Storm Surge

Part 19

Kerry leaned both hands against the tile wall and let the shower beat down over her shoulders.   The water felt so wonderful, she was contemplating just falling asleep where she was, but after a minute, she straightened up and reached for the scrubbie sitting in the stainless steel basket.

She squeezed a blob of apricot scrub on it, and started soaping herself.  It felt good to feel the clean tingle, though she’d worn her jumpsuit she’d felt like the dust had formed a film on her skin and she was literally itching to get it off.

It was good to be back by the office, away from all the destruction. Kerry rinsed herself off, then applied a good handful of shampoo to her hair and scrubbed her scalp.  Up by the hotel, there were people and cars, and a lot of activity, a far cry from the ghostly wasteland they’d so recently left.

With the last of the soap circling down the drain, she shut the shower off and stepped out, wrapping herself in the thick towel that was hanging nearby.   Even that felt good and she dried herself off, glancing briefly in the half fogged mirror at her reflection.

Grim. She stuck her tongue out at the disheveled image.   Then she got her underwear on  and ran a brush through her hair, before she wrapped the towel around her neck and emerged from the bathroom.

It was quiet. The windows were surprisingly sound proofed, and the room itself had a thick carpet, and a comfortable king size bed – not a specially grand space, but right now it seemed like heaven to Kerry’s tired eyes.

She pulled on a pair of carpenter pants and a polo, but left her feet bare as she went over to the desk and sat down next to it, picking up her water bottle and taking a swig.

Laying down was an option, but she knew if she did, she’d fall asleep and she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that.  Dar was down in the basement of their office looking for pipes, and she wanted to wait for her to come back up to the room to see what she’d found down there.

The team – she’d started to think of all of them as just one big team – would probably want to gather for dinner.  She’d heard them talking on the ride back up from Battery Park, and there was something of a group mind going on she could appreciate in the situation.

She did appreciate it.  However, on a personal level, she would have rather spent the time alone with Dar simply decompressing.   Her body wasn’t that tired, but her mind was, having spent hours and hours chasing problems around in circles.

“I don’t think I’m up to a communicative evening.” Kerry remarked to the empty room. “But let’s see what happens.”   She glanced at her laptop, then she extended her legs and crossed them at the ankles, leaving the machine sitting closed on the desktop.

Her cell phone and PDA rested next to it, both blessedly quiet for the moment. 

That was good. She was tired of telling people what to do, and getting mostly bad news  from all quarters.  She wanted to be able to just chill out, and not feel guilty that she was letting issues lie without her attention.

There was a point, she had discovered, when you just lost the ability to quantify everything you had to do when there was just too much of it.  It was like trying to dig a hole in the sand by the ocean – fast as you kept digging, it kept filling.

She’d found that point today, just before she’d shut her laptop and turned off her mic.  No matter how many customers she’d talked to, there was more waiting, no matter how many times she explained the situation, there were people that begged the exception and to their credit, most of them were not frivolous requests.

Never enough.

Kerry took a swallow of her water, then decided she really wanted something stronger. She got up and put the cap on the bottle, then she started looking around for some shoes, figuring even a seat in the corner of the bar would probably keep her from falling asleep until Dar finished fiddling.

Maybe they’d even have some decent jalapeno poppers or something.  Kerry found her boots and put them on, then she tucked her room key into one of her side pockets and slipped out the door and into the hallway.

It, too, was quiet.  She passed one other person on the way to the elevator, and rode all the way down in solitary splendor to the floor which housed the bar.   This area was more crowded, and she spotted a few familiar faces as she made her way into the dark, wood lined space. “Hey guys.”

“Hey boss!” Mark waved her over. “The big Kahuna was just checking one more thing, then she said she’d meet us up here.”

“Good.” Kerry claimed one of the leather chairs in the midst of her techs.  “Someone get me a beer, please. The bigger the better.”

“Right you are, ma’am.” Shaun got up and trotted over to the bar.

“Long ass day, huh?” Mark asked. “Man, I don’t envy those phone guys though. I wouldn’t want to be creeping around in that subway at night.”

“No way.” Another of the techs agreed.  “They’ve got balls. “ He paused, and blushed. “Sorry ma’am.”

“No problem.”  Kerry sighed. “They’ve sure got more balls than I do, anyway.” She glanced at Mark. “So what’s Dar doing now?  Did you find a route through the basement?”

Mark shook his head.  “No such luck.” He replied, mournfully.  “I can’t even get them to tell me where our damn demarc is. They have to call some guy who was on vacation or something to find out.  We couldn’t find any easy way to get from the building out.”

“Ugh.” Kerry accepted the large, frosty mug of beer Shaun was handing her. “Thanks. Where’s Kannan?”

“In our room.” Shaun said. “He’s still pretty freaked out.  I told him to just order some room service and relax.”

Kerry took a sip of the cold beer and swallowed it “Good choice.” She complimented Shaun. “And good idea to have Kannan just rest tonight.  I have my admin trying to get him a flight out of here tomorrow to go home.  I don’t think he’s really in danger here – after all, so many people here in New York are from India it’s not really unusual – but I understand how he feels.”

“Yeah, I know.” Shaun picked up his own glass, which seemed to be some kind of highball. “He’s just freaked out by all of it.  Sucks too, because he’s our best WAN guy.”

It did suck. Kerry sat back in her chair and looked around the bar. Aside from her group, there were several others, clustered around the  scattered tables or watching the three television sets mounted on the walls.

Ordinarily, the screens would have sports on them, she figured.  Basketball, or football, or whatever ESPN was serving up.  Now, all three were tuned to CNN, and those sitting around seemed fixed on the pictures, which showed again and again, the horrific sights she’d gotten to know up close and personal earlier that day.

Shots of the wreckage. Shots of the Pentagon. Shots of a burned field in Pennsylvania.  Talking heads. Shots of the president, with his bullhorn standing on a mound of debris. More talking heads.  Shots of smoke, of the mayor at a funeral, of the barges removing remains to Fresh Kills landfill along with mounds and mounds and mounds of debris.

Fresh Kills.  What a cosmically ironic name. Kerry was truly surprised someone hadn’t changed it just to spare everyone the wince.   It was Dutch, she’d learned, the old word kille meaning water channel and the place itself was an estuary that drained wetlands into the sea, but in the current context it was ghoulish and she was tired of hearing it. 

Certainly, she’d winced. That reminded her of something, and she set her beer down, removing her cell phone from her belt and opening it. She looked up a number, then pressed the dial, listening to the ring until it was answered. “Hello, mother.”

“Wh.. oh, hello Kerry!” Cynthia Stuart answered, sounding surprised. “What a surprise.” She confirmed the sound promptly.  “I hadn’t expected to hear from you this evening… where are you? Still in New York?”

“Yes. Across from our office at Rockefeller Center.” Kerry replied. “How are things there?”

“Frustrating.” Her mother answered honestly. “I have to say it’s very difficult talking to people, who cannot see past someone with perhaps a different religion, or so on, and who must assume everyone who is from somewhere else is suspect.”

“I heard about the attacks.” Kerry said. “I’m sorry.  We encountered that here, one of our techs is from India and he’s had a tough time.”

“Terrible.” Her mother agreed.  “I have to say your being there also makes me quite anxious, however, Kerry.  Angela is also concerned. “

“Thanks.” Kerry said. “It’s been a rough day. We were down at the disaster site earlier. We just got back uptown a little while ago.”

“Oh my.” Cynthia gasped a little. “I had no idea! I saw the pictures on television just before – it seems absolutely horrific.” She added. “Hold on, Angela, I have your sister on the phone.  She seems right in the middle of everything again… what.. oh, all right. Yes hold on..”

“Ker?” Angie’s voice came over the line. “Are you nuts? Get the hell out of there!”

“Hi, Ang.”  Kerry gave her tablemates a wry look, and a shrug.  “Family.” She mouthed.  “Get out of here? We’re in the lobby bar at our hotel. What’s wrong with it?”

“Kerry, cut it out!  Why are you guys there?” Angela actually sounded upset.  “It was bad enough when you were at the Pentagon, but Jesus!”

Perversely, after being horrified the whole day, now Kerry felt the need to downplay the whole thing.  “C’mon, Ang.  There’s a whole city full of people here in this city.  Chill.”   She told her sister. “We had to come here. There’s a lot of stuff that needed taking care of. “

“How long are you staying there?” Angie asked.  “Have you heard what’s going on here?”

“I heard.  People are just going a little crazy, I think.” Kerry said.  “We have a lot of customers down here, and some things we’re doing for the government.  It’s not just me and Dar, either, our CEO is here, and a bunch of our corporate people. “

“So you and Dar aren’t running the planet as usual?”

Kerry spotted her beloved partner entering the hotel, surrounded by men, all of whom were glued on whatever it was she was telling them.  “Who us?” She said. “Nah, we’re just little fish here.” She watched Dar, hands moving in a decisive motion, dismiss her accolytes who scattered in all directions.  “We’re just a couple of nerds to these guys.”

“Uh huh.” Angie said. “Sis, be careful, please? It’s easy to get hurt in all the stuff going on.

“I will.”

Dar stopped at the front desk and leaned over the top of it, talking to the short, well dressed woman behind it.

“Ker?”

“Huh?” Kerry wrested her attention back to her phone. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I said, here’s mom back.  Be careful!”

“Here comes Big D.” Mark spoke up.  “Looks like she could use a beer too, Shaun.”

“Hey, you’d think my family were Irish bartenders or something.. oh wait. They are. “ Shaun good naturedly got up and headed back for the bar, where the crowd had somewhat thickened.

“Kerry?”

“Yes, I’m here.” Kerry could see the irritation in her partner’s body language, but she smiled anyway, as the stormy blue eyes lifted and found hers.   “Listen, I hope everything settles down and people start to think again.  I know this has to just be a knee jerk reaction.”

“I certainly hope so. Will you be there long? “

Kerry considered the question as Dar arrived and took a seat on the arm of her chair. “I think we’ll know more on Monday, to be honest. I’ll let you know.” She said. “I’m sure Dar will want to get out of here as soon as we can.”

“Bet your ass.” Dar commented.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Cynthia said. “Was that Dar? I thought I heard her voice.”

“It was.” Kerry said. “She was just agreeing with me.”

Shaun came back over and offered Dar a glass. “They told me to get this.”

Dar eyed him. “They did, did they?” She let her eyes narrow.  “Now why would they say something like that?”

“Um.” Shaun took a half step back.

“C’mon boss.” Mark called over.  “Be nice.”

A grudging smile appeared on Dar’s face and she extended one hand to take the glass. “Thank you.” She told Shaun.  She lifted the glass and glanced around the table. “Let’s hope this is one day in a million.”

“Hear hear.” Kerry lifted her own glass.  “Mother, we’re going to rustle up dinner now, so let me let you go.  I’m glad the family’s safe there, and I hope things cool down.” She listened, then closed the phone and put it down on her knee.  “People, you all did an amazing job today.”

“Ma’am, we just hung out and watched.” Shaun said.

“That’s okay, I did too.” Kerry bumped Dar’s leg with her shoulder. “Dar did the heavy lifting. But everyone hung in there, and now at least we have a plan, and we’re moving forward.” She glanced up. “Right?”

Dar waggled her free hand, and took a sip of her beer.

“Uh oh.” Kerry retreated to her own mug.

“We have some challenges.” Dar said, after a pause, waiting for everyone to lean forward to listen.  “I found out we need to go and take a closer look at the subway tunnels coming under the office tomorrow.  Apparently there’s more than one set.”

“Oh sure.” Scuzzy spoke up. “You ain’t gonna believe how many tunnels are under this city here. I think there’s like ten that come into Grand Central.. you remember Grand Central? That’s where we met up that time.”

“I remember.” Dar nodded. “Looked like a maze made by whacked moles fighting blind badgers.” She said. “So tomorrow we need to try and scope a path for them to take that cable up into the building  so we can crossconnect it to our gear.”

“We can’t use the copper riser.” Mark said. “I didn’t find any ground level demarc.”

“I’ll go with ya tomorrow.” Scuzzy said, confidently. “My old man worked here. I used to sleep in some of them little rooms, me and the rats and the bums.”

Kerry felt the air in the bar hit the outsides of her eyeballs as they widened. 

“Y’know, you never know.  They might have coal bins and who knows what down there. We’ll find something. But I thought you were telling them to take it out to Roosevelt?” Scuzzy went on. “What’s up with that?”

“Kerry reminded me it’d be a lot closer to just bring it here.” Dar said. “We’ve got enough pipe here to take at least part of the traffic.”

“That sure helps.” Scuzzy said, sucking on the straw poked in her luridly fruity drink.  “Cause you don’t want to be in those tunnels under the East River, you know?”

“I know.” Dar agreed solemnly. “Me either.”

“Specially since the Roosevelt is like, halfway to China. “  The native New Yorker continued. “It’s like, ten, maybe fifteen stories underground and I got my ears all screwy going up and down from there.”

Dar regarded her for a moment, then she looked down at Kerry.  “This project lucked out having you in it. I sure as hell am not going  ten stories underground to fish fiber cable up.”

“Anytime, honey.” Kerry leaned her head against Dar’s hip.  “Though I have to admit I’m not crazy about going ten stories underground right now either.”

“That was rough, today.” Scuzzy commented. “I thought I seen some bad stuff before but that was bad. Real bad.”

“I’ve asked our real estate branch to find a different location for the technical office there.” Dar said, after a brief silence.  “I don’t know how long it’s going to take them to get things going again.”

“I feel bad for the people who all live down there.”  Shaun said. “Like the office folks. They can’t go home.  That must be terrible on top of everything else.”

“Living down there right now would be a lot worse.” Scuzzy said. “They better off stay uptown.  I got a cousin who’s right on the edge of where they don’t let you go no more and she’s thinking of staying with my uncle in Jersey for a while.”

“I’m sure most of the people here would rather go somewhere else for a while.” Nan said, in a quiet voice.  “I know I would. It was horrible in DC, but nothing like this.”

Kerry listened to the voices around her, and found a kinship in the mental exhaustion she heard in them.  She felt Dar’s fingers close on her shoulder, and figured they needed a change of scene.  “How about we all go find some dinner now. You guys up for that?” 

“Hell yes.” Mark put his glass down hastily.  “I’m starving.”

“That sounds damn good to me too.” Andrew had been sprawled in a nearby chair. Now he straightened up and studied his neatly laced military boots.  “Find us some place we can get some steak and taters.”

“Let’s go.” Dar  slipped off the chair arm and offered Kerry a hand up.  “Alastair and Hamilton are meeting with some board members, so they’ll just have to miss out.”  She waited for the group to rise and start to file out the door.  “With any luck, wherever we find’ll have ice cream Sundays.”

“There’s a Ben and Jerry’s around the corner.” Kerry answered instantly. “Caught my eye on the way in.”

Dar chuckled.

“Hey, gotta find the essentials.”

**

“We’re going to regret staying out this late.” Kerry trailed after Dar down the hallway to their hotel room. “Tomorrow is going to really suck.”

“It is.” Her partner agreed, keying the door open and shoving it inward. “But I don’t care. I needed a mindless night out.”  She trudged inside, passing the bathroom and moving further into the space. “We’ll survive.  Mark has two cases of Bawls in the truck.”

“Good point.” Kerry closed the door behind them, then sat down in the nearest chair and unlaced her boots. “A lot of people were out tonight. I was sort of surprised.”

“Hysterical relief.” Dar dropped down onto the bed and laid down flat on her back. “Felt a little desperate.”

Kerry finished with her other boot, then she got up and went over to the bed, sitting down and picking up one of Dar’s legs to get at her laces.  “I feel a little desperate.” She said. “Christ, I want to go home.” She pulled a lace loose.

Dar rolled her head to one side and gazed at her.  “We will soon.”

“Not soon enough.” Kerry replied. “I just feel so damned overwhelmed here, Dar. I’m not sure why.” She pulled off one shoe, then the sock beneath it, pausing to tweak her partner’s toe before she got up and went around to the other side of the long legs, and sat down to pick up the other foot.

Dar’s eyes followed her. “You don’t know why you feel overwhelmed? Ker, you’re in the middle of a disaster zone in an unprecedented act of terrorism against our country. How are you supposed to not feel overwhelmed?  I was watching those guys out there today – they’re just digging, digging, they had no real idea of what they were digging for. You don’t think they’re overwhelmed?”

Kerry removed Dar’s other boot, and then set her foot down, leaning back along her side on the bed. “I know they are. That’s what makes me feel so crazy.  I should be able to just do my job here because I wasn’t a part of all that but it’s just making my brain go in circles.” She propped her head up on one hand. “Why can’t I be more like you?”

“A single minded idiot?”

Kerry smiled wryly. “Focused.” She corrected her partner.  “With an infinite capacity for innovation.”

Dar turned on her side so they were facing each other.  She lifted a hand and stroked Kerry’s face with the backs of her knuckles. “You can only focus so long.” She said. “That’s why I stopped looking for holes in the wall today and took tonight off.  Yes, I’ll pay for it tomorrow, but I’ve finally learned the value of chilling out.”

“You didn’t chill with those darts.” Kerry enjoyed the touch, savoring the look of gentle affection gazing back at her.  “I can’t believe you beat your dad.”

Dar grinned “Neither could he.” She gently traced one of Kerry’s pale eyebrows.  “You weren’t so bad yourself.”

“It was fun.” Kerry admitted. “But I’m glad we skipped the karaoke bar.”  She clasped Dar’s hand with her own, and studied her face, half hidden in the shadows of the dimly lit room.  There was a furrow over her brow, and she looked tired.

“Heheh. Me too.”  Dar said.  “I guess we should get undressed and get some sleep, huh?”

“We should.” Kerry agreed. “Especially if we’re going to spend tomorrow digging around in office basements.”  She levered herself up and stood, unbuckling her belt and getting out of her cargo pants, hopping over to one side as Dar did the same.

“Careful.” Dar reached over to steady her, as she draped her pants over her suitcase and stripped off her shirt one handed over her head.  “Last thing you need is rug burns.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”  Kerry said. “I know I can always depend on you to keep me from falling on my butt.”

Dar chuckled, then she moved over a few steps to put her shirt away.

Kerry  folded her clothing up and put it to one side of her suitcase, rummaging inside it to remove her sleep shirt.  She had it in one fist, when a long arm snaked a round her and removed it from her grasp. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Dar dropped the shirt back on the bag and took her hand instead, drawing her towards the bed. “C’mon. There are plenty of sheets on the bed. You won’t be cold.”

Kerry felt the faint thrill of unexpected raciness. “I’m not cold already.”

Dar glanced over her bare shoulder at her, a faint grin twitching at her lips, as she waggled an eyebrow.  “Oh really?”

“Really.” Kerry planted a kiss between Dar’s shoulderblades, then bumped her gently forward.  “Lead on, hot stuff.”

“Remind me of that again tomorrow after we’re both conscious again.” Dar responded, in a wry tone. She continued moving forward, towing Kerry along behind her.

Kerry smiled and followed willingly.  “Bet your booty I will.” In a moment the room was in darkness and she was under a set of cool sheets rapidly warming to her and Dar’s bare bodies and the comfort of the skin on skin touch pushed the day’s anxieties aside.

Animal comfort. She wrapped her arm around Dar’s waist, and felt her exhale. “Dar?”

“Yees?”

“Why do you really think they made that announcement today? About the systems working? Do you think they were playing with us?”

“No.” Dar said, after a pause.  “I’m not sure why they did it. “  She added. “Maybe so people.. so investors wouldn’t panic.”

“Hm.”  Kerry nibbled a bit of the skin on Dar’s shoulder.  “I think they’re going to anyway.  I bet when that market does open it drops like a rock.”

“Nah.” Dar shook her head. “People had time to stop and think. Having it closed wasn’t a bad idea regardless of what the technical situation was. No knee jerking , if you’ve had almost a week to react.”

“But what if we can’t actually bring everything back up by Monday? Won’t that…” Kerry paused. “Maybe that’s why they made that announcement.  To put pressure on us.”

Dar snorted softly. 

“It just bothers me. I don’t like people playing games when we’re going crazy trying to get things done here.”  Kerry grumbled. 

“Yeah, I know.” Dar rubbed Kerry’s back with her fingertips.

“Sorry I’m whining.”

“You’re allowed.”  Dar looked up at the dimly seen ceiling. “Seems like this has been going on forever, huh? It’s hard to remember I was in London just a few days ago.” She said.  “Working with those guys… I feel like it’s been a year since then.”

“I was giving a speech just a few days ago.” Kerry replied. “You know, I can’t even remember what the hell I said.” She admitted. “But  I wish that reunion was the worst of my worries right now.”

“Yeah.” Dar let her eyes drift shut, glad of the thick glass windows that blocked most of the city noise.  “I wish the worst thing I had to worry about was playing in that damned softball league and hitting myself in the head.”

“Y’know though.” Kerry mused. “Before this all happened, that visit was turning out better than I expected.  I think my mother caught a clue.”

Dar gave her a squeeze. “I think your mother values family.” She said. “And she wants you to be a part of that.”  She kissed Kerry on the top of her head. “I don’t blame her a bit.”

Kerry smiled.”I love you.”

Dar’s eyes opened again.  “Back atcha, but what brought that on?”

Kerry snuggled a little closer. “Because I’m sitting here at three in the morning bitching and you’re not telling me to shut up and go to sleep.” She could feel Dar’s body shudder with silent laughter. “You’re so sweet to me.”

Dar hugged her a little tighter, still chuckling.

“When we were down at the park today, I was looking out the front window at all those rescue workers, just sitting there, and it kind of brought home to me just how many blessings I have in my life.”  Kerry said, after a pause.  “The primary one being you, of course.”

“Likewise.” Dar exhaled.  “I’m one of the luckiest people on earth.”

“We’re both soppy mushballs.”

“Guilty.”

Finally, Kerry found herself smiling, and just letting it go, unable to resist the love she could feel wrapped all around her.  She closed her eyes and listened to Dar’s breathing for a few minutes, until the dim shadows faded out and she drifted off into sleep.

Dar stayed awake a few minutes more, enjoying the sensation of Kerry’s breath warming her shoulder.   They would try and accomplish the task they’d started on, she decided, and then, once that was either finished or failed at, they would go home.

They were too close to the center of this.  Dar could envision an unraveling ball of requests if they kept going, the pressure to succeed growing greater and greater, as the shadow threat of what might happen if they didn’t hung over them.

Too much risk, for too little return.  Tomorrow she’d corner Alastair, call Maria, make arrangements for them to get transport out and by the end of the day Monday, she decided, she’d be sitting on her patio playing ball with Chino and listening to Kerry rustling up coffee in the kitchen.

She closed her eyes, and exhaled, nodding her head in confirmation.

**

Kerry breathed in the scent of fresh coffee as she entered the hotel café, pausing in the doorway then lifting a hand to wave hello to Hamilton who was already seated inside.

“Good morning, Ms. Stuart.” Hamilton waved back, then waved her over. “Come on over and sit your self down here so I don’t have to be talking to the maple syrup will you please?”

Having very little choice unless she wanted to start the day off profoundly rude, Kerry crossed the parquet floor and joined their corporate lawyer at his table. “Careful what you ask for.” She sat down and accepted the menu from young male server as she opened her napkin and put it on her lap at the same time. “Dar’s on her way down.”

“Honey, even that thought can’t stir my grits this morning.”  Hamilton told her.  “You all do know what grits are, right?”

“I know what grits are.” Kerry assured him. “I can even cook them.”

“Shocked. I’m shocked.” Hamilton said. “A Midwesterner cooking grits. What is the world coming to?” He picked up a piece of rye toast and methodically buttered it.   “I had the honor of attending a shindig at the governor’s place with Al last night.”

“He had a party?” Kerry’s voice dropped.

“He called it a strategy and planning meeting.” The lawyer told her. “But I will say that was the first planning and strategy meeting I ever have been to that had salmon canapés and whisky highballs.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Ah am guessing all those federal people in town needed some catering to.”

“Well, we went out ourselves last night.” Kerry half shrugged. “I guess salmon and whiskey are about equal to beer and cheeseburgers and a good game of darts.”

Hamilton looked up at her over cup. “Now doesn’t that sound down home.”

“Home would have included my motorcycle and my dog.” Kerry glanced up as the server reappeared, hovering politely at her elbow. “Can I have two orders of eggs over easy, with crisp bacon, white toast, and one side of blueberry pancakes, please?”

The waiter blinked, then he scribbled it down.

“And coffee.” Kerry handed him the menu.  “My father used to have meetings like those.  The only bright part of them for me were the chocolate mousse cups they always left close enough to the door for me to steal.”

Hamilton sipped his coffee again.  “Somehow I can easily picture that.” He remarked dryly. “We apparently got our selves onto the good boy list in all that hullaballo yesterday.  Given my preference, I’d have rather stayed bad.”

“Did you get an idea last night of what their motives were? What they really want?” Kerry asked. “Some of the things they were saying and doing were really very intimidating.”

“What do they want.” The lawyer sighed, and leaned back in his chair.  “That’s a damn fine question. I do think first of all those men are scared half to death.”

“I thought they were acting as though they were embarrassed.” Kerry responded.  “That this happened. That it was allowed to happen.”

Hamilton regarded her. “There is that there piece too.” He acknowledged.  “I heard a lot about getting back to normal, putting on a tough face, that sorta thing, but you know, honey, there ain’t no getting back to normal in a thing like this. It changes people.”

“It changes everything.” Kerry said.

‘Yes, it does.” The lawyer nodded.  “It will change a lot of things, for us.  No matter what the outcome is, in this thing we’re doing, people now understand what we do in a very different aspect.  That could end up good, and it can end up bad.”

Kerry took a swallow of water from the glass in front of her. “You know, my father was very unhappy about our government contracts. He felt we had too much control.”

“I do remember that.”  Hamilton nodded.  “No offense to those passed, but your father was a right pain in my ass.”

“Mine too.”  She answered steadily. “But was he right?”

Her table companion thought about that in silence for a few minutes, then he shrugged.  “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question right now.” He said. “Not through any fault of ours, understand. We just did what we do.  But you know, I just don’t know.”

“Hm.”  Kerry picked up her fork and studied it.  “I’m not sure I do either.”

“Good morning, Hamilton.” Dar appeared from thin air, even making Kerry start a little as she took the chair to her partner’s left.  “I hear you and Alastair had a good time last night.”

“Well, good morning to you too, Maestro.”  The lawyer said. “I was just telling your charming colleague here about it.  You seem to have won the approval of the powers that be, unlikely as that may seem to all an sundry.”

“Peh.” Dar fastened her gaze on the water, and reeled him over. “Coffee, please.” She glanced back at Hamilton.  “I didn’t do a god damned thing.  That bastard threatened his way into a solution.”

“Only too true.” Hamilton agreed. He paused as the waiter returned, carrying a tray full of plates.  “So what did you ladies do last night?”  He changed the subject, as the waiter put down his breakfast, then tried to figure out what to do with all of Kerry’s.

“I took the team out to dinner.” Dar reached over and took one of the plates from the waiter, putting it down in front of her.  “That goes there, the other plate put between us. Thanks.”   She took a gulp of her coffee.  “Then we found a sports bar that had something other than CNN on and just chilled out for a few hours.”

“Ah would have traded my salmon canapé for a beer and a pretzel in a heartbeat.”  Hamilton said.

“Ah, there you all are.” Alastair arrived, taking the fourth chair at the table. “Ham, I’ve had two calls from the FBI this morning already.  I don’t think I can stall them on the employee lists much further.”

“Well, Al, then I’m going to have to file a damn injunction against them in Federal court and that ain’t happening till Monday. “

“I don’t know…” Alastair shook his head. “This guys’ not giving up.”

“Tell them we locked the database and no one can get access to it until we’ve had a chance to file in Federal Court.” Dar bit into a strip of bacon.

“Can we do that?”

“Yes.” Dar and Kerry answered at the same time.

“And even if we couldn’t.” Kerry wiped her lips with her napkin. “They have no way of knowing that.  It’s in a data center in the middle of the Houston campus in a building among hundreds that only four people have access to. What are they doing to do, go room by room tapping on the outside of the servers?”

“Well.” Their CEO gave her a wry look. “They could arrest me.”

“We’ll never let them take you alive, Alastair.” Dar said.

Alastair sighed. “You all seem to think this is funny.” 

“I don’t think it’s funny, I think it’s idiotic. What the hell do they want our employment records for?” Dar asked. “Is this all about the damn taps or something again?”

“Just coffee for me, thanks.” Alastair told the waiter, who had returned to find his table had spawned again.  “And a glass of grapefruit juice, if you’ve got it.”

“Of course sir.”

“Dar, it ain’t nothing about taps.” Hamilton lowered his voice. “They need a list of all our people who are in government facilities.  That part makes horse sense. It’s the rest of the records they want with it that’s giving my Louisiana ass a hive.”

Dar chewed a mouthful of her breakfast as she studied her table companions.  “A list of our people.” She said, after swallowing. “In their facilities?”

“Yes.” Alastair nodded. “It’s a security issue.”

Dar folded her hands on the table and leaned forward a little. “Why don’t they just run a report in their own damned database?” She asked. “Why the hell do they need our records for??”

“Their database?” Hamilton removed a pad from his pocket and pushed his plate aside. “Dar, have I ever told you just how much I do truly love you more than my luggage?”

Kerry eyed him.  “Hey.”

“Yes, their database.” Dar went back to stabbing her eggs, making them yolk all over the plate. “How in the hell did they think all those people got credentials to work in those facilities? Pulled them out of their asses? They all have security clearances. Issued by the damned GOVERNMENT.”

Alastair and Hamilton exchanged glances. “Did you write that database too?” Alastair inquired. “Maybe you could just go run the report for them, if you can spare a minute.”

Hamilton waved his pen at him. “Al, hush.  This’ll help I think. Just tell those folks to call me if they call you again.”  He smiled at Dar. “Always lovely to spend time with you ladies. I’ll be off to fence with the Federals now. Wish me luck.” He got up and lifted his jacket off the back of his chair.  “Al, I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Sure.” Alastair waved at him as he left.  “Well.”

“Want a pancake?” Kerry nudged the plate towards him. “It’s probably going to be a really long day.”

Their CEO gazed at her for a moment, then he reached over and took the top pancake on the stack, rolling it up and dunking the end in the cup of maple syrup.  He took a bite.  “Can someone tell me why we’re doing all the right things, but everything is going to hell anyway?”

“Welcome to our world.” Dar crunched noisily on her bacon.  “Just wait. It’ll start raining any minute.”

**

Kerry pulled up the zipper on her jumpsuit, then she went over to the plastic shopping bag on the desk and removed some power bars from it, stuffing them in a couple of the pockets.   She then clipped her cell phone, and a new accoutrement, a radio, to her belt. 

The masks she gratefully left behind, settling a company logo baseball cap on her head instead.  “Okay.” She addressed her reflection.  “Let’s see what we can go find in the bowels of the city.”

The subway. Kerry shook her head. Dar was already on the lower floor of the hotel, talking to the maintenance people.  Kerry figured by the time she got down there either they would be ready to move ahead or Dar would be veering off on another path altogether.

She hoped it was a different path. She knew they were far from the disaster site,  but she had no desire to be anywhere underground.  With a last patting of her pockets she tucked her room key away and headed out the door.

The elevator opened, and she entered, to find Alastair already inside. “Hello, again.” She greeted the CEO.  “Going to join us in the tunnels?”

Alastair had his hands in his pockets. He had a pair of khakis on, and, surprisingly, a rugby shirt.   “I think I’d rather do that than meet with the press. That’s where I’m off to.”

“Ah. Ugh.” Kerry sympathized. “Are we in trouble again?”

“Not this time, apparently. “ Her ultimate boss said. “Seems like word got around about our hospitality buses, and our folks taking care of some of the workers down there.  One of the local stations wanted me to chat about it.”

“Oh. Well, that’s great.” Kerry said, as the elevator arrived at the lobby and opened. “Isn’t it?”

“Any press is generally good press.” Alastair followed her out into the lobby.  “But, we’ve just been high profile here, and I’ve got a gut feeling that might not be the best thing in the long run.”

“Not after what happened to that guy yesterday.”  Kerry shook her head. “I’d rather be under the radar myself.”

“Exactly.” Alastair agreed.  “But I suppose giving out cookies and pop can’t be too controversial.” 

They walked across the lobby, and Kerry wasn’t surprised to find Dar standing by the coffee stand. She reached for her radio then paused as the dark head turned Dar looked around the lobby, spotting her in a few seconds. 

A faint grin appeared. Dar indicated the stand with her thumb, then turned as Kerry nodded emphatically.   “Well, good luck.” She told Alastair. “We’ll try to hold up our end of this.”

Alastair chuckled. “Not worried about that at all.” He said. “I never had any doubts before over what Operations could do, but now I’ve got a whole new respect for you and Dar.  Been a real eye opener.”

Kerry wondered what that meant. “Well, we try.” She veered off to where Dar was waiting, now with two big cups of coffee in her hands.  “See you later.”

Alastair continued towards the front door, and Kerry ambled to a halt next to her partner and her heavenly burden. “I feel like swimming in that coffee.” She accepted her cup.  “Find anything?”

“Labyrinthine basements.”  Dar informed her. “Soon as Mark and the boys get back from grabbing flashlights and water, we’ll head down there.  No one knows where the hell some of the corridors go.”

“Great.” Kerry sighed.

“Hon, you can stay up here and work on issues if you want.” Dar rested her hand on Kerry’s shoulder. “You don’t need to come spelunking with me.” She tweaked a bit of Kerry’s pale hair.  “There’s plenty to do topside.”

“I know. But I want to go.”   Kerry took a sip of her coffee. “And it can’t be as bad as yesterday. I thought I was going to have nightmares from that.”

“You didn’t.”

“I didn’t.” The blond woman confirmed. “I didn’t dream at all, that I remember. I think I was too tired.”   She spotted Mark and his crew coming out of an elevator.  ‘Or maybe I just dreamed about you the whole time.  I felt like I did when I woke up.”

Dar turned her head and gave her partner a puzzled look. “Huh?”

“Never mind. Tell you later.” Kerry raised her cup towards Mark. “Hey. You guys ready for some exploration?”

Mark looked tired, but he nodded. Shaun was with him,  along with Scuzzy and Nan, and Joshua, a tech from the office. “Ready as we’ll ever be.” He said. “Hope we find something though. I’m whacked from last night.”

“Me too.” Shaun agreed, stifling a yawn.  “What were those drinks we were having?”

“Yo, you’re some kinda lightweight.” Scuzzy said. “We weren’t out there late!”

“Yes, we were.” Nan disagreed.  “I’ve still got karaoke ringing in my ears.”  She covered one.  “I’ve never been in a club that loud before.”

“Hey it’s the city.” Scuzzy said. “People need to blow off steam around here, you know?  Been rough this week.”

“Hey, I had fun. I’m just tired.” Nan said.  “You guys had the right idea, heading back.” She gave Dar and Kerry a wry look. “I think I had an hour sleep.”

Dar took the flashlight Mark was holding out and slipped it into the long pocket along one seam of her coveralls.  “Okay, let’s go.” She pointed to the front doors.  “We’ll walk down to the office, then find a subway entrance. The concierge said there’s one right near by.”

They exited the hotel and started down the block, crossing two streets before they neared the rear entrance to their offices.  “Can we get to the subway from inside?”  Dar asked.

“Sure.” Scuzzy led the way into the complex.  “They got lots of underground stuff here. You know? Great for when it’s snowing.  You don’t want to freeze your ass off getting coffee in the morning.”

“Smart idea.” Kerry agreed. “But it makes me realize why all those people from New York moved to Florida.  You never freeze your ass off doing anything there.”

They walked through the concourse and down a set of stairs, passing from the light into the underground part of Rockefeller Center.   “Is that where we’re going?” Dar pointed to a sign that said, simply,  ‘Subway’.

“Yeah, that’s the 6th Ave, you know? Independent line.” Scuzzy said, as they started for the stairs. “You guys are gonna have a big problem getting from there to the IRT, you know?”

“The what?” Kerry asked.

“Don’t the tunnels all connect?” Dar added, after a pause.

“Well, sure.” Scuzzy led the way down the steps. “Like, eventually.” She continued. “But not here on 6th, probably maybe near the shuttle, like where we met, you know?  This subway was built like after the other one. The IRT, that was the first.”

“I see.” Dar grunted.

“I don’t.” Kerry chimed in. ‘There’s more than one subway?”

“Well, not now. Now they’re all one system.” Scuzzy explained. “But back in the day they were all fighting with each other putting tracks down everywhere.”

“Uh huh.” Dar looked around the lower mezzanine. “So where do we go from here?”

“C’mere, let me show ya.” Scuzzy led them over to big map on the wall, sealed behind scratched plastic. “See, we’re here.” She pointed at an orange line. “This subway, it goes over here, and then over towards Roosevelt, see?”

“Right.” Kerry nodded.

“But them guys, they’re coming up here, on the East side line.” Scuzzy pointed at a green tracing, that wound it’s way up the map.  “Cause that’s the closest to the Exchange, you know?  Maybe they’re going down the kiosk there, or something. I don’t’ think there’s any opening down below the building or nothing.”

Dar looked from one line to the other.  “Do they connect here?” She pointed at a blue line just north of them.

“Well, that’s where the eventually comes in.” Scuzzy said.  “They sorta cross around there, but theres like long corridors and stuff and stairs and escalators…”

“Oh boy.”  Kerry muttered.

“Okay.” Dar held a hand up. “First things first – lets find a way to get a cable from our offices down into one of these tunnels.  Is this one the closest?” She pointed at the orange line.

“Sixth avenue, sure.” Scuzzy nodded.  “So we can go to the basement of 30 Rock, and go down into the subway from there, and see what we can find, okay by you? We can ride down to the 53d, and see if that crosses over, and then get over to the Lexington from there.”

“Right. Let’s go.”   Dar paused and looked around at the busy activity underground.   She pictured the buildings above them, and started off down the corridor.   “Mark, do we have a line we can start running down from our offices?”

“I got some guys up there.” Mark said. “Kannan decided to stick it out, now that we’re hanging around here so he’s up doing some prep. I wouldn’t try to bring out a fiber line from our side, boss – melding those pipettes underground’s gonna suck.”

“I’m glad he decided it was okay to stay.” Kerry said.  “He’s very nice.”

“He’s a freaking awesome fiber tech.” Mark replied. “So I am too, specially since the next guy I could get up here is in Miami.”

They walked along the concourse, which now sloped downward a bit and widened, gaining shops on either side.  “We’re under 30 Rock now.”  Scuzzy announced confidently.  “They got some cool shops here now. Not like it used to be, all the windows empty.”

Kerry found it somewhat incongruous.  She understood the logic of having things underground when the weather above sucked, and also, how they had to use pretty much any square footage they could find in an island as small as Manhattan was, but she still found an underground shopping center weird and depressing.

Or maybe she was still in a bad mood.  She walked alongside Dar and tried to put that aside as they traveled along a thick wall that looked like it had been verneered over more than once.  “So our offices are over this.”

Dar stopped near a large set of stairs.  She peered up them. “Elevator stacks don’t go down this far.”

“No.” Scuzzy shook her head. “I heard this was going to be the big entrance to the subway from the Rock, only the shops kinda died off so they made it into the skating rink and all that stuff.”  

Dar folded her arms. “Okay, so let’s go up one level first and see where we can bring a line down from.” She started up the steps with the rest of her little group behind her.  They ended up in the main lobby of the building their office was in.

It was full of people. “Doesn’t look like anything’s here, Dar.”  Kerry murmured. “Where’s the demarc?”

“Mark..”

“I’m on it.” Mark headed off towards an information desk. 

“There’s the entrance to the subway, in that corner.”  Shaun pointed towards the front of the building. “I can see the sign from here.”

“Okay.  Let’s go back downstairs then.”  Dar removed the radio from her belt. “Mark, we’re going back down to find the subway entrance.”

“Gotcha boss.” Mark’s voice crackled back.

Kerry followed Dar back downstairs, trying to ignore the people who were staring curiously at them. She felt a bit like they were going in circles.  “There has to be pipes coming in here, right?”

“Sure.” Scuzzy said. “Lots of pipes under here, but not the kind we put our stuff in. Big pipes, water, sewer, steam pipes..”

“Steam pipes?” Shaun asked. “For what?”

“Heat.”

“Oh.” Kerry scratched the bridge of her nose. “Of course.”

They crossed the busy concourse and headed over towards the front corner of it, where people were streaming in and out at a rapid pace.   Dar dodged several oncomers, then she pulled them all over to one side against the wall. 

“Sheesh.” Kerry looked back the way they came. “That’s going to be tricky to run a cable through.”

“When was this built?” Dar asked Scuzzy.

“Thirties, something like that.”

Dar’s radio crackled.

“Hey Boss?” Mark’s voice emerged from the radio. “I found the door to he demarc. You might want to come over here to check it out.” He said. “I’m down here behind the stairwell.”

“Uh oh.”  Kerry murmured.

“You folks stay here.” Dar motioned to the rest of them.  “Think about how we can run a thick cable, the kind we ran yesterday, Shaun, across that floor if we have to.”   She bumped Kerry. “C’mon. Let’s go see what the bad news is.”

Kerry willingly went along with her, as they crossed the floor yet again back towards the way they came in.  “We’re starting off kinda slow today huh?”

“Ungh.” Dar rolled her eyes. “I swear I feel like just packing everyone into that damn bus and driving south.” She led Kerry around the stairs, spotting Mark behind them by a thick metal door, accompanied by a dour looking man with a ring of keys.  “Ah.”

Mark indicated the door with his thumb.  “In there.”

“Least you people got the sense to dress fer this.” The man with the keys shook his head and sorted through the ring, finally  coming up with one of the keys and trying it in the lock. He turned it three times, and then a loud clank was heard.  “That’s it.” He pulled the key out and turned the door handle, pulling the door open to release a puff of musty, dusty air.

It was dark inside.  “Any lights in there?”

The man muttered, and felt around inside the door, finally slapping at something which resulted in a weak yellow illumination. Then he backed out and gave them a gruff jerk of his head in the direction of the door.  “I ain’t going in there.”

Dar stepped to the entrance and looked around.  “All right, lets…”

“Got bit by a rat in there once.” The man wandered off. “I’m getting coffee. You’re on your own.”

“Thanks.” Dar had stopped dead, her eyes flicking down at the ground in search of rodents that might attempt to snack on her toes. “Appreciate the warning. “ She glanced behind her. “Anyone coming with me?”

Only Kerry stepped forward immediately. “Right here.”

After an awkward pause, Mark followed her, fishing his flashlight out of his pocket. “I don’t like rats.”

“I had mice in college.” Kerry edged past her partner and entered the room without hesitation. “As pets.” She paused and looked back over her shoulder.  “Not for lunch.”  She flicked her flashlight on and went further into the room, which was full to the rafters with dust covered wall boxes, and wires hanging down low enough to almost brush her head.

Dar twirled her flashlight in her fingers and followed, a faint grin on her face. “Watch your head.”

“Mine’s a lot lower than yours is, hon. “

Dar ducked under a loop. “Good point.”

“Hope those aren’t electrical.” Mark muttered, bringing up the rear.  “This could get way more exciting than we need it to.”

**

The electrical room was a labyrinth on it’s own. It had several levels that seemed to have been built in different times and styles  and the floor itself wasn’t level on top of that. 

“Careful of that damn ladder.”  Dar warned, as Kerry started to climb down one.  It was a cast iron pipe with diamondplate steps, and it shifted creakily as she put her weight on it. 

“Yikes.” Kerry went down it as fast as she could, arriving on a lower level to be greeted by rustlings and a pair of glowing eyes in the dark that vanished when she shone her flashlight in the corner. “What in the hell..”

A huge pipe ran over her head, it’s width twice her armspan at least.  It’s sections were held together by huge, riveted collars and it’s outer surface was covered with thick, peeling paint.   She put her hand on it, surprised when she felt warmth against her skin.

Shaking her head, she ducked under the pipe and went past a huge bin with a closed lid, and three more large pipes running up an down vertically.  They all seemed ancient, and were thick and heavy cast iron.  “What is all this stuff?”

“It’s not telecom.” Dar was methodically searching the far wall. “I don’t care what it is.”

“Reminds me of that old cruise ship .” Kerry edged through two large black iron posts with rivets in them and ducked under a pipe as she spotted a bit of wood through the gloom. “Is that it back there?”

Dar peered past a large box she was looking in. “Where?”  She shone her flashlight into the dark corner. “Mark, over there.”   She closed the box and ducked under the pipe. “Kerry, you rock.”

“Holy shit.”  Mark crawled out from under a step and got up.  “In the back there? Dar, this is nuts! There’s power running all over this place. How in the hell does our data not suck here?”

“My engineering can overcome pretty much anything  or so everyone keeps telling me.” Dar edged in next to where Kerry was standing, and they peered over a big iron pipe to see an old, tattered piece of plywood bolted to the back wall with a familiar set of telephone punch down blocks on it.

They were covered in dirt and dust, so obscured the colors of the wires were completely indistinguishable.   Kerry squirmed over close to it and shone her flashlight on a tag, which was completely blank, brown from age, and crumbling at her touch. “Wow.”

Dar peered at the electrical board perilously close to Kerry’s shoulder. “Ker, don’t move back. I think that’s a live block.”

Kerry froze, then carefully looked over her shoulder, shining the flashlight on the cast iron works.  “New York Edison Company.” She read. “Nineteen hundred and one.”

“Didn’t Scuzzy say this building was built in the thirties?”

“Maybe they reused the hardware.” Mark managed to squeeze in closer. “Shit most of this room is older than I am.”  He said. “Hey, there’s a door down there. For midgets.”

Kerry gave him a sideways look, then she turned carefully and pointed her light at the back wall, under the block.  Sure enough, there was a door there. “Wow.” She said.  “Midgets for real.”

The door was about as high as her knees, with a knob near the bottom of it as though a regular height door had been cut in half.  “Wonder where it goes? Looks like it’s been painted over a few times.”

“Probably doesn’t go anywhere. They just didn’t feel like removing it.” Dar dismissed the  painted over panel and started exploring the punch down. “I can’t believe this is the demarc.”

“For the whole building?”  Kerry’s voice rose in utter disbelief.  “No way. No way in hell, Dar. There are hundreds and hundreds of tenants here. This block is barely big enough for a dozen of them.”

“Well, the way they guy said it, the big boys have a nice room up one level in back of the elevator stack.” Mark said. “We’re private line, so..”

“Are you kidding me?” Kerry asked.  “Do you mean to tell me they wouldn’t let us drop a line into their room, and I’m carrying one of those bastard’s entire backbones on my network??”

“Um.” Mark’s eyes widened.

“Grr.” Kerry fumed. “Let me call the office and have those bastards cut off.” She started to fish for her phone only to find her arms gently held. “Dar!”

“You’re going to electrocute your ass. Hold still.” Dar tugged her away from the electrical panel.  “Cutting them off doesn’t really get us anything, Ker.  Money probably crossed hands to get them a new facility. We had nothing to do with it.”

“But that’s not fair!” Kerry protested. “We pay just as much as any of them do for this damned access!”

Mark kept his mouth shut, peering at the blocks instead and trying to read some of them. 

“Shh.” Dar managed to maneuver her pissed off partner into a clearer space, then she wrapped her arms around her. “Leave it, Ker. Not worth the headache.”

Kerry drew in a breath to continue arguing, then she paused, and exhaled, unable to keep the anger roiling inside the warmth of Dar’s embrace.  “It’s not fair.” She repeated.  “Look at this place, Dar. They’re probably laughing their asses off at us over this.”

“Probably. But we’re a level under them, and that means we’re closer to our goal.  Just leave it.”

“Grr.” Kerry sighed, giving in. “And I’m damned well going to get this changed, but yeah, it’ll wait until this is over.”

Dar gave her a squeeze.  “Now let me in there to see what the hell’s going on with that demarc.” She slipped past Kerry and carefully eased her way between the electrical panel and the iron pylon to get closer to the age scarred wood.

“You tricked me.” Kerry issued a half hearted protest, before she inched in after her, raising her hand to stifle a sneeze as they stirred the dust around them.  “I’m safer in there, Dar. I’m smaller than you are.”

“Nah, I’m fine.” Dar disagreed, poking her head around a pipe.

“Okay.” Mark finally spoke up. “I think there’s only six or eight active on here, so we should be able to find ours pretty easy.” He peered into the far corner. “Hey, Dar, is that a smartjack? There in the back? That has to be ours.”

Dar directed her flashlight in that direction and leaned closer to look, inadvertently brushing her elbow against the electrical panel. She yelped and jumped back, nearly knocking Kerry on her butt. “Son of a bitch!”  She grabbed her elbow, which was numb and tingling.

“Live, huh?” Mark asked, weakly.

“What kind of idiocy is this!” It was Dar’s turn to be outraged, as she examined the panel. It was floor to ceiling copper strips, with clamps at various levels.  “You could get killed in here!”

“Easy honey.” Kerry patted her hip. “How about we find our circuit and get out of here before we both end up in the hospital?”

Dar muttered under her breath, then cautiously eased back over to the back wall and peered at the box Mark had found again.  It was the same dingy gray as the rest of the inside of the room, but there were somewhat newer looking cables coming out of the bottom of it, and a tag that was more white than brown hanging from the front.

She extended her arm carefully and got a fingertip on the top of the box, almost jumping out of her skin when her cell phone rang. “Brpht!”

“I got it.” Kerry fished in her partner’s pocket and retrieved the instrument. “Hello?”

“Glad you were here.” Dar went back to prying the box open.

“Me too.” Mark chimed in.  “No offense, Big D, I’da let it ring.”

Dar paused and looked over at him, then chuckled briefly.

“Hell… ah, is this Kerry?” Alastair’s voice trickled hesitantly through the speaker. “I’m sorry, I thought I..”

“You did. Hang on.”   Kerry tapped Dar on the arm with her phone. “It’s Alastair.”

“Take a message.” Dar was struggling with the box top. “If I overbalance I’m going to be a French fry.”

Kerry pulled her arm back, and took a step sideways out of the way, and away from the electrical panel. “Sorry about that. Dar’s occupied right at the moment. Anything I can do to help?”

“Got it.” Dar pulled the top of the box off with a rusty sounding screech of metal on metal.  She set the top aside and shone her light on the inside, which had a modern piece of equipment clamped in it, full of blinking LED’s and reassuringly clean plastic. “Ah hah.”

“That it?” Mark stood on his tiptoes to look over the iron grillwork separating him from the section Dar was inside of.  “Damn, look at that thing.  That box looks like it should be coal fired.”

“Well, it’s a smartjack.” Dar muttered.  “I think that box use to be something else though.”

Kerry was torn between listening to the phone and listening to the discussion. “Sorry, what was that again? No, that wasn’t a smart ass.. no, no we’ve.. we’re looking for our circuit in the office… oh, okay.” Kerry put her hand over the mic.  “Paladar?”

Dar stopped in mid motion, and carefully turned fully around, giving Kerry her full attention? “Yes?”

“ABC News is outside. They want to talk to you.”

Dar looked at her, then looked to either side at the inside of the grubby, dingy workspace. Then she held up one finger and turned back around, careful to edge away from the copper panel.

“That meant for me, or them?” Kerry asked.

Dar turned back around, one eyebrow hiked all the way up.

“Just checking.” Her partner smiled.

“Tell them to kiss my ass.” Dar went back to her task.

Kerry gave her a fond look. “Alastair, she’s trying to read a circuit tag in a dark room that look like a medieval torture chamber and not be electrocuted at the same time. Can they wait a few minutes?”

She half turned and spoke into the phone. “I don’t want to rush her. She’d look really strange with curly hair.” She waited. “Okay, that’s what I figured. I’ll call you when we’re out of here. Bye.”

She closed the phone. “Well.”

“23T234X6RZ45R.” Dar replied.

Mark scribbled on the back of his hand. “I’m pretty sure that’s ours, Dar. It’s the right sequence.”

“Me too.” Dar agreed, pulling her hand back from the box and letting the top close over it.  “Glad we found it, but I have no clue in the world how we’re going to get the damn cable into this room. I don’t think we can cross the shopping center with it.”

She backed slowly out of the gap between the iron works and the live electrical panel  and joined Kerry near the sloping back of the room.  Now that her eyes had grown used to the gloom, Dar looked around at the space and studied the structure.

There was an old iron chute that cut off at the edge of a newer looking wall, an she walked over to peer at it, rubbing her thumb along a set of hammered letters.   “Castle Coal.”  She said. “I don’t get it. What’s a coal thing doing in the middle of a modern building?”

Mark turned around. “These are steam pipes.” He pointed. “We don’t really have steam upstairs, do we?”

They all looked at each other, then both Mark and Dar looked at Kerry. 

“Don’t ask me.” Kerry held her hand up. “I assumed we had central air and heat in the building. We never used coal in Michigan. You signed the lease, Dar. Did it mention steam? Scuzzy said there was steam pipes but sheesh.”

“Hell if I remember.” Dar shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter I guess. Now that we found it, let’s just go back to the rest of the group and see about a path.  We probably need the building management involved.”

“Should I get them to bring a router and a fiber hub here?” Mark asked. “We’re gonna need to split the signal but..” He looked around. “Wonder if they’ve even got an outlet for power.” He flashed his light around the walls and looked under a few of the boxes. “Crap.”

“Can we get an electrician to… well, what am I saying? We’d have to contract Methuselah for that electrical panel. Maybe he’s free.”  Kerry started making her way towards the entrance, scribbling herself a note. “Worse comes to worse, Dar, we can run a power cable in too. This isn’t going to be pretty no matter how we do it.”

Mark climbed up into another section, ducking under the iron supports as he peered along the underside of a large pipe.  “Lemme see if I can find something here.  Running cable is gonna suck.”

Dar leaned her elbows on Kerry’s shoulders and whispered into her ear. “How could it possibly be anything but pretty if you do it?” 

Aw.  Kerry had to smile, despite the surroundings. “Flattery will get you anything you want, you know that?”

Dar chuckled. She felt Kerry’s body lean back a little against her, and she savored the moment, nibbling on the edge of her ear . “Did you really think I was flipping you off?”

“No.”  Kerry tilted her head back and gave Dar a kiss on her jawbone.  “I’m just glad I’m here with you and I felt like messing with you a little.” She admitted. “This is so insane. What are we doing here?”

“C’mon.” Dar bumped her gently.  “Let’s go see what other bad news awaits us.”  She put her hands on Kerry’s shoulders and steered her towards the door.  They had left it open, and the light from outside seemed an odd contrast to the dank, dark,  interior of the old closet they were poking around in. 

The tangle of pipes and iron bars made their progress slow, but they climbed up the steel steps and onto the platform that held the door just as Mark crawled back out from under an ancient console, his jumpsuit now liberally covered in grunge.

“Anything?” Kerry asked.

“Maybe.” Mark said. “But I think the outlet’s older than I am.  Scary.” He dusted himself off as they emerged from the room, blinking a little in the light. The building superintendant was leaning against the opposite wall, and he pushed off to come meet them as Mark pushed the door closed.

“Seen enough?” The man asked.

“We found what we were looking for, yes.”  Kerry said.  “Now we just have to find a way to get to it. Do you have a building electrician? We need some work done.”

The man stared at her. “Work done?  Lady you seen that room?  No one does no work in there.”

“They put our circuit in there. That’s work.” Kerry’s nape hairs bristled.  “Though I’m going to have a word with the management here as to why that happened.”

The man held his hands up. “That’s not my area.” He said. “You want the electrician? I”ll call him. He can tell you himself. “ He said.  “You want to wait here?  I’ll have him come down.” He didn’t wait for Kerry to nod before he picked up his radio and started speaking into it, turning away from them and lowering his voice.   Then with a glance at them, he walked away, heading for a door in the back of the hall.

“I’m going to go grab a router and see what mounting stuff we have.” Mark said.  “I’ll come back here and wait for the electrical guy if you want to go see what’s going on.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Dar said. “Thanks Mark.”

“No prob.” He trotted off towards the stairs, leaving Dar and Kerry behind.

“You want me to tell Alastair you can talk to the press now?” Kerry asked.

“No.” Dar replied placidly. “That’s not part of my job. That’s part of his job. He’s got Hamilton with him, and the entire New York office publicity machine with him, and I’ve got better things to do.”

“All righty.”  Kerry said. “But honey, even though I love you more than anything on earth, you’re going to be the one to tell him that, mkay?”

Her partner chuckled wryly.  

Dar’s phone rang again. Kerry promptly handed it over to her.

Dar took it. “Hello?” She answered briefly after glancing at the caller ID. Not him  She mouthed at Kerry.    “Yes, this is Dar Roberts. Who is this?” She paused, folding her free arm across her body and resting her elbow on her fist.  “Okay, bu.. oh, all right. Okay.” She nodded. “So what’s the issue?”

Kerry half listened, and half watched their surroundings. There were a lot of people walking around, but they all seemed distracted, and the stores she could see had workers in the doorways, mostly standing and watching the passersby.

“So they’re fighting over that? What the hell do you want me to do?” Dar said.  “What makes you think that?”

Kerry spotted their team coming out from the entrance to the subway. She waved at them, catching Scuzzy’s eye and smiled as they changed direction to come over to where she and Dar were standing.  “Here’s the rest of the gang, hon.”

“I think that’s a crock of bullshit.” Dar said. “I’ll head over there, but only because I want to see the datapath. If you’re still there wasting time then I’ll see  you but I hope you get your head out of your ass and get working before then.”

Kerry patted her partner’s hip. “Easy, tiger.”

Dar closed the phone abruptly and clipped it back on her pocket as the rest of the crew arrived. “Jackasses.” She muttered.  “Did you find a route?” She asked the gang.

“We found a lot of mad people.” Shaun said. “Boy, people get pissed off when you ask dumb questions in the subway around here.” He said. “They even got mad at her.” He indicated Scuzzy, who nodded.

“Okay. Well, I’d like to ride from here back to where they have to drop the line into the tunnels.” Dar said. “They’ve got some kind of hangup somewhere up there about the cable they want to talk to me about.”

“What kind of trouble were they giving you, Shaun?” Kerry asked. “What were you guys asking?”

“Just where the tunnels met and stuff like that. You’d have thought we were asking for the president’s fax number.”  Shaun said. “They’re just freaking tunnels. What did they think we were going to do, set a bomb off in them?”

Everyone fell silent after he finished talking, looking at each other awkwardly as the words penetrated.

“Well, ya know..” Scuzzy murmured.

“They might have thought just that.”  Dar finished, quietly.  “Let’s go folks.  We found the drop and Mark’s going to work on getting our end of this set up.  We might as well find out how far they’ve gotten before he goes to too much trouble.”

“We can take the six.”  Scuzzy said. “I’m sure they’re up past Brooklyn Bridge station already.”   She added. “We can walk, or take the 8th Ave up to the 53rd.”

Dar eyed her. “You pick.” She said. “None of the rest of us know what the hell you’re talking about.”  She added.  “But since the cable’s probably going to have to come from underground, we should go the same route.”

“You got it.” Scuzzy turned and motioned them back the way they’d come from. “Let’s get a move on, people.  We got trains to catch.”

**

Continued in Part 20