By Melissa Good
What in the hell were they recruiting these days?Dar rested her arms on the railing and studied the group of new sailors. Kids out of grade school? The twenty new swabs were clustered around the admitting petty officer, looking hapless and mostly bewildered. Watching their painfully earnest faces made Dar suddenly feel older than her years. She put her chin down on her crossed wrists and sighed, wondering if she’d ever really been that young and feckless.
"Can you people not stand up straight? What the hell are your spines made of, Jellah?" The petty officer barked loudly. "Pick up them damn bags and get in line!"
The new sailors looked at each other. "Which you want us to do first, sarge?" The tall, crew cutted boy closest to Dar drawled. "Gotta get out the line to get them bags."
Dar’s lips quirked faintly, as the petty officer’s neck veins started to bulge. The kid sounded a lot like her father, and she imagined briefly what she’d have been like in just this sort of line up, smart ass that she’d been.
"Are you finding this funny, ma’am?" The petty officer’s attention had been drawn suddenly to his unwanted observer. "I’m not sure what the joke is."
Your toupee? Dar had to clamp her jaw shut to keep the words from emerging. The smart assed kid she’d been snickered at her. Been? "If I were you, I’d just take care of the problems you have right there, not look for more with me." She warned the man. "Those problems you’ve got a chance to do something about."
The petty officer glared at her then decided the tall, dark haired woman he’d been told to be cursorily polite too wasn’t going to go away. "All right, you lot of useless baggage. Go to that pile of bags, pick up the bag that has your god damned name on it, then walk back to where you started and get in line. Is that clear enough or d’you want me to stamp it in Braille letters on your god damned useless foreheads!"
Dar resumed her position leaning against the railing as the swabs picked up their gear and shuffled into place. Six of the new sailors were women, and she found herself studying them, making mental guesses as to their backgrounds and reasons for joining.
The two nearest her, she considered, were probably from poor families, in tough neighborhoods. They were almost twins; medium height, Latin complexion, dark curly hair and a permanent suspicious look in their eyes.
The redhead in the front of the line with the pugnacious chin and smattering of freckles looked like an only girl raised with a pile of brothers, some of which were probably already in service.
One of the remaining three was, Dar suspected, a cheerleader. She had the wholesome good looks, and feathered blond hair of one, along with a perky snub noise and a perfect smile.
Dar wondered what wrong turn she’d taken, and when she’d realize she’d taken it. Next to her was a short, heavyset girl with a bulldog attitude that reminded Dar strongly of Chief Daniel.
Great. Dar exhaled, and turned her head slightly, startled to find the eyes of the last female swab fastened firmly on her. For an instant, clear, pale gray eyes met Dar’s with startling clarity, and then they dropped, as the petty officer started to yell more orders.
Dar blinked. The girl was facing forward now, her blond head cocked to one side as she listened. She was fairly short, shorter than Kerry by an inch or so, and she had a wiry, but very slender build. She held herself with a sense of secure confidence, despite the intimidating petty officer, and Dar felt an unusual curiosity prick her.
But not for that long, as the petty officer shoved them out the door, and towards the processing center. Dar pushed off the railing and ambled after them, pushing the hinged doors open and moving to one side of the room as the new sailors picked up their new uniforms.
A computer terminal was on a table to her right, and Dar went directly to it, bringing up a login screen and entering a collection of letters and numbers in a rattle of keystrokes.
"Hey." The petty officer was at her shoulder. "Are you supposed to be in there?"
"I have a password." Dar replied. She scanned the information she was looking for, and keyed in a further request. "You’re swabs are unraveling." She waited for the man to leave, then examined the record.
The boat’s bow bobbed up and down gently in the surf, providing a soothing motion that made the woman painting on its fiberglass surface smile. Cecilia Roberts dipped her brush into a swirl of acrylic color, studied the canvas for a moment, and then continued her work. The underwater seascape had a wash of blue in a dozen shades, and the floor of the sea it’s coating of coral and now she was going back in and putting in the vibrant color of fish and leafy ocean foliage.
Nearby, a small tray rested with a pitcher of ice tea and a bowl of fresh fruit. The slim, silver blond woman paused again, and selected a bit of melon, sucking on it as she considered her next stroke.
The sun splashed over her tanned skin, and she idly watched the golden light, taking a moment to simply live, adoring the present and giving a silent thanks to the goddess for perhaps the thousandth time.
The boat rocked a little harder, and she looked up to see a pair of large hands clasping the lower railing, long fingers tightening on the metal then straining as the hands were followed by a large, wet, partially neoprene covered body. Ceci smiled. "Hey there, sailor boy. Find the problem?"
"I surely did." Andrew pulled himself up and over the railing, then removed a bag slung at his waist and dumped its contents onto the white deck. "That there fish got stuck in the intake valve."
"Ew." Ceci grimaced. "Andy, if I wanted sushi on the boat I’d have ordered out. Can you toss it overboard?"
The big ex-seal snorted, but scooped the messy item up and neatly chucked it over the railing. Then he squished over to where his wife was seated and peered at the painting, careful to avoid dripping murky salt water on Ceci’s palette. "I do like that."
Ceci tickled his exposed kneecap, then leaned over and kissed the spot, tasting the tang of the sea. "I do love you." She told him. "I still think this has to be a dream."
Andy seated himself on the deck. "Seems that way sometimes, don’t it?" His deep voice rumbled quietly. "Been through a lot, you and I have. Maybe it’s just the good lord’s way of saying we done all right."
Ceci studied the scarred, weathered face next to her; it’s piercing blue eyes standing out with startling clarity. She traced a grizzled eyebrow gently. "Maybe."
The cellphone resting on the deck next to her warbled. They both glanced at it, then Ceci sighed, and picked it up. "Yes?"
And then again, Cecilia gazed plaintively up at the sky; the goddess has ways of reminding you just how easily karma could change. "Hello, Chuck." She replied. "What do I owe the honor of this to?"
Charles Bannersley was her older brother, the head of their family, and one of the largest ambulatory anal orifices Cecilia knew. She was pissed at him, though she didn’t think he really understood why, and wanted to hear his voice about as much as she wanted a salt-water enema.
Andrew merely narrowed his eyes as he recognized the tinny voice coming from the phone Ceci was holding between them.
"I’d like to see you." Charles answered. "Candy and I are here, in Miami."
"Sorry." Ceci replied crisply. "I’ve got plans tonight."
"Fine. Have a drink with us first." Her brother came right back. "Can you spare ten minutes for your family?"
Andrew rolled his eyes. "Lord."
"My family?" Ceci decided to allow her spleen it’s moment. "My family’s sitting right here next to me. Of course I can spare any amount of time for Andrew." She paused. "And Dar and Kerrison, of course. Why do you ask?"
A sigh traveled through the cell phone’s speaker. "Cecilia, please."
Andy and Ceci exchanged looks. Andy’s eyebrows lifted in amused surprise, giving him an expression very much like Dar’s would have been in the same position.
Ceci considered, then shrugged. "Fine. There’s a tiki bar just off the marina here. Meet me in a half-hour. I can only stay a few minutes, though, Kerry’s picking us up for dinner after that." Poke, poke. Ceci enjoyed the jab at her family’s straight-laced sensibilities.
"All right." Charles hesitated. "Alone, Ceci."
Andrew straightened in outrage and almost grabbed for the phone. Ceci put a finger against his lips and held it out of range. "You’re joking, right?" She told her brother. "Did you really think I’d subject Andy to you two? Get real." Her hand folded the phone shut, and she dropped it on the towel next to her. "Into every life a little bird crap must fall, hmm?"
"Ah could go with you." Andy scowled.
"Nah." Ceci ruffled his drying, close-cropped hair affectionately. "I’ll be safe. Charles is an idiot, but the last I checked, he wasn’t suicidal." She tilted his chin up and kissed him. "Let me go toss some scandalous clothing on and find out what his problem is."
Andy watched her leave. He collected the tubes and other painting gear and tucked them away in the plastic bucket Ceci used, and tidied the area, then stood and made his way aft to rid himself of his scuba equipment.
"A tiki bar." Charles loosened his collar, and glanced around. "Figures." He gave his twin sister a disgusted look. "I hate this place. Always have."
Candice fiddled with the table tent before her. She was of medium height, with reddish bronze hair and green eyes, as did her brother, though his hair was thinning almost to invisibility. "Yes, well.. what the hell did you expect, Chuck? You knew what it would be like."
He snorted, and took a sip of his whiskey, his eyes wandering over the scantily clad bodies and diverse ethnicity of the bar. Candice poked him. "What?"
"Here she comes." Candice told him. They both turned to watch as their younger sister made her way up the wooden boardwalk towards them. "Well. She looks healthy."
Charles didn’t answer. His eyes studied the relaxed, self-assured person approaching, unable to refute the positive changes since the last time he’d seen Ceci. She’d let her hair grow out a little, and it was bleached even lighter from the sun, contrasting with the sun darkened shade of her previously very pale skin.
She was no longer a ghost, eyes tensed in a remembered pain that never left her.
No longer lost.
She’d come home, and even Charles, who hated this place, and hated her choice, had to admit the truth of that. "Ceci." He stood and greeted her as she joined their table. "Thanks for coming over."
"Charles." Ceci greeted him with wary cordiality. "Hello, Candy."
Her sister smiled. "Hi, Cec. You look great." She leaned forward. "Did you color your hair, or is a new lipstick or…?"
"No." Ceci took a seat next to her older sister. "I’ve just been inside more than outside and put on ten pounds since you last saw me. But thanks for noticing." She caught the eye of the waiter. "Kahlua milkshake, please."
"That’s different for you." Candy commented.
"I picked up some new habits from Dar." Ceci assumed a pleasant smile. "What do you two want?"
Her siblings exchanged glances. "Can’t we just want to see you?" Charles asked.
"No." Ceci looked directly at him. "Andrew told me what you did, Charles." She referred to her brother’s refusal to pass on the Navy’s notification of Andrew’s rescue to her. "It’s a good thing you waited this long to contact me, because otherwise I’d have killed you for that."
"How dare you." Ceci slapped the table with her hand, making the silverware jump. Her brother and sister jerked in startled surprise. "You pretentious little son of a bitch."
Charles took a breath, clearly caught off-guard. "I did what I thought was best for you." He finally answered stiffly.
"Bullshit." Ceci snapped, looking up as the waiter brought her milkshake and hurriedly left, seeing the angry faces. "Do you have any idea how badly I was hurting, Charles? How many days of pain you could have taken away from me with that damn piece of paper?" She slapped the table again. "Do you know just how ironic it is that my estranged daughter had to come back into my life to bring me back my Andy?"
Candy leaned forward and took her hand. "Cec, what Chuck did was wrong. But he didn’t’ do it to hurt you." She searched her sister’s angry eyes.
"There is no way you can convince me of that." Ceci said, after a moment. "As much as you both hate Andrew, you knew how I felt about him."
A silence fell. Charles looked down at his hands, his fingers twisted together. Candice took several slow, even breaths. "Yes, we knew." She finally said. "We never understood why, but we… " She glanced at her twin. "I knew." Another breath. "I’m sorry, Ceci."
Charles refused to look up.
"I don’t want it to be like it was." Candice continued, filling the awkward silence. "I don’t want to lose my sister, and not have you be part of my life."
"This is ridiculous." Charles suddenly looked up. "We shouldn’t have to sit here and beg.."
"Charles!" Candice cut him off.
"NO, I’m not going to shut up." He stood angrily, then paused as someone gently cleared their throat next t him.
"Hi." Kerry folded her hands in front of her. "Thought I recognized you. Mr. Bannersley, wasn’t it?"
Ceci let her chin rest on her fist, watching her daughter in law in action. Kerry had a sweet, engaging smile that totally didn’t match the fiery sparks visible in her pale green eyes. Her sense of presence was almost as significant as Dar’s, and it was obvious the blond woman had been taking lessons from her tempestuous and intimidating offspring.
Charles gave her a cursory stare. "What?"
"Kerrison Stuart." Kerry stuck her hand out. "Dar’s partner? We met at the funeral."
Charles gave her hand a perfunctory press. "Yes, well, you’ll excuse us, please. I’m having a discussion with my sister, and I suggest you leave us alone."
Candice opened her mouth in outrage.
"You’re yelling at my mother in law, and I suggest you sit down and lower your voice before I shove you into Biscayne Bay." Kerry told him, in a mild, kind tone. She folded her arms, and in her snug tank top, her toned muscles looked healthily imposing. "Mind if I sit down?"
"Do you assess them?" Dar cornered the petty officer, after he’d taken the new recruits to their barracks, and gotten them assigned to bunks.
"What?" The officer stared at her. "Not my job, lady. They do that at intake."
"So where are their scores?"
"Scores? Who the hell cares?"
Dar felt like she was swimming through peanut butter. "How do you figure out where to place them if you don’t have scores." She forced patience into her voice. "Or skill assessments?"
"Are you some kinda idiot?" The man spluttered. "These dorks don’t have skills, you moron. They’re nothing but bodies with empty heads. They’ll do whatever we train them to do. No one cares what their scores are."
The sheet of white-hot rage hit her before she could defend against it. One moment she was standing with her palm pilot out, the next she’d grabbed the petty officer and slammed him against the wall, her hands reaching for automatic holds and a growl of pure animal emotion erupting from her throat. For a split second, she teetered on the edge of madness, and then her rational mind savagely ripped back control and forced her to merely push the man back against the wall.
Dar waited for her throat to unclench, and then she took a breath. "I don’t appreciate being called a moron." Even she heard the rough touch to her tone. "Especially from someone who’s mental power rates lower than a watch battery’s."
The petty officer was breathing hard, his hands clenching and unclenching, barely in control. "Who in the hell do you think you are?" He spat out.
For some reason, the question calmed Dar. She got herself under control, feeling the rage subside, leaving her knees trembling. What in the hell’s wrong with me? She wondered uneasily. A pounding headache followed her return to sanity and she had to swallow before she answered. "I think I’m the person your bosses hired to find out why this place isn’t working." She leaned forward. "Maybe I just have."
Now it was the petty officer’s turn to swallow. "Now hold on."
They were alone in the room, and the man looked around quickly before he returned his attention to Dar. "I didn’t do a damn thing. Just what I was told."
Dar stepped back and let her hands drop, feeling exhausted. "I’ve heard that before." She found the stool near the computer console and sat down on it. "Something’s going on here, and I’m gonna find it."
The man hesitated, then walked over, and leaned on the computer console table. "Hey, look. You really from Washington?" His voice had lowered considerably.
Dar lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I was hired by the Joint Chief’s, yes."
"All right, look.." The man shifted, and straightened suddenly, cutting off his speech as the door opened. "Sir."
Dar lifted her eyes to see the base commander enter. "Morning."
"Howdy, tadpole." Jeff Ainsbright entered and gave her a big smile. "We all set for dinner tonight?"
The petty officer edged away from her and his eyes took on a wary look.
"I think so, yes." Dar agreed. "Seven, you said? You want to meet at your office?"
The older man nodded briskly. "Right you are, tadpole. Chuckie tells me you’re sweet on someone – you made the invite to him too, right? Love to meet em."
The complication of the situation almost made Dar wince. "They’ll be here." She quietly affirmed. "Mom and dad, too."
"Great." The commander slapped her on the back. "Carry on, didn’t want to interrupt anything. You find any holes yet I need to be plugging?"
Dar looked up at his weathered face, open and interested as it was. His smile indicated he expected no startling revelations from her, and at the moment, she wasn’t sure if she had any.
Right? "Nothing concrete yet, Uncle Jeff." She said. "I’m still working through the data."
Maybe it was the way she’d said it. The base commander straightened a little, then glanced at the petty officer who was pressed against the wall doing his best imitation of a strip of wall weave. "Dismissed." He waited for the man to leave, and the door to close, then he turned back to Dar, his face now mildly concerned. "What’s the poop, tadpole? You really find something?"
Dar’s lips tensed, as she found herself caught between conflicting loyalties. She felt a mild sense of confusion for the first time in her life, and she had to stop and collect her thoughts for a moment before she could answer. "I don’t know yet." She finally answered honestly. "I might have… there’s something I don’t like in the numbers, but I haven’t fully analyzed it."
The base commander put a large hand on her shoulder. "Tadpole, whatever you find, you bring it to me, hear? I don’t care what it is, I wanna know."
Dar searched his face, seeing nothing but rock solid resolve in his eyes. "All right." She agreed quietly. "When I have something for sure, you’ll know it."
He patted her cheek. "Atta girl. You doing okay, tadpole? You look a little pale t’day."
Dar winced, lifting a hand to rub the back of her neck. "Headache." She explained, with a light shrug. "Think I’ll go take a walk outside for a few minutes."
"Right you are, my friend." Commander Ainsbright slung an arm over her shoulders and tugged her towards the door. "Fresh air’s just the ticket.. I’d send you out on a boat if I had one leaving, get you some salt in those lungs." He opened the door and they walked outside into the sunlight. "How bout a cup of java? That usually puts a patch on my noggin bangers."
Dar thought back to the petty officer then realized the man was probably long gone, chasing after the new recruits. "Sure." She agreed. "Then I’ll go catch up with the swabs."
"Quite the little Lone Ranger, aren’t you?" Ceci commented, as she and Kerry watched her siblings' retreat into the golden rays of sun. They’d lasted through all of ten minutes of Kerry’s pointedly polite chatter, then decided to give up and leave them alone. Ceci hadn’t minded, but she suspected her sister, at least, wasn’t giving up and would be back in touch.
That was all right. She’d never really minded Candice, who generally just went along with Charles in some kind of twin like Zen mode. This time, however, Candy had spoken for herself, using the unusual ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ and Ceci had almost warmed back up to her.
Very little. But if Candy was, at this late stage in her life, attempting to develop a mind of her own, who was she to get in the way? "I feel well and thoroughly rescued."
Kerry leaned back and propped her feet up on the chair Charles had hastily vacated. "Who, me?" She smiled a trifle sheepishly. "Dar’s rubbing off on me a little, maybe."
Ceci chuckled, and nudged her glass over. "Want some?"
Kerry’s brow contracted a bit. "No.. my stomach’s acting up." She exhaled, putting a hand over the afflicted area. "Or maybe it was just too many stressful meetings.. it’s been in a.. knot all day." She finished the sentence softly.
Ceci watched her face, seeing the expression change as Kerry’s focus turned inward. "Kerry?"
After a moment, the green eyes flicked up to meet hers. "Yeah.. sorry. I was just thinking about something." Her fingers twitched as she resisted the urge to pull out her cell phone and call Dar. She’s not a baby, and you’re not her sitter, Kerry. You can’t call her to find out if she’s okay every time you get a cramp. "We had a pretty traumatic thing happen last night.. one of the kids I council at the church got thrown in jail by her parents. Dar and I went and got her out. I spent all morning getting her settled into a temporary space."
Ceci straightened, and took a sip of her milkshake. "Jail? For what?"
Kerry paused, then sighed. "They found out she was gay."
One of Ceci’s silvered eyebrows lifted. "I’d have to check, since I’ve been gone for seven years, but I don’t think that’s illegal in Dade County." She paused. "Broward, maybe."
"No." Kerry shook her head. "There was a scuffle.. her mother threw some things at her and a windshield got broken. They blamed her, and called the cops."
Ceci stared at her for a moment. "Good grief." She finally spluttered. "With the three strikes you’re out law, if I’d have called the police every time I’d argued with Paladar, she’d be in Alcatraz by now."
Kerry smiled. "You’d never have chased her around the garage with a baseball bat, would you?"
Dar’s mother covered her eyes. "Have you gone insane? Dar’s been bigger than I am since she was twelve. I’d no more have done that than tried to hopscotch to the moon." She shook her head. "No, Andrew and I didn’t believe in physical punishment."
Kerry sighed. "My parents didn’t either." She said. "Mental punishment was another story."
"You’re father’s an asshole." Ceci pronounced. "But that’s all right, kiddo, for a long time Dar thought I was an asshole, and the feeling was mutual. Sometimes you grow out of that stuff."
Kerry propped her chin on her fist, and smiled. "You still think Dar’s an asshole?"
Ceci had to think about that. Did she? "Well." She sucked on her milkshake. "I think she can be if she wants to be, just like we all can, but as a person? No. I don’t think she’s an asshole." Now her eyes lifted to Kerry’s. "She loves you, after all."
A faint blush darkened Kerry’s already tanned skin. "It’s mutual." She played with the napkin from Ceci’s drink.
"No, really?" Ceci chuckled. "I’d never have guessed. You two keep it hidden so well."
Kerry’s blush deepened. "Matter of fact, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, before we go down south. That’s why I came out here a little early."
Uh oh. Ceci straightened, feeling a mild sense of alarm. During her years on the base, speeches like that usually presaged breakups and divorces, and she wasn’t ready to hear that coming from Kerry. "What’s wrong?"
Kerry caught the tension in her voice, and looked up, her brows contracting a little. "Wrong? No, I don’t think its wrong.. it’s just something I’m worried about."
Little alarm bells, the really annoying ones like the ones the Salvation Army collectors used at Christmastime started going off. "Now, Kerry.. listen." Ceci leaned forward. "I’ve known Dar a long time."
"Um… I know that."
"She has her moments, and I’ve seen most of them, but deep down, I think she’s a good person."
Kerry’s forehead rumpled. "I think so to… listen, mom.."
"So, whatever it is you’re having problems with, think hard, and don’t give up on that kid too easily, okay? I did, and look where it got me." Ceci told her very seriously.
Kerry’s eyes closed, then reopened, and she reached over to take Ceci’s hands in hers. "Mom." She drew a breath. "The only thing that’s going to ever make me leave Dar is one or the other of us dying." She paused. "And even then, I’m not so sure."
Ceci blinked, now confused. "Oh. Well, that’s fine then." She murmured. "Sorry, I thought…"
"I should have just talked faster." Kerry smiled. "No, what I’m worried about is our relationship being front and center at dinner tonight."
Ceci thought about that. "Oh." She freed one hand and muffled a laugh. "I hadn’t even… oh, boy. Yeah.." Now the laugh escaped. "Oh, my goddess.. those stuffed up military…" She stopped, and cleared her throat. "Ahmm.. I mean, well, yes, Kerry. You do have a point there." Her face struggled to remain serious. "But don’t worry about it – if they say anything, Andy will pick them up and toss them out the window, and they know it. If it’s one thing everyone at that table already knows is, don’t mess with my kid in front of her daddy."
Kerry nodded in relief. "Okay.. I was just worried about it. I know Dar has strong feelings about how she grew up, and I didn’t want to cause her any pain."
Ceci sighed. "Kerry, you’re so nice you should be regulated by the EPA." She reached over and patted the younger woman’s cheek. "Did you ask Dar if she wanted you to give this a miss?"
"And she said no, right?"
Kerry nodded again.
"So don’t worry about it. C’mon, let’s go see if Andy’s gotten the seaweed out of his ears and gotten dressed, then we can take off."
They stood, and Kerry suddenly took a step around the table, and pulled Ceci into a hug. "Thanks."
Oh, good goddess. Ceci returned the hug and patted Kerry on the back. I’m becoming a mother.. Eeeeeekkkk!!!!!
The coffee helped. Dar had also detoured to her car and tossed back a half handful of Advil, and now she was prowling around the barracks looking for her friend the petty officer.
The base was quiet, otherwise, most of the active groups were out on some kind of maneuvers, and only the new recruits, and the usual business units at the base were out and about and doing their daily tasks.
Dar entered the long, wooden barracks structure at one end, and looked around the empty interior for a moment before she walked down the large, central aisle. To either side were partitions with bunks in them, each bunk with it’s footlocker, and open set of shelves made from what looked to her like old orange crates. Now that the new recruits had settled in, shirts were folded and in place, and the beds had obviously just been made.
Dar smiled. Probably remade a half dozen times before the petty officer had been happy with them, the dark blankets tucked with meticulous neatness around the thin mattresses. She remembered watching the new groups come in, and peeking through the window as they’d been badgered and badgered by the admitting officers.
Not her, she’d decided once. She’d have done it exactly right the first time out. After all, hadn’t her daddy taught her to make a regulation bunk, and fold pants and shirts when she was only six years old?
With a smile, Dar continued through the room and out the other side, exiting onto a long, wooden porch with shallow steps that lead down to the muddy ground. She looked to one side and spotted her little targets, now dressed in their new clothes, struggling to follow the orders of a new, different petty officer.
Dar wandered over and watched for a few minutes, until the new officer noticed her and walked over. This one was a woman, with short, crisply curled dark hair and an efficient attitude. "Ma’am? Something we can help you with?"
With a better attitude, at any rate. "No, just observing." Dar replied. "Where’s the guy you relieved?"
The woman cocked her head in question. "Petty Officer Williams?" She waited for Dar’s nod. "Off duty, ma’am."
Uh huh. Dar looked over her shoulder at the recruits, surprised to find her slim, blond friend Kate looking back at her. The gray eyes met hers, and sparkled, then Kate looked straight ahead, her body stiffening into an efficient attention. "Good group?"
The new officer, whose name was apparently Plodget, looked behind her, evaluating the question seriously. "A few of them, ma’am. It’s always the same, Most aren’t much use, but we always do find a few that’ll make it."
"What’s your dropout rate?"
A guarded look fell over the woman’s face. "I wouldn’t know, ma’am."
"Ballpark." Dar pressed. "I’m sure you’ve got a feeling as to how many of these poor saps you lose."
"No ma’am, I don’t." Plodget assured her. "We only get them for the first two weeks, then someone else takes over."
"That’s just how it’s done, ma’am."
Dar nodded slowly. "Where are their admitting records?"
"Haven’t gotten here yet."
"Why not? You guys use a computer system to recruit. What’s the holdup?"
Stolid, dark brown eyes met hers squarely. "That’s just how it’s done, ma’am."
"All right." Dar straightened. "I'll just go see if I can’t change that for you."
Dar turned, and walked away, feeling the eyes on her back as she headed for the admittance center. She ducked inside with a feeling of relief, and went to the computer console, seating herself in front of it and cracking her knuckles slightly. "Okay. Answer time." She logged in, and this time, instead of going through the regular channels, she keyed in a master code. "Idiots." The code still worked, and dropped her to a command line. "Where do you want to go today, hmm?"
Master database was where Dar wanted to go, and a string of commands got her there. She accessed the file structure, and entered it through a back door, watching as the screen filled with line upon line of file records. Dar watched it for a few minutes, her eyes flicking back and forth searching for a certain pattern.
Ah. One long finger stopped the display. "Gotcha." She keyed in another command string, and accessed the recruits' records, bringing them up and comparing them.
Her brow creased. "What in the hell?" Of the twenty, ten were, as the petty officer said, fairly standard, pretty much ordinary kids from lower class backgrounds, with bad grades, and poor ASVAB test results, destined, if they did make it, to be shipped out as seamen or women in whatever grunt job the Navy needed when they spit them out of training. Dar had known hundreds like them. Some might, she admitted, if they worked very hard, break through the ranks and ascend higher, but most would happily fill a berth and take three squares a day for as long as the US was willing to give it to them.
But the other ten. Dar’s eyes flicked over scores that damn well nearly equaled what her own were. High in technology, computers, math… Jesus, one was a class valedictorian who’d specialized in biochemistry.
And her little friend Kate, it seemed, had a rap sheet half the length of Dar’s forearm including such interesting items as breaking and entering, armed robbery, and one, dismissed charge of attempted homicide. ‘What in the hell?" She repeated, then shook her head and captured the data, opening a second command page with a flick of her fingers. She snagged the files she’d been studying and zipped them, then sent them up the network path into her own, now specially protected file space.
Dar drummed her fingertips on the keyboard for a moment, then searched another file, working from instinct and an innate knowledge of these systems, the core of which she’d helped design all those years ago.
There. She stared at the results. I thought I saw something wrong. I thought those accounts didn’t match. One column of the screen showed a normal series of general ledger listings, the other… a list of twenty accounts that weren’t linked anywhere she could find. She called one up, looking at the account balance, which was well into seven figures. The entries were regular, and substantial, and manually keyed, because there was no equivalent ledger account to charge them off against.
A bucket. A bucket full of money, which nothing in this system could account for.
Dar sat back, her heartbeat picking up. What in the hell have I found?
She almost jumped at Chuckie’s cheerful greeting. Her eyes lifted, to see him approaching, and she quickly closed the file and sent it to her file space, then closed out of the command windows she was using just as he rounded the console and peered over her shoulder. "Hey."
"Whatcha doing?" He looked curiously at the innocuous admitting records. "New spuds?"
"Yeah." Dar licked her lips, then signed out of the system. "Just checking them out. Interesting group." Her peripheral vision focused on his face, but saw nothing but benign interest. "You ever see what they’re brining in these days?"
"Nah." Chuckie slung a long, powerful arm over her shoulders. "Hey, we were figuring to go over to the Longhorn steakhouse tonight, that okay by you? You’re daddy’s a steak man, if I remember right."
Dar took a breath, and released it. "Yeap.. he sure is. My mother’s going to pitch a fit, but I guess she can get a potato or something." She managed a smile. "She’s a vegetarian.. unless they’ve got fish there."
"Fish?" Chuckie snorted. "You must be kidding… but yeah, they’ve got potatoes, and I think they got some kinda green beans or something.. how bout your main squeeze, he a veggie lover too?"
Something twitched in Dar’s brain. "She." The word came out in a calm voice, unexpectedly. "And no, Kerry’s as carnivorous as I am."
Chuckie went very still, his eyes fastened on Dar’s face for a long, long moment. Then he slowly removed his arm and stepped back. "What?"
Dar allowed a hint of amusement to reach her lips, and she turned on the stool, leaning against the console with one elbow. "You heard me." She watched his face, watched the expression go from consternation, to uncertainty, to a detectable disgust, then back to a stillness. So. Dar felt vaguely disappointed.
"You’re gay?" Chuckie asked, stiffly.
‘That’s right." Dar agreed. "Don’t’ worry, you didn’t cause that." She added, with a faint smile. "C’mon, Chuck. Rise above your redneck roots."
He looked at his shoes, shock very evident in his posture. Then he lifted his gaze, and met her eyes, briefly, before he shook his head. "That’s fucked up." He said, then turned and walked out, not looking back even once.
Dar sat back and folded her arms over her suddenly aching chest, surprised at just how much that had hurt.
Kerry pulled up to the gate of the base, rolling her window down and preparing her argument for the stolid looking guard who approached.
"Hey, No neck. Open the damn gate." Andy rasped from beside her, poking his head truculently out at the hapless man. "Fore I get out of this here car and break it."
The guard stopped, stared, then his eyes lit up with unmistakable joy. "Commander Andy!!" He almost tripped over himself trying to get the barrier open. "Wow… I didn’t know you were comin down here! Wait till I tell the guys!"
Hm. Kerry watched bemusedly as the man waved like a child at her passenger. Guess it does depend on who you know around this place. "He wasn’t nearly that nice to Dar." She commented. "She had to get rough with him."
Andy leaned over her and pinned the guard with a pair of ice blue eyes. "That right, No neck? You give mah kid a hard time?"
The guard looked terminally wounded. "Not after she said who she was, sir! If she’d have just said right off, we’d have let her right in!"
"Uh huh.’ Andrew sat back. "G’wan, Kerry. Let’s get this land boat parked so I can see what a mess they made of this here joint."
"You got it, dad." Kerry drove on, finding Dar’s Lexus in the lot and selecting a spot right next to it. She was glad she was here. Her stomach upset had been getting worse for the last while, and she was seriously looking forward to seeing her partner and satisfying her curiosity as to whether she was the cause. She got out, and waited for her passengers to do the same, then she locked the doors. "Dar has a little office upstairs in the big building. I’ll go find her if you guys want to check this place out."
"She take you over to our old place?" Andrew asked.
"Sort of." Kerry grinned. "I’ll explain later… be right back." She trotted off towards the headquarters building, leaving her in laws behind to revisit old memories. The guard respected the id she’d clipped to her collar and opened the door, and she made her way up the stairs and down the hall. The door to Dar’s temporary office was closed, and she paused, then knocked lightly on it.
For a moment, there was no answer, then Dar’s voice responded. "Yeah?"
Uh oh. Kerry pushed the door open and stuck her head inside. One look at Dar’s face and she quickly stepped past the portal, and closed it behind her, crossing the floor and circling the desk to kneel at her lover’s side. "Hey."
Dar had her head propped up on one hand. "Hey." She answered softly. "Hope your day was better than mine."
Kerry put a gentle hand on Dar’s knee, and rubbed it. "What’s wrong?" She could see the tension and unhappiness written all over her partner’s face, and she stood and perched on the desk edge to get closer. "Sweetheart?"
Dar exhaled, and put her head down on Kerry’s thigh, wordlessly seeking comfort. She closed her eyes as the blond woman responded, threading fingers through her hair and rubbing the back of her neck. ‘Sorry." She mumbled. "I told Chuck about us."
"Oh." Kerry’s own eyes closed in sympathy. "Not a good reaction, huh?"
Kerry leaned over and kissed the top of Dar’s head, giving her as much of a hug as she could in their somewhat awkward position. "I’m sorry."
Dar exhaled. "I don’t even know why I should care, Kerry. I haven’t talked to him in what.. ten years? It’s not like he’s a close friend, even." She put a hand on Kerry’s knee, and rubbed her thumb against the denim covering it. "Damn, it stung, though."
"I know." Kerry kept up her light massage on Dar’s neck, moving lower as she felt the tension knotting her shoulders. "I wish you’d have just let them…"
Dar shook her head. "No." She lifted up off Kerry’s lap and met her eyes. "You are my partner, and god damn it, if they can’t deal with that, to hell with them all." Her blue eyes glinted fiercely. "I am not ashamed of this."
Kerry stroked her cheek gently. "I know you aren’t. I’m not either. It’s just hard, Dar. We both know that. We’ve both been so lucky there have been people in our lives who do accept us, who accept this without question, to balance the idiots who don’t."
Dar sighed, and put her head back down for more soothing. "Yeah, I realize that." She closed her eyes. "My folks here?"
"Mmhm." Kerry paid particular attention to a knot she could feel in Dar’s neck, and saw the wince as she pressed on it. "You need a chiropractor, love."
"Hot tub." Dar countered. "With you in it."
Kerry rolled her eyes at the ceiling. "You are so stubborn."
"You’re lucky I love your family." Kerry leaned over and kissed the spot on Dar’s neck, then nibbled her earlobe, getting a soft grunt of surprise in return. "Come on – let’s get this dinner over with. I missed my snuggle this morning, and I've been cranky all day."
Finally, Dar smiled, turning her head and peering up at Kerry’s face. "Me too." She sat up and gave Kerry’s knee a squeeze, then stood. "You’re right. Let’s get this over with." Her voice paused, as she shut her computer down. "Because tomorrow, we’re going to find out just exactly why this place stinks to high heaven."
It was obvious that Chuckie had told his father. Dar could see the discomfort in the three people waiting for them even at this distance. She took a breath, and tugged on her father's sleeve. "Dad?"
"Yeap?" Andrew finished closing the door and peered at her. "What's up, Dardar?"
"I think we're going to have a problem." She lowered her voice, glancing across the car where Kerry and Cecilia were getting out on the other side. "I.. don't think Jeff and his family appreciate my lifestyle."
Andrew looked over at the waiting group, then at her. "Cause you drive a fancy car?"
Dar rubbed her nose. "Not that lifestyle." She amended. "I meant Kerry and I."
Her father considered that. "Huh. That might be true." He admitted. "Jeff never did take to anyone who didn't fit his idea of what was right and natural." They walked slowly around the front of the car, joining Kerry and Ceci. "C'mere, kumquat." Andrew put a genial arm across Kerry's shoulders, and another over Dar's. "Let's go."
Ceci gave him a curious look, then caught on, and slipped to the other side of Kerry, tucking an arm around her waist. "All righty then." She agreed. "Ah. A steakhouse. How Republican."
"Hey." Kerry objected jokingly. "I'm the one who eats vegetables." She poked a finger at Dar. "Unlike her."
They chuckled, and walked towards the restaurant. Dar felt a little silly, but she could see the exchange of glances as Jeff took in their posture, the look on her father's face, and the very obvious acceptance of both her and Kerry inherent in their body language. Sometimes. She mused. I underestimate my parents. The thought made her smile, and she slid an arm around her father's waist and gave him a squeeze.
"Lo there, Jeff." Andrew drawled as they arrived in front of the door. "Been a while."
"Andy." The commander acknowledged quietly, shifting his eyes slightly. "Cecilia, good to see you."
Cecilia looked him right in the eye and smiled. "Same here. Nice to have these little family get togethers, isn't it?" She nodded at Jeff's wife. "Hello, Sue. Have you met Kerrison? No? Why don’t' we go inside and catch up."
It would, Kerry sighed inwardly, be almost comical if it were happening to someone else. They all walked stiffly inside, and were taken to a waiting table, where Kerry found herself seated between Ceci and Andrew; across from the dour looking Chuck. For a moment, she felt very sad, because she knew this should have been a happy occasion. Then her common sense kicked in and she straightened, cupping her hands around her water glass. Her eyes met the Commanders calmly. "As a matter of fact.." She answered Ceci's question. "The commander and I have met, in fact, we had lunch together."
Unable to avoid conversation, Jeff Ainsbright cleared his throat. "Yes, we did." He managed to get out, ignoring the quick, almost startled look from his wife. "Yes, we did."
"That must have been fun." Ceci remarked. "Let me guess, on base?" She gave Kerry an amused look. "Was it meatloaf or openfaced turkey sandwiches?"
Andrew snorted softly.
"Meatloaf." Dar acknowledged quietly. "Still tastes the same."
"Oh. Yum." Her mother made a face. The table fell silent. Ceci drummed fingers on the table and tried again. "Okay, folks, listen up." She put her hands flat on the wood surface. "Either we agree to have a nice time here, or I’m going to have to start talking about Greenpeace. Which is it going to be?"
The Ainsbrights stared at her. Finally, Sue Ainsbright sighed, and pushed a curl of gray hair out of one eye. "Ceci, you always did have the tact of a dead swordfish, didn't you?"
"I’m sorry, get over it." The smaller woman shot back. "Broaden your horizons, adjust your thinking, swallow an ExLax, whatever it takes, but drag yourselves into the 21st century, and get over the fact that my kid's gay, okay?"
Kerry bit the inside of her lip so hard it almost bled. The look on the Ainsbright's face was so priceless, she wished she had a camera, though one look at Dar's wide eyes told her that her beloved partner wasn't sharing the mirth.
"Well." Andrew drawled. "Guess I can show em my rainbow keychain now, huh?"
Jeff Ainsbright took a breath, released it, then just lifted a hand and let it fall. "Haven't changed a lick, have you, Ceci?" He managed a faint smile. "You always took the gut punch if you could."
Andrew took her hand in his. "Straight talk never killed no one, Jeff." He advised his old friend. "I've been in places that coulda used more of that." Their eyes met, and something passed between them.
The commander nodded. "You're right, Andrew. Dar, I apologize. I… it was just a shock, that's all." He cleared his throat. "Ms. Stuart, my apologies as well."
"For what?" Kerry asked mildly. "Dar and I are used to getting mixed reactions to our being partners. Some people just can't handle it."
"It's not that." Sue Ainsbright interjected. "We're very progressive people. It's just that we've known.. or, well, we thought we knew Dar, and it's just… strange… that's all." She reddened. "That you're so… um…"
"Out?" Dar remarked conversationally.
The commander shot her a look, then glanced away.
"It's not contagious." Dar said.
"It's disgusting." Chuckie interrupted.
"Charles." His mother looked horrified.
"You can sit here and pretend, but I won't." Chuck said. "It's disgusting, and you're perverts." He got up and slammed his chair back, then stalked out of the restaurant, as startled patrons watched him go.
The commander and his wife had the grace to look intensely embarrassed. "He doesn't mean that." Jeff finally said, quietly. "He's just… " His eyes lifted and finally met Dar's. "He never really did let go of you, and he was hoping.."
Dar let out a long breath. "I know." She said. "He's a good man, Uncle Jeff. " She felt the awkwardness in the name. "I’m sorry." She felt a little guilty, that she'd never thought of Chuckie, not for the longest time since she'd left the base. Not until he'd popped back up into her life as part of this damned investigation.
Now he was lost to her again. She didn't know whether to feel sorry or relieved. At least he won't be bugging me to go out anymore. Dar looked up to find Kerry gazing across the table at her with a look of quiet compassion, and she managed a smile in return. She wished they were done with this, suddenly. Wished they were homeward bound, and away from this unneeded stress, headed for a quiet night and a warm hot tub together.
Getting cowardly in your old age, Paladar? She mocked herself. "Let me go talk to him." Dar stood and pushed her chair in before they could protest, then turned and walked away from the table, towards the outside door Chuckie had left through.
The commander and Andy exchanged glances. "Sorry, Andy." Jeff Ainsbright muttered. "Hell of a reunion."
"Could have been worse." Ceci motioned over the hovering waiter. "I could have invited my brother and sister." She held a finger up. "Do you have beer?"
"Of course, ma'am." The waiter spluttered.
"Bring the largest container of it you have, and seven glasses." Ceci told him. "And what are those, peanuts? Put them down." She handed a peanut to Kerry. "I could have been a social director, don't you think?"
Weak chuckles responded to her valiant attempt.
The air outside the restaurant was cool, and a little damp, and Dar paused to take a steadying breath of it before she let her eyes search the parking lot. Her mother had surprised her, she admitted privately. But then, her parents had been surprising her for a while now, hadn't they?
Dar spotted Chuck standing by a beige Ford Explorer, and she headed in that direction passing through bars of twilight mixed with the lurid ochre of the security lamps.
He looked up as he heard her footsteps, and his lip curled reflexively. "Get out of here."
Dar paused several bodylengths away. "Listen."
"Get the fuck out of here you freak." Chuck spat back. "Just get away from me."
"Charles." Dar put her hands on her hips. "Get a grip. I'm not touching you." Her stomach twisted in a knot. "Calm down."
He stared at her. "You make me sick."
Dar rolled her eyes. "What in the hell do you think you are, a bad commercial for Jesse Helms? Get off the milk crate, Chuck. I’m not the first gay person you've ever known." She took a step closer. "What's the big deal?"
Chuck's eyes narrowed. "What's the big deal?" He asked softly, balling his fists, and coming a little closer. "What's the big deal? You fucking little lying perverted slut."
"Charles." Dar's voice dropped in pitch. "Slow down. I never lied to you."
"Yeah?" Chuckie exhaled. "I knew you'd follow me out here." He turned and grabbed something leaning against the Ford and lunged at her. "I knew I'd have a chance to do this!"
Dar barely reacted in time. She saw the bat headed towards her and half turned, taking the crunching blow on her shoulder. "Chuck!" She dodged the return blow and backed off. "Stop it!"
"Fuck you." He was beyond reasoning. "Making a fool out of me.. bet the guys all knew, didn't they? Didn't they, Dar?"
The bat came back at her, catching her on the hip before she could evade it, but Chuck overbalanced and smashed full into her and they both went to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
Shit. Dar's defensive reactions kicked into gear, and she swung an elbow up into his chin, feeling the shock of the impact as his head rocked back. She got a knee between them, and pushed up, then to one side, throwing Chuck off her. "Stupid bastard."
Dar grabbed the bat, which had rolled free from his hands and flung it from her, hearing it clatter and roll down past the next row of parked cars. She got to her feet just as he did, and her body moved, balancing as she whipped out a roundhouse kick that caught him flatfooted in the side of the head with a crunch Dar could feel all the way down her leg.
His body slammed against the car next to where they were fighting, setting off its alarm with a loud, strident sound. They both froze, then stared at each other. "Now what?" Dar asked. "You going to find another bat, or are you going to just get the gun out of the trunk and shoot me, Chuck?"
Very slowly, he lifted a hand to the side of his face, and touched it, then looked his palm. It was stained with the blood still dripping from his ear.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Dar asked, in a hoarse voice. "We haven't seen each other for ten fucking years, Chuck.. why the hell do you care what my preferences turned out to be?"
He had to swallow a few times before he spoke. "Never could figure out why you just walked out on us."
Dar sighed inwardly, lifting a shaking hand to rub her temples. "You know as well as I d…"
"You were just playing with me."
The throbbing in her head increased. "Chuck… we were kids, then. We went different ways, that's all."
"Bullshit." He started towards her again.
"Stop!" Dar heard the sharp edge of anger in her own voice. "It's not bullshit. I had no fucking clue what the hell I wanted then." She held out both hands to ward him off. "Chuck, don't make me fight you. Please."
"No wonder you were always trying to beat the guys… you thought you were one." Chuck sneered. "Why didn't you get your daddy to buy you a prick, you'd have fit right in."
Dar winced inwardly. "I never wanted one."
"Yeah? Bet you use a fake one now with that little slut whore in there, doncha?" Chuck replied. "I should.."
"You should shut yer mouth fore I inset yer leg inside it." The low, raspy voice coming from the darkness behind Chuck made them both go still.
Dar blinked. "Dad, I can handle this."
Andrew Roberts eased out into the orange light soundlessly, sliding between Dar and her adversary in a flickering motion. "Ah do suspect you can, Dardar." He agreed softly. "Cept one of the privileges of being a daddy is that ah get to take out the trash, and ah do believe there is some trash here that needs to be taken." He paused significantly. "out."
There was no humor in his voice.
There was no humor in the ice blue eyes that pinned the now silent Chuck with deadly intent. "Seems you're pretty good at taking shots at woman. You ready to give an old retired sailor a try?"
Chuck's gaze held for an instant, then dropped to the ground. "No sir."
"G'wan inside." Andrew said flatly. "Get yer ass cleaned up and act like a man."
"Yes, sir." Chuck muttered. He turned, letting his eyes flick to Dar for a single, long second before he retreated towards the restaurant.
Andrew exhaled. "Suck yer brains out your head when they put the stripes on, I swear t'god." He turned and studied his daughter anxiously. "You all right?"
Dar sat down on the low wall that separated the parking lot, and let her head drop into her hands.
Kerry ducked past an exiting station wagon and broke into a run that brought her up to Dar's side moments after she sat down. "Jesus. What the hell is going on?" She hopped over the wall and settled next to her lover, putting an arm around her waist and resting a hand on Dar's knee. Only an awkward tangle with the waiter had delayed her leaving the table after a stunned moment when she was absolutely sure Dar was in trouble.
Dar rubbed her face. "Shit." She straightened and took a deep breath. "I didn't expect that."
"Expect what?" Kerry looked around Dar at Andy. "Dad, what happened?"
The ex-seal scowled. "Big bagload of no sense hurting."
Kerry glanced at Dar's face, searching it anxiously. "Did he hurt you? I'll get that brand new SUV and run him over, I swear it." She announced seriously. "You'd hardly feel it with those tires."
Dar's lips twitched into a half smile involuntarily. "I think I did more damage than he did." She admitted softly. "Physically, at least… I don't know Kerry. I wasn't expecting a reaction like that. It's like he's taking it all personally." She glanced over at her father. "Guess we'd better go back inside."
"You can't be serious." Kerry snorted. "And have dinner with that little…"
"Ker." Dar interrupted her quietly. ""I am not going to let him think he scared me off."
Kerry stared at her. "Dar, this isn't a ego contest."
"It's not." Dar replied, just as seriously. "But if we leave now, he wins. You can't let people like that win, and get comfortable, Kerry."
Andy patted her on the back. "Want to skip the hot plate and go right for the good stuff? I saw them ice cream plates on that tray back there." He remarked, practically. "Dar's right, kumquat. Get that boy worse if we stick it out."
Kerry watched a quiet, sad knowledge settle into Dar's eyes. She folded her fingers around her partner's hand and squeezed gently. "Go ahead, Dad. We'll meet you in there." Her gaze lifted to meet Andrew's, very briefly, and they exchanged a look, then the ex seal stood to go.
"Sorry bout that, Dardar." Andrew leaned over, surprisingly, and kissed his daughter on the head. Then he turned and slipped away into the shadows, leaving the two women alone in the cool night air.
Kerry waited a little while, just flexing her fingers around Dar's as they sat in silence. "Did he hurt you?" She finally asked, seeing the muddy scuffs on Dar's skin. "You look a little pale."
Dar drew in a breath, held it momentarily, and then released it in a sigh. "I’m trying to reconcile the friend I used to have with that person who just spewed a gutload of hate at me." She said. "I don't understand it, Kerry. I just don't."
The blond woman gazed out at the parking lot unseeingly. "Yeah. I know. It's how I felt when my father hit me that night, and then again, when I woke up in that hospital." She said. "I didn't understand it. I hadn't changed at all, so why did they?"
"Mm." Dar nodded. "That's exactly it. I’m the same person he knew yesterday.. hell, the same one he knew this morning. Why should this matter?" Her voice trailed off. "I just don't get it." She looked down at her hands, then flexed the one Kerry was holding. The motion caused a jolt of pain to course up her arm. "Ow."
Kerry turned a very concerned look on her. "What? Did he hit you? Where are you hurting, Dar?"
"My shoulder." Dar winced, easing the sleeve up over her left arm and peering at it.
"Oh." Kerry sucked in a breath, seeing the mottled red and purple area. "Jesus Christ."
"Hm." Dar moved her arm a little, then realized that wasn't a good idea. "Hell of a bruise."
"You need to get that x-rayed." Kerry decided. "Don't even bother." She put a hand over Dar's mouth. "No arguments, Paladar." Slowly, she removed her hand. "Okay?"
Dar studied her. "So, does that mean I get out of the optometrist's appointment tomorrow, then?" She asked, with a tiny, mischievous sparkle in her eye.
Kerry put her hands on her hips and gave her lover a dour look. "I should take you to the hospital tonight." She lifted Dar's sleeve again and looked at the injury. "Dar, that looks awful."
"No way." Dar shook her head, and stood up, stretching her body out carefully. Oh boy. She made a face, not sure what hurt more, her shoulder or her side. "I'll make it just fine through dinner, then we can go home. It's not going to kill me, and spending the night at Sinai just might."
Kerry scowled, but joined her as they started to walk slowly towards the restaurant. "Okay. Which one of us is going to let dad drive their car home? Cause you are not driving, let me tell you that right now."
Dar sighed. "I will." She gave Kerry a wry look. "Yours is newer."
"Hm." Kerry squared her shoulders before she opened the door. She didn’t like the idea of waiting, since it was obvious to her that Dar was in considerable pain, but maybe… A small smile touched Kerry's lips. Maybe when they got home, Dar would have a different perspective.
From across the room, she saw eyes look up and find them, and noted the guilt in the base commander's expression as he fiddled with his napkin. Chuckie was seated next to him in silence, and Ceci was carrying on most of the conversation with the commander's wife. She felt Dar straighten next to her, and saw her lover's chin lift, and her posture stiffen as they approached the table, taking her seat with easy grace and dignity.
Like nothing was wrong.
"Everything okay?" Ceci asked as Kerry took her seat.
A quick glance at Dar's face. "Just great." Kerry assured her. "Got any beer left?"
"You know." Kerry carefully buttoned a pair of Andy's old pajamas around her fidgeting lover. "You could just go get this taken care of."
"Kerry." Dar sighed, trying not to let the pain get to her. Too much. "Sorry. I'm tired, and very cranky, and I just want to go to bed." Her shoulder had stiffened up, and despite a handful of painkillers, she could hardly move her arm. It was making her a little nervous, and she really wanted nothing more than to lay down and not stir for a while.
"Dar.." Kerry took a breath to continue their argument.
"Please?" Dar heard the break in her voice, and winced. It had its effect, though, because Kerry paused, and exhaled, then put a gentle hand against her chest. "First thing tomorrow, I promise. We'll go right over to Dr. Steve's, and let him take a look." She gazed hopefully at Kerry. "Okay?"
Kerry gazed unhappily at her. "No." Her lips tensed. "Not okay, because I hate seeing you in pain." Her shoulders dropped. "But I guess it'll have to do.. c'mon, let me help you get into bed." She glanced through the open bedroom door. "You want a heating pad, or an ice pack?"
Chino was already in her basket, her soft, brown eyes watching Dar with a worried expression. Andy and Ceci had followed them almost home, then had driven on towards the marina, accepting Kerry's assurance that there was no problem, Dar was just tired.
Now Kerry was beginning to doubt that reassurance. She'd tried a dozen ways to convince her stubborn lover to let her drive her over to the nearby hospital, but Dar steadfastly refused, preferring to suffer from the noticeably swelling injury instead of submit to the emergency room's tender care.
On the other hand, she had to admit as she helped Dar lay down in the waterbed, her lover looked completely exhausted, and with their luck, they'd end up sitting in the waiting room for three hours. Kerry pushed Dar's disheveled bangs out of her eyes. So, maybe she had a point. "Ice pack?"
Dar closed her eyes and luxuriated in the simple pleasure of lying down. Her body relaxed, and that helped with some of the pain. She was very glad to be home, and still, and away from the uneasy company they'd spent the evening with. Though the atmosphere had relaxed a little as dinner progressed, the pain, and the sullen looks from Chuckie were enough to want to make her stand up and just chuck something.
Like her beer glass. "Ice pack." Dar opened one eye and considered the concept. "Yeah." She gave Kerry an apologetic look, very much aware of just how unhappy her partner was. "Thank you." Her uninjured hand reached out and slid up Kerry's bare thigh. "I know you think I’m being an idiot."
Kerry sighed. "No, I don't, but I won't lie and say I really understand it." She said. "It's what hospitals and doctors are for, Dar. That's why they get the big bucks, remember? I wish you'd let me take you over, they'd have given you some painkillers, at least."
Dar stroked her leg. "I'll be fine." She said. "It feels better already, just being still." She objected stubbornly.
Her lover folded her arms. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Anything you like." The unrepentant blue eyes studied her. "Except take me to Sinai at midnight."
"You could have let me tell your folks. " Kerry frowned. "What was the point in keeping this from them?"
Dar chewed her lower lip. "They worry." She shrugged her uninjured shoulder, then averted her eyes from Kerry's intent ones. "And, um… my dad tends to be a little overprotective."
"Really." Kerry murmured. "Imagine that."
Dar gave her a quick look. "I never told him when I got into fights if I could help it. He.. " She paused. "He'd sometimes go a little nuts, if you know what I mean."
Kerry considered that. "You mean he'd have gone after the little wiener?"
"Where's my cell phone." Kerry started to get up. "I've got their number on speed dial…"
"Kerry!" Dar grabbed for her leg. "C'mon now." She was surprised at her lover's aggressive reaction. "It wasn't that bad."
"Wasn't that bad?" Kerry sat down and gave her a severe look. "Don't give me that patootie, Dar. I saw that arm.. that jackass deserved to have his damned bat shoved so far up his…" She left the sentiment unfinished, and sighed loudly. "It pisses me off!" Her voice rose into an aggravated shout.
Chino whined. Dar caught Kerry's hand and held it. "I know." She replied seriously. "But I want to handle this, Kerry. Okay?"
"Mm." Kerry looked unconvinced. "All right." She patted Dar's leg. "Well, let me go get that ice pack. Don’t' go away."
Dar watched her leave, then exhaled, and let her eyes close again What a completely jackass day. She mentally reviewed the compound disasters of the last twenty-four hours. Damn. Her shoulder was throbbing, she could feel the swollen pressure that occasionally shot prickles of pain all the way up her neck, and down to her fingers and she shifted, trying to find a more comfortable spot for herself.
Was she being idiotic? Dar reviewed her reasoning again. Should she have just let Kerry take her to the damn hospital? Kerry was upset, and Dar hated when Kerry got mad at her, especially if it was for a good reason. Glumly, she opened her eyes and reviewed the off white popcorn ceiling. She has a good reason. No, she has several good reasons to be pissed off, because I am acting like a stupid adolescent again, aren't I?
"Damn, damn, damn." Kerry muttered to herself as she walked through the living room and entered the kitchen. "What in the heck's wrong with her, Chino?" She asked the Labrador, who had followed her. "I swear, she's got a streak up her back this wide…" Her hands spread apart, and she let out an exasperated gust of air. "Jesus!"
Chino sat down in front of her cookie jar and looked up expectantly. "Gruff."
"Oh, you think I came out here for you?" Kerry allowed herself to be distracted for a moment.
"Hang on." Kerry went to the refrigerator and took out one of the frozen gel packs they kept ready, for overly rambunctious gym sessions. She set it on the counter, then retrieved a cookie from its jar and held it. "What do you say?"
Chino obediently sat up, lifting one paw and placing it neatly on Kerry's knee. "Aorgh."
"Good girl." Kerry gave her pet the treat, and watched her crunch it contentedly. "Why can't you teach Dar to do that, huh? She never listens."
Her conscience nudged her as soon as the words slipped out. That's not true, Kerry, and you know it. She sighed, and went to the pantry, retrieving a soft and fluffy maroon towel from the laundry area. Dar did listen to her. "I got her to try green beans the other week, right?" She commented to Chino. "Maybe it's because she usually does listen to me that this is driving me so nuts."
Kerry leaned against the counter. "Or maybe it's because it just doesn't make any sense to me."
Chino nuzzled her knee, and gave it a lick.
"But you know what, Chino, me yelling at her isn't helping." Kerry admitted quietly. "It's just making her tense, and giving me a stomachache." She squared her shoulders, and folded the towel around the ice pack. "Time to go make nice, and have a snuggle. You with me?"
"Gruff." Chino wagged her tail.
"Good girl. C'mon." Kerry released a deep breath, and let the irritation wash out of her. A smile returned to her face as she started back towards the bedroom.
Dar raised her head as footsteps approached, and girded her loins. Metaphorically. "Kerry, listen…"
"Here you go." Kerry reentered the room and sat down on the waterbed railing, carefully leaning over and placing a wrapped crushed ice pack against Dar's shoulder.
"And here." She set a glass down by the table. It had a straw sticking out of it, the kind that bent. "In case you get thirsty." Kerry brushed her fingertips over Dar's lips. "You know something, I forgot it was Friday night."
Dar's fine, dark eyebrows knit together over the bridge of her nose. "Huh?"
"It's Friday night." Kerry repeated. "We're not a drug overdose, a mult car accident, or an attempted homicide. We'd have been sitting in that waiting room until well after dawn." She put the tip of her finger on Dar's nose. "So, I think it's for the best we did this."
Slowly, a faint grin spread over Dar's face. "And here I was about to give in and meekly let you drag me off there." She admitted, a huge wave of relief almost making her shiver.
"You? Meek?" Kerry leaned over and replaced her finger with her lips, kissing Dar gently. "Never." She pulled back and went nose to nose with her lover. "Besides, I’m really tired."
"You look it." Dar replied. "C'mon into bed." She reached out and doused the bedside lamp.
Kerry nodded in agreement, then stood and walked around to the other side of the waterbed, getting in carefully and squirming under the freshly laundered sheets until she felt the warmth of Dar's body heat very close by. She put her head down on the pillow and folded her hand over Dar's as it lay on the taller woman's stomach.
Their fingers twined.
Kerry could see Dar's profile in the dim starlight from the window, and the faint curve of her ear close by. "Dar?"
There was a soft crackle of movement as Dar turned her head, and the light now reflected faintly off her open eyes. "Hm?"
"I love you."
The face opposite Kerry dissolved into a grin. "You even love me when I’m being a stubborn cranky bitch?" Dar asked, in a low drawl. "What's up with that, Kerrison?"
"I’m a sucker for a cute face." Kerry smiled. "And a bad attitude; what can I tell you."
Dar kissed her soundly. "Thanks." She murmured into Kerry's half open lips. "I love you too." She felt Kerry smile, before her kiss was returned in equal measure.
"I am holding still." Dar answered, through gritted teeth.
"Dar, you are not." Dr. Steve circled the X-ray machine and nudged her over a little. "Now, will you stop wriggling?"
Dar's lip twitched into an almost snarl. She'd been under the device for hours, at least, and the hard table was stressing her to her limits. "Wasn't three hundred pictures enough? You going for a record?"
"Dar." Dr. Steve leaned over, and put a hand on her forehead with surprising gentleness. "It's only been five minutes. Give me another five minutes, and it'll be over, okay?" The doctor gave her a pat, then went back to adjusting the X-ray machine's aperture. "Kerry, keep her busy while I do this, willya?"
"I'll try." Kerry walked to the end of the table, and pressed her body up against Dar's socked feet, which only just rested on its padded surface. Toes flexed against her belly, and she rubbed them through the cotton, smiling down the length of the long, denim covered legs stretching before her. "Hey."
Grumpy blue eyes peered back at her. "It felt better this morning." Dar griped.
Kerry laughed softly. "Dar, you are something else." She said. "I swear, if someone poked you through the belly with a spear, you'd call it a flesh wound and stick a band aid on it."
"Oh, she told you that story, huh?" Dr. Steve looked up from his settings. Usually a trained tech would perform the procedure, but the doctor knew his unruly patient better than to subject one of his innocent staff to her. "It's hereditary. Her daddy's the same damn way, and believe you me, Kerry, it used to about drive me insane to take care of these two."
"Hey." Dar objected. "We weren't that bad."
"Yes, you were." Her family physician corrected her. "Be still, Paladar Katherine, or I'll tell Kerry about you and that tailpipe."
Kerry watched her lover's eyes widen in alarm, and she stifled a giggle. "You know." She cleared her throat. "I only wish I'd had a doctor like you when I was growing up. The practice that my family used was about as patient friendly as those open back hospital gowns."
The doctor looked up at her and grinned. "That right? Bet they made a hell of a lot more than I do, then." He adjusted one last dial. "Okay, behind the shield, Kerry."
Kerry gave Dar's toes one last squeeze, then joined Dr. Steve behind the lead shield. "Remember to get her neck, while you're in there." She whispered to the gray haired man. "She's been having backaches."
"Got it already." Dr. Steve whispered back.
"What the hell are you two whispering about?" Dar growled.
Kerry and the doctor exchanged bemused glances. "How cute you look in your sports bra, hon." Kerry piped. "Didn't want to embarrass you."
"Got it." Dr. Steve managed to say around a snicker. "Okay, Dar. You're finished." He removed his apron, and pulled the machine arm back, freeing his very reluctant and now noticeably blushing patient to sit up. "Hm.. guess I don’t' have to check your cardiovascular system.. seems to be pumping just fine." He pulled the X-ray plates out and winked at them. "Lemme go get these processed."
Kerry waited for him to leave before she circled the table and faced her lover, who was now sitting up with her legs dangling off the table, cradling her injured arm with her good one. "See? Not so bad." She deliberately sidled between Dar's knees, and gazed into the stormy blue eyes facing her. "C'mon, Dar.. don't you want to feel better? I know you can't be comfortable with that." She touched Dar's elbow, where the lurid bruise had extended down to over the night.
Dar sighed. "I know." She muttered. "I just.."
"Hate doctors." Kerry finished for her. "Honey, it's almost over. " She stroked Dar's cheek gently. "Just relax."
"Easy for you to say." Dar grumbled. "You're not sitting here half naked having people whisper about your sports bra." She slid off the table and stretched, sidling away from the X-ray machine towards the large, louvered window in the examination room.
Kerry took the opportunity to admire the body under the underwear being discussed, and smiled. She walked up behind Dar and slipped her arms around her, hugging her and planting a kiss right between Dar's shoulder blades. "Mm." She breathed out softly, watching goose bumps travel over the skin her cheek was pressed against. "I’m glad you decided to get checked, Dar."
Dar peered over her shoulder at her engaging blond limpet. "Yeah, well.. maybe he'll give me a pat on the head and a bottle of Percodan. You going to help me analyze that base data when we get home? Typing's going to be hell."
"Of course." Kerry released her and stepped back as they heard Dr. Steve coming down the hall. "You really think there's something there?"
Dar's face grew quiet, and rather grim. "Yes." She looked up as Dr. Steve entered. "If you're back for more pictures, forget it."
Her old friend whipped his hand up, and focused. "Gotcha." He snapped a picture of the surprised and very off-guard Dar, then grinned at her. "Okay, kiddo. C'mon down the hall, and I'll tell you the bad news."
"What was that for!" Dar objected, pointing at the camera.
"Family scrapbook." Dr. Steve picked up her shirt and tossed it to her. "Here. .don’t scandalize the nurses. They're got delicate egos."
Dar allowed Kerry to help her ease her shirt on, and then they followed Dr. Steve down the hall to his office. This was a fairly large room, lined with book-covered shelves and an impressive set of diplomas scattered over the wall. On the opposite wall, pictures took pride of place, of Dr. Steve and his family, and some of him at a much younger age in uniform.
He also had nice, comfortable leather chairs. Dar sat down in one and leaned back. Kerry studied the pictures, reacting a little when she found one with a familiar, if younger Andrew Roberts in it. "Hey. It's dad." She half turned. "Oo.. he was a cutie."
"Kerry, if you'd just consent to repeat that if I dragged that old sea dog in here, I'd pay you, big time." Dr. Steve laughed, then put his hands on his desk. "Now, young lady." He fixed his eyes on Dar. "You have a nasty bone bruise."
Dar eyed him warily. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." The doctor replied. "You're a very lucky little munchkin, my friend. If it wasn't for the fact that you have an nice, big, juicy deltoid muscle there, you'd be looking at a fracture, and putting a cast there ain't fun." He stood and walked over the X-ray box, pointing at a dark spot in the long bone of Dar's arm. "Right there."
Kerry and Dar peered at it. "And?" Dar finally asked. "What's the treatment?"
"Amputation." Dr. Steve turned, and gave her a deadpan look, getting a halfway hysterical giggle from Kerry. "You get a sling which you will keep on, young lady, a bottle of blood thinner in case anything in there is considering doing something icky like clotting, and some painkillers." He pointed at Dar. "I want you off your feet, and doing nothing stressful for at least the rest of the weekend."
"Okay." Dar agreed readily, having planned to spend the day on the couch with her laptop anyway. So far, it didn’t sound too bad, and as long as the process did not involve plaster or fiberglass in any incarnation, she was happy. "That it?"
Dr. Steve sat on the edge of his desk and leaned forward. "Sweetheart, I mean it." He reached out and traced a line from the injury up Dar's neck. "Do you see how close this is to your noggin? I don't want any clots getting any ideas, and sending you into the hospital with a stroke."
Dar blinked. "A stroke?"
"You heard me." Steve stated. "So I want you to make like a vegetable for the next few days, and take those damn pills. I wish you'd called me yesterday."
Dar drew breath to answer him, but Kerry got a word in first. "It was late." The blond woman told him, leaning over Dar's chair. "We got home near midnight." She tousled Dar's hair. "We thought about going over to Sinai, but.."
"But you'd still be sitting there, with a sore butt and the same problem." Dr. Steve finished. "Yeah, well, next time, forget the hospital, just give me a call, hm?"
"We will." Kerry stated, then glanced down. "Won't we?"
Dar smiled wanly. A stroke? Her mind jerked in horror at a threat she'd never even considered. Getting injured was nothing new to her, but this was different. She could imagine living with losing a limb, but strokes were a crapshoot. You could end up half paralyzed, which was bad enough, but worse - you could lose part of who you were if it hit the wrong spot at the wrong time. "Yeah, we will." She muttered hoarsely.
"Good girl." Dr. Steve patted her knee. "Let me get you set up with that sling. I called in your prescription already to that high society mambo pusher they call a pharmacist on your Fantasy Island."
Kerry reached over and picked up her mug, taking a sip of the strawberry tea as she reviewed the data on the laptop screen for the nth time. She was curled up on the soft, comfortable leather chair in the living room, one leg slung lazily over the chair arm. Her eyes lifted over the mug's rim and eyed the nearby couch, and then she put the cup down and went back to her statistics.
She could, she knew, have gone into either of their offices and used the large monitors to make viewing the data easier, but she preferred to stay where she was and suffer the eye strain, so she could keep an eye on Dar.
The drive home had been very quiet, and her usually unruly lover had meekly taken the medicine the Island pharmacy delivered, and settled down on the couch. She'd even let Kerry fuss and put a pillow behind her head, and tuck a soft fleece blanket around her.
Waiting for me to say I told you so. Kerry mused. The blood thinner and vasodilator Dr. Steve had prescribed along with the painkiller knocked Dar out in no time flat, and her lover had been sleeping for the past few hours. Which was good, Kerry thought, because if Dar was sleeping, it meant she wasn't awake and worrying, having had the living daylights scared out of her by Dr. Steve's warning.
Poor Dar. Kerry leaned towards the couch and gently pushed a bit of Dar's hair back away from her closed eyes. She had a white cotton sling fastened around her neck, holding her injured arm close to her body and even in sleep a tiny crease was present across her forehead. As much as Kerry appreciated Dr. Steve's forcing Dar to take her injury seriously, it hurt her to see her lover so mutely, obviously scared and keeping silent about it.
Kerry riffled her fingers through the dark hair spilling over the pillow, straightening its silky strands as she watched Dar sleep. Then she sighed, and returned her attention to the damn laptop.
So, what was all this, Dar? She scrolled through file, seeing Dar's notations, but not seeing the patterns her lover had painstakingly constructed, nor the significance of them in the data stream. It wasn’t that she was oblivious to the method, she just didn't understand where Dar got the little hooks she was using to connect all the pieces together.
Maybe that was because Dar had worked on the original system software? Kerry pushed her hair back behind one ear, and leaned closer to the screen. Sure, that must be it. She knew how this whole thing worked, so naturally she could…
Kerry let the thought trail off as her eyes found something. Curiously, she left the bowels of Dar's program and called up the associated data files, studying the personnel assignments and the ship schedules coming in and out of the base. Slowly, her forefinger lifted and touched the screen, making a little scratching noise against the LCD.
Why.. She wondered. Why would one ship get all the new recruits? Operationally, it made no sense, especially to someone steeped in day to day operations as she was. You don't put all your newbies in the same bucket, because then you have a useless bucket of confusion. You spread them out among other, more experienced workers, so they could learn from them.
Kerry looked up the operational record of the craft in question, a supply ship that apparently worked with larger groups of vessels but was small enough to dock in small ports. Slowly, she picked up her cup and took another sip, not taking her eyes from the screen.
Dar became vaguely aware of her surroundings, the medicated sleep still having a fairly firm hold on her. There was a slightly tinny quality to the sounds she was hearing, and she had no inclination to open her eyes.
Her shoulder ached, but it was a far off kind of ache, and it took several minutes for her to sort through a very foggy mind and remember what had happened. Oh yeah. Dar wondered if the medication was supposed to make her feel so completely washed out.
A soft clicking was coming from nearby, and she heard a faint sound of ceramic on wood. Then a sigh and the shift of a body against a leather surface. Dar spent a moment drawing a mental picture, imagining Kerry in the chair with the laptop. Very slowly, she opened one eye, then turned her head and blinked the image in her mind resolving into reality.
Kerry was intent on the screen, her brow furrowed and the end of a pencil between her teeth being gnawed on.
For some reason, that made Dar smile.
After a second, Kerry looked up and their eyes met. "Oh." She put the machine down and leaned on the chair arm. "Was I making too much noise?"
"No." Dar cleared her throat. "Wow. I feel like I'm swimming in clam chowder."
A blond brow arched. "Clam chowder? Ew."
"What time is it?"
Kerry checked the laptop's system tray. "Two." She studied her injured partner. "Here.. take a sip of this, you look dry." She handed over her tea, then paused, and changed her mind, getting up out of the chair to hold the cup for Dar to sip from. "I forgot how awkward it is when you're wearing one of these." Her free hand plucked the sling.
Dar sucked thirstily at the tea, enjoying the sweet taste. "Glad you put some tea leaves in this sugar water." She teased.
Kerry stuck her tongue out. "It's your fault." She accused Dar. "I didn't used to." She leaned over and kissed her partner on the lips. "Want some of your own? I was going to put some soup up."
"Soup?" Dar felt a little more alert. "Was that inspired by my chowder, or do you think a bone bruise requires that for healing?" Firmly, she pushed aside thoughts of clots, halfway convinced she'd have been better off just letting the damn thing heal on it's own, with her in blissful innocence of her risk.
"Hon, I'll order in baby back ribs if you want them." Kerry laughed. "I'm hungry, and I've got a container of that spicy Thai soup in the fridge, so…"
"With the coconut milk?" Dar's eyes lit up.
"Uh huh." Kerry had to muffle a smile. "That changes things, hm?" She put the laptop down. "I need a break anyway. I found something I think you need to look at when you're a little more awake." She got up and made her way past the coffee table towards the kitchen.
Dar knew she should get up and look at the computer, but the drugs still had a tight hold of her, and her body was more than content to remain where it was. Probably so fuzzy I wouldn't know what the hell I was looking at anyway. She mocked herself. But the thought started her mind churning, over the problems she'd seen the day before.
As if on signal, her cell phone rang. However, since Dar was dressed in a pair of soft gym shorts and not much else, she didn't have the phone near her. "Hey, Ker?"
"I hear it." Kerry came trotting out of the kitchen sucking on a wooden spoon. "Oo.. you're gonna like this. There's more chicken than vegetables in it." She picked up the buzzing phone and opened it. "Hello?"
"Is that Roberts?" A female voice asked crisply.
"No." Kerry glanced at her lover. "Can I ask who's calling?"
There was a brief silence. "Chief Daniel."
Oooo.. Kerry narrowed her eyes. The bulldog. "She's…"
"Look. I need to talk to her. Just tell her who it is." The chief interrupted Kerry. "Believe me, lady, I wouldn't be on this phone if I didn't need to be."
Hm. Fair enough. "It's that petty person." She told Dar, muting the phone.
Dar's brows lifted. "Chief Daniel?" She asked, in surprise. "Damn. Give me the phone."
Kerry walked over and handed it to her, then knelt and helped Dar to sit up a little. "Easy." She murmured.
Dar's head spun for a minute, and she waited for the buzz to fade, then she held the phone to her ear. "Hello, Chief."
"Yep, that's me." Dar agreed. "Did you miss me so much you had to call on a Saturday?"
"Roberts, just shut up a minute. " The Chief lowered her voice. "All crap aside, there's something here you need to see."
A prickle went up Dar's back. "Like what?" She said.
A distinct hesitation made itself felt. "I can't explain it." The Chief said. "Bad enough I’m dealing with the devil as it is. Just get down here."
Dar met Kerry's gaze. The blond woman was shaking her head no, in a very serious way. "I can't." She finally replied. "If you want me to know about it, you've got to come up here."
"What?" The Chief hissed. "Don't be a… Jesus, I can't believe I'm doing this. I’m trying to help you out here, damn it."
"I know." Dar decided to try honesty. "I had an accident last night, Chief. I'm not driving to the base - so if you've got something that big, get moving."
The Chief was quiet for a long time, and then she sighed. "Son of a bitch." She finally said. "What the hell, I’m in this so deep now, it won't matter. Where the heck are you?"
Dar told her. "Chief?"
"What?" The woman snapped back.
"What made you change your mind?" Dar asked. "About me, I mean."
Chief Daniel snorted clearly audible even to Kerry. "Change my mind? Like hell I did." She paused. "You ever hear the term "least evil choice?"
Dar allowed a dry chuckle to escape. "Oh yeah. I've heard that before."
"I bet." The Chief hung up.
Dar folded the phone closed, and relaxed back onto her pillow. "That was a surprise." She glanced up at Kerry. "Last time I saw her, she was cursing me for a pervert."
Kerry gazed soberly back. "I can't believe she'd just turn around and help you, Dar."
A faint shrug. "She's not a… " Dar lifted her uninjured hand and rubbed her eyes. "She's a good officer, Ker. She knows her stuff, and she's just protecting her people. She views me as a threat." Dar considered her words. "Question is, what's she found that's more of a threat to her than I am?"
"Hm." Kerry tapped the end of the spoon against her chin. "Well, it'll take her a while to head up here. Let me get this soup done." She pointed the wooden utensil at the couch bound woman. "Then you're going to sit there, and let me feed it to you." She turned, and headed back to the kitchen, leaving a bemused Dar behind.
"I don't suppose I can get away with staying dressed like this." Dar asked, as she used a washcloth and cold water to bring a little more life into her face. "Can I?"
Kerry leaned against the doorsill and regarded her. "If it were up to me… " She ran a fingertip under the elastic waistband of Dar's soft gym shorts. 'Sure." She traced a rib. "But I think your petty person is going to pop a solenoid."
"I'm not in the mood to coddle her solenoids." Dar responded, awkwardly trying to manage her toothbrush one handedly. "Ker, could you.."
Kerry reached across her and picked up the toothpaste, spreading it neatly on the brush for her. "There you go." She put the cap back on and watched as Dar brushed her teeth. "Well, all you need is a T-shirt or something." Her eyes dropped to the very short shorts, which exposed almost all of the length of Dar's very long legs. "On second thought, c'mon into the bedroom, and let me see what I can do for you."
Dar turned a very rakish grin on her face. "Now that's my kind of offer."
"Tch." Kerry moved forward and her hands found their way around the sling. "Do you remember how we.. ah." Kerry found Dar's arms wrapping around her, and the sling settled around her own shoulder, attaching them together body to body. "That's right."
Dar ducked her head and they kissed. She felt Kerry's body press against hers, and the sensual rush erased the lingering aches like magic. "Much better than drugs." She murmured.
"Oh yeah?" Kerry slid her hands across Dar's skin. "How about this?"
Dar growled softly in response and nudged Kerry backwards a step. She held her lover's body close with the sling, and unhooked Kerry's bra, feeling her gasp a little in surprise as the snug cotton came free. "Not bad for one hand, huh?" She whispered in the pink ear near her lips, which then was delicately nibbled.
"Uh." Kerry's fingers roamed restlessly over Dar's half clad body. "This could get complicated."
"Oh.' A soft, breathy purr. "I hope so." Another nudge towards the bed. "Simple's no fun." Dar rubbed lightly against Kerry's skin, and smiled as the blond woman melted into her, a jolt of warmth as their bodies joined. She could feel Kerry breathing, her chest moving against Dar's, and as she took another step toward the bed, she felt that breathing quicken, in time with her touch circling Kerry's breasts.
They stopped and rid themselves of extraneous clothing, still linked together by the sling. Dar slid her other arm under Kerry's, and half-turned, easing down onto the bed, pulling Kerry down with her. Amidst a tiny giggle, Kerry ended up sprawling over her, their legs tangling together.
"Y'know.. " Kerry licked Dar's neck, then bit down lightly around her collarbone. "With our luck, she drives fast."
"I haven't cleared her on the ferry yet." Dar replied blithely. 'She'll wait."
Kerry's chuckle turned into a soft moan, and she forgot about visitors.
Chief Daniel drove along the causeway, looking nervously right and left when she wasn't glancing at the piece of paper she'd written the directions on. "What the hell is that nutball talking about? She sent me to the god damned Coast Guard terminal.. damn her.. thinks I'm joking.."
Abruptly, she spotted a right hand turn, and took it, almost causing a two-car collision behind her. The car she cut off honked furiously, and she stuck her hand out the window, giving him a rude gesture as she made the tight turn into the small, not well-marked ferry base. "Son of a bitch." She shook her head. "Should have figured."
The Chief maneuvered her pickup truck through the roped off lanes, and arrived at the edge of the dock. A uniformed guard greeted her courteously. She rolled her window down. "This how you get on.."
"The Island? Yes, ma'am." The security officer nodded, obviously used to the question. "Are you visiting one of our residents, or are you interested in purchasing a home?"
Momentarily distracted, the Chief leaned on her window frame and pulled her sunglasses down to get a better look at the neat, almost military clean Latin man. "How much do they cost?"
The guard blinked. "Um… w…"
"Round numbers." The Chief smiled. "Leave off the pennies."
He cleared his throat. "I think the little ones start at a million.."
"Ah. Is that all?" The Chief fixed a smile on her face. "Tell you what. There's someone called Roberts who lives out there. Dar Roberts. I’m supposed to go see her."
The guard flipped through his clipboard, then read a page intently. "Ms. Daniel?" He looked up. "Is that you."
The Chief's nostrils flared. Ms? She'd get the little catfish bait for that. "Almost."
The guard directed her onto the patiently waiting ferry and they chocked her wheels, then after a few minutes, and a few more cars, they got under way.
Out of long habit, the Chief reviewed the boat, noting the properly secured lifesaving equipment, and the stock of life preservers. The ferry itself was flat, with room for perhaps twenty cars, and had a small cabin where people who were just riding over could stay in comfort. It was neat, and clean, and well ordered, and the Chief found herself approving of it despite her inclination otherwise.
In short order, they docked at the Islandside dock, and she watched as the ramp to offload the cars was lowered. The Island was plush, and had lots of fancy looking landscaping. She bet the hedges she was just driving past cost more than a month of her salary.
The sudden impact of water on her windshield made her jump, and grab for the window controls. "Hey!" She glared at the dockhand, who was washing off the front of her car. "What th… oh." Salt spray. Sure. Seventy-two Mercedes per square foot, cant' have them rusting now, can we? She drove on and glanced at her directions again.
One road, clockwise. Simple enough. She turned left and followed the road around to the second drive, then slowed her pace until she found the parking she'd been told about. She slid the pickup into a visitor's spot, and got out, holding a briefcase close to her.
Looked around. "Damn place shits money." She shook her head, and then made her way up the short path to the steps that lead up to the door that matched the address she'd been given. It was a short flight, and lead up to a buff colored door with a discrete doorbell. Chief Daniel paused, and twitched at her uniform, dusting off her sleeve before she squared her shoulders, and rang the bell.
Barking answered her, which was a surprise. She hadn't figured Roberts for a dog. After a moment, and a quick command from inside, the door was opened. Chief Daniel found herself facing the intense gaze from a pair of steady green eyes almost on a level with her own. "I’m here to see Dar Roberts." She spoke crisply.
"I know." Kerry replied. "I don’t think we met. I’m Kerry Stuart, Dar's partner." She held out a hand.
Chief Daniel almost backed a step in pure reflex. Her distaste for queers had almost overrode her wanting to find out what the hell was going on, and this was pushing her buttons way too hard, way too fast. But she realized she wasn't getting past the blond doorguard, so she gritted her teeth, and took the proffered fingers. "A pleasure." She enunciated precisely, hoping it was clear how untrue that was.
Disgusting. She had to steel herself not to wipe her hand off when Kerry released her.
"Come on in." Kerry stepped back and held the door open. "Don't mind Chino - she's harmless." Standing behind Kerry was a large, cream colored Labrador Retriever, who was watching her alertly. "Mostly "
The Chief edged around the big dog and stopped, while Kerry closed the door behind her. The first thing she noticed was the smell. Equal parts leather and polish, with a touch of spice in the air. She looked around, taking in the huge living room, with it's comfortable leather furniture, and expensive entertainment center. A door lead off to one side, and through it's half-open panel she could see it was a bedroom. Behind the living room was a formal dining room, then the arch that led, she speculated to the kitchen.
Nice place. The art on the wall was interesting, and the stereo was clearly top of the line. As a technobuff herself, the Chief was impressed.
Kerry walked past her. "Dar's just getting something to drink." She gestured to the furniture. "Would you like to sit down?" The Labrador trotted past her and jumped onto the couch, curling up and putting her head down, but keeping an eye on the intruder.
"No thanks." The Chief said. Her eyes shifted as she caught a flash of motion.
Dar appeared from the kitchen, holding a glass in one hand. She was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, but one arm was in a white cotton sling. "Afternoon."
"What'd you do, finally piss someone off who could do something about it?" Chief Daniel asked bluntly.
"Sit down." Dar ignored the snarky comment and took a seat on the couch. She noticed the Chief hadn't moved. "Either sit down, or get the hell out of here." Her voice lifted, and gained an edge. "You were all hot to show me something, so show me, or get lost."
Kerry opened her mouth, then closed it, and simply sat down, pulling her laptop over and starting to review it's screen. She didn't look up as Chief Daniel took a reluctant seat as far away from them as she could.
"Fine." The Chief put her briefcase down on the coffee table and unzipped it. "See what you think of this, hotshot." She pulled something out, and threw it on the table. It slid across the glass surface and stopped right before Dar. "Looks like I didn't need any outside help to find it, did I?"
Dar put her cup down and pulled the packet over, investigating it curiously. "What the hell is it?" She asked, glancing at the Chief.
"Open it. I don’t have x ray vision." Daniel sniped back.
Dar unfolded the wrapping one handed, and finally got through the plastic wrap that covered the parcel. She pulled back the last fold and stared at the results. Her brow crinkled, and she exchanged a look with Kerry, who appeared equally puzzled. "You found a gift wrapped brick?"
The Chief laughed shortly. "And here I thought you had some brain cells. Maybe your perverted lifestyle made them leak out. That's not a brick, Roberts. It's cocaine. "
It came out of left field, and almost smacked Dar upside the head. She stared at the object. "Cocaine?" Her voice rose. "You've got to be joking." Kerry edged over and examined it in fascination. Dar rubbed her temples with one hand. "Must be the drugs I’m taking. I’m hallucinating that I’m in a bad episode of Miami Vice."
Kerry bit her lip. "Is this where they break down the door and start yelling?"
Dar stared at the brick, then up at the smug Chief Daniel. "They're smuggling drugs?"
A shrug. "Found that in a storage locker that's supposed to have remaindered ammo in it." She smirked at Dar. "You didn't have a clue, did you?"
Dar sat back, and exhaled. "No." She stared over the Chief's head bleakly. "Not about this." She admitted. "But that might explain something else."
And it probably did explain the journal entries. Dar tried to grasp the enormity of the situation. But how far did it go? How many people knew?
How high? Dar slowly let a breath out. All the way?
Ceci looked up from her brush as she heard a throat being cleared. She shaded her eyes, then felt her eyebrows lift. Sue Ainsbright was standing at the edge of their gangplank, looking warm, and very uncomfortable. "Hello, Sue."
"Ceci." The older woman took a breath. "May I come aboard?"
It was so very naval. Ceci almost gave in to the temptation to refuse the boarding request, which along with yelling 'avast, ye maties' was something she'd always wanted to do. "Sure." She put her brush away, unsullied as yet by paint, and stood up as Sue crossed over onto the boat. "You look thirsty.. c'mon down."
Her guest followed Ceci down the steps into the cabin. Ceci walked over to the compact galley, gesturing towards the chairs as she did so. "Sit down.. Andy's taken a walk over to the store." She walked over and handed Sue a glass of ice tea then seated herself across the table from her. 'This is a surprise."
The gray haired woman stared at her glass, turning it slightly between her fingers in silence for a few seconds. "I know." Sue looked up finally. "I just wanted to come and talk to you." She hesitated. "To apologize for last night."
Ceci laced her fingers together, and rested her chin on them. "To me? For what?"
Sue just looked at her.
"I mean it." Ceci said. "If anyone's got an apology coming, it's Dar and Kerry, not me." She got up and got her own glass of tea, more just to do something than anything else. "Poor Kerry.. you know, what happened last night was exactly what she was afraid of."
"She seems like a nice girl." Sue replied softly.
"For a dyke, you mean?" Ceci shot back.
"Ceci." Her old friend gave her a wounded look. "I’m trying here, give me a touch of slack, will you?"
Ceci took a sip of her tea, feeling very unsettled. "Sorry." She said. "That automatic dismissal and exclusion of anything you don't understand has always been a peeve of mine." A breath. "I've been on the wrong side of that line all my life."
Sue remained silent for a bit, then she, too, sighed. "You know, I'd forgotten all about that." Her eyes lifted. "Did that make it easier for you to accept her being.. ah…"
"Gay." Ceci supplied the word. "No, it didn't." She crossed back over and sat down. "By the time Dar told us that, nothing would have surprised me. Hell, Andy and I talked it over that night and I think.. yeah, you know, we were mostly just relieved."
Sue's eyes opened wider. "Relieved?"
A dry chuckle issued from Ceci's throat. "We knew she'd been working up to tell us something.. Andy was just glad it was that, and not that she was running off somewhere, or pregnant, or on drugs….a thousand things went through our minds before we found out."
"Oh." Sue murmured. "She was a… she was pretty headstrong, I remember."
"Yes, she was." Ceci agreed. 'And is." She paused reflectively. "Andy says she gets that from me." A curious expression centered itself on the slim woman's face for a moment, and then she shook her head. "Accepting Dar was never an issue for us. " She stated crisply. "Welcoming Kerry into our family was never an issue either. Andrew and I made a decision early on in our lives that one of the things we'd never teach our children is how to hate." Her eyes pinned Sue. "Unlike you, apparently."
Sue stood up. "Cecilia, that's not fair." She snapped. "We most certainly did not teach Charles to hate anyone. We're good, god fearing people. I resent that."
Ceci also stood. "Do you? Let me tell you what I resent." She put her cup down and circled the table. "I resent my child being called a pervert. I resent your half-assed, no brain, boot licking son thinking he can judge her, and I really.. " She came closer, poking a slim finger at the startled woman. "I really, really resent the fact that you didn't even have the grace to teach him to hide his sick bigotry in polite company."
Sue stared at her. "You did have to smear our faces in it, Ceci. To be out in a restaurant like that…"
"Like what?" Ceci's voice rose. "We were eating dinner, Sue. If you hadn't been acting like we were lepers, no one in the place would have looked twice. They don't wear fucking brands on their foreheads."
"Ceci!" Sue was breathing hard. "I think I'd better leave."
"Truth sucks, doesn't it?" Ceci stood her ground.
They stared at each other for a long, silent moment. Then Ceci exhaled, and folded her arms across her chest. She eyed the carpet pensively. "Sue, you were the first wife on base who came to knock on our door." Her voice was quiet now. "The first one to brave the pagan unknown, and reach your hand out." She looked up. "What happened to that person?"
Slowly, Sue sat back down, and laid her hands on the table. They were weathered, and she looked at them as though they were a strangers. "Time." She exhaled. "Berkley was a lot fresher in my mind then."
"I remember being so impressed by that." Ceci managed a faint smile. "Wow… she went to Berkley."
"I remember." Sue admitted. "Big shot that I was… I felt sorry for you . So young, so.. "
"Feckless." Ceci nodded.
"Different." Her old friend disagreed. "So out of place, there." She hesitated. "But Dar wasn't."
"No." Ceci said, softly. "And she cherishes her childhood, Sue. Despite everything we went through, she really does, so when something like last night happens, it's like having to give part of that up."
Sue nodded, and finally took a sip of her tea. She took a deep breath before she went on. "Ceci, there's no excuse for what my son did." She pronounced the words carefully. "Jeff and I talked it over last night, and if you.. " She stopped, and rubbed her temples. "I’m sorry. I sound like such a parent. If Dar wants to press charges, she should."
Ceci felt like the world had just shifted slightly to the left. "Charges?" She asked. "For what, Sue? Verbal abuse?"
Her friend's dark blue eyes blinked twice. "Didn't… " She stopped, then took a breath. "Ceci, Chuck went after her with a baseball bat."
"I thought surely she'd.. " Sue's voice trailed off again. "Jeff was so angry last night. He.. he and Chuck had it out in the living room, it was - very ugly. " She said. "I don't know what happened, but Chuck just.. he broke down and said it was driving him crazy, and how he'd taken the bat, and…"
Ceci concentrated on breathing. In, out, in out. "Oh, dear goddess." She whispered. "Dar said she twisted her shoulder… we had to drive her car home."
"She didn't tell you?" Sue seemed dazed. "I don't understand."
Ceci got up and walked across the cabin, coming to the window and looking out at the peaceful, sunlit water. "I do." She heard steps on the rampway up above. "Dar knows her father too well." She turned towards Sue. "Don't say anything to him."
"I'll tell him." Ceci replied. "I don't keep anything from him, never have, but let me do it my way."
Sue nodded faintly, as the cabin door opened, and Andy entered.
"Lo." His eyes raked over her in wary surprise. "Didn't figure t'see you here."
"Sue came to apologize for last night." Ceci walked over and took the grocery bags from her husband. "We've been talking."
Pale blue eyes flicked to Ceci's face and studied it, then went to their visitor's. Then they narrowed slightly. "Have you now." Andy drawled softly. "Ain't that special."
It had started to rain again. Dar stood by the sliding glass doors, and watched it fall, in sheets that almost obscured her view of the ocean. A low rumble of thunder overhead sounded, and she could feel the vibration through the hand she had resting on the wall.
She hadn’t expected this.
Petty theft, yeah. Some finagling with the bills, yeah. Fudging on the recruit's scores, yeah. Maybe even so far as someone falsifying fitness records, to hide old friends they didn’t want to have to make hard decisions on.
Dar was no fool, and she wasn’t naive. Florida was a prime choice for smuggling, because of its relative closeness to South America, and because of its multinational population base. It would take a lot to ‘stand out’ in this city, so hiding in plain site was something easy a smuggler’s operation wouldn’t have to worry about.
In addition, they were a peninsula. Surrounded on three sides by water, with ample opportunity for someone to slip in to the thousands of small bays and islands unseen and undetected. The largest stretch of continuous coastline in the US, in fact.
So, the fact that drugs or anything else was being brought in didn’t surprise her.
That the Navy was involved…
No. Dar cut that off angrily. Not the Navy. Some pig scum who were using the Navy to break the law and line their own pockets. Who were using a place she considered more than any other to be home, and hurting the people who were a part of that who were not involved.
Maybe even, since they were bringing in recruits who didn’t belong there, endangering the innocent sailors who would be depending on those people to do their jobs. Sailors like her father was, once. Like she might have been.
Bastards. Dar felt her anger rising. Despite everything, and especially despite last night, she still considered the service part of her family. It had given her a place to belong for many years, had accepted her, given their family a home, and put bread on the table and she was damned if she was going to let a bunch of criminals hurt that.
"So." Chief Daniel’s grating voice made her wince. "You got a plan, or are you just gonna stare outside for a few hours."
"Do you have a plan?" Kerry’s voice answered instantly, a distinct challenge in its tone. "If you came here for help, your best bet is to just sit down, and shut up, and wait for Dar to think."
Dar watched her reflection smile in reflex.
"If you’re her secretary then, you’d better get your steno pad, kid." The Chief answered.
Dar held her breath, wondering what her lover was going to hit back with.
Kerry simply laughed. "Boy, do you have your stereotypes crossed."
Dar turned and faced them, leaning back against the cool glass and feeling the pressure of the rain outside against her shoulder blades. "The problem is this. I want to locate and pin down every son of a bitch who’s involved in this. If the Navy sends police in there, they won’t catch one in twenty."
"They’ll run." Kerry nodded. "And they’ll dump the systems. We’ve only got a soft data capture, Dar. We don’t have the file structure or the algorithms you found. I’m surprised they haven’t started doing that already."
"They went for what they knew I was looking at." Dar shook her head. "Must have known I found that data hub." She looked directly at the Chief. "Who’d you ask about it?"
Chief Daniel was momentarily taken aback. "It’s my right to ask!"
"That’s not in question." Kerry took a dried cherry from the bowl on the table and nibbled it. "Point is, someone was nervous enough about it to get it removed, and that says a lot in itself. Dar, I did a trace on the company that installed it – they’re a private fiber house who do a lot of work for the city."
Dar lifted an eyebrow.
"The last big thing they did was wire the mayor’s place for teleconferencing." Kerry added, as they both exchanged looks.
"Shit." Dar closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "This is getting too big for us. Let me go call Alastair and find out what the hell he wants me to do. We stepped into a cesspool here." She walked past them and into the study, shutting the door behind her.
Kerry released a held breath. "Shit." She echoed Dar. "She’s right. This is way outside our contract."
Chief Daniel snorted. "Sure. Stir up everything, then run, and let us all sink."
"It’s not that." Kerry snapped. "Do you understand what we’re talking about here? These are federal crimes."
Kerry turned her back and walked into the kitchen, grabbing a glass from the cabinet and going into the refrigerator. She studied her options, then gave in and took two squirts of chocolate syrup and filled the glass with milk.
Troubled, she leaned back against the counter and swirled her milk to mix it. So many complications crowded into her mind. First, the problem of the drugs. It was far beyond anything Dar had expected to find, and she knew it had thrown Dar for a loop. That was hard enough, without the possibility of someone Dar knew being involved.
What if it was Jeff Ainsbright? Kerry took a long swallow of her chocolate milk. She’d liked the big commander, and had found him open and straightforward, even in the uncomfortable situation they’d found themselves in last night. What about little Chuckie? Kerry’s lip curled up into an almost unconscious snarl. Dear God. She realized uneasily. I’m hoping he is. I’m hoping they take his obnoxious ass and thrown him in the federal jail for twenty years. A very unchristian thought stared her in the face. Maybe he’ll develop a taste for a different lifestyle.
Jesus. Kerry put the glass down and covered her face. Do I really feel that way? She folded her arms unhappily. Damn it, yes I do. He hurt her. Kerry felt a sense of helpless rage. He hurt her, and all I want is to.. Her muscles tensed, and her shoulders twitched with tension. I want to beat him senseless.
She’d never felt like this before. Even in the bad times, even with Kyle, she’d never thought about physically fighting back. A soft snort left her. "Look at me." She whispered. "Years worth of martial arts and a dark blue belt and I think I’m the Terminator."
A noise at the door made her look up, to see Dar quietly looking back at her. "How’d it go?"
Dar entered and walked over to her, taking up a spot leaning on the counter at her side. "He’s as gobsmacked as I am." She admitted. "All I got out of him was, ‘Dar, do what you have to do, you know I trust your judgment."
"Oh boy. That helps." Kerry picked up her glass and drank from it. "So what’s your best judgment, boss? You know I trust it too."
Dar took the glass from her. "He’s calling Hamilton, though, and briefing him." She took a sip. "I honest to god don’t know what to do, Ker. I know we should turn this over to the military, and let them handle it. It’s out of our league."
Kerry nodded slowly. "You’re right." She agreed. "This is outside our expertise, and it could be potentially very dangerous to be involved in. General Easton should take it from here."
They were both quiet for a few minutes, sharing the glass of milk until it was drained to the last drop. Finally, Kerry put the glass down, and turned her head to look at her lover. "You think they’ll botch it."
A tiny cocking of Dar’s head in reluctant agreement. "I want to get all of them." She murmured. "I’m afraid of two things, Ker. One, that they’ll take too long. Two, that they’ll go in there and lose the data that will identify all the people involved."
Kerry folded her arms. "Dar, I understand how you feel, but this is beyond us."
"I know." Dar’s voice was unhappy. "Let’s go call Gerry. We can’t sit on this any longer."
Kerry followed Dar out of the kitchen and across the living room. "Chief, we’re going to turn this over to the Joint Chief’s – who contracted us."
A snort. "Figures." Chief Daniel got up. "Do you know what that’ll do? They’ll take a brush the size of an aircraft carrier and paint us all with it. Some reward for helping you out. Assholes." She went to the door and was through it, before Dar or Kerry could respond. The slam reverberated, making Chino bark in surprise, then it was quiet.
"Ugh." Kerry rubbed her forehead. "What a totally unlikeable person."
Dar picked up the telephone. "Yeah." She agreed. "She’s a nastier son of a bitch than I am. I never thought I’d live to see that." The phone buzzed in her ear then was picked up. "Gerry? It’s Dar."
Andrew walked to the end of the dock and took a seat, extended his long legs out and squirming to get more comfortable on the hard, wooden bench. He didn’t have that long to wait, as after a few minutes footsteps sounded, and he turned his head slightly to see the tall, burly figure moving it’s way towards him.
He waited until the intruder was very close, then he swiveled to meet him. ""Lo."
Jeff Ainsbright slowed, and came to a halt a body’s length away. "Hey, Andrew." He cleared his throat. "Thanks for saying you’d meet me."
Quiet, patient blue eyes surveyed him. "Sit yerself down." He moved over to let his old friend take a seat. Then he waited in silence. The anger inside him would be patient, for a while longer.
"Listen, Andy…" Jeff seemed at a loss. "About last night."
"Y’know." Andrew interrupted him. "Been a long time since I been to a parent teacher meeting. Dar’s a grown woman, has been for years. If you got something t’say about what happened last night, y’need to be saying it to her."
Jeff exhaled, and rested his weight on his elbows. He laced his hands together and studied them. "Andy, you know I always liked Dar."
"I always got that idea, yes." Andy said. "She always talked well of you."
The commander was silent for a few moments. "I just wasn’t ready for last night." He admitted. "Chuck came home and told us, and I just didn’t – I didn’t have a chance to think about it." He looked up. "D’you understand?"
A shrug. "Never mattered to me, so no, I do not understand."
Jeff sighed. "You always had a blind spot with her."
Now, Andrew looked up, and met his eyes fully. "She is a gift God gave me." He spoke slowly, and with an almost gentle passion. "He made her, and I love all that she is." A breath. "Ah do not know why people do not understand that."
Jeff looked at him, then dropped his eyes. "Because you’re a better man than most of us are, Andy."
"That’s bullshit." Andrew snapped. "And what the hell’s wrong with that kid of yours?"
The commander shifted away a bit. "What do you mean?"
"What the hell you think I mean? God damn ship captain goin off his damn gourd, lashing out at some civ?" Andrew’s eyes flashed. "He leave his brains on board, or what?"
Jeff gave him a defensive look. "C’mon, Andrew. He was under a lot of stress… he was really stuck on Dar."
Andy stood and paced restlessly. "No, no no. Ah don’t buy it, Jeff." The ex seal shook his head. "Not after all this damn time don’t you be telling me he’s stuck on her since they was in high school. So stuck he goes nuts when he finds out he ain’t got no chance, fer the second time." Andrew turned and put his hands on his hips. "Don’t sound like somebody I want running mah boat, let me tell you that."
Ainsbright looked warily at him. "He’s a good ship captain."
Pale, ice blue eyes regarded him. "Seems to me, I’m remembering they washed his ass out of command school."
"He tried again. Had to grow up some. You know how it is."
Andy’s jaw worked. "From what I see outside that steak house, he ain’t growed up near enough to be in charge of himself, much less a boat full of other folks."
Frustrated, Jeff threw up his hands. "C’mon, Andrew. He lost his temper. Don’t tell me you never did, I know better."
"I never ran me no boat." Andy replied softly. "But I never picked me up no baseball bat and went after no civ woman, either." He added. "I’m thinking that should be enough to take back them stripes."
Jeff went very still. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, then Ainsbright sat down again and rested his head in his hands. "Yeah, he fucked up." His voice echoed off the pavement. "Damn stupid kid."
Andy leaned back against a wooden pylon, and gazed up at the clouds. Thunder rumbled overhead, but it had not, as of yet, started raining. The headache that had started when Ceci had told him, in her own way, about the bat now worsened. "Damn lucky kid."
Jeff jerked his head up. "Lucky?"
The chill in Andrew’s eyes was unmistakable. "Lucky ah did not come out that door thirty seconds earlier than I did." His nostrils flared.
The commander snorted in weary bemusement. "Shit, Andy. Chuck’s in the base hospital with a ruptured eardrum and partially dislocated jaw. Dar didn’t need your help." He closed his eyes. " They’ll probably discharge him for that.. maybe it’s for the best."
Andrew sat down. "You ain’t going to report him, then?" He asked, quietly. "Cause if you don’t, ah will."
Ainsbright looked up at him, taking in the uncompromising stance, and the inflexible will showing on his old friend’s scarred face. "Andrew."
"Not fer me, or fer Dar." Andy said. "You’re right. Dar don’t need me to take care of her anymore. She’s a big girl, and she can handle herself well as most." He straightened. "But out on that boat, Jeff, there’s folks down under decks who don’t deserve t’have someone like that taking charge of their lives."
"He has a spotless record!" Jeff protested.
"I used to be one of them folks below decks." Andy said right back. "Someone has to watch out for them, if you ain’t."
"Andrew, for God’s sake!" The commander yelled. "It was a little scuffle, c’mon now!"
"No sir!" Andy went nose to nose with him, jabbing a finger into his chest. "It was a Navy captain attacking a civilian and displaying conduct unbecoming to a god damned officer!" He glared at Ainsbright. "And if it was Dar that done that, I’d report her too!"
Silence. "Would you?" The commander asked softly.
"I would." Andy replied.
"Well." Jeff Ainsbright dusted his uniform off. "I’m not you." He turned, and walked around the bench, then headed off down the dock without a backward glance.
Andy let out a sigh, then he sat down on the bench and stretched his long legs out, studying their denim covered length with a frown. The rising wind blew a tiny bit of sea spray against his face, and he tipped his head back, eyeing the dark clouds pensively.
"No luck, eh, sailor boy?" Ceci stepped lightly over her husband’s outstretched legs and settled down on the bench at his side.
"Naw." Andy shook his head. "Stubborn old fool." He turned his head slightly. "You sure Dardar’s okay?"
"Why don’t you call her?" Ceci held out the cell phone. "Make you feel better."
Andrew examined the electronic device, then handed it back. "Got me a better idea." He stood, and held a hand out. "Let’s go see for ourselves."
Ceci allowed herself to be hauled to her feet, and then they started down the dock. They were halfway back when the rain caught them, sweeping across the way with a scent of ozone, and damp, warm wood.
"Hey." Kerry sat on the edge of Dar’s desk. "Why don’t you let me get you another shot of those pills, huh?" She could see the pale tinge to Dar’s normally tan skin tone.
"No." Dar shifted her arm in its sling to try and ease the ache. "They put me out, and I don’t want to risk that before Gerry calls us back." The pain had gotten worse as the medication wore off though, and now she had bursts of sharp agony moving up her shoulder and into her neck.
"Okay." Kerry tried another tack. "I’m going to make some herbal tea.. want some?"
Dar thought about that, then nodded. "Yeah.. do we have that peachy kind?"
"It’s apricot and honey." Kerry told her. "And yes, we do."
"I’d like that." Dar smiled. "I guess I can go lay down on the couch for a while, huh? I’m sure Gerry’s going to be a few minutes."
"Sounds like a great idea to me." Kerry got up, waiting for Dar to join her, then tucked a hand inside her elbow and walked with her to the living room. She got Dar settled back into her comfortable nest of pillows and fleece, and then she headed off towards the kitchen.
"Hey, Chino." She greeted the Labrador, who had followed her. "You want some tea, too?" The blond head cocked curiously at her. "No, probably not, huh?" Kerry put some hot water up, then pulled a bowl from the cabinet and raided the crisper, pulling out some fruit and washing it. Cherries, which were a favorite of Dar’s, and grapes, apples and peaches, and the bananas that were her own favorite. Then she removed a thick, sweet banana nutbread from the refrigerator, and sliced a few slices off, spreading a coating of cream cheese on them before setting them on a plate next to the fruit. "There." She pulled a bottle of Advil from the cabinet and set it down, idly spinning it as she waited for the water to heat.
Dar tilted her head back and regarded the popcorn ceiling. Her findings had surprised Gerry; she knew that from the shock in his voice. She also knew he would react quickly, and that probably troops were already heading for the base, military police and marines, more than likely.
It bothered her, though, to simply release control of the situation.
Kerry was right. She knew they’d botch it. She knew they’d miss out on catching all the bastards who were involved, and maybe only get the obvious ones. And people like Jeff Ainsbright, who, even if he wasn’t involved, would be taken down because he damn well should have known what was going on in his own command.
Dar sighed, remembering the long afternoons she’d spent as a youngster running wild in the housing area’s grassy spaces, with Chuckie and the other kids as their fathers huddled over barbecues in the front yard. If she tried, she could close her eyes and hear the football games playing in the background.
A warm touch on her arm made her jerk, and she opened her eyes. "Sorry.. I was just thinking." The scent of apricot drifted over from the tray Kerry was setting on the coffee table.
"Dar, if you’re tired, go ahead and go to sleep. I’ll wake you up as soon as the phone rings." Kerry took her partner’s hand in her own and chafed the fingers.
"Hm." Dar shook her head. "I slept half the day, Ker." She shifted her head on the pillow, then pulled herself up a little. "Did you wrap that brick up?"
Kerry nodded, then handed Dar her cup. "Wrapped it up, taped it up, put it in a box, and put it up on top of the cabinet so Chino can’t get at it." The Labrador, hearing her name, came snuffling over looking for goodies. "Stuff gives me the creeps just looking at it."
Dar took a sip of the tea. "You never experimented?"
"No." Kerry shook her head. "I stuck to beer, thanks, and that got me in more than enough trouble." She paused in the middle of handing over a piece of bread, and looked up at Dar. "Did you?"
A pained sigh. "Once." Dar admitted. "Not the hard stuff. A bunch of us got hold of some wild weed growing back south of the base, and decided to have a party."
Kerry finished handing over the nutbread. "And?" She asked curiously.
"I was sick as a dog for three days." Dar nibbled her treat. "Throwing up, seeing spots.. couldn’t keep anything down until my mother finally got me to the doctor’s, and he got some intravenous Dramamine into me."
"Oh." Kerry bit her inner lip. "I thought you couldn’t take that."
"That’s when we found that out." Dar grimaced. "Next time someone asked me if I wanted a joint, I slugged them." She took a bigger bite. "Mm… I really like this."
"I know." Kerry seated herself on the floor, leaning back against the couch and exhaling. "Me too." She handed over a handful of cherries. "I was only really tempted when I was in college." She said. "Everyone did it. All those late nights, and stress… I had a couple of friends who had a source for just about everything. They were always telling me what they had, and asking if I wanted any."
Dar watched her profile and the motion of her jaw muscles as she chewed. "We had that a lot in college too."
"Mm." Kerry exhaled. "I remember one night, I had this paper due in my writing class, and a systems design due on the same day. I’d had a full schedule of classes that day, and I was totally wiped out. Just exhausted. Even double espressos weren’t doing a thing for me."
"Mm." Dar murmured encouragingly.
"Jane came over, and saw how trashed I was. She offered me a handful of amphetamines, and a shot of coke, and told me it would get me through the two assignments, no problem." Kerry took another bite thoughtfully. "I took the drugs from her."
Dar bit into a cherry, and skillfully separated the fruit from its pit. "And?" She echoed Kerry’s earlier question.
"I came pretty close to taking them." Kerry admitted honestly. "And would you believe, it was my father that kept me from it?"
Dar’s eyes opened very wide. "Your father?"
Kerry laughed softly. "He had this speech he used to do about people needing crutches. You know, Dar, that old thing about liberal programs being a crutch for the poor, that kept them from really going out and making a living?"
"That’s such a crock of shit." Dar stated.
"Not the point. It reminded me that I’d chosen to take this double major, and if I couldn’t handle it, I shouldn’t use an illegal substance as a crutch. Either do it, or don’t do it, but don’t fake it." Kerry replied. "I wanted to do it on my own, so I could look back and say, yeah. I did that. No one helped me."
"Hm." Dar depitted another cherry and took another bite of her banana nutbread. "Yeah, I see your point." She admitted. "So, what did you do?"
Kerry thought back to that long night, with it’s aching struggle she’d spent alone. "I worked through it. I wrote the systems design first, because you need brain cells to do that and the creative writing paper… " Now a smile crossed her face. "Dar, do you know I still don’t know what I put in that paper? It got me a B, but I have no idea what I wrote."
Dar chuckled. "Whatever works." She looked hopefully at the plate. "Any more of that bread?"
Kerry turned her head and eyed her. "What’s it worth to you?"
Dar poked her lower lip out.
"Ah. So you think that’s all it takes to get me to give up this really great tasting nut bread?" Kerry inquired.
Dar gave her a sad look.
"You’re such a brat." Kerry handed it over. She peeled a banana and settled back, as Chino put her chin down on her thigh hopefully. "Oh no, madam. Last time we gave you fruit you got sick, remember?"
The phone rang, and Kerry shot a look back at Dar, then she picked up the portable receiver and answered it. "Hello?"
"Ah.. yes, is Dar there?"
"Yes, General. Just a minute." Kerry handed the phone back and half turned, resting her chin on the couch as she listened.
Dar took a breath before she pressed the phone to her ear. "Gerry?"
There was a soft knock at the door. Kerry frowned, then scrambled to her feet and trotted over to it, peeking through the eyehole. "Uh oh." She hesitated, then realized she really had no choice and opened the door. "Hi."
"Howdy there, kumquat." Andrew drawled. "Ya’ll going to let us inside there?"
Oh boy. Kerry slipped outside instead, closing the door behind her.
Continued in Part 7