In the end, they decided against Hooters. Dar suggested a quieter spot, so they could just sit and digest everything that had happened, and so they ended up at the little Thai place near the office in one of the back booths that afforded the most privacy.
Kerry leaned back against the banquette seat, and relaxed a little in the cool air and dim lighting. “Good choice.” She half turned sideways and rested her elbow on the table, propping her head up against her fist. “Wow.” She let out a breath. “I’m wiped.”
Dar folded her hands together and rested her chin on them. Kerry did look tired, she realized, and her eyes were a bit bloodshot. “Been a long week.”
“I vote we sleep in tomorrow.” Kerry picked up her iced coffee and took a sip. “How’s your foot feeling?’
“Eh.” Dar waggled a hand.
“Mm. That about covers how I feel too.” Kerry gave their waitress a smile as she put down a steaming plate of curried shrimp in front of her. “Thanks.”
The woman put down Dar’s meal and then a bowl of fragrant brown rice, giving them both warm smiles before she backed off and left them to eat in peace. “Much as I appreciate Hooters.” Kerry said. “I’m a lot happier to be here.” She scooped some rice onto her plate, and mixed it with some curry sauce.
“Me, too.” Dar turned and motioned to the waitress. “Can we get a couple of glasses of the plum?” She asked. “Thanks.”
Kerry checked her watch. “Isn’t it a little early for that?” She teased gently. “Last time I had alcohol with you this early was when you got cleared at the heart institute.”
“We can handle it.” Dar smiled, remembering that morning with utter clarity. “We went to work after that.”
“Oo yeah. I remember twirling around in my chair for a while counting the seagulls when we got back. I was about as useful as a pig with a PDA.”
“So was I, but it had nothing to do with the damn champagne.” Dar picked up a bit of chicken and ate it. “I was just in there thinking.. ‘man, what can I do to make her hug me again’”
“You were not!”
The waitress put down two glasses of plum wine. Dar lifted hers and toasted Kerry. “I sure as hell was. It’s a damn good thing I turned not to have a heart problem, because mine was flopping around like a beached fish that whole day.”
Kerry picked up her glass and touched her partner’s with it. “Well, I don’t know what mine was doing, because you’d already stolen it and had it somewhere in your desk drawer, I think.” She took a sip of the cold wine, enjoying the sweetness against her tongue and the warmth as it traveled down into her stomach. “We’re such a couple of hopeless mushballs, you know that?”
“Yes, I do know that.” Dar settled down to her lunch. “But I think I like it that way.”
They munched away in a companionable silence for a little while, having learned through experience that eating their food while it was still hot was worth forgoing the pleasure of talking to each other while they were consuming it. Kerry, especially, tended to go off on verbal tangents and since her upbringing would not allow her to chew while speaking, she often ended up with a plateful of chilly ingredients at the end of her meal.
Besides, it gave them a chance to think, and Kerry used that to think about the ship’s engineer. There was no question in her mind that she was going to call the police, but she knew the unspoken question between her and Dar was when she was going to make the call.
Now? If they took the man off the ship, chances were they’d never get to test their solution, and by default, they’d lose the bid.
Kerry knew it was more important to bring the man to justice than for them to win the bid. But she also had enough of her shining altruism knocked off to know that one more day of freedom wasn’t going to make a material difference to anyone and she really had no desire to shoot herself, Dar, and the company in the foot by turning him in before he got the power back on.
She took another sip of wine, allowing it to relax her, and continued working on her plate oblivious of the blue eyes watching her from across the table.
Dar was right. It had been a very long week, and now here at the end of it, she was really feeling the strain. The usual stress of her job combined with the stress of actually doing the nuts and bolts of it, combined with the emotional overload of dealing with all the bullhockey had left her feeling like she’d been run over by one of the eighteen wheel trucks busy delivering to the ships.
She really just wanted to go home.
Ah well. Kerry looked up to find Dar gazing back at her, chin propped up on one fist. “Yeees?”
“Listen.” Dar cleared her throat slightly. “My foot’s killing me, and I’ve got a headache that could drop Godzilla. You mind if we just go back to our place and wait for them to call us when the juice is on?”
Kerry blinked in surprise. “Um.. w.. uh, sure.” She stuttered. “Yeah, sure. That makes sense. No reason for us to stand around the pier, right? We’d probably only end up being the subject or more snitty video.”
“Yup.” Dar drained her wineglass.
“Good idea, Dar.” Kerry felt a distinct sense of relief. “Especially if you’re not feeling well.” She added. “We have to take care of you. Last thing we need is for you to get a bad infection or something.”
“Mm. Yeah.” Dar worked on clearing her plate. “Maybe we can just hang out in the hot tub for a little while. That might help.”
Oo. The thought of the warm water, a cold ice tea, and Dar next to her perked Kerry up considerably. It also did nice things for her mentally, and she finished her last bit of rice with a touch of impatience. “Sounds great.” She wiped her lips. “You going to tell Mark to give us a call?”
Dar had already signaled for the bill. “Sure.” She agreed amiably. “Bet Chino will be glad to see us.”
“Cheebles.” Kerry grinned in reaction. “Yeah, bet she will.” She found herself looking forward to crossing their threshold and getting out of the heat of the day into the placid chill of the condo’s interior. She scooted out from behind the table and followed Dar up to the cashier’s booth, leaning against the taller woman’s shoulder as Dar paid the lunch bill.
She’d gotten past giving her grief about that. Now they generally took turns, since all their joint income was deposited, appropriately, into a joint account. Didn’t really matter then, did it?
They walked out into a blast of sunlight, pulling down sunglasses over their eyes and heading quickly for the car.
Kerry tossed the mail down on the table as they crossed the living room, stifling a yawn as she did so. “We get a lot of junk mail.” She noted. “Hey Cheebles, honey.. c’mere.” She sat down on one of the dining room chairs and greeted their pet, who was dancing from paw to paw in excitement. “C’mere sweetie… I love you. Yeah.”
Dar paused at the door to the bedroom, then ducked inside to rid herself of her hiking boots and their overnight bag, tossing both into the closet with benign disregard. Wiggling her toes against the cool floor, she then unbuttoned her jeans and folded them neatly, tucking them into a wash pile and adding her shirt to them a moment later.
“Huh?” Dar called back. “I’m getting undressed.”
A blond head poked itself around the door microseconds later. “Ooo… can I watch?”
Dar turned and put her hands on her hips, giving her partner a droll look. “Yankee hedonist.”
“Dixie nerd.” Kerry slipped around the door and joined her in the closet, pulling her shirt over her head and folding it over so it could join Dar’s in the laundry bag. She was about to unbuckle her belt when Dar’s hands slipped around her and pulled her close and she abandoned her undressing for some skin on skin contact instead.
“Ungh.” A small sound escaped her as Dar’s fingers traveled gently up her spine, kneading the knots she could feel herself along it. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around Dar, breathing in her scent and reveling in the heat of her body against the cool of the air conditioning. “You are walking wonderful.”
Dar wrapped her arms around Kerry and lifted her up a little, tilting backwards until she felt Kerry’s back relax. Then she let her down and gave her a hug, ruffling the hair on the back of her head as she gave her a kiss on the top of it.
Kerry felt awash in affection. It was a very nice feeling, and she smiled giddily into the skin near Dar’s collarbone. “Boy, that feels great.” She said. “Glad we came home.”
Dar steered her out of the closet and drew her over to the waterbed. She released Kerry’s hand and dropped down onto the bed’s surface, rolling onto her back and regarding her partner with half lidded eyes. “I’m glad too.”
Kerry unbuckled her belt and slid off her pants. She started to fold them, then found them yanked from her grasp and tossed against the far wall. “Hey.”
Dar crooked a finger at her. “C’mere.”
Jesus. Even after all this time, it made her go weak in the knees. Kerry climbed into bed to prevent herself collapsing into it and took a spot next to Dar in the hollow her weight made in the surface. “Okay. I’m here.”
“Know what I was thinking?” Dar rolled half onto her side and traced a teasing line down Kerry’s belly.
Thinking was probably down on her list of things to be doing at the moment. Kerry reached over and threaded her fingers through Dar’s hair, pulling her gently closer and kissing her.
“Ah. Reading my mind.” Dar chuckled. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
It felt amazingly good to be right where she was. The linen was clean, and smelled of sun and sea air. The room was cool and dark, and Dar’s lips were nibbling along the edge of her jaw as her hands stroked Kerry’s skin.
Something occurred to her, however. “Hey.” She whispered. “What about your foot? Shouldn’t we take care of it?”
“It’s fine.” Dar growled softly into her ear.
Oo. “Oh.” Kerry laid her hand along Dar’s cheek. “Was there really something wrong before?”
“You just wanted to come here?”
“I just wanted to take you home.” Dar kissed her on the lips. “And take care of you.”
“Of you.” Dar enfolded Kerry in her arms.
Oh. Kerry smiled giddily for a completely different reason. “Thanks.” She rolled over and snuggled up to Dar, letting her body press against her partners. “I’m not sure what brought that on, but I’m not complaining.”
Dar dismissed the bid without much further thought, assigning it to that category of problems that she had limited control over. Whatever happened now happened, and she wasn’t going to waste time worrying about it when she had something more concrete to worry about wrapped up in her arms right here.
She slid her hands under Kerry’s brastrap and released it, smothering a faint chuckle as Kerry tickled her returning the favor.
Kerry’s hand touched her hip, fingertips sliding under the fabric of her underwear and easing it down. Then her hand stilled, and Dar heard a faint sniffle.
She eased back a bit, cupping Kerry’s cheek and finding the faint dampness of tears sparkling in her eyelashes. “You all right?”
Tired green eyes peered back at her. “Perfect.”
“Yeah.” Kerry turned her head and kissed Dar’s palm, and then let her touch slip lower, giving over her body to the passion building in it.
Everything else would wait.
They ended up passing on the hot tub. Kerry was laying on the couch, one bare knee propping up her diary as she wrote in it when Dar came back from the kitchen folding her cell phone up. “Nothing yet?” The blond woman asked, as she reached out to scratch Chino’s ears.
“Nothing yet.” Her partner confirmed. “And I just spoke to Alastair.”
Kerry nibbled the end of her pen. “Yeah?”
Dar dropped down onto the couch near Kerry’s socked feet. “Yeah. I told him what’s going on.” She paused. “Well, I told him a little of what’s going on. He knows we completed our part of the deal, and that we’ve had a ton of challenges.”
“What does he think?”
Dar slouched down and put her feet up on the coffee table. “He doesn’t understand why this has been such a tough case.”
Kerry put her diary down on her chest and stared at Dar.
“Told you I didn’t get into details.” Dar idly plucked at the toe of Kerry’s sock. “But I thought I owed him a heads up.”
Kerry studied her partner’s expression, which seemed quite relaxed, almost mellow. “Is he worried?”
“Eh.” Dar grunted. “I hinted to him that it might not be a good idea to hang so much off this one. He said it wasn’t Quest he was concerned with.”
“The other guys.”
“Well.” Kerry pressed her foot against Dar’s thigh, pushing gently against her. “All we can do is our best, Dar. I think we’ve done that.”
“Yes.” Kerry sounded quite positive. “Outside maybe me not accepting a dinner invitation here and there, I don’t think there’s anything I would have changed in terms of business decisions. Would you?”
Dar gazed across the living room, staring pensively at the far wall with it’s neatly framed pictures. “Besides socking Quest in the kisser when I first met him, no, probably not.” She admitted. “You’re right, Ker. We did a good job.”
“We did.” Kerry agreed. “We pulled together the bid requirements, implemented them, and achieved our goals within the time limit, despite having to practically Fedex ourselves to hell and back doing it. I say that’s pretty damn good, Dar.”
Dar draped her arm over Kerry’s legs and patted her knee. “Know something?”
“What?” Kerry favored her with an indulgent grin.
“You really did a hell of a job the last few weeks.” Dar responded seriously. “From taking care of that power outage, to setting up the pier, to working with the guys to get everything set. Very well done.”
Kerry smiled even more broadly. “Thanks, boss.”
Dar returned the smile. “I watch you do your job, and it makes me damn proud.”
The blond woman’s nostrils flared a bit, and she shifted, visibly a bit surprised. “Gee, honey.” She murmured. “It really wasn’t that spectacular, y’know.”
The cell phone rang. Dar glanced at it, debating with herself on chucking it across the room. Then she sighed and opened it, checking the caller id and finding Mark’s name there. “Hell.”
“O?” Mark ventured.
Dar’s inner child whined, not wanting to go back to work. “Yes, hello.” She sighed. “They make any progress?”
“Um.. no, listen, Dar.. I think we’ve got, like a big problem here.”
Another one? “And that would be?” Dar gave Kerry a warning look.
“That engineer guy, the one everyone was talking up? He took off.” Mark said. “They can’t find him, and nothing’s getting done here.”
Oh, crap. “When did this happen?” Dar covered the speaker of her cell with her fingertips. “Your fugitive ditched us.
Kerry sat up abruptly, putting her diary aside. “What?”
Mark sounded half disgusted and half embarrassed. “Beats me.. I just heard a couple of them come through here yelling about ten minutes ago. I guess they thought he was getting some parts or something. They’re pretty pissed.. that captain guy actually came off the ship and was looking around.”
Dar took a breath, held it briefly, then let it trickle out of her lips. “Okay.” She finally intoned crisply. “We’ll be right there. See what we can do.”
Kerry swung her legs off the couch and stood up, reciting several carefully enunciated curses that certainly would have surprised her Midwestern family as she headed for the bedroom and presentable clothing.
“Thanks.. see ya.” Mark had the grace to sound apologetic. “I know this sucks, boss.”
“Yeah, it does.” Dar stood up and examined her reflection, then shrugged and sat back down, picking up a sneaker from where it had migrated half under the couch. “But that’s the breaks. See you in a few, Mark.” She closed the phone and dropped it on the table, then concentrated on putting on her shoes. “No, Chino.. you can’t help me. Thanks anyway.” She nudged the Labrador out of the way, getting a wet kiss on the nose in return.
“You going to wear that?” Kerry queried from the doorway.
“What?” Dar got the other sneaker on and carefully tightened the laces around her still tender foot. “There aren’t any holes in it, are there?” She glanced down at her ragged and cropped coveralls.
“Huckleberry Roberts.” Kerry sat down on the loveseat and pulled on a boot, her legs now covered by sedate denim. “Put some pants on, will you?”
“But I already have my shoes on.” Dar frowned. “C’mon. I don’t give a crap. It’s a damn shipyard.”
Kerry gave her a plaintive look, but merely shook her head and continued tightening her laces. It wasn’t that Dar looked bad, on the contrary, the faded shorts overalls were groin stunningly adorable on her, to Kerry’s eyes.
It was just that they were going to work, after all. She spared another glance at her partner, who was once again sprawled on the couch. Oh well. If anyone could carry off being an outraged executive in cutoffs, it would be Dar. “Okay, let’s go.” She stood up and ran her fingers through her hair. “You think he’s really gone?” She asked, suddenly, looking up into Dar’s eyes.
Dar pursed her lips briefly, then she put her hand on Kerry’s shoulder and turned towards the door. “Let’s go find out.” She suggested. “He could have taken off any time before now, Ker.”
“But he didn’t.” Kerry sighed, as she reached for the doorlatch. “God damn it, I don’t want that on my conscience for the rest of my life now.” She walked down the steps and headed for the car. “I’ll drive.”
“Okay.” Dar gave the now woebegone Chino a sympathetic look as she closed the door. “Be good, Chi… we’ll be back soon. Promise.”
Know exactly what you mean. Dar locked the door and followed Kerry’s footprints to the Lexus, getting into the passenger side of the already running car. She settled her sunglasses onto her nose and closed her eyes as she began the familiar process of considering their options.
If, of course, they still had any.
The terminal was in chaos. Now that a good percentage of the IT people had left, the crew had wandered in out of the heat and into the air conditioning and had taken over most of the big room near the back. Most were sitting on the ground with their backs to the walls, some had cards out, and some were merely sleeping, oblivious to the commotion around them.
Mark was behind the desk on the raised platform, and he looked up as the door opened for the nth time, on this instance revealing finally the outlines he was waiting for.
He started around the edge of the platform, then halted, gazing in bemusement at Dar’s more than casual outfit. “Hey boss.” He continued on regardless. “Glad you’re here.”
“I’m not.” Dar told him. “You send everyone else home?”
“Sure.” Mark said. “No sense keeping them here.”
“All right.” Dar looked around the room, giving her head a little shake. “Let’s go find our friend the captain and see what the hell he’s doing about this cluster.” She headed for the back door, clearly expecting them to follow her.
They did. “Hey.” Mark whispered. “She wear that just to tweak these guys?”
“Don’t go there.” Kerry held up a hand.
“Okay.” He cleared his throat. “Missed you guys at lunch.”
Kerry glanced at a sleeping lump of humanity, and realized there were three heads in a variated tangle of sheeting. “Uh.. we did Thai.” She murmured, an eyebrow lifting. “Then we swung by home.”
“Ah.” Mark murmured.
“Wish we were still there.”
Mark looked at her in surprise.
Dar hit the back door and powered through it, angling across the bleached white concrete towards the gangway at the side of the ship. There was little activity around the opening, unlike in previous days. In fact, only a few workers sat around the ground near the ramp, most giving her cursory looks and then doubletakes as they approached.
Okay. So wearing cutoffs that short was a stupid idea. Dar marched up the metal ramp and into the ship, putting that thought firmly behind her. The heat inside the ship immediately vindicated her choice, however, and she heard the grunts of displeasure from her companions as they started up the steps.
It was dark, it was stinky, and she was over it.
Over it, over the project, over the ship, over it’s crew, over the heat, over Quest, and about to go over the top. Just finish it, Alastair had said?
Well, all righty then. She would.
They didn’t have far to go, this time. They could hear the yelling in the atrium as they climbed up the stairs to the seventh deck. Dar headed for the sound, her sneakers giving her stride a touch more bounce than it usually had as she strode through the archway and rounded the center column.
Kerry kept right on her heels, already feeling a touch breathless from the oppressive heat and the fast climb. She hoped whatever Dar had in mind to do she’d do quickly, so they could get the hell out of the ship and back outside where at least there was a little bit of a breeze.
“Are you telling me you don’t have a single person on this damn ship that can get it working!!” Peter Quest was facing off against the captain, his arms flailing in time with his words. “What kind of bullshit is that!”
For once, Kerry found herself in total agreement with the man.
“Come now, Mr. Quest.” The captain, however, remained calm. “You knew when you purchased these vessels, that they were old and their technology out of date. That was no secret to anyone, else why would have gotten them so cheaply?”
Abruptly, Kerry found herself switching sides, as she agreed with the captain wholeheartedly too!
“That’s not the point!” Quest argued. “You’re responsible for keeping the damn things running! That was the deal I made with your prior owners.”
The captain shrugged. “You made the deal with them. Not with me. Or my crew. They are not indentured slaves, Mr. Quest. If they decide to leave, they leave.”
Dar had pulled up near the circular stairway, and now she stood quietly listening. Kerry was glad to join her, putting one hand on the relatively cool brass railing and easing her foot up onto the first step. She was a little surprised that her partner had put a hold on all that angry energy, but she understood that this conversation they were listening to would probably dictate what Dar would do next.
“You have to get this ship running.” Quest stated. “Get one of the engineers off those other ships.”
Ah. Good idea. Kerry complimented him silently.
“Yes, we are attempting that.” The captain agreed. “But they also are busy, and in any case, our electrical systems are not like the others.”
Figures. Kerry sighed.
“Bloody hell!” Quest barked.
“Something like.” The captain seemed unperturbed, despite the fact that he was in full uniform and it was stained horribly with sweat. “My prior company purchased the electrical systems for this vessel from a remainder shipyard in Romania, and they were.. how shall I say.. made in with a horseshoe.”
Quest’s eyes seemed about to bug out. Dar took the opportunity to move closer and join in the conversation. “You mean shoehorn.” She said.
“Ms. Roberts.” Quest almost seemed glad of her presence. “Maybe you can offer some helpful suggestions on how to resolve this.”
“Me?” Dar’s eyebrow cocked. “I’m an IT executive, Mr. Quest. What makes you think I have any suggestions, helpful or otherwise, on how to get forty year old diesel electric turbine converters working?”
“Because your reputation depends on it.” Quest responded. “If you don’t show me the goods, it’s as good as you not doing it.” He held up a hand. “Don’t bother whining to me abut how unfair it all is. I’ve heard it all before.”
Kerry rested her chin on the railing and simply listened.
Dar put her hands on her hips, but her expression was thoughtful rather than pissed off. “Know what I think?” She asked.
Both men looked at her in question.
“I think you’re a horses ass.” Dar remarked. “And you’re not worth my standing here sweating. I couldn’t give a damn if you get this piece of floating garbage working or not.” She exhaled. “I’ll send a bill for my time, my gear, and my removal costs to your headquarters Monday morning. Until then, Mr. Quest, you can most cordially kiss my ass.”
With that, she turned and started heading back to the stairs, extending a hand towards Kerry as she did so. “C’mon, Kerrison.”
Kerry knew her eyes must have been the size of tennis balls by Dar’s expression. She straightened up and started to move towards her, ears still ringing with what she realized was the end of the project, and quite possibly, the end of their tenure at ILS.
No matter what their history, Alastair couldn’t stand by this time. Even she realized that.
“Ms. Roberts!” Quest spluttered finally. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Dar turned her head, expression still quite mild. “Nope.” She clapped a hand on Kerry’s shoulder. “I’ve had enough. Enough of your games, enough of the press, enough of the bullshit, enough of the shady dealings going on around this port. Enough. I did what you asked. It’s not my problem if you can’t produce enough power to see the results. That’s your problem, mister.”
“My problem!” Quest said. “The hell it is! You have to prove you finished, or you don’t make the terms of the deal, Roberts!”
“Your problem.” Dar confirmed, half turning. “ You’re the one who didn’t fulfill the terms of the contract, Quest. Maybe you should read it. You agreed to provide sufficient physical plant for the installation.” Dar gestured at the ship. “ You didn’t.”
“He didn’t!” Quest pointed at the captain. “I had nothing to do with it!”
“I didn’t sign a contract with the captain, Mr. Quest.” Kerry spoke up for the first time. “I signed it with you.” A loophole. Had Dar found really found one? “Dar’s right. It’s not our responsibility to make sure the ship works. It’s yours.”
The captain chuckled.
Quest took a step back, his expression almost stunned.
“So.” Dar said. “When you’ve got your act together, give us a call. I seriously doubt you will.” She added. “And, Quest? You might be able to bluster and bullshit the rest of these people about what you’re going to get from them, but I’ve got a legal department the size of Alaska you’re not going to enjoy dealing with.”
It was a good exit speech, and Dar took advantage of it. She nudged Kerry towards the door and followed, refusing to wait for whatever lame retort she was sure Quest would come up with.
“You’ll look like a fool on television!” Quest shouted. “How about that!”
Lamer than she’d expected. Dar merely shook her head and ducked around the stairwell door, hustling Kerry in front of her. “Jackass.”
“You’re amazing.” Kerry told her. “Have I told you that lately?”
“Am I?” Dar wiped a sheen of sweat off her brow. “It’s just all bullshit, Kerry. Smoke and mirrors. This whole damn thing hasn’t been anything but smoke and mirrors since the moment it started. I just can’t figure out who the hell wins by it.”
“Quest?” Kerry suggested. “He gets systems for his ships.”
“Yeah, but it’s all cosmetic, Ker.” Dar finally put her finger on what had been bothering her. “They’re not upgrading the engines or the mechanics. What the hell are they doing to do with them when they’re done? They can’t keep them in service.”
“Huh.” Kerry skipped off the last step and headed through the hold, now silent and empty. “But.. all this upgrading and all the… wait.” She murmured. “You’re right.. it’s paint, and carpet, and us and wall sconces. Not plumbing or…”
“Yeah.” Dar nodded, as they reached the gangway and started outside, glad of the moderately cooler breeze. “Just what exactly is the whole point here?”
A blast of light hit them, and Dar threw up her arm instinctively to block it. “Hey!”
Kerry stopped behind her, shading her eyes as she stared at the cluster of people on the pier, surrounding the filming crew who had them pinned in a pair of movie lights as they came down off the ship. “What the heck?”
Dar continued walking slowly down the ramp, blinking against the powerful lights as she reached the pier concrete. “What is all this?” She asked, her eyes finding Cruickshank in the crowd. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“No, we sure don’t.” Cruickshank told her, cheerfully. “Now, Ms. Roberts, we understand you’ve completed your install, is that right?”
Dar eyed her warily. “Right.”
“But the ship has no power, so you can’t demonstrate it, right?”
“So, here we finally come down to it.” The reporter said. “Everything that’s gone on for the past few weeks comes down to this. You’re the only ones finished, it’s near sunset, everyone else is killing themselves to get done and now you have to find a way to overcome this one last huge obstacle, and bring it home. Right?”
Dar cocked her head. “No.”
“No?” Cruikshank said. “C’mon, Ms. Roberts. This is where we see that famous never say die, win at all costs reputation of yours. We’re all waiting for it. How are you going to pull this one out?” She asked. “This story has become your story. How you got involved, how you fenced with your rivals, how you overcame all the roadblocks. So, what’s the plan?”
Dar slowly removed her sunglasses, hanging from one ear from her hip pocket. She settled them onto her nose, blocking the harsh light along with the sun. It gave her a moment to think, and a moment to regret thinking because what her mind was coming up with.
“Two hundred extention cords and a fifty pounds of gerbils.” Kerry spoke up unexpectedly. “So, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got exercise wheels to put together. Dar?” She took her partner by the elbow. “We better make sure the plans for those haven’t gotten out.”
Dar kept her silence, allowing Kerry to lead her off through the crowd. She was aware of the rattle of the camera as it turned to follow them, but for once Cruickshank had been caught speechless. They managed to get to the gate and through it before they heard footsteps behind them, and Dar had the presence of mind to slam the gate behind her, hearing it lock. “Ker?”
“Eighty pounds of gerbils? We should really overengineer it a bit just in case. Way our luck’s been running.” Kerry muttered. “You know something? You know what I just realized, Dar?”
“We’re being played.”
Kerry turned her head and looked at Dar. “You knew?”
“I just figured it out.” Her partner admitted. “But it’s the only thing that makes sense. We’re being played. We all are, Shari and Michelle included. This is a scam, Ker.”
“I’m not so sure it is.” Kerry took hold of her forearm and slowed down. “I think..”
They both turned, to see Michelle headed towards them at a jog. From another direction, the Army guy was approaching them. From yet a third direction, Cruickshank and her team had managed to get around the gate and were headed their way.
Kerry exhaled. “We can outrun them.”
“Sure. But it won’t help.” Dar replied. “We’re going to have to come up with a plan.”
“But I thought you told Quest it was his problem?” Kerry said. “Why can’t we just tell people that?”
They could, Dar privately acknowledged. But it was obvious that everyone here was expecting her not to, they were expecting to see a miracle. Her famous resourcefulness. That ILS magic. Alastair expected it. The reporters did.
Hell, Michelle and Shari probably did too.
So what the hell was she going to do? She felt very off balance having to think about coming up with a plan that fixed something that really wasn’t her fault or responsibility. It would play right into Quest’s hands, for one thing.
For another thing….
“Dar?” Kerry lowered her voice. “Do you think Dad would know someone who could fix this?”
Ah. Then again, there was a reason beyond the obvious Kerry was where she was. “Tell you what.” Dar said. “You call and ask him, and I’ll keep these guys busy. Okay?”
“Got it.” Kerry gave her a pat on the side and escaped, angling away from the oncoming crowd towards the terminal. Despite the suspicions that had suddenly erupted in her mind, she focused on this new plan anyway. If it turned out to be what she’d thought…
Well, they’d look good, at any rate.
The office was a definite refuge. Kerry slowly moved the cell phone around in a circle as she waited for Andrew to call her back. It was quiet in the room; she’d shut the door for some privacy, and the only sound was the hum of the computers and the cycling of the central air.
She wondered how Dar was getting on out there with the press and their adversaries. Dar could easily handle anything this lot was likely to throw at her, but Kerry was bothered with a niggling sense that both she and her partner were missing out on one major clue in this whole crazy scene.
A soft chime caught her attention, and she swiveled around to review the screen on the pc next to her. Her mail inbox was up, and a new message was blinking placidly on the top line of it. Kerry clicked on it, seeing the name of their chief of security in the send column.
Inside, she found a terse recap of the breach from the other night, that had allowed the army woman to gain access to their systems. Kerry reviewed it, decided there was nothing new there she didn’t know, then clicked on the attachment.
Another standard process, current background checks on the cleaning staff, the cleaning supervisor, and last but not least, their invasive little friend.
Curious, Kerry opened the last one and reviewed it. After a moment, she leaned forward and stared at the screen, her brow creasing over her fair eyebrows. “What the..” She read the first section again, and then went back up to make sure the name on the report was right.
She had expected the report to outline the woman’s military background, of course. They wouldn’t pull any records besides that from the government, but that would be there, plus any outstanding police activity.
But this report didn’t show anything of the kind. There was no mention of the military at all. Kerry sat back. “Well, I know she’s on the creepy side of the service.. but sheesh.” She gazed in puzzlement at the report. According to what she was looking at, the woman was no more an Army officer than Kerry was.
In fact, it was hard to say what she was, aside from the fact that she’d gone to college for drama.
Kerry scrolled down the report to where it listed clubs and affiliations. Thespians and Kiwanis. Could the security department have made a mistake? She scrolled back up and looked at the photograph pulled from the woman’s driver’s license record, and compared it to the shot they’d taken that night.
Well, given the usual horrendousness of government photos, it was the same woman. So, was her military career just completely obscured by it’s secretive nature, or…
Or was it much simpler. Kerry clicked on the mail and forwarded it, typing in an address and a short, but very polite request. She sent it on it’s way and closed the attachment. “Lets see where that gets us.” She decided, then on a whim, opened another new message, this time to the security chief. “And, while we’re at it, let’s check out her boss.”
She sent that request as well, and then settled back in her seat, moderately satisfied. “Something stinks like a three day dead mackerel here, and darned if I’m not going to find out what it is.”
Dar and Michelle sat on the steps of the terminal, while the filming crew waited in the shade nearby. “So.” Dar examined her kneecap. “What can I do for you?”
“Decided on civility for a change?” Michelle asked.
Dar chuckled mildly. “You come over here to ask me for something, and start off by insulting me. Ever consider maybe that’s why you never get anywhere?”
Michelle sighed. “You bring out the bitch in me, Dar. What can I say?” She said. “You bring out the bitch in everyone.”
“Ah, that’s right.” Michelle shifted and extended her short legs, crossing them at the ankle. She’d finally given up on the power suits, and was wearing crisply pressed black chinos that were sadly covered in dust and pier grime. “Your little missus. How could I forget? You do know everyone thinks she’s just a pretty ornament of yours.”
Dar realized Michelle was trying to piss her off. She wasn’t sure exactly why, but she was determined not to let her succeed. It wasn’t easy, however. “Yeah, most people do think that.” She agreed. “Until they either get slam dunked by her or she saves their ass.”
“Mmph.” The red-haired woman grunted.
Dar waited a moment more, then retrieved a weed from between the cracks in the cement slabs and plucked its leaves contentedly. “So, let me ask again. What do you want?”
“I want to make a deal.”
“Call Monty Hall. Maybe he’ll let you squeeze by without a candle up your ass.” Dar suggested. “Michelle, no deals. We’re down to the last day of this damn charade… just let it play out.”
Michelle appeared to consider this. She circled her knee with both arms and gazed out across the dusty parking lot. “I can’t just let it play out. I’m not going to be able to finish this thing without help. Your help.”
“My help?” Dar’s voice rose incredulously.
Michelle sighed. “It’s a bitch being so damn wonderful, isn’t it?”
“What in the hell do you need my help for?”
The red-haired woman half turned, her expression acknowledging the irony of the situation. “We can’t get that damn satellite working. The idiots who installed it have been at it for four days, and they’re just clueless. Their bosses are clueless. The people on the other end of the satellite are clueless. It just won’t work.”
Dar’s eyebrows crawled up her forehead to lodge somewhere near her hairline. “And you think I can?” She asked, with a slight chuckle.
“Yup. I do.” Michelle confirmed. “You got yours going. No one else has gotten that far yet.”
“No one?” Dar looked around the port, at the stolidly perched ships around it. “You’re kidding me.”
“Nope. We had a big meeting last night. Don’t ask me why anyone thought it would be a good idea to get forty people who really disliked each other, and who’d been sitting in the hot sun all day in a room without gags, but we did.” Michelle reported. “With the cameras. Could only have been better television if you’d been there, trust me.”
Dar scratched her ear, momentarily at a loss. “Okay.” She let her hand rest on her knee. “So, you want me to come fix your satellite, so you can..”
“Finish. Beat you. Leave. Get the hell out of this mudbowl. Yes.” Michelle nodded. “Don’t worry. You’ll get full credit for it with the tv people. Starring role, they’ll get you on camera saving our asses. Great stuff.”
Dar got up and dusted her legs off. She was aware of the close scrutiny of the television people, and she suspected she was being filmed by the busy cameraman.
“C’mon Dar. I know theres an innate sense of fairness in there somewhere.” Michelle also got up. “You know this has been the worst of the worst. You know you can’t beat our pricing, because whatever it takes to get this bid, I’ll do it. You can lowball me, but everyone’s gonna know you did, because we all know how much it cost you to pull off that stunt yesterday, and all the rest of the bull crap this whole week. At least you come out of it with great press for being the hero. What do you say?”
“What do I say?” Dar repeated. A motion caught her attention, and she looked up to see Kerry exiting from the terminal, pausing, spotting her, and breaking into a jog in their direction. Something about her expression made Dar wait, and as she came closer she could see those green eyes snapping with indignation. “Uh oh.”
“Uh oh?” Michelle looked up at her, puzzled, then she realized what Dar was staring at. She got up just as Kerry reached them. “Ah.”
“Those piece of shit mother pluckers.” Kerry stated as she came to a halt.
Dar blinked. “Um..”
Kerry turned and pointed at the television crew. “It’s all been a fake, Dar.”
“What?” Dar and Michelle both spoke at once.
“We’re in a bloody twisted farce of Candid Camera.” Kerry said. “It’s all the television people. They’re behind it. They’re paying Quest off big time and that guy from the Army? He’s an actor!”
“He’s an actor, Dar. So is that crazy woman I found in your office.” Kerry said. “I just got a note from Gerry Easton.. he checked them out for me. They’re no more Army officers than Chino is.”
Dar put a hand on Kerry’s shoulder. She could feel her partner’s entire body shaking with outrage. “Are you saying this whole damn thing was staged?”
“Yes.” Kerry said. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Those people were hired to break into our office and make a scene, Dar. That’s why they didn’t really know what went on there, and they couldn’t explain what they were after.”
Dar appeared thoughtful. “Huh.”
Michelle grabbed her head with both hands. “Wait. Wait Wait. This is nuts.” She said. “This bid is real, those freaking ships are real…c’mon, now., Kerry.”
Something clicked. “No.” Dar put her hands on her hips. “It’s not nuts. It explains a lot.”
Michelle was still holding her head. “Well, maestro, then explain it to me, because I just don’t get any of this at all.”
Dar made a decision. She tapped Michelle on the shoulder. “C’mon.” She said. “Let’s go back into our office here, and have a chat. In private.” She turned and headed back for the terminal, a still bristling Kerry at her side.
After a moment, Michelle followed, catching up to them on the steps and not looking back at the cameras even once.
“Okay, show me.” Dar circled Kerry’s desk chair and perched on the edge of the desk itself. “I’ve been kicking myself trying to figure out why nothing’s been adding up.”
Michelle took a seat at the next desk, and watched attentively.
“Here.” Kerry clicked on her mail, then got up and got out of Dar’s way as she slid into the mildly squeaking chair. She traded places, perching on the desk as her partner moved the mouse impatiently, scrolling through the long, and somewhat detailed messages. “Bloody little pissant buggers.”
Michelle snorted softly. “You Midwestern repressed types.”
“I got over that.” Kerry replied, folding her arms over her chest. “I can’t believe this crap. Didn’t you pick up on the slimy fakeness – you guys have been in bed with those camera people for weeks.”
“Damn.” Dar shook her head.
“Well.” Michelle crossed one leg over the other. “You know, Dar. I didn’t really expect to find out that you’re the nice one of your little partnership.”
“Toldja.” Dar muttered.
“Told her what?” Kerry asked. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s been a lousy month, and a lousy week, and a lousy day. Finding this out at the end of it just sucks.”
Dar reached over and patted Kerry’s thigh. “Easy, Ker.”
“Okay, so let me get this straight.” Michelle changed course. “You’re telling me that you think this whole deal is one big made for television melodrama?’ Her tone was incredulous. “You do realize how insane that sounds, right?’
Dar sent the mail to the printer. “Yeah.” She turned and leaned back. “Problem is, Ker’s right. That Army captain who was hanging out with you all this morning’s a fake. Got his security records right here.”
“What was he doing here this morning?” Kerry suddenly asked.
Michelle drummed her fingers on the chair arm, the nails clattering softly against the padding. “He said he was evaluating the technology we were all using, on behalf of the government.” She admitted. “Sounded like something the military might do. After all, we all pretty high tech.”
Michelle got up and peered over her shoulder. “Pardon me for being nosy.”
Dar handed her the sheet from the printer. “Don’t strain your eyes. Here.”
“I have a headache.” Kerry sighed. “Dar, I’m going to get a soda. You want?”
Kerry slid between the chairs and headed for the door, fishing coins from her front pocket as she left. Dar rummaged around in her mailbox for a few minutes, leaving Michelle to read the report in peace. She read Gerry’s answer, hearing her old friend’s gruff voice quite clearly in the words and reflecting that Gerry really had handled her coming out to him a lot better than she’d anticipated.
He’d seemed somewhat disappointed, but, she realized, it wasn’t so much in her as in the fact that she and Gerry’s son would never be getting married to each other. That touched Dar, because Gerry had always treated her like an adopted daughter, and when they’d been at odds over the Navy base she’d really felt it.
Even more so than with Chuckie.
Ah well. “So.”
“So.” Michelle wrinkled her nose. “Well, frankly, that actually does suck, Dar. Your Kerrison was right. This guy’s fake as a perfect nose on South Beach.” She tossed the report on the desk. “But I don’t get it. You knew about him before this..what’s up with that?”
“You didn’t think it was a little odd for him to show up?”
Michelle shrugged both shoulders, and made a face. “Given what we’ve had here the past week, with the EPA, and Customs, the police, immigration, the Coast Guard.. no, frankly. I didn’t think it was strange at all, or at least, no stranger than anything else that’s gone on here.”
Michelle did have a point there, Dar had to concede. “He showed up at that damn show in Orlando.” She paused, considering her words. “I thought he’d picked up on that security seminar I did.”
Michelle snorted in mild amusement.
Dar got up and paced around the small office, restlessly wishing Kerry would return. “He wanted to buy out some new technology I was working on.”
“What a surprise.”
Dar turned. “He ended up getting someone to sneak inside our office, pretending to be a cleaning person.”
The red-haired woman laughed, covering her eyes. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No.” Dar went to the equipment rack and studied the machinery mounted in it. “Tried to put some pressure on us with that, saying it showed lack of security for the government..”
“Well, not if there’s no government traffic going through the Miami office, no.” Dar remarked dryly as she turned and crossed her arms. “Apparently he forgot to do his homework. Anyway… I got him to back off, but the whole thing just didn’t make any sense.”
“Still doesn’t” Michelle got up and prowled after Dar. “I just can’t believe this whole thing’s a setup. It’s just impossible.”
Dar settled back against the desk and ticked off points on her fingers. “You have four ships.” She said. “All of them are wrecks.”
“Yeah, but, they’re being fixed over.” Michelle objected.
“Only on the surface.” Dar leaned forward a little. “Think about it. New carpet, new paint, new wallpaper.. same old engines, same old machinery, same old crappy plumbing.”
“Heard you had a problem with that.” Michelle smirked.
Dar looked at her.
“Okay.” Michelle held up a hand. “I get your point… so, they’re only doing cosmetic changes. So what?”
“So what?” Dar’s voice rose in incredulity. “What the hell do you think they’re going to do with the damn things when they’re finished with the frills? They can’t sail them in the US. They don’t meet maritime code, much less public health! They’ve got kettles in the kitchens older than I am!”
Michelle appeared puzzled. She folded her own arms. “You know that for sure?”
Dar rolled her eyes.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Navy brat.” The other woman said. “Okay, well, maybe Quest was going to do that next.. maybe he got funding to do the cosmetics first.”
The door opened and Kerry returned, bearing several bottles. One she handed over to Dar. “Cruickshank is outside, wanting to know where you two were. I kicked her out of the building.”
Dar examined her offering with interest. “Double fudge Yoohoo?”
“What?” Michelle started forward. “Hey, you shouldn’t piss that woman off.. you know she’s got all our asses on tape and she can… what the hell’s wrong with you, Stuart? You lost your mind or the vestiges of common sense you used to have?”
“Both are intact thanks, but then, I guess we weren’t being paid off by them so I have less to lose by being a meanie.” Kerry replied evenly.
Michelle stopped on the way to the door and looked at her. “Who told you that?” She demanded.
Kerry merely smiled, and took a sip of her soda.
“It’s not a payoff.” Michelle told her stiffly. “It’s an all access fee.”
Dar started laughing, almost spitting a mouthful of her delightfully chocolate beverage across the room.
“It is.” Michelle insisted. “They wanted twenty four hour access to us, well, they got it. But at a price.”
Kerry patted Dar on the back. “Easy, hon.” She was chuckling herself, though. “I guess that explains why we’re behind in this whole scheme… we’ve been chasing her ass away from us from day one.”
“Hey, it’s subsidizing the work.” The red-haired woman said. “It’s going to make *MY* bid pretty damn unbeatable, so you can stop laughing now, wonderkinder.” She headed for the door again, shaking her head.
Dar wiped her eyes. “Michelle, you ass. The bid’s a fake. What the hell difference does it make what your numbers are? You don’t get it. You’re not going to get a contract. There is no deal. It’s all for television!”
Michelle paused with her hand on the doorlatch. “You don’t know that.”
“We do, and you know it too. You’re not stupid.” Kerry said. “C’mon, Michelle. You called me on my common sense… where’s yours?”
Their erstwhile adversary stood in silence for a bit, her eyes flicking between them as she considered.
Dar and Kerry waited side by side, sipping their drinks and obvious in the solidarity of their partnership. “How is that?” Kerry inquired, indicating the bottle.
Dar offered her a taste, tipping the beverage to her lips.
“Mm.” Kerry considered. “Definitely chocolatier than the regular kind.”
“I like it.”
Michelle turned fully and leaned her back against the door. “You know something? You two are obnoxiously goopy.”
“Kiss my ass.” Dar replied pleasantly. “At least we don’t act like two biddies at a cockfight.”
Even Kerry blinked. “Pithy, sweetheart.” She bumped shoulders with Dar. “Very pithy.”
Dar shrugged. “Are we done posturing? You want to work with us to end this without everyone looking like jackasses, or do you want to leave?” She asked Michelle. “Pick one. But make it fast.”
Michelle definitely looked both tempted and very frustrated. It was an odd mixture on her face. “Why in the hell should I trust you?” She suddenly asked. “You could be just looking to screw me over.”
Ah. Good question. Dar took a mouthful of her soda, rolling it around a minute before she swallowed it.
“After all, wouldn’t it be to your advantage to have me suddenly back out of my deal?” Michelle asked shrewdly. “What if you’re the one who’s scamming, this time, and you’ve just fed me a lot of BS?”
Kerry put her drink down and walked over to Michelle. “Sure, we could be doing that.” She agreed, stopping just short of the other woman. “I could have made up that email, and we could be lying.” She put her hands on her hips. “But you know what, Michelle? We aren’t.”
“So you say.”
Kerry tilted her head and gazed down at her, enjoying the experience with a good deal of guilty pleasure. “Think about it. If what we’re saying is true, then the only purpose of what Quest did is to make all of us look like fools.”
It was apparent that the notion had occurred to Michelle, and her face twisted into a wry grimace. “That’s one interpretation of what could happen.” She answered. “However, hypothetically speaking, if this crazy story you came up with were true.. what do you intend on doing about it?”
Gotcha. Kerry smiled at her, with a touch of genuine warmth.
“And why would you want my cooperation?” Michelle added cannily.
“Because those television people made us the story.” Dar interjected from her spot across the room. “So if we’re going to get out of this without looking like crap, we’ve got to do it together.”
Michelle gave her a look of patent disbelief.
“Trust us.” Kerry said, catching her eye and holding it.
“You’ve got to be kidding”
“Trust us.” The blond woman repeated. “Or we’ll both end up screwed and you know it.”
Michelle studied those clear green eyes for a long moment. Then she turned and opened the door. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, I’d start looking for a plan b.” She left, and closed the door after her without looking back.
Kerry returned to Dar’s side and sat on the desk, kicking her feet out idly. “Do we have a plan b?”
Dar drained her bottle of Yoohoo. “Ker, we don’t even have a plan a yet.”
“This changes every damn thing.”
“God damn it.”
They went outside, finding a place in the shade in front of the terminal where a stone bench and table were perched. Dar took a seat on the unevenly slanted bench and rested her elbows on her knees, gazing thoughtfully back at the ship as Kerry joined her.
For a little while, they just sat there together, watching the foot traffic pass in front of them. There was a slight breeze, enough for the heat to be not unbearable, and the soft sound of nearby crickets was almost soothing.
Kerry shifted a little, bringing her shoulder into contact with Dar’s. She propped her chin up on her fists and rocked back and forth a trifle, swaying them both.
Dar turned her head, and then leaned over and gave Kerry a kiss on the top of her shoulder.
Kerry smiled, and rested her head against Dar’s.
“Did you hear from dad?” Dar asked, after a few more quiet minutes.
“Not yet, no.” Kerry replied. “But it was kind of a bizarre request, so maybe he can’t find anyone.”
“Maybe.” Dar agreed. “Should we call him and tell him to stop looking?”
Kerry was quiet for a few breaths. “Well, I guess.” She said. “There really is no point in doing this anymore. Is there? Can we just.. go home? What are we going to do, Dar?”
Dar stuck her lower lip out, then scrunched her face into a wry expression. “That’s what I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out.”
“Hm. Yeah, me too.”
“I just have really no idea how to turn this around. What the hell are we going to do?” Dar asked. “Do we just call Quest over and say forget it? Call the press? Call the Marines? How do we get out of this without looking like total idiots?”
Kerry watched a snail make it’s leisurely way across the concrete between her boots. “Well, we could play along with it.”
“Yeah, my feelings too, but you did ask.” The blond woman said. “I mean, if we did play along, and we got all our stuff done and all that, what’s the worst that could happen? The television show would just show us doing what we do.”
“Mmph.” Dar grunted.
Kerry waited, but the look of stubborn disagreement didn’t fade for her partner’s face. She exhaled, understanding the emotion behind it. “Okay, so, what does blowing them out of the water get us?”
“Immense personal satisfaction.” Dar replied in a decisive tone.
Kerry sighed. “Aside from that.”
Dar was quiet for a minute, then she shifted. “It lets us turn the tables and not let it be seen that they pulled one over on us completely.” She said. “Think about it, Ker. Here they all are, laughing their asses off at us behind our backs.”
“So, does it look better for us to have them figured out, and play them in the end rather than be the ones who have to stand there like jackasses when they decide to reveal themselves?” Dar asked. “I think I’d feel a lot better about how this comes out, regardless of how it comes out, if I can salvage at least a little of my dignity.”
Dar was right. Kerry could feel it, and she found herself nodding in agreement even before her partner stopped talking. “Okay, so where do we start?” She asked. “I don’t think we should just come out and tell them we’re on to them. Or should we?”
From a personal standpoint, Dar liked that idea. It meant the entire ordeal would be effectively over, and they could just go home. She really wanted that to happen, because frankly, the project was seriously getting on her nerves.
Unfortunately, Kerry did have a point, and she didn’t think just blowing them out of the water was a good strategic idea either. Also, it didn’t really satisfy her need for some revenge on Mr. Quest and his personal circus.
Ah well. “No, I don’t think we should just spill their little story.” Dar said. “Let’s think about it a minute.. what’s the purpose of what they did? To get a good piece of television, right?”
Kerry shrugged. “I suppose. Though a show about a bunch of geeks running wiring.. I gotta wonder what demographic that’s aimed at, hon.”
“Eh.” Dar looked around. “Miami, sun, fun, bare-chested sailors, lesbians… probably be a hit.” She remarked in a droll tone. “But the point is, they’re hoping to get a fight to the finish, right? All of us going full out until midnight – maybe even a couple more cat fights along the way.”
“So what if we all just cooperate and work together instead? Help each other to finish, so that everyone ends in a tie?”
Kerry looked at her. “Sweetheart, you know I love you with all my heart, but do you think you can really get all these people to do that?”
Dar shrugged. “I dunno. Haven’t tried yet.”
“Yeesh.” Kerry rested her head against Dar’s shoulder again. “Well, I guess we can give it a try… but if Michelle blows us off, that kind of blows that up, right?”
“Right. However.” Dar nudged her.
Kerry looked up, and saw Michelle and Shari headed in their direction. “You think they’re going to cooperate with us?”
Dar studied the oncoming women. “Possibly.” She got up and ran her hands through her hair, then let them fall to rest on her hips as she waited for their adversaries to arrive.
Kerry got up and came to her side, but her cell phone rang as she did so. She opened it, and glanced at the caller ID. “It’s dad.” She murmured, before she answered it. “Hi, dad.”
“Hello there, kumquat.” Andrew answered. “You all doing all right?”
Kerry eyed the oncoming devilishly dykish duo. “Oh, fine, dad.. you? Have any luck?”
“Ah do believe I might have.” Andrew sounded pleased with himself. “Got me a feller used to hang around on subs with me and he’s willing to poke an eyeball at that damn thing.”
“Great.” Kerry said. “Are you coming over here?”
“Yeap, that we are. You by that concrete pillbox of yours?”
Kerry chuckled. “We’re here. See you in a bit.” She closed the phone hastily and cleared her throat, wondering what would be left on the steps when he got there, if anything could be judged by the look on Shari’s face as she headed for Dar.
Left of Shari, of course.
“Well?” Dar asked, as Michelle and Shari stopped in front of them. She noted Shari’s skeptical expression, but realized suddenly that other than that, the sight of her old lover no longer held the slightest emotional charge for her.
It was an interesting revelation, given the circumstances. It was seldom that Dar actually got to experience a moment of personal growth when it happened, but she was actually glad she’d gotten a chance to this time.
“Michelle’s convinced this bullshit story of yours is true.” Shari said, bluntly. “I think she’s nuts, and I think you’re a fucking liar.” Like Michelle, she’d given up on business formal, but she’d opted for a canvas colored outfit that didn’t show the dust quite as much.
“And you’re here because?” Dar inquired.
“If you think I’m going to let you rob us of this bid, you’re dead wrong, Dar.” Shari warned. “I don’t know what your game is this time, but I’m going to sink you, no matter what it is.” She advanced and stuck a finger out, pointing it at Dar’s chest. “You are not going to bullshit me or intimidate her. Got me!”
Dar waited for the shout to fade. She cocked her head to one side. “And you’re here because?” She repeated mildly, allowing a hint of a smile to cross her lips.
Kerry folded her arms to prevent the temptation to whack Shari from getting the better of her.
“You’re not listening to me.” Shari took a step closer and this time, poked her finger right into Dar’s chest.
“You’re not saying anything intelligible.” Dar replied. “But if you don’t want to end up in Jackson, take that finger back.”
“You don’t scare me.” Shari scoffed, leaving her hand where it was.
“That’s your problem.” Dar reached up and fastened her fingers around Shari’s wrist. “I should scare you.” She tightened down suddenly, the tendons on her arm jumping.
“Jesus.” Michelle started forward, only to have Kerry put a hand out and stop her.
Shari tried to pull her hand back, but found it wouldn’t budge. The skin on it was starting to turn red, and as Dar’s grip clenched down further, the veins popped out on it.
“Let me the fuck go.” Shari yanked her arm back. It got her nowhere, but offbalance. Dar’s body didn’t even quiver- her half extended arm stayed still as iron, the curve of her biceps very visible under her tanned skin.
Now, Dar stepped closer and pinned her with both icy eyes. “Now you listen to me.” She growled softly. “You want to cut the crap? Fine. Cut the crap, Shari. Either you want to cooperate with me, or you don’t. If you don’t, get out of here. If you do, then shut up, and just start being a part of the solution instead of a windbag excuse for a person that you are.” She released Shari’s arm and stepped back, and then she waited. “Choose. Now.”
Kerry let her hand drop, and returned it to it’s place across her chest as she waited also. There was nothing she could add to the situation, no words of wisdom that could help, or in fact, any words at all that could do anything productive, though she could come up with some that would probably degrade the confrontation to a fistfight.
Disconcertingly, she really wanted it to become a fistfight. She really wanted to punch Shari, and wipe that obnoxious look right off her face. It shocked her, a little.
Shari stared at her hand, which was still an angry red, with vivid marks where Dar’s fingers had been. She looked back up at Dar’s face, which was still and watchful and as serious as a heart attack.
“Just think.” Kerry found herself speaking up anyway. “If what we’re saying is right, and you cooperate with us, we all end up winning. If you don’t..” She shrugged a little. “We’ll win anyway.”
Shari really looked like she was sucking a lemon. “What if you’re lying?” She addressed Kerry, no longer looking at Dar at all. “How in the hell can I be sure you’re not just taking us for a ride?”
Kerry smiled at her. “You can’t. You just have to either trust us, or not. But if you look at the facts, I think you can see the truth. You’re not stupid.”
Michelle’s nose wrinkled, and she rubbed her face with one hand.
Shari flexed her hand, then let it drop to her side. “All right.” She finally said, in a quiet tone. “You’re right. I’m not stupid, and I’ve been saying something’s stank around here for a while now. I just thought it was you.” She regarded Dar coldly. “But over the last day, I’ve started thinking something smells even worse than you do, and if I have to put up with you to find out what it is and kick it’s ass, then I will.”
A frosty silence fell. Kerry broke it by leaning over and sniffing Dar’s neck delicately. “Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I love the way you smell.” She remarked.
Dar puffed a bit of air into Kerry’s bangs. “Thanks.” She took a breath, letting her jangling nerves relax a bit. “Now that all the bullshit’s over, I suggest we go somewhere not out in a public parking lot and figure out where we go from here.”
“Good idea.” Michelle finally chimed in. “Nothing South of the Mason Dixon is neutral territory, so why don’t we go find an anonymous dive with enough table space to have a meeting at.” She faced Dar. “I’d ask your other half to pick a spot, but the last time sucked.”
Kerry had the grace to look mildly abashed. She clasped her hands behind her back, and gazed off into the sunlight.
Dar remained silent for a moment. “Not smart to go far.” She commented. “I know a place about ten minutes from here. It’s quiet, and there’s space to work.”
Shari looked suspicious, but Michelle nodded. “Sounds all right.” She agreed. “Directions?”
“Just follow us.” Dar laid a hand on Kerry’s back. “It’s our place.”
“Ah.” Michelle murmured. “Isn’t this just one of life’s bowls of cherries?” She took Shari’s arm as they followed. “And what kinds of pits are we getting ourselves into, hm?”
Shari snorted, but kept her mouth shut.