. The raw code is already in the repository and I'll be posting a structure plan there on what needs to be coded to work. Everyone will check out an assigned section, code it, then check it back in.”

She studied the group. “Any questions about that?” She paused, and then went to the white board, picking up a marker. “So let's go over the basic data structure, so you'll have an idea of what we're aiming at.”


Kerry relaxed in the outdoor chair, one of several they'd bought and put into the central garden area. She kept one eye on Mocha's scampering, while she waited for Dar to arrive, enjoying the sunlight as it counteracted the cool breeze.

A lot nicer than going down to the cafeteria. It felt like she was really taking time out in the middle of the day, and the outdoor space felt relaxed and private, though she did suspect it would lose some of it's appeal once the weather turned hot.

But for now, it was lovely. She let her hand rest on her denim clad knee, taking a deep breath and exhaling as she heard a set of distinctive footprints heading towards her from the back alley. She tilted her head and looked past her leg, spotting Dar strolling across the grass with Chino in tow.

Mocha spotted them and raced over, yapping excitedly as he reached Dar and went in circles for a minute, then fell down.

Kerry chuckled as she watched her partner carefully step over their new pet, her hands full of paper bags that held their lunch. “Hey hon.”

Hi.” Dar put the bags down on the stone table nearby and took the seat next to Kerry. “How'd your meeting go?”

Pretty good.” Kerry said. “I think I want to interview a few more companies though before doing a contract. This guy talked a good game, but there were a couple things he said that made me wonder.” She folded her hands over her stomach. “I have two people from county government coming over this afternoon about a traffic light synchronization program. Can we do that?”

Sure.” Dar was fishing around in the bags, pulling out a sandwich and handing it over. “But are you telling me those lights I always suspected were completely roll dice random really were?”


Nice.” Dar removed her own sandiwch and sat back with it, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Mark tells me we need to get a few help desk people onboard already.” She said. “So I have the HR team looking for them. I figure we can put them in that small office next to the server room.”

Did his new assistant start?”

Yeah, I saw him running cables in the programmer's cave.” Dar said. “Nerdy little guy.”

Oh, he'll be out of place here.” Kerry took a bite of her curry chicken salad and enjoyed the crisp bite of granny smith apple in it. “How's your skateboarder doing? I saw him bringing in his iguana this morning.”

He's doing all right.” Her partner said. “This is his first job. He's never had to code on a schedule before.” She added. “I've got him doing small code sections and then running tests on them.”

And he's writing a game?” Kerry seemed bemused at this.

Dar waggled her hand. “It's more of a gaming system.” She said. “It's a framework you can use to underlay different kinds of games. Once he's got to a certain point, I'll write a controller console for it and we'll see if we can get some game people onboard to market it.”

Kerry chewed thoughtfully. “That wasn't something I saw us branching out to.” She admitted. “I never even saw you play a video game.”

Dar's face creased into a brief grin. “I did in my younger years. Just ask Mark.” She offered a bit of her sandwich to Chino, and immediately got a very attentive puppy clawing at her kneecap. “I'm not sure we want to go into the games themselves, but the system could be interesting.”

Okay, so. I got an email earlier from the local small business group. They've got a convention next week – they know it's short notice but they were wondering if we want to particpate? I guess someone gave them our names.” Kerry said. “I've got the booth prices on my desk.. they're not bad.”

Dar looked thoughtful. “We ready to go public like that?” She asked. “I wouldn't mind going, but I don't know that I want to put a booth up.”


She shook her head. “Booth makes you one of many.” She said. “Give them a call, see if they've got any panels or talking opportunities. Look for a place where we can stand out and shine.”

Kerry stopped chewing and regarded her partner. She swallowed, and washed down her mouthful with a sip of the bottled tea Dar had brough her. “Y'know, you still manage to surprise me sometimes.” She admitted, seeing the wry twinkle in her partner's eyes. “This is going to sound ridiculous but sometimes I forget who I'm married to.”

Dar chuckled. “That's because you're used to me sending a gopher to torment you and singing in your ear.” She looked pleased with the compliment anyway. “All jokes aside, if you get me an opportunity to do a keynote or something like that, it would work better for us.”

Absolutely, Maestro.” Kerry agreed. “I'll give them a call when I go back inside.” She succumbed to the entreating brown eyes at her knee and fished out a piece of chicken. “Only a little bit, you monster.” She offered the piece to Mocha, who nibbled it.

They ate together in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then Dar got up and balled up her wrappings, putting them in the bag she'd brought. “I'll be upstairs building my presentations for Wednesday.” She moved behind Kerry and leaned over, kissing her on the top of her head. “Later.”

Later.” Kerry smiled, reaching behind her to pat Dar's leg as she moved off. She slowly finished her sandwich, sharing bits of it with her two attentive friends as she listened to the snatches of salsa music she could hear coming out of the windows.

That lasted all of five minutes, then another pair of footsteps approached her little haven, and she looked up to see their landlord coming at her at a trot. “Hey there.”

Hey there!” Marcus sat down in the seat Dar had so recently abandoned. “So, you asked me about the homeless guys around here, right?”

Right.” Kerry agreed.

Are you having a lot of problems with them?” Marcus asked. “I know the cafe said they were causing some issues around here.”

Kerry sipped her tea, watching his face. “To us? Well, it's just that they were fighting with the maintenance men and then with each other. I don't want the people who work for us to be nervous or anything going in and out of the building. Especially in the evenings.”

Marcus was already nodding. “I know.” He looked uncomfortable. “It's just hard, if you know what I mean. I don't want to get a rep that I”m against vets, or anything.”

No one does.” Kerry said. “Dar's from a military family. I'm just not sure what the deal is, because people are having to deal with them being rude, and yelling and all that, even the cafe gals are nervous about walking to their cars at night. I”m not against vets, I'm just for civil behavior.”

Their landlord sighed. “See, those guys, there's like, six or eight of them, right? They grew up in the neighborhood, and most of them went off into the service together.” He explained. “They were in my brother's high school class, in fact. So everyone around here knows them.”

Kerry continued to sip her tea. “And?” She prompted. “Does that give them a free pass to harass people?”

Well.” Marcus glanced around, and then back at her. “Yeah, actually. People are sort of.. they feel bad, and they're sort of embarassed, because their families kinda moved off when they went into the Army and left them no place to go.”

Kerry blinked. “What?”

Marcus nodded. “It wasn't like a planned thing.” He hastily reassured her. “I mean, it's not like they moved away and didn't tell them, but there were some houses and the shopping center bought them up, you know? The famililes all moved upstate.”

And they didn't want to go with them when they came back?” Kerry stared at him. “So they just stay here, on the streets?”

Yeah.” He said. “Scott, that's the guy in the wheelchair, says this is his home, he's not going up to Melbourne. He hates it there. That's where the family moved to. His buddies call him Wheels. I think he kinda hates it.”

Kerry was still a little stunned. “Yeah. I can see that.” She said. “Like if they were calling him Stumpy or something. So isn't there something that can be done for them? The military can't do anything?”

Marcus shrugged. “I have no idea. Not my area of expertise.” He said. “I think he likes living on the street, to be honest. He said he tried programs and things like that, but everyone there told him what to do, and he doesn't want anyone to tell him what to do. He gets a check from the government, and all that.”

She remembered something Andrew had once told her, way back when, at the very beginning of their relationship and she nodded thoughtfully. “Well, so what are we supposed to do then? We tried talking to them. Told them to stay clear of the building.”

Marcus's eyes widened. “You did?”

Kerry nodded. “I don't really want to call the cops on them. I just dont' want our staff to be uncomfortable leaving at night. I've got some younger women working for me that I don't want hassled.”

Their landlord looked thoughtful. “Let me talk to them.” He sighed. “See what I can do. They don't usually listen to me though, they think I”m a punk.”

Kerry folded up her wrappings and put them in the bag Dar had left. “Marcus.” She said. “Just between you and me? Try to get them to see reason. Dar's father is on a trip right now, but when he comes back, if the'yre still causing a problem he's going to make them really wish they hadn't.”

Okay.” He said. “I'll try. Gotta keep my clients happy.” He got up. “Wish me luck.”

Kerry waved, as he trudged off, looking apprehensive. “Good luck.” She called after him.

Growf!” Chino added, as they started back inside the building.


Dar adjusted a frame on the screen, studied the result, then shifted it a bit with her mouse. She compiled and ran the little script she'd just finished and observed the motion on the monitor, nodding after a minute in satisfaction and saving the presentation.

It was dark outside, and quiet in the office. She could hear the soft rattling of Kerry's typing next door, and near the window curled up in the big dog bed Chino was in a Labrador dream, paws twitching and faint grunting whines coming from her chest while Mocha was sprawled across her legs in blissful abandon.

The music system in the corner was playing a soft tune and absently, Dar started singing along to it as she transferred the presentation from her desktop system to her laptop, starting the program up to make sure it would run correctly on the new machine.

While it was moving through it's assembled bits, she took out the hard copy of her proposal and thumbed through it, scanning over the pages to make sure she hadn't misspelled anything, and that the sections were in the right places. With a nod of approval she closed the folder and put it in her backpack.

In the other room she heard the faint sound of the zipper on Kerry's soft sided briefcase, and with a smile, she shut down the laptop and got ready to leave.

Outside, she could hear the wind in the trees, and now that the building was empty there were shifts and creaks in the walls and floors that belied the age of the building. She glanced out the window, and saw the branches bending, indicating the storm that the weather channel had predicted had, in fact, arrived.

Glad we brought our jackets.” Kerry commented, shrugging into hers as she came to stand in the doorway between their offices. “Nasty out there.”

So I see.” Dar slid her laptop into the backpack. “Oh well. Even Miami has to have winter storms sometimes.” She got into her own jacket and shouldered the pack. “Let's go home.”

They got the dog leashes arranged and walked down the steps, snapping off lights as they went. Kerry walked over and armed the building alarm, giving a nod as she keyed it.

Dar opened the front door, hearing the long beep as they went through and she locked it behind them. “You think we'll be twenty four seven at some point, Ker?”

Depends.” Kerry answered as they walked down the path to the parking lot. “Do we insource a NOC and support desk, or outsource it? How many accounts do we need to have to need that to make it economical to keep it in house?” She pondered. “I know you don't like outsourcing.”

Never did.” Dar admitted. “No one cares as much about your business as you do.”

And yet, we were the outsource for so many support areas.”

Dar smiled. “I was arrogant enough to tell customers that we did care more about their business than they did.” She confirmed. “And in some cases, that was true.”

We were different.”

That's what I told myself.” Dar said. “And you know, if you're not a technology company, there's a point to paying a techology company to do your technology for you.”

True.” Kerry opened the back door to her car and put her case inside. “But we are a technology company so... c'mon, Chi, up you go.”

So it probably behooves us to watch our own stuff.” Dar concluded, sliding into the passenger seat and setting Mocha on her lap. “But not just yet. Let's wait till we deliver some product first.” She settled back and glanced out the front windshield of the Lexus. “Ah.”

Kerry was just closing her door, and she looked up, following Dar's gaze. “Ah.” She echoed, seeing the group of huddled figures near the streetlamp. “Well at least they aren't fighting.” She started the engine and flicked the lights on. “Nasty night to be out, huh?”

Mm.” Dar studied the ragged looking group. Two of them turned and looked at the car, then turned back around and put their back to the light. After a moment, they all turned and walked down the path between their building and the next, quickly disappearing past the hedges, the man in the wheelchair going last. “Did you tell me you saw a break in the leaves around back there?”

Kerry nodded, resting her hands on the steering wheel. “You think they're hiding in the trees back by that other building?”

Maybe.” Dar said. “There's enough space there for a shelter, sort of.”

Kerry drummed her fingers. “What do we do about that?”

Hm.” Her partner grunted softly. “They're not hurting anything being back there, are they?” She asked, as Kerry shifted the SUV into gear.

Maybe we can talk to our security vendor about it once we have one.” Kerry suggested. “Changing your mind about having guards in the building?”

Mm.” Dar grunted again, propping her elbow against the window and resting her head against her fist. “I dont know, Ker. I can secure the data – that's not a problem.”

Kerry left of the questioning and concentrated on driving instead. She wasn't really in the mood to start a disagreement with her spouse, and she sensed they were on sort of different sides on the question. “We'll work it out.” She said, after a brief silence.

I”m sure we will.” Dar wriggled into a more comfortable position. “Feel like italian tonight?”

Did she? Kerry pondered the idea as she headed east along the causeway towards the ferry base. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Seafood pasta maybe, and a salad. It's kinda late to start cooking.”

Mmmeatballs.” Dar rumbled, going nose to nose with Mocha. “You want mmmeatballs, Mmmmocha?”


Growf.” Chino poked her head between the seats, as they pulled onto the ferry.

See what you started?” Kerry put the car in park and relaxed. “Now you have to cough up the meatballs, darling.”

We can order them some.”

Spoiled dogs.”

Along with ice cream for me.” Dar chortled.

Spoiled human.”


Two days later Kerry was pulling into the parking lot early, after letting Dar off at the airport. She got her laptop case and closed the door behind her, having left the two dogs in the condo since she lacked enough hands to wrangle them without Dar's help.

It was very quiet. She unlocked the door then slipped quickly inside to turn off the alarm, kicking the front door closed behind her as she went past. The receptionist wasn't due in for another half hour, and she hesitated, then left the alarm off as she went up the steps to her office.

It felt strange, to be in the place all alone. Kerry shrugged off her sometimes admittedly overactive imagination, and dropped off her laptop bag, then went to the little kitchen on the second floor to put some water on to heat.

She was aware of the silence around her, and now she wished she'd brought at least Chino along to keep her company. The Labrador was not really a watch dog, but she was big and had a loud bark. “Am I getting paranoid?” She asked aloud, putting a teabag in her cup and pouring the hot water over it. “I hope not.”

She carried the cup back to her office and put it down, pausing the start up her PC before she sat down. She took a sip of the tea, then paused, as she heard the door downstairs open and close.

Her heartbeat picked up. She got up and pulled her cell phone from her pocket, walking out of her office and through Mayte's to the top of the stairs before calling out. “Hello?”

No answer. Kerry cursed silently at herself for leaving the door open and paused, trying to decide what to do. She retreated back into Mayte's space and quickly texted Dar a message, then she went into her own office, locked the connecting door between her space and Dar's, and then went back into the outer room and stood in the entrance, giving her a view of the upper corridor and the stairs.

Her throat felt dry, and she could feel her heart beating in her chest, as she strained her ears to see if she could hear someone moving around below. Her device buzzed gently in her hand and she glanced down, thumbing open a message from Dar that said “Called the cops. Lock yourself in your office i'm getting a cab.”

Oh, Dar no.” Kerry started to dial, then stopped, when she heard a creak on the stairs. She hesitated, caught between wanting to see who it was who was and being afraid it was someone she didn't really want to see.

Macha overrode common sense, and she abruptly walked forward and went to the top fo the stairs, bracing her legs at shoulder length apart and looking down. “Hey!”

The figure walking up stopped and stared at her. He was a man of medium height, with a muscular body and short, almost crewcutted brown hair. He was dressed in old, faded camoflage pants and a black shirt, and there was an expression she could only describe as insolent on his face.

Okay, so now she was glad Dar had called the cops. “You're tresspassing.” She stated.

He spread his arms out to either bannister. “You the bitch who told that fag to tell my friends to stay away from this place?” He had a deep, husky voice. “Are ya?”

Kerry kept her voice even with a good deal of effort. “Yes.” She said. “I told our landlord we don't want people fighting out side the door.”

He started climbing up towards her again. “I don't appreciate that.”

I don't actually care.” Kerry shot back. “You'er not above the law any more than the rest of your friends are.”

He stopped again about three steps down from her. “You call the cops?”

Yes.” Kerry said.

I didn't hear anyone call the cops.” He stepped up one more step towards her. “Bitch.”

That's not my problem, asshole.” Kerry wasn't entirely sure where all the faux courage was coming from, but at least her voice wasn't shaking, and her knees were holding her up so far. “You've got no business being in this building, you're trespassing, and the cops are on the way to haul your ugly ass out of here.”

He stared her in the eye. Kerry stared right back, hoping like hell her legs would both continue to hold her up and obey her if she had to do something crazy like defend herself.

She had the skill to do that, a little. Her mind knew what to do, or at least, she hoped it did.

He stepped up one more step and his head was even with hers. “You've got more guts than sense, you know that?” He asked. “I could rape you blind before those fat fucks at the doughnut shop could get here.”

You can try.” Kerry replied, in a quiet voice, barely hearing her words over the thundering of her own heartbeat. She could feel the fear winding up in her and it was really hard to keep her breathing even.

Then the door slammed open and a moment later Mark's voice was yelling out a wordless warning, as he came barelling up the steps

The stranger stepped back and held his hands up. “All right, take it easy buddy.”

Take it easy?” Kerry suddenly felt her fear turn to outrage. “You come in here and say you're going to rape me, and you want us to take it easy?”

Get the fuck out of here!” Mark yelled, at the same time. “Who the fuck do you think you are coming in here, jackass!” He had just taken his motorcycle helmet off and was swinging it from one hand, coming up the steps like a homicidal care bear.

The door opened again, and a breathless Mayte and Maria half walked, half ran in. “Merde!” Maria yelled. “What is this? I will get the police! Mayte! Get the base ball hat and go there!”

The intruder kept his hands up, and slowly slid down to sit on the stairs. “Okay people.” He said. “Don't get all civ crazy on me. I”m not going to do anything.”

Kerry felt herself relaxing, as Mark scrambled up to stand in front of her, looking as dangerous as a thirty something nerd could. “Thanks, Mark.” She patted his shoulder. “Glad you came in early.”

Early fuck.” Mark said, catching his breath. “Dar called me. I broke like twenty red lights getting here the damn cops are probably going to chase my ass right thorugh that door.”

Mayte had climbed up the steps and was now standing next to Mark, and they all turned to stare at the intruder. He was sitting quietly, his hands on his knees, looking from one of them to the other.

Kerry put her hands on her hips. “You're messing with the wrong people, buddy.” She said. “We don't intimidate easily.”

So I see.” The man said. “I thought you were a bunch of nerds.”

We are.” Mark said. “You shouldn't fuck with us. We can do shit like send your food stamps to Tibet.”

The man's eyebrows hiked up.

And you should be glad we showed up before her SO did.” Mark continued, pointing at Kerry.

The door opened yet again, and Maria re-appeared, with two policemen behind her. “There!” She pointed. “That is him.”

The intruder sighed. “Fuck.”

You?” The first policeman headed up the stairs, hauling a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “You stupid son of a bitch .We told you to keep your nose clean.”

I'm just trying ot protect my guys.” The intruder said, in an angry tone. “Why can't you all just leave us the fuck alone? Why do you all have to be such assholes?”

The policeman grabbed him by the arm and pulled him upright. “Because we have to enforce the law, inconvenient as it is for you. So your 'guys' can't just do what they want and you can't just go into offices and threaten people.” He yanked the man down the steps. “Sorry about this bubba, folks.” He said. “We'll take him down and get hin out of your hair.” He glanced at Kerry. “ You want to press charges?”

Absolutely.” Kerry said. “Especially since he threatened to rape me.”

The cop glared at the intruder in disgust.

I was just trying ot scare her!” The man yelled. “I wasn't gonna touch her! I could have already done it if I wanted to long as it took you to get here! Might as well have since..” He stopped as the cops and his progress was halted by Dar entering and coming to a halt right in front of them.

Excuse us ma'am.” The second cop said, reaching aroudn Dar to grab hold of the intruder. “We're just getting this guy out of here.”

For a moment, Dar didin't budge. She stared hard at the intruder, who met her eyes for a second, then looked away. “Thanks.” She said, in a clipped tone. “I'd like to make sure he doesn't come back so whatever you need from us, we'll do it.”

The cop nodded. “Yes ma'am, we'll put him in the car, then we'll be back to take some statements.” He manuevered the now silent intruder out the door, his partner following him.

Dar exhaled. Then she trudged up the steps, clapping Mark on the shoulder as she came even with him. “Thanks.” She half turned. “Thanks Mayte and Maria, too.”

Anytime, boss.” Mark wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What a way to start the morning.”

Dar reached Kerry and opened her arms, enfolding her in a hug as she bumped her backwards off the stair verge. “I'll book a later flight.” She said, as Kerry leaned against her. “Son of a bitch.”

Dar, I will take care of that for you.” Maria patted her arm, and slipped past into her office.

Ugh.” Kerry finally took a deep breath and released it. “My stupid fault. I left the door unlocked when I came in.” She murmured. “I feel like such a jerk.”

Don't.” Dar bumped her further back away from the stairs as the door opened and voices started echoing through the hall again. “But bet your ass we're going to have physical security here before the end of the god damned day.” She finished that as they cleared the doorway into Kerry's office and she closed the door behind them.

Then Dar simply held onto her. “I think I'm going to throw up.” She admitted. “You scared the shit out of me.”

Sorry.” Kerry rubbed her side gently. “Dar, I'm so sorry.” She could feel the shivering in her partner's tall body and it brought on a flood of intense shame. “So sorry.”

Dar took a breath and released it. “It's okay.” She rocked them both back and forth a little. “I'm pretty sure I left some kind of security panic behind me at the airport.” She sniffled a little. “I'd just gone through xray when I got your text.”

Oh boy.” Kerry winced.

Knocked over a bunch of TSA agents, and the xray, and a bunch of stanchions.” Dar agreed mournfully. “I bet I'm on some list now.”

Dar.” Kerry rested her head against her partner's collarbone.

But you're okay.” The taller woman said. “And believe me, that's all that matters to me right now.”

A knock came at the door, and they reluctantly parted. “Let's get the cops out of the way, then we can go tell HR to get us some big, boofy security guards.” Dar said. “You were right about that.”

I”d much rather have been wrong.” Kerry muttered as she went to the door and opened it. “Stupid jerk.” She exhaled. “Hi, officers. C”mon in.”

The cops came in, and one of them took out a pad. “Sorry about that, ma'am. We've been having a lot of problems with these guys lately.”

Yeah, we've seen them around a lot.” Kerry said. “Is that guy one of their old captains or something? He seemed to be responsible for them.”

That guy?” The cop snorted softly. “Lady, he's a priest.”

Both Dar and Kerry swung around and stared at him in unabashed disbelief. “Uh... what?” Kerry managed to get out. “That guy?”

Well, he's a chaplain, from the service or something.” The cop said. “That's what he says anyway, he was over in the Middle East with them, and I guess he's working at the halfway house down the road trying to get them some help or something.”

I think he's the one who needs help.” Dar said. “Is he nuts?”

The cop shrugged. “Hard to say. You know, those guys had to deal with a bunch of stuff over there, not real nice stuff. My brother went through that. It's tough. They come back and no one gives a damn, you know?”

My father's retired Navy.”

So you get it.” The cop said. “They did service, then they come back and no one wants to help them out.”

No I don't get it.” Kerry said. “It's no justification for him coming in here and threatening to rape me.” She had gathered some of her wits around her. “So we are going to press charges.”

The cop was making some notes. “We can probably get a restraining order to keep him away from here.” He commented. “Thing is, these guys feel like they're owed.” He sighed. “So, let's hear what happened.”

Kerry went to her desk and sat down. “Sure.” She folded her hands as Dar took a perch on the windowsill behind her. “I came in early.. around seven. I opened the front door and came inside, and about... I guess ten minutes after that I heard the front door open and close.”

Uh huh.”

So I went to the stairs and called out – I thought our receptionist had come in a little early, or one of the other staff, but no one answered.”


So a couple minutes after that, I heard someone on the stairs, and I went to the top there, and found this guy coming up towards me.”

The cop regarded her. “It occur to you to lock yourself inside the office?”

Not really, no.” Kerry admitted. “I did close up the back door there, so there was only one way into the office here. But then I saw him and he started threatening me.”

So you called the police.” The cop said.

I called the police.” Dar interjected quietly.

The cop looked over at her. “You were here at the time?”

No. I was at the airport.”

The cop blinked at her in confusion.

I texted her when I heard that sound downstairs.” Kerry explained. “And Dar sent the cavalry. He just stayed on the stairs yelling at me and saying he was going to hurt me until Mark showed up and then everyone else did too.”

Uh huh.” The cop nodded. “So we got this guy in the car, and we're going to take him down to the station. His story is, he was just trying to scare you off from complaining about his buddies.” He studied Kerry's pale face. “He was saying that they should be able to go on the sidewalk if they want to, you know?”

They can walk all over the sidewalk.” Dar said. “We objected to them fighting with each other on our doorstep.” She said. “Not to mention, rummaging in our garbage, and giving the maintenance guys a hard time when they complain about the mess they're making.”

The cop nodded, and his partner nodded as well. “Yeah, okay. I know they do that a lot. We'll see what we can do about it.” He said. “For the record I don't think he'd have hurt you” He said. “I've known these guys for a few months.” He glanced at Kerry. “And besides, he said the scaring didn't work. Thinks you have brass ones, no offense.”

Well.” Kerry said. “I've met my share of assholes. But if it had been one of our staff, it would have been different, and I am not going to subject them to that. They have a right to come to work and not worry about that.”

The cop nodded again .”Fair enough. We'll be in touch.” He lifted a hand in goodbye, and he and his partner left Kerry's office, closing the door behind them.

Kerry sighed, and turned to look at her partner. Then she got up and went to perch on the sill next to her. “Big boofy guards, huh?”

A dozen of them. One of them right outside your door.” Dar wiped her hands off on her jeans. “Jerks.”

Kerry rested her head agianst Dar's shoulder. “Next time I'll lock the damn door.”


Continued in Part 9