“Okay, okay okay.” Elena chased them down the gangway. “Let me get this straight.”
“That’s your first mistake.” Kerry muttered. “Nothing in this is straight.”
“Especially us.” Dar remarked, muffling a grin.
“You are telling me that this entire thing, all these boats and all you guys, this whole thing, all of it..is one huge Alan Funt stunt?” The Herald reporter sounded utterly incredulous. “Are you insane?”
“We’ve wondered that over the last few weeks.” Kerry admitted. “But no, we’re not kidding. It really is a made for television multiple Mongolian cluster poot.”
Elena grabbed hold of Kerry’s arm and hauled her to a stop. Kerry turned around, and Dar, sensing there was no motion at her back, also stopped and turned.
Seeing her partner being accosted, she marched back in the other direction.
“Easy, slugger.” Elena held her free hand up to Dar. “Now you two listen to me.” She added. “Do you realize the scoop you just handed over? How amazing a story that is? So I have to be sure it’s true, because when I phone this one in, my editor’s underwear’s going to spin round three times and knit itself into a bootie.”
Kerry was impressed with the colorful speech. “Sure, we know that.” She answered. “After all, you looked out for us locals, stands to reason we’d return the favor, right?”
The reporter looked from Dar to Kerry. “It’s really true?”
“So.. what’s your plan then.. what are you guys doing?” Elena asked. “You just fixed something on their ship, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. I..”
“Dar.” Kerry reached past the reporter and grabbed hold of her partner’s arm. “Look.”
They looked over the railing to the pier. Shari was leading the filming crew out, heading for the ship with a determined expression. Quest appeared from the left and hurried over to her, meeting the group of them at the end of the gangway. “What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on here?” Shari turned to Quest. “You gave us a challenge, and we beat it. Now it’s time to show it off to you, and let the world see what we can really do.”
“Dar!” Kerry’s jaw dropped. “You just fixed it for them, and now that…”
The reporter rested her hands on the railing. “So, I guess she’s not in on the teevee plan?”
“She is.” Dar experienced a sour taste on the back of her tongue. “But I guess she decided to take the low road. Damn.”
“Stop her.” Kerry urged. “C’mon, Dar.. you can’t let her take the credit for what you did!”
“Whoa.” Elena was behind her, snapping pictures.
Should she just let them do what they wanted? No, Dar supposed she really couldn’t. With a disgusted sigh she edged past Kerry and the reporter and headed back down the walkway towards the ship. “I’m probably going to have to jump down off this thing too. That should make some good video.”
Below, Shari marched up the gangway, the camera crew following her. Quest waited at the end of the gangway, watching them go by with a bemused expression on his face. “Guess this is the ending you were looking for.” He remarked to Cruickshank as she passed.
“Well.. I’ll take it.” The reporter said. “We’ll need to go to the others after this and get some reaction shots.. don’t tell anyone until we do. I want to see their faces.”
Dar growled softly. “See this, you little.. “ She picked a spot near the end of the walkway and put her hands on the rail.
Kerry measured the distance from the second floor walkway to the ground and sped up, her hands reaching out to grab hold of Dar and prevent a possible vault over the railing to the ground. “Oh, bububhhh.. w..”
Dar stopped unexpectedly. Kerry crashed into her. “Hey!”
“Shh.” Dar pointed. Now, closer to the ship, they spotted Michelle in the gangway entrance, standing with her hands on her hips blocking the way.
“Can I ask what’s going on here?” Michelle called out.
Shari stopped, and regarded her warily. “We’re going to show Mr. Quest our results.”
Kerry wedged herself in behind Dar, who was leaning her elbows on the railing. She rested her chin on her partner’s shoulder and watched intently. “Here’s where you prove yourself fish or foul, Michelle.” She whispered.
“What results?” Michelle asked.
“The system.” Shari looked at her like she was crazy. “I know it’s done. Rafael came and told me. So let’s go and show it off.” She smiled, clearly expecting Michelle to join in. “Let’s get Mr. Quest in there, show him what he’s paying for, and then.. I’ll buy a round for everyone!”
The cameramen cheered. “You’re on.” Cruickshank agreed, with a smile.
“C’mon.” Shari moved forward and put her hand on Michelle’s arm. “We’ve been working like idiots for weeks for this.. let’s go enjoy it.”
Michelle moved her arm out from under the touch. “Sorry.” She addressed the others. “Rafael was wrong. We’re not ready.” She looked at Quest. “So, I guess you can come back later. Or we’ll call you.”
“Ah.” Kerry breathed into Dar’s ear. “Unexpectedly piscean.”
“What?” Shari barked. “Are you serious?”
Michelle’s expression remained mild. “Sure am.” She laid a hand on either side of the gangway railing, providing a diminutive, but effective roadblock. “After all the hard work, I’d hate to see us fall flat on our faces trying to show it off, hm? Give us a little more time.” She told them. “Then we’ll be ready.”
Cruickshank seemed a little suspicious. “You sure you’re not holding back on us? I heard some of your guys say you were good to go also.”
“Yeah.” Shari said. “Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect.. it’s almost sundown. Let’s get this over with, Michelle.” She lowered her voice and gave Michelle a meaningful look. “We both want that.”
The redhead merely held her ground. “Nope. Sorry.” She said. “I designed this, and I’ll say when it’s ready. Not Rafael, not Julio, and not George Barfing Washington. Me. I say it’s not ready. Everyone got that?”
“Oo.” Kerry leaned on Dar’s shoulder. “About time that side of her showed up.”
“I didn’t know she had a side like that.” Dar mused.
Quest finally shrugged. “As you wish.” He turned and started to walk away. “Just bear in mind, I have finite patience, and we have an agreement to conclude.”
“Yeah.” Cruickshank recouped the situation. “Let’s talk about that deal, shall we?” She motioned the camera forward. The big lights came on, washing the side of the ship in bland silver, blanking out the golden sun. “You paid off Mr. Quest to help you win the bid. Is that it?’
“Yohoho.” Elena chortled softly. “Arr.. there be pirates around here, matey.”
Shari turned. “That’s right.” She replied boldly. “The name of the game is winning, Ms. Cruickshank. That’s what we do. We win.” She added. “Now, excuse us. I need to talk to my… partner.” She moved further up the gangway, forcing Michelle to step back.
“But, wait.” The reporter said. “I’m not finished with you two.”
“You’re finished.” Shari said. She walked off into the ship, taking Michelle by the arm and guiding her inside without any visible protest from the red haired woman. They disappeared into the dark inside of the hold, leaving the reporters outside.
Cruickshank put the microphone down, and the lights went off. She turned and looked at the lead cameraman. “What do you think?”
“I think she’s lying.” The man said, promptly. “I think she’s in cahoots with those other guys.”
The man nodded. “Yeah. Something’s fishy. You said you saw that other woman bringing in some of their equipment? And we saw that other stuff being taken away in that truck.”
“Hm. And we thought we were being so subtle.” Kerry lamented softly.
“Well, I think you’re right.” Cruickshank said. “Something ain’t gelling here. We’ve got all the ramp up film we need to make this story, and now when we’re getting to the critical point – they’re backing off.”
“Right.” The cameraman nodded. “Hey, you think maybe those other guys paid them off? They’ve got the dough.”
Cruickshank tapped the mic against her thigh. “Maybe.” She said. “Let me go talk to the boss. We’ve put too much cash into this ourselves to lose out due to some monkey business.”
“Ook Ook.” Dar hooted softly.
They watched the crew leave, crossing the pier and walking right under the walkway they were standing on. After they disappeared, Dar and Kerry straightened up and looked at each other.
Then they looked at the reporter.
“Okay.” Eleana said. “So, what’s the endgame here, folks? What are you going to get out of this whole shebang? That’s what I want to know. What’s the goal?”
It was a very good question. “To go home.” Kerry answered. “We’ve been wasting our time here for weeks, spending god only knows how much money on this project, putting sweat and tears into it, and for what?”
“Hm.” The reporter said. “Couldn’t you go and get Quest, and take him to your ship, and have them show you guys as the ones that finished everything? Wouldn’t that get you something? Good press? Yes?”
“We could.” Dar agreed, turning to lead the way down the walk to a stairwell in the corner between their ship and this one. “Yeah, we could.”
“So..why don’t you?”
Dar was silent for a few steps, turning her head to watch Kerry’s expression from the corner of her eye. The blond woman was gazing ahead of them with gentle patience, waiting for her to answer for both of them. “What do you think, Ker? Should we just go do it?”
Kerry turned and looked at her, cocking her head a little. “No.” She said. “I don’t want to give those television people what they want. You said it the last time, Dar. The only way we win in this thing, is to take away their goal, not go for ours.”
“So, let me understand this.” Eleana said. “You’re deliberately forfeiting all this fun television notoriety, and wasting all those dollars, just to piss off the filming company for arranging all this?”
Dar considered that. “Something along those lines.” She agreed. “The thing is, I don’t like being played. Neither does Kerry.”
“No one does.” Kerry interjected. “Michelle doesn’t. Shari’s..”
“Just an asshole.” Dar completed the sentence. “So we told the rest of the teams what was up, and promised we’d help everyone finish on time. That gets their projects paid for by Quest.”
“And by everyone finishing at the same time, cooperating like kids in the schoolyard, there’s no drama.” Elena said.
“Not even dyke drama. Yes.” Kerry agreed.
“D’you feel like idiots that they got so far with it before you figured it out?”
Dar chuckled softly. “Yeah.”
They walked down the stairs and headed for the terminal building. “So, why do you think Michelle Graver went along with the plan back there?” Elena asked. “Or was she telling the truth, and they’re not ready?”
“They’re ready.” Dar said.
“You know that for sure?”
“I brought their systems up.” Dar reached for the door handle and pulled the door open, standing back to allow them to enter. “So if Michelle chose to say otherwise, all I can assume is that she just decided to stand by her word.”
“Ah huh.” Elena entered, scribbling notes as she walked. “That surprise you?”
“Oh yeah.” Both Dar and Kerry answered at the same time.
The terminal was mostly empty, just a few techs were sitting around, kicking their heels and waiting for something to happen. ‘Hey, Ms. Roberts..” One of them, standing by the counter with a cell phone in his hand spotted them. “We’re gonna do pizza.. you in?”
The casual nature of the question charmed Dar to the core. “Sure.” She agreed, reminded irresistibly of a much younger time in her life when she’d done what the tech did and lived on pizza and takeout Chinese. “Dominos?
The man nodded. “Yeah.
“Thin and crispy, half vegetarian half meat lovers, extra cheese.” Kerry supplied succinctly. “And dots. Two cokes.”
“You got it, “ The man grinned at her.
Dar walked over to him, tugging her wallet out of her pocket. She removed a card and tossed it on the counter. “Put it on that.” She instructed. “Tell them they get a ten percent bonus if they get it here and I don’t confuse the cheese with a box of rubber bands.”
Elena chuckled, putting her pad down by her side as she stood next to Kerry. “ You two are characters, you know that?” She said. “My boss told me this morning after I let him on some of what was going on, that he wants me to make this a banner story, front page in the business section, in three parts.”
“Yeah?” Kerry said. “Is that good?”
The reporter chuckled. “He doesn’t know the half of it. Wait till I call him.” She said. “Mind if I use your office back there, to do that?”
Kerry glanced at the back of the room, which was echoingly empty. “No, go a head.” She agreed, watching as the reporter walked away from her. She waited a moment, then she headed across the carpet to join Dar, who was sitting on the counter. “Sheesh.”
“Long day.” Dar agreed, with a sigh. “But it’s almost over, sweetheart.”
Kerry smiled at the endearment. “Know what? I’ve really enjoyed working on this with you. Despite everything.”
Dar ruffled her hair. “Likewise.”
They looked up as the front door opened, and Cruickshank entered, with an unexpected Jason Meyer strolling in with her.
“Ah.” Kerry exhaled. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Oh yeah.” Dar muttered. “Big time.”
The two newcomers stopped in front of them. “We need to speak to you.” Meyer said, with little trace of his former attitude in New York. “Can we have some privacy?”
Dar’s eyebrow arched. “Sure.” She slid off the counter and gestured towards the office. “After you.”
Cruickshank also stood back. “Sir?” She addressed Meyer. “Please.”
Sir? Kerry felt the situation tilt radically, and she was suddenly reminded of the test on the ship. Was this another test?
“What the hell was that all about?” Shari rounded angrily on Michelle. “You know damn well this thing’s ready.”
“Bullshit!” Shari said. “What kind of game are you playing now, Michelle?”
“Fuck you.” Michelle enunciated the words carefully. “Like I told Cookie Puss, this is my design, and I say when it’s ready. Not the techs, and not you.” She pulled away and started for the elevator.
“Yeah? How much did she pay you off with?” Shari yelled after. “Or did she promise you a three way?”
Michelle turned at the doorway and looked back at her. “You know what? If she asked me, I would.” She turned and disappeared into the hall.
“Would what?” Shari shouted.
A door slammed, echoing in the hold.
“Doesn’t make any god damned sense!” Frustrated, Shari picked up a discarded tube of cardboard and threw it across the hold, bouncing it off the wall. The heat, and the dirt were getting to her, and she went to the edge of the gangway to get a breath of air.
She hated this place. The stink and the noise of the shipyard made her stomach churn, and as she looked out over the cracked pavement, even the color of the faded building made her sick.
Her attention focused on the gate that separated the pier area from the street. A tall figure had walked to it, opened the lock and entered, and she recognized him immediately as Andrew Roberts. “Asshole.” She muttered, as the big man ambled across the concrete.
How had she missed that, when she’d first seen him? His bastard kid looked just like him, so how hadn’t she figured it out? Same body carriage, same eyes, same kiss my ass attitude. She knew Andrew had been in the Navy, and from what she’d been able to decipher from her brief time with Dar she figured he’d been in some kind of special forces.
Well, he looked like it. He was wearing a tank top, and even though he was no youngster, he had an impressive muscularity that reminded her more than a bit of his daughters. As she watched, a short, furtive figure emerged from the shadows and intercepted him, the little man’s attitude one of craven beseechment.
Andrew halted and looked at him, cocking his head in a listening motion.
Shari squinted a little, looking at the little creep as well. He seemed familiar to her, but she couldn’t think of where from. She walked out onto the gangway and headed towards them, but they saw her approaching and both turned and walked away.
She stopped. “Aw, what in the hell am I doing?” With a sigh of disgust, she turned around and started for the terminal building, with it’s musty if efficient air conditioning.
Halfway there, she stopped, and turned around again. Both Andrew and the other man had disappeared beneath the gantries next to the other ship, but there weren’t many places they could have gone. With a sudden narrowing of her eyes, Shari followed them.
Mark wiped the sweat from his eyes, surveying the work they’d just completed. “Skanky racks.” He commented.
“Yeah.” The tech from ship three answered. “Cheapos.” He put a hand on one stanchion and shook it, demonstrating the relative flimsiness. “Sucks, but they’re squeezing every penny out of this.”
“Uh huh.” Mark flipped the switches on the equipment and watched as the lights began to dance. The fans sounded almost deafening in the small space. “Loud suckers.”
“Glad I don’t have to listen to em.” His companion agreed. “Where the hell did they come from? Johnny said they were hung up in customs coming in.”
“We got them from Telegenics.” Mark said.
“What the F?”
Mark shrugged. “They had extra. My boss kicked them in the ass and made them cough it up.”
The equipment finished flashing and settled down to a more sedate blinking of its many lights. Mark began methodically plugging cables into the front of the device, following some obscure format known probably only to him.
The tech joined him, and they inserted RJ45 jacks without speaking for a while. Halfway through, the tech cleared his throat. “So, what’s it like working for them?”
“Kickass.” Mark replied briefly.
“How long you worked there?”
“Ten years.” Mark answered. “You hear bullshit, bullshit, bullshit about ILS, but for IT jobs, it rocks. You get the best gear, the best new stuff, and cool bosses.”
“When was the last time you brought a firmware bug to your CIO and they fixed it?”
The tech blinked at him.
“In fucking credible.” Mark went back to plugging in cables. He looked up as the door to the small wiring closet opened, revealing Carlos. “Yeah? You done?”
“This is the last one.” Carlos pointed at the machine Mark was working on. “Had some bad fiber patch upstairs, but Manny came over with the terminator and fixed it.”
“Cool.” Mark nodded. “You hear how it was going next door?”
“Manny said he took care of them. Whoever put that backbone in was sucking.” Carlos reported. “He had to reterminate all the strands. It took him a long time.”
“Man, I’m glad we didn’t go with those guys.” Mark muttered. “They were pitching Kerry and telling her they could do it for half price, but what bullshit.”
“But isn’t the whole deal to do this as cheap as possible?” The tech standing next to him queried. “I thought that was the gag, to get the whole contract. Lowball. Right?”
Mark sighed. “Yeah.” He admitted. “That was the whole point, but you know, Kerry just can’t do it. We threw that around when she was looking at the vendor bids.. and it wasn’t cool to compromise on that stuff. We lose contracts all the time cause of that.”
Everyone was silent for a bit. Carlos was leaning in the doorway, scrubbing his hands and working a splinter out of the palm since their was no room in front of the switch for more than two people to plug things into it.
“So, is that cool?” The tech finally asked. “I mean, that’s why Telegenics is so big now, right?”
Mark was quiet for a few moments, gazing at the switch as he thought. “For business? I think it’s not really that cool.” He finally said. “But for me, yeah, it’s cool because I like to feel cool about stuff I put my name on. I don’t put my name on crap, and neither does she.”
“Huhh.” The tech went back to plugging.
“This whole thing is getting so crazy.” Carlos picked up the conversational ball. “I really can’t figure out what is going on.”
Mark snorted. “Join the club.”
The reporter was nowhere to be found. Kerry looked around the small office, then shrugged and closed the door behind her as she followed Dar and the two newcomers into the room. Maybe Elena had stepped outside instead of into the close, somewhat depressing space, and she could hardly have blamed her.
Dar took a seat on the top of one of the desks, trading the comfort of the desk chairs for the advantage of height as she faced Meyer and Cruickshank. She braced a casual foot on he chair though, and rested her forearm on her knee.
What role should she play? Kerry wondered, knowing she had only seconds to decide. Sometimes she and Dar swapped positions, and she took the lead, but she sensed that this would not be a good place to do that. Certainly, their two visitors were focused on her partner…
Kerry took a seat in the desk chair next to where Dar was sitting, and leaned back, resting her elbows on the chair arms and crossing her legs at the ankles. “So.” She addressed the two. “What’s this all about?”
They looked at Dar.
Dar remained silent, one brow lifted slightly.
“We don’t really have the time to play around here.” Kerry continued. “And I think you’ve wasted more than enough people’s time, effort, and money already. So, if you’ve got something to say, go ahead.” She read Dar’s body posture from the corner of her eye, and exhaled, figuring she’d guessed right.
Dar lifted her arm and draped it over the back of the chair Kerry was seated in, her fingers casually brushing her partner’s pale hair.
“Well.” Meyer took the lead on his part. “First of all, I guess you can figure out that I’m not quite who I presented myself to be the last time we met.” He leaned back against one of the desks, resting his weight on both hands. Cruickshank stood by quietly, her hands folded in front of her.
Dar considered the words. “Are you more or less of an asshole than you were pretending to be?” She asked bluntly.
Meyer chuckled. “Well, depends who you ask.” He conceded. “Let me explain.”
“Should I take notes?” Kerry inquired. “Because this scorecard’s getting big enough to be mounted above the bleachers in Pro Player Stadium.”
Meyer looked at her, but didn’t respond, He licked his lips and paused a moment, then fastened his eyes back on Dar. “My name is, surprisingly, Jason Meyer. But I’m not an IT executive, though for a few months, I did play one on television.” He smiled at Dar. “That’s confidential, since the rest of the folks in New York didn’t know they were on candid camera.”
Dar just looked at him.
“It’s a reality concept we’re pitching called “Fooled Ya!” Cruickshank supplied quietly. “That was our pilot program.” She added. “I’m not a newspaper reporter, either.”
“Right.” Meyer agreed. “Deal was, I’d get hired on, see how far I could take it. Fake credentials, fake background, fake previous employers.. how much could I push it? Well, I pushed it to the limit, and just when I was about to take it over the top, you showed up.”
Kerry leaned forward. “You risked a major corporation, and the jobs of thousands of people for a game show?”
Meyer shrugged. “They hired me.” He said. “They took a risk, and so did we, and thanks to your interference, my risk didn’t pan out.”
“My interference?” Dar sounded incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
He shrugged again. “You blew my ending.” He said. “But interacting with you gave me the idea for this project, and I was able to sell it to my money people. But this time, you’re not going to do it again.” He stated. “So let’s start talking money, and drop all the other bullshit because as you pointed out, Ms. Stuart, we don’t have time to play around.”
He slapped his hand on the desk. “Cards on the table time, Roberts. Either we’re both going to walk out of here winning, or we’re both going to walk out of here losing, and trust me, baby, you’re gonna lose more than I will.”
Dar folded her arms. She eyed the two of them with a dourly shrewd expression. “All right. What’s your deal?” She asked. “What exactly do you want?”
Meyer smiled. “That’s the answer I wanted to hear. So listen up.”
“Okay, we’re done.” Mark dusted his hands off. “C’mon, Carlos. Let’s go. I bet they got pizza left back there.”
“You got it.” Carlos pushed off from the doorway and stood back as Mark left the room. “So, is this ship okay now?”
“Dunno.” Mark turned back. “Is it?” He asked the tech.
The tech was connected to the new equipment via a laptop, and he merely gave Mark a thumbs up rather than be distracted from what he was doing.
“Good deal. Later.” Mark was satisfied. He joined Carlos and they walked along the hallway, turning sideways as several of the crew passed in the other direction. “Y’know, I feel kinda sorry for these guys.”
Carlos looked behind him. “Those guys?” He jerked a thumb at the crew. “Or the guys in the wiring room?”
“The ship guys.” Mark said. “Cause if big D is right, and this is all a scam, it sucks for them, you know?”
Carlos was quiet for a few steps. “I am sorry.” He said. “But after they did what they do to us with the ship I do not feel sorry for them. Ms. Kerry could have been very hurt, and one of us did get so.”
Mark frowned. “Yeah, I know.” He said. “That did really suck. If Kerry’d gotten hurt, Big D would have gone apeshit.”
“She was very pissed off.” Carlos agreed. “She even yelled at her papa.”
“Uh huh.” Mark thought about that as they walked. “Her pop’s cool.”
“He’s crazy about both of em. Did you know he was MIA for like, years? They thought he was dead.”
Carlos blinked. “Really? I did not know that… how sad.”
“Yeah. Big D’s been through a lot of stuff in the last few.” Mark lead the way down the gangway to the pier, and headed to the fence gate. “But she’s good people.”
“Oh yes, I think so too.” Carlos nodded. He looked around. “So is this it? Are we done now?”
Mark certainly hoped so. It was getting late, he was tired as hell, and it was Friday. He was looking forward to leaving the pier, getting a shower and a cold beer, and moving on to whatever it was they were going to do next.
Hopefully, it would have nothing to hell to do with boats. Maybe Dar would push out development of the new router thing she’d written. That would be a couple of development cycles at least, and working on Dar’s stuff was always a kick.
It worked, even when it was only half baked and undocumented. He was still finding little scripts and programs of hers every time he rummaged around in the systems, nothing huge, but just scrappy bits of code that kept stuff running in the background with little fanfare.
Kind of like Dar, sometimes. “Yeah, I think we’re done.” Mark said. “Let’s go find the boss, and wrap this whole damn thing up.”
“You know what I think?” Carlos said. “I think we should get together, and we should take our bosses out because they have been so nice to us. You think we could?”
Mark was briefly silent, as they crossed the roadway and entered the huge, now empty, parking lot that separated the two sides of the port. The sun was going down, and the breeze was now cooler, drying the sweat on the back of his neck as he walked.
Taking Dar out was tough. Her view was, she was the boss, and she made the big bucks. So she paid the dinner check. Mark knew it well, because he’d tried it often enough even with something as cheap as a freaking pizza.
But, who knew? Maybe they’d pull it off this time. Maybe he could grab the waiter before they sat down and give them a credit card. “Sure. We can try.” He answered Carlos, as they walked up the steps to the terminal behind their ship. “What the heck.. worst she could do is whack me one.”
Carlos opened the door and they entered, getting several steps into the room before they both stopped and stared.
A huge crowd was gathered, surrounding a television screen on a cart. While they watched, several camera men roamed back and forth, shooting them.
“What the hell?” Mark spluttered. “What’s going on?”
“Shh.” One of the crowd hushed him.
Mark sidestepped around until he could see the television, blinking as he recognized Dar’s distinctive figure on it.
A moment more, and he recognized the room she was in as the back office not fifty feet from where he was standing and as the picture shifted awkwardly, Kerry came into focus as well.
But what the hell was going on?
More importantly, did Dar know what was going on? It looked like she was being interviewed, but with the door closed, did she have any idea that everyone was listening in?
The huge crowd blocked any approach to the back office door, but Mark knew that crowd wouldn’t have stopped Dar, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him. “C’mon.” He grabbed Carlos’ arm.
“What exactly do you want?” Kerry asked.
“Nothing much.” Meyer replied. “Except a nice, suspenseful, dramatic ending that will suck ratings and pay off for my backers.”
“Like what?” Kerry persisted. “Mr. Meyer, in case you hadn’t noticed we’re IT. Last time I checked, nerds weren’t hip and trendy media darlings.”
“Exactly. That’s why this story turned out so interesting.” The man said. “Because frankly, if you’d told me a bunch of geeks and a dirty shipyard would make good television before I was on this project, I’d have kicked your sorry asses right out of my office.”
“And?” Dar asked.
“And I’ve found there’s drama in all this in very unexpected places.” Meyer said. “Big drama in those old ships and the people on them, big drama in the idea of four companies going head to head to win something, and big drama in everyone fighting like cats and dogs, stabbing each other in the back at every turn. Lady, I couldn’t have hired a top flight scriptwriter to make up something sassier than this has been.”
“So what do you want from us?” Kerry asked, again. “If you’ve got such a great story here, I mean.”
Meyer smiled at her. “We know what you’re doing.” He said. “
“Do you?” Dar smiled back at him.
“Oh yes. Your friends at Telegenics were very emotive and detailed in relating your little plan to scotch my ending.” Meyer said. “I know you’ve been helping the other ships to finish, and I know you coerced Telegenics into giving up some of their spare equipment for those other guys.”
“Coerced?” Kerry gave him a puzzled look. “They offered.”
“Ms. Stuart, please.” Meyer gave her a condescending smile.
“And?” Dar asked again. “So you’re right. We’re not playing your game. We’ll all finish dead even, present our bills, and go home.”
Cruickshank had positioned herself carefully, standing to one side of her apparent boss and at an angle, so she could look at both Dar and Kerry. She kept her hands folded in front of her, her fingers moving restlessly as though playing with worry beads.
The motion caught Kerry’s attention, and she watched the reporter from the corner of her eye. The conversation so far had seemed to her to be mostly just hot air. It was as though Meyer were merely spouting off for the record, as though…
Kerry’s eyes narrowed.
“No, no you won’t.” Meyer said. “I’ve learned a number of things about you in the last few months, Roberts. At first I thought you were just a high priced jackass.”
“Half right.” Dar drawled. “Which half depends on who you ask.”
“But you’re not.” Meyer strolled closer to her. “And that’s the only reason I’m here, Roberts. Because I know you can deliver what I’m asking for.”
Dar’s eyebrows lifted.
“And I won’t waste either of our time playing to your sense of fairness.”
“My sense of fairness?” Dar chuckled. “I’m not the one who sweated my tail off trying to rig the contest here, Jason.”
Kerry felt a slight buzz at her belt. Distracted, she glanced at her cell phone, but the vibration didn’t continue. She lifted it and examined the device, a tickle of familiarity tugging at her memory about it.
“Most of the people here.. they just didn’t get what I was after.” Meyer said. “They didn’t feel what I felt, about how this story could really be a groundbreaker.”
“I’m not sure why you think anyone would care.” Dar finally got up, pacing around the chair and twisting to loosen a kink in her back. “I sure don’t.”
Meyer looped both hands around one knee. “Let me lay it on the line for you.”
“Here’s a first for this project.” Kerry muttered, leaving her phone for the moment and concentrating on the scene before her.
Meyer ignored her. “It’s really simple. There’s a lot of money being put into this deal, money I’m not prepared to either risk or lose.” He moved a little closer, facing off against Dar. “So here’s the deal. You play ball with me, and I give you one million US dollars. In cash.”
A small silence followed his words. Then Dar shifted a little. “I think you know that’s not a big figure for ILS.” She half shrugged. “That’s the coffee budget for the year.”
He smiled. “I think you know I’m not offering it to your company.” Meyer replied. “And even someone who makes what you do, has desires that could take care of, now couldn’t it?”
Kerry’s phone buzzed a little again, but she ignored it, her attention fixed on her partner’s profile. She could hear her own heartbeat thundering in her ears as she strained to listen for Dar’s answer, uneasily aware that for one of the rare times in their relationship, she really didn’t know what that answer would be.
Fortunately, she didn’t have long to wait.
Dar’s eyes glinted gently. “You can’t buy me.” She said, with a quiet smile. “Even if I only had my last paycheck in the bank, I’d still tell you to kiss my ass.”
Meyer didn’t even look at Kerry. It was as though she wasn’t even there. He nodded a few times, giving Dar a wry look. “I thought you’d say that. So.. here’s the real deal.” He leaned forward. “The one you can’t say no to.”
Shari walked past the back doors to the pier building, giving the guards with their noses plastered to the glass a puzzled frown as she passed them. What in the hell were they looking at? Free freak show, maybe? She gave her quarry a quick glance, then dismissed the windows and hurried on so as not to lose them. Probably wasn’t interesting anyway… probably just staring at Psycho Bitch’s legs.
Well, to hell with them. She paused behind a stack of pallets as Andrew and the little guy stopped just short of the gangway. It appeared to her that they were arguing, or at least, the larger man was lecturing, and didn’t that just figure?
Only thing you get out of a jackass is another jackass. Andrew’s vicious attitude towards her left a nasty sting, and she’d decided if he was doing something shady, well, she’d just find a way to screw him over it, just like she had his pissant offspring.
“Let’s play nice, huh? Let’s end up even. Fuck that.” Shari muttered, as she edged around the stack of pallets and skulked over to the next one, trying to stay out of sight and yet get close enough to listen. She’d agreed to hear Dar out only to see what the bitch was up to, and she’d figured Michelle was after the same thing, but after that last piece of crap..
Fucking Michelle. All she wanted was to be part of their little clique. She should have realized that since Orlando, with all that breakfast and dinner bullshit. She’d finally cut that out after they’d gotten stood up in that grunge pit.
Blew up the whole glamour, Shari’d thought. But apparently she’d been wrong, since it was pretty clear that all Michelle wanted now was to suck up and probably get a job with them.
She watched the two men walk up onto the gangway and enter the ship, and after a moment to let them get past the rusted iron, she followed.
It was quiet now – most of the dock workers had left, and the ships were sitting placidly in their piers with just a soft sound of clanking coming from them.
Shari walked up the gangway and paused in the entrance, looking around the somewhat dark interior. She didn’t see anyone, so she continued on and prowled inside the hold. Some boxes were stacked against the back wall, and she searched around them, but they were apparently towels or something equally boring.
There was no sign of the two men. She searched further, sticking her head warily into a small cul de sac before she reluctantly headed for the stairs. She’d gotten up two steps when she heard voices behind her, and she stopped, listening intently.
“Mister, ah am telling you that you can not hide yerself in this here boat no more.” Andrew’s voice rumbled through the silence, almost making the dust motes on the stair railing dance.
“You listen. We go soon, and no more bs.” Another voice answered, equally deep, but with an odd accent. “What you think you did here, to bring someone to touch my ship? I should kill you.”
Andrew just laughed. It was an odd, out of place sound, and listening to it Shari could hear a clear echo of Dar.
“Little feller, ah am not going to mess with what you just said. Either you go tell the man upstairs you got you some trouble, or ah will.”
“I come to you for help, because you know the sea and this is how you treat me?” The other man said, indignantly. “You are no sailor.”
“Git.” Andrew’s voice sounded more stern. “Or ah’ll pick yer ass up and tote you up there.”
The voices faded, amid a few clanging, metallic sounds.
Shari popped out of the stairwell and followed the noise, ducking her head around a metal doorway and spotting two small staff elevators. One was just closing. “Damn.”
Was it worth following them? Hell, whatever the dumpy guy was probably something stupid like smuggling Cuban goddamn cigars. Not worth her time.
Shari drummed her fingers on the metal. No, that wasn’t worth her time but maybe she could cause some damage on her own. Wouldn’t it be a kick if the bitch sisters went to demo their wonderful crap and it died?
With a smile, she went back to the stairwell and started up it.
The memory came back to Kerry with a startling fury. She reached over without thinking and took hold of Dar’s wrist, her fingers tightening on the bones under the skin.
Dar looked at her, and an eyebrow quirked.
About to speak, Meyer paused. “Something wrong?”
How to let Dar know? Kerry wished they really had the psychic connection she sometimes wondered about. There was nothing she could say that would clue her partner in, without also cluing in the other two.
Or was that a bad thing?
“You okay?” Dar half turned, her voice dropping in concern.
What what what what.. oh. “I just remembered something.” Kerry said. “What we were talking about when you were hanging up side down in the closet.”
Dar blinked, her face caught between puzzlement, and the obvious notion that Kerry had lost her mind. Then her gaze shifted slightly, moving past Kerry, before it came back and focused again. “And how this is different than that was?”
I love you. “Yes.”
“Ah.” Dar nodded. “Yeah.” She turned back to Meyer. “You were saying?”
“I was saying this.” Meyer gave her an odd look, but continued. “The bottom line is, I want my company to come out ahead. You want your company to come out ahead. We all know this ship deal’s a scam, right?”
“Right.” Kerry murmured, trying not to look at Cruickshank.
“My brother’s on the board of directors of the biggest cruise line on earth.” Meyer said. “So what I’m prepared to put on the table is an assurance that ILS will get that nice, big, lucrative juicy contract that we all know you’re lusting over, and that we all know you know is the only possible gain out of this.”
“And?” Dar folded her arms over her chest.
“And, what you need to deliver to me is you taking the checkered flag. Is that so hard?”
“So, let me get this right.” Kerry said. “You want to film us showing Quest our system, and ‘winning’ the bid.”
“And for that, you guarantee ILS that big contract?’
“Mr. Meyer, if we ‘win’ this ‘bid’, we’ll get that contract anyway.” Kerry remarked simply. “In fact, even if we do nothing, we’ll probably get that contract because the fact is, we’re the best at what we do and everybody knows it.”
Meyer stared at her. Dar bumped her gently with her shoulder, a grin tugging at the corners of her lips. “Got anything else? Because frankly, it’s beer time.” Kerry added. “And we’re done here.”
Cruickshank edged a little closer, then went still again.
“Not everyone in your company shares your confidence, I’m afraid.” Meyer said. “Like your board of directors. They’ll take a bird in the hand and leave you two in the bushes. Want to see?”
“Sure.” Dar felt a jolt of unease.
“No problem.” Meyer put his cell on the desk and dialed a number, the sound of the tones echoing softly in the room.
“Holy shit.” Mark had paused, halfway through the crowd. He’d gotten close enough to the screen to hear the last thing said, and everyone went quiet, to hear what would happen next.
He’d never get across in time. He knew it. Damned if he wanted to stand there and watch Dar get shafted though. He knew the board well enough to know if they were offered that much bucks, they’d toss Dar to the wolves.
He thought Dar knew that too, though you couldn’t tell it from her face.
Man. This was gonna suck.
“What’s happening?” Carlos whispered.
“Serious suckage.” Mark uttered back. “Where the hell’s their power cords.. I’d love to yank them out of the.. Jesus, is that a UPS?”
“Guess they’re smarter than they look.” Mark realized glumly. He could start yelling and cause a scene, but he was stuck at the moment, not sure what to do. He didn’t want his boss and friend to be embarrassed on tape, but on the other hand, breaking the crowd up wouldn’t look great either.
“Can we do something?” Carlos asked. “I know where is the power and the lights. They are using the UPS for their cameras, but that television is coming from the wall over there.”
Mark’s eyes brightened. “Great. C’mon.”
“The power door, it is for sure locked.”
Mark smiled. “Buddy, that’s the last thing you need to worry about with me around. Lead. Go. Move.” He nudged Carlos, who started worming his way through the back of the crowd.
Mark stopped and grabbed Carlos. “Too late.”
Slowly, Mark turned towards the screen, recognizing the voice that had just echoed slightly in the room.
Kerry felt like her entire midsection was tied in square knots. She had a sick feeling that Meyer had trumped them, and now it would give him, the bastard, exactly the ending he’d been looking for.
They’d fallen for it. They’d been suckered.
Muskrats! Stupid, neutered, pissant muskrats!
“Hello?” A voice answered the cell phone. “Hello?”
“Ah, Mr. Maclean.” Meyer said. “This is Jason Meyer. Remember me?”
“Absolutely! Sure do.” Alastair replied. “Was just discussing what you told me with some of my colleagues. In fact. They’re pretty darn excited.”
Kerry looked at Dar, wondering how she could keep that stolid an expression when she, more than anyone, knew what the score was here. Her partner’s half smile, and look of mild unconcern hadn’t budged an inch. Dar was no actor, could she really think the board would back her?
Kerry knew the board. Some of them were okay. Some she even liked, and Alastair had a special place in her heart because she sensed in him a genuine caring for Dar that went past their business relationship. She suspected, in a way, that the CEO had gone out of his way to guide Dar as she was developing her skills and provided some needed support to her when things got tough.
But money was money, and business was business. Kerry eased closer so their shoulders made comtact and just hoped it was over fast.
“Good to hear. Listen.. I’ve pretty much gotten that deal sealed up here, but I’ve run into a roadblock, maybe you can help me with it.” Meyer said. “In fact, I’m sure you can.”
“Sure.” Alastair agreed cheerfully. “What do you need?”
Meyer looked across at his adversary, and smiled. “Well, here’s the problem. We’re about done here. Your team’s done a great job, and they finished first. Great job!”
“I told your folks here all I need is for them to let me get that on film, and the contract’s yours.” Meyer continued. “And they turned me down.”
“Seems they made a deal with the other folks here not to win.” Jason continued. “So they’re turning down my offer. Now.. you can fix that, right?”
“Well, I’m sure I can, but..”
“Now, I don’t have time to waste on phone calls or meetings. It’s sundown. Deal’s done. Can you fix this, Mr. Mclean? I’m sure you can. Give me your word right now, and I’ll consider it done.”
Dar felt her throat go dry, and she was glad she wasn’t speaking. Alastair would think she’d lost her mind, along with her better business judgment.
This was it. She’d crossed the line. Dar drew in a breath, and wanly wished only that Kerry wasn’t there to have to witness this.
“Mr. McLean? Can I get your promise?” He gazed across at Dar with a look of quiet triumph.
Kerry put her arm around Dar’s waist. To hell with the cameras.
There was a long moment’s silence, then Alastair’s voice came through the crackling connection with uncommon clarity. “Well, Mr. Meyer, no you can’t.”
Drawing in a breath to speak, Meyer halted. “What?”
Dar’s lips twitched, just slightly.
“Fraid I can’t give you that promise.” Alastair did sound regretful.
“Why the hell not?”
“Folks on the scene there made a decision.” The CEO of ILS stated. “I respect that.”
Meyer stared at the phone in utter disbelief. “Wait, you’re telling me that I’m offering you a golden deal, and you’re not going to take it because some idiot here who works for you, and who obviously doesn’t have your company’s best interests in mind said otherwise?”
Alastair’s voice dropped into a cold, startling crispness in a heartbeat. “You know something, mister? That idiot’s been with me a long time. Never could get her to do anything she didn’t want to do, but you know what? It’s always for a damn good reason.”
“Well, what about your board? I’m sure they don’t’ feel the same way.” Meyer rallied desperately, his eyes darting to Cruickshank.
“Have a great day, Jason. Sorry things didn’t work out.” Alastair said, just before he hung up, sending a solid click down the line.
A tenuous silence fell. Meyer looked up, finally, and met Dar’s eyes.
Dar found a smile somewhere that she really wasn’t feeling. She produced it anyway, just to watch Meyer grind his teeth in reaction, as she felt Kerry relax against her in relief.
The silence lengthened as nobody seemed to be sure what to do next. Then Dar caught the faint hint of light reflecting off something moving in the frame of Cruickshank’s oversized sunglasses, and with a determined look, started towards her.
Mark stood in the middle of the crowd, a grin on his face. The people around him were stirring and conversation buzzed louder, as the camera people stood in silence, now unsure of what to cover.
“That was…” Carlos hesitated. “Who was that, was that the big boss, yes?”
“Yeah.” Mark saw a loosening in the throng, and took the opportunity to start moving towards the office door. “C’mon.”
“He did a good thing.” Carlos followed him.
“Buddy, you don’t know.” Mark edged past two tall men craning their necks to watch the television. Abruptly the picture cut off, fading to a glum black and the chatter level rose in reaction. They were halfway to the office door when it abruptly opened.
“Send me a bill for the damn camera!” A low voice carried out into the hall. “I’ll pay the postage from hell, which is where you both belong!”
“Roberts!” A man’s outraged voice answered. “Come back!”
“Kiss my ass!” Dar walked out, her brisk stride slowly turning to a dead stop as she spotted the crowd turning to stare at her. Both eyebrows jerked up in surprise. “What the hell’s this?”
One of the camera people brushed by her and headed for the office. Another woman joined him, while the group near the television started to turn and gravitate towards Dar.
Quest appeared from somewhere, and shoved through the throng, also headed towards Dar and the newly arrived Kerry.
Mark beat everyone to it. He plowed his way through the confusion and got to his bosses side, planting himself between them, and the buzzing multitudes. “Hey.” He hesitated, not really sure what to say next. “Aum…”
“Hey.” Dar glanced past him. “Were we the evening news?”
“Yeah.” Mark admitted. “I tried to get back there to clue you, but it was like a zoo out here.”
Dar glanced at the crowd. “So I see.” She murmured. “We knew it was being filmed but..”
“Son of a..” Kerry exhaled. “Did you hear Alastair? I’m flying to Texas and giving him a hug soon as we leave here.” She raked a thatch of blond hair from her eyes. “I can’t even think of any good curse words to apply to this whole thing. Jesus!”
Quest shouldered through to them. “All right, Roberts.”
“Dar!” Michelle appeared from god only knew where. Pleasantly enough, there was no sign of Shari, for which Dar was very grateful. The last thing on earth she wanted to deal with right now was her ex-lover.
Kerry seemed to sense it, because she eased closer, linking her arm through Dar’s in an unconscious gesture. “Unreal!” She shook her head. “What a pair of jerkwads!”
Of course, the first thing on earth she wanted to deal with was her current one. Dar leaned against Kerry gratefully, wishing she had a bottle of Advil and a gallon of chocolate milk to go with her.
“Ah, Dar.. “ Graham appeared, and the fourth bid manager was right behind him. “That was quite spectacular.”
Dar was still shaking inside. The sudden win had honestly surprised her, and she felt quite adrift at the moment, needing to ground herself in a world that had tilted half on its side again. “Thanks.” She muttered. “Crock of BS ending to a crock of BS project.”
“You can say that again.” Graham agreed fervently.
“Roberts.” Quest pushed forward. “Just what’s going on here?” He looked around. “What’s up with all of you being here? Given up, have you?”
Dar gathered her wits. She motioned Michelle, Graham, and Mike to join her, and then faced Quest. “We’re done.” She announced quietly. “We all finished your requirements.”
“No.” He shook his head. “No way. You can’t have.”
“Yes.” Dar replied.
“You can’t have.” The man insisted. “I don’t’ believe it.”
“You’re right.” Graham said. “Left to our own devices, given your interference, we could not have.” He rocked on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back.
“My interference?” Quest gave him a mock surprised look. “What do I have to do with it? I just want my project finished.”
“But lucky for us, we had Dar here.” Michelle continued the thought blithely. “And between us all, we managed. We’re done.”
“Are you sure?” Quest asked doubtfully. “Really finished? Really?”
“We’re sure.” Michelle told him with confidence. “We all worked together.”
Quest looked at Michelle. “You double crossed me.” He accused. “You made a deal with her!”
Michelle smiled. “Why, yes, I did.” She agreed. “And you know, I enjoyed it.”
“You double crossed us!” Mike pointed at Quest. “You brought us in here to compete for your bogus contract, and the only thing you really wanted was a piece of crap television show!” His voice rose. “So believe me, mister, you’re not only getting my bill for the project, you’re also getting a bill for my time, my people’s time, my aggravation, my companies cell phone charges, and the bloody parking ticket the bastards just gave me outside this damn building!”
Even Dar was impressed by the outburst. “Hmp.” She said. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“Yeah.” Michelle nodded.
“Quite.” Graham said. “Except I didn’t get a parking ticket.”
“You’re a fraud, mister.” Kerry pointed at him.
A soft hooting was heard from outside. Quest’s head jerked up, and a not so nice smile pulled at his lips. “Well, it seems that the truth is… I’m not the fraud here.” Quest said. “And you’ve all just made a pretty big mistake.”
“You can say that again.” Michelle commented. “Many of them. Meeting you was the first.”
Surprisingly, Quest laughed. He slowly started to back towards the rear entrance to the terminal. “You all think you’re so smart. You don’t know jack.” He gestured at Michelle. “And you’re the biggest fool.. but all of you are idiots.”
“We’re not the idiot, buddy!” Mike accused.
“She!” Quest pointed at Kerry. “She said it right in front of you! None of you even got it!
“Huh?” Kerry looked at Dar. “What did I say?”
Dar was as bewildered as everyone else. “No idea.” She murmured. “Said when?” She asked in a louder tone.
“At the meeting!” Quest crowed. “I thought we were sunk right then, but none of you caught on. Not even you.” He looked at Kerry. “You were dead right. I wanted these ships done, and I wanted them done for free. And you all did it!”
“The meeting?” Kerry said. “At the office!”
“What do you mean, we.. what are you talking about, Quest! You were in it with the television people! It was never about the ships!” Michelle shouted in frustration. “You told me that!”
He reached the back door, just as ship horns sounded outside again. “I lied!” He laughed. “And you all just lost, big time!” He pointed at them. “Fools!”
“No we didn’t.” Dar said. “You’re getting a bill, buddy. Trust me.” She started towards the back door, Kerry at her heels.
“Four of em.” Michelle confirmed. “And maybe a lawsuit for your little scam.”
Quest smiled again. “It wasn’t a scam.” He told them. “The contract was real.” He glanced behind him, then turned back, obviously enjoying the moment. “I got exactly what I wanted.”
“Those ships aren’t taking on passengers ever again.” Dar said. “Don’t tell me any different. I saw those engines.”
“Not as ships, no.” Quest agreed. “But they’re not going to be cruise ships. They’re going to be hotels.” He opened the door. “In Europe. Hasta la vista, my little friends. Next stop for me is Barcelona, and you can chase my ass with paper all the way if you want.”
He ducked out the door and shoved it closed, then bolted across the pier towards the ship.
“Where the.. hey!” Dar ran across the carpeted floor, followed by the others. “Quest!!!”
They reached the back door in time to see Quest jumping aboard the ship, crossing a narrow plank that had taken the place of the metal gangway. The ropes tying the ship to the dock were already off, and they could hear the engines whining as they got up to speed.
“You thought you were screwing me!” The man yelled back. “You gave me exactly what I wanted! Thank you! Thank you! Assholes!” He shot them a bird, and then vanished into the darkness of the hold.
“Quest!” Michelle yelled at the top of her lungs. “Get back here!”
A crewman tossed the plank clear, and stood back from the shell door as the ship moved away, pushing off from the pier with a groaning creak of its old steel bones. He lifted a hand and waved lazily at her, then disappeared as the door ground shut, sealing with a metallic clang audible from where they were standing.
In shock, they watched the ships move off, unable to do anything but stare.
Saucily, the ship let off it’s horn again, in a ‘shave and a haircut’ pattern, as it jaunted slowly down the cut and out towards the open sea. The water chopped gently against the hulls, and a breeze had risen, puffing out a tattered American flag which had been run up the mast on the ship Dar and Kerry had worked on.
“Son. Of. A. Bitch.” Michelle clipped the words off tightly.
Dar put her hands on her hips, truly at a loss. She turned her head and looked at Kerry, who was looking back at her with a completely stunned expression. “He got us.” She said, simply.
“He got us.” Kerry repeated. “Jesus P. Fish.”
“That too.” Dar covered her eyes, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Floating hotels?” Kerry said. “That’s why the public spaces got fixed…”
“And not the engines.” Dar looked over as the other door slammed open, and Meyer appeared, with Cruickshank at his heels. They gave her a dark look, but the chaos distracted them and they focused on the rest of the crowd instead.
“What happened?” Meyer asked brusquely. “What’s going on?”
“What’d we miss?” Cruickshank added. “Where are they going? Is this another gag? What’s the deal?”
They looked at each other. Kerry cleared her throat. “You missed your perfect ending.” She advised them.
“What?” Meyer yelped. “What ending? What? Where?” He spun and looked around. “What in the hell’s going on?? You mean he tricked us? That bastard!”
“Irony, thy name is Travel Channel.” Kerry uttered under her breath, finding the humor in the situation somewhere. A motion caught her attention, and she spotted Andrew walking across the pier towards them, his hands in his jeans pockets and a bemused expression on his scarred face.
Did he know? Kerry wondered. She hoped not. Misery did like company after all, didn’t it?
Michelle exhaled heavily. “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” She finally said. “Never thought I’d find a situation that warranted that old hoary saying, but damn it if this one doesn’t.”
Dar stared at the retreating ships, still mostly in shock. “Ook, ook.” She agreed wryly. “Ook, ook, ook.”
Kerry walked outside the terminal and waited on the edge of the steps for Dar to come out after her. Twilight was on them, and the glaring light of the day had faded to a placid purple, returning the temperature to one of almost comfort.
The other bid managers had come out ahead of her, and gone to their cars. They were heading over to Snappers, in Bayside to sit down and talk it all out, but she was glad she had a few minutes here to try to clear her mind and consider what they’d gone through already today.
Ludicrous insanity, was what it was. Kerry rubbed the back of her head, which was pounding with an annoying ache, and wished she’d remembered to stick some Advil in the glove compartment. Maybe Dar had some.. “Oh. There you are.”
“Here I am.” Dar agreed, putting a hand on her back. “C’mon, let’s go. I need a good stiff drink.”
“I think we all do.” Kerry started down the steps with her. “You don’t have any aspirin, do you?”
“In the car, yeah.” Dar said. “Dad’s going to meet us at the front there, and tag along.” She added. “I think I owe him a beer, among other things.” She nibbled the inside of her lip, lapsing into a pensive silence as they walked across the tarmac to the car.
Kerry was glad to slide into the leather seat of the Lexus and lean back, the residual warmth of the sun soaking through her shoulderblades and offering a kind of relief. “Ugh.”
“You okay?” Dar asked, as she turned the key and started the engine.
“Tired.” Kerry admitted. “Whacked out.”
“Me too.” Dar said. “Wish we could just go home.”
Kerry laid her hand on Dar’s thigh, rubbing her thumb on the rough surface lightly. “Me, too.” She echoed. “Thank the lord it’s Friday.”
“After what we just went through, it would have been Friday no matter what day we ended on.” Dar pulled out of the parking spot and headed for the pier building, where Andrew was standing and waiting. “I’m so looking forward to a few days off.” She glanced at Kerry. “You have anything in mind for tomorrow?”
“You and me in the waterbed all day, naked.” Kerry said, as they pulled up and Andrew opened the back door. “That okay with you?”
Dar managed a rakish grin. “Dare you to say that again.” She drawled, as Andy closed the door and settled into the back seat.
Pale lashes fluttered tiredly at her. “Dare me?”
Dar cleared her throat. “Hi, Dad.”
“Lo, Dardar.” Andy replied amiably. “Hell of an end to this here thing.”
Dar snorted. “Did you know they were going to do that? Pull out?”
“Wall.” Andy shifted, stretching across the back seat and leaning back on the door. “I knew they were fixing to leave, can’t miss it when them diesels fire up. But you said they’d be leaving round sundown anyhow, so I figured that was it.”
“They skunked us.” Kerry half turned and peered at him over the headrest.
“Yeap.” The ex-seal gave her a wry look. “Ah did not see that one coming.” He admitted. “I figgred it was what you said it was, with them television people. Got to give them sailors credit, they kept their pie holes closed up.”
“Maybe they didn’t know.” Kerry suggested. “Not the big guys, I mean, but the worker bees. The ones I talked to seemed to be pretty darn puzzled as to what the heck was going on.”
“Yeap, that could be.” Andy agreed. “Navy was like that. Don’t know, don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t get yer ass in the way.”
Dar chuckled. “You always knew what was going on.” She disagreed.
“Wall, I had me a monkey with their eyeballs inside them machines, now didn’t I?” Andy reached over and ruffled Dar’s hair. “But I sure fire know something about this here situation that you all do not.”
“What’s that, Dad?” Kerry glanced curiously at him. “About the ship, you mean?”
Dar concentrated on merging onto the bridge that would take them over to Bayside. She was tired, and she knew her reflexes were suffering because of that, but the traffic was thankfully light and she eased into the left hand lane with little trouble.
“About that ship. “Andrew sounded surprisingly smug. “It done sailed with the number of folks it spected to, but there’s one that ain’t there they’re gonna miss, and one that’s there they sure fire ain’t.”
Dar glanced in the rearview. “What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Ah turned over that little engine feller to the police.” Andy said. “He told me bout that thing he did to a lady he did meet. You were right, kumquat.”
Kerry’s eyes lit up. “Yeah?” She exhaled. “Wow.. boy, I feel a lot better now. I thought he got away with the whole thing.. why’d he come back?”
“Ship guy.” Andy shrugged. “Anyhoo, them folks ain’t gonna appreciate taking on that big old bag of wind woman you all did not care for in his spot, I will tell you that.”
Dar very nearly braked to a halt in the middle of the causeway. “WHAT?”
Kerry got up on her knees and gripped the seat back, goggling at her father-in-law. “Shari went on that ship???” She squeeked. “You have got to be kidding me!!!”
Andy grinned, his blue eyes twinkling back at her. “Ah do not think she planned that, zactly.” He allowed. “She was fixing to make some more trouble for you all, and ah did not see the value in troubling her to tell her that there ship was leaving.”
Dar clapped a hand to her head. “Oh my god.” She laughed helplessly, steering into the turn lane for Bayside almost at the last minute. “Dad, they’re going straight across the ocean.”
“Ah do realize that, Dardar.” Her father agreed equably. “Woman always seemed to be like she need a rest of some kind. All that hollering and fussing and all.”
“Heh.” Kerry turned and sat down, a big grin on her face. “Who cares about Quest? That just made *my* day.” She chortled. “Hope she ends up with crackers and water swabbing the decks for her passage.” She wriggled in her seat, doing a little dance to some unheard tune.
Dar just kept laughing, shaking her head as she pulled into a parking spot near the stairs. “Know what I want to know?” She asked as they got out. “Which one of us gets to tell Michelle?”
Kerry snickered, in a very uninhibited way. She walked around to the back of the Lexus and made a squeezing gesture, nodding when Dar popped the hatch for her. She reached inside and pulled Dar’s briefcase over, tugging open the front flap and digging inside for the bottle of Advil Dar usually kept there.
Her mind was on Andy’s news, though. She imagined Shari finding herself stuck on board, and raising hell. She imagined the captain ignoring her.. no, worse. She imagined the captain just locking her out of the control room and letting the rest of the crew laugh at her.
It was a very satisfying image. She wondered if Shari would whine all the way to Barcelona. “Hey, Dar?”
“Hm.?” Dar leaned against the back hatch next to her. “Can’t find it?”
“No, I’ve got it.” Kerry fished out the bottle and opened it, shaking out a few pills and pocketing them before she tossed the bottle back in. She closed the hatch and they all started walking towards the mall. “So, what happens now?”
“Now we have dinner.” Dar replied promptly. “Fish okay by you, Dad?”
“Long as they’re cooked, Dardar.”
“Not exactly what I meant.” Kerry demurred. “But I guess that’ll do for now.”
Dar ambled down the half flight of steps and they crossed into the plaza, moving single file through the press of Friday evening shoppers. She knew she hadn’t answered the question Kerry had posed, but she also knew she didn’t really have an intelligent answer, so she was glad her partner had accepted the deferral.
What now? Who knew? It wasn’t like there was a section in any business plan she’d ever done that covered the situation they’d just suffered through. They’d figure out something, she supposed, just like she supposed she’d be a while explaining to Alastair the next week exactly what had happened.
Along with everything else she had to explain. Dar set the somber thought aside, and draped an arm over Kerry’s shoulder as they entered the outdoor restaurant and spotted the others.
Waterside, with a light breeze, it was reasonably bearable. They took a seat at the large table along with the rest, and for a long moment everyone just stared at each other.
A waiter appeared, and gazed inquiringly at the newcomers. “Whatever imported draft you’ve got.” Kerry made a circling motion with her hand including all of them. “And I’d like a glass of water, too, please.”
“Sure.” The man disappeared.
“Thanks, Ker.” Dar extended her legs under the table and folded her hands over her stomach.
“Figured you’d save the milk for dessert.” Kerry replied, and then turned her attention to the rest of the table. “So. Here we are.”
“Here we are.” Graham agreed, and then glanced around. “Well most of us.” He added. “Where’s your boorish partner?” He asked Michelle.
Michelle shrugged. “I have no idea.” She replied briefly. “Haven’t seen her since before the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus started over at their corral.” She jerked her head towards Dar and Kerry.
“Well, no loss.” Mike said, bluntly.
Andrew cleared his throat.
“Sorry, but it’s true.” Mike misinterpreted the sound. “I know it’s no a gentlemanly thing to say, but if that witch drowned in the channel I’d clap. What an asshole.”
Michelle pursed her lips, and her nails tapped each other as she steepled her hands before her chin. “Well, we’re all assholes at one time or another.” She said, diplomatically. “And we all have different ways of doing things.”
Curiously, Kerry felt herself smiling when she heard Michelle say that, and she was pleasantly surprised when the red-haired woman refused to bow to the majority and joined in with the bashing. That took character, which she hadn’t frankly figured Michelle to have.
And it was true, really. They could all be assholes when they wanted to be, herself included. She debated telling Michelle where Shari was, then figured it could wait for later. Michelle didn’t seem too concerned, anyway.
Very different from what she’d be acting in a similar circumstance, that’s for sure. “Well, we figure they have to dock somewhere.” Kerry steered the conversation to something more productive. “Maybe our international office can track them down.”
“Is it worth it?” Graham asked. “I know it’s a lot of money in gear, but I have to be honest, Kerry – I don’t know if it’s worth the recovery costs. I may just have to write this one off as a deal gone bad. Not going to make my people happy, but.. what to do?”
“You mean, just let them get away with it?” Kerry queried, a mildly astonished look on her face.
“Not all of us can afford that.” Michelle said.
“Can any of us really afford it?” Mike asked, suddenly. “I don’t mean financially, either.”
Everyone pondered that, then as if in some accord, they all turned and looked over at Dar, who had been amusing herself by folding her linen napkin into the shape of a rabbit.
Sensing the lack of conversation, Dar looked up, her hands pausing in mid-motion. “What?” She asked, with a frown.
“What’s your plan, ace?” Mike asked. “How are you going to pull the rabbit out of your ear this time?”
Dar looked down at her napkin rabbit, then she merely shrugged. “Maybe I’m not.” She pulled one end of the fabric and the bunny disappeared, becoming a mundane flat panel again. “Maybe we just lose this one.” She looked up as the waiter approached, and accepted an icy mug of beer from him.
After taking a sip, she gave the silent crowd another shrug, and didn’t say anything more.
Ah. Cool air, no sweat, freshly showered, clean clothes.
Being home was like a small side trip to Heaven. Dar extended her arms across the surface of the waterbed and just absorbed the blessed silence, broken only by the snuffling of a Labrador nose and Kerry’s soft humming from the kitchen.
“Hey, sweetie?” Kerry called in.
“Ungh?” Dar could managed only a grunt in response.
“Hot chocolate, or ice cream?” Kerry’s voice answered, from much closer.
“Yes.” Dar replied, keeping her eyes closed.
With a soft chuckle, Kerry came over and sat down next to her, making the bed wiggle. She ran her fingers through Dar’s hair, riffling the dark locks and smoothing them back from her partner’s forehead. There was a crease there, and she rubbed her thumb against it, the motion getting a flickering of long, dark lashes as two pale blue orbs peeked out and studied her. “Tired?”
“Very.” Dar admitted. “You?”
“Urrrgh.” Kerry managed a grin. “I’m just so glad to be home.”
Home. Dar grinned back. “I’m glad to be alone with you.”
“And you too, Cheebles.” Kerry laughed. “Ahghr.” She rolled over and put her head down on Dar’s stomach, gazing up at the ceiling through half closed eyes. “I’ve got hot chocolate brewing, and the ice cream’s in the fridge getting spoonable.”
Dar sniffed. “So I smell.” She laid her arm over Kerry’s middle. “I think I would have rather had dinner with the crew.”
Kerry covered Dar’s hand with her own, and interlaced their fingers. “I think I would have rather had dinner with just you.” She said. “I’m so wiped, Dar… I feel like my brain’s in a spin cycle somewhere.”
Dar’s expression softened, and she turned her head to study the blond woman resting next to her. “How’s your head?”
“Still hurts.” Kerry admitted. “Or maybe, it hurts again. I think it was okay for a little while there.”
“I think I should be getting you the hot chocolate instead of the other way around.” Dar was glad of something to distract her thoughts from the bid, even if the something was her beloved partner’s discomfort. “Want a neck rub?”
Kerry didn’t even dissemble. She rolled over and exhaled blissfully as Dar’s powerful hands began their work at the points of her shoulders and started towards her neck. She could feel the warmth of Dar’s skin under her thin tshirt, and hear the steady beat of her heart, and all of a sudden she felt like crying.
Kerry swallowed. “Just tired.” She mumbled. “It’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.”
Dar understood exactly what she meant. Instead of continuing the neck rub, she hauled Kerry gently up and enfolded her in a hug. “Damn frustrating. But I’m very selfishly glad you were there with me for it.”
Now, Kerry did start crying for a completely different reason. Or maybe it was the same reason, it was hard to tell. It was a relief, and it lightened her spirits, as she returned Dar’s hug and they both started laughing, there in the middle of the bed.
Finally Kerry sniffled. “I’m glad too.” She said.
Dar exhaled, the outside edge of her thumb idly tracing Kerry’s ear. “I think I’m going to give us a week off too. How’s that sound?”
“Can we do that?” Kerry asked, after a moment.
“I don’t care. I’m going to.” Dar replied. “I need a time out.”
Kerry tilted her head a little so she could see her partner’s profile. The low light in the bedroom didn’t reveal much, but she realized that Dar probably looked as tired as she felt. If it had been stressful for her, what had it meant for Dar, who had to deal with all the emotional stress along with it?
“Sounds cool.” Kerry gave her a gentle squeeze. “I’m there… in fact, how about we go down to the cabin?”
“Mm.” Dar grunted approvingly.
They were both silent for a little while, communicating through gentle touches and hugs. Sometimes, Kerry found, that worked best with Dar, and she felt the tension in her partner relaxing as she clasped her hand, and placed a few light kisses on the back of it.
Love really was useful for a lot of things that you couldn’t duplicate with drugs or other chemical assistance, she decided. It was free, and it was healthy, and you probably wouldn’t end up on the cover of the Enquirer because of it.
Kerry considered that thought briefly, then gave it a wry grin. Well, maybe you could, but only if you were famous.
“I will have to call Alastair on Monday.” Dar remarked.
“I’m going to send him a basket on Monday.” Kerry said. “What’s that brand of Scotch he likes, again?” She asked. “Because you know, it would have been real easy for him to have promised Meyer the world. He wouldn’t have even had to dis you doing it.. he could have just said he’d take care of it. But he didn’t.”
“He didn’t.” Dar agreed. “He trusted me.”
Dar sighed. “And I didn’t deserve it, this time.”
Kerry rolled her eyes. “Oh, bullshit, Dar.”
A shrug. “Hon, I didn’t.” Dar said. “He trusts me because he’s had good reason to before. This time he didn’t, and I know, it and you know it. I blew off the company, I was blowing off my job, and the only reason we were ahead at that moment was pure stupid luck.”
Kerry squirmed up so that her head was even with Dar’s, but she kept her limbs draped over her partner’s body. “Do you really believe that’s true?”
“Umhm.” Dar nodded. “You should too, because it could have been a massive mess you’d have had to clean up after.”
“Think I’d have cared?”
Dar turned her head and regarded Kerry. One eyebrow lifted. “You damn well should care.”
Kerry’s cheerful disregard surprised Dar a lot, especially since she remembered their discussion on the Disney bus not that long ago, when Kerry had worried about not abandoning her responsibilities in trade for a day of fun.
What changed? “Seems to me.” Dar commented, deciding to find out. “I remember being chastised about playing in a water park instead of working in the recent past.”
Kerry’s expressive face crinkled into a wry expression. “Busted.” She admitted. “But that was a long time ago.”
“This project lasted half a lifetime. A lot can change in half a lifetime.” Kerry protested. “I got a whole different perspective, Dar. I got over it. I got over myself, maybe.” She finished, in a softer tone. “So many people were asking me what the hell I was doing running around on the pier hauling cable.. maybe I got around to asking myself that.”
“Hm.” Dar made a small, thoughtful sound.
“I think we both need a time out, so we can figure out what our roles really are again.” Kerry concluded quietly. “Maybe we an rewrite them so they make more sense.”
“Hm.” Dar repeated her thoughtful sound, this time ending it on a slightly higher note that meant approval.
“They didn’t make much sense the past few weeks.”
“Nu-uh.” Dar agreed. “You’re right.” She reached over to gently push aside a bit of Kerry’s pale hair, which had been obscuring one eye. The skin around it creased as Kerry smiled, and Dar continued on to trace her lips with the tip of one finger. “They didn’t make much sense.”
“But we make sense.” Kerry murmured, catching Dar’s fingers between her teeth, and then releasing it. “So we’ll work it out, won’t we?”
Dar leaned over and kissed her.
Kerry took that as a yes, and returned the gesture, taking a leisurely amount of time about it. She took a breath, and felt her body press against Dar’s as her partner did the same. Her headache began to fade as they lay there intertwined in each other’s arms and she nestled her head down on Dar’s shoulder and just soaked it all in.
Dar stroked her face, and it was like drinking something warm on a cold day, a feeling of inner warmth that started inside, and spread through her, erasing the lingering shreds of the day still clinging to her. “Mm.”
“Mm.” Dar echoed the sound.
“Days can be tough as they want as long as they end like this.” Kerry leaned over and pressed her lips against Dar’s cheek. “That’s the only thing we had no one else did, y’know?”
Dar smiled, and nodded. “Uh huh.”
“That and your sublime articulate-ness.” Kerry kidded her. “I don’t know what I’d do without that.”
Dar pouted, batting her dark lashes and giving Kerry a mock wounded expression.
“Much less what I’d do without you.” Gentle green eyes gazed over at her, as a smile crossed Kerry’s face. She smoothed her thumb over the pout, as it dissolved into a sweet, returning smile. “God, I love you so much.”
Dar let her forehead rest against her partner’s as she pondered the ironies of her life. Then she tilted her head slightly and indulged herself in a long kiss, rolling a little onto her back and taking Kerry with her until they ended up nose to nose with Kerry on top.
Waterbeds really had it all over regular beds for that sort of thing. Kerry was sprawled over her and it was merely cozy, instead of being anywhere close to suffocating. “Love you too.” Dar said, lifting her head up and nipping Kerry’s nose with her lips.
“Mm.” Now it was Kerry’s turn to resort to non verbalization.
Dar cleared her throat gently. “Know what I just realized, though?”
“What?” Kerry answered.
“We lost track of that Herald reporter.”
Kerry nibbled her lower lip, her brow contracting a little. “Yeah? Oh.. Yeah. I know.” She slipped one hand under Dar’s shirt. “I looked for her when we went into the office, but she wasn’t around. You figure she left? I didn’t see her afterward, either.”
Dar nuzzled Kerry’s nearby ear, nibbling on the lobe of it before she answered. “Maybe we’ll have to find out by reading Business Monday.” She whispered into Kerry’s ear.
“If she left before the ships did, we better call her and make sure she doesn’t look like a nitwit.” Kerry whispered back.
“We’d probably come off looking pretty good if we didn’t.”
“Until she had to retract the story.” Kerry gave her partner a little smack on the hip. ‘Bad Dar. “
A low, throaty chuckle made her ear vibrate.
“C’mon. Let’s go get our goodies.” Kerry said. “We can’t worry about Herald reporters right now.” She gave Dar a quick kiss, and rolled out of the waterbed, hauling Dar with her. “There’s ice cream to be had, and mucho bs to be forgotten.”
Dar willingly followed, more than ready to throw the recent past right out the sliding glass doors and not look back.