“Ma’am, I do understand but I can’t let you go any further. It’s dangerous. They have the road blocked off, and they called the bomb squad.” The soldier said. “No telling when they’ll get here. They’ve been all over the city tonight. People are real nervous.”
Senator Stuart folded her hands in exasperation, turning to look at her aides. “This is ridiculous.” She said. “I understand security, but what are we supposed to do, sleep here in the car?”
“Senator, please.” The most senior of the aides, a middle age man with a bearded face said. “Let me arrange an alternative. I’m sure there’s a hotel in the area we can go to. I have your overnight bag in the trunk.”
“That’s a good idea ma’am.” The soldier added, respectfully. “Though you might need to call around, I hear it’s pretty busy.”
Cynthia sat back, distress apparent on her face. “Well, my goodness.”
“Mother.” Kerry leaned forward and touched her knee. “My hotel had two rooms left. I had them held.”
Her mother glanced around at the four aides. “I certainly do appreciate it..however…”
“My suite’s got three rooms.” Kerry accurately intercepted her concern. “You’re more than welcome to share it with me.” From the corner of her eye she saw the aides relax, their shoulders dropping and veiled looks of gratitude being nudged in her direction.
Her mother though, still hesitated.
“I mean.. “ Kerry could feel the irony right down to her toes. “We are related.”
That seemed to snap the Senator out of her reverie. “Of course we are.” Cynthia said, briskly. “Of course, and that’s a perfect solution. Thank you so very much, Ker..ry.” She motioned to the window separating them from the driver. “Please tell him to drive on to..” She glanced at her daughter.
“Mandarin Oriental” Kerry supplied. “It’s on the edge of town.”
Her mother’s eyes blinked. “Yes, it is.” She agreed, in a mild tone. “Lovely hotel. I attended a banquet there just last month.”
“Mandarin Oriental.” One of the aides told the driver. “Let’s get out of here.”
The car turned, and headed away from the blockaded area, and every settled back in their seats as they moved through the almost deserted city.
“Well.” Cynthia said, after a moment. “That was unexpected.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m glad you had the forethought to call the hotel, Kerry. That was very proactive of you.”
“I’ve been called that before.” Kerry decided her boss wouldn’t mind her taking credit for her quick thinking just this once. “I’m glad they had the space. It’s been a really long day.” She said. “I’m looking forward to just getting some rest.”
The aides nodded. “You’re right there, Ms. Stuart.” The senior aide said. “It certainly has been a rough time today.”
Kerry realized it was the first time the aide had addressed her directly. “This is one of those things where, I think, you’ll remember where you were when it happened.” She remarked. “I know I will.”
The other aides nodded.
Cynthia pursed her lips for a moment. “I do honestly think I’m very glad I was at home when I did hear.” She said. “And that all my children were there also. You do worry about your family at times such as this, and we had so much going on.”
Surprisingly, Kerry found herself in agreement. “I’m glad too.” She said. “I’m glad you weren’t in Washington, and I’m glad I didn’t have to chase around looking for Mike and Angie to make sure they were okay and that Mike wasn’t off in New York on some promotion or other.”
“Absolutely.” Her mother murmured. “Do you still have people unaccounted for?”
Kerry nodded. “But we hope it’s just because so much communication structure is not working.” She said, quietly. “Maybe we’ll hear from them tomorrow.”
A pensive silence fell. Kerry let her head rest against the window. Her eyes burned, and she checked her watch, seeing the hands pointing nearly to midnight.
It had been a very long day. The time she’d spent doing crunches in the early morning light now seemed to be from a different time.
A different lifetime.
She glanced out the window, seeing a blast of flashing lights. A line of police cars blazed past, heading in the opposite direction in an eerie, sirenless silence. She studied the buildings going past, most with darkened windows, some with entryways blocked by large, solid looking vehicles.
Kerry supposed that’s what it must feel like. No one really knew if there would be more attacks, and if there were, what form they might take. Car bombs? Maybe. Human bombs? Happened in the Middle East every day.
“Crazy.” One of the aides was also watching out the window. “What the hell’s wrong with these people?”
“Well.” Senator Stuart spoke up. “I would guess that they… whomever they are, probably are saying much the same about us, wherever they might be.” She said. “There’s just too much intolerance in the world. That’s really the problem.”
“Senator, these people are crazy. People who fly airplanes into buildings aren’t intolerant, they’re nuts.” One of the younger aides said. “That’s not human.”
“They were celebrating over there. Did you see that on CNN?” The young woman aide said. “There were people over there cheering when they saw bodies dropping from the tower to their deaths.”
Senator Stuart laced her fingers together. “Now, why would they do that?” She asked. “What kind of hatred can they have that makes them celebrate such a horrible thing?”
“I don’t think I want to know why.” The woman aide said. “There’s no way to understand that. We should just send our own planes over there and get them back.”
“Make them stop cheering.” The young male aide agreed. “They’re just animals.”
Cynthia frowned. “I’m sure we will do something as a response.” She sighed. “And yet, what will that bring in the long run? More disasters.” She shook her head. “I fear though, you are correct. We have no common reference.”
Kerry tilted her head to one side and poked her finger in her ear, wiggling it vigorously.
“Something wrong?” Her mother asked.
“Sorry.” Kerry gave her head a shake. “Thought I felt my brains leaking out there for a minute.” She laced her fingers together in her lap. “Lack of tolerance and understanding is not unique to the people who drove those planes.” She said. “I think it’s something that’s part of human nature, to not like and fear things we don’t really have a handle on.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed slightly, but Kerry managed to retain a mild expression. “But still, there’s no excuse for what those people did. There would be no excuse for us if we did it. Violence isn’t the answer.”
The senator nodded immediately. “Exactly what I meant.”
“Especially not in this circumstance.” Kerry went on. “Let’s say we do send planes over and drop bombs. Then what? We don’t know where the people who planned this are, so we drop a bomb and kill a couple thousand innocent people. How does that help? How does that make us any better than they are?”
“Well..” The woman aide said.
“So they just send more people to do more horrible things, and we send more bombs… what’s the point? That doesn’t get you anywhere.” Kerry sighed. “My mother’s right. We have no common frame of reference with this group of people who have been a civilization for twenty centuries at least more than our country has even existed. They might as well be ET.”
Cynthia looked a bit overwhelmed by the agreement. “Yes.” She said, after a pause. “My point exactly.”
Silence fell, as they drove on past another block of police cars.
“That was a really good movie.” The young male aide ventured. “ET, I mean.”
It almost made Kerry giggle. She leaned against the arm of the limo door and rested her head against the glass again and hoped the hotel wasn’t that far off. The conversation was veering towards the positively dangerous.
The hotel lobby was definitely quiet. Kerry had her bag over her shoulder, and she headed for the reception desk where two receptionists were standing, backs turned to her, watching CNN on the television.
One of the aides hurried to catch up to her. “Listen, Ms. Stuart..”
“Hm?” Kerry turned her head and regarded him. He was a medium sort of person. Medium height, medium coloring, medium shade of brown hair. The only thing that stood out was a set of beautiful, long, well maintained eyelashes that looked very much like they were fake.
She hoped they weren’t. “Yes?”
“Thanks for getting the rooms.” The man said. “I wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in the car.”
Kerry’s brows creased a little. “Don’t you have an apartment here?” She asked. “You don’t sleep in the towbnhouse garage, do you?”
The man chuckled. “No, there’s a staffers apartment building but it’s right across the street from the Senator’s place. We live there.”
“Ah.” Kerry removed her wallet as she approached the desk. “Good evening, folks.”
The two receptionists spun around. “Oh.” The one on the left hurried forward. “Sorry about that. We were just…”
“We know.” Kerry held a hand up. “It’s okay. I have a reservation.. actually, probably three of them.. under the name of either Stuart or Roberts.”
The aide looked at her, his brows knitting over his outstanding eyelashes.
“My married name.” Kerry was unable to resist, adding a smile after it as the man jerked a little. “I never know how Dar’s going to book it.”
“Yes, we do have them, Ms. Stuart.” The receptionist interrupted. “I have two deluxe rooms with two beds, and the Presidential Suite.” He glanced behind her. “Is there luggage we can take care of for you?”
“No.” Kerry handed over her corporate card. “I have just my overnight, and the rest of our party wasn’t expecting to need a hotel. Do you have a sundry kit available for them?”
“Of course.” The man said, instantly, handing her back her card. “This is prepaid, ma’am.”
Kerry rolled her eyes. “Of course it is.” She chuckled under her breath. “Okay, we need two keys for each room, please.” She tapped the card on the desk. “And could I get a pot of hot tea sent up to the suite? My head’s pounding.”
“Absolutely.” The receptionist scribbled something on a pad. “Any particular type? We have a selection.”
“Green Jasmine?” Kerry asked, hopefully. “With honey?”
“Not a problem.”
“Do we want to mention.. “ The aide glanced behind them, into the depths of the spacious lobby where the Senator and the other aides waited”
“Probably not.” Kerry said. “No sense advertising, even if my mother’s not really a hot potato on the international scene like my father was.” She caught the receptionist’s furtive glance, and smiled.
“Good point.” The aide agreed. “Presidential Suite huh? I’ve seen pictures of that. It’s swank.”
Kerry collected the keys being handed to her. “After a while, they just all look like hotel rooms.” She handed the aide the other keys. “No matter how nice, it’s just not home.”
They walked back across the lobby floor to where the rest of the group were waiting. The other three aides stopped talking as they walked up and glanced at each other.
The female aide cleared her throat. “Basil, you want to share? We went to college together.”
“Sure.” The other younger aide said. “No problem.”
The aide with Kerry passed out the keys. “That means I’ll share with you, Robert.” He said. “Ms. Stuart asked them to bring us up necessities.”
“That was very thoughtful of you, Kerry.” Senator Stuart said. “I am very glad I thought to bring my little overnight bag, myself.”
Kerry hefted her own bag. “Okay, have a good night, folks. Time to get some rest.” She herded them towards the big elevators, already imagining she could feel the softness of a bed under her back and the taste of hot tea on her tongue.
“Robert, please make sure my schedule is set for the morning.” Senator Stuart said, as they entered the elevator and it started to rise. “I think we convene at ten AM tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’am, that’s correct.” Robert said. “I’m sure the roads will be clear by tomorrow at breakfast.”
“I hope so.”
The elevator doors opened on the 4th floor, and the four aides got out. “Have a good night, Senator.” Robert gave her and Kerry a little wave. “Ms. Stuart.”
“You too.” Kerry waved back, as the doors closed and they headed up to the top floor.
“Well.” Her mother said, as the exited, and headed to the door of the suite. “This was certainly an unexpected end to a very unexpected day.”
Kerry opened the door and entered, holding it for her mother. She detected the competing scents of fresh wax, steaming tea, and chocolate, and even she blinked at the grand entranceway, and expansive stretch of the room they were staying in. “Wow.”
“My goodness.” Her mother stopped and peered around. “Is that a grand piano?”
“Is that a telescope? Kerry muttered in response. “Well, mother, I think we’ve got enough space here.”
“To play tennis, it seems.” Cynthia remarked, with surprising humor.
“I had them send up some tea.” Kerry felt a little nervous, and more than a little unsettled, now that they were there, and alone and she realized it. “Have some if you like. My throat’s a little sore.” She moved past the ornate living room and found her way into one of the bedrooms.
“There’s a large basket here. Is that from the hotel too?” Her mother called in. “How nice of them.”
“Is it fruit or chocolate?” Kerry responded.
“I believe it’s… yes, some type of candy.”
“Not the hotel. Dar.” Kerry looked around the room. “Hm.” She set her bag on the credenza and opened it. “Feel free to have some of that too.” She untucked her shirt from her jeans and unbuttoned it, kicking off her sneakers at the same time.
The windows had an expansive view, and she turned to look out them as she removed her shirt. It was a little hard to believe she was here.
Okay. It was impossible to believe she was here. Kerry went back over to her bag, removing her bra and trading it for a long, soft t-shirt that she pulled over her head. She unbuttoned her jeans and slipped them off, folding them in thirds and laying them down with her shirt on the dresser.
Then she squared her shoulders and faced the door, heading back out to where she could still smell the tea and hear her waiting parent. “Be good, Kerry.” She muttered under her breath. “Be good.”
The basket was a typical Dar basket. Kerry studied it, loosening the ribbons as she pondered whether her partner had some cosmic internet shopping service with her favorite things predefined and simply pressed the correct button at the correct time or whether she took the time to select each item.
Knowing Dar, if she’d had the time, it was the latter. She was single minded about certain things, and Kerry knew she was one of them.
The basket held several types of chocolates, a pair of soft, fluffy socks, an aromatherapy eye shade that smelled of peaches, and a beanie baby that was the image of her pet Chino.
The crinkly plastic came off. She set it aside, glad her mother had decided to retreat into the second bedroom. “Hmm.” She selected a wrapped Lindt chocolate ball and took it with her over to where the teapot was sitting along with the socks.
There were comfortable wing chairs to either side of the small table, and she sat down in one, putting the socks on her feet, then extending them across the marble floor and crossing her ankles. Dropping two sugar cubes in a cup, she poured out some of the steaming beverage, releasing a strong scent of jasmine in the air.
She unwrapped the chocolate and bit into it, enjoying the rich, creamy center. She washed it down with a sip of the hot, mildly astringent tasting tea, the clean freshness contrasting with the indulgence of the chocolate in a nice way.
“That smells lovely.” Her mother emerged, wearing the a plush robe and slippers. “Do you still favor tea? I remember you did always like it better than coffee.” She walked over to the table and prepared a cup for herself.
“I do.” Kerry said. “I’ll drink a cup of coffee in the morning, but tea after that unless I’m doing an all nighter or that sort of thing.” She took another bite of her chocolate. “This is pretty good.”
Her mother sat down in the other chair on the other side of the table with her cup. She took a sip. “It’s quite good. I prefer tea myself. I find it more delicate.” She said. “I think it’s calming.”
Kerry thought so too. “Might be the illusion of Zen.” She said. “But it works for me.”
They were silent for a minute. Kerry got up and went over to the basket, picking up a couple more of the Lindt balls and bringing them back with her. She sat back down and stifled a yawn, unwrapping a chocolate.
“That was very kind of Dar.” Cynthia ventured. “Very thoughtful. Does she do that often? I seem to remember Angela saying she’d gotten you a cake at the restaurant the other night or something like that.”
Kerry rolled a Lindt ball over in her direction. “On special occasions, sure.” She said. “When we’re apart, we try to do little things for each other.” She sipped her tea. “Not always baskets, but like reserving each other the nicest hotel room, or renting each other a fun car.”
Her mother paused, and looked around the hotel room completely. Then she picked up the Lindt ball. “I would say she did well in this round.” She commented. “It’s nice to here that you two get along so well. You’re really quite unlike each other.”
“Probably why we get along as well as we do.” Kerry said, briefly. “We like a lot of the same things though, and naturally we’ve got our work in common.”
“Of course.” Her mother said. “And you are both so clever.” She said. “You know, I was listening to Dar speak earlier. What a charming voice she has.”
Charming. There were lots of things about Dar Kerry found charming, but she half suspected her mother was trying to be a little over the top nice, to avoid any uncomfortable discussion between them. That was okay by her. It was very late, and she was both tired and emotionally overloaded from the day. “I could listen to her talk all day.” She responded with a smile. “But really, you should hear her sing.”
Kerry nodded, taking a sip of her tea. “We have a lot of fun together.” She said. “I’m sorry she’s going to be flying so long tomorrow. A lot can happen in ten hours.”
“Goodness.” Her mother murmured. “Isn’t that the truth. I don’t really know what to expect, actually. I think everyone was just overwhelmed today, and tomorrow all the reactions will start.” She said. “It’s been very curious to be involved in the government, you know. After being a spectator for so long I mean.”
“I bet it has.” Kerry said. “From the interviews we were seeing on the news, it seems like most of the people in Congress are pretty much in agreement with each other though.”
“Well.” Cynthia curiously inspected the unwrapped chocolate, then bit into it. “My, that is wonderful.” She said. “In any case, there is the things one is expected to say to the press and in public, and then there are the things everyone says in private in the council chambers, and that is what made me understand just how much of a charade we do play here in Washington.”
Kerry blinked a little in surprise. Not from the revelation that Congress often said different things to the press than to each other, but that her mother seemed so disapproving about it. “I just hope everyone sits down and thinks about what to do instead of just reacts.”
“I hope so too.” Her mother agreed. “What will your plans be for tomorrow?”
The long day was now creeping over her. Kerry blinked a few times. “I have to go to our offices in Virginia in the morning, to see what the problem is with the government officials showing up wanting to tap our circuits.” She said. “Then we’ll probably go to the Pentagon. I want to visit my team there.”
Cynthia pondered this for a minute. “Well, if there is anything I can help with on the government side.” She offered diffidently. “Please let me know.”
Kerry nodded. “Thanks. Hopefully, it’s just a misunderstanding.” She replied. “I’ve gotten requests like that before, where people ask for things because they’ve either been told to, or someone mentioned a buzz word and there really isn’t a full understanding of what they’re asking.”
Her mother finished up her tea and set the cup down. “Well, it has been a long day, so I will leave you to get some rest. Perhaps you can join us for breakfast before you leave?”
“Sure.” Kerry was too tired to even mind. “Good night…. Oh.” She felt a little sheepish. “Sorry about the table.”
Her mother, already at the door to her bedroom, turned and peered at her, a faintly bemused expression on her face. “I have to admit.” She said. “After all your talk about being this terribly different person, finding you under my dining room table amongst broken crockery was really quite amusing.”
There wasn’t really any defense to that. Kerry rested her head against her hand and gazed back at her mother through her somewhat disordered bangs. “Not everything’s changed.” She admitted, with a wry smile.
“No.” Cynthia smiled back. “Not everything Good night.” She turned and went into the bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her.
“Night.” Kerry remained slouched in her chair, sipping her cooling tea. She finished her chocolate, then she stood up and set the cup down, heading for the refuge of her room as the days tensions and discomfort started to rub against her like sandpaper.
She sat down on her bed, resting her hands on the mattress as she looked out the window.
She could see the Jefferson Memorial. It was shrouded in shadows, its normal brilliant lighting dimmed for safety she supposed, but she felt somehow that the somber sight reflected her attitude about the events of the day.
She felt like the world was overcast. With a sigh, she got up again and turned out the desk light, then she went to the already turned down linens and started to get under them.
Her cell phone rang. Kerry cursed under her breath at it, then she leaned over and grabbed the phone, turning and using her momentum to land back on the bed as she opened it. “Kerry Stuart.”
“Hey sexy. You naked under the sheets yet?”
The mental whiplash made her sneeze. “Buh!” She rolled over onto her back, her gloomy thoughts lifting like magic. “I forgot to text you!”
“Is that a yes or a no?” Dar’s voice sounded amused. “Or were you partying with your mother?”
Kerry started laughing, ending a wry sound. “Actually we had tea and chocolate together. Thank you, my love. The socks are warming my toes as we speak.”
“I was just standing on my head for twenty minutes. My nose is throbbing.” Dar informed her. “It’s goddamn boring in a country mansion in England at five in the morning you know that?” She complained. “I’m afraid to go out and run in case they have foxhounds or something out there.”
“Well.” Kerry smiled. “You’re a fox. It’s a valid concern.” She heard a conspicuous silence on the other end and her smiled grew wider. “Oooo.. I gotcha.”
Dar chuckled softly. “You did.” She admitted. “So how’s it going?” Her voice altered. “I’m stopping you from sleeping so I’ll keep it short.”
“Don’t.” Kerry said. “I could easily talk to you all night long.” She added. “Even my mother thinks you have a charming voice.”
Kerry cleared her throat a bit. “It’s not bad.” She said. “This thing you rented for me could hold our entire department with room for our dog. Mom’s being okay. I think after that blowup she’s just staying away from a lot of stuff. Which is fine by me.”
‘I wasn’t in the mood for a fight tonight anyway.” Kerry said. “And after I made that whole speech about being grown up and everything we were playing hide and seek in the house and I knocked a freaking table over. Ended up breaking a bowl the size of our sink at home.”
She could hear Dar muffling a snicker. “No, go ahead and laugh.” Kerry sighed. “Talk about blowing my image. I could have smacked Mike. He tripped me right into the damn thing and I hit the legs sideways.”
“Table didn’t have a chance.” Dar commiserated. “You’ve hit me in the knees. I know what that feels like.”
“My sister was laughing so hard she was crying.” Kerry admitted. “And the look on my mother’s face when she came around the corner to see what the hell was going on was pretty much priceless.” She paused. “It reminded me of the fact that growing up in that house wasn’t always a horror show.”
Dar chuckled aloud.
“Anyway.” Kerry sighed. “So it’s not going too bad. How about you? Are you ready to fly?”
“Yeah. Actually, the timing is going to give me a problem trying to get hold of Gerry.” Dar said. “If I don’t get him before I take off, I might need you to call him.” She said. “I’ll message you if that’s the case. It’ll be really early your time when I leave.”
“No problem.” Kerry said. “I think I’m going over there in the afternoon so I can touch base with him. Shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Good.” Dar said. “We can stop taking about business now.” She said. “How did my voice come up in conversation?”
Kerry closed her eyes and smiled, narrowing her world down to the sound in her ear. She reached over and turned the bedside light off, leaving her in darkness that only made their conversation all the more private. “She was being nice. She was listening to you when you were on the conference call. Angie said something too, about your accent.”
“Your cute little Southern twang.” Her partner clarified. “I’m so used to hearing you I don’t really hear it anymore but they both noticed.”
“I don’t have an accent. My father has an accent.” Dar said. “You have an accent.”
“No I don’t.”
“Sure you do.”
“I do not!”
“You do!” Dar insisted. “Everyone had an accent.” She said.” Except me.”
Kerry started laughing. “You’re so funny.” She said. “Thank you for calling me. I was starting to really get bummed out.”
“Why?” Dar asked. “You said things were going okay.”
“I know. I don’t know.” Kerry replied. “I just was. All the stuff going on and thinking about our people who are still missing, and not knowing what’s going to happen with the government tomorrow… it was just bumming me out.” She thought about that. “Do I sound like a weenie?”
“No.” Dar’s voice deepened a little, warming audibly. “I was getting bummed here too. I feel like I’m so far away from everything.” She admitted. “I’m glad we’re leaving today, but knowing I’ll be out of touch for that long is driving me insane.”
“Me too.” Kerry agreed, in a wry tone.
They were both quiet for a moment. “We’re a couple of goddamned idiots.” Dar said. “We’d give Mr. Rogers diabetes.” She sighed with exaggerated exasperation. “Wait. Let me go out and see if I can find a box of bonbons and a pair of pink fuzzy slippers.”
Kerry started laughing. “I have the bonbons and fuzzy slippers here, honey. Come’n get them.”
“If I could.” Dar said. “If I could close my eyes and will it, and be there, I would in a heartbeat.” She sighed. “But unfortunately I’m not a refugee from a bad science fiction movie of the week. I did tell Alastair I’d need to head out to Washington as soon as we got in the states though. I’m hoping the planes’ll be flying by then.”
“Me too.” Kerry could feel the beginnings of a disassociation that meant she was falling asleep. “Would you do me a tiny favor?”
“You have to ask?”
“Sing to me. Just for a minute.”
Dar hesitated. “Oh. Uh.. okay. Sure.”
“I just remembered when I was talking to mom what that sounded like and I want to hear it. I love your singing voice.” Kerry smiled, as she heard Dar clear her throat softly, and she took a deep breath and released it as her partner complied, easing her into sleep so gently she didn’t even remember the tune.
Dar turned the collar of her leather jacket up to protect her neck against the damp, chilly wind as she waited for Alastair to finish his goodbyes. She’d made the mistake of dropping off to sleep again after talking to Kerry and now she felt as foggy as the sky appeared, waking up again only ten minutes before they were supposed to leave.
The only thing that had saved her ass was that she’d grabbed a shower and packed while waiting for Kerry to get to her hotel, so she just had to throw her clothes on, brush her teeth and hair and try to pretend her brain wasn’t somewhere in the southern Caribbean where her dreams had taken her before she woke.
On the boat, in the sun, Kerry’s warm body curled up next to her and the late afternoon sky getting ready to set and provide them with an evening entertainment.
God damn she wished it hadn’t been a dream.
Her cell phone rang. She unclipped it from her belt, glancing at the caller ID and hoping it was Gerry Easton. It wasn’t, but she was glad to see the name anyway. “Morning, Mark.”
“Hey Boss.” Mark sounded absolutely exhausted. “We just crossed into North Carolina. What a bastard of a drive.”
“It is. How are things going? I didn’t have time to login to the desktop this morning. We’re about to leave for the airport.” Dar felt a distinct sense of embarrassment.
“For us, we’re cool.” Mark said. “Nothing big new on the board, and all that, since it’s like two thirty am. But we just heard they closed down NY again and found some truck bomb trying to cross one of the bridges.”
“Shit.” Dar exhaled. “Kerry’s in Washington.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her MIS chief sounded unhappy. “But hey, she’s probably safe someplace, right? She’s not like, at the Pentagon, is she?”
“No.” Dar caught motion of the corner of her eye, and saw Sir Melthon and his staff walking towards her, the magnate still in discussion with Alastair. “She’s in a hotel, but I’m about to get on an airplane and be out of touch for ten hours. I’m going to lose my mind.”
“Well, Dar, we ready?” Alastair said, as they closed in on her. “Everything all right?”
“Hang on Mark.” Dar put her cell phone on mute. “Just getting a status.” She said. “Sir Melthon, it’s been a true pleasure working with your team, despite the circumstances.”
“Likewise.” The magnate said. “Now, I know this is not really the time to discuss this, but I have a schedule to meet. I need to know how this event is going to impact that.” He held a hand up. “McLean, this changes nothing in our pact. I’m not an idiot. I know full well this disaster requires attention.”
Alastair and Dar exchanged looks. “I’ll know better once we get back to Houston.” Dar said. “The resources tied up normally in that side of our organization would not be dedicated to your project, but I’m going to have to pull people in so I need to assess.”
The Englishman frowned, but he also nodded at the same time. “Fair enough.” He said. “My godson tenders his regrets. He had to hurry back to Hamburg last night. An aunt of his was taken sick.”
“Hope she’s doing better.” Alastair said. “As Dar said, let us get back and sort ourselves out, and we’ll be back in touch soon as we can.” He held his hand out, and the magnate gripped it. “Thanks for your hospitality. Hope I can return it sometime if you’re in my neck of the woods.”
“Could be I’ll take you up on that.” Sir Melthon said. “Wouldn’t mind seeing your headquarters, but not until after all the frooha passes on.” He extended his hand to Dar. “Ms. Roberts, believe me when I say it has truly been an honor.”
Dar took his and traded strong grips with him. “I’m glad you’re a customer.” She said. “You’re the kind I don’t mind going two hundred percent for.”
Sir Melthon smiled, looking for a moment as though twenty years had been erased from his face. “Have a good flight home, you lot. Let us know if you get in safely. My man here will get you to the airport fast as London traffic allows. Which means… hold on to the armrests and close your eyes if you’re smart.”
Dar waited until they were in the car before she unmated the phone. “Sorry about that Mark.”
“No problem boss, I got a grilled cheese sandwich and a Bawls out of it.” Mark replied, in a somewhat muffled tone. “These RV’s are awesome. We should keep one around the office.”
Dar sighed. “I’ll put it on the budget list.” She said, in a distracted tone. “Now, where were we?”
Mark rustled some paper. “We were just talking about stuff going on.” He said. “You were bitching about having to be out of touch for ten hours.”
“Ah.” Dar glanced at Alastair. “Hang on again.” She waited for her boss to turn his head. “Mark says they reported a truck bomb in Manhattan.”
“Damn it.” Alastair exhaled. “Damn it all to hell, this has to stop.”
“Sorry.” Dar went back to the phone. “Just catching Alastair up.” She braced her elbow against the door and rested her head against her hand. “I talked to Kerry earlier and there were bomb threats in Washington too.”
“Yeah, they were saying.” Mark murmured. “Some place near the Capitol, and two other ones around there.” He hesitated. “Listen, boss, you want me to go find her instead of heading through? If we keep driving, we’ll probably make it before you land.”
Dar was silent for a moment, weighing her personal desires against her judgement.
“Hey Dar?” Alastiar touched her arm. “You all right? You look a little pale.”
Dar felt a little pale. “Yeah.” She said. “Just woke up with a headache.” She drew in a breath. “Keep going, Mark. I’m not sure where Ker’s going to be by the time you get there, and it’ll be a wild goose chase.”
“You sure?” Her MIS chief asked.
“Yeah.” Dar said, briefly. “She’ll be all right. They’re going to need you in the city.”
“Okay.” Mark said. “I’ll drop her a note with my cell and remind her I’ll be passing through though, okay?”
Dar managed a small grin. “Sure.” She said. “At worst maybe she’ll need you to rescue her from her mother.”
“Hey, you volunteered.” Dar felt her neck muscles relaxing a trifle. “What else is going on? We find any more of our folks?”
“Two, in Washington.” Mark replied. “They weren’t even at the Pentagon, like they were supposed to be. They got sent on a run to get freaking doughnuts, and got in a car wreck.”
“Oh.” Dar murmured. “Hope they’re okay.”
“Sure.” Mark said. “Numbskulls didn’t have a cell with them, and decided to take the rest of the day off with a freaking doctor’s note and went hiking.”
She could hear the frustration in Mark’s voice, a mixture of relief that the two workers were all right and anger at their desertion. “Did you talk to them?”
Dar watched Alastair watch her, distracted by the realization that her boss had never really seen her exercise the management part of her position. It got her mind off Kerry, and her discomfort, and she felt her concentration sharpen. “How old are they?”
Mark chuckled wryly. “Twenty.” He admitted. “Freaking kids.”
“Do you remember what you were like when you were twenty?” His boss asked him, suppressing a smile. “Hm?”
“Sure.” Mark replied. “But that’s squashed by the fact I also remember what you were like when you were twenty so I don’t’ wanna cut them that much slack.”
The unexpected retort made Dar laugh, despite everything. “Ahh, yeah.” She said. “I was an anal retentive workaholic control freak, wasn’t I?”
“Was?” Alastair asked, his blue eyes twinkling.
“Was?” Mark asked, at the same time.
“Hey.” Dar growled. “You can’t have it both ways, the two of you.” She said. “Either I’ve mellowed or I haven’t. Pick one.” She knew the answer, though. She wasn’t the asshole she had been back then, because if she had been she and Kerry would never have lasted together.
That was her yardstick. She could look back now on things she’d done and things she’d said, and she just knew it wasn’t in her to be like that anymore. “Well?”
“Now, Dar.” Alastair patted her knee. “I’m just kidding you. For heaven’s sake.”
“Just messing with you, boss.” Mark chuckled. “You sounded down.” He added. “These guys pissed me off, but they’re pretty good techs.”
Dar was glad of the distraction. “They weren’t in the right place at the wrong time.” She said. “I think they probably know that, and they’ll remember it.”
“Besides, we’re going to need every hand we’ve got. So make em feel guilty and get them back to work.” Dar concluded.
“Okay. I’m cool with that.” Mark said. “I think they’ll be cool with it too.”
“And if that doesn’t work.” Dar mused. “Tell them I’ll show up there and spank their asses.”
“Blurp.” Alastair had been drinking from a bottle of water, and nearly sprayed it over the inside of the car. “Who approved that bonus plan?”
There was a moment of silence from Mark. “You want me to give them a perk after they pulled a stunt like that?” He queried. “Jeez, boss. I’ll be hiking to Paris next week. Can I get in it?”
Dar actually felt herself blush. Fortunately, the car was too dark for it to be visible. “What a bunch of kinks I work with.” She rallied, watching her boss chuckle. “All right. Let me let this line loose for someone else to get bad news on.” She added. “Talk to you later, Mark. Drive safely.”
“Will do, boss.” He answered. “Have a good flight, okay?”
Ugh. “Okay. Bye.” Dar closed the phone and let it rest in her hand as she leaned back in the car seat. “Damn it.” Despite the levity, she couldn’t dismiss the knot of worry in her guts. “Too much going on.”
Alastair watched her quietly for a moment, as she rubbed her eyes. “Sure you’re okay, Dar?” He asked. “I’ve got some aspirin if you want it.”
“Nah.” Dar tapped the briefcase by her right knee. “I’ve got some in there. I just woke up on the wrong side of the Atlantic this morning.” She pressed her fingers against one throbbing temple. “You think those bomb threats are real, or just people being nervous?”
Alastair took in his CIO’s tense body posture. He’d seen Dar in a number of business situations now, and he knew how hard it was to rattle her. Being almost fired by the board hadn’t. Standing up to new clients like Sir Melthon hadn’t. Even being in a hospital collapse had produced nothing more than that cool, collected front that put forward total confidence and total belief in self.
This was different, and he recognized that. This was personal. “Kerry make it to Washington?” He asked casually. “She doing okay?”
Dar went still for a minute, then she looked up, an openly vulnerable look on her face that probably surprised both of them. Then she took a breath and glanced out the window. “She’s fine.” She said, in an even voice. “I’m just not crazy about having her around things that might blow up.”
“Well.” Her boss folded his hands over his knee. “Tell her to get in a damn car, and start driving away from the place and keep going. Get the hell out of town or.. hey. Head back to Miami.”
Dar refused to meet his eyes. “It’s her job to be there.”
“Oh, screw that.” Alastair snorted. “Please. Give me a Christly break, Dar. Do you really think this job or any job is worth harming a hair on her, or yours, or mine for that matter’s head?”
Alastair waited. “But?”
Dar took a breath. “I can’t tell her not to do her job.” She said. “Not if everyone else is doing theirs. She won’t take that from me.”
Her boss studied her in silence for a moment. “That’s complicated.” He said, eventually. “Dar, I don’t envy your balancing act there.” He reached over and clasped her shoulder. “Want me to tell her?”
She appreciated, truly, what Alastair was saying. However, she’d agreed with Kerry that she needed to go to Herndon to do what it was the company paid her for, and at this stage, it was all in motion. “No.” She glanced up at him. “She’s a big girl, and she can make her own choices. Sending her off to hide somewhere is only going to royally piss her off.”
Alastair pondered that, then he nodded. “I can buy that.” He said. “But lady, it’s tough watching you sweat, know what I mean?”
Dar smiled faintly. Then she was saved by her cell phone ringing again. She opened it up and glanced at the screen, a prickle making her nape hairs stand when she saw Gerry’s name. “Ah.” She pressed the talk button. “Gerry??”
“Dar! Where in the hell are you!” The general asked.
“London.” Dar said. “Glad to hear your voice.”
“What? Oh.” Gerald Easton paused. “Bastards.”
“Mm.” Dar agreed. “Ker said you were trying to get in touch with me.I’m on my way to the airport.” She explained. “Everyone okay on your end?”
The General sighed. “The family’s fine.” He said. “Listen, Dar, I need to speak with you right away.” He cleared his throat. “You’re in London, are you? We can fly you back here.”
Dar glanced at Alastair, whose brows were twitching. “We’ve already got a plane chartered, Gerry. But what did you have in mind?”
“Hang on.” He clicked off.
Dar exhaled. “Wants to fly me back to the states. Says he needs to talk to me.” She told her boss. “Doesn’t sound good.”
“Mm.” Alastair grunted. “Depends what he wants to talk about, I suppose.”
“Hello, Dar?” Gerry came back abruptly. “We can have a transport pick you up just near dinnertime there. How’s that?”
“Our flight leaves at ten AM, Gerry. I think it’ll be faster, but..” Dar considered. “We’re flying into Mexico and driving to Houston. I could use a lift from there.”
“Houston!” General Easton spluttered. “What in the hell’s the.. oh, that’s right. That’s where your paycheck’s cut, isn’t it?” He said. “Okay, call me when you land in Mexico. We can swing that easier than the overseas flight.”
“Okay.” Dar said. “Kerry’s in Washington. Anything she can help with?”
“Is she?” General Easton said. “I think I should talk to you first, Dar. It’s a little sticky.”
“All right.” She responded. “Gerry, this doesn’t have anything to do with a bunch of suits showing up at our Herndon office does it?”
Long pause. “Eh?” The General grunted. “Well, to be honest, it’s hard to tell from here right now what has to do with anything, Dar. Do yourself a favor though, will you? Don’t say no to anything right off. There’s a bit of a headless viper lashing around and I don’t’ want you to get bit.”
Uh oh. “Okay.” Dar said. “I’ll call you from Mexico City then. I have a commuter scheduled for the border.”
“Right. Gotta go, Dar. Good to hear your voice too. Glad you were out of harm’s way.” The line went dead, leaving a faint echo in the car.
“Hm.” Dar closed the phone. “Headless viper.” She looked at her boss. “That doesn’t sound any way good.”
“Sure doesn’t.” Alastair murmured. “Sure doesn’t.”
Cynthia Stuart sat quietly, sipping her morning tea and watching the sky outside turn from black to gray with the coming dawn. She’d woken early, as she always did, and treasured the peace of the early morning to think about the coming day and go over her busy schedule.
She opened her organizer and flipped to the last page she’d updated from the day before, going over her notes, rereading again the horrors she’d put down in brief entries.
Only by reading the words was she really able to absorb the fact that all the terrible things had, in fact, happened. Sitting here in this lovely hotel room, it cut through the surrealness. After a moment, she closed the book and got up, walking silently across the floor to the just ajar door across from the table.
She pushed it in and peered inside, her eyes adjusting to the dim light as she studied the large bed inside with it’s still asleep occupant.
Kerry was curled on her side, her head on one pillow and her arm wrapped around a second. Relaxed in slumber, she was far less threatening a presence, and seeing the familiar position reluctantly made her mother smile.
Her eldest. Cynthia sighed, and closed the door, retreating back to the table and settling down to resume her notes. She picked up a pen and found her place, scribing a careful addition as she shook her head over the subject. “Terrible.”
The world was still gripped in it’s peculiar insanity, it seemed. She picked up her morning news brief, delivered quietly by her staff, and reread it. If she looked out the big windows at the edge of the hotel room, she knew she would see flashing lights, and the oddness of military transports in the streets and for a moment she honestly regretted her decision to complete her husband’s government term.
It would indeed have been better to be home. There was Angela and her children to get settled, and many small things requiring her attention and perhaps she could have had another day of Kerry and Michael’s presence to make it seem as though her family wasn’t quite as fractured as in truth it was.
Hard on the furniture that it might have been. Cynthia glanced up and smiled, hearing the echoes of that laughter the day before, and Kerry’s exasperated “Michael!!!” that had brought back so many more pleasant memories.
Cynthia jumped a little, not expecting the sound. She looked up to find Kerry in the door to her bedroom, still dressed in just a tshirt. “Good morning” She replied. “Did the room service wake you? I’m sorry if it did. He was trying to be very quiet.”
“No.” Kerry came over and sat down at the table. “I’ve been up. I didn’t really sleep that well.” She rested her forearms on the table and laced her fingers together. “Too many things on my mind, I think.”
The older woman studied her daughter. The tanned, serious face under it’s mop of shaggy blond hair was a little unfamiliar to her now; the planes had gotten a little longer, the jawline a touch more rounded, and there was a definite wariness shadowing the light green eyes that hadn’t been there before.
The t-shirt she wore pulled tight over her shoulders as she leaned against the table, showing the outline of muscles Cynthia didn’t find really appealing in her eyes, not really approving of women working so hard and gaining the attributes she more properly applied to men.
Though, it really wasn’t terribly unattractive. When her daughter was properly dressed it lent her body a pleasantly tapered shape despite her carrying more weight on her frame than ever before. It wasn’t really fat, and it wasn’t really the slimness she preferred; it just seemed odd to her eyes.
Cynthia supposed it gained her nothing to mention it. Kerry was obviously content with the way she looked and perhaps her own view was a little biased as she’d heard from friends around town how everyone else seemed to think she looked quite good, really.
She glanced at the strong hands on the table, her eye catching a glint as the light reflected off a ring on Kerry’s third finger. It was attractive and refined, and it fit her well. “That’s a lovely ring.” Cynthia said. “Is it new?”
Kerry glanced at her hand. “No.” She said. “Dar gave it to me at our commitment ceremony.” She explained. “We exchanged rings.”
Cynthia pondered over that. Commitment ceremony? “Is that… “ She paused, not wanting to upset her daughter with any assumptions over breakfast. “What exactly is that? What does it mean?”
Kerry tapped her thumbs together. “What does that mean.” She mused. “I’m not sure what it means to everyone else, but to Dar and I, it means we belong to each other.” Her fingers flexed a little. “We’re married.” She clarified.
She glanced up to gauge her mother’s response, seeing mostly a mildly encouraging thoughtfulness there. “As legally as we can be, of course, since our government seems to think gay marriage is as dangerous as an unstable nuclear stockpile.” She added a wry smile. “Dar and I had to spend a long time with a lawyer to get the same legal protection a five minute blood test and signature get for everyone else who isn’t gay.”
Cynthia’s face twitched.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Kerry got up. “Room service.” She said, as she went to the door and opened it. “Hello.”
“Ma’am.” The room service waiter, a slim woman, entered. “Your breakfast?”
“Thanks.” Kerry indicated the table. She followed the server over to the table, and waited for her to set the tray down. The woman did, then she turned, with a leather billfold in her hand, which Kerry held her hand out for, then signed.
“Do you need anything else, ma’am?” The woman asked, as she handed the bill back.
“Not right now.” Kerry smiled at her. “Thank you.”
The woman smiled back. “My pleasure.” She gave Kerry’s mother a respectful nod and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Kerry opened a packet of raw sugar and poured it into her cup, filling it with hot coffee before she added some cream and sat down to enjoy it. She sipped from the cup, aware of the faintly pained look on her mother’s face. “You don’t like that word, do you?”
Cynthia looked up, startled. “I beg your pardon?”
“Gay.” Kerry said. “You don’t like it.”
Her mother frowned, stirring her tea as she added a bit more hot water to it. “It makes me uncomfortable.” She admitted finally. “Yes.”
Kerry uncovered one of the dishes on her tray and picked up a cheerful looking cherry and cheese Danish. “Me too.”
Cynthia blinked, and her brows creased again.
“I don’t think I should have to define myself by who I sleep with.” Kerrry studied the Danish and selected a spot, biting into it an chewing. She swallowed, and wiped her lips with her napkin. “It’s kind of stupid.”
“Well.” Her mother took a sip of her tea. “You know, I think I agree with you on that subject.” She watched her daughter chew her breakfast. “Really, it shouldn’t matter, should it?”
Kerry looked up at her, eyes glinting with wry bemusement.
Cynthia seemed to appreciate the irony. She remained silent, fiddling with the teaspoon in obvious discomfort.
“It shouldn’t.” her daughter finally said. “So what’s going on this morning?” She shoved the conversation onto a different track forcibly. “Anything new?”
Her mother sighed. “I’m afraid they stopped a bomb, a truck bomb from crossing into New York last night.”
Kerry sat up, her brows creasing. “Good lord.” She said. “So they’re still doing things?”
Cynthia shook her head. “Apparently so.” She said. “I was waiting to hear further details. Perhaps.. “ She hesitated. “Perhaps your people have heard more?”
“Let me get my laptop.” Kerry set her cup down and got up. “And Dar’s flying. I’m going to be nervous wreck all day.” She disappeared into her room, leaving the living space in silence.
Cynthia folded her hands in her lap and bowed her head for a moment, her lips moving as she whispered a short prayer. Then she straightened back up as she heard Kerry coming back in the room, taking a deep breath as her daughter reappeared holding her computer in her hands.
It was exhausting, dealing with this child of hers. Though Kerry was certainly being civil, the hostility she felt was obvious to Cynthia just under the surface, and she wondered when, not if, that simmering anger would erupt again.
Very difficult. Hard to know where to start, really. She didn’t want to be so much at odds with her eldest daughter, but everything she’d tried so far to smooth the waters between them had ended bewilderingly badly and she wasn’t truly sure why.
She knew Kerry was angry about all that had happened before, but really now – it was in the past. Couldn’t be changed.
“What about what we ran into last night?” Kerry asked, as she opened the device and started it up. “Was that real? Mother, honestly, if there are bombs in the city, it’s insanity to go into the center of it.” She sat down and glanced across the table. “What if they already planted something at the Capitol?”
Her mother pursed her lips. “It’s a concern, certainly.” She agreed. “My staff was calling around to find out what the rest of my colleagues are intending on doing.”
Kerry leaned on the table with both hands, waiting for her laptop to boot up. Then she straightened. “Let me go throw some clothes on.” She said. “I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a busy morning and your staff probably won’t appreciate my nerdish pajamas.”
She left the laptop where it was and went back into the bedroom, rubbing the back of her neck to work the crick out of it from her nights tossing and turning. She went into the bathroom and stripped out of her shirt, turning on the shower and taking the sponge and bottle of body scrub from her kit bag.
Ignoring her reflection in the mirror, she ducked under the spray and squeezed a blob of wash onto the scrubbie and started using it. The faintly rough texture felt good against her skin, and the pounding of the water across the back of her neck was working to loosen the muscles there.
She felt a little anxious. She wasn’t sure if it was the situation she was in, or some subliminal worry about Dar, or perhaps even a reflection of Dar worrying about her but it was rubbing her nerves raw and she really wished she was alone in her palatial hotel room and didn’t have her mother to deal with.
“Now.” She muttered to herself over the water. “I’m guessing she probably feels the same way.” She glanced at the reflection of her eyes in the small, surprisingly unsteamy mirror fixed to the wall. “Cause I know I’m not being little miss sunshine.”
She got a handful of shampoo and soaped her hair, scrubbing above her ears and standing under the water to rinse the suds out. Then she let her arms drop and simply stood, appreciating the powerful pulse of the water against her body.
A bad dream had woken her, this last time. She couldn’t even remember now what the dream was, except that she could recall feeling sad, and scared and alone in some strange otherworld of her sleeping imagination.
Now she felt tired, and irritated, and anxious, with a day of conflict and confrontation with the government ahead of her. “Rats.” Kerry folded her arms across her wet body. Then she exhaled and reluctantly left the warmth, shutting off the water and grabbing a towel hanging on a rod nearby.
She dried herself off, her ears picking up low voices in the room next door and making her glad she’d decided to get changed when she did. Unlike Dar, who pretty much completely lacked body consciousness, she really had no comfort level in facing fully dressed people in her sleepware.
Crazy, really, since she walked around in what amounted to less at home all the time, on the island, either a pair of shorts and a tank, or shorts and a bathing suit, or just her bathing suit which was absolutely more revealing than a damn t-shirt.
Just a weird crick in her brain. Kerry studied her choice of clothing, then she pulled on a pair of jeans, buttoning them before she added a bright red polo with their company logo on it. She ran a brush through her damp hair and studied the results.
Hm. She set the brush down and tucked the polo in, reaching into her bag and adding a braided leather belt and buckling it around her waist. With a satisfied grunt, she clipped her phone to the belt and slid her PDA in her pocket, and headed back out to face the world.
Dar woke to the smell of sizzling steak nearby, the dichotomy of the view around her, the drone of the engines, and the scent making her look around in utter bewilderment before she remembered where she was.
Dar glanced to her right, across the wide aisle where Alastair was ensconced in a leather lounger much like hers, a reading light glowing dimly on the sheaf of papers he was reviewing. “I was until someone started roasting a steer somewhere.” She said. “Where the hell did the barbeque come from?”
He removed his reading glasses and peered back at her, a bemused expression on his face. “You know, I’ve been on private jets before, but I bet you haven’t.”
“No.” His CIO readily admitted.
“They asked Bea how to cater the plane when she reserved it.” Alastiar put his glasses back on and went back to his papers. “I took the liberty of ordering for you. I’ve been with you traveling long enough that I figured I could guess right on what you eat.”
Dar glanced at her watch, surprised to see they’d been flying for four hours and she’d slept for three of them. “Ah, okay.” She said. “Yeah, the nap helped.” She eased a little more upright, running her fingers through her hair. “What’s so interesting?”
Alastair picked up a glass with ice and liquid in it and took a sip. “Our SEC pre-filing report for quarter three.” He said. “Want to read it?”
Dar eyed him. “I just woke up.” She said. “You want me to go back to sleep? You’ll have a lot of dinner to eat by yourself.”
Alastair chuckled. “I was trying to put myself to sleep, to be honest.” He set the report to one side, and tossed his glasses on top of it. “Sometimes I look forward to retiring, when the most urgent thing I have to look at is an LL Bean catalog.” He admitted. “You get tired of all the fine print, y’know?” He put his hands behind his head and stretched out.
“Do you?” Dar half turned onto her side, drawing one knee up as she faced her boss. “What would you do if you retired?”
Alastair tilted his head back and regarded the ceiling of the private jet, pondering the question.
Dar took a moment while he was to look around the jet she hadn’t paid much attention to when they’d boarded. It was reasonably large inside, but had two single lines of fully reclining leather couches on either side of a wide aisle instead of the usual rows of upright chairs.
It was quiet, the drone of the engines muted, and it felt expensive, and Dar realized this was likely what it was like for the truly elite when they traveled.
She liked it. It meshed well with her view of appropriate personal space and comfort and the leather loungers were just big enough that she and Kerry could possibly squish together on one.
That thought made her wish Kerry was on the plane with her, and she frowned, turning back to Alastair as he cleared his throat and started to answer.
“Well you know I have the ranch.” Alastair said. “I’d love to spend more time with the horses. I’ve got a granddaughter who’s learning to ride the circuit and it would be great to watch her out there instead of sit on my ass in my office in Houston.”
“Sounds nice.” Dar said. “I like horses. I saw the pictures in your office, those are beautiful animals.”
“Good blood.” He turned his head a little. “What about you? What would you do, if you retired, Dar? I know it sounds crazy for you given how old you are, but you’ve got fifteen plus years in. Ever think about it?”
“Sure.” Dar responded, with a smile. “I’d move down to the Keys and spend my days diving and bumming around on the beach, with an occasional consulting stint to pay the bills.”
Alastair smiled. “Ah, the child of the sea. How could I forget.”
“Which is exactly what I’d do if you decide to retire. By the way.” Dar continued, her smile widening as she caught the look of honest surprise on her bosses face. “I have no intention of doing this for anyone else.”
Alastair looked at her in silence for a long moment. “Are you serious?”
Dar nodded. “As a heart attack.”
Her bosses eyes twinkled. “That might be the nicest thing you ever said to me.” He said. “Thank you, Paladar.” He paused. “Now let me tell you something. You remember when you sent me that resignation letter?”
“Had mine written out too, stapled to it.” Alastair said. “So it’s probably a pretty good thing for the company you decided to stay.” He considered. “Though, gotta admit there have been times lately I almost wish you hadn’t.”
“Yeah.” Dar said. “I know what you mean.” She hoisted herself out of her chair and stood, stretching her body out before she crossed the aisle and knelt next to where her boss was sprawled. “Thanks, Alastair. I know I’ve been a pain in the ass over the years.” She held her hand out, and as he reached over, she clasped his in a powerful grip. “Hope it was worth it.”
He chuckled again. “Bet your ass it was.” He released her hand. “You know, the one bright spot of that whole mess with Steven and you was getting to meet Kerry for the first time.”
Predictably, that made Dar grin. She got up and strolled down the aisle, exploring their little world. “She was so pissed at me for quitting.”
“She’s a firecracker.” Alastair said. “You know she called me up and told me I had to get my ass on an airplane and get over there because everyone in that office was an idiot who didn’t have a clue.”
Dar turned and looked at him, both eyebrows lifted up to her hairline.
“Not in so many words.” Her boss admitted. “But that was the gist, couched in soft, gentile Midwestern politeness and it was at that point I realized you were gone hook line and sinker for very good reason.” He smiled at Dar’s sheepish expression. “She was your match.”
Dar leaned back against the wall of the cabin. “She is.” She said quietly. “She changed my life.”
“She up for being a beach bum too?” Alastair asked. “I thought she likes the craziness.”
“After this last cluster, she’s open to it.” Dar responded. “She does like the job. She likes the energy of it.”
Dar looked mildly embarrassed. “She’ll go wherever I do.”
“Loyal kinda gal.” Alastair commented, with a smile. “But then, you’re two of a kind in that regard so I’m guessing the company’s in for a world of hurt some day.”
The door to the front of the plane opened, and a tall, lanky young man entered. He was dressed in a pair of pressed black slacks and a ribbed black pullover, with striped epaulets on his shoulders. “Ma’am, sir..” The man said. “We’ve run into a weather issue and wanted to advise you on it. A tropical depression has formed in the Gulf, and the outflow is going to extrude into our course and make it a very rough ride.”
“Can we go around it?” Alastair asked. “My kidneys are not in the mood to be rattled tonight.”
“I can certainly ask, sir.” The man replied. “It might make us need to change our flight plan though.” He said. “We’re taking a very long route over the Southern Caribbean to avoid US airspace and this would mean a shift nearer to the coast of South America.”
Dar and Alastair exchanged looks. “Depression look like it’s going get worse??” Dar asked. “Strengthen?”
The man nodded. “They expect it to become Tropical storm Gabrielle tomorrow.”
“Let’s avoid it if we can.” Dar said. “Nothing against your pilot’s skills but I’m not in the mood for a swim off Tortola today.”
“I’m not up for a swim off Tortola any day.” Alastair chimed in. “Even though I do float like a cork.”
The man nodded, and disappeared again.
Alastair grunted. “Figures.”
Dar leaned back against the wall again. “That time of year.” She said. “Wish I’d taken Gerry up on his offer now.” She admitted. “He sounded like he had a thousand irons on the fire though.”
Alastair regarded her. “Lady, if you think these old bones wanted to spend eight hours crossing the pond in an Airborne jumpseat you’re nutty as a fruitcake without any rum in it.”
Dar chuckled, and started to roam again, walking to the front of the cabin past the service bulkhead she’d been leaning against, then turning and moving along the rows of chairs to the back where a small suite of bathrooms were tucked. “I’m pretty sure he meant a civilian transport, Alastair. I’m sure they had other people that needed a ride home, diplomats and whatever.”
“Let them ride in a steel bucket seat.” Alastair said. “Damn politicians spend most of their time busting my chops anyway.”
Dar went over to where their carryon baggage was stowed and dug in hers, removing her bathroom kit and retreating with it into the typically small airplane facility.
For shorter people, it was bearable. For Dar, the experience usually left her with a crick in her neck and so she brushed her teeth and splashed some water on her face as quickly as she could. The nap had definitely cleared her head, but now that she was awake, the uncertainty of what was going on below was starting to gnaw at her again.
She checked her watch. Kerry was up and working by now, she was sure. It was maddening to know her partner was in the middle of who knows what and not be able to help. Not that she thought Kerry needed her in order to do her job – her performance the day before amply demonstrated that – but they were in uncharted territory right now and she had the greater experience.
Dar gazed at her reflection on the mirror, seeing the somber furrow in her brow. “She’s going to be fine.” She told herself. “She’s just going to Herndon, and she knows how to deflect someone if she has to.”
Kerry did. She could politely, charmingly, and warmly tell the most demanding, insistent customer they weren’t going to get what they wanted and leave them unable to voice a complaint about it. Dar had seen her do it on more than one occasion, and she had no doubt she could handle whatever request awaited her there.
She studied the blue eyes reflected in the glass surface. “So why are you chewing nails?”
Was she afraid Kerry would do so well, she’d show how much she didn’t need the support? Dar’s nose wrinkled. “Yeesh I hope not.” She really didn’t think so, though. It was actually a pleasure to be able to count on someone and not have to worry about babysitting them at work.
Was she worried her prolonged contact with her family would change the way she felt about anything? About anyone? Dar watched her own eyebrow lift, and her lips curve into a smile. No. She was not worried about that.
She was just, she reasoned, worried about the person she loved most in the world simply because that’s what people in love did. They worried.
She packed up her kit and bumped the door open, emerging into the main cabin of the plane and restoring her sundries to her bag. Alastair had turned his reading light off, and was standing near the front of the plane, peering out the window in the boarding door. “See any good birds?”
“I see a lot of ocean.” Alastair responded. “Imagine what it was like for the first fellas who crossed that thing in a boat. That took a lot of guts.”
“It’s a big ocean.” Dar agreed, coming over to stand by him. “I’ve only sailed part of it, and those long stretches of just water really hit you sometimes.” She said. “And I’ve been caught in storms that made me wonder how sun and star navigators ever made it across.”
“Ah yes. Captain Roberts, isn’t it?” Alastair glanced at her, with a grin.
She smiled back. “Yes, it is”
The door behind them opened and the steward came back in. “Oh.” He turned, evidently surprised not to see them sitting in their seats. “The captain says he’s filing an amendment to our flight plan, that’ll bring us just north of the Grenadines, and along the south coast of Cuba and then across to Mexico. It means adding a hour to the flight, but it will end up being a lot smoother. We were intending on slipping between Cuba and Florida before.
An hour. Dar sighed inwardly. “Damn I wish we could just land in Miami.”
The steward looked sympathetic. “Us too.” He agreed. “We’ll try to make it as comfortable as possible.” He gave them a brief smile. “We’re about ready to serve, if you want to freshen up.” He slipped out again, closing the door behind him.
“Well.” Alastair said. “That’s a damn shame.” He eased past Dar and went back to his seat. “But I think it’s better than flying through a storm.”
Dar gazed out the small window, feeling more than a little trapped. She hoped things were going well for Kerry, and that the company plan was proceeding.
She hoped there were no more attacks.
“Hm?” Dar turned and pushed off from the window, walking back down the aisle and stopping by her seat. She sat down on the arm of it, and rested her elbows on her knees. “Guess all we can do is put up with it.”
“It’ll be fine.” Her boss reassured her. “We’ve got good people running the show, don’t we?”
“Want a drink?”
Dar slid backwards into her chair, leaving one leg slung over the arm of it. “Not yet.”
“How about a tranquilizer? Got a bottle of em.”
Dar turned her head and looked at him, her eyebrows lifting.
“If you don’t’ take one, I’m gonna have to.” Alastair informed her. “If you’re going to pace like a cat for the rest of the flight.”
Dar chuckled wryly. “Let me see if they have chocolate milk first.” She sighed. “That’ll probably be less destructive for both of us.”