Kerry stood inside the small office, surrounded by busy people. She had taken a cup of cold water, and she was slowly sipping it as she listened to the many conversational threads around her.
But her mind wasn’t really on the business in the room. She rolled the cold, almost tasteless water around in her mouth and swallowed it, feeling the chill slide down her throat and into her stomach.
“Kerry?” Elaine walked over, holding some papers. “Can you just look at this? I think it’s all right, but..”
Kerry took the pages and held them in front of her, eyes scanning the typed print without comprehension for at least a minute. Then she sighed and handed them back. “Hold on to this, would you? I need to go take care of something, and I’ll check it when I get back.”
“Uh.. sure.” Elaine watched her leave, a puzzled look on her face.
Kerry exited the building on the side near the ship, showing her identification badge to the guard who waved her past wearily without really looking. Given the number of people there must have been traipsing in and out, she could hardly really blame him, but the lack of security bothered her anyway.
Ah well. She’d take care of that when she got back. Orienting herself, Kerry headed down the pier, walking past the tall cranes, the small groups of arguing men and the everpresent forklifts zipping everywhere.
It seemed like the pier went on forever, giving her far too much time to think about what she was doing. Doubts pecked at her like hungry pigeons, but she kept herself moving across the pavement resisting the urge to stop and go back and…
What was Dar going to say if she asked her? Would she say not to look a gift horse in the mouth? After all, they hadn’t arranged for Michelle and Shari’s gear to be delivered to their dock, now had they? For sure, for absolute sure, if the positions had been reversed, Kerry knew the most she’d ever see of her stuff was a box floating past heading out to sea.
But she wasn’t Michelle, and she wasn’t Shari. Kerry crossed the line between the two piers. She wasn’t Dar. What had she just been saying? What comes around goes around?
Well. She squared her shoulders and edged between two tall stacks of steel, walking into the floodlights around the other ship and spotting two familiar figures standing near the gangway.
Two cameramen bracketed them, and it was obvious that Shari was busy holding court for them. She was making grand gestures, and as Kerry came closer, her words started to become comprehensible.
Well, she could hear them anyway.
“So, gentlemen, you see the obstacles we must surmount.” Shari said. “We’ve faced sabotage, dirty business tactics, and espionage. Didn’t think you’d be in for that in a simple story about cruise ships, now did you?”
Kerry slowed as she approached, coming up behind the cameramen.
“But we’ll prevail.” Shari spoke confidently. “No matter what ILS throws in our path, we’ll get over it. Their dirty dealing will bury them, mark my words.”
Kerry paused, half in and half out of the shadows.
“We’re the ones putting in the time, we’re the ones here making sure the job gets done.” Shari pointed towards the other ship. “Not them. You won’t catch them here, getting their hands dirty, that’s for sure. Go on, go ask! See where they are right now!”
“No need.” Kerry stepped forward into the light, laying her hands on the gangway railing. The cameras swiveled to focus on her, and she let the silence extend a moment before she spoke again.
She’d caught them all by surprise, no doubt. Even Shari seemed to be tongue tied for the time being. She let her eyes wander over all of them, hesitating again, even now.
“Come to ask for help, or forgiveness?” Shari found her tongue, and a smirk.
Kerry was very aware of the round, blank eyes turned on her. A faint smile appeared on her face, and she exhaled, surrendering to her own nature with only the faintest of sighs. “Neither.” She said quietly. “Some of your equipment was delivered over by us by mistake. If you send a forklift, I’ll have it loaded.”
Caught flatfooted, Shari could only stare at her. Michelle, however, circled the gangway and approached Kerry. “My mistake?” She questioned suspiciously.
“Apparently.” Kerry agreed. “The four orders you placed for network gear to try and dry up the channel arrived with ours. Good luck trying to return it.” And with that, she turned and simply walked off, not looking behind her to see if anyone was following.
“Where did she go?” Dar asked, resisting the urge to pace around the inside of the building.
“That way, ma’am.” The guard pointed down the pier. “Just a few minutes ago, in fact. “
Dar went to the door and peered out, shading her eyes from the glaring spotlights. She could see several figures moving between the two ships, but none of them resolved into her partner’s familiar form. Why would Kerry go there?
What was she up to?
“Hey, Dar?” Mark walked over, wiping his brow. “I think we got everything unpacked… you think we can hijack a piece of the line in here so I can download configs?”
Dar blinked, spotting Kerry’s distinctive outline appear from between two stacks, heading back towards the terminal with a determined stride. Her body language was a mixture of anger and ferocity, her head held high, but hands balled into fists at her side.
Dar pushed the door open and limped back outside, heading across the concrete on a path calculated to intercept her partner. She watched Kerry’s eyes suddenly track to her, and the alternation in her body’s posture that now added a touch of apprehension to her attitude.
“Hey.” Dar slowed to a halt as they met. “Where’d you go?”
Kerry looked up at her. “To do something you’re probably going to think I’m an idiot for.”
Dar felt her heart speed up a bit. “Last time you said that, you got a tattoo and it wasn’t so bad.” She ventured. “You want to go inside and talk about it?” She hesitantly put a hand on Kerry’s shoulder. “I didn’t know where you went.. I just came back and you were gone. The guard said…”
Kerry stared past her for a second. “Did Mark show you the boxes?”
Dar fell silent for a second. “Uh.. “
They walked inside the building, and Dar silently allowed Kerry to lead her into the back section of the terminal, in the shadows, where she could now see several pallets of boxes under tarps. “What…”
Kerry walked over and lifted the tarp, pointing at the label. She waited for Dar to lean close to read it, aware of not a few set of eyes watching them.
Dar straightened up, and put her hand on the boxes. “Well. Son of a bitch.”
“So.. “ Dar looked around, then back at Kerry. “You went to tell them it was here, right?”
Kerry’s shoulders relaxed suddenly, and she leaned against the stack. “Yeah.”
Puzzled, Dar shifted her hand from the box to Kerry’s shoulder, giving her a comforting little pat. “So, what’s the problem, sweetheart?”
Kerry scrubbed her face with one hand. “Your father said… I mean, it’s a big competitive advantage, you know, Dar? I mean, we keep this, and they’re dead in the water.”
They both turned around and looked, to find several people including one with a still camera in the front doorway. Mark was nearby, waving at them with a dour expression.
“Ker, we keep this, and it’s grand theft.” Dar captured Kerry’s attention, gently turning her head so their eyes met again. “I may be one to take any advantage, but I draw the line in some places, y’know? That includes putting either of us or the company in danger of criminal action.”
Kerry looked at her for a long moment, then abruptly sagged against Dar, laying her head to rest on her partner’s shoulder. Then she straightened and touched Dar’s side with one hand. “I need to go sit down. Can you go see what that’s all about?”
“Sure.” Dar murmured. “There’s a chair over there. Let me get rid of whatever this is, and I’ll be right back, okay?”
Kerry gave her a brief, but genuine smile, and then she turned and walked over to where a chair was half hidden behind the boxes. She sat down in it and rested her elbows on her knees, gazing at the dirty carpet with pensive eyes.
Dar paused indecisively, considering ignoring the crowd at the door.
Kerry apparently sensed that, because she looked up, and managed a wry grin, raising one hand and flicking her fingers at Dar in the direction of the door.
Reassured, Dar turned and started a somewhat dignified marching limp towards the entrance, gathering an annoyed attitude around her until by the time she got there, people were taking tiny steps backwards and gaining looks of alarm.
“Something I can do for you folks?” Dar asked, stopping in front of them and adopting as aggressive a posture as she was currently capable of.
“Hi.” The woman nearest her took the lead. “My name is Elecia Rodriguez, and I’m a reporter for the Miami Herald.”
“Good for you.” Dar gave her no quarter.
“I’d like to speak with Kerry Stuart, please.” The woman apparently had faced down unwilling participants before, and her tone didn’t alter a whit.
“She’s sitting over there, not looking busy at all. Can I speak with her please?” The reporter replied calmly. “It’s really in her best interests.”
“No.” Dar answered back, just as calmly. “It’s in her best interests to just be left alone right now.”
The reporter locked eyes with Dar. They stared each other down for a few minutes. The woman was about Dar’s height, and roughly her size, and Dar wondered for a minute if she was going to make a rush past her towards her quarry.
Several ILS security guards edged up around them, apparently having the same thoughts. Dar relaxed a bit, reassured that the reporter would surely not be stupid enough to risk that major of a scene no matter how juicy the story she was following was.
“Ms. Roberts, you really do want your side of the story presented here.” Rodriguez finally said. “I appreciate that there’s a lot going on, and you’ve got no reason to either want or trust the press at this point but we’re not part of Mr. Quest’s circus. We’re local, and you’re the local team. Get my drift?”
Dar paused, hearing a thread of sincerity in the statement. The woman was also being neither overbearing, nor craven, instead she was just being very straightforward and suddenly Dar remembered where she knew the reporter’s name from. “That was a nice story you did on the behind the scenes of the sports industry down here.” She said. “I liked it.”
Caught a little offguard, the woman produced a slight smile, and her body posture altered a bit. “Thanks. You have no idea how much my company hated me for it though. We lost comp tickets to almost every game in town.”
Hm. “All right.” Dar paused to think. “If you can rest your laurels a few minutes, I’ll see if Kerry’s willing to chat with you.” She pointed towards the catering table. “Help yourselves.”
The reporter didn’t really react, but the three men she had with her, including the camera man, lit up like Christmas trees at the sight of free food. Rodriguez regarded them with a tolerant look, then nodded at Dar. “Fair enough, and at least it’s air conditioned in here. Take your time while I feed my starving wolves.”
Dar gave them all a last, brief regard, then she turned and retreated back towards the shadows.
“Nice.’ The cameraman complimented his collegue. “Didn’t think we were going to get anything there for a minute.”
“Me either.” Rodriguez sighed, as she lead the way past the watchful guards. “But I’ve done this long enough to know when you’re dealing with someone that smart, just drop all the bullshit and let them make the choice.”
“Way different than those other guys.” The man agreed.
“Way different.” Rodriguez agreed. “This is going to be a good one.”
Dar crouched next to Kerry’s chair, positioning her body so she was blocking the view of anyone watching them. She put a hand on Kerry’s knee and squeezed it gently. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Kerry responded readily.
“You doing okay?”
“My brain hurts.”
Dar chuckled wanly. “My foot hurts. We’re even.”
Kerry reached up to ruffle her partner’s hair. “So.”
“You let the vandals in at the gates, I see.”
Dar nodded. “It’s a reporter from the Herald.” She confirmed. “She wants to talk to you.”
“Ah.” Kerry sniffed reflectively. “Interview with a rebel biker chick on tap, I guess?”
Was it? Dar suddenly gave in to the discomfort of leaning on her injured foot and sat down instead, pulling her legs up crosswise under her. “I’m not sure.” She countered. “Sounded like it was a tie in with this whole deal, but I’ve seen some of the stuff this one’s written and it’s pretty even handed.”
“Yeah, I thought the other reporter was all right too, I know.” Dar admitted. “But I’ve actually read her articles. She does business angles, and she managed to take sides with Janet Reno and hasn’t been ridden out on rails yet.”
“Ah.” Kerry leaned on her elbows again, her head resting against Dar’s, not caring who was looking or not. “I feel really unbalanced right now. I’m not sure talking to a reporter is a good idea.”
“Okay.” Dar accepted that readily. “I just told her I would ask you.” She wrapped her hand around Kerry’s leg, stroking her calf gently. She could feel tension there, a rapid flexing and releasing that paid testament to her partner’s rattled state. “Want something to drink?”
Kerry twirled a bit of Dar’s hair around one finger, remaining silent. She tuned out the rest of the room, and just concentrated on the touch of Dar’s hand around her leg, and the scent of hickory smoke that lightly clung to her from where they’d had dinner.
It was hard for her to say, really, why she was so shook up. After all, she’d acted on her conscience, and she’d turned out to be dead on right, even in Dar’s eyes. So, what was her problem? “Dar?”
“Hm?” Dar seemed quite willing to sit there as long as she was required, completely ignoring the room at her back.
“”Why am I so freaked out?”
“I don’t know, Ker.” Dar replied honestly. “You did the right thing.”
“I know I did.” The blond woman whispered.
Dar leaned her chin against Kerry’s knee. “Were you freaked out by my father wanting to ditch the stuff?”
Kerry was thoughtfully silent.
“He’s not much into playing by the rules.” Dar said, after a slight hesitation. “I mean – I guess I mean he’s willing to go to any length for what he thinks is the greater good.”
“Yeah.” Kerry nodded. “Maybe that’s it.” She admitted. “I knew he wanted to do that for us. But it was just…it was…”
“Wrong.” Dar supplied.
The dark haired woman shrugged a little. “Shari and Michelle would have agreed with him in a heartbeat.”
Kerry lifted her head and gazed into Dar’s eyes, visibly more collected. “Oh, I know.” She said. “Hey, listen.” She hesitated.
“Want me to arrange to give them this stuff while you go talk to the reporter?” Dar suggested.
“You’re reading my mind again.” Kerry lifted her hand and rubbed a smudge of dust from the bridge of Dar’s nose. “Do you know half the room is watching us?”
“I don’t care either.” Kerry relaxed at last, leaning back in the chair and extending her legs out past Dar’s knee. “Okay. I’ll go wrangle with the Herald, and you can smirk and make Michelle feel like an idiot while you turn over these boxes. Here she comes.”
Dar patted her leg, and got to her feet, catching her balance against the boxes and straightening up as she spotted Michelle’s short figure headed in her direction. “Didn’t bring her entourage.”
Kerry also got up and headed off, giving Dar a gentle slap on the butt as she went by. “Of course not. No fun in being filmed eating crow.”
No, of course not. Dar squared her shoulders and waited as Michelle approached, wrestling a deadpan look on her face. “Evening.”
Michelle stopped, glancing past her at Kerry’s retreating back. “She drops the bombshell, you get to bask in the stink?”
Dar leaned against the boxes. “The only stink around here is coming from you.” She replied bluntly. “Where’s your box mover? Or are you planning on dragging them back yourself?”
“Don’t hold back, Dar. Tell me how you really feel.” Michelle countered. “Don’t for a minute think I don’t know the timing on that little reveal was exquisitely planned.”
Dar merely rolled her eyes, and stepped back, pulling the tarp off the first set of boxes. “You’re wasting my time. Here.”
Michelle stepped forward and examined the shipping label. She pulled a set of papers out from under her arm and carefully cross checked them, ignoring Dar’s lounging presence. Finally, she turned her head and looked up. “Trust me when I tell you there’ll be an inquiry on how this shipment ended up in your hands. You better hope your lawyers are up to it.”
“Sure.” Dar smiled at her. “They’ll be glad to stand up and explain why three false and one true order of yours got dropped off by a trucker here who didn’t want to take it down to you because he got called an asshole one too many times. No problem.”
Michelle turned around fully. “You know something?”
“Pretty much everything, thanks.”
“You’re a real asshole.”
Dar watched Michelle retreat back towards the door, her entire body seeming to shoot off disgusted anger. “Takes one to know one.” She called after the shorter woman. “Better hurry up and get this out of here before I charge you rent!”
At the door, Michelle turned and glared murderously at her.
Dar released a wicked laugh. “You want me to be an asshole? You don’t know what you’re asking for. Now get those men in here or I’ll have the stevedores pack it up and send it back.”
Michelle exited and slammed the door behind her. Unfortunately, it was held open by an air compressed automatic closer, and it ended up bouncing back open and smacking her in the rear. She lunged forward, going headlong into two men with a hand cart who had been approaching outside.
The men leaped back, startled, and made a grab for her, but missed and Michelle fell to her knees between them. They helped her up hurriedly, backing off as soon as she was on her feet and dusting their hands off.
Dar chuckled happily, then sighed. “Damn, where’s a camera when you need one?”
Kerry took a moment to compose herself before she entered the lighted area around the food table, and approached the reporters. She ran her fingers through her hair and settled it a bit, and then she walked over to the small group and made eye contact with the woman reporter. “Hi.”
The woman got caught in mid swallow. Her eyes widened a little, then she finished her mouthful and set her cup down. “Hi.” She extended her hand. “Elecia Rodriguez.”
“Kerry Stuart.” Kerry grasped her hand and shook it. “You wanted to speak to me?” Her tone was soft, and slightly husky and she resisted the urge to clear her throat.
“Ah, yes, I did. Thanks.” The reporter collected herself. “Is there someplace we can sit down? Not that I mind the ambiance out here, it sure beats standing outside, but..”
“There some chairs over there.” Kerry pointed to an unused corner of the terminal, then paused as she heard Dar’s voice raise up and send echos to the rafters. Conversation abruptly cut off in the room.
The reporters turned and stared, then Elecia looked back at Kerry. “You sure have one heck of a situation here, don’t you?” They all stood listening, but the yell wasn’t repeated, and voices started up again around them.
Kerry led them over to the seats and took one, sitting down and crossing her ankles demurely as she tucked her feet under her chair. It was a ridiculous bit of modesty given that she was in faded jeans and scuffed sneakers, but old habits really did die hard sometimes after all. “What can I do for you, Ms. Rodriguez?”
The reporter sat down and composed herself, removing a pad from her back pocket and a pen from behind her ear. “Okay.” She eyed Kerry thoughtfully. “Where do I start with you, Ms. Stuart?”
One of Kerry’s blond brows rose. “Excuse me?”
The reporter studied her pad. “There are about ten thousand questions I’d like to ask you, starting with what was it like growing up in Roger Stuart’s house, to what is it like getting a tattoo, but I guess I’d have to settle with starting somewhere, and where I’ll start is, what exactly are you trying to accomplish with this business here?”
Of all the questions she could have been faced with, at least this one was relatively easy to answer. “We’re trying to install and configure a computer network for this ship outside of here, to demonstrate our ability to provide those services across Mr. Quest’s fleet and give him the most competitive bid so he’ll choose us to do that.”
Rodriguez nodded. “Okay.” She scribbled a note. “So let me ask you this. Do you do this sort of thing a lot?”
Puzzled, Kerry frowned a little. “Sure.” She said. “It’s what we do. It’s what I do, for ILS. Integrate and assist in acquiring new business, among other things.”
The reporter scribbled another note. “Fair enough.” She said. “So, Ms. Stuart, is this process always like a three ring circus? You must have a very entertaining job.”
Kerry sighed. “No, it’s not.” She said. “Most of the time it’s a pretty dry, refined process. Someone contacts me, or our sales department gets a lead, and we do an analysis, then present possible solutions and a price tag. There’s some bargaining, then either we get a contract, or we don’t.”
“Uh huh.” The woman mused. “That’s pretty much what I thought.” She said. “So, tell me about this feud, between yourselves, and the folks at Telegenics. Where did that come from? I understand business rivalries, but this seems to go beyond that. True?”
“Here.” The reporter removed a folder, and opened it. “I’ve had my ear chewed off by the people on the other side of that pier all afternoon. They’re wanting to bury you in the worst way.” She showed Kerry not one, but three pictures.
One was the biker chick, which she expected. The other two were of her and Dar, one at a restaurant down by the beach, the other… in the pool at Disney, kissing
Kerry inspected the photos. “And?” She gave the reporter an inquiring look. “You want me to rate them, or pick the one for you to use in your story?” She asked. “What exactly does any of this have to do with the business we’re doing here?”
“Now, that’s exactly what I wanted to know, Ms. Stuart. “ The reporter said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with anything here, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you. See, your company has been a part of our community for a long time now, and it’s done it’s share of good works, some crappy works too, but it’s done it’s part in employing a lot of folks in these parts.”
“That’s true.” Kerry agreed quietly. “We try to be good corporate citizens.”
“So, then what’s behind it all?” Rodriguez asked, shifting a little closer. “You’re not unknown to us, Ms. Stuart. My paper’s been aware of who you are since you came in to ILS.”
Kerry merely watched her face, aware at the periphery of her senses that Dar was nearby, and also watching.
“We’ve chosen, or should I say, my managers have chosen not to focus on you, because your company is pretty darn low key. You just do what you do, and pay your taxes, and frankly, bring the city a lot more than you take from it.” The woman flipped a page. “So, in sum, when some outside folks start gunning for one of our own, we take exception to it, and we want to know why.”
“Why.” Kerry mused. “You sure you really want to know why?”
Rodriguez’s face suddenly shifted into a faint, mischevious grin. “No. I bet I don’t.” She said. “But we got sent this picture, of you on the bike.” She held up the picture. “Now that struck everyone as something that was very, very interesting, because not many vice presidents of international corporations get their picture taken like that.”
“Are you a hell raiser, Ms. Stuart?”
Now it was Kerry’s turn to grin, and she did, a smile of genuine amusement that lit up her eyes. “Sometimes.”
“Tell me a story, then. What’s going on here?” The reporter said, poising her pen over the page. “Tell me Goliath’s side of the story.”
Kerry was aware of Dar’s watchful eyes, and she knew if she turned her head to the left, she’d see her partner in the shadows standing by, there if she needed her. “Okay.” She agreed. “I’m a little short for Goliath, but I’ll do the best I can.”
“I’m sure you’ve got help if you need it.” The reporter didn’t look at Dar. “I’m not looking to get my butt kicked. Will that happen?”
Kerry smiled. “Depends.”
“Thought you’d say that.” Rodriguez chuckled. “I’ll take my chances.”
They ended up in the small office, since everyone had migrated outside to have some dinner and relax. Kerry was seated in one of the comfortably innocuous office chairs they’d supplied, leaned all the way back with one sneaker resting on her opposite knee.
The reporter had taken a seat across from her, using one of the desks to lean on in her writing, and they both had cups of coffee courtesy of Dar, who had briefly disappeared after deciding Kerry wasn’t in any imminent danger.
“All right, Ms. Stuart.”
“Kerry.” Kerry interrupted. “I hate being called Ms. Stuart.”
The reporter scribbled a note. “Okay, Kerry.” She continued agreeably. “So, you were approached in Orlando by Mr. Quest, right?”
“Actually, Dar was stalked by Mr. Quest.” Kerry clarified. “He hunted her down in the lobby of the hotel and approached her with the idea.”
“Stalked is a pretty strong term.”
“Well.” Kerry took a sip of her coffee. “What would you call it if someone had pictures made of you and then went searching through a hotel to find you?”
“At any rate, he pitched his idea to Dar, and she turned him down.”
“Why?” Rodriguez asked.
Good question, Kerry reflected. “I think, because she was wary of how he approached her. It seemed to be something that was outside the normal way businesses approach each other.” She explained. “It almost seemed underhanded.”
“Hm.” The reporter tapped her pen against her jaw. “So what made her reconsider?”
Another very good question, and one Kerry was fairly sure she couldn’t answer honestly. “She thought about it, and we talked, and it seemed like it might be a good opportunity to at least get a foothold into an industry we weren’t a part of.”
Rodriguez nodded, and scribbled a note. “That makes sense.” She said. “So it had nothing to do with the fact that Telegenics was also one of the bidders?”
Truth? Kerry acted on impulse. “Sure it had something to do with it.” She answered back. “We wanted an opportunity to go head to head with them, after some of the claims they’d been making, and also, after they approached our staff at the trade show to try and offer them jobs.”
“Uh huh.” The woman grunted. “Telegenics claims that never happened.”
Kerry chuckled. “Sure it did.” She replied. “The problem is, they forgot to brief their technical manager and he had no idea who he was recruiting.” She went on. “When we got to the trade show late the night of the setup day, we found out there was no setup crew on duty. So Dar and I helped our staff to set up our booth, and we were two of the potential recruits.”
The reporter looked at her, a half grin on her face. “You’re kidding.”
Solemnly, Kerry shook her head. “They were telling us how we should join their company instead of working for a faceless corporation where their bosses were sitting somewhere sipping caviar and lounging in limos. My guys thought it was pretty darn funny.”
“I bet they did.” Rodriguez got up and walked around the small office, stretching her arms over her head. “Did that really tick you off?”
“Getting recruited? We laughed.” Kerry replied. “But to us, it was one more indication of the fact that Telegenics was coming after us in a very personal way, and neither of us really caught on to why until we left that night and saw Michelle and Shari coming into the building.”
The reporter turned. “You didn’t know before then they were part of it?” She sounded incredulous.
“No, we didn’t.” Kerry answered honestly. “Ms. Rodriguez..”
Kerry smiled. “Elecia, we have a lot of competitors. We do business analysis on them, sure, but we don’t go hunting for people who might be holding a grudge in their offices.” She glanced past the woman towards the door, where Dar’s head was now peering around the corner. “Hey.” She bit her tongue on the ‘sweetie’.
“John needs to meet with you.” Dar said. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“Any way I can chat with you for a few minutes while that’s going on, Ms. Roberts?” The reporter interrupted smoothly. “I think we’re at a logical holding point here.”
Kerry got up, relinquishing her chair to her partner with a flourish. “Be my guest. Let me go see what John’s… well, I won’t say problem because I know what his problem is, but what he wants.” She eased past Dar’s body, stuck in the doorway, and gave her a pat on the side as she squeezed by.
Dar hesitated briefly, then she limped into the room and took Kerry’s chair, rubbing her thumbs on the arms still warm with her body heat. “Well?”
Elecia sat back down at the desk and studied her for a moment. “Thanks for taking the time to talk, Ms. Roberts.”
Dar nodded briefly at her and waited.
“Anyone ever tell you that you two are real opposites?”
A brow quirked. “It’s been mentioned once or twice.” Dar allowed.
“Okay.” The reporter gathered her notes. “Kerry was just telling me that after first declining to participate in Mr. Quest’s bid, you changed your mind.”
The reporter waited, but nothing more was apparently forthcoming. “You have a history with the two gals from Telegenics, don’t you?”
Dar half shrugged. “Yes.” She agreed. “Michelle was the IT director of a company I worked a contract negotiation for a year or so back, and I’ve known Shari for many years.”
‘That sounds so civilized.” Rodriguez said. “And yet, from what those gals say, this bid had been anything but. What’s your take on that?”
Dar steepled her fingers and rested the edges of them against her lips. She was very aware that this article would end up being a high profile one in the Herald. Granted, the Miami Herald was not the Washington Post, nor was it the New York Times, but in it’s own way it was a respected dispenser of local news and she knew whatever the article ended up being, it would be seen by the board of directors who paid their salaries.
So. How to present utter chaos? “It’s been a difficult bid so far.” Dar answered slowly. “There were a number of things that contributed to that, most of which did not involve any of us or our respective past histories. For instance.” She ticked off a finger. “The movement of the project unexpected from New Zealand to Miami, and the speeding up of the timeline. That put a focus on us that would not have existed there.”
“Because you’re local.”
“Exactly.” Dar agreed. “Second, the putting of the project into the spotlight by the involvement of the Travel Channel and their filming crew. That added a lot of the circus.”
“Third, the confusion over the intervention of the EPA, which further truncated the timeline, and turned the bid into something of a frantic horse race.”
“Also true.” The reporter nodded. “But that’s not what I meant, and I think you know that.”
Ah. “Is this article having to do with business or gossip?” Dar countered, looking directly at her. “To be honest, sure. We’ve all been behaving like contestants for a trip to Jerry Springer, but the bottom line is, we need to get this job done and whoever does it right wins the prize.”
The reporter’s eyes glinted a trifle. “So, you’re not saying the controversy between the four of you is the real story? It’s their opinion that the discord is what is preventing both of you from being able to effectively compete.”
Dar remained silent for a moment, then she shook her head. “Far as I’m concerned, we’re effectively competing. If they let this distract them to the point they aren’t, that’s not my problem.”
Rodriguez scribbled a few notes, and then she looked up again. “Tell me about your father working on the docks. Deliberate?”
Dar allowed a few seconds to pass before she answered. “Sure.” She said. “I asked him to get a job down here to keep an eye on things.”
“Ah. Did he?”
“He did. He’s the one who discovered that Telegenics had placed four copies of their networking gear order, to keep anyone else from getting equipment on time unless they wanted to pay through the nose.”
The reporter’s eyebrows rose. “Did they?”
“Mm.” Dar nodded. “Fortunately for us, we had more clout than most, and we forced an order through.”
“For that matter, according to them, you all bought up all the circuits to force them to do the same.” Rodriguez countered. “Sounds like a tit for tat.”
“Except we didn’t.” Dar half smiled. “Kerry was just hedging her bets, since they wouldn’t assign a pier to any of the ships.”
“So you say.”
“So it is.”
The reporter scribbled some more notes. “Did your father sabotage them?”
Dar chuckled. “My father’s a retired underwater demo man. He’s not subtle. If he’d really sabotaged them the damn boat’d be on the bottom of Government Cut.” She scoffed. “If anything, he probably did them good by organizing that chaos.”
“Mm.” Rodriguez nodded. “The pier supervisor said the same thing. He doesn’t have a high opinion of Telegenics, matter of fact.” She swiveled to face Dar. “So, I’d have to say most of the points on this are on your side, Ms. Roberts.”
Dar held both hands out in a plaintive gesture.
Kerry re-entered the office and ambled over to Dar’s side, sitting down on the desktop and exhaling heavily. “He’s finished pulling cable, Dar.”
“That’s bad?” Her partner queried.
“They closed the walls up after they pulled all the wires, and he’s not sure if anything got clipped or nicked. He suspects some of it might have been, so we need to test before he can go any further.”
“Ah.” Dar nodded. “Mark’s got some network guys here. Send em in.”
“I did.” Kerry acknowledged. “But here’s the issue – the electricians need to turn the power off, and it’ll be off all night and part of tomorrow. We’re dead in the water while that’s going on.”
“Shit.” Dar rubbed her temple. “Can we install the switches?”
“In the dark?”
“We have flashlights.”
Kerry leaned closer to her. “Dar, that’s a construction zone, there’s no air conditioning, and they’re going to be using welding torches in the same spaces we’re putting switches into. Do you want to risk it?”
The reporter was sitting in silence, watching them in fascination.
Dar considered. “Yes, I want to risk it.” She replied. “If we have the switches in place, already configured, and the lines are tested then when the power goes back on we can bring up the core. Otherwise, we’re two days behind and if something’s screwed, we’ve got no time to fix it.”
Kerry took her turn at consideration. “Okay, but we need to find out where the electrical crews are, and put our people in after they’re finished in each closet.”
“Good plan.” Dar agreed.
“Right.” Kerry got up and left, scrubbing her hair with the fingers of one hand as she disappeared.
Dar returned her attention to the reporter. “Where were we?”
“My question to you now is – why are you here?” Rodriguez asked. “Why aren’t you in an ivory tower somewhere, eating quiche and wearing a silk suit? CIO’s and vice presidents are not supposed to do the work they pay other people to do.”
Dar was momentarily silent, having no real answer ready to hand. In general terms, the reporter was right, and she knew it. “I have good people, and they do a good job.”
“Or does it really all come down to a very personal conflict after all?”
And of course, the reporter was damn right about that too. “It’s just how we do things.” Dar demurred. “Stick around, and I’ll prove it.”
Elecia smiled, biting the end of her pen.
“Okay, we got the pipe up.” Mark had his head bent over his laptop, fingers pecking away industriously. “Let me bring these puppies online.”
Dar was leaning against one wall, watching the activity. “We’re going to need to put full security on this room tonight.” She remarked. “I wouldn’t put it past our friends down the pier to try and break in her to make some trouble.”
“Psht.” Mark made a disparaging noise. “Hey boss…” He half turned and looked at Dar. “Did you do a special config for this, or should I just use the standard?”
“Standard.” Dar answered briefly. “We can customize it when it’s on the ship.” She looked around for Kerry, but the blond woman was no where to be seen, and the reporter had disappeared as well. “How much more do we have to do?”
Mark turned all the way around to face her. “Dar, like, seriously, you don’t have to hang out here. We’re fine.” He said. “We’ve just got the setup to finish, and some cleaning.”
Dar had the grace to look slightly abashed. “I know.” She admitted. “I just felt a little bad about wrangling everyone over here last minute.”
The MIS manager relaxed. “No prob.” He said. “To tell you the truth, all the guy’s have been pretty curious about what’s going on over here, and they think the ship’s way cool.”
“It’s a wreck.”
“Yeah, but it’s something new and different, y’know?”
Dar did, indeed, know. “Yeah.” She removed her PDA from her pack pocket and flipped it open, tapping out a message as Mark went back to work.
Hey. Where are you?
The machine remained silent. Dar scowled. Then she gave up and limped back to the office, feeling more than just a touch useless out in the busy hall. She took a seat at the desk and slapped the keyboard of one of the office computers, logging in with her login and drumming her fingers while she waited for the system to authenticate her.
It presented her with her standard desktop and she opened up a programming session, starting up her network monitor as she waited for the first program to finish booting. Once she’d gotten things set up to her satisfaction, she put the keyboard on her lap and leaned back in the office chair, getting comfortable as she moved the windows around a little to better see them.
For a moment, she let her eyes linger over the network monitor, studying the readouts intently. Everything appeared relatively normal, the one alert showing indicating to her that eight new devices had been added to the network in the last hour.
“Knew that, thanks.” Dar dismissed the alert. She logged into the routers and studied her program’s results, calling up the program itself on the second screen and preparing to work on it.
What did she want it to do next? Dar hesitated, her fingertips resting on the keys. Something Kerry had said to her before she’d started on the project came to mind, and she thought about how she’d have the program extend itself outside their network and chase down hackers.
That brought her breakfast to mind, and Dar set aside the program briefly as she went to a third screen and checked for activity at their gateway. All was quiet, apparently her hacker friend had either given up or just gotten bored and found something else to occupy his or her time.
His or her. Dar suspected it was his, since most hackers she’d ever known had been guys. She’d never been really sure if it was just a social thing, or a hormonal one, and she never really thought too hard about what that had said about her.
With a sigh, she typed a few lines into her program, then stopped and closed it. She switched to the network monitors instead, and started browsing them, drilling down a few levels to examine the traffic flows in and out of their core network.
Given the hour, it looked pretty normal. Dar clicked and pointed, shifting the monitor from their outer boundary to the inner workings of the main office, drilling down to a department level. “Let’s see. Duks must be working his guys overtime tonight.”
She clicked on a message icon, and typed in a note.
Hey, and you call me a slave driver.
Dar chuckled slightly and went back to her browsing, checking the density of the traffic going to and from the accounting mini-computers and the saturation of the pipe into Houston where the reporting all flowed. It seemed busy, and she racked her brains trying to think if there was a deadline she’d forgotten about.
Budgets? No, not for another month, and the quarter didn’t close for nearly two.
Her screen blinked, and she looked at it, seeing the message that had come back from Duks.
I? Here I sit alone in my office with just a dust bunny under my desk. Where are you? I was by your office this evening but you were not there.
Dar blinked at the message. Then she removed her cell from it’s clip at her belt and opened it, dialing Duks phone number rapidly. Her thighs jerked under the keyboard as she waited for him to answer, sending it bouncing slightly as her nerves jangled a howling warning. “Duks?”
“Ah, Dar.” Duks sounded completely calm. “How are you?”
“Just listen to me.” Dar said . “I’m in the network, and I see a ton of traffic on your servers. Are you running something?”
Dead silence. Then – “I am not.”
“Can you check your running jobs?”
A rattle of keys sounded clearly through the phone. Dar waited, knowing if she had to she could have logged into a session herself and checked them but also knowing Duks would know most intimately what belonged in the system and what did not.
“Paladar, we have a problem.”
Dar licked her lips. “Okay.” She responded. “What do you want me to do? I can isolate that box, Duks.”
“Please do so.”
Dar’s hands moved in a blur, cutting off the multiple network accesses to the minis. It also cut off her access, of course, but in her mind, that wasn’t important. “Okay, done.”
“I am going to the computer room now. I will call you from there.” Duks voice was quiet, and very very serious. “Please do not as of yet contact anyone.”
“Okay.” Dar agreed softly. She closed the cell, and left it folded on her leg, while she opened up the monitor screen to it’s fullest size and stared at it, focusing on small surges here, and there, flickers of pale green against the normal green, completely ordinary to any eyes including hers.
A flashing alert caught her eye, and she clicked over to her router program, blinking at the screen as she red the cryptic results emerging from her own coding. Another warning about being accessed, and Dar almost clicked it closed, before she caught a second line behind it, a routine access listing for a remote router, that bore an IP not her own.
She dove after it, going to the router in question and scoping it out immediately, finding the session and capturing the address before it could disappear. Then she deleted the session and locked the router down, allowing only her own login to access it.
Breathing a little faster, she ducked out of that router and into the core, searching for the offending ip. Her heart started to speed up as she located it, racing to trace it before it disappeared. She grabbed the mac address and pasted it into a note pad, then searched it out.
“Ah.” She captured the port and pasted that also, then redid the trace. As she’d expected, the address was now gone, but she had the port.
If she had the port, she knew what was on the other end of it. Grimly, Dar opened up her network documentation and repasted the port number into the search field, then hit enter.
Her cell phone rang. She answered it one handed, while she stared at the screen. “Yes?”
“This is Louis.”
Dar inhaled, making her nostrils flare in reaction. “Yes.”
“Some person has been attempting to remove the records in this system that pertain to our customer accounting.” Duks stated flatly. “The login who has run these reports belongs to my department, from the senior auditing unit.”
Dar waited, but the line was silent. “And you did not ask them to do this?”
“I did not.” Duks confirmed. “I am contacting security, and I would appreciate that you send to me what data you saw that spurred you to contact me.”
“I will.” Dar replied quietly. “I may have another problem.”
Duks sighed. “Paladar, please. One disaster at a time is all my heart can handle.” He exhaled. “I will call you back after I speak with Able Jacobs.”
“Okay.” Dar let him hang up, satisfied at least that Duks had the situation under control. It would do no one any good for her to get involved in it – Duks was harsher on his own staff and security than she could ever be and she knew finding a data thief inside his department would send her old friend into a overdrive rage.
Now. To her other problem. Dar studied the screen again. The request for her program files had come from a pc on the fourteenth floor, just down the hall from her own office. It was, she recalled, a spare work room that also held two manual fax machines and a copier, and was occasionally used for visitors who needed access to a PC for various reasons.
Dar quickly dialed the phone again. She listened to the ring, then exhaled when it was answered.
“Operations, Rosie speaking.”
“Hi Rosie.” Dar said. “It’s Dar Roberts.”
The woman’s voice definitely perked up. “Oh, hi, Ms. Roberts! What can I do for you?”
Kerry had her admirers in the office, and so, Dar acknowledged, did she. Rosie was one of them. “I have something I need you to do.” She said. “You know the computer in the printer room, on 14 near my office?”
“Oh! Yes, ma’am, I sure do.” Rosie assured her.
“Okay.” Dar said. “I want you to go upstairs, and listen closely, okay?”
Dar would have rolled her eyes if it had been a less serious occasion. “Rosie, this is very serious.” She told the woman. “Someone just tried to access something from that PC that they shouldn’t have.” She heard the intake of breath on the other end. “So what I want you to do is to take a couple of plastic bags, and go down there. Put the keyboard and mouse in a bag, and take that, the PC and monitor, and take it back to ops with you, okay?”
“Right away, ma’am.” Rosie acknowledged. “Do you want me to call security?”
Dar sighed. “They’re busy with something else right now, and I’m not sure exactly what was going on with this pc. So just secure it, and I’ll pick it up from you later.”
“I’m on it.” Rosie said.
Dar hung up, tapping the cell phone against her chin. Her PDA went off at that moment, almost scaring her out of her wits, and she just barely kept from tossing the cell phone across the room. She pulled the PDA out and examined it.
Sorry, sweetie.. I was downstairs on the ship. What’s up?
Dar wondered where to start. Is the reporter still with you? She asked. A couple things just went down I’d rather not expose to the Herald in this lifetime.
The PDA was briefly silent, then it stutter flashed. Be right there.
Dar nodded a little, and then she opened her cell phone again, and dialed. She waited. “Hi. This is Dar Roberts. I need a list of everyone who is logged into the building right now, and everyone who entered and exited within the last twenty five minutes.”
They parked right in front of the office and walked side by side to the door. They passed together through the electronic portals, getting a nervous nod from the security guard on duty.
“Evening.” Dar greeted him briefly for them both. She followed Kerry across the huge lobby to the elevators and they both went inside. “Jesus.”
“Not how I wanted the night to end.” Kerry confirmed, punching the button for the tenth floor. “But at least you stopped them, Dar.”
“By pure god damned luck.”
“Honey, whatever works.” Kerry sighed. “I’m just glad you were there.”
Dar stared morosely at the closed elevator doors until the conveyance stopped, and they were admitted to the tenth floor. She followed Kerry out and to the right, heading for the operations center.
“Just goes to show you how much we need your program.” Kerry went on, with a touch of hesitance. “And you.”
Dar paused with her hand on the doorlatch of the ops center, and cocked her head to one side. “You really mean that?”
Kerry looked right back at her. “If you mean personally, I’m going to kick your ass for even asking.”
An unexpected smile appeared on Dar’s face. “I love it when you talk to me like that.” She opened the door and indicated Kerry should precede her, the wide open portal preventing the blond woman from framing a suitable answer.
Kerry stuck her tongue out instead, and walked into the room, where the console operator was already standing up to greet them. “Hi, Rosie.”
Dar followed her inside, and gave the woman a nod as well. “ Got the pc?”
“Right there, ma’am.” Rosie pointed towards a worktable on one side of the operations desk. “I went right out and grabbed it after you called me.”
Dar walked over to examine their prize. The operator had certainly taken her words literally, and the computer, it’s mouse, keyboard, and assorted cables were neatly wrapped in enough plastic baggage to cover half the room they were presently standing in. Duct tape secured it, and she suspected it would take the sharp end of her leatherman tool to free the poor captive. “Okay.”
“Did you see anyone around there when you were getting it, Rosie?” Kerry asked. “Anyone in the hall or anything like that?”
“No, ma’am.” Rosie shook her head. She was twentysomething, a middling height, middling hair color kind of woman who often reminded Kerry irresistibly of a cocker spaniel. “There shouldn’t be anyone up there this time of night, and it was empty as a graveyard when I was there.”
Dar checked her watch, and decided to leave the wrapped PC where it was. She limped over to the big console desk and picked up the phone, dialing Duks’ extension. “You there?”
“I am here.” Duks answered. “Are you here?”
“Good. Now that this important piece of business is concluded, would you come to my office?”
“Right.” Dar put the phone down. “Ker, let me go talk to Louis. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Kerry took a breath, then merely folded her arms. “Okay.” She agreed. “I’m going to go upstairs and see what I can sniff out.”
“Good idea.” Dar winked at her, as she made her way to the door and bumped it open with an elbow. She limped out and the door closed behind her, leaving Kerry by herself with the console operator.
“Hm?” Kerry had wandered over to examine the PC in it’s wrapping.
“How come Ms. Robert’s is limping? Something happen to her?” Rosie asked.
Kerry turned her head to regard the operator, whose round, innocent eyes gazed back at her with a marked lack of guile. “Matter of fact, she got that saving me from a barracuda, Rosie.”
If possible, Rosie’s eyes became a lot rounder and a lot bigger. “No kidding!?”
“No kidding. “Kerry turned all the way around and faced her. “There we were, in the ocean, right?”
Kerry waved her hands, mimicking a swimming motion. “I was swimming with our dog, and we swam under the dock. I felt something brush against me, then all of a sudden Dar jumped in, picked me up out of the way, and kicked a barracuda that was about to bite me right in the mouth!”
“Yeah, but she got bitten for her troubles, so you know.” Kerry went on blithely. “But it was very brave of her.”
“Sure was!” Rosie agreed fervently. “Wow.. were you scared?”
Kerry stuck her hands in her pockets. “Didn’t have time to be.”
“Wow.” The operator repeated. “That’s amazing.”
“Dar usually is also.” Kerry went to the door. “Well, I’m going to go check out our offices. I’ll be right back.” She left the ops center and closed the door, pausing outside to grin, and grunt contentedly. “If you don’t like the rumors about you, my father always said, start some you do like.”
She walked down the hall towards the stairwell. “Bet you never thought you’d ever use any of his advice willingly, huh, Ker?” With a slight shake of her head, she pushed the door into the stairwell open and started up the four flights to their offices.
Dar entered Duks’ outer office, crossing the soft carpet and opening his inner door to an office the pretty much mirrored hers. “Evening.”
Duks was behind his desk, leaning back with folded arms. He watched Dar as she took a seat opposite him. “How is your fish bite?”
“I see that you are favoring it.”
“Hurts like hell.” Dar allowed. “I went and got an antibiotic shot, but I’ve been running around on it all night.”
“And I have made it worse.” Duks said.
“We have narrowed this down to four possibilities, Dar.” Duks dispensed with the chit chat. “Tomorrow, I will call all of those four in to this office, and we will find out which it is.”
Dar cocked her head to one side. “You mean, none of the four were here when it happened?”
“No. The job was set to run at this time.” The Finance VP said. “I am thinking someone imagined no one would be here to see it and remark on it.” He laced his big fingers together and studied them. “It is hard to believe from any of these people. They have worked for me for many years.”
Dar knew what he meant. You liked to trust the people who worked for you, but she’d found out the hard way over the years that loyalty really didn’t generally exist. “That’s rough.” She said. “You sure it’s one of them?”
He shrugged. “They are the only ones who know this login. It is the one we use to enable the reports to select from all four databases.”
Hm. “Logins and passwords can be obtained.” Dar reminded him.
“Dar, what can I say to that? Perhaps it was me, then!” He stood up and paced behind his desk. “Is it not bad enough I have to find my most trusted staff is possibly a thief!”
“Hey.” Dar held up a hand. “I’m just bringing it up, because it’s true.” She said. “How many times have we been in Mari’s office over one person giving someone else their password?”
Duks dropped into his seat with a disgusted sigh. Then he looked at Dar squarely. “And what of you? Have you done so, my friend?”
Dar didn’t even hesitate. “Kerry has all my logins, and I have hers.” She replied easily. “Take it easy, Louis. Wait until you talk to these guys, and go with your gut.”
“Thank you, Dr. Ruth.” Duks gave her a droll look. “It is just infuriating.”
Yes, it was. Dar silently agreed. “Least we stopped it.” She fell back on Kerry’s conclusion. “I’m not reall…” She paused, as a far off yell penetrated the walls of the office. “Shit.” Dar bolted from her seat and headed for the door at a dead run, no trace of a limp remaining.
Caught in shock for a brief moment, Duks closed his jaw on an exclamation and got up to run after her.
Dar tore through the empty hallways, circling the fourteenth floor around the central elevator stack. She could hear scuffling ahead of her and she sped up, hurtling around the last corner into the corridor that held her office.
Ahead of her, in the semi darkness, she could see two figures wrestling, only one of which was familiar. “Kerry!” She let out a yell.
“Son of a bitch!” Kerry barked back. “Get this piece…ow!”
Dar reached the fight and didn’t even slow down. She plowed right into both struggling figures, gently shoving Kerry back out of the way towards one wall as she took the person she was fighting with up against the other one.
“Let go of me!” The stranger yelped. “Hey!”
“Go to hell!” Dar said. “You’re lucky I don’t open the window and toss your ass out.”
“Oh yeah, I’m scared.”
The two had been evenly matched in size, but Dar used her size advantage to pin Kerry’s adversary against the paneling, resisting the urge to shake the woman like a terrier with a rat. “Hold still or I’ll break your damn arm.” She growled. “Ker, you okay?”
“Yeah.” Kerry closed in behind her and put a hand on Dar’s back. “I found this little creep in your office.”
“My office?” Dar pressed harder. “Get the lights on.”
“Dar, they’re controlled by computer.” Kerry reminded her.
“You’re an IT professional.” Dar gritted her teeth. “So go hack them.”
“Yeesh. Okay.” Kerry ducked into Dar’s office, disappearing from view.
Her captive began to struggle, attempting to throw Dar off her. “Let me go, or you’ll be sorry!”
Dar wasn’t sure what was more painful, the cliché or the ache in her foot. The woman got an arm free and swatted at her. Dar blocked the blow with her forearm, then she grabbed hold of the other woman’s shirt and swung around, slamming her adversary against the opposite wall.
“Bitch! You’re so going to regret this!” The woman growled, grappling with Dar and trying to kick her.
“Not as much as you’re going to regret this, or I’m going to enjoy it.” Dar wrenched her arm free and took a step back, setting her self before she let loose with a right cross. It smacked into the woman’s jaw, bouncing her head against the wall and knocking her out.
Dar simply released her and allowed her to slid down the wall to the ground. She shook her hand and flexed the fingers, silence once again settling over the darkened hall. “Ker?” She called out, wanting very badly to have the lights come on so she could see if she knew the woman.
“Hang on.” Kerry’s voice drifted in from her office. “I hacked into the wrong subroutine. Give me a minute.”
“Hm.” Dar glanced around. “What’d you hit, the music system?”
Dar winced. “Oh boy.” She leaned against the opposite wall as Duks appeared from the darkness to stand next to her. “It’s gonna be a long night.”
“Ah.” Kerry rattled a few more keystrokes in, and was rewarded by a flood of light that made her wince. She straightened up from Maria’s desk and stepped around it, heading for the door to the hallway. Rounding it, she hastened to Dar’s side and they stood together looking down at the intruder.
It was a woman, slightly taller than Kerry, with a lithe build and short cropped dark hair, dressed in a non-descript Dickies shirt and trousers, with well worn work shoes.
“Know her?” Dar asked.
“Um.. no.” the blond woman replied. “She’s not the usual night gal on this floor.”
“Considering the night gal is a night guy, no.” Dar agreed. “I don’t recognize her either.”
“Hm.” Kerry rubbed her jaw. “That’s a cleaning staff uniform.”
“Uh huh.” Dar agreed. “Please don’t tell me she was cleaning my office.”
Kerry snorted. “Maybe, if she was cleaning your desk drawers from the inside, with a flashlight.” She looked around. “Where did Duks go?”
“Calling the cleaning supervisor.” Dar said. “They’ve got some explaining to do.”
They certainly did. Kerry folded her arms over her chest. “What do we do with her? She’s going to come around any minute Dar.”
“Call security, I guess.” Her partner responded. “I don’t want to tie her up… but we don’t know what she’s going to do when she comes around, either.” She leaned against the wall with one hand, pondering their options. “You okay?” She asked suddenly, looking at Kerry in some concern.
“More or less.” Kerry murmured. “You want to duct tape her?”
Dar grimaced. “I’m probably bucking a lawsuit as it is for clocking the little bastard. I’d rather not have cruel and unusual punishment added to it.”
“You ever had to remove duct tape from any part of your body?”
“No.” Kerry shook her head, then paused. “Have you?”
“Hmm. How about we lock her in the cleaning closet?” Kerry suggested. “Seems appropriate, and it’s close by.” She pointed to one in a series of identical doorways. “I don’t really want to wrestle any more tonight. I think I pulled something in my back.”
“Huh.” Dar tried the door and found it open. She pushed it inward, and flipped the lights on, finding nothing more exotic than a mop bucket and a stack of cleaning cloths. There was room in the closet for a cleaning cart, but the cart was missing, presumably elsewhere in the building performing it’s intended function. “Good idea. Give me a hand.”
They dragged the woman’s limp body into the closet, laying her down on the tile floor and backing out, pulling the door shut behind them. Dar fished in her pocket and retrieved her keyset, trying the master key on the door and grunting when it turned to a locked position with a satisfying snick. “There.”
“Ugh.” Kerry leaned against the wall, wincing as she stretched out her lower back muscles.
“Is that the less part of the more?” Dar limped over to her. “You scared me half to death.”
Kerry shifted and leaned against Dar instead. “My knight in shining armor.” She said. “Boy, was I glad to hear you calling my name. I grabbed her, and she got away from me.”
“I ran after her and got the back of her shirt in the hallway, and next thing I knew, I felt like I was in a wrestling exhibition.”
Duks emerged from a side hallway and walked towards them. “Ah.” He looked around. “Did our little friend escape?”
“We put her in the closet.” Kerry pointed. “Is the supervisor coming up?”
“He is, indeed.” Duks reported. “Especially since he informed me that there should be no person on this floor at this time. I have been told they start cleaning on this floor, and work downwards.”
Dar nodded. “Makes sense, since I usually see them before I leave.”
“Yeah.” Kerry agreed.
A hammering from behind the closet door startled all of them. “Let me outta here!” A voice emerged, outraged. “You little bastards! You can’t do this to me!”
“Shut up.” Duks hammered back. “Or we shall leave you and go get ourselves a beer.”
“Count me in.” Kerry added. “I was in the copy room when I heard a noise coming from your office. I went in, and there she was, rooting through everything. Who in the hell is this, Dar?”
Dar exchanged glances with Duks. “Should we call the cops?”
The Finance VP pondered this. “Let us wait to see what the cleaning supervisor has to say. He said he.. ah.” Duks nodded, and looked past them. “Here he is now.”
They all turned as a tall, slim man with salt and pepper hair joined them. “Ma’am’s, sir.” The newcomer said. “I do not understand what is going on here. I signed off on this floor two hours ago.”
The hammering started on the inside of the door again. “Bastards!”
The cleaning supervisor started, and took a step back away from the door. “What is this in my closet?”
“Someone in one of your uniforms.” Dar informed him. “A woman.”
“I have no women on staff this evening.” The supervisor protested. “Certainly, I do not keep them on this late. It is not safe. I take care of my girls. They go home no later than eight pm.” He pointed down the hallway, where a cleaning cart was approaching, being pushed by an older man. “See? There is Carlos. He is my man here tonight.”
Carlos spotted all of them outside the cleaning closet and stopped, looking puzzled. “Senor?” He asked hesitantly. “Hay un problemo?”
Duks stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I think perhaps we need to call the police then.” He admitted. “If this person is not part of your staff, then it is an intruder, and the authorities must be notified.”
“You don’t want to do that!” The woman’s voice inside the closet was muffled. “I’m warning you!”
Kerry put a hand on Dar’s arm. “Maybe we should talk to her.” She suggested. “The way she’s acting is very strange, Dar. I’d expect someone to either be scared poopless, or else be asking for a lawyer.”
Dar considered the thought, and had to concede her partner had a point. The woman’s actions had been strange, and maybe there was something to be learned from her. “Okay.” She addressed the cleaning supervisor. “I’m going to assume this person just stole one of your uniforms, and maybe someone’s ID. I’ll find out, and let you know.”
The man nodded. “It is good.” He motioned Carlos to move the cart in the other direction. “Vamanos.”
“Senor?” The older man was sadly at sea. “Como?”
The supervisor took him by the arm and led him off, leaving Duks, Dar and Kerry in the hallway facing the closet door. “Well?” Dar held her key up. “Do we?”
Duks shrugged his broad shoulders.
Kerry also shrugged, lifting her hands slightly.
“Hey, you in there.” Dar banged on the door. “If I open this, so we can talk, you cool it or you’re gonna hit the dirt again, got me?”
“Ah.” Duks exhaled gently. “That is the Dar I know.”
“You better open this door!” The woman replied through the wood. “Don’t worry, I’ll talk. I’m not into physical abuse like you are.”
Dar shook her head and stuck the key in the lock, turning it and shoving the door open. She spread her arms out and flexed her knees a little, wondering if their erstwhile captive was going to come out swinging.
As it happened, she didn’t. The woman walked warily out, giving Dar a dour, suspicious look. “Hope you’ve got a good lawyer.”
“You too.” Kerry advised her. “Especially since you attacked me while trespassing.”
“I didn’t attack you.” The woman scoffed.
“Yes, you did.” Kerry responded evenly. “After I surprised you in the act of burgling Dar’s office. So if I were you, unless you want to have this discussion with a police officer, I would start cooperating.”
The woman studied her, then flicked her eyes to the rest of them. “This isn’t what you think.” She remarked, reaching into her back pocket, halting when Dar reacted. “Take it easy.” She cautioned, removing her wallet and opening it. “Here. See?”
She held out a card.
Dar took it, and glanced at it. “Military intelligence.” She repeated slowly. “Interesting.”
“My father always claimed that was an oxymoron.” Kerry murmured.
It wasn’t the reaction the woman had clearly been expecting. “I don’t think you quite understand what’s going on here.” She said. “You’re the subject of an investigation.”
“Let’s go inside.” Dar indicated the outer door to her office. “Louis, maybe we have an answer to your issue as well.”
“Perhaps we do.” Duks agreed. “Perhaps we do.”
The woman looked from one of them to the other. “Do you understand that this is a serious situation?”
“Do you understand that we quite probably issued your paycheck on this very past Friday?” Duks retorted. “Do not threaten us with the government. We know as better. Now, please go inside, or else, as Dar says, we shall call the police.”
“Yeah.” Dar agreed. “Wait, let me ask you one thing.” She addressed the woman. “Are you from the Army?”
The woman looked warily at her. “Yes.”
Dar’s eyes narrowed, and she snorted softly, as she closed the door behind them.