Dar slowly stretched her cramped fingers, listening to the sounds of raucous yelling coming from the speakerphone. She turned her head slowly and looked at Don after a moment, letting out a long exhale. “Congratulations.” She said. “You made that happen.”
Don chuckled wryly. “Dar, these guys made that happen.” He pointed at the optic unit attached to the router. “And by the way, fellers, what you just saw was the IT equivalent of this woman flapping her arms and flying to the moon.”
The two visitors had settled cross-legged on the floor. “I’ve been in enough bullpen situations to know that was one of those two seconds to blastoff kind of things.” One said, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Pretty neat.”
Dar closed her laptop. “Let’s go upstairs.” She said. “I need a drink.”
“Boy that sounds good.” Don got up, and they all left the little closet and emerged into the shopping level.
Outside, the world coursed past them completely oblivious to the drama in their midst, only giving a passing glance to the engineers and the scruffy looking woman in a tank top and coveralls trudging past them.
“Long day, huh Dar?” Don asked.
“Long week.” Dar admitted, as they headed for the elevators. She could feel her shoulders slumping, and she mostly watched the floor as they boarded the car, pausing only to punch the button for their level. “But you folks really did the job. That’s an amazing feat of engineering.”
“Well, thanks.” One of the engineers said. “My name’s Orin Wellings, by the way.” He offered a hand, which Dar took. “We were glad to help. We found out some things that might help us in some other research, so it’s all good.” He added. “This is my colleague Doddy Ramirez.”
Dar extended her hand. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” The man shook her hand. “Talk about down to the wire.”
“Mm.” The doors opened and Dar led them out, past the receptionist’s desk. She pushed the glass doors open and headed down the hall to their client presentation center, marked by a set of teak doors and frosted glass windows. “C’mon.”
They followed her inside. “Coffee and soft drinks over there.” Dar pointed without looking. She headed for the couch on the far side, dropping into it just as her cell phone rang. “Help yourself to whatever you like.” She didn’t even check the caller ID. “ Yeah.”
“Hey.” Kerry’s voice sounded every bit as drained as Dar felt. “We’re on our way back there. Me and dad, and Alastair and my mother.”
“I’m sitting on a couch in the pres center waiting for you.” Dar said. “But you can’t bring the other three on the couch with you. They have to sit somewhere else.”
Kerry managed a wry chuckle. Then she fell silent.
“You okay?” Dar asked after a moment.
Another hesitation. “I’ve been better.” Kerry admitted. “Had a bit of a problem getting that part in.”
Dar felt a jolt of concern that chased away the fog of exhaustion. “Want me to meet you at the hospital instead?”
“No.” Kerry answered immediately. “I just want to go home. We can go to Doctor Steve’s as soon as we land if you want but I’m not spending another day here.”
Dar nodded to herself. “Hear ya.”
“Have some chocolate milk waiting for me?” Kerry added, with a sigh.
“You got it. “ Dar waited for the line to hang up and then she closed the phone and rested it on her knee. “The rest of our team’s on the way back. Our CEO’s with them, I know he wants to thank you guys in person.”
The engineers took seats across from her, with cups and plates and pleased expressions.
Mark entered, with Kannan and Shaun, tired, but visibly happy. “Hey boss. Welcome back from the pit”
“Hey.” Dar lifted a hand and waved. “Good job, people.”
Scuzzy entered. “Hey! You guys did it!”
“We did it.” Dar agreed, gesturing around to include the rest of the room. “You did it.” She pointed at Scuzzy. “Everybody needs to slap themselves on the ass for this one.”
Don chuckled. “Boy, I tell ya, I don’t get to hear that very often.” He admitted. “Mostly its can you give me a bigger discount, Don, or your damn service center blew me off, Don, or your competitors are doing more for less, and what about that, Don.”
‘Yeah, we get that too.” Mark brought a bottle of soda back to the seating area and took a chair near where Dar was sprawled on the couch. “Dar, there was only one or two streams we didn’t have a gate for. I called the endpoint owner and threw a tunnel up for them, and they’re good now.”
“You know what the sad part is?” Dar stretched her arm out along the back of the couch. “We’re the only ones who are going to know we did this.”
“Who the hell cares.” Mark slid down and took a swig from his bottle. “I don’t. I know I did it. That’s all that matters to me.”
Dar watched them all gather, and she let the conversation flow around her, as the rest of the team straggled in. She was tired, but at some level satisfied, glad the circumstances had arranged themselves to allow her to end this day with a sense of personal triumph.
It felt good. She was glad they’d done it.
She realized she must have faded out for a minute, because she looked up at the doorway just in time to see Kerry enter, with her mother, and Dar’s father, and Alastair right behind her.
Dar got up off the couch as they approached, opening her arms up as Kerry walked right into them, pressing her body against Dar’s with a soft, guttural moan. She enfolded her partner in a gentle hug, oblivious to the room. “Hey babe.”
“Ungh.” Kerry rested her head against Dar’s collarbone. “Get the jam, Paladar. I’m toast.”
Dar stroked her hair. “You look it.” She said. “Sit down on the couch and I’ll get you your milk.”
Kerry didn’t move an inch. “Actually a protein shake would probably do me more good. Any chance of that?” She tilted her head and looked up. “My body’s really bitching at me.”
“Your wish is my command.” Dar gazed down into her eyes, a faint smile shaping her lips.
Kerry’s nose wrinkled just a little. “You couldn’t care less if the whole room is staring at us, could you?”
“Me either.” Kerry pulled herself up and gave Dar a kiss on the lips. “Fantastic job, boss. You brought it home.”
“Likewise.” Dar returned the kiss an then she released her partner and bumped her very gently towards the couch. “Let me get you something to put in your stomach.” She watched Kerry settle on the couch, and then she turned to find Alastair in front of her. “Hey.”
Alastair put his hand on her shoulder and just looked her in the eye.
Dar winked at him. “Sorry to ruin your martyrdom, Alastair.”
She was not overly surprised when Alastair pulled her into a hug. She returned it without reservation, feeling a moment of true personal happiness. “Bastards.”
“We need to talk later.” He uttered just loud enough for her to hear. “But thank you, Dar. From my heart, thank you.”
Dar patted his back and released him. “No problem.”
“No problem.” Alastair clasped her shoulder, and made his way to an overstuffed chair, which he sunk into with a long, tired exhale. “Anybody got a cup of coffee?”
Dar started to turn, only to find her father there with a bottled protein shake in his hand. “Ah. Thanks dad.” She said. “Did you…”
“Heard the kumquat ask you for it.” Andrew said. “Think she’s hurting.” He added. “Was a hell of a thing getting to that there place, I will tell you, Paladar. That woman should be in a doctor’s office.”
Dar glanced at her partner, who had collapsed on the couch. “I know. But I promised we’d go home first. She said we can stop at Dr Steve’s on the way from the airport.”
“I’m not hypocritical enough to argue with her.” Dar said. “Thanks for helping out, dad.”
Her father clapped her on the back. “Didn’t do squat rugrat. Kerry done it all.”
Dar took the bottle and returned to the couch, sitting down next to Kerry and opening it. “Here you go.” She put her arm over Kerry’s shoulders and sighed, as Cynthia Stuart finally got through the crowd and sat down on a chair next to the couch. “Hello again.”
“Hello, Dar.” Cynthia said. “I’m very worried about Kerry. She seems quite sick.”
“Me too.” Dar glanced down at her partner, who was sucking at the protein shake, her body pressed against Dar’s. “She has some cracked ribs.”
“Oh my goodness!” Cynthia blurted. “Kerry! Why didn’t you say something!”
Kerry looked up from her shake, licking her lips a little. “Didn’t have time.” She said. “Sorry. I guess we need to fill you in on everything else too.” Her voice was husky. “Mom got me into the Exchange, Dar. They weren’t letting anyone in the front door.”
“Thank you.” Dar looked at Cynthia. “We were running out of time.”
“Well… yes, I could see that.. but what exactly were you doing?” Kerry’s mother asked. “I kept hearing the oddest things, about some accident, and some problem or something.” She added. “I was even told you were under some kind of investigation!”
Dar looked over at Alastair, and raised an eyebrow.
“I think that was really more of a misunderstanding.” Alastair said, drawing Cynthia’s attention. He put his hands behind his head, interlacing his fingers. “We got it sorted out. “ He paused. “I hope.”
“They asked us to help out with some connections to the Exchange.” Dar offered.
“Yes, I remember Kerry telling me that.” Cynthia returned her attention to them. “Some cables, or something was it?”
Dar nodded. “We ran in to a lot of issues, and had to get these engineers from NASA to help us..” She indicated the two men. “They came up with a solution at the last minute. That solution was what Kerry was carrying into the Exchange.”
“Oh!” Cynthia looked at her daughter. “My goodness!”
Kerry gave her a brief smile. She turned slowly and put her legs up on the couch, putting her head down on Dar’s lap. “Yeah, it wasn’t really a well thought out plan, but we were out of time.” She admitted. “I’m really glad I spotted you going in. Wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”
“Oh, well.” Cynthia looked more than a little confused. “Well, of course I was glad to help, but it was so curious that you were having problems with them letting you inside. Didn’t they want this problem addressed?”
“Now there’s the Sixty Four thousand dollar question.” Alastair mused. “I tell you, Senator. There were a lot of conflicting motives in that building today.”
“Goodness.” Cynthia turned towards Alastair again. “But why would that have been, Mr. McLean. Please explain it to me, because I can see no reason for this strange confusion, and I want to understand since I am sure this will come up between myself and my colleagues.”
“Well..” Alastair drew her attention, giving the pair on the couch some time.
Dar draped one arm carefully over her partner’s body. “Feeling any better?”
Kerry turned her head a little, peering up at Dar. “A little.” She lifted one hand and rubbed her eyes. “I just feel so damned washed out. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t think straight.” She answered, in a low tone. “Not to mention my guts hurt.” She put a hand on her chest. “And I can’t get a deep breath cause of it.”
Dar smoothed the hair back out of her eyes. She could see a glaze in the green pupils looking back at her, and she frowned in concern for a long moment before she pulled out her cell phone. “Okay.” She dialed a number from the memory. “Second opinion time.”
Kerry closed her eyes and let her cheek rest against Dar’s belly. It felt good to be lying down, and even better to be lying down on top of her partner. She wrapped her fingers around Dar’s arm and concentrated on breathing shallowly, as she listened to the phone conversation.
“Hey Sheryl. It’s Dar.” Dar watched the twitching tension across her partner’s face. “Is the doc in? Can I talk to him for a minute?” She waited through a few moments of Gloria Estefan hold music, and then a familiar voice answered. “Hi Dr. Steve.”
“Hey Dar. What’s up? Where are ya?”
“New York.” She said. “Listen, Kerry’s here with me and she ran into some trouble.”
Their family doctor chuckled wryly. “You’re rubbing off on her.”
“She got a couple of cracked ribs.” Dar went on. “They said it was hairline, but she’s feeling pretty bad right now. Says she feels drained and can’t think straight.”
“Where is she?”
“Lying in my lap.” Dar admitted. “But I don’t’ think that’s causing it.” That even got a smile from Kerry, who opened her eyes and peered up at her. “She’s white as a sheet.”
There was a bit or rattling, and a scuffing noise. “Hang on.” Dr. Steve said, his voice a little more serious now. “You know which ribs they are?”
Dar looked down at Kerry, who shrugged faintly, and then casually unbuttoned her shirt.
“Go ahead and count. You can see where the bandages are.” Kerry closed her eyes again; feeling a bit of a draft from the room on her now exposed skin. “Glad I decided on a sports bra this morning.”
Dar gently counted up from her waistline. “Six from the bottom?” She spoke into the phone. “Somewhere around there.”
“Uh huh.” Dr. Steve grunted. “They said it was a crack?”
“Just a hairline fracture, according to the guy at the hospital.” Dar reported. “He said to have her sleep sitting up and gave her a prescription for the pain. He sent the x-rays back with us.”
“What drugs he give her?” Dr. Steve asked.
Dar pulled the bottle out of Kerry’s pocket and examined it. “OxyContin.” She responded. “We picked it up yesterday.”
“Honey, throw that in the trash.” Dr. Steve said immediately. “Where the hell are you? I’ll call you in something else. That stuff’s a pile of problems. She having any trouble breathing? Dizzy?”
Dar could feel Kerry’s ribcage moving under her hand, and it seemed to her to be doing so with more effort than usual. “I think so.”
“Don’t let her take any more of that.” Their doctor said. “How long you going to be there?”
Dar felt a sense of relief. “We’re heading back home at one.” She said. “Can I give her some Advil until we get back?” She looked down into Kerry’s inquisitive eyes. She held up the pill bottle and rattled it. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t take any more of this.”
Kerry’s face relaxed a little.
“You can do that, rugrat.” Dr. Steve said. “I’ll see you when you get here, right?”
“Right. Thanks Doc.” Dar hung up the phone. “He doesn’t like the script.”
Kerry blinked a little. “That makes sense.” She said. “I didn’t start feeling this crappy until after I started taking it. When I got back from the hospital I was fine that whole night.” She stifled a yawn, and let her cheek rest against Dar’s body again. “I’ll be fine here until we leave.”
Dar tucked the bottle of pills into the cushion. She glanced up as Cynthia returned her attention to them, apparently done with Alastair. She saw the woman’s eyes fall on her partner’s half bared chest and belatedly realized her tattoo was showing, the snake’s head saucily exposed.
Covering it with her shirt would be only too obvious. Dar rested her hand on Kerry’s bare belly instead, rubbing lightly the skin just over her navel.
“Kerry, is that… “ Cynthia leaned closer. “Is that a tattoo?”
Kerry’s eyes went wide, and her nostrils flared. Her hand twitched, as it lay right next to Dar’s, and her breathing sped up.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Dar gallantly came to her rescue. “It’s an oraborus, a symbol of eternity, curled around my name.” She lifted her hand and traced the design, moving the edge of Kerry’s sports bra over so her mother could see it better. “Look at those scales.”
“Ah.” Cynthia edged closer and peered, not without hesitation. “How interesting.” She cleared her throat. “Angela did mention something about that.”
“I can always count on Angie.” Kerry now dared turn her head and peek at her mother. “She saw it when I stayed at her house last week. Was it last week?” Her brow creased. “Seems like a long time ago.”
“Yes, it does.” Her mother recovered. “It’s quite intricate.”
“You don’t’ like it.” Kerry said, in a mild tone. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
“Well.” Cynthia said. “No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s right for a young woman to mark herself up in that way. “ She paused. “So, no, in fact, I do not like it.”
Kerry felt refreshed by the honesty. “That’s okay. I didn’t expect you to.” She replied with equal candor. “A lot of people don’t.”
Her mother paused for a long moment, and then she shook her head. “Why did you do it then? I am curious.”
Kerry looked back up at Dar. “Why did I do it.” She mused. “I think I just wanted that statement, that emotion to be as vivid on the outside of me as it is on the inside.” She closed her eyes again and exhaled, another wave of lethargy passing over her.
“I see.” Her mother murmured.
“I heard Angie’s good news.” Kerry decided a change in subject was probably a good idea. She could hear her mother struggling to keep her thoughts to herself and she had no desire to spark an argument at the moment.
“Yes.” Cynthia sat back, with a genuine smile. “I’m so pleased.” She seemed glad of the change as well. “It was a great surprise, but a very welcome one.”
Dar cleared her throat gently.
Kerry forced her eyes open, to see the raised brows. “Brian proposed to my sister.” She informed her partner. “Angie was as freaked out as you were when I proposed to you.”
Dar produced a big grin at that. Then she glanced up at Cynthia. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Cynthia said, taking a deep breath. “Well, I’m glad these things worked themselves out. I believe I must go back and meet with my colleagues, and then perhaps we might attend a working dinner with the vice president.”
“By then we’ll be home.” Kerry exhaled. “Thank god.” She turned her head and opened one eye. “Hope it turns out okay for you.”
“And a safe trip to both of you as well.” Cynthia concluded. “I’m sure we’ll be speaking, Kerry. Angela has told me she wishes you to stand with her at the wedding.”
Kerry nodded. “I told her absolutely.” She said, getting a smile from her mother. “I’m really happy for her.”
“As am I.” Cynthia stood up. “Hope you feel better soon, Kerry. I’m sure you’re well taken care of here.” She gave Dar a nod. “And it was nice meeting you, Mr. McLean. Thank you for explaining things to me.”
“My pleasure.” Alastair was still sitting quietly in his chair. “Nice meeting you too.”
Cynthia gave them all a wave, and turned, making her way out of the room.
Dar gently buttoned up her partner’s shirt and settled her arm protectively over Kerry’s middle again. “Take a nap, champ.” She told her obviously groggy companion. “I’ll wake you up when it’s time for us to leave.”
“Gotta.” Kerry muttered. “Damn this stuff’s kicking my butt.” She gave in to the desire to sleep, as Dar’s fingertips gently massaged her temples. “Dar I’m gonna have to come up with something more radical.”
“’m outta things to shock my mother with.”
Dar chuckled faintly, and that was the last thing Kerry remembered before she let the room slip away.
Cynthia crossed the lobby of the building and approached the front door. She paused, when she spotted Andrew Roberts entering. “Oh, Commander.” She waved at him.
The tall ex-seal altered course, and intercepted her. He had two overnight bags slung over his shoulder. “’Lo.”
“I just wanted to bid my farewell to you.” Cynthia said. “I assume you are heading home as well.”
“That’s true.” Andrew glanced around. “You want a cup of coffee fore you go? Ah just saw pictures of them people back at the exchange and it’s crazy there. “
Cynthia hesitated, and then she nodded. “I could use a cup of coffee.” She admitted. “There’ s a nice café, will you join me?”
“Sure.” Andrew followed her over to one of the seats and they took over one of the tables in the little café to one side of the lobby. It was before lunchtime, so it was still quiet, and a waitress scooted right over to them when she saw them sit down.
Andrew set the bags down and exhaled. “Biggest cup of coffee you got.” He told the girl, who nodded.
“Do you have tea?” Cynthia asked. “I’d prefer that, please.”
“Sure, be right back.” The waitress left, still scribbling.
“You look tired, Commander. I know it must have been a long week for you as well.”
“Yeap.” Andrew admitted. “Ah will be glad to get home to mah wife and mah boat, I will tell you. I do not regret coming here to help the kids out, but ah will be very happy to see that there airplane shortly.”
“I do understand.” Cynthia commiserated. “I didn’t want to come here, you know. I wanted to stay in Michigan, dealing with the issues we have there. But I was told it would be highly unpatriotic if I did not come to support the city so I did.”
Andrew snorted. “Patriotism.” He said. “Most these people round the gov’mint don’t know how to even spell that word less what it means.”
Cynthia studied him. “It’s so interesting that you say that.” She looked up as the waiter arrived, and deposited their drinks. “May I also have, perhaps, a tuna on croissant?”
“Sure.” The waitress looked at Andrew expectantly.
“Ya’ll got hamburgers?” Andrew asked.
“Have me one with cheese and some fries.”
“No problem.” The waitress whisked off, in a better mood.
Andrew took a sip of his coffee. “You going back home today?”
Cynthia sighed. “Probably tomorrow.” She admitted. “As much as I am not enjoying this position I accepted, one does have to stand up for it, you know.”
“Though, I have to admit, I do not think it matters whether or not I go. I am not going to continue in this post, and therefore, the decision really should be mine.”
“Yeap.” Andrew agreed. “Thought I had to live up to stuff fore I almost lost everything I ever had for that. Don’t go there no more.” He shook his head. “Figured out I love my family more than my country.”
Cynthia smiled. “That’s so charming.” She said. “And you know, I do think you’re right. I believe I will change my itinerary, and leave this afternoon as well, since I have so much to do back in Michigan.”
“Here you got a wedding coming.” Andrew sat back and sucked his coffee. “Glad that feller stepped up.”
The woman across from him lifted her teacup in his direction. “Thank the lord.” She said. “I was so disappointed with Brian, really. It’s been very hard on Angela, though surely she had to take the same responsibility for her actions.” She studied his scarred face. “I did think that was going to be quite awkward between Angela and Kerrison.”
Andrew chuckled. “Kerry was some pissed at that boy.” He said. “Though he wasn’t doing right by her sister.”
“Oh.” Cynthia said. “Well, yes, I suppose she would feel that way.” She sipped her tea. “After all, she’d met Dar by then, hadn’t she?”
Andrew smiled. “She done that.” He allowed. “Dar said they got to be sweethearts right off.”
They were both quiet, as the waitress came back and set their plates down, then left again to attend to the customers now coming in for lunch.
“That.. ah, never bothered you, did it?” Cynthia asked.
“Naw.” Andrew cut his burger in half and selected the left side of it. “Never had to worry about no feller coming by and doing her wrong while I was out there overseas, anyhow.”
“Oh.” Kerry’s mother sounded surprised. “Well, I never thought of that.” She picked her way through her tuna croissant. “At any rate, I am glad she’s happy, and that she and Dar are so very fond of each other.”
“Me, too.” Andrew ate a fry. “Your kid’s good people. I am damn glad she’s part of mah family.”
Cynthia smiled wryly. “I would imagine she feels the same.” She murmured. “I know she’s had a trying time with her own.”
Andrew finished his burger. “Wall, ah think y’all will be all right in that way.” He wiped his lips. “She’s right fond of you all. Just take some time. Y’all got that.”
“Yes, we do.” Kerry’s mother smiled a little more easily. “As terrible as this past week has been, it has given me hope that my family can find a way to come together again. Kerry has invited me down to see their home and meet their friends.”
Andrew chewed his fries as he considered this. “Got a nice place.” He finally said. “Ah like that little place they got down south better than the fancy one, but it’s all right too.”
“Do you mean the cabin? Kerry showed me pictures. It looks so charming.” Cynthia sipped her tea. “I’m looking forward to seeing it. She even showed me photos of their pet.”
“Hairball.” Andrew chuckled softly. “Cute dog.” He amended.
“Yes.” His table companion said. “Kerry told me… “She hesitated. “I never actually knew what had happened with her little Cocker Spaniel. “
Andrew merely grunted.
“I feel terrible now about it. Roger wanted to get her another one, and I convinced him not to.” Cynthia said, a pensive look on her face. “I just didn’t want to have to deal with a puppy. All the mess.. I just never knew how much it meant to her, or what… “
“That feller who done that was a wrong headed man.” Andrew said quietly.
“Yes, he was.” Cynthia said. “Do you know, the police finally closed that case they were investigating about it.” She watched his face intently. “They decided it was an accident after all.”
Andrew lifted his eyes and met hers squarely. “That man got what was coming to him.” He said. “Ah only wish it’d come to him twenty years b’fore then so he did not have no chance to do what he done to your daughter.”
Cynthia took a breath, and released it. “Roger finally realized the things Kerry had said weren’t lies.” She lowered her voice. “It upset him so much. He sent Kyle away while he investigated, and the night he got so sick.. it was after he finally spoke to Kerry’s old doctor.”
Andrew cocked his head slightly.
“You know, I had never seen him cry before.” Kerry’s mother said simply. “It astounded me. I had no idea why he was so upset, and then… well, then he had this meeting he had to go to and after that…it was too late and he couldn’t tell me.”
Cynthia wiped her lips slowly with her napkin. “Terrible.” She murmured. “I am glad he died. It is not a Christian thing to say, but it’s true.” She watched Andrew slowly nod. “I do like to think he got what he deserved.”
“Ah do believe he did.” Andrew said. “Might be he even knowed that fore he died.”
Cynthia exhaled. “May the Lord grant that he did.” She reached over and patted his hand. “Commander, thank you for taking the time to have lunch with me. It’s always lovely talking to you.”
Andrew’s eyes took on a humorous glint. “Ya’ll be sure to let mah wife know when you’re coming down our way. We can go have us some conch fritters together.”
“I certainly will.” She stood up, as the waiter came over. “Here, I believe this will cover it. Thank you.” She handed the man a folded bill. “Commander, thank you for letting me buy you lunch. I hope you have a wonderful trip home.”
“Same t’you.” Andrew lifted a hand and waved it at her. “And call me Andy. I ain’t in the Navy no more.”
Cynthia smiled. “I will do that. After all, we’re family, aren’t we?” She turned and left the café, heading for the front door again.
Andrew shook his head and chuckled briefly. “Lord.”
Dar was content to sit quietly on the couch, providing a pillow for Kerry’s sleeping form. The room had gotten crowded with both New York staff and their visiting team, and a pile of boxes had just been deposited on the conference table filling the air with the scent of cheese and garlic.
Kerry was oblivious to it all. Someone had brought a blanket up from the bus and she had it tucked around her, and around Dar’s arm that was draped over her body.
Alastair came over with a plate. “Piece of pizza, Dar?” He offered her a slice. “Probably won’t have much at the airport.”
“Sure.” Dar maneuvered the big slice with one hand, getting it folded between her fingers before she nibbled at the small end. It was hot, cheesy, and had a nice crisp crust that tasted a touch smokey. “Mm.”
“Sometimes you like life’s simple pleasures.” Alastair took a bite of his own. “This is one of them.”
Dar had to agree. “Bet your wife is looking forward to you getting home, huh?”
“Lady, you know it.” Alastair settled back in his chair, balancing a can of root beer on the arm. “We can share a ride to the airport. “ He said, casually. “Get a few minutes of private chat time.”
Dar nodded. “You talk to the board?” She glanced up to see the door open, and Hamilton appear. “Ah. Lawyer’s in the house.”
Alastair turned his head. “Hey, Ham, over here.” He called out. “Grab yourself a piece of pie and sit down.”
Their corporate lawyer complied. He laid two pieces on a paper plate and came over to join them. Atypically, he was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt rather than his usual suit and he settled into the chair across from Dar with a weary grunt.
“Got your tickets?” Alastair asked.
“Hell yes.” Hamilton answered. “I’ve had enough of the neighborhood to last me a coon’s birthday.” He bit into his pizza. “I’m on your flight back to Houston, Al. I’ve got so much paperwork to dig through I might as well take up your space to do it.”
Alastair grunted, and nodded.
‘Where are we with all those government demands?” Dar asked.
“Don’t go there, Maestro.” Hamilton waved his pizza at her. “Do not ask about any of that. Just please go back to Miami and continue being brilliant and let me do my job.”
Dar blinked at him. “Sure.” She said. “All yours.”
“Let’s just say I had my hands full the last couple of days.” The lawyer said. “Al, you owe me a damned fine steak dinner out of this.”
“No problem my friend.” Alastair took a swig of his root beer. “That’s a debt I’m glad to pay. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in the next few days.”
“Got that right.”
Dar could feel Kerry’s gentle breathing under her hand, and she was reassured by the easy rhythm of it. She could sense a feeling of relief in the people around her, both the natives and the vistors, and even a few smiles from the New York staff as they joined their teammates in the pizza and drinks.
She wished she could go to sleep along with Kerry. The thought of going through the hassle at the airport and then the flight home was absolutely exhausting.
Dar looked up at Hamilton. “Mm?”
“Good job.” The lawyer toasted her with his soda.
“Thanks.” Dar answered. “Was it worth it?” She indicated the television screen in the background, which had CNN on it. “Market’s dropped how many hundred points?”
Hamilton shrugged. “My daddy, who I will tell you thought I was coming down in the world when I went to law school, advised anyone who would listen that only fools lost money in the stock market. Everyone else just recognized a fabulous buy opportunity when they saw it.”
“Our stock’s up.” Alastair remarked dryly.
“Airlines are dropping.” Hamilton added. “That’s why I want to get my Louisiana lily white ass out of here before they go bankrupt and stop putting fuel in the tanks before they take off.”
“Think they will?” Alastair asked. “People won’t stop flying.”
“Won’t they?” Hamilton asked. “Who’s to say it wont’ happen again. People don’t like dying. It ruins their day, Al.”
They all went quiet for a moment. “Well.” Alastair half shrugged. “I’m not walking back to Houston so I guess I’ll risk it. Bad enough I almost ended up having to swim from the Bahamas or get sailed in by Captain Roberts, here.”
“What?” Hamilton stared at him.
“Oh, didn’t tell you about that part, did I.” The CEO rested his head on his fist. “So damned much has happened I’m losing track.” He pondered that. “I need a vacation.”
“C’mon down by us.” Dar offered. “I’ll teach you to scuba dive.”
Hamilton chuckled. “I’d love to see that.” He leaned back in his seat. “See some octopus chasing your ass around the ocean.
Alastair rolled his eyes. Then his cell phone rang and he set his pizza down to answer it. “Now what?” He opened the phone. “Hello?” He paused, listening. “Well, hello governor.”
“Even if I had grits, I wouldn’t let that cheap excuse for a catfish kiss them.” Hamilton indicated the phone. “He’s got nothing but everyone’s worst interests in mind.”
“Well, thanks, but we…. No, I don’t really think we’ve got the… ah, sure, but..” Alastair removed the phone from his ear and stared at it. “Well, goodbye to you too.” He studied the instrument, and then he folded it and returned it to his pocket.
“And?” Dar asked.
“The governor has a list of things he wants us to do.” Alastair said. “He’s on his way over here with a group of something or other and intends on staging a press conference and setting up a task force center.”
“Guess he figured out which side we were on.” Dar mused.
“Guess he wants everything for free.” Hamilton added dryly.
“Guess he can kiss my ass.” Alastair stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “Ladies and gents, please listen up.”
The room got quiet quickly, and everyone turned to face him.
“I’d like to thank you all for everything you’ve done in the past week. We’ve done a hell of a job here, despite a lot of personal struggle and tragedy, and believe me when I tell you I personally appreciate that more than I can say.”
Tentative smiles appeared. “It’s been good having you here, sir.” One of the New York staff said. “We really appreciate all the support we’ve gotten. Everyone’s been so wonderful.”
“Thanks.” Alastair smiled at them. “But right now, what I’d like you all to do is get your things, and pack everything up, and leave the office, quickly as you can.”
Everyone stared at him in some surprise.
“Sir?” The man said. “Is there something wrong?”
“Not a thing.” Alastair assured him. “There’s just some folks coming down here to try and ask us for something I don’t want to be around for. So let’s get moving, please. Those of us who are visiting are about to head for the airport anyway.”
Everyone stirred, and started to leave the room, still obviously puzzled. “Paid time off, of course.” Alastair added. “Chop chop.”
Hamilton had his head tilted back to watch the CEO. “You’re becoming an ornery old bastard, Al.” He commented. “How’s that going to look if the governor shows up here, and no one’s home?”
“No one’s here, he can’t ask anyone, can he.” Alastair retorted. “Get a move on, Ham. Get us a car ready and let’s scoot. Move it.”
Hamilton got up and bowed, then headed off towards the door, chuckling under his breath. Alastair turned to Dar, his brows hiking “You ready to go home, lady?”
“More than.” Dar said. “Dad just got back with our bags, so we’re ready to go soon as I wake Ker up.” She glanced down at her partner. “You sure you want to piss this guy off again?”
“Bastards were threatening to have us all picked up as terrorists and held without counsel, Dar.” Alastair said, in a mild tone. “You want to spend any more time here?”
“Would they have really done it though?” Dar started to gently scratch Kerry’s stomach, to get her to wake up. “Or was it just a bluff?”
“I had federal agents on either side of me with handcuffs in that Exchange.” Her boss said. “They were all set to announce to the press that they’d uncovered a terrorist plot to overthrow the government by co-opting its information technology.”
Dar stared at him. “You’re serious?”
“As a heart attack.” Alastair said, with commendable calm. “So wake up your sleeping beauty, and let’s get outta here. I only hope they don’t give is a hassle at the airport.” He turned and watched the room empty, except for Andrew who was perched nearby on a chair arm, the bags on the seat next to him. “Ready to move out, commander?”
“Surely, genr’l.” Andrew responded. “Sooner we get out of this place, better for us.”
“You got that right.” Alastair headed for the door. “Move it people! Move it!”
“All right, let’s go.” Alastair got into the limo and settled across from Dar. “Feeling any better, Kerry?”
“Eh.” Kerry was wedged in the corner of her seat, her hands tucked inside the pocket of her hoodie. “My ribs are killing me, but my head feels a lot clearer.” She admitted. “The nap helped.”
The limo started moving, with the bus right behind it where the rest of the team was riding. Kerry and Dar were alone with Alastair and Hamilton, and Kerry almost wished she wasn’t. She had a feeling she was going to be hearing things she wasn’t going to like.
Dar was seated next to her, stifling a yawn. She had her briefcase next to her and a bottle of water in one hand, and she looked both tired and distracted. “You think they’ll… what do you think they’ll do when they get here and the office is closed?” She asked.
“Beats me.” Alastair put his hands behind his head. “I’m sure he’ll call me, and I’m sure I’ll think of some lie to tell him about it. Maybe I took the office out to Central Park for buggy rides.”
“Al.” Hamilton tsked.
“Sorry Ham, I just don’t care.” Alastair said. “I’m not spending one more minute here getting beaten to hell by these bastards. I’ll exit the contracts, all of them.”
Even Dar blinked.
“I figured.” Alastair cleared his throat. “I figured they’d pin me, when I told them we weren’t doing the work for them. I figured we’d get bad press, and I’d be pretty embarrassed on television, but hell. How bad could it really be, right?”
“But that wasn’t going to happen.” Kerry spoke up, her voice still slightly husky. “Was it? I heard the technicians in the Exchange talking about the FBI.”
“Found out when I got there that it was a lot worse.” Alastair said. “They figured they’d out us as plotting against the government, the company, that is. Had it all laid out. The fact we snuck into the country, all the exceptions we asked for, the guard fracas down by the river, you name it. They had so much detail on so many things they could twist to make us look like the bad guys… hell.”
“But none of it was true.” Kerry said. “We did nothing but good for them.”
“Truth didn’t matter.” Alastair said. “They wanted a big splash on CNN, big scandal, show they were on the ball, they’d uncovered a plot…”
“They didn’t fall down on the job like they did last Tuesday?” Dar spoke up for the first time. She smiled grimly as Hamilton pointed both index fingers at her.
“But really.” Kerry said. “They have to prove things like that.”
“No they don’t.” Hamilton said. “That’s what changed, They passed a law that gives them the right to hold anyone they think’s a terrorist for however long they want, wherever they want, without no charges, or no lawyers.”
Kerry stared at him. “What?”
“Ask your mother.” Hamilton said. ‘They said it was necessary so they could find more terrorists planning other atrocities here.”
“But we’re not terrorists.” Kerry said.
“It doesn’t matter.” Alastair exhaled. “That’s what I finally understood, standing there on hat damn platform with those damn smug jackasses all around me, the one of them telling me exactly what they were going to do because they knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“All that mattered was the spin.” Hamilton said. “They told me that when I was looking to file those lawsuits. Told me to not even bother. The law didn’t matter right now.”
“So anyway.” Alastair picked the ball back up. “There I am, standing in the middle of hell wondering how I’m at least going to warn my wife I won’t be home when I spot Kerry standing there with a gaggle of senators and I’m wondering what on earth’s going on.”
Kerry managed a smile. “I walked into the building with my mother.” She said. “It’s the only way I was going to get in – she ran interference with the guards but she had no idea what was going on either. I just had time to get to the server room and put the optic in place before I got upstairs.”
“So you knew they were up?” Hamilton asked.
Kerry shook her head. “I knew the link was up and I knew the rest of it was up to Dar.” She looked over at her partner. “She had about two minutes to do what I guess was about three hours work.”
Dar shrugged modestly. “I type fast.” She gazed over at Alastair. “So you’re telling me after we did what we did at the Pentagon, and after we did all we did for them up to the Exchange, they were going to railroad us?”
Alastair nodded. “Honestly, Dar, it wasn’t personal.” He saw both women make a face, and glance at each other. “The VP and I go way back. In their minds it was a case of what they thought was right for the country versus a bunch of nerds from some company giving them a hive.”
“Scary.” Dar murmured.
“It was.” Alastair admitted. “I was standing there kicking myself for making a stupid decision and knowing we were all going to pay for it. I didn’t want us to be in a public failure. Instead, I almost walked us into the end of the company.”
“Except we got lucky.” Dar said.
“You really think that was luck?” Alastair asked, with a smile. “I think it was just people who refuse to stop until they hit the end zone.”
Dar shrugged again, lifting her hand in the air and letting it fall. “We made it happen.” She acknowledged. “I’m very proud of our team.”
“So am I.” Her boss said.
“What are you going to tell the board, Al?” Hamilton asked.
Alastair gazed out the window for a few moments in thoughtful silence. “Haven’t decided yet.” He said. “They know I turned em down – I told them I’d take the fall and they were all right with that.”
“Morons.” Dar commented.
Hamilton snickered. “Al, you have to tell them the whole deal. Lay it out. They gotta know in case this comes back at us.”
“Have Dar tell em.” The lawyer persisted. “She can get on that call with her typical badass attitude and tell them “Hey morons! Listen up!”” He gazed fondly at Dar. “You’d do that for Al, wouldn’t you, Maestro?”
“Sure.” Dar readily agreed. “But I think he’s right. I think you should tell the board exactly what happened, Alastair. Everything, including the threats because I think we’ll need to decide what the hell we’re going to do with our being the government’s IT Siamese twin.”
Kerry nodded, but kept quiet.
“Half our business is US Government.” Alastair stated. “Might get tough.”
“If we disband the company.” Kerry spoke up at least. “I vote we open a clam shack down in Key Largo where the highest tech item is a wifi hotspot on the tiki roof.”
“You ready to retire already?” Hamilton asked her, with a smile.
“Right now, yes.” Kerry answered. “In a heartbeat.”
“I’m with you on that one.” Alastair responded, surprising them. “I’m going to have a hell of a time going in to work behind that damn desk after what we all just went through.”
Kerry felt that at a gut level. The experience had changed all of them, to a more or lesser degree. She glanced past Dar out the other window, as she heard the faint rumble of an airplane taking off. “Almost there.”
Dar turned to look too. The entrance to the airport was guarded, and the limo slowed as they reached the checkpoint. “Let’s hope they don’t have orders to throw us in a paddy wagon.” She sat back as the driver opened the windows for the guards to peer inside.
“Hello there.” Alastair remained in a relaxed pose, his hands still behind his head. “Just catching a flight.”
The guard studied them, then turned away dismissively and waved them on. The window closed and they pulled into the airport terminal. “Guess we didn’t look dangerous.” Hamilton commented. “Little do they know, the poor suckers.”
“They’re going to freak with the bus.” Dar predicted. “We still have half a ton of gear in the back lockers.”
“Let’s hope they don’t.” Kerry said. “Dad’s back there.”
They got to the curb and eased out of the limo onto a sidewalk that was eerily quiet. There were guards stationed along the walk, but only a few cars were there discharging passengers. Alastair signed for the limo driver, and then they stepped back and stood together for a moment.
“Here comes the bus.” Hamilton indicated the big vehicle now winding it’s way towards them. “We should go in as a group. I think our tickets are booked on one big itinerary.’
“They are.” Alastair confirmed. “Bea took care of it.”
Kerry stood with her hands tucked into her hoodie pocket, watching the bus unload itself of its human and luggage cargo. The techs were all in good moods, glad the work was over and even more glad to be headed home.
She certainly was. She drew in a careful breath and let it out, wincing against the throbbing ache in her side. It felt raw and very painful, as though the bone was creaking in there and every movement almost made her bite her lip.
She felt Dar’s hand settle on her shoulder. “Hey.” She murmured.
Kerry pulled the hand on her good side out and waggled it, then returned it to its nest. “I’m glad I don’t feel like a zombie anymore but boy, this hurts.”
“I’ve got some Advil. Dr. Steve said you could take that.” Dar offered. “Let’s go inside and get through security and I’ll get you some.”
That sounded great to Kerry. She followed Dar into the building, with the rest of the group as they entered the terminal and started across the worn carpet towards the check in area. It wasn’t that busy, and they all went up to the counter at the same time.
Kerry stood quietly just behind Dar’s shoulder as her partner handed over both of their identifications and declined the offer to check their luggage. It all sounded very normal, and Kerry wondered if it had been that normal for the hijackers as the had checked in not quite a week ago.
The gate agent asked Dar if she’d packed her own luggage. Dar answered that she had, and that no one had given them anything to take on. But that wasn’t true, really, since Andrew had packed both their bags.
Should Dar have said that? In this case of course it didn’t matter because it was her father. But what had the terrorists said in response?
Had they smiled?
Were there more of them right here in the terminal, just waiting for their chance? Waiting for everyone to relax again?
“Okay, c’mon, Ker.” Dar handed her a folder. “Here’s your boarding pass.”
Kerry took it and stuck it in her hoodie pocket. She followed Dar through the winding lines around the corner and into another line, this time for security. “Hope they don’t ask to frisk me.” She said. “I can’t hold my right arm out.”
“Why in the hell would they want to f… no, let me rephrase that.” Dar settled the straps of both their bags on her shoulder. “I totally understand the desire to frisk you. They better not think about it.”
Kerry chuckled faintly. “You’re so funny.” She sighed, as the rest of their group caught up to them in line. “Hey dad.”
“Hey kumquat. You doing okay?” Andrew had his bag over his shoulder, and he eyed the ones Dar had but didn’t grab for them.
“Eh.” Kerry moved forward in line as they approached the security station. “I’ll be happy when the plane lands.”
“You got that right, boss.” Mark agreed. “Thanks for making a deal to get those trucks back, Dar. I really didn’t feel like driving back tonight.”
They got to the front and filed into the security line. Kerry was guiltily content to allow Dar to put all her stuff on the belt, as she waited her turn to go through the x-ray machine. She stepped through and heard no tell tale beeps, but she looked at the guard anyway in question.
He took her boarding pass and looked at it, then waved her through. Gratefully she went to the belt and reclaimed her overnight bag and briefcase just as Dar appeared behind her. They got their stuff and continued on, moving down the hallway and then pausing to wait for the others.
Andrew was being held up in the line. Dar watched as her father produced a card, then waited, his arms crossed as it was examined. “He’s got metal plates in him.”
“I know. I remember when we went into the Federal building during my father’s hearings.” Kerry said. “Should we go help out? Oh, here he comes.”
Andrew shook his head, and picked up his bag. He slung it over his shoulder before he joined them. “Can you take it out.” He mimicked the guard’s question. “These people are some idiots sometimes I swear.”
Kerry smiled. They walked slowly towards their gate, the rest of the techs in group behind them. They all stopped at one gate, then Alastair, Hamilton and Nan started their good byes to go on to their own.
“I can’t say this was fun.” Nan said, to Dar. “But it certainly was something I will never forget.” She shook Dar’s hand. “Thanks for letting me be a part of it.”
‘Thanks for volunteering.” Dar responded. “I know the Virginia office will be glad to get you back.”
Nan moved on and faced Kerry. “I hope you feel better. “
“Me too.” Kerry worked her left hand out of her pocket and reached over to squeeze Nan’s. “Take care, Nan. I know I’ll be talking to you on the phone.” She paused. “And make sure you get your brother’s resume in.”
Nan blinked. “You remembered that? Wow.” She laughed a little, in surprise. “I feel like it was a year ago when we had that conversation.”
Kerry smiled. “I have to catch the details.” She waved at Nan as she walked towards her gate. “Have a good flight.”
She turned to find Hamilton there. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a wry grin. “Boy, I hope we don’t meet like this often.” Kerry stated, catching sight of Alastair giving Dar a bear hug nearby.
Hamilton laughed. “You and me both, Kerrison Stuart.” He patted her gently. “Take care of the Maestro, will you please? I owe her one for this little shindig.”
“I will.” Kerry watched him step aside then she was being gently hugged by Alastair. “What a week.” She gave the CEO a one-arm hug back. “Hope you have a safe trip back to Houston, Alastair. Come visit us soon, okay? I want to see Dar teach you to scuba dive too.”
Alastair chuckled. “You’re on, Kerry.” He agreed. “You all have a safe trip home too. “ He gave the group a wave, and then he followed Hamilton down the hallway towards the next set of gates.
Kerry exhaled, as she turned and Dar put her arm around her shoulders. She looked up at her partner, seeing the exhaustion in her face. “I like Alastair.”
“Me too.” Dar agreed. “He’s seriously thinking of retiring.” She added in a quiet tone. “That’s what he just told me.”
“Wow.” Kerry looked back down the hallway. “I don’t blame him, but….”
“Yeah, but.” Dar mused. “I don’t want to work for anyone else.”
“Dar, they’re starting to board.” Mark came over and touched Dar’s arm. “I know you guys want to get on and sit down.”
Kerry was glad to head for the jet way. She was glad to hear the beep as her boarding card was processed, and the motion under her feet as she walked down the ramp to the airplane door and passed inside, greeted by the flight attendant who stepped aside and indicated her path to her first class seat.
They all had them. Dar had told Bea to book the whole team as first class, so she settled into her leather seat surrounded by the chatter of the techs and Dar’s low, burring response as they filled the first class cabin.
“Can I get you something to drink, ma’am?” The cabin attendant asked. “Some coffee maybe? You look a little tired.”
Kerry looked up at her. “How about some warm milk?” She asked. “Can you manage that?”
She sat back in her seat, resting her elbows on the arms. She was in the front row of the plane, and she could see the cockpit, a crude metal plate hastily covering it and it reminded her all over again of what had happened less than a week ago.
Were they safe? She looked around the first class area, which was mostly full of their own people. What if there was a bad guy, or more than one in the back? She watched the crew. They looked wary and worried, their eyes taking in everyone and everything.
Including Kerry and the rest of them here in first class, which she realized, included Kannan’s exotic features, and Andrew’s scarred intimidation. Was the crew worried about them? Should they be?
The flight attendant returned with a steaming cup. She set it next to Kerry’s hand, and set down a small dish of warm nuts next to it. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” Kerry said. “Terrible week for you guys, huh?”
The attendant made a face. “The worst ever.” She said. “You live in New York?”
“No.’ Kerry indicated the people around them. “We’re from Miami. We work for ILS. We drove up to help out, now we’re going home.”
“Oh.” The attendant looked around the first class cabin. “Are these people all with you?” She glanced back at Kerry, who nodded. “That’s good to know. Every time I fly now, I wonder; who are these people? Are they crazy? Are they going to hurt me? I never felt like that before.”
“I think we all feel that way now.” Kerry commented, as Dar returned to her seat and dropped into it. “Hey. You got that Advil?”
“Sure.” Dar got up and rummaged in the overhead bin, pulling the bottle out of her backpack. “Can I get some coffee?” She asked the attendant. “Before we take off?”
“Sure.” The attendant gave her a friendly smile. “Be right back.”
Kerry watched her return to the service area and talk to her colleague, who had a list in her hand and was reviewing it. She looked at the list, then out at them, and then nodded, a look of perceptible relief on her face.
Wow. Kerry leaned back, as Dar handed her some pills. She popped them into her mouth and swallowed them down with a sip of her warm milk. What would it be like to go to work every day and worry about someone trying to kill you and everyone around you?
It would be like being at war, she guessed. Or being somewhere that bombs going off was an everyday occurrence.
Welcome to the rest of the world, America.
Dar took her seat and reached over the divider to take Kerry’s hand, curling her fingers around her partner’s and letting out a tired sigh, as they closed the door to the airplane, and they knew they were on their way.
“All right, you little scamp. Stay still a minute.”
Kerry did, closing her eyes as she heard the hum of the X ray machine. She was flat on her back, the chill of the table cool against her bare shoulder blades and her skin still just a little warm from the sun outside.
The sun of home. The achingly hot sun, and the thick, swampy air that coated her with sweat not ten steps outside the door to the Miami airport they’d landed at shortly before.
“Okay, got it.” Dr. Steve stepped around the X-ray shield and came to Kerry’s side. “That’s a hell of a bruise you got there, spunky.”
Kerry glanced down at her side. “Yeah.” She said. “It was so stupid, Dr. Steve. I tripped trying to keep some guy from falling on his face and ended up halfway under a raised floor.”
Their family doctor put his fingertip on her nose. “Next time let the guy fall on his head. Don’t cause yourself such a pain, huh?”
“Twenty twenty hindsight.” Kerry accepted his hand up and swung her legs off the table, easing off it to stand next to the doctor in her jeans and sports bra. “It still hurts like hell. But at least I’m not all foggy from those drugs they gave me.”
“Hon.” Dr. Steve put his hands on her shoulders. “That stuff could have killed you.” He told her bluntly. “You were lucky you were running around like a crazy woman because you could have sat down somewhere, and nodded off, and not woken up.”
Kerry stared at him.
“I am not kidding. Not only wasn’t it the right thing, but it was too big a dose for you. That size dose is for someone like Dar’s daddy. You are not the size of Dar’s daddy. I am going to call up that doctor and read him the riot act.”
Kerry took a breath, and then released it. “I don’t’ think he did it on purpose.”
“That’s not the point. We’re doctors. We’re supposed to know what the hell we’re doing and not deliberately try to kill people. It’s called the Hippocratic oath. Ever hear of it?” Dr Steve seemed truly outraged. “I’m sure that guy didn’t do it on purpose, he was just in a hurry.”
“Well.” Kerry picked up her t-shirt, holding it in her hands. “It’s a good thing Dar called you then, huh?”
“For once, she did. If it had been her, I bet she wouldn’t have.” Dr Steve patted her shoulder. “Now, go on in there and keep her company while I develop these. After that prescription, I want to make sure you don’t have a tennis ball inside there or something he might have missed.”
“Okay.” Kerry walked out of the X-ray room and down the hall of the small family practice, passing two occupied rooms with nurses busy at their work. Dr. Steve had cut the bandage she’d had on off and as she passed the reception desk, she saw the doctor’s daughter glance over and wince.
“Yow.” The girl stood up and came over. “Wow, looks like you got hit with a baseball bat.”
“Yeah.” Kerry smiled as Dar jumped up and headed over. “Hon, give me a hand with the shirt. The doc’s looking at my x-rays.”
Dar took the garment and gathered it in her hands. “If I’d known your ribs looked like that two days ago we’d have been home way before now.” She frowned at her partner, getting the clothing over her head and settling it around her carefully.
“I don’t care what they look like.” Kerry leaned against her. “I just want to go home and spend a few hours in our hot tub, have something scandalously decadent delivered for dinner, and crash with you in our waterbed after that. “
Dar paused, and looked slightly overwhelmed. “Boy, that sounds great.” She said, after a minute. “No laptops, no pagers, no pain in the ass government officials…”
“You guys had a rough time up there, huh?” Sheryl commiserated.
“We did.” Kerry said. “We’re glad to be home.”
Dr. Steve came out of the hallway, and crooked his finger at them. “C’mere, kiddies.”
Dar and Kerry joined him in his small office, where he put the X-rays up on a screen and turned it on. “Look here.” He pointed at a curved shadow on the picture. “That’s your rib, Kerry. You have not one, but three hairline fractures.” He indicated three things that looked like scratches. “A little more pressure, and that would have been a real fracture, and probably caused you a hell of a problem.”
“Yow.” Kerry grimaced. “So what do I do?”
“Nothing.” Dr. Steve said. “They’re already healing, see here?” He indicated a blur on one end. “We wrap you up and you go home and relax, which I gather is what you want to do anyway.”
Kerry nodded vigorously.
“I will give you something to take the edge off.” Dr. Steve continued. “Can I talk you into taking a few days off as well?”
“Absolutely.” Dar answered for her. “We’re both taking the rest of the week off.”
The doctor stared at her suspiciously.
“Thanks boss.” Kerry gave her a kiss on the shoulder. “Can we go out on the boat?”
“Absolutely.” Dar agreed.
“Let me get you wrapped up before this pipe dream disappears.” Dr. Steve waved Kerry out to the hallway. “I should take an x-ray of her head, the way she’s talking.”
Twilight found Kerry seated on the porch, a tall glass of ice tea by her side, and a Labrador at her feet. She rocked the swing chair back and forth with one foot braced against the railing, and savored the salt tinged air wafting past her face.
It was so good to be finally home. She reached down and scratched Chino’s ears. “Hey Cheebles.. you glad we’re back?”
Chino stood up and licked her knee, laying her chin there and staring soulfully up at Kerry. “Gruff.”
“I’m glad we’re back too.” Kerry told her pet. “I missed you.” She watched Chino’s tail wag, and felt like wagging her own in response. “Thanks for being good for your grandma.”
The sliding door opened, and Dar appeared, wandering over to join her and stepping over Chino to take a seat next to her.
“Ahhh.” Dar propped her feet up on the rail, and put her hands behind her head. “Damn I’m glad to be here.”
“Me too.” Kerry took a sip of her ice tea. “Listen to those waves.”
The ocean was crashing up against the beach, and the seawall, and they could hear rollers coming in. “Dad just called. He and Mom just made it back over to South Point.” Dar said. “He said we should get together for dinner sometime later on this week.”
“Sure.” Kerry leaned a little and kissed Dar on her bare shoulder. “Whatever you want to do is cool with me.”
Dar put her arm over Kerry’s shoulders and let her head rest against her partner’s. “I want to put you in the hot tub.” She said. “I have some cold apple cider chilling next to it and a bowl of cherries.”
Kerry was more than ready for that. She was already in her swimsuit and she joined Dar on the steps to the tub, easing down into the heated water as the scent of chlorine rose around her. The warmth stole into her bones and she felt a sense of relief as she settled in place and the bubbles rumbled around her soothingly. “OOohhhh.”
Dar slid into place next to her. She tipped her head back and looked up, to see a partly cloudy sky just starting to show a few stars scattered around. They usually visited the hot tub at night, when the shadows and indirect lighting let them dispense with the swimsuits, but it was very nice to just float weightless in the water as the sky turned dark. “Feel better?”
Kerry let herself relax, and felt the tension drain from her as the bubbles flowed gently over her body. Her muscles relaxed, and even the ache in her ribs subsided a little as she no longer bore weight on her chest. “That feels wonderful.” She admitted.
“It does.” Dar agreed. “If you didn’t have cracked ribs I’d suggest we go out for a night dive.”
“Ooh.” Kerry imagined the immersion and the rich twilight. “Stupid damn ribs.”
“We have time.” Dar offered her a glass of cider. “We can just be beach bums this week.”
Kerry sipped the cold, fizzy drink. “You were serious? We’re taking the week off?”
“This week, and next week if we want to.” Dar responded. ‘They just got a month’s worth of hours out of us in six days. We’re due.”
“Good.” Kerry set the cup down and closed her eyes. “I want to sleep in tomorrow. I told Mayte to just tell everyone who calls I’m on sick leave.”
Dar rolled onto her side and nibbled Kerry’s ear. “I told Maria to say our offices are closed for the week.” She whispered. “And not to save the voice mails or emails.”
Kerry eased over onto her side facing her partner. She rested her hand on Dar’s hip and leaned forward, kissing her partner on the lips. “We’re going to regret these suits, aren’t we?” She savored the sensual rush as Dar’s arms gently encircled her, pulling them together.
“Just this once I wish we’d put on bikinis.” Dar admitted. “Or waited until it was dark.”
Kerry had to admit she agreed. “Twenty twenty hindsight.” She settled a little closer and kissed Dar again, the rush of the water over her skin now equal parts comforting and erotic. She blocked out the recent past and concentrated on body pressed up against her, fingers already itching to slide the strap of Dar’s suit down her shoulder.
There was no pressure against her ribs, and though she still ached, she could breathe with some comfort in the weightlessness of the water. Even the ache faded as Dar’s hand slid along the back of her thigh and their lips met again, for a longer exploration.
It was so strange not to feel anxious. Kerry gave in to her inclination and slid Dar’s strap down, feeling a faint chuckle against her lips as she did so. So strange not to have all that tension and the ticking clock hanging over them.
The warm water suddenly swirled against her bare breasts as Dar neatly extracted her upper body from her suit before she even realized it was happening. She shoved aside her thoughts and focused on the teasing touch against her nipples, the gentle tweaks wringing a guttural sound from deep in her throat.
It was still twilight, but she didn’t care. She got Dar’s other strap down and they worked their suits off in something like harmony, motions slow and easy, ending in a rush of passion as their bare bodies met and brushed against each other.
Dar’s hand stroked lightly down the inside of her thigh, and Kerry forgot about everything except the desire she felt and the craving of her body for that touch. She half rolled onto her back as Dar’s attentions became intimate, her hands sliding down Dar’s sides in response.
The sensations built so fast she barely had time to take a breath, Her body felt like it was on fire and she surrendered to the wave of intensity, just holding onto Dar to keep herself from slipping under the water.
Her body tensed and convulsed, her grip tightening instinctively and then slowly loosening as her heart hammered incessantly in her ears. She let her head fall back and looked up at Dar, who was gazing lazily down at her, a sexy, knowing smile on her face.
The whole world could have changed around them, but it didn’t matter. Kerry cupped the back of Dar’s neck and pulled her head down for a kiss, her other hand making it’s way down her partner’s belly.
They mattered. This mattered. Being in love mattered. Let the world go crazy. She couldn’t give a damn.
Dar surveyed her handiwork on the tray, trying to decide if there were exactly enough grapes surrounding the crab claws and shrimp or if she needed to add another handful. Eventually she selected a few strawberries instead, and settled them in place, and then she picked up the tray and headed into the living room with it.
Kerry was sitting in one of the plush leather chairs in her pajamas, her feet up on an ottoman, and a colorful dive magazine in her hands. She looked up as Dar entered, her face creasing into an easy grin. “Oh my gosh, Paladar. What do you have there?”
“Dinner.” Dar set the tray down on the table between the two chairs. “You wanted decadent, you got it. We’ve got seafood platters with a half dozen things to dunk stuff in, hush puppies, corn fritters, conch fritters, spicy fries, corn on the cob, a token bowl of cream spinach so you don’t spank me, and Baileys mocha milkshakes.”
“Ahhh.” Kerry surveyed the feast. “Where do I start?” She picked up the milkshake and sucked on it. “Mm.” She pointed at the magazine with her pinky. “We should go on a dive boat, Dar.”
“We own a dive boat, hon.” Dar curled up in the chair across from her partner. She picked up a crab claw and dunked it in a few things, then sucked the flesh from it with a low gurgle. “Mm..”
“Yes, I know.” Kerry selected a shrimp and scooped up a thick coating of cocktail sauce. “But I think it would be cool if we go somewhere the Dixie can’t take us, like Australia or Papua New Guinea and do a diving live aboard there.”
“Hm.” Dar nibbled on a corn fritter. “That could be fun. Is there a package advertised in there?” She pointed at the magazine. “Gimme. I’ll book us.”
Kerry tossed the magazine over. “Page 74.” She said. “It’s a nice looking boat, and they got good reviews.”
Dar examined the page, while she sucked on a crab claw. “You got it.” She said. “They’ve got a ten day going out end of October. Want that for a birthday present?”
Kerry grunted in contentment, carefully lifting her plate over and resting it on the arm of the chair as she dug into its contents. “That’s going to be so cool.”
They hadn’t talked about work since they’d gotten home. Dar had no intention of changing that trend. “How’s your side feeling?”
Kerry chewed her shrimp and swallowed before she answered. “It hurts.” She admitted. “If I breathe the wrong way, it’s painful, and if I move my arm around a lot. It’s not that bad though.” She went back for a crab claw. “It feels a lot better just being here in our home.”
Dar nodded in agreement. She stretched her legs out and propped her feet on the ottoman, reaching with her other hand out for the remote control. “What are you in the mood for?”
“Crocodile man.” Kerry said. “Anything except news and sports.”
“Gotcha.” Dar found the channel and set the remote down. “After we wake up tomorrow I’m going to go down and spool the boat up. Maybe we can do sunset on the water tomorrow night. I’ll have the club cater the galley.”
“Sounds great to me.” Kerry took a sip of her milkshake. “You think the seas are still up from that storm?”
“Hurricane Gabrielle?” Dar chuckled. “I’ll check the marine forecast, but it should be all right if we head south.”
“Head south.” Kerry mused. “Want to go to the cabin? Chino’d love that, wouldn’t you, Chi?”
The Labrador’s head popped up, ears perked. Her tail started sweeping the tile floor.
‘Yeah, I do.” Dar said, after a brief pause. “I want to get lost for a few days. Hard to do that here.”
Kerry looked up and studied her partner’s profile for a moment. Dar didn’t seem upset, just somewhat thoughtful and quiet, and she wondered what was going through her head. She almost asked, and then she decided to be patient and see if Dar would start talking about it instead.
They ate in silence for a little while, watching the antics on the screen. Kerry took a few forkfuls of the spinach and munched them, enjoying the fresh, green taste that cut the richness of the fritters and the tangy taste of the cocktail sauce.
The items were familiar to her. She and Dar often shared fresh seafood, which they both liked, and she’d gained a taste for the sweet spiciness of the fritters and the rough texture of the corn. She dipped a fritter in the spinach and chewed it, washing the whole thing down with a mouthful of milkshake that tasted almost as bad for her she figured it probably was.
Who cared? She picked up another crab claw and dunked it in the butter sauce. “Did I dream it, or did I actually show my mother my tattoo?” She asked, glancing at Dar. “I sort of halfway remember something like that.”
“You did.” Dar agreed. “You pulled your shirt off in the conference room and your mom was right there. I was counting your ribs.”
“Jesus.” Kerry laughed softly. “Oh well, Worse ways for her to see it I guess.” She said. “All in all, she really wasn’t that bad for all this, even before it happened. I think I was more of a jerk to her than the other way around.”
“She’s had her moments.” Dar demurred.
“No, I know.” Kerry worked on cleaning her plate. “Nothing’s going to change what happened between us, it happened. I know that, and I think she knows that. But I really was a bastard those first few days, Dar. I’m kind of ashamed of that.”
“But you’re such a cute bastard, Ker.” Her partner didn’t seem fazed. “Anyway, it all ended up pretty much okay, didn’t it? I thought she reacted pretty well to the tattoo. She didn’t freak out. Dad said she told him she was happy she’d been invited down here.”
Kerry munched a fry. “Yeah.” She said, after a moment’s thought. “She came through for us at the Exchange. She had no idea what was going on, but she just went with what I was asking.” Kerry remembered the moment. “Maybe there’s hope for us.”
“I’m thinking we’ll find out at your sister’s wedding.” Dar said, dryly. “I hope you get to pick your own dress, and you don’t have to wear one of those creepy bow front things.”
“I’ll pick my own dress. They know better.” Kerry smiled. “I’m glad for Angie.”
“Me too.” Dar said. “I was hoping they’d get together. I know your mother had them move in but two kids to take care of can be tough. I know my mother had a rough time with just me.”
“Just you?” Kerry looked affectionately at her partner. “Honey you’re equal to triplets in anyone’s book.” She finished the last of her fries and sat back. “Whoof. I’m stuffed.” She rested her chin on her fist, her elbow propped on the chair arm.
“Too stuffed for key lime pie?” Dar eyed her.
‘That’s what I thought.”
Kerry idly watched a seagull wheel over the dock, peering hopefully down at the tall figure wandering back up the beach. She was ensconced comfortably in the big hammock on the porch of their cabin, her bare feet dusted with sand and her skin slightly tight with sun and salt air.
It was Friday. She was several shades bronzer, a few pounds heavier, and her ribs had subsided to an ache she could manage with Advil. They had spent most of the week just lazing around the cabin, swimming in the surf and taking walks down the beach together since the weight of their dive gear was too much for Kerry’s injured side to handle.
They had spent time shell hunting instead. Kerry now had quite a collection of them, and she was pondering what to do with them as she swung in the languid air. Maybe some jewelry? She’d found several tiny olives she imagined would make pretty earrings, at any rate.
She wondered if Dar would like them. She knew some of her work colleagues would. Maybe she’d make a few for Mayte and Maria before they went back. There was a place down the road that she knew would have the settings for them and a goldsmith’s shop she could get chains at a little further south.
“Hey.” Dar arrived on the porch, tweaking one of Kerry’s toes as she dropped into a chair nearby. Chino trotted up after her, shaking herself free of salt and sand, before she went over to a large bowl near the door and lapped thirstily.
“Hey.” Kerry amiably replied.
“You decided yet?” Dar leaned back and laced her fingers behind her head.
Kerry studied her partner. Dressed in a tattered pair of shorts and a tank top, her dark hair windblown all to hell, it was very hard to imagine her willingly going back to their maroon offices in Miami encased in a business suit.
Or was that just rationalization for what she wanted to do anyway? Eh. Kerry smiled. Who cared? “I want to stay here. We can do a little work from our offices back there.”
“Great decision.” Dar complimented her. “Especially since we’re getting a couple of visitors next week. Alastair’s dropping by for his scuba lesson.”
“Really?” Kerry rested her hands on her stomach and twiddled her thumbs. “That should be fun. Is he bringing his wife?”
“Yes. They’re going to stay in one of the resorts down the road.” Dar said. “We’re going to have a board meeting while he’s here. Get some stuff resolved. Talk about the market. The whole worlds in a tailspin.”
“Okay.” Kerry wriggled into a slightly more comfortable position. “Sounds good to me. I still don’t have to look at email until Monday, right?”
Dar gazed at her, a faint grin on her face. “Nope.”
Kerry closed her eyes. “Good.” She wiggled her toes. “I’ve almost got my brain to the fully flushed point, where I maybe could start thinking of dealing with all the crap again by Monday.”
Dar got up and circled the hammock, taking hold of the edge and lowering herself into it next to Kerry. She snuggled up next to her partner and sighed happily. “I vote we move the company down here. What do you think?”
“Mm.” Kerry pondered that. “We’d have a hell of a time in hurricane season, honey.” She mused. “But yeah, I would love to leave the traffic and the chaos behind for a while.”
“Well.” Dar rested her head against Kerry’s. “It’ll depend which way the company wants to go. If we pull out of the government contracts like Alastair was talking about, that’s one thing. But I got an email from Gerry. “
“Apparently.” Dar cleared her throat. “That little bit of weenie waggling Alastair did had the reverse effect than he was looking for. He got some major mojo points for telling those bastards to kiss his ass.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake.” Kerry rolled her eyes. “Why in the hell would we want to get involved with them after what they did, Dar? They tried to screw us to the wall!”
“Huge amounts of money.” Her partner replied. “Unlimited budget. Unlimited resources. Gerry’s happy as a clam. He apparently thinks I should be too.”
“Are you?” Kerry turned her head to study Dar’s profile.
Dar looked up at the porch overhang for a little while as they swung together. “I’m a moderately patriotic person.” She said, finally. “My father’s a retired career military officer. I grew up on a military base. I came very, very close to joining the service.”
“I remember when you got that medal.” Kerry said. “You couldn’t have stood up any straighter if you’d been a soldier. “
Dar nodded. “I’ve always been very proud of the fact that our company handled.. no, protected so many resource of our country. I felt it was… it was always sort of a way I could be a part of that world even though I decided against it way back when.”
“And?” Kerry asked, after a period of silence.
“And now, after what we just went through with the people representing our government I feel ashamed to admit to anyone we have anything to do with them.” Dar’s voice was gentle, and reflective. “I feel betrayed.”
“When I was down by the battery, I gave one of those firemen working there some ice tea.” Kerry said. “He said the same thing. He felt betrayed.” She curled her fingers around Dar’s. “See, and I always came at it from the opposite direction, Dar. I always felt betrayed by our government because I lived with it. I saw it from the inside.”
“Mm.” Dar grunted. “I never thought of you like that.”
Kerry chuckled. “I know. I think you see me as a lot more innocent than I really am.” She said. “I don’t show you my bastard side.”
“You never did Even when I was going to fire you.”
“No.” Kerry admitted. “You never gave me a chance. I fell in love with you the minute I saw you and the worst I could be was indignant. God, how confusing that was for me. I wanted to be so nasty to you and I think the worst thing I ever said was…”
“That you hoped I was going straight to hell because that was where I belonged.” Dar interjected.
Kerry was quiet for a moment. “Yeah.” She said. “Right before you saved my ass from being robbed, and maybe raped, and probably killed. So much for my ability to judge people, huh?”
“Meh.” Dar shrugged, chuckling under her breath.
Kerry exhaled. “What are you going to do, Dar?”
“I don’t know.” Dar answered. “I just don’t know. I want to talk to Alastair, find out what he thinks, and tell him what I’m thinking. I know we talked about starting our own company before but…”
“But now maybe we mean it.” Kerry finished, in a soft tone. “I could make a change. I like what I do, but sometimes it’s like looking at a never-ending train track of problems just coming at you. I don’t know how you did it as long as you did.”
“You know what our biggest problem is? “ Dar pondered the ceiling again. “I know they’ll put me under a non compete clause if I resign, for one thing, and for another, if I open a consulting firm the first people who are going to banging at my door will probably be the government. “
“How long for the non compete?” Kerry asked.
“A year, probably. That’s the standard.” Dar replied. “But in return for that I get all my accrued vacation time, my pension, stock options… it’s a bribe but it’s a pretty good one.”
“So can we go traveling around the world for a year?” Kerry asked. “Just seeing stuff?”
Dar cocked her head thoughtfully. “Now, that doesn’t sound bad at all.” She admitted. “Is that something you’d like to do? You want to just blow everything off for a year?”
“Are you kidding me?” Kerry eased over onto her left side and wrapped herself around Dar’s body. “Yes. I would very much like to do that. Maybe after Angie’s wedding, we can just take off and go everywhere. Anywhere.”
“That would work.” Dar said, after a brief pause. “Because we’ll need to give them a couple months to find our replacements.” She smiled. “Wow. I can’t believe how good it feels to say that.”
Kerry gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks.”
“For?” Dar nibbled her earlobe.
“Not making me ask you to fire me.”
Dar looked at her in surprise.
“I’m halfway kidding.” Kerry admitted. “It’s just been so nice to be able to do whatever I wanted this week instead of what I felt like I had to do.” She traced one of Dar’s ribs. “I guess seeing what happened to so many of those people… made me realize how precious every minute is.”
Dar captured her hand and lifted it, kissing the knuckles. “Yeah.” She said. “That’s pretty much how I feel too. I don’t want to waste all my life minutes on broken routers.” She went nose to nose with Kerry. “We need to have more fun.”
Kerry grinned. “Of course, every time we try to have fun…” She reminded Dar. “We get our asses in trouble.”
“That can be fun too.” Dar cupped her cheek, and then kissed her on the lips. “You up for a walk on the beach before dinner?” She asked. “I think we’re going to have a nice sunset.”
They rolled carefully out of the hammock, and paused long enough for Kerry to duck inside and get her camera and a couple of bottles of beer. Then they sauntered down the steps and headed off across the sand, with Chino racing ahead of them.
“You think I could make shell jewelry Dar?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“But would you wear it?”
“Even if I made you a pair of three inch round sand dollar earrings?”
“How about a shark’s tooth necklace?”
“Now you’re talking.’
The End (for now)