“Okay. So now I have some questions.” Pat Cruickshank said, as the waitress set down two tiny cups of tea. “You ready?”
Dar was in the back corner seat, one arm spread along the bench back and her legs extended almost into the aisle imperiling the service. “You can ask.” She said. “No guarantee I’ll answer.” She picked up the small cup and set it down in front of her, applying a packet of sugar to its contents before daring a sip.
“Question one.” The reporter went on gamely. “How come you go to a sushi restaurant, and don’t order any sushi?”
Dar’s eyebrow quirked. “Any raw sushi, you mean?”
“I’ve swam in the water they pull those fish out of.” Dar replied, with a brief flash of white teeth. “Take mine cooked, thanks.”
The woman across from her pondered that, then made a face. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done for my love of raw tuna?”
“You asked.” Dar said. “So let me ask you something.”
Cruickshank looked slightly dubious. “Okay.”
“What’s your angle in this? Just an opposing viewpoint?” Dar watched the reporters face without seeming to, propping her head up with one hand. “I’m fed up with the games, and that includes the scruffy little reporters they keep sending to bother my staff.”
The black woman looked down at herself, then back at Dar, her eyebrow lifting. “You talking to me?” She indicated her chest with her thumb.
Dar’s lips twitched. “Your predecessors” She clarified.
“Well.” The reporter folded her hands on her pad. “Yes, it’s an opposing viewpoint, and that’s useful for the story.”
“Ah.” Dar felt faintly disappointed. She’d been hoping the filming team had started to see through Michelle and Shari’s façade of noble underdog-ness. “Yeah, I guess someone has to interview Goliath, and get his perspective.”
Cruickshank chuckled a little. She glanced up as the waitress returned, bringing them plates of various pieces of sushi. “Thanks.” She looked at her tuna, and then looked at Dar.
Dar popped a piece of well cooked egg on rice into her mouth, and winked.
The reporter left her plate for a moment, and concentrated on her table mate. “But you know, I had to pull all kinds of background video and all that on you for the story, since you were cast as this big old villain, and all the stuff I could dig up just showed you as this lady knight in shining armor saving everyone’s behind on national television.”
Dar chewed her sushi and kept a straight face. “There’s film of me eating kittens, but they won’t release it to the press. Too disturbing.”
Another chuckle. “No way, because if it existed, trust me, those gals at Telegenics would have already had it up on a poster.” Cruickshank disagreed. “So here I was, having to reconcile what I was seeing with what I was hearing. I decided to come and see for myself.”
“Uh huh.” Dar munched steadily through her meal. “Better eat that before it swims off.”
The reporter gave her a mock evil look, but picked up her chopsticks and bravely doused the fish in soy sauce, then took a bite of it.
Dar took the opportunity to remove her PDA and glance at it, then flip it open to scribe a short note on it, before she sent it out. She laid the unit down on the table, and picked up another piece of sushi. “I’m not the one you should be talking to.”
The reporter blinked. “Excuse me?”
Dar swallowed. “I’m not in charge of this project. The only reason Telegenics is focusing on me is personal reasons on their part. It’s not my bid.”
Cruickshank put her chopsticks down. “It’s not?” She asked. “I don’t understand. I thought…”
Dar managed a mildly amused expression. “I’m the CIO of the company. I do actually have more important things to do than baby-sit what is, on our level, a midrange contract being handled by our VP Ops. Who has, by the way, done more than a dozen of them this year already.”
“That would be… Kerry Stuart?” The reporter said. “Is you operations vice president, right?”
“And my partner.” It didn’t even give her a twinge to say it, just a sweetness that she could taste on the tip of her tongue as the words rolled off it. “So, if you want a real perspective on the bid, you need to interview her.”
The reporter scribbled a note, and then sniffed reflectively. She went back to her lunch plate and took another bite of sushi before she continued her questioning. “All right. I’ll do that.” She said. “You’re very open about your relationship, aren’t you?”
“No point in being anything else.” Dar answered.
“Does that bother your co-workers?” The reporter asked, glancing up at her. “Must be a little awkward sometimes.”
Was it? Dar neatly bit a piece of shrimp in half and chewed it. “Not anymore.” She shrugged. “At the beginning, it took a while for everyone to get used to it, but now... eh.” She picked up a rice grain and ate it. “Biggest problem Kerry has now is all the people who hang around her trying to get her to get me to do things because they’re too chickenshit to ask.”
Cruickshank burst out laughing. “Oh, that puts a different perspective on it... you know, my colleagues asked your counterparts about that, and they said they just treated each other as business associates at work.”
“That explains a lot.” Dar drawled. “I don’t stop loving Kerry while we’re in the office, why would act like I did?” The words came out almost in a rush, and after she said them, she found herself somewhat shocked that she had.
The reporter was a little surprised also, but she covered it up by writing several more notes. “Well, they seem to think it’s more professional.” She said. “What do you think about that? Do you think they’re right? After all, there are a lot of people who have to deal with you both on a daily basis, and maybe they don’t feel that comfortable knowing what your relationship is.”
Ah. Good question, Dar admitted to herself. In fact, this woman was full of surprisingly good questions. “I think at first a lot of people had a big problem with it.” She answered honestly. “But then, ninety percent of the company had a big problem with me to begin with. I think having Kerry as a buffer has far more helped than hurt. We...” She paused. “We tried to keep it out of the office at first, but you know how offices are. Every time we passed in the hallway, it would make the weekly newsprint.”
“Uh huh.” The black women nodded in complete understanding. “I work in an office with forty other thirty and forty somethings and believe me, there’s always drama everywhere. That’s why I asked.” She said. “Because my boss got involved with one of our top reporters, and for a month, it *was* the news.”
Dar chuckled under her breath.
“And it was hard, you know?” The reporter went on. “Everyone was tiptoeing around the subject, and it made life real hard for a while.”
Dar grasped her last piece of sushi between her chopsticks and neatly positioned it, then dunked one end into her soy sauce. “You break up after that?” She asked casually, glancing up at her tablemate as she took a bite.
The woman’s expression confirmed her guess in a heartbeat.
“So yeah, eventually everyone got over it.” Dar continued, breaking the silence. “Now we only get the odd remark from clients in the bible belt.” She finished her lunch and took a sip of the now cooled tea, picking up her PDA as it beeped.
“You know what, you are just too damn sharp, Ms. Roberts.” The reporter sighed, after a few more stunned moments. “Here I thought I was being so slick and you just see right through it.”
Hey sweetie! Are you sucking up more fame again?
Dar smiled, and scribbled a reply. That’s me, Fame-Sucker. How’s your head?
There was a brief pause, before the answer came. Spinning from your mother’s jokes about how much chocolate I put in to your chocolate chip cookies. Other than that, I’m fine.
Ah. Dar just kept herself from licking her lips. Well, I’m going to keep that afternoon conference call short tonight. I don’t think my reporter friend will be sticking around much longer. She might want to talk to you tomorrow or sometime though.
Is she nice?
Dar glanced at her lunch companion, who was taking advantage of her tapping to finish her own lunch. Very nice, and pretty sharp. Not like the last one.
Kerry’s rolled eyes were almost visible in the reply. About time. I figured she must be okay if you had lunch with her.
Dar read that response twice, then hit reply. Eh. Slim pickings since you’re not here.
J No, I’m here baking with your mom. Why don’t you get hold of Dad, and bring him home with you?
Dad, cookies, Kerry... maybe she’d stop for flowers... Dar paused her thought, and then rewound it. Maybe she’d stop for a bottle of wine. You’re on. See you later – don’t burn yourself.
Heh heh. Yes, mommy Dar. Have a cup of tea for me.
Dar closed her PDA and slipped it into her pocket, leaning back again as her table companion finished up her lunch and wiped her lips. “Sorry if I shook you up a little. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been there.” Dar told her, with a faint grin.
“You certainly did shake me up.” Cruickshank agreed ruefully. “Or was that a very clever way to get me to stop asking questions?”
Dar’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe it was just a way to get enough time to finish eating.”
The woman held one hand up. “Okay, touché.” She looked up as the waitress came over, and neatly plucked the check from the woman’s hands. “I’ll take that, thanks.”
Dar poured herself another cup of tea, drinking it slowly as the reporter settled their bill. It hadn’t been a bad interview, she thought, but it hadn’t really given the woman anything concrete to use either.
She frowned, having the distinct feeling suddenly that she’d gotten more personal than she’d intended. What if the reporter chose to slant the story that way, and it ended up as part of the show?
Kerry wouldn’t like that, Dar was pretty sure. She’d had to face the press with that front and center more than she’d ever wanted to, and hated every moment of it. Maybe she should have discussed the whole thing with Kerry before agreeing to the interview?
But how was she to know the reporter was going to ask that stuff?
“Well.” Cruickshank folded her credit card receipt and put it neatly into her wallet. “Okay, so I have to talk to Kerry Stuart about the ships, but one of the things that most caught my eye about the information I gathered was the way your company responds to a crisis.”
Eh? Dar watched the train she’d thought they were riding on take a siding. She raised a polite eyebrow in question, but remained silent.
“The most spectacular thing I saw was the ATM outage on the East Coast.” The reporter said. “Played out on national television. I’d like to talk to you about how that all went down, if you don’t mind.”
That seemed harmless enough. “Sure.” Dar got up. “I’ve got about forty five more minutes.”
“I’ll try to make them count.” Cruickshank promised. “Is there some place we can pick up a cup of coffee on the way back? I’m still on west coast time.”
“We have some inside the office.” Dar led the way out of the restaurant, giving a casual wave at two of the marketing regional managers who had just sat down to eat. “Unless you’d like to try Cuban coffee.”
“Cuban coffee? Okay, sure. How bad could it be?”
Dar grinned evilly, and pushed her way out the door.
“Well?” Kerry angled the phone against her ear as she mixed items into a mixing bowl. “What’s the scoop? She’d given Mark three hours to hear back from their vendor, and her patience was wearing thin. “Listen, if he won’t talk to you, Mark, I know who he can talk to.”
“Relax, Kerry. He just called.” Mark sounded much happier. “He’s pissed. Really, really pissed, but they put the order through. He said he’s in a lot of hot water.”
“Tell him he could be in boiling. I was going to sic Dar on him.” Kerry informed her MIS chief. “Can you imagine what she’d have said?”
“Um... yeah.” Mark chuckled wanly. “Actually, I can. But whatever, he caved. So we’re cool. I was just gonna call you.”
Kerry felt her shoulders relax. Despite her fierce words, she knew damn well they didn’t have time to spec out a new vendor’s gear and if their current partner hadn’t given in, she really didn’t have much of a backup plan to replace them.
Dar, of course, was in reserve, but Kerry really hated to pull that hat out unless she really had to. It made her feel like she wasn’t capable of doing her own job, if she had to go running to her partner for help all the time.
She felt good that she’d been able to resolve this problem by herself. “Okay, so when can we expect delivery?”
“Monday.” Mark sounded a touch smug. “I think you scared the crap out of them. Maybe they went and bought those units at distribution, and just resold em to us at our price.”
Kerry chuckled. “Whatever it takes.” She said. “We’ve given them so much business; they’ve got nothing really to gripe about.” She pulled out a baking tray and set the fish fillets she’d just coated onto it’s already lightly oiled surface. “Okay, thanks, Mark. I’m going to set up a touch point meeting tomorrow afternoon for the whole team, just so we can see where we’re at.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Mark almost hung up, and then paused. “Hey, Kerry?”
“Are you feeling better?”
Kerry blinked her bad eye, which had pretty much opened fully during the course of the day. The swelling had gone down, and now it was merely tender to the touch. “I feel a lot better, thanks.” She told Mark. “At least I can see out of both eyes now, and I just look like half a raccoon.”
“Cool deal.” The MIS manager replied. “I was wondering because I just saw big D, and she looked real antsy so I was hoping it wasn’t because you were feeling bad.”
“Ah.” Kerry pondered. “Well, we’re having a family get together tonight.”
“Oh!” Mark’s tone altered to one of understanding. “Cool! Hey, have a great time, okay?”
“Thanks, we will.” Kerry now hung up, and set the phone down. She scattered a handful of crushed pistachio nuts over the filets, then covered them and set them in the refrigerator.
She was alone now, Ceci having headed back to her boat home to pick up a few things for the dinner. Chino was curled up on her bed in the corner of the kitchen, and Kerry had a soft New Age CD playing in the living room player.
It was quiet, and peaceful, and it smelled like recently baked cookies. Kerry leaned against the counter and gazed out at the pretty, sunlit ocean and indulged in a brief moment of mindless observation.
Then she went to the refrigerator and removed a bottle of ice tea, going to the sliding door and opening it and slipping outside into the warm air. It smelled like warm sand and salt outside and she sat down in their swinging chair with a sense of satisfaction.
Chino had scuttled out after her, and she stood up on her hind legs and put her front ones on the porch rail, gazing out at the sea with an intelligent expression.
“You like that, Chi?” Kerry sucked slowly at her ice tea, swinging back and forth in the chair. “Want to go for a walk on the beach?” She asked. “Just you and me? We can find some sticks for you to bring back to mommy Dar, how about it?”
“Growf.” The dog dropped down and came over to her, licking her knee affectionately and sitting down next to the swing chair, her tail sweeping the stone tiles rhythmically.
“You’re so cute.” Kerry scratched the dog’s soft ears. “You know what, Chi? We’re going to the cabin this weekend. How do you like that?”
The tail swept faster, as the Labrador recognized a word she knew.
“You like the cabin, right? I like the cabin too. I think I like it better than even this place.” Kerry confided. “How about I teach you to ride on the back of the motorcycle, hm? Would you like that? Your ears all flying back?” She tugged one ear.
“Growf!” Chino wiggled her entire body back and forth.
Kerry chuckled. The sun was already behind the line of the condos, so the porch was in shade. A cool breeze came up off the water, and she squirmed into a more comfortable position, and exhaled in contentment.
Okay, so where I am at the moment? She let her eyes follow a lazy white cloud as it drifted overhead. I’ve got my project going, the equipment’s ordered, my people are in place, the wiring is going. I’m doing good.
She nodded once or twice.
It’s a good plan. I know the technology works. So the only question left is – how do I price it so that it comes in under what that bitching lowballing Michelle comes up with? “I know she’s going to lie, Chi.”
“She’s going to low ball that bid, sure as I’m sitting here just like she did everything else. But I don’t want to fall into that game.”
“Rr.” Chino rested her chin on Kerry’s knee.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do about that.” Kerry told her pet seriously. “I want to win this one, Chi. I really do.” She ruffled the dog’s fur, then she let her head rest back against the chair, simply enjoying the lazy moment.
Dar opened the door to the condo, poking her head inside and listening to a surprising lack of sound. “Ker?”
When she wasn’t answered, she entered and stood aside to let her father come in behind her, then shut the door and glanced around curiously. “Maybe she took Chino for a walk.”
“Fuzzball likes that.” Andrew allowed.
With a faint shake of her head, Dar ducked into her study and dropped her laptop case off, then went towards the kitchen. She paused as she spotted a Labrador tail outside on the porch, and changed direction. “Ah. Maybe not.”
She slid the door open and looked out, then emerged onto the porch with a grin as Chino scrambled up to greet her. Kerry was sleeping soundly on the swinging chair and only slowly stirred as she heard the noise their pet was making. “Uh?”
“Hey.” Dar managed to get past the canine roadblock and sat down on the chair next to her partner.
“Oh... bwah.” Kerry blinked herself awake, her hands reaching out instinctively to wrap themselves around Dar. “I fell asleep.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry stifled a yawn, and then rested her head against Dar’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to do that. I was just going to relax for a minute, then take Chi for a walk on the beach.” She gave her partner a little hug. “But I guess waking up to find you here is a pretty good substitute.”
“You guess?” Dar reached over and tilted Kerry’s head up a little to study her injured eye. The swelling had gone down quite a bit, returning a more normal shape to her face and the bruise seemed a little less lurid. Two pale green pupils looked back at her, rather than the morning’s one, and she smiled in reaction. “I missed you today.”
Kerry grinned, her eyes lighting up from within. “How did your meetings go?”
“Pretty good.” Dar leaned back and braced her foot against the rail, rocking them both gently. “Hacking calmed down today. I only saw three attempts, and they were all pretty lame.”
“Think you scared them off yesterday?”
“Maybe.” Dar said. “Dad’s inside. Mom go back to the boat?”
Kerry nodded. “Guess we should go inside and be sociable, now that you’ve woken me up and all.” She nudged Dar affectionately. “I need to go put some water on my face... I could go right back to sleep.”
“C’mon.” Dar stood, lifting her up at the same time. “That’s a cute apron. I like the pocket.”
Kerry looked down at herself. “Ah.” She studied the position of the single, centered pouch, featuring a saucy looking hamster. “I wonder why, Hamster Dar?”
Dar pushed the sliding door open and entered the cool of the condo, where her father had taken over the loveseat with Chino in adoring attention. “Look what I found outside.”
Andrew looked up. “Hi there, kumquat.” He greeted Kerry. “Spiffy looking battle wound you got there.” He got up and came over to meet them, peering curiously at Kerry’s face. “How in this earth did a feller kick you in there with all that stuff you put on your head?”
“Just bad timing.” Kerry released her partner. “The toe of his boot caught me right in the gap here.” She touched the front of her face. “It happened so fast, all I knew was one minute I was turning, the next I was on the mat. Boom.”
“Wall.” Andy turned her face to the light a little. “Ain’t a patch on what Dardar there used to get. Should be all fixed up in no time.” He patted her cheek gently.
“That’s what I hear.” Kerry grinned, ducking past him and heading for the downstairs bedroom. “Be right back.”
Andrew settled back down on the couch, and Dar took a seat across from him on the larger one. “Been a hell of a week.” Dar said, with a grimace. “How’s it going on your end of things?”
“Wall now.” Andrew spread both long arms out across the leather surface, and extended his legs, crossing them at the ankles. “Ah do believe I have been of some use to you ladies during this here week.”
“Yeah?” Dar half grinned.
Kerry poked her head out of the bedroom. “Yeah?”
“Yeap.” Andy looked pleased with himself. “Soon as you come on out here, kumquat, I’ll tell all about it.”
Hm. Kerry patted her face dry. Maybe it’d been a better day than even she realized.
Half an hour later, the fish were in the oven, Ceci had returned with a bucket of vegetables and dip to snack on, and they were all sharing a beer as the few lines of sunset peeking between the condos painted the beach outside a coral pink.
Dar was sprawled in one corner of the couch, with Kerry next to her. One of Kerry’s legs was slung over hers, and she was happy to sit there and listen to the conversation as she slowly sipped at her drink.
It was times like this when she understood the measure of change she’d experienced in the last few years. Aside from having a partner, someone to share her everyday life with, she’d also regained a family that had been lost to her.
It was almost as though she were a completely different person sometimes. Not inside, because Dar knew she herself hadn’t changed any, but outside, where other people saw her. Instead of being a loner, mysterious and threatening, she had become someone who even her co-workers treated as one of the corporate family now.
As though falling in love had made her much more understandable to them.
This was odd, because it had made her much less understandable to herself, sometimes. Dar gazed quietly at the tan thigh covering hers, half smiling as she slid her fingers over Kerry’s skin and savored its warmth.
Kerry flexed her leg in response, rubbing the inside her heel against Dar’s calf, while she kept on talking, explaining what she’d been doing on the ship.
“So, we finally got everyone to agree to what we wanted to do and give us space.” Kerry said. “But I tell you, it wasn’t easy.”
“Naw.” Andrew shook his head. “Nobody likes to give up a nickels worth of space on board one of them there things, kumquat. Every squinch is worth the earth.” He said. “Though them folks should count their blessings... worst I saw in there was five bodies bunking up together and them’s with their own bathroom.”
“Oo.” Ceci chewed on a celery stick. “Luxury.” She poked Andrew in the ribs. “More than six inches of drawer space and I bet they don’t hot bunk.”
Kerry paused, looking at them. Then she turned and looked Dar questioningly.
“Remind me to take you on a tour of an aircraft carrier next time we’re near one.” Dar told her.
“O…kay.” Kerry amiably returned her attention to her in-laws. “So you’re saying they’ve got it pretty good, compared to what sailors in the service have, right?”
Andrew shrugged one shoulder. “Get used to anything.” He commented.
“Yes.” Ceci interpreted. “The first time Andy took me to see where he lived on a ship; I nearly just took a header overboard. Twelve stories up. Horrific.”
“Wasn’t that bad.”
“Oh, yes it was. Nobody was more relieved when you got your officer’s promotion than I was.”
“Was it that bad?” Kerry whispered to her partner.
Dar pondered the question, as she watched her parents playfully arguing across from her. “To be honest.” She whispered back. “It was the one single thing I knew would keep me out of ship duty.”
Dar nodded. “A rack is a six inch foam mattress, with a space underneath to store your stuff. It’s got a curtain across it so you can sleep in the daytime, and they’re stacked three atop each other.”
Kerry’s eyes widened.
“Hot bunking is two guys or three sharing the same bunk in turn.”
Kerry’s eyes nearly came out of her head.
“Hey, beats a foxhole.” Dar grinned slightly. “And the food’s a lot better.”
“Brr.” The blond woman shuddered. “Well, to hear those guys talk, you’d think I was trying to take away their Christmas presents. But we worked it out.”
“Yeap.” Andrew nodded. “Heard them hollerin about the same thing over on the boat I’m at. Don’t think they worked out the same deal you did... they were still hollerin this morning.”
“Heh.” Kerry smirked a little.
“Them women running that thing don’t know much about getting folks to co-operate.” The big ex-seal continued. “All they do is run to and back making a lot of noise.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Ah do not like them.”
Dar sighed inwardly. She hadn’t expected her father to like them, and it made her wonder how once upon a time, she had.
“They’re not too fond of us.” Kerry said. “I thought Michelle was going to chuck up a kidney when she had to call and ask me for that circuit.” She leaned back against Dar. “Thanks for sending those pricing lists over, by the way.”
Dar wrapped her arm around Kerry’s waist and rested her chin against her partner’s shoulder. “We know for sure they’re paying more than we are.” She agreed.
Andrew shifted and took a swig of his beer before he answered. “Wall now, something funny’s going on there.” He said. “Either them women are just nuttier than a squirrel, or I don’t know what. They put that damn order in six times, and not one body there can figure out why.”
Dar cocked her head in confusion. “Huh?”
Kerry’s eyes narrowed. “Six times?”
“Must be some kind of mistake.” Dar said. “How did you know? You got six copies of the invoice?”
Her father nodded. “We figured first it was one big truckload of that stuff you all use, but I was sorting the pages, and they just kept...” He made a rotating gesture with one hand. “Didn’t make much sense.”
“Oh no.” Kerry said. “It makes perfect sense.”
Everyone looked at her. Dar blew gently in her ear. “It does?”
Kerry turned her head, and her eyes almost went crossed. She blinked. “I got a call today from our infrastructure supplier. Seems that all the stuff we need, suddenly went out of stock.”
Dar’s eyebrows hiked right up.
“Do tell?” Andy murmured. “Wall then.”
“Hmph.” Ceci felt she understood enough of the conversation to contribute at least a token noise of disgusted agreement. She had no idea really of what was being discussed, but the expressions on both Kerry’s and Dar’s faces clued her into the fact that neither was happy.
“So you think…” Dar paused.
“Do you seriously think it was coincidence?” Kerry replied.
“No.” Dar shook her head. “So what’s the plan?”
Kerry felt that little tingle inside whenever she had to put her business skills out on display for Dar’s perusal. She was good and she knew it, but she also knew Dar was more than good and no matter how long she worked with her, she never got over that little internal squiggle. “I had Mark call them, and tell them either they coughed up our order, or we’d switch vendors companywide.”
Dar’s eyes widened a little, more white showing around the deep blue centers.
“My.” Ceci murmured. “For some reason I’m getting the feeling that meant more to them than me threatening the same thing to Publix.”
Dar cleared her throat. “And?”
“They caved. It’s on the way.” Kerry replied matter-of-factly. She exhaled in satisfaction. “And now that I know who paid those little buggers off… I almost wish they hadn’t.”
Dar digested the information briefly, and then smiled. “Nice.” She gave Kerry a squeeze. “But what did you have in mind if they said no?” Threats aside, specing brand new gear they had no experience with in that time frame wasn’t a realistic solution and she knew Kerry knew that.
“Oh, I was going to throw you at them.” Kerry assured her. “I was just seeing what they were made of, and it turned out to be Swiss cheese.” She patted her partner’s muscular leg. “So it turned out okay, but now – now that makes sense, Dar. Don’t you think? That has to be why they did it.”
“Unless it’s a mistake.” Ceci commented mildly. “Someone hit the fax key too many times.”
There was a brief moment of relative silence. “That could be.” Dar said slowly. “But – given what Kerry said about the vendor’s reaction, I’d have to say it’s not a mistake. If it was, they’d have just called and corrected it. I’m sure when they got the PO six times, someone said something.”
“Well...” Kerry rolled her eyes.
“True enough, Dardar.” Andy said. “Someone surely did say something, but someone was told to mind their own business.”
So. Dar felt angry, but more comfortable with this bit of business behind the back stabbed ness. The cellular transmitter was beyond Shari, but this kind of bullshit certainly wasn’t. “Better keep an eye on that shipment.” She warned Kerry.
“Ah surely will.” Andy replied, with a half grin. “Since them fellers picked me to be in charge of that there part.”
“Heh.” Kerry picked up Dar’s hand and kissed its knuckles, then got up and headed for the kitchen. “A tisket a tasket two bitches in a basket...” She warbled as she disappeared.
Dar chuckled, and shook her head. “Damn, this just gets screwier and screwier.” She sighed. “You having fun there, dad?”
Her mother laughed.
Andrew gave a dignified sniff. “Ah do like to think ah am providing a useful service.” He said. “And it surely is a good thing to know that general civilians are a damn sight dumber than most of the people I done worked with in blue and white suits.”
They all laughed, and Dar relaxed into the couch again, letting the tensions of the day seep from her. Things were looking up, she decided. She’d had a good interview, Kerry had handled a sticky problem with panache, and her father was having a kicking good time making trouble for her adversaries.
Life was good.
“Hey, Dar?” Kerry called from the kitchen. “Can I get a hand with all this?”
Life was very good. Dar launched herself off the couch and headed for the scent of baking fish and cookies. Things were working out nicely all round.
She only hoped it kept on going that way.
“Morning Mayte!” Kerry felt herself to be in a more than usual cheerful mood, and it showed as she sauntered across her outer office. “Did I miss any disasters yesterday?”
Mayte looked up in surprise. “No, not that they told me about.” She replied. “Are you feeling better today?”
Kerry stopped at her inner door and looked back at her assistant. “Other than looking like an outclassed prizefighter, I feel great.” She indicated her eye, which still sported a distinct bruise. “But Dar says I have to start wearing a helmet in practice from now on.”
Mayte laughed. “Like a football one?”
“Exactly.” Kerry agreed. “Dar’s mom and dad were over last night, and they were goofing around with me, trying to figure out how to build one so I won’t just keel right over with it on.” She chuckled. “They’re so funny. Mom kept trying to convince me to switch to Tai Chi.”
“They are very nice people.”
“Very.” Kerry said. “And it’s so funny, because they’re a blast to hang out with. I could never imagine ever being that comfortable with any of my family. Drinking beer with my father? Good lord.” She gave her head a little shake. “Anyway, so it was quiet here?”
“Si.” Mayte nodded.
“Figured it was, if Dar went out for lunch.” Kerry turned to enter her office. “Can you schedule me a project meeting for ten? I want to make sure we’re all on track.”
Kerry turned. “And if anyone wants to meet with me tomorrow, it has to be early. I’m taking off out of here a little early to go down south.”
Mayte cocked her head slightly in question.
“I need some time out at the cabin.” Kerry grinned. “So nothing past 3pm, okay?”
“I will make sure.” Mayte scribbled a note on her pad, and turned to her email as Kerry disappeared into her office. After a moment, she looked up, with a wryly impish expression, as she heard a delighted laugh coming from behind the door.
“Clear my schedule.” Dar paused just in front of Maria’s desk. “I’m going to be in the closet all day.”
Maria paused in mid type and looked up at her boss. “Como?” She peered at Dar with interest. “I did not think you were one to be in a closet, Dar?”
For a moment, Dar simply stared at her, and then she broke in to a frank grin, letting out a burst of laughter. “Oh, hell, you got that right Maria.” She chuckled. “I never even knew what the term meant until after I left college and picked up a gay magazine in an airport somewhere.”
Maria also chuckled. “You have always been right in the front of everything about how you are. It is a nice thing. I do not like people who make themselves different in their face from what is real.”
Dar considered that for a minute, and then she nodded. “I don’t like those kinds of people either. I think that’s one of the things I always appreciated the most about you.”
The older woman’s eyes lit up.
Dar smiled, and turned to head for her office, opening her door and entering before Maria could really collect herself to answer. She walked over to her desk and set her laptop case down, then sat down in her chair and let her hands rest on her thighs.
She was in a very good mood for once. They’d had a wonderful time last night, and this morning she’d woken early – lying quietly before dawn thinking of her security project while she held Kerry in her arms. Somewhere in all that, weather from the peace or the simple pleasure she’d suddenly had a breakthrough in the design.
A piece had fallen into place that she’d been missing, and now she had a new direction to go in the intricate programming latticework she was painstakingly putting together.
With a pleased chuckle, she took out her laptop and opened it, spurning her desktop since she knew she had to take the fledgling program down to the closet to test it out. She rubbed her hands together and waited for the machine to boot, and then she tilted back in her chair and set the laptop on its namesake.
After another moment, she put her booted feet up on her desk and relaxed, glad beyond measure that she’d found yet another excuse to wear jeans in the office. She flexed her fingers, and started typing, humming slightly under her breath as the lines of code seemed to flow effortlessly.
“I love it.” Kerry circled the new addition to her office, a weighted boxing dummy in the front corner where a big empty spot had been previously. Originally, a work group desk had been there, but Kerry had it removed when she decided meetings would be held in meeting rooms and she hadn’t really found anything to replace it with.
Hanging around its neck was a pair of boxing gloves, which she took off and slid her hands into. The figure had a bland, wide eye face and a business suited body, and she jabbed at it playfully, socking it in the nose and making it rock back and forth. “God, I just love it.”
The door opened and Mayte poked her head in. “Did you say something?”
Kerry turned and held up her gloved fists. “This is spectacular.” She pronounced. “Who did it? I know it wasn’t Dar... she can’t keep a secret from me for beans anymore.”
Her assistant blushed. “It was me.” Mayte confessed. “Mama said for you to get chocolate, but I think this will be more useful, no?”
Kerry boxed at her with both hands, jiving a little with her body at the same time. “Mayte, you rock.” She said. “I absolutely love this.” She pointed a fist at the younger woman. “But I’m absolutely positive I’m not going to let you pay for it. I know what these cost.”
“You do?” Mayte made a wry face.
“Almost got one for Dar.” Kerry winked at her. “So either you cough up the receipt, or I’ll just start stuffing bills in your purse until you scream for mercy.”
Mayte appeared exquisitely pleased, but she shyly shook her head anyway. “Please, Kerry – you have done so much for me. It is a gift to me to be able to do something for you in return.”
Kerry planted her fists on her hips, or at least as nearly as she could wearing boxing gloves. “Mayte…”
“Please?” Mayte begged. “It really was not so much. My uncle is the boxing instructor for our YMCA. He helped me to get it.”
“Hm…..” Kerry produced a mock scowl, then relented, and let a chuckle escape instead. “Oh, all right.” She moved forward. “C’mere.”
Mayte entered the office and shut the door, walking over to Kerry and smiling as she was enveloped in a hug. “It is better than chocolate, right?”
“Well, chocolate’s pretty good.” Kerry gave her a last hug and stepped back. “But this lasts longer, and it can be just as much fun.” She tapped her gloves together. “You want to try it?”
Mayte indicated her chest with her thumb. “Me?”
Kerry slid off the gloves and offered them. “Sure.”
“Oh, no no.” Mayte grimaced wryly, holding her hands up in a warding off gesture. “Please, Kerry, if my mother ever knew I even put those on, she would go crazy!”
Kerry looked at the gloves, and then looked down at herself, before returning her gaze to Mayte’s face. “Just what exactly does she think boxing turns you into?” She queried. “I’m not a candidate for a freak show... or at least I wasn’t the last time I checked.”
Her assistant turned a deep shade of coral. “No... no.. it is not that.” She said. “It is just not what is considered proper in my culture.”
Kerry had to laugh. “Mayte, it’s not considered proper where I come from either. I have to admit – if my mother ever saw me put these on, she’d just keel right over and we’d have to call 911.” She winked at Mayte. “But you know what?”
“You do it anyhow.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry tied the gloves together and hung them back over the dummy’s neck. “So if you ever get the urge… go for it.” She headed back for her desk. “I wont’ tell anyone.”
Mayte gazed at the dummy, and then she grinned. “Okay.” She sidled back towards the other door herself. “I am glad you like it.” She disappeared, closing the door and leaving Kerry in peaceful silence.
“Oh, I really do.” Kerry grabbed her mug. “I really, really do.” She walked towards the door, punching at the air in the direction of the dummy all the way.
Dar raised her head at the knock on the door, a little surprised since she’d given instructions not to be bothered. “Yeah?”
Mark entered, and crossed the floor to sit down opposite her. “Hey, DR.”
“Hi.” Dar cracked her knuckles. “I’m in the middle of spawning an app. Is this important?”
Mark blinked in surprise. “Oh, sorry.” He started to get up. “No, it’s just about that thing in the conference center... didn’t realize you were coding.” He paused. “Man, been a long time since I’ve had to say that, huh?”
Dar’s lips twitched, and then curled into a grin. “Yeah.” She waved him back down. “But I can take a break.”
Mark sat back down. “Good news and bad news.” He paused. “Bad news first?”
“It’s an unreleased beta rig from Taiwan.”
Dar scowled. “So no tracing the purchaser, is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah.” Mark nodded. “I contacted the place it was built at... they’ve been going nuts because it’s missing, and man, they were crawling all over my ass right through the phone trying to find out how I got it.” He said. “If they were Star Trek fans, I’d have had them beaming right onto my desk hands grabbing for sure.”
‘They want it back, big time.”
“Uh huh?” Dar steepled her fingertips. “Bad enough to give us an exclusive license on it?”
Mark grinned like the pirate he was. “Man, you are so psychic.” He sighed admiringly. “That’s the good news. They want to do a deal with us. One of their guys is heading over here.”
Dar sighed. “Doesn’t help us figure out who it was.” She nibbled the inside of her lip. “And if it wasn’t who everyone thinks it was, then it could be someone who’s on the inside here.”
Mark frowned. “An employee?”
Dar nodded. “Yeah.”
“That would suck.”
Dar drummed her fingertips on her keyboard. “Yeah.”
Kerry tucked her notepad under her arm and prepared to leave the conference room. Her team was still milling around, discussing some of the items they had pending, but it had been a good meeting and she was pleased with their progress.
Mark walked over and perched on the edge of the conference table. “Did you hear from the wiring guy?”
“This morning.” Kerry nodded. “He’s started, but he says it’s like trying to wire inside the New York subway system. Tough going.”
“I bet.” The MIS manager nodded. “Hey, that shiner doesn’t look that bad. The way DR was talking yesterday, I thought your eyeball was hanging out of your face.”
Kerry winced at the visual. “The way she was treating me I thought the same thing.” She admitted. “She’s such a nanny sometimes... you’d never expect it of her.” She indicated the door. “C’mon. I’ve got lunch lined up and it’s about that time.”
They walked together out of the conference room and down the hall towards the elevators. The tenth floor was somewhat more crowded than the fourteenth, and they had to dodge a stream of bodies, some of whom paused to greet them briefly.
“Hey, Kerry.” One of Eleanor’s assistants waved. “How’s the head?”
Kerry paused and turned, stepping out of the path of traffic for a moment. “Ah, it’s not too bad.” She indicated her eye. “Just embarrassing, really.”
“Yeah.” The woman looked sympathetically at her. “Hey, Joyce and I are heading down for lunch... you want to join us?”
Kerry smiled and started to edge away. “Thanks, but I’ve got a date… catch me some other time.” She continued towards the elevators, then paused seeing the crush of bodies around them waiting to go downstairs.
“Oh yeah, reclaiming your territory.” The woman called after her. “Gotcha. No problem, Kerry.”
What? “Heck with that.” Kerry turned and pushed open the stairwell door, starting up the steps at a brisk clip. About at the twelfth floor, she heard footsteps coming down the other way, and looked up to find Mariana headed in her direction. “Hey there.”
“Morning, Kerry!” The Personnel VP greeted her warmly. “How’s the eye?”
Kerry stopped in mid motion and gave her a look. “Was it such a slow news day yesterday that my darn eye had to be the center of *everyone’s* conversation?”
Mark had slowed down behind her and was now standing with a martyred look on his face. “I told you sending that email out was a bad idea.” He said to Mariana.
Kerry turned. “Email?”
Mariana nibbled a fingernail. “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” She mused. “Maria thought so.”
“Maria?” Kerry repeated the name, and then she held up both hands. “Excuse me. Could someone please rent me a clue here?”
“Whoops... I’m late for a meeting.” Mariana skirted Kerry and skipped off down the stairs. “Catch you up later, Kerry... okay?” She waggled her fingers and popped through the door on the next landing, leaving Kerry to turn slowly and look at Mark.
Mark hesitated, and then managed a weak grin. “I’ll forward you a copy. It was no big deal, Kerry. It was just that everyone was kinda talking about how something had happened to you and she just aum…”
Mark prudently didn’t answer, seeing that one blond eyebrow lift up sharply, uncannily like Dar’s did when she wasn’t pleased about something.
“Colleen mentioned that too. Isn’t everyone over using us as discussion fodder by now?” Kerry’s voice deepened a little in anger. “She told me people thought Dar did this.” She pointed at her face. “Is that true?’
Mark looked suddenly way out of his depth.
“Screw you all.” Kerry turned and abruptly left him standing there, taking the rest of the steps two at a time until she reached the fourteenth floor and shoved her way through the door, slamming it behind her.
Mark released a breath after a few moments. “Shit.” He climbed slowly after his boss.
Dar relaxed in the lobby, sucking at the straw in her smoothie as she waited for Kerry to join her for lunch. The lobby was a little busy, some visitors for sales moving across from the entrance and spotted easily by the look of gawking tourists they had as they looked up at the towering atrium.
She leaned against the wall, crossing her ankles and letting her thoughts wander briefly, going over the design she’d left sitting on her laptop up in her office. Most of a module was finished, and almost ready for testing, and Dar found herself looking forward to the trial with a giddy sense of anticipation.
If it worked…
Well, it would not work at first. No program did. Dar acknowledged, mentally preparing herself for it. But if she tweaked it, and got the logic right, and it worked….
It would be an amazing breakthrough, ironically spurred by her own lack of good judgment.
Life was just so funny that way sometimes. Dar idly let her eyes wander over the lobby, and then she straightened up a little as she spotted Kerry coming off the elevators.
Uh oh. Kerry never threw her arms around or otherwise projected her anger, but in her very body posture Dar could always tell when she was pissed off. Her hands would clench up, and her head would tilt forward a little, along with the point of her jaw.
She was pissed off now. Flicking her mind over the events of the morning, Dar decided it wasn’t anything she’d done that had caused it, so she pushed off from the wall to go meet her ticked off lover and see what she could do about fixing whatever was making her so mad.
Kerry spotted her approaching, and her body language altered, some of the aggravated tension dissipating as she changed course and headed for Dar, a reluctant grin starting to shape her lips as they met near the center of the large space. “Hi.” She greeted her partner. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Hi.” Dar gracefully circled her and gestured towards the outside doors. “No problem. I just got down here myself. C’mon.” She draped her arm casually over Kerry’s shoulders as they started off, and immediately felt the stiffness in them relax. Okay. So she knew for sure it wasn’t her Kerry was annoyed at.
Direct, or non-direct? “How’d your meeting go?” She decided on non-direct for now.
Kerry sighed. “It went fine. The project’s on track, though John’s having some problems in the wiring. I might have to run down there tomorrow and see if I can smooth things out for him.”
“Cool.” Dar replied. “My program’s close to test state.”
Kerry perked up a little. “Yeah? That was fast... you said the other day you were a little stuck.” She circled Dar’s waist with her right arm and bumped her hip lightly. “What changed?”
“You inspired me this morning.” Dar told her, as they walked out the front door and into the heat of the day.
“Yup.” Dar bleeped open the doors of her car and steered Kerry towards it.
“I thought we were walking?”
Dar opened the passenger side door, and indicated the inviting leather seat inside. “I feel like wings.”
“Wings?” Kerry nevertheless climbed inside, reaching over to open Dar’s door. “Are we going to Bayside?”
“We are.” Dar got in and started the Lexus, adjusting the air ducts to dump a larger volume of cold air into her lap. “I’m not in the mood for Cuban, and I had my fill of sushi yesterday.”
“Mmph.” Kerry settled back in her seat and watched the heat simmer off the tarmac as Dar pulled out of the parking lot. “Well, if we eat at Hooters, you can bet there won’t be useless little catty do-nothings from our office sitting at the next table at least.”
Hm. Dar made the turn onto Biscayne Boulevard and watched her partner out of the corner of her eye. “Y’know, Ker… you shouldn’t let all that bullshit bother you so much.”
“I know.” Kerry acknowledged readily. “But it does. I can’t help it.”
The traffic was light, and Dar made quick work of the drive up from the office to the trendy shopping mall, diving under the parking garage to find a spot somewhere out of the sun near the entrance. They got out and she locked the door, joining Kerry for the short walk into the mall’s confines. “So what was it this time?” She finally asked. “I didn’t hear any chatter today, and I usually do, from Maria.”
Figures. Kerry paused to window shop, spotting a pretty dress in a nearby window. “Oh, everyone’s just buzzing about my war wound.” She muttered. “Mariana felt the need to put a damned email out about it.”
Dar peered at the dress. “You’d look good in that.” She pointed out.
“Mm. I like it.” Kerry said, before she turned to continue down the walk. “Why should anyone care about what I do in my off hours, Dar?”
Dar shrugged. “It’s human nature.” She said. “What’d they all think, I clocked you?” She watched Kerry’s reaction, the sudden shift of her features and turn of her head giving her the answer before her partner even spoke. “Figures.” She chuckled wryly. “If I’d have tried that move it would have gone right over your head, and you would have slapped me in the ass on the way around.”
Kerry’s entire face twitched. “You know something?” She stopped and faced Dar. “You know why I was so pissed about all that?”
“Because they’re idiots?” Dar offered.
“Because I didn’t want you to hear all of it and feel bad that people thought that.” Kerry put her hand on Dar’s belly, giving her a little scratch. “It really bothered me.”
Dar bumped her towards the sidewalk again. They walked together along the shops, pausing to peek inside the windows from time to time. Kerry paused to plaster herself against one pane of glass, spotting a Ski-Doo inside. “Oooo… you know, Dar, that’s just like a...”
“Motorcycle for the water.” Dar agreed, with a grin. “Much as I hate to dodge them on the water, they’re a lot of fun.” She paused, watching Kerry’s face intently. “Want to get a couple for the cabin?”
“Mmm….” Sorely tempted, Kerry unstuck her nose from the window. “Let’s think about it.” She took Dar’s arm and they strolled on, passing a Sharper Image and by common consent not even peeking inside. They had to get back from lunch at a reasonable hour, and if they went inside there, not only would they not get back, but they’d end up spending a fortune on enticingly useful but less than critical items to boot.
Shopping together was always dangerous but fun, Kerry had found. They both tended to trigger spending splurges in each other, and when they were together, it just got ridiculous sometimes. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t afford it, but really, did they need more colorful wooden parrots for the house?
Or hand painted ceramic dog bowls?
“Hey look.” Dar pointed. “Hermit crabs.”
Kerry kept walking, making sure she had a tight hold of Dar’s arm. “No.”
“But they’re cute... look, they painted their shells.” Dar walked backwards, peering at the vendor stand. “And they have little coconut shell houses… it’d look great on your desk.”
“Nonononono…” Kerry pulled harder. “Wings... wings, c’mon, forget the crabs.”
Dar chuckled, turning around and steering Kerry up the escalator. They dodged a few confused tourists at the top trying to take the up stairs down, and circled the upper deck to end up at the door to Hooters.
Kerry was right about one thing; Dar had to agree as she followed the blond woman to an empty table near the window. No one, absolutely no one, would either expect to see them here, nor be found dead eating lunch there themselves because of what people would say about it.
“Hi!” A pretty, red haired girl in criminally short shorts and a cutoff white t-shirt approached. “How are you guys?”
“Hi, Cheryl.” Kerry greeted her with a smile. “How’s the classes?”
“Driving me nuts.” The woman shook her head wryly. “I have three advanced biochemistry labs this semester, and every time I see a plate of wings, I keep expecting them to twitch. You want the usual?”
“Sure.” Dar settled on her stool and hooked her feet into the rungs. Aside from the visuals, which she wasn’t too proud to admit to enjoying – she liked the restaurant because it lacked the usual lunchtime crowds more common near their building.
“So.” Kerry fiddled with the table tent. “Did I overreact to all the bs talk?”
Dar rested her chin on one fist. “Did Mari really put out an email?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t… I mean, she didn’t get into any details, she just said I got nicked by the guy I was sparring with in karate class.”
“It’s not karate.” Dar frowned.
“No, but it was worded cleverly.” Kerry admitted. “I don’t know, the more I think about it, the more I think I really did just blow up for nothing.” She sighed. “At Mark, who didn’t deserve it.”
“Tell him.” Dar suggested. “He knows you did it for a good cause.”
Pale green eyes lifted and studied her, as a gentle smile appeared on Kerry’s face. “What makes a difference for me is that you know I did it for a good cause.”
Cheryl chose that moment to return, setting down a pitcher of ice tea and a couple of glasses, along with plates and a new roll of paper towels. “So, what’s up with you guys?” She asked. “I saw a couple of your techie guys here yesterday... they said they were working down at the port?”
“Yep.” Kerry answered, while Dar busied herself pouring them some tea. “We’re working on those ships over there.” She pointed, even though not much of the port could be seen except the top decks. “Our guys ended up here? Oo… wait till I tease them.” She chuckled.
“Uh huh... and you’re going to explain knowing that… how?” Dar handed her a glass, and winked at Cheryl.
Cheryl winked back and sauntered off to get their wings.
“You and your logic.” Kerry felt a lot more relaxed now. The worst of it, she realized, had been how afraid she’d been of Dar finding out about the rumors. Now it seemed like Dar just thought they were stupid, so she was free to feel the same way.
Kerry sighed, wishing she did, and could dismiss it. But she didn’t, and it still ticked her off, and now she just had to decide what she was going to do about it. Then a thought occurred to her, a memory of earlier that day. “Reclaim my territory?” She asked aloud, giving Dar a puzzled look.
“Nothing. Just something someone…said...” Kerry’s voice slowed, and trailed off. She sighed again. “Just more crap.”
Dar reached over and ruffled her hair. “Thanks for your outrage on my behalf, Ker. But the only opinion in that building that means jack to me is yours.” She gave Kerry a smile, and then her eyes slipped past her partner as a motion caught them. “Son of a biscuit.”
“Now what?” Kerry turned her head, almost chucking her ice tea when she spotted what Dar was looking at. Shari and Michelle, along with a very smug looking Peter Quest had just seated themselves at an outside table. “Oh, poop.”
“I don’t think they can see us.” Dar observed. “Let’s see how much I can offer Cheryl to do a Maria.”
“Oh god.” Kerry covered her eyes.
“Or maybe just listen in.” Dar continued, in a softer, more calculating voice. “After all, last place they’d expect to find the competition would be here, eh?”
“Mm.” Kerry felt a tickle of apprehension in her guts. Or maybe it was just the thrill of it all. “Last place they’d think of.”
But at what point, she wondered, did they just become what Shari and Michelle were? Were they already? Kerry picked up her tea and took a sip. “I’d rather we just ate.” She finally said, looking Dar in the eye. “And just ignore them.”
Cheryl came back and put down two plates of crisply hot wings in front of them. “Here you go guys... anything else right now?”
Dar selected a wing, and saluted Cheryl with it. “Nope... we’re just fine.”
Kerry picked up a wing of her own, and waited for the waitress to leave before she spoke. “Thanks.”
Dar winked, and munched on her wing, apparently unconcerned. “Your wish is my command.” She announced. “Besides, the best we could find out is what we already know.”
Kerry took a bite, satisfied with the answer. At least for now.