Dar popped the back door open and headed through it,powering past the guard without so much as a glance in his direction. Shepushed her sunglasses further up her nose as the glare hit her eyes, feelingthe sharp blast of heat as the sun poured over her.
In the shimmering heat, the old ship looked scroungier thanever. But Dar saw a crew of men gathering around her hull, armed with fivegallon jugs of marine paint, and she suspected the old hull was about to takeon new colors.
She strode past the forklifts, hopping onto the gangway andmaking her way up into the ship, trying not to limp too badly and hoping no onedropped anything significant on her mostly unprotected feet.
It wasn’t smart to go into a construction area with beachsandals on, but Kerry needed something, and that made the risk irrelevant.
Looking right and left as she entered the storage hold, sheheaded for the stairs slipping between two moving pallets just in time to keepherself from being smashed flat.
“Hey!” The man moving the pallet yelled. “Watch out, youcrazy woman!”
Dar lifted a bare arm and waved at him, as she started upthe steps. The heat already was oppressive, and she was glad she’d picked atank top to wear with her jeans as she felt the hot air against her shoulders.Two men coming down squeezed past her on the steps, muttering under theirbreaths, shaking their heads.
“We ain’t never gonna get this done. That guy down therefucked us up big time.”
“I’m gonna kick his ass.” The other man replied. “I don’tcare how big he is.”
Dar paused as she turned the corner landing, and then sheshrugged and kept on going, figuring if the big guy he was talking about wasthe one she was related to, he could more than take care of himself. Sherounded the turn and continued on up, taking the steps at a rhythmic trot.
Her foot hurt, but she put that in the back of her mind andconcentrated on avoiding broken corners on the steps that might send hersprawling headlong It got darker as she went up, until she arrived on the opendeck, where the doors were thrown open to get some kind of breeze inside thestifling interior.
Abruptly, Dar felt slightly horrified that she’d sent Kerryin here with the team. What had she been thinking? It was a hell hole in here!Aggravated, she increased her pace across the deck, moving inside and headingfor the double wide stairwell that lead to the upper decks.
People were coming down the stairs, rubbing their eyes andcomplaining. Dar became aware of ataint in the air, a stench that made her nose wrinkle in reaction. Sewage, butworse, old sewage that smelled like lots of dead things had reconstitutedthemselves and were now invading the inside of the ship. “Oh, gross.”
Stifling the urge to hold her nose, Dar started up thesteps, blinking a little as the fumes made her eyes water. She rounded the first landing and keptmoving upward, the dimness and the smell getting worse every second.
“Gag.” Dar muttered, getting a sympathetic look from twofemale crew members who were hurrying in the other direction. “What died?” Sheasked, pausing to call after them.
“Some stupid person put something down one of the toilets.”The woman nearest to her stopped and explained. “It blew up the pipes. I tellyou, these people who work on this ship are stupider than most of ourpassengers ever were.”
Well acquainted with cranky marine heads, Dar winced.“Great.” She turned and started up the steps again, hoping silently it hadn’tbeen one of her people that had done it. None of them were stupid, butsometimes when you were under stress, you did things out of habit. Thatincluded something as mundane as crumpling up something and tossing into thetoilet, forgetting the difference between a water gravity flush system and thevaccum tubes most often uses on ships and planes.
You stop up water pressure, and you probably overflow yourtoilet. Annoying and messy, but not really catastrophic. Dar took another flight and tugged herflashlight from it’s holder on her belt, turning it on. Stop up an air pressurepipe, and what resulted was a blow out, usually in the middle of a wallsomewhere, where the term ‘shit hitting the fan’ came to a new, pungent, andoccasionally dangerous meaning.
“Ah, the romance of the sea.” Dar heard voices a level higher than she presently was, andshe redoubled her speed again, powering up onto the landing of the eleventhdeck in time to hear someone blaspheme his mother in virulent Spanish.
She rounded the corner of the stairwell to find a darkhallway full of machinery, men, and a growing sludge advancing across the newcarpet. Some of the men sherecognized as hers. “All right folks.” She intoned briskly. “What’s going onhere?”
Half the crowd turned, obviously relieved to see her. “Ms.Roberts!’ The closest said. “Theywon’t let us go any further.”
Two of the ship personnel were blocking the passage, shovingthe others back impatiently. “Go back.” The taller one of the two said. “Youcannot go here. Something is broken.”
Dar edged through her staff, most of them backing to allowher through as much as they could in the crowded space. “Some of our people arein that hallway.” She told the crewman. “We need to go get them.”
“There is a broken pipe.” The crewman shook his head. “It isdangerous. They must purge thesystem first.”
“Let’s get outta here.” One of the other tradesmen said, ina disgusted tone. “It stinks, and I don’t give a crap if this stupid job getsfinished or not.” He turned and pushed his way out, followed by two others.
Dar heard a hammering down the hall. “Okay, look.”
“You must leave, now.” The crewman told her brusquely.
The hammering got louder. Dar stepped up to the crewman andtipped her head down slightly, glaring at him. “Mister, I am going down thathallway. You can move aside, or Ican go through you. Your choice.”
The man stared at her. “What?”
Dar took a step even closer. “Move.” She barked. “Now!”
Dar shoved him without hesitation, keeping her motions shortand hard. The man stumbled back and looked at her in shock, then exchangedlooks with his companion and got out of the way.
“You are crazy! “ The crewman said. “But if you want to gothere and get hurt? Fine! Go! It will be your fault!”
Dar strode past him, with the techs in tow. As they moveddown the hall, the stench grew, and the sound of hissing, escaping air got louder and louder. “Kerry!”
“Over there, ma’am!” One of the techs pointed. “That’s thedoor.”
Two others approached it with alacrity. “We’ll knock itdown, Ms. Roberts. Just give us a minute.”
Dar paused. “Ker! Get back!” She pointed to the door with utter authority, and shone herflashlight on it. “You two, get over there, keep an eye on that pipe.”
“Dar!” Kerry’s voice came through the partition.
“Yeah!” Dar yelled back. “Hang on!”
Footsteps sounded coming towards them down the hall. “Allright you people. Back off! This is a closed area!” An authoritative voicesaid. They turned to see auniformed officer heading their way. “Move it!”
“Kiss my ass.” Dar challenged him. “I get my people out ofhere, we’ll leave. Not before then, I don’t care how much crap’s going to comeout of that pipe.”
“You listen to me!” The man came up to them. “I’m the staffcaptain of this vessel!”
“And I’m the chief information officer of this company.” Dargrowled right back. “I could buy you and this whole piece of crap shrimp boatfor petty cash so take your stripes and your attitude and beat it, pinhead!”She looked at the two techs. “Do it!”
“Watch me!” Dar shot back.
“One… two.. “ The two techs turned their shoulders to thedoor.
The staff captain clenched his fists and glared. Dar glaredright back at him. “You..” He started.
“Am in charge here.” Dar completed the sentence.
“Paladar Katherine Roberts, you better not be out there inthat damned sewage with your foot!” Kerry yelled at the top of her voice,nearly making the door metal rattle.
The techs all looked at Dar as a momentary silence fell.
Dar cleared her throat. “Do it.” She instructed the techs.“Before I get my ass in real trouble.”
The techs charged the door without any further hesitation,slamming into the panel and crashing it inward. They stumbled inside as itopened easier than they expected, and there was a jumble of moving bodies intwo flashlight streams.
A low rumble started up to their right, as the techsstumbled out of the closet and into the hallway, Kerry squished among them.
“You must get out of here. Now.” The officer’s voice was nowmore urgent than angry. “Please!”
Dar grabbed hold of Kerry’s arm, and she ducked from behinda tall, sweating body. “Hey.” She checked her over, best as she was able in thevery dim light. “ You alright?”
“Hey! Dar! Are you crazy!” Kerry started tugging at her.“You gotta get out of here before you get sick!”
“Let’s all get out of here.” Dar pointed down the hall.“C’mon!”
The rumble grew abruptly into a roar, and out of pureinstinct Dar grabbed Kerry and slammed her against the wall just as a blast ofhot, fetid air and worse came down the passage, splatting full into the staffcaptain and knocking him back against the far bulkhead.
Then the hiss disappeared, and silence descended.
“Oh, Jesu.” One of the techs nearly threw up.
“Oh. Gross.” Kerry muttered. “This is about the mostdisgusting…”
“Yeah.” Dar inched towards the light, staying as far awayfrom the sodden staff captain as she could. “It sure is.”
“Ug, ug, ug.” Kerry stifled a gag. “Dar, I’m gonna lose it.”
Jaws clamped shut, Dar merely nodded, and nudged her faster.“Walk.” She got out from betweenclenched teeth. Ahead of them, thehallway was blocked suddenly by a lot of bodies, men in jumpsuits yelling in aNordic language.
A bell started to ring. The crowd of jumpsuited men shovedpast them, ignoring everything in their haste to get down the corridor,carrying tool boxes and thick hoses. “What happened to you?” One asked the staff captain. “Ah, you got shot,eh? Should be used to it.”
“Oooohh..” Kerry uttered under her breath. “Get me outtaahere…” She squeezed past the menand they got to the stairs, where the air was no cleaner. “Dar, I’m losing it.”
“Hang on.. “ Dar got an arm around her, ignoring her ownrebelling stomach. “Over here.” She moved to the far end of the stairs,bypassing the men running up past them, all in ship jumpsuits. “Down, downdown.. baby.”
“How’s your foot? Did you get it in that..um..”
“I have no idea.” Dar steered her down another flight ofsteps. “Let’s wait till we get outside.. hey.” The sharp scent of blood reachedher nose. “Did you get hurt?”
Kerry held up a clenched fist. “Cut. Nothing major.”
They reached the main deck landing and headed for the doors,getting outside just as all the power inside was cut, and the ship was plungedinto darkness behind them.
“Ugh.” Kerry went right to the railing and hung over it,willing a breeze to come up from the southwest and not from behind her. Her stomach was twisting in knots, thesmell from inside the ship still in her lungs, and clinging to her clothing.
She closed her eyes.
“Let me see.” Dar took her hand and gently opened it,studying the slice on her palm. “Ouch.”
It wasn’t working. “Dar.” Kerry whispered. “I’m going to throw up.”
“Aim down.” Darcircled her wrist with gentle fingers and pressed against the inside of it.
Kerry opened one eye, to see the waters of Government Cutfar below her. “Down?”
Kerry watched the wavelets ripple past the ship, bumpinginto the hull. A bird flew lazilypast, and then unexpectedly, plunged into the water after a fish.
She took a breath, then a second, filled with clean saltyair, and felt the nausea subside. She released a breath, and looked over atDar. “I think I’m okay.” She took another few lungfuls of air, then glanceddown at the deck, to study her partner’s exposed feet.
The sandals were covered, almost up to the edge of thebottom, with an oily brown guck, but Dar’s tanned skin was unmarked. Kerry’sshoulders relaxed a little. “You escaped the crap monster.”
Dar looked down. “Oh. Yeah.” She murmured. “So I did.” Sheturned Kerry around and examined her carefully. “So did you.” She noted.“Except..er..” She glanced at a long, dark stain down the side of one leg.
“New rack crud.” Kerry sighed. “I had to climb out of it.”
“In the dark, in a room with roaches flying all over it, andpoop flowing on the floor. Dar, that was not covered in my infrastructure classes.” Kerry leaned against therailing, exhausted. “But at least we got the damn thing in.”
Dar turned and leaned as well, looking back at the ship.Contractors were pouring out of it and heading for the upper gangway off,shaking their heads, while inside, bells were still ringing and alarms goingoff. “One down.” She agreed with a sigh. “Seven to go.”
It wasn’t a very auspicious start.
Kerry left her boots outside the terminal, and in fact,crossed through it an out the front door heading for the Lexus. She suspectedshe remembered they had a pair ofspare clothing in the back, and she fully intended on changing into it to getrid of the sewer scent she was convinced still clung to her shirt.
As she crossed to the parking lot, a small pickup swervedtowards her and pulled up along side. “Hi.” Ceci waved, tipping her sunglassesdown. “How’s it going?”
Kerry walked over and leaned against the doorjamb. “Youreally want to know?”
Her mother in law grimaced. “Andy called me. Said they gotthrown out of the boat while some repairs were on. I brought him somelunch.” She said. “Tough day?”
“Ugh. Yes.” Kerry agreed. “We’re so behind schedule now, andwe don’t know when they’re going to let us back on the ship.”
Ceci leaned on the seat back. “Kerry, can I ask you aquestion?”
“You.. and Dar. You’re corporate officers.”
“Yes.” Kerry nodded.
“Maybe it’s different here in Miami, but where I come from,corporate officers don’t do what you’re doing.” Ceci said bluntly. “Theymanage.”
Kerry let her hands rest on the window frame, feeling theheat of the metal sting her cut hand. “Usually we do manage.” She admitted.“Usually, someone else does this, but this job… Alastair asked Dar to handle itpersonally.”
“There’s a lot behind it.” Kerry explained. “So here weare.”
Ceci reached over and patted her hand. “Good luck.” She said. “How’s Dar doing?”
How was Dar doing? Kerry thought back to the last sightshe’d had of her partner, pacingback and forth in the terminal unable to do anything constructive. “She’s alittle freaked because of the wait.”
The older woman chuckled wryly. “That’s nothing new.” She advised Kerry. “She absolutelypositively hates waiting for anything.”
Hm. True, and that reminded Kerry. “I know.. in fact, maybelunch is a good idea. I’ll get her out of here for an hour or so until theyreopen the ship.” She tapped the window. “Thanks for the idea!”
Ceci pushed her sunglasses down and waved, waiting for Kerryto step back before she continued driving out of the parking lot.
Lunch. Kerry continued over to the Lexus and keyed the lockopen. She pulled the back door latch and peered inside, snagging her gym bagand tugging it over. “Let’s seewhat we’ve got here.” She unzipped it and rummaged through it’s contents.
“Okay, good.” A pair of jeans landed on the seat, shortlyfollowed by a shirt. She tended tokeep changes of clothing for after work, as did Dar, since neither reallywanted to get back into business clothing after working out.
Kerry reviewed her options, and fingered the shirt, whichwas a sleeveless muscle T. “Hm. Not quite the image I was looking to project…”She peered at the jeans. “And these are reeeally old ones… but at least it’sclean.” She pushed the jeans and shirt back in the bag, which already held hersneakers. Then she dug in the back of the car to see if she had anything forDar stowed away anywhere.
“Hm.” She pulled out a few neatly folded bits of cotton.Workout shorts and a sports bra. “Much as I’d personally love her to changeinto this, I don’t think it’s going to work.” Kerry regretfully put the itemsback, and shouldered her gym bag. Maybe, she considered, they could grabsomething at the mall when they went for lunch.
With that cheerful thought, she closed and locked the doorand headed back for the terminal. Halfway back, she paused to let traffic goby, appreciating the intense light of the sun and the stiff ocean breeze. Beinglocked in the dark, with the bugs and the stench in that place had beenhellacious, and for a moment she’d gained an understanding of Dar’s aversion toclosed in places.
It had gotten a little freaky in there, with her techspanicking a little, and the sound of those pipes so close by. Hearing Dar’svoice had been…
She ran her hands through her hair. She really wasn’t thetype of person who freaked out easily, Kerry knew. She’d handled some intensesituations in the past few years, from being locked up in a damn psycho ward,to being trapped inside a burning hospital, to jumping in the raging ocean.
She was cool with it. But being in a dark room with roachesand crap? Kerry shuddered. Thathad freaked her out completely, and just when she’d been at the point whereshe’d started to tear at the door with her fingernails, there had been Dar’svoice.
Sweetest sound in the world. Kerry ran her fingers throughher hair again, and shifted her shoulders, feeling the sun warm her skin.Despite the fact it had made her nuts to think of Dar standing out there insewage, and that reminded her to get their shoes rinsed off.
Preferably by a firehose spouting industrial disinfectant.
Kerry proceeded across the road and trotted up the steps tothe terminal. She entered the building and headed right to the restrooms,ducking inside the women’s side not surprised to find it empty. One thing aboutbeing in IT – you generally didn’t have to wait on the bathroom if you werefemale.
Certainly, it was better than it was in the past, but still,she and Dar were in the vast minority in the building at the moment.
Kerry entered the handicapped stall and hung her workout bag on the hook, shedding herjeans and shirt and tossing them over the door. Briefly, she wished she couldshower as well, but after a cautious sniff at the skin on her arm, decided achange would have to be good enough.
Rooting in the bag, she found fresh underclothes as well,and traded off, stuffing the others into a side pocket. “Okay.” She removed thejeans from her bag and pulled them on, leaving the buttons unbuttoned. She thenpulled the shirt over her head and tucked it in, fastening the jeans over it.
The waistband was a little loose, which surprised her abit. She dug in the bag, but shehadn’t stuck a belt in there. “Hm..” She turned and faced the mirror, checkingthe image with critical eyes. Shetouched her cheek, deciding her face looked a little thinner than it had beenalso. Was it the stress? Kerryknew they hadn’t been exercising more than usual, so probably it was thetension she’d been under lately.
Oh well. She met her own eyes, seeing a gravely wry twinklethere. “Guess I’ll have to have an extra milkshake for lunch then. “ Shestuffed her other clothes into the bag and grabbed her sneakers, unlocking thedoor to the stall and heading back out.
Emerging into the hall, she spotted Dar back at her podium,pecking at her laptop keyboard with one hand while leaning her head on theother. Dar’s head lifted as sheapproached, and the blue eyes turned her way, looking her up and down as arakish grin appeared.
Kerry set the bag down and leaned on the counter to put hersneakers on. “Something wrong?”
“With you? Noo.” Dar said. “But we’ve got a big problem,Ker.”
Leaving the laces of the first sneaker untied, Kerrystraightened. “What’s up?”
“They’re not going to let anyone back on board for at leasttwenty four hours.” Dar told her. “They’ve got the EPA in there now. Needsdisinfecting before they’ll clear us to go back in.”
“But.. wait.” Kerry leaned on the counter. “I thought it wasonly that one deck?”
“Bacteria.” Dar replied succinctly. “Got in the air system,or so they’re afraid of.”
Kerry closed her eyes. “Oh god.” She stifled a reflex cough.“Can we get our lungs fumigated?”
Dar patted her hand. “I think we’re okay.” She said. “Youfeel better now?”
Kerry frowned. “Well, yeah, but what are we going to do,Dar? We didn’t have enough time to install and test as it was.. we lose a wholeday… Jesus.”
“I know.” Her partner acknowledged. “Pulling more peoplewon’t help.”
“No.” Kerry exhaled heavily.
The outer door slammed, and they both turned to see PeterQuest enter, spot them, and head in their direction with angry strides.
“Hm.” Kerry took the opportunity to put her other sneakeron, tying the laces as Quest arrived.
“Roberts, I just got out of a meeting with the inspectors.” Quest said. “Can you explain to me why they informed me theblockage that caused this entire mess was some of your equipment?”
Dar and Kerry exchanged glances. “My equipment?” Dar pointedat her own chest. “Quest, look around you. My gear’s bigger than a breadbox. Howin the hell could it have caused a clog anywhere?”
Quest did, indeed, look around. Then he looked back at Dar.“I don’t know, they just said it was IT stuff. There’s a meeting in ten minutesoutside with the ship’s officers. I want you to be there, and explain what thehell’s going on.”
“Do you.. um.. have the IT stuff?” Kerry interjected. “Mightbe hard to explain otherwise.”
“We have it.” Quest said, grimly. “The EPA will be there to show what it was, andyou’d better be too. If it turns out this is your fault, you’re gonna pay.” Heturned and walked off, half turning as he did to point at Dar. “Big time.”
Kerry stared at his back, and then turned her attention toDar. “Now what?” She threw her hands up in exasperation. “Dar, I swear, thiswhole damn job is cursed.”
Dar rubbed her temples, giving her head a tiny shake. “Guess you better call John.” Shesighed. “Since I know it’s not ourgear, the only thing left is his.”
Kerry blew out a breath in a sputter. “So much for lunch.”She pulled out her cell phone. “Damn it.”
Dar got up. “Can I treat you to a Jamaican patty and abottle of guava juice?” She asked. “Roach coach just pulled up outside.”
Kerry paused. “Hang on, John.” She covered the mic. “Dar,don’t say roach and lunch in the same sentence to me for the next month, okay?”
Dar patted her on the shoulder, and limped off towards thedoor.
They met on the dockside shortly thereafter. Kerry sucked down the last droplets of her guave juice and droppedthe empty container in the garbage outside the terminal door as she followedDar across the sun bleached concrete.
A semi-circle of people were already out there, she spottedJohn’s tall form and Quest, and several people she didn’t know, along with thecamera crew, which she did. They all looked up as Dar and Kerry joined them,the strangers appearing a bit skeptical as they were introduced.
“Well, fine.” A tall, thin man with an EPA badge said. “Iwas hoping.. well, anyway. Here is what caused the accident.” He held out acardboard box, and opened the flaps. A waft of sewer smell drifted out, and thegroup only cautiously peered inside.
A grayish brown ball covered in gunk rested on the bottom ofthe box, a tangle of what Kerry identified as shielded cat 5 cable, along witha snarl of the white cording that came in it to separate the strands. Shelooked up at their cable contractor. “John?”
The big man stepped forward and took the box, examining it’scontents. “Well, it’s the stuff we’re using, yeah.” He admitted. “Looks likescrap.”
The camera man focused in on him, gaining himself asuspicious glare from the contractor.
“What does that mean?” Quest asked.
John looked at him. “It’s ends left over after we finish arun. Got it all over the place, way we’ve been working.” He explained.
“So one of your people did this? Dropped it in a toilet?”Quest asked, sharply.
John snorted. “I doubt it. Coulda been anyone, stuff’s allover the place.”
“That’s true.” Kerry agreed quietly, watching the EPA manfrom the corner of her eye. “That pipe was down the hall from one of our wiringclosets, which was open.”
“But.” The EPA man objected. “It makes no sense for anyoneto be carrying it around except for one of your workmen, does it?” He addressedJohn. “I mean, one of the other contractors would be carrying some of theirsupplies, tape, or electrical wire, or that sort of thing.”
John shrugged. “Why would anyone be hauling a handful ofthat crap around?” He asked. “But I don’t got anyone stupid enough to drop aball of it in the toilet. Cigarettes, maybe, but not that.”
Dar advanced and took the box. She looked at the ball ofwire, noting it’s egg shape, and the tight wrapping around it’s middle thatshowed shredding from it’s travel through the pipes. With a grunt, she handedit back. “Could have been anyone.” She said. “Or, who knows? Maybe one ofJohn’s guys left it on a sink somewhere and it got knocked into a bowl.”
The inspector took the box back. He regarded the ball for amoment, then shrugged one shoulder. “That could be.” He conceded. “We’d thoughtmaybe someone’d done it on purpose, but you know, what you just said makes alot of sense. I can see it.”
Dar studiously did not look at the camera. “All those guysare working up there. I can’t see someone doing this so they’d get covered incr.. sewage.”
“Huh. Damn straight.” John said.
Quest sniffed. “Maybe.” He grudgingly conceded. “But nowwhat? You’re holding up my whole project in there!” He turned his aggressiveness on the EPA inspector.“So it was an accident, like Roberts said. When can we get back in there?”
“Twenty four hours, Mr. Quest. As I told you. Accident ornot, you’ve got biorganisms in there, and they have to be fogged and sanitized.You don’t want to get sued for getting people sick, do you?” The EPA man warned.
The camera swiveled to focus on Quest. From the look on his face, he was trapped and he knew it. “Of coursenot.” He said. “But I want to get these guys back in there not a moment past 24hours. Can you guarantee me that?”
The camera moved back to the EPA man, who straightened a little. “Ah..”
“Or is it going to be one of those government things, were24 hours passes, and you all go out to play golf?” Quest pressed him. “I’m all for safety. I’ll put thisin your hands, but I need to knowyou’re not going to screw me over for it.”
Put on the defensive, the EPA man took a step back. “Well,in general, I suppose we can..”
“No general.” Quest insisted. “I need to know. A lot ofmoney’s riding on this. You want to be responsible for that?”
“Of course not.” The EPA man said. “Very well, we.. I willguarantee you can be back inside that vessel after the 24 hour decontaminationprocess is complete.”
“Okay.” Quest seemed satisfied, holding his hand out for theman to shake. “We’ve got a deal then. I’ll have these docks cleared.”
The EPA men made a quick getaway, escaping the sun as theyducked through the gate and left the pier area.
John turned to Dar and put his hands on his hips. “Well, welucked out. We’d just finished the last room when they rang the bell.” He toldher. “So…”
“Good work, John.” Kerry congratulated him quietly.
“So what are you going to do, Roberts?” Quest interrupted.“I can’t change the deadline.” He turned and look at the ship. “This thing’llnever be ready.”
Privately, Dar agreed completely. But she was aware of thefocus on her, as the round, blank camera eye swept across them. “Well, Peter –I can’t speak for your other contractors here, but my view is – we’ll wait forthe ban to be lifted, and do the best we can.”
“Hmph.” Quest made a grunting noise.
“We’ve gone to the wall on this project, and I’m not readyto drop it now.” Dar continued. “If we run out of time, we run out of time, butwe’re going to be in there until the clock goes off.”
Kerry folded her arms, content to let her partner shine inthe artificial halogen spotlight.
“Bad luck.” The cameraman commented quietly.
“Just another in a long series of challenges.” Dar gave hima brisk nod. “Excuse us, we’re going to see about securing the gear in there.”She touched Kerry on the shoulder and turned, to head back towards theterminal. John followed, and behind them they heard Quest and his entouragetrooping back off down the pier.
Dar opened the door for them. “Jesus.”
“That man figured to nail us with that thing, Dar!” Johngriped, as he passed in front of her, followed by Kerry. “All my guys in therebusting their tails and I get that?”
Dar entered behind them. “John.” She paused, waiting for himto turn. “Did you take a good look at that wire plug” She asked. “That wasn’t abunch of scrap. That was tied up to be a bundle like that.”
Kerry leaned on the wall with one hand. “What are yousaying, Dar?”
Puzzled, John nodded his head. “Yeah. What are you saying?Someone did it on purpose after all?”
Dar glanced around, noting the techs still moving about theroom. She waved them over towards the back corner, and waited for them tofollow her over. “After everything we’ve had to go through on this, I find itvery hard to believe something like this happened naturally.” She stated asthey reached the back wall. “John, I’m not saying for a second it was one ofyour guys, but I don’t think it dropped off a sink either. Can you ask all ofthem if they might have left a ball of the damn stuff anywhere?”
The contractor scrubbed his jaw, then nodded. “Sure, Dar.I’ll ask em, but we were out of that area since near eight am. Doubt any of emwould remember.. some of the guys have gone home already, but I’ll see what Ican do.”
Kerry blinked. “None of your guys was up there recently?”
“No.” John shook his head positively. “My super keeps aclose eye on em. Nice guys, good wire pullers, but they’re lazier than hounddogs in summer most of the time.”
“Huh.” Kerry nibbled on the inside of her lip. “Someonewearing your company shirt was in that wiring closet when we got there.”
Dar folded her arms and leaned against the wall, her headnodding slightly.
“Yeah?” John sounded honestly surprised.
“He was in there… we surprised him when we came in.” Kerrysaid. “He was kinda rude.” She added. “I had a mental note to talk to you aboutit. He was a tall guy, with brown hair, kind of curly, and he hadn’t shavedrecently.”
John exhaled. “Could be half of em.” He admitted. “Okay, letme gather em up and talk to em. See if any of em remember seeing you, I won’tsay why.” He said. “Still doesn’t mean he did nothing.”
“No, of course not.” Kerry agreed. “But maybe he can confirmhow the wire got near those pipes.”
John grunted and nodded, then he turned and walked acrossthe room, heading for the front doors.
Kerry leaned against the wall next to Dar. “You really thinkit was on purpose?”
Dar nodded. “Yeah.” She said. “Scraps are one thing, butthat was wrapped so that it would fit down the pipe.” She leaned againstKerry’s shoulder. “It’s just too coincidental a timing, Ker.”
Was it? Kerry pondered. “Or are we just getting paranoid?”
Dar studied the far wall briefly, then chuckled. “Justbecause I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us.” She pushed herself upright and laid anarm over Kerry’s shoulders. “C’mon. Let’s go sit down and figure out where wego from here now that we lost an entire day from our schedule.”
Kerry circled Dar’s waist with her arm as they walked, bothof them slowing as they spotted their erstwhile friend reporter Cruickshanknear the door, complete with a few of her camera people. “Oh, poot.”
The reporter came forward. “Hello, ladies.” She greetedthem. “Now that the stakes have risen again, care to share a few words withme?”
Aware of thecamera’s red light turning on, and focusing on them, Dar didn’t so much astwitch, or remove her arm from Kerry’s shoulders. “Sure.” She replied amiably.“We’ve got plenty of time right now.”
The television light turned on, framing them in silver. Inthe shadows beyond them, the techs paused, gathering to watch curiously as thereporter closed in, and opened her note pad. “Great. Tom, give me about sixtyseconds, and then roll, all right?”
Dar noticed the Herald reporter arriving too, taking a seaton one of the folding tables back out of the way and just watching.
One dark eyebrow curved up, and Dar’s brow puckered inthought.
“All right, Ms. Roberts.” Cruickshank began. “Now we have asituation where all of a sudden, you’re the underdogs. How does that make youfeel?”
Dar exchanged looks with Kerry. Then she looked back at thecamera. “I’m not sure we haven’t always been the underdog in this.” Shecommented, with an easy smile. “Are you?”
Cruickshank looked up from her pad, pausing for a reflectivemoment. “Interesting question.”
“Isn’t it?” Kerry murmured.
“Okay, so now what?” Kerry sat on a desk, swinging her feeta little. It was late afternoon, and the chaos had finally settled down.Cruickshank had left, the reporter had left, and she and Dar were alone in the small office.
Dar was lying on her back on the spare desk against thewall. “Let’s take everyone out to dinner.” She replied, her eyes closed. “Dosome team building for the hell it’s going to be from tomorrow on.”
Kerry studied her denim covered knees. “Okay.” She said.“Someplace around here? Hard Rock, maybe? Or Bubba Gumps?”
A blue eye opened. “Too politically incorrect, huh?”
“It’s one thing for us to go to lunch there.” Kerry said.“But taking the staff? Hon, there’s two or three women in the team out there.How comfortable would that be for them?”
“Mmph.” Dar grunted. “Yeah, I get you. Call Hard Rock. Seeif they have that side room available. What do we have, thirty?” Privately shedoubted anyone on their staff would really mind, or kick up a fuss, but younever knew with people.
It didn’t pay to take a chance, and she was a little abashedthat Kerry had found it necessary to remind her of that. “Sorry.. I was just inthe mood for chicken wings.” She added sheepishly.
“And a nice cold draft beer, yeah. But I’m sure we can getthat somewhere else.” Kerry got up and sat down in the desk chair instead,calling up a browser. She typed the restaurant’s site in and got back a list ofaddresses, from which she selected the Bayside one. Pulling out her cell phone,she dialed the number. “Did you say thirty?” She paused and held her hand overthe mic. “With us?”
“Yeah.” Dar nodded. “Twenty nine, something like that. Justsay thirty.”
“Gotcha.” Kerrycleared her throat gently. “Hello, I’d like to speak to someone who can help mewith a group reservation.” She listened. “For thirty people.” Listened again.“That’s what I thought. I’ll hold. Thanks.”
Outside, their team was still getting gear ready forinstallation, soft clanks and thunks audible along with a low buzz of casualchatter. Despite theproblems with the ship, the atmosphere was one of efficient industry, andwalking through the crowd Dar hadn’t heard any griping at all.
Nice. Dar waited to hear Kerry say the words “You do? Okay,I’d like to reserve it.” before she swung herself up off the desk and ambledtowards the door. Sticking her head out, she observed the activity, then shesauntered out into the center of the large room and stood there, putting herhands on her hips.
She didn’t need to say anything. One by one, the techs allstopped what they were doing and focused on her, the chatter in the roomsubsiding to nothing in about thirty seconds. Dar waited a few seconds more, then she cleared her throat.“All right folks. You know what the story is. We’re dead in the water untiltomorrow, and then we’re way behind the eight ball.”
Thirty sets of eyes were pinned on her. “Better we bust our ass tomorrow than have tohang out in there today.” Mark commented. “Man, that stunk.”
The two techs who’d been with Kerry nodded their headsvigorously. “Yeah, and working in the dark, that sucked too!”
Dar waited until silence fell again, then she resumedspeaking. “It’s going to be a tough couple of days. There’ll be company supporthere while we’re doing it, but before we start, I’d like you all to come overto the Hard Rock and be our guest for dinner tonight.”
She could feel the shock in the room, as she flicked hereyes over the faces and caught the reactions. Surprise, certainly, and thenmuted delight. Dar smiled at them. “So get this stuff locked down, and we’llhead on over. Okay/”
“Yes ma’am.” Mark responded quickly. “You don’t need to askus twice.. right guys?”
“Yeah.” “Heck yeah.” “For sure!”
Satisfied, Dar lifted her hand in acknowledgement and thenwalked back towards the office. She discovered Kerry finished with her callinside, sprawled in the desk chair, spinning it idly. “We all set?”
“Uh huh.” Kerry agreed. “We got the back room, and they’rethrowing in dessert free as long as everyone orders an entrée.”
“No problem.” Dar caught the back of the chair and stoppedher partner’s revolutions. “Not with this bunch.They’re not the ice tea andcarrot appetizer crowd.”
Kerry gazed up at her with a wry expression. “Dar, I used tobe one of the ice tea and carrot appetizer crowd.”
“Nah.” Dar looked fondly down at her. “You were a poser.”
“A poser.” Dar leaned on the chair back. “I knew that thefirst time we had dinner together.”
Kerry’s face crinkled up into a grin. “Rats. Outed by a slabof cheesecake and a chicken wing.”
Dar gently scratched the top of Kerry’s head with herfingertips. “Did you check with the office? Everything calm there?”
Kerry gave the trackball on the desk a roll, exposing heremail inbox when the screen saver cleared. “Couple of things. Three of thoseleads we got out of your hacker challenge turned into requests for pricing.”She pointed. “Not really huge accounts, but look.. this one’s in an area wehaven’t been involved in yet.”
“Hm.” Dar studied the screen.
“I’m assigning someone to put together a design.” Kerrysaid. “And I got a note from our friends in New York… “ She clicked over.“They’re opening another office in Hong Kong. They want pricing forinfrastructure.”
“Yeah?” Dar sounded quite surprised. “You got a note fromMeyer?”
Kerry cocked her head. “Um.. no, matter of fact. Hang on.”She rolled back a page. “Here.. new name. Ellen Durst. Maybe he got anassistant?” She scrolled throughthe message, until she reached the sig line. “Oh. No, I guess she’s the VPnow.”
“Huh.” Dar sniffed. “Hope Stewart didn’t get booted. We’rein deep kimchee if he did.”
“Would she be asking us for pricing if Meyer took hisplace?”
Dar perched onthe desk, getting her weight off her injured foot. “We’re their currentvendor.” She mused. “So stands to reason… I don’t know, let’s find out.” She pulled out her cell phone anddialed a number. “Hi. Stewart Godson, please.”
Kerry leaned an elbow on the desk and watched Dar’s face asshe waited. She put her other hand on her partner’s knee, rubbing gently in acircle with her thumb. It would be chilly in the restaurant, she suddenlyremembered. They’d have to stop and get Dar something with more sleeves.
“Yes, thanks. It’s Dar Roberts, from ILS.” Dar supplied thesecretary who intercepted thecall. Now, either she’d be put off, or..
“One moment, ma’am, I’ll put you right through.” Thesecretary came back on the line,then bland hold music replaced her for a second, before a click sounded and avoice came through.
“Hello, there, Dar!”
Dar exhaled in relief. “Afternoon, Stewart.” She glanced atKerry, who gave her a thumbs up.
“What do I owe the pleasure of a call to?” Godson asked.“I was about to close up shop hereand get on home… don’t tell me we’ve got problems!”
“No.. no, not at all.” Dar reassured him. “I just…” Shehesitated. “Just was wondering how things were doing, with your program. It’sbeen a week, now.”
“Oh!” Godson cleared his throat, and apparently sat back inhis chair based on the squeaks coming through the phone. “Everything’sgreat! You have no idea how happyeveryone is… it’s been wonderful. First week in a month I’ve been able to getanything done without getting a phone call every ten minutes complaining.” Hesaid. “So rest assured, everything looks great from this end. How’s it withyou?”
Dar blinked. “Me? Oh, it’s just been a typical week here,you know, Stewart.” She replied. “Usual problems, usual weather.. the odd pileof crap hitting the.. um.. fan.” A smile appeared, as she watched Kerry first cover her eyes, then throwthe back of her arm across them ina very theatrical gesture. “Glad things are going well… listen, Kerry tells meyou’re putting a new office in over in the Far East?”
“Yep.” Godson sounded very, very smug. “Business hasincreased so much, partially due to my new system, I might add, that we’rebranching out. Good stuff huh? Oh!” He ended the sentence with an exclamation.“Hey! You remember that guy of mine, Jason?”
Ah. “Sure.” Dar drawled.
“You know that fella up and left last Friday? No notice at all, just picked up his papers and walked out.. said he hada better offer. What do you know?You were right! Shoulda listened to you right then, Dar!”
Kerry’s eyes widened, and she leaned forward a little as shelistened. “Holy pooters!” She mouthed.
“Ahhh… yeah, he was a stinker.” Dar remarked, her eyebrowshiked up to her hairline. “Any idea where he went? Not that I care.”
“Nah.” Godson said. “Didn’t ask, he didn’t tell, goodriddance! I took a page from your book and decided maybe a gal would workbetter for me in there, and you know, it’s been a week but Ellen’s just beencrackerjack. Good people! Matter of fact, can’t wait for her to meet you. Wewere talking about you just yesterday.”
Dar relaxed, one nagging problem taken off her conscience. “Well, that’s goodto hear, Stewart. Glad you got someone in there who we can work with. I wasn’tlooking forward to renegotiating our contract with Mr. Meyer.. hope whoever hewent to work for fully appreciates.. his.. ah.. style.”
Godson chuckled. “Ellen’s sharp, and would you know? She’s afan of yours. So you’ve got no worries, right? Anyhoo, time for me to head offto the little missus. Anything else you need to talk about, Dar?”
“Nope, just checking in. We’ll get you those prices by endof the week, Stewart. Good luck on the new space, and congratulations.”
“Thanks!” Godson replied with an audible grin. “Life’s good!Take care, Dar! Give Ms. Stuart my hellos too, willya? Bye!”
Dar folded the phone up and tossed it, reversing her handand grabbing it out of mid air as it fell. “Well, that’s good news.” She said.“I really thought we were going to get bit in the ass by my cantankerousnessthis time. Guess we got lucky.”
Kerry patted her on the leg. “We have to sometimes.” She gotup, leaning over to log out of the computer. “Wonder where they little buggerwent? Hope it’s not to another of our customers.”
Dar shrugged, getting up off the desk and waiting as Kerryturned the PC off. “I’ll do a search later, see if he joined another publiccompany.” She put her hand on her partner’s back as they walked out of the office, flipping the lights andclosing the door behind them.
Kerry put her mug down and leaned back, chuckling a littleat Mark’s joke from across the table. She was on her second beer, and her plateheld the remnants of a relatively decent rack of spare ribs scattered overit. Dar was sprawled in the chairnext to her, long legs extended under the table as she nodded in agreement towhat the MIS manager was saying.
“I remember that.” Dar said. “The entire building wasoverrun by red ants, and everyone ended up sitting on top of the network racksto get away from them.” She reminisced. “Damned glad I missed that one.”
“Yeah, you’d just gotten kicked up stairs.” Mark said. “Wesure missed you.”
Kerry watched her partner from the corner of her eye, seeingthe look of muted glee appear in her eyes, as her lips twitched into a grin. “Ibet you did.” She leaned on her chair arm. “There’s nothing as comforting tohave on a tough project as this thing.” She indicated Dar with her thumb. “Ican attest to that.”
“Thing?” Dar leaned on her own chair arm and gave Kerry araised eyebrowed look.
“Ms. Roberts?” One of the techs spoke up shyly. “Is it truethe fellow in charge on the boat is your father?”
Dar tore her attention from her partner, and picked up herglass of wine for a sip. “It’s true.” She said. “Some of you guys have met himbefore.”
“Absolutely.” Mark agreed. “He’s a great guy, and he tellsthe funniest st…”
Dar looked at him.
“Stories about boats.” Mark redirected his speech. “Reallyfunny.”
Nervous grins all around. “I think some of those contractorsare scared of him.” The first tech commented. “I heard them talking about himwhen they were out in back of the building using the pay phones.”
Dar felt a little uncertain, unused to talking about herfamily in front of her staff. “Well, he doesn’t take much crap.”
“Gee.” Mark took a swallow of his beer. “Wonder who thatsounds like.”
The tableful of techs chuckled again, this time a littleless nervously when Dar joined in, lifting a hand in silent self deprecation.“Yeah, I come by it honestly.” She assented. “But he’s also retired Navy… hewas a SEAL… that takes it to a different level sometimes.”
“A SEAL?” One of the techs whistled. “Wow.”
“That’s pretty cool.” Another said. “I was in for six years.Those guys are tough.”
“I was helping check off those switches that came inyesterday.” One of the female techs spoke up shyly. “I was a little creeped outwith those guys in there. They were making all kinds of comments, but then hecame into the loading area and shut them all up.” She looked over at Dar. “Thatwas really cool.”
“Dad’s got a lot of old fashioned chivalry in him.” Kerryspoke up. “One of those guys who’s totally not embarrassed to open doors forwomen, or give them seats on a bus, you know?”
The men all looked a little embarrassed, themselves. “I,um..” The tech next to Mark cleared his throat. “Don’t think girls like thatstuff anymore. It’s like, chauvanism, isn’t it?”
Everyone looked at Kerry, to see what her answer wouldbe. She took a sip of her beer,giving herself a moment to think about it. “Hm.” She pondered the complex ideasbehind the question. “Opening a door for someone really isn’t anything butcourtesy. I think… “
“I open doors for you.” Dar commented.
“I think it depends how you were brought up.” The woman techspoke up suddenly. “It’s like, your parents teach you one way or the other. My mother was a big time radicalfeminist, and she always said it was condescending when men treated her likethat.”
“Yeah, my mom said the same thing.” Mark agreed. “You open adoor for her, she’d slam it in your face.”
Everyone chuckled. “Well, I come from a very traditionalfamily.’ Kerry said. “Though I think my father would have paid someone to bechivalrous for him if he could have gotten away with it. We were always treatedlike ladies, and let me tell you.. it gave me a hive.”
Everyone peeked at Dar next. “My mother’s a pagan.” Shesupplied agreeably.
Silence. Everyone looked at Dar in surprise, exceptKerry. “Well, she is.” Darshrugged. “She’s about as non traditional as you can get.. but she loves whenmy dad does stuff like that for her.”
“Really?” Mark asked.
“Yeah.” Dar drained her wine glass and set it on the table.“But then, my dad doesn’t do it for show. It’s just how he is.”
“And just how you are.” Kerry gave her partner a fond look.“Daddy’s girl.”
Dar blushed slightly, almost invisibly in the reddish lamplight. Her eyebrows twitched, and she glanced at the rest of the table beforelooking back at Kerry.
“Well, my old man didn’t give me anything but a hairy back.”Mark broke the little silence, drawing attention back to himself. “And probablya bum ticker.” He added. “So it’s a crap shoot.. but like, you really can’t win because if you do nicestuff like that, you got a fifty fifty shot at best the girl likes it, youknow?”
Two of the guy techs nodded. “Yeah.” One said. “Mygirlfriend is like this independent chick, yeah? She’s pre-law, works in a woman lawyer’soffice, pro abortion, all that stuff.. and I find out last week she reallywants to get married, stop working, and have kids.”
“Oh, god.” The taller, blond female tech covered her eyes.“My husband hinted to me last night he’d like to have kids.”
“So let him, Barb.” Dar drawled. “He can stay home and takecare of em.”
Everyone laughed. Barb leaned forward, resting an elbow onthe table. “That’s really something women in our industry have to deal with ,that you guys don’t.” She said. “I’ve been turned down for jobs because I mightstart breeding. You know, thatsucks. If you’re a guy, that doesn’t happen.”
“Hey, we breed.” Mark protested. “I’ve had to give plenty ofguys time off to go take care of their kids.”
“Three months?” Barb asked him.
“It’s hard enough to keep even in this business as it is,being female.” Barb said. “Nobody thinks women belong in technical fields, eventoday.” Her eyes tracked briefly to Dar and Kerry. “I have to tell you, youguys were the reason I even applied here.”
“We take flack.” Kerry responded quietly. “There are a lotof people out there that don’t think Dar and I should be doing what we’redoing, and it takes a lot more effort to get past that than you think.”
Mark looked between them. “You guys are making me feel likea jerk, just because I got a Y in the big ol’ choromo-dice throw.” Heprotested. “Hey, it’s not our fault! I hire most the women who apply to us.There just really, really few and far between!”
Barb leaned back, and nodded. “Mark, I know that. You should see the looks Iget from other women when I tell them what I do. You’d think I was telling themI was a car mechanic.”
Dar chuckled wryly. “Well, given what my other choice of professionwas, my family’s very glad I picked this one.” She said. “But I’d have made alousy sailor anyway.”
Mark leaned back. “No offense, DR, but that would have beena big waste of brain cells.”
“Yeah.” Barb agreed. “That’s for sure.”
Dar shrugged modestly.
Someone approached, and cleared their throat gently. Darlooked up to see their reporter friend Elecia standing there, hands behind herback and a diffident expression on her face. “Ah. Evening.”
“Hi.” The woman said. “I know you probably think I’m stalkingyou all, but I happened to be having dinner over there.” She pointed to acorner of the restaurant. “Mind if I ask your group here a few questions?”
Dar studied her briefly, then shrugged and turned back tothe table. “You guys mind talking to a reporter?”
Various reactions, ranging from wariness to outright alarmfaced her.
“Hey, relax.” The reporter chuckled. “I’m from the Herald,not Panic Seven.” She said. “I’mdoing a story on the work you all are doing at the pier, and I just had a fewquestions about some of the things you were talking about.”
Kerry still had her doubts. She knew Dar respected thewoman, but after their experiences of the past few weeks, no reporter seemedtrustworthy to her, if any ever had. “You know, Ms Rodriguez, these folks haveworked really hard the past few days, and they’re going to have to work evenharder in the next few. Is it really fair to disturb them during a moment ofpeace, here?”
Rodriguez studied her. “You know what being a reporter islike, Ms. Stuart? “ She responded conversationally. “It’s like being addictedto everything. You never have enough. You always want more, more more… every question brings up anotherquestion.”
Kerry merely waited, giving the woman her bestincomprehensible stare.
The reporter looked at Dar, who folded her hands over herstomach and refrained from comment. Then Rodriguez shrugged. “No, it’s not fair, and my husband’s going tokick my ass since it’s the first time I’ve seen him all week.” She turned tothe table. “Some other time, ladies and gents. Good luck, by the way.”
With that, she turned and left, walking down the smallflight of steps and sliding into a half hidden banquette table near the window.
Everyone was silent for a few moments, then Carlos, who’dbeen in the closet with her that day, cleared his throat a little. “Thanks,Kerry.” He murmured. “This whole news and filming stuff is kinda getting old.”
“Tell me about it.” Kerry sympathized. “We’ve had thesepeople in our faces for weeks.” She glanced after the reporter, then looked atDar. “You want to go talk to her?”
“Nope.” Dar seemed content to stay right where she was. “Ihear a hot brownie sundae calling my name.” She tapped her thumbs against eachother, and looked around the table. “Anyone else interested?”
The atmosphere relaxed, and everyone leaned back, sharingdessert menus as the serving staffcleared the table of their dinner plates. Kerry waited for the buzz of conversation to rise, and then she leanedcloser to Dar. “Was that a mistake?”
Pale blue eyes turned her way, warmed from within as theymet hers. “For them? No.” Dar answered.
“For us?” Kerry persisted.
Dar shrugged. “Nah.”
Kerry frowned. Dar reached over and smoothed the furrow inher brow with her thumb, then she ruffled Kerry’s hair.
Oh well. Kerry silently exhaled. Just another pass of thedice.
Dar entered her outer office, empty at this early hour ofthe morning, and slipped into her own space closing the door behind her. Thewindows that surrounded the room showed the pearlescent light of dawn, and sheset a Styrofoam cup of coffee down on her desk as she dropped into her chairand nudged the power switch on her desktop.
Nothing could happen on board the ship until after lunch. Soshe decided to come in to the office and get caught up on things there, beforeshe joined Kerry out at the pier.
While she waited for her PC to boot, she pulled her inboxover and began sorting through its contents. Security reports were on top, andshe set those aside for reading. A two page single spaced incident reportfollowed, and this she studied, resting her head on one hand as she read.
Their security department had been thorough. The Army ringerhadn’t stolen a uniform at all – and now Dar wished she’d shown the woman totheir services manager. She’dworked for him, after all, applying for a job the day after Dar had gotten backfrom Orlando, and passing their mandatory background check.
Of course. She’d gotten herself assigned to the swing shift,starting at noon, and working until eight. Who would notice if she stayed alittle later? How many nights didshe prowl the hallways, looking for tidbits?
And for that matter, Dar wondered, why search her office?She looked around the big room. There was nothing, absolutely nothing in theoffice worth searching for. Her desk she kept locked, but only when she wasdoing evaluations. Otherwise, the most scintillating item in her desk drawerwas a handful of Hershey’s kisses, deposited regularly there by Kerry.
Dar hated paper. She never printed anything out if she couldhelp it, and everything she did was kept locked up tight in her system shareson the network. The Army bratcould have riffled through her office for hours and not found anything more interestingthan the half done sketch of Kerry on her notepad, laying face up in theshallow drawer at the desk’s center.
So, what was she looking for?
Dar reviewed the report again, and couldn’t find anythingreally to fault in it. Outside of requiring the cleaning company to do the samegovernment level security scan they did on their own new hires…
Well. With a faint shake of her head, Dar turned and openedher mail program. If that’s what they had to do, then that’s what they had todo. She typed up a request tosecurity, and copied the cleaning vendor’s president on it.
Then she went back to looking at the reports. Eleanor had turned in a terse, one pagemissive, reluctantly admitting to the identify of the marketing admin who’dlogged into the spare PC. It was an older woman, Mary Hingtanton, who had beenwith ILS for fifteen years, and was close to retirement.
Why had she been logged on there? According to Eleanor ithad been breathtakingly, stupidly, simple. She’d been ordering lunch for thesenior managers, and forgotten the order. She’d logged onto the network to get it from her mailbox,and then forgotten to log off.
It was very plausible. Dar knew Mary, who was a fluffy,elderly woman with a heart of gold. She didn’t really suspect Mary of being theArmy’s accomplice, but it all seemed just so..pat. Dar grumbled under herbreath and swallowed gulp of her café con leche.
Could it have just been opportunistic, as Mouser had said?Dar didn’t want to believe it. The coincidence was just too strong for her tobuy into the notion that the little runt had just gotten lucky.
With a sigh, she turned back to her mail, and composed anote to Eleanor.
I’m sure Mary didn’t do any of this on purpose. Try tofind out if she saw anyone else in the break room while she was doing it. I justdon’t buy it all happening by happy accident.
We’re still looking for someone who logged in by yourarea on Saturday. Anyone in your group griping?
“She’s gonna love that.” Dar murmured. Then she turned backto the reports and scanned the next one, from Duks. Again, she shook her head. Coincidence, that someone hadgotten to one of his people with an offer they couldn’t refuse, at this very moment?
It all seemed just so unlikely. Dar wanted to find thepattern behind it, the one thread that would link it all together and make itmake sense, because right now, it just wasn’t.
The Army people, the auditors, the mystery person inmarketing, cellular devices…hackers.. Dar briefly covered her eyes, the chaosmaking her head spin. Then she rubbed her eyes and settled down to answer hermail, deciding to do something about something she did understand instead.
It wasn’t often that Kerry could watch the sun rising on aweekday through the sliding glass doors to the townhouse. She was sprawled on the couch, thenewspaper open in her hands and a steaming cup of hot tea nearby as the warm,golden light spread across the room.
The crew wouldn’t be in until nine at the pier, so that hadgiven her a while to relax after Dar left and treat herself to a leisurelymorning instead of their usual busy slate of things to do. They’d decided toskip the gym, since Dar’s foot was really bothering her, and Kerry hadn’t feltlike going alone, so here she was browsing the front page with plenty of timebefore she had to leave.
It felt sort of good not to be rushing around. She didn’tmind their usual schedule, but after all the malarkey going on around the pierand around the office, it was nice to simply relax for one morning. She scanned the headlines, taking a momentto read about a prehistoric site discovered during a construction dig, thenswitching over to a story covering some new additions to the airport.
She’d really been wondering if she was going to show up inthe business section, but nothing was there from their friend the reporter, andin fact, no mention was made about the pier at all, which surprised her a lot.She’d expected to see it splashed everywhere – after all, it was summer andthere weren’t any hurricanes brewing. Why wasn’t the story being covered?
“Hm.” Kerry made a note to give their reporter friend acall. Maybe she could mend a fence from last night, and get a littleinformation while she was doing it. In the mean time, she lifted her cup andsipped the contents, enjoying the blackberry tea and the rich taste of thehoney she’d sweetened it with.
Chino was curled up on the end of the couch just past herfeet, very happy with the fact that Kerry was keeping her company. Kerry pattedher on the leg with her bare toes, as she turned to the important part of thepaper, the comics.
What would it be like, she wondered suddenly, if she coulddo this every day? Not read the paper, but relax at home and not have to go towork? Kerry pondered Dogbert’s image while she considered the thought. “Hm.”She poked her lower lip out a little. “It would be fun, for about two days,Chi.”
“Yeah, about two days, then I’d go postal.” Kerry shook herhead and went back to the cartoons. Dar had once said to her that she didn’tcare if Kerry wanted to stay home and what was it? Sell seashell futures? Orwrite poetry, or whatever.
But she knew, aside from how she would feel having Darsupport her, that living an isolated life out here just wasn’t in her cards.She was a social creature, and she liked the interaction with her co-workersand friends on a daily basis.
In fact, she wondered if even Dar would now choose a lessinteractive lifestyle, though her partner was far more a loner than she was.She suspected Dar had gotten used to having people around her and that she’dmiss it if she made a change.
Wouldn’t she? Kerry let the paper fold down onto her chestand gazed past it, at the sunlight catching dust motes in the air. Or had Darsacrificed her natural comfort in isolation as a trade off for their relationship,deferring to Kerry’s more social wishes?
Hm. Kerry now wondered if she should worry about that. Wouldit all get to be too much for Dar, one of these days? Or would her partner justconsider it a worthwhile price? “Well, I could ask her.” She murmured. “Orwould she freak out if I asked her?”
No, she decided after a moment, Dar would not freak out tobe asked, and she resolved to do so in the very near future. With a slight nod,she picked up the paper and went back to her reading.
Only to put the paper down as her cell phone rang. With atolerant look, she picked it up and answered it, without glancing at the callerID. “Kerry Stuart.”
“Mm. Formal.” Dar rumbled softly. “I like it.”
Kerry wiggled her toes. “Hey.” She wondered, as she hadbefore, if Dar was in some weird way psychic, since she always seemed to callwhen Kerry was thinking the hardest about her. “What’s up?”
“Nothing?” Kerry repeated. “So..”
“Just wanted to call you.” Dar said. “Maria called in sickjust now, and it’s too quiet here.”
Kerry looked around. “It’s pretty quiet here too.” She said.“Chi’s sleeping on the couch, and I’m reading the funnies. Did you get yourstuff done?”
“Pretty much. I’m going to go over and talk to Duks in a fewminutes, find out what happened with his auditor. Mark’s meeting with the guyswho invented that cellular thing today.”
“Yeah?” Kerry stretched her legs out, arching her back alittle. “You want to stay there and talk with them? That was a pretty wildgizmo.”
After a moment’s silence, Dar grunted. “No… Mark knows what to ask.” She said. “I just wish we could tie anypart of this together.. I can’t figure out how any of it’s connected.”
“You mean all the stuff that’s happened the last two weeks?”
Kerry considered. “What if it isn’t?” She suggested.
“You mean we have twelve different security issues in twoweeks and none of them have anything to do with each other?” Dar’s voice roseat the end of the statement, gaining a touch of incredulity.
“Well?” Kerry smiled. “Hon, if you can’t see a connection,maybe it’s not there.”
Dar sighed audibly.
“Did that Army guy contact you?” Kerry asked.
“Left a message yesterday.” Dar said. “I was going to callhim just before I left… give me a reason not to talk long.”
“Good plan.” Kerry said. “Hey, look at it this way. Heobviously is interested in the new stuff you’re working on. Why not sell it tohim?”
Dar grunted. “It’s not ready.”
“So tell him that.”
“I don’t want to sell it to him.” Dar replied. “He brokeinto our office. Why should I give him what he wants?” She asked plaintively.
Kerry sighed. “Because he’s willing to pay for it, and ifthis ship thing goes down the tubes like you and I both expect it to, we needsomething to fill the gap, Dar.”
“Think about it.”
“The ship thing’ll work out.” Dar argued. “It’s just goingto be a bitch.”
Kerry stared pensively at the ceiling. “We’ll get itworking, Dar.. but I looked at the numbers yesterday, and given what our costsare, there’s no way we’re gong to put in the lowest bid.”
“We could fudge that.”
“And do the same thing Telegenics does?” Kerry repliedsomewhat sharply. “No thanks, Dar. If we win, I want it to be a legit win, nota lowball.”
Dar was silent for a brief moment, then she chuckled. “Okay,I’ll talk to the dogface.” She said. “We’ll work something out. Need anythingfrom here?”
Kerry considered. “My projects portfolio, matter of fact.It’s in my top desk drawer.”
“You got it. See you in a bit, Ker.”
“See you.” Kerry folded the phone closed and laid it on herstomach. She let the paper drop to the coffee table and closed her eyes,allowing her thoughts to drift pensively, focusing on what Dar had said, andwhat she hadn’t.
Dar limped down the hallway that connected her office toKerry’s, and popped the door open to her partner’s office. It was quiet inside,as she’d expected, and she went directly to the desk and sat down behind it.
Unlike her own, Kerry’s desk had a judicious amount ofpersonal items on it. Where she just had her fighting fish and her inbox, Kerry had several small ceramicanimals, some trinkets she’d picked up on their vacations, and pictures.
The largest one was an unapologetic, completely non-businessrelated shot of Dar, and she gave it a brief glances as she rolled back to openthe drawer. A second was of thetwo of them together on the back of the Dixie, and third was them, and herparents on the pier.
The pictures were positioned so Kerry could glance up fromher monitor and look at them and Dar had often seen her do just that – asthough she were giving her mind a time out and focusing on the things she feltwere most important in her life.
Dar did that too, but she kept the photos on the screen s ofher pc and laptop, rather than out on her desk.
Why? Dar retrieved the slim, leather portfolio from thedrawer and paused, leaning her forearms on the desk blotter as she regarded thepictures. Did Kerry think she was embarrassed , and didn’t want to be thatpublic about their relationship?
With a slight frown, Dar started to push herself to herfeet, pausing when the outer door opened and Mayte entered. “Ah.” She watchedthe young woman’s body jerk in surprise. “Sorry. Morning.”
“Oh! Ms. Dar!” Mayte blurted. “I did not expect you to be inhere!”
Dar held up the portfolio. “Just getting something forKerry. How’s your mom feeling?”
Mayte approached, viewing Dar with a touch of trepidation.“It is the flu, I think.” She said mournfully. “Which of course means my papaand I will probably also get it. Poor mama!”
Flu. Ick. “She need anything?” Dar asked. “If she does, orif you need to go get stuff for her, take off. That’s an order.”
Mayte smiled shyly. “I think she is fine for now, thankyou.” She replied. “But I will tell her you said that – it will make her veryhappy to hear. She felt bad about staying home today.”
“Why?” Dar started to limp around the desk. “We have sicktime for a reason. Tell her to take any time she needs off.. no one needs to bein here when they’re feeling crappy.”
Mayte looked at her injured foot, then she looked at Dar’sface, blinking innocently. “Si, I will tell her that.”
“I don’t count.” Dar muttered, heading for the door.
“Ms. Dar, did you for really save Kerry from a shark?”
Dar stopped in mid motion, turning with one hand on the doorlatch. “Huh?”
“They were talking in the break room just now.” Mayteblushed a little. “About that you saved Kerry from a shark, and that is how yougot your foot hurt.”
A shark?? Darlooked down at her foot in reflex. “Um..”
“That is a very brave thing.” Mayte said. “Was it a very bigshark?”
Well. Dar looked at the respectful, almost worshipfulexpression on Mayte’s face. Theoretically it could have been a shark, I guess.“Happened too fast.” She temporized. “I couldn’t really see that well how bigit was.”
“Wow.” Mayte smiled.
Dar opened the door. “If you need us, we’ll be at the pier.”She decided a change of subject was needed. “Okay?”
“Okay.” Mayte nodded. “I hope you have good luck theretoday.”
“Me too.” Dar edged through the doorway and waved the portfolioin goodbye as she closed the door behind her.
Shark. She shook her head as she headed back to her office.Well, at least it was positive for a change, but she couldn’t help but wonderhow the story had gotten so out of whack.
Maybe Kerry would know.
Kerry became aware of her cell phone ringing again, and sheopened her eyes, her mind struggling to reconcile the change in the lightoutside as she flipped the phone open. “Hello?” She cleared her throat of it’shuskiness, a sense of disorientation coming over her.
“Hey. Where are you?” Dar asked. “Here somewhere?”
Kerry half rolled over and spotted the clock on theentertainment center. “Oh, shit.” It read 9:30.
“I’ll take that as a no.” Her partner chuckled. “Thought Ididn’t see your car in the lot.”
“Jesus.. I fell back asleep on the couch.” Kerry got up,swinging her legs down to the ground. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll be on myway over.” She scrubbed her handover her face, trying to get some alertness back. “I can’t believe I did that.Holy Moses.”
“Teach you to leave me here alone.” Kerry stood and headedfor the bathroom. “I’ve got to splash some cold water on my face. Hang on.”
Kerry paused. “Yes?”
“Would you chill, please? Take your time. There isn’t jacksquat going on here yet.” Dar laughed. “If you fell asleep, you probably neededit. Stop freaking out.”
“I’m not freaking out.” Kerry trudged into the bathroom andglared at her rumpled reflection. “I just hate being a dumb ass!”
“You’re not a dumb ass.”
Kerry sighed. “Okay. Let me get my act together and get outof here. I’ll see you in a little while.” She hung up and turned, tossing thecell phone onto the water bed before she filled the sink with water and cuppedher hands in it, splashing a large quantity onto her face. “Jesus.” She pulleda soft, fluffy blue towel from the bar and patted herself dry.
She felt a little dazed, and she realized she’d been in adeep sleep when Dar had called. At the edges of her memory, she thought shedetected hints of a bizarre dream, but nothing concrete popped into her mind’seye and she didn’t have any residual discomfort, as though it had been anightmare.
Okay. She ran her fingers through her hair, slightly dampfrom the water. Dar said nothing was going on, so she had time to get down acup of coffee, and maybe not feel like such a space case. Accordingly, she headed for thekitchen, pausing to let Chino out as she went to the coffee maker.
While she waited for the water to drip, she pulled down theflat screen and keyed up her mailbox, reviewing the new items in silence as thekitchen filled with the scent of freshly brewed coffee. Dar liked to listen to her mail read bythe device, but Kerry preferred toreview it visually, even though the small keyboard was awkward to use.
She just didn’t like ordering around a machine. It feltweird.
She opened the first mail, stifling a yawn with the back ofher hand, then cursed as she heard her cell phone go off again. “Son of abiscuit.” She bolted for the bedroom, racing around the couch and diving intothe waterbed as she scrambled to grab the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, sis.” Her sister Angie’s voice answered her.
“Hey.” Kerry rolled over onto her side. “What’s up? Youokay?”
“Not really. Me and Andrew are outta here.” Angie told her.“Got anything you think we could move into fast down there? I thought aboutVirginia, with those college friends of mine, but it’s just too weird.”
Kerry scratche d her ear, thinking hard. “I talked to my oldapartment complex. They’ve got a two bedroom.. is Brian coming too?’
Silence. “I don’t know.” Angie answered unhappily.
Jesus. “Okay, well, it’s a nice complex, and the managersaid he’s got two units he can rent on short notice. You could use that untilyou guys.. until you figure out what you want to do.” Kerry said. “I can set itall up for you if you want me to.”
“Is it a nice place?”
Kerry pondered. “I lived there.” She said. “Yeah, it’supscale, a lot of professionals live there. It’s gated, and there’s a lot ofchild development places around.” She wondered, suddenly, if Angie expected her to invite them to livewith her and Dar.
God. She hoped not, for a number of very selfish reasons.
“That sounds okay.” Angie responded, after a long sigh. “Idon’t know if I can do this.”
“I did.” Kerry reminded her.
“You’re you.” Her sister shot back. “And you don’t have ababy.”
Kerry caught the omission. “Is he keeping..” Andrew had anolder sister, a cute little girl she had very vague memories of.
“Yes.” Angie said. “He… well, Andrew isn’t his son, youknow?”
“Well, yeah.” A faint attempt at wan humor came across.“That’s the problem.” She said. “And maybe I’m being gloomy or… Bri maysurprise me and come too. Hedidn’t say no, just that he had to work some stuff out.”
“Yeah.” Angie murmured. “Sorry, didn’t mean to land this on you, Ker. I know you mustbe busy.”
Kerry smoothed her hand over the rumpled bedlinen.“Actually, I’m at home at the moment. I.. well, anyway, whatever I can do tohelp, Ang. Just let me know, and I’ll make arrangements. You driving down?”
“I don’t know yet.” Her sister said. “I’d hate to make thatdrive with the baby. I’m going to wait a day or two and see what’s up withBrian. Maybe we’ll fly down and get a car somewhere when we’re there.. are you sick or something?”
“No… I just had.. um.. something to take care of. I’mleaving for work in a little while.. but listen, keep me in the loop, okay?”
“I will.” Angie sounded relieved. “It’s a good feeling toknow we’ve got a place to go to when we get there. Do you think Brian will have a problem getting a job? He’sdoing really well with the law firm.” She asked. “I figure I can find somethingto do part time.”
Brian had made junior partner, and Kerry felt pretty surehe’d be all right. If he decided to join Angie, of course. She found it hard tobelieve he’d just abandon her. It wasn’t the Brian she remembered from heryears growing up with him. He’d lived in his older brother’s shadow, but he’dretained a core of decency shedidn’t think.. or didn’t want to think, had disappeared. “I think you’ll befine.” She reassured her sister. “Don’t worry, sis. It’ll work out.”
Angie sighed again. “My other choice is moving home.”
Absolutely a zero choice, no chance option for her. “Hm.”Kerry murmured. “Well, it’s a big house, Ang, and it’s just mom in it now.”
“I know.” Angie said quietly. “She wants me to go livethere, but Ker.. I can’t. I can’t take those oh, so Christian pitying eyes onme twenty four seven.”
“Yeah.” Kerry nodded. “I hear you.”
“I knew you would understand.”
Kerry did, with an internal sympathy that hit right in herguts. “I do. So just relax, talk to Bri, and make the best decision you can,Ang. We’ll work things out if and when you get here.”
“Thanks, Kerry.” Angie replied warmly. “I love you.”
“Love you too, sis. Talk to you later.” Kerry hung up, thenquickly rolled off the waterbed just in case her body got any ideas ofrepeating it’s earlier trick. She juggled the cell phone in her hand as shewent back to the kitchen, deep in thought.
Sometimes, she reflected soberly, it took someone elsesmisfortune to jog you to the reality of your own lack of it.