Dar took a seat behind her desk, and Kerry perched on the edge of it. Duks sat in one visitor chair, and their unwelcome guest elected to remain standing.
“Okay.” Dar said. “Explain to me why I have a member of military intelligence breaking and entering in my office.”
The woman smirked. “It’s really simple.” She said. “My boss assigned me to break in here and blow your reputation for security wide open.” She spread her arms and turned. “And I did.”
“Why?” Kerry said.
“Why did your boss ask you to do that?”
“Hey, I don’t question my orders. “ The woman held a hand up. “I just do what I’m told. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a report to file, and believe me I’m going to enjoy it.” She looked at Dar. “You made all kinds of claims, lady, and you run all kinds of things for the US Government. It really pisses me off that you’re so full of shit.”
“Now, wait a minute.. “Kerry started to stand up.
“Oh, don’t bother.” The woman waved her off. “Please, let’s not even get into this little conflict of interest perversion the two of you have going here.”
Dar’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’d watch it if I were you.”
The woman snorted. “If you cooperate, and you’re very lucky, my boss might consider just getting all the government’s contracts cut quietly, and not blast it all over the papers. “ She looked at Dar. “*I* wouldn’t because I think you stink. But he might, because he thinks you could be useful to us.”
“Does he?” Kerry said. She turned to her partner. “Dar…” Her voice trailed off as the pale blue eyes pinned hers, and she read Dar’s expression. She quietly turned back around and folded her arms, watching the intruder in silence.
“I think he’s nuts.” The woman stated frankly. “But he’s the boss.” She held up a cell phone. “And now I can call him and tell him what I found.” She started dialing, the smirk plastered seemingly permanently on her face. “And believe me, you’re gonna pay for hitting me.”
Dar had her fingertips steepled, and she regarded the woman with a surprisingly benign expression. “Kerry?”
“Hm.” Kerry glanced at her.
“Call the police.” Dar said. “Tell them we’ve caught someone breaking and entering in the office. Tell security what’s going on, and have them send a couple of officers up here.”
The woman stopped dialing and stared at Dar. “What?”
Kerry picked up the phone and dialed.
“You didn’t quite catch what I said, did you?” The woman asked Dar. “My boss wants to keep this quiet.”
“I don’t.” Dar replied. “If you legitimately blew our security, then I want it out in the open.”
Duks stared at her, his eyebrows lifting. “Ah, Dar…”
“We’re a public company, Duks.”
“Of course, I do know that.” The VP of Finance said.
“She’s here. She had a password into the system or else someone left the machine logged in. It’s legit. I’m not hiding it.” Dar stated flatly.
Duks subsided, with a thoughtful look.
“Thanks.” Kerry finished speaking into the phone. She depressed the hook, then dialed again. “John?” Kerry Stuart. I need a few of your guys up in Dar’s office right away, please.”
“Matter of fact…” Dar went on. “When you’re done with that, Ker, put a call in to corporate communications. We’ll need a press release.”
The intruder slowly let her hand drop, with the cell phone in it. “You’re not serious.”
“Sure.” Dar half shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’m sure your boss will be glad to explain to the press why you’re here, and we’ll be glad to explain how we found you, and how you were stopped from committing theft of proprietary technology that had nothing to do with security on any government account.”
The woman’s expression switched to wary. “I don’ t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you ?” Dar inquired. “Well, then you’ve got no problem when the police take your fingerprints and match them against what’s on the keyboard of the machine I confiscated from our Xerox room.” She got up and circled her desk, advancing on the woman. “You want to play in the big leagues? Fine. Tell your boss Captain Mousser he can come down to Dade County jail and bail your ass out.”
There was a soft knock on the door. Kerry crossed over and opened it, standing aside to admit two of their night security guards. Unlike the day guards, the night men tended to be a little more serious, and these two, she knew, were off duty police officers. “Gentlemen – I found this person inside this office. The cleaning supervisor confirms she does not work for them. We’ve called Metro-Dade.”
“All right, ma’am.” The guards took up positions on either side of the intruder.
“Better call your boss now.” Dar advised the woman. “I’m not sure what you’ll be able to do once the police get here.”
“How did you know his name?” The woman asked. “I didn’t tell you that.”
Kerry had been wondering the same thing herself.
Dar merely smiled. “Guess we all have our little secrets, don’t we, Lieutenant?” She commented. “It’s going to be interesting watching him.. and you.. explain why you were investigating government account security in a building that doesn’t house any of it, of course.”
The woman looked around the room. “This is..”
“The government systems are handled through our Houston office.” Kerry told her quietly. “The Miami ops center handles commercial accounts. Surely you knew that, right?”
Dar folded her arms as she watched their unwelcome intruder. The woman half turned and dialed an number, keeping her face averted and covering the mouthpiece of her phone with one hand. It was still a bad situation, she knew. There had been a breech, and there was no real way for her to whitewash it, save by the few details she’d already thrown forth.
Well, that, and the fact that the woman had not been successful in obtaining anything while she, Dar, had been watching. No telling how long she’d been at it, and no telling what she’d sucked down when Dar hadn’t been looking, since she wasn’t apt to spend her evenings browsing the network.
Kerry sidled over to her side of the desk and eyed her, the blond woman’s back turned to the room and her expression open and very emotive.
Dar scrunched up her own face into a wry half grin in response, and both her shoulders moved slightly upward.
“We are so screwed.” Kerry mouthed silently.
Dar nodded, keeping the same expression.
Surprisingly, Kerry now shrugged in return. “Oh well.” She mimed.
Equally surprisingly, Dar understood the sentiment, and agreed with it. In the corner of her mind, a tiny bit of her ego was soothed by the knowledge that the breech, when it had come, hadn’t come through her network. It had come, as security cracks often did, through the human end of the equation.
“Check the logs.” She uttered softly. “Find out who logged into that workstation today.”
Kerry nodded and slipped off the desk, crouching behind it and pulling Dar’s keyboard over to her. After a moment, she knelt instead and rattled the keys, focusing her attention on the screen instead of the rest of the room.
The woman turned around and approached Dar, pausing when the security guards intercepted her with quiet, yet distinct intent. She held the cell phone out. “My boss wants to speak to you.”
Dar let her wait while she considered the request. Then she got up and came around the desk, taking the phone and perching on the corner of the wooden surface to talk into it. “Yes, Captain?’
Kerry looked up from the monitor. “Dar?” She interrupted gently. “Marketing admin, four pm, logoff twenty one hundred plus.”
Dar’s nostrils flared.
“That is an odd location for that resource.” Duks commented. “Perhaps I should call Eleanor.”
Dar blocked them out for a moment to listen to the phone. “What was that?”
“I said, Ms. Roberts, my intention was not to blow you out of the water.” Captain Mousser stated.
“Not what your puppy dog said.” Dar replied. “Get your story straight.”
The man sighed audibly into the phone. “She’s just a kid, and she doesn’t understand complex politics. It was easier to just tell her that, Anyway, listen..”
“I’m not going to listen, Captain.” Dar said, in an annoyed tone. “You decided to send some half assed kid in here to do god knows what, and she got caught. My bad for not running my own building services crew. Your bad for not doing your homework. So now we’ll just let the press decide which one of us is the bigger asshole.”
“Roberts, will you chill out?” The Captain hissed. “You’re making this into a big deal, and it doesn’t have to be!”
“You don’t think trying to steal proprietary code is a big deal? I do!” Dar snapped back. “I don’t give a rats ass what your intent was, Captain! Figure out how you’re going to defend that!”
There was a moment’s silence. “Hey, that was just opportunistic.” The Captain finally said. “She had a chance to go grab it so.. you can’t blame me! We’ve been trying to find a back door into that place for a week, and…”
“Mister, you are so screwed.” Dar was merciless, though inwardly relieved she’d solved at least one mystery. “I’d get my ass down to Dade County jail if I were you, and bring cash. They don’t take credit cards or government PO’s.” She got up and limped back around the desk, pausing to look out the windows at the moonlit sea.
Pressing a hand against the glass, she suddenly wished more than anything she was out there. A sigh fogged the window, and she looked up to catch the reflection of Kerry’s sea green eyes gazing out at as well. Their glances met, and held.
“Roberts! Roberts! Jesus! You want this on page one?? Really?” The Captain’s voice rose. “C’mon! Get real!”
Dar turned and sat down. “I’d rather that, then have you holding some bullshit piece of nothing over my head. Get it out in the open, and we’ll deal with it.” Her mind was already busy with figuring out how to explain the whole damn thing.
To the press. To Alastair. God. To the board.
What a mess. She closed her eyes and welcomed the casual touch of Kerry’s hand on her shoulder. The blond woman didn’t say a word, but the silent support was obvious. “So if you’re done wasting my time, I’ve got a press release to arrange.” She spoke into the phone.
“Roberts.” Mousser sighed. “Look, you have something to offer. Your skills are something I really, really want to add to the team I have supporting the country. Don’t you care about your country? Don’t you want to help it out?”
“I do my part providing civilian jobs, thanks.” Dar said. “Are we done?”
“C’mon, Roberts.. you’re not a communist.” The Captain coaxed. “Uncle Sam’s Army wants you.”
“I’m gay.” Dar stated the obvious.
“We can work around that.”
Kerry’s eyes nearly came out of her head as she listened.
Dar glared at the phone. “I’m a Navy brat.” She added. “And my dad’s a retired SEAL.”
Silence. “Okay, that’s a problem.” The Captain admitted. “But listen, can we chalk this one up to patriotism? Let my girl out of there, and we keep this between us.”
Dar’s phone rang. Kerry answered it. “Okay, thanks.” She looked at Dar. “Police are downstairs.”
Dar hesitated, considering their options. Duks chose that moment to come around the desk and lean close to her. He put a hand over the cell and caught her eye.
“This is not the explanation for our other problem, my friend. If you can avoid the publicity, do so.” He murmured under his breath. “We have much bigger issues to deal with right now.”
Dar hated swallowing her pride, but she hated making stupid mistakes even more. She gave Duks a brief nod, then lifted the phone back up. “All right.” She snarled. “But you’re gonna have to come up with some damn good assurances that your lightbulb here isn’t going to open her mouth to half the earth, since she’s so proud of what she did.”
The Captain chuckled. “Leave that to me.” He sounded much more sure of himself now. “Now… can we talk about that little program of yours?”
Dar looked up at the ceiling. “No.” She said. “Right now, I have to get the cops out of my lobby.”
“Then give my soldier her phone back. I’ll be in touch with you tomorrow.” The captain answered smugly. “Don’t worry, Roberts. This is going to end up being good for both of us.”
Dar shook her head and threw the phone back to it’s owner. Now she had the police to deal with. What the hell was she going to tell them?”
“Let me go downstairs.” Kerry patted her on the back. “I’ll handle the cops, Dar. Don’t worry about it.” She circled the desk and headed for the door before Dar could stop her, not that she had any intention of trying.
“Okay.” Dar turned to the two security guards. “Escort this person out of the building. Take her picture before you do, and I want to know how and where she got the cleaning department identification card.”
“Ma’am.” The nearer guard took hold of the intruder’s arm. “Should we file an internal report on this?”
“Bet your ass you should.” Dar replied instantly. “Get her out of here.”
The lieutenant’s smirk had returned, but it wasn’t as brazen as it had been to begin with. She had closed her phone and put it away, and wasn’t resisting the grip of the guard. She gave Dar a not well muffled look of triumph as she was led off, but remained silent.
That left Duks and Dar alone in the office. Dar rested her chin on her fist and regarded her friend, who gazed back with an equally serious expression. “We’re in trouble.” Dar said.
“Yes.” Duks agreed. “And the big problem is, if it turns out my people were compromised then that is something that will be very difficult to hide. If it comes out, then this will as well.”
“I know.” Dar felt very tired. “Let’s schedule an executive meeting first thing in the morning. We all need to talk.”
“Yes. We do.” The big VP agreed. “This is a time for teamwork.”
The ultimate in non-team players let out a long, aggrieved sigh. “It’s time for something.” She muttered. “Right now, I’m thinking maybe a beer.”
“Perhaps two.” Duks agreed solemnly. “After you, madame.”
Dar logged Kerry out of her pc, and shut it off. She flipped the lights down as they left, shaking her head all the way to the elevator.
It was after midnight as they trudged back up the steps to the condo, Dar leaning against the wall as Kerry keyed in the lock and opened the door. Chino corkscrewed up to greet them, and Kerry distracted the dog long enough for Dar to slip inside and closed the door behind her.
“Ugh.” Dar limped across the living room and headed for the bedroom, holding a boot in one hand. “Ker, can you check in the mailbox to see if they dropped off those drugs?’
“Sure.” Kerry gave Chino a kiss on the head, and then she ducked back outside to look for the bag. It was hanging neatly on the hook under their mailbox, so she grabbed it and scooted back inside. “It’s here, hon.”
“Yippee.” Dar’s voice floated in from the bedroom. “Y’know, I used to look back on all those long nights and stressful deadlines with some kind of halfassed affection.” She limped back in, now dressed in just a t-shirt and her underwear. “What drug was I on?”
Kerry handed her the bag. “Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll grab us some hot chocolate after I change.” She suggested. “I need to decompress for a while. My head’s spinning.”
“Go change.” Dar bumped her towards the bedroom. “I’ll crank up the drinks.” She continued on into the kitchen and set the bag down on the counter, leaving it there while she retrieved a glass from the cupboard and squirted herself some milk.
Her foot was killing her. The long evening encased in her boot had rubbed the injury raw, and her sock had been covered in blood when she’d taken the shoe off. She perched on a stool and added a handful of Advil to the antibiotics, swallowing them all with the help of a mouthful of her milk.
Chino trotted in and sniffed at her foot, giving it a sympathetic lick. Dar regarded the dog with a wry grin, and then she got off the stool and retrieved the microwavable pitcher they used for their late night hot toddies.
She filled it with milk, and added the appropriate squirts of chocolate syrup, swirling the liquid around once or twice before she slapped the lid on and gave it a vigorous shake. She pulled open the lid and considered the contents, and, satisfied with the consistency, she put it in the microwave and started it heating.
Seating herself back on the stool, she swung her legs back and forth a few times, idly tracing a long, thin white scar crossing her right kneecap. Free of her shoe, her injured foot was beginning to stop throbbing, and she wiggled the toes of it experimentally.
Ick. They felt swollen. She brought the foot up to rest on her knee and examined it, scowling at the red, puffy skin and the achingly tender area that covered the top of her foot and part of the bottom of it. It hurt. Her head hurt. Her shoulders hurt from the tension of the night, and she wished…
What did she wish?
Dar found herself too tired to focus on the big picture, and resorted to a short term goal instead. She wished she was tucked in bed with Kerry, a cup of hot chocolate, and successfully kicked in Advil. There, that was doable, wasn’t it?
Kerry entered the kitchen wearing a knee length t-shirt. “For a day that started out really cool, it sure ended disgusting, didn’t it?”
“Uh huh.” Dar agreed mournfully. “I want to go back to yesterday.”
Kerry came over and leaned against her, rubbing Dar’s back with the tips of her fingers. “Did you take your drugs?”
“Ugh.” Dar closed her eyes and let her head rest against Kerry’s. “I can just see waking up tomorrow’s gonna suck.”
“Uh huh.” Kerry glanced up as the microwave beeped. “I smell hot chocolate.” She eased past Dar and removed two mugs from the cabinet, setting them down on the counter and leaning up to retrieve the pot. “Let’s worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
Oo, mental synergy. Dar snaked an arm around Kerry and held her gently, nuzzling her arm as she attempted to pour the hot chocolate out. “Thanks for taking care of the police, by the way.”
“No problem.” Kerry managed to get the beverage into the cups despite the distraction. “They were very understanding, once I explained about how big a company we are, and how many new hires we have, and how it was natural for someone to get lost on the wrong floor and wander into the wrong office and be discovered accidentally by me.”
Dar sipped her chocolate. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” Kerry took her elbow. “C’mon, let’s go curl up on the couch. I had all the time in the world, like the thirty seconds it takes the elevator to go from fourteen to one, to come up with that story. I thought I did pretty good.”
“Hell of a lot better than I’d have done.” Dar agreed, willingly allowing herself to be towed couchward. She settled next to Kerry on the soft leather, and eased her foot up onto the table.
Kerry used the remote to start a quiet CD, and turn a seascape on the television screen. The lights were low in the room, and she exhaled as she allowed the peace of the moment to descend on her. The chocolate was sweet on her tongue and she could feel the warmth traveling down into her stomach, easing the slight unsettlement from a shared dozen ill-advised spicy chicken wings.
Thoughts of chicken wings flew out the window. “I never get tired of hearing that.” Kerry admitted. “Love you too.”
Dar draped her arm over Kerry’s shoulders. “You know something?”
“Nope.” Kerry leaned back and put her feet up next to Dar’s. “My brain’s a cheap plastic colander at the moment.”
“Ah.” Dar turned her head and nipped Kerry’s earlobe. “I knew this yellow stuff reminded me of something.” She puffed a bit of Kerry’s hair up with a short breath.
“Spaghetti?” Kerry suggested.
“Hm. I don’t like corn silk.”
Dar pulled back a little. “You don’t?”
Kerry shook her head. “No. It makes me itch.” She explained. “Every time I get us fresh corn I have to have someone in the store husk it for me. Otherwise I end up scratching my arms raw after I finish digging the suckers out of those honky wooden bins.”
“Hm.” Dar took a sip of her chocolate. “Learn something new every day.”
“Too bad, too, because I love corn, and I love the smell of it when it’s fresh.” Kerry went on, a touch mournfully. “Especially the white corn.”
Dar considered. “You could wear gloves.”
“Oh, Dar. Can you imagine me shopping in Publix in white gloves up to my armpits?”
“I saw someone shopping last year in a mink.”
“Dead.” Dar clarified, then paused. “Oh, I see what you mean.. yeah, I think it was real.”
“Ugh. That’s so un-PC.” Kerry shook her head. She reflected a moment more. “We’re babbling like idiots, aren’t we?”
“Not really.” Dar exhaled, half closing her eyes. “Everything you’ve said so far makes sense.” She put her cup down and put her arm to better use around Kerry. “And you were right. That story you told the cops was a good one.”
“Mm.” Kerry got rid of her cup and half turned, snuggling into Dar’s embrace. “To hell with the cops. You tell me a story.”
Both of Dar’s eyebrows lifted, and her blue eyes widened. “What?”
“Tell me a story.” Kerry repeated. “C’mon, I know you know some.”
Dar searched through her memories, hoping her partner wasn’t expecting a once upon a time kind of tale since she’d been reading things other than Jack and Jill since she’d been a pre-schooler, and Andrew had never subscribed to Mother Goose.
Did she know any stories, suitable for Kerry’s adorable ears? “Wanna hear about my tenth birthday?”
‘Sure.” Kerry pressed her ear against Dar’s chest, listening to her heartbeat. It had that odd little echo beat, from the anomaly she had in her chest, a rhythm Kerry had become quite fond of.
“Okay.” Dar said. “When I was ten years old, we moved away from Florida to Virginia because that’s where my dad was stationed for a while.”
“Mm. I can’t picture you in Virginia.”
“Neither could I” Dar agreed. “I missed my friends on the base something awful, and I hated the new school I was in. They made us wear uniforms.”
Kerry cocked an eyebrow.
“Yeah, I know. Military brat, doesn’t like uniforms.” Dar acknowledged. “It was a skirt, Ker. What can I tell you?”
Kerry’s nose wrinkled. “Pleated?”
“Anyway, since I didn’t know squat about skirts, I put the damn thing on backwards.” Dar said. “And wore it to school that way.” A faint, self deprecating smile appeared. “No one noticed until lunchtime, but then some pissass rich girls cornered me in the cafeteria and started teasing me.”
“Kids are so cruel, sometimes.” Kerry agreed softly. “Most of them steered clear of us, but there was always talk, and they were always careful to make sure I heard it.”
“Mm.. well, they were all mostly older girls, and I guess they figured I was safe to make fun of.” Dar mused. “I’d promised my dad I wouldn’t make trouble in school, that I’d give it a while until I got used to everything.”
“First time I ever broke a promise to him.”
“Mm.” Kerry nodded gently against Dar’s body.
“I took hold of the biggest of them…”
“Bigger than you?” Kerry interrupted.
“Yeah.’ Dar agreed. “I didn’t hit my growth spurt until I was.. I think twelve or thirteen. Anyway, I grabbed the biggest one and just tossed her over onto the ground and ripped her skirt off.”
“Oh gosh.” Kerry covered her eyes.
“Then I asked her which one of us was more ridiculous looking.” Dar half smiled in memory. “She was crying, the other kids were laughing.. then the principal showed up.” She chuckled. “He told me I was going to get a spanking. I told him…”
“My dad was going to kick his ass.” Dar finished. “So we all ended up in the principal’s office, and they called in the girl’s parents, and my parents, and it was quite the circus in there since it turns out the girl’s mother was an old acquaintance of my mother’s, but not a fondly remembered one.”
“Oh, my god. Did you end up in jail?”
“No.” Dar shook her head. “We ended up in Dairy Queen.” She said “We’d both been suspended for two days, and I was just so pissed off. I told them I’d rather go to reform school than stay there with those stuck up pieces of…”
“Would you really have?” Kerry asked. “Rather been in reform school? Dar, you’re not a criminal.”
“I would have fit in better there.” Dar replied honestly. “And my father said just to give him a little time, and he’d fix it so we could go back home.”
Dar nodded. “I found out later he gave up a big promotion and a job he really wanted for it.” She said. “But when I asked him about that, he just said his family and us being happy was more important to him than what he did.”
Kerry pondered that for a minute. “There’s a moral to this story isn’t there?”
Dar hugged her. “Maybe.” She exhaled. “Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic. That jackass who broke into the office tonight reminded me of that girl.”
Kerry shifted and raised her head, kissing her partner on the lips. “Your father’s a smartie.” She rubbed noses with Dar. “And I like stories with a moral.” She gave Dar a hug back, burying her face into the side of her partner’s neck, and biting her gently.
“What was that about morals?”
Kerry just chuckled.
Dar spent a good while after she woke before dawn just relaxing in the darkness, her eyes mostly closed as she listened to the soft cycling on the air conditioner. It was comfortable in the bedroom, the conditioner putting enough chill into the air to make the warm waterbed surface under them feel good and there was a sense of peace in the townhouse that was very appealing.
It certainly was appealing to Dar, who was perfectly content to lie there and enjoy it as she pondered the coming day.
“Meatballs.” Kerry muttered, under her breath. “Banana compote.”
Dar’s eyebrow twitched and she turned her head slightly to get a better view of her still sleeping yet surprisingly chatty partner. “Ker?” She whispered.
“Pencils don’t do it.” Kerry insisted.
Instantly, Dar’s mind was alive with possibilities and she tried to figure out what Kerry was dreaming of. Pencils? Meatballs? What was banana compote, anyway? “Keeeerrry…” She warbled softly. “I loooooovvveee you.”
Very slowly, a green orb appeared, focusing on her and visible in the low light from the clock. “I thought I heard a gopher.”
Kerry rolled over onto her left side and snuggled back up to her partner. “Honey, you can wake me up saying you love me any day of the week.” She uttered. “But did you have to do it before sunrise?”
“What were you dreaming about?”
“I wasn’t.” Kerry shook her head, then paused. “Why? Was I babbling again.”
“Y’know, Dar… I never used to talk in my sleep before I met you.” Kerry complained. “I’m sure my brother and sister would have mentioned it.”
“How do you know?” Dar asked, reasonably. “You guys didn’t sleep in the same bed, didja?”
Kerry’s face scrunched up. “Eeeewww…. Dar! No!” She poked the taller woman in the ribs. “But Angie and I went to camp together.” She explained. “I never would have lived it down if I talked in my sleep. What was I saying?”
Kerry chewed on her lip. “Can’t believe I actually remember that. Must be subliminal.” She shook her head and closed her eyes.
Dar put her arm around Kerry and exhaled. “You were actually talking about meatballs and bananas.”
Kerry opened one eye again. “Together?” She asked, a touch hesitantly. “Hmm. Maybe I was dreaming I was pregnant.”
Dar considered the question. “Something you aspire to?” She queried cautiously, her mind flashing back to a certain dream she’d had near the beginning of their relationship.
“Not unless you’re volunteering to make me that way.”
Dar’s eyes widened slightly. “I think we need to go back to sleep.”
“Good idea.” Kerry gave her a pat on the belly.
Dar pulled the covers up and tucked them around Kerry’s shoulders. They had at least an hour before it was time to get up, and she intended on using every minute of the time productively. Peace settled back down over the room after a moment.
It didn’t last that long. “Ker?”
“You know I can’t really make you pregnant, right”
“Sure you could.” Kerry gave her another comforting pat. “You can do anything you put your mind to. I have total confidence in you.”
Silence fell for another brief moment. Then Dar cleared her throat gently. “That old Christian school of yours was a little light on science, huh?”
Kerry chuckled throatily, her shoulder shaking. “You know, I do remember what I was dreaming about.” She admitted. “I was organizing a pot luck for our office.”
“Ah. That’s where the pencils came in.” Dar mused.
“No one knew what to bring. No one had any idea of what the heck was going on.. it was like a teacher’s workday in Idiotville.” The blond woman complained. “I’m glad you woke me up. I was just getting to the point where I was going to start…”
“Throwing food?” Her partner suggested. “Seems to be a standard practice in our circle.”
They both chuckled. Then Kerry sighed. “Well, I’m up now.” She lamented. “You?”
“How about we have a biscuit on the porch and watch the sun rise, then go over to the gym?” Kerry said. “I grabbed a new flavor coffee at the market the other day and I’ve been meaning to try it.”
It sounded pretty appealing to Dar, who gave up on her snoozing plans with only a faint regret. She reached over and turned on the bedside lamp, which produced a soft glow calculated not to shock the eyeballs. Kerry had selected the appliance, replacing a somewhat brighter one that had been a holdover from Aunt May’s day. “Go go go.”
Kerry waited for Dar to roll up out of the waterbed before she followed suit, rubbing her bare arms as the chill air hit them. She grabbed the shirt Dar tossed her out of mid air and slipped into it, then briefly wished for a pair of slippers as she followed Dar out of the room.
Chino was already waiting at the back door, tail wagging gently as they entered the kitchen. Dar detoured to let the Labrador out, and she paused on the steps to watch the pre-dawn stars twinkle in the soon to be lightening sky.
The air was warm and full of moisture, and the scent of salt water and grass was thick in it. Dar sucked in a lungful, almost able to taste the richness on the back of her tongue as a breeze brushed over her body. She could remember air like this as part of her world from the time she was old enough to recognize anything, and she spared a brief moment of nostalgia for a time when all it would have meant was another lazy summer day full of thunderstorms and dust, and maybe some coconuts to break open.
With a faint sigh, she turned and leaned on the door jamb, watching Kerry as she measured coffee from a lidded container into their coffee machine. Despite the faded shirt and sleep disheveled hair, or maybe because of it, she found herself smiling at the sight.
“So.” Kerry leaned on the counter and watched the water start to percolate through the grinds. “We’ve got an executive meeting at nine. What’s the angle you’re going to put on that, Dar?”
“Shh.” Dar circled her and kissed her on the back of the neck. “I don’t want to talk about angles until we’re in the car on the way there.”
Kerry turned her head and peered up at her partner. “Just trying to mentally prepare.” She protested mildly. “It’s going to be a free for all, y’know.”
“I know.” Dar rested her chin on Kerry’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll just take it as it comes. Now..” She bumped her lightly. “What was that about sunrise and a cookie?”
“A biscuit.” Kerry bumped her back with a tolerant grin. “I think I have some whole wheat crackers we could try.”
“Yeah, okay. Grab the banana nut cakes from the fridge and I’ll get the coffee.” Kerry acknowledged. “And I’ll figure out something safe to talk to you about.”
Dar paused in the middle of removing a package of muffins, and looked at her. “That’s not what I..”
Kerry raised her eyebrows.
“Ker, it’s going to be an entire day of that crap. Any reason to start it early?” Dar asked plaintively.
“Yes.” Kerry looked back at her seriously. “I want to be ready for it, and I want a comfort level with how you feel about all this stuff before we go in there. It would make me feel a lot better.”
Dar blinked. “Oh.”
“You asked.” The blond woman shrugged slightly, a faint twitch starting at the corners of her mouth. “But I like being able to answer you honestly, and not have either of us freak out, you know that?”
On the verge of slightly freaking out, Dar relaxed, instead. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” She put the muffins down and removed a package of whipped cream cheese, setting it down as well. “Story of my life lately.”
“That’s the second time you said that recently.” Kerry poured the now finished coffee into a carafe and snagged two cups. “C’mon.” She led the way to the sliding glass doors to their porch and paused, as Dar reached past her to unlock them and push them open.
They walked outside and settled down at the table, the sound of the surf now more audible as a fairly strong breeze fluttered their shirts against their bodies. “Oo.” Kerry set her burden down and walked to the balcony, enjoying the fresh air.
Dar took a seat at the table and poured out two cups of the coffee, fixing Kerry’s and setting it next to the other chair. She removed a muffin from the container and cut it in half, studiously covering both the flat surfaces with cream cheese.
Kerry came over and sat down, taking her cup and sipping at it. “Thank you.”
Pale blue eyes flicked up and regarded her. “You’re welcome.” She handed Kerry half the muffin and took the other half for herself. “You know something?”
Kerry nibbled at her muffin. “You have no clue what you’re going to do in that meeting.” She stated, eyes twinkling very gently. “I figured that out while we were walking out here.. because if you did know what you were going to do, you’d have said it already instead of pushing me off since yesterday.”
Dar took a bite of her muffin, more than a little disconcerted. “Um..”
“Am I wrong? It’s okay if I am. I was just..” Kerry half shrugged. “You know.” She slid one foot under the table and rubbed Dar’s with it. “I don’t want to rattle you, hon. I just feel rattled myself, and I hate that.”
Dar, of course, hated it also. She wasn’t really feeling rattled as much as she was feeling like she was not in control of whatever was going on, which she hated even more. Things were happening that surprised her, and knocked her off guard, and it was difficult to keep having to adjust her inner plans to account for totally bizarre…
Off balance. It struck a chord somewhere, and suddenly Dar remembered exactly why she hated feeling that way, and exactly when she’d been taunted about her reaction to it. “Huh.”
Everything had conspired lately against her… but was it just the vagaries of fate, or did she detect a subtle, long fingernailed hand behind it?
“Hello, Dar??” Kerry reached over and curled her fingers around Dar’s wrist. “Earth calling?”
Dar cocked her head to one side. “I was just remembering something.” She murmured. “Anyway, yeah, I think you’re right, Ker. I mean.. I know basically what we’re gonna do.” She leaned her elbows on the table and nibbled her way around the edge of her muffin. “We’re gonna cancel that meeting.”
“Uh?” Kerry got caught in mid-sip. “What?”
“You and I are just going to concentrate on the ship.” Dar said firmly. “We’ve got a project to complete, and the rest of the stuff going on can wait. Duks can handle his security breach, and our security department can handle the cleaning staff.”
Kerry rested her chin on her fist. “Um… okay.”
“It’s a distraction.” Dar looked her right in the eye. “Someone’s trying very hard to keep you, and I, offblance, and not concentrating on this project.” She bit her muffin in half, and watched crumbs litter the table. “We’re not going to let them do that any more.”
Mental whiplash was no kinder than the physical kind, Kerry discovered. She studied her partner for a minute, then merely shook her head. “Whatever you say, boss.” She replied. “So, you want me to send a note to..”
“The battling burritos, yes.” Dar sounded much more decisive now. “Tell them we’ll be at the ship all day, and nothing short of a hurricane better interrupt us.” She sliced the other muffin in half and adorned it, then nudged Kerry’s hand. “C’mon.. we’ve got crunches to do, treadmills to pound… start chewing.”
Obediently, Kerry did, glad at least that some sort of direction seemed to be coming back into her partner’s attitude. Whether that direction was going to take them both right off the road into the water, she didn’t know, but heck.
Life was short. Enjoy the cream cheese while you could.
Kerry crossed the baked, white concrete between the terminal and the ship, glad she’d put her sunglasses on as the sun reflected off the pale surface unmercifully. She was dressed in a pair of well broken in jeans, work boots, and a plain red pocketed t-shirt and she blended in with the thick crowd of workers clustering around the ship entry in a state of controlled panic.
She had left Dar in the terminal, her partner intent on taking control of their office and everything that was processing through it. Unable to put her own boots on because of the swelling of her injured foot, Dar had reluctantly agreed to let Kerry take charge onboard, and work with the install team.
Kerry knew, of course, that beach sandals or no, Dar would eventually break the rules and ramble after her, but for now she proceeded on the assumption that everything would be up to her to coordinate. They had a lot to do, and she felt relatively focused and ready for it. “Morning, guys.”
Two of her IT techs turned, hearing her voice. “Morning, ma’am!” The both chorused. “Wow, what a mess, huh?”
“You got it.” Kerry paused, seeing what appeared to be a logjam at the top of the gangway. “What’s going on in there?”
“Oh.. “ The taller of the two, a slim dark haired man named Carlos, grinned. “There’s this guy up there who’s yelling because we keep getting our stuff before he gets his. The man in charge inside I think likes us.”
“The big guy?” Kerry hazarded a guess, holding a hand up over her own head.
“Si.” Carlos nodded. “He sent up all the cabling patches to the main floor just now, and this other guy was waiting for some plugs and he had a fit.”
“You know who that big guy is, don’t you?” Green eyes twinkled.
“No.” Carlos shook his head, and his companion did also. They were both fairly new hires, juniors in Mark’s expansive department.
“C’mon.” Kerry led the way up the gangway, nudging past a few construction workers with quiet apologies. At the top she managed to squeeze past a man in a hard hat with a bristling red beard, ignoring his glare as she hopped onto the deck to see what was going on.
Carlos and his friend followed her, standing cautiously behind her as they got clear of the hatch.
“Ah do not care.” Andy was standing, with his arms crossed over his broad chest, legs spread in front of a stack of boxes. “These here boxes go in whatever the hell order ah want them to.”
Facing him was a lean man in an electrican’s union t-shirt, with a tool belt and a bad attitude. “Listen buddy, I’m gonna kick your ass if you don’t cough up my stuff, unnerstand?”
Andy just looked at him and smiled. “We ain’t got no time here for fun.”
“You think it’s funny?” The man advanced aggressively.
“Ah think you’re an ass.” Andy pointed at the narrow stairwell with one thumb. “So get your silly ass up them stairs fore I toss it overboard. Your damn stuff went up half an hour ago.”
The man glared at him, but headed for the door. “You aint’ seen the last of me. That’s for sure.”
The logjam broke and men started across the deck again, milling around and heading for various boxes and crates. Kerry scooted through them and headed for Andrew instead, cautiously followed by her techs. “Hey! Morning!”
Andy turned at the familiar voice. “Wall! Morning there, kumquat.” He produced a grin for her. “You’re an early bird.”
Without hesitation, and despite all the commotion, Kerry walked up and gave him a big hug. “Boy, I’m glad you’re here.” She remarked. “Are you causing trouble taking care of us?”
Her father in law chuckled, a low, rumbling sound.
Kerry turned to the wide eyed techs. “Guys, this is Andrew Roberts.” She explained. “Dar’s daddy.” She clarified, after a second. “Dad, this is Carlos and Jason, who work for us.”
“Howdy.” Andrew greeted them amiably.
“Hi.” Carlos responded.
“Hello.” Jason added, from his safe position behind Kerry. “Nice to meet you.”
Kerry couldn’t decide if the two were more intimidated by Andrew’s size, or the fact that he was Dar’s father. She gave them a tolerant grin, and pointed. “Go on upstairs.. I’ll meet you up there.” She waited for them to retreat, then turned back to Andy. “Having fun?”
Andy looked around, then back at her. “Little bit.” He acknowledged. “My kid here?”
“Yep.. in the building.” Kerry pointed over her shoulder. “We’ve got a lot of work to do today.”
“You get all that stuff settled up last night?” Andrew asked curiously. “Sounded like a rat in a teakettle all what was going on.”
How would a rat get into a teakettle? Kerry wondered. “More or less.” She said. “What’s going on in here today? Seems like a lot of people are pissed off.”
“Wall.” Her father in law folded his arms again. “Folks don’t like to naturally take turns, see, and in this here little box, ain’t no way anything gets done unless folks do.” He walked over and kicked a pallet. “Problem was, feller who was in here fore I was just let all this stuff show up any the hell way, and it was a big old mess.”
Kerry looked around, realizing the cargo space was far more organized than it had been the last time she’d seen it. Pallets were lined up against the walls in orderly rows, each with a label on them, and men with pallet jacks were moving them out in a regular sequence. “Ah!”
“Folks don’t like waiting.” Andy shrugged.
“Especially when you put all our stuff first? Kerry elbowed him gently in the side.
Blue eyes blinked innocently at her. “Aint mah fault all them gizmos of yours come in labled and regular, when the rest of this here gunk we got to rip open to see what it is.” He protested mildly. “I just get that there easy stuff out mah way first, that’s all.”
“Ahh!” Kerry put a hand over her chest. “My anally retentive labeling system. At last, someone appreciates it!” She smiled broadly. “I’m vindicated!”
Andrew chuckled. “Ah do like it.” He agreed. “Bout good enough for the Navy.”
Kerry took that as the compliment it obviously was, and grinned. “Thanks.” She said. “Okay, I’m going to get working… if you need anything, I’ll be upstairs, and Dar’s over there terrorizing everyone in case you hear yelling coming from the shore side area.”
Andrew patted her on the back and sent her on her way. He waited for her to disappear up the stairs, before he returned his attention to the loading dock, observing the orderly movement with a judicious eye. “Hey, you all.” He called over to two men standing near the far wall. “Watch this here thing. I’ll be right back.”
He walked across the gangway and down to the dock, ambling across the open space with a deceptive stride. Two forklifts dodged him, and he sped up a little as he made his way up the walk to the back of the terminal.
Ducking inside the door, he looked quickly around. It was almost as full of frenetic, yet purposeful motion as the ship hold, only here the bodies rushing around were covered in polo shirts and pressed chinos and the smell was of copper and new plastic rather than sump oil.
It was cool in here, too. Andrew appreciated that. He’d spent enough time in his life in places were air conditioning was unheard of to appreciate it now that he could pretty much have it at will. After a career spent in the military, he’d discovered that directing his own life, and his own comfort was actually a pretty damn nice thing.
Ah. His eyes found what they were looking for. On the far side of the large room there was a large desk like area, raised up a foot or so, giving it a commanding view of the entire space.
Dar had taken it over, and was perched on a stool behind the counter, her laptop on one side of her and a pad of paper in front, her head bent over it as she wrote. Andrew found himself smiling at the sight, gazing at his daughter fondly as the head propped on one fist echoed a much earlier mental image he had of her.
He remembered watching her sit at the counter in their tiny kitchen down south in just such a pose, pouring over a comic book or a new magazine as she waited for them to have dinner. The look of absorbation hadn’t changed, or the rapid flicking as her eyes scanned across her subject with an intense focus he’d recognized as something he’d seen in himself, on occasion.
It had always made him feel good, that echo. Andy knew he wasn’t a stupid man, but he knew as well he wasn’t no scientist and he’d taken a lot of pride in his daughters accomplishments specially knowing he’d contributed to a bit of it in his own way.
Mah kid. He smiled, watching Dar shift restlessly as she wrote, recognizing the fidgets as well.
“All right.” Dar finished writing, and straightened, ripping the top sheet off the pad of paper and handing it to a waiting tech. “Get these units together, and get em on a flatbed. We’ll start at the top of the ship and work down.”
“Not from the bottom first, ma’am?” The tech queried. “Wouldn’t it be easier?”
Dar leaned on her arms and pinned him with a cool, blue stare. “You think it’s gonna be easier to carry those things up eleven flights of metal stairs now, or this afternoon?”
The tech looked at the list, then at Dar. “Oh.” He scratches his jaw sheepishly. “Sorry, yeah. You’re right.. no elevators in there, huh?”
“Gotcha..on the way, ma’am.” The tech trotted off with his list.
Dar shook her head and went back to her pad, then paused and turned her head, as though sensing her father’s eyes on her. “Hey.” She put her pencil down as she spotted him.
“Hey there, Dardar.” Andrew came over and rested his forearms on the desk. “How are ya?”
Dar drummed her thumbs on the bad faux wood formica. “Wanting this damn circus to be over. How’s it going in there?”
“Not bad.” Her father said. “Saw Kerry go on up in there. She all right with them guys?” He expressed a little doubt. “Got some roughneck types up in them spaces up a ways.”
Dar frowned. “My guys?” She asked incredulously. “Dad, most of them won’t even cough hard in her presence.”
“Naw.. them contractors.” Andrew shook his head. “Lectricans and what all.” He glanced around. “Not these here fellers. I figure they ain’t most of em dangerous as bugs.”
No, probably not. Dar glanced at the back door. “Well.” She drummed the table again. “There’s always a chance, I guess, but she’s got some of the techs with her, and I’m not gonna be the one to tell her she can’t be in there.”
“Heh.” Andrew chuckled shortly. “Well, I’ll keep an earbug out.” He turned and looked around. “How’s your laig?”
“Ick.” Dar answered honestly. “Thanks for asking.”
Andrew gave her arm a pat. “We’ll get this thing done, Dardar. Don’t you worry.” He turned and headed for the back door, threading his way through the techs who all turned and looked after him.
Dar exhaled. She pulled her PDA out and tapped out a message, then unclipped her cell phone as it rang and checked the caller ID.
With a sigh, she answered it.
“Okay, let’s start with the number one room.” Kerry threaded her way through the hall, dodging rolls of carpet and stacks of steel supports. The two techs followed obediently after her, carrying the first of their heavy pieces of gear between them.
The hallways flickered with intermittent power, and they were full of workers all trying to get their part of the job done at the same time and mostly in the same space. Tempers were hot, the air was hotter, and Kerry already felt sweat making her t-shirt cling to her torso.
Not a nice feeling. Kerry had never enjoyed sweating, though she didn’t mind it in small doses, as when she was in the gym, or if they were outside on the beach. But she liked the opportunity to be limited and have copious amounts of some kind of water at close hand.
At first, she’d thought she was being just too preppy about it, and for a while after they’d moved in together, she hadn’t said anything about it one way or another to Dar, until she realized one morning that it was so muggy outside the windows in the town house were completely fogged over.
“Ugh.” Kerry pressed her hands against the sliding glass doors, feeling the chill of them against her skin. “I’m sweating already.”
Dar walked up behind her and looked over her shoulder at the misty scene. “Ah. Summer.”
Well, Kerry told herself, buck up. It’s only an hour, and you can’t show your northern stripes yet. She straightened up a little and pushed off from the window. “Time’s a wasting.” She started for the door, only to be brought up short as Dar caught her around the waist with one long arm. “Urf?”
“You want to go running in that?” Dar queried.
Kerry peeked up at her. “Um… there’s a choice?”
Dar leaned her arms on Kerry’s shoulders and gazed into her eyes. “Sure.” She said. “There’s no rule that says we have to do anything we don’t want to do, Ker.”
“I thought you liked running.”
“I like fitting into my clothes.” Dar replied frankly. “Only idiots like spending the morning in air thick enough to make soup from, running in circles.”
“Ah.” Kerry felt better. “So you don’t like sweating that much?”
“I don’t like sweating at all.” Her new partner grinned. “Or didn’t the 65 degree constant AC in here tip you off to that?” She indicated the windows. “How about we go swimming instead?”
Dar nodded. “The big pool’s great for laps.”
Cool water and Dar in a bathing suit. Hm. “You don’t think I’m a wuss?” She demurred. “Or a pathetic snowbird?”
Dar snickered. “We could start the morning off right and skinny dip.”
“C’mon.” Kerry turned her back on the fogged window, feeling much friendlier to the humidity all of a sudden. “Race you to the pool.”
Kerry looked up and wiped the smile off her face, along with a healthy dose of perspiration from her forehead. “Sorry. What?”
“We have to take this up stairs, right?” The man asked. “Like, by walking?”
Kerry gave him a sympathetic look, as they edged past stacks of metal poles. “Unfortunately, yeah.” She said. “I’ll give you guys a hand going up with it.” She offered. “I know it’s heavy.”
The nearer tech released one hand off the switch and waved it at her. “Oh, no..no, that’s okay, ma’am. We’re fine! Honest.”
“Yeah.” The other tech grunted. “We can handle this.”
Kerry gave them both a dubious look, and kept her comments to herself. She led the way to the wide, center stair case and started up it, turning to keep an eye on the two techs with their burden as they trudged upward.
The steps had been stripped of carpet, and were a treacherous combination of cracked wood and treading strips. Kerry could feel her boots sticking to them a little, and she kept her eyes on the ground trying to spot dangerous items like upward facing nails.
She was fairly sure her thick soled shoes would stand up to it, but given the accumulated grime in the stairwell, a puncture could possibly indeed be life threatening.
A new frame had been welded in place for a handrail, but the top was still just open metal studded with bolts. Kerry was very cautious in taking hold of it, and as she climbed upward, the light started dimming so she retrieved her flashlight from her back pocket and turned it on. “Careful.” She warned. “I think they’re welding up here.”
“Great.” One of the techs muttered.
Kerry paused on the landing, as her PDA chirped. “Okay, let’s break for a rest here a second.” She stepped to one side of the landing and flipped the device open, as the techs let the switch rest on the steps. They were sweating, and breathing hard, and Kerry debated as to whether she should call them on their macho.
Hey. Watch out for the tradesmen in there. Dad says they look like a rough bunch.
Kerry regarded the note quietly. What exactly was Dar saying? That she was in danger, or were they in danger of getting knocked on the head and the switch swiped? She tapped out just that question and waited, keeping one eye on the techs.
He couldn’t give a rats ass about the guys or the switch.
Ah. Kerry looked around, but they were alone in the stairwell, and though she could hear workmen above them, so far everyone she’d seen had completely ignored her. I’ll keep my eyes open. She assured her partner. You’re gonna need to send me more little macho boys, though. Mine are giving out already.
She closed the device and put it away. “Ready?” She asked the techs. “Sure you don’t want me to grab a corner of that?”
The techs hesitated, then moved over to allow her to join them on one side of the switch. Kerry took hold of a curved bit of metal and they lifted together, then started slowly up the stairs.
“So, what’s the story.” Dar pressed the cell phone against one ear, as she reviewed a list of newly uncrated equipment. “John, did we get a case of fiber patch?” She called out. “If we did, find it!”
“Will do..” The addressed tech trotted off in search.
“I have just finished interviewing my four senior auditors.” Duks said. “Three of them, I have no doubt about. They were as puzzled as to what was going on as I was.”
“Uh huh.” Dar scanned the list again. “And the fourth?”
“The fourth one has admitted to being the person who started that activity last night.” Duks answered calmly. “I have terminated them, and begun legal proceedings.”
Dar blinked. “You did.. they did?” She blurted. “Just like that?”
“Just so.” Duks agreed. “It was Adriene Blatklo, and she was unrepentant. Apparently there was some money involved in asking for the information.” The Finance VP said. “She has retained a lawyer already, and apparently believes we will not pursue the matter.”
“Hell with that.”
Duks snorted. “You may say that again, my friend. I got off the phone with Hamilton before I called you. At any rate, apparently that hole is closed, and have you heard anything more from our obnoxious friend from last night?”
“Excellent.” Duks said. “I will say this, Adriene rather arrogantly informed me that I should not be surprised if she was the only one to be approached. Apparently our freeze on salaries is rather well known in the outside at the moment.”
“Great.” Dar sighed. “Well, I can’t worry about that right now, Louis. I’ve got a project to bring in.”
“I will let you get to it then.” Duks said. “Have you spoken with Alastair?”
“No.” Dar made a note on the page. “You want to call him? I’m busy.” She glanced at her PDA, which had started to flash.
There was a significant pause, then Duks cleared his throat. “Of course. It is my department, after all.”
“Great. Tell him I say hi.” Dar said. “Talk to you later.” She hung up firmly, and set the cell phone down, then picked up her PDA and flipped it open. She read Kerry’s note and answered it, then reviewed the response. “Uh huh.”
Bodies she had plenty of. “Mark!”
Mark swerved and headed across the room to where she was sitting. “Yes, boss?” He leaned his arms on the counter. “Like your cubby here.”
“Kerry needs help inside.” Dar said. “Get a half dozen guys and send them up to the deck eleven closet.” She directed. “I don’t want to hear she was lugging that damn gear around, got me?”
Mark grinned. “Do I get to tell her that?”
“NO.” Dar glared at him.
“Ma’am.” John trotted up with a box. “Here’s the fiber patches.. should I bring them to Ms. Stuart?”
“Yes.” Dar pointed to the door, then turned her eyes back on Mark. “Have you sent those guys yet?”
“I’m going.” Mark backed off. “Hey you want some coffee or something?”
Dar’s eyes narrowed. “ You insinuating I need some?”
The MIS chief grinned. “I’m outta here, boss. You sound like the good old days.” He turned and headed towards a group of technicians clustered around some boxes, grabbing some by the arm and calling others over.
Dar leaned back on her stool and pondered that, then she returned her attention to the list of items. Kerry had done a very good job of ordering, and it looked like nothing had been left off the list. Most of their gear was in, and things were progressing fairly well.
She tapped a pencil on the counter and tried to figure out what to do next.
The eleventh deck was mostly dark. As they walked up the last step, Kerry flashed her light around, peering down the hallway towards where their wiring closet was. On one end of the floor, the far end, electricians were working inside a panel, sparks flying as they welded something into place. “Hm.This is going to be fun.”
“It’s creepy in here.” The shorter tech commented.
“Yeah, it is.” Kerry agreed. “Okay, let’s get this thing mounted and plugged in.” She led the way down the hall, her powerful light bobbing up and down with her steps and outlining the closed, silent cabin doors. The scent had changed up here, from old mildew to new carpeting over old mildew, interspersed with fresh paint.
It was an improvement, but at the back of her tongue, Kerry could still taste the age and decay, and she suspected it would stay that way until some decent air conditioning could dry the air out a little. At least this high up, most of the diesel stench had dissipated.
As she walked, Kerry tried to imagine sailing on the ship to some place, her world bounded by the walls and the deep blue sea around them. It was hard; even though she’d spent time out on the Dixie, this was something else entirely.
This would be more like cruising in a slightly seedy, somewhat rundown hotel with a new coat of paint on it. Kerry had decided she would be interested in taking a cruise with Dar, but not on something like this. She’d found a sailboat cruise company in a magazine the other day and had already started planning. “Okay, watch it.” She carefully stepped over a roll of carpet remnants left in the dark hallway.
“Urf.” The tech in front grunted.
“Want to put it down a minute?” Kerry asked.
“No, we’re good.”
Men. Kerry sighed, though she suspected Dar would have given the same answer. She continued down the hall, becoming more and more aware of the darkness around them as they left the semi-lit stairwell behind. There were creaks all around as well, and a soft groaning somewhere as the ship shifted in it’s berth.
They reached the cross corridor that held their wiring closet, and she turned into it, the partially opened door moving inward as she pushed.
Kerry nearly hit her head on the roof as she jumped, the yell from inside the dark closet scaring her silly. “Yow!” She yelped, backing into the techs, who dropped the switch on the deck with a solid thump. Since they, and the hundred pound item were behind her, she was trapped near the door and she teetered for balance as she heard a clatter behind it. “Holy..”
The door yanked open and a large figure appeared. Faced with no retreat, Kerry flashed her light at it, her free hand lifting into an automatic defensive posture in front of her. Dar’s warning rang in her mind and she felt a moment of panic, before her light illuminated the man’s t-shirt and she recognized the name of their own cable vendor. “Oh.”
“Jesus, lady!” The man said. “You scared the crap out of me!” He glared at Kerry. “I coulda been on a ladder in there, y’know!”
“Sorry.” Kerry collected herself. “We’re just trying to get this equipment in.” She explained. “They told us the cabling was ready.”
The man snorted. “Yeah, sure.” He brushed by them. “Next time, watch it!”
Kerry peered after him, watching his back retreat into the darkness. “Hm.” She shook her head and tapped her flashlight against her palm. “Remind me to talk to his boss.”
The techs wiped sweating palms on their jeans and took hold of the switch again. “Sounded like we woke him up.” The taller of them commented. “Not like we were sneaking down the hall, you know?”
“Exactly.” Kerry turned and shoved the door open, entering the wiring closet and standing aside to let the men enter after her. If the hallway was stuffy, the closet was stifling, and held a hint of plastic and copper as well as old sweat and the faint scent of beer.
Not entirely pleasant. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” Kerry motioned for them to block the door open with the switch as she studied the interior. Most of the small space was taken up by two tall racks, bolted to the deck and reaching to the ceiling. In one, panels full of network jacks winked in her flashlight beam. The other was empty, waiting for their equipment. “This is such fun to do in the dark.” Kerry sighed. “Jesus.. okay, let me get over here.” She went around the corner of the rack and tried to get into an angle that would allow her to put the light to good use. “Why don’t you.. ow!”
“Ma’am?” Carlos leaned towards her anxiously.
Kerry flexed her hand, which she injudiciously had put into the sharp angle of the rack. A sting alerted her, and she turned the flashlight on her palm, which was now stained with blood. “Ugh.” The slice was shallow, but long, like a two inch paper cut. “Figures. Watch out for this cross support guys, it’s sharp.”
“Ow.” Carlos murmured sympathetically. “Bet that hurts.”
It did. “Nah.” Kerry stepped up to her macha. “Heck, if I could get a tattoo, what’s this little old thing?”
The two techs stopped in the act of moving the switch into place. “ You got a tattoo?” Carlos inquired. “Wow. I went with my cousin when he got his, and he screamed like a…um..” He gave Kerry a sheepish look. “Girl.”’
“That’s okay. So did I.” Kerry smiled at them. “What do you think, here?” She indicated a spot in the rack.
“Yeah, that would be good.” The techs picked up the switch and started to angle it into the rack. “Damn this thing weighs a ton.”
Kerry watched them struggling. “Hang on.” She wormed her way into the rack itself and knelt. “Here, set it on my knee, and then you can swivel it.” She instructed, patting the denim covered surface. “Otherwise you don’t have enough space to really..yeah.” She grunted a little as the weight of the device came down on her leg.
“Got it.. Carlos, push it in further.” The other tech urged. “Yeah.. no, wait.”
Kerry edged back against the back of the rack as the switch nearly pinned her in place. Her elbow knocked against something, and she heard the rattle of glass behind her, accompanied by the scent of stale beer. “Ah.” She felt sweat running down her body, and her nose tickled from the dust. “How’s it going guys?”
“Gotta get the rack nuts in.” Carlos muttered. “One’s in.. wait.. oh, shit. I dropped it.”
“I got another one, here.” His collegue handed it over. “Hurry up before we smush Ms. Stuart, and get our asses kicked into the bay.”
Kerry smiled, as she took hold of the device with both hands and tried to keep it steady. It was a dead weight, and it was making her leg ache. She tried not to think about the ten others they had to install and leaned her head against the cool steel, blinking salty sweat from her eyes.
“Okay, got it… get that into place and I’ll screw it in.” Carlos said. “You okay, ma’am?”
“Just fine. Thanks.” Kerry assured him. She felt the weight come off her knee as the switch was screwed into place. “Now I’m doing much better. You got it?”
“Got it.” Carlos assured her. “You can come out of there now, ma’am.”
Kerry eased up off her knees, then realized with the switch bolted into place, she was trapped inside the rack. “Oh, Jesus.” She sighed. “Hang on.. I need to climb up over the top of this thing.” Her PDA beeped and she paused in the middle of getting a foothold on the side of the rack to open it.
I sent some help. They there yet?
Kerry looked around the cramped room. No, sweetie, and there’s no room in here for them. I’m trapped inside a rack myself at the moment.
The PDA stuttered a response almost instantly. WHAT?
“Uh oh.” Kerry put the PDA away and concentrated on escaping from her metal prison. She got a foot up on the support brace that had cut her and eased herself up and over the switch, catching sight of the two techs caught between wanting to help her and not wanting to be insubordinate. “I could use a hand, guys. If I fall on my head on the floor Dar’s not gonna like it.”
The techs jumped forward, unblocking the door and allowing it to swing shut as they reached for Kerry’s hand. Her flashlight slipped from her sweaty fingers and dropped on the floor, turning itself off and putting them all in total darkness.
Everyone froze. “Um.. “
Kerry sighed. “Find it.” She eased back into the rack and pulled her PDA out, turning it on and using the meager light from the screen to give them as much help as possible. “This would be funny if it wasn’t just so ridiculous.”
More sweat rolled down her face as she waited for the flashlight to be found. “This is the glamorous part of our jobs, huh?”
Carlos laughed hesitantly. “Yes, ma’am…I think I got it.” He said. “Oh, I think it broke.”
Of course. Kerry rested her head against the rack. “Please try to fix it. If I have to call for help to get out of here, I’m never going to hear the end of it.”
Her cell phone rang at that moment, and she opened it, not even having to glance at the caller id. “Hi.”
“You’re stuck in a rack?”
“In the dark, in a closet, with a broken flashlight. But we’re fixing it.” Kerry informed her partner. “We’ll be fine. Really.”
“I’m sending my father to get you.”
Kerry sighed. “Dar…” She protested. “We got the switch installed. We’re fine. Honestly. Right guys?”
“Right.’ The two chorused obediently. “Hey.” Carlos yelped suddenly. “Something just crawled on me!”
Kerry’s eyes opened wide. “Uh..”
“Still okay?” Dar’s voice sounded wry. “I heard that. Better hope it’s only a roach.”
“Urk.” Kerry instinctively lifted her hand to the neck of her shirt, and twisted it a little, tightening the fabric around her throat in case something fell on her head and thought a journey inside her clothing would be a fun idea. “Don’t suppose dad has a nice big flashlight, huh?”
A loud bang sounded overhead, and the walls shook a little, producing a rattle of somethings falling onto the floor.
“What was that?” Dar asked.
“I don’t know.” Kerry started looking for another way out, feeling around cautiously. “Hon, can I get back to you?”
“Okay. Hang tight.” Dar said, briskly. “Bye.”
Kerry clipped the phone to her belt. “Any luck?” She asked. “How about getting the door open?”
“Ma’am, I’m trying.” The other tech said unhappily. “It’s locked from the outside. There’s no lock on this knob.” He rattled the door, obviously yanking on it. “Do you hear that?”
“What?” Kerry asked.
They all listened, and Kerry now could hear a sound of water burbling. “Water.” She concluded. “This is a ship. That can’t be good in any sense.” She put the thought of bugs aside and started climbing over the switch again, by feel alone. “Watch out!”
“Ma’am! What are you doing!” Carlos asked nervously. “Please be careful, you can… oh! Oh!”
Kerry felt her balance slipping and she made a grab for the railing, the sweat on her hands making her lose her grip. “Yeow!” She swung over the top of the switch and slammed against it, knocking herself sideways and tumbling over the support rail. “Look out!”
“Ma’am! Kerry!” Carlos made a grab for her, but he wasn’t even close, and Kerry landed hard on her side knocking him back against the wall. “Oh!”
“Oof.” Kerry felt the breath go out of her and she only barely kept her head from smacking the floor. The sound of water got louder, and she could suddenly smell something unpleasant over the scent of carpet and mildew and new electronics. “Uh oh.”
“Uh.” The sound of scrambling. “I think we better get off the floor.”
Kerry sighed. “Can I go back to my ivory tower now?” She shoved herself up off the ground just as the stench of sewage flooded the closet and all they could do was hold their noses and hope for the best.
“Well, ma’am.” Carlos sighed. “It hardly can’t get worse than this, can it?”
If Kerry could have found his mouth in the dark, she would have covered it. As it was, she just crossed her fingers, and hoped she had a spare pair of boots somewhere in the car.