The conference room was almost full, every seat at the long table taken save the one at the head of it. Late afternoon sunlight poured into the room, resisting the valiant efforts of even the several ton air conditioning plant to alleviate it’s effects, and after a moment shading his eyes, Mark Polenti got up and walked over to the glass panel. “Son of a bitch.” He lowered the shades. “You could cook a damn egg on this thing.”
“No kidding.” Peter Prescott, one of the IT group leaders agreed. “I start sweating just thinking about going out to my car.”
With a shake of his head, Mark returned to his seat. The MIS manager picked up and flipped his pen, settling back in one of the leather chairs that ringed the table. “Long damned summer.”
Agreement chimed in from around the table full of assorted technical managers. “I wouldn’t go outside for ten minutes longer than I had to.” Peter added. “Man, I see those freaking tourists on the beach… you can just see them frying like turkeys at Thanksgiving.”
“You got that right.” Mark snorted.
The door to the conference room opened, and they all turned. Eyes opened wider as the newcomer commenced to dance inside, jiving to a song apparently audible only to her as she made her way across the room and ended up bouncing into the chair at the end of the table.
Relatively short, but sporting a lithely muscular build, the woman shrugged out of her neatly tailored blue jacket and draped it over the back of the chair, before she leaned on the padded surfaced in a jaunty finish to her dance.
“Hi, guys.” Kerry grinned at them. “Is today not an awesome day, or what?”
The operations department heads all looked at each other, then peered down the table at their blond leader. Kerry was dressed in a no nonsense business suit, with an impeccably pressed cream colored silk shirt, but her pale, summer cropped hair was so tousled it appeared that the vice president of operations had stuck her head out of some car window on the way back from lunch.
“Um.” Mark cleared his throat. “Yeah, it’s okay.” He allowed. “We got the espresso machine working again, at least.” His eyebrows quirked. “Did you.. like.. drink a couple cups to celebrate or something?”
“Nope.” Kerry laced her fingers together before her on the table. “Guess again.”
“Did… we make our numbers?” Peter hazarded.
“Yes, but that’s not why I’m jazzed.” His boss replied.
“Did.. your dog have puppies?” Ellen Jasmine chimed in from across the table, her weathered face wrinkling up in a grin.
“No, no no.” Kerry waggled her hand. “No puppies, no kittens, and neither Dar nor I are pregnant so don’t even go there.” She danced a little in her seat. “C’mon, c’mon… we’ve only been talking about this for a month.”
Mark made a face. “Don’t tell me you’re all whacked about going to the technology convention.”
Kerry grinned widely.
Her audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or groan. “Jesus.” Mark covered his eyes. “Man, I thought I was the primo geek in this place.” He pointed at Kerry. “Not no more. You win. I give.”
The Operations VP opened her leather folder, and chuckled. “Actually.” She glanced around and lowered her voice. “I could give a gopher’s wazoo about the convention. I’ve been waiting to go back to Disney World with Dar since forever.” Her face creased into a grin again, it’s summer tan emphasizing the bleached lightness of her hair, and the vivid green of her eyes.
“Ahhhh!” Ellen laughed. “Now I get it!”
“You.” Kerry pointed at him. “Have obviously never done Disney with Dar.” She pulled out her agenda. “Now. Let’s see where we are this month.” She smoothly switched gears, her voice dropping a few notes and becoming more businesslike. “Okay, I’ve got some good news, and some bad news.”
The room settled down, and became more serious. Around the table, eyes met in mild apprehension, the universal fear of skilled, valued, but ultimately powerless parts of the company machine to statements of that nature. Even though most in the room trusted Kerry, and all liked her, still they also knew exactly where her loyalties were.
“Let me get the bad news out of the way.” Kerry said. “First of all, let me make it clear that in no way do I, or Dar for that matter, hold anyone here responsible for the fact that twenty percent of our contracts up for renewal this quarter did not sign.” She looked up, meeting the eyes facing her squarely. “Our service was not in question, nor was it a factor in the signings.”
Mark exhaled. “Fuckin lowballers.”
Kerry’s expressive face twitched a little. “For the record – when sales brought the final numbers to the table, it was Dar who drew the line and said we would not counter bid them. Okay?” She gave them a moment to absorb the words. “Dar said she would not trade off our services levels for paper numbers. We decided we couldn’t provide acceptable levels of response for the dollars they were suggesting.” She paused. “I agreed wholeheartedly.”
Bodies relaxed around the room, falling back into the leather chairs with faintly audible squeaks.
“Kerry, that’s an amazing thing to hear.” Ellen said, in a serious tone. “I have a friend who works for our friends out west, and last time something like this happened, they took big time heat for it.”
Kerry rested her chin on her hands. “Dar would never let that happen.” She said. “But let me tell you, those meetings in Houston last week weren’t pretty.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Mark muttered. “But, Kerry, I saw those freakin numbers. No way in hell those guys can deliver what they said they would.”
His boss shrugged one shoulder lightly. “Time will tell. But in the meantime, we have twenty percent of our budget we need to find funding for, or else lose it. That means you all need to look vveeerrrryyy carefully at your books and see if we have slack room.” She warned “If we have a repeat next quarter, things are going to get very tight around here.”
Everyone nodded in grim understanding.
“Now, on the bright side.” Kerry changed gears again, seeing in the looks she’d studied the response she was looking for. “We did make our service numbers, in fact…” She smiled warmly. “We exceeded them. I’m very proud of that, and so’s Dar.” Her eyes twinkled just a little. “And so, even though I know you all must have heard about the salary freeze…”
Mark cleared his throat. Ellen looked away, out the window. The rest of the table found something to study that didn’t involve middling height blond women. Everyone knew how much Kerry hated office gossip, and wise people didn’t bring it up in her presence.
“It doesn’t apply to us.” Kerry finished quietly. “I’ve processed the first of this quarter’s raises and bonuses, and they should be hitting your worklists by the time you get back to your offices.” She almost smiled at the instinctive gasps at the very unexpected statement. “Please let your people know that we appreciate all the hard work they’ve put in this year, and we hope they continue along through the rest of the year the same way.”
For a very long moment there was silence around the table. Then Mark rocked forward and thumped his elbows against the table. “Holy crap, boss. My socks are still bouncing off the walls here.” He said. “Aren’t the rest of those guys gonna be pissed?”
Kerry leaned back in her chair, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Well.” She steepled her fingers and tapped the tips against her chin. “First off, no one should be talking about it.” One blond eyebrow cocked meaningfully. “But second, if someone has a problem, just direct them that way.” She jerked her thumb sideways, in the general direction of Dar’s office.
“Not to you?” Ellen asked, curiously.
Kerry’s nostrils flared just slightly. “Dar’s orders.” She replied in brief words. After another moment of silence, she nodded. “Okay, so, next on the agenda….”
Her staff shifted around the table and leaned forward, sorting their own papers and relaxing. Kerry took the opportunity to silently evaluate them, absorbing the air of surprise at her last statement. They knew her to be a fierce defender of her own prerogatives, and one of the very few people in the company not only willing, but able to stand up to their legendary CIO.
Ah well. Kerry folded her hands over her stomach, twiddling her thumbs idly. Everyone would get over it in a few days, and after all, there was Disney World to contemplate.
It wasn’t that she was making light of the company’s troubles – they weighed on her shoulders more than most. But as she’d told her staff, the troubles hadn’t been laid at their doorstep, and the best thing they all could to right now was just keep doing their job, as best as they were able.
And that meant putting on a good show at the convention. “Everyone ready for the trade show, since I mentioned it?” She asked.
“Advance team’s packed and itchin.” Mark replied, checking something off on his agenda.
“Who’s in charge?” Kerry asked. “You going?”
The MIS manager glanced up at her. “Peter. He’s buds with Eleanor’s chief whiner. They get along great.”
“He the one with the pierced eyebrows?”
“Good choice.” Kerry spun her papers. “Okay, tell me what didn’t come in on time this week.”
“I’m listening.” Dar Roberts selected a colorful dart from the case resting on her knees and let fly, grinning in triumph when it’s point buried itself in a newly wall mounted target. “I’m not hearing anything but bilge wash so far, but I’m listening.”
“Bilge wash? You been out on that boat of yours again?” Alastair McLean chuckled.
“Been around my daddy.” Dar replied, launching another dart. “Alastair, we’ve been around and around with this. We both know there’s no damn good answer.”
A long sigh issued through the phone.
“I’ve put as much pressure on every supplier we have, pushed as hard as I could, gotten everyone down to the lowest cost they can do without losing money.” Dar said.
“I know that.”
“Cut our costs to the bone. We don’t have any padding, not one area that I can point to and say, fluff.”
“Dar, I know that too.”
Dar thwacked another dart in the target, nailing the bullseye. “So why are we still on this call? What else do you want from me, Alastair? Want me to sell my desk?”
Another long sigh. “You could can those raises.”
“No.” Dar repeated firmly. “Take it out of my check if you want to. Those people deserve it.”
Her boss grunted. “Hell of a time for you to be turning into Robin Hood.”
The inner door to Dar’s office cracked open, and a shaggy blond head poked inside Dar’s face responded with a wide grin, and she twirled a dart in silence, pointing at the phone and mock aiming at it. “Me, Robin Hood? Get out of here. I just value my people like you value yours.”
Kerry snapped her fingers in silence, then pointed at Dar, biting her lip.
“Ahem.” Alastair cleared his throat. “Walked into that one, didn’t I?” He admitted. “All right, but please, Dar – try to drum up something good at the convention, will ya? I need something other than bad news for the board meeting next month.”
“Do what I can.”
“I know I can count on you Dar.” Alastair concluded. “Good luck!”
The line clicked off. Dar rolled her eyes as she waited none to patiently for Kerry to cross the carpet and arrive at her side. “Hey there.”
“Hi.” Kerry sat on the edge of Dar’s desk, dangling her feet and allowing her moderate heels to slip off. “He sounds worried.”
“He is.” Her partner agreed.
“You don’t sound worried.”
Dar flipped another dart at her board, a newly christened present from Kerry. “Wanna know the truth?’ She searched Kerry’s face intently. “I don’t know how much I really care.”
Kerry reached over and ran her fingers through Dar’s thick, dark hair, moving the slightly shaggy bangs out of her pale blue eyes. “Yeah, I know.” She murmured. Dar’s skin was a shade darker tan than her own, and there were several sun lightened streaks in the locks her hand stirred.
Dar’s lashes fluttered and she fiddled with a dart. “Ah, I still do care.” She half shrugged. “I just can’t take the whole thing so damn seriously anymore.”
“It’s okay.” Her partner said. “I have to admit I’m more excited about going back to Disney World with you than I am about the convention, so don’t feel bad.”
Dar peeked up at her. “Really?”
Kerry grinned wholeheartedly. “Yeah. I keep trying to figure out how we can run the display scenarios from our pda’s.” She scratched Dar behind the ears with her fingertips. “How’d you like to go up a little early, just to check out the convention center?”
Her tall boss slid open the flat drawer at the front of her desk and withdrew a folder, dexterously opening it with her thumb and displaying the contents.
“Mmm…. I think those are plane tickets.”
“I think you’re right.” Dar agreed. “C’mon.” She got up, curling her arm around Kerry’s waist and drawing her up as well. “Let’s go get some bags packed, Yankee.”
Kerry amiably returned the hug, resting her head against Dar’s shoulder and reflecting on her lover’s surprise at finding their bags well and truly already packed. “Hey, Dar?”
“If we get a memory upgrade for my Palm, I really think I can run the data apps.”
“While we go down the water slides?”
Dar walked her towards the door, considering the question. “You’ll need a waterproof case for it.” She finally concluded. “I think the dive shop has them in blue.”
Kerry only chuckled, as they walked through the door, and headed for the elevator.
Ahh. Kerry closed her eyes, and exhaled, enjoying the slight chill of the condo’s air conditioning against her newly showered skin. She could still faintly smell the spices of their stir fry dinner in the air, and feel the ache of their joint sparring session in her upper arms.
Life was good. Even though she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to really catch on to kickboxing, she found she loved every minute of the classes they were taking for it. It was a new skill for Dar as well, and just the learning process felt exciting and fun.
Besides, Dar looked so cute in boxing gloves.
Kerry opened one eye, and rotated it around towards Dar’s bedroom. “Yeah?” She wriggled into a more comfortable position flat on her back on the couch, and waited.
“Think a tshirt’ll be okay on the plane?”
T-shirt. Kerry considered the question with due seriousness. “Tank top.” She disagreed. “Like that nice pale blue one you had on the other day.”
The faint scuff of bare footsteps intruded into the living room, accompanied by their maker. “What?” Dar queried, putting her hands on her hips. “The damn things are air conditioned, Kerry.”
“I know.” The blond woman agreed readily. “But I really love you in that tank top, and if you get too cold, I can always warm you up.” She studied the tall, lithe figure in its worn jeans and bra. “Or you could just go like that.”
Her lover sauntered over and took a seat on the edge of the couch, draping her arm over Kerry’s hips and gazing affectionately at her. “Does that mean you’ll wear your new suit on the plane then?” She asked, with a grin.
“The gray one?” Kerry hazarded. “Dar, it’s sorta see through.”
“Hm.” Kerry slid her hand up the inside of Dar’s thigh. “Nah, let’s save it for the wave pool.” She conceded. “I am so looking forward to this trip.” Her face creased into an easy grin. “I have such cool memories of the last one.”
The blue eyes twinkled brightly. “Me too.” Dar said. “I wish we didn’t have the stupid convention to deal with, but I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to spend a week up there.” She leaned a little against Kerry. “You all packed? Dad picked Chino up while you were in the shower.”
“Yep, I’m all set. One medium sized case full of fun clothes, and a garment bag for the monkey suits. You all ready? I’ll go start up the buggy.”
“Just have to put my shirt on.” Dar leaned forward, smiling as Kerry’s arms slipped around her neck and they kissed. After a few moments of increasing intensity, she braced herself and slid around, stretching out half beside, half over Kerry’s body.
It was a good size couch, and they had a lot of practice fitting on it together. Dar kept up the kiss as she slowly eased her hand under the fabric of Kerry’s cotton shirt, tracing a path up the center of her belly and ending up curling her fingers around the curve of Kerry’s right breast.
Even after a year and a half, it still grabbed her right in the guts, the reaction of her body so strong under Dar’s gentle touch it made it hard to think straight. Kerry returned the attention, easier for her since there was nothing between her partner and herself except the thin silk of Dar’s bra.
She loved the way Dar’s body fit her hands. “We’re gonna miss the plane.” Kerry whispered, circling Dar’s navel with her index finger.
“We can drive.” Dar bit her earlobe gently. “My folks and I used to, all the time.”
Kerry lost herself in the rich scent of Dar’s skin for a little while. Then she paused, and poked her partner in the ribs very gently. “Know what?”
Dar went nose to nose with her, licking her lips with an attentive tongue. “What?”
“Let’s drive.” Kerry undid the top button on Dar’s jeans. “It’ll be fun.” She let the rest of her thoughts drift away, burned off by the heat of passion igniting in her guts. “You.. me…”
“Corn dogs on the turnpike. Yeah.” Dar laughed softly. “I’m all for it.”
Kerry laughed with her, and savored the touch of her bare skin. She loved how Dar felt; loved the silky texture of her skin, and the light twitches of her reactions as Kerry’s hands explored her.
She loved the low hum of approval when it tickled her ear, and pressure as Dar slid her thigh between Kerry’s and tugged off her shorts.
And you know, sometimes life just rocked.
Two hours later, they were sitting side by side in Dar’s Lexus, tooling down the Florida turnpike as the last of the sun disappeared behind the pines bordering the road. Kerry had the passenger seat pushed all the way back, and she had her bare feet propped up against the dashboard while Dar leaned back in a relaxed attitude with one hand on the wheel.
“Y’know, I think this really is a good idea.” Kerry commented, after they’d been companionable silent for a few minutes while she chose a new CD to listen to. “We need a car up there anyway, and with all the time getting to the airport in Miami, and from the airport up there, it’s probably a wash.”
“Uh huh.” Dar reached behind her, and removed a bottle of Yoohoo from the cooler in the back seat. “And we’ve got better inflight refreshments.”
Kerry slid a cd into the drive and leaned back, circling one knee with her arms. She watched the passing scenery, and decided most of the state of Florida had a lot in common with parts of the state of Michigan in terms of flat terrain and boring horticulture. “Is it like this all the way up?”
Dar glanced around in the twilight. “Pretty much.” She admitted. “We used to leave at… four am, I guess, to get up here. Dad always said there wasn’t nothing to look at, no sense in wasting sunlight on it.” She recalled, shifting the car into the left lane to pass a dawdling truck. “You go on road trips much?”
Kerry laid her head back against the seat. “Not with my family, no.” She replied, in a quiet tone. “But when we went to camp in the summer, yeah. All of us in the bus. That was kinda fun.” A brief flash of civilization whipped by, a lone white house facing the road with a old, half rusted bus in front of it. “It wasn’t really a wild and crazy camp – it was from my school. But Angie and I counted the days till we went there and we were always sorry to leave.”
Dar moved to the right again, and settled back. “Where was it?”
“Up in the mountains.” Her partner replied. “We had these precious little cabins, with maid service twice a day, and a valet to do our laundry. You know.” Her eyes slid sideways. “Well, no, you don’t know, but I look back on it now, and realize just how bloody damn pretentious it all was.”
“Eh.” The dark haired woman chuckled a little. “I went to the Y camp one or two summers, but when I got old enough, I went to the summer programs on base.”
Kerry’s lips twitched. “No valets, huh?”
“No.” Dar shook her head. “You had kids who grew up on a military base, who had that mindset to begin with, and who lived in that culture. We did war games, camping, hunting…” A smile appeared. “I had a blast. It was one of the few times I remember just being really…” She paused.
“Happy?” Kerry guessed.
“Content.” Dar amended. “Accepted, maybe.” She moved to the left again to bypass a Lincoln Town car longer than the Lexus being driven by what appeared to be an elf. “I was so damn sure that was the world I wanted.”
“Well.” Kerry swiped the bottle of Yoohoo and took a swig. “I never felt that way at camp. I was just glad to be out from under my parent’s eyes. It was all so damn fake.. they had comportment classes, for pete’s sake.”
“How to walk, talk, and greet people without tripping and dumping your bad white wine on them.” Kerry translated. “That and lanyard making. Jesus, do you know how many lanyards I made? Every damn color in the rainbow and let’s not talk about the potholders.”
Dar snickered. “You and I come from such different planets.” She said. “Only thing I made in camp was a belt from old ammo cartridges I collected on the base and rifle webbing someone’d thrown away.” She glanced at Kerry, watching the corners of her mouth curve up in a smile. “I’d have taken a potholder and used it to wipe my..”
“Hey, you know what choices you have out in the bush?” Dar said. “Now you know where I got my dislike of camping from.”
Kerry burst out laughing. “Oh my god… you have no idea how funny that is. In our camp, one summer, they got the wrong toilet paper delivered. It was that brown craft paper kind of stuff they usually have in really bad rest stops?”
“Yeah.” Kerry nodded, still chuckling. “Well, me, the little rebel that I was, stole a case of it, and led the rest of my cabin in tp’ing the lead counselor’s house so badly you couldn’t even see the door.” She did a little dance in her seat. “Oo..oo… the little bitch turned red as a tomato and didn’t talk to us for a week!”
“Angie was so pissed at me.” Kerry snickered. “But that woman already hated my guts so…”
“Why?” Dar asked, curiously.
“I have no idea. She always wanted to make a lot of me, and I… she just made me really uncomfortable. I figured she was trying to get something from my parents.” Kerry said. “She gave me the creeps.”
Dar watched the Lexus’ powerful headlights carve up the road ahead of them for a long moment, then she turned her head towards Kerry. “How old were you?”
“High school.” Kerry replied. “Why?”
“Hm.” The dark haired woman tapped her thumb against the steering wheel. “Ever think maybe she was interested in you?”
Kerry’s brow creased. “Well, yeah – I mean, I said she was, Dar.” She replied, then paused when she watched Dar’s eyebrow hike up expressively. Realization hit, and she inhaled in slight surprise. “Oh. You mean…that kind of interested? Like.. romantically?”
“Uh huh.” Dar returned her attention to the road, flicking her eyes to the passing sign and noting it’s contents. “Wouldn’t surprise me. You were cute in high school.” She drawled, with a slight smile. “I’ve seen pictures.”
Kerry remained absolutely silent for a few minutes, sucking absently on the neck of the Yoohoo bottle as she watched the shadowed trees flash by. Finally, she snorted a little, half surprised and half disgusted. “Never would have crossed my mind.” She admitted. “I think I…. Brian and I had just started to go out.. I wouldn’t even call it dating, it wasn’t that serious. I probably would have freaked out if she’d…”
“Tried to seduce you?” Dar stretched out her free arm and laid it over Kerry’s shoulders. “She’d have been an idiot, given your folks, but…” She scratched Kerry’s neck with her fingertips. “You were really an adorable kid.”
Kerry blushed, just slightly. “You know, I really never even thought anything like that. By that time, I’d learned just how far people would go to get in with my father, I just…” She exhaled. “Assumed she was more of the same.”
“Well, maybe she was.” Dar sensed her partner’s discomfort. “I was just presenting another point of view.” She tugged on Kerry’s earlobe. “Want a pit stop?” She pointed to a sign indicating a rest stop ahead. “It’s all commercial now, but I can show you where they used to sell the tackiest Florida souvenirs this side of Key Largo.”
Kerry relaxed, and finished off the chocolate soda. “Sure.” She agreed. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
Dar signaled and pulled to the left, preparing to leave the highway. After a second, she glanced at Kerry, not surprised to find herself being studied by those sea green eyes. She winked at her partner, and was rewarded by a grin, which she returned.
The ride was turning out to be a darn sight more interesting than she’d remembered it.
People were so funny. Kerry leaned against the wall and watched some of their fellow travelers walk by. They were pretty much oblivious to everything on their way to get food, or drinks, or relieve themselves, and yet just about every other one of them paused to look at the figure studying the turnpike map on the wall.
Of course, Kerry was doing the same thing, but she felt she had an innate right to, since the sleek body wrapped in faded denim and tank top cotton belonged to her partner. Dar’s jeans were the old, ripped ones Kerry had found way back when for their biker school reunion, and she had her tank top tucked in them and boy, she looked good.
She’d just gotten her second summer haircut, and it left most of her shoulders bare. The last few months of their life had been a lot of work, true, but almost every weekend spent down at the cabin and their new gym classes had given Dar a deeper tan and added a little more muscle to her tall frame.
The rest stop was an interesting combination of retail outlet and tourist hard pitch. Kerry wandered around in the main lobby, examining the racks of leaflets as she sucked on a cone full of frozen strawberry yogurt. Florida was definitely both tourist driven, and eclectic, and she riffled through advertisements for things as varied as a mystery house where things ran uphill, to Monkey Jungle, to Weeki Watchee. “Paladar?”
“Yes?” Dar’s voice erupted from right behind her, even after all this time making Kerry jump. “You rang?”
“What the heck is a Weeki Watchee?” Kerry selected the lurid pamphlet from the rack and held it up. “It looks like a mermaid farm.”
“Sorta.” Dar agreed. “It’s a place where mermaids give shows, and sell trinkets.”
Kerry stared at the advertisement. “And people go there? Really?”
“Well.” Her partner examined the ad. “They have nice gardens, too, and I think a snack bar.”
Kerry giggled, and wandered off, shaking her head. The rest stop was a relatively small place, with a central lobby that had restaurants off either side, and a set of surprisingly clean restrooms. There was also a gift shop, where you could, if you for some reason had forgotten to purchase candy oranges or bright pink flamingo Christmas lights somewhere else, obtain those last minute gifts to bring back home with you.
Hm. “Snowglobes.” Kerry selected one and shook it, amused by the white plastic flakes drifting down on the palm trees and beach. A flash of motion caught her eye and she glanced to one side, spotting her own reflection in the mirrored back of the display case.
The neatly pressed, carefully ironed and tucked prep she’d once been sure was gone. Kerry felt her eyebrows lifting as she reviewed her cutoff, ragged shorts and long, faded t-shirt.
Correction, long faded t-shirt that didn’t even belong to her. She’d also let her hair grow out longer than usual, not really out of control, but giving it a touch of shagginess she hadn’t had since she’d been small. The overall effect, given her tan and the sun bleaching of her already pale locks was that of a beach rat caught out shopping.
“So, rat… get shopping.” Kerry cheerfully directed herself, toasting her reflection with her yogurt.
She spotted a stuffed alligator and picked it up, finding herself smiling at it’s toothy cotton visage. She tucked the toy under her arm and continued browsing. To her booty, she added a package of chocolate covered orange slices and a t-shirt before she dropped it all down on the counter and removed her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The cashier replied. “Yawannalotta?”
Kerry blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Yawannalotta? Big this week.”
At a total loss, Kerry instinctively looked around for her native guide, who plunked down a twenty dollar bill on the counter. “She’ll take three.” Dar pronounced. “And take the rest of this Floridiana out of that.”
“Three of what?” The blond woman whispered.
“Sure.” The cashier took the money and rang up Kerry’s purchases. She gave Dar back some change, then punched in some numbers in a black machine nearby and handed over the resulting pink and white tickets. “There ya go. Ya’ll have a great old day.”
“Thanks.” Dar took the tickets, the change, the bag, and a totally befuddled Midwesterner and hauled them all out of the gift shop and out into the lobby. “Here. Put your Lotto tickets away. If you win on em, I get ten percent.”
“My what?” Kerry took the tickets and examined them. “Oh!” She nibbled her cone. “Jesus, you know in all this time down here I never bothered to buy one of these things?” She followed Dar outside, trading the stinging chill of the air conditioning for the warm soup of the night air. “Thank you for buying my junk, sweetheart. You didn’t have to do that. I’ve got my wallet.”
Next to them, a minivan with Miami plates had just parked, and the side door slid open allowing a gaggle of children to emerge. They bolted for the doors to the building, with a harried looking woman chasing after them. In the back of the van there were Mouse droppings squeezed into every square inch.
A man got out of the driver’s side and shut the door with an air of martyred exhaustion. He glanced at Kerry and Dar and gave them a civil nod before he trudged after his family.
Dar watched him go. “Think it’d be cruel to tell him he’s going in the wrong direction?”
Kerry peered after him, then glanced at the big “Northbound” sign over the door. “What if he isn’t, and that’s all just from last time?” She pointed at the van. “And you didn’t answer me about buying my stuff.”
“Uh huh.” Dar unlocked the Lexus, tossing the booty inside on the rear seat. “You bought dinner.” She glanced at the van again. “Mom had a point.”
“Only one.” Dar pointed at her chest and slid into the driver’s seat.
“Ah. Hm. Yeah.” Kerry got in on the passenger side and settled comfortably into the big leather seat. “That new place was pretty good, wasn’t it? I really liked those spices they used.”
Dar sucked a mouthful of milkshake up and set her cup into it’s holder before she started up the car. “It was pretty good.. but yours is better.” She said. “I like those crunchy things you put in.”
“Peanuts?” Kerry chuckled. “Or do you mean the water chestnuts?”
“Whatever it is.” Dar backed carefully out of the spot she’d parked in, and navigated her way through the parking lot and past the massive truck park. “I like it.” She let an aggressively speeding Volvo pass them by, then got into the merge lane to return to the turnpike.
Once on the road, she leaned back in her seat and relaxed, enjoying Kerry’s nearby presence and the prospect of spending the long trip at her side. It was quiet, the roads were nearly empty now that they’d left the more populated part of Florida, and at the end of the drive there was some serious fun waiting for her.
Life was good. Dar tapped the side of her thumb against the wheel and nodded a little to the music coming out of the speakers. “So, what did you think about that bird theory?”
Kerry had shed her sandals, and now had her bare feet propped up on the dashboard again. “Dar, did you know that it’s pretty darn likely you’d have been tied to a tree and beaten to death by the teachers at my high school just for thinking about the bird theory?”
Dar looked at her. Both eyebrows shot up. “What did they have against birds?”
“Nothing.” Kerry neatly nibbled an exact circle around her cone. “But boy, did they have a problem with Darwin.”
“Mm.” The blond woman agreed. “You know something, it’s funny, but I think that was the first time I found myself questioning the absolute nature of my religion.” She mused. “I remember seeing something… on PBS, I guess.. about species evolution, and the way they explained it, it just made so much sense, Dar!”
“Uh huh. Always pissed me off they insisted on calling it the theory of evolution instead of the science of it.” Dar agreed. “I had this argument with someone on base about it.. the woman wanted to have me jailed for heresy.”
“Mm.” Kerry nodded. “That’s about what happened to me when I went into school the next day and started asking my teachers about it. Hoo boy.” She finished up her treat and dusted her fingertips off. “But you know… for me it never caused a problem if I bought into evolutionary science, but still believed in God, and in Jesus and the bible.” She continued. “Seeing the exquisite wonder of how life works, how could anyone not believe in a higher power?”
Dar stretched her arm across the divider and let it rest casually on Kerry’s shoulders. “It’s easy for people to get stuck in a narrow view, Ker. You know that. Even those guys, the scientists – they were practically fistfighting over the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds… and it’s so structurally obvious.” Dar’s voice grew a touch more animated. “All you have to do is look at those carnivorous dinosaurs, and look at an ostrich, and it’s right there in your face.”
“Dinosaurs into birds, lizards into snakes, protohominids into us…” Kerry mused. “Whoops… guess I’m going to Hell for that last one. Again.” She chuckled. “Hey, what did you think about that one we saw the other night… about humans being water mammals during their evolution?”
The theory was an interesting one, Dar conceded. “Navy brat’s the wrong person to ask about that.” She joked. “I always assumed I was some kind of freak otter.” Her face grew faintly introspective. “For me, the water was always home.”
“Yeah.” Kerry agreed, with a smile. “You’re so natural underwater. I thought of you when I was watching that show. I wish I felt that comfortable.”
“Give it time.” Dar advised her. “I’ve been diving since I was two.”
Leaning back, Kerry tipped her head to one side and regarded the thick, black night sky. It was fun to just sit and talk. Dar had an active, intelligent mind and she was as curious about many things as Kerry was. Keeping your mind in a learning state, she’d realized, made you a lot better at whatever you did. You were always open to new ideas, and new ways of looking at things. “Hey Dar?”
“Wanna play ‘what is it?’”
“Okay.” Dar grinned. “You start.” She gave Kerry a few microseconds. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Would I pick a vegetable for you to guess? Give me a minute.”
Dar drummed her fingers on the wheel and waited, humming under her breath., already anticipating the game. Would it be an animal? Kerry liked animals. She’d pick a strange one though.
Platypus duck, maybe?
They arrived at the convention center late, closer to midnight than Dar had originally planned for. The building was lit on the outside, though, and there were both security guards, and a stir of motion about the place that reassured them.
Dar strolled across the front courtyard, approaching the doors and making eye contact with the guards. “Evening.” She greeted the first one cordially, as she removed her id from her back pocket and offered it up.
The man studied the card, then glanced at her. “Dock entrance is round back.” He told her politely.
One finely arched dark eyebrow lifted. “Excuse me?”
“Construction workers enter in the back.” The guard clarified, still with careful politeness.
Dar looked down at herself, then up at the guard. “Do I look like a construction worker to you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The man replied. “You can enter in the back.”
Kerry covered her mouth to keep in the laughter threatening to burst out. The expression on her lover’s face was just so priceless.
“This is not funny.” Dar told her, testily.
“C’mon.” Kerry swallowed her amusement, taking Dar’s arm and starting for the rear of the center. “No point in arguing with him, Dar. Just call the convention services group in the morning and have the entire company fired.” She let her voice raise slightly, enough to know that the guard would hear her.
“Do I look like a construction worker to you?” Dar ignored the speech, turning and giving her an indignant look.
“Absolutely not.” Kerry reassured her. “It’s just the tank top and the ripped jeans, sweetie. Orlando is obviously not ready for CIO’s in less than pin stripes.” She took Dar’s arm again and patted it. “C’mon.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the guard’s eyes turning into round saucers. “I bet if you really tried, you could get the entire convention services company kicked out. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Dar’s eyes narrowed suddenly. “You’re having fun freaking the guard out, aren’t you?” She uttered, in a low voice.
“Yes.” Kerry smiled charmingly at her. “Give me two more minutes, and he’ll need a change of shorts.” She waggled her fingers at the man. “He deserves it for being a prick butt with the vision of a rhino in the dark.”
Dar snickered, her humor restored. She draped her arm over Kerry’s shoulders and headed towards the rear of the building, leaving the hapless guard behind them. Her ego was still stinging from the man’s remark, though, and she was self aware enough to know it.
“Jerk.” Kerry held the gate open that lead into the loading dock and waited for Dar to pass through. “What could he be thinking, Dar? Let’s just say it was true.”
“Shh. Let’s just say you were one of the setup crew.” Kerry pacified her prickly partner. “It’s nearly midnight. Who cares if you go in the front door? Who’s gonna see you, the cleaning staff?”She closed the gate behind them and followed Dar towards an open loading dock door, the sounds of hammering and banging clearly audible inside.
“I don’t know, and I don’t give a damn.” Dar grumbled, as they crossed from the warm night air into the cooler, but musty smelling building. Lit by fluorescent lights, and featuring a poured concrete floor it resembled the inside of a warehouse more than anything.
Which, of course, it basically was. Kerry’s nose wrinkled at the scent of mildew coming from a set of draperies dropped in a pile near the door. “Nice.”
“Maybe they’ll have a sledgehammer I could borrow.” Dar muttered.
“Dar.” Kerry patted her on the behind. “Would you relax? He was full of horse poots. Don’t tell me you’re getting so sensitive in your old age.”
Her partner scowled dourly.
“Okay.” Kerry could see a pile of people ahead of them, all busy. She took hold of Dar’s arm and pulled her to a halt just inside the loading area, out of sight of the main room. “Sweetheart.” It really wasn’t like Dar to be so sensitive, and Kerry sensed a moment taken here would pay off in the long run. “Did that really bother you?”
Her taller partner leaned against the wall, and scrubbed one hand through her hair. “Stupid, isn’t it?” She admitted, lifting her eyes. “Just hit me the wrong way, I guess… and I don’t even have the excuse of it being that time of the month.”
Kerry tucked her fingers into the waistband of Dar’s jeans. “Listen, I asked you to wear this because I think it’s really sexy.” She tugged a little. “And I didn’t marry a construction worker.”
Dar’s expression gentled. “I know.” She looked down. “And given I picked a pair of boots to wear that I used when we were painting the cabin, I guess he might have had a point.”
“Tank top, ripped jeans, paint splattered hiking boots.. all I need is a tattoo and I could pass as a very good butch stereotype.”
Okay, crisis over. Kerry relaxed, and smiled. “Nah, you’d need leather pants for that.”
“I have those.” Dar reminded her. “But you’d have to arrest me to get me to wear them in summer.” She bumped Kerry’s knee with her own. “C’mon. Let’s go see what the kids are doing, and get the hell out of here.”
They walked through the open garage door and into the convention center, pausing for a moment to catch their bearings. The room was huge, and it was full of nerds. The smell of new computers mixed with the scent of old coffee was almost overwhelming.
“Whoa.” Kerry rubbed her nose. “What a zoo.”
“Uh huh.” Dar stretched to her full height, reviewing the room. It was laid out in regulation trade show fashion, with wooden frame booths stretched in orderly rows interspersed with larger displays custom built by some of the bigger companies. “Ah. There we are.” She pointed to a familiar logo banner, half hung, half draped over some metal pipe supports.
“Nice spot.” Kerry followed her between two wooden stalls, ducking as a technician struggled with a projection screen and almost clocked her in the process. They walked through piles of equipment cases, and emerged into a more open area that held ILS’s display.
Four of their techs were on ladders trying to lift up and bolt into place the steel tube framing the marketing department had designed, and as they watched, the heavy structure tilted precariously to one side. Without a word between them, Kerry and Dar reacted, leaping forward to help.
Kerry grabbed the nearer ladder, which had started to tip over, while Dar used her greater height to reach up and take hold of the steel frame, taking it’s weight as the techs fought to regain control over it. “Whoa!” The blond woman grunted, throwing her body against the ladder as it threatened to come down on top of her. “Take it easy, guys!”
“Damn it!” The tech on her ladder cursed. “This piece of shit was built by freaking Gumby!”
“All right, hang on.” Dar grabbed the ladder and climbed up several steps of it, hoisting the frame with her as she walked. “Get that end on there, Bruce.”
The tech on the next ladder blinked, only then realizing who it was addressing him. “Holy crap!” He blurted. “When’d you get here, ma’am!”
“Just in time, apparently.” Dar grunted. “You gonna bolt that into place, or are we all going to end up with our asses on the concrete?”
Kerry could hear the tension in her partner’s voice, and beneath the worn denim, she could see Dar’s legs straining to keep her load balanced. With Dar’s weight on the ladder, though, it no longer threatened to tip over and she shifted her grip to wrap her arm around Dar’s calves in a secure hold.
“Okay.. okay… almost got it!” Bruce panted, extending himself out on his ladder to put a socket wrench on the bolts that Dar was holding even. He ratcheted them quickly, muscles jumping under his skin as he tightened the grid into place on one end. “Done!”
Dar relaxed her hold cautiously, relieved when the structure seemed likely to stay in one place. She flexed her fingers and shook her arms out, glancing up at the tech still perched on the steps above her. “Why the hell are you guys doing this?”
Bruce finished bolting down the other end of the structure then scampered down the ladder. He was of middling height, and lightly built, with wide brown eyes that had a perpetual look of astonishment in them. “We gotta get the booth up ma’am.” He paused. “Don’t we?”
Dar got off her ladder, and dusted her hands off as the tech above her gingerly climbed down as well. “They don’t have a setup crew here?” She looked around, aware now that at many booths around them conspicuously corporate t-shirted crews were struggling to assemble the structures. “What the hell?”
Kerry ducked out from under the ladder and joined her, as the rest of their techs gathered around. “Hi, guys.” She greeted them with a smile, keeping an eye on Dar who started investigating their surroundings like a large, suspicious house cat.
“Hey, boss.” The one nearest her returned the smile, his tow blond head not topping her own by much. “What are you guys doing here? Mark said you’d be up in a few days.”
“Eh.” Kerry put her hands on her hips. “We decided to come up a little early… did they say why no one was here from the production company? You guys shouldn’t be doing this, Dar’s right. We pay big bucks to have someone in to do it.”
“Well.” Bruce sidled over to her. “We got here a couple hours ago, and the guy in charge told us if we wanted anything else put up, we’d have to do it. He said, with a tiny shrug. “Everyone here was bitching for sure, but what could we do?”
“Call?” Kerry eyed him, spreading her hands out in question. “It’s not like my cell phone number’s a secret.”
The blond tech next to him winced. “We didn’t want you to think we were whiners. It’s not that much to do.. just get those pipes up so we can start cabling. Not like the other guys, they’re trying to get that wood together without hardly any tools.”
“Mm.” Kerry shook her head. “The guys in charge, they still here?”
“No way.” Bruce snorted. “They took off, just left the guards out front. Bunch of…um…” He remembered who he was talking to and his voice trailed off.
“We met them.” His boss muttered. “They didn’t make a very good impression on us. Hey, Dar?”
Her partner had wandered over to the next booth, and was talking to it’s occupants. She held a hand up to acknowledge Kerry’s call, but continued her conversation. “Well, anyway, we can help you get set up.” Kerry told the techs. “What’s up next, those poles over there?” She pointed.
Dar returned before they could get started, and she didn’t look happy. “The Lucent guys say they heard the center didn’t pay their setup crew for the last convention, so they walked.” She reported. “They’re pretty torked. According to their lead tech, the center basically told them they could wait until tomorrow, when maybe they’d have some workers, or do it themselves and shut up.”
Bruce nodded. “That’s what they told us too.” He agreed. “So we talked about it, and decided to see what we could do. We didn’t want you guys to get here and have stuff not ready.”
Dar sighed. “So instead, you get to have us show up and help you haul cable. It’ll make a good story back at the office. Let’s go. Faster we do it, faster we get out of here.”
Kerry walked over and claimed a spool of cable, and a wrench. “Are those the switches over there?” She pointed at a stack of brown cardboard boxes with a familiar label on them. “Cody, why don’t you start unpacking them?”
“Speaking of.” Dar turned, then tipped her head back. “Let me guess. They didn’t pull any telco drops, did they?”
“Nope.” Bruce said. “That was going to be a real problem.” He admitted. “Mark didn’t send any WAN guys up here.”
“Not a problem any more.” Kerry tossed Dar a punchdown kit which her partner fielded with consummate grace. “I think the jack boxes are over on that pole, Dar.” She nudged Bruce towards the remaining unhung structure. “Let’s go guys – move those ladders over.”
Dar removed a pen from her pocket and scribbled down the jack numbers on the pole Kerry had spotted, then paused as she put the pen back when she spotted several people near the back entrance just standing there watching them.
None were familiar, but if she squinted, she could just make out the logo on the nearest one’s shirt. “Ahh.” Dar murmured. “Our lowballing adversaries.” The faintest twinkle appeared in her eyes, as she stuffed the bit of paper she’d written on in her back pocket, and headed for the telco room, which they’d passed on their way in.
Two of the newcomers walked on past her into the room, sparing her only cursory glances. The other three remained at the entrance, talking amongst themselves with sour looks on their faces. They absently returned Dar’s nod of greeting, then dismissed her as she walked by.
“You want to wait for tomorrow? Jackson swore they’d have a crew in.” The tallest of them said. “I’m not dragging all that gear through this place.”
“I’d love to take off, but I want to wait till ILS gets their system set up, then see what we can find out about it. Those guys look like they’ll talk our ears off.” The second replied, a well built man with thick, black hair who had the air of a manager. “Maybe we can recruit some of em… I heard they’re looking at layoffs.”
The first man laughed.
But he probably would have stopped, if he’d bothered to turn around and see the ice blue eyes drilling unseen holes in the back of his head.
“You go for the guys. I’ll take those babes with the cables.” The shorter man also laughed. “I’ll give em one thing, they hire for looks.”
Dar glanced at the kit in her hands, and opened it, selecting a pair of needle nose pliers and studying it, wondering how much jail time she’d incur if she pulled the bastard’s gonads out with the tool. Then she sighed, and put it back, turning and continuing on her way with commendable restraint.
Work before pleasure. Their time would come soon enough.
“Here you go, guys.” Kerry eased back into their booth, cradling a half dozen cans of soda in a pouch made from the long tail of her tshirt. The techs gathered around her shyly selecting their choices as Kerry stood in their midst. “C’mon, they’re cold.”
“Thanks, ma’am.” Bruce sat down on a switch, wiping his brow.
Two hours had gone by, and they’d finished the structure of the booth only to realize the center had turned off its air conditioning. It had rapidly gone from relatively comfortable to stuffy, to stifling before Dar had hoisted up her pirate’s pennant and found the a/c control room.
Now the air was sluggishly circulating again, and Dar had gone back to methodically hacking her way through the unlabeled circuits in search of the one they’d ordered.
“Okay.” Kerry sat down with her own soda and opened it, taking a long swallow before she continued. She was sweaty and covered in dust, and her knee ached where she’d banged it on the corner of a switch, but as she looked around at their progress, she was satisfied. “Once we get the line up, we’re pretty much done until the servers get here tomorrow.”
The techs looked tired, but relieved. “Think the circuit’ll be up tonight?” Bruce asked.
“Oh, I’m sure it will.” Kerry leaned back and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles and regarding their bare length studiously. “Even if Dar has to run a fiber cable all the way to Miami, it’ll be up.” She looked up at her troops, with a grin. “I have faith.”
The four techs grinned back.
“Thanks for stopping by and giving us a hand, ma’am. That was really cool.” Cody said.
“No problem.” Kerry glanced to one side as a motion caught her attention, and stopped speaking when she spotted a pod of their competitors approaching. She watched them as they came over, observing the booth with intent eyes. “Hi.”
“Hi.” The man in front greeted her with a friendly grin. “You guys sure have been busy.”
“Hasn’t everyone?” Kerry replied. “What a mess, huh?”
“Yeah.” The man agreed. “We’re going to wait for some help tomorrow to put things up, but I guess you folks decided to do it yourself, huh?”
Kerry glanced around at their booth. “Looks like it.” She agreed. “We can take off and go to sleep in peace now.”
The man stuck his hands in his pockets and chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure you guys have to be careful about that. I hear things are up in the air for you. You don’t want to take any chances, huh?”
The techs all looked at Kerry, who looked at the man with gently inquisitive green eyes. “Pardon me?” She asked.
“Ah, c’mon, we’ve heard about your problems.. hell, we caused some of em!” The man laughed. “No hard feelings.. in fact, you guys look pretty bright. Interested in coming over o the other side?”
Kerry’s eyebrows lifted. The rest of her troops remained prudently quiet, apparently quite satisfied to let her do the talking. “I have no beef with who pays me.” She said. “What about you folks?” Her eyes shifted to her techs.
“We’re fine.” Bruce replied. “No gripes here.” He added, as the rest of the techs shook their heads.
“Now, come on.” The man lifted both hands up. “Here you are, sweating like pigs, busting your humps to get this all running, and the guys who make the big bucks are sitting on their asses in some leather chair in a penthouse. That how you like things?”
Bruce giggled, his eyes fastened on Kerry’s disheveled figure, which had started taking on distinct lines of angry tension.
“That’s not how our company works.” The man said, apparently oblivious.
“That’s not really how our company works either.” Kerry replied in a quiet tone.
“Yeah? When was the last time your saw your boss pick up a cable?” The man countered. “I bet you never have.”
Kerry’s lips twitched into a reluctant grin. “I bet you’re wrong.” She said, as she spotted Dar’s distinctive figure approaching the group. Her lover looked harassed, but triumphant, and she brushed past the intruders as she picked up an interface cable and shoved it into place. “We up?”
“Son of a bitch piece of shit half assed infrastructure.” Dar growled, plugging in their router and booting it up. “I’m surprised the damn sixty six block wasn’t put together with grape bubble gum.”
“So, we’re up.” Kerry interpreted the cursing. The techs all clapped and whistled.
Dar studied the lights, then grunted. “Yes.” She dusted her hands off an gave the two strangers a dour look. “Excuse me.” She sat down next to Kerry and examined the palm of one hand, which was covered in dust and scraped raw. After a second, she looked back up at the men . “You want something?” She snapped.
Caught offguard, their jaws dropped. “Ah, no, just visiting. Listen, you guys take it easy, okay? Come talk if you’re interested in what I had to say.” The man in front lifted his hand and waved it. Then he stepped forward and offered it to Kerry. “My name’s Robert Caustens, and I’m the director of IT, for Telegenics.”
Kerry readily took his hand and gripped it. “Kerry.” She replied. “Nice to meet you. Hope you get things straightened out.”
The two men left.
“Jesus.” Kerry started laughing. “What a dork.”
“He pitch you?” Dar inquired, her eyes flicking to the rest of the techs in question.
“Yes, ma’am.” Cody nodded. “Said we shouldn’t work for a company where the big shots stay up in their ivory towers.” He blinked at Dar, keeping a straight face. “It was pretty funny.”
Dar extended her boots, and let her scraped hands rest on her knees. “You know, that’s just damn hilarious.” She glanced at Kerry. “Are we supposed to be in a tower? How come you didn’t tell me that? And how come he didn’t pitch me?”
“I dunno, boss. Maybe you scared him.” Kerry took Dar’s right hand and turned it over. “I think you have a splinter here. Let me get it out.”
“Thanks.” Dar relaxed. “Okay, let’s get cleaned up here, gentlemen, and get the hell out of this damn garage.”
Bruce got up and straightened the router, as the rest of the techs began tidying up the space as Kerry bent her head over her task, straining to see clearly in the annoying florescent light.
“Are those the guys who took those accounts?” Cody asked Dar, shyly. “That everyone was so pissed about?”
“Mm.” Dar nodded. “They’re an upstart company. Just came onto the scene this past year, and they targeted a bunch of contracts coming into renewal. Not just us, but we got slammed pretty bad them, though our other friends…” Dar pointed to the right, where another of their bigger rivals was setting up. “Lost a couple too.”
“Are they that good?” Bruce asked.
“They’re that cheap.” The CIO replied. “That’s their pitch – that they’re lean and mean, and they can service the contracts at a lower cost.” She regarded Kerry’s pale head. “Which on a small scale, they can, if everything runs perfectly.
“Like when does that ever happen?” Kerry muttered.
Bruce was mounting the switch they’d brought into a rolling cabinet with a locking door, as Cody helped him. “But they tell that to everyone.” He said. “So – they can do it for one company at one time, but they can’t do it for all their companies every time.”
Dar produced a warm, sexy grin. “You got it.” She complimented him. “It’s like the stock market. You can’t get hung up over the short term.”
“There.” Kerry straightened, smoothing her thumb over the roughened skin on her partner’s palm. “That wasn’t a splinter, Dar, it was metal.” She said. “And it might have been rusty. We should go get you some first aid.”
“Thanks, Dr. Kerry.” Dar gave her an affectionate look, bumping her shoulder lightly. “Well, I think we’re done here. Let the marketing wonks crawl all over this place in the morning.” She glanced at the techs. “You guys got a ride to your hotel?”
“Um.. I think there’s a shuttle..” Bruce said, hesitantly, checking his watch.
“C’mon.” Dar got up, clasping Kerry’s hand in her own and hauling her up as well. “It’s gonna be crowded, but we’ll get there.” She straightened to her full height, looking around. Most of the crews had given up and left, and they were virtually alone in the cavernous chamber, only a few other teams still making desultory attempts at completing their set ups. “Good job, everyone.”
Bruce peeked up at her. “Ma’am?” He said. “I think you all did most of it.”
“Us?” Kerry drawled in response. “Nah. We’re up in our ivory tower, remember? In our nice leathers chairs, eating…um…”
“Quiche.” Dar patted the rolling case. “Or caviar.”
“Ick.” Kerry’s nose wrinkled. “I’ll pass. How about a pizza, instead?”
The techs all chuckled, as they followed their two leaders towards the back door, after Bruce double checked the locks on the rolling cabinets. They passed a few stragglers, but didn’t see any of their friends from Telegnics, and the area they’d been setting up in was dark and quiet.
Outside was dark and quiet too. The guard at the back door watched them as they left, circling the building and heading for Dar’s lonely looking Lexus, crouching balefully in the cone of light from a security lamp. A soft buzz came from crickets in the bushes ringing the parking area, and Dar make the car chirp in response as she remotely unlocked the doors.
“Someone want to let Kerry sit on their lap?” Dar asked, as they reached the car.
Four sets of stunned eyes faced her, in such evident shock it made her smile. “Didn’t think so.” She opened the rear hatch, and shoved their bags over. “One of you in here, the rest in the back. It’s not a long trip.”
“You’re so bad.” Kerry opened the front passenger door.
Dar watched the crowd pile in, then she opened her own door, pausing when a motion across the parking lot caught her attention. A car was parked near the front door of the center, and as she watched, two figures got out and headed for the guarded front door.
Dar blinked, and leaned forward a little. Despite the distance and the darkness, she recognized them both, a knowledge that brought a faint grimace to her face.
“Dar?” Kerry called her.
“Yeah.” The taller woman slid into the driver’s seat. “See that?” She pointed to the two figures. “Recognize them?”
Kerry peered through the glass. “Um… not really… oh.” She sat up. “Isn’t that Michelle Graver?”
“Uh huh.” Dar nodded. “Sure is.”
“Didn’t she go into business on her own? You told me that, I thought.”
“Uh huh.” Dar said again. “Found herself a new partner, apparently.” Her face could have been cut in ice, the angles were so cold. “They deserve each other.” She started up the Lexus, and put it into gear. “Looks like Shari’s finally found a kindred spirit.”
Kerry’s jaw clicked shut audibly.
Dar pulled out of the parking spot and drove slowly past the parked car, which bore a blazon on the driver’s side door. She chuckled humorously as she read it, and heard a sound of mixed consternation and disgust come from Kerry. “Shoulda guessed.” She picked up speed and drove past the front door, where the guard was courteously opening the glass for the two women. “Telegenics.”
“Two lemon dykes on a stick more likely.” Kerry uttered, so under her breath it was a miracle Dar heard her. “But I guess they wouldn’t register the name.”
“Something wrong, boss?” Cody asked hesitantly, from the back seat.
“Oh, no.” Kerry leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “Everything’s just peachy.” Her eyes slid to Dar’s profile. “Juuuust peachy.” She repeated. “You don’t think they’d mess with our stuff, do you?”
Dar paused at the exit to the lot, leaning on the steering wheel and considering. “No.” She continued her turn, moving out onto the main road. “They don’t think they need to right now.” But her fingers drummed on the wheel pensively.
“But you’ll set up a monitor when we get to the hotel.”
Kerry sighed. “This is going to get icky.”
“Well, we’re gonna damn well make it ickier for them than for us.” Kerry decided. “To hell with them.”
Somewhere in that, Dar found a true smile. She relaxed, and leaned back, the knots in her gut easing. “Yeah, wait till they see the wreck their booth’s in.” She agreed.
“And the wreck ours isn’t in.” Kerry grinned.
It would almost be worth being there to see it. Dar acknowledged, glad of the car’s cold air conditioning against her, and looking forward to the shower she knew was at the end of the ride. Kerry reached over the seat divider and laid a hand on her knee, the green eyes full of a promise she knew as also waiting there.
To hell with them. “Let em sweat. I turned off the a/c before we left.”
Kerry muffled a laugh. The techs joined in, not really sure what was going on, but willing to follow Kerry’s lead anyway.
They drove on into the night, leaving the blazing lights of the convention center behind them.