Kerry peered at her reflection in the mirror as she inserted a jade earring in one ear. The color not only matched her eyes, it complimented the sea green dress she was wearing and she stepped back to assess the combination with a satisfied grunt.
"Something wrong?" Dar appeared at her shoulder, glancing curiously at her.
"No.. except that this is the second time this week we had to get gussied up." Her partner replied. "And it's not nearly as much fun as the first time was."
"Eh." Dar shrugged one shoulder. "The way I figure it, we'll go for a little while, then bow out. Nothing says we have to spend all night there."
Kerry inserted her other earring, nodding a little in agreement. She had a few butterflies in her stomach anyway, since it was going to be the first time she'd seen Michelle and Shari since she'd.. well, since she'd blown them off.
No other way to say it, really.
Blown them off, and triggered a food attack on them by her staff. Kerry almost chuckled. "Okay. " She said. "Then we can come back here - how about a swim in the pool when we get back? I bet we'll be all sweaty just from the drive up and back."
"Good for me." Dar finished putting her necklace on. "Do I need to bring my boxing gloves? Or you think they'll be civilized?"
Kerry indulged herself in a moment's fantasy of Dar in her black silk sheath clobbering their Telegenics competitors with the cute red boxing gloves she used for class. "Heh."
"Was that yes, or no?"
"That was me wishing they'd be uncivilized." Kerry admitted. "Ah well. Let's get going. Want me to drive?"
Kerry walked into the living room, shadowboxing as she walked. "Boom..boom...boom.." She paused as they reached the front door and cocked her head to one side. "Wouldn't it be cool if we had the motorcycle up here? I'd love to pull up on that."
Dar stopped. She leaned on the door and looked Kerry up and down. "Hon, think about that a minute and how you have to ride a bike." She said. "If you think I'm giving all of downtown Miami a view like that, you're nuts."
Kerry looked puzzled, then glanced down at herself. A snort emerged. "Oh." She muttered. "Yeah... I see your point."
Dar opened the door and gestured towards the outside. "Exhibitionists first."
Pier 12 appeared somberly festive as they walked up the flight of stairs into the port facility. Dar handed the white gloved receptionist their invitations and waited to be check off whatever list the woman had, then gave her a brief nod as they were allowed past.
A glance at the banners told her that Quest wasn't quite the expansive host he'd presented himself to be. It was clear that the cost of the party was being borne by the Port, which tied in with what Kerry had told her about them being glad of the business in an off time.
They rode the escalator up to the second level, where there were tables lining the walls filled with various edible items. A bar anchored each end of the room, and both were busy with well dressed schmoozers taking advantage of the free alcohol.
Dar spotted Michelle and Shari at the far one, and accordingly steered Kerry towards the nearer, reasoning there was no sense in getting into a fistfight before even getting a beer out of it.
Quest approached them just as they reached the bar, looking quite pleased with himself. "Good evening, ladies." He greeted them cordially. "Glad you could make it."
"Thanks. It was a nice thing for you to do." Kerry replied. "I realize we're all competing, but the goal of the project is to give you a solution you can use, and that we can implement." She said. "And besides, we're all adults, right?"
Dar handed her a cold beer, poured neatly into an acceptably chilled mug.
"Exactly." Quest agreed. "I'm very glad you have decided to take that view on it." He turned slightly and ordered a drink from the bar, then leaned on it and looked back at them. "Especially since one of our applicants has chosen to capture this process on film." He indicated behind them.
Kerry turned her head, to see a cameraman and an assistant over in the far corner. "Why did you let them?" She turned back to Quest. "I thought you wanted this to be low key."
The man shrugged. "Once it was out, it was out. No point in hiding it anymore." He said. "This way, we get some good press for free. What can I tell you?"
Practical. Dar silently agreed. "Look at it this way, Ker. One day you'll end up watching yourself on the Discovery channel."
"Travel Channel." Quest corrected her succinctly. "They've already signed the deal. My people love it."
Dar studied him. "Be a lot of pressure for Telegenics to win the bid then." She remarked casually. "Otherwise, makes for bad tv, doesn't it? No happy ending for the little guy."
"Doesn't it?" Quest tipped his drink towards her, then walked off in the direction of the camera crew.
Kerry strolled a little away from the bar, with Dar at her heels. They both stopped in a relatively empty spot, reviewing the room together. "Hm." Kerry said. "Why does this whole thing just get slimier and slimier every time we turn around?"
"Mildew." Dar edged away from the prominent salad bar. "Let's go see what they've got over there." She nudged Kerry towards the canapé table. Halfway there, she realized they'd been spotted by Michelle and Shari, but she just kept walking, one hand coming to rest on Kerry's back as they reached the line. "Ker?"
"I see them." Kerry observed the choices. "Oh, look, hon.. lots of little potential weapons. I bet those stuffed potato puffs fly really good."
"Contain yourself, Jesse James." Dar handed her a plate. "Maybe it'll be civil."
"Maybe our dog will learn to fly."
Dar offered her plate up to the uniformed attendant and watched as he placed several canapés on it. Her peripheral vision picked up their adversaries approaching and she took a moment to sort out her possible responses before she turned and made eye contact with them. "Evening." She decided on a gracious nod.
Kerry's shoulders squared visibly before she looked up. She merely returned the stares evenly, allowing Dar to do the communicating for the both of them.
"Evening.' Michelle responded, taking a breath to continue. But after a second, her jaw closed and she merely picked up a plate and continued down the line.
Shari glared at both of them. Dar lowered her head slightly, and her posture altered very subtly as an icy edge came into her eyes.
The camera man from the filming crew closed in, focusing on them tightly, and with a twitch of her lip, Shari also turned and went down the line, cutting in front of them and grabbing a plate of her own.
Kerry smiled pleasantly at the cameraman. "Hi."
"Hi!" The man returned her greeting cheerfully. "So, what do you think about the party?"
"It's been just charming so far." The blond woman said. "Hope it stays that way." She added, just loud enough for her voice to carry.
Neither of their adversaries turned, but both backs stiffened.
The man moved off to follow Shari and Michelle, followed by another man, who was talking into a recorder.
Kerry removed a generic puffy something from Dar's plate and popped it into her mouth, chewing with thoughtful vehemence. After a second, she stopped with a weird expression on her face, and hastily washed her mouthful down with a swallow of her beer. "What was that?"
"The establishment of primate dominance as a vestige of our biological lineage." Dar replied succinctly. "Or did you mean the spicy mushrooms and anchovies?" She added. "Thanks for trying it for me, by the way."
Kerry digested both pieces of information and wished she wasn't on the first. She took another swallow of beer to get the last of the taste from her mouth, and swallowed it. "Ook, ook."
"Me Jane, you Jane, you know how it is." Dar sounded more than amused. "Let's go talk to those guys from Cangen. I think that second one in the corduroy trousers used to work for us."
"Cords in summer?" Kerry muttered, as she followed her partner across the tile floor. "Bet he didn't work for us long."
Just her luck, it would be the bathroom again. Kerry found herself face to face with Michelle as she stepped up to the sink and leaned forward to wash her hands. The red haired woman was dressed in a caramel colored cocktail dress, which truthfully did not flatter her at all. "Hi."
"Hi." Michelle responded. "I've got to hand it to you, Kerry. You surprised me."
Kerry concentrated on washing her hands. "Did I?" She asked.
"Yes." Michelle leaned against the sink and waited for the other woman washing her hands to finish up and leave before she continued. "I thought you were civilized."
"Ah." Kerry straightened up and reached for a towel. "Well you know, most of the time I am." She faced the red haired woman squarely. "But you stomped all over my last nerve to such an extent, I just lost the ability to deal civilly with you. Isn't that a shame?" She tossed the balled up paper towel into the basket neatly, and walked past. "Good night."
Michelle was, if nothing else, persistent to the core. Kerry debated a moment, then paused and waited. "Yes?"
"I know you think we hate you.."
"No." Kerry interrupted firmly. "I don't think that at all. I think your partner hates Dar, and you both will do anything to beat us. I don't mind competition - just don't put a friendly face on it. Be square."
Michelle folded her arms over her chest. "We can compete and not be enemies." She suggested. "I know there's an issue between Shari and Dar, no question. But you and I always got along."
"Until you starting playing dirty tricks."
Michelle's eyebrows arched. "Says the women who sent thugs from her office to attack me?"
The characterization of their staff just struck Kerry as sadly funny. "They didn't go there for that." She told Michelle. "They just wanted to let you know I wasn't coming."
"Your way of sending a message?" The other woman countered, with a touch of sarcasm.
"No." Kerry turned and opened the door. "I didn't send them. I would have just let you sit there and rot." She gave Michelle a last smile, and walked out.
Michelle stood for a moment in quiet thought, her eyebrows lifting. "Now that is a damn surprise." She murmured to herself. "I guess the old divide and conquer isn't flying anymore." With a shake of her head, she walked out of the bathroom and headed across the floor.
Kerry was ahead of her, angling towards the other side of the room where she suddenly spotted Dar and Shari facing off, the taller Dar's body language aggressive and exuding energy.
Michelle sighed gustily. "Oh, crap." She hastened her pace, then, just as suddenly, she slowed again. "You know what?" She said to the air. "To hell with it. If she's opened up her mouth again, let her take the consequences this time. I'm over it." With a nod, she turned on her mid height heels and headed back for the bar. "Chili once was once too many for this red head."
Kerry reached Dar’s side just as she heard her partner say something she hoped wasn’t related to Shari’s biological origins. “Hey.” She put a hand on Dar’s side.
“Sorry, that’s just bilgewash.” Dar replied crisply, then glanced to one side. “Not you.”
“Why is giving a customer a low cost solution bilgewash? Because it can be done cheaper than you can do it?” Shari countered.
“Because it doesn’t work.” Dar said. “Not long term. There isn’t a piece of software out there that can’t be hacked or modified without firmware backing it up.”
“Oh, that’s bull.”
Dar refused to lose her temper. “No, it’s not bull, it’s just how technology is. Engineers know that.” She exchanged a slight nod with her counterpart at another of the companies. “If you want to have real control of the process, you have to control it at a machine level.”
“But hardware costs more.” Shari argued.
“Failing costs more than whatever you pay to succeed.” Dar said. “If you ignore that, you set up your clients for failure.” She continued. “Here’s an example. A client puts in production a new application, whose over wan link bandwidth had never been quantified.”
“That’s not my problem as the network provider.” Shari said. “I sell a service, and a pipe.”
Dar’s blue eyes glinted with sharp glee. “That’s the difference between being a business partner, and a vendor. I don’t just sell pipes.”
“No.” Shari didn’t miss a beat, very aware of the cameraman focusing on them. “You sell insurance, at a premium.”
The man Dar had been talking with interjected a hand wave. “Yeah, but it’s like clean underwear. You don’t have a pair, boy, you end up needing em.” He said. “I don’t go for all the high priced goodies you do, Dar, but there has to be some ass covering. I don’t ever trust just one piece of anything to be the only solution.”
“Pithy way of putting it, Don.” Dar produced a grin.
“I’ve seen more software take a dump in my time than hardware, ma’am.” He shrugged unrepentantly. “I for one do not intend on pushing a lowball I can’t sleep at night over just to get a contract.”
The cameraman’s assistant winced a little at the language, but indicated his partner to keep filming.
“It’s got nothing to do with lowballing!” Shari broke in. “It has to do with not waving the latest and greatest and most expensive at people who don’t need it!”
“But why shouldn’t we offer the latest technology?” Kerry asked. “Isn’t that the whole point?” She frowned. “You all talk like using the best and the newest stuff available is a handicap. Hello? We’re in the technology business, folks. It changes every ten minutes. If all customers want is a canned, old solution – let them go to Best Buy.”
“Are you nuts?” Shari now addressed her directly. “People want the cheapest solution the fastest way possible. They don’t want to be cutting edge.”
“No, but we do.” Dar smoothly took back over. “You’ve got it all wrong, Shari, just like always. People don’t want the cheapest solution, they want the one that is most economical for them.”
Shari rolled her eyes. “Ah yes, Professor Roberts, who probably barely passed freshman English. I see the difference.”
“ILS doesn’t pay me to write essays.” Dar still maintained her composure. “But if you don’t know the difference between economical and cheap, that’ll explain things when those companies you sold bargain basement solutions to all fall apart and come crying to a real IT company for a solution.”
“No, ILS does pay me for in depth analysis and trending. I don’t wish. I know.” Dar replied coolly.
The cameraman seemed totally engrossed in the exchange, sliding the lens back and forth between the talkers. He lingered on Dar. She noticed, and turned her head slightly to look right into the blank, black eye. She winked at it, and unexpectedly grinned. “Now remember. I’m the bad guy.”
The assistant grinned back at her, making an okay sign with his fingers.
Shari glanced around, but apparently did not find what she was looking for. “Well, we’ll find out which one of us has the right approach soon enough.” She said. “Excuse me.”
Dar watched her go, feeling a sense of vague personal triumph that she hadn’t let Shari’s jibes rattle her. Outwardly, anyway. She took a deep breath, feeling Kerry move just a little closer to her, her partner’s body heat gently toasting her left side.
Did Kerry sense how she felt? Dar let out her held breath slowly, only marginally paying attention to Don’s subject change to a new set of IEEE standards. The cameraman was still standing there, fussing with his gear, and the assistant took the opportunity to approach them.
“Well, that was a great piece of film.” The man said. “I think that was one of the best we’ve got so far… Ms. Roberts, mind of I ask you a few questions?”
“Just a few?” The man coaxed. “Let’s go over there where it’s a little quieter.”
“Go on, boss.” Kerry poked her a bit. “I’ll go get you a refill.” She captured Dar’s glass and plate.
Dar gave her a brief, uncertain look, then shrugged and indicated to the cameraman to lead on. “Can’t guarantee I’ll answer, but you can ask.”
Kerry waited for them to move off, before she headed back towards the tables, running her mind over what had just happened. Dar had won the exchange, she realized, and without getting mad in the process. She’d also impressed the television people, and used her charm on them to very good effect.
Wow. Kerry handed the bartender her empty glass. “Can I have an.. um.. “ Beer? Scotch? Something cocktailish to match Dar’s newly burnished image? She leaned forward and put her hands on the edge of the bar. “Do you have any milk?”
The bartender paused in the act of pouring a glass of wine and looked at her. “Milk?”
He finished and handed the glass to a woman standing by waiting. “Uh.. yeah.. “ He fished around under the bar, then looked up again. “You sure you don’t want a.. um.. a Shirley Temple or something?”
“I got some ginger ale?” The man offered with polite persistence.
“Milk.” Kerry repeated again. “Don’t make me go find a Farm Stores.”
“Okay.” The man gave up gracefully and produced the required chilled homogeonized dairy product. “Here you go.” He handed it over. “I never argue woman wearing a snake on her chest.”
Kerry almost gave her snake a milk bath, but managed to regain control over her grip on the glass and retreated towards the food tables, intent on finding something appropriate to go with it.
Dar sat down at one of the small tables on the far side of the room and fiddled with a table tent as the camera assistant joined her.
He started off by extending his hand across to her. “First of all, I don’t think we actually met. I’m Derren Eschew.”
Dar warily took his hand and shook it. “People say bless you a lot to you don’t they?”
Derren chuckled goodnaturedly. “Oh yeah.” He agreed. “Bless you, gesundheit, want a tissue, have a cough drop.. you name it I’ve heard it six million times since first grade.” He leaned back in his seat once they’d released their grasps. “You have a pretty unusual name too, don’t you?”
“Roberts?” Dar lifted a brow slightly. “In Miami, sure.”
“Hehheh.. I meant your first time.” Derren clarified. “Is it short for something?”
“I’ve never been short for anything.” His interviewee replied. “No. It’s just Dar.”
The man opened a small notepad and studied it’s contents. “You characterized yourself as the bad guy.” He looked up at her. “Why?”
Dar paused a bit before she answered, considering her words. “You’re framing Telegenics as the good guys.” She said. “So that makes me the bad guy.”
“Beeecausee… they’re a little, struggling company and you’re the IT giants?” Derren hazarded. “David and Goliath kinda thing?” He said. “They have worked incredibly hard to get an inroad into a very tough business, which you seem to own. Isn’t that right?”
Dar propped her chin up against her fist. “No.” She replied. “That’s not right. We only own the contracts we’ve won, and despite Telegenics opinion to the contrary we won those contracts by being the best choice for the companies who signed them.”
“But they’re going out and changing that.” Derren flipped a page and made a note.
The man stopped writing and looked up. “You don’t think they are?”
Watchful blue eyes focused on him. “I think it’s a tight economy, and they’re taking advantage of companies looking for savings anywhere to tempt people with short term savings.” She stated quietly. “Whether it was the best choice for them remains to be seen.”
The man scribbled another note. “Naturally, you don’t think so.” He said.
“Naturally.” Dar agreed, with a flash of neat white teeth. She let her eyes drop to the table, then turned her head sideways as she sensed Kerry approaching. Her partner was carrying a glass and a plate, and as their eyes met, Kerry broke into a warm smile.
“Your company does a lot of work for the government.” Derren distracted her attention back. “Isn’t that right? Military work?”
“Bet you’re glad the don’t ask don’t tell policy doesn’t extend to contractors, huh?”
The question caught Dar by surprise, and she let potential answers percolate for a second or two while Kerry set the plate and glass down, and took a seat next to her. “Why?” She cocked her head. “Despite what you’ve been told, corporations, even big ones like mine, are sexless.”
Kerry came in right on the sexless. Her head jerked a little in startlement as she gave her partner a bemused look. “I leave to get you a drink, and I come back and you’re talking sex? I thought this was for the Travel Channel?”
Derren leaned on his elbow. “So working with a bunch of GI’s who would be glad to give you the boot doesn’t bother you?”
Kerry leaned towards him. “Does it bother you?” She asked. “Did you tell when asked or something?”
A guarded look crossed the man’s face, and he straightened up and moved back from the table. “Nah, I just wondered. Politics and contracts made strange bedfellows, I guess.” He got up and closed his notepad. “Nice talking to you, Ms. Roberts. Hope we get to do it again.” He held out a hand, and clasped Dar’s briefly. “Night.”
He walked off trailing the cameraman behind him.
Dar studied her glass. “You got me milk.” She commented.
“And cookies.” Kerry nudged the plate closer. “Are we having a good night here?”
“Damned if I know.” Dar took a sip of the milk. “Damned if I know, Kerry. There’s something just not clicking in this whole thing. I’m missing something.”
She drummed her fingers on the table. “Something.”
Kerry turned the page of the book she was reading, enjoying the cool breeze off the water as she swung idly back and forth in the swing chair. It was just past six and they’d left work early after a long, long week.
Fortunately, after the party Quest had left them all alone, and neither she nor Dar had heard anything more about the project all week long which had turned out to be a damn good thing.
Disasters tended to come in spurts. This week she’d had to deal with six of them, one for each day and two on Monday that had almost resulted in her being on an airplane to someplace boring and unpleasant.
But she’d worked it out in the end, and now she was blissfully enjoying the quiet decompression of sitting on the deck watching the sun’s light slowly fade.
Behind her, the glass door slid open, releasing a puff of chilled, garlic scented air along with Dar’s tanned and mostly bare body. “Hey.” Kerry lazily rolled her head to one side as Dar joined her on the swing chair, dressed in only a pair of soft cotton shorts and a colorful scarlet sports bra. “What are you up to?”
“About six and a quarter.” Dar put her feet up on the stone porch balustrade, flexing her toes against the warm surface. “Busy week.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry laid her book down and let her head rest against Dar’s shoulder. “I’m glad it’s over. Between my fubars and your hackers, I wanted to call FPL and have them take the power out again.” She leaned closer and sniffed Dar’s skin curiously. “Why do you smell like bubble gum?”
“I was playing ball with Chino and her new toy.” Dar displayed a clump of cream colored hair dusting her shorts. “It’s a giggle ball, and it smells weird.”
“A giggle ball?”
“Uh huh.” Dar said. “Like you.” She reached over and tickled her partner who obliged her by giggling and smacking her hand.
“Dar!” Kerry tried to tickle her back, but found her hands caught and gently held. “You punk.”
Dar released her, as she chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve been a punk all week. I’m driving the ops crew nuts. I think they wish I’d go back to yelling at people in meetings.”
“That’s not true. They love it.” Kerry said. “I heard them in the break room. You were the entire subject of conversation the last six times I went through there.” She added. “At least until they spotted me. Then it switched to soccer.”
“Soccer?” Dar sounded pleased nonetheless. “Yeah, I’ve been giving them some pointers as long as I’m taking over the console.” She wiggled her toes contentedly. “Been sort of fun.”
“They’re in awe of you, you know that, right?” Kerry smiled, rocking them both a little. “Hey, I’ve got an idea… you up for a night dive tonight?”
“Oo.” Dar’s eyes lit up. “Yeah!”
Ah. Kerry felt the stress of the week slip away from her. Warm air, warm water, the stars… “You’ll protect me from cuttlefish, right?”
“With my life.” Dar promised.
“I”ll grab dinner, you grab the towels. Let’s go get deep.”
“C’mon, Chino.” Kerry herded their pet onto the back of the boat, watching her frisk around the space and busy herself smelling every square inch of it. After watching the dog for an indulgent minute, Kerry continued on into the boat’s cabin and put down her armful of supplies.
The potful of spaghetti and meatballs she set on the small stove, putting the locking arm in place to keep the contents from becoming interior decorating when Dar started the boat moving. The wine she put in the small fridge to chill, along with the dessert, a six pack of yogurt, and some baby chocolate chugs.
The boat rocked lightly, announcing Dar’s presence and a second later her partner joined her in the cabin. She dropped a mesh bag containing Kerry’s gear on the deck, and tossed her own nearby. “We’re outta here.”
“Go go Gadget.” Kerry went to stow the diving gear. “I’ll get us loose.”
Dar ducked outside and headed up to the controls while Kerry dodged the curious Chino and hopped onto the dock to untie the lines. The sun had just gone down, and the breeze had picked up, tossing her hair back as she jumped back on board. “Okay!”
The low rumble of the diesels started up, vibrating the deck beneath her feet. Chino barked in surprise, and backed up as the water churned behind them. Normally, Kerry would go up and join her partner as they motored out, but she knew if she did their pet would stand at the bottom of the ladder and bark, so she parked herself in one of the wood and fabric deck chairs instead. She was barefoot, and wearing a sleeveless muscle tshirt, and now she completed her outfit by snagging one of Dar’s baseball caps and putting it on backwards to keep her hair out of her eyes once the wind came up.
Chino went over to stand near the edge of the deck as they backed out into the quiet marina waterway, her tail wagging idly as she watched the other boats go past.
Kerry stretched her legs out and leaned back as the island slowly receded, the lingering bands of sunset still painting the sky to the west. It was warm, but with the breeze very comfortable. Kerry allowed herself a few more lazy moments, until they reached the buoy and Dar kicked the engines into higher gear. Then she pushed herself to her feet and got to work preparing their gear for the dive.
First, she got their bags out onto the deck without tripping over Chino, and pulled out the two sets of masks, folding snorkels, and fins. Those she set aside for last. Next, she pulled out their shortie wetsuits, since it was a night dive and they both tended to be chilled after a while without the warm sun around. “Hey, Dar?”
“Did you wash these?”
“Yeap.” The answer came back promptly. “Found some new stuff in the dive shop last time I went. You like the smell?”
Kerry sniffed cautiously. “Smells like tangerines!” She yelled up. “I like it!” She set the neoprene suits down with a grunt of satisfaction. Then she went to the built in lockers and removed their BC’s and regulators, laying them out on the counter and going over them with a careful eye.
They were only doing a reef, and a somewhat shallow one at that, but Kerry had never bought into taking chances with their favorite sport. She checked all the o-rings and the clips that held their hoses down, and made sure the fittings didn’t have salt corrosion on them.
Satisfied, she opened the bottom cabinet and removed two tanks, lifting them with some effort onto the low bench on the side and bungy tying them in place as the boat shifted in the waves.
Tanks falling on your toes sucked. Kerry had two formerly broken ones to attest to that. She picked up Dar’s BC first and untied one tank, slipping the rig over the top and sliding it down by wiggling the straps against the snug fit. She relooped the bungy while she positioned the rig, tightening the tank clasp with a firm hand.
The boat shifted and rocked, making Chino bark in surprise again. The dog scrambled back next to Kerry and pressed against her legs, eyeing the spray coming over the bow with dubious eyes.
“It’s okay, Cheebles.” Kerry patted her on the head. “Mommy Dar just wants to get us where we’re going fast.” She reached over and picked up Dar’s regulator, then went back to her task.
She’d done it numerous times before, of course, but each time she went through the steps with meticulous care, always mindful that was Dar’s life she held in her hands as she made sure nothing was wrong.
Unlooping the bungy, she positioned the first stage over the tank valve and carefully seated it, checking the seal for salt crystals again before she tightened the bolt that held the two together.
Once that was done, she connected the low pressure hose to Dar’s PC inflator, cracked the tank value open, and inflated the vest. She stopped the air and listened, leaning close to hear over the roar of the engines. No hiss greeted her, and she released the air with a nod of approval. She picked up Dar’s regulator and fit the mouthpiece into her mouth, sucking a lungful of the compressed air before she clipped the hose to the vest and rebungy tied the tank.
So far, so good. Kerry secured Dar’s instrument console to the D-clip on the right hand side and prepared to repeat the entire process with her own gear.
Once finished, she took their masks and sat down with a tube of no fog, applying it as Chino curled up at her feet on the deck. It was a comforting and familiar task, and the smell of the sweet, salt air and the feel of the spray against her put her heart at ease as they headed into their own private world.
Dar popped up out of the water, reaching for the steps with one hand as she cleared the surface. She removed her regulator and gave Kerry a nod. “Okay, we’re tied off.” She said, licking her lips. “Nice down there. No current.”
Kerry was standing by in her gear, or more to the point, sitting by, since she was on the back deck with her flippers resting on the wooden diving deck next to the ladder. Chino was standing up on the inside of the wall, peering over at Dar as she wagged her tail.
“Cool.” Kerry prepared to stand up, readying her balance as she lifted herself plus forty pounds of assorted gear onto her fins. She put her regulator in her mouth and took a breath, then she put her hand over her mask and stepped out into the sea.
The water was pleasantly cool, and it quickly penetrated her shortie wetsuit and reduced some of the heat built up inside it. Kerry got her equilibrium settled and looked around, spotting Dar immediately nearby.
This was her favorite kind of night dive, when they descended while it was still a little light out. She could see shadows under her, and the outline of the reef, more comforting than going down in total darkness.
Dar pointed downward. Kerry nodded and let the air out of her vest, feeling her body settle deeper in the water as she changed from vertical to horizontal and headed down to the bottom.
Dar had picked one of their favorite reefs, with lots of undercuts and coral for critters to hide in. Kerry settled on her knees in the sand just clear of the coral and got her camera gear arranged, watching as ghostly schools of fish whisked around her and started to dissipate.
A big sea bass appeared, swimming idly through the reef pretending not to notice all the potential dinner candidates heading away from him. He swam closer to Kerry and she simply kept still and waited, her camera raised so she could look through the offset crosshair.
The bass seemed as curious about her as she was about him. He finned closer, tiny bits of iridescence reflecting the last of the light from the surface as he came within her easy reach.
Kerry cautiously closed the shutter button, wincing right along with the fish as the strobe went off and sent a brief silver flash of light everywhere. The bass gave her an insulted look and swam off, flicking his tail at her as he disappeared into the gloom.
Kerry felt pleased with the shot however, and she turned to find something else to take a picture of. As though in total cooperation with her effort, Dar swam into view a little above Kerry’s head, outline against the pale surface of the water.
Another flash of silver secured the portrait.
Kerry pushed up off the bottom and finned towards the reef. It was getting darker, and now if she peeked under the coral ledges, she could see the beginnings of the eerie phosphorescence the night would bring out.
It was like a magic world, which hid itself from the night. Kerry decided to just experience the change, so she settled carefully down on the bottom again, folding her fins under her and getting herself cross legged somehow.
She focused the lens on the darkness of the overhang, aware from the corners of her eyes of Dar’s nearby floating presence.
In the shadows, several bioluminescent fishlets suddenly appeared, nibbling at the pale scarlet polyps. Kerry captured it, then nearly lost her mind as the occupant of the dark hole, a green moray eel, came rushing out to confront her with open jaws.
Seated as she was, there was no way for her to get out of the way in time. However, just as she had started to unwind her body, she felt herself lifted up and away by a powerful yank on her gear, and the next thing she knew she was twenty feet away over another part of the reef.
In the gloom, she saw the eel retreat, not without giving her a vicious glare.
She let out her breath in a stream of bubbles, and looked over her shoulder into Dar’s watching eyes. Kerry wiped the back of her hand over her mask, and nodded as her partner gave her a pat on the butt.
Dar held up two fingers, then indicated her own eyes, then indicated Kerry’s. She shook one of the fingers at her in semi-mock remonstrance.
Yeah, she was right. Kerry nodded at her, accepting the scold. I’m in the ocean, not in an aquarium. These are wild animals. She got her composure back, and floated for a moment, then spotted more glowing coral and started towards it, more cautiously this time, as the last of the light faded and the darkness closed in around them.
“Ooohgh.” Dar finished putting their gear up and dropped down into a deck chair. “Nice dive.”
A perfect canopy of stars now covered the sky over them, obscured only in spots by drifting clouds. Kerry continued out from the cabin and put two plates down, taking her seat across from Dar with an equally contented grunt. “Killer.”
Dar leaned over and got hold of a strand of spaghetti between her teeth, slurping it in until it broke and left her with a smattering of sauce across her nose. “Whoops.”
Kerry lifted a glass of chilled wine and took a sip of it, swirling it’s tangy sweetness around in her mouth to cleanse it of the last of the saltiness. “Thanks again for saving me from Captain Eel, Dardar. Man, that scared the poop out of me.”
Dar chuckled, picking up her plate and propping it against her knees. “Me too.” She attacked the pasta with a fork, swirling a big mouthful and consuming it, her body demanding something to replenish the energy she’d just expended.
Kerry took another sip of wine instead, gazing out over the dark waves she’d recently been beneath. Looking at it from above, like this, it seemed almost insane to think about diving into it. It represented in a way, the totality of the unknown and yet she now always felt a connection to the sea she’d never had before she’d met Dar.
Far off, near the horizon, she spotted a darker shadow against the clouds. She watched it idly, then she squinted a little as it seemed to elongate. “Hey, sweetie? What is that?” She pointed.
Dar looked up from biting a meatball in half. “Uh?” Her eyes focused on where her partner was pointing. “Um..” She swallowed hastily and put her plate down, getting up and walking to the back of the boat. “Hah.”
“What do you suppose the odds are of you and I happening to be out on our boat the very same time as Quest’s ships are making the turn for the cut?” Dar asked, in a very wry tone.
“Is that what they are?” Kerry joined her at the back of the boat, peering out into the darkness. “Really?”
“Four big ships being pulled by eight little ones.” Dar confirmed. “I don’t think it can be anything else.”
Kerry turned and regarded the opening to the cut, which was just to their south. “We’re going to get a good look at them, that’s for sure.”
Dar returned to the table, only just barely saving her spaghetti from a Labrador tongue. “Yep, we sure are.” She settled back down and put her feet up. “Front row seats.”
The line of ships crept slowly closer, their superstructures only sparsely lit, rolling slightly in the almost calm seas.
Dar kept the Dixie idling just past the turnoff into the port’s pier area, getting as close to the last ship as she could without incurring the wrath of the circling pilot boats. There was a customs fast boat cruising around too, but Dar figured she’d be pegged as a bored rich boater with nothing better to do than sightsee rather than a potential threat or smuggler. “Which one, Ker?”
“I think it’s that one.” Kerry pointed at the ship aligned on the northeast side of the port. “Yeesh, they’re big.”
“That they are.” Dar studied the vessels. They were all roughly the same size, but all four had different configurations. Two seemed to be taller and squatter, the remainder were longer and lower. Even in the dark, they all bore signs of having better times behind them, and she could see patches on patches of metal on the sides if the light from the streetlamps lining the harbor hit at a certain angle.
The one on the northeast, which Kerry had pegged as ‘theirs’ – that was one of the longer, lower ones. Dar steered a little closer, keeping a wary eye out for the authorities, her eyes measuring the length and breadth with automatic accuracy. “Damn thing must be a thousand feet long!”
“Lot of portholes.” Kerry noted. “We’re going to have to go distributed with fiber.”
“Oh yeah.” Dar agreed softly. The Dixieland Yankee slid a little sideways in the tide, and a stripe of moonlight splashed between her and the boat. It hit the water, and Dar leaned forward, her eyes catching a ripple on the surface that didn’t look quite right. “Hey, Ker?”
“Check the bilge real quick, huh? Are we leaking something?”
Kerry scrambled across the deck and hopped over the back wall, leaning over and peering at the back of the boat. She held on with one hand and fished her mini flashlight off her belt with the other, keying it on and studying the spot where the engines were churning the water. “Can’t tell.” She yelled up at her partner. “You’re breaking up the water too much.”
Dar cut the engines, after looking around to make sure they weren’t going to drift into anything immediately. “Look quick.”
Kerry studied the water, then leaned way over and stuck her hand in, bringing it up and sniffing. Her nose wrinkled. “This stinks, but not of diesel.”
“Okay, get up .” Dar started the engines up again and backed the boat away from the pier, getting to an angle against the moonlight again. She spotted what had worried her, a silvery film on the surface they’d just passed through that extended across the surface of the water behind them.
Carefully, Dar turned the boat and followed the oily stripe with her eyes. It went right past the boat and headed across the cut, fading out from her view as it reached the ship in the northeast dock. “Figures.”
“What is it?” Kerry was at the bottom of the ladder, peering up.
“Should have thought of that first. It’s one of them, leaking something.” Dar pointed.
Kerry turned and looked, shading her eyes against the streetlamps. Now that her partner had pointed it out to her, she saw the line on the water, and in fact if she went to the side.. . “I can smell it.” She called up. “Smells like kerosene.”
Dar moved their boat sideways, out of the stain. One of the customs boats was now heading their way, apparently noting the odd maneuvers she’d been executing. “Shoulda just stayed out on the reef.” She commented. “Better go grab the registration just in case, Ker.”
The other boat pulled alongside and Dar set the Dixie into idle, keeping her hands on the controls as the customs officers grabbed hold of the railing. “Hi.” She called down.
“You having a problem?” The man called up to her, apparently more concerned for her safety than suspicious.
“No.. I saw a slick, and thought I was causing it.” Dar pointed. “But it’s that tub over there.”
The officer, shaded his eyes, then crouched. “Ah! Yeah.” He nodded, then looked back up at her. “You just out for a ride?”
Kerry emerged, carefully locking Chino inside the cabin. “No, we were diving.” She indicated their gear. “We live over there. We saw these big ships coming in, so we were curious.”
The customs officer gave her a once over. “Well, don’t be too curious. That’s our job.” He pushed off from the railing. “You folks have a good night.”
“Night.” Kerry replied politely. “You too.”
The customs boat backed away, but placed itself conspicuously between the ship and the Dixieland Yankee. The officers on the rear of the boat watched them as Dar idled for a moment more, then swung the bow around and headed off towards the marina on the far side of the island.
Kerry climbed up onto the flying bridge and joined her partner. “That was weird.”
“Of course it was. Do normal things happen to you and me?” Dar asked, as she glanced behind her. “But in fairness, I don’t think oil leaks are their department.” She took the right fork around the island instead of the left, coming even with another of the ships as she moved slowly through the no wake area.
This was the first ship that had come in, and it was already tied up. There were several figures standing the deck leaning on the rails, looking at the sights. One waved at them.
Kerry waved back.
The figure stepped forward and exposed himself to her, laughing loudly.
Dar picked up the mic clipped to the console and switched on the Dixie’s PA system. “Throw it back, buddy. It’s too short.”
Kerry snickered, leaning against her partner and hiding her face in Dar’s shirt sleeve.
The man’s companions laughed as well, slapping the miscreant on the back and shoving him back against the wall. One of them then advanced to the rail, but backed up again as the Dixieland Yankee turned into the marina channel and started to disappear from view. “Hey girlies! C’mon back, yeah? I got me a big one!”
“You know what?” Kerry sniffed reflectively. “I sure hope Shari and Michelle get that one.”
Dar chuckled. “I’m sure ours won’t be much better. Old salts are old salts.”
“Hm. We could bring our own old salt with us.” Kerry mused. “He’s still on the payroll, and I bet he’d probably keep those guys off our backs.”
They came around the south side of the island and entered the marina basin, slowing their already slow speed to just above idle. Most of the marina was empty – the owners moving their boats to a more comfortable climate during the summer along with themselves.
Dar angled towards their slip, putting the Dixie neatly into place as Kerry scooted down the ladder to jump ashore and tie them off. Her thoughts, however, were on Kerry’s last suggestion. Not that she really thought they needed Dad around on their ship…
But wouldn’t it be interesting if he were hanging around the others?
Dar shut down the diesels and leaned against the console, weighing the conflict of aiding their business goals at the expense of asking her father to be a part of something not quite…
Would he consider it dishonorable? Or just good strategy.
“Dar? You coming down from there or should I bring coffee up?”
Dar shut down the console and pocketed the keys, then started for the ladder, still pondering the question.
Kerry settled into her seat, glad of the very early morning quiet of the office on a rainy Monday morning. She had a meeting scheduled with Mark and the technical team for the bid in an hour, and she intended on using the time before then to square away the project and tie up a few loose ends.
“Hey, Mayte?” She pressed her intercom. “You there?”
“Yes! I am.”
“Did we get the circuit completion on the pier?” Kerry asked. “I don’t have anything here on it.”
“I will check.” Mayte promised. “They were saying on Friday that it would be done.”
“Okay, thanks.” Kerry set that problem aside. She pulled over a folder with requisitions for the project, and reviewed them. “Yikes.. is this just for the setup team?” She sighed, leafing through the pages. Money to establish an office at the pier and get that up and running, and provisioning for the gear to equip the office. “Damn, IT is expensive.” She shook her head and signed the pages, closing the folder and tossing it into her out bin.
“Kerry?” Mayte’s voice crackled in.
“Yeesss?” Kerry answered.
Her assistant laughed softly. “You sound so funny when you do that.”
“Do I sound like Dar?” Kerry’s eyes twinkled.
“A little.” Mayte admitted. “Only not so big.”
Kerry’s eyebrow lifted.
“The circuits have come complete.” Mayte went on. “The Bellsouth man says it is terminated in the local office on Brickell – he needs to know from you which to patch here.”
“Tell him the Pier 10 one.” Kerry replied. “But hold on to the other ones – I might be able to rent them.” She hummed softly in satisfaction. “Okay, we’re good to go.” She typed a message to mark, then took a sip of her morning tea.
The door opened and Mayte slipped inside, coming over to her desk with a folder in her hands. “Good morning.”
“Morning!” Kerry pointed at her outbox. “Can you make sure that gets down to purchasing? We’re gonna need it.” She glanced at her assistant. “That’s a pretty shirt. I like it.”
Mayte blushed visibly. “Mama got it for me this weekend.” She fingered the silk shyly. “I think she was trying to make it up to me for getting me in so much trouble when you went to New York.” She hesitated. “Kerry, you were talking last week about going diving. Do you like that a lot?”
Kerry leaned back in her chair. “Absolutely.” She said. “In fact, Dar and I went on a night dive on Friday night… it was wonderful. I saw a moray eel.”
Mayte nodded seriously. “I think I would like to try that. Do you know where I could find out about it?”
“Sure. Matter of fact, you can borrow my study materials, to see if you like it. Remind me and I’ll bring them in tomorrow.” Her boss promised. “It’s a great sport… ah, did you tell your parents you wanted to do this?”
“No.” Mayte grinned a little. “I did not think they would like it. Mama is always worried the sharks will eat you and la jefa when you go.” She confided. “Have you seen a shark?”
“Sure.” Kerry said. “But it was in a tank at Disney World. Does that count?” She grinned at her assistant’s look of bewilderment. “Anyway, I”ll bring the stuff in and you can read it. Really, it’s a lot of fun.”
“Thank you.” The girl said. “I will tell mama afterwards. Yes?”
“You learn fast.” Kerry winked. “Hey, maybe you can come out with us diving if you decide you like it. I think your mama trusts us to take care of you.”
Mayte’s eyes lit up. “I think so too!” She blurted. “Thank you!” Her gaze dropped to the folder in her hands. “This came for you.” She held it out. “I am sorry, I am taking up your time.”
Kerry took the folder, and watched in some bemusement as Mayte trotted for the door and escaped into the outer office. “Huh.” She put the folder down and opened it. “What got into her, I wonder?”
Kerry nearly jumped out of her seat before she recognized the voice. “Jesus, Dar.” She looked over at the inner door. “You scared the poo out of me.” Her brow creased. “What do you mean, me?”
Her partner strolled over and took a seat on the edge of Kerry’s desk. “You haven’t noticed she has a crush on you yet?”
“Oh, she does not.” Kerry scoffed. “Get out of here. She’s a nice kid, and she loves working here. What, because she’s interested in diving, you think she’s got a crush on me?”
The corners of Dar’s eyes creased as a little grin appeared. “Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Did those lines come in?”
“Yes.” Kerry nodded. “I was going to send Mark and a team there to get the office set up and facilities working. Did you want to go look at the ship?”
Dar got up and went to the window, looking out as she pressed her fingertips against the glass. “No.” She did a few vertical push ups. “I’ve got something I’m working on in ops. Maybe I’ll go over tonight, after the crowds take off.”
“I just talked to Alastair.”
Kerry half turned to face her partner. “And?”
“The contracts this contract is tied into will either make or break the quarter, he thinks.”
Nothing like a little pressure. “Okay… but the quarter just started.”
“New business is down forty percent on the month.” Dar kept doing her push ups. “Alastair said people are waiting to see what happens with this one. It’s too public.”
“So we have to win it.” Kerry exhaled. “No options.”
Dar nodded. “I’ve got to go to ops.” She pushed away from the window. “Tell Mark I’m sure Telegenics and everyone else is going to be crawling over our people at the pier. Pick the right people to go down there. I don’t want a leak inside.”
“All right.” Kerry watched the door close behind her. “I’ll do that.” She added softly.
Things were getting serious. She figured it was only going to get uglier as they went along, and at the end? What if they just couldn’t put in a competitive bid? Would Dar agree to a money losing contract to secure the more lucrative one behind it?
Kerry picked up her pen and chewed the end of it, thoughtfully.