Storm Surge

Part 13

Kerry lay flat on her back on the bed, her arms outstretched and her legs hanging off the edge with her bare feet on the floor.   She wasn’t doing much of anything except listening to Dar prowl around the suite, the faint snickers and sounds of things moving making her smile.

She’d teased Dar, of course, about the suite. Dar had scoffed at her, accusing her of blowing the place out of proportion until she opened the door and stepped back to let her skeptical partner enter.

Dar had, stopping in the lobby and looking around with an honestly startled expression. “Holy crap.”

Kerry had merely smirked and strolled past her, securing a piece of chocolate from the waiting basket before heading for the bedroom and the waiting, already turned down, comfortable looking bed leaving her partner to explore their miniature palace. “Tolja.”

“Holy crap.”

Kerry smiled benignly at the ceiling.  She was totally spaced, and totally exhausted.  She studied the tiles for a while, then drifted off for a while, then started as a sound at the doorway made her turned her head and lift it up off the surface to look towards the opening. “Uh?”

Dar was in it, leaning casually against the frame, her body now draped in a clean tshirt and a glass of milk in her hand. “Okay, you’re right.’ Her partner said. “You’re going to have to bust your ass to beat this one.” She said. “Its got three bathrooms. I had an entire shower and didn’t make enough noise to wake you up.”

Kerry smiled, and lifted one hand, curling her finger in a come hither gesture.  “Glad I did now. C’mere.”

Dar obliged, setting the glass down on the bedside table before she launched herself into the bed next to Kerry, making the smaller woman bounce.  She rolled onto her side and settled down, taking hold of Kerry’s hand and bringing it to her lips for a kiss.

Now that they were alone, and they could say anything to each other,  she really didn’t feel like saying anything at all. Kerry angled her head and pulled Dar closer, reveling in the tingle in her guts as Dar abandoned her fingers and kissed her lips instead.

She looked up and found Dar looking back at her at close range, her partner’s slightly bloodshot eyes expressing gentle affection that seemed to seep right through her.  “I shouldn’t have had that second mojito.”  Kerry murmured mournfully. “I see three of you.”

Dar grinned, the skin around her eyes crinkling up and glints of mischief coming into them.   She leaned forward and kissed Kerry again, then rolled over and captured her partner’s body, tangling her legs with Kerry’s and pulling her over until they were in an untidy squash in the middle of the bed.

“Urgh.” Kerry reveled in the heat where their bodies were pressed against each other.  Dar’s skin felt typically warm, and her skin held a hint of the apricot scrub from her shower.  It was utterly familiar, and comforting out of all proportion.  “You smell good.”

“Do I?” Dar bit her ear gently. “I’m just glad to get the smell of airplane off me.”

“What kind of plane did you come here on?” Kerry eased up onto her elbows, the air conditioning suddenly cold against the spot on her ear Dar had been suckling. “Did you have lots of Marines with you?”

“Nah. It was a transport.” Dar slid her arms around Kerry’s waist and studied her face. “Lots of nervous looking guys in suits. I’d have rather had the Marines. The ones in your mom’s office were nice guys.”

“They were. “ Kerry nodded. “I liked them.”

“They really liked you.” Dar’s eyes twinkled. “One of them said he was going to try and get a job with us after his hitch was up and find you again.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake.” Kerry started laughing. “All I did was get them freaking sandwiches.”  She let her head drop, and they kissed for a few minutes, ending with heightened breathing as they paused, and Kerry let her forehead rest against Dar’s. “Mm.”

“Keeerrrry.”  Dar warbled in her ear. “I mmmiiisssed you.”

“Sweetie, I sure as hell missed you too.”  Kerry nibbled at her partner’s neck.  “I think more than anything I missed being able to talk to you.”

“More than anything?” Dar gently cupped one of Kerry’s breasts, rubbing her thumb teasingly over the nipple.

“Heheh.” Kerry chortled softly. “Okay, point taken.”

“I can do that too.” Dar tweaked her.  “But yeah, it was frustrating as hell for me to have to listen to you on that call and not be able to just talk back however I wanted to.”   She admitted, closing her eyes a little as Kerry’s hands slid across her hips.  “I felt so far away.”

Kerry leaned forward and kissed her again, her hand slipping under Dar’s shirt. She felt her ribs move as she inhaled and a warm surge of desire flushed her skin as she felt Dar’s thigh ease between hers. “You sure don’t feel far away now.”

Dar cupped her hand behind Kerry’s neck and drew her down again. She rolled onto her side and took Kerry with her, as she felt her shirt peeled up and the cool air hit her skin. She felt flushed and the chill felt good, goose bumps raising as Kerry ducked her head down and kissed her breast.  “Hope not.”

Kerry smiled. She felt the exhaustion lifting as her body reacted to her partner’s touch, a burning in her guts igniting as Dar unbuttoned her shirt and slid the bottom of it up, glad she’d already shed her jeans.

Impatiently, she ducked her head as Dar pulled her shirt off, busy herself with doing the same to her partner. A moment of chill, then Dar pressed against her and all she could feel was a burn that felt like it was washing her clean.

Washing the last two days out.  Washing the tension of dealing with her family out.  Driving aside the memories of the destruction and the accusations at her mother’s office.

Dar’s hand slid over her hip and down the outside of her thigh.  Kerry abandoned herself to the growing tension in her guts and simply lived the moment, savoring the ragged edge to her breathing as the light touch became more deliberate and her body arched, wanting the release.

Wanting that deep burn, and the knowing jolt.  “God, I love you.” She breathed, just as the sensations became to intense for words and her body was shuddering in reaction, her arms clamping around Dar’s as she let out a yell.

Dar chuckled, breathing hard as Kerry’s weight bore down on her, pushing her back over onto her back  as she nuzzled the side of her neck. “Love you too.”  She closed her eyes as Kerry started her attack. “Specially when you do that.”

Kerry laughed on an irregular breath, as she felt tears sting her eyes at the same time.  “That?”

“Ungh.”

“Thought so.”

**

Kerry was content to lay where she was, her body relaxed as she gently traced an imaginary line across Dar’s bare skin.  It was hard to keep her eyes open, but the steady, light stroking on the inside of her thigh was stoking a lazy desire and keeping her from dropping off into sleep.

She didn’t mind.  It felt good.  It wasn’t too demanding, just a teasing sensuality that made her very aware of Dar’s near presence and focused her on the sound of her partner’s breathing and the scent of her skin.

Dar kissed her shoulder.

“Hey Dar?” Kerry returned the kiss, letting her fingers trace her partner’s nipple. “Were you really serious?”

Dar’s eyes opened. “About what?” Her voice rose.  “This? Helllo?  Earth to Kerry?”

Kerry leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.  “No.” She rested her elbows on either side of Dar’s head, and gently rubbed noses with her. “About coming here.”

Dar looked up at her for a long moment. “Duh.”  She said. “Give me a break, willya?”

“I feel so crummy then.” Kerry ducked her head for another kiss. “I should have tried harder to go to you.”

“I was in England, Ker.”

“I can swim.”

Dar chuckled, and wrapped her arms around her partner.  She felt Kerry’s body shift against hers, and she savored the moment.  “You had a lot to deal with here. I’ll cut you some slack.”  She advised. “Besides, if you had paddled over we’d just have had to fly right back here. “

“I know.”  Kerry kissed her neck, nipping her collarbone a bit. “It’s been crazy.” She admitted, resting her head against Dar’s shoulder as she felt Dar’s hand resume it’s stroking  “First my family, then yesterday.  Just nuts.”

“You seem to be getting on okay with you mom.” Dar ventured cautiously. “At least based on tonight anyway.”

Kerry was silent for a moment. “Yeah.” She said. “Once we got a few things out of the way… it hasn’t been that bad, really. I took her for sushi tonight.”

“Radical.”

“No, she liked it.” Kerry smiled, nestling closer.  “I had her get the safe stuff, like what you did to me the first time.”

Dar chuckled softly. “You ended up eating most of mine that night.”

“I told her that.” Kerry admitted.  “I talked about you a lot.”  She rubbed the edge of her thumb against Dar’s breastbone. “She said she was glad we met.”

Dar’s eyebrows hiked up.  She studied the curve of Kerry’s jaw, seeing the muscles move under the skin. “You think she meant it?”

Kerry was silent for a bit, then she exhaled. “You know, it’s so hard for me to tell.  I want to think she did, because she said that and some other stuff about how she and my father really weren’t aware of stuff Kyle did… but I don’t know whether she’s saying it because it’s true, or because she wants it to be true and she wants me to stop being so damned pissed off.”

Dar started gently massaging her partner’s neck again.  “Do you want to stop being pissed off?”  She asked. “Y’know, when I finally got back together with mine, that’s what I decided. I’d just blow off the past thirty years of my life, and start fresh.  Too much crap to dig through.”

“Is that really fair?”

Dar shrugged. “Is life really fair?”  She countered. “What makes you feel good in side, to let that all go, or just let it fester?” She felt the warmth as Kerry exhaled, her breath warming the skin over Dar’s breast.

“Well, duh.” Kerry murmured. “Who’d feel good festering? It just seems so… I don’t know. Wussy to just say, okay, forget it, let’s just move on.”  She pondered a bit more, feeling her body slowly relaxing again, the room around her retreating a little. “That whole turn the other cheek thing is a really tough sell.”

Dar hugged her. “For what it’s worth, I think your mom’s legit.” She said. “I think she was a chickenshit when your father was alive, but she’s got to live with that. Life’s short enough.”

Kerry remained silent for a few minutes, then she stifled a yawn, and wrapped herself firmly around her partner. “Save it.” She said. “I just want a nice long night of listening to your crazy heartbeat. To heck with everything else.”

“Works for me.” Dar squirmed backwards, hauling Kerry with her until they hit the pillows. “Let it wait for tomorrow along with all the other problems.”   She tugged the covers loose, helped more or less by a silently giggling Kerry and managed to get them wrapped over them without rolling them both out of the bed.

That left only the light, and that was a short matter well within Dar’s long reach. She slapped the button and they were in darkness.   The sound proofed windows blocked the noise from the street, and only the soft hum from the air conditioning  and two simultaneous sighs were heard.

“That hole in the side of the building is pretty terrible, isn’t it?” Kerry asked, softly.

‘Yeah.” Dar whispered back. “Surreal. Seeing the flag draped there made me tear up.”

“Me too. They said it happened so fast no one had a chance to get away.”  Kerry took a little tighter hold. “Must have been horrible.”

“Like in the hospital, for us.”

“Yeah.” The silence lengthened a bit. “We were really lucky that night, weren’t we?”

“Very.” Dar replied, in a soft voice. “Very, very lucky.”

Kerry thought about that for a long moment. Then she pressed her body against Dar’s, lifting herself up a trifle and kissing her with simple passion.  She rode the surge of energy and felt Dar respond, their bodies tangling again as the covers became irrelevant.

It was a moment to just live life, without regard to what happened next.

**

Amazing what difference a day made.  Kerry whistled under her breath as she settled her headset on her ears, her laptop already alive with information.  She was seated in front of the window, with a view of a breezy fall day outside just at dawn.

At her side rested a cup of steaming coffee and a croissant neatly piled with eggs and swiss cheese.  She picked up a sliced of strawberry and ate it, her eyes scanning the screen as she tried to assess what the status was.

Behind her, Dar’s low burr was audible as she talked to Maria, and behind her partner the big television was on showing CNN’s attention deficit disorder inducing screen complete with it’s new ticker scrawl and live footage behind the announcer.

“Good morning, this is Miami Exec currently in Washington.” Kerry announced as the conference line connected. “Hope everyone is doing good.”

A brief crackle, then a host of voices responded.  “Morning, ma’am.” “Morning Kerry.” “Hello, Miami… welcome back. “ “Glad to hear you on, Exec.”

“Morning boss.” Mark’s voice echoed slightly a little afterward, sounding tired. “Now that you’re on I’m gonna go catch  a few z’s.  Is the big kahuna there?”

“She is.” Kerry smiled as she said it, glancing up to see Dar framed in the entranceway, leaning back against the stately dining table dressed in just her tshirt. .  “You sneaky little bugger. I’ll get you for that.”

“Hey, she told me not to say anything.” Mark protested. “You think I’m dumb enough to not to listen?”

Kerry chuckled, a  warm, rich sound that echoed a little on the call.  “So where are we? Give me a status then go get some rest.”  She picked up her coffee and took a sip, stretching one leg out and flexing her toes  against the thick carpet.

Unlike the previous day, when she’d woken up tired and tense, defensive in the presence of her mother – today she felt a resurgence of her usual optimistic nature and a sense of animal well being she wasn’t stupid enough to deny the cause of.

“Well, we got some good stuff to tell and some bad stuff.” Mark said. “The good stuff is Newark’s up, and they’ve stopped beating up on the LA Earthstation.”

“Miami ops, that’s almost true.” A voice interrupted. “We just had a request from the governor here to belay a full 24 channels for the national guard.”

Mark sighed. “Hold up a sec, LA.” He said. “Anyway, they got the power up here about two hours ago, and I was able to get a link up to Newark, but holy molassas, boss, it’s like shoving an elephant through a punchdown. We ain’t doing crap for traffic.”

“Latency?” Kerry asked.

“Not just that, everyone wants to put up on the wire. I can’t get a priority list out of anybody cause they all think they’re the most important.”

“Not like we never heard that before.” Kerry said.  “Okay, hang tight and tell Newark to hang tight. I’ll be over there to beat back the arm wavers shortly.”

“Miami exec, this is Newark.” The Earthstation spoke up. “We’re fully online now. Please tell those folks at APC we’re all going to buy stock in them.”

“Me too.” Kerry agreed, smiling again. “They really came through for us. So now we have to turn that around and come through for everyone else. Just prioritize best you can until I can sort everyone out.”

A window popped up, and she glanced at it.  Good morning. You sound more chipper today.

“Duh, Mari.”   Kerry switched to the window.  Yeah and I even got some sleep. Did Alastair get off okay?

Jose and Eleanor took him to the airport and said they’d stay with him until his flight at 8. He said he took Dar’s advice last night down on South Beach.  Dare I ask?

Kerry glanced at her partner. Hopefully she just gave him the name of a good steakhouse.  She typed back. Otherwise I don’t wanna know.  

“Miami exec, this is Lansing.”

“Go ahead, Lansing.” Kerry got back to business.

“Ma’am, we had six installs due today, but we have them all on standby. Fedex advised us they don’t know yet when they are going to be able to come off ground hold and deliver anything.”

Ugh.  Kerry picked up her croissant and took a bite as she thought.  She chewed and swallowed before she answered. “That’s a problem.” She acknowledged. “Anyone from Logistics in Miami on?”

“It’s Dogbert here, ma’am.”  A voice answered. “They’re telling us the same thing. We were expecting a lot of stuff today.”

Dogbert. Kerry repressed a smile. “Can you get me a manifest of what we’ve got held up in Fedex, UPS and DHL?” She asked.  “Logistics in Houston?”

“Here.” A gruffer voice answered. “My brother’s a director in DHL. He told me they’re not even allowed to open the warehouses. They’ve got soldiers crawling all over them with dogs.”

Kerry exhaled.  “Okay, everyone out there – whoever’s in operations for your respective areas, I need a list of activities in jeopardy due to non delivery, please.   Let’s get a calendar up and running and on the desktop so we can see the impact.”

“Miami Exec, this is Herndon.” Another voice. “We got word flights will take off this morning, but passenger only, and there’ s a lot of activity on the wire.”

“Miami, this is Lansing again. The two installs we had gear for, the guys are telling us they’re being denied access to proceed.”

Dar came over and sat down next to her, resting her chin on one hand. “This is gonna be like a slow motion train wreck.” She commented. “Our ops schedule is not designed to just stop for a few days.”

Kerry knew that was true. The intricate webwork of installers and technicians, product deployments and implementation scheduling was designed to be flexible, but only up to a point. She often had to shift resources around if a facility wasn’t ready in time, or if a part was on backorder. 

This was a completely different scope of interruption.  “Okay, once we get a schedule up I need someone to run a match against the equipment we have tied up in transit against our distributed inventory.  We may need to start driving.”

“Maria says she’s getting a lot of calls from clients.” Dar said. “She’s been in the office since five thirty. I’m waiting on a callback from Gerry now.”

“Clients from New York and around here?” Kerry asked, clicking her mic off.  “Sheesh.. don’t they know what’s going on?”

Dar shook her head. “From all over. I’m not really sure why they’re calling. Maria said it was almost like they just wanted to know everything was all right.”

Kerry’s brows knit.  “Huh?”

Dar shrugged.  “She’s pulling my address book off the phone and she’ll email it to you for me.” She said.

“Can’t she just.. “ Kerry let the thought trail off. “No, I guess she can’t just Fedex everything to you. Damn.  You don’t realize how dependent you are on some things until they don’t exist.”

“She offered to fly with it.” Dar said.

Kerry studied her face. “She hates flying.”

“I know.”  Her partner smiled briefly. “I told her I’d wait.  You’re here. It’s not like I’m out wandering the streets sleeping under a bench.”

“That’s true.” Kerry covered Dar’s free hand with her own and squeezed her fingers. “I’ll definitely take care of you.”

“Miami exec, this is Houston Logistics.” The gruff voice came back.  “We just got notified we can’t move tapes to storage.  Facilities been ordered closed by the Feds.”

“Oh god.” Kerry covered her eyes.  “Thanks, Houston.  For how long?”

“No idea.”

Dar shook her head. “Everyone’s running scared now.” She said.  “I’ll order up some storage containers for them and us. Keep working it.” She got up and headed back to the room phone, the early rays of sun splashing over her bare legs.

“Okay, Houston.  We got that. We’ll see what we can do to help.” Kerry said. “Newark, have you had any indication on an ETA for your city power? I have a feeling we’re going to need those trucks in Manhattan.”

“Wish I could say yes, Miami exec.” The Earthstation sounded apologetic.  “My boss called this morning, and ConEd had a message on just saying to try calling in a couple days.”

“Nice.” Kerry took another bite of her croissant.  “Well, I’m sure they’ve got a ton of other issues. Doesn’t help us much though.”

“Miami exec, this is the Air Hub.” A woman’s voice broke in. “Air traffic control is back online. “ Her voice held a note of excitement.  “We just got a request to host a big share for them for repositioning.”

“Go ahead.” Kerry said.  “Houston ops, watch the links and make sure they get space.”

“On it.” A male voice answered. “We are running a little hot across the board.”

Kerry glanced over at Dar, who was on the phone, cupping one hand over her free ear.  “I’ll get the pipe meister to look at it in a minute.  She’s on another call.”  

Kerry?

Kerry looked at the popup, then she clicked on it. Go ahead Mar.

I heard from our office in Springfield. They had a big riot up there last night, apparently people protesting against people from the Middle East.

Oh great.  Kerry remembered what her mother had said, and exhaled. Kneejerk.

Agreed. Should I send an alert out though? People don’t stop to think sometimes.

“Hey Dar?” Kerry turned her head as she heard her partner hang up. “Mari said they had some anti-Arab ugliness in Illinois last night. She’s asking if she should send out a bulletin?”

Dar came over and sat back down, taking a sip of Kerry’s coffee.  “To do what? Tell our employees who happen to be Middle Eastern they should hide in the office?” She asked, practically. “I’m sure CNN is covering it, and I’m sure they’re watching CNN. “

Kerry studied her face.  “What pissed you off?”

Dar put the cup down. “Did I say I was pissed off?” She asked, arching her brow as Kerry continued to look at her. Her lips twitched. “I just got yelled at by Gerry for ten minutes for being the forgetful nitwit I know I was yesterday.”

“Well, sweetie…”

“I know.” Dar set the cup down. “Yes, she should send out a note. I think people are just starting to be stupid and I don’t know where it’s going to end.” 

Kerry turned back to her keyboard. Dar says yes.  Everyone should be very aware of what is going on around them.

“We have to go to the White House.”

Kerry stopped typing in mid word, going very still, before she turned her head and looked at her partner. “Excuse me?”

“Hope you brought your rainbow nerd t-shirt.” Dar got up. “I’m going to take a shower.  Let’s hope they don’t want to see my driver’s license before they let us in.”

Kerry stared at the retreating figure in somewhat stunned silence for a long moment before she wrenched her attention back to the laptop. “Ah.. I’m going to have to go offline for a few minutes.” She managed to get out. “Everyone just hang tight.”

“Will do.” “Sure.”  “No problem Miami exec.”

Kerry got up and headed for the bathroom, hoping Dar hadn’t really said what she thought she’d heard her say.  She ducked inside the door, already hearing the water running, to find Dar in the middle of taking her shirt off. “The White House?”

“They’re sending a car.” Dar tossed her shirt on the counter. “C’mon. We don’t have a lot of time. Apparently we’ve pissed a lot of people off and we’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” She opened the shower door, allowing a healthy blast of steam to enter the room.  “Dad’s already down at the Pentagon helping.”

“Helping to do what?” Kerry hurriedly got out of her shirt and joined her partner in the shower.  “Dar, what the hell.. the White House? What did we do? Who did we piss off?”

“Wish I knew.” Dar squirted gel on a scrubby and started indiscriminately washing both herself and Kerry.  “But I’m guessing we’ll soon find out.”

“Ugh.”

**

Dar folded her arms and glanced out the tinted window as the car sped through the streets.  Kerry was sitting next to her, earbuds planted firmly in her ears as she directed the conference call in muted tones.

“Dar?” Kerry looked up. “Hamilton Baird just dropped into the call, said he’d meet us.”

Dar nodded. “Good.” She said. “Never thought I’d be glad to see his puss, but annoying as he is he’s a first rate lawyer.”

“Your father is listening from the RV.” Kerry said. “What’s a coon ass?”

Dar snorted in laughter, covering her mouth and then her eyes with one hand. “He didn’t say that on the call, did he?”

“Um. Well, actually…”

“It’s a slang for someone from Cajun Louisiana. It’s not really a compliment.” Dar peered through her fingers. “Sort of like being called a hillbilly. Only worse.”

“He laughed.”

“My father?”

“Hamilton.”  Kerry said. “Then he called your dad a redneck. I think the entire company’s stunned to complete silence.”

“Mari must be on the floor behind her desk out cold.” Dar sighed.  “Round out the electroshock therapy by calling dad Dad and telling them to behave.”

“Whatever you say, boss.” Kerry went back to her headset with a grin on her face.

Dar returned her gaze to the streets of Washington, working to ignore the twisting in her guts and faintly envying Kerry the distraction of her current task.    She’d been in many high profile situations for the company and certainly she had a lot of confidence both in herself and her organization but being called to the carpet at the White House was both a new and very nerve wracking experience for her.

She didn’t like politics.  Based on her previous experience, she didn’t much like politicians. Dar felt that in order to be elected by a majority, politicians had to become the lowest common denominator and promise everything to everyone, delivering not much to anyone in the end.

Except, in South Florida, to their relatives.  Dar unfolded her arms and let her hands rest on her denim covered knees. Corruption wasn’t viewed so much as a scandal in Miami as a bit of entertainment for the residents to discuss over café along with the latest news of Castro, the traffic, and whether or not hurricanes would be heavy or light this season.

Expected.  Politicians were wheelers and dealers where she lived, and while it did earn Miami the banana republic reputation it had, Dar also found the up front acknowledgement quite a bit more refreshing that the usual political pretending to virtue and desire for public service as a reason for election.

Straightforward, and local. The county and city leaders didn’t much give a rats ass about the rest of the state, or in fact, the rest of the country. Their focus was on drawing people and businesses in, pushing development to it’s limits, scooping in as much in taxes as they could, and spending money on whoever’s pet project they got the most kickbacks for.

No euphemisms about bettering humanity.  No long harangues about family values. Very commercial, very crass, very ethnic.  Dar liked that.  She remembered hearing one local politico talking to some moral values types at a fundraiser she’d been roped into attending and they’d asked him about the dangers of a gay neighborhood springing up in a certain area.

“Let them come.” The politico had said. “They improve any area they live in. Property value goes up, taxes go up.  Show me that around a soup kitchen.”

Blunt. Shocking. Very Miami.   Dar remembered after Hurricane Andrew, when there had been hundreds of thousands of tons of debris to get rid of, and the state and federal government, citing pollution regulations, had forbid burning to get rid of it.

They’d burned it anyway. The county manager had told the regulators to come arrest him if they didn’t like it.

Dar felt a certain sympathy with the attitude.

The car turned into a long driveway, and pulled to a halt at a large, iron, guarded gate.  “Ma’am, I’ll need to show them your identification.” Their driver half turned to look at her. “Can you pass it up please?”

“No.” Dar laced her fingers. “Actually, I can give you Kerry’s. Not mine.”

The driver looked at her.

“I’m not deliberately being an asshole.” Dar correctly interpreted his expression. “I just don’t have it. My wallet and all my ID is back in Miami.”

The driver continued to stare at her. “Ma’am, they won’t let you in there without ID.”

“Well.” His passenger cleared her throat. “That could be true. But the government paid a lot of money to bring me up here from Florida on a military airplane and then send you to fetch me to the White House.  Chances are, someone in there knows who I am or at least will trust that I am who they think I am.”

The driver shrugged, and turned back around. “See what they say.” He drove the car forward a space, waiting for the rest of the line to clear the gate.  Dar took the opportunity to fish inside Kerry’s briefcase, bringing out her ID and holding it in one hand.

Kerry glanced up at her in question, one hand still cupped over her ear.  Dar held up her passport folio, and she nodded, then went back to her conversation, reaching out with her other hand to pat Dar’s knee.

The car pulled forward, and the driver opened the door, putting one leg out and standing up to talk to the guard rather than opening the window.     Dar didn’t much envy him, since she figured he was probably telling this armed, anxious, hyper alert man that he had some chick in the car who wanted in to the White House without even a driver’s license.

“Dar, Houston’s saying they’re running really high on usage across the net.” Kerry said. “You probably need to check it out.”

Dar wiggled her fingers, and looked down at her empty lap, raising her brows at her partner.  “They haven’t put the chip in yet, hon. Can I borrow your laptop?”

“Of course.” Kerry nudged her briefcase over with her foot. “You have to ask?”

“I have to ask because I”ll need to sign in with your cached credentials and then rig the VPN system to ask for mine.” Dar was drawing the machine out and putting in on her lap. “I usually ask nicely when I’m hacking my SO’s system.”

Kerry gave her a fond smile. “I love you.” She said, then paused, and looked down at her mic, cursing silently.  “What’s that? No, no, I was…  okay, never mind. Who has the name of the guy I need to talk to?”

Dar chuckled under her breath.

“You get me in so much damn trouble.” Kerry overly obviously keyed the mic off this time, scribbling on a pad with her other hand.  “Jesus.”

The driver dropped back into the car. “Ma’am, they need to verify with the folks inside. I’m going to pull off over here so we don’t block the gate.”

“Sure.” Dar clicked away at the keyboard.  “I’ll just be back here rerouting all of your paychecks to the French Foreign Legion.” She inserted the cellular card and waited for the computer to fully boot, then opened a command line window and started typing.

“Didn’t you rig the VPN system so no one could log in with someone else’s laptop?” Kerry asked, idly.

“Yes.”

“Mm.”  Kerry paused, then cleared her throat. “Yes, Mr. Mitchell? This is Kerry Stuart from ILS.”  She paused again, listening.  “Yes, I understand…. Mr. Michell, I do un.. sir.” Kerry’s voice lifted. “That’s not correct. I do understand what has been going on the past two days, since I’m sitting in a car outside the gate to the White House right now waiting to talk to the  folks inside about it.”

Dar finished her typing, then she triggered the VPN connection. It obediently presented her with a login box, which she entered her credentials into and sent it on it’s way.  “Problem?” She asked, in a casual tone.

“Not Dar level yet.” Kerry covered the mouthpiece, then removed her hand. “Right. So explain to me now why my technicians, who are busting their asses to try and keep their schedules on track, aren’t being allowed to complete your install? The one you contracted for? You did ask us to do this, didn’t you?”

Dar drummed her fingers on the palm rest, as her desktop formed itself in front of her.  She could have actually used Kerry’s, but their working style was so different it drove her crazy trying to find things on it.

She opened her custom monitoring application, glancing over the top of the laptop screen towards the driver. He was sitting quietly, relaxed and reading a notepad, occasionally looking up to watch the guards at the gate to see if they were going to come over to them.

Dar pondered what to do if they got turned away. Go to the Pentagon? Maybe Gerry could get her some temporary credentials.  “I’m such an idiot.” She sighed, as the gages formed up and she studied the results.

“Okay, then we have an understanding.” Kerry said. “I’ll send my team back up there, and they’ll get on with the work. It shouldn’t take long.” She added. “Thanks.”  She hung up and went back to the conference call. “Jerk.”

Dar keyed on the government routers that were managed from Houston, separating them out in a window and reviewing their statistics. “You’re such a hardass, Ker.”

“Pfft.” Kerry keyed her mic. “Okay, I’m back.” She said. “Lansing, this is Miami Exec. Please resend the techs up to Browerman and Fine, they’re cleared to enter.”

“This is Lansing, will do.”

Dar heard the driver shift, and she peered past him to see the guards approaching.  She put her head back down and typed quickly, her eyes flicking over the sets of numbers that flashed on and off the screen.

The window opened and the guard leaned down to peer in at them.  “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Kerry closed her mic. 

“Which one of you is Paladar Roberts?” The guard asked.

“That’d be me.” Dar glanced up, but kept typing.  “I’m the jerk who showed up with no ID.” She added. “And I am sorry about that.”

The guard nodded. “That’s posing a big problem for us.”  He watched Dar nod back. “But the people inside said to let you in with an escort, so I’m going to let you in, with an escort.”   He patted the window on the driver’s side door. “Go on, Jack.  We’ll send two guys with you, and two guys’ll meet you at the stairs.”

Kerry regarded him with a touch of concern. “Are we that dangerous looking?” She asked.

The guard just shook his head and waved, and the window closed as the driver put the car in gear and edged his way between two other vehicles towards the gates.

“Houston’s right” Dar was clicking away. “They’re eating up the wires. I’m going to throw some reserve at them.”

“Without finding out why?” Kerry questioned.

“Wouldn’t even know where to start asking.” Her partner admitted. “I’m sure it’s all TCP/IP encapsulated frantic arm waving and ass covering mixed with legitimate intelligence movement but there’s really no way for me to step in and question it.”

Kerry nodded, and went back to the call. “Folks, I’m going to have to drop offline in a few minutes here.  If anything comes up, just call my cell and get me back on.”

“There.” Dar finished her configuration changes, saving them and cutting and pasting a large swath of tiny text into an email message. “I’ll tell Houston I did that, but they need to keep it under their hat. I don’t want anyone getting  the idea we have inexhaustible bandwidth.”

“Okay, I’m out.” Kerry said, then she closed the phone, peering out of the window. They were pulling past a line of trees, liberally guarded by machine gun toting soldiers. Ahead there was a small parking area, in front of a huge, almost gothic looking building she only vaguely remembered. “Ah. The old executive.”

Dar glanced up from her keyboard and looked out the window, peering at the large structure. Then she shook her head and went back to her keyboard. “Almost done.”

Kerry ran her fingers through her hair. “There’s Hamilton.” She indicated the tall, urban figure leaning on the gate in a posture of bored waiting.  “I have to admit, I’m pretty glad to see him given where we are.”

Dar shut the laptop and leaned over to slide it into Kerry’s briefcase. “Me too.” She admitted briefly. “But don’t let him know that.”

The car pulled to a halt, and two soldiers approached immediately, signaling the vehicle following them.    “Please wait and don’t open the doors.” The driver warned. “Let the soldiers do it.”

“Sure.” Dar leaned back and twiddled her fingers, as the she watched the soldiers approach cautiously as though she was some sort of hyper technical land shark.   It kept her mind off what waited for them though, and she only smiled at the man who opened the door, staying still until he realized she was pretty much harmless.

“Thank you ma’am, you can get out.” The soldier said, courteously.  “Sorry about that, we’re a little tense here today.”

“I completely understand.” Dar swung her legs out and got up, surprising the soldier when she straightened to her full height that topped his by a few inches.  She closed the door and paused, as Kerry made her way around behind the car to join her, then they started off towards the gates and their waiting corporate lawyer.

The two soldiers walked along side them. Both were young, but not too young, and they both had five oclock shadows that probably had started sometime the previous afternoon.    They looked tired.  Dar suddenly felt an empathy for them she hadn’t expected. “Hang in there guys.” She told the one to her right. “I know it’s been rough.”

The soldier looked at her, his shoulders shifting into a more relaxed posture. “Thanks, ma’am.”

They crossed the street and Hamilton pushed off his post and came to meet them. “Well, hello there ladies.”

“Good morning, Mr. Baird.” Kerry greeted him politely.

“Hamilton. Good to see you.” Dar chimed in. “Thanks for coming down.”

The lawyer seemed to be more subdubed than usual. “Good to see you both.” He said. “Let’s go see what this whoo hah is all about.”

They started up the steps. “Sorry about my father.”  Dar commented. “I’m not sure he realized how big his audience was.”

Hamilton chuckled. “Darlin, he’s your father. Of course he realized.  But he’s a gorgeous old salt so it didn’t bother me a bit.” He glanced to either side, at their silent escort.  “Ain’t enough like him and any how my mama raised me to be proud of being a coon ass.”

“I don’t think he meant it as an insult.”  Dar smiled. “Not from where we came from.”

The lawyer laughed. “Lord I hope they don’t regret asking us into this place. “ He waited for Dar and Kerry to enter the big doorway, then followed before the soldiers could. “Sorry boys, beauty and treachery before virtue. “

The soldiers bumped into the frame in their haste to follow. “Sir! Ma’am! Wait!”

Kerry shifted the strap on her briefcase and shook her head, resisting the urge to move faster just to get to the end of the waiting.   “Going to be one of those mornings.”

**

Dar had her hands stuck in her pockets, her head tipped back a little as she studied the shelves full of books in the room they’d been shuffled off to.

Kerry was sitting at a mahogany table behind her, working on her laptop as Hamilton spoke softly into his cell phone on the other side of the room.

Hurry up and wait, was that the tactic?  Dar rocked up and down on her heels.  In the distance, she could hear the muffled sounds of activity, the halls they’d been walked through to this waiting room had been full of men and women rapidly moving from one place to another, all with grim, intent faces.

Hamilton joined her at the shelves.  “Al just buzzed me. He’s still hanging around in that lovely airport of yours.” He informed her. “But he does think he’s going to get to sit on an airplane in the next twenty minutes.”

Dar glanced at him. “Given how screwed up everything is, can’t really expect flights to be taking off on schedule. He’s probably going to get on something that’s supposed to be in New York.”

The corporate lawyer nodded. “It’s a fine mess.” He agreed. “But listen, thanks by the by for taking care of old Al through all this.  He said you were just a peach.”

Dar’s brow lifted sharply.

“In an Al sort of way.” Hamilton conceded, with a smile.   “And speaking of, shall we play this as a bad cop with a worse cop routine? Neither you, nor I, are going to be mistaken for a good cop any time soon.”

Dar pointed over her own shoulder with her thumb. “Brought the good cop.” She explained succinctly.  “Though the way she was telling off some senior senator last night I’m not sure they want to piss her off.”

“With any luck they’ll all realize they’ve got a lunch date and leave us alone.” Hamilton said. “I do think what I am hearing about them being all up in their shorts at us is making me itch in places men should not.”

Dar folded her arms. “I gotta agree with that. I don’t know what the hell they think they’re mad at I’ve had a thousand people working round the clock for two days busting their asses to keep everyone’s pie plates spinning. What damn more do they want?”

They both turned as the door opened, and a lot of footsteps echoed into the room just ahead of a crowd of men.  “I do believe we’re going to find out.” Hamilton said. “C’mon,  Igor. Let’s go be bad.”

Dar was already heading towards the table that Kerry was seated at, since the group of men who had entered the room were also headed in that direction.   She got in front of them before they reached her partner, bringing them up short as she simply stepped into the way and blocked it. “Gentlemen.”

She missed the sweetly amused expression on Kerry’s face as she looked up and observed this bit of  unconscious chivalry, and it only lasted a moment before Kerry removed her ear buds and stood up as Hamilton joined her.

The man in the lead, a slim, tall dark haired guy in a suit in his mid forties or so, took a step back and held his hand up to stop the crowd. “Are you Roberts?”

“Yes.” Dar stuck her hands in her pockets and regarded him. “And you are?”

“John Franklin.” The man said.  “I’m from the NSA. Now, you listen to me…”

“Hold up.” Dar didn’t raise her voice.  She put her hands back in her pockets and tilted her head a little, regarding the man carefully.  “Can we discuss a few ground rules before we start swinging?”

Franklin frowned. “I don’t think you understand the situation here.”

“I do.” Dar answered, in the same even, almost gentle tone.  “You obviously want something from me. Since I’m as horrified as any other American over what happened two days ago, and since I’m from a military family, chances are I want to do whatever’s in my power to help you in whatever your problem is.”

“Well, okay.” Franklin’s posture moderated. He leaned back a trifle, shifting his weight to his back foot.

 “So please don’t start out by yelling and trying to browbeat me.” Dar said. “I don’t respond well to threats, so chances are you’ll have a lot faster results if you just tell me what you need,  and let me see what I can do to give it to you.”

Franklin motioned the rest of his group to sit down. He put his briefcase on the table across from where Kerry was standing and rested his hands on the handle of it. “All right, Ms. Roberts we can try that route.” 

“Great.” Dar pulled a chair out and sat down, patting the one next to her which Kerry promptly took. “This is our vice president of operations, Kerrison Stuart, and our senior corporate legal counsel, Hamilton Baird.”

Franklin nodded at them. “Mr. Baird. Ms. Stuart.” He opened his briefcase, as the rest of the men with him settled at tables nearby. One stayed by the door, as though guarding it.   “This is what we need.” He took out a folder and opened it. “We need you to turn over the operation of all your computer systems to us.”

Dar didn’t answer. She tipped her head back and looked at Hamilton, one of her eyebrows lifting. “I think this is your gig.”

“I think you’re right.” The lawyer agreed, with a smile.  “Mr. Franklin. “ He leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table, clasping his hands. “If that was in fact a serious request, we can end this discussion right now, and I’ll go call my office so they can start burping up little baby lawyers to handle all the paperwork for the lawsuits.”

Kerry folded her hands together and kept quiet. She watched Franklin’s face as he stared at Hamilton, and noted that neither the lawyer nor her partner appeared in any way tense.

Amazing. Mostly because Kerry knew Dar was strung up like a horse about to start the Kentucky Derby and she could feel the faint vibration of her muscles through the kneecap that was firmly in contact with her own.

“What on earth would make you even think we’d consider that?” Kerry asked, to break the silence. “Mr. Franklin, the government pays us a lot of money to do what we do.  What makes you think that a – we would betray that trust and those contracts, and b, that you have anyone who could take over them even if we would?”

“Look.” He said. “They’re just computers. You’re not rocket scientists.”

Dar rolled her head to one side, and chuckled. Kerry turned and regarded her. “You could be a rocket scientist.” She remarked.  “But in answer to your statement, Mr. Franklin, no. They’re not just computers.  You don’t really even understand what we do.”

“I understand very well what you do.” Franklin protested. “We need to have those computers.  We have to be able to see everything.”

Dar stood up, and rested her fingers on the desk. “Are you talking about the Virginia facility?”

“Yes.” Franklin said. “We went there. We were supposed to meet Ms. Stuart there, but she never showed up.”

 “I did.” Kerry said. “I was there for hours. You were the ones who never showed up.”

The tension was rising.   Hamilton lazily removed his hand from his pocket, displaying a tape recorder. “Just so we’re all on the same page.”

“We don’t have any government computers in the Virginia facility.” Dar said. “What we do there is move data traffic between a number of government offices, mostly for the purposes of accounting.  Can you explain to me what the national security need is to see that?”

“Okay.” Franklin remained calm. “We think there are people, maybe a lot of people, here in the United States who have been here for a while, and who are working behind the scenes to promote terrorist activities.”

Hamilton cleared his throat. “I do have to remind you there have always been people inside these United States who work behind the scenes to promote all kinds of agendas.”

“This is not a joke.” Franklin frowned at him.

“That’s a fine thing, because I am not joking  Those very same people, starting way back in the 1700’s, have included the Continental Congress and lots of crazy half frozen men up in Massachusetts who used to run around in wigs and short pants setting fire to Tory underwear and dumping tea in Boston Harbor.”

“Sir.”

“That is not a joke, mister.” Hamilton’s voice got louder.  “In case you grew up in Arkansas and didn’t get history books in school, this country was born in terrorism. It ain’t nothing new. “ He leaned forward on the table. “So please don’t start waving the flag at me saying my company’s got to do this illegal thing and that illegal thing because of this new fangled scary threat. “

“What we’re asking is certainly not illegal. I have the request right here, signed by the president’s Chief of Staff.” Franklin took out a paper and pushed it across the desk. “We are to be given access to everything.”

Dar let Hamilton take the paper and study it.     “Who is performing the access?” She asked.

Franklin turned, and indicated the men with him.  “This is my team.” He said, with a hint of a smile.

Dar studied the first of them. “What do you do?”

“Data analysis.” He responded promptly.  “Myself, David, and Carl here are senior data analysts.” 

“Robert and I are database specialists.” The man next to him promptly supplied.

Dar nodded slowly. “Any of you network engineers?” She asked. “Infrastructure specialists? Layer 3 people?”

The men looked at each other, then at Franklin.

“No.” Franklin said. “We don’t’ do that.”

“We do that.” Kerry picked up the ball from her partner. “That’s what we do in the Virginia facility. “

“Gentlemen and beautiful ladies.”  Hamilton pushed the paper back over. “That’s legally worth about as much as a one legged man in an ass kicking contest.”   He stated bluntly.  “Nothing in there applies to us. We’re not letting you put a pinky in the door.”

Kerry could sense an explosion waiting to happen.  She put her hand out, and touched Franklin’s arm. “What actually are you looking for?” She asked. “Accounting records? You know it’s probably going to be easier if you apply directly to the offices who generate them.”

“That takes too long.” Franklin said. “We don’t have time for all the red tape.”

Hamilton looked at him. “Are you saying it’s just easier to browbeat a contractor?”

“I can get the president to write an executive order to have the army take over your office.” Franklin said.  “I don’t really care what you say at this meeting, we’ll get in there, and we’ll get what we want. If you want to end up in jail today, that’s okay with me. I don’t like you. You people are just trash, and you’re in my way. “

Hamilton looked over at Dar. “Darlin, I think this is your gig.”

“I think you ‘re right.” Dar agreed. She turned back to Franklin. “Okay, jackass.”  She said. “I don’t give a shit whose weenie you’re swinging off of.  Jesus Christ couldn’t get into my systems unless I wanted him to so you go ahead, and go get whatever orders your heart desires because trust me buddy, they mean jack nothing to me.”

“You really don’t’ understand.” Franklin said. “I’m going to have you arrested.”

“For what?” Dar said.

“I don’t need anything in specific. Not anymore.” The NSA man said. “You don’t get it. The rules all changed.  We don’t care if what we’re doing is illegal, we’ll just change the laws.”  He stared at Dar. “We don’t care. I will wreck you, and wreck your family, and wreck your company if yo don’t do what I want, because I can. I can do anything.  So you better decide you’re going to take us back to that office,e and open up everything, and just get the hell out of my way or..”

“Or.” Dar said, a short explosion of sound.  “Arrest me. Comrade. Take me to the gulag.”

Both Kerry and Hamilton remained absolutely silent.

“That’s not funny.”

“Neither is what you just said.” Dar shot back. “That I have no rights? That as an American citizen I can be tossed in jail for no reason, with no charges, with no recourse because I won’t break the law for you?  That’s your new world?  Someone point me out the nearest foreign embassy.  I’ve got a passport to burn.”

Franklin was breathing hard. “We’re at war.”  He said. 

“My father is a retired Navy Seal.” Dar said. “What the hell do you know about war he didn’t teach me before I was out of grade school?”  She leaned on her hands on the table, looking him right in the eye. “You can arrest me, you can toss me in the gulag, you can scream and rant and rave and weenie waggle right across the White House lawn. You will not get into those systems.”

Franklin stood, and they stared at each other.

“Excuse me.” Kerry held up her hand. “Can I ask a question here?”  She didn’t wait for permission, suspecting correctly it wouldn’t be forthcoming.  “If you’re looking for terrorist financial activities, why are you looking for them in the records of the civil service health plan, or the department of state payroll instead of asking the credit card companies to help you?”

Everyone turned around and looked at Kerry.  

“Do you really think the general accounting office is full of Taliban?” Kerry persisted. “Or NASA’s website?”

“What did you say about the credit card companies?” Franklin asked, slowly.

“Lord, I swear.” Hamilton sighed, and put his head down on one fist.  “It’s enough to make a man want to move to Japan.”

“If you really want to find people who are trying to do bad things, then you should look at things they buy. I don’t think people can bring things like bombs into the country.” Kerry said. “But they can buy things to make bombs and those places they buy them have to have records of it.”

“We understand that.” Franklin said. “We know more about it than you apparently give us credit for.”

“Okay.” Kerry said. “Then I’m sure you’re already in touch with the major retailers and the credit card clearinghouses, right?  I’m sure you’ve asked them to crossreference charges for whatever it is that interests you? Like phosphorous or whatever.”

“Or flight lessons.” Dar chimed in. “I’m sure they’ve already thought of that Kerry, if they’re here asking us to review the traffic to the National Park service.”

“Stay here.” Franklin got up and motioned for a man to follow him, as he left the room, walking quickly. 

There was a small silence after he left.  Dar bumped Kerry on the shoulder, then turned to Hamilton. “Now what?”

 The lawyer was already on his cell phone. “I’m calling in some backup. This ain’t even slightly funny.”

**

Kerry clasped her hands, wishing she could continue working just to pass the time if nothing else. But Dar and Hamilton had told her to close her laptop down and get off the call, both of them keyed and nervous in front of the eyes of the watching men around them.

Dar was pacing around in back of her. Hamilton was across the room, his head bent over his cell phone, muttering in a low Louisiana accent that obscured all meaning from whatever it was he was saying.

Kerry sighed and looked around the room again, her irritation at the whole situation creeping slowly towards a breaking point.

She could feel Dar’s agitation, and her nape hairs prickled just as she sensed her partner turning and heading towards her seat, the rush of energy making her eyes blink a little.

“Okay.”  Dar’s voice lifted, catching everyone’s attention.  “That’s long enough. We’ve got work to do.”

Kerry gathered herself up, getting her hiking boots under her as she prepared to stand up, guessing rightly that Dar intended on leaving. 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” One of the men said.

“I don’t think you think.” Dar shot right back.  “So unless you’re going to pull a gun and keep us here, move the hell out of the way.” She tapped Kerry on the back and waited for her to rise, then started for the door

“And if you all are going to pull that gun, you betta make sure you shoot to kill and hide the bodies.” Hamilton joined Dar as she got to the aisle. “Because you ain’t never going to get loose of the legal trouble if you don’t, I guarantee it.”

“Listen Mister…”

“Listen Mister is a Lousiana lawyer, son.” Hamilton waved a hand in his direction.  “I ain’t fooling with you.  I have half the legal staff of ILS, which is bigger than most  of your government departments heading here with torts and complaints enough to half bury this building. We ain’t talking no more to you. Tell your lawyers to call me.”

Kerry decided she really didn’t have much to add to the conversation. She merely shouldered her briefcase and stuck close to her partner, resisting the urge to latch on to the back of Dar’s belt. The whole situation was scaring her, and she felt very glad to be tucked behind Dar’s tall form in relative safety.

“Agent Franklin said for you to stay here.” The man said. “I think it’s a good idea for you to do that. You don’t want to get him pissed off at you.” He was standing in their path, both hands raised, palms outward. “We’re not going to do anything ridiculous like take guns out, but this is a serious situation, and it’s in your best interests just to stay put until he gets back.”

“No.” Dar kept going .  “It’s in the best interests of our customers, which includes a lot of you, for us to get out of here and get on with doing our jobs. “  She squared her shoulders and looked the man right in the eye. “We’re not going to do what you asked us to, no matter how long we stay.”

“Well, now, just think about this a minute…” The man took a step backwards, to wards the door as the three of them bore down on him. “We’re not asking. “

The door opened behind him before Dar could come up with any more bullshit responses.  She looked past the man to see Franklin entering, but from the expression on his face, she wasn’t sure now what was going on.

“Sir, but.. let me explain.” Franklin was coming in sideways. “I have a mandate!” He tried to hold the door shut but someone was pushing it open from the other side. “Sir!”

“Get the hell out of my way you little weasel!”  A gruff, older voice answered. “Take your useless bunch of yuppies with you.”

Hamilton and Dar exchanged glances. “This is getting ticklier than an octopus with athaletes foot.” Hamilton said. “It’s never boring around you, is it? Now I know why Al went to New York and sent me here . The man was probably exhausted.”

Kerry edged up next to her partner for a better view. The NSA agents had stood and now they were milling a little, looking nervously at the door.

It was shoved open, and Franklin got out of the way as a tall, grizzled haired man entered, sweeping the room with his eyes.

“Ah.” He put his hands on his hips. “Which one of you is Roberts?”

Dar lifted her hand and let it fall. 

“You stupid bastard.” The older man turned on Franklin. “We’ve been waiting on this damned person since yesterday, and you’re dicking around with her in here? Get the hell out of my sight.”

“SIR!” Franklin bravely raised his voice. “I have a MANDATE.”

“I don’t give a damn!” The man shouted right back. “You had a mandate to keep the country safe too, and you didn’t do that either! Now get out!”

“Oo.” Kerry muttered under her breath.

“You’ve got no right to say that!” Franklin stood up to him. “You didn’t do anything either!”

Hamilton leaned closer. “Ya’ll think we should take this opportunity to skedaddle?”’

“I dunno.” Dar whispered back. “I think that’s the guy who told Gerry to find me.”

“That’s enough.” The older man said. “You folks, you IT people. Come with me.” He gestured to Dar and company.   “Franklin, I’d start packing.  Take your hairbrained schemes somewhere else.”

Selecting the better part of valor, Dar led the way to the door, passing behind the older man and escaping out into the hallway with a sense of relief.  Even if it was momentary, and she was about to dive from the pan into the fire.

“Absolute disaster.” The older man slammed the door and turned to them. “Michael Bridges. Advisor to the President.” He said. “Where the hell have you people been? We expected you last night.”

Dar studied him. “Long story.” She said. “You want to hear it, or just get down to business?”

Bridges studied her in return. Then he snorted a little. “Let’s go.” He pointed down the hallway.  They walked along, moving from side to side to avoid the throngs of busy people who seemed to be going in every direction possible.

“So you’re a friend of Eastons, eh?” Bridges asked.

“Family friend, yes.”  Dar agreed. “This is my vice president of operations, Kerrison Stuart, by the way, and our senior corporate legal council, Hamilton Baird.”

Bridges spared them a bare glance. “Had to bring a lawyer with you? I told Easton I only wanted you here. Bastard.”

“Mamma always called me a son of a bitch, matter of fact.” Hamilton smiled at him. “But thanks for the compliment.”

“Meant Easton.” The older man frowned at him. “Don’t get all smart ass with me.”

“Based on the conversation in that room, I don’t intend on going to the bathroom here without a lawyer.”  Dar interjected, suspecting their legal council was about to get downright Cajun on the man. “I’ve had people from the government asking me to break contracts and break laws for two days.”

“Hmph.” Bridges indicated a door, and shoved his way through it scattering secretaries on the other side like birds before a cat.  “Move it! Get that damn conference room cleared!”

Dar paused before she entered the room, letting her eyes flick over it and noting the smoked glass panels in the ceiling.  In the center of the room was a large, oval wooden conference table, with comfortable leather chairs surrounding it. 

In the back of the room was a mahogany credenza, looking completely out of place against the lighter wood of the conference table, and the cream leather of the chairs. It had doors in it that were flung back to reveal a large screen television, and playing on the screen, unsurprisingly, was CNN.

Dar wondered, briefly, if  most of the government didn’t get their information from the same place it’s citizens did. “All hail Ted Turner.”

“What was that?” Bridges got to the head of the table and dropped into the seat there, conspicuously larger and more comfortable looking than the rest.  He was dressed in a pair of pleated slacks and had a white button down shirt on, but the sleeves were rolled up and his tie was loose enough to reveal an open top neck button.  “Sit.  Margerie, close the damn door.”

One of the secretaries looked inside and nodded, then she shut the door behind her. It blocked out most of the noise in the office, but not all of it.

“All right.”  Bridges leaned on his forearms.  He was probably in his sixties, and had a long, lined face with thick gray eyebrows and light hazel eyes.  “I’m not sure if you people know how the government works.”

Kerry held her hand up.  “I have some idea.”  She remarked, in a quiet tone. “But you know, Mr. Bridges, I don’t’ think this situation has anything to do with how the government works.” She went on. “Mr. Franklin told us the rule book got thrown out the window. Is that true?”

Bridges looked at Dar, then at Hamilton, then he studied Kerry. “Where the hell do I know you from?” He asked, instead of answering the question.  “You look familiar.”

“Thanksgivings at my parent’s house.” Kerry replied. “We didn’t sit at the same table though.”

Bridges blinked, then his brows knit. “Oh, son of a bitch. You’re Roger’s kid, aren’t you?” He said sounding surprised. “What in the hell are you doing here?  Ah , never mind.” He turned back to Dar.  “We’re wasting time. Here’s the deal.”

Kerry settled back in her seat, lacing her fingers together.  She remembered Bridges, all right.  A mover and shaker that even her father had respected,  rude and brash and to her mother,  a most unwelcome guest.

Not someone she’d really wanted to get involved with.

“I imagine you know all about the damage to all that technical stuff in New York.” Bridges said.  “That’s all your company’s business.”

“Not exactly.” Hamilton broke in. “Just want to get that cleared up.  That ain’t all ours.” 

“That’s right.” Dar agreed. “We do have some customers affected there, but most of the business infrastructure there isn’t ours.”

“You finished talking?” Bridges said. “Yes? Good.”  He leaned on his forearms again. “I don’t give a damn if it was yours, or Martha Stewarts to begin with.  The problem is, it’s broke.”

Dar shrugged, and nodded. “It’s broken.” She agreed. “What does that have to do with us?”

“Well, I’ll tell you.” Bridges said. “I called all those bastard phone company people into this office, and they all told me the same thing.  Sure, they can fix it, but it’s going to take time.”  He studied Dar’s face intently.  “They gave me all kinds of bs excuses why. Now..” He held up a hand as Dar started to speak. “I’m not an idiot. I know two goddamn buildings at least fell on top of all that stuff. Don’t bother saying it.”

Dar subsided, then she lifted both her hands and let them drop.  “Okay.  So they told you it would take time to fix. It will. They’re not lying about that.”

“I know.” The president’s advisor said. “The issue is, it can’t.”

Kerry rubbed her temples. “Mr. Bridges, that’s like saying the sun can’t rise tomorrow because it would be inconvenient.  There’s a physical truth to this. It takes time to build rooms, and run wires, and make things work.”

“I know.” Bridges said. “But the fact is, it can’t take time. I have to open the markets on Monday.  That stuff has to work by Sunday so those idiot bankers can test everything.  We have to do it, Ms. Roberts. I’m not being an asshole for no purpose here. If we don’t restore confidence in the financial system, we stand to lose a hell of a lot more than a couple hundred stories of office space housed in ugly architecture.”

There was a small silence after that. Bridges voice faded off into faint echoes.  Dar tapped her thumbs together and pondered, reading through the lines and in between his gruff tones and seeing a truth there she understood.

Alastair had understood, immediately.  There was a lot at stake.

“Why me?” Dar asked, after a long moment. “You had all the telcos in here. It’s their gear. It’s their pipe. It’s their equipment. They have to do the work. What the hell do you want from me in all this? I don’t have a damn magic wand.”

“Ah.” Bridges pursed his lips. “Well, fair enough. You’re right. It’s not your stuff. Your company has nothing to do with the whole thing, other than being a customer of those guys who were in here.  But the fact of the matter is, when I squeezed their balls hard enough, what popped out of the guys from ATT was that if I wanted this done in that amount of time, come see you.”

“Me.” Dar started laughing. “Oh shit. Give me a break.”

Hamilton had his chin resting on one hand, and he was simply watching and listening, the faintest of twitches at the corners of his lips.

“Why is that, Ms. Roberts?” Bridges asked.  “I don’t really know who the hell you are, or what your company does, except that it keeps coming up in the oddest conversations around here about who knew what when and how people who work for you keep showing up in the right places with the right stuff.”

“Well now.” Hamilton spoke up for the first time. “What old Dar here’s going to say is, she’s damned if she knows why but fact is, I do.” He drawled.  “It’s in our portfolio, matter of fact. “

“Hamilton.” Dar eyed him. “Shut up.”

“Dar, you know I love you more than my luggage.”  The lawyer chuckled. “Mr. Bridges.” He turned to the advisor. “Those gentlemen from our old friends American Telegraph and Telephone told you that because they know from experience standing in front of hurricane Dar here is one way to get your shorts blown right off your body and get strangled by them.”  He ignored Dar’s murderous look. “She just doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Bridges got up and went to the credenza, removing a pitcher and pouring himself a glass from it. “I see.” He turned. “Is that true, Ms. Roberts?”

Dar drummed her fingers on the table. “When it suits my goals, yes.” She said, finally.  “I’ve been known to be somewhat persistent.”

Kerry covered her eyes with one hand, biting the inside of her lip hard to keep from laughing.  She could sense Dar peeking over at her and worked hard to regain her composure.

“All right.” Bridges sat back down. “So.  What’s it going to cost me then? I won’t waste my time appealing to your patriotism.”

Dar was silent for a long moment again. “You could.” She said, looking him right in the eye. “Appeal to my patriotism. What makes you think I don’t have any?”

“Just a hunch.” Bridges said.  “You don’t seem the type.”

Dar’s eyes narrowed a trifle. “Do the country a favor.” She said. “Flush your hunches down the toilet if they’re all that worthless.” She got up.  “Unfortunately for everyone, my patriotism doesn’t count in this case.  There is nothing I can do to fix what’s broken.  I don’t’ own any of the infrastructure,  none of those companies has any reason to do me any favors, and that union tangled century’s old mess down at the tip of Manhattan’s way beyond my skills to sort out in three days no matter who says yes or no. It can’t be done.”

Bridges leaned on his knuckles and stared at her. “Can’t be done?”

“Can’t be done.” Dar said.  “But for a price, I’ll give it my best try.”

The advisor sat down.

Kerry felt like she was watching a game of tennis, where the volley was getting faster and faster and the ball was a small thermonuclear device.  She had no idea where Dar was going with all this, and it had been a while since she’d seen her partner in this kind of a mood.

It was almost like watching a stranger.  Dar was focused, and her eyes were like chips of crystal, with no emotion at all in them. 

“What’s your price?” Bridges asked, in a sardonic tone. “Maybe I’ll try to pay it if you’re only going to try and do what I’m asking.”

“Get the NSA off my ass.” Dar said, ticking one finger off.  “Give my people clearance to get into the city.”  She ticked a second finger off. “Give me some kind of leverage to get through the politics. I”ll give it my best shot. You get whatever you get out of it. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t.”

The advisor rested his forearms on the table again and gazed at her, with a slightly puzzled look. “What’s in it for you, then?” He asked. “What do you get out of it?”

Dar managed the faintest of smiles. “Service to my country.”  She answered, in a quiet tone. “It’s the right thing to do, no matter how impossible it is.”

“You really don’t think it’s possible.” Bridges mused.  “Everyone agrees with that.   Even the president. He wanted me to find some way to fake it.” He looked up to find three sets of eyes staring at him in disbelief, and he shrugged in response.  “Ms, Stuart will tell you just how much of the government is smoke and mirrors, I’m sure.”

Kerry cleared her throat gently.  “That’s true.” She said.  “But we aren’t smoke and mirrors. If Dar commits us to this, we’ll go a hundred percent at it.”

Bridges nodded.  “Cheap enough price.” He said. “All right, Ms. Roberts, do we have a deal? “

“I guess we do.” Dar looked at Hamilton, who burst into laughter. 

That seemed to strike Bridges funny too, and he chuckled.  “Now I understand what Easton told me.”  He stood up. “Get out of here, people.  I have an unending pile of crap to put on  a potters wheel and make into china.”

They were glad enough to escape, slipping out the door and evading the flock of secretaries, emerging into the hallway where the pace hadn’t slowed a bit.   Hamilton steered them over to a corner out of the flow and they all took a minute to catch their breaths.

“That.” Kerry finally said. “Was seriously freaky.”

“Got us out of the way of the spooks.” Hamilton commented. “And Dar, no jokes here, darling. That was some good shuck and jive in that room.  I couldn’t have negotiated a better deal.”

Dar exhaled, and shook her head. “Let’s get out of here.” She said. “I don’t know what the hell I just got us into, but I sure don’t want to spend any more time in this place. Let’s go somewhere and scratch together a plan.”

Kerry spotted Franklin heading down the hall in their direction. She grabbed Dar’s arm. “Great idea. C’mon He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Bridges yet.”

They did, heading around a corner, and down a hall, hoping they ended up somehow at an outside door without getting into any more trouble.

**

Continued in Part 14